Fig.1 Rashtrapati Bhavan
Some 900 years ago, the Dhamma, the teachings of the Buddha, faced a profound challenge after being uprooted from India. But history has a penchant for surprises, and so it was that the Dhamma would rise again in the land of its origin.
At the end of the 12th century, the jubilation at the camp of the plundering Afghans, over their destruction of the Nālandā Mahāvihāra, was somewhat short-sighted. The massacre of the monks who lived there, and the six-months-long bonfire fuelled by the books from its library, is generally considered the Dhamma’s final blow, its coup de grâce, in the Majjhima Desa (the middle land of Northern India). But a death blow it was not. The Dhamma would eventually rise once more 2,500 years after the parinirvāna of the Buddha, as traditionally predicted. The destruction at Nālandā was merely hacking at the trunk of a venerable but decaying tree, from which visible shoots would again begin to sprout in early 19th-century British India.
After almost a thousand years of oblivion, the renaissance of the Dhamma was assisted by the decoding of the Brahmi script by James Princep, a junior employee of the British East India Company. His translations were aided by bilingual Greek and Brahmi coins left behind by the Macedonian kings of Punjab and Afghanistan. Close on the heels of Princep’s breakthrough, piercing through the thick bark of generations of amnesia, these tender shoots became visible as sites associated with Buddha’s life were gradually uncovered.
The decrypted Brahmi script also made it possible to decipher the many inscriptions left by Emperor Dhamma Ashoka, whose name was also revealed, though only in the late 19th century. And, it was not until 1915 that his name escaped the gilded chambers of Western scholarly institutions, such as the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal, to become a subject of public adulation in India. For a colonised people to know that they had had a powerful Indian king, a follower of the Dhamma, who had ruled a territory at least as vast as British India, must have been a relief challenging belief. Moreover, that king’s legacy was to play a huge role in the century to come.
It was around that time, in 1912, that the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens was given primary responsibility for the design of the then-called Government House in New Delhi, now known as the Rashtrapati Bhavan (Presidential Mansion). Winston Churchill referred to the new building as the “Vice Regal Palace, given that it was bigger than Buckingham Palace itself.” In describing the edifice in 1931, the British travel writer Robert Byron noted, “Never was so large, so well planned, so arrogant, yet so lovely a palace—so fit a setting for a man who, if power be measured by the number of those subject to it, is the most powerful man who breathes.”1
Sir Edwin Lutyens had an extraordinary intolerance and dislike of all things Indian.2 (His wife, Lady Emily, meanwhile, was quite happy with the object of her adoration, a 15-year-old Indian named Jiddu Krishnamurti!)3 Nonetheless, Lutyens designed what some might judge the world’s most significant building of the 20th century. And, despite his prejudices (and nudged in that direction by Lord Hardinge, the reigning Viceroy), he reserved pride of place for a monument from India’s glorious past by crowning this awesome pile with an Ashokan dome, or stupa, copied from Sanchi, complete with the definitive Ashokan railings encircling it. Moreover, The Dome over India, Aman Nath’s book on the architecture of the Rashtrapati Bhavan, reveals, with the help of Lutyens’ architectural drawings, how the pillars that support the building were inspired by those that Ashoka erected across his kingdom to mark places of significance to the Dhamma.
The British, whose hold over India was becoming ever more tenuous, were invested in the hope that in 1911, moving the imperial capital from Calcutta to Delhi, and into a new vice regal palace, would set the clock back in their favour. But their timing was all wrong and, with an intention to placate their Indian subjects, so were their chosen icons! As destiny would have it, these symbols from Ashokan architecture were not meant to be mere decorations; they were to become powerful symbols of a future independent India. The “Palace,” which took, from 1912 to 1929, seventeen years to build, was occupied by its colonial planners for only the next eighteen. In 1947, it passed to the new Republic of India, and since January 26, 1950, has been occupied by Indian presidents.
Emperor Ashoka is believed to have erected 84,000 stupas throughout the India of his day, enshrining in each of them a portion of the Buddha relics that he had exhumed from seven of the eight stupas that had originally enshrined them. Time and weather had razed most of the Ashokan stupas to the ground, and by crowning India’s singularly most significant building, from which this vast subcontinent was to be governed, with a stupa, Lutyens had effectively made a stupa over all of India. And rightly so, since the relics themselves that Ashoka had so reverently installed had become largely and inseparably mixed with the soil of India.
Fig. 2 Sanchi stupa. Fig. 3 The dome over the Rashtrapati Bhavan
India, newly emancipated, sought to honour its spiritual heritage by using two more of Ashoka’s iconic symbols. The Dhamma Chakra, or the ‘Wheel of Dhamma,’ became the emblem adorning the national flag—a testament to the nation’s commitment to the Buddha's teachings. And the Four Lion Capital, perched atop Ashoka’s pillar in Sarnath where the Buddha delivered his first discourse, and symbolizing the resounding “Lion's Roar” of the Dhamma’s initial proclamation, became the official state emblem of the country.
