Buddha Gaya or Bodh Gaya, being the Holy Seat of Gautama Buddha's
Enlightenment is the Most Sacred Buddhist Shrine. Hence, it has always been the first choice of the pilgrims. Beginning with the visit of Asoka the Great in 260 BC, the streams of pilgrims flowed towards it from
India and abroad, without intermission, for more than 1500 years. Then, with the decline of Buddhism in India, Buddha Gaya too fell on bad days, and the Great Maha Bodhi Temple was lost into oblivion. In 1590 AD, the Great Temple was occupied by a Hindu Mahant, and till today the Buddhists have not been able to regain complete control of their holy shrine.
This study by a distinguished Buddhist scholar presents for the first time a comprehensive and up-to-date history of Buddha Gaya through the Ages, from 528 BC to 1993 AD. Sifting minutely all the available archaeological, inscriptional and literary evidence, the author traces step by step, in seventeen chapters, the origin, development, decline, desecration, restoration and revival of the Maha Bodhi Temple as well as the current Buddhist agitation seeking amendment of the 1949 Act. The
New Temples built at Buddha Gaya in recent years by the Buddhist Countries have also been described in brief in the last chapter. And to make this study complete in all respects, the author has also added two appendices - in regard to the Future Development of Buddha Gaya, arid The Maha Bodhi Temples outside India.
D.C. Ahir (born in Punjab, 1928) is a renowned Buddhist scholar who has made a very significant contribution to Indian History by unravelling the glorious past of Buddhism. He has more than twenty other published works on Buddhism to his credit. He has also published a number of articles in various Buddhist journals, and presented papers in National and International Buddhist Conferences / Seminars.
He retired as Director to the Government of India, Ministry of Surface Transport, in February 1986, and since then is fully engaged in enriching literature. His recent works include - Buddhist Shrines in India
(1986), Maharashtra The Land of Buddhism (1988), Heritage of Buddhism (1989), Buddhism in North India (1989), The Pioneers of Buddhist Revival in India (1989), The Legacy of Dr. Ambedkar (1990),
Buddhism in Modem India (1991), Buddhism in South India (1992), Himalayan Buddhism (1993), Gautama Buddha (1994), Asoka The Great (1994).
This study presents a comprehensive and up-to-date history of Buddha Gaya Through the Ages, from 528 BC to 1993 AD. The past history of the development; decline, discovery and restoration of the Great Maha Bodhi Temple is primarily based on the archaeological and inscriptional evidence found at Buddha Gaya itself, and which has been well documented in the pioneer works of R.L. Mitra (1878), A. Cunningham (1892), and B.M. Barua (1934). For the century-old Buddhist revival movement initiated by Anagarika Dharmapala in 1891, I have relied heavily on the Maha Bodhi Journal, the spokesman in print of the Maha Bodhi Society of India since 1892.
As regards the present conditions at Buddha Gaya, I might add that during the last 24 years I have been to Buddha Gaya five times, and seen the changes taking place there. I first visited Buddha Gaya, along with my elder son, Nirmal, on 28 May 1971. On my return, I noted down in my diary as follows:
"Reached Buddha Gaya on the morning of 28 May (Saturday). Stayed at the Maha Bodhi Rest House. Yen. Pannarama was very helpful. Worshipped at the Sacred Maha Bodhi Temple and collected some data from the office of the Management Committee about the present state of affairs. Not very happy with the desecration of the Temple being done by the Mahant. In particular, the Sivalingam in the main shrine is an affront to the Buddha and the Buddhists."
During my second visit to Buddha Gaya on 2-4 April 1979, I made a thorough survey of the Temple Complex, and other places associated with the Buddha. I again visited Buddha Gaya on 7-10 December 1982, 19-21 November 1989 and 7-10 December 1990. As such, much of what I write here is based on personal observation during these visits from 1971 onward. However, it has been further updated with the help of Yen. Dr. Rashtrapal Maha Thera, President of the International Meditation Centre, Buddha Gaya, and Shri M. Subba, Secretary, Daijokyo Buddhist Temple, Buddha Gaya. I am thankful to them.
The chapter on the recent turmoil at Buddha Gaya in the wake of the Buddhist agitation for complete control of the Maha Bodhi Temple (Mahavihara) is largely based on the objective reports published in The Times of India, New Delhi on the events during 1992 and 1993.
I am also thankful to Mr. K. Godage, Ambassador of Belgium whose article "Restoration of Buddha Gaya" published in the Special Number of "Sambodhi" in December 1991, has been included by me in Appendix I. Suggestions made by him need careful consideration by the authorities.
Lastly, I must thank my wife, Swam Lata, who accompanied me to Buddha Gaya in 1979, 1982 and 1990, and helped me in various ways.
