In front of the Mahabodhi temple entrance, several Bhikkhus (Buddhist monks) relax over chai, having conversations and entertaining tourists. The Mahabodhi temple is a pilgrimage spot in Bodh Gaya, Bihar. It was given UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2002. The vast complex attracts millions of Buddhist pilgrims and other tourists from all over the world, especially from countries with majority-Buddhist populations, such as Thailand and Sri Lanka. A debate on Indian civilisation and Buddhism began between the Bhikkhus and a young tourist. One Bhikkhu claimed in a boisterous tone, “Buddhism is older than Hinduism, the excavation from the Harappan civilisation proves it! They found remains of clothing of the same ones Bhikkhus wear today!” Other Bhikkhus around him nodded in agreement. The young tourist, a little shocked by this claim, tried to assert that on the contrary, the Harappan civilisation was a Hindu one. Countering, the combative Bhikkhu claimed, “This is all how the Hindus invaded our land and forced us into being Hindus.” While the religious and cultural make-up of the Indus valley civilisation has remained hotly debated, such debates among Bhikkhus and others (including the many Hindu tourists) highlight the anxieties of the Buddhist community in Bodh Gaya. The origins of these anxieties lie in a complex history that has seen violent struggles against feudal land ownership, with Buddhist monks leading several crusades against a Hindu-Brahminical order that reigned over the region for centuries.
Currently, the Mahabodhi temple complex is maintained and run by the Bodh Gaya Temple Management Committee (BTMC), which is controlled by the Bihar state government. The BTMC was set up under the provisions of the 1949 Bodh Gaya Temple Act. The Secretary of BTMC, Nangzey Dorjee says that previously, the temple was maintained by a Hindu mahant (chief priest) before the government set up the committee to represent the interests of both Hindus and Buddhists. “There are four Hindus and four Buddhist members in the committee,” Dorjee said. When questioned on rumours that the Buddhist faction wants full control over the temple and the removal of the Hindu symbols from the complex (in particular, a Shiva lingam just below a large statue of the Buddha), Dorjee refused to comment and stated that the committee has made sure the people in Bodh Gaya live in peace with each other. “There is complete communal harmony here,” Dorjee said.
The official narrative of the BTMC, and by extension, the state, favours a secular image of Bodh Gaya where both Hindus and Buddhists coexist, with both communities laying equal claim to the management of the Mahabodhi temple complex. In 2013, the Bihar government amended the Bodh Gaya Temple Act to allow a non-Hindu to be chairman of the committee, something that was earlier strictly reserved for Hindus. But this claim of secularism does not hold water with many Buddhists, including the All India Bhikkhu Sangha (AIBS). The AIBS was founded by a group of Buddhist monks including scholar and Bhikkhu Jagdish Kashyap, in 1970. As a founder director, Kashyap led the project to reestablish the Nalanda Mahavihara, considered one of the most well-known Buddhist universities in ancient India and destroyed around 1200 CE in contemporary India. When asked to comment on the supposed ‘communal harmony’ claimed by the BTMC, Bhante Pragya Deep, General Secretary of the All India Bhikkhu Sangha laughs and says, “What does the BTMC or Dorjee ji know about our struggles as Bhikkhus? The fact that there are 4 Hindu members and then 4 Buddhist members in the committee just signifies Brahminism suppressing Buddhism.” He added that Hindus prevailed in Ayodhya and had taken over the birthplace of Ram (in November 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that the disputed site would be handed over to Hindus in its entirety and that a Ram temple could be constructed there, even as the judgement found the destruction of Babri Masjid in 1992 was calculated and violated the rule of law). “Could one even imagine if one wants to install something related to Buddhism in Ayodhya?” Pragya Deep asked.
His articulation of Buddhist suppression, despite equal representation in the BTMC, has historical roots.
The Mahabodhi Society and Buddhist revivalism
The Buddhist community’s claim to Bodh Gaya has faced challenges from feudal Hindu and Brahminical forces over the past century, resulting in conflict between the Hindu and Buddhist communities. One of the most prominent stories recounted by both Buddhists and Hindu Dalits is the liberation of landless Dalit labourers from the clutches of the Bodh Gaya Math.
Bodh Gaya is a site of hidden contestation.
