The second half of September 2015 meant a wrap-up of my three month sojourn in South Africa, as the visa was due to expire compelling the travel back to India on 30th September. The days that preceded turned out to be an exploration towards altitude of a spiritual mountain, the arduous ascension en route to summit to suddenly discover a scenic splendour, invested with a rare grandeur the like of which one has not been witness to at any time before in life, igniting an overwhelming sense of Keatsian ecstasy engulfing the spirit to utter, ‘Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold, / And many goodly states and kingdoms seen; / Round many western islands have I been / Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold…… / Then felt I like some watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken; / Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes / He stared at the Pacific – and all his men / Look’d at each other with a wild surmise – / Silent, upon a peak in Darien’. While Keats was enraptured by George Chapman’s translation of Homer, the subject of my awe-struck adoration is Nan Hua Temple, in a place called Bronkhorstspruit, part of Gauteng province, located a little over a hundred kilometers away from Johannesburg.
In what looked like realization of a pre-ordained vision, we drove down, on a clear sunshine day in the last week of September, to Bronkhorstspruit, taking a wee bit more than an hour of motoring, to reach the temple gateway around noon. A constituent of Chinese Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Order, established by venerable Master Hsing Yun to propagate humanistic Buddhism of Mahayana school, Nan Hua, or ‘flower in the south’ in translation, is the name given to South African branch of Fo Guan Shan Buddhist Order. The entire township, comprising the temple, academy, library, conference hall, research facilities and meditation center, dining and living quarters, sprawls across an area of over eighteen thousand hectares generously donated in 1992 by Dr Hennie Senekal, the then executive mayor of Bronkhorstspruit. Upon completion of construction running across a timescale of more than twelve years, the site was formally inaugurated in 2005 to become the largest Buddhist temple in the whole of African continent, and, probably, one of the biggest in the world. Soaking in the view, my mind promptly drifted back by several years, to recall my first ever visit to a Buddhist temple outside India, in Kyoto, Japan, which was comparatively minuscule in size, squeezed into just a few acres. As I entered the gate, the sheer magnificence of edifices and aura surrounding the place simply overwhelmed me. Wafting in gentle benediction and pristine purity, a steady dharma breeze enveloped the area, apparently whispering ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ in a sibilance that penetrated the pervading silence. The main shrine, also called ‘the Great Hero Hall’, houses three giant statues of Buddha, referred to as ‘triple gem Buddha’, seated mainly in lotus position on pedestals, with eyes closed in meditation. As one faces these mega figures, the Buddha on the left is Amitabha, representing longevity, endless light and wisdom. In the middle is Sakyamuni, the teacher of Saha World, or world of endurance, whose teachings are transformative and promising endless bliss. On the right is the Pure Lapis Lazuli Paradise in the East, the healing Buddha, eradicator of sickness and eliminator of disasters. A Chinese lady seated near the door handed out a lighted joss stick to me which I reverentially fixed into a sand bowl placed in front of three images of the venerated soul that once walked the earth around two and a half millennia ago to preach to humanity the message of equality, non-violence, right living, loving kindness, desirelessness and infinite compassion. The flight of steps in front of main shrine serves as symbolic reminder of our goal to attain enlightenment. Much as I tried, I could not take pics because photography was strictly prohibited in the main shrine.
By the side of the main shrine is the temple of Kuan Yin, also called the Great Compassion Shrine, in which stands the ornate figure of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, known as Kuan Yin in Chinese. Avalokitesvara can be broadly translated as ‘the compassionate sage who sees’, referring to the Bodhisattva’s ability to spot sufferings in the world and come to peoples’ aid. Endowed with a thousand eyes and hands, she has the power to save all sentient beings. She can assume myriad forms and the statue in the shrine portrays her with a third eye in the middle of her brow (similar to Shiva’s third eye) and multiple hands. Yet another shrine in close proximity is that of Samantabhadra, a well known Bodhisattva of Mahayana Buddhism, known as Pu Hsien in Chinese. A Bodhisattva is a ‘Buddha to be’, helping sentient beings along path of enlightenment; Bodhisattvas make the pledge to help others before they help themselves in attaining enlightenment.
