BY MAILA BAJE
The outrage that continues over the Dalai Lama’s recent assertion that Lord Buddha was born in India is understandable. If the Ocean of Wisdom who draws every drop from the Enlightened One’s eternal waters doesn’t have his facts straight on this one, might the Almighty even deign to save our souls?
We’ve passed the stage where history and geography provide any parameters for discussion on this subject. Suggesting that Prince Siddhartha was born in Nepal and attained Buddhahood in India becomes mere hair-splitting. Nor does it help to question whether notions of today’s Nepal and India should even be applicable to events of yore.
Stress the wisdom of upholding the universal teachings of the Buddha instead of obsessing with his antecedents and you end up muddying the waters further. If the clarification offered by the Dalai Lama’s Office on November 25 seems to fall flat, we know why.
“[We] would like to clarify that His Holiness meant no disrespect towards his Nepalese brothers and sisters. Like Buddhists everywhere, he wholeheartedly accepts that the Buddha’s birthplace was Lumbini,” a statement on the official site of the Dalai Lama reads.
“What he wanted to emphasize in contemporary terms is the importance of understanding what the Buddha taught and the scope of his influence throughout Asia. It is universally acknowledged that India, the land of the Noble Ones, is where the Buddha achieved enlightenment and subsequently gave profound teachings. We trust that this clears up any misunderstanding or misapprehension.”
Owing to the continuing trust deficit, Maila Baje has attempted to examine the Dalai Lama’s assertion in a different way. The contentious remark came in the course of answers His Holiness offered to questions from students in Meerut on October 16. Thus, it preceded by over month the latest hullabaloo the Dalai Lama has generated by assuring the Chinese that he sought not independence for Tibet but its development.
To be fair, the Dalai Lama hasn’t really renounced the patron-priest relationship with China that underpins his institution. When Chinese forces took full control of Tibet in 1950, he remained inside the territory and continued discussions with Mao Zedong in Beijing on ways to secure the best deal for his land and people. The two men seemed to admire each other.
When the Dalai Lama visited India in 1956-57, there were expectations that he would seek asylum. However, he returned home. By the time he fled in 1959, His Holiness was disenchanted with Beijing’s policies and actions. Still, his flight was linked primarily to his personal safety. The repudiation of the 17-point agreement and the notion of a government in exile followed once events took a particular course.
There was no shortage of external elements that desired to see the Dalai Lama established not as a symbol of Tibetan independence but as an anti-China mascot who could be raised or lowered according to geopolitical exigencies. (Something akin to this happened here when Surya Bahadur Thapa & Co. scared B.P. Koirala into exile citing the second thoughts King Mahendra supposedly had after freeing the Nepali Congress leader from Sundarijal in 1968.)
Having seen the Americans, Brits and everybody else sacrifice Tibet on the altar of their own interests, the Dalai Lama must sometimes wonder how differently history might have unfolded had he decoded to stay in Lhasa. His Holiness has enough roots in this world to cherish his celebrity status and attempt to put it to good use. Who would blame him if simply chose to play along with the independence guild.
When hyper-realists in India in their post-Doklam exuberance dream of using the individual and the institution to step up pressure on China, the Dalai Lama may have felt the need to refocus his script. In seeking to conciliate China during his November 23 remarks to the Indian Chamber of Commerce in Kolkata, he may have sought to put the brakes on Indian pugnaciousness in time and ensure more lenient treatment of compatriots back home.
In this sense, the Buddha-was-born-in-India line may have had a more portentous purpose amid the 14th Dalai Lama’s impending exit and the inevitably antagonistic search for a successor. If the Indians could so easily discard their ‘own’ son – the Buddha – and let the Chinese claim the mantle of Buddhism, how wise would it be for Tibetans still dreaming of independence to rely on the Indians?
When the Indians wanted the Dalai Lama to be a good guest at Dharamsala all these decades, they gave him a set of do’s and don’ts. Maybe Tenzin Gyatso now wants the Indians to be good hosts.
Did he have to injure Nepali pride in the process? That, as they say, is a good question.