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How Buddhism connects Saarc

At a South Asian summit in the Maldives during the Zardari era, Pakistan decided to acknowledge its past assertively, not as it imagined its history through the familiar neo-religious prism as, say, Ziaul Haq would see it, but as it actually transpired.

The world-renowned image of the fasting Buddha, which Pakistan inherited from the treasure trove of relics in Taxila and different connections it acquired from the deep past in Mohenjodaro were placed on display at the cultural pavilion in Male. Every Saarc nation summons its past at such meetings as a statement of identity. The choice of the historical motifs is usually conditioned by how anyone sees their identity in the present, and occasionally on how they wish to project an imagined past into a surmised future. Such choices shift with time.

The current Indian state is veering towards Hindutva, as distinct from liberal Hinduism, and tellingly prefers to distribute copies of the Geeta to foreign dignitaries. In doing so, the state is expressing an identity crisis that is at least partly manufactured by political exigencies. In more confident times, say under Jawaharlal Nehru or his daughter, the visiting dignitary would have been shown a truly rooted glimpse of the cultural mix that India has been for centuries.

Well-produced pictorial books of a more socially woven India were the likelier parting gifts. There used to be one on different forms of turbans that South Asian men wear, including different strata of Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Parsis or even some Jains. The Brahminical tendency to subsume Buddhism, Jainism and even Sikhism, and reclaim the religions, which came out of the belly of a socially segmented heritage, mocks the truth.

The choice of historical motifs at Saarc summits is usually conditioned by how rulers see their identity in the present. In Male, Zardari’s Pakistan was emerging from the darkened alcoves of its conjured past. India, on the other hand, is speeding towards the vacated spaces of narrow sectarian imagination of an identity far removed from the mosaic it is and was.

One of the less discussed activities of the Pakistan high commission in India in recent years has been the gifting of officially produced books on the history and architecture of the Hindus and Sikhs in Pakistan. I’ve asked them for books on Pakistan’s Christian and Parsi heritage too. A journalist colleague Reema Abbasi wrote a well-researched book on Hindu temples of Pakistan. Indians loved it.

It all depends on where you want to see your history starting. Most Pakistanis, inspired by the Zia legacy of religious nationalism, would see their identity as rooted in the invasion of Sindh by Mohammed bin Qasim. The genuinely curious would go back to Buddhism and even earlier than 2,500 years when Buddha was born in Lumbini, part of what is now Nepal.

What struck me about Buddhism during a 10-day course of complete silence in Vipassna in Kerala recently was how the eight member states of Saarc have a Buddhist link, more than a Hindu, Muslim or a Christian connection between them. This was not the main discussion during the informed lectures on Vipassna. It was just the way the mind strayed during the practice.

We have discussed Pakistan’s Buddhist heritage and we are also aware of the Bamiyan Buddha statues in Afghanistan. Built in 507 AD (the smaller one) and 554 AD (the larger figure), the statues represented the classic blended style of Gandhara art. They were 35 and 53 metres tall, respectively, and were destroyed in 2001 by Afghan Taliban zealots. Bhutan and Sri Lanka are the two officially Buddhist member states of Saarc though they practise different ways of Buddhism. Had Sikkim not been annexed by India in 1975, there would perhaps be a third officially Buddhist state in the South Asian club.

What about the others? India may have exported Buddhism to the world but it didn’t seem to respect the teachings of Buddha much. And, therefore, we cannot find a single Buddhist from the old stock. What we have instead are the neo-Buddhist, converted from the lowest social strata of the erstwhile untouchables by Dr Ambedkar.

It was a pleasant surprise to learn that Buddhists comprise the third largest community in Bangladesh, mostly the tribes-people from areas bordering Myanmar. We still need to explain the Buddhist connection of the Maldives. As it turned out, the Maldives offers the most absorbing stories about how Buddhism came to the atoll.

The ancient Maldivian kings promoted Buddhism, and the first local writings and highly developed sculpture and architecture are said to belong to that period. The conversion to Islam is mentioned in the ancient edicts written in copper plates from the end of the 12th century AD.

I travelled to the 1997 Male Saarc summit from Colombo. On the way, the Maldivian ambassador to Sri Lanka told me a fascinating story about how Islam came to his island nation. There was a demon called Rannamaari. Simple Buddhist folks would have to surrender a young virgin girl to his temple retreat on a small hillock every week. In the morning, the girl would be found raped and killed. One day a Moroccan visitor learnt of the ordeal and he promised to end the suffering. He hid inside the darkened temple only to find that the killer was none other than the king himself. The king embraced Islam and his dark identity was never revealed by the Moroccan.

Another thing I remember from the Male Saarc summit in the Zardari era, probably in 2012, was that Muslim extremists from the Maldives had attacked Pakistan’s Buddhist exhibits. They went on to vandalise the country’s history museums with their rare works of art from Buddhist times. As a culturally syncretic country, I thought India would intervene against the vandalism against Pakistan’s attempt to reclaim its ancient heritage. But India looked on silently. And it was not the silence of Vipassna.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.


Jawed Naqvi, "How Buddhism connects Saarc," Dawn. 2016-12-06.
Keywords: Religious-Buddhism , Saarc nation , Liberal Hinduism , Pictorial books , Buddhism , Jainism , Sikhism , Christian heritage , Parsi heritage , Hindu temples , mBuddhist heritage , Gandhara art , Afghan Taliban , Jawaharlal Nehru , Mohammed Bin Qasim , Dr Ambedkar , Nepal , Afghanistan , Bhutan , Sri Lanka , Bangladesh , Maldives