By Raghav Mimani
I am holding on to a black statue of Gautam Buddha in my hand. It’s about three and a half inches long; majestic, calm, impassive and smiling; and I am staring at it. And as I am doing so, it appears as if an entire narrative is unfolding itself in front of me. The princely Siddhartha leaving away all his riches and comforts of life to find the ultimate truth; now walking through the forest following crazy levels of austerity starved with his buttocks looking like a camel’s hoof and limbs like bamboo stems. Listening to and learning from the then established Gurus on meditation and salvation; sometimes debating on the philosophies of the world and at other times questioning the very purpose of our lives but still never appearing ‘holier than thou’. There is something about this man of ideas which has drawn countless folks in the past and continues to draw many a soul searching curious traveling beings even today as I write.
I am now looking at his Gandhara School of Art hair design; thinking of the moral revolution he experienced in his life journey. And I see in the backdrop Jawahar Lal Nehru’s ‘The Discovery of India’, which I have been meaning to read for quite some time now. So I lean forward and pick the book up looking for any text about Buddha that I may come across. And I do end up finding some. Two sub headings in the title-sake chapter 4 are devoted to him. And it isn’t really a surprise for India’s history and its ‘discovery’ can never be completed without the Buddha. We may know of our world history through tales of wars and kingdoms and he may be an anomaly in that respect – being the ideas guy that he was. Yet his teachings and principles form the very essence of the future kings and the common public for the next many centuries; and still do even in contemporary times – Ambedkar anyone? And thus fittingly so, what I find in there makes for an apt description of the statue I am holding. “Seated on the lotus flower, calm and impassive, above passion and desire, beyond the storm and strife of this world, so far away he seems, out of reach, unattainable. Yet again we look and behind those still, unmoving features there is a passion and an emotion, strange and more powerful than the passions and emotions we have known. His eyes are closed, but some power of the spirit looks out of them and a vital energy feels the frame. The ages roll by and Buddha seems not so far away after all; his voice whispers in our ears and tells us not to run away from the struggle but, calm-eyed, to face it, and to see in life ever greater opportunities for growth and advancement.”
Images flutter within as the narrative gathers pace. I can see a glory hunting Ashoka at the blood ridden battlefield of the Kalinga War appalled by his desires fulfilling themselves at the expense of more than two hundred thousand lives. Ashoka, the Great! I can see the headless statue of one of the greatest but unfortunately not much publicly talked about kings of Indian history - Raja Kanishka of the Kushan Empire. How he embraced Buddhism, built magnificent Stupas and encouraged obsessively the translations of Buddhist literature in traditional Chinese. I think of the Taliban militants as they went about destroying many of the great treasures and artifacts of that age in their bid to impose their own ideology. The Buddhas of Bamiyan catch my attention as they are dynamited out of existence for one Mullah Omar found it idol enough to be against the principles of Islam. Even before him, the earlier so called lords of the land had thought it best to remove only the head of the statue for it had in some other way offended them. As if, the arts offending people can only be justified by people destroying art. Rulers after rulers, empires after empires have striven to rewrite history as they saw fit. Not writing it as one would hope they would be interested in but rewriting it. And so they have thought it best to demolish evidences of the actual events which took place before their time and instead give the world a view of history which they would like the world to have. Most of the times for glorification of their own ancestry; and at other times to establish supremacy of their selves over the common folks and those others around the world of whom they knew nothing about but only that they themselves are far superior to them others. The divine kings and queens, so to say, exercising God’s will. Unthinkable volumes of blood have been shed over this; innumerable places of worships and leisure have given their way to newer places and different forms of worship and leisure; and countless statues have seen the sculptor’s art go for a toss. And still the Buddha sits on his lotus throne calm and impassive, smiling as “the world renews itself every day”.
