Sunday, August 25, 2013

Yangon is the new scene of Buddhist violence against non-Buddhists

Myanmar - the apatheid state - has once become the scene of anti-Muslim racism and bigotry. Scores of Muslim homes and shops were burned down and destroyed by racist Buddhist mob on Sunday --terrorizing the Muslim community in the commercial capital of Rangoon (Yangon).

One wonders if this Buddhist country is beyond repair, and will continue to remain savage displacing non-Buddhists! I pray and hope not.

The full report on the latest episode of violence can be seen by clicking here.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Quintana's speech

Tomas Quintana's entire speech on his recent visit to Myanmar can be seen by clicking here.

Tomas Quintana's recent visit to Myanmar

Tomas Ojea Quintana, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, was in Myanmar last week on a 10-day fact finding trip. It was his eighth official visit to the country that took him to Rakhine State, Chin State, Kachin State and Shan State, and Meikhtila in Mandalay Region.

Quintana’s visit to Burma got off to a bumpy start when he was greeted in Arakan State by nearly 90 Arakanese Buddhist Magh protesters, some of whom carried signs urging the “one-sided Bengali lobbyist” to “get out,” reflecting perceptions among some that the UN envoy is biased in favor of the state’s Rohingya Muslims. It is not unusual for a country that has come to symbolize the den of intolerance, racism and bigotry in our times. Many in Burma—including the government—refer to the Rohingya - who are indigenous to Arakan before Buddhist Maghs moved to the region – as Bengalis.

At Wednesday’s press conference, Quintana pushed back against accusations of bias, saying, “Let me reaffirm that I have a willingness to work for the human rights of all the people of Myanmar. … I am ready also to talk to those who disagree with my approach and with my opinions. I did it in Rakhine State, I stepped off my car and I talked to the protesters." “The condition is that it has to be a peaceful dialogue and that’s the challenge in Myanmar with respect to this issue.”

Quintana's ordeal recalled the difficulties previous U.N. envoys had in dealing with Myanmar before military rule ended in 2011, when they were often barred from meeting people, snubbed by officials and even denied entry to the country.

The human rights situation in Arakan State has drawn international attention and severe condemnation, with human rights groups and foreign leaders alike expressing serious concern over the humanitarian conditions of some 140,000 IDPs (internally displaced people) who live in 76 squalid camps that are located outside the state’s townships. The IDPs, most of whom are Rohingyas, were driven from their homes in two bouts of genocidal campaigns by the racist Buddhists last year. The Rohingyas have faced systemic discrimination for decades and are denied citizenship by the apartheid government, which contends that they are illegal “Bengali” immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.

Just days before Quintana’s arrival, police opened fire on crowds of Rohingya Muslims in IDP camps outside of Sittwe (Akyab), the state capital, in the latest instance of violence to hit the troubled region. At least one Rohingya was killed by police bullets and several others were wounded by the gunfire.

In Kachin State, Quintana met last week with government officials and representatives of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), but was denied access to the KIO stronghold of Laiza on the Sino-Burmese border, with the government citing security concerns. “This pattern of denying access, not only to address humanitarian shortcomings but also serious human rights concerns, needs to change immediately,” Quintana said on Wednesday.

In Meikhtila, his planned visit to an IDP camp on August 19 had to be cancelled after a group of Buddhist protesters aggressively confronted him. He said: "My car was descended upon by a crowd of around 200 people who proceeded to punch and kick the windows and doors while shouting abuse."

In March, following weeks of incitement of religious hatred within the community, violence targeting the Muslim community erupted in Meikhtila, leaving over 10,000 Muslims displaced. The pogrom against Muslims there saw Buddhist mobs torch whole Muslim areas in violence that spread to other parts of the country. The victims included more than 20 students and teachers of a Muslim school on the outskirts of Meikhtila, who were set upon by armed men and beaten and burned to death, according to witnesses interviewed by AFP.

Graphic video footage given to AFP by activists shows an embankment next to the school turned into a killing field, watched over by uniformed police who did nothing to stop those horrendous crimes.

After the March violence, Quintana said the reluctance of security forces to crack down on the unrest suggested a possible state link to the fighting. Commenting on the mob attack on his car this time, he said, "The fear that I felt during this incident, being left totally unprotected by the nearby police, gave me an insight into the fear residents would have felt during the violence last March, as police allegedly stood by as angry mobs beat, stabbed and burned to death some 43 people."

In a statement released by the UN Information Center, Quintana highlighted the role of the state in preventing such incidents from spiraling out of control: "I must highlight the obligation of the police to act immediately to control violent mobs running riot in communities, and protect all people regardless of their religion or ethnicity; something it seems they have not done during the violence in Meiktila."

