Tuesday, November 29, 2005

On our Buddhist heritage

Desh is home to all major ideologies, spiritual and secular alike. To badly mangle some very smart person’s words, there is not a single stream of thought, Eastern or Western, which has not been articulated by a Desi. In this teeming multitude of thoughts, Buddhism stands out. It stands out because it is more home-grown than the Semitic faiths or the early Brahmanic ideas (this is hotly debated of course, and we’ll revisit it at some other time). It stands out because as a religion it is not about scoring points with divinity to achieve a pass to the heaven (Amar can elaborate).

And it stands out because it provided a notion of governance that challenged the idea that some people are born to rule. Inspired by Buddhism, Ashoka introduced a system of governance where the king sought to legitimize his rule not through a godly lineage, as had been the case before, but by supporting and earning the approval of the enlightened people (typically Buddhist monks, yes there were obvious political economy problems that are shared by other theocracies, but then no one said the early Buddhists were champions of liberal democracy).

Ashoka was of course one of the first rulers to govern over most of Desh. His model of governance was adopted in South East Asia, and influenced political thoughts of China and beyond. In Desh, while the Mauryan Empire collapsed within a couple of generations after Ashoka, his ideas survived for a few centuries: under the Kushan Empire that ruled much of today's Pakistan in the 1st century, or the Palas who ruled Bengal seven centuries hence. As late as the early 11th century, hailing from what is today’s Dhaka, Atish Dipankar was showing the Tibetans the Noble Path.

But clearly Buddhism is not a major faith in today’s Desh. In fact it hasn’t been so for a long while. After all, Mahmud of Ghazni wasn’t raiding Buddhist monastery of Somnath! By the time of Muslim conquests during the 11th and 12th century, that is after about seven centuries of Brahmanic rule, Buddhism had become a fringe movement. Why did Buddhism disappear as a major ideology? Did it gradually revert to the Brahmanic ideas? Is what we call Hinduism today an offshoot of the Buddhism of Ashoka and Kanishka? Or did Brahmanic rulers like the Guptas, the Pallavas and the Senas repressed Buddhism? If it is the last, then the repression must have been pretty harsh. Consider that after seven centuries of Muslim rule, no more than a quarter to a third of Desis converted to Islam.

It seems likely that our Buddhist heritage must have survived in many ways that we are not aware of. I can think of one example. In the eastern Bangladesh, where Atish Dipankar hailed from, if you want to question someone’s parentage, or if you want to just curse someone, you could call them a pungir put. Put, a derivative of putra, means son, a common enough term. Pungi apparently means a Buddhist monk. As someone who is supposed to have renounced samsara, presumably it wasn’t done to have a son. Hence the invective.

It would be nice to discover our other Buddhist heritage.