A modern crematorium: absence in Buddhist India

Frank Vibert
15 August 2007

Among the many skills required of a driver in India is the ability to read the queue ahead. Is it merely a bullock cart with a wheel missing, an overloaded truck in mid-road with a shattered axle, a tractor with its trailer overturned?

All such common occurrences can be circumnavigated with panache. On this occasion however, our driver took one look, did a quick U-turn and stopped to confirm his fears. Murders had been committed and the police had blocked the road. We were in Bihar, a notoriously lawless state, and needed to reach our next stop safely before nightfall. A detour was the only solution.

This is the land where the Buddha lived and died in the 5th century BCE and we were there to visit the places connected with him. It is an area best described as "mid-Ganges" with Varanasi (Benares) to the west, and Patna to the east. To the south lies Bodh-Gaya, the place of enlightenment and to the north, just over the border into modern Nepal is Lumbini, the place of Buddha's birth.

What remains

The detour took us into a very traditional India. Villages of mud-brick, daub and whattle, the acridity of dung-fires, string-beds on the stoop, tooth-sticks, washed-out road-beds. There are no unpopulated horizons and no concealing the poverty in this, the poorest state in India. Villagers, men, women and children were out breaking rocks under the cliffs for construction-industry aggregate. The equivalent of £1.50 a day was the going rate - so we were informed. Not all the poverty was evident. The papers in Patna were recording a spate of rural suicides - the victims of money-lenders. For many, this is still the life of misery to which in his time the Buddha brought his message of compassion.

"Air Buddha", "Transcendental Airways", "Tantric Travel" - the travel-company advertisements signal the border crossing to the place of Buddha's birth at the northern edge of the Ganges plain. Here there are only scant archaeological remains - the red-brick courses of former temples and stupas, a column inscribed by Ashoka, an ablutions tank, a much defaced relief representing Maya (the mother of Buddha) and a stone identified as that on which he was born.

Frank Vibert is director of the European Policy Forum. He is the author of Europe Simple, Europe Strong: The Future of European Governance (Polity, 2001) and The Rise of the Unelected: Democracy and the New Separation of Powers (Cambridge University Press, 2007)

Among Frank Vibert's articles on openDemocracy:

"The future of Europe – simplify, simplify"
(12 December 2001)

"The new cosmopolitanism"
(20 March 2003)

"French referendum lessons"
(11 May 2005)

"'Absorption capacity': the wrong European debate" (21 June 2006)

"Germany's presidency: an odd couple" (25 October 2006)

"The European Union in 2057" (22 March 2007)


The remains of a temple are covered by a concrete canopy on which the faithful can pray. It was empty. In this, the land where he lived, taught and died, Buddhism as a living Indian faith has been gone for over half a millennium. Amidst all the impressions of traditional and modern India, the greatest impression is that of an absence - the absence of a living indigenous Buddhism. The faithful who come to visit this and other Buddhist sites are pilgrims from other places - from Tibet, Myanmar, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Japan. Any visitor will reflect on this absence and the possible reasons given for it.

Buddha's opposition

On the road our driver made his choice. He stopped to pay local taxes at the roadside office, accepted one more delay and retained a receipt for his employer. He could have paid in cash with no delay at half the price with the policeman pocketing it with a smile. Most drivers did. Bihar is corrupt - from senior politicians and civil servants down to the local level. Around the world, corruption is the underside of the democratic ideal. When it becomes endemic there is no tax without the possibility of remission, no regulation without the potential for a bribe.

In rural India, much that is delicately concealed from view in more prosperous parts takes place in public - from defecation to death itself. However preferable it is to be candid about the processes of daily living and dying, it was unnerving to answer a call of nature under the watchful eyes of two small boys and three large goats playing on the ruined walls of the palace at Kapilavastu where the Buddha grew up. Little is left of the palaces and town. Brick does not wear well. Their footprint remains impressive, the symbol of a life renounced and a setting forth.

The fact that Buddha was born the son of a ruler may have helped make high-caste Indians receptive initially to his message. At some point this seems to have turned to opposition. Buddhism did not endorse caste. The eightfold way, the path to enlightenment, is one that can be trod by all. Among the many reasons given for the eclipse of Buddhism was the opposition of Brahmins. Then and now officialdom can stifle and subvert.

The cost of differentiation

A monk reflexively swept an ant from the path of the pilgrims circling the precinct at Bodh-Gaya, where Buddha attained enlightenment under a pipal tree (a variety of ficus). This today is the most active place of pilgrimage among the Buddhist sites. Here, the stupa, its surrounding sanctuary containing the diamond throne, the lotus steps and the descendant of the tree, is ringed by pilgrims, the gardens filled with prostrate worshippers, and the Ashoka column polished by the circling shoulders of the devoted. Here in the town are temples from each of the lands where Buddhism is still a living presence.

The stupa at Bodh-Gaya, increasingly derelict after the decline of Buddhism, remained venerated by Hindus and today, much restored, is run by a joint committee. The disappearance of Buddhism by the 13th century seems to have paralleled a reform of Hinduism that came to absorb the historical Buddha as one of the manifestations of Vishnu. The disentangling of the historical Buddha and the re-identification of the sites associated with his life was an achievement of archaeologists and scholars, mainly British, in the 19th century.