In the past, the Mahabodhi temple was controlled by the Bodh Gaya Math, a Shaivite monastery established in the 16th century which owned vast amounts of land around the Mahabodhi temple. It was structured as a feudal order in the name of the mahant, who acted as the zamindar (landlord) holding control of the agrarian land and by extension, those who tilled it, mainly people from the Dalit community. As noted by scholar David Geary in his essay ‘World Heritage in the shadow of zamindari’, the Math not only exercised feudal control in Bodh Gaya, it also claimed to be the principal guardian of the Bodhi tree under which the Buddha supposedly attained enlightenment:
“Due to the reverence and devotion bestowed upon the sacred grounds by Hindu pilgrims in the Gaya region and early royal Buddhist ambassadors such as the Burmese, the religious traffic in “gifts” that were endowed upon the property must have also been substantial,” David Greary remarks, explaining this was a major reason why the mahant was loath to cede control of the site.
This order was to be challenged by a Sinhalese Buddhist activist and writer from Sri Lanka named Anagarika Dharmapala, who founded the Mahabodhi Society, engaging with an international community of Buddhists from Sri Lanka, India, Japan and Thailand. Dharmapala was known for leading the Sinhala Buddhist revivalist movement, following on from his father, who belonged to a newly forming merchant class in the colonial period in Ceylon and cultivated close ties to the Buddhist Sangha. Dharmapala’s movement stood against colonial missionary influence and was anti-imperialist in nature, and he expanded the reach and influence of Buddhism in Ceylon. Post-Independence, Dharmapala’s legacy has often been invoked by contemporary political leaders in Sri Lanka to appeal to Buddhist voters, presenting the country as catering to Sinhala Buddhists first and foremost, often at the expense of ethno-religious minority communities.
The origins of these anxieties lie in a complex history that has seen violent struggles against feudal land ownership.
In India, the Mahabodhi Society also played a major role in Buddhist revivalism, particularly in the context of re-acquiring Buddhist relics that colonial archaeologists had extracted in the late 19th century. In the 1930s, there was sustained pressure from the secretary of the Mahabodhi Society of India, Sri Devapariya Valisinha to return the relics of two Buddhist saints believed to be close disciples of the Buddha, Sariputta and Mogallana, which were on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. These efforts were eventually successful and the relics were re-enshrined in Sanchi, Bhopal by 1952, after a long procession across neighbouring countries. The return of the relics were not just celebrated in the Buddhist community but also the government of newly independent India, with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and President of the Indian faction of the Mahabodhi Society, Shyama Prasad Mookherjee addressing the massive congregation. Scholar Torkel Brekke writes, “Nehru saw Buddhism as a peaceful, integrative force, and the enshrinement of the relics of Sāriputta and Moggallāna in Sānchī was an excellent occasion for him to preach unity.” Thus, Buddhism and the efforts of the Mahabodhi Society were tapped into by the leaders of the newly born Indian nation state to elaborate on and make explicit their vision of a ‘united’ India. The relics were also received with much pomp and ceremony in Sri Lanka, with Brekke writing that the occasion was used by political leadership in both countries to legitimise state power.
Dharmapala vs Bodh Gaya Math
Dharmapala’s crusade against the Bodh Gaya mahant started in 1891, when he first visited the shrine. He led legal battles and attempted to rouse the international Buddhist community in his goal to remove the temple from the mahant’s hands. Scholar Tara Doyle in her essay ‘Liberate the Mahabodhi Temple!’ notes that none of these efforts resulted in the disengagement of the mahant:
[Dharmapala] spent eight years contesting the mahant’s jurisdiction over the temple in court. But to no avail: the temple remained firmly in the hands of the Bodh Gaya mahant. Two years after independence, however, the 1949 Bodh Gaya Temple Act was passed stipulating that the Mahabodhi Temple should be handed over by the mahant and managed by a committee comprising four Buddhists and five Hindus.
Doyle further adds that the mahant did challenge this act but the Mahabodhi temple was handed over to a joint Hindu-Buddhist committee in 1953. Despite the act and consequential bureaucratic change, the control of the mahant over the land and peasants remained, as the administration of the Math was based on land-ownership of thousands of acres. Post-independence Bihar tried to resolve these feudal issues through legislation (Bihar was the first state to legislate for land reforms). These reforms involved attempts to control vast amounts of lands held by zamindars and redistribute it among the landless. The Bihar Land Reforms Act, 1950 and the Bihar Land Reforms (Fixation of Ceiling Area and Acquisition of Surplus Land) Act, 1961 are a few examples of such state-mandated efforts. None could affect the Bodh Gaya Math’s reign significantly, and the only option for the bonded agricultural labourers working on land owned by the Math, who were mostly of the Bhuiyan Dalit caste, was collective resistance.
