Tonight I returned to the ‘Om’, where I contributed to the celebration of Christmas by displaying to the clientele digital camera images of my family. Then I returned to the Sacred Flower Hotel, the three companions, my driver also, once more by the large tour bus cooking their evening meal. “Tyre good?” I enquire. He responds with a ‘thumbs up’. He has a command of ‘Australian’ after all, though I will refrain from teaching him regional hand gesture dialects. At the hotel I drop in my laundry: 1 shirt (Rs25), 2 pairs of underwear (Rs15 per pair), 1 handkerchief (Rs10), socks 4 pair (Rs10 per pair), jeans, 1 (Rs50), 3 shirts (Rs40 each). Nothing to be ironed, but if so, at extra cost. Folding of items free. You do the math.
However, Bodh Gaya is not about me, it is all about Gautama Buddha, the ‘Awakened One’, for it is the place where he gained his enlightenment. The name Bodh Gaya did not come into use until the 18th Century, historically being known as Vajrasana, Urevela, Mahabodhi and Sambodhi. Buddha is said to have wandered as an ascetic to the banks of the Falgu River near the city of Gaya some time around 500 BCE. There he sat under a bodhi tree, the poplar-fig (Ficus religiosa), and after 49 days he claimed to have attained enlightenment.
For Buddhists Bodh Gaya is the most important of the four main sites of pilgrimage related to the life of Gautama Buddha, the others being Lumbini, Kushinagar and Sarnath. Although there are many buildings of a religious function at Bodh Gaya the main monastery is the Mahabodhi Temple, previously called in Pali the Bodhimanda-Vihara. In 2002 it was listed as a world heritage site. The Mahabodhi Temple complex includes the holy Bodhi tree, originally a sapling of the Sri Maha Bodhi tree in Sri Lanka, itself grown from a sapling of the original Bodhi tree. Not wishing to trivialize by comparison the significance of the Bodhi tree, I was starting to suspect where J.R.R. Tolkien might have found the idea for his ‘White Tree of Gondor’ concept. The ‘White Tree of Gondor’ was a descendent of the tree Nimloth growing in the realm of Gondor. King Isildur took a fruit of the sacred tree Nimloth from the land of Numenor and brought the resultant sapling to Middle Earth. Several saplings and several tree deaths later we have the ‘White Tree of Gondor’, this growing in the citadel of Gondor’s then capital city Minas Tirith; the city being a final bastion of mankind against evil. Best to read the book.
About 250 years after Buddha’s enlightenment Asoka, emperor of the Mauryan Empire, visited Bodh Gaya. Asoka is considered to be the founder of the original Mahabodhi Temple, but with the decline of Buddhism in India, the temple was abandoned and left in ruins. In 1883 the site was excavated by Sir Alexander Cunningham, J. D. Beglar and Dr Rajendralal Miitra. The temple was restored by Cunningham in the late 19th Century.
Gautama Buddha, as Siddhattha, was born in a grove of Sal trees near the village of Lumbini, about 230 kilometres north of Varanasi, in what is now Nepal. His family were members of the warrior caste, this caste also including most kings, and his father Suddhodana was a governor (raja) of a province of the kingdom of Kosala. The title ‘raja’ has led Buddhist tradition to regard Gautama Buddha as a ‘prince’. His mother, Maya, died shortly after his birth and he was given to his father’s second wife, Mahapajapati, to rear. This she did with great affection. Siddhattha married at the age of sixteen, and at twenty-nine he had a son, Rathula.
That same year Siddhattha came to recognize the suffering of human life; birth, old age, illness, sorrow and defilement, and finally death. Then it all started over again. Seeking liberation from suffering he donned yellow robes, and against the wishes of his family, went homeless into the world. As a disciple of various teachers Siddhattha found no true answer to his quest, so he set out upon his own path in search of understanding. Near the village of Uruvela, now Bodh Gaya, Siddhattha found a site suitable for his religious purpose. There he assumed the state of strict ascetic practice, and for six years exposed himself to self-mortification and abstained from eating sufficient food. Five ascetics gathered there with him in the hope of finding truth (dharma) in Siddhattha’s teaching. Siddhattha came to realise the folly of his strict practices, and that extreme meditation did not work. So once again he took adequate and proper food.
