On 4th July, celebrated as Dhamma Chakra Day to commemorate Buddha’s first sermon, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke on the enduring legacy of Buddhism. He said, “Buddhism teaches respect—Respect for people. Respect for the poor. Respect for women. Respect for peace and non-violence…” He also said that the ideals of Lord Buddha were “relevant in the past. They are relevant in the present. They will remain relevant in the future.”
Modi’s speech contradicted Hindutva’s philosophical position on Buddha and Buddhism. Hindutva blames Buddha’s ideal of ahimsa or non-violence for enfeebling Indians, turning them away from acquiring strength, whether physical or military, and paving the way for the marauders from Central Asia to conquer India in the ancient past.
This position on Buddhism was most forcefully articulated by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, who coined the term Hindutva. Even though Savarkar never became a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, he is arguably among the most revered leaders of the Hindutva pantheon.
In his book, Essentials of Hindutva, published in the early 1920s, Savarkar says Buddhism was wiped out of India because the spread of Buddhism in India proved “disastrous to the national virility.” This made India susceptible to conquests, triggering a reaction among the people against Buddhism.
“Truly, it [Buddhism] was a law of Righteousness,” Savarkar writes. Yet its fault was that it did not take into account the human nature, which is driven by “animal passions”, “political ambitions” and “individual aggrandisement”. India did not, therefore, think it safe to exchange “her sword for a rosary”, eventually leading to the decline and extinction of Buddhism from the land of its birth.
Savarkar’s tone of criticism is solemn in Essentials of Hindutva. For instance, he notes, “Buddhism has conquests to claim but they belong to a world far removed from this our matter-of-fact world—where feet of clay do not stand long, and steel could be easily sharpened and trishna—thirst—is too powerful and real to be quenched by painted streams that flow perennially in heavens.”
Buddhism, from Savarkar’s perspective, has little relevance in the temporal world.
Forty years later, his critique of Buddhism acquired a sharp, mocking, rancorous edge, evident from his book, Six Glorious Epochs of Indian History, which he completed in 1963. In it, he records how Indians, more specifically the “Vedic Hindus”, valiantly struggled to expel foreign conquerors from India. Not only did the Buddhists stay aloof from the national resistance, they were guilty of “treachery” that spanned over centuries.
Savarkar links the origin of their treachery to Buddha’s propagation of ahimsa, which had them shun weapons and wars. Buddhists were consequently rendered defenceless against those wishing to subjugate them. They became cowardly over time. Incapable of defending their land, they took the side of conquerors in the hope of converting them to Buddhism.
Yet ahimsa did not psychologically debilitate Indians for well over 150 years after the death of Buddha, usually dated to either 486 BCE or 483 BCE. This was because Buddhism was one among the many religious and philosophical systems existing in India. Since it did not dominate India’s consciousness, ahimsa could not smother India’s martial spirit.
India’s fighting prowess was on display during its stout resistance to Macedonian ruler Alexander, whose military expedition in the country lasted between 327 BCE and 325 BCE. That fierce resistance, Savarkar says, prompted Alexander to appoint a Greek governor to oversee his conquests and leave India. Ultimately, Chandragupta Maurya and his Brahmin advisor, Chanakya, combined to expel the Greeks from India altogether.
The downturn in India’s history, Savarkar argues, came about because of the conversion of the third Mauryan ruler Ashoka, who ascended to the throne either in 272 BCE or 268 BCE. He adopted ahimsa as the ideology of the Mauryan state. Conquests were no longer extolled. Instead, Savarkar points out, religious victory was hailed over martial glory. He lists a few of Ashoka’s prescriptions that irreparably damaged India—“anger should be conquered by the negation of anger”; “non-violence is the supreme religious duty”; “never kill any animal”. These ideas negated the very essence of the Vedic religion.
Worse, Savarkar says, was the role of bhikkus or mendicants, who, in thousands, roamed around preaching that “army strength of every sort was violent and sinful, and that all those who followed the life of a Kshatriya were violent and so irreligious!” Bhikkus were parasites, declares Savarkar, because they lived in monasteries, where they were provided free food and clothing at the state’s expense.
No longer was the Kshatriya the role model for the society. Their position had been usurped by the bhikku, who was considered, writes Savarkar, “greater, holier and so more praiseworthy than the brave Kshatriya soldier who fought and bled and died in the defence of the nation.”
Any society condescending of warriors is bound to become vulnerable to foreign foes, Savarkar feels. This is what precisely happened—the Bactrian Greeks under Demetreos (or Demetrius) invaded Northwest India around 200 BCE and vanquished the Mauryan army. They occupied southern Afghanistan, Punjab and the Indus Valley, and undertook forays into the Gangetic heartland. The most powerful and well known of Bactrian Greek rulers was Menander (166-150 BCE).