His articulation of Buddhist suppression has historical roots.
It was the mobilisation of these peasants in the 1970s, with the support of the socialist JP movement, named after the Indian socialist leader Jayaprakash Narayan, that finally shook the foundations of the oppressive regime of the Bodh Gaya Math. This has come to be known as the Bodh Gaya Land Movement (BGLM). Agitations led by urban middle-class and peasant activists under the banner of Chhatra Yuva Sangharsh Vahini (a student and youth organisation formed by Jayaprakash, and inspired by the JP movement’s call for ‘total revolution’) aimed to dismantle feudal structures in Bodh Gaya. They collaborated with and supported the cause of oppressed Dalit landless labourers, who started to boycott the tilling of land for the mahant. These acts of protest were violently repressed, with the Math resorting to bombs and thuggery against workers in 1979. The Math met its final demise after the Supreme Court of 1987 ruled that it could not own more than 100 acres of land (out of which the mahant could hold only 25 acres), with the rest to be redistributed among the poor and landless.
Ambedkarite Buddhism in Bodh Gaya
While the BGLM was mostly successful in dismantling the feudal order in Bodh Gaya, certain points of tension lingered. For instance, beliefs that the Buddha is an avatar of Vishnu are commonly held even in the present day, but are rejected by a section of Buddhist converts in Bihar. Doyle notes that the Math held “a collection of ancient Buddhist statues identified, by the Brahmin priests who oversee their worship, as Hindu heroes and gods.” However, to Dalit converts to Buddhism this identification was “not only inaccurate but deeply offensive.” The converts referred to by Doyle were inspired by Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar’s reinterpretation of Buddhism, known as Navayana. This school of thought essentially re-interpreted Buddhism in favour of a “socially engaged Buddhism” (a phrase popularised in the 1980s drawing from Thich Nhat Hanh’s conceptualisation of engaged Buddhism in the 1960s) through the lens of class struggle and social equality. This was in line with Ambedkar’s work, which sought to end the discrimination and dehumanisation of Dalits. In 1956, Ambedkar led the mass conversion of Mahars, a Dalit caste in the state of Maharastra, to Buddhism, taking 22 vows, many of which rejected the practice of Hinduism itself.
One of the most important dimensions of Ambedkar’s Buddhism was the explicit, angry rejection of Hinduism. His ‘Twenty-two Oaths’ include much to this effect. These oaths, which he took at his own conversion ceremony and which his followers continue to take to this day, include not only the basic Buddhist percepts (sic), but such statements as: ‘I will not regard Brahma, Vishnu, and Mahesh as Gods nor will I worship them,’; ‘I do not believe that Lord Buddha was the Incarnation of Vishnu’; ‘I will never perform any [Hindu rituals]’; and, finally, “I embrace today the Buddha Dhamma discarding the Hindu Religion. . . . I believe that today I am taking New Birth.’
This antagonistic ideological position against both caste discrimination and Hinduism, empowered the protesting Ambedkarite Buddhists. A movement began in 1992 with a demonstration against the Math on the important Buddhist occasion of Buddha Purnima which was followed later that year by a Dhamma Mukti Yatra (a chariot procession with Buddhist themes and iconography) from Bombay to the Mahabodhi temple. It was led by Akhil Bharatiya Mahabodhi Mahavihar Mukti Andolan Samiti (All-India Mahabodhi Temple Liberation Action Committee). This Liberation Committee was led by Bhadant Nagarjun Arya Surai Sasai, a Japanese monk who was a naturalised Indian citizen. His work in Nagpur among the Ambedkarite Buddhists made him a leader of the cause of the Ambedkarites. Doyle notes “[Sasai] has organized an annual procession in Nagpur on Ambedkar’s birthday, built a number of schools, hospitals, and viharas in Maharashtra (using, many say, Japanese money), and helped establish a huge Buddha statue in the middle of the Hyderabad reservoir.” Sasai led the Dalit Buddhist community from Maharashtra on a campaign to ‘liberate’ the Mahabodhi temple. And in the very first agitation of some 800 Maharashtra Buddhists who assembled at the temple’s complex, they lit 23 candles commemorating Ambedkar’s 22 vows with one extra that proclaimed: “The Mahabodhi Temple shall be liberated from Hindu hands!”