This absorption of Buddhism in the land of its birth can be seen either as a positive commentary on the inclusiveness of Hinduism or as a negative comment on a lack of differentiation in the Buddhist message. In today's world, religious differentiation comes at a cost. In Varanasi, a ten-foot steel fence divides the main Shiva temple from the adjacent mosque and the army maintains permanent checkpoints in the surrounding alleyways. It was not enough to prevent the Hanuman shrine being bombed, in March 2006, one of three coordinated attacks in Varanasi.

The message-carriers

At Sarnath just outside Varanasi, at a place marked by the ruins of the Dhamekh stupa, the Buddha departed radically from the traditionally withdrawn life of a religious pilgrim and began his public teaching of the four noble truths. Here, in the museum alongside the ruins of stupas, temples and monasteries there is a famous 5th-century sculpting of the Buddha in the preaching posture of hands raised in front of the chest with fingers bent as though to turn the wheel.

Although there was no formal prohibition against portraying the transcendant in human form, early Buddhist sculpture depicted the Buddhist message rather than the exemplar. At some later point, around 500 years after his death, an empty space with an accompanying symbol such as the wheel or tree, was replaced by depictions of the Buddha himself. A huge and esoteric iconography developed of which the best known symbols are the four positionings of the Buddha's hands. (preaching, courage, enlightenment and meditation).

By the time the Chinese monk Xuan Zang arrived to visit these sites in the 7th century one of his aims was to recapture a purer form of Buddhist doctrine from its source. He felt that during its travels to China, doctrine was likely to have been misinterpreted and distorted. In fact, even though Buddhist doctrine began to be systematised immediately following Buddha's death, doctrinal splits, as in Islam and Christianity, emerged early on. However pure the original message, the message-carriers are all too human. By the time of Xuan Zang's visit the divisions and decline of many Buddhist foundations is recorded in his diary.

At Sravasti, an unexpected reminder of this broken thread to the source of teaching can be seen. A Chinese pagoda stands near where the Buddha and his followers passed many rainy seasons - a more recent reference to a pagoda of former times noted by Xuan Zang in his day. Today, monkeys play where pilgrims prayed.

Ashoka's domain

On one side of the street is a row of pastry-shops - single rooms fronting onto the pavement where, at the back, workers beat, pound and pestle the dough into ever thinner layers before it is deep fried in a vat at the front and coated with honey in a cloud of bees and flies. On the opposite side of the street a former imperial governor fronts the museum housing one of India's most celebrated sculptures - the so-called Mauryan "Venus".

About 200 years after Buddha's death this part of India, hitherto divided into small kingdoms, was united under the Mauryan empire (c 323-185 BCE) whose greatest ruler, Ashoka, converted to Buddhism. Ashoka's empire extended to what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan in the west and to what is now Tamil Nadu in the south. Through the western passes Buddhism could be carried into central Asia and China. Through the southern trade routes it was carried to Sri Lanka and beyond.

Ashoka's patronage possibly helped the spread of Buddhism in the way that Constantine's conversion helped spread Christianity in the Roman world. The Mauryan empire did not last. Its capital, Pataliputra, on the outskirts of modern-day Patna, was referred to by the Greek ambassador Megasthenes in the 4th century BCE as the equal of any cities in the Greek, Mesopotamian and Persian worlds. Today Patna is run down, the vernacular architecture of the old town destroyed, colonial mansions dilapidated and children scavenge on the rubbish heaps.

A vanished permanence

A plastic chair was perched precariously on the top of a half-excavated stupa while children played on its slopes. The occupant of the chair, the guardian of the site, snapped to attention at our approach, the only visitors of the day and waved his stick at the boys. At the foot of the stupa, women lashed their hair in grief and supplication at a Muslim shrine, well known in the town for answering prayers for those dangerously ill. This is where the Buddha took his last meal before his death, further on is the shrine where he took his last drink of water and in Kushinagar a stupa marks where he died at the end of a long life. A group of pilgrims prays at the recumbent image of the maha-parinibbana ("great decease") of the dying Buddha in the adjacent hall.

The Buddha spoke to the impermanence of our material life and the endurance of what is spiritual. Yet it is his spiritual message that has vanished from this part of India.

Whatever the reasons for the decline and disappearance of an indigenous Buddhism they challenge comfortable platitudes that church and state are better off when separated, or that belief systems should come together in ecumenicalism. Possibly, for its survival, religion needs the support of the state, officialdom and social hierarchy. Possibly, in order to survive, a belief system needs to emphasise its otherness. Or perhaps these are entirely the wrong conclusions. Maybe it is the frailty of the human carriers of the message that undermines the message - a frailty that applies to all religions, all priesthoods. Buddhists accept that the empirical manifestations of any religious belief (churches, madrasas, texts and priesthoods) will decline but have the confidence that eternal truths will be rediscovered in their own way in their own time.

As a tourist one is likely to enter this land of the historical Buddha through Varanasi. A religious site for thousands of years, here Hindus still come to die, to be cremated, to have their ashes spread on the waters of mother Ganges and to await rebirth. At the main ghat about 150 cremations take place a day. It is illegal for bodies to be placed un-cremated into the waters. But at night it is impossible to police, our guide informed us, as a body floated past our oars.

As a tourist you are also likely to leave this part of India through Lucknow. Lucknow is where you will find one of the most beautiful complexes of Islamic architecture in the world - the great Imambara. Lucknow is also modern India. A city in the grip of a building boom based on medicine and pharmaceutical research. In Lucknow there is a modern crematorium.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData