Mapping the Buddhist Holy Land

Mahabodhi Society

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In 1885, Edwin Arnold (1832-1909 CE), an English journalist, visited Bōdhgayā. He was disturbed to find the site of the Buddha's enlightenment under Hindu control, with Buddhists not able to practice their religion there.[1]xlix He covered this in his writings, which attracted the attention of Anagārika Dharmapāla (1864-1933 CE), a Sri Lankan Buddhist best known at the time as being an advocate for an independent Sri Lankan Buddhist state. Dharmapāla was born Don David Hewavitarane to an English-speaking Buddhist family in Sri Lanka; however, he was educated in Christian schools.[2]l His education led him to become a great orator in several languages, and he made connections as a young man with a diverse community of thinkers, including members of the Theosophical Society, an organization founded by Henry Olcott (1832-1907 CE) with the intention of spreading Buddhism to the West.[3]li After joining the Theosophical Society and noticing that the role of Buddhism in Sri Lanka was mainly defined by the monastics or monarchy, Don David changed his name to Anagārika (naked wanderer) Dharmapāla (protector of the Dharma), declared himself Buddhist and sought to establish a more prominent role in Buddhist leadership for the layperson.[4]lii The work that he did promoting Buddhism in India would require that he remain active in the world, and as a layperson he could attend to things that he could not as a monastic. Dharmapāla would himself be a member of the lay community for much of his life, despite his deep passion for Buddhism, only taking monastic vows late in life.[5]liii

After reading Arnold’s writings in 1886 on the state of conditions in the Buddhist Holy Land, Dharmapāla arranged a meeting with him.[6]liv During this meeting, Arnold helped convince Dharmapāla that the Buddhist sites of Bōdhgayā and Sārnāth should be placed back under Buddhist control, and he urged Dharmapāla to visit these sites for himself. In 1891, Dharmapāla did just that, and was shocked by his own experiences at Bōdhgayā. That same year, Dharmapāla, together with Arnold and with the help of other members of the Buddhist community worldwide, created the Maha Bodhi Society.[7]lv The founding of the Maha Bodhi Society was "for the purpose of resuscitation of Buddhism in India and restoring the ancient Buddhist shrines at Bōdhgayā, Sārnāth and Kuśinagar”.[8]lvi His first goal was to restore Bōdhgayā; however, a long court proceeding ensued to get control of the land back from the priests who then controlled it.[9]lvii Tied down in court and unable to make headway with Bōdhgayā, Dharmapāla instead looked to Sārnāth as the place to start his movement to revitalize the Buddhist religion, and not just culture, in India.

The Maha Bodhi Society began work at Sārnāth shorty after establishing its headquarters in Calcutta. Sārnāth was the perfect location for Dharmapāla to realize his goals since recent excavations had yielded tremendous findings of early Mauryan period Buddha statues. Dharmapāla had previously encountered difficulties in China, where he struggled to recruit Chinese monks into the Maha Bodhi Society. He discerned that one reason his recruitment campaign there had failed was that differing schools of Buddhist thought could not essentially agree on the uniformity of the religion.[10]lviii

He realized that pilgrimage was an important part of Buddhism that could provide a basis of agreement for all Buddhists. Pilgrimage would also bring people into the Buddhist Holy Land, attracting attention and potential donors.[11]lix In 1926, after being granted land by the Indian Government, the Maha Bodhi Society began construction on the Mūlagandhakutī Vihāra, one of Sārnāth's most distinctive temples.[12]lx A curious blend of architecture, the Mūlagandhakutī Vihāra is certainly not only aesthetically pleasing, but eye-catching, standing 30.48 meters in height. It name is taken from the word Mul (meaning first or original) and gandhakhuti (meaning perfumed chamber).[13]lxi This name is the taken from the name of the main shrine of the ancient Deer Park Monastery, which now lies in ruins beside the Dhamek Stūpa. The main shrine of the monastery had impressed Xuanzang, who mentions in his travels as being called the "Original Hall of Fragrance".[14]lxii The spot chosen for its placement was traditionally held to be the location where the Buddha had enjoyed meditating while residing at Sārnāth.[15]lxiii It features distinctive architecture and is world renowned for its glorious frescoes and murals, designed by famed Japanese painter Kosetsu Nosu. Nosu was inspired to draw these frescoes after seeing the Ajanta Caves on an earlier visit to India.[16]lxiv During construction of the Mūlagandhakutī Vihāra , Nosu met with the Maha Bodhi Society and was commissioned to paint the temple by the society, who felt that Japanese and Indian Buddhist art shared a very strong and harmonious connection. Nosu himself was a devout Buddhist and considered his artistic mission a sacred one.[17]lxv

