History of the Mahabodhi Temple, Part 3: Controversy and Resolution

At this point in the story, we might do well to consider the position of the Mahant.  It’s easy to imagine his bemusement at the sudden flurry of interest in this holy site, of which he and his predecessors had been the custodians for centuries.  Actually, though, there still wasn’t much out of the ordinary—just the occasional odd visitor—until the late 1870s, when the Burmese started renovations, and then in 1880, when the Burmese were pushed aside by Alexander Cunningham’s apprentice, J.D. Beglar.  One can also imagine that the Mahant fully supported this restoration work.  After all, “improvements” were being made to the site of which he was the custodian, and at no cost to him; and the restorers, both Burmese and British, showed great sensitivity to his proprietary rights by making sure he approved of their activity.

Mahabodhi Stupa silhouetted against morning sky

It was after the restoration work was finished that things started to become unpleasant for the Mahant.  This was largely due to the irksome assertions and activities of a young Sri Lankan Buddhist, who was vocally challenging his (the Mahant’s) claim to the site.  From the Mahant’s point of view: 1) he and his predecessors had been there for generations; 2) no one had ever challenged or questioned their right to be there; 3) no one else was using the site when the first Mahant arrived; 4) the successive Mahants and their followers had made “improvements” of their own, in the form of small buildings to house various images found at the site; and 5) whenever someone (i.e. a foreigner) came along and wanted to worship at the site, whatever their religious persuasion, they were graciously given permission.  So why was there now a problem?

Besides (and here we come to the heart of the issue, in my opinion), since the Mahant and his followers honored the Buddha, to whom the temple is dedicated, why were people suddenly claiming that he shouldn’t have proprietorship because he’s not “Buddhist”?  He is a Shaivite brahmin, yes, but he is a Shaivite brahmin who honors the Buddha.  He is not some foreign occupier of a holy site belonging to someone else’s religion.  It is part of his religion too.  What is “Buddhism”, but another thread of his own spiritual tradition?

monks hearing a lecture near the entrance to the main stupa

But the young Sri Lankan, Anagarika Dharmapala, was adamant.  And he was drumming up support internationally for his cause.  In the course of his campaign, in 1895, Dharmapala paid a visit to Japan, where he was given a 700-year-old Buddha image, with the hope that it would be installed at the Mahabodhi temple.  Dharmapala brought the image to Bodhgaya and asked the Mahant if he could install it.  The Mahant refused.  Dharmapala appealed to the Gaya Magistrate’s office.  The Magistrate himself was absent at the time, but the office sent Dharmapala a letter, assuring him that the right of any Buddhist to worship at the temple would be protected.

Dharmapala evidently interpreted this “right to worship” as meaning that he had the right to install the Buddha image, even against the Mahant’s wishes.  This he did, with a couple of helpers, in the upper chamber of the main stupa (a chamber which is today closed to the public).  This action led to an ugly incident, with a group of the Mahant’s followers entering the chamber, yelling at Dharmapala, and forcibly removing the image from the chamber.  Dharmapala sued the Mahant for obstructing his right to worship, and the case became one of “proprietorship” versus the “right to worship.”  What exactly did the “right to worship” mean anyway?  The case damaged Dharmapala’s reputation, and the ruling confirmed the Mahant’s ultimate control over the site.

In the end, Dharmapala achieved his goal, but only partially, and by that time, he was no longer alive to witness it.  While they ruled India, the British, although aware of Dharmapala’s activities and the international support he had obtained, made the obvious assessment that India had no Buddhist constituency to appease.  As much as individuals within the government might support the idea of returning the Mahabodhi temple to Buddhist control, the official policy was to not do anything to alienate the Mahant, who was quite a powerful figure in that part of Bihar.  After all, Britain ruled a land of Hindus, not a land of Buddhists; and there could be trouble if there was a perceived injustice done by the authorities towards Hindus in general, and towards the Mahant in particular.  So, the issue had to wait until Independence, when the British had left India, to be resolved.

image in main stupa (it is behind glass)

It was resolved by the Mahabodhi Temple Act of 1949 (if you could call it a resolution; some people think it’s still not resolved).  This act called for the formation of a committee to make decisions on issues related to the temple.  On this committee sit four Buddhists and four Hindus (one of which is the Mahant himself).  In the event of an even split in votes, the District Magistrate of Gaya casts the tie-breaking vote.  The District Magistrate of Gaya is a Hindu.  And if, for some reason, the District Magistrate of Gaya is NOT a Hindu, then an alternative Hindu figure is appointed to that tie-breaking position.  This preferential treatment towards Hindus, which is apparent in the provisions of the Mahabodhi Temple Act, was obviously there for much the same reason as that which governed British policy.  In 1949, India was still predominantly a land of Hindus, with Buddhists essentially non-existent in the country.  That situation is changing somewhat today, but Buddhists are still a nominal force for influence.