Popular coverage of the movement was rather overshadowed by the ongoing Ram Janmabhoomi movement in Ayodhya since BJP President Lal Krishna Advani’s rath yatra in 1990, which culminated in laying siege to Babri Masjid on 6 December 1992. Doyle points out though, that both these movements seemed to have had similar goals, namely the liberation of a supposed religious centre ruled over by another religion, they were radically different in their consequences and in what populace they attracted. The Ram Janmabhoomi movement was led by organisations like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and supported by the leading Bharatiya Janata Party in favour of upper-caste Hindu society, which led to a trail of mass-level violence against Muslims throughout many cities in India and internationally. It received massive support within India as well as from diasporic Indians elsewhere. The Dhamma Mukti Yatra, on the other hand, struggled to find pan-Indian support from different Buddhist communities and organisations, and internationally, other Buddhist countries refrained from supporting the cause of liberating the temple. The movement nevertheless agitated through processions or fast unto death sit-ins and never led to violence, though they often used angry, militant rhetoric including threats of violence. The most important demand of the Liberation Committee was to amend the Bodh Gaya Temple Act in 1949 and reestablish it as an all-Buddhist body, removing all the Hindu members.
Buddhism and the efforts of the Mahabodhi Society were tapped into by the leaders of the newly born Indian nation state to elaborate on and make explicit their vision of a ‘united’ India. The relics were also received with much pomp and ceremony in Sri Lanka, with Brekke writing that the occasion was used by political leadership in both countries to legitimise state power.
After the Dhamma Mukti Yatra in 1992, the Liberation Committee was to struggle against the state government for most of the upcoming decade. Other Buddha Purnimas too saw processions organised, in 1993 and 1994. The state’s chief minister at that time, Lalu Prasad Yadav, manoeuvred through the situation, making promises to the Liberation Committee to reconstitute the BTMC but ultimately not keeping them. Doyle writes, “[The agitations of 1994] moved Laloo to promise that he would reconfigure the Mahabodhi management committee within the next few months. Once again, however, the chief minister did not keep his promise, fearing, I suppose, that this would alienate his backward-caste, Hindu constituency. In response, more radical, nonviolent tactics were adopted by the Mahabodhi Liberation Committee.”
It was only in 1995 that the Committee achieved a major victory and a reconstitution did take place where “three out of the four Buddhist positions went to leaders of the Mahabodhi Liberation Committee: Surai Sasai, Bhante Anand (a monk from Agra, with a large following), and Bhante Anand Ambedkar (a monk from Kanpur).” Doyle notes. Sasai himself was dissatisfied and continued protests until 1998, when Lalu Prasad removed a Hindu member from one of the most important positions in the BTMC, that of general secretary, and replaced him with Bhante Prajnasheel. This was a major victory, as this was the first time a Buddhist monk was holding the secretary position. The agitations ceased soon after.
Dharmapala’s dream for the Mahabodhi temple seems to have not been realised. In the 1990s which saw greater control of Ambedkarite Buddhist monks over the BTMC, sharp divisions occurred between the Ambedkarite Buddhists and other international Buddhist factions. The latter was led by Maitipe Wimalasara, a Sinhala monk who led the Mahabodhi Society in the footsteps of Dharmapala to claim the sacred shrine for the pan-Asian Buddhist community. Thus he mobilised many diverse factions of foreign Buddhists that already existed in Bodh Gaya. Geary notes:
Drawing on a hundred-year legacy as the founding institution in the Buddhist revival movement, Wimalasara, like Dharmapala before him, claimed the moral high ground as the official leader of a pan-Asian Buddhist community at Bodh Gaya (even if that community never existed or did not entirely agree with him). Thus, from the late 1990s up until the recent UNESCO World Heritage designation, the Mahabodhi Temple emerged as a site of intense struggle between these contentious fractions.
Amidst heightened controversy, which involved allegations of corruption against the Mahabodhi Society for accumulating and pocketing foreign funding in the name of the famous Buddhist temple, the bad publicity was “seen as a detriment to tourism development at Bodh Gaya which has increasingly become a vital source of livelihood for many local stakeholders.” Geary writes. All culminated in the involvement of the state government in the reconstitution of the BTMC. Doyle writes that “[…]in the summer of 2001, in a major about-face, Laloo’s wife, Rabri Devi (now Bihar’s chief minister) removed Bhante Anand from the committee, and replaced the general secretary, Bhante Prajnasheel, with a local RJD [Rashtriya Janata Dal] politician and Yadav clansman, Kalicharan Singh Yadav.”