A sweeping survey of the enormous expanse of township, featuring elegantly as architectural extension of compassionate images of Buddha and grandeur of the towering structures, sets off many thoughts in the mind of an objective seeker on the waning of Buddhism in India, the land of its birth, whereas, in sharp contrast, it struck deep roots in Sri Lanka, China, Japan and other Asian countries, not to speak of its growing appeal to discerning audiences worldwide as a moral code, devoid of dogma and complex ritual, based on simple teachings, eternal in its wisdom and universal in its application to day-to-day living. By the time Buddha arrived at the scene, societies in Bharat Varsha, as India was known in ancient times, were bearing the brunt of evils of caste system in the way it distortedly spread its tentacles. A harmless prescription by Manu the Lawgiver, envisaging segregation of tasks among various sections of society, suffered distortion in actual practice, mired in feudalistic greed and fascistic inclinations, resulting in division of society into upper and lower castes. The upper caste consisting of the feudal lords, and Brahmins, were either assigned with or arrogated to themselves the administration of the state and with it a ready access to levers of power and pelf, priestly engagements and scholarly pursuits, and the people next in line, the Kshatriyas or the warriors, were assigned to military duties, followed by the Vaisyas or the merchant class, engaged in trading and commerce, and finally the Shudras, at bottom of the pyramid, were consigned to the drudgery of hard agricultural labour on the fields, and all other jobs of a sundry and menial nature. Perceiving the prevailing evil very clearly, Buddha’s teachings were as much egalitarian and socially reformative as they were moralistic. He did not attempt to introduce complex dogma and esoteric principles of philosophical inquiry to the people, or preach about god or goddess, because he probably did not see any sense in conceptually irrational postulates. Practice of the Eight-fold path was considered to be adequate. The precepts that carried exhortations of equality and non-violence, appealed to people almost instantly and it manifested in the country wide establishment of Buddhist centers, making Buddhism the most dominant belief system in Bharat Varsha, which really rattled the upper castes, who, for centuries together were wallowing in the luxury of trumped-up notions of superiority by subordinating an entire mass of people to drudge in the open fields and toil in squalid environs while they nestled in cozy comfort of their mansions. As a deeply entrenched practice, the caste system exercised almost a stranglehold on societal structure.
The arrival of Buddha wrought a gradual change in the situation during which the Vedic scriptures, foundational to Hinduism, slid into a limbo as the religious scene became progressively dominated by Dharmapada Sutra. And so it remained, till the advent of Shankaracharya in the eighth century CE. Shankaracharya imparted a renewed thrust to Vedic studies and the philosophy of Advaita, or non-duality, propounding Brahma satyam jagat mithya, jivo brahmaiva naparah, to mean ‘Brahman is the only truth, the world is unreal’, and there is ultimately no difference between Brahman and Atman. Enunciating the Upanishadic principle of Tat Tvam Asi, to mean ‘that thou art’ or, the individual self or Atman in its pure and primordial state is identical with the universal self or Brahman, Shankaracharya also laid down that the key difference between Hinduism and Buddhism lay in the former asserting the existence of Atman (Soul or Self) and the latter negating it. To propagate his doctrine of the one eternal unchanging reality or Brahman and the illusion of plurality and differentiation, Shankaracharya travelled the length and breadth of Bharat Varsha, interacting with other scholars and established monasteries in the north, south, east and west regions. Widely believed to be an incarnation of Shiva, Shankaracharya’s endeavour was aimed at revival of sanatana dharma and establishing the pre-eminence of the Vedas.
A society enriched by the spiritual legacy of Buddhism and teachings of Shankaracharya based on Vedic scriptures should have surged ahead to dominate the global scene as an epitome of equality, non-violence and humanistic ideals of loving kindness and compassion. But it was, tragically, not to be. Looking back at history and how societies evolved in Bharat Varsha over various aeons, eras and millennia that followed, it can be seen that the Brahmins and upper castes rallied around Shankaracharya and his Advaita, ostensibly for spiritual uplift of society, but actually with the ulterior motive of systematically undermining Buddhism by artfully absorbing Buddha into Hinduism, proclaiming him to be an avatar of Vishnu, which was readily lapped up by a credulous and subservient public, unable to discern the hidden agenda of upper castes with their greater vested interest in perpetuating the caste system than in any compulsions of spiritual nature . Had Buddhism prevailed in India, it would have facilitated the evolution of egalitarian societies, free from discrimination of caste, colour and gender, which in turn would have had its salutary ramifications around the world. Whereas, probably inspired by caste patterns as it reared its monstrous dimensions in ancient India, discrimination and prejudices manifested across centuries around the world in the form of slavery, exploitation of the poor and working class under feudalism and extremist capitalism, racialism and untouchability; atrocities of the crudest forms and most uncouth attitudes still abound, continuing as racial and caste prejudices in many regions worldwide, the latest of which is in a remote village school in south India where upper caste children are forcibly prohibited by their parents to desist from eating midday meal cooked by a low caste woman. The woman, employed as cook in the government school, may end up losing the job that earns for her a monthly salary of Indian Rupees 1700/-, equivalent of USD 26/-, if the school children persist, under parental pressure, with boycott of the midday meal, potentially leading to the inhumanity of a destitute woman losing her job that fends for a family of seven children.
In spite of thousands of years of advances in culture, civilization, developments in science and technologies, it is very much a sad irony of prejudices of race, caste and colour, compounding a scenario cluttered by hundreds of religions sans spirituality, countless divisions of region, language, ethnicity, sans culture and refinement. Amidst all the clutter and chaos, Buddha’s golden mean, enshrined in the noble eightfold path of right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right concentration and right mindfulness, radiates as the right path leading to not only annihilation of desire and ultimate liberation but also realization of aham brahmasmi, or the divinity within, as prescribed by Vedas and duly underlined by Shankaracharya. My mind harks back to Bronkhorstspruit, to Nan Hua, to the eight-spoked Dharmic Wheel, pointing the way forward through the eight-fold path to enlightenment.