Modi on Buddhist spiritual heritage of India and the significance of his message for Sri Lanka
Posted on October 17th, 2015

By Rohana R. Wasala Courtesy The Island

About a month ago, that is, around early September 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India described Bodh Gaya as the land of enlightenment”, when he visited the Buddhist shrine there, the Mahabodhi Temple. It was a happy coincidence, as he noted in his speech, that he got to visit this Buddhist holy place on the Janmashtami (birthday) of Lord Krishna. It also happened to be the Teachers’ Day in India, which coincides with the birth anniversary of a former president of India, Sarvelappi Radhakrishnan, who was himself a renowned teacher. Speaking on the occasion, he said: What Bodh Gaya had got was Siddharth; but what it gave to the world was ‘Buddha’; Lord Buddha was the epitome of knowledge, peace and compassion”. Under his teaching, Mr Modi went on, the paradigm shifted from conflict resolution to conflict avoidance….. from environmental regulation to environmental consciousness”, and he observed that Hinduism and Buddhism have relevance to both these issues”. Mr Modi was referring to a two-day Hindu Buddhist Conference on Conflict Avoidance and Environmental Consciousness held in Delhi previously that he had attended. Gautama Buddha and Lord Krishna, he called them ‘divine souls’, gave prominence to principles and processes”. Pointing out the close relation that exists between Buddhism and Hinduism, Mr Modi explained how the Buddha offered us the Noble Eightfold Path and the Pancaseel (the Five Precepts), while Sri Krishna gave Karma Yoga. (Karma Yoga or the path of action is understood in Hinduism as selfless service to others).  He further said that the philosophic understanding, the philosophic underpinning of the Dharma … the protection of the natural heritage is critical for sustainable development” (This reminded me of the missionary monk Mahinda Thera’s words, 2300 years ago, to the Lankan monarch Devanampiyatissa about the importance of environmental protection). In this context, he mentioned that even the UN seems to have agreed with the view that sustainable development is achievable only through aligning development to the local culture of the people”. According to Mr Modi, Hindu philosophy was a beneficiary of the teaching of Lord Buddha”. He remarked that (the Sanskrit poet) Jayadeva in his work ‘Geetha Govinda’ says that the Buddha was Maha Vishnu or God himself descended on earth to preach avihimsa (nonviolence). After the advent of the Buddha and his teaching, Mr Modi stated, Hinduism became Buddhist Hinduism or Hindu Buddhism. He quoted Swami Vivekananda expressing the opinion that when the Buddha was born, India was in need of a great spiritual leader, a prophet. Drawing attention to the originality of the Buddha’s teaching, Mr Modi said that the Buddha never  bowed down to anything, neither to the Vedas, nor to caste, nor to priests, nor to custom; he was a fearless searcher, and listened only to reason. The Buddha was more brave and sincere than any (other) teacher, was the first spiritual leader to give the world a complete system of morality … He was good for the sake of good(ness) … loved for the sake of love … was a teacher of equality”. He expressed the view that “This quality of Hinduism in India was a product of many great spiritual masters and chief among them was Buddha. And this is what sustains the secular character of India”. He also added that the Buddha’s enlightenment at Bodh Gaya also led to (a new) enlightenment in Hinduism. Mr Modi enthused: I would personally call India ‘Buddhist India’”; he described the Buddha as ‘the crown jewel’ of the Indian nation. He thinks that Buddhism represents a worldview that is indispensable for the survival of the world”. In his opinion, the potential for conflict arises when radical elements try to force their own ideologies on others. The world, disturbed as it is by religious intolerance, is looking towards the Buddha (for guidance) in the two areas of conflict resolution and environmental resolution. Mr Modi finally pledged: We in India will develop Bodh Gaya so that it will be the spiritual capital and civilisational bond between India and the Buddhist world”.

