Odisha Buddhists have their own identity

by BIMALENDU MOHANTY, Daily Pioneer, 21 May 2016

Bhubaneswar, India -- The population of Buddhists in Odisha is estimated at 120,000 living in 17 main villages scattered all over the State so far identified. A majority of these Buddhists have taken to weaving as their professional occupation since centuries past. They are classified to be belonging to the Srabak community dedicated to the weaving profession. Many Buddhists in the State do not take to agriculture at all. They are also otherwise known as Saraka.

There are a few Acharyas among Srabaks, who do cultivation by their own hands and live on the agricultural produce. Concentrations of this class of Srabaks are found in Pipili and Balipatna of Puri district, Choudwar, Athagarh, Nuapatna, Maniabandha, Ragadi and Banki in Cuttack district and Mohammedpur and Balibisi in Jagatsinghpur district. The other sections of Srabaks are called Rangini Tantis, who are professional dyers for manufacture of coloured cloth. The quality and craftsmanship of cotton and silk fabrics woven by them are superb earning popularity and reputation all over India and abroad. The Srabaks are hardworking, sincere and devoted to their profession being deeply engrossed with weaving from dawn to dusk. Weaving is taken as a noble profession in compliance with the principle of Sammyak Ajib (noble profession) which is not opposed to the Pancha Sila (five principles of character-building).

Sarakas marry within their community only. Marriages with other communities are strictly forbidden. Sacred thread (Upanayana) ceremonies are also performed. These occasions are celebrated by their own priests under the control of the Mahapatra. They have their own Gotras, namely, Anatadev, Khemadeva, Kashvi Krushnadeva. There is a taboo against marriages between Saraka Tantis and Rangani Tantis though both the sects have identical cultural traditions and customs and their profession has the components of weaving and colouring textiles, which are interdependent for the final production. Their marriages are recorded in the Jatiya Khata (community record) akin to registration of marriages under the Hindu Marriage Act.

The main festival of Sarakas is the Buddha Pumima, the full-moon day occurring in Vaisakha (April-May), which marks the birth, enlightenment and Mahaparinirvana of Buddha. They also observe a few Hindu festivals like Kartik Pumima and Magha Saptami. Thus, it can be inferred that they follow Hinduism but retain their original Buddhist identity.

The Sarakas claim themselves to be Mahayana Buddhists. But they have blended Hinduism with Buddhism praying to Buddha Mahamuni to evoke the gem of enlightenment; praying to Buddha for granting Mukti (salvation) forever; praying to Buddhadeva who lives, according to them, in Nilachala (Puri) in the form of Shree Jagannath describing the Sudarsan Chakra as the ‘Wheel of Dharma’ (Dharma Chakra). Wherever the Buddhists have moved, they have gone to evoke enlightenment, to destroy violence and to perceive Jivanmukti (salvation); Buddha as Chakei Vingara in different forms, Buddha as Valarus, Buddha as an Avatar (incarnation), Buddha as a swan on waters, Buddha as the one who can change colours, pray to Lokeswar Buddha saying that Srabaka Siddhas will not see death through their eyes, will not tell lies even unconsciously, and nonviolence is the somum-bonum of all things

The only person who wrote a book in Odia on Srabakas is Shri Sadasiva Patra, which is titled Buddhism ebam Sarakas. The book has reawakened the Sarakas about their holy and glorious past culture and traditions, a separate identity to reckon with. It also generated awareness among other educated Odias about existence of such a community among them.

In 1956, Pandit Nilakantha Das, Prof PK Mukherjee, an eminent Professor in History, and others organised a meeting at Nuapatna and planted a Bodhi tree as a measure of resurgence of Buddhist heritage in Odisha. In 1957, the Buddhist Council of Burma from Myanmar visited this place and donated a bronze image of Mahakarunika Buddha along with some funds. Since then, the Saraka community has been worshipping this image, and this place has become a Buddhist place of worship.

The Government of Odisha has been approached to declare the Buddha Tantis as belonging to the OBC category and extend all facilities for their education, employment, economic growth and social security.

After Dr BR Ambedkar embraced Buddhism on October 14, 1956, people in different parts of Odisha are gradually getting into Buddhism, thereby giving a boost to the religion.

Dr Mohanty is a former Vice-Chancellor of the Utkal University of Culture