By Dr. Habib Siddiqui
It is simply inane to suggest that Buddhism has been integral to places where it has become marginalised today. It is the people who make the difference as to what they choose to believe or reject. As history has repeatedly shown, forced conversion does not work in the long term. Whenever the fear factor is gone, people opt out to choose what suits them. And that has been the history of mankind since the beginning of history.
RECENTLY, after the publication of the Time magazine’s cover-page article on Wirathu, the Buddhist terrorist monk of Myanmar, I came across an article in which the Buddhist writer stated that the magazine got it all wrong about Wirathu and that the pogroms against Muslims, which were disingenuously called ‘Buddhist nationalism’, and a ‘last resort’ to preserve Buddhist ‘heritage, religion and country to ensure history is not repeated.’ He says the violence against Muslims in Buddhist majority countries must be understood in the context that Buddhists are now a minority in some of the former Buddhist-majority countries.
Such apologetic writings and views are widely shared today by many Theravada Buddhists of Myanmar and Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, they belie history and twist facts and provide the kind of criminal justification for ongoing violence against a targeted minority. For example, consider Sri Lanka, which is currently a Buddhist majority country. But was it always that way? Surely, not! After all, Buddhism came around 247 BCE while the history of Sri Lanka is much older, believed to be at least 30,000 years old. The forefathers of today’s Sinhalese people were not the aborigines of Sri Lanka. They came from Bengal (today’s Bangladesh and West Bengal state of India) and Orissa (of today’s India). Popular Sinhalese legends claim that Vijaya (543–505 BCE), the exiled Bengali prince, supposedly born of a mythical union between a lion and a human princess, became the father of the Sinhalese people, after being seduced by Kuveni, a demon (Yakkhas) queen. The two then exterminated the demons and drove others away from the island. Subsequently, Kuveni was betrayed by Vijaya. When she returned with her two children to her people they later killed her for her betrayal.
Even if one were to overlook the fallaciousness of such make-belief stories, the fact remains that in the 6th century BCE Sri Lanka was inhabited by other people, e.g. the Veddas (who have close physical resemblance with people of South India), with different set of beliefs than Buddhism. [It is all possible that those mythic demons of the Hindu/Buddhist folklores were actually human beings who were despised and dehumanised.] The same is the case for every country in which Buddhism later spread by supplanting older beliefs and customs. Vijaya and his 700 followers were colonists and not the first settlers of Sri Lanka. The Tamil speaking people of Sri Lanka, who are mostly Hindus, trace their roots to at least the second century BCE. Sinhalese Tamils claim that they are the original inhabitants of the island. Before European annexation, parts of the island were ruled by Sinhalese Buddhists and Tamil Hindus. In the early 15th century, the island even came under Chinese rule when it was conquered by Muslim admiral Zheng He of the Ming Dynasty. [Zheng is also credited with discovering the Americas before Christopher Columbus.]
Even in India, before the Aryan invasion (ca. 1800 BCE) the original people, the Dravidians with darker complexion, had sets of beliefs that were different than caste-ridden Hinduism. This invasion led to migration of many of the surviving Dravidians to South India. Vedism as the religious tradition of Hinduism under the priestly elites was marginalised by other traditions such as Jainism and Buddhism in the later Iron Age. The same is the case with Burma and parts of Thailand where dark complexioned Indian-looking people lived before the Tibeto-Mongoloid peoples moved in from outside. Their religious traditions were later marginalised by Buddhism. In the former Kushan territories of today’s northern Afghanistan, Peshawar of Pakistan and Kashmir, Zoroastrianism and belief in a pantheon of gods were popular amongst the people before Buddhism made an inroad. [Some Indians claim that the Kushan invasion in the first century CE in the northwest led to the migration of Indians toward Southeast Asia.]
People have been on the move since the first man walked on earth. There is a plethora of reasons why they moved. Sometimes they migrated voluntarily, e.g. to better their lots, and at other times they migrated involuntarily, e.g. because of war and politics. As they settled in newer territories, they absorbed newly encountered systems/ideas and/or implanted their own ones depending on the strength and acceptability of those ideas. However, not every culture has adopted a settled lifestyle. There are still small groups that maintain a nomadic existence, moving from territories to territories selling goods and services or grazing cattle and staying wherever they are not unwelcome. They pass along their traditions to succeeding generations, rarely integrating into mainstream society. They speak their own archaic languages, teaching their children themselves. Though often persecuted, many of these groups are protected by laws with the intent of preserving their rare heritage.
