Friday, May 15, 2020

The Sakya Trail: Awakening of Sakya Identity and Seeding of the Dhamma


At daybreak on the way to Aliganj.

I left Anchalpur Atranji Kherā with two questions to which I have to find answers: first is who were the first people to discover that the present-day Sakya clan in the Gangetic plains is associated with the Buddha and Ashoka and facilitate awareness generation about this claim among the clan; and  second is who are the people who are behind the  ‘propaganda’ among the Sakya clan which is producing in them hatred towards the Brahmins. 

Walking 23 kms from Achalpur Atranji Kherā, I arrived at Ganj Dundwara by around 3 pm. The first thing that I noticed upon reaching the town was a huge government signboard reading ‘Mahatma Buddha Smriti Dwara’ meaning Lord Buddha Memorial Gate. This signboard hints that the town has a sizable population of the Sakya community. And soon after I was taken by complete surprise when a group of Sakya people with garlands in hand came forward to welcome me.



Welcome gate of Ganj Dundwara.

 Welcoming by  Ven. Bhikhu Mangalvardhan and local Sakya people. 


One of the things that I have noticed about the young people of the Sakya community is that they are quite overwhelmed by the fact that they belong to the same tribe as the Buddha and Emperor Ashoka. All of them want to learn more about this connection. At the same time, all these young people are told that the Sakyas are victims of Brahmin persecution carried out under King Pushyamitra (2nd BCE). Like in Atranji Kherā, even here the name of King Pushyamitra popped up. Young as well as middle-aged people harbor a sense of animosity towards Brahmins. They think the Mauryan dynasty of Emperor Ashoka (3rd BCE) was brought to an end by King Pushyamitra when the latter killed the Mauryan king, Bridharatha. They also believe that Brahmins are the people responsible for the Manuvadi concept of  discrimination, that is, discrimination on the basis of caste and creed.  Sakya people here at Ganj and Achalpur mentioned that Late Shri Munshi Lal Sakya was the person who initiated the campaign about the Buddhist origin of present day Sakya and its sister communities of Ganagetic plains.

In the little time that I had, I took the opportunity to share some information with the people of the Sakya community to dispel their misconceptions about the Brahmins. I told them that many of the prominent followers and supporters of the Buddha like Sāriputta, Mahāmoggallāna, Mahākassapa and were originally Brahmins. Many of the good literature in Buddhism has been written by Brahmins like Rahul Shankratayan and the list is endless. I encouraged them to broaden their horizon and emulate the principles which the Buddha and Emperor Ashoka stood for rather than hating and slandering Brahmins.

In my foot journey, I have been meeting a variety of Sakya people who in their own way are contributing to awareness generation among the Sakya people about their Buddhist lineage and heritage. Here at Ganj, my host Shri Ajab Singh Sakya had a printing press in which he has been printing Buddhist study materials and circulating it among the Sakya people. He agreed with me that there is a dearth of authentic material on Buddha and Ashoka among the Sakya people to read which is the reason that hate propaganda is taking root in their minds easily.

Ajab Singh Sakya at his printing press showing Buddhist literatures published by him.
My next stopover was at a small village called Nagla Munshi, 13 kms from Ganj Dundwara. My host here was Shri Dhirendra Kumar Sakya. He is in his late thirties and was formerly a Sarpanch (elected head) of the village. In the evening, few people gathered to meet me. I related to them what I was hearing from other Sakya people whom I had met in the last few days. Dhirendra ji gave me a different perspective from what I had been hearing. He told me that most of the Sakya people are marginal farmers who own just enough land to make ends meet. They are indifferent to the Buddha and Buddhism perhaps because they are too busy with their day-to-day work. In fact I noticed that people were working on farms from sunrise till sunset. The streets were empty throughout the day and most of the homes were locked.

People of the Sakya community who are engaged in awareness generation  do it generally by organising events which they call ‘Kathā’ (story telling). These events are held in the evenings so that people are available to join. Professional singers and storytellers are brought for the events. Dhirendra ji says that many times, the singers and storytellers who are brought are not aware of the rich history and essence of Buddhism therefore hate speeches are an easy way to attract crowds. I saw a few Kathā videos on Youtube and found that what Dhirendra ji said was correct.
With Dhirendra Sakya ji


Dhirendra ji told me he was originally using the surname Kachi, not Sakya but a few years ago he, like many other Kachi, was convinced to change the surname from Kachi to Sakya. Now all his children too bear the Sakya surname.