The discrimination they seek to transcend follows them, revealing continued acceptance of Hinduism’s place in the social order in Bihar.
This state government’s involvement signalled the dispelling of subversive Buddhists and political Buddhism from the BTMC at large. The newly constituted committee turned their focus to the beautification of the Mahabodhi temple to attract tourism. “Although these activities helped to bolster the image of the new management committee, it was the serendipitous arrival of the new Gaya International Airport and the UNESCO World Heritage inscription in June 26, 2002 that, overnight, effectively transformed the contentious shadow life of the temple politics into international glorification within the imagined community of World Heritage[…]” writes Geary. That is, it being declared a World Heritage Site increasingly led to it being seen as a site for both tourism and pilgrimage. The political landscape dramatically shifted towards this new flow of capital, which allowed the BTMC to invest in many projects to boost tourism in the region. This led to the demise of political contestation over the site for Buddhists.
The history of Buddhism at Bodh Gaya is all that remains in popular memory. Locals and tour guides only have a negative perception of political Buddhists. Bhairav, who runs a guesthouse in Bodh Gaya says that the Nagpur Buddhist group has always been loathed by locals. “There are so many Buddhists coming from all across the world. But the ones from Nagpur were always agitated about taking over the temple into their own hands. I remember people being so frustrated by their acts that all guesthouses started to deny them space,” Bhairav said, “though they have become polite overtime and now we don’t have any such problems.” Pankaj, a tour guide when asked why people from the region do not want to convert to Buddhism, noted a ‘simple fact’ that “Buddha was himself born into a Hindu family, and is believed to be an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. People don’t really see a difference of religion. Many worship Buddha as a Hindu god.” He adds that conversions to Buddhism in the region are low, but they happen, “only when a person can see material benefit in it. Bhikkhus are said to get a lot of donations through their business of begging.”
Bhante Pragya Deep notes that while Ambedkarite Buddhism saw many people convert to the religion, many of them, like Jagdish Kashyap and Rahul Sankrityayan, became academics and intellectuals, but not public figures. The lack of political figures, he believes, is linked to the decline of Buddhism’s hold in the region. He also says that in the present, there is no such movement to cater to the demands of Buddhists. “We have no numbers, and hence we cannot put forward our demands.” Part of this can be linked to the challenges after someone converts. “When you convert, your brothers, sisters, and all your family members remain Hindu. This leads to clashes. And then caste promotes disunity in everyone, and it is one of the major reasons for the decline of Buddhism itself via Brahminism, through Hinduism spread in our society.”
The history of Buddhism at Bodh Gaya is all that remains in popular memory.
Lallu Manjhi, a Buddhist monk, comes from a Dalit community and recently converted to Buddhism at the age of 45. “I find immense spiritual benefit after my conversion, I have been studying the Pali language since the age of 10 and after much consideration, I am finally a Buddhist,” he says. As a result of his decision, his family ostracised him, by not serving him food and only giving him a small room to sleep in. “My wife taunts me that now I have no connection to the family and have converted against everyone’s wishes. There are many fights due to it and I have to earn and eat outside of the house itself.” Still, he believes that the conversion has led him to find more peace in his newfound community, and “my caste identity doesn’t matter to other monks. The only thing that everyone thinks is that now I am earning a lot!”
Bodh Gaya is a site of hidden contestation. Buddhists in Bihar continue to reassert their identity as distinct from Hindus, even as their desires have been submerged due to their minority status. The Hindu community’s claim to Bodh Gaya spans many centuries, while the Buddhist claims to the space are over a century old in comparison. The political resistance of Buddhists in Bodh Gaya remains one of the lesser known but still active sites of struggle against the majority Hindu community and burgeoning Hindutva forces. But while the issue of caste discrimination continues to be wielded as a potent reason for converting to Buddhism, those who make the choice find themselves shunned from their families, even as they find a new community who accepts them. In that sense, the discrimination they seek to transcend follows them, revealing continued acceptance of Hinduism’s place in the social order in Bihar, even within families impacted by caste discrimination.
Kushal Choudhary and Govind Sharma are independent journalists from Banaras who have written on various caste cultures of India and also cover issues related to agriculture and rural traditions.