Furthermore, Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, brought two national treasures into the Rashtrapati Bhavan from the Indian Museum at Calcutta. “The two pieces were appropriately placed: the fourth to fifth-century, Indo-Greek, Gandhara Buddha under the dome inspired by the Sanchi stupa, and the third-century BC Mauryan (i.e., Ashokan) Bull between the pillars.”4 In 1952 Nehru wrote, “I should like the Bull to be prominently displayed for people to see. I do not like the idea of it being immersed in the darkness of the Central Asian Antiquities Museum … the best place for the Bull would be in the centre of the verandah.”5 The Buddha statue was similarly accorded a fitting place, right beneath the domed stupa, gazing benignly over the chair of the Indian president, as though to bless its occupant. As these dots are connected, they seem to tell us that the re-emergence of independent India and the Dhamma go hand in hand.
Fig. 4 Rampurva Bull with pillars in the background Fig. 5 The Four Lion Capital from Sarnath
Lutyens, inadvertently, had designed a palace not as consolidation for a faltering British Raj, but for a new and vibrant Dhamma Raj, following in the footsteps of Ashoka’s India.
After the independence of India, the revival of Dhamma extended beyond symbolism and into the living hearts of its citizens. The Buddha’s teachings, the Dhamma, as presented in the Noble Eightfold Path, are condensed under the three headings of sīla (morality), samādhi (mental concentration), and paññā (wisdom). In 1956, nine years after Indian independence, Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, a champion of social justice, embraced Buddhism at Diksha Bhumi in Nagpur, the geographical centre of the Indian subcontinent, and asked his 600,000 followers to do likewise. This eventually led to the conversion of millions of Indian citizens to the resounding chorus of buddhaṃ saranaṃ gacchami (I take refuge in the Buddha) in subsequent centrifugal waves all over India. With this momentous revolutionary event, Dr. Ambedkar essentially re-established, in a newly independent India, the Buddha’s elementary principles.
In 1959, the Dalai Lama fled the Chinese occupation of Tibet to take refuge in India, and was soon followed by an exodus of fellow refugees. Like his Holiness, they were adherents of Mahāyāna Buddhism and brought with them their traditional forms of study, ritual, and practice.
The culmination of the revival of Dhamma came with the return of Vipassana meditation, the ultimate aspect of the Buddha’s teachings. Shri Satyanarayan Goenka carried the torch of this transformative meditation practice from Myanmar back to India. When Goenkaji visited India in 1969 to teach Vipassana to his ageing parents, he found interest in the technique so overwhelming that he resolved to remain in India and continue teaching. The prophecy about the revival of the Dhamma in the land of its origin 2500 years after the Buddha was nearing fulfilment.
India’s previous president, Shri Ram Nath Kovind, was a sincere practitioner of Vipassana meditation even as he occupied his high office at Rashtrapati Bhavan and commanded a fifth of the world’s population from beneath its dome. His brother had already been an assistant teacher of Vipassana under Goenkaji. Another former Indian president, Shrimati Pratibha Patil, attended a 10-day Vipassana course after leaving office. Her daughter was already a practitioner and maintains a residence in the Vipassana-dedicated, Sayagyi U Ba Khin Village at Dhamma Giri, Igatpuri. All the major political parties in present-day India have senior members who practise Vipassana meditation. Even Shri Narendra Modi, India’s current prime minister, flew to Mumbai to pay homage to Goenkaji after his demise. Such is the influence of Dhamma in the Indian polity.
Today, the threads of Dhamma are being woven into the fabric of Indian society across all religions, communities and locations, slowly knitting this country into one harmonious whole. Vipassana courses flourish, drawing seekers from all walks of life. The path to enlightenment, dormant for centuries, has again conquered Ashoka’s ancient kingdom.
At the time of Buddha’s parinirvāna, his assistant Ānanda asked the master who was to inherit his exalted position. The Buddha replied that no one would do so, that the Dhamma and discipline (vinaya) together would lead the way. The vinaya is a set of rules that govern an orderly and disciplined bhikkhu saṅgha, the order of Buddhist monks. Now that the Dhamma in its efflorescence is available throughout India, the vinaya, as represented by the bhikkhu saṅgha, might well be the next phase to pervade the Indian landscape. In time, no doubt, we shall find out.
Fig. 6 The Buddha gazes benignly over the Chair of the President of India, in the Durbar Hall, under the Sanchi dome, at the Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi.
Readers wishing to discuss the subject further may contact the author at [email protected]
- Nath, Aman. Dome over India: Rashtrapati Bhavan; India Book House, 2002.
- Lutyens, Sir Edwin Landseer, edited by Clayre Percy and Jane Ridley. The Letters of Edwin Lutyens to His Wife, Lady Emily; Collins, 1985.
- Ridley, Jane. Edwin Lutyens: His Life, His Wife, His Work; Vintage, 2003.
- “The Main Building and Central Lawn, Circuit 1: Durbar Hall,” n.d. https://rashtrapatisachivalaya.gov.in/rbtour/circuit-1/durbar-hall.
- “The Main Building and Central Lawn, Circuit 1: Rampurva Bull,” n.d. https://rashtrapatisachivalaya.gov.in/rbtour/circuit-1/rampurva-bull.
Fig. 1: https://rashtrapatisachivalaya.gov.in/rbtour/; © Government of India and licensed under the Government Open Data License- Inda (GODL
Fig. 2: taken by the author.
Figs. 3, 4 and 5: https://rashtrapatisachivalaya.gov.in/; © 2016, The Presidents Secretariat, Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Fig. 6: http://www.sarnathmuseumasi.org/gallery/Gallery-No3.html; CC BY_SA 4.0.