'The Mahabodhi temple is the only example in the world where a religion's most sacred place is controlled by people belonging to another religion.'
Robed in traditional deep maroon, Bhante Anand is deep in conversation with his fellow Buddhist monks.
They are finalising the details of his next visit across India to mobilise support for the 'liberation of the Mahabodhi temple' at Bodh Gaya, Bihar.
The 1,500-year-old temple -- located about 110 km from Patna -- is considered the birthplace of Buddhism and one of the religion's holiest shrines.
It is believed that this is where the Buddha attained enlightenment 2,550 years ago.
The Mahabodhi temple was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2002 and is visited annually by thousands of tourists, especially from Buddhist countries.
For over two decades now, Bhante Anand -- who is president of the Akhil Bharatiya Bhikkhu Mahasangh, an influential body of Buddhist monks, and president of the Bodh Gaya Mukti Andolan Samiti -- has been demanding that control over the Mahabodhi temple be ceded to the Buddhist community.
Anand explains the reasons behind his demand to M I Khan.
You are demanding Buddhist control over the management of the Mahabodhi temple and are planning a fresh campaign to mobilise support for your agitation.
Will it not create trouble at Bodh Gaya, a peaceful religious and tourist destination of international importance?
We are not against peace.
We are Buddhists, who are champions of peace, tolerance and harmony.
This does not mean that we should not oppose injustice.
Why do Hindus, and not Buddhists, have control over the management of the Mahabodhi temple?
The Mahabodhi temple is the only example in the world where a religion's most sacred place is controlled by people belonging to another religion.
Please show me another example like this and we will give up our demand.
The world knows that the temple at Bodh Gaya is sacred to the Buddhists, just like Mecca is sacred to the Muslims and Kedarnath and Tirupati are sacred to the Hindus.
So what do you want?
It is a historical fact that, over 2,250 years ago, Gautama Buddha attained enlightenment at Bodh Gaya under a banyan tree, where the current Mahabodhi temple has been standing for centuries.
It is the birth place of Buddhism and the most sought after destination for Buddhists in the world.
But the Mahabodhi temple is neither managed nor controlled by Buddhists; it is managed and controlled by Hindus.
Some Buddhists have, for namesake, been inducted in an official body to manage it.
We Buddhists want full control over the management of the Mahabodhi temple in Bodh Gaya.
If the management of the Jagannath temple in Puri, the Tirupati temple, to makeshift Ram temples, to churches in Vatican City, in the US and the UK, to mosques in India, Saudi Arabia and Iran, to gurdwaras -- including the Golden Temple and the Patna Sahib -- are not under the control of other sects, then why is this happening in the case of the Mahabodhi temple?
Buddhists have been given little role in managing the affairs of the temple since 1949.
We fail to understand why non-Buddhists have control over the holiest shrine of the Buddhists.
We have decided to make it a big issue by mobilising people and lobbying for support to demand Buddhist control over the management of the temple.
A Sri Lankan Buddhist missionary named Angarika Dhammapala was the first to raise the issue in 1891.
This demand also gathered momentum in 1992 and, later, in 2002-2003.
Over a decade ago, Bhadant Nagarjun Surai Sasai, a Japanese Buddhist monk who renounced his citizenship to preach Buddhism in India, also raised this issue.
What is wrong if the temple is managed by a team of Hindus and Buddhists?
Look, it is not merely a Buddhist monastery or simply a temple.
Bodh Gaya is no less important to the Buddhists than Char Dham is for Hindus, Mecca for the Muslims or Jerusalem for Christians.
Look at the ongoing Ayodhya issue. The RSS, VHP and BJP leaders have been claiming it is a matter of their faith and a case of emotion and sentiment as they believe Ram was born at the disputed site.
There is neither a dispute nor a controversy that the Mahabodhi temple is located at the exact place where Buddha attained
Doesn't this country consider the sentiments of the Buddhists?
Is this not a form of injustice meted out to Buddhists?
The birth place of Buddhism is controlled by other people.
Monks like you and others have been demanding Buddhist control over the Bodh Gaya temple, but is it possible without an amendment to the Mahabodhi Temple Management Act, 1949?
The Bihar government must amend the Act to ensure Buddhist control over the management of the temple. But they have been delaying it for years.
The temple is managed, on behalf of the Bihar government, by a nine-member committee headed by the district magistrate.
As per the Act, only a Hindu can head the managing committee.
The Act also specifies that if the district magistrate happens to be a non-Hindu, the state government has to nominate a Hindu to head the committee.
According to the Act, the panel should comprise four Buddhists and four Hindus for a three-year period, with the Gaya district magistrate as its ex-officio chairman and the mahant (presiding priest) of the Sankaracharya Math (the Shaivite monastery at Bodh Gaya) as the ex-officio Hindu member.
Why, according to you, is the Bihar government delaying this amendment?
I strongly feel the Bihar government has been deliberately delaying an amendment to the Act, under pressure from vested interests who are against Buddhist control over the management of the temple.
It is a conspiracy to keep the management under the control of the Hindus.
The Bihar government, led by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, is indirectly helping the cause of Hindutva forces by not ensuring an amendment to the Act.
Hinduvta forces are doing everything to keep Bodh Gaya's temple out of the control of Buddhists.
The Bihar government is not concerned about the Buddhists' genuine demand for total control over the Mahabodhi temple.
The VHP and the Bajrang Dal have been opposing any amendment to the Act as they see Buddhism as part of the larger Hindu family.
We are Buddhists, we have nothing to do with Hinduism.
If such a situation continues, we will be forced to register a complaint with the UN high commissioner for refugees.
Depriving Buddhists of the right to manage the affairs of the temple amounts to grave injustice.
The Dalai Lama has never raised the issue of Buddhist control over the Bodh Gaya temple.
Why is the Dalai Lama silent if the issue is as important to Buddhists as you claim?
Thousands of monks like me, for whom the Mahabodhi temple is the holiest Buddhist shrine, are upset with the Dalai Lama's silence on this issue.
The Dalai Lama has disappointed us. He could have raised this issue at the international level, but has never cared to do so.
The Dalai Lama has, time and again, proved he was not keen for Buddhist control over the temple.
I don't consider the Dalai Lama as the Buddhist spiritual leader.
For decades now, he has been busy with his own agenda and with politics.
Buddha had himself said he did not believe in avatars (incarnations) and that he was a common man.
This, unlike the Dalai Lama, was the beauty of Buddha.