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Posts Tagged ‘Sufism’

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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Why am I writing a blog on Myanmar (also called Burma)? What has it got to do with Pakistan or the ancient Indus civilization?

Myanmar is a Buddhist country, in a few previous blogs I have already explained that Buddhism represents a resilient nonviolent philosophy which may have originated in Pakistan’s remote past. Some of the earliest evidence, predating the period of Gautama Siddhartha Buddha, is preserved in the 5000 year old archaeological sites around River Indus.  The mountain walls of the Kirthar Range, between the provinces of Balochistan and Sindh, depicting images of stupas, lotus flowers and swastikas, were engraved in an era that goes even beyond Indus Civilization. In the historical period, therefore, it was logical for Buddhism, as we know it, to flourish in the Indus and Gandhara region. This is verified by several sources including the accounts of two famous Chinese pilgrims; Faxian (approx.337-422 CE) and Xuanzang (approx.600-64 CE), who visited these regions and listed thousands of Buddhist stupas and monasteries. In fact Sindh had been a stronghold of Buddhism even after the Muslim conquest in early eighth century and the peaceful coexistence between the Muslims and Buddhists lasted throughout the Muslim rule in Sindh.

The debate of the demise of Buddhism in the Indian subcontinent is long, suffice it to say here that with its collapse elsewhere in India it finally collapsed in Sindh. Hence, in 1910 when Buddha’s ashes were discovered from a stupa in Peshawar, they were fated to be transferred to Mandalay. Myanmar at that time formed a part of British India and the British rulers trusted the sacred ashes to their Buddhist province.  Overwhelmed by this discovery, Frank Carpenter, who had already traveled through the vast Buddhist World and who covered the  impressive ceremony of Viceroy’s handing over the ashes to the Burmese monks ,  reported that  the “ Buddhist religion is on the eve of a revival.

Buddhism may have been expelled from India but it was flourishing with a greater vigor from Burma in the west to Japan in the east and from Tibet in the north to Sri Lanka in the south.  Many of us know of Myanmar of that period through the writings of Somerset Maugham, Pearl Buck and of course George Orwell. In “Burmese Days” we learn of politics and society at a time when the membership of a native to a British club was one of the highly debated issues.

Over a century now, issues have inflated today’s elections in Myanmar  is not only a contest between democracy and military dictatorship; a fight between Buddhists and Muslims; a show of strength between majority and minorities; but at the core it has become a battle between violent and nonviolent forces. Buddhism is going through a test but this time it is not merely the question of the survival of Buddhism it is more about the survival of it in its true spirit.  Many monks have already joined the hardline Buddhist movement Ma Ba Tha who calls for preservation of Buddhist identity against the threat of Islam and demands stricter measures for the Muslim population. Some hope comes from Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the internationally acclaimed hero of Myanmar, who has already declared that “any effort to use religion for political purposes was unconstitutional, and she threatened to lodge complaints with the election commission.”

Pakistan, the ancient home of nonviolence,  where Buddhism, Jainism, Gandhism and Sufism could easily thrive had also seen its religion being used for political purposes since the decade of 1980s when the Soviet Union  occupied its neighbor Afghanistan.  The repercussions of a distorted and militant Islam created to combat communism is now reaching the Arab world and disturbing the global peace. The peaceful citizens of the world are not ready to see the misuse of yet another great religion. In Burma it is just the beginning, if we are to learn a lesson from history we have to stop it now.

The much awaited Parliamentary elections in Myanmar  are over and the polls are closed. . Results will show how fair and free this election has been.  There are fears such as a voters’ list in which ‘dead people have been listed, and many of those alive not included.’ More than that in the elected Parliament un-elected military representatives will take up 25% of the seats and will have a veto over constitutional change. . Amid all these fears it is still hoped that Myanmar continues to remain a land of golden pagodas and peace, images of blood and burnt bodies appear too sharp against the nonviolent background which radiates from the hearts of its people.

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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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