Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Day I Went To Hell

It has been quite a few decades since anyone has told me to “go to hell!’ But some time ago I actually went there on my own accord.  My brother who lives in France, his family and I, were travelling through Provence and we ended up in Val d’Enfer, the Valley of Hell. It is not just the strangely-shaped rocks in the vicinity that gives this place its creepy name but also the vast, labyrinthal underground quarry which has been mined since Roman times. Where the light penetrates, the great halls appear white giving  the impression of ice, an impression reinforced by the subterranean cold. In other places it is all darkness and shadows.  Away from the first several halls where most of the visitors are it is dead quiet and solitary – everything you would need for hell except heat. On the Buddhist concept of hell see

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Birds, The Beasts And The Buddha

Going back nearly fourteen years ago I spent a few days in forested areas in Jamui and Munger districts in Bihar. Less than 6% of Bihar is now forested and even much of that is degraded. Nonetheless, this gave me at least some feel for what life must have been like for monks and other ascetics during the Buddha’s time. Sometime later  I was asked if  I  would write an article on  nature in the Buddhist scriptures and  I agreed to do so, thinking that there might be enough information to fill perhaps two or three pages. However, as I began  looking for references  I realized that the scriptures actually contain a huge  amount of very detailed information on flora, fauna and the natural environment. So what began as a brief article grew into a book  which I have called Nature and the Environment in Early Buddhism. The book is now available on line and you can read it at  I think most people will be surprised to know in what detail the Tipitaka discusses the natural environment – soil types, numerous ecological  niches, different types of water courses, cloud formations, etc. Altogether it also mentions some 700 different species of plants and animals. For me the greatest challenge was not compiling all these names but trying to link them  to their modern botanical and zoological nomenclature. Everyone agrees that amba refers to the mango and kaka to the crow. But other than these and a hundred or so others,  no concerted attempt has ever been made to identify all the flora and fauna mentioned in the Tipitaka. Trying to do so has taken up a good amount of my spare time during the last five years. In some cases I have succeeded, in others not.  Either way the result gives, I think, a fascinating insight into the natural world as the Buddha would have known it.
As for the forests and their wildlife in Bihar the future does not look good, despite the best efforts of the Forestry Dept and their dedicated officers in the field. Population growth and administrative corruption insatiably eats away it the few green areas left. The forest in Jamui is thoroughly unsafe nowadays, not because of tigers but because it  has become a refuge for  extremist Maoist guerrillas. 

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Buddhist Treasures Lost Forever

The unprecedented floods that swept Kashmir Valley last month, have inflicted heavy damage to cultural and archival treasures representing 2,000 yea   the historic Sri Pratap Singh Museum in Srinagar have been lost forever. Sources told DNA that the important document, the Gilgit manuscripts, the only surviving testimony to the Buddhist classic knowledge, has been lost forever. Historians across the world were awaiting   with bated breath news about the fate of these documents, only to hear  that they have  been declared 100% damaged with no chances of recovery.  Suspecting  that tribal raiders may damage these documents in 1947, India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru had prevailed upon then government in Jammu and Kashmir to shift them to National Archives in Delhi.  On two other occasions, to protect them from aerial bombings during war in 1965 and 1971 they were again flown to Delhi for protection. Ironically, some of  the documents placed at the Central Asian Studies Department of Kashmir University were returned to the Museum authorities just a week before the floods. Member of National Monument Authority and former director of INTACH Salim Beg, who has just returned from Srinagar after inspecting the loss said that not only manuscripts but other significant treasures like paintings, shawls, historic textiles, and wood carvings have been damaged. He was aghast that even when  the waters  receded, no action had been taken to rescue the artefacts. He lamented that state authorities lack expertise or even basic understanding to rescue the objects. Tracing the history of their discovery, Beg says a shepherd had found them in 1931 accidentally and by the orders of then Maharaja Hari Singh, they were placed in the museum. Since then scholars from all over world arrive Srinagar to see these documents. Known as the oldest manuscripts in the world, the Gilgit documents have an unmatched significance in the area of Buddhist studies. They help trace the evolution of Sanskrit, Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Tibetan religio-philosophical literature. They were named Gilgit manuscripts as they were discovered in three instalments in the Gilgit region, now part of Pakistan occupied Kashmir. Fragments of these manuscripts are placed in the British Museum and the Department of Archaeology in Karachi.
 From DNA, 3 Oct. 20014

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A Sign Of The Times?

The number of Buddhist monks who are giving up their robes has increased rapidly during the past five years with nearly 2,500 leaving the  Sangha between 2007 and 2011, a census has revealed. The census which began in 2007, of monks who have left the priesthood, has shown that in 2007, 73 had left but the number has increased steadily going up to 516 in 2008, 728 in 2009 and 940 in 2010. Within the first three months of 2011, 230 had given up their robes. Among the reasons listed for the exodus include giving up the  Sangha after graduation, due to conflicts arising among brethren monks, to seek foreign employment, to join the armed forces during the war period, due to a father’s addiction to liquor, death of a father and economic difficulties, to care for an elderly spouse left behind at time of ordination, lack of a permanent temple for residence and uncertainty about their future. The number of Buddhist monks in the country who are registered with the Department of Buddhist Affairs between 1993 and 2011 stands at 42,803 novices with 16,538 monks having received higher ordination (upasampada). These details were revealed in response to a question posed by UNP Kurunegala District MP Gamini Jayawickrema Perera to Prime Minister D. M. Jayaratna who is also the Minister of Buddha Sasana. It was also revealed that between 2005 and 2010, the Departments had 9,654 temples registered with it. The Government has put in place several programmes to help under-privileged temples with monies being allocated according to recommendations of the relevant Divisional Secretariats. A subsistence amount is paid to monks in selected temples that face severe economic difficulties in the North and East and other areas. The monthly subsistence paid to temples range from Rs.300 where there is one monk, Rs. 450 for two monks, Rs. 600 for three monks, Rs. 800 for four monks and Rs.1000 per month if there are five resident monks. Temples that need assistance that have six resident monks are given Rs.1,200 monthly, Rs.1,300 if there are seven monks, Rs.1,350 for eight monks and Rs.1500 if the number is nine or more. The UNP MP had requested that at least Rs. 5,000 be paid to temples that are facing economic hardships, particularly in rural areas.
Chandani Kirinde in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka.