Posts Tagged ‘Buddha’

I still remember, with great fondness, the evenings of the holy month of Ramazan when the village women will gather in our courtyard to break their fast. Amidst the laughter and hushed gossips they also exchanged interesting stories. Out of the many that I overheard one was about the special blessings of 27th Ramazan, the gist of the story was that on this day even deer observe the fast. As a child I wondered how anyone would even know that a deer is fasting. However, as I grew up and developed a mature attitude I began to understand and appreciate the certitude of those women who never questioned the irrationality of the story.

Last week while browsing through a book on Sultan Bahoo , a seventeenth century Sufi poet of Punjab, I came across another story of a deer appearing in the month of fasting. It provided a few more details such as the deer would bring in food and water for the Sultan and his companion who were travelling in the region of Kallar Kahar in Punjab. The story is even authenticated by two graves in that region which supposedly are of an Ahoo (deer) and Bahoo (the saint).

It was natural for my thoughts to wander to an Indus seal engraved with the image of a deity sitting in a meditative posture and surrounded by animals including deer. I am referring to the well-known proto-Shiva seal as Sir John Marshall associated its deity with Lord Shiva in his avatar of Pashupati. I would like to suggest that this seal can also qualify to be a proto-Buddha seal.

In my book “Indus Seals (2600-1900 BCE) Beyond Geometry: A New Approach to Break an Old Code” I have a chapter explaining how the appearance of some of Buddha’s symbols on the seals combined with the recent revised work on the remains of Moen jo Daro’s  stupa architecture can lead to a reinterpretation of the seals and consequently to a greater understanding of the Civilization in general. Bearing this in mind along with the rich folklore and tradition of the Indus region I would like to add here my interpretation of this seal. It will make more sense to those who have already read my chapter “Indus Seals and Buddhism.”

Considering the fact that the Indus region had been a stronghold of Buddhism and that several Buddhist symbols are found on the Indus seals it is possible that Islamic versions of the deer stories associated with fasting have evolved from the Jataka tales wherein deer is portrayed as a compassionate animal and even Buddha appears as a golden deer. Such deer stories would have been more valuable during the period of early archaeological research which began with the quest of an ancient Buddhism and which I have covered in another chapter of my book.

Briefly, it was Sir Alexander Cunningham who became the first director general of the Archaeological Survey of India in 1861 and who initiated the idea of the existence of an ancient Buddhism. He also believed that ancient Buddhism was more widespread than what is described in history.  In his quest he followed the footsteps of Xuanzang, the Chinese pilgrim and a scholar who wandered in the Indian subcontinent for many years (between 630-645) to search the original Buddhist scriptures. To cut the story short of that long journey, Cunningham reached the Shahbazgarhi Rock near Peshawar where he examined the edicts of Asoka the Maurya king (304-232 BCE) who had converted to Buddhism. When he realized that the script used on Shahbazgarhi is different from the script used in Asokan edicts carved elsewhere in the subcontinent, he became curios about the origins and earlier versions of that script.

Cunningham’s journey took him to Harappa which until then was known through the writings of two earlier travelers – an absconder and a spy- Charles Mason and Sir Alexander Burnes. But while those travelogues reported mostly the architectural features, Cunningham’s report also published smaller objects, most intriguing was the image of a tiny seal he had chanced to see. The seal was inscribed with six symbols and the image of an animal below. On his first observations Cunningham had rejected the seal as a foreign object but  later on he realized that the symbols engraved on it might be the precursors of the Shahbazgarhi script.

With this background in mind we can only imagine Cunningham’s enthusiasm , had he journeyed another 400 miles and spotted in the flatland of upper Sindh a mound about 80 feet high and crowned with a Buddhist stupa. It could have led him to his Eureka moment had he spotted the seals engraved with Buddha’s symbols in the ruins of a city unearthed below the foundations of that stupa.

Dear reader, on page 103 of my book I have reprinted the symbols of Buddha that Cunningham published seventy years before the discovery of Moen jo Daro. Out of these symbols I have pointed to two which also appear on a number of Indus seals and which appear together on an object discovered from Moen jo Daro. Today, as I am looking back to Cunningham’s list of symbols I also notice a deer image along with those two symbols. This leads me to say that the appearance of deer on Indus seals might also be telling us a long lost story of a fasting Buddha, and the proto-Shiva image might be representing a fasting proto-Buddha.

I must add here that although, Sir John Marshall labeled the deity on the seal as proto-Shiva but the deer image below the throne of Shiva reminded him of the deer motif in Buddhist iconography. In fact he has recognized several other seal symbols and architectural features as Buddhist.

