Encounters with Buddhism - Journey to a Buddha Vihara in Odisha

(Photo of Buddha Vihara near Konark in Odisha)

Recently I was travelling in the Puri district to film a documentary on coastal erosion. My companion in the trip was Mr Harish Chandra Dash an ex official of the Archeological Survey of India. We both share a common interest - visiting heritage sites of religious interest.

While travelling in the Astaranga Block a signboard attracted my attention. It was about a Buddha Vihara that was about 2km from the main road. I looked at Mr Dash and he said we will visit while returning.

It was nearing dusk when we reached the spot again and we turned towards the site.

I have a fascination for the Buddha and his teachings. In my childhood I had read about Ateesh Dipankar a Buddhist sage of now Bangladesh and that name often occurs to me like a long lost connection. I feel him in my Guru who is a person of that stature. Later I was surprised to know that some monks of the Order also feel that he is a reincarnation of a Buddhist monk.

When I landed a job with a Sikkim based company I was elated. I knew that my dream of visiting the Rumtek Monastery would be fulfilled and it happened. I travelled to the monastery in the rainy season when no vehicle usually travels on that road. With great difficulty I could find a driver who agreed. That journey despite the great risk was enchanting and unforgettable.

My long standing wish of meeting the Dalai Lama too was fulfilled in Bhubaneswar itself. The Lama was to arrive in the Odisha Guest House in transit to the monastery at Chandragiri. There were two of us in the Guest House awaiting him; myself and a gentleman from Puri. Finally he arrived with a retinue and huge bodyguards surrounding him.

We did not waste time and dived into the crowd. The guards rushed towards us and we swerved here and there to avoid them. The Dalai Lama saw this and started laughing. He called out to the guards and pulled us towards him. I still remember those huge hands and that embrace. The people surrounding him told us we were lucky. The Lama rarely allows people to touch him. It was actually an initiation that we received from him.

Many years earlier in Bhubaneswar I used to visit the Bodhi Temple. An Odia monk who was a retired Chief Engineer was in charge. I learnt the art of breathing from him sitting under the Bodhi tree in the premises. At that time the premises used to have a spartan look and the tree was majestic and imposing.

When in Sikkim I visited all the monasteries I could in Gangtok. It was the nearest I could ever go to the Himalayan range, another wish of mine.

There was a small hill near my factory and I used to visit the monastery on top of it every evening whenever I used to visit and stay in the city. The Head of the monastery lived in seclusion. He had the power to dominate the weather. The locals came to the monastery whenever they scheduled a function. They prayed for good weather and it seems no prayer has ever gone unanswered.

I had no such wish. I prayed in the prayer hall and took great pleasure in rotating the Dharma Chakras. The young monks used to greet me with a smile as I used to be the last one to emerge from the hall and had to be literally nudged out.

The monasteries burn lamps of Yak butter. The smell is enchanting and you are transferred to another world. The smell and the mural paintings hanging on the walls reminded me of traditional Tibetan life and made me feel as if I was a part of it.

While visiting the Rumtek Monastery I also had tea made of Yak milk. I remember sitting in the open shop surrounded by clouds and drinking the tea. I doubt if heaven would have a better feel.

Once again I am drawn towards that journey. As our Jonga travelled the narrow path in the haze and in-between the heavy spurts of rain, I could see chunks of metal tied up in ropes in crevices of the rock wall.

What are these I asked the driver. They are remnants of the vehicles that have fallen off the cliff he said. They are dragged up with ropes and kept till they are taken away. I did not like to drag the conversation anymore and let him concentrate on driving.

There were full flowing mountain streams on the way. I had to get down while going through them as it was safer to cross on foot. The icy cold water felt colder than ice.

I will never forget those days. Sikkim is a very beautiful place. One should visit once at least. There are three photographs you will see in every house, that of the Dalai Lama, the Panchen Lama, and Baba Harbhajan Singh the dead serving soldier of the Indian army.

The manager of the hotel I used to be put up in narrated to me how the Baba appears to people when they get lost in the woods or they fall in trouble in it and leads them to safety. Even the Chinese soldiers visit the Indian side to pray to him and offer flowers and gifts in his Langar cum Office.

My yet another wish of visiting Bodh Gaya and praying beneath the Bodhi tree also materialized in the year 2000. My brother was posted in Patna and I visited him. He was worried when I told him about my wish. It was Lalu's time and the road to Bodh Gaya was constantly in the lime light for the wrong reasons. Once again a driver agreed and the visit happened. I not only prayed beneath the Bodhi tree but also joined a prayer session with the Buddhist monks in the shrine.

I have received many a lemon in this life but God has been gracious in granting me these wishes.

(Avolokiteswara Buddha in the Buddha Vihara)

Coming back to the topic, we reached the excavated Buddha Vihara when there was still some light. There is a very big tank, a raised platform, a temple with the image of Avalokiteswara Buddha, and underground caves. I would have enjoyed more if it was daylight.