After meeting with residents who witnessed the scenes last March, he stressed, "The violence in Meiktila has highlighted to me the dangers of the spread of incitement of religious hatred in Myanmar, and the deadly environment that this can create. The central and state government has an obligation to address these worrying trends."

Quintana visited Lashio in Shan State where he met with township authorities and Muslim leaders. During the violence in late April, which affected the Muslim community in Lashio, in most cases the police stood by while the Buddhist mobs set fire to Muslim houses, shops, a mosque and a Muslim orphanage. A Muslim man was brutally beaten to death with sticks and stabbed, and his wife was severely injured. Thousands of Muslims remain internally displaced in the region.

Quintana also noted that the state and central government in Myanmar are working well with the international community to address urgent humanitarian needs of both Rakhine Buddhists and the Muslim communities. "However," he said, "my overriding concern is that the separation and segregation of communities in Rakhine State is becoming increasingly permanent, making the restoration of trust difficult. This continues to have a particularly negative impact on the Muslim community. The severe restrictions on freedom of movement in Muslim IDP camps and villages remain in place. I visited Aung Mingalar, the only remaining Muslim ward in Sittwe, where a large number of people are living in a confined space, with the periphery marked out with barbed wire and guarded by armed police. This has serious consequences for fundamental human rights, including access to healthcare, education, as well as access to livelihoods. Furthermore, there continues to be cases of humanitarian workers facing intimidation by local groups when attempting to provide healthcare to the camps, which compounds the problem of access to healthcare."

He welcomed the disbandment of Nasaka, a border security force which has committed numerous human rights violations over the years. He said, "The police and army have now taken charge of security in Rakhine State. Although there are legitimate security concerns which the police and army are addressing, I have received many serious allegations of the disproportionate use of force in dealing with large crowds of Muslim protestors. The latest incident saw live ammunition used to disperse a crowd of Muslims in Sittwe, with two killed and several injured. Security forces need to stop the use of excessive force. Sittwe and in particular Buthidaung prison are filled with hundreds of Muslims men and women detained in connection with the violence of June and October 2012. Many of these have been arbitrarily detained and tried in flawed trials. I met the State Chief Justice and urged for the respect of due process of law. The use of torture and ill treatment, including some cases of death, during the first three months of the June outbreak, needs to be properly investigated and those responsible held to account."

He called on the Myanmar Government to fulfill its obligations in stemming the spread of incitement of religious hatred directed against minority communities, through strong public messaging, the establishment of the rule of law, and policing in line with international human rights standards. He said, "The starting point for the solution to the situation in Rakhine lies with the unavoidable role of the state in pursuing policies that benefit both communities and brings the restoration of the rule of law as a means to build bridges between them."

The U.S.-based group Physicians for Human Rights, in a report released Tuesday, blamed the government for failing "to protect vulnerable groups" and allowing "a culture of impunity for the violators," and called on the government to conduct thorough investigations and prosecute those responsible. It warned that Burma risked “catastrophic” levels of conflict, including “potential crimes against humanity and/or genocide,” if authorities failed to stem anti-Muslim hate speech and a culture of impunity around the clashes.

As I have noted in my earlier commentaries on Myanmar, the state remains a pariah state with its apartheid structure intact. The so-called reform activities of the government of Thein Sein have not put a dent in that massive structure. Unless, that structure is uprooted and its racist and bigot elements within the broader society tamed down Myanmar would continue to repeat her past crimes and her records of human rights abuses and tortures would remain a matter of grave concern to the civilized world. The UN and the international community, on their part, need to ensure that Myanmar's Thein Sein government is not prematurely rewarded for its half-hearted reform activities, which thus far, deplorably, have been hypocritical to the core to fool them. They ought to also make sure that the ideologues of Buddhist racism and bigotry against the Muslims and Christians are hunted down for their incitement of genocidal activities within Myanmar. Only by bringing such war criminals – the promoters of intolerance – to the book, can the government send the message to its racist and bigotry-ridden, fractured society that such evils will no longer be tolerated in new Myanmar.

Will the Buddhist leaders of Myanmar have the hindsight, courage and wisdom to do what is morally right towards bridge-building and finding a place in the civilized world? Or, is it a hopeless case with this Mogher Mulluk that will continue to snub voices of reason and wisdom, so well put by Tomas Quintana in his press release?

Why Buddhism Declined?