Changing a label leads to different consequences. The book on Sultan Bahoo while referring to the two graves also informs us that, “Till 2001, this place was famous by the name of Aahoo and Bahoo but in 2002 its name was changed to ‘Hoo-b-Hoo.” This is the case, which the writer rightly observes can lead to “altering the actual history.” The case of Indus seals is unique as I explained in my book “Had Cunningham lived long enough to witness the unearthing of Indus Civilization he might have identified its cities as citadels of  ‘ancient Buddhism.’ But the fact is that Buddhism, Jainism, Hindusm, Bhaktism, Gandhism and Sufism are all deeply rooted in the Indus Civilization, which being far removed in time was not branded with one of these ‘isms’ but which is reflected in all these through its imagery and through its most prominent trait, the nonviolence. To call this trait a philosophy, an ideology or a religion will be wrong, for the civilization at that moment of socio-cultural evolution was at a stage where philosophy, ideology and religion were all rolled together.” Hence, the seal under discussion might be representing earlier avatars of Shiva, Buddha and even of Mahavir Jain all kneaded together.




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Sir Alexander Cunningham, the first director general of the Archaeological Survey of India, has contributed a lot to the Indian archaeology. His work on epigraphy and Buddhist monuments are noteworthy. Although Moen jo Daro was not discovered during his lifetime, but his observations on Buddhist history and the history of the Indian writing are of great value for the understanding of the Harappan or the Indus Civilization.

Cunningham had identified many common features between Buddhism, Brahmanism and the ancient western traditions of the Druids and he believed in a more ancient Buddhism which prevailed not only in India but in several other parts of the world. His book “Bhilsa Topes or Buddhist Monuments of Central India” published in 1854 is not only an account of Buddhist monastic complexes but it is a history of Buddhism. Years after writing the book when he arrived in the land of the Yusafzai tribals near Peshawar, he identified Shahbazgarhi with Po-Lu-Sha, recorded by Xuanzang (Hiuen Tsang), the Chinese pilgrim who in mid seventh century had visited India and listed hundreds of Buddhist places.

Northwest of India, which is now Pakistan, had been a land of Buddhism. Shahbazgarhi is still marked with a rock engraved with the edicts of the Buddhist King Asoka Maurya (273-232 BCE). In Cunningham’s words, “The great inscription of Asoka is engraved on a large shapeless mass of trap rock, lying about 80 feet up the slope of the hill, with its western face looking downwards towards the village of Shahbaz-garhi.” The edicts, preaching the principles of Asoka’s Dhamma policy, were engraved on rocks and pillars throughout his empire. Asoka declared that he has got them written on the rocks so that they endure longer and the future generations can see them. Also, they are written in the vernacular dialects of their location so that the ordinary people can understand them.

Asoka’s edicts give a good insight in the social and moral code that the good king gave to his people but they are also valuable specimens of the earliest known scripts of the Indian subcontinent. Hence, Cunningham’s book on the inscriptions of Asoka is very important for the understanding of the history of Indian writing. While referring to the Shahbazgarhi inscriptions he writes, “The inscriptions of Asoka are engraved in two distinct characters, one reading from right to left, which is confined to the Shahbazgarhi …and the other reading from left to right.” Later, the Shahbazgarhi script was labeled Kharoshti and the script used for Asoka’s edicts elsewhere came to be recognized as Brahmi. In 1896, Georg Buhler while identifying the four varieties of Kharoshti, considered the Shahbazgarhi and Mansehra rock edicts (also in Pakistan) inscribed with the oldest variety of Kharoshti. Structurally Kharoshti and Brahmi are similar but Brahmi, originally used for Buddhist scriptures, became more widespread as it came to be used for a variety of Prakrits or the vernacular dialects.

Cunningham had rejected any influence of the hieroglyphs and the cuneiform system of the west on the Indian writing and was inquisitive about the origins of this indigenous script. He was aware that the ancient sites were not thoroughly explored and the older specimens were yet to be recovered, the only evidence of an earlier version of Shahbazgarhi writing he could think of was engraved on a tiny steatite seal “…I have , however, come across one monument which I believe to be a specimen of the archaic alphabetical writing. Its age is, of course, quite uncertain, but I do not think its date can be later than 500-400 B.C. This monument is a seal of smooth black stone, which was found by major Clark in the ruins of Harapa in the Panjab.” This was the only Indus seal unearthed during Cunningham’s times and yet his observation, based on a single seal, has turned out to be most logical. His idea that the Harappa seal script was a predecessor of the earliest known script of India is not fully lost. Though Kharoshti is sidelined and most of the research after him is focused on the more known Brahmi and its links with the Indus script.

