Need to keep the Relics of the Buddha Secure
Sometimes our ignorance about our history makes us perform terrible actions that causes great spiritual and cultural damage. It is well-known that Emperor Ashoka in keeping with the ancient tradition and the express instructions of the Buddha himself built several stupas all over his huge empire where he enshrined the relics of the Buddha. He was a wise king and a devoted follower of the Buddha. He knew how to properly and respectfully enshrine the relics. Moreover, he also knew that they have to be kept secure so that ignorant people cannot exhume them easily. Thus he built stupas that lasted for a couple of thousand years.
1.One such stupa was the Dharmarajika stupa at Sarnath (near Varanasi) where the Buddha gave his first sermon. The stupa stood tall for centuries even after the Teaching was lost from India but was pulled down in the eighteenth century by King of Varanasi, Jagat Singh, who consigned the casket of relics contained within it to the river Ganges. What a great tragedy! The ignorant king did this because of his belief in his tradition that throwing ashes in the Ganges would ensure sadgati (birth in divine planes) of the deceased. He didn’t know that the Buddha had gone beyond all gatis, he had cut asunder all bondage and declared that this was his last birth. The foolish king unwittingly committed such a sinful action. He was ignorant of the ancient sacred tradition.
2.In the nineteenth century when the Barhut stupa was excavated, a casket containing the relics of the Buddha was found. This casket was taken away by the king of Nagod. Where is the king of Nagod today? And where is the relic casket and where are those relics of the Buddha? The invaluable relics have gone missing. What a wanton loss of this most precious historic treasure!
Since Buddha relics have been excavated from various sites, we suspect that such incidents have occurred elsewhere also.
When the followers and devotees of the Buddha all around the world come to know of instances such as narrated above, they feel pain like a dagger through the heart.
The current rulers irrespective of their political affiliations are all full of good intentions and will surely keep the relics secure. But can they guarantee that the future generations will also be as responsible? How can they guarantee that some corrupt element in the administration won’t allow the relics to go into the hands of unscrupulous people?
How are they going to explain the irresponsible and indefensible act of keeping the relics in a museum? Surely if they make the slightest effort, they can easily learn about the proper tradition.
Emperor Ashoka took great care and that was why most of the relics have been safe. The two examples above are exceptions. These events took place two thousand years after Ashoka. This means that Ashoka was largely successful in preserving the relics. We must thank him for his foresight and sagacity which allows us to have the fortune of possessing genuine relics.
The answer to the question of secure preservation of the relics is they must be kept in a stupa (pagoda) with a structural life of thousands of years. This means that the pagoda should be built in stone and other natural material. Structures of cement-concrete last for a century or so and are not suitable at all.
We implore the government of India and the various state governments in possession of the relics to study how relics were securely enshrined in Ashokan stupas. The concerned government should then either built such stupas themselves or hand over the relics to one who is building, or one who is giving commitment to build, such long lasting stupas for secure and respectful enshrinement of the relics.
Security of the relics is one of the greatest historic responsibilities of our governments. We hope that they will live up to this historic responsibility.
Here is an example of the discretion shown by the then British Government and the sagacity of Pandit Nehru in according proper respect to the relics of the two main disciples of the Buddha.
The sacred relics of Sariputta and Mahamogallana, two main disciples of the Buddha, were discovered by Sir Alexander Cunningham in two sandstone caskets at Satadhara village near Sanchi in 1851 and were taken to London and kept in the Victoria and Albert Museum for almost 90 years. Due to campaigns led by the faithful, the relics were returned to India in 1949. Pandit ji Nehru, the then Prime Minister of India personally received the relics and ceremoniously handed them over to the Maha Bodhi Society of India on 13 January 1949.
Pandit ji understood that the true place for relics is not in a museum. In the absence of grand stupas (pagodas), he gave those relics to the Maha Bodhi Society which was nonetheless a religious place of the faithful (and not a museum).
When Pandit ji came to know that the relics of Emperor Ashoka’s teacher Arahat Moggaliputta Tissa had been taken out of country, he made arrangements for their return. Vijayalaxmi ji Pandit personally brought them back to India. Pandit ji himself went to the airport to receive the relics with all respect and decorum. He then made arrangements for them to be put in a Vihara on Mandir Marg where he himself would visit and pay respect in person afterwards on many occasions. Pandit ji didn’t put these relics in a museum. At that time Buddha’s relics had been discovered at many places. Since there were no proper stupas in India at that time, Pandit ji gave ten pieces of the sacred relics to Nichidatsu Fuji, the head monk of Nipponzan Myohoji of Japan to build stupas in Japan. Pandit ji’s action of allowing the relics to be properly enshrined in stupas is most praiseworthy.
Pandit ji was a great scholar of history and a great admirer of the Buddha and Emperor Ashoka. He showed not only understanding of the ancient tradition, but also a deep appreciation of the sentiments of the followers of the Buddha. Let us hope that this wisdom will prevail again.