The next day, Dhirendra ji took me to a neighbouring village, Rustampur, to meet Kamta Prasad Sakya. We found Shri Kamta Prasad in his tobacco farm along with his two teenage daughters. He owns two acre of land and  makes just about enough money to educate his children. He told me: “I did not study much because my parents could not afford it but I want to give the best education to my two daughters and two sons.” Everybody in his family is a Vipassana meditator. Both the daughters, Priyanka and Archana, have attended Vipassana courses in Kanpur. For this family, Buddhism means Vipassana. All of them take pride in being a Sakyan preserving the teachings of the Buddha in their own way. Every evening, 7.30 pm to 9 pm, is the family’s time for  group meditation sitting. Priyanka studies nursing in a college in the neighbouring town of Kashganj. She is encouraging her friends to take Vipassana courses. In spite of their busy lives, they find time to visit Saṅkāsya (Sankisa) to offer prayers at the place where the Buddha descended from Heaven.  

Archana, Priyanka and Kamta Prasad Sakya working in their tobacco farm.  
On 18th March, I left Nagla Munshi for Aliganj. I was eager to arrive in Aliganj because firstly, this was the place which Late Shri Munshi Lal Sakya belonged to and secondly, I was eager to meet Shri Prem Singh Sakya, the person who was spearheading the campaign to promote Vipassana in this region, especially among the Sakya community.

At Aliganj, I met Shri Ganga Sahay Sakya, 95 year old former freedom fighter with a powerful memory. He was a colleague of Late Shri Munshi Lal Sakya and had worked alongside him in facilitating awareness among the Sakyan community about their lineage and connection to Buddha. I asked him how Munshi Lal came to know about the connection of the Sakya clan of Gangetic plains to Buddha. Shri Ganga Prasad told, Munshi Lal ji had discovered this connection through the famous book The Light of Asia by Edwin Arnold. Thereafter, this group of likeminded people led by Munshi Lal started going to Sankisa on bicycles to offer prayers. In 1956, they even started celebrating Veshāk Purnimā (full-moon day of May) and Sharad Purnimā (full-moon day of October), two of the important Buddhist festivals. I asked him as to whether he was aware of the anti-Brahmanical stories being circulated by the Sakyan people, which I had been hearing during my foot journey. Shri Ganga Prasad ji told me that these stories have origin in Munshi Ji himself to meet his political ambitions. Munshi ji gave birth to these stories seeing it as a means of uniting the Sakyan people as his vote bank. With their message of hate, Munshi ji thought these stories would appeal to the emotions of the people. Indeed these stories gained popularity among the Sakyan people. Those who were part of the Sakyan awareness generation drive would go to different villages in the region and hold plays and public meetings where the slogan was used: Buddha dharam ki yeh Pehchan, Brahmin, Bhangi ek samman which translates roughly to “The essence of Buddhism is that the Brahmin (the elite) and the Sweeper (the lower castes) are equal.” The irony is that in spite of spreading these hate stories, Munshi ji never managed to win an election.
Shri Ganga Sahay Sakya, Aliganj.

Shri Ganga ji told me proudly that he has paid pilgrimage to all the Eight Great places in 1991. Due to his advanced age, he cannot go into villages anymore to educate people about the great lineage of the Sakyans so now he prints Buddhist calendars and distributes them in villages.

At Aliganj, I also met  Shri.  Prem Singh Sakya and his wife, Smt. Hashmukhi Sakya, both of whom are Vipassana meditators. They have taken many Vipassana courses. Not only them, everybody in their family has taken many long and short courses. When I told them I too had done two 10-day courses, he asked me if I would like to have a 1 hour group sitting the next morning. I liked the idea so the next day I reached his house at 8 am. There were about 25 meditators from Aliganj 8 of whom were women. Prem ji did his first course in the year 2000 after which he never stopped deepening his meditation practice. He took many courses subsequently and went on to create awareness among his family and acquaintances. He told me with humility, “we are now a big family of meditators here, more than 1000 serious meditators from Sakya community in Etah, Mainpuri, Kasganj and Farooqabad districts'', implying that it was his efforts that this was accomplished. The meditators from Aliganj and around meet weekly for group sittings. They are now making efforts for a Vipassana centre either near Sankisa or Atranji Kherā since each place is associated with wanderings of the Buddha.

