Disfiguring Religious Harmony in the South-Asian Region

The relationship between Buddhism and Pakistan is deep-rooted.

by Ali Sukhanver

The South-Asian region is no doubt a paradise on earth, blessed with a lot of scenic beauty, mystic serenity and natural sublimity. From Nepal to Pakistan and from Sri Lanka to India, most of the people have hearts enriched with love, kindness and sympathy for the whole humanity. Though the South-Asian region comprises of the people following different religious philosophies but their ‘philosophical’ differences never create hostile-distances among them. From Buddhism to Hinduism and from Sikhism to Islam, one finds the followers of every religion here in a large number; at some places in minority and at some places in majority. 

That is the reason that here we find countlesstemples, gurdwaras, churches and mosques in almost all areas of the South Asian region. For example in Pakistanthe people from the Buddhist community are not more than a few thousand but there are countless religious icons here in Pakistan belonging to the Buddhist heritage. These icons includethe Fasting Buddha in Lahore,Buddha’s Relics in Taxila,Dharma Rajika Stupa in Taxila,Shatial Rock Carvingin Chilas, the Healing statue of Buddha and Seat of Saints in Jaulian,the statue of Sleeping Buddha in Haripur, Buddhist Stupa in Mohenjo-daro,Jehanabad Buddha in Swat and the Throne of the Water Spring inTakht-i-Bahi, Mardan. Same is the case with churches, Hindu temples and Gurdwaras; they are also in a large number. The government of Pakistan spends millions of rupees on looking after sacred places belonging to the Buddhist, Christian, Sikh and Hindu community. 

Unfortunately, almost a decade back when Pakistan was under a severe wave of terrorism, reportedly some of the historic Buddhist religious icons were damaged by the foreign-supported terrorists near Pak-Afghan border area. It is also very a very painful fact that because of some Indian patronized miscreants, Pakistan couldn’t be a safe place for the tourists, particularly for those who wished to visit Pakistan for seeing their sacred places; people from the Sikh and the Buddhist community were on top of the list among them. Recently the BJP government has issued an advisory for Sikhs and Hindu pilgrims coming to Pakistan directing them to desist staying as a guest of any Pakistani citizen. The advisory further warns that the Indian pilgrims who accept the hospitality of Pakistani citizens will be blacklisted for the future. Now-a-days about 495 Sikh pilgrims from India are visiting Pakistan to celebrate the anniversary of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. This unethical advisory rather warning is a proof that the people of Pakistan give a very warm welcome to the Hindu and Sikh pilgrims and certainly this warmth is not acceptable to the BJP government. 

As far as the relationship between Buddhism and Pakistan is concerned, no doubt it is very deep-rooted. It was Raja Tri Dev Roy, the Chief of the Chakma tribe who openly supported and favoured Pakistan during the 1971 war with India. That war had resulted in separation of the West Pakistan from the East Pakistan. After that separation Raja Tri Dev Royleft Bangladesh’s Chittagong region and settled in Pakistan. In Pakistan he foundedthe Pakistan Buddhist Society and remained its Chairman from 1996 till his death in 2012. During all that period, his family remained settled in Bangladesh. Raja Tri Dev Roy lived a very active social, political and religious life in Pakistan. Still people of Pakistan admire and appreciate his role as a politician, diplomat and a writer. He had been the Minister of the Minority Affairs in Zulfikar Ali Bhutto cabinet too.It is also a very interesting fact that the Buddhist and the Muslim communities had never been hostile to each other because both religions promote love, kindness and equalityfor all human beings, though there had been conflicts and clashes between the people belonging to the two communities at some places, particularly in Bangladesh but not on religious basis. The basic reason for this harmony is that Buddhism, just like Islam, disregards the inhuman caste system particularly prevailing in the Hindu extremist societies.

According to the Buddha’s preaching, individual people might be able to attain enlightenment in this life and moreover caste was not a punishment for deeds committed in a past life. Buddha further preached that prejudice is an example of ignorance and believing that we are in some way superior to those around us is an example of craving or of fear. Today for the Hindu extremists in India, Buddhism has become the most serious threat because countless low-caste Hindus are tired of their everyday persecution at the hands of the Upper Caste Hindus and that is why they find a comfortable sheltering zone in Buddhism.For Buddhists, the caste system is an example of discrimination and is something that they do not support. No doubt it is very much true that all Hindus of India are not extremists; neither were they all in the past but extremism has always been a dominating factor in that society. Be it the Muslims, the Sikhs, the Christians or the Buddhists; and even the low-caste Hindus commonly known as the Dalits, everyone is being exploited and maltreated by the extremist Hindus. 

The low-caste Hindus in a big number are reverting to other religions simply because of this insulting maltreatment. According to the Wikipedia, in the 1951 census of India, 181,000 (0.05%) respondents said they were Buddhist. The 1961 census showed an increase to 3.25 million (0.74%). According to the 2011 census, Scheduled Castes Buddhists grew by 38 percent in the country. In short, Buddhism is growing rapidly in the Scheduled Caste (Dalit) community. This large number of Dalits embracing the Buddhistreligion is simply a reaction against maltreatment with the low-caste Hindus. But it seems that such a large number of the Hindus changing their religion are never disturbing for the BJP government. Experts say that Modi led government is intentionally working on a plan of making India a land only for the Hindus; the upper-caste Hindus only.Recently during Modi’s visit to Nepal on 16th and 17th May 2022, an incident of a very trivial nature occurred which proved that no one else could ever be morerigid, prejudiced and narrow-minded than Mr. Modi. Apparently he was there in Nepal to attend the celebration of the birth of Gautam Buddha in Lumbini but critics say that this visit was something more than the promotion of religious and cultural ties; it must be viewed through the larger geopolitical lens. They are of the opinion that this visit was to give a clear-cut message to Nepal that country’s growing closeness to China is not acceptable to India.Here the point to be noted is that today China has the world's largest Buddhist population, with an estimated 185–250 million practitioners. Closeness with China could mean inclination towards Buddhism and certainly this closeness and inclination could never be acceptable to India. That is why Mr. Modi chose to land via helicopter on a helipad in Lumbini which isjust 18 kilometers away fromthe Gautam Buddha International Airport.Gautam Buddha is the second international airport in Nepal built with Chinese assistance and support. Honourable Prime Minister of Nepal Sher Bahadur Deuba had inaugurated that airport the same day in the morning of 16th May when Mr. Modi landed in Lumbini. By avoiding landing on that newly inaugurated airport, Mr. Modireflected his personal hesitance to endorse a Buddhist majority country China’s infrastructural activities in Nepal. Such type of narrow-mindedness could never be expected from the prime minister of a country which introduces itself as the Largest Democracy.