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Tag Archives | Buddhism

The Earliest Satyagraha?

In 629 or 630 C.E., the Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang reached the oasis city of Gaochang on his way to India. The king at that time was a Buddhist by the name of Qu Wencai and he was was thrilled to see the Master of the Law. He was so thrilled that he did not want the Master to travel West; he wanted him to stay in Gaochang.

This posed a problem and it started a diplomatic dance between the Master of the Law and the monarch. First the monarch sent a eighty year old master with this request. When that did not work, the monarch himself made the request. The Master praised the monarch’s goodness, but said that his heart disagrees. The monarch tried more praise: he said he had seen numerous teachers, but none as impressive as the master;he would provide for the Master till the end of his life; he would make all his subjects the Master’s disciples.

Nothing worked. Instead the Master explained why he was traveling to India – to correct the imperfect knowledge of Yogacara in China and to find the truth for himself. This angered the monarch and he threatened the monk with other means to resolve this debate.

Thus the stubborn monk faced a stubborn monarch. Faced with uncertainty, the Master told boldly that the the king had control over his body but not over his spirit, went into meditation, and refused to eat or drink. On the fourth day the monk almost fainted. The king felt guilty about the whole affair and gave permission for the monk to travel West.

This probably is one of the earliest use of hunger strike as a political weapon.

References:

  1. Richard Bernstein, Ultimate Journey: Retracing the Path of an Ancient Buddhist Monk Who Crossed Asia in Search of Enlightenment (Vintage, 2002). 
  2. Mishi Saran, Chasing the Monk’s Shadow (Penguin Global, 2005). 
Comments { 2 }

The Harappan angulam

(Sudama and Lomas Rishi Caves at Barabar, Bihar, in 1870)

During the time of Emperor Asoka and his successor Dasaratha, seven caves were constructed in Barabar and Nagarjuni hills, about 47 km from Gaya; during the Mauryan times, these hills encircled the city of Rajagriha. In the thirteenth year of his reign Asoka donated two caves in Barabar hills to Ajivikas. He donated one more in the 20th year of his reign while the Third Buddhist Council was going on, and all these were documented carefully with inscriptions inside the cave. The caves in Nagarjuni hills were the work of Asoka’s successor – his grandson Dasaratha – and these caves, like the ones in Barabar hills were donated to the Ajivikas[5].

These caves had circular roofs and the surfaces were polished. When these caves were measured, it was found that they were not constructed to random dimensions, but to a well known measure from the Harappan period: the angulam[2].

The urbanized Harappan civilization with elaborate town planning had knowledge of geometry and standardized measures. Statistical analysis of various Harappan settlements has shown that the basic unit of measurement was 17.63 mm[3]. This is taken to be one angulam and 108 angulams one dhanus. Various dimensions in the Harappan site of Dholavira are  integral multiple of dhanus. Now at a different site — Kalibangan — a terracota scale was found and when the measure between the tick marks was analyzed, it was found to be 17.5 mm. This also matched the measurement found in ivory and metal scales and shell markings at other sites[1].

The angulam is approximately 1.763 cms in Harappa, 1.75 in Kalibangan, and 1.77 in Lothal. The Arthashashtra derives larger units from angulam: garhapatya dhanus is 108 angulams; 1 danda, 96 angulams.

In the Mauryan caves, it was found that the danda measured the cave perfectly. For example the Lomas Rishi cave was 6 dandas long and 3.5 dandas wide and the Sudaman cave, 10 dandas long and 3.5 dandas wide. There is some fine print here as the Arthashastra provides confusing descriptions for various measures: one hasta is either 24, 28, or 54 angulams and one danda is 96 or 192 angulams. Since 96 was used by later texts, that measure was chosen.

What makes this interesting is that while cutting caves through hard rock, the Mauryans did not randomly dig through; the caves were carefully planned and constructed with pre-determined dimensions. Two caves in  Nagarjuni hills had the same dimension, so did two caves in Barabar hills. This also reveals that the Harappan measures were used in the Gangetic plain, even after 2000 years.

References:

  1. Analysis of terracotta scale of Harappan civilization from Kalibangan, Current Science, VOL. 95, NO. 5, 10 September 2008, R. Balasubramaniam, Jagat Pati Joshi
  2. New insights on metrology during the Mauryan period by R. Balasubramaniam in Current Science, VOL. 97, NO. 5, 10 September 2009
  3. Unravelling Dholavira’s Goemetry by Michel Danino
  4. New Insights into Harappan Town-Planning, Proportions and Units, with Special Reference to Dholavira, by Michel Danino, Man and Environment, vol. XXXIII, No. 1, 2008, pp. 66-79
  5. Asoka and the Decline of the Mauryas by Romila Thapar

Image Credit: Wikipedia

Comments { 10 }

Converting Kublai Khan

According to the Joshua Project, the 10/40 window is home to people where the gospel has to be preached. The goal of this project is to share information to “encourage pioneer church-planting movements among every ethnic group and to facilitate effective coordination of mission agency efforts.” Or in simple words, facilitate conversion in Islamic countries, India, China and other minor countries in the neighborhood.

