#Civil Rights
The International Buddhist Community

The Archaeological Survey of India has usurped the rights of the growing International community visiting the Sacred site - hence depriving them of the right to worship.

According to the Buddhist Canon, the Maha-parinirvana-sutta, four sites have been mentioned as venues which should be visited by all who believe in the Buddhist faith. These places are: Lumbini, Bodh Gaya, Sarnath and Kushinagar. While Lumbini represents the place of the Bodhisattva Siddhartha’s birth, Bodh Gaya is ancient Uruvela where the Lord attained Enlightenment, Sarnath is without doubt the hallowed grounds where the Blessed One turned the wheel of the Dharma in the forest where the deer lived in total freedom.

The serenity of the area made it conducive for him to preach one of the most original formulas which has survived for the last 2550 years and is still relevant today. It was here under the shade of a tree in the dense forest that he explained the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-fold Path to the five mendicants and thus settled the ‘Wheel of the Law’ in motion. And Kushinagar is the site which the Blessed One chose to be his ‘final resting place’ — the most befitting site for his ‘Maha-parinirvana’.

It was actually the Buddha himself who set the course for the pilgrims to follow in one of his final instructions given to the Sangha only a day or two before his ‘Great Demise’. As such, these sites most positively fall into a category far above the other venues where the Blessed One preached, lived or spent in rain-retreat. Visiting these four sites has always been the cherished desire of monks and laity alike as well as of those who, though they do not profess the ‘faith’, yet have a deep respect for the Buddha.

The dictionaries I have consulted in quest for the most appropriate meaning for the word Sacred have more or less defined it in similar terms. All have said: “dedicated to a god; connected with religion; safeguarded or required especially by tradition”. Hence, Sarnath and its archaeological site fall into this special bracket of being a place that has special value for those who believe in the teachings of the Buddha; it is compulsory to visit it on pilgrimage and therefore is most definitely a Sacred Venue.

The trend to charge an entrance fee to Buddhist sites began in South-East Asia and it was only after India’s immediate neighbour Sri Lanka made it compulsory for devotees to pay an entrance fee that India too followed suite.

But, there is a difference between India and the other Buddhist nations. None of them were ever visited by the Buddha. India is the only country where the Blessed Lord Gautama Buddha spent forty-five years teaching the Dhamma based on the philosophy of “peace, justice and equality among all beings”. The area in which he preached the Dhamma is universally referred to as the Middle Land and comprised of kingdoms situated between the area of what is known today as Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and the Tarai area bordering India and Nepal. All the other Asian Buddhist countries have historical sites that date from the time of Asoka and much after. None of them have the pride of honour as India has. So when the Indian Government felt the need to follow the trend of its Asian neighbours, it needed to have defined its priorities properly. It should have sorted out the category of sites as: (a) Sacred, (b) Historical.

As all the other Asian Buddhist countries have only minor historical sites on which they levy an entrance fee, hence India too is free to do the same on its historical sites. Sacred sites are way above the others. They are the prime reason why devotees spend their time and money to visit this country. The least India should have done was to review its strict Archaeological laws (most of which were created during the era of the British rule in India and are obsolete and meaningless today). It should have liberated the site to the extent that pilgrims would not be charged an entrance fee, could perform their rituals over a period of days or weeks and go back home happy that they were treated with courtesy and given freedom to perform their rituals. For the remaining historical sites, the present entrance fee of Rs. 100 for non Indians is fine, no one is complaining. But in the case of Sarnath, what is being done at the moment is a sheer insult to the people who are referred to as Guests of India.

In the last century, Buddhism, because of its ideal philosophy has travelled from its Asian home to the Western world, where it has been more than welcomed. It has begun to be accepted as a philosophy still relevant in solving the maladies and complexities of the modern world. Hence all these people from all over the world now come to India in pilgrimage. They are without doubt the only lot who fall into the category of being the very best ‘foreign currency spending’ guests to the country. The least they expect is a little politeness and an opportunity to perform their rituals in a proper manner without hindrance from a Government Department.

To cite an example of how this liberty to perform their rituals without hindrance helps not only the country but also the local society, we need to examine the liberty given to the pilgrims at the Mahabodhi Temple, Bodh Gaya. Here one can perform prayer festivals and chanting continuously for a week or more without any hindrance or restrictions. Hence devotees stay there for a long period of time and whatever they spend goes to the local inhabitants who offer them services. This temple too is a sacred site and to top it, it has been enlisted by Unesco in its World Heritage list. Over the decades I have seen the hamlet, which was hardly visited by pilgrims in the past, develop into a mini-city, where in the winter months one has difficulty in finding proper lodging. On enquiring from the shopkeepers and hotel owners, one learns that the profit they earn during the winter season is more than enough to tide them over the lean summer months. While the Mahabodhi Temple represents the place of the Buddha’s enlightenment, Sarnath is where he ‘turned the wheel of the Law’. In Buddhist terms both have equal status, and pilgrims definitely expect to continue their rituals at this site too, exactly as they had done at Bodh Gaya. Unfortunately, this is very much out of the question!

Let’s compare the two ‘sacred sites’. At Bodh Gaya one can witness magnificent ‘Prayer Festivals’ attended by thousands of devotees. Here, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, His Holiness the Karmapa as well as a number of other outstanding Buddhist Teachers sit from the early hours of the morning till noon, and again from mid-afternoon till dusk, for a number of days in continuity, chanting or delivering discourses. On the other hand, all one can see at Sarnath are busloads of tourists being given a guided tour. At most they may spend an hour or two chanting. Nothing more than that. The site has been deprived of its spiritual relevance by a very short-sighted Governmental Administrative System.

The Sarnath archaeological site definitely needs a better deal. There are a few options that come to mind: (a) The Government of India should review its Archaeological Laws and make suitable changes in respect to its sacred Buddhist sites; (b) if such change cannot be done, then a Public Interest Litigation regarding the status of the site would allow the judicial system to offer some relief. However, there is a valuable point worth considering. The Constitution of India (Article 25-28 of the Fundamental Rights), as well as the Declaration of Human Rights, specifies that adherents of all religions have the freedom to worship unconditionally without any restrictions whatsoever.

If this article in the Constitution is considered relevant, then the Government of India, or to be more specific the Cultural Department and the Archaeological Survey of India, are without doubt violating the right to worship of the people believing in the Buddhist faith. This point needs to be challenged.

We demand that the Government reconsider its total dominance on the site and share administration by way of creating a Managing Committee comprising of Indian Buddhists as well offering the Buddhists pilgrims from all over the world the liberty to perform their rituals over a period of days or weeks and to stop charging an entrance fee.

As a Buddhist scholar, all I can do is to place the facts before the public. Action needs be taken. But who is going to help clear up the present mess and bring back some reverence to the site? Your signature and view will be valuable to us.

We, the undersigned, call for the liberation of the Sacred Buddhist Site at Sarnath.

We demand that the Government reconsider its total dominance on the site and share administration by way of creating a Managing Committee comprising of Indian Buddhists as well offering the Buddhists pilgrims from all over the world the liberty to perform their rituals over a period of days or weeks and to stop charging an entrance fee.

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The Liberate the sacred Buddhist site at Sarnath petition to The International Buddhist Community was written by Dr. Suresh Bhatia and is in the category Civil Rights at GoPetition.