It is ironic that half a century later when many more seals were discovered, clues to decipher their symbols were being sought in distant lands and cultures, first in Sumer and then in South India. These have been unnecessary detours in the journey of Indus seal research. Dr.N.A Baloch while taking note of the attempts made to relate Indus script with remote languages states “In order to resolve this problem on a rather firm rational ground, a third hypothesis can be presented basing on the assumption that the key to the decipherment of the Indus script may be found right in the land where it had been lost— Indus Valley. The decipherment could, perhaps, be worked out looking into the words and phrases of the language of the Indus valley, the language of the land itself, Sindhi of the peasants, as it has remained unaffected throughout the centuries.”

The largest number of seals, about 1200, were unearthed from the ruins of Moen jo Daro. Most of these had the format of the Harappa seal- a row of signs engraved above the image of an animal facing an unidentified object. The signs are considered to be an ancient script and like Shahbazgarhi inscriptions these too run from right to left. Some of the seals are also engraved with the symbols of Buddha. Towards the end of the urban phase, narrative seals were made, they seem to represent events and can very well be the precursors of Jatakas, which are engraved with stories of Buddha’s birth. Marshall’s observation of a narrative seal from Moen jo Daro, depicting seven female devotees facing a deity standing in the ‘pipal tree’ is revealing. According to him “This is the tree of knowledge (Bodhi or bo-tree) under which Buddha gained enlightenment.” Another seal depicting a ‘proto-Shiva’ image with two deer images under his ‘throne’ reminded Marshall of the deer motif in Buddhist imagery symbolizing the Deer Park where Buddha gave his first sermon. He also saw semblance between the floor pattern of the Pillared Hall and the Buddhist monasteries where the monks seated themselves on low benches. The Priest King, draped in a shawl with his right shoulder exposed, may have even reminded him of the Buddhist monks attired in the same fashion. There is more of this scattered in John Marhall’s three volumes of “Mohenjo Daro and the Indus Civilization.” These pieces of evidence would have been enough for Cunningham to trace the roots of his ‘ancient Buddhism’ in the Indus Civilization, but this is not what the new generation of archaeologists thought.

Moen jo Daro’s ruins are still crowned with a fragment of the stupa wall but this symbolism has always been ignored. Twenty first century, however, has begun with some hope as Giovanni Verardi of Naples University, Italy has casted doubts on the dating of the ‘so called stupa.’ Cunningham, through Buddhist scriptures had already surmised that stupas were existing before the advent of Buddha and people revered them, in fact, Buddha considered the ancient sages as his immediate predecessors. Buddha came to be represented in human image during the Kushan period, prior to that he was represented by symbols and the stupa image was one of the symbols.

Kirthar mountain ranges between Sindh and Balochistan are engraved significantly with the images of stupas and several other auspicious Buddhist symbols. This is yet another evidence suggesting the existence of an early Buddhism in the Indus region, therefore, it is very likely that Moen jo Daro stupa is a relic of a much earlier period. Michael Jansen of the the University of Aachen, Germany feels that it may not be of Kushan origin but might be Harappan.

We have to bear in mind though, that we cannot expect Buddhism to appear in its conventional sense in the Indus civilization but We can safely assume a peaceful way of life prevalent in the Indus Civilization. To label this non-violent characteristic of ancient Indus a philosophy, an ideology or a religion will be inappropriate because the civilization at that moment of socio-cultural evolution was at a stage where philosophy, ideology and religion were all rolled together. It was only in later times that the nonviolent traits of the region came to be defined with different labels-Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, Gandhism and Sufism.

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“In Mandalay, the capital of Burma, beneath a wonderful pagoda repose the ashes of the revered prophet of Buddhism. These relics were discovered in 1910…” This note, published in the Bay View magazine caught my attention as it continues the story of  the discovery of Buddha’s ashes from Peshawar. I had already referred to the discovery in one of my blogs ‘Restoring Pakistan’s Buddhist Past.’ The news of the discovery was also reported by the New York Times. What follows is the story of the transportation of the sacred remains to Burma.

At the time of the discovery of the ashes, Gilbert John Elliot-Murray-Kynynmound, the 4th Earl of Minto, was the viceroy of India. He was a man with a sense of religious demographics of the country he ruled. Having realized the strength of Muslim population in the Northwest and East of India he had been one of the major players behind the concept of a separate electorate and the formation of the All-India Muslim League. In the same measure he knew Burma was a stronghold of Buddhists hence he gave the Burmese the gift that they deserved. Minto is often accused of promoting the notorious British policy of divide and rule – but that is another story.

