India's Bid to Promote 'Buddhist Tourism' Encounters Hurdles
By Kalinga Seneviratne
This article is the 29th in a series of joint productions of Lotus News Features and IDN-InDepthNews, flagship of the International Press Syndicate. Click here for previous series.
BODHGAYA (IDN) – In recent years the Indian government has been promoting the concept of a 'Buddhist Tourism Circuit' (BTC) with Bodhgaya – the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment under a Bo-Tree – as its centrepiece. Yet, with less than 1 percent of India's population Buddhist today, lack of Buddhist communities around the Buddhist sites hinders the promotional pitch. Bodhgaya is a good example.
Nangzey Dorjee, Secretary, Bodhgaya Temple Management Committee (BTMC) disagrees with that view. "How can you say there are no Buddhists here?" he asked. "There's so many Buddhist temples here. There's so many Buddhists staying or working with these temples. Taking all these as a whole, there is definitely a Buddhist community here," he argued.
Bodhgaya in fact has a vibrant Buddhist community with scores of grand and sometimes colourful Buddhist temples representing different Buddhist countries from across Asia, surrounding the Mahabodhi Temple which hosts the Bodhi tree. However, none of these represents what one would describe as 'Indian Buddhism'.
"Bodhgaya has so many monks, beautiful big temples that are well maintained, but the monks neither know Hindi (local language) nor sometimes English. So, their influence on local community is nil," complained Venerable Pragyadeep Mahathera, general secretary of the All India Bhikku Sangha in an interview with Lotus News Features.
"Local community takes advantage of their charity, they see the monks (in foreign owned temples) as only charity giving. They don’t teach the dhamma (Buddhist philosophy)," he said.
To create a vibrant Buddhist cultural life here, the Bihar state government organized a three-day Buddhist cultural festival at the end of January known as 'Bodh Mahotsav' in the style of an Indian mela (community festival). It was well attended by the local community, but most of the Buddhist cultural performances were done by artistes brought over from Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia, as well as from traditional Indian Buddhist communities in the Himalayas.
"In Bodhgaya you see monasteries from every part of the globe. But I have seen working with TTV that even a Buddhist doesn't help a Buddhist here. They have got very different kind of framework," laments Akil Sindhu founder of Tatagatha TV (TTV), who covered the festival.
"If someone comes from a X country and wants to do a Buddhist ceremony, they will do so among themselves in India. They will not invite or entertain people from India. Because they think people from India are totally beggars. They are everywhere asking for money. (Unfortunately) this type of practice here, has defined the native side of Buddhism here."
A local Buddhist, Kali Prasad Boudh told Lotus News Features that there is a small community of about 15 Buddhists in Siddartha Nagar, just about a kilometre from the Mahabodhi temple, but they don't get much help from the temples.
"The temples here don't try to empower the local Buddhists (who are very poor coming from former Dalit – Hindu low caste – backgrounds)," he said. "They work closely with the BTMC, who in turn works closely with the Bihar (state) government."
Mahabodhi Temple, which was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2002, attracts over 4 million tourists (both domestic and international) annually. At least half of them would be Buddhist pilgrims that arrive with a charitable mindset. This has led to locals exploiting them and any visitor coming here during the Buddhist pilgrim seasons would find hundreds of Buddhist "monks" and NGO charities virtually begging for money in and outside the temple premises.
One local Buddhist said that most of the monks you find with begging bowls and doing Buddhist chantings are fake monks. They will put yellow robes for Bodhgaya, and then change to white robes and go to Mahayana Buddhist pilgrim sites or festivals in other parts of India to beg. "They are professional beggars," he said, adding that "temple management has to do something to stop these people giving a bad image to this sacred place".
In November 2018, it was reported in the local media that a number of fake child monks were apprehended inside the Mahabodhi temple by a regular monk and handed over to the police. Once inside the shrine, they were reported to have duped gullible Buddhist pilgrims from abroad to seek donations, and also stolen wallets and other valuables of the visitors.
Dorjee said that it is difficult to differentiate between a fake monk and a real one. "Mahabodhi temple is a public place not a private place. Anybody can come here. As Buddhists we can't say only Buddhists can come here. (But) if one does a crime, we can debar him," he said.
He argued that the fact Bodhgaya is attracting such a large number of poor people to earn a livelihood from begging shows that the temple is "influencing this whole area with Buddhist culture". A solution to the crux of the problem lies in providing education to the poor, so that they don't continue to live in poverty, he added.
When asked whether BTMC could initiate a foundation to channel large donations they receive from pilgrims into such activities, he welcomed the suggestion, but said that the temple also needs large funds to maintain the place. “Because of this temple so many are benefiting; that is the charity part of it;" he argued.
Venerable Seevali, general secretary of the Mahabodhi Society of India believes that if a thriving Indian Buddhist community is to be developed in Bodhgaya, the government needs to establish a scheme to improve the economy of the poor.
"The government can (then) ask pilgrims to donate to these projects," he said. "There are no such schemes at present. The pilgrims come here, often using their life savings. It is not their duty to alleviate these peoples' poverty."
Mahabodhi Society in fact runs a school here educating the local community. But, Ven Pragyadeep Mahathera is critical of this school because most of its students are Hindus and Muslims from the local community. "Mahabodhi is not teaching Buddhism in the school," he said. "They need to teach Dhamma at a very low level to the local population to develop a Buddhist community here."
Ven Seevali agreed that the Mahabodi school is not a Buddhist school. "Mahabodhi Society is not here to convert Hindus and Muslims (to Buddhism). We are not evangelists. We are helping to educate the community. (In Buddhism) practicing compassion and loving kindness is not only towards the Buddhists," he told the Lotus News Features.
The local NGO run Sujata School near Sujata Shrine here – where a young maiden gave a bowl of milk rice to Prince Siddhartha to break his spell of extreme asceticism and propelled him to find the 'middle path' – is an example of how Buddhist tourism is helping the local community.
The school, which educates 220 poor students from villages in the area, 150 of whom live on site, survives on donations from Buddhist visitors to the shrine close by. They have foot soldiers, who chat up tourists and lobby aggressively for donations. They have survived for eight years so far, with some of the boarded students travelling as far as 50 km away.
Helping the poor of any background without the hidden motive to proselytize may be a good Buddhist tradition. But, local Buddhist Kali Boudh said that BTMCs control of all the Buddhist temples in Bodhgaya needs to be lifted if a local Buddhist community is to prosper.
"(BTMC) does not allow these temples to go outside and promote Buddhism. That is why a Buddhist community is not developing here," he explained.