The artwork at the Mūlagandhakutī Vihāra frescoes depict the life of the Buddha, as well as his past lives, as mentioned in the Jātaka tales. The temple, standing as a testament of unity between Buddhists worldwide, also contains a large golden bell bearing inscriptions and salutations in Japanese, Chinese, Sanskrit, and an eighth century CE script used in Buddhist Sanskrit.[18]lxvi The sounds of this bell are said to be heard for a radius of 8 km.[19]lxvii With its unique construction and artwork, the Mūlagandhakutī Vihāra would become a key draw for Buddhist pilgrims from all over the world to visit Sārnāth.

The Mūlagandhakutī Vihāra was officially inaugurated on November 11th and 12th, 1931 in a large ceremony. This ceremony included the ritual procession of Buddhist pilgrims carrying relics associated with the Buddha, which circled the Mūlagandhakutī Vihāra in the form of a ritual procession. This form of observance had been chosen specifically for the event by Dharmapāla and a well-known Tibetan layperson and member of the Maha Bodhi Society, Sonam Wangpel Pelden La (1876-1936), also known as Laden La.[20]lxviii The Tibetan had been promoting Tibetan pilgrimage to India since at least 1905, when he assisted the Ninth Panchen Lama (Thubten Choekyi Nyima, 1883-1937) on his tour of holy sites in India. He also contributed to the Thirteenth Dalai Lama’s (Thubten Gyatso 1879-1933) 1911 tour of these sites.[21]lxix Laden La’s formation of the procession for the inauguration of the Mūlagandhakutī Vihāra helped cement the role of the pilgrim to these newly restored sites in the Buddhist Holy Land.

His procession consisted of women and men, ordained and lay, young and old, without discrimination, cementing the idea that all people could participate in pilgrimage to these sites.[22]lxx Laden La also invited a group of Tibetan monks, from the Ghoom Monastery, to perform a dancing ritual known as cham.[23]lxxi After the inauguration, Dharmapāla planted a Bodhi Tree sapling outside which remains to this day, the third generation of the tree under which the Buddha achieved enlightenment. A sapling of the original was sent to Sri Lanka from Bōdhgayā by King Aśoka, and it is from this tree, still located in Anuradhapur Sri Lanka, that Dharmapāla brought a cutting to be planted at Sārnāth.[24]lxxii

These sorts of rituals, along with the relics, helped to bring an increased attraction of pilgrimage to the Buddhist Holy Land among Buddhists worldwide, and especially among the people of Tibet, who would begin visiting India in large numbers in the coming years. After the inaugural festival, celebrations were held for pilgrims yearly in November or December, and the relic collection used by the Maha Bodhi Society at Sārnāth grew larger as the Government of India, in a gesture of goodwill, presented the society with relics recovered by government archaeologists all over India. These relics were recovered from the sites of Mīrpur Khas, Nāgārjunikonda, and Taxila and are now all enshrined in the Mūlagandhakutī Vihāra.[25]lxxiii The relics from Taxila were one of Sir John Marshall (1876-1958) finds from the Dharmarājikā grouping of stūpas in modern day Pakistan, and were found contained within silver and gold caskets with a silver scroll dating to the first century CE which states they are the relics of the Buddha.[26]lxxiv The displays of these relics put on annually by the Maha Bodhi Society attracts thousands of Buddhists from across the globe.

To this day, the Maha Bodhi Society contributes greatly to the community of Sārnāth, offering opportunities for Buddhists to advance their learning through schools of higher thought and nightly recitation of sūtras at the Mūlagandhakutī Vihāra . They also provide a girl’s school, a library, and free medical and ambulatory services to the community. They have guest houses built for pilgrims visiting Sārnāth, and these have been maintained at least since the travels of the well-known Tibetan pilgrim, Gendun Chöphel's (dates) travels there in 1931, when he mentions a guest house built by Raja and Seth Birla of the Maha Bodhi Society.[27]lxxv.[28]lxxvi