Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Who was it that buried the stupa and temple associated with the Buddha's death?

The Parinirvana (or Parinibbana) Stupa is one of the four holy places declared by the Buddha to be places fit for pilgrimage.

Near the site of the Buddha's death, the stupa possibly housed one-eighth of the Buddha's relics.

No one knows when the stupa and nearby temple were built, but it could have been as early as immediately after his death.

In any case, it was, presumably a centre of pilgrimage during the heyday of Buddhism in India. However, with the "disappearance" of Buddhism, all trace of the stupa and the temple disappeared.

When the remains of the Parinirvana Stupa and Parinirvana Temple, were rediscovered (something like 500 years after they vanished from history), they were apparently buried in a 40 foot high mound of bricks within a dense and thorny forest.

Time covers many things, but it is usually with dust, not bricks. And coverage by bricks does not happen by accident.

I cannot discover any reference to the time when the stupa and temple were buried, to the name of the person who ordered it done, or to any reason why the burial was in 40 feet of bricks rather than in 30 feet or in 60 feet or in any other number of feet of bricks.

Not only were the stupa and temple buried, the whole surrounding area seems to have been declared a "No go" area by means of taboos and superstitions, so that a jungle grew up (or was perhaps even started?) around the sites.

In any case, do these actions not show a deep desire on the part of certain very powerful people to cover all trace of the site and to make it as difficult as possible to reach or even discover?

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Financial Times: full text of my letter to the Editor, following the letter by John Godfrey, on Indian philanthropy


John Godfrey (Letters, February 2) may be pleased to hear that I started work, last Autumn, on a history of Indian philanthropy from Vedic times to the present, examining the historical impact of Buddhism, Jainism, Islam, Sikhism, Christianity, and Hinduism as well as the contemporary impact of secular modernity. That work is what led to my initial letter on the subject (published in FT on 19 January 2013).

In addition, another study is expected to be published in the next few days by Coutts; still another study is forthcoming in the next few months from Sage, written by three North American academics. So studies of Indian philanthropy do appear to be emerging.

However, there is a question of how various studies define the subject: do we wish to include donations in India, whether from the poor or from the rich, to temples and priests, or do we to we wish to confine ourselves to donations that are actually philanthropic? It was just this week that a report was published by a religious organisation in India announcing donations of the equivalent of over half a billion dollars to that organisation in the last year alone! While it is true that some temples and religious organisations have started philanthropic work as a reaction against Christian influences over the years, it is unclear how much of the money received by these temples and religious organisations is now devoted to philanthropic causes.

Outside the world of temples and religious organisations, I agree that genuine philanthropy has increased, though a lot of it, perhaps inadvertently, ends up strengthening the gap between the rich and the poor.

In fact, it is not clear how much Indian philanthropy has even attempted to address the real problems of the country or to ameliorate in any systematic way the lot of the masses – India has more poor people, more uneducated people, and more people dying from preventable diseases, than any other country. Indeed, India apparently has one NGO for every 400 people: so, while Mr Godfrey is undoubtedly right about the scale of aspiration in the area of philanthropy, one is perplexed about how to understand, evaluate or remedy the relative lack of impact. Though I remain cheered by Mr Godfrey’s belief that India’s bureaucracy might be able to regulate and support the growth of Indian philanthropy, it is clear that India’s poor taken as a whole are benefiting at best only marginally both from the expansion of India’s economy and from the growth of Indian philanthropy.

There is the further question, which I will raise in my lecture at the National University of Singapore later this month, of whether the newly promising forms of Indian philanthropy, as they follow in the wake of developments in the USA, may also end up strengthening the trend towards crony capitalism in India as they appear to be doing in the USA, or whether a more positive outcome in India might be in view.

Lastly, I am not aware of any assessment of the historical and contemporary role and impact of Indian philanthropy as a whole (which is partly what I am aiming to do through my book), and any comments on that from your readers would be particularly useful.