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Mahabodhi Temple: A Twist of Faith

by Kartyk Venkatraman, Indian Express, Oct 20, 2008

KOLKATA, India -- When industrialist Dr B K Modi quietly stepped down as president of the Maha Bodhi Society of India (MBSI) on September 27, not many heard much about it. However, the reasons behind his resignation sent ripples through the 114-year-old Buddhist organisation, already scarred by instances of foreign exchange irregularities and numerous property-related litigations.

<< The revered Mahabodhi Temple in Bodhgaya, India, location where the Buddha attained supreme Enlightenment (Nirvana)

Modi’s decision to step down was the sequel to an intense internal power struggle within the religious outfit, the most significant being the amendments to the MBSI’s constitution (duly passed by the organisation’s governing body but yet to be approved by the Government) that, henceforth, all presidents should be Buddhist by birth and faith.

The proposal also recommends increasing the strength of vice-presidents to 11 from the present seven, out of which five would be from Buddhist-majority countries and six from India. It also states that most VPs should be Buddhists by birth, thus seeking to change the tradition of VPs being elected from among prominent life members.

Modi, who was the first to bring photocopying and mobile telephony to India, said at the MBSI Annual General Meeting (AGM) early this month that since he is a Buddhist by faith and a Hindu by birth, he would step down. Before the AGM, Modi told The Indian Express that a “fundamental question” had been raised.

“I was elected to this office in 2004 at the insistence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and was re-elected in 2007. I am the first non-Buddhist president since 1953. This amendment seeks to divide the MBSI,” Modi said.

MBSI sources said the amendment to have more members who are Buddhist by birth in the topmost hierarchy has been mooted by the present general secretary D Rewatha Thera, a Sri Lankan monk who has held the post since 1996.

According to sources in the MBSI, the amendment regarding the president is just eyewash. “What has gone unnoticed is the amendment that proposes the general secretary may be re-elected any number of times. At the moment, the general secretary cannot be re-elected more than thrice. Rewatha wants to continue in this post forever,” the sources added.

Interestingly, Rewatha has been in trouble since 1998, when a governing body member filed a petition with the Enforcement Directorate (ED) in Mumbai alleging that he embezzled donations in foreign currency between 1989 and 1997. The ED subsequently unravelled a foreign exchange money trail from MBSI to Rewatha’s personal account in 1998. Rewatha was prosecuted and found guilty of embezzling $ 71,000 and 5.53 crore Japanese Yen and was slapped with a fine of Rs 3.5 crore.

This violation resulted in the Union Home Ministry issuing a notice on July 5, 2000, prohibiting the MBSI and its functionaries from transacting any kind of foreign contributions and froze all bank accounts. It, however, allowed the MBSI to withdraw money from its frozen accounts to meet the expenses of its facilities at Kolkata, Sarnath, Bodh Gaya, Delhi and Bhubaneswar, with the rider that Rewatha should be “completely dissociated” from all financial affairs. The ban is still in force.

In 2003, following a CBI investigation and chargesheet, the court of the chief metropolitan magistrate, Delhi, found MBSI guilty of receiving over Rs 1.3 crore as foreign contributions despite the Home Ministry ban and in violation of the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA). The organisation was fined Rs 50,000 after Rewatha pleaded guilty on behalf of MBSI.

It does not stop there. With the ban still in force, Rewatha arranged for the UK-based Coutts & Co to transfer £ 1.75 lakh, left to the MBSI by two deceased British women, to the Bank of Ceylon account of the MBSI. A copy of the bank statement (available with The Indian Express) shows that the money was credited to account number 0618-5854 in the name of the MBSI, but was then transferred to another account in the name of “Maha Bodhi Corporation”. Till date, say sources, attempts to track the money have failed. Sources added that Rewatha has the support of the Barua group within the governing body, comprising Baruas from Chottogram who are traditionally Buddhists.

But apparently, Rewatha is not the only functionary with a dubious track record. Bodhipala Thera, in-charge of the Maha Bodhi Maha Vihara at Gaya, was arrested some years ago for clandestinely selling branches and twigs of the Bodhi Tree for huge sums of money.

Now, insiders say that the atmosphere of strife and manipulation created by Rewatha Thera is alienating prominent members such as former high court chief justice Chittatosh Mukherjee, who is also the grandson of Ashutosh Mukherjee who helped found the MBSI, former Bengal DGP Amiyo Kumar Samanta and former HC judge Bhagabati Prasad Banerjee. All are vice-presidents. The last resigned from the MBSI in protest last month.

“I have served this organisation as their top legal advisor for the past 25 years. When I opposed the amendment that proposed that the majority VPs should be Buddhist by birth during a governing body meeting, I was verbally abused in the most terrible fashion. I suffered a blackout and had to be hospitalised. I suffered two strokes that day. Not one of the MBSI members present there came forward to help,” says Banerjee, who is still recuperating.

Mukherjee, however, said he does not want to be dragged into the infighting. “I am not at all satisfied with the functioning of this organisation that was established by my grandfather. One person is manipulating the entire organisation for his personal greed. I’m just there in name. I’m not looking into any administration. I don’t want to say anything more than this because I have my personal reputation to think of,” Mukherjee said.

When contacted, Rewatha refuted allegations against him and said the foreign exchange violation charges are baseless.

“Of course I haven’t paid any fine as yet. I have the right to contest the court ruling. The investigation wasn’t conducted properly. The amendments have been passed by the majority in the governing body meeting. If there is an amendment that says the general secretary can seek unlimited re-elections, it is an amendment open to further changes if necessary. Efforts are on to get the MHA ban on foreign currency contributions withdrawn,” Rewatha said.

More about the Maha Bodhi Society

ORIGINS: Headquartered in Kolkata, the MBSI was set up in 1891 by a Sri Lankan monk named Anagarika Dharmapala. The MBSI is the counterpart of the original Maha Bodhi Society of Sri Lanka.Dharmapala was the first general secretary and all general secretaries till date have been Sri Lankan monks Dharmpala felt compelled to set up the MBSI because of the dismal state of Buddhist sites in the country. He met with prominent educationist and freedom fighter Ashutosh Mukherjee in Kolkata and formed the organisation to revive Buddhist culture and to safeguard important sites.

SUPPORTERS: The MBSI has distinguished itself as one of the most prominent and influential Buddhist societies in the country. It has enjoyed the support of luminaries such as Rabindranath Tagore, Swami Vivekananda, Mahatma Gandhi, and several former presidents and PMs.

PROPERTIES IN INDIA: The MBSI owns property estimated to be worht several hundred crores of rupees at Sarnath in Varanasi, on Mandir Marg in New Delhi, Parel in Mumbai, Shravasti, Nowgarh and Lucknow in UP, Bodh Gaya in Bihar, Lucknow, Bhubaneswar and Bangalore. The Vihara at the Kolkata headquarters houses Lord Buddha’s relics.

INTERNATIONAL REACH: The MBSI claims to receive support from governments and Buddhists of Myanmar, China, Thailand, Japan, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Nepal, Tibet and Bangladesh, as well as financial support from Buddhists in USA, Germany, England, Mongolia and France. The MBSI has a shrine at Lumbini and offices in Hong Kong, Seoul and Saitama and Tokyo in Japan.

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