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perspective

Buddhism: the cultural glue that binds South Asia


At a South Asian summit in the Maldives a few years ago, Pakistan decided to brush aside its imagined history as an Islamic state and acknowledge its past more truthfully.

The world-renowned image of the fasting Buddha, which Pakistan inherited from the Buddhist relics of ancient Gandhara and its capital Taxila, were placed on display at the cultural pavilion in Male. Every South Asian country summons its past at such meetings as a statement of national identity. The choice of the historical motifs is usually conditioned by how they view their identity in the present and how they wish to project an imagined past onto their future. Such choices shift with time.
The current Indian state is veering towards Hindu nationalism (Hindutva), as distinct from liberal Hinduism, and tellingly prefers to distribute copies of the Bhagavad Gita 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 Indira, the visiting dignitary would have been shown a more truly rooted glimpse of the cultural mix that India has been for centuries.
Pictorial books of a more socially woven India were the likelier parting gifts, featuring perhaps turbans worn by different strata of Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Parsis and even some Jains. In contrast, the Brahminical tendency to co-opt Buddhism, Jainism and even Sikhism, and reclaim religions that came out of the belly of a socially segmented heritage, mocks the truth.
It all depends on where you want to see your history starting. In Pakistan, the genuinely curious would go back to Buddhism and even earlier than  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 vipassana in Kerala recently was how the eight countries of South Asia are linked by Buddhism more than they are by Hinduism, Islam or Christianity. The Buddhist heritage of Gandhara stretched beyond Pakistan’s border to modern-day Afghanistan and the giant Bamiyan Buddhas. Carved and assembled in 507AD (the smaller one) and 554AD (the larger), the statues represented the typical Gandharan blend of classical Greek and Indian art. They were 35 and 53 metres tall before being destroyed in 2001 by Afghan Taleban zealots. Bhutan and Sri Lanka are the two officially Buddhist member states of South Asia though the former practises Mahayana and the latter Theravada. 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. Nowadays Buddhists from the old stock have disappeared from Indian society. What we have instead are the neo-Buddhist, converted from the lowest social strata of the erstwhile untouchables by social reformer Dr BR Ambedkar.
It was a pleasant surprise to learn that Buddhists comprise the third-largest community in Bangladesh, most drawn from hilltribes living on the border with Myanmar. 
Another thing I remember from the 2012 regional summit is that Muslim extremists from the Maldives attacked Pakistan’s Buddhist exhibits. They went on to vandalise the country’s history museums, targeting rare works of art from Buddhist times. As a culturally syncretic country, I thought India would intervene to protest the vandalism and support Pakistan’s attempt to reclaim its ancient heritage. But India looked on silently. And this was not the silence of vipassana.

Published : December 06, 2016

By : Jawed Naqvi Dawn Asia News Network