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Buddhadharma : Summer 2007
summer 2007| 62 |buddhadharma physically prevented Dharmapala from installing a statue of the Buddha in the temple. Dharma- pala, against all advice, took legal action. The trial dragged on for years, costing the Maha Bodhi Society large sums of money, and in the end did not move them closer toward their goal. The Society continued to lobby the government, but it was not until 1948, after India achieved independence, that its efforts produced a result. Behind the scenes, pleading and arm-twisting by people like Jawaharlal Nehru, the Republic of India’s first prime minister, resulted in the Bodh- gaya Temple Act, which created a management committee to administer the temple. The commit- tee would be made up of Buddhists and Hindus and would include the mahant, who was now claiming that the Buddha was really the Hindu god Vishnu. Most galling to the Buddhists, however, was the Act’s stipulation that the Hindus would always have a majority of seats on the committee. The Maha Bodhi Society condemned the Act as “highly inadequate” and lobbied against it, until it became clear that this was as good as the Bud- dhists were going to get. The situation remains unchanged today. Sarnath Dharmapala’s other great accomplishment was in Sarnath, where at Deer Park the Buddha first turned the wheel of dharma. Sarnath is located four miles north of Varanasi (Banares), the holy city of the Hindus. It was my first destination in India because I had come to study with Thrangu Rinpoche at Vajra Vidya, his beautiful new mon- astery along the edge of Deer Park. Until its destruction in the thirteenth century, Sarnath had been a thriving Buddhist centre with as many as thirty monasteries supporting some three thousand monks. Cunningham’s archaeo- logical team rediscovered Sarnath in 1834, and Dharmapala, through his writings, speeches, and appeals to wealthy Indians and Westerners, raised money for its restoration and for the construction of a Buddhist temple known as the Mulagandha- kuti Vihara. Today, Sarnath is perhaps the most beautiful of the pilgrimage sites. The gentle meadows of Deer Park radiate simplicity and tranquility. Within its gates, the Dharmarajika Stupa, first built by King Ashoka, is said to mark the site of the Buddha’s earliest teachings and contain his relics. Across the street, the Sarnath Museum exhibits the remark- able art and sculpture discovered at Deer Park. It was just up the street from there that I had a chance meeting that would give me greater insight into the current situation facing India’s Buddhist sacred sites. The Road Ahead I was getting a hot chai at an outdoor café behind the Maha Bodhi Society’s Sarnath headquarters when a thin, elegant man in his mid-fifties, dressed in white, invited me to sit at his table. Suresh Bha- tia turned out to be the editor of an online journal called The Buddhist Heritage, which is dedicated to the preservation of Buddhist sacred sites in India. The café, it appeared, was his office. He turned up here every morning and stayed until the midday heat. Bhatia had previously been a fashion photographer in London, but a chance encounter with Kalu Rinpoche led him to become a Bud- dhist and changed the course of his life. Years later, the late Jamgon Kongtrul encouraged him to pursue archaeological research. Today, Bhatia holds a Ph.D. in Buddhist art, refers to himself as a “peace pilgrim,” and has dedicated his life to finding, championing, and preserving the Buddhist heritage sites of India. Over our cups of chai, we discussed the current state of affairs. The situation, he explained, is not good. Except for Bodhgaya, the sacred sites in India are administered by the central government through the Archeological Survey of India. The Survey does not allow religious ceremonies at the sites, and almost all of the sites, including Bodhgaya, charge admission.2 For foreigners, the admission is many times higher than it is for Indians. These are all flash points for the current crusade. “Buddhists from all over the world come here as pilgrims, not as tourists,” says Bhatia. “They have the right to worship or meditate.” But the sites have become cash cows for the Indian government. “Contrary to their own constitution, the government is charg- ing admission and preventing their use for reli- gious purposes. And the money does not go back into the sites.” At Deer Park, for example, no archaeological work had been undertaken since the British last excavated in the 1920s, although much archaeo- logical work remains to be done. “The Archeologi- cal Survey does nothing,” complains Bhatia. “Deer Park should be open so people can come to worship and hold monlams [prayer festivals] like they do in Bodhgaya. But no, you can’t do it, neither here nor in Kushinagar, where the Buddha passed into parinirvana.” Buddhist groups in India are lob- 2 No admission is charged at Lumbini.