Though the rather too insistent claims Mr Modi makes on behalf of the Buddhist religion may not be in the true democratic non-totalitarian spirit of the Buddha’s wisdom-based teaching, they are eminently defendable in the current global context of growing scientific understanding of human morality and spirituality. Well known evolutionary biologist and science educator Professor Richard Dawkins of Britain is a prominent critic of and a committed moral activist (‘crusader’ is too violent a term to apply to him, I think) against traditional religion and other obscurantist superstitions that obstruct the freedom of  rational scientific thinking among humanity. He holds, correctly, that moral values such as gender equality, respect for the personal dignity of individuals, tolerance, nonviolence, compassion, and generosity etc. have comparatively recently evolved  through dialogue, debate and discussion among thinking human beings; they are not aspects of a god given absolute morality. Here, clearly, Dawkins is too Euro-centred in his thinking and attitude to look beyond what is known as Western science; he  betrays a regrettable lack of knowledge about the ancient moral and spiritual traditions of the East (such as Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism in India) that anticipated by thousands of years those same enlightened humanitarian values, which they too developed through rational thought. There is irrefutable evidence that Buddhist values enriched, with a sense of humanity, primitive religious systems in other parts of the world than India itself in the course of history, just as they influenced Hinduism’s moral doctrines. Mr Modi is only making a re-discovery of his own country’s ancient moral and intellectual heritage. Sri Lanka is the repository of Theravada Buddhism which is the core of that ancient global cultural legacy.

Therefore, the venue of this event and the sentiments expressed by the Indian leader bear special significance and relevance for us Sri Lankans. It was Anagarika Dharmapala (1865-1933) from Sri Lanka who pioneered efforts to claim Bodh Gaya for world Buddhists. Possessed as he was, about a century ago, of the knowledge that Mr Modi was demonstrating on this occasion, the Anagarika raised the cry: Arise, Sinhalese! Protect Buddha Gaya!”. Most Sri Lankans at that time of colonial occupation of the island, including the majority Sinhalese Buddhists (whom he was specifically addressing), did not (care to) understand the meaning of this heroic call for the development and preservation of the birthplace of the cultural and spiritual heritage of the Buddhist world, Bodh Gaya. Instead, he was largely denounced and dismissed as a religious fanatic and a racist chauvinist. Character assassination of strong anti-imperialist national leaders as a less embarrassing but more effective substitute for ‘bare-faced’ physical liquidation is not a new strategy adopted by the West, which is bent on the relentless political and cultural subversion of victim nations for unhindered economic exploitation of their lands. So long before Mr Modi, Anagarika Dharmapala did much to try to legally restore the control of this holiest of Buddhist holy places (as the place where Siddhartha Gautama attained Buddhahood or Enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree) from Hindus to Buddhists. He also wanted to develop the site as a world centre of Buddhism for the purpose of disseminating its message of universal peace, compassion and nonviolence throughout the world.

However, the Anagarika was not a politician. He was not concerned with capturing power by overthrowing foreign rule; he was realistic enough to understand that it was too early for that. But he was a patriotic Buddhist leader who aimed to initiate a broad movement towards independence and national resurgence among his people through social and cultural reform based on Buddhist values. Mr Modi, on the other hand is a seasoned politician. As a general rule, what a politician says must be taken with a pinch of salt. By indulging in this ‘pious’ performance, he may be trying to kill several (not just two) birds with one stone in the political diplomatic sphere. After all, when did religion cease to be the convenient handmaiden of imperialism or hegemonic politics?

Having said that, I tend to believe that, in this instance, we need not doubt the sincerity of Mr Modi’s message. True, he is a politician, and as such he cannot be without certain political ends to meet by utilizing the prominent cultural activity that the occasion involved. Yet, in this instance, if he was only concerned with politics, his championing of a minority religion like Buddhism, or of an artificial amalgam of Buddhism and Hinduism, would be counterproductive. But, no, there is no such danger. Mr Modi must be sure of this, because the secular character of the tolerant Hindu majority of the Indian society will ensure that the essence of his message will reach receptive ears. And Mr Modi is not thinking exclusively of India or the Buddhist world, but of the whole world.

