Saturday, April 02, 2011

Travels in Orissa, birthplace of the first Dhamma Revolution

Shakyajata writes with news of her recent expedition to Orissa, in the remote north-east of India, where she’s been meeting graduates from Nagaloka, Triratna’s Buddhist social work training institute in central India, and exploring with them opportunities for livelihood and activism. She says -

“In January of this year, Priyadaka, Helen Sullivan, and I travelled to Odisha (Orissa, recently renamed) in the company of Trinath, and Utpal and Nagavajra. The last mentioned are three impressive young Orissan dhammamitras, who arranged our tour and guided and cared for us with great efficiency.

“We did many things there; meetings for mitras and young people to discuss livelihood opportunites; Dhamma programmes; swimming in the Bay of Bengal at sunrise; visiting remote and ancient villages; and visiting a number of fascinating Buddhist archaeological sites.

“ Orissa is actually one most 'fundamentalist' states in India, where foreigners are regarded with suspicion, as mlechhas or Untouchables, and our young Buddhist friends put themselves in danger of violence by being public about their religion. It was very stirring to see the evidence that once it was so different, over a huge area that may even have reached the shores of the Sea of Galilee, 250 years before the birth of Christ. I have heard Indian Buddhist friends talk of the influence of Buddhism on Christianity, and been rather dismissive of this 'wishful thinking', but having seen the evidence of Ashoka's influence, I am not so sure.

“Orissa is full of paradoxes. Despite the reserve of some of the locals, it is a lovely place to visit, with a beautiful coastline and nature reserves; a delightful climate, in January the days warm and balmy, the nights fresh and cool; an amazing cultural heritage, especially of dance; a thriving tradition of skilled stone-carving; the countryside mostly lush and unspoiled, not (yet!) devastated by industrialisation. The Buddhist sites have some wonderful things; huge drum stupas skilfully carved from curving blocks, without mortar, fitting perfectly together; a broken fragment on the ground with a perfectly clear frieze of vajras; the Vajrayana was here! Exquisite Mahayana carvings of bodhisattvas, often damaged, to the grief of our young Buddhist friends; heads of Buddha statues which must have been of colossal much to see.

“We hope to help these very idealistic young people to set up a livelihood in tourism and pilgrimage, to support their Dhamma work. For more information, see ... and consider coming to Orissa!

“To give you a flavour of what you might find if you did come, for me, the most stunning sight was at Dhauli, where there stands a modest monument, virtually unknown, marking the spot where the Buddhist Emperor Ashoka began the revolution of peace that was to spread throughout India, into (modern) Pakistan and Afghanistan and beyond. Here there took place the terrible massacre of the Kalingas, a sight of such dreadful carnage and suffering, that witnessing it, Ashoka resolved to abandon his career of kingly conquest and embrace the teachings of the Buddha - to rule his huge empire as a Dhammaraja, a compassionate monarch.

“There is a huge white marble 'Peace Pagoda' at Dhauli, built recently by Nichiren Buddhists, which can be seen for miles around, and is a popular picnic spot. The day we visited, it was pretty busy! But even Hindu 'pujaris' (priests who are fond of telling Buddhists how to worship at their own monuments, for a fee) and crowds of people taking snaps of each other, could not distract from the peaceful sunset view of the river Daya among its green fields; the river said to have run red with the blood of the piled corpses of the Kalingas, in those terrible days. There are many carved plaques on the pagoda. An especially moving one appeared to depict a man in aristocratic dress, gazing in horror at corpses lying on the ground, with other people being taken into captivity; surely Ashoka at his 'moment of truth.'

“Tucked away at a little distance from the Pagoda however, is something even more impressive. A huge rock, bearing eleven of the fourteen Edicts of Ashoka, with an excellent translation, shows clearly the way that his peaceful and compassionate reign was established. In summary, the first 3 Edicts are 'Prohibited killing of animals in the royal kitchen' ; 'Arrangements were made for medical treatment and the provision of medicinal herbs throughout his dominion'; 'Ordered his officials to set out on tour every five years, to propagate moral codes throughout his kingdom' and so on.

On top of the Rock, an beautifully carved elephant is cut from the stone, emerging from it, which represents the Buddha. Amazingly, the Rock Edicts and the elephant are in beautiful condition, not defaced or neglected as so often happens in Hindu India, where non-Hindu history is often crudely assimilated.

“With metta, Shakyajata”

Shakyajata’s fundraising website is at

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Blogger Sarita Dash said...

Odissa is not at all a fundamentalist state.No part of Odissa history carries any trace of fundamentalism.Religious pesecution was never seen in odissa.Religious synthesis is the most important contribution of the state.
A unique blending of budhhism,even jainism with the hhindu traditions is well evedent here.The cult of Jagannath is the best example.The assimilation is so deep that its hard to differentiate the the budhhists of Orissa from the Hindus.A budhhist from Odissa says''your Jgannath is our Budhha''.
Grham Staines case,and the subsequent cases of attacks on Christians are very recent and rare examples to categorise a state as fundamentalist.


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