Bodh Gaya emerged as a centre that encouraged a continuous dialogue of civilisation, it has enabled India to re-forge her age old linkages with countries, who derived inspiration from Buddha’s message of compassion. It is this dialogue that was sought to be interrupted by the dastardly attack, says Dr Anirban Ganguly.
Bodh Gaya, its radiating serenity and its message of peace, has been for millennia one of the principal civilisational anchors of the Indic civilization. It was therefore heart wrenching to witness such a senseless attack being perpetrated on what has unarguably emerged as a great symbol of mankind’s effort to transcend itself towards something higher and nobler.
The perpetrators of last Sunday’s attack on one of the most ancient sanctum sanctorum of Buddhism and one which is indelibly linked to Gautama Buddha’s quest for enlightenment is a severe affront to humanity’s sense of self, its quest for global harmony and in particular to India’s civilisational spirit and to her spiritual identity.
Bodh Gaya as a spiritual dynamo had attracted some our greatest minds through the ages. Buddha and his message was an inspiration to those who themselves went on to create waves in our national life. One of Swami Vivekananda’s most ardent chroniclers, Sister Nivedita, noted in her reminiscence of the master, how as a boy he had read with fascination the work of Rajendralal Mitra, legendary archaeologist who undertook massive restoration work of the Bodh Gaya temple complex in 1800s and how the Swami’s first act on being initiated into sannyasa was to hurry to Bodh Gaya and sit under the “great tree” saying to himself “is it possible that I breathe the air he breathed? That I touch the earth he trod?”
Towards the end of his short life Vivekananda again came to Bodh Gaya on the morning of his 39th ninth birthday, it was his way of paying his spiritual obeisance and farewell to one who had been for him mighty sea of inspiration.
Bodh-Gaya as a centre of light and peace had attracted pilgrims and travellers for centuries. Stories of Chinese pilgrims frequenting the sacred spot have become an inseparable part of the Indian saga. Faxian (Fa Hien) who travelled to India between 399-412 CE in search of Buddhist scriptures has left behind descriptions of the place where Buddha, after painful austerities, attained “perfect wisdom”. The place, describes Faxian, had three monasteries in which resided monks who were looked after by the surrounding villages. Disciplinary rules were strictly observed by them, "the laws regulating their demeanour in sitting, rising, and entering when the others are assembled, are those which have been practised by all the saints since Buddha was in the word down to the present day.”
Faxian was moved to see the tree that the Sakyamuni contemplated for seven days after having attained enlightenment and under which he walked “backwards and forwards from west to east”. It was here that the “Devas appeared before the enlightened one and made offerings for seven days.”
The other legendary Chinese pilgrim, Xuanzang (Huen Tsang) who had come to India in search of wisdom described how the Bodhi tree withstood all heretic onslaughts and each time miraculously bounded back to life. Every time its roots were damaged, it sprouted life again. Xuanzang recounts how king Purnavarma surrounded the sacred tree “with a wall of stone 24 feet high” so that no one could cut it down. To the east of the Bodhi tree, Xuanzang saw a Vihara, “160 or 170 feet high.” The building was of ‘blue’ bricks and covered with ‘chunam’ and ‘all the niches in different storeys’ held ‘golden figures’ and the four sides were covered with ‘wonderful ornamental work’.
To the north of the Bodhi tree, Xuanzang spotted the area “where Buddha walked up and down.” “When Tathagata had obtained enlightenment”, noted the intrepid Chinese traveller, “he did not rise from the throne, but remained perfectly quiet for seven days, lost in contemplation. Then rising, he walked up and down during seven days to the north of the tree; he walked there east and west for a distance of ten paces or so.”
The vicinity thus of the Bodhi tree, which has been hallowed by the footsteps of the enlightened one, can never be really defiled by a bunch of terrorists. The Bodhi tree has withstood greater onslaughts in the past.
For centuries the sacred spot at Bodhgaya was a centre of civilisational exchange. Monarchs from various realms across the world, where Buddhism had spread its wings, sent their emissaries to supervise the well being and upkeep of the place and also contributed towards beautifying the area and erecting rest houses for pilgrims. It is said that King Meghavarman of Sri Lanka was given permission by the Indian monarch Samudragupta to “build a monastery near the sacred tree” and the King built “a monastery of three stories, six halls and three towers, enclosed within wall of 30 or 40 feet high.” Inside the monastery were “decorations of paintings” and a statue of Buddha “of gold and silver, studded with gems of various colours.”
The mighty Asoka, after he had “consecrated ten years went out to Bodh Gaya” to pay his homage to Buddha. It was an act symbolic of his progress towards enlightenment.
Nearer our times Bodh Gaya has acted as a vibrant bridge for India to reach out to her civilisational neighbours in Southeast Asia.
As a continuing centre of pilgrimage Bodh Gaya emerged as a centre that encouraged a continuous dialogue of civilisation, it has enabled India to re-forge her age old linkages with countries and people who have always derived great inspiration from Buddha’s message of compassion. It is this dialogue, this ceaseless discovery of a greater cultural and spiritual self beyond constricting political boundaries that was sought to be interrupted through the dastardly attack on Bodh Gaya.
But the Bodhi tree has always “sprung up as before” and shall continue to radiate its eon old message for it has been witness to a nobler age and time in which “a life devoted to the search for the highest, for a felicity beyond all that the world could give was not considered madness, but as something worthy of all honour.”
It has seen a unique time in which “it seemed natural not only to preach the good and the true, but also to live it.”
Bodh Gaya continues to symbolise such a quest and act as a beacon of compassion in a violent and hate ravaged world.
Dr Anirban Ganguly is director, Dr Syamaprasad Mookerjee Research Foundation, New Delhi.