It seems to me that the central issue at play in this controversy is the relationship between Buddhism and Hinduism.  Is Buddhism a wholly distinct religion (as claimed by Buddhists), or is it simply another of Hinduism’s many forms?  Obviously, there is a fundamental difference in viewpoint here, so we are left with the fact that the Mahabodhi temple is an important site, both for people who call themselves Buddhists, and for people who call themselves Hindus (and, perhaps, for people who call themselves neither).  This is a very similar situation to that of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, sacred to both Jews and Muslims.  Thankfully, thus far, in the case of the Mahabodhi Temple, the present situation seems to be mostly amicable.

The Mahabodhi Temple is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It is free and open to the public.  In my opinion, this committee was done a good job with the site, regardless of the group’s religious composition.  Nothing seems overdone or out-of-place in the temple complex; “improvements” made to the site actually seem to improve it; and provisions are made for different groups to pay homage in whatever way seems appropriate (such as the large section primarily devoted to Tibetan prostrations, containing many wooden prostration boards amongst the bodhi trees and votive stupas).  It is typical to see a group of Tibetan monks chanting in one area, and then to turn a corner to see a group of Thai monks chanting in another.

I should make it clear that the division between Buddhists and Hindus is largely in alignment with the division between foreigners and Indians—most of the Buddhists are foreigners, even if they are currently residing in India (like many of the Tibetans), and most of the Hindus are Indian nationals.  This site is also important to Indians as part of their historical and architectural heritage (indeed, I have also seen Muslims and Sikhs visiting the site).  So, even if the site was exclusively in the hands of Buddhists, with Buddhists making all the decisions, they could not reasonably restrict Hindus/Indians from visiting the site, because the reality is that: a) Hindus also pay homage there; and b) Indians have a right to enjoy their own national heritage.

Mahabodhi Stupa and the moon

However, it seems to me that the Indians who visit the site often treat it differently than do the Buddhists.  Buddhists are usually seen quietly circumambulating the main stupa, meditating, chanting, doing prostrations, etc.  Many Indians, on the other hand, can be seen talking loudly (despite the signs that say “please observe silence”), using their cell-phones (despite the signs that say “switch off your mobile phones”), and generally treating the place like a tourist attraction.  Having said this, I don’t really have any sympathy for those Buddhists who would like to see the temple be more exclusively Buddhist.  The Buddha was not, is not, just for Buddhists.  His message is universal.  It is radically inclusive.  Nothing, nobody, is excluded.

And if a Buddhist thinks in terms of exclusivity—if a Buddhist doesn’t like their religion’s most holy site to be shared with people of different religious persuasions—if a Buddhist, meditating at the Mahabodhi temple, and requiring everything to be “just so” for their meditative practice, is disturbed by someone nearby who is talking on a cell-phone—then that Buddhist isn’t practicing Buddhism.

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1 Comment

  1. gregduda said,

    November 1, 2011 at 5:29 am

    The Stupa/Moon pic is quite stunning!

    I like your input/asides regarding your interpretation of what is going on behind the scenes. More of that would help me not only see the issue through your eyes but (since this is your area of expertise) also give me excellent commentary on what is going on ‘behind the scenes’.

    It seemed like Dharmapala knew/hoped that he would not be granted permission to install the image, so that he could cry foul and raise a big stink; would you agree?

    Also, when you mentioned how different types of Buddhists all pray in their own way at the temple, it struck me that that is probably a somewhat unique situation in the religious world. After all, you would rarely find Catholics and Protestants in the same house of worship, and even if you did (e.g. in the Holy Land), their manner of prayer would be basically identical (unless there are people writhing on the ground and speaking in tongues there, which I have never heard of). It is the same with Islam–Shiites and Sunis pray in the same way (and I doubt they pray in the same building as whirling Dervishes). Buddhism is multi-faceted in a way that other religions are not, it seems to me.


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