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3. The Bodh Gaya temple controversy

3. The Bodh Gaya temple controversy

When anti-Hindu lobbies unite, they often manage to get the contemporary form of Indian Buddhism on their side, viz. Ambedkarite neo-Buddhism. Because of its political background, the conversion of Scheduled Caste leader Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar and many of his Mahar castemen to Buddhism (1956), in effect contributed to the genesis of what one might call Buddhist communalism.1 The anti-Hindu bias of Ambedkarite Buddhism was strengthened by the parallel Buddhist animus against Tamil Hindus in Sri Lanka and Burma/Myanmar, as well as by the tendency among Nehruvian intellectuals to construe Buddhism historically as an anti-Hindu revolt. As a materialization of this anti-Hindu animus, the neo-Buddhist movement has tried to create controversies over certain temples in imitation of the Ayodhya temple/mosque controversy.

In particular, the Ambedkarite neo-Buddhists have started a movement for the ‘liberation of the Mahabodhi shrine’ in Bodh Gaya. Its aim is to remove the statutory four Hindu members of the eight-member temple management committee, and to prohibit worship of a sivalingam in the temple. Quite in contrast with the secularist calls for ‘composite culture’ and for multi-religious worship at the Rama-Janmabhoomi site, this is a demand to free the Mahabodhi site from multi-religious worship and particularly from the ‘taint’ of Hinduism. The agitation has been marked by petty vandalism, as when the neo-Buddhists desecrated their own holiest site, or at least the sivalingam standing there, in October 1992.

One of the strange things about this agitation is that it revives a conflict which had been solved several decades earlier. Since 1590, Shaiva monks had taken care of the temple, which had been abandoned by Buddhists after the massacre of the Buddhist monks by Muslim invaders in ca. A.D. 1192. In 1874, they agreed to the Burmese king’s proposal to re-establish the building as a Buddhist place of worship. But the Anglo-Burmese War and several foreign interventions spoiled the project.

In 1890-92, Edwin Arnold, author of the Buddha romance The Light of Asia, appealed to the British-Indian Government to hand over the temple to the Buddhists, and even went to Japan to plead for diplomatic support to this demand. A court case ensued which the Buddhists ultimately lost. Negotiations dragged on, involving Swami Vivekananda (1901) and Hindu Mahasabha leader Bhai Parmanand (1935), among others. A compromise proposal by Rajendra Prasad (1924), later on President of India, was thwarted several times but finally became law in 1949: the Bodh Gaya Temple Act, which gives both Hindus and Buddhists the right to worship and an equal representation in the management committee.2

So, the goal of the Bodh Gaya temple movement is not to get the Buddhists in (they are in since 1949), only to get the Hindus out. Given the existing compromise and the Hindu record in tending the building after the Buddhists had abandoned it, Hindus consider this Buddhist campaign graceless and ungrateful.

The movement for the ‘liberation’ of the Mahabodhi temple was formally launched by a Japanese monk, Bhadant Arya Nagarjuna Surai Sasai. His involvement provides a typical example of how people spoiling for a fight tend to attack meek rather than dangerous adversaries. Buddhism has been eclipsed by Christianity in South Korea and among the Indonesian Chinese.3 In Bangladesh, the Buddhist Chakmas of the Chittagong Hill Tracts have been driven out by the Muslim settlers and the Government of Bangladesh. Buddhism is oppressed by Communism in China, North Korea, Tibet and Vietnam. If Sasai had started a similar agitation in those countries, it would not have lasted a single day, and he would have been lucky to get expelled rather than locked up or killed.

By contrast, Buddhism is not oppressed or endangered in India. It is not obstructed in worshipping at its traditional sacred sites, including the Mahabodhi temple, which Hindus have made available for Buddha worship. India provides shelter to the Dalai Lama, and has sanctioned the creation of a network of Buddhist monasteries and institutes, including a Tibetan-Buddhist university (in Sarnath) and the nerve centres of several international Buddhist organizations. It welcomes Buddhist associations from Japan, Taiwan and other countries and allows them to build pilgrim hostels and research institutes in Sarnath, Bodh Gaya and other Buddha-related sites. It is, moreover, one of the few countries where even most non-Buddhists have a sincere respect for the Buddha and his Dharma. And yet, of all places, India is the one where Arya Sasai has to ‘liberate’ Buddhism from Hindu ‘oppression’.

Arya Sasai reported thus on the high point of his campaign: ‘On October 14 [1992], a big rally was held at the Boat Club, New Delhi, and over 3 lakh Buddhists of India and foreign countries attended it.’4 In the next few years, however, nothing much happened, because Bihar Chief Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav and his wifely successor Rabri Devi went back on an earlier promise of support to the Buddhist agitation. Another agitation, with ‘indefinite hunger-strike’, took place in November 1995, but with no results.5 The RSS claims credit for mobilizing the Hindu opposition, but the main point is probably that the Backward Castes inside Laloo Prasad Yadav’s own party (Janata Dal, now Rashtriya Janata Dal) are not as insensitive to Hindu concerns as some political scientists always assume in their fevered dreams of a big anti-Brahmin alliance.

