Friday, February 23, 2007

India rediscovers its Buddha roots

Feb 24, 2007
By Raja M
Asia Times (Hong Kong)

MUMBAI - Indian Tourism and Culture Minister Ambica Soni and her team have decided to promote intensely the "Buddha Circuit", historical places in India associated with the Buddha's life (Bodhgaya, Saranath, Rajgiri. etc) and very popular with Asian tourists as part of the successful "Incredible !ndia" worldwide campaign.

The Incredible !ndia campaign, ranked as the highest "recall advertisement" worldwide by the Travel and Leisure magazine, helped increase foreign tourist arrivals from 3.92 million in 2005 to 4.43 million in 2006, a 14.2% increase, according to the Tourism Ministry.

In its annual readers' poll, the London-based Conde Nast Traveller, the world's top travel and tourism magazine, has ranked India among the top four preferred holiday destinations in the world (after Italy, New Zealand and Australia, with Thailand ranked seventh, following South Africa and France). India was also overwhelmingly voted (97.91%) the country with the most fascinating culture in the world.

Sure enough, the Indian government has decided to showcase the crown jewel in India's cultural wealth, the universal, practical teachings of Gautama the Buddha. This month the government hosted an international conference in Bodhgaya where Gautama the Buddha attained enlightenment, to celebrate the 2,550th anniversary of the Buddha passing away (attaining parinibbana). Prime Minister Manmohan Singh headed the organizing committee as chairman.

The celebrations are part of a significant revival of the Buddhist culture in India, the birthplace of the Buddha, where for centuries his teaching was ironically frowned upon and feared as harmful and full of delusions, even though the Buddha himself was revered personally as a great being. Much to the dismay of Theravada countries such as Thailand, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Cambodia, the Buddha was even considered in India as a reincarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu. That is changing.

After a sustained, respectfully persuasive campaign by eminent Indian followers of the Buddha's teaching, Hindu religious and political leaders such as from the Bharitiya Janata Party have acknowledged that the Buddha's teaching are not an offshoot of Hinduism. More accurately, the Buddha is being seen more as a guide pointing to a universal way out of suffering than as founder of any religious sect.

"Buddhism is a way of life, not a religion, to emancipate the exploited class in the country," said Tamil Nadu state Finance Minister K Anbazhagan. Inaugurating the 2,550th anniversary celebrations of the Buddha's Mahaparinibbana organized by the government of this southern state, the minister pointed out that the Buddha's ideals are very much relevant in today's India as it advocates the end to the caste system and establishing a society where good conduct, not birth, establishes one's social status.

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Muthuvel Karunanidhi said the Buddha taught love, and his teachings were universal and against casteism. "Buddha had also said women too could attain sainthood, and his teachings were simple enough to be followed by all. This is why the Buddha's teachings were accepted by social reformers like Periyar and Ambedkar," he said.

In 1954, Babasaheb Ambedkar - known as the father of the Indian constitution - went to Burma (now Myanmar), was inspired by the Buddha's teaching and returned to India to direct hundreds of thousands in India's so-called "untouchable castes" to the Buddha's path, one of the most significant events in modern Indian history.

"Many see Ambedkar's action as a religious conversion from one religion to another," said Satya Narayan Goenkaji, considered worldwide as one of the foremost teachers of Vipassana, the practical quintessence of the Buddha's teaching. "But for me, his action was a social conversion, from inequality to equality. Ambedkar was against sectarianism. That is why he enshrined the non-sectarian, secular nature of the Indian republic into the Indian constitution.

"Vipassana, as taught by S N Goenka in the tradition of Sayagyi U Ba Khin, is practiced in more than 100 countries, and practitioners visiting Buddha-related sites and Vipassana centers such as Dhamma Giri, near Mumbai, the largest meditation center in the world, form another increasing segment of visitors to India.

The spread of the Buddha's practical meditation techniques in India and the rest of the world has led to an unprecedented reawakening to a truth that the Buddha was not the founder of any religion. A new conviction sees the Buddha more as a super-scientist who explored and shared a way out to cope with the impermanence of all things in life.

The Indian Tourism Ministry's drive coincides with the revival of Buddha's teaching in the subcontinent, and benefits the troubled badlands of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the two Indian states with a wealth of Buddha-related heritage.

A Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce (FICCI) study says the two states have potential to generate US$1 billion worth of Buddha-related tourism. Sarnath (where Buddha gave his first discourse after Enlightenment) and Bodhgaya are the most important destinations on the circuit.

Other sites such as the ancient cities of Rajgir, Kushanagar and Vaishali where the Buddha taught are being given upgraded attention. The ministry is promoting these sites as part of the "Walk with the Buddha" campaign. The Indian government also plans to start a Chinese website and have Chinese-speaking guides for tourists from the big neighbor where the Buddha's teaching is again taking deeper roots.

Countries such as Japan are only too willing to assist, with the Japan Bank for International Cooperation funding four projects in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra totaling $273 million. Institutions in Taiwan have been funding major projects to publish the Buddha's teaching.

Eleven Indian states are expected to harvest big benefits from the Buddha Circuit. Besides Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Orissa, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Himachal Pradesh are part of the route. Other major emerging attractions for visitors worldwide include the Global Pagoda in Mumbai (see Asia's spectacular monument of gratitude, Asia Times Online, October 26, 2006) that houses the world's largest meditation hall and enshrines relics of the Buddha.

The Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corp Ltd, the marketing arm of the Indian Railways, is expected to start an eight-day tour package on a luxury train called the Mahaparinirvan Special Express next month from Delhi to help tourists visit the Buddha sites. The FICCI study estimates that this segment of tourism can draw more than a million visitors to India by 2012, a 400% rise of Buddha pilgrims.

After millennia, India is awakening to the Buddha, and the world is dropping in for a visit.

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