Concluding remarks:

As noted in this series of articles, it was not the Islamic conquests which caused Buddhism to fade away in South Asia but a plethora of causes that made the difference. In the early medieval period when Buddhism lost the royal patronage, and Hinduism became a resurgent force in its battle with Buddhism, not only did the Buddhists face serious persecution and elimination, it also lost its intellectual battle against the Brahmans.  Thanks to the brilliant scheme concocted by the Brahman philosophers, Gautama Buddha was transformed into a reincarnation of Hindu Lord Vishnu, which virtually sealed the fate of Buddhism by putting the final nail in its coffin -- centuries before Islam became a dominant force in South Asia.

The prominent 8th-century CE Hindu philosopher Shankara described Buddha as an enemy of the people. Interestingly, he developed a monastic order on the Buddhist model, and also borrowed concepts from Buddhist philosophy. Anti-Buddhist propaganda was also reaching its peak during the 8th century when Shankara modeled his monastic order after the Buddhist Sangha. He has been hailed as the arch critic of Buddhism and the principal architect of its downfall in India. At the same time he has been described as a Buddhist in disguise. Both these opinions have been expressed by ancient as well as modern authors—scholars, philosophers and historians. While Shankara is given credit for the defeat of Buddhism in Hindu literature, he was in fact active after Buddhism had faded from prominence in some areas.

Buddhism was showing unmistakable signs of its decline long before Islam became established in the Gangetic plains, central India, and the northern end of present-day Andhra and Karnataka. It died a natural death. As noted by a Hindu scholar, "The old Buddhism, which denied the very being of God, offered no hope of human immortality and looked upon all life as misery, love of life as the greatest evil, and the end of man as the extinction of all desire, lost its power. Buddhism was choked by the mass of superstition, selfishness and sensuality which surrounded it... The Mahayana metaphysics and religion in fact was synonymous with the Advaita metaphysics and theism. Hinayana on the other hand, with its more ascetic character, came to be regarded as a sect of Shaivism. Buddhism found that it had nothing distinctive to teach. When the Brahminical faith inculcated universal devotion and love to God and proclaimed Buddha to be an avatar of Lord Vishnu, the death knell of Buddhism in India was sounded."

Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902 CE), one of the greatest minds of Hinduism who played an important role in revival of Hinduism, was highly critical of Buddhism. He remarked, “Thus, in spite of preaching mercy to animals, in spite of the sublime ethical religion, in spite of the discussions about the existence or non-existence of a permanent soul, the whole building of Buddhism tumbled down piece-meal and the ruin was simply hideous. The most hideous ceremonies, the most obscene books that human hands ever wrote or the human brain ever conceived, have all been the creation of the degraded Buddhism."

Bottom line: Rather than blaming other religions, Buddhism needs a serious introspection to find the root causes of its demise in India and most of south Asia. When it does, it will find that its demise was prompted by itself and not by some outside forces. It cannot go on blaming others for its monumental failures. It cannot go on justifying its unfathomable cruelties in our time based on events that happened centuries ago.

What the people of our time see are brutalities, savagery and crimes against humanity committed by Buddhist governments in which minority religious communities are targeted for extinction. There is no denying that Rohingya Muslims are the most persecuted people in our planet today. Can the Buddhist government in Myanmar and the local state government in the Rakhine (Arakan) state, the terrorist Buddhist monks and the Buddhist political leaders, the Buddhist mobs deny their overt and covert attempts that tried not only to delegitimize their ancestral roots to the state, but also the continual and almost incessant genocidal campaigns that they have launched and supported to uproot a majority of the Rohingya people to seek asylum elsewhere, let alone the fact that they are subjected to the worst forms of persecution that our world has seen in our time?

Where is the voice within Buddhism that cries foul to such acts of mass murder and criminality committed by its folks against a persecuted minority? Why is Suu Kyi silent? Why are the terrorist monks like Wirathu celebrated as national heroes and voices of reason like those of Maung Zarni and U Gambira considered improper?

Why are the non-Buddhists threatened in Buddhist-majority countries? Why are the Muslim minorities and their properties unsafe in places like Sri Lanka? Why are the Rohingya Muslims used as slaves in Thai boats and ships?

These are just a small sample of questions that the Buddhist community needs to reflect upon and answer, and change the course. It cannot expect the world community to close their eyes forever entertaining a fantasy for all time.

Buddhism is failing and it has become vicious and savage in the hands of new practitioners who are straying from Buddha’s teachings. If it wants to survive in the new century when our world is getting much more connected it better reform so that it is not viewed as a moribund philosophy that is inimical to human aspirations and genocidal against ‘other’ people. Let it practice tolerance. It needs to have less of Wirathu and more of Gambira to make that journey and transition.