Ever since Roman Emperor Constantine legitimized the Jesus movement and converted to Christianity in his death bed, the religion expanded in a major way to change the West forever. There was a similar opportunity for Christians in the 13th century to convert Kublai Khan. If the Khan had converted, during the time of Mongol dominance (see map), the religious map of China and Mongolia would have made a Joshua Project volunteer smile.

The Khan did not hate Christians; in fact he had great respect for them. He was always curious about Christian kings and princes and wanted to know more about the Pope and how how Christians worshiped. When Niccolò and Maffeo (Marco Polo’s father and uncle) were returning back to Venice after their first visit, the Khan sent a letter to the Pope with them. It was a challenge. He wanted the Pope to send a hundred missionaries prepared to proselytize. These missionaries had to reason out that their faith was superior than others. If the Khan could be convinced he was ready to become a man of the Church without renouncing the Mongolian religion. He also wanted the Polos to get him the oil from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, believed to have great healing powers.

The Polos gave Khan’s letter to the newly elected  Pope Gregory X who could only spare two Dominican monks instead of the hundred. With the oil, the two Polo brothers, along with a 17 year Marco Polo and the monks, started their journey to the Khan’s court. The monks dropped out in the middle of the journey due to fear, but the Polos reached the Khan’s court near Beijing and the Khan treated the oil with respect (the same way he would treat relics from Sri Pada)

Kublai Khan was once challenged by Nayan Khan, his uncle, who was a Nestorian Christian. In this power struggle, Nayan fought under a standard which displayed the “Cross of Christ”, but he did get any visions like Constantine during the battle of the Milvian bridge. Nayan lost and was killed as per Mongol custom – by wrapping in a carpet and dragged around violently – so that blood is not spilled. Following this when various people made fun of Nayan’s Christian faith and Holy Cross, Kublai Khan differentiated between Nayan’s treachery and his faith and ensured the Christians that they will not be persecuted for their religion; he did not behave like the 15th century Spaniards and 17th century French.

Actually Kublai Khan’s mother, Sorghaghtani Beki, was a Nestorian Christian. So you would think that she would influence him to convert. Even though she was a single parent, she made him appreciate Buddhism, Taoism and Islam besides Christianity. It was probably a wise thing to do to preserve harmony in the empire, but Sorghaghtani Beki did it out of conviction.

Seeing the Khan’s sympathy towards Christians the Polos asked why he did not convert? He said Christianity was just another religion and nothing else. Much before Marco Polo, William of Rubruck – a Franciscan missionary – made his way to Karakorum, debating Buddhist priests and nearly dying of starvation. He finally met Mongke Khan, Kublai Khan’s brother who explained to the Friar that the God has passed various religious beliefs to people and Mongols were a tolerant folk.

Kublai Khan told Marco Polo that he found idolaters had more power – they could make wine cups float to the khan or make storms go away. Basically he was more impressed with shaman magic than the promise of an after life. He said if he converted to Christianity and if his barons asked for an explanation, he had none. He thought that embracing Christianity would weaken him and the best way to maintain peace in the empire was to be in good terms with barons.

Right now 50% of Mongolians are Buddhists and 40% don’t belong to any religion. Christians and Shamanists form 6%; Muslims, 4%.

References:

  1. Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu by Laurence Bergreen
  2. Marco Polo and the Discovery of the World by John Larner
Comments { 13 }

How did Adam reach Sri Lanka?

In this picture, taken in 1885, you will see a small ladder placed near the top-right window. In this picture, taken more than a century later, you can see the ladder exactly at the same position. The building is Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built where Jesus is believed to be crucified and burried, and in Jerusalem, moving even a ladder requires divine intervention.

There is another place in the world, which is holy not just for Christians and Muslims, but also for Hindus and Buddhists where such problems do not exist. Located in Sri Lanka and currently called Adam’s peak, it was called Samanalakanda by the Sinhalese and Shivanolipatha Malai and Shiva padam by Hindus.So connection does Adam have with Sri Lanka and how did it become Adam’s peak?

First, what’s at the top of the mountain.? Captain John Ribeyro who fought in the civil war in the 17th century described the summit[5].

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Hindus believe that this depression on the mountain which resembles a giant foot is the foot step of Shiva; for Buddhists it is the foot print of Buddha. Chrisitians believe that it belongs to St. Thomas and there are many other traditions which attribute the foot print to Jehovah, Eunuch of Candace and Satan[1]. It is Muslim tradition that attributes the foot print to Adam, their first prophet.

In fact there is an explanation for how Adam, a person from a middle eastern tradition, reached Sri Lanka. God, upset by Adam and Eve, threw them out of heaven and Adam landed in Sri Lanka creating an impression on the peak. He repented for a millennium when Gabriel took him to Arabia where Eve had landed. They both then returned to Sri Lanka and propagated the human race[4].

