Sunday, August 04, 2013

Amitabh, Buddha, Us And Them

Intended or not, Amitabh Bachchan appears to have added several notches to his already stratospheric popularity in Nepal by asking one question on his popular TV show.
During a recent episode of Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC), Big B quizzed his male contestant: “Which of these events related to the life of Gautam Buddha happened at a place which is in present day Nepal?”
Sharing a name with one of the five ‘self-born’ buddhas (dhyani-buddhas) believed to have existed eternally, Maila Baje thinks Amitabh has delved deeper than most into the origins and growth of this faith.
But do we really know how much Amitabh recognizes or cares about Nepali sensitivities when it comes to the issue of Siddhartha Gautam’s birthplace? Nor do we know whether he had any role in choosing and/or phrasing the question. What is clear, though, is that even the most skillful attorney couldn’t have worded it better.
In fairness, the contestant should have been a greater focus of our appreciation. After all, he was the one who gave the correct answer (although it did look like he did so through a process of elimination, rather than through certitude).
Amitabh, moreover, had to confirm the answer with the machine before awarding the contestant points. There’s no question that the Bollywood icon’s show gave the issue such a high profile. Yet the host might have been deserving of greater credit had the contestant given the wrong answer and had Amitabh stepped in to correct him. But, then, there are better issues to split hairs over, such as … the issue at hand.
Prince Siddhartha Gautam was born in Lumbini, a kingdom that was not in Nepal (or India, for that matter) at the time. It was quite recently – in terms of the sweep of history, at least – that Nepal really expanded to connote anything outside Kathmandu Valley.
Buddha was a title bestowed upon the sage after he attained ‘enlightenment’ in Bodh Gaya, which, again, is part of modern-day India.
To call Nepal Buddha’s birthplace, therefore, is a political statement, which the aforementioned episode of KBC has addressed to many Nepalis’ satisfaction.
But even at the political level, should we really be so excited to have received this ‘seal of approval’ from what, when you boil it down, is an entertainment show?
Then there’s that other pesky reality: that Nepal’s communists are at the forefront of protests whenever Buddha’s Nepali birth is questioned. Isn’t it interesting how official atheists seek to ‘own’ religious leaders without caring to adhere to their message? At least the reviled mandales of the Panchayat era who jumped around in nationalistic fervor every time this controversy erupted were honest in that they were committed to Hinduism, which considers Buddha one of the avatars of Lord Vishnu. (The Nepali Congress doesn’t seem particularly riled by the issue.)
If the development of Lumbini as an international religious and tourist attraction could have moved apace in the spirit envisioned together by then secretary-general of the United Nations U Thant, famed Japanese architect Kenzo Tange and King Mahendra in the 1960s, this whole issue might have no longer been so contentious. If the recent stepped-up interest in this direction were to gain concrete shape, Nepalis would be able to better shed much of their insecurities.
Doubtless, some Indians will continue with their endeavors to ‘prove’ that Buddha was born in what is today the state of Orissa – or who knows where else outside of Lumbini. This shouldn’t bother us too much, either.
Even if they manage to muster enough archaeological evidence, they’ll still have to sort out how synonymous India, Bharat, Hindustan or Hind could be considered with one another, geographically, politically or any other way.