If it wants to learn from others, esp. Muslims, it may like to look at Sufi Islam. Truly, as historian William Dalrymple rightly said, Sufism is clearly central to any discussion of medieval India. Let it look at Islam's rich 1000-year history of syncretism, intellectual heterodoxy and pluralism in India. The history of Indian Sufism in particular abounds with attempts by mystics to overcome the gap between the two great religions and to seek God not through sectarian rituals but through the wider gateway of the human heart. These attempts were championed by some of South Asia's most popular mystics, such as Bulleh Shah of Lahore:

Neither Hindu nor Muslim
I sit with all on a whim
Having no caste, sect or creed,
I am different indeed.
I am not a sinner or saint,
Knowing no sin nor restraint.
Bulleh tries hard to shirk
The exclusive embrace
of either Hindu or Turk.


Is the Buddhist world ready or more appropriately, will it ever be ready for that quantum leap?

-à Concluded.


Sunday, August 11, 2013

Why Buddhism Declined?

As the first millennium of the Common Era (C.E.) gave way to the second, the contours of political geography shifted substantially in South Asia. The Indian Ocean became an integrated commercial system, and South Asia became a land of wealth and trade, connecting the Silk Road and the Indian Ocean.  

In Sri Lanka, virtually the whole population shifted to the coast doing business with merchants and traders that frequented the island from the territories to the west, especially the Muslim world. Though the Arab and Persian merchants had been trading for centuries before Islam, they started dominating the entire sea trade along the Indian Ocean since around the middle of the 7th century. 

South Asia’s encounter with Islam dates back to the time of the Prophet Muhammad (S), beginning with the conversion of a Hindu king of Kerala and the presence of the Mappila (also called Moplah) Muslim community in the Malabar Coast since the early 7th century CE. Sindh came under Muslim rule after its conquest in 712 CE by 20-year old Muhammad bin Qasim under the order of Hajjaj bin Yusuf – the Umayyad governor of Iraq. By the early 13th century, vast territories of South Asia came under Muslim rule who dominated the political scene for the next six centuries. No mass conversions into Islam were attempted by these Muslim rulers and the destruction of temples was forbidden.  Historian Lane-Poole writes, "As a rule Muslim government was at once tolerant and economic."

From its capital of Ghazni in today’s Afghanistan, the Ghaznavid rule in Northwestern India lasted over 175 years from 1010 to 1187 CE. It was during this period that Lahore assumed considerable status apart from being the second capital, and later the only capital, of the Ghaznavid Empire. Then the Ghurids from Afghanistan ruled India extending their eastern territories to the northern Ganges-Jamuna Doab, with Delhi as the capital. The Muslim Sultans in Delhi expanded their territory rapidly. By early 13th century, Bengal and much of central India was under the Delhi Sultanate, which became an epoch-making dynasty by repelling Mongols who were unstoppable elsewhere in Asia. This event changed the political landscape and culture in South Asia, because it marked a domestication of Central Asian Sultans inside India, where they had rich territory to defend. Yesterday’s invaders thus became India’s defenders. 

Several Turko-Afghan dynasties ruled from Delhi: the Mamluk (1206–1290), the Khalji (1290–1320), the Tughlaq (1320–1414), the Sayyid (1414–51), and the Lodhi (1451–1526). Muslim kings extended their domains into Southern India; Kingdom of Vijayanagar resisted until falling to the Deccan Sultanate in 1565. The Mughals ruled the country from 1526 until its collapse in 1857 when the last of the great Mughal emperors - Bahadur Shah - was deposed by the British.

The vicious attacks of the 13th century on cities and towns across southern Eurasia by the Mongols, however, launched centuries of migration into India.  As noted by Professor Ludden, warriors, scholars, mystics, merchants, artists, artisans, peasants, and workers followed ancient trade routes and new opportunities that opened up in the new domains of Indian sultans.  Migrants walked and rode down the Hindu Kush; they traveled from town to town, across Punjab, down the Ganga basin, into Bengal, down the Indus into Sind and Gujarat, across the Vindhyas, into the Deccan, and down the coast.  From Bengal and other sites along the coast, some continued overseas.  They moved and resettled to find work, education, patronage, influence, adventure, and better living.  They traveled these routes for five centuries, never in large numbers compared to the resident population; but as time went by, new-comers settled more often where others had settled before; and their accumulation, natural increase, and local influence changed societies all across South Asia forever.  This was one of the world’s most significant long-term migratory patterns; and it not only carried people and wealth into South Asia but also a complemented flow of commodities from South Asia to West Asia and Europe.”  [India and South Asia: A Short History] Immigrants from Persia increased over time, especially after 1556, when Persian literati came into the Mughal service and the center of gravity of Persian culture shifted into South Asia.