(View of the bathing pond within the Vihara)

Buddhism had a great run in India and many of us have past lives in that period resulting in the attraction we feel towards the religion. But why did Buddhism fall? While returning from the site I and Mr Dash had a long conversation on this.

Mr Dash said the whole of Odisha was a Buddhist stronghold. It was one of the largest set up in India with a huge network of monasteries. The Lalitgiri, Udaygiri, and Ratnagiri are just fragments.

The Jagannath Temple was once a Buddhist Temple. The Buddha idol that was worshipped in it now lies behind the idol of the Sun God in the Sun Temple within its premises. I have seen it. If you ask the servitor will take you behind the idol and show it to you with a lamp.

Today Buddhism is barely observed in the state. What was behind the decline of Buddhism?

The Buddha struggled to find a path for self realization. That was his core and only aim. After many attempts he finally adopted the middle path and obtained realization under the Bodhi tree.

Buddha did not set up any religion. He just showed a path and detailed the principles that were to be followed. He rediscovered the ancient path followed by self realized Sages (Buddha's - awakened ones) before him.

He appeared at a time when the path was forgotten and people had become engrossed in extensive rituals. Simplicity was lost as was the spontaneous access to the universal force that drives all life. We call it the Sanatan Dharma, principles that align one to the Cosmos.

To the principles Buddha added a few more things with time when he observed the monks undergoing great difficulties as they traversed the length and breadth of the country and meditated in caves. Many died from the hardship and from animal attacks, snakes and other poisonous insects. Buddha encouraged ayurveda for health issues and added the Garuda Tantra to protect from snakes and insects and also to treat the bites.

This proved to be the undoing of Buddha's teachings. Tantra became the base of a new religion that formed as the monks were enamored by the powers they could gain from it. The Buddha's path of self realization took a massive hit.

Therefore it is said that the path of the Buddha survived in its full glory only during his life time. The very things Buddha warned against became the focus of the monks.

The idol of the Buddha began to be worshipped. Rituals became the soul. Power became the goal. This I noticed in Sikkim. The monks have acquired special powers. They are no longer worried about realization. Rituals have overtaken the core teachings.

Buddha encouraged the prepared souls to leave everything and stay in isolation. Thus there emerged monasteries and the path entailed monasticism. Monasteries require money. After the Buddha huge monasteries came up as young people renounced worldly life in very large numbers. These monasteries were supported by rich traders. Money flowed as India was a tourist hub. The entire Silk Route was the monastery stronghold.

As trade declined the monasteries found it difficult to survive.

Buddhism became complex and only monks could follow its new found practices. It had comparatively less lay followers. All the lay followers could do was participating in the monastery rituals and donate to them. Thus the popular base was weak.

Over time the monasteries became the hub for left handed tantra. The women members (Bhikkunis) became the subject of such rituals. The young monks were attracted to debauchery and this led to their downfall.

The people and the kings were unhappy that the young mass preferred to become monks. Families suffered and so did the kingdoms. The people were also wary of the tantric powers wielded by the monks. They had powers over spirits and ghouls and people kept away from the places of worship where such practices reigned.

In Bhubaneswar the 64 Yogini Temple was such a spot. If you talk to the villagers they will tell you stories. Even today the locals avoid the spot at night. In Mancheswar there is a place called Chakeiseni. It was earlier Chakraseni and the centre of Buddhist tantric practices. When a colony came up there initially people found things difficult as they sensed the presence of spirits and left. I stay in a locality not far away and we heard about such incidents that were not rare.

The Shaiva and Vaishnav practices had never gone away as the lay people practiced them. These movements gained in power and with the support of kings the Buddhists were driven away and their temples converted into Shaiva centers. The Bhaskareswar temple in the Tankapani Road of Bhubaneswar has a two story Shiva linga that is actually an Ashoka Stupa commemorating his visit to Buddhist Odisha. The Buddheswari temple in the Cuttack Road could well have been a Buddha temple earlier. Muslim invasion from Bengal added to the destruction. Nationally the attacks by foreign forces on the Buddhist universities were a big blow and a great loss.

Sankaracharya travelled the length and breadth of the country to defeat the decadent Buddhism and establish a more organized form of religion. The other Gurus like Ramanuja, Ballabhacharya, Guru Nanak, and Ramakrishna did their bit. In Odisha the Jagannath culture prevailed over all.

The rise of the Bhakti movement was another blow. Sri Chaitanya spread the movement with fervor and the people joined as the simplicity and the devotional chants appealed to them. Many Buddhists joined this movement. The Panchasakhas of Odisha are a case in point. The mahasunya concept they adhered to is a fragment of Buddhism. The austere Mahima monks of the Shunya sect in Odisha are also such a faction that survives to this day.

Buddhism survived in India because of the Tibetan Buddhists who migrated to India. The Buddha continues to be revered. His ideas can emerge again if they are spread and practiced by the laity.

However today there are many challenges as corruption prevails at every level. Maybe we can see the emergence of the universal principles after the coming destruction when the dust settles to reveal a chastened population.

"Only the poor and insignificant will survive". They will carry the torch forward.

(Temple in Buddha Vihara)