Bihar: The Ancient Center of Buddhism and Learning

We’ve said it many times before: India is a land of contradiction. No where is that more clear than in Bihar, where Melissa has been working one week every month for the past year, which she wrote about last year and will certainly write about again soon. Tom was finally able to visit just after Thanksgiving when her November and December weeks kept her in Patna over a weekend. We were able to do some of the touristy things Melissa has never had the time to do, seeing, experiencing, and learning about the rich and vital history of the region while at the same time witnessing the extraordinary poverty and trying to reconcile Melissa’s experiences in the hospitals and what we all hear about the state with what really should be the pride of all of India.

We had two major goals over the weekend: experience and ponder the Bodhi Tree where Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment and became the Buddha, and tour Nalanda University, thought to be the first residential university in the world. These utterly unique sites illustrate two elements that represent the very best of India: The rich religious tapestry which includes the birth of four of the world’s great religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, an important element in the history of a fifth, Islam, as well as untold numbers of other faiths, from Baha’i on down to very personal, individualized faith communities; and the historical priority placed on education.

The British Raj wreaked havoc on the entire subcontinent, but no where more so than in Bihar. What had once been the bread basket of all of India was ravaged, both by the British insistence that farmers plant indigo and opium to be sold in China and Europe profiting exclusively the  East India Company, and by the British jealousies of Indian products, industrial and agricultural, which inspired the Raj to forbid Indian producers to compete with British products. The result was the death of the soils of Bihar, which led to Bihar now being the poorest state in India, and instead of all Indians taking pride in Bihar’s role in making India what it is, many Indians will say things such as, “India would be better off if Bihar weren’t part of it.”

Bus riders
All over Bihar, this seems to be just how one rides the bus.

After a night in Patna, our first stop was Bodh Gaya, where Buddha attained enlightenment. We loved the temple complex that surrounds the Bodhi Tree. Being one of the most important religious sites in the world, and with our experiences with crowds elsewhere in India we expected throngs of people and the chaos that comes with them. What we found instead was indeed a very peaceful spot, with many people paying respects to be sure, but it is so well organized that there were all kinds of peaceful spots to sit and contemplate. People were paying their respects in all kinds of ways, from sitting in meditation and prayerful circumambulation, to one man who made at least two complete circuits while we were there, lying prone on the ground, placing a marigold flower at his head, standing, then stepping forward to the marigold, then lying prone again, and repeating, all the way around the tree and the temple next to it, an act of devotion that was inspiring to watch. According to the story of Buddha’s enlightenment, Siddhartha Gautama spent seven weeks in meditation on the site, each week in a different spot before attaining enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree. Each one of those places is marked as its own place of reflection.

Buddha selfie
Cameras and phones aren’t allowed in the Bodhi Tree temple, so here we are at the nearby Great Buddha Statue.

Surrounding the temple itself are a number of Buddhist seminaries representing sects from around the world as well as monuments constructed by those various sects. The most impressive we experienced was The Great Buddha Statue, erected by the Daijokyo Buddhists of Japan and consecrated by the Dalai Lama in 1989. It is surrounded by 10 disciples demonstrating the various mudras, or hand positions. It is stunning.

Collage 2018-12-17 12_28_32
Clockwise from upper left: carvings surrounding one of the temples, the feet of the 80 foot standing Buddha statue, the typical courtyard, with monks’ cells around the edges and a platform for addressing them in the middle, and Melissa made Tom pretend he was teaching at the monastery.

After taking in the center of the Buddhist world, it was time to see what used to be the center of the academic world. So central that Siddhartha Gautama himself studied there. The ruins at Nalanda University weren’t from Gautama’s time — they date back to the fifth century CE, while Gautama studied there in the third century BCE. As a result, much of the iconography and temples are dedicated to the Buddha with some shout out to the Vedic texts and traditions (which would later be the foundation of Hinduism) Gautama himself was there to study. At its height in the fifth to twelfth centuries CE, it supported 10,000 students and 2,000 teachers as well as the surrounding community required to sustain such a large institution. The site was excavated starting in 1915, and the result is a complex that includes several temples, the ruins of the living quarters of the monks, and the site of what was once the largest library in the world. It is clear by the number of school groups who were there on a Sunday that it is clearly an important site for those who live nearby. Even with the crowds, our favorite temple was set apart, and therefore had fewer people, where the feet of what had been an 80 foot standing Buddha remains. It was overwhelming.

Across the street from the archaeological site is the Archaeological Museum. It’s a small museum but dedicated entirely to artifacts found in Nalanda, and it was established from the early days of the dig. The pieces run the gamut from Buddhist iconography and Hindu images to coins and other secular pieces. The school groups also took a trip through the museum, meaning we had those moments of being the most interesting thing in the room to these kids who act as if they had never seen people so ghostly pale as we are, even though that room had items thousands of years old representing the roots of their faiths.

We had some time before Tom had to catch his flight back to Bangalore, so we stopped off at the Bihar Museum, a brand new facility whose spaces were still being developed. There were several interesting exhibits on the history of Bihar which, as we’ve said earlier, is the history of India. There were some other interesting exhibits describing traditional crafts of the region. It will be interesting to see how they continue to develop the museum. The building itself is a lot closer to what we in the West expect out of museums than anything we’ve seen in Bangalore, which are often not at all temperature controlled, haphazardly equipped with fans to control air flow, have various levels of light control, and seemingly stuck into pre-existing spaces. The Bihar Museum is made up of intentional spaces with a strong attempt to control the climate for preservation purposes and quite successfully tells the stories they were trying to tell.

The museum is an example of an interesting thing we noticed in Patna in particular: there seemed to be a concerted effort to invest in public spaces. There are beautiful parks and a couple of very interesting museums. However, this is where the India as a land of contradictions thesis plays out. In the context of India, Patna is a small city, about the same population as the Portland Metro area. In addition to the pride one sees in those beautiful spaces, the garbage piles up, the slums are heartbreaking and everywhere, and most buildings seem in some level of disrepair. Melissa is discovering in her work that Bihar doesn’t necessarily need further national investment — it needs a culture shift. Corruption is present throughout India, but until the culture of corruption in Bihar is addressed, more investment will simply mean more corruption.

Bihar deserves better. It is the cradle of Indian culture, and as such Western culture has its roots in this state. The people are kind, and the landscape is breathtaking. We dream, along with our Bihari friends, of a day when all of India looks on Bihar with pride instead of the scorn it faces today.