Buddhism A Shared culture
With Buddhist culture and philosophies having spread from ancient India across Asia, a strong bond has been formed with Southeast Asian countries. Benoy K Behl explores the Buddhist heritage of the region and its contemporary relevance
A significant milestone in the process of man’s evolution is the spread of ideas and thoughts across geographical and political boundaries. One of the greatest examples of this is the spread of Buddhism from the Indian subcontinent to countries of Southeast Asia. The concepts samsara, maya and mithya, and the illusory nature of the material world, were crystallised in the Upanishads by the 8th or 9th centuries BC. The high purpose in life was to be able to see the eternal truth beyond the veils of illusion.
Ones who were able to achieve this were known as ‘Buddhas’ or the Enlightened Ones and ‘Tirthankaras’ or Victors over the Fear of Death Over the following 2,000 years, this philosophy spread in the continent to present-day countries like Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia, Nepal, Bhutan, Afghanistan, Tibet, Korea and Japan. The Northern-most frontiers to which this philosophic view travelled were Buryatia in Siberia and Mongolia. When scholars from across Asia came to study in ancient Indian universities at Nalanda and Takshashila, they took home with them Buddhist teachings, texts and relics. Thus, Buddhism flourished across Asia and even today, finds a place of prominence in this region.
Myanmar was a crucible of Buddhist influences and art over the centuries. At the end of the First Millennium, Myanmar had a deep relationship with the centre of Buddhist faith at Bodhgaya in Bihar, India. In fact, the architectural form of the Mahabodhi Temple at Bodhgaya is followed by the 11th-12th century temples of Bagan, a temple town in Myanmar. By the 12th and 13th centuries, with the fall of Buddhist centres in the plains of India, scholars and artists from India took refuge in the spiritual sanctuary of Myanmar. Bagan became a hub with thousands of Buddhist temples decorated with intricate paintings and sculptures. The 12th century paintings on the inner walls of the temples in Bagan revolve around the life of Gautama Buddha and the Jataka stories. In Yangon, the capital of Myanmar, stands the grand Shwedagon Pagoda. It is the most sacred Buddhist temple in Myanmar and is believed to enshrine the relics of the past four Buddhas. Whether it is the architectural style of the temples of Bagan or the paintings inside them, the Buddhist heritage of Myanmar very closely reflects the Buddhist heritage of India.
In October 2018, an important facet was discovered of the lesser-known cultural connections between India and Vietnam. The journey through Vietnam of Bodhidharma, an important Indian Buddhist teacher had not been known to previous historians. Bodhidharma is said to be the founder of Chan Buddhism in China (Dhyana in Sanskrit), which is known as Zen Buddhism in Japan. Besides its influence in China, Chan/Zen Buddhism is believed to have been of great importance in forming the culture of discipline and national character of the Japanese. Bodhidharma travelled from India to China and spent time there in the 5th-6th century. However, the route Bodhidharma took to travel from India to China, is shrouded in darkness. It is generally believed that he must have taken the Silk Route. However, a temple dedicated to Bodhidharma in Da Lat, Vietnam, throws some light on this mystery. There are numerous shrines dedicated to Bodhidharma in Vietnam, where he is revered as Bo-de-dat-ma. Buddhist traditions of Vietnam also believe that the great teacher arrived in Vietnam and went on to China. There was a constant movement of Buddhist scholars along the sea routes of Southeast Asia and Bodhidharma could have landed on mainland Asia in the erstwhile Champa kingdom of Vietnam, proof of which are the Hindu and Buddhist temples dotting south and central Vietnam.
Since ancient times, ships carried goods between India, Indonesia and China. Archaeological remains in Indonesia have confirmed close interactions with India from over 2,000 years ago. In the First Millennium, Chinese pilgrims travelled by sea and land to holy Buddhist sites in India. When they used the sea route, they spent much time at the bustling ports of Indonesia, mentions of which are found in their writings. Hinduism existed in Indonesia in early times and Buddhism flourished from the 7th century onwards. Even today, the Indian epic Ramayana is the most important cultural tradition of Indonesia. Scholars say it may have arrived in Indonesia around the 5th century. In the 8th and 9th centuries, magnificent Buddhist monuments were constructed in Java, Indonesia. The Borobudur stupa in Central Java, one of the world’s most magnificent Buddhist monuments, was built by the Shailendra kings in this period. The Borobudur stupa beautifully explains the concepts of Buddhist philosophy. Featuring several thousand feet of intricate relief work, the stupa is planned like a mandala, which provides a graded path for ascent towards the final truth. Mandalas began to appear in Buddhist art from the 5th century, as can be seen in the Buddhist caves of Kanheri in Maharashtra, India. The Borobudur stupa demonstrates the most clear and beautiful continuation of ancient Buddhist philosophy from India.