Muslim rule saw a greater urbanization of India and the rise of many cities and their urban cultures. The biggest impact was upon trade resulting from a common commercial and legal system extending from Morocco to Indonesia. When Moroccan traveler Ibn Batuta traveled to India in the early 14th century, he found Bengal to be "a vast country, abounding in rice and nowhere in the world have I seen any land where prices are lower than there.”  He also observed that “most of the merchants from Fars [Persia] and Yemen disembark” at Mangalore, where “pepper and ginger are exceedingly abundant.” On the road from Goa to Quilon, he wrote, “I have never seen a safer road than this, for they put to death anyone who steals a single nut, and if any fruit falls no one picks it up but the owner.”   

The impact of Islam on Indian culture has been immeasurable. It permanently influenced the development of all areas of human endeavor – language, dress, cuisine, all the art forms, architecture and urban design, and social customs and values. It replaced both Hinduism and Buddhism as the great cosmopolitan trading religion. Royal endowments to temples and Brahmans and monks continued, mostly in the form of tax-free grants of land carried over from earlier dynasties.  Mughal emperor Aurangzeb revitalized a legal proclamation of the Manusmriti in his famous 1665 farman, declaring that, "whoever turns (wasteland) into cultivable land should be recognized as the (owner) malik and should not be deprived (of land)."

With its unique message of casteless equality and brotherhood of men, and simple and easy to understand and practice the tenets, and superb morality it was quite natural that the vast majority of people in certain areas with access to Sufi Muslims would embrace Islam. The impact was felt more so in the Bengal region where under Sufi influence, the pressures of caste, and with no political support structure left in place to resist social mores, many converted to Islam. There is no doubt that the turmoil and millennium-old hostility between the two major religions - Hinduism and Buddhism - with the ordinary masses (e.g., non-priestly and non-ruling classes)  caught in the middle that were tired of incessant religious wars greatly helped the cause of Islam to get rooted into the region.
As hinted above, this task was accelerated by exemplary missionary works of the Sufis and other pious Muslims who migrated into the region from areas that had been devastated by Mongol invasion. They essentially acted as cultural activists or goodwill ambassadors of Islam. To this day, Sufi dargahs still attract as many Hindu, Sikh and Christian pilgrims as they do Muslims. 

Moreover, the taxation imposed by the Muslim rulers was much lighter on general masses (compared to how they were taxed under Hindu and Buddhist rulers). This also helped the downtrodden Indians to entertain a favorable opinion about Islam. To garner further concessions, some ruling classes also embraced Islam. And this change did not happen overnight but took centuries to gradually make Islam the dominant religion of the masses in some parts of India, especially in the eastern and western parts of South Asia.

Geographies of people living in South Asia kept changing with the times. By the 18th century, social identities that were expressed in overlapping ethnic idioms of religion, language, caste, class, and occupation were typically attached to geographical places -- villages, towns, and regions -- which were separated from one another and ranked in relation to one another.  Residential segregation was the norm for ethnic groups.

What was once administered by the Mughals came gradually under the East India Company first and then the British Empire. In 1757 the Nawab of Bengal was defeated by the Company at the Battle of Plassey. In the 1820s, the Company tightened its grip on the Ganga basin and on Bengal, Madras, and Bombay Presidencies. In 1833, English became the imperial language replacing Farsi. Brahmans took up the English literacy religiously, thus, essentially transforming them to hold most of the important administrative positions under the British Raj. 

In 1848, Punjab was conquered solidifying imperial territory. In 1857, the mutineers for freedom against the Company were crushed – mostly through loyal Sikh and Hindu troops from Punjab, thus, securing imperial authority and crushing the last vestige of Mughal authority. In 1876 when Queen Victoria became Empress of India, British imperialism entered its heyday.

All the territories east and northeast of Bengal were contested between the English and rulers in Burma.  All these territories had local rulers who like the Ahom and Koch represented ethnically coherent, though often very small, populations of people who worked in forest and on farm lands on upland and high mountain fringes of medieval dynasties, the Mughal regime, and its successors in Bengal. Huge populations of Rohingya Muslims and Buddhist Maghs from the independent state of Arakan moved to Company-administered Muslim majority Bengal in the aftermath of Burmese king Bodawpaya’s genocidal conquest in 1784. 

In the Himalayas, Bhutan became a new political territory in the eighteenth century, when a Tibetan Buddhist monk, Sheptoon La-Pha crowned himself Dharma Raja and his successors consolidated their power over the peoples living in the steep slopes around their forts.  Their Drukpa sect of Tibetan Buddhism became a ruling monastic order.

