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December 1, 2000

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Francois Gautier

Buddhism makes a comeback in India

There is little doubt that Buddha came at a time where Hinduism had got bogged down in too much philosophical talk, rituals and casteism -- it would need much later a Shankaracharya to give it again a new impetus -- and Buddhism offered a simple way out of human misery to anybody, whatever their caste and social status. This may explain why at the beginning of our era, the entire northern and eastern India was practicing Buddhism.

Unfortunately, after Buddha's death, his followers and disciples gradually made of Buddhism a religion of rigid tenets, dos and don'ts, which not only diminished Buddhism's popular appeal, but also may have harmed India. This harm has two facets: Non-violence and Maya.

Many Buddhists like to believe that Buddhism disappeared from India, because it was slowly "swallowed" back by Hinduism at the hands of the vengeful Brahmins, who had lost their principal source of income with the self-liberation methods of Buddha. But the truth could be entirely different. Hinduism of the Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita always held ahimsa as one of its highest spiritual values, but at the same time understood that violence can sometimes be necessary to defend one's border's, women and children, in a word that Might has to protect Dharma.

Which is why, until Buddhism made of non-violence an uncompromising, inflexible dogma, India's borders were not only secure, but extended from Afghanistan to Kanyakumari. But when Ashoka embraced Buddhism, India's great protecting armor, which had worked for millennia, had been breached. Buddhist thought also indirectly influenced great figures such as Mahatma Gandhi, whose sincere but rigid adherence to non-violence may have indirectly precipitated Partition.

Today, unobtrusively, Buddhism seems to be making a great comeback in India through the Vipassana movement of Shri Goenka, who learnt the technique in Burma from a great Master and brought it back to India in the late sixties.

The remarkable Vipassana meditation is originally a Vedic technique, which had been lost and which Buddha rediscovered again. In the hands of Siddartha Gautama, it became a simple, self-liberation method, accessible to all, regardless of their caste, religion, or social status. Hence its immense success in Buddha's time, when Hinduism had lost some of its appeal because of too much philosophical talk, casteism and rituals.

Shri Goenka keeps emphasising today that his Vipassana movement is still non-sectarian, open to all, whatever their religion and nationality. But it appears not to have lost some of the anti-Hindu slant that post-Buddha sects adopted (as evident in today's Sinhalese Buddhism). At every sentence of his discourses (meditators usually attend ten days' courses, where at the end of each day, they watch a video tape of Goenkaji, commenting on the technique), Goenka takes a subtle potshot at Hinduism, whether it is the "rites, rituals, Gods, images", or the "priests" (Brahmins), who tried to malign Buddha, or the sadhus "with their beads, matted hair, Shiva marks etc", or Varanasi, "a holy city full of hashish and bhang." Or else, he riles contemporary Hindu gurus and movements (without naming them openly, but they are easily recognised): Sai Baba "with all these hospitals, schools, etc, with his name inscribed on them"; or Rajneesh/Osho "with this fleet of Rolls Royces"; or the Hare Krishna movement "dancing Hare Krishna this and Hare Krishna that"

It is rarely mentioned today that Buddhism, like Islam and Christianity has been a proselytising religion, even if it was done peacefully: Emperor Ashoka's missionaries went all over Asia and converted huge chunks of territory. But Buddhism came out of Hinduism and ultimately went back to it, as the millions of Indian Buddhists of the beginning of our era, eventually reverted to Hinduism. This is why Buddhists may have kept a certain resentment against Hinduism.

Shri Goenka's Vipassana meditation technique is today practiced by millions in India, because it is such a simple and effective procedure. But Shri Goenka's greatest fear is, that like after Buddha's demise, when Hinduism started eating back into the core of Buddhism, after his death (Goenkaji is nearing 80), the same thing will happen to the Vipassana movement.

Hence, at every step, he warns his practitioners, that if they liked the technique, they should, when they go back to the world, use it exclusively "and not revert to rites, rituals, etc" -- meaning that they should become Buddhists (even if he does not say so in so many words) and shun Hinduism. But what Shri Goenka fails to see is that on the one hand, he is promoting conversion, even if it is not in a blatant manner; and two, that once more, someone is taking advantage of Hinduism's great tolerance and openness.

For of course, 99 per cent of Vipassana meditators in India are Hindus -- I have attended more than a dozen ten days' courses and I have seen only one or two Christian nuns and never a single Muslim. Only Hindus recognise Buddha as an avatar, Muslims consider him as an infidel and indeed erased all traces of Him in India; and Christians tend to think that only Jesus is the true Son of God.

We notice also the embryo of the erstwhile errors of Buddhism, which cost India so much: a rigid and unbending non-violence -- it is for instance forbidden to kill even a mosquito in the Vipassana ashram premises; it is true too, that Vipassana, however efficient, is a joyless technique, with a very strict mental set-up: segregation between men and women is pushed sometimes to absurd limits and everything is timed to the second, leaving very little space for laughter and the imagination.

Again, there is an emphasis on withdrawal from this world, as Shri Goenka keeps saying at every step that everything is "misery, misery", "craving and aversion" and that "we are dying at every moment." And this may again lead India towards self-neglect, at a moment where She needs all her enthusiasm and energies.

Finally, there is no doubt that Shri Goenka is bent -- if not on establishing a new religion -- at least on starting an irreversible movement; the huge Vipassana temple being now built in Bombay is proof of that.

Is he going to succeed? While the Vipassana technique is a wonderful instrument, it should not be used to promote a new religion, at a time when the world is trying to move away from religions towards spirituality. And once more, we see that India is coming under threat. Will Goenka's meditators slowly come into positions of power and give again to India the passive, weak, non-violent turn of mind which already in the past did so much harm to Her ?

Francois Gautier

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