The equation of Ayodhya with Bodh Gaya, commonly made in the press, is not tenable at all. Hindus never destroyed the Mahabodhi temple, they never took it from the Buddhists, they have handed it over for Buddhist worship in a settlement piloted by the Hindu Mahasabha, and they are not interfering nor claiming a right to interfere with Buddhist practices there. More than that, a Buddhist member of the Bodh Gaya temple management committee has admitted that ‘the laudable work of the construction of the Mahabodhi temple’ was ‘undertaken by a Brahmana minister of Shaivite persuasion’.6

The local RSS leader explains: ‘The earliest and most authentic record is of course by Hiuen Tsang [= Xuan Zang] who visited Bodh Gaya in A.D. 637. He says that two Brahmin brothers prayed to Lord Maheshwara in the Himalayas to grant their wishes, upon which Maheshwara instructed them to carry out the meritorious task of erecting a large temple and excavate a large tank and devote all kinds of religious offerings near the most sanctified Bodhi tree for attaining ‘’the fruit of a Buddha’. The elder Brahmin devotee accordingly built a large temple’, etc.7 Not only did Hindus refrain from demolishing the temple, but they actually built it. Now find us a Hindu temple built by Babar.

Studying the backgrounds of this quarrel throws a new light on the now-common allegation that Buddhism was persecuted by the Brahminical reaction under the imperial Gupta dynasty. In Bodh Gaya, the Chinese pilgrim Xuan Zang stayed in the Mahabodhi Sangharama, a ‘splendid monastery’ with ‘1000 monks’, which had been built, at the Sri Lankan king Meghavarmana’s request, under the auspices of Samudragupta, the Gupta Emperor.8 Bodh Gaya has a large number of dated sculptures from the Gupta period, which was in fact one of the most fruitful periods in Buddhist art.9

It is therefore no surprise that Hindus have traditionally worshipped at Bodh Gaya, even during the heyday of Buddhism. Prof. Benimadhab Barua reports that ‘concerning the right of the Hindus to worship the Buddha-image Dharmeshwara, [the Bodhi tree] in the Bodh-Gaya temple and its sacred area, we have noticed that as far back as the Kushana age it is enjoined in the Epic version of the earlier Eulogium that every pious Hindu visiting Gaya should make it a point to go also to Dharmaprastha or Bodh-Gaya and have a sacred touch of the Buddha image of the place. The later Eulogium in the Puranas enjoins in the same manner that every Hindu pilgrim to the Gaya region desiring to release the departed spirits of his ancestors must visit also Bodh Gaya to pay his respectful homage to the Buddha image Dharmeshvara as well as the [Bodhi treel’.10

Even while arguing against the Shaiva Mahant of the Mahabodhi temple, who in the 1930s and 1940s, in league with the British (who feared Japanese interference), obstructed the implementation of a Hindu-Buddhist settlement, Prof. Benimadhab Barua admits: ‘So far as our information goes, the Buddhists have never and nowhere prevented the Hindus from either visiting or conducting worship at their shrines. As a matter of fact, they have no case against the Hindu devotees coming to a Buddhist shrine for worship. Their shrines remain open to all for worship, without any distinction of caste and creed. The inscription of Keshava, engraved during the reign of Dharmapala, clearly proves that the Buddhists were liberal and tolerant enough even to allow a Hindu to instal a figure of his deities, Shiva and Brahma, in their temple at Bodh-Gaya for the benefit of the resident Shaivite Brahmins.’11

It may therefore be noted that the Buddhist membership of the Bodh Gaya temple management board does not altogether share the anti-Hindu animus of the neo-Buddhists and their secularist manipulators. Thus, the 5th European Hindu Conference in Frankfurt featured a speech by Bhikkhu Jnana Jagat, member of the Bodh Gaya temple management committee and of the VHP. He presented the standard VHP viewpoint on Buddhism, viz. that ‘from time immemorial the ‘’Vedic culture’ and ‘’Shramana (ascetic) culture’ have been growing and flourishing simultaneously in this land. Both being the integral part of the same Aryan culture or way of life have been enriching and sustaining each other through centuries.’12

Whether the Brahmin control of the Mahabodhi area since the 16th century upto 1949 was similar in nature to the Muslim control of the Rama-Janmabhoomi site during the same period, can perhaps best be decided after considering this statement by a Muslim scholar, Dr. Abdul Qudoos Ansari: ‘The iconoclastic fury of Islam must have [had] a terrible effect on the shrines of the Gaya region, and particularly on Buddhism, with the result that a time came when, there being no Buddhists to look after their own shrines and worship at Bodh Gaya, the Brahmins had to do their work even by going [outside] their jurisdiction.’13 Though he gratuitously accuses the Brahmin management of ‘the sin of greed’, he does not accuse them of any destruction or forcible take-over, and this constitutes a radical difference with the Rama-Janmabhoomi/Babri Masjid scenario.

