Conventional wisdom has a habit of attributing a fair share of the world’s evils to religion. This social institution, which is supposedly premised on faith and thrives on unquestioning obedience of its doctrines, is seen as an anathema to scientific and rational thinking. Thus, the proposition that religious ideas can come to the succour of a troubled world should appear as a paradox to the ardent votaries of secularism.
Traditional Indian thinking, however, holds an altogether different view in this regard. Dharma, the Indian equivalent of the term Religion, is derived from the Sanskrit root word Dhri, which means to hold together. Thus, Dharma is that which holds. It is the ethical, moral and spiritual glue that holds the society together and prevents it from dissolving into chaos. India, from time antiquity, has been the cradle of lofty religious and spiritual ideas that have served as guiding lights to humankind afflicted with myriad miseries of existence. Of these ideas or Dharmas, undoubtedly the most impactful, in terms of its adherents, has been the message of Lord Buddha. From the freezing snows of Siberia to the lush forests of Sri Lanka, from the arid steppes of Central Asia to the picturesque islands of Japan, about one third of the human race have, for centuries, lived and died under the tenets of the great sage from India.
The doctrine of Gautama Buddha, in many ways does not conform to the standard definition of a religion. Within the core concepts of Buddhism there is no provision of the God. Buddha spoke of no heaven, hell or afterlife. As a matter of fact, he sidetracked metaphysics altogether. The sole concern of the enlightened one was the alleviation of misery. It was this tireless quest for the answer to miseries of life which brought enlightenment to Prince Siddhartha and transformed him into the Buddha. The truth that he had realized some six centuries before the birth of Christ, came to constitute the essence of his religion. Ever since Buddha promulgated his formula of cessation of Dukkha (misery), countless souls, from murderous highwaymen to contrite Emperors, have sought refuge in the Buddha, Sangha and the Dharma, the three jewels of Buddhism and have conducted themselves from darkness to light.
The world as such, is primarily governed by ideas. Every dimension of human existence, be it social, political, economical or ethical, needs a set of guiding principles in order to smoothly transact the businesses of life. In recent past, many a belief system which gained international prominence and significantly influenced a large section of thinking minds, promised to change the world. Religion was described as a poisonous drug. Generations of intellectuals were trained to regard it as the very antithesis of scientific thinking and progress. It became fashionable to ridicule faith and scorn spirituality. The prophesied social revolution never came to pass and the ideologies in question, along with their grandiose claims were subsequently consigned to the scrap heap of history.
Yet, a serious damage that they had inflicted on the collective consciousness of the human mind remained unrepaired. A sizeable fraction of the human race was induced to alienate itself from its innate religiosity. Nevertheless, as evinced by history, no individual or society can survive indefinitely in an atmosphere of absolute materialism. The spiritual vacuum that is becoming increasingly conspicuous all over the world today will not be there for long. An intensely authoritarian and dogmatic ideology can soon take over and transform the familiar world of ours beyond recognition. In that case, the world will no more remain so free and liberal as it is today. There is no surety, that this is not the picture of tomorrow.
Twenty-first Century, is a strange epoch in the history of the mankind. It is so far the best and yet the worst of times. On one hand, scientific and technological advancement has brought every form of luxury and comfort within the reach of modern man and yet various forms of environmental crises are threatening the very existence of the planet. Machines have begun to think like intelligent human beings while young men and women are losing interest in life and sinking in the abyss of despair. Medieval barbarism is baring its fangs to sophisticated and yet impotent civilizations. Leaders and intellectuals are prioritizing political correctness over the truth. A moral, ethical and spiritual paralysis is fast spreading all over the world. We are in urgent need of a sharp and suitable medicine.
It was this imperative that was operational behind the convention of the first Global Buddhist Summit in New Delhi on 20-21 April 2023. This grand event was organized in tradition of the Buddhist councils that were convened in ancient India under the patronage of emperors like Ajatasatru Kalashoka, Ashoka and Kanishka etc. Addressing the inaugural session of the convention, the Indian Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi spoke about the relevance of Buddha’s teachings as regards the problems that plague the world today. He also explained how India, in pursuance of Buddhist ideals, have always strove to harmonize her own interests with those of the entire world.
What Mr. Modi was actually elaborating upon was the Mahayana Buddhist ideal of Bodhisattva. According to this philosophy, the enlightened soul, in the Bodhisattva state of existence, forsakes his own salvation for the emancipation of his fellow sentient beings. As a nation, India has indeed steadfastly remained true to this ideal. As if under the mandate of a mysterious principle of eternal recurrence, the stage is once again set for India to assume the leadership role in the global Buddhist discourse. As the confused world reels between the Scylla of absolute spiritual anomie and the Charybdis of dogmatic fanaticism, it is the most appropriate time to reacquaint it with the timeless wisdom of the middle path of the Buddha. So let us revive the glorious heritage of Dharmakirti, Nagarjuna, Dipankara and other illustrious Buddhist masters of yore. Only a fraction of their deeds needs to be replicated. The entire world will be held in debt.
The author, Shrideep Biswas, is an official of the State Government of West Bengal and an alumnus of Centre for Historical Studies, JNU, New Delhi.