Fortunate to participate in a 1 hour group sitting with Vipassana  meditators at Aliganj.
 Prem Ji is Vipassana acharya, he conducts meditation courses for children between the ages 8 and 16. I will share a few of the interesting stories which the meditators shared with me. Once Prem ji persuaded one of his friends, Shri Ram Naresh Sakya, to take a Vipassana course. Naresh’s family opposed it as they were worried that his absence from home for 10 whole days would impact the family business. Despite the objections, Naresh still went. When Naresh wanted to take a second meditation course, he again faced objection from his family. To deal with the repeated opposition from the family, Naresh and Prem Singh together persuaded Naresh's brother and mother to also join the Vipassana course. So all of them attended the course. They benefited from it so much that now the whole family is into meditation. The family gathers for a group sitting from 4 to 5 every morning.

Hashmukhi Sakya, wife of Prem Singh ji told me, “We have now more than 200 Sakyan women who are meditators. Many of them are in their late 50’s and are illiterate.” I met one of the ladies, Smt. Savitri Devi, who is in her 60’s, is illiterate but has done many Vipassana courses. She says that Vipassana benefited her so much that she decided to donate 1.5 acres of land and some amount of money to create a centre dedicated to practicing and teaching meditation to the locals in and around Aliganj.

I asked Savitri ji as to whether she had heard about Upāsikā Visākhā - one of the foremost Buddhist Upāsikās known for her generosity.  She offered the Pubbārāma monastery (eastern monastery) to the Buddha and the Saṅgha in Shrāvasti. I told Savitri ji that her act of donating land and other resources for the sake of promoting Buddha’s teachings was similar to that of Upāsikā Visākhā. I told her, “you are our (present-day) Visākhā”. Savitri ji told me she had heard about Visākhā and even visited Shrāvasti - the place from where Visākhā hailed. Savitri ji is very proud of belonging to the Sakyan clan of the Buddha. She considers Mahāprajāpati Gotami as her ideal in life. Savitri ji has offered prayers in Devadha in Nepal to which Mahāprajāpati Gotami belonged, calling it her own Maikā (maternal home). She has offered prayers also in Kapilavastu which she considers her Sasurāl (in-law’s home) as Mahāprajāpati Gotami was married to King Sudhodhana of Kapilavastu.  I asked Savitri ji and the other female meditators present if they did any celebrations in honour of the great Bhikkunīs like Mahāprajāpati Gotami, Khemā,  Uppalavannā. They didn’t, but they would consider now that I gave them the idea. They added, however: “When we visit the sacred sites we do remember the great women associated with those sites like Amrapāli with Vaishālī, Gotami and Yashodharā with Kapilavastu, and Visākhā with Shrāvasti.”

Discussion with Vipassana meditators at Aliganj.


Smt Savitri Devi, present-day Visākhā.

Many meditators then shared how in the year 2003, they had the opportunity to practice with Acharya S. N. Goenka ji (the principal teacher of Vipassana Meditation) at Talkatora Sadan in New Delhi.  62 people from in and around their village including 25 couples went to Delhi to participate in the course. “We hired a bus and left Aliganj at 11 pm. After 9 hrs of journey we reached Delhi early in the morning and attended the programme,” they recalled.  Nowadays there are many people among the Sakyan who organise pilgrimage to the sacred Buddhist places in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Nepal, not for profit but only to facilitate awareness generation among the Sakyans about their Buddhist heritage.

Later in the day, I visited the meditation centre developed on the land given by Savitri ji situated at Nagla Umeed, 8 kms from Aliganj. The hall is big enough to accommodate over 100 people in a single sitting. Prem Singh ji told me that although big, the hall is not big enough for the village of Nagla Umed alone has more than 90 meditators all of whom are marginal farmers.  

Shri Prem Singh Sakya at the newly constructed meditation centre at Nagla Umeed.


Shri Narendra Sakya, caretaker of the Meditation Centre at Nagla Umeed.

Everywhere that I walked in Aliganj, I could spot things bearing the name of the Buddha such as shops, schools, voluntary organisations. The vehicles had Buddhist flags and Buddha stickers. It was all quite interesting to note and at the same time, left me with a good feeling


                               Story chronicled by Aparajita Goswami

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