Dr. Ansari’s testimony against Islam rather than against Brahmanism as being the destroyer of Buddhism in India is doubly strong because otherwise he is a subscriber to the now-popular theory of an intense Buddhist-Brahminical antagonism. Thus, he interprets a depiction of the Vishnu Dashavatar series in which Vishnu’s ninth incarnation as the Buddha is missing as proof of this antagonism, along with a more explicit statement for hostility on the Buddhist side, viz. ‘the images of some of their gods shown as humiliating the Hindu deities’. He has no information on temple destructions, idol-breaking, massacres etc., only an artistic act of disrespect. And that only on the Buddhist side: no Hindu art is mentioned as depicting Hindu gods humiliating the Buddha.

Showing disagreement or disrespect in words or images is no proof of effective fanaticism, meaning suppression of a cult or destruction of its symbols or institutions. On this type of evidence, Sita Ram Goel comments: ‘It is nobody’s case that Hindu sects (in which I include Buddhists and Jains) did not use strong language vis-a-vis each other. Every Brahmanical sect has used strong language about other Brahmanical sects. So have the Buddhists and the Jains, not only vis-a-vis Brahmanical sects but also vis-a-vis each other. The situation gets much worse when it comes to the sub-sects [in their polemic against one another], whether Buddhist or Brahmanical or Jain. But strong language alone, whether in words or portrayals, is no evidence in the present context, unless it is followed by overt acts of destruction or usurpation.’14

The context which Dr. Ansari relates gives the impression that a more serious and less artistic fanaticism was troubling the Buddhists of Bodh Gaya, but not from the Brahminical establishment: the then king Buddhasena (the last but one independent ruler in the area) had ‘fled into the forest on the outskirts of Gaya on the approach of the Turkish raiders but returned soon after withdrawal’. The famous Tibetan monk Dharmaswami (1234-36 in that area) ‘had to flee away for seventeen days, owing to the [apprehension of] the attack of the Turks’, and king Buddhasena, ‘not able to provide protection’, also ‘escaped into the forest for fear of the Turks’.15

It was the temple’s good fortune that the living Buddhist presence there had practically disappeared by the time the area passed into Muslim hands. Already in Dharmaswami’s time, decades before the actual Muslim take-over of that very area, all students and pilgrims and lay Buddhists had stopped coming to the area: ‘According to Dharmaswami, the Bodh Gaya establishment had been deserted by all except for [some] monks, on account of the repeated Turkish conquests.’16 The popular support base and the training grounds for Buddhist monks were being destroyed in all of North India, and Bodh Gaya was dying as a Buddhist centre along with all those other establishments that were being physically eliminated by the Turks. Not Hinduism but Islam destroyed Buddhism in India.


  1. About Dr. Ambedkar, vide K. Elst: Dr. Ambedkar, a True Aryan, Voice of India. Delhi 1993. 

  2. More details in K. Elst: Ram Janmabhoomi vs. Babri Masjid, Voice of India, Delhi 1990, p.102-104. 

  3. The Christian-dominated Korean leadership has even been accused by neutral observers of ‘military persecution of Buddhism’, esp. the crackdown in October 1980, see Encyclopedia Brittannica, Book of the Year 1988, entry ‘Buddhism’. 

  4. Letter to Dalit Voice, published on 1-2-1993. We need not fuss over inflated attendance figures. 

  5. ‘Monks launch fresh stir at Bodh Gaya’, Indian Express, 2-11-1995. 

  6. Dipak K. Barua: Buddha Gaya, Bodh Gaya 1981, p.41, with reference to Xuan Zang, who saw the temple in 637 A.D., shortly after it was built, and who explicitly gave the credit to a Brahmin worshipper of Shiva Maheshwara. 

  7. ‘Bodh Gaya: Facts and Fiction’, Daya Prakash speaking to Organiser, 16-7-1995. 

  8. Surendranath Sen: India through Chinese Eyes, Bagchi & Co., Calcutta 1979 (1956), p. 166. 

  9. Reported in Abdul Quddoos Ansari: Archaeological Remains of Bodhgaya, Ramanand Vidya Bhavan, Delhi 1990, p.15. 

  10. B. Barua: ‘Bodh-Gaya from Buddhist Point of View and Bodh-Gaya from Hindu Point of view’, app.2 in D.K. Barua: Buddha Gaya, p.267. The article is a reprint of an older publication, of which no date is given, but which seems to be related to his book Gaya and Buddha-Gaya, 1934. Bodhi = ‘awakening’; the Bodhi tree is the one under which Siddhartha Gautama achieved Bodhi and became the Buddha, ‘the Awakened One’. 

  11. B. Barua in D.K. Barua: Buddha Gaya, p. 268-269. Mahant= managing temple priest. 

  12. Bhikkhu Jnana Jagat: ‘Contribution of Buddhism to Indian Culture’, 5th European Hindu Conference (conference souvenir volume), p. 57. 

  13. A.Q. Ansari: Archaeological Remains, p.119. 

  14. S.R. Goel: Hindu Temples, vol.2 (2nd edition), p.413. 

  15. A.Q. Ansari: Archaeological Remains, p.26. 

  16. A.Q. Ansari: Archaeological Remains, p.26.