Minto also wanted to turn this opportunity into a big news, hence he personally handed over the ashes to the Burmese Buddhist monks in an impressive ceremony. The ceremony was held in Calcutta at the throne-room of the viceregal palace. The guest list was equally impressive and included British officials, Burmese high priests, Lady Minto, Sir John Marshall and the famous Anne Besant. A report by Frank G. Carpenter describes the ceremony which began with the speech of the viceroy: “The government of India has decided that the relics should remain within the confines of the Indian empire and that Burma, as a Buddhist province, and Mandalay as its capital, should provide for their safe custody. I am sure that the great honor done to Burma will be thoroughly appreciated by its people, and that the relics will be carefully preserved and cherished.” In conclusion the viceroy hoped that “a suitable shrine may be erected at Mandalay over these relics, where in future years devout pilgrims may gather from all parts of the world to do honor to the memory of the great founder of their religion.”  In 1915 when James Bissett Pratt, not a devout pilgrim but a mere traveler, visited Mandalay the work on the pagoda was being done with great zest. He describes the enthusiasm of the Burmese in his book India and its Faiths: “At present a rather unusual wave of pagoda enthusiasm is passing over Burma. Nearly all the great pagodas of the land are being regilded and at Mandalay, the religious center, the entire hill that commands the town is being covered with statues, pagodas and other religious buildings. One of these pagodas is being built for the reception of the ashes of the Buddha recently found by Dr Spooner near Peshawar; and as I have said, the entire hill is being covered with pagodas of various sizes, shaded stairways and passages for the accommodation of pilgrims, rest-halls and mammoth Buddha images.”  Millions have been flocking to the Pagoda ever since its completion, ignoring Buddha’s advice: “Do not hinder yourself by honoring my remains.”

During the ceremony, John Marshall, the director of the Archeology Department, gave the background of the ashes which were discovered from the ruins of a pagoda built by King Kanishka (78-103 CE) in Peshawar. The pagoda, once struck by lightning and thrice caught by fire, continued to survive for centuries and had been recorded by Fahien and Hiuen Tsang, the  two well-known Chinese who traveled through India in two different time periods. When Hiuen Tsang, the later visitor, saw the pagoda, five centuries after Kanishka’s reign, it was still in good condition. Hiuen Tsang was no ordinary traveler; he was a scholarly Buddhist monk who arrived in India in 629 CE and walked through its land for seventeen long years.  Rummaging through monastic complexes and collecting original Buddhist scriptures, it was his vivid description of the 13 stories high pagoda that caught the attention of a French archaeologist, Alfred Foucher, who was visiting India in the early 20th century. Hiuen Tsang had also mentioned that the pagoda stood not too far from the palaces of Kanishka, hence following his footsteps Foucher located its remains at a distance of half a mile East of Peshawer. By that time the structure of the pagoda had turned into a mound and it was not possible for Foucher to dig it out. However, he convinced David B. Spooner of the Archaeological Survey of India to do the job. The mound was dug and a great tower uncovered.  It was ‘larger than any other known pagoda.’ John Marshall evaluated it to be ‘higher than the Washington Monument.’ He also surmised that the tower lasted for three more centuries after the visit of Hiuen Tsang.

Buddha’s ashes, enclosed in a bronze casket that consisted of four charred human bones and some ash, were unearthed from a highly secure chamber beneath the heavy foundation of the tower. “British archaeologists had to sank a shaft down through the stone floor to a depth of twenty feet to reach the chamber…and there in that little stone room, which had been buried from the sight of man for over 2,400 years, they found a bronze casket seven inches high five inches in diameter.” The imagery on its exterior was quite detailed.  A frieze depicting flying geese above the images of Buddha and one image of Kanishka.  The lid had lotus design topped with a Buddha statuette at the center.

The ash and the bones were given to the Burmese monks in a different container whereas the casket is showcased in the Peshawar Museum. Amidst colossal violence and bloodshed going around it day in and day out it is a reminder to the peaceful Buddhist past. Whether it symbolizes the ‘divide and rule’ policy or the Indo-Burmese oneness under the British administrative machinery, it is hard to say. George Orwell, working as an ordinary policeman in that machinery, declared it was “the dirty work of Empire.” Ordinary men and women living in the Empire simply enjoyed the moment, a Bollywood song from those days captures that moment.

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