Global Buddhist Congregation 2011: enlightened or deluded Buddhism
“All Buddhist countries feel that in India, the land of Buddha, nothing is being done to promote Buddhism.” says Lama Lobsang, organizer of the Global Buddhist Congregation in Delhi recently.
For the millions of followers of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, who have transformed their lives through Buddhism this statement is based either on ignorance or prejudice. Dr. Ambedkar (1891-1956) brought back Buddhism to India in 1956 after hundreds of years of darkness. As a result India is now home to approximately 40 million Buddhists (some estimate it at many more), increasingly spread all over India, but mainly concentrated in the state of Maharashtra as the National Geographic (December 2005) so clearly showed in its assessment of Buddhism all over the world.
Buddhism was the centre of the social and democratic movement initiated by Dr. Ambedkar in his attempts not only to emancipate 25% of the population that was cruelly treated as untouchable and less than human, but, in doing so, to create a new and enlightened India for the benefit of all citizens. This is nothing short of remarkable. No community in the world has been treated so badly for so many hundreds of years. With the deep and understandable resentment of millions of so-called untouchables he could easily have landed India in a blood bath by converting to another religion, or to Communism (there can be little doubt that if he had not converted to Buddhism many of his oppressed followers would have joined the Naxalite movement), but his commitment to liberty, equality and fraternity as universal values prevented him from seeking gains for his own community at the expense of peace for the nation. India has an enormous debt to him and the world an exceptional example of peaceful change before it.
Buddhism is used by the Indians in various arenas including politics to further certain non-Buddhist goals. Narendra Modi has tried to woo eastern investors to the State of Gujarat by using Buddhism, but gives little respect to the increasing number of Buddhist followers of Dr. Ambedkar in the state, or to helping to change the lives of so many Dalits still suffering enormous discrimination. India produced no figure greater than the Buddha, something Indians are always telling the rest of the world. The fact is that Buddha and Buddhism sell in the international market and are used to attract foreign investment and mint billions of rupees.
This hypocrisy is not new. The elite political classes have often used Buddhism to further their agendas. Both Gandhi and Nehru spoke so proudly of the Buddha and yet neither respected the genuine aspirations of Dr. Ambedkar and his millions of followers to free themselves of the curse of untouchability and convert to Buddhism. Neither was ready to appreciate this remarkable contribution Babasaheb Ambedkar made to Indian history and social life.
Leave aside the question of Dr. Ambedkar and his followers. One has only to visit a few Buddhist sites to understand Government’s apathy to them. Thousands of Buddhist sites remain neglected; worse, many are gradually being changed into Hindu sites with the addition of Hindu symbols (Ganesh, Hanuman, Shiva lingam) by Hindu fundamentalists, sometimes with the Government’s encouragement. Buddha Gaya, the most holy site for Buddhists all over the world is still not in the hands of Buddhists, and yet it would be so easy for the Government of India to pass an act to that effect.
This apathy, which seems to express the attitude of many Hindu upper castes towards Buddhism, is captured in the famous quote of Vivekananda, “I am fond of the Buddha, but not of his doctrine (teachings)”. This quote is experienced today by millions of newly converted Buddhists as the Government being “fond of the Buddha, but not their own Buddhists”, who constitute now an increasing proportion of the Indian population. Indeed the number of Indian Buddhists is much larger than the Buddhist populations in most eastern countries, and is expanding at an enormous rate as more and more of India’s most discriminated turn to Dr. Ambedkar’s guidance to change their lives.
There are a number of questions about the Global Buddhist Congregation organized by the Ashoka Mission and the Ministry of External Affairs. Firstly when simplicity is part of the Buddhist monastic life, one has to question such enormous pomp and ceremony, and at government expense. It would appear to be one more example of hypocrisy, and effort to use Buddhism to further personal prestige and political and economic goals. The Government is not going to spend crores of Rupees and use the time of the Prime Minister just to support Buddhism. But there seems to be more to this just below the surface. If we are right that the Government is using the conference for mundane aims, then no wonder the Chinese Government feels antagonised by the most prominent place being given to the Dalai Lama Is it because this conference is being used to play the modern version of the Great Game, in which the Dalai Lama has become a pawn of the Indian Government?
Secondly the Dalai Lama and Tibetans resident in India are proudly displayed in front of the world as if they represent Buddhism in India. The sad fact is that they do not, and cannot. Tibetan Buddhists, for all their compassion have done next to nothing to encourage the millions of Indian Buddhist followers of Dr. Ambedkar in the 50 plus years they have been in India. They travel the world in their glamorous robes, speaking about peace and harmony, and yet in their adopted home are often closer to Hindu fundamentalists than their Indian Buddhist brothers and sisters. Could it be that they too have been infected by the caste virus?
Lama Lobsang himself, the chief promoter of the conference, is a known only as a Congress politician and not at all as a Buddhist practitioner and teacher, despite his lama robes. He is known to be antagonistic towards followers of Dr. Ambedkar, and has encouraged other Indian Buddhists to have nothing to do with them. He has control over the Asoka Mission, the only proper facility for Buddhist practice and teaching in Delhi, the capital of India, and yet has done nothing at all to use it for genuine Buddhist activities.
Lastly and most serious of all, the Global Buddhist Congregation has ignored the contribution of Dr. Ambedkar in bringing back Buddhism to India and the attempts of so many of his followers to change their lives through peaceful Buddhist means. Why is this? Is it because they are still to acknowledge the extremely ugly reality of Indian social life which led him to convert to Buddhism, and which still today is the reality of Indian social life, causing suffering on a scale that is much worse than apartheid, and quite unimaginable for the rest of the world? Is it yet another, not-too-subtle manifestation of caste attitudes? Is it part of the old pro-Gandhi, anti-Ambedkar tradition of the Congress Party?
So the Congregation may be global, but has little to do with Buddhism in modern India. It is true there are some of the Indian middle classes who benefit from the teachings of the Dalai Lama and others. But their numbers are miniscule compared to the millions of Buddhists from the Dalit communities. Despite the attempts of the government of India over the years to play down the significance of Dr. Ambedkar abroad, foreign Buddhists are beginning to appreciate his enormous contribution. We hope that those who attended were not beguiled by the Government-sponsored hospitality and will ask questions about a Global Buddhist Congregation in India that does not acknowledge modern Indian Buddhism, and would seem to be promoting apartheid in the Buddhist world.
The seriousness of Government of India will be acknowledged if the Mahabodhi Temple is given to Buddhists and freed from the Hindu domination. The wisdom and compassion of the organisers and so-called representatives of Indian Buddhism will be shown if they speak out against untouchability, which still curses the lives of millions and millions of their countrymen, if they begin to appreciate the enormous debt India owes Dr. Ambedkar in converting to Buddhism, and if they are ready to leave the glamour of the global stage and dirty their hands in the untouchable slums which exist in Delhi and Buddha Gaya, and every single village in India.