Bihar State´s Keeping Of Buddha´s Ashes In A Museum Upsets Buddhists

2004-02-05 00:00:00

The ashes of Gautama Buddha have come to rest in a state museum, despite objections raised by Buddhist pilgrims who want the sacred relics deposited in their holiest temple.

Bihar state in eastern Indian cites security reasons for keeping an urn containing Buddha´s ashes at a museum in Patna, the state capital, 1,015 kilometers southeast of New Delhi. But Buddhist monks and pilgrims demand that the relics be moved to Mahabodhi temple in Bodh Gaya, 100 kilometers south of Patna where Buddha is believed to have attained enlightenment 2,500 years ago.

The urn was excavated in 1958 from Vaishali, bounded by the hills of Nepal to the north and the Gandak River on the west, and has been kept in the museum ever since. Visitors must pay 100 rupees (US$2.20) to enter and view the urn. Buddhist monks such as Bhante Pragayasheel, 40, coordinator of the All India Buddhist Monks Council, say the government is using the relics to promote tourism. This is "brazen deprivation of our religious freedom," the monk told UCA News. He said that the thousands who come to Bodh Gaya every year cannot worship this "most sacred" Buddhist relic.

In 1998, Bihar authorities brought the urn to Mahabodhi temple in Bodh Gaya for a Buddhist ceremony. However, Bhante Pragayasheel said it was "an outright commercial and political venture" to promote tourism. The monk also said that the Buddhists expected the government to install the relics permanently in the temple, but the government took back the urn "stealthily" within a fortnight. Lama Neten, a Buddhist monk from the northeastern Indian state of Sikkim, told UCA News that the government´s action shocked Buddhist pilgrims.

The state´s refusal to heed the Buddhist demand has prompted Bhante Tathagat Anirudha, another Buddhist monk, to ask: "Is it a relic of only archaeological value to be exhibited for state revenue? Are (state authorities) unaware that (the urn) is the most valued spiritual wealth for Buddhists?" The urn has been opened only in 1998, 1999 and 2001.

Another monk, 63-year-old Venerable Anirudha, said the state government has put the relics on display in the museum during the past year and now charges 100 rupees for anyone wanting to view it. "This is obviously selling the spirituality of our holiest asset," he said. He added that most pilgrims are poor and find the fee "unaffordable."

Nirmal Bhutia, 69, a lay Buddhist from Nepal who came to Bihar for a "once in a life time pilgrimage," agrees. Bhutia said that he and other pilgrims came to see the urn but could not afford the entrance fee. His pilgrim group did not carry much money while walking most of the distance as penance. They carried minimum food and slept in Buddhist inns along the way, he explained.

Venerable Mitsuhashi Wipulatissa, who is in charge of the Japanese monastery in Bodh Gaya, said pilgrims from Japan, South Korea, Thailand and Western countries may find the museum fee affordable but they face another dilemma. According to the monk, the museum is not a temple but "an ordinary building" that houses many other artifacts. "We cannot pray in a museum," he said. That is why all Buddhists, irrespective of national and economic differences, find it "an act of sacrilege" to keep the relics in the museum, he added.

Prafulla Chand Roy, a retired university professor of Buddhist philosophy and a Hindu, maintains that if security is the concern, the government could install the ashes in a high security place within the Bodh Gaya temple. But the state government dismisses that proposal as impractical. Ashok Kumar Singh, state minister for culture and tourism, insists that the government is concerned about the safety of the relics. "The ashes are indeed highly sacred and invaluable, so we cannot risk losing them by moving them to some temple in Bodh Gaya," he explained. "In no case can we arrange there the same security available at the Patna museum."

Historians point out that soon after Buddha was cremated at Kushinagar, now in northern India´s Uttar Pradesh state, seven kings threatened to go to war with each other to possess the ashes, but they settled their dispute by equally sharing the ashes among themselves.

Later, Emperor Ashoka (272-232 BC) collected all the ashes and divided them equally into 84,000 urns that were deposited under the same number of stupas. The one placed in Vaishali is the only urn to have been discovered.

The urn, reportedly made of soapstone or steatite, contains some of Buddha´s ashes, a small copper coin, a tiny piece of gold and a piece of broken conch shell. Vaishali is said to have been in the former kingdom of Vajji, where Buddha had a great following. Chinese traveler Huen Tsang, who lived in Bihar in the 7th century, has recorded details of the Vaishali stupa and its urn.


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