Buddha discovered what is called ‘The Middle way’, a path of moderation away from the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification. His fellow ascetics regarded Siddhattha with disdain for this change, and so abandoned him. Alone, and sitting under a poplar-fig tree, he followed a path of tranquil meditation. In this he pierced all the layers of the nature of existence, remembered his past lives, and saw through the law of rebirth as a consequence of one’s karma, one’s deeds. In this he realised the nature of suffering, its origin, and the way to its termination. His realisation of the cause of all suffering, and the conscious steps needed to eliminate suffering, became known as the ‘Four Noble Truths’.
At this moment, in the year 528 BCE, on the first full-moon night of Vesakha (April-May) Siddhattha, Gautama Buddha, at the age of 35 years, gained his enlightenment, his ‘bodhi’. Dissenting voices have argued the detail and literary truth of this, for features of his teachings are evident in the pre-Buddhist Upanishad texts. Nevertheless Gautama Buddha’s bodhi was an independent bringing together of thoughts and convictions, often contradictory, into a synergy of understanding; a ‘self-finding’ that revealed to him the ‘truth’ of all life. Thus was marked a great moment in the history of mankind.
Gautama Buddha survived three attempts on his life, but at the age of eighty, following illness, he died. This was the year 483 BCE, a year in which the states of Greece were fighting the Persian Wars, and a time when Confucius was alive in China. Gautama Buddha was cremated and his ashes divided among nine recipients. The recipients of his relics placed these in burial mounds, ‘stupas’.
I cannot end this chapter without returning, as earlier promised, to where I had commenced, Christmas. Which brings me in logical and timely progression to ‘Christianity’, and a short discussion of its presence in India.
Thinking the impact of Christianity inconsequential I was surprised to find that Christianity is India’s third largest religion. At 24 million followers it comes after Hinduism and Islam, though admittedly a poor third, but beats in number those following the teachings of the Jinas (Jains) or adhering to one of the diverse schools of Buddhism. That puts the number of Christians of all faiths in India at about 2 percent of the population. The introduction of Christianity to India is attributed to Thomas the Apostle who visited Kerala in Southern India in 52 CE. Thomas was later martyred at Chennai. Osmond Tiffany, in his ‘Sacred Biography and History’ of 1878, the sort of book we don’t see published much these days, notes that Saint Thomas entered “the kingdom of Coromandel, where at Maliapour, the metropolis of that kingdom, not far from the mouth of the Ganges, he began to erect a place for divine worship, till prohibited by the idolatrous priests, and Sagamo, prince of that country”. The success of his preaching “alarmed the Brachmans” who resolved to put the apostle to death. Whilst Saint Thomas was at prayer “they first shot at him with a shower of darts, after which one of the priests ran him through with a lance”. He was later buried by his disciples in “the church he had so lately erected,..”.
In fact the oldest existing church structure in the world, called the Thiruvithamcode and built by Thomas in 57 CE, is located in the state of Tamil Nadu in southern-most India. The South Indian epic of ‘Manimekalai’, written during the 2nd to 3rd Centuries, mentions the Christian Essanis. The Anglo-Saxon English king Alfred in 883 CE sent presents to the Christians of Saint Thomas, but in the 16th Century the followers of this Indian church suffered persecution by Portuguese evangelists. Later, attempts were made to bring the native Christian Church under the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. The first Protestant missionaries to enter India were German Lutherans in 1705. These translated the Bible first into the Tamil language and then into Hindustani. By the end of the 18th Century different Protestant communities had been established throughout the Indian subcontinent. Jehovah’s Witnesses began activities in India in 1903, this following the visit to India of their founder Charles Taze Russel.
A second introduction of Christianity, post-dating that of Saint Thomas, was via Nestorianism, a Christological doctrine as propounded by Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople (428-431 CE). Considered heretical many Nestorians relocated to Persia, but India was also influenced by them for their missionaries established dioceses in India, and further afield. Regardless of its Indian origins Christianity was firmly established there by the 6th Century. And at some point after this date India acquired Christmas and Santa Claus.