Of all the places sanctified by their association with Gautama Buddha, Bodh Gaya or Buddha Gaya shines the brightest. Being the scene of Buddha's penance and enlightenment, it has always been the first choice of the pilgrims. Beginning with the visit of Asoka, the First Buddhist Emperor of India, in 260 BC, the streams of pilgrims flowed towards it without intermission for more than 1500 years. And' 'Princes from all parts of India vied with one another in enriching it with the highest treasures that they could command."
The magnificent Maha Bodhi Temple, which we see today, was built in the second century AD, and the colossal image of the Buddha was enshrined still later. It is not certain when the sacred shrine came to be called as 'Mahabodhi.' In his inscription, Asoka calls it Sambodhi. Fa-hian, who saw it in 409 AD did not mention the name. However, Hiuen
Tsang, who visited it two centuries later, calls it 'Mahabodhi Vihara.' Thereafter, this name is mentioned in a number of inscriptions found at Buddha Gaya, the last one being mentioned in late 14th century.
When, Hiuen Tsang, the celebrated Chinese pilgrim, saw this Temple in 637 AD, it was at its zenith. This is how he describes the Great Temple:
"To the East of the Bodhi tree, there is a Vihara about 160 feet or 170 feet high. Its lower foundation-wall is 20 paces or more in its face. The building (pile) is of blue tiles (bricks) covered with chunam (burnt stone lime); all the niches in the different storey’s hold golden figures. The four sides of the building are covered with wonderful ornamental work; in one place figures of stringed pearls (garlands), in another figure of heavenly Rishis. The whole is surrounded by a gilded copper Arnalaka fruit. The eastern face adjoins a storeyed pavillion, the projecting eaves of which rise one over the other to the height of three distinct chambers; it’s projecting eaves, its pillars, beams, doors and windows are decorated with gold and silver ornamental work, with pearls and gems let in to fill up interstices."
In the vicinity of theM aha Bodhi Vihara, Hiuen Tsang saw twenty-one stupas; the largest being the Asoka Stupa. He also saw three tanks- Buddha, Sakra and Muchalinda, and six monasteries including the biggest monastery (Sangharama) built by a king of Sn Lanka. This monastery had more than one thousand resident monks at that time.
For nearly three centuries after the visit of Hiuen Tsang, no major repairs, improvements appear to have been carried out at Buddha Gaya.
It was only in 1070 AD that the first major restoration and renovation of the Maha Bodhi Vihara was undertaken by the Burmese, The last Indian
Buddhist King to repair the historic Maha Bodhi Temple was Raja Asoka-balla of Siwalik Hills in the Punjab. With his aid, and that of a local chief named Purushottama Simha, several repair works were carried out in 1157 AD under the superintendence of a Buddhist monk called Dharmarakshita.
When the armed hordes of Muslims sacked Bihar in the last decade of the 12th century; destroyed Buddhist shrines and slaughtered Buddhist monks on an unprecedented scale, a considerable portion of the population fled from Buddha Gaya. According to Dharrnasvamin, a Tibetan pilgrim, who visited Buddha Gaya in 1234 AD, "the place was deserted and only four monks were found staying (in the Vihara)."
Soon after Dharmasvamin's visit, the Maha Bodhi Temple was lost into oblivion. However, it appears to have been looked after by a monk for some time during the 14th century. And some repairs to the Temple were carried out by a Burmese Mission during the period 1496-1498. Thereafter, the Great Temple was deserted by the Buddhists and left unattended. Taking advantage of the situation, a Hindu Mahant, Gosain Giri occupied the Great Temple in 1590 AD. With the coming of the Mahant, the holy Buddhist shrine passed into the hands of a rival sect, and the phase of its sacrilege began.
In 1811, when Dr. Hamilton Buchanan visited Buddha Gaya, he found the Maha Bodhi Temple in utter ruins. He, however, records worship being offered to the Bodhi Tree by the Hindus, but adds that
"Some zealous persons had lately built a stairway on the side of the terrace so that orthodox may pass without entering the porch and thus seeing the hateful image of the Buddha."
Fifty years later, in 1861, when Alexander Cunningham, the great archaeologist, visited Buddha Gaya, he was shocked to find the Mahant and his men indulging in all sorts of un-Buddhistic and offensive ceremonies in the main shrine of the Maha Bodhi Temple. By that time the Mahant had installed a Sivalingam in the middle of the sanctum, and had uprooted the Buddha image. Further, though the Mahant claimed the Maha Bodhi and the land around it. as his own property yet he took no steps to repair the decaying historic temple.
In 1875, King Minden Min of Burma, sought permission of the Government of India to repair the decaying Maha Bodhi Temple. As the repairs initiated by the Burmese were not proceeding on right lines, the then British Government undertook in 1880 the responsibility to make thorough repairs. The restoration and renovation of the Maha Bodhi Temple to its present condition, almost an exact replica of the original shrine, was a lengthy affair and cost a lot of money but the work was accomplished with rare devotion and dedication by J.D. Beglar and his team.