From the 13th to the mid-14th centuries, one of the greatest Buddhist centres developed at Sukhothai, Thailand. Some of the most graceful Buddhist art was created here in a style which is famous till today. Monasteries of that period were perhaps made of wood and have, therefore, not survived. What has continued, however, is the art of creating elegant and beautiful Buddha images. The lines of the Sukhothai Buddha figures have a vivid life of their own. The surfaces are smooth and gently curving, and the peaceful expressions of the Buddha are sublime. In the mid-14th century, King U Thong of Thailand founded a new capital, around 85 km north of present-day Bangkok. It was named Ayutthaya, after the city of Ayodhya, the birth place of Lord Rama, in India. Amidst the ruins of Ayutthaya survive many impressive monasteries, which show the glorious Buddhist heritage of this region. The temples of Thailand have numerous depictions of Garuda, Hindu deity Lord Vishnu’s mount. Garuda has been a royal symbol in Thailand since early times. It might be mentioned here that there is a Garuda dhwaja (or regal flag on a staff) in the Bharhut Buddhist stupa railings.
Golden-winged Garudas also feature prominently in many Buddhist monasteries of the 11th and 13th centuries, across western Tibet, and Ladakh, Lahaul-Spiti and Kinnaur in India. The temple complex of the Reclining Buddha, the Wat Pho, is one of the most popular holy sites in Bangkok dating back to the 17th century. The centre piece of the Wat Pho is an almost 165-ft-long statue of Lord Buddha in a reclining position. The depiction is very similar to the artistic masterpiece of Lord Buddha’s Parinirvana as seen in the Ajanta caves, Maharashtra. This tradition of depicting the Lord began in India and continues till today across Asia. The most famous of the Bangkok temples is the one dedicated to theEmerald Buddha or Wat Phra Kaew. The temple was built between 1782 and 1784 during the reign of King Rama I. The interiors of the temple are covered with murals depicting scenes from Ramayana. In fact, most Buddhist temples of Thailand are profusely painted with scenes from the epic. Even today, the Ramayana, or Ramakien as it is locally referred to, is a popular cultural tradition here.
Cambodia is another country that has a rich history of sacred art and architecture. While the royal family of Cambodia primarily worshipped Hindu deities, significant amount of Buddhist art was also created. The Hindu and Buddhist sculptures of Cambodia, from the 6th to the 8th centuries, are unrivaled in their sheer beauty and excellence. In the early 12th century, erstwhile King Suryavarman II of Cambodia built one of the largest Hindu temple complexes, the Angkor Wat. It was dedicated to deities Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu, and was later used by Buddhists. The temple has magnificent relief, especially the open corridor of the first storey that has more than a kilometre-and-half of such narrative carving. In the 13th century, King Jayavarman VII built one of the largest Buddhist complexes of Cambodia in his capital Angkor Thom, around 150 km from Angkor Wat. The “face-towers” of Angkor Thom have become the universally- recognised symbol for what is today known as the Angkor Archaeological Park, which includes Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. The carvings of the smiling faces look in the four cardinal directions, symbolising the universal benevolence of the Bodhisattva Lokeshvara. The Bayon, at the centre of Angkor Thom, is the king’s own sacred temple-mountain. It is one of the most magnificent monuments of Buddhism in the world.
In the centre of the peninsula of Southeast Asia is located the country of Laos. The people here are deeply spiritual and Theravada Buddhism is the basis of their culture. Monks, or those who have renounced the material comforts of life, are deeply venerated and receive regular alms, in keeping with the ancient tradition from the time of Lord Buddha in India. Laos has almost 5,000 Buddhist temples. Most men in Laos live, for some part of their lives, in monasteries to imbibe Buddhist ethics and a compassionate vision of the world. This is also reminiscent of the ‘Brahmacharya ashram’ (ascetic period of life) of ancient India. The golden That Luang Stupa is a national symbol of Laos. Originally built in 1566, the stupa is 148 ft high and is believed to contain a holy relic of Gautama Buddha. With Lord Buddha having spent most of his life teaching his philosophies in India, the country is known as the cradle of Buddhism. Though Buddhism declined in India after the 11th and 12th centuries, it flourished in neighbouring countries and has created deep cultural and civilisational bonds. Buddhism is once again making a comeback and its growing popularity is linked to the peaceful nature of its philosophy and to its geographic spread over Southeast Asia, with around 98 per cent of the world’s Buddhist population concentrated in the Asia-Pacific region. The shared heritage of Buddhism connects India beyond Southeast Asia as well, with countries like Japan, Korea and even China.
Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Buddhism has been playing a prominent role in fostering a deeper engagement with ASEAN countries (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) as a part of India’s ‘Look East’ and ‘Act East’ policies. In his keynote speech at the 2018 Buddha Jayanti celebrations, PM Modi had emphasised the importance of Buddhist linkages to India’s relations with other (predominantly Buddhist) countries in Asia. Along with becoming a catalyst for building greater interaction within the Asian community, Buddhism has immense tourism potential as well. Several steps are being taken to restore India’s Buddhist legacies and links with other Buddhist nations. In February this year, at the virtual 8th ASEAN- India Tourism Ministers meeting, Prahlad Singh Patel, Union Minister of State for Culture & Tourism, GOI,stressed on India’s historical and cultural links with ASEAN countries and mentioned that ASEAN is a crucial market for Buddhist tourism in India as it generates significant tourist traffic for the Buddhist Circuit. The Ministry of Tourism has invested in a major way to upgrade infrastructure in the circuit. It also organises the International Buddhist Conclave to create awareness about India’s Buddhist heritage and increase foreign tourist traffic to Buddhist sites. Buddhism facilitated cultural and philosophical connections beyond the geographical borders in ancient India and it can be used to successfully face the challenges of contemporary time as well.