From the jam-packed, noisy streets of Varanasi where every fifth person is a rifle-wielding cop, and constantly blaring vehicle horns keep jolting you, to Bodh Gaya with its calm and lazy air, it was a total phase transformation.
True to its fame, the place of Gautama Buddha's enlightenment is a small and peaceful town alongside the scanty river Nilanjana. Peppered with monasteries from various south-east Asian nations, a museum and most important, a fifth-generation offshoot of 'the peepal tree' under which the Buddha saw reality for what it is, Bodh Gaya is a total contrast from Varanasi or Gaya.
Here you will find very few Indians, a handful at any time. Here you will also find the place largely clean.
The massive Mahabodhi temple complex around the tree has various spots marked out for the weeks following realisation, places where Buddha paced, contemplated or gave valuable insights on his state. You can see groups of visitors from China, Taiwan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand and others chanting in their dialect or meditating. Peace emanates from all around the bodhi tree, alive with the chirping of a dozen or more birds.
This was the place that saw a terror attack in 2013, claimed by SIMI as revenge for Rohingyas. However, except for a couple of cops at the entrance, the place is devoid of any security.
Here one has a lot of time and place to spend in contemplation, about the Buddha, his native country, the religion of reason and compassion he founded, and the way India has largely neglected upholding this legacy.
Harping back to Varanasi, local enquiries about Sarnath, (the nearby place where Buddha gave his first sermon after enlightenment), often elicited blank looks. The manager of the hotel even said, 'what is there at Sarnath? Just some ruins.' Finally, a trip to the place remained incomplete with many of the ruins not touched by our motor vehicle guide, who perhaps did not know!
A write-up by a Buddhist teacher, Dzongar Jamyang Khyentse, in HuffPost notes the neglect of what he calls India's and Nepal's biggest export: the Buddha. He sums up this stark truth in terms of the ground condition at Bodh Gaya, the Mecca or Jerusalem of world Buddhists.
'In the Buddha's own birthplace and homeland, his teachings are marginalised, his wisdom is unappreciated, and his legacy is invisible in society.' Most Indians know more about Karl Marx than about the Buddha, he laments. How true.
This was more than evident in a trip through the heartland of Buddha's teachings, in today's Bihar. Besides capitalising on the visiting foreigners, and take them to a few popular spots, locals in Rajgir seem unaware "about one of the most remarkable human beings ever to walk the earth". A guide at Nalanda said sadly that in the land where Buddhism was founded (Bihar) there are no Buddhists today.
India's Buddhists comprise lesser than 2 % of the world Buddhists. Even a majority of this comprises those who undertook the 'conversion' to escape the stigma of lower caste!
Rajgir, the former capital of the Magadh empire, is the place where the Buddha lived and preached for many years after the enlightenment. There are many spots like the Griddhakutt hill he climbed daily and was gazed upon with reverence by the imprisoned King Bimbisar; Venuvan, the sprawling bamboo groove, a cemetery-turned-park that was gifted by the king to the Buddha; many ruins of monasteries like the one at Tapodharma over which a Hindu temple sits today; Karanda Tank where the Buddha is believed to have bathed; the Jivakameavan Gardens where his wounds were treated by Jivaka, the royal physician, etc.
However, very few of these are known except to a few seasoned guides. One wonders why.
Does modern India still harbour anti-Buddhist sentiments from its Brahminic past, believed to be one of the major reasons, along with the plunder by the Mughals, for the demise of a religion founded on its soils? Can anything be done to revive the teachings of the Buddha in his native land?
One can either dwell in the past and list all the misdeeds by the Hindu kings followed by the Khiljis and the lot, in almost wiping out Buddhism from India by the eighth century, or look at ways to spread the Buddha's teaching of love and compassion in the here and now.
After all, it should not be so difficult. Buddhism can be seen as an offshoot of Hinduism, with many teachings similar and varying only in aspects of blind faith, rituals, caste hegemony, etc. While some experts claim the Buddha rejected the Vedas, others insist that he only disagreed with aspects of it used by the upper castes to exploit the others or the emphasis on rituals.
Both Hinduism and Buddhism speak of the effect of thoughts, words and actions on one's life, as also in rebirth and many lives, both advocate detachment to worldly desires, both talk of the material world as a delusion, so on. To that extent, the Constitution of India by virtue of Article 25 clubs Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists under Hindus. This appropriation, not taken upon kindly by all, extends to some Indians seeing the Buddha as an incarnation of Vishnu.
During a visit to Bodh Gaya, Prime Minister Modi reportedly referred to this commonality between Hinduism and Buddhism, in calling India as 'Buddhist India'. Pointing to the need to retain different cultures in their purity, he assured of support to Buddhist pilgrimage centres. Hopefully, this will be in more than words.
Buddhism with its rational and practical approach can appeal to a large section of people today who seek proof over faith. Believe nothing, whether you hear it from me or anyone else, unless you know it to be true, said the Buddha, stressing on applying the mind and believing anything only on direct personal experience. He made self-realisation a goal attainable by anyone, rather than just a select sect.
As Khyentse observes, what a difference it would make if India and Nepal took full ownership of the life and teachings of the Buddha and reclaimed their 'biggest export' to the world.
China, which was behind the massacre of many Buddhist structures and monasteries, is said to be witnessing a revival of the religion practised by 20 % of its population. World over there is renewed interest in Buddhism with millions practising the path in the US and Europe. Controlling the state of mind, practising mindfulness meditation for improving health, etc has seen a lot of interest in the west.
Such a revival could have so much significance in the cause of pacifism a la the middle path, and also to check the rapacious exploitation of the earth's resources and wiping out of the many species. The truth of the interconnectedness of all reality and the need for compassion that the Buddha expounded is sorely needed by a many ways split mankind.