Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Tribute to the Buddha: Vihara

Bihar inherited its name from the word Vihara, confirming the abundance of quiet meditation and resting spaces for Buddhist monks. It is generally believed that when the Bakhtiyar Khilji (1192 CE) invaded, he named the tract around Odantpuri (present Bihar Sharif) as Vihar (Bihar), for this area had numerous Viharas (monasteries) in its vicinity. (Ref. History of Bengal, Vol. II, p.3).  This fact is further confirmed in the modern day by the presence of Buddhist remains scattered in and around this area.
Based on similar history of the villages in this area, it is generally concluded that villages with names that end with the sound “Aama”, derived from the base word "Arama" or rest (e.g., Ghosrawan), were Buddhist monasteries with their names being corrupted in later centuries. There are many such places, villages with the “Aama” ending, in the Buddhacharika, the places where the Buddha made his sublime wandering. But, the concentration of such “Aama” villages is noticeably very high in the Magadha region. The Buddhacharika, as per the Pali sources and Xuanzang’s description, is indicated as located at Kuru Pradesh (Delhi, Panipat and around) in West to Champa in the East. But the Buddha spent maximum time preaching around three regions (Empires), Rajgriha, Vaishali and Sravasti.  
Read more- Villages with "Aama" Suffix

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Fig-1- A tentative Buddhacharika based on the description of Xuanzang and Pali literature


Fig-2- "Aama" suffix villages in Districts of Bihar
Fig-3- Ancient Magadha Empire

Fig-4- Number of Aama suffix villages in Ancient Magadha


After Buddha attained Mahaparinirvana, this land of his that he traced with words of Wisdom was embellished with stupas, chaityas, pillars and viharas in order to fill the void of his absence and to continue furthering his teachings. His footsteps were adorned by his followers, which is still dominating symbol today.
Magadha, where the Buddha spent so many years sharing his sublime teachings, was a hub for monastic activities. A conglomeration of monasteries flourished and perpetuated the Buddha’s teachings long after the Buddha’s departure from this material world. Monks from the Southeast Asia region and beyond flocked to the Magadha region for the pure and unbiased teachings of the Buddha. About 1000 years after the Buddha’s parinirvana, Fahein, a celebrated Chinese Scholar, visited here and left a detailed account of early 5th century Magadha. He stayed for two years from 409 to 411 AD at Patliputra, the capital city of Magadha, in order to learn and gain access to the original teachings of Buddha. This was the only place where he could find manuscripts of the Vinaya Sutra, which he carried back, along with many others, when he returned to China (Records of the Buddhistic Kingdoms, By Fahein (James Legge), Chapter XXXVI).

A similar account is left behind by Xuanzang who visited Magadha in 636 CE, which reads that at that time, Magadha boasted the presence of more than 50 monasteries, all of them flourishing (Buddhist Records of the Western World, Translated by S. Beal, Book-VIII, P-82). The growth didn’t stop there as four decades later when I-Tsing visited, he continued to rave about the Buddhist monasteries where Xuanzang left off. In his travelogue, I-Tsing expressed the gratitude that many monks and scholars from China and Korea felt as they ventured into the blessed land. Many never left and remained here in the land of the supreme knowledge on until they attained parinirvana. It is possible that the patronage to set up Viharas in the Magadha region did not end with the Gupta Period (4th CE to 6th CE), but rather, it was further reinforced by the Pala and Sena Kings, as suggested by the vast remains of the Pala sculptures in villages of this region. Probably the figure of 50 monasteries given by Xuanzang in the early 7th century CE further multiplied between the 8th and 12th centuries CE, during the Pala-Sena Dynasties.

Monasteries at the time did not restrict their teachings to religious Buddhists texts alone but extended their teaching much beyond into the various disciplines of science, mathematics, logic, medicine and more. Magadha was probably the first and for a long time the only truly cosmopolitan study centre known in the world. In this large Vihara, a conglomerate of Viharas spread throughout the geographic unit and students often ventured from one Vihara to another to gain knowledge from a particular specialty or shastra. Xuanzang during his travel, stayed at many monasteries, including Tiladhaka Monastery (now Telhada) for two months (The Life of Hieun-Tsiang, By Shaman Hwui Lu, Translated by S. Beal, p-153). He also discussed in detail the Shilabhadra Monastery and Gunamati Monastery, both in the Magadhan boundary.

Inscriptions found during the course of excavations suggest that the patronage for these monasteries crossed political boundaries and kings from various Buddhist countries made contributions to support this larger Vihara. While these findings have helped reveal many details of the Vihara, we have barely scratched the surface.  Almost the whole of ancient “Vihara” is still buried under layers of biomass accumulated over it during the last 8 centuries.  More excavations are yet to be made to help us realize the full extent of the contributions of the Viharas to the Magadha region.  

