The way it was: Our meeting with Lord Buddha

Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

Buddha appeared to us with his eyes closed lost in deep meditation. After a while the torch was taken from the lap and placed on the left knee. I couldn’t believe what I saw. The Buddha opened his eyelids and seized us with an angry stare, probably for disturbing his peace

In one of my previous narratives, I recounted how we travelled by night from Gwalior to Bhopal, and arrived without being attacked as expected by hungry tigers prowling in the untamed jungle. The Great Stupa of Sanchi is situated about an hour’s run from the Bhopal City. The narrow untarred road goes through an exuberant countryside kept verdant by constant showers. A considerable acreage of cultivable land grew paan. All paan eaters know that the light green paan from Sanchi is the juiciest and the crunchiest of all paan leaves. We should consider ourselves fortunate if they are still being smuggled into the country!

Emperor Ashoka raised the original foundations of the Great Stupa of Sanchi, which contains relics of Lord Buddha. Ashoka was so overcome with horror at the sight of the slain littered in the battlefield after his Orissan campaign that he dedicated his life to the propagation of law and peace, preached by Buddha. He replaced Grandfather Chandragupta’s rule of force by the rule of law and religious persuasion. The Andhra rulers later enlarged the Stupa. The wooden fence that surrounded the Ashoka structure was replaced during the first century BC by a massive stone railing of impressive proportions. The railing is claimed by historians to be an imitation of the wooden original. There are four elegant gateways to the Stupa and while the surrounding railings are plain, the entrances are elaborately carved. These carvings are so delicately executed that it can be speculated that local ivory carvers must have been engaged to undertake the work.

Noticeably, no image of Buddha is represented anywhere. At the time it was not considered right to show him in human form; instead, he was symbolically represented by the Wheel, a throne or by an image of his footprint, or by the Bodhi tree under which he sat and achieved Nirvana. It was later under the Greek influence in the Northwest, that he was represented in the human form as the Greek God Apollo. There was a time when Buddhist art and architecture encompassed a vast domain: from the shores of the Pacific in the east to the Hindukush in the west in Afghanistan and Turkistan, to China in the north and Sri Lanka in the south. It is a strange travesty of history that Buddhism was entirely ousted as a universal faith from its own homeland by the resurgence of Hinduism.

At Ajanta on our way to Bombay, are found the most exquisite and noble examples of Buddhist paintings. We stopped for the night at a government tourist hotel, built at the base of the path that ascends to the Ajanta caves, cut into volcanic rock. At dinner we were most pleased to discover that partridges were on the menu and instantly ordered a plate for each one of us. Unfortunately, the cook just did not know how to cook a partridge; nevertheless, we went to bed considerably cheered. Early next morning, I discovered from their beckoning calls that there was a considerable population of these birds around. Ajanta caves were accidentally discovered in 1910 or thereabout by a hunting party comprising of some Englishmen who perchance sauntered into the secluded valley to get partridges. In the course of their shoot, one of them stumbled into a cave to take refuge from a sudden monsoon downpour.

The caves are excavated in a perpendicular wall 250 feet high, in a semicircular sweep of about half-mile. The Ajanta paintings, besides depicting events from Buddha’s life, present a picture of society where there is no discord between abstinence and fulfilment, between renunciation and enjoyment and where spiritual and material life is indivisible. Besides the murals, one of the most amazing things we saw was the statue of Lord Buddha. While we were rushing in and out of the caves, our guide insisted that we follow him into a pitch-dark cave. Naturally we hesitated for a moment, but observing that the man was in earnest, we reluctantly stepped into the darkness, relieved to find that he carried a torch with him. At the far end of the cave was one of the most magnificent statues of Buddha that I have ever seen carved in stone.

Sakyamuni was comfortably but royally seated on a platform, with his left leg folded up on the platform, while the other was resting on the floor at its base. Our guide asked us to stand a few paces back in front of the statue and then proceeded to place the torch in its lap. Buddha appeared to us with his eyes closed lost in deep meditation. After a while the torch was taken from the lap and placed on the left knee. I couldn’t believe what I saw. The Buddha opened his eyelids and seized us with an angry stare, probably for disturbing his peace. I was awe struck but soon without our noticing our guide picked the torch and placed it on the right thigh. I was relieved to see that Sakyamuni’s demeanour relaxed and now he singled us out with a divinely endearing smile, which captured my heart. Finally the torch was replaced in the lap and Buddha closed his eyes and he instantly withdrew into himself to the exclusion of all and everything. Without a word or even exchanging a glance, quietly without a sound, we withdrew from his royal presence. Strange solemn feelings overwhelmed our thoughts and feelings. We were beckoned back to consciousness by repeated calls of the partridges, foraging in the viridian valley bellow.

We, too, have a rich Buddhist Heritage. After Buddhism was ousted from India, it stayed in the Indus Region. It is interesting to observe that according to the records of history, whereas mainstream India has been less tolerant of other religions, the people of the Indus have demonstrated greater tolerance. This is borne out by the fact that four great religions of the subcontinent flowered and flourished in this region. These include Vedic Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Sikhism. It is an irony of history that the region characterised by tolerance and accommodation is condemned to sectarian violence and ethnic intolerance, malice and prejudice.

The other day I was humbled to learn that a ten-member delegation of Buddhist monks has crossed into Pakistan to embark on a three-month long trek from Taxila to the Great Stupa at Sanchi. The purpose of this journey is to propagate peace and restrain India and Pakistan from converting this region of great civilisations into a graveyard of nuclear devastation. It is only appropriate that the narrative, which began with a description of the Sanchi Stupa, should end with these holy men’s resolve to walk to Sanchi in order to help bring peace in our region. I don’t know about others, but I would certainly like to join them and go back to Sanchi, if I were not restrained from crossing the border.

Prof Ijaz-ul-Hassan is Pakistan’s leading painter. He is a teacher, art critic and political activist. He was awarded the “President’s Pride of Performance” in 1992. He is currently the president of the PPP Punjab’s Policy Planning Committee and Chairman of the party’s Manifesto Committee