India: ‘Militant monks’ or agents of change?

by Shobhan Saxena ,TNN, Oct 2, 2008

New Delhi, India -- As bombs spill blood on streets and hate preachers torch churches in some dark corners of India, the country is slowly and nervously warming up for the next general elections, unsure of the forces that will be at work when the nation goes to polls. Though the election drama in India never lacks colour, adding some extra zing this time will be Buddhist bhikshus in ochre robes.

With BSP supremo Mayawati already staking claim for the post of PM even before a single vote has been cast, the army of neo-Buddhist monks is getting ready to carry out the final assault on behalf of the party whose base is expanding fast.

So, is the Buddhist clergy in India turning political? Some indications were visible at the Mahalaxmi Race Course in Mumbai in May last year when thousands of tribals and Dalits converted to Buddhism at a gathering of 100,000 people, marking the 50th year of B R Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism. The slogans raised at the rally clearly indicated that there was a political agenda behind this social change. And the monks spoke on politics as well as dharma, clearly indicating that the clergy will not shy from playing a political role in the future.

In fact, this is a pattern that has been emerging across Asia in recent years. In Thailand, monks led a revolt against the corrupt regime of Thaksin Shinawatra; in Myanmar, thousands of them walked the streets, challenging the brutal junta; in China, they used the occasion of the Olympics to draw the world’s attention to the plight of Tibetans. So active have they been in Asia’s restive regions that some sceptics have called them “monks with guns” and “militant monks”, and wondered if the world’s quietest religion is turning radical.

The monks beg to differ. “When we just sit in the monasteries, some people call us parasites, and when we take part in political work they say we are turning militant. It’s not fair,” says Lobsang, a Tibetan monk. In Tibet, says Lobsang, the monks and the people always had a symbiotic relationship. “While the community took care of the material needs of the monasteries, the monks looked after the community’s spiritual needs,” he says, adding that their political action is an extension of their spiritual role.

In fact, it was the excesses of the junta in Myanmar that forced the monks to come out of their monasteries. “When people are suppressed by dictators, it’s the duty of monks to give them hope and lead them,” says Zaw Mying, a Burmese monk now living in exile in India.

There are no dictators in India, but the monks here are getting ready for a political battle. “Buddhism is the only way to liberate ourselves from the caste system. And political action is the way to empower the Dalits,” says Bhikshu Sadanand, a Dalit from eastern Uttar Pradesh (UP). As Mayawati erects Buddhist landmarks throughout UP, including a $250-million bronze Buddha at Kushinagar, the stage is set for a new kind of political activism, this time in the land of Buddha.

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