Will Buddhists seek to reclaim monuments destroyed to build Hindu temples?

The Places of Worship Act, 1991 is being challenged over the cut-off date of August 15, 1947. But should one then go back to the time when Buddhist and Jain temples were destroyed by Hindus?


Arun Sinha

Thanks to Hindu revivalists, ‘historical wrong’ is never out of the news. We are at the Gyanvapi mosque today but we will surely go to other mosques sooner or later. For, so deeply traumatised is the Hindu heart by the demolition of temples by Muslim rulers in medieval India—we are told—that it would not find rest until all those temples have been reclaimed.

Are the Hindu revivalists taking the nation in the right direction? The answer is a big no. Not only because they are relentlessly battering the walls of religious harmony, but also because they are trying to seduce the nation to lose its power of reasoning and sense of history.

Look at the way they define ‘historical wrongs’. These ‘wrongs’ are invariably committed by Muslim rulers in medieval India. Now, nobody denies Muslim rulers demolished Hindu temples. But was there no destruction of religious establishments before Islam arrived in India?

There are several descriptions and references of Hindu kings demolishing Buddhist and Jain temples and monasteries in pre-Muslim India in the ancient and early medieval literature left behind by historians, seers, religious chroniclers and foreign travellers. These descriptions and references are supplemented by the discovery of remains of Buddhist structures at the sites of Hindu temples by archaeologists at several places in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

Buddhism and Jainism were looked upon by Brahmanical leaders of Hinduism as heresies and denounced as the religious ideologies of the outcasts, worthy of little else but obliteration. Buddhism spread far and wide during the Mauryan emperor Ashoka’s life time, and that was one of the reasons that generated a great deal of hostility of the Brahmanical forces toward it, which was reflected in the widespread persecution of the Buddhists and destruction and desecration of their temples and monasteries in the centuries following the Mauryan era.

Pushyamitra, a king of the Sunga dynasty that took over power after the Mauryas, was said to have destroyed many Buddhist monasteries and killed Buddhist monks wherever he could find them; so did the Gauda king of Bengal, Shashanka. According to Rajtarangini, a Shaivite descendant of Ashoka ruling Kashmir destroyed Buddhist monasteries in his kingdom. Huen Tsang in his travels through India in 7th century AD mentions that Shashanka cut down the Bodhi tree in Gaya under which the Buddha had attained enlightenment. Hindu seers have gloated over the temples of Buddhists and Jains being left in ruins in the wake of Shankara’s triumphal anti-heresy campaign.

Noted sociologist Gail Omvedt in her book, ‘Buddhism in India’ writes, “In the end, we have the rather strange situation where a religion claiming the kind of ‘tolerance’ which Hinduism does did not allow scope for Buddhism. There seem to have been inherent contradictions between Buddhist and Brahmanic teachings, such that one had to drive out the other.”

According to eminent historian DN Jha, archaeological evidence has been found of Hindu structures being erected above the ruins of and reusing materials of Buddhist structures at Sarnath where the Buddha delivered his first sermon.

Sarnath is hardly 15 kilometres from Varanasi. How would the Hindu revivalists, who are reclaiming the Gyanvapi mosque in the city with the “discovery of a Shivling,” feel if the Buddhists start demanding destruction of the Hindu structures at Sarnath and restoration of their revered place in its original architecture?

According to Jha, there is evidence to show that the Bhuteshwar and Gokarneshwar temples at Mathura were built on Buddhist sites.

Will the Hindu revivalists, who are disputing the Shahi Idgah Masjid site at Mathura, join the Buddhists if they start demanding that the foundations of the two temples be dug up to check for the evidence of a Buddhist temple beneath them?

It is clear that the Hindu revivalists are being selective, prejudicial and partisan in targeting ‘historical wrongs’ that were done in a narrow period of history.

We are not actually suggesting here that we broaden the time of history to include destruction of places of worship in pre-Muslim India. We are only making an argument to show that the Hindu revivalists are being selective about the period in identifying historical wrongs. We only mean to convey that history can be a beehive. If you thrust your hand into it for honey, bees will sting you. We do not want it to happen. We want all disputes over temple demolitions in history to be closed.

The ancient and medieval periods were different from the time in which we Indians are living today. Wars and conquests were common. There were kings who, while being followers of one faith, did not impose their faiths upon the people of the conquered territories. But there were also kings who imposed their faiths upon them. They started by destroying the shrines of other faiths in the conquered territories. Hindu kings destroyed Buddhist shrines and the Muslim kings destroyed Hindu shrines.

At the heart of it, though, the destruction of the shrines of other faiths by the conqueror was more of a political campaign than a religious campaign. It was a part of his plan to make his conquest more secure, to make his and his dynasty’s reign long. The colonial powers of Europe encouraged Christian missionaries to proselytize natives because it would help them gain popular legitimacy and longevity. Their philosophy was but a continuation of the philosophy of conquering kings in ancient and medieval India.

But those eras are gone. We are living in a democracy where people are allowed to practise their different faiths. What the Hindu revivalists are doing is trying to take us back to those eras. And very selectively.

In the Supreme Court, they are challenging the Places of Worship Act 1991 on the ground that it arbitrarily sets a cut-off date of August 15, 1947 for allowing status quo for places of worship. They obviously want the cut-off date to be Babur’s arrival or Ghazni’s first raid. What they do not realise is that it cannot stop there.

The Buddhists and Jains could demand a cut-off date of centuries before Christ. On whose side will the Hindu revivalists then be?

(Arun Sinha is an independent journalist and author. Views are personal)

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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