Government move over Buddha relics rakes up row

by Aditi Tandon, Tribune News Service, February 10, 2010

New Delhi, India -- Over 2,550 years after Buddha attained ‘parinirvana’, India is debating whether to give up control over His relics --- housed in museums under the Ministry of Culture -— and move them into the community’s hands.

A government panel has recommended shifting of the revered remains. The biggest beneficiary of the move would be the Global Vipassana Foundation and Pagoda in Mumbai, whose president Subhash Chandra, also Zee Entertainment Enterprises chief, is a member of the committee the government constituted two years ago to examine the existing system of upkeep of Buddhist relics and recommend changes.

The 62 Buddhist relics excavated by ASI at 12 places are currently housed in museums and ‘viharas’ where they were found in UP, Bihar, West Bengal, Andhra, Tamil Nadu, MP, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Delhi. These are in the nature of whole or part of skeletons, bones or teeth, ashes and hair.

Now after eight heated sittings since October 3, 2008, the committee, headed by former Planning Commission member Bhalchandra Mungekar, in its final draft report, ignores much of the criticism in the panel of moving Buddha’s relics to Vipassana Foundation and recommends: “It could be desirable to seek a few relics to the Global Pagoda in Mumbai as it would be according to the wishes of Lord Buddha and; secondly, due to the durability of the Pagoda’s structure and ambience”.

The justification is that the existing system of preservation of relics in various museums under the Ministry of Culture is not in consonance with the wishes of Lord Buddha, who wanted the relics preserved in separate ‘stupas’.

Strangely, the draft report which saw stormy discussions hinting at a lack of consensus on the issue today, failed to include dissenting notes by two experts on the panel — Shantam Seth of Ahimsa Trust, a Buddhist institution, and Mridula Mukherjee, director, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. Both reportedly sought that their dissension to the movement of relics — in whole or part to Vipassana foundation (located next to Essel World in Mumbai) — be recorded in the final report to be submitted to the government for consideration.

Chandra for his part kept citing Buddha’s “wishes” to say that His relics be given to Vipassana for safety and durability. “Around 51 organisations of Buddhist culture have given the consent to hand over relics to the Pagoda,” Chandra told the committee.

Documents with The Tribune further show that panel chairperson Mungekar was often supportive of Chandra, saying at one point that the “Centre might have taken a wrong decision in keeping the relics in museums… These can’t be kept in museums perpetually as it was against Buddha’s own direction in the matter.”

Most experts, however, want status quo on relics until the government makes an alternative arrangement to house them in ‘stupas’. Seth is opposing the movement of shifting them to Global Pagoda saying it would open the Pandora’s Box of competing claims. “Moreover, museums are neutral places for Buddha’s divine remains,” he noted before the panel.

Mukherjee argued that removing relics from their contact would be incorrect. In panel meetings, she even countered Chandra’s claim of accessibility, saying: “Concentrating relics at one place won’t solve the purpose of easy accessibility to people in a vast country like ours.”

Documents further reveal how even DG, ASI KN Shrivastava opposed the handing over of relics to Pagoda, saying the move was against the Cabinet Committee of Political Affairs’ decision of 1991 barring religious use of centrally protected monuments. “Removing relics from site of recovery is against international standards. Also, relics need close chemical monitoring and controlled atmospheric conditions which exist only in museums,” he said. But Chandra and his supporter Seema Aggarwal, another Vipassana representative on the panel, kept arguing that they only wanted to preserve the relics and not the ownership.

Entire relics in possession of the government should be given to the Vipassana Foundation as it this is the biggest organisation in the world which preserves Vipassana, the ancient technique which is the quintessence of Buddhist teaching, they said. In one pro-Vipassana argument, Agarwal even said there was no building in India as appropriate as the Global Vipassana Pagoda. “We don’t see any being built - in magnificence, in stature (it is 325 feet high), in longevity (will last over 2000 years). Therefore, Global Pagoda should be, indisputably, the choice for enshrinement of the relics,” she said while clarifying to an unfavourable note of Culture Ministry.

On its part, the government appears wary of any recommendation to move the relics to a single body. “The very idea of moving the relics out of government custody to an institution built by millions of US dollars is to me vague. Also, how do we correctly interpret in modern times what Buddha said 2550 years ago,” said a government officer. The final committee report is expected shortly.