Published on 3rd February, 2020, in The Times of India
Buddha was imagined differently by Ambedkar, Savarkar and Nehru. Ambedkar believed that Navayana Buddhism, rooted in social justice, was the only way to stop caste affirming Manuvadi Brahminism that threatened India’s Constitution. Savarkar argued that pacifist Buddhism is the reason why India gave up its martial Hinduness and was overrun by violent Muslim and Christian forces in the last thousand years. Nehru admired Buddhist ideals as the inspiration behind the secular governance of India’s greatest emperor, Ashoka. All these three imaginations about Buddha, which are widespread even today, owe their origin to Edwin Arnold who in 1879 published a book called Light of Asia that introduced the literary world to the Buddha.
Before the publication of this book, Buddha was largely unknown to the Western world, as well as to Indians. He was at best a minor avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu, preserver of the world. Arnold’s book was a loose adaptation of the Mahayana scripture, Lalitavistara, which was composed in Sanskrit in the 3rd century AD, 800 years after the historical Buddha. In 1928, the book was adapted into a silent film called Prem Sanyas, directed by Franz Osten and Himanshu Rai.
It is this Orientalist vision of Buddha that most of us are familiar with, as it is the Buddha that reappears again and again in popular books of the 20th century, including the Amar Chitra Katha retelling. It tells the story of Prince Gautama of India, who renounced his kingdom, his wife and newborn son, and became an enlightened monk, who taught people the importance of conquering desires to overcome suffering. It is this understanding of Buddhism that is carried forward till date by the gentle and avuncular ever-smiling Dalai Lama. And it is this understanding of Buddhism that startles the West when confronted with the violent politics of Buddhist countries such as Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand. Academics are only now unravelling the diversity of Buddhism in its 2,500 year history.
Scholars of the Pali language are trying to differentiate the actual words spoken by the Buddha from later additions by monks, who were mostly from elite Brahmin families. They have argued that Buddha never claimed he was from a royal family. All we know is that he came from an affluent family of farmers, who had many houses and were known to be generous. He never refers to his wife or child.
Gender studies are now pointing out to the essential misogyny and patriarchy of early Buddhism. The Vinaya Pitaka, the code of discipline for monks, are full of stories where women are seen as the obstacles of dhamma. One reason why Buddhist monks were encouraged to wear robes rather than wander naked, like Jain munis for example, was to hide their spiritually charged bodies from the lust of women. Monks were advised to travel in pairs, if not groups, to avoid contact with women.
While women were allowed to be monks, there were more rules for women than for men, and they were never allowed to lead the community, and the belief emerged that they had to acquire male bodies in order to attain nirvana. In these rulebooks, we find the first documented laws that were meant to keep gays, lesbians, hermaphrodites and transgenders out of the monastery. Literary analysis of Jataka tales reveals that while the Buddha-to-be took birth as plants and animals and humans in various professions, he never once took the form of a woman.
Art historians are noticing that women are relatively underrepresented in Buddhist art. There are more images of Buddha with his mother, who died soon after his birth, than with his wife, who he renounced. Mahayana texts describe all-male heavens such as Sukhavati with paintings of Buddhas who are born from lotus flowers, to avoid contact with female flesh.
The popular Buddhist goddess Tara appeared only a thousand years after the historical Buddha, around 5th century CE, in the Ellora caves of Maharashtra, and in cave paintings of China, around the same time, manifesting as the female wish-fulfilling Bodhisatva or Kwan-yin. Unlike the passive and dispassionate Buddhas of older Buddhism, Buddhas of Himalayan Buddhism dated to the Pala period (7th to 10th century) are both sexual, copulating with shaktis, and yoginis, and even violent, trampling Hindu gods such as Brahma, Indra, Shiva and Ganesha, in the form of Heruka and Yamantaka.
European Orientalists took pains to differentiate Hinduism and Buddhism. In India, such differentiations mattered only in elite circles, between orthodox Brahmins and orthodox Buddhists. Rest of society worshipped both Buddha as well as Brahminical gods, which is why the Buddhism, which spread to Southeast and East Asia from 3rd to 13th century CE, has Hindu gods such as Indra, Brahma, Ganesha, Kubera, Lakshmi and Saraswati alongside images of Buddha. Even Muslim warlords who broke idols in northwest India 7th century onwards, did not differentiate between Hindu and Buddhist images. For them, the Arabic-Persian word for any idol was ‘but’, a derivative of ‘Buddha’.
Lazy scholarship, and politics, prefers a static, simplistic and homogenous vision of the past. This is why WhatsApp groups are nowadays flooded with memes seeking to either appropriate Buddhism into Hinduism (‘Hindu gods worshipped in Buddhist Japan’), or position Buddhism as a counter to Hinduism (‘Mindfulness yoga is Buddhist, not Hindu’). The former is favoured by Hindutva groups, the latter by Ambedkarites and neo-Buddhists. The only way to dilute such pernicious binaries is by exploring the many Buddhas out there.