Many happy Bud­dhas

Mid Day - - OPINION - Dev­dutt Pat­tanaik The au­thor writes and lec­tures on the rel­e­vance of mythol­ogy in mod­ern times. Reach him at dev­dutt@dev­dutt.com

A DRA­MATIC shift hap­pened in Bud­dhism roughly 500 years af­ter the his­tor­i­cal Bud­dha. This dra­matic shift is the rise of what is called Ma­hayana Bud­dhism or the Great Ve­hi­cle of Bud­dhism. This thought per­haps emerged in Kash­mir and Afghanistan and spread to China, where it was pa­tro­n­ised by the lo­cal kings, es­pe­cially the Tang dy­nasty in the 7th cen­tury, and even­tu­ally spread to Ja­pan.

The fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ence be­tween Ma­hayana Bud­dhism and the older school of Bud­dhism is that it had a far more op­ti­mistic view of life. The older school, or the ‘Ther­avada’ school or the ‘Ab­hid­hamma’ school, saw the world as a place of suf­fer­ing and ex­pected peo­ple to give up de­sires through the prac­tice of med­i­ta­tion. The Ma­hayana prac­ti­tion­ers ar­gued that through ado­ra­tion and ven­er­a­tion of the Bud­dha, one is saved from the world of suf­fer­ing and taken to a happy place known as ‘Bud­dha-kshetra’. Con­tem­pla­tion is re­placed by ven­er­a­tion, and more than ces­sa­tion of suf­fer­ing, there is hope of hap­pi­ness.

Ma­hayana Bud­dhist mythol­ogy states that there are mil­lions and mil­lions of Bud­dhas in this uni­verse. They ex­ist in the past, present and fu­ture. Each Bud­dha has a Bud­dha-kshetra, al­most like a god with his own par­adise. The most pop­u­lar of all th­ese Bud­dhas is ‘Amitabha’ who lives in ‘Sukha­vati’ and this is lo­cated in the West of the world. The west­ern lo­ca­tion is sig­nif­i­cant be­cause for China, the West meant In­dia, and in those days, they had a glo­ri­fied im­age of In­dia as a land of wis­dom where Shakya­muni was born, but in­stead of Shakya­muni they spoke of Amitabha. Wor­ship­ping the Amitabha was im­por­tant and if you chanted his name re­peat­edly, you would be taken to this won­der­ful realm of Bud­dha-kshetra af­ter your death, where there is hap­pi­ness and beauty ev­ery­where. The de­scrip­tion is highly sen­sory and emo­tional, every­thing is aes­thet­i­cally aligned and ro­man­tic and beau­ti­ful; it’s some­thing to as­pire for. There­fore, it is an op­ti­mistic view of the world.

A sim­pler way to un­der­stand this is to see how many peo­ple who don’t chant the Gayatri Mantra pre­fer to wor­ship the God­dess Gayatri. So, they vi­su­alised the mantra and the idea of Gayatri as a five-headed god­dess who sits on a lo­tus. The idea or the phi­los­o­phy be­comes the words or the mantra and the mantra be­come a de­ity that you can wor­ship. Those who couldn’t chant the mantras, or those who couldn’t prac­tice the phi­los­o­phy, sim­ply wor­shipped the im­age, and this is what hap­pens in Ma­hayana Bud­dhism. This fa­cil­i­tated the spread of Bud­dhism in China where Bud­dha joined ranks with the Taoist sages and so be­came more fa­mil­iar.

Ma­hayanists re­ject the idea that it was the later school and be­lieve Bud­dha taught this doc­trine to a few stu­dents us­ing sym­bols such as lift­ing a lo­tus flower when asked a ques­tion. Thus, the Padma­pani, or the lo­tus-hold­ing form of Bud­dha, came into be­ing. Another the­ory was that this knowl­edge was kept hid­den in the land of ser­pents (na­gas) and later re­vealed to the wis­est Bud­dhist sage, Na­gar­juna.

IL­LUS­TRA­TION/DEV­DUTT PAT­TANAIK

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