Sikkim was established in 1642, when Phuntsog Namgyal became chogyal,  a ruler who like the Dharma Raja combined administrative and religious power.  The new state rested on the strength of Bhutias, who began to come from Tibet in the fourteenth century and settled among Lepchas.

Nepal became an imperial dynastic realm under Prithvi Narayan Shah, who brought many small mountain ethnic territories under a centralized military administration based in the Kathmandu Valley. Nepal officially became a Hindu state, when the Rana made the caste system law.    

Sri Lanka was the first region substantially controlled by Europeans and it became a microcosm of European imperial history in South Asia.  After 1498, Portuguese soldiers conquered a dozen major port cities on the Indian peninsula and Sri Lanka to build coastal fortress enclaves.  Portugal remained the dominant European power in the Indian Ocean during the sixteenth century, when Portuguese captains controlled the western Sri Lanka coast.  They lost their position to the Dutch in 1707, and by 1818, Portugal retained only a few settlements in South Asia, including Goa, south of Bombay, which was then they surrounded by British India. Eighteenth century English and French merchant companies competed with the Dutch in Asian waters.  The English finally uprooted the Dutch from Sri Lanka during the wars that followed the French revolution.

A drive began to bring hill peoples under British control, most strikingly in the northeast, where Naga, Lushan, Garo, Shan, Khasi, Chakma, and Mizo chiefs were all attacked.  

British wars for Burma began in 1852 although Arakan and many of the Burmese territories on the western frontier had already been lost to the Company in the First Anglo-Burman War of 1824.  Rangoon fell in 1862; upper Burma, in 1886.  Battles for Kachin territories on the Burma border lasted from 1884 into the 1930s.  India's northeastern hill states were conquered between 1859 and 1893; and Bhutan and Sikkim, in 1865 and 1890, respectively.  British troops conquered Baluchistan in 1877, 1889, and 1896; invaded Tibet, in 1903; and invaded Afghanistan from 1878 until 1891.  Mountains north of Assam (now in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh) came under British control in 1914. 

According to Professor Ludden, by the 20th century the context of everyday social experience changed so dramatically in all the regions that medieval environments had virtually disappeared beyond any recognition.  South Asia became densely populated for the first time.  Its wide open spaces were gone; its open frontiers and free movements of peoples and cultures, forgotten.  Its new modern landscape filled up with farming communities, towns, and cities inside territorial boundaries that were fixed in place by the modern state. Urban populations grew more rapidly and with them the need to control resources in the countryside.” [India and South Asia: A Short History]

In August 14 and 15 of 1947, when Pakistan and India emerged as two newly independent states, it was religion which mattered most for division of British India. As many Hindus and Muslims lived in either side of the border, the partition saw one of the largest migrations in history when tens of millions moved from east to west and vice-versa. The poorly defined borders left Muslim enclaves in various parts of India and Burma, who became permanent hostages in foreign countries. 

The partitioning of Punjab between India and Pakistan was followed within two decades by the repartitioning of the Indian Punjab into two new states, Punjab and Haryana, in which Sikhs and Hindu Jats, respectively, held sway.  In 1956, partitioning old provinces according to linguistic majorities gave Marathas, Rajputs, Gujaratis, Tamils, Telugus, Oriyas, Kannadigas, and Malayalis their own territories.

When formerly eastern districts of Bengal Presidency became East Pakistan after August 14 of 1947, Bengalis in Pakistan found their government dominated by West Pakistanis.  Separated by a thousand miles of hostile Indian territory, Pakistan's two "wings" had little in common. The disparity between the two wings eventually led to the emergence of Bangladesh in December 16, 1971 after a civil war in which hundreds of thousands died.
In Sri Lanka, the Citizen Act (1948), Indian and Pakistani Residents Act (1949), and the Parliamentary Elections Amendment Act (1949) denied citizenship to most Indian Tamils and then disenfranchised the rest. As in India and Pakistan, language became a volatile issue in Sri Lanka. Parliamentary elections in 1956 triggered national mobilization by Sinhala-speaking rural elites who sought more positions in a Civil Service that was still dominated by English-literate Tamils, and also by Buddhist monks who sought more influence in government on the 2,500th anniversary of Buddha's enlightenment.

In 1956 the "Sinhala Only" election slogan attracted votes from aspiring Sinhala speakers and Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka. In 1956, the most prominent public definition of nationality in Sri Lanka became Sinhala-Buddhist. In 1972, a new constitution gave Sinhala and Buddhism supreme official status. Anti-government riots ensued in the Tamil-majority areas in the north and east. Tamil demands for regional Tamil authority were opposed in Colombo and increasingly met with Sinhala hostility. In 1981 and 1983, political division and public hostility turned into civil war with the creation of Tamil fighting forces led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eeelam (LTTE).  National violence reigned from 1987 to 1990, as troops and rebels killed each other on two broad, ill-defined fronts.  Civilian victims remain uncountable.  Up to a hundred thousand people officially "disappeared" without a trace. While the government has recently won the battle against the LTTE, peace remains elusive in Buddhist majority Sri Lanka.