Not only did the Buddhist successors of Ashoka fail to defend India, their co-religionists played a treacherous role. Savarkar claims Buddhist preachers spread the canard that the Greeks had come to fight the Hindus alone. The canard acquired more than the veneer of truth at Menander’s conversion to Buddhism. Savarkar writes, rather bitterly, “The Buddhist scholars and bhikkus proudly strutted in the Indian courts of those Greeks, as if they were moving in some national court.”
Playing upon Buddhist sentiments, Menander declared that his goal was to teach a lesson to the Vedic Hindus whom he accused of conspiring to overthrow the Buddhist-Mauryan rule. Buddhists were not even alarmed when Menander conquered Ayodhya. This was because, Savarkar points out, the Buddhists were “not much concerned with the alien nationality of the Greeks. Buddhism did not recognise the differences of caste, race or nationality! This was the anti-national and anti-Indian wicked way in which the Buddhist preachers began to delude the people of India!”
It fell upon the Vedic Hindus to resist the Bactrian Greeks. Savarkar writes, “The Indian Buddhist populace showed clear signs of defection…to Menander. The nationalist Indian leaders, therefore, formed a revolutionary body with a view to dethrone the vacillating and weak Brihadrath Maurya from the royal seat of Magadha and replace him with one of the Vedic sect, who was of proven metal like Chandragupta Maurya.”
Savarkar ecstatically describes how Pushyamitra, the Brahmin general of the Mauryan army, beheaded Brihadrath and usurped the Mauryan throne. It was under his aegis that the Bactrian Greeks, by and by, were expelled from India. As for the Buddhists, Savarkar condemns them for their “brazen-faced treacherous role”.
Savarkar defends Pushyamitra’s persecution of Buddhists, who were killed in large numbers, their monasteries and stupas destroyed. Savarkar writes, “It was a just punishment for high treason and for joining hands with the enemy, in order that Indian independence and empire might be protected. It was no religious persecution.”
Yet the treachery of Buddhists, Savarkar tell us, did not abate. Under pressure from the Huns, the Kushans established their kingdom in northwest India and expanded its frontiers all the way into the Gangetic plain. The most famous of Kushan rulers was Kanishka (died 78 CE), who converted to Buddhism, made inroads into China and spread his religion there.
But Indians, Savarkar warns, should not feel proud of Kanishka’s conquests even though “Buddhism itself was an Indian religion.” Why? We must not feel proud because “the Buddhism that was embraced by Kanishka was not the unadulterated original one of Lord Buddha nor that of Ashoka. It was the Kanishkan edition of Buddhism.”
This should have made Savarkar happy, for Kanishka’s conquests negate the ideas of Buddha and Ashoka, against whom the Hindutva ideologue rails. But because Savarkar must undermine the original Buddhism as well, he asks a puerile question: How could Kanishka spread Buddhism in the Chinese territory beyond the Himalayas?
Savarkar answers, “It was possible because he had first conquered those provinces with his weapons of war…. All this was possible for him because he had under his command a very powerful empire, i.e., he had a mighty armed strength. Wasn’t it?”
In other words, Savarkar has problems with Buddha because he propagated non-violence; he has problems with Ashoka because he adopted ahimsa as his policy and weakened India’s martial spirit; he has problems with Kanishka because he deviated from the teachings of Buddha, violated Ashoka’s policy, and engaged in military forays.
Savarkar’s tendency to find faults with Buddhism any which way springs from his desire to bolster his thesis that only the votaries of the Vedic religion can be loyal to India, and defend it from foreign depredations. It is religion that maketh the man. He, therefore, points out that the Vedic Hindus fought against Kanishka as “his was not at all an indigenous Indian empire”.
What were the Indian Buddhists doing at that time? Savarkar writes, “They tendered their submission to the Mlechcha [barbarian] enemy, the Kushan emperor, as soon as he courted the Buddhist cult and began to perpetrate acts of treachery against the Indian nation and the brave patriotic Vedic people, who were fighting for her liberty!”
By contrast, the Hindus refused to support foreign rulers even when they embraced the Vedic religion. Not only was the ruler’s faith important, but also whether or not he was born in India. This was why the Hindus, Savarkar says, fought against the Hun ruler Mihirgula (sixth century), although he had accepted the “Vedic cult of God Rudra and brutally oppressed the Buddhists, who had become the inveterate enemies of the Vedic Hindus.” The Vedic Hindus did not support Mihirgula because they looked upon him as a “foreign aggressor and as such a national enemy,” Savarkar says.
Savarkar barely conceals his glee over Mihirgula liquidating, after invading Kashmir, a huge number of Buddhists there. “It is very difficult to say if fate had brought to life this Mihirgula only to give a practical lesson to the Indian Buddhists.” And pray, what was that lesson? “That without one’s own armed support even religion cannot survive the onslaught of the barbarous enemy’s fire and sword.”
