Morphing the Buddha

Print edition : June 12, 2015

Devotess offering prayers at the Mahabodhi temple in Bodh Gaya. Photo: PTI

The stupa at Sarnath, Uttar Pradesh Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

The book is a unique attempt at recording the transition of Buddhism in India as meticulously as possible.

One of the big ironies of the history of Buddhism is its decline in the country of its origin, India. Several scholars continue to grapple with the causes behind its wane. But whatever be the reasons, it is no less perturbing to witness how the religion that was born out of the need to counter and challenge the Vedic Brahminical establishment is being gradually co-opted into Hinduism.

During his life, the Buddha (the awakened one), who laid the foundations of Buddhism, travelled extensively through the Gangetic plains preaching his Dhamma. Many of the places he visited became heritage sites, patronised by kings and followers alike.

Places such as where he gave his sermon in Sarnath (in present-day Uttar Pradesh) and the Bodhi tree under which he attained enlightenment (nirvana) in Bodh Gaya (Bihar) have become pilgrim centres for Buddhists from across the world. It was next to the Bodhi tree that king Asoka built the first temple in the 5th century B.C. and installed the “Diamond Throne” (Vajrasana). This is the oldest standing brick temple structure in India. But, today, right at its entrance stands a Hindu temple dedicated to the Pandavas of the Mahabharata. Inside the temple are five idols of the Buddha that have been dressed up to pass off as the five Pandava brothers. It is commonly known how the Buddha is absorbed into the pantheon of Hindu gods as an avatar of Vishnu, but the absorption under way in Bodh Gaya is hardly documented. Besides, the Buddha was not a mythological figure like Rama or Krishna but very much a historical figure, evidence for which exists in monuments and Buddhist canonical literature.

It is neutralisation like this that Bharath Murthy documents in his graphic travelogue, The Vanished Path. In 2009, as a lay Buddhist, he undertook a journey of the Buddhist historical sites with his wife, Alka Singh. Photographs taken by her intersperse the black-and-white panels of the graphic novel, providing authenticity of location.

Stark contrast

From Sarnath, 10 kilometres from the Hindu holy city of Varanasi, Bharath captures the stark contrast between the two religions in terms of not only beliefs but also practices. While Buddhism is largely about “letting everything go” to attain peace of mind, Hinduism is, in one sense, more ritualistic. But in contemporary India, Bharath shows how the hegemony of the latter is gradually overshadowing what remains of the former in terms of architecture and heritage. Most of it is quite dilapidated and not much effort seems to be on in terms of preserving what is left. However, he paints an engrossing picture of the many places the couple criss-cross in the footsteps of the Buddha, from Lumbini, where he was born as Prince Siddhartha Gautama, to the places he visited, gave sermons, and finally passed away.

The author has done a good job of documenting the sites, the surroundings and the people inhabiting these places and provides nuggets of information from the journey to make the book an interesting read. The squalor, the unclean lodges, the swarms of mosquitoes and even the night-long load-shedding woes find their way into the pages of the travelogue. The drawings of the stupas, viharas, gardens and landscapes provide an accurate representation.

The couple travelled to Kushinagar, some 50 km from Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh, where the Buddha went into Mahaparinirvana, or breathed his last, in the middle of a grove of sal trees. A 6.1-metre-tall statue carved out of red sandstone during the Gupta era stands in the exact position in which the Buddha is said to have rested.

The author has visited Lumbini, the Buddha’s birthplace; Kapilavastu, the capital of the non-monarchical state of the Shakya clan where Siddhartha grew up; Sravasti, the capital of the prosperous Kosala kingdom; the vast complex of the acclaimed Nalanda that housed a Buddhist monastery in Magadha (present-day Bihar); and the magnificent Vulture’s Peak in Rajgriha (home of royalty), which eventually became the seat of the Mauryan empire. None of the past glory of these places exists anymore, and wherever the couple went, they encountered zealous Hindus distributing prasad or applying red vermillion to their foreheads or clicking photographs of them and calling them “foreigners” or demanding to know their caste. No amount of entreaties that they were not Hindus but Buddhists could contain the enthusiasm of the local people.

For the most part, the couple participated or declined calmly, but even the Buddha’s teachings of giving up anger could not help them from losing their cool once in a while at these unwelcome queries. They saw very few bhikkhus or bhikkhunis (Buddhist monks or nuns). The assimilation they witnessed must have taken years to happen and in some places took concrete shape in the form of Hindu shrines within Buddhist compounds. In a monastery in Kudan, they found a Sivalinga atop a Buddhist vihara. Much of the rich Buddhist heritage lies in ruins today. The book is a unique attempt at recording this transition in history as meticulously as possible.

Inspired by Tezuka

In that sense, it is at once a travelogue of things past, a documentation of the present and an alarm bell of sorts for things to come. It warns of the dangers of morphing of history if it is not preserved. The travelogue, one of the few of its kind by an Indian graphic artist relating to Buddhism, opens up several possibilities. It acknowledges it was inspired by Osamu Tezuka’s, the godfather of Japanese graphic art, brilliant eight-part series on the life and times of the Buddha, which is available in Indian bookstores and is quite popular. Praised by stalwarts such as Art Spiegelman, who created Maus, a graphic account of the Concentration Camp under Nazi rule, and revered in reviews by the likes of The Washington Post, Tezuka’s important work about the Buddha has somehow not got its due in India.

Perhaps, it has to do with the way Tezuka’s fiction takes issues of caste and discrimination head-on. The story begins at the foot of the mighty Himalayas where the Aryans lived 3,500 years ago. Tezuka depicts how the very name Brahmin was an emblem of invincible power in Indian society for centuries and created under it classes such as warrior, commoner and slave, and introduced discrimination among fellow human beings. He speaks of how the hardship created by Brahmins for the Indian people persists even today. He depicts the vanity and decadence of Brahmins and Brahminism and how Buddhism emerged out of the need for a better way of life.

But apart from history and the Buddha, the series is a fantasy ride that leaves one asking for more. Tezuka weaves a fantastic story around the Buddha’s life and introduces a range of characters from across the caste spectrum, which the reader will fall in love with or loathe with passion —Tatta, the outcaste urchin, who eventually becomes one of the most loyal disciples of the Buddha; Chapra, a Shudra, who has the best of intentions but fate has other things in store for him; and Lata, a slave girl who cuts off her luscious hair to join the Buddhist fold, despite being in love with Ananda, an ex-bandit, who is fated to remain by the Buddha’s side until the very end. Episodes such as the one where Lata sacrifices her life to save the Buddha by coming in the way of a snake that was intending to kill him are extremely moving. These are characters from the margins of society who were given dignity and purpose by the Buddha, and Tezuka puts them centre stage in his masterpiece.

Originally published in the Japanese as Budda Dai Ikkan Kapiravasutu by Ushio Shuppansha, Tokyo, 1987, Tezuka’s Buddha series was translated into English by Vertical Inc., New York. Even as Tezuka deals with complex issues of hierarchies in Indian society, he entertains the reader through his spontaneous wit and humour.