The prime minister was seen being escorted around the place by some Sri Lankan monks, most likely resident there. The symbolic value of that should not be lost on us. Mr Modi is the ruling political leader of the largest democracy in the world; it is difficult to imagine that a better political system will develop to suit the present stage of human evolution in the foreseeable future. Mr Modi is a statesman who is a refined product of the unique Hindu Buddhist moral and intellectual heritage of his country whose indispensability for the survival of the entire human race and its civilization (lethally threatened as it is by intolerant religious radicalism and political opportunism) has been proved beyond doubt. But he had himself guided around the historic monument by a few monks from tiny Sri Lanka, which nevertheless has great stature as the global centre of Theravada Buddhism.

8 Responses to “Modi on Buddhist spiritual heritage of India and the significance of his message for Sri Lanka”

  1. Independent Says:

    India has more than 1/2 the number of Buddhists as Sri Lanka.
    Modi has talked so highly of a religion practiced by only 0.7% of its people.
    But what he has said is almost the TRUTH and it proves he has spoken 100% by heart.

  2. Lorenzo Says:

    Don’t trust MODI! He is a practicing HINDU fundamentalist.

    Words are CHEAP. Where is ACTION?

    IF Modi is serious, PROTECT SL – the ONLY large Buddhist country in Endia’s neighborhood.

    Stop playing politics with the issue.

  3. Independent Says:

    Lorence,
    Agree. MODI is a name. Wait for actions.

  4. Jag Says:

    One should look at the timing of this sudden love for Buddhism in India, coming from their PM himself. It’s not only Buddhism, Rama Seetha folklore too is given prominence and plans with introducing the “Rama Seetha” trail for Indian tourists.

    Isn’t this a covert way of subtle persuasion to get Sri Lankans to agree to their plan for the proposed road connection.??

    They’ll do anything to get this road built, because that is the only way of settling one of the biggest headaches the Indian govt has, Tamil Nadu. They can’t sleep without interfering in Sri Lankan affairs. Not only that, they can share all their ills too with us by exporting all their diseases through those thousands of starving Tamil Nadu folks who are longing to reach Sri Lanka.

  5. Fran Diaz Says:

    Mr Modi has a Dalit background. I can understand why he admires Buddhism. Most highly educated Hindu people call Buddhism “purified Hinduism”. Buddhism is somewhat similar to the Four Great Yogas of Hinduism, Raj Yoga especially.

    Dr Ambedkar too was of Dalit extract. He was a Buddhist. He was the architect of the Indian Constitution. There are a
    number of Indians of Dalit background who have excelled in various aspects of studies and services to mankind.

    All the facts go to show that caste and Dalit status are man made and has no real substance.

  6. Lorenzo Says:

    Jag,

    I think you are right.

    “Isn’t this a covert way of subtle persuasion to get Sri Lankans to agree to their plan for the proposed road connection.??”

    AND DIWALI is just around the corner!!

    The GUJARAT RIOTER 2001 is looking to COUNTER China’s USEFUL SILK ROAD by building a USELESS Rama-Sita TRAIL OF DESTRUCTION.

    Don’t fall into this TRAP.

  7. Fran Diaz Says:

    Ranil’s ‘Chunnel’ must NEVER happen. Any further connections to Tamil Nadu at this point in time is a grave mistake and spells the death knell for Lanka. As it is Lanka has enough trouble with TN. TN has over 15 Million Tamil Dalits who want to leave Tamil Nadu due to atrocities acted on them in TN.

    The Rama-Sita Trail is an allegorical tale of Heart vs Head (Mind). Seetha(la) Gangula & Seeth(ala) Eliya is Cold Stream and Cold Light respectively and nothing to do with Sita of the Ramayana.

    The other Indian epic allegorical tale is fortunately set in Kurukshethra, India.

  8. Lorenzo Says:

    Fran,

    Now you are talking.

    OM! RAM! RAM!

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