Soleyman, an Arab merchant who visited Ceylon in the ninth century, mentioned the Adam tradition, which suggests that it was prevalent within two centuries of Islam’s founding. Sindbad the Sailor’s tales, believed to be partly based on real sailors tales, also mentions a pilgrimage to the place “where Adam was confined after his banishment from Paradiese.” It is believed that this tradition originated among the Copts (Egyptian Christians) of the fourth and fifth centuries[4]. There is also a story which mentions that a group of three Arabs led by Sheikh Seijuddin, who according to tradition, converted Cheraman Perumal of Kodungallur, were on a pilgrimage to Adam’s peak.

Diego de Couto, a Portuguese writer of the 16th century did not believe it was the foot print of Adam; he thought it belonged to St. Thomas. Marco Polo had heard from Muslims and Christians that there was a monument to Adam, but he did not agree with that it had anything to do with Adam. This was because, according to the scripture of Marco Polo’s Church, Adam belonged to another part of the world. Instead he believed the Buddhist version and that the teeth, hairs and bowl of some “venerable figure” was commemorated[2].

When he heard about the relics, Marco Polo’s patron Kublai Khan sent emissaries to Ceylon
to ask Parakkamabahu II, a Sri Lankan King without a Wikipedia entry, for these items. It took three years for the emissaries to reach Ceylon and they got two molar teeth, some hair, and the bowl. According to Marco Polo, Kublai Khan received these items with respect[2].

Marco Polo never climbed the mountain, but Ibn Battuta did. He went to Ceylon specifically for mountaineering. With an entourage of 10 Brahmin priests, 15 porters, 10 courtiers and 4 yogis (provided by Martanda Cinkaiariyan of the Aryacakravarti dynasty) he made the trip to the peak and back. The final climb was quite hard  – a vertical ascent “by means of little stirrups affixed to chains suspended from iron pegs.” There he prayed with Buddhists and Muslims but does not mention seeing Christians[3].

The mountain was officially renamed to Adam’s peak by Major James Rennell, the British geographer who worked in India.

References:

  1. The History of a Mountain By Elise Reclus, Bertha Ness, John Lillie
  2. Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu by by Laurence Bergreen
  3. The Adventures of Ibn Battuta by Ross E. Dunn.
  4. Adam’s Peak by William Skeen
  5. History Of Ceylon: Presented By Captain John Ribeyro To The King Of Portugal, In 1685 (1847)

(Image Credit: Munir)

Comments { 4 }

Chandragupta Maurya or Chandragupta?

Reader Kedar asked two questions recently

  1. There is a huge gap between Mahabharata (3100 BCE, 2450 BCE, 1500 BCE) and the Mahajapadas. What happened there?
  2. Who was the contemporary of Alexander of Macedonia? Chandragupta Maurya or the Guptas? Do Mahavira, Buddha and Adi Shankara belong to an earlier period?

We will look at (2) today and deal with (1) later.

At the International Conference on Indian History, Civilisation and Geopolitics 2009, Dr Subramanian Swamy gave the valdedictory speech on the need to defalsify Indian history. In this speech, Dr. Swamy stated that most dates  related to Indian history – Rigveda, Mahabharata, Buddha, Asoka —  are wrong. This happened because European historians identified Sandrocottus, mentioned by Megasthenes, as Chandragupta Maurya. This Sandrocottos was a contemporary of Alexander and from associated calculations, the date of Chandragupta Maurya’s coronation was found. Based on this point, Asoka’s corononation was calculated, so was the time of Buddha.

But according to Swamy,  the correct dates are as follows

However, on the basis of these calculations we can say that Gupta Chandragupta was “Sandrocottus” c.327 B.C. His son, Samudragupta, was the great king who established a unified kingdom all over India, and obtained from the Cholas, Pandyas, and Cheras their recognition of him. He also had defeated Seleucus Nicator, while his father Chandragupta was king. On this calculation we can also place Prithu at 6777 B.C. and Lord Rama before that. Derivation of other dates without discussion may also be briefly mentioned here: Buddha’s Nirvana 1807 B.C., Maurya Chandragupta c. 1534 B.C., Harsha Vikramaditya (Parmar) c. 82 B.C.[Non-random-Thoughts: ‘De-falsify Indian history’ — Dr Subramanian Swamy]

Thus, a case is presented that Western historians distorted Indian history and it is our responsibility to correct it. So let us accept for a moment that Buddha lived in 1807 BCE. We don’t have archaeological evidence of the cities and kingdoms mentioned in Buddhist texts dating to that period.

If Rama lived in 6777 BCE, he belonged to the Neolithic age and would have fought with axe heads and chisels. This Rama would be vastly different from the one portrayed in Ramayana, like King David. The Tel Dan Stele mentions David’s existence, but archaeology has found that he would have been not a king, but a petty warlord of a small chiefdom with few settlements. So did this Neolothic Rama’s exploits survive as a mnemohistory, like how David’s lives in the Torah?

Whether due to colonial bias or not, we have certain dates and there is an effort to propose new ones. But these new ones have to take into consideration the social order of the time and also be backed up by archaeology.

Comments { 7 }