>>> To be continued…

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Why Buddhism Declined in South Asia?

According to the area historians of South Asia in ancient times the region was very thinly populated. Vast expanses of open scrubland separated countless, tiny, scattered communities of nomads, shifting cultivators, hunters, gatherers, and settled farmers, who multiplied over the centuries. By Gupta times, an array of densely populated, complex societies thrived in fertile lowlands along major rivers. Their agricultural settlements were still surrounded by dense forest and open scrubland but they were expanding visibly, and they were extensively connected to one another and to many other regions across Eurasia.

By the middle of the first millennium of the Common Era, a second great transformation was well underway with the rise of cities that were surrounded by open land and by communities disconnected from city life. Medieval kingdoms arose from the power of social groups in dynastic core regions. “Dynasties grew as rising kings subordinated existing local elites and officially recognized their stature in public ceremonies… Local alliances gave local strength to rising dynasties and aspiring kings thus strove to strengthen them by bestowing titles and honors on their leadership.  Dynastic lineages competed with one another for supremacy over locals who were often pressed and courted by more than one ruler and often recognized more than one sovereign,” writes Prof. Ludden in his book - India and South Asia: A Short History.

Brahmans spread Hindu cultural forms in much the same way as other religious specialists were spreading Jainism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity. They travelled extensively.  They settled in strategic places under dynastic patronage.  They worked with local and regional allies to translate and interpret ideas and rituals into local vernaculars.  They defined Hindu orthodoxy in local terms.  They contested for local elite support.  Their success depended on innovative adaptations to evolving social environments.  Brahman rituals and Sanskrit texts became widely influential in medieval dynasties.

New kinds of society came into being as medieval agrarian domains expanded into landscapes inhabited by nomads, hunters, and forest dwellers.  Kings needed to give grants of farm land to temples and Brahmans to express dynastic support for dharma, but they also had to protect local rights to land.  Kings, Brahmans, and local landed elites, thus, had to work together to extend and protect the moral authority of dharma. The more popular a temple became -- the more praised in song and more attractive for pilgrims -- the greater became the value of its patronage and the number of people whose identity attached to it. 

On the geographies of religion, Professor Ludden says, “Buddhism and Islam became most prominent along routes of trade and migration that ran from one end of Asia to the other. In the sixth century, Buddhists received most of the patronage available in Afghanistan, the upper Indus basin, and Himalayan regions from Kashmir to Nepal; and moving eastward across Central Asia, Buddhists then established themselves firmly in Tibet, China, and Japan.  After the eighth century, however, eastward and southern migrations by Arabs and Turks from West and Central Asia shifted religious patronage to Islam in Afghanistan, along the Indus, in Punjab, and in Kashmir.  But Buddhist monks had a permanent political base at the hub of the Indian Ocean trade in Sri Lanka, and from the eighth century onward, they won state support in regions from Burma south into Southeast Asia.  In Java, early medieval kings patronized Hindus; in the ninth century, Buddhists supplanted Hindus at court, though Hindus remained influential in royal circles in Bali, alongside Buddhists.  By the tenth century, Arab traders were expanding their operations in the Indian Ocean.  Muslim centres multiplied along the peninsula and on coastal Sri Lanka, and merchant patronage for Islam drew local rulers away from Buddhism around many Southeast Asian ports in the later medieval period.”

Like multiple sovereignties in medieval domains, multi-religious cultures developed where patronage sustained diverse religious institutions. Popular devotionalism attracted thousands of passionate believers to temples and pilgrimage sites.  This made public patronage of those sites quite important because sects could provide decisive military and financial support for dynastic contenders. Dynasties gave privileges and funds in various forms -- minimally as tax exemptions -- to various religious institutions and their leaders simultaneously. 