This lesson the Buddhists were also taught, according to Savarkar, when Mohammad bin Qasim, in the eighth century, invaded Sindh, which was ruled by Hindu king Dahir. The Buddhists, according to Savarkar, thought Qasim would, like Menander and Kanishka, embrace Buddhism and torment the Hindus.
Savarkar says the Buddhists approached Qasim and pleaded to be left alone. Savarkar even imagines their conversation with Qasim: “We have nothing to do with Dahir and his Vedic Hindu cult… Our Prophet, Lord Buddha, has taught us ‘Ahimsa’. (Total abstinence from violence). We never take arms and dabble with political affairs of the state… So we pray that the Buddhists should not be subjected to any indignities or troubles at your hands.”
Qasim, Savarkar says, assured safety to Buddhists, who rang bells in their monasteries at the defeat of Dahir. Savarkar notes, “As there was no armed opposition in Buddhist viharas and Buddhist localities, the Muslims cut them down as easily as they would cut vegetable. Only those of the Buddhists who took to the Muslim faith were spared.”
All these examples, Savarkar writes, should establish, beyond doubt, the impracticality of ahimsa. The Buddhists compounded their historical mistake of embracing ahimsa by their treachery against India and the Hindus.
Suddenly switching gears, Savarkar tells the untouchables, or Dalits as they are known today, that the condition of their ancestors was no better under Buddhist rulers. Sample what Savarkar writes, “Those of the untouchables…should do well to remember that the Chandals, the Mahars and other untouchables were far more miserable under the violently non-violent Buddhists than under the Vedic people who accepted the principle of Ahimsa with its limitations.”
Savarkar’s decision to address the Dalits is understandable. He completed the Six Glorious Epochs in 1963, just seven years after Dr BR Ambedkar had converted to Buddhism along with his lakhs of Mahar followers. Their conversion negated the idea of Hindu unity, which Savarkar sought to forge all his life.
Indeed, Hindutva’s project of uniting the followers of the Vedic religion has Savarkar view the past as a saga of Hindus fighting the “other”, or all those who came into India from outside as well as those who did not subscribe to the Vedic religion. This has him accord primacy to virility, engage in fantasies of battles and bloodshed, and superimpose modern ideas of nation and nationhood on his story of the past.
India and its people were oblivious of ideas such as nation in the ancient past. India was then divided into myriad kingdoms, which were periodically melded, to a degree, under an imperial rule. For the most part, these kingdoms fought against each other, long before the Muslims swept into India, desecrated temples and abducted deities patronised by their Hindu rivals.
Savarkar has glossed over historical evidence and invented or exaggerated a few to rewrite history to suit the Hindutva project.
For instance, Ashoka did not persecute the Vedic Hindus, as Savarkar will have us believe. One of Ashoka’s rock edits, in historian Romila Thapar’s translation, has him advise his subjects thus: “On each occasion one should honour the sect of another, for by doing so one increases the influence of one’s own sect and benefits that of the other, while, by doing otherwise, one diminishes the influence of one's own sect and harms the other... therefore concord is to be commended so that men may hear one another's principles.”
Nor did Ashoka practice an extreme form of non-violence, nor did he disband the Mauryan army. Thapar writes, “He [Ashoka] recognised that there were occasions when violence might be unavoidable, for instance when the forest-dwellers were troublesome… He also states that he would prefer his descendants not to conquer by force, but should it be necessary he hopes they will conduct this conquest with a maximum of mercy and clemency.” We also have evidence that animals continued to be slaughtered, even though in lesser numbers than previously, in the royal kitchen.
All this suggests that Ashoka’s decision to patronise Buddhism did not lead to the decline of the Mauryan Empire. Its decline, in fact, has been ascribed to the debasement of the Mauryan coin, to imposition of tax on every person, to the failure of rulers to build a centralised bureaucratic structure.
Hindutva’s disdain for Buddhism was not confined to Savarkar alone. In his recently published book, The RSS and the Making of the Deep Nation, journalist Dinesh Narayanan counts Deendayal Upadhyaya among those who were in agreement with Savarkar’s thesis on Buddhism. Narayanan writes, “…Buddha threw the baby out with the bathwater, Upadhyaya says, when he sought to cut off India from the Vedic roots. He not only stopped ancient rites and rituals, Buddha also preferred Pali over Sanskrit in popularising his new religion.”
Given Hindutva’s view of Buddhism, Modi’s admiration and love for Savarkar and Buddha is decidedly a contradiction, as they represent philosophical positions that are poles apart. But then, politics maketh the leader, his thoughts and actions.
The author is an independent journalist. The views are personal.