In this continuous flux of human activities, it is, thus, not difficult to understand how new traditions, cultures, beliefs and ideas have replaced the old ones, and how sometimes the old ones have also successfully resurrected itself from oblivion or extinction. There were also cases of much synthesis between cultures and traditions. In the context of Muslim-ruled India, historian William Dalrymple says, ‘This cultural synthesis took many forms. In Urdu and Hindi were born languages of great beauty that to different extents mixed Persian and Arabic words with the Sanskrit-derived vernaculars of north India. Similarly, just as the cuisine of north India combined the vegetarian dal and rice of India with the kebab and roti of central Asia, so in music the long-necked Persian lute was combined with the Indian vina to form the sitar, now the Indian instrument most widely known in the west. In architecture there was a similar process of hybridity as the great monuments of the Mughals reconciled the styles of the Hindus with those of Islam, to produce a fusion more beautiful than either’ [Guardian, March 19, 2004].
It is simply inane to suggest that Buddhism has been integral to places where it has become marginalised today. It is the people who make the difference as to what they choose to believe or reject. As history has repeatedly shown, forced conversion does not work in the long term. Whenever the fear factor is gone, people opt out to choose what suits them. And that has been the history of mankind since the beginning of history. Rulers could not make permanent believers of the subjects if the latter did not like what was forced upon them.
In contrast to popular myths propagated by anti-Muslim zealots, Islam was not spread by sword. Had it been by sword, Islam would have been a majority religion in India, and Hinduism and other smaller faiths would have vanished. After all, Islam first came to India at the dawn of the 8th century CE with the conquest of Sindh by Muhammad bin Qasim and Muslim power have ruled its vast territories for nearly a millennium. Not a single Muslim military expedition took place in Southeast Asia. And yet, there are countries in Southeast Asia where Muslims are a majority.
The history of the geographical region commonly known as the South Asia and Southeast Asia has no one beginning, no one chronology, no single plot or narrative. This gargantuan fact is recognised by all great historians — Professors David Ludden, Abdul Karim, Richard Eaton, Romila Thapar, RS Sharma and many others — who spent their lifetimes to study the region. To these unbiased and genuine historians of the ancient world, the region did not have a singular history, but many histories, with indefinite, contested origins and with countless separate trajectories that multiply the more we learn about the region.
What is promoted by ultra-racist and bigot monks like Wirathu of Myanmar, and ultra-nationalist and chauvinist revisionist politicians and their fanatical followers, and pseudo-historians as the single tree of their culture, rooted in their racial and religious myths, is actually more like a vast forest of many cultures filled with countless trees of various sizes, shades, ages, colours and types, constantly cross-breeding to fertilise one another. The profusion of cultures blurs the boundaries of the forest. According to Professor Ludden, ‘the so-called cultural boundaries of our time are more like an artifact of modern national cultures than an accurate reflection of pre-modern conditions.’
Obviously, such an understanding and analysis of history is unpopular and loathsome with communal, racist, xenophobic regimes and their propagandists and vanguards. The latter bigots would rather have it their way in which the minority ethnic and religious communities or the have-nots in power simply did neither exist nor matter. To them, the affected persecuted people like the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar just appeared in the recent scene through mere accident of history like those possible through a magic lantern! That is the level of their disgusting chauvinism, which is often reflected through the claims and counter-claims of pen-pushing polemicists as was once again evident in the writing of the admirer of terrorist monk Wirathu.
Nearly a decade ago, Professor Neeladri Bhattacharya of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, commented about the Hindu extremist Bharatiya Janata Party’s attempt at rewriting history textbooks: ‘When history is mobilized for specific political projects and sectarian conflicts; when political and community sentiments of the present begin to define how the past has to be represented; when history is fabricated to constitute a communal sensibility, and a politics of hatred and violence, then we [historians] need to sit up and protest. If we do not, then the long night of Gujarat will never end. Its history will reappear again and again, not just as nightmare but as relived experience, re-enacted in endless cycles of retribution and revenge, in gory spectacles of blood and death.’
What is happening in Myanmar with Muslim minorities there is worse than what happened in Gujarat. It would be the greatest tragedy and worst crime of our time to find Buddhist excuses for the genocidal activities there. To remain silent is simply is shameful and inexcusable!
Dr. Habib Siddiqui is a peace and rights activist.