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Buddhism’s Great Comeback In India

It is fashionable nowadays to say that Buddhism heralded “the Renaissance of India”. In fact, Buddhism is often used as a weapon against Hinduism – whether by India specialists abroad (in France for instance), who often promote Buddhism to show how peaceful and loving it is compared to Hinduism and its “bad” Brahmins – or by well-meaning “secular” Indians intellectuals, such as Prafulla Bidwai, or Aundhadi Roy, who borrow from the Buddhist creed of non-violence to demonstrate why India should not have the atom bomb (and let itself wipe-out by Pakistan or China, who have no such qualms).

Most historians, both in India and abroad, are also fond of indirectly implying that Buddhism totally disappeared from India (where it was prevalent at the beginning of our era, particularly in the North and the North-East), because it was slowly “swallowed” back by Hinduism at the hands of the vengeful Brahmins, who had lost their principal source of income with the self-liberation methods of Buddha. But the fact is that Hinduism resisted the Muslim onslaught thanks to its Kshatriyas –the Rajputs, Mahrattas and Sikhs – who in the true spirit of the Bhagavad Gita understood that violence can sometimes be necessary to defend one’s border’s, women and children. Whereas Buddhism, because it made of non-violence an uncompromising, inflexible dogma, was literally wiped-off the face of India in a few centuries, as it REFUSED to oppose any resistance. For the Muslim soldiers, Buddhists, who adored statues and did not believe in Allah, were as much Infidels as the Hindus, and they razed every single Buddhist temple (and also Jain, as the ruins below Fathepur Sikri have proved) they encountered, burnt all the precious libraries and killed tens of thousands of monks, without encountering any resistance. This is why you cannot find a single trace of Buddhist structures today in India, save for a few stupas, which were too cumbersome to be destroyed. It is also true that Buddhist Thought indirectly influenced great contemporary figures such as Mahatma Gandhi, whose sincere but rigid adherence to non-violence may have indirectly precipitated Partition, or the much-hyped Ambedkar, who converted to Buddhism to show the way to Dalits, even though very few of them followed his example.

But today, unobtrusively, Buddhism seems to be making a stunning comeback in India through the Vipassana movement of Shri Goenka, who learnt the technique in Burma from a great Master and brought it back to India in the late sixties. The remarkable Vipassana meditation is originally a Vedic technique, which had been lost and which Buddha rediscovered again. In the hands of Siddartha Gautama, it became a simple, self-liberation method, accessible to all, regardless of their caste, religion, or social status; hence its immense success in Buddha’s time. Shri Goenka keeps emphasizing that his Vipassana movement is still non-sectarian, open to all, whatever their religion and nationality. But it appears not to have lost some of the anti-Hindu slant that post-Buddha sects adopted (as evident in today’s Sinhalese Buddhism) . At every sentence of his discourses (meditators usually attend ten days’ courses, where at the end of each day, they watch a video tape of Goenkaji, commentating the technique), Goenka takes a subtle potshot a Hinduism, whether it is the “rites, rituals, Gods, images”, or the “priests” (Brahmins), who tried to malign Buddha, or the sadhus “with their beads, matted hair, Shiva marks etc”, or Vanarasi, “a holy city full of hashish and bhang”. Or else, he riles contemporary Hindu Gurus and movements (without naming them openly, but they are easily recognized) : Sai Baba “with all these hospitals, schools, etc, with his name inscribed on them”; or Rajneesh/Osho “with this fleet of Rolls Royces”; or the Hare Krishna movement “dancing Hare-Krishna this and hare Krishna that”…

It is rarely mentioned today that Buddhism, like Islam and Christianity has been a proselytizing religion, even if it was done peacefully: Emperor Ashoka’s missionaries went all over Asia and converted huge chunks of territory. But Buddhism came out of Hinduism and ultimately went back to it, as the millions of Indian Buddhists of the beginning of our era, eventually reverted to Hinduism. This is why Buddhists may have kept a certain resentment against Hinduism. The Vipassana meditation technique of Shri Goenka is today practiced by millions in India, because it is such a simple and effective procedure. But Shri Goenka’s greatest fear is, that like after Buddha’s demise, when Hinduism started eating back into the core of Buddhism, after his own death (Goenka-ji is nearing 80), the same thing will happen to the Vipassana movement. Hence, at every step, he warns his practitioners, that if they liked the technique, they should, when they go back to the world, use it exclusively “and not revert to rites, rituals, etc” – meaning that they should become Buddhists (even if he does not say so in so many words) and shun Hinduism. But what Shri Goenka fails to see is that on the one hand, he is promoting conversion, even if it is not in a blatant manner; and two, that once more, someone is taking advantage of Hinduism’s great tolerance and openness. For of course, 99% of Vipassana meditators in India are Hindus – I have attended more than a dozen ten days’ courses and I have seen only one or two Christian nuns and never a single Muslim. Only Hindus recognize Buddha as an avatar, Muslims consider him as an Infidel and Christians tend to think that only Jesus is the true Son of God.

We notice also with the advent of Vipassana the sowing of the erstwhile errors of Buddhism, which cost India so much : a rigid and unbending non-violence – it is for instance forbidden to kill even a mosquito in the Vipassana ashrams’ premises; it is true too, that Vipassana, however efficient, is a joyless technique, with a very strict mental set-up: segregation between men and women is pushed sometimes to absurd limits and everything is timed to the second, leaving very little space for laughter and imagination. Apart from its harmful rigid non-violence, Buddhism’s insistence on ‘Maya’, “everything is an illusion and it is better to withdraw from the world”, has had a subtle influence on Hinduism. India started disdaining Her physical envelope, Her very body and material sheath, India’s yogis started withdrawing more and more in their caves, its people neglecting their surroundings, its leaders forgetting about Beauty. And the result is there today for everybody to see: an ugly India, full of trash and refuse, with very little sense of aesthetics left; cities unplanned, polluted, crowded, hideous. Again today, Goenka-ji is promoting an emphasis on withdrawal from this world, saying at every step of his discourses that everything is “misery, misery”, “craving and aversion” and that “we are dying at every moment”. And this may again lead India towards self-neglect, at a moment where She needs all her enthusiasm and energies to globalize without losing her Soul. Finally, there is no doubt that Shri Goenka is bent – if not on establishing a new religion – at least on starting an irreversible movement; the huge Vipassana temple being now built in Bombay is proof of that.

Is he going to succeed? While the Vipassana technique is a wonderful instrument, it should not be used to promote a new religion, at a time when the world is trying to move away from religions towards spirituality. And once more, we see that Hindu India is coming under threat because of her tolerance and spiritual inclination. Will Goenka’s meditators slowly come into positions of power and give again to India the passive, weak, non-violent turn of mind which already in the past did so much harm to Her ?

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