Yesterday’s Empires into Dust
The Buddha’s enlightenment was centered around the realization that the universe is characterized by impermanence (called annicha in Pali) and change, that nothing abides eternally. That event occurred when he was intensely meditating under a tree 2,500 years ago in a grove. That place is known today as Bodh Gaya, a small town in the state of Bihar. There is a certain aptness to the Buddha’s realization about impermanence when one considers Bihar.
Bihar, from the Sanskrit word vihara meaning abode, used to be one of the most important places on earth in history. It’s capital, Patna, then called Pataliputra, was the capital of the Mauryan Empire (321 – 184 BCE) “which ruled over much of the Indian – Subcontinent and extended as far as Iran and Afghanistan to the West. Emperor Ashoka, one of the greatest monarchs in the history of the world, who ruled between 273 BC and 232 BC was the most famous ruler of the Mauryan dynasty.” [Wiki]
Bihar is associated with not just Buddhism. Mahavira, the 24th and the last Tirthankara of Jainism, was born in Bihar. He attained moksha in Bihar as well. Bihar lays claim to being the birthplace of Sita, the wife of Hindu god Ram. She was the daughter of King Janaka of the Mithila kingdom. Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th guru of the Sikhs, was born in Patna.
One cannot refer to learning and scholarship in the ancient world without mentioning Vikramshila and Nalanda universities. Nalanda was the equivalent of today’s Harvard, Yale, Oxford, Cambridge, Berkeley and Stanford, all rolled into one. At its peak, Nalanda used to house 10,000 students and 2,000 teachers. The Buddha and Mahavira were certainly visiting faculty at Nalanda. Emperor Ashok must have been like a VC benefactor to Nalanda: he built a temple there.
It’s all gone now.
Islamic invaders destroyed Nalanda in 1193 CE, just a little over 800 years ago. Bhatkiyar Khilji, the Turkish Muslim invader, took care to inquire whether there was a Koran in the library before he burnt it and sacked the university complex. Wonder if his ideological descendents worry about the Koran before flying planes into buildings. Just incidentally, it is interesting to note that Islam has been in the business of destroying what Buddhists built for many centuries, and so the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas is just a small comma in the history of the world (as the POTUS Dubya may describe it.) I don’t know if the descent of Bihar into the disaster zone it is today began with the destruction of Nalanda. Perhaps it did.
My visit to Patna for a couple of days recently was enlightening. I had visited Bihar before, of course. Many years ago, when I was on a tour I called “Following the Footsteps of the Buddha,” I had gone to all the places associated with the Buddha: birth, enlightenment, first turning of the wheel of dharma, various important sermons, and death. In Bodh Gaya, I even sat all by myself for a couple of hours at the same spot where the Buddha became a buddha, under the tree which was a direct descendent of the original bodhi tree. Nobody else was around—by a sheer stroke of luck for me, it was election day in Bihar. But that is a different story.
Anyway, it was my first time in Patna. This time I learnt a bit about Bihar today and its future. I will come to that in my next post.