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'Buddhism has to evolve to remain socially relevant in Asia'

IANS, November 21, 2008

New Delhi, India -- Buddhism will have to evolve rites and rituals to become more socially relevant in Asian nations, including India, where people identify religion with prayer rites, feels Buddhist scholar Lokesh Chandra.

"Buddhism is an institution which is highly centralised and it does not have a socio-religious structure. Most of its rituals are monastic because monks live in communities. In India, especially with regard to Hinduism, rituals give religion social relevance," Chandra told IANS, in response to the query why Buddhism, which was born in India, has been reduced to a minority faith here. 

According to the scholar, the mainstream Hindu religion in India could be divided into three components - rituals, vidwan or vidya (religious scholars or knowledge) and the priests or purohits, the lords of the rituals.

The Hindu priest is always a married man - who must have his wife next to him to conduct rituals, Chandra said. But Buddhist monks are bound by vows of celibacy.

The 81-year-old scholar won this year's Dayawati Modi Award for Arts, Culture and Education along with Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.

Buddhism has no texts, no domestic rites, the scholar pointed out. "Last week, I told a Japanese delegation that unless you create rituals, the religion will not survive. After the Buddhist monasteries were destroyed in Islamic India, nothing remained of the monks, barring their communes. The shrines were razed, and along with it the scriptures and documents preserved over several centuries.

"Most of the monks moved out of the country. As a result, the faith became a code of monastic rites practised within the precints of the monastery," Chandra explained.

The scholar supported his statement with arguments from everyday existence. "What happens if a couple who are Buddhists by faith want to marry? Where do they go to get married - at the monastery or at home? The monastery has no wedding rites and the faith does not provide for domestic rituals for couples to marry at home. Who will sanction their wedding?"

Chandra said recently he had to create a set of ad hoc wedding rituals for one of his Buddhist friends, who wanted to solemnise his son's wedding according to the Buddhist faith. "But it was a personal affair," the scholar said.

Chandra said the community of Jains in India faces a similar problem because all Jain religious rituals relate to their seers. "They do not apply to the common man".

Buddhism, Chandra feels, is a homocentric religion - one that serves humanity - in contrast to theocentric faiths like Hinduism that centre on the concept of gods.

This aspect of the faith makes it relevant to today's troubled times. The answer to conflicts around the globe could also lie in Buddhism because it teaches "sharing", Chandra feels.

"Buddhism does not only preach tolerance, but mutual respect," the scholar said. The root of fundamentalism, he explained, lay in absolutism and dogmas.

"The moment one learns to share and respect diverse cultures and thoughts, terror will cease to exist and schisms will fade. If you have to eliminate terrorism, you have to fight god because he is dictatorial and absolute," he said. 

Citing a tenet from Buddhism, Chandra said: "When the Buddha's favourite disciple and cousin Ananda asked him who would lead the Buddhists after the Buddha's death, Gautama replied, 'Seek the dharma within you'."

Chandra is currently working on a 15th century biography of the Buddha from the Ming period with illustrations and Chinese notations. He has more than 360 works and texts to his credit, including classics like the "Tibetan-Sanskrit Dictionary", "Materials for a History of Tibetan Literature", "Buddhist Iconography of Tibet" and a 20-volume dictionary of Buddhist art.



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