The Maha Bodhi Temple, as it now stands, is 170 feet high, while the base is 50 square feet. It consists of a high straight-edged pyramidal tower of nine storeys, and is surmounted by a stupa. Its entrance porch comparatively later than the original Temple, is on the east. Each of the four sides of the tower presents several tiers of niches, while the front face has a tall lancet opening for the admission of light into the sanctum, and at the base of the tower there rises a turret at each of the four comers-a minature replica of the main spire. The main shrine room of the Temple which is situated at the ground floor is reached after passing through a vaulted passage.
The great gilded image of the Buddha enshrined in the sanctum is in the earth-touching pose (Bhumisparsa Mudra) symbolising the supreme event of Enlightenment. It is dated in the tenth century AD, and was seen by Dharmasvamin, a Tibetan pilgrim in 1234 AD. Later, it was removed by the Mahant and taken to his Math from where it was brought back by Cunningham in 1880.
Even after restoration, the property rights of the Maha Bodhi Temple and its lands continued to be vested in the Mahant. That he paid no heed to the sanctity of the shrine is evident from what Sir Edwin Arnold, the celebrated author of 'The Light of Asia' saw in 1885 when he visited Buddha Gaya. In a pathetic tone, he later wrote:
"The Buddhist world had, indeed, well-nigh forgotten this hallowed and most interesting centre of their faith-the Mecca, the Jerusalem, of a million Oriental congregations. When I sojourned in Buddha Gaya a few years ago, I was grieved to see Maharatta peasants performing "Shraddh" in such a place, and thousands of precious ancient relics of carved stone lying in piles around."
Prompted by this stimulating description of the Seat of Buddha's Enlightenment, Anagarika Dharmapala, the first Buddhist missionary of modern times, visited Buddha Gaya on 22 January 1891, and was visibly moved by what he saw. To quote his own words:
"The sacred Vihara-the Lord sitting on his throne and the great solemnity which pervades all round makes the heart of the pious devotee weep. How delightful! As soon as I touched with my forehead the Vajrasana a sudden impulse came to my mind. It prompted me to stop here and take care of this sacred spot-so sacred that nothing in the world is equal to this place where Prince Sakyasinha gained Enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree."
Having resolved to regain the control of Maha Bodhi Temple from the Mahant, Dharmapala decided to stay at Buddha Gaya till some satisfactory arrangements were made to preserve the sanctity of the sacred shrine. So he moved to the Burmese Rest House built in 1875. As a first step, he persuaded four Buddhist monks from Sri Lanka to come and stay at Buddha Gaya. The Bhikkhus reached Buddha Gaya in July 1891 and took up theirresidence in the Burmese Rest House. The Mahant objected to the presence of the Bhikkhus. And in February 1893, two of the monks were severely beaten up by his men. Two years later, in 1895, when Dharmapala attempted to install an image of the Buddha, presented to him by the people of Japan, on the upper floor of the Temple, he was assaulted and prevented by Mahant's men to do so. The Buddha image was later kept in the Burmese Rest House. The Mahant and some Hindu organisations, particularly the British India Association, London, later tried to get the Buddha image removed even from the Rest House on the plea that "it was offensive to the Hindus." But the Government did not yield.
In 1906, the Mahant filed a suit seeking ejection of the Buddhist monks from the Rest House. The Buddhists also filed a civil suit claiming control of the Maha Bodhi Temple. The legal war of nerves continued till, after independence, the Government of Bihar enacted the BOOh Gaya Temple Management Act in 1949 in accordance with which a Management Committee was constituted by the State Government in 1952 and entrusted with the management and control of the Temple, the Temple Land, and other property. As provided in the Bodh Gaya Temple Act of 1949, the Committee consists of eight members, four Hindus and four Buddhists, with the District Magistrate of Gaya as Chairman. To ensure that the Hindus have always an upper hand in the Committee, a specific provision has been made in the Act. Section 3(3) of the Act says: "District Magistrate shall be ex-officio Chairman provided that the State Government shall nominate a Hindu as Chairman of the Committee for the period during which the District Magistrate of Gaya is non-Hindu." Thus the Buddhists have practically very little say in the management of the Maha Bodhi Temple and this has adversely affected the proper preservation and development of their holy shrine.
Notwithstanding this deficiency, the Great Maha Bodhi Temple is once again a living shrine and is now visited every year by millions of pilgrims and tourists from all over the world. The prestige of this Most
Sacred Buddhist Shrine has been further enhanced by the modern temples and monasteries built at Buddha Gaya by the Buddhists of Burma (Myanmar), Bhutan, China, Japan, Thailand, Tibet and others. Verily, these temples and monasteries have made Buddha Gaya an important International Centre of Buddhist Culture, Wisdom and Worship.
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