“Popular movements made such support contentious.  Rulers had to balance support for their core religious constituency with support for others, which brought condemnation from allies.  Muslim rulers often faced criticism for patronage they typically gave Hindu groups, following established precedent.  Devotees of Vishnu and Siva could be equally unforgiving.  As bhakti traveled north along Shankara’s tracks, competing Hindu sectarians not only wrote poems like Jayadev’s Gitagovinda, but also raised armies to fight for sectarian control of pilgrimage sites and temple festivals.  From at least the fifteenth century, armies of Shivite and Vaishnava ascetics fought to protect sectarian wealth against raids from competitors and to capture revenues from popular religious gatherings like the kumbh mela in Hardwar and Prayag (Allahabad).  In the sixteenth century, the Mughal emperor Akbar witnessed a pitched battle between two sects of Shivites.  Akbar’s own religious eclecticism reflects an effort to reconcile contentious devotional loyalties through the medium of mystical speculation.” [David Ludden, India and South Asia: A Short History]

It is not difficult to understand why Buddhism, whose edifice was founded upon patronage, crumbled when it lacked that vital support. It would, however, be wrong to solely blame the external factors as the root causes for decline of Buddhism in South Asia.

Buddhism as a whole was becoming tainted internally in many ways from the end of the Gupta period when it permeated with primitive ideas of sympathetic magic and sexual mysticism. The direct result of this permeation was the birth of a third vehicle, “the Vehicle of the Thunderbolt”, Vajrayana. This new sect misinterpreted religious tenets and allowed the use of intoxicants; it was also lenient in the upholding of celibacy. The corruption of the Sangha, the rivalries between sects, and competition between various monasteries to lure donors weakened Buddhism and made it unable to compete with the reformed Hinduism.

The monks whose survival depended on begging and donation became greedy and often tied their knots with the oppressors rather than the ‘have-nots’ – the oppressed within the society, a trend which we are to see even today in Buddhist-ruled countries. From the many donations it received, the Sangha became rich, and monks began to ignore the tenth rule of the Vinaya and accepted silver and gold. With acquired wealth – donated by rich patrons – came decay and corruption within a faith where the monks had come to embrace a rather easy-going and even lazy lifestyle, quite mindless of the Buddha’s insistence on aparigraha, or non-possession.  The Buddhist monasteries came to be known as repositories of great wealth.

The Mahayana school introduced expensive rituals and ceremonies into the religion, causing it to cease to be economical for common masses. The religious texts of the Mahayana and Vajrayana schools began to be written in Sanskrit, a literary language that most Indians did not understand; this further distanced Buddhism from the common people. What is also interesting, no manual for the conduct of the laity in Buddhism existed prior to the 11th century.  

The many rivalries between sects destroyed the image the masses held of Buddhism. As an essentially non-theistic religion, it could not achieve the same success with the masses as Hinduism, which possessed a pantheon of gods that could intervene in the affairs of men if appeased. The moral corruption of Buddhism also caused degeneration in its intellectual standards and made it unable to compete with the reformed Hinduism.

With the surge of Hindu philosophers and theologians like Adi Shankara, Madhvacharya and Ramanuja - the three leaders in the revival of Hindu philosophy, Buddhism started to fade out rapidly from the landscape of India. Shankaracharya (788-820 CE) and Ramanuja (c. 1017-1137 CE) advanced philosophies based on the Vedic literature known to the common people and built many temples and schools to spread their thought. At the same time, as already noted earlier, Hinduism, following its tradition of syncretism, incorporated the Buddha himself within its own polytheistic universe as an incarnation of Hindu God Vishnu. A devotee could revere the Buddha within the overarching framework of Hinduism without having to leave it. That was the final nail put to the coffin of Buddhism in the very land where Buddha was born. Hinduism in the early medieval age became a more "intelligible and satisfying road to faith for many ordinary worshippers" than it had been because it now included not only an appeal to a personal god, but had also seen the development of an emotional facet with the composition of devotional hymns.

As can be seen, much of the decline of Buddhism in South Asia was caused by its own failings. It simply could not match the popularity of the re-energized Hinduism of the medieval period. This upsurge of Hinduism is quite evident in North India by the early 11th century which produced influential Sanskrit dramas like the Prabodhacandrodaya (written by Krsnamisra) in the Chandela court; a devotion to Vishnu and an allegory to the defeat of Buddhism and Jainism. The population of North India had become predominantly Shaiva, Vaishnava or Shakta. By the 12th century a lay population of Buddhists hardly existed outside the monastic institutions and when it did penetrate the Indian peasant population it was hardly discernible as a distinct community.  By the time of the Muslim conquests in India, there were only glimpses of Buddhism and no evidence of a provincial government in control of the Buddhists.

With the fall of Buddhist rulers and the resurrection of Hindu rulers in much of South Asia, Brahmans vied with one another to organize the operation of spiritual power, and they all needed mundane local patronage to flourish, which came from ruling dynasties, merchants, and landed elite. It was only a question of time when the final curtain on Buddhism would be drawn reflecting the impact of the changing religious environment of the region where Gautama Buddha was born and died. 

>>> To be continued…