The Pale Blue Dot Theory is running wild in my head but I won’t go there for it’s a tale of some other time. Lots of talk about India – China is going around these days given the fifty years anniversary to the 1962 War. And somebody mentioned to me during one of the discussions about two ways of looking at history. One is to embrace it for it really happened whether one likes it or not – which is what India did at least partly. We are a proud and integral member of the Commonwealth for crying out loud; and most of our Central Government establishments in Delhi are a continuation of the British Raj with almost nothing changed. Rashtrapati Bhawan, The Parliament and the India Gate are but a few of the examples. Not to get carried away in any sense we do have a lot to hide our faces about as well – partition being one painful example but again it’s another tale for some other time. The other is to start off completely afresh from a clean sheet of paper disregarding what happened earlier. This is apparently what China did. Their boundaries were redrawn the way they saw it right having their hearts in the Middle Ages. The entire culture was revisited and unfitting pieces were thrown out. Glorification and other procedures followed. I am not advocating for any of the two. I do believe sometimes it’s needed to have a clean slate and at other times it’s equally important if not more to be duly aware of and emotionally invested and later disinvested to be objective about the past experiences. What I instead want to do is to look into our own selves. Don’t we collect memorabilia and souvenirs wherever we go? Click pictures at the drop of the hat? Sometimes to upload it on facebook and at other times to look back and smile at and adore our brilliance. Let’s face it! We are all hoarders and we like to collect memories most of them all. And many a times we want them to be better than they really are or were. And here you see is the genesis. As we want an exaggerated version of our happiness and glories to show it to our very own selves and of course also to show the world of our supposed awesomeness, we stop being honest with ourselves. Evidences of truth give way to what suits the narrative. The horrible dish at the restaurant is not mentioned because of that amazing looking sundae. All of us are escaping from something which I believe differs from person to person. But many of us are very much escaping into our own la la lands. And don’t you dare talk about it being a bubble! I wish to pass no judgment on this for I can’t. I am as much a part of this as anyone else. And I believe that the truth, whether it is ugly or beautiful, uncomfortable and frightening, nerve-wrenching or blissful, no matter how hard we try to dress it up in cloaks of well fabricated lies, our heart knows of it – our conscience knows of it - and at least we should accept it and embrace it. Buddha, I believe, would have advised for the same. I am quite sure of it as his statue sits gracefully in front of me. Or at least I can pretend to be. In fact, I am; again creating a debate for a larger duration.
To his last journey then. And I have to borrow the following words from Michael Wood, one of my favorite documentary makers, as I am far too impressed upon by them to be able to write something similar of my own. “‘Be your own lamp,’ he said. “Seek no other refuge but yourselves” “Let truth be your light” For me, it's one of the never-failing miracles of history, that a human mind from so long ago can still speak to us directly in his own voice and mean something now in our time of change. But then his was a time of change, too. Buddhism is a system based on pure morality, what we would call universal values. Trust, truthfulness, non-violence, that sort of thing… And those ideas were very attractive to the rising class of merchants and traders in the cities of the Ganges Plain. But it's also atheistic. The logic of the Buddha's message is that belief in God itself is a form of attachment, of clinging, of desire, and in the land of 33 million gods or is it 330 million? That eventually would prove a step too far. ‘But all things must pass,’ as he would say. No one in history was clearer about that. No promise of heaven, no threat of hell. He's an old man now, around 80. This was his last journey; among the scavengers and the dispossessed, with their unending struggle for mere survival. Around 486 BC, according to the traditional date, he headed back across the plain towards the Himalayas. Now he's heading north, back to the land of his childhood. Perhaps he was consciously heading home. He knew he was going to die. The Buddha's story ends in an endearingly scruffy little town on the Ganges Plain, Kushinagar. One of the Buddha's faithful disciples begged him to hold on a bit longer and not die here. ‘It's a miserable, wattle-and-daub little place stuck in the jungle, in the middle of nowhere,’ he said. ‘Couldn't you die in a famous place where they could give you a great funeral?’ And the Buddha said, “A small place is fitting.” He took some food in the house of a blacksmith, pork. Like most ancient Indians, the Buddha was a meat-eater. And he fell ill. Again the tradition marks the very spot on the edge of Kushinagar. At the end, his disciples can't bear to let him go. “What more do you want of me?” he says. “I've made known the teaching. Ask no more of me. You're the community now. I have reached the end of my journey.” There are several versions of the Buddha's last moments. One of them says that he made a gesture and exposed the upper part of his body to show how age and sickness had wasted it, to remind his followers of the human condition. But all versions agree that his last words were these.
“All created things must pass. Strive on diligently.”
I would like to end this with an old adage among the Buddhist folklore I presume. “If you find the Buddha on the road, kill him!”
Raghav Mimani is a friend of a friend, and a person whom I have come to admire over the last many meetings we have had. It is a privilege to hear his thoughts and ideas, even as a mute audience, for there is much to learn and gain from his opinions. This article is but one glimpse into the way he strings his thoughts and presents them for others to peruse. Rather, relish. It was a privilege having him contribute for Nascent Emissions.