The Vihara revealed a monastic system of interdependence between lay society and monks.  This was an ideal example that not only flourished in this part of the world but inspired many such establishments throughout the Buddhist countries. Monks at Nalanda University did not seek alms, instead the local community provided for any necessities of the monks at the university. Xuanzang, Hwui Lun and I-Tsing described in their travelogues the ration quota that each monk received. It was the local businesses and kings who dedicated their entire villages’ revenue to Nalanda. Xuanzang and I-Tsing concurred that the local villages supported Nalanda Sangharama; and this association of mutual reliance and respect with all of its ups and downs continued to flourish for more than 1700 years until about the 13th century CE.  It is hard to guess if all monasteries gained such a privilege or if it was the scale and status of Nalanda that attracted such favored treatment.
The very unique arrangement of this large scale Vihara was due to provide inspiration.  The tangibles and intangibles of this larger Vihara enthused many kings and kingdoms and one such very evident example is the building of the Sam-Ye Monastery  in Tibet, which was inspired by the art and architecture of the Odantapuri Monastery (The Lotus-Born: The Life Story of Padmasambhava, p-290, By Yeshe Tsogyal, Dilgo Khyentse)
Buddhist monasteries not only adopted educational responsibilities, their arts and crafts arena also included Hindu deities. The two religions with overlapping boundaries maintained their uniqueness as they coexisted for centuries. Many sculptures that are found scattered in villages today, broken into pieces and yet treasured for the value and culture they stand for are the result of this confluence. Besides maintaining Hindu traditions, these villages over ancient monasteries have given us a galaxy of Buddhist icons. The present day community, which has been living with this fast disappearing treasure, has accommodated the rich heritage as part of their own rituals regardless of Buddhist or Hindu religious origins. Most villages in the region have a dedicated space called “Goraiyya Sthan” where all the ancient stone sculptures are collected and worshiped from ancient times. The term “Goraiyya Sthan” seems a probable corruption of the Guru (teacher) + Sthan (place).

This conglomeration, corruption or inclusion between religions, however it is perceived, has its own pros and cons.  After the sharp decline of Buddhism in this region, the only way to continue the heritage was to adopt it and merge it with the existing religious belief structures.  The modern generation could not be in a better place to judge a better scenario. Puritans may wish that all was found intact as the Buddha had left it but instead we find Buddhism living among the people today rather than preserved in museums, a treat that cannot be denied.

All the stories of the Buddha, that were already part of the folklore at the time of Xuanzang, Fahien, I-Tsing and others, became even more corrupted beyond recognition.  It was not until the rediscovery by the Orientalists in the 19th century that these stories have been revived. Well received by the world, this rediscovery brought to light a vast heritage into the eyes of the world. Appreciation across the globe led to further decline or de-conglomeration of the heritage as the best of the sculptures where removed to museums to Europe and other large cities of India, like museums in Calcutta, Delhi and Patna. This removal of the heritage had a positive side in that the artifacts have been preserved and are still accessible to the vast public of the world; in contrast to the many artifacts that were left behind and which in recent years have been smuggled out of this living museum.

There is no confirmed boundary of ancient Magadha, but all studies suggest a boundary which extends from the Ganges in the north to the Vindhyan Range in the south, to the River Sone in the west, and to the River Champa in the east (The Historical Geography and topography of Bihar by- M. S. Pandey, P-104). Our tribute to the Buddha Vihara concentrates on all the Magadhan villages with found Buddhist remains. These were part of the larger Vihara, either as individual monastic units or these villages with Buddhist remains once supported the Ancient Nalanda University. 
 Our next set of posts will be a tribute to this live museum. The ancient Magadha patronized the Buddha, and later cradled the Viharas for 1700 odd years to meet the insatiable need of monk students here and from across the oceans and Himalayan range. Magadha, with a cluster of Vihara, became known as ‘Large Vihara.’ Our posts will pay tribute to the present condition of Magadha, its people and their ancestors who held it together and continue to do so today.  What are the plans and dreams for the future of Buddhism in Magadha, this land that has patronized a whole culture and has contributed to the entire world culture.

 We also will pay tribute to all the kings who chose to support the Large Vihara. We will also pay tribute to the many generations of people: the farmers, artisans, weavers, and others, who for generations did whatever they could without knowing what their small lifetime contribution meant in this 2000 year journey of the heritage.  After Buddhists left the scene, people continued to protect and preserve the remains in the best possible way they knew.  We will take you through our rediscovery of this ancient Buddhist heritage and how these villagers have taken care of the heritage for us to now cherish and feel a sense of pride towards.  We will also pay tribute to the many monks who visited this land to study and contribute to the teachings of the Buddha. 

All of these many people have contributed to the vibration of the Magadha region.  It is our continued desire to present to you in the following blogs the present situation of this ancient culture.


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