Buddhism and Bodh Gaya

This dissertation is a historical ethnography that examines the social transformation of Bodh Gaya into a UNESCO World Heritage site. Bodh Gaya is a small town of international significance located in the southern Gaya district of Bihar in north-east India. The global relevance of this place derives from its association with the founder of Buddhism, Gautama Buddha, who attained enlightenment here over 2550 years ago.1 According to various Buddhist legends, after abandoning extreme austerities and penance for six years, Siddhartha Gautama decided to settle in a forest grove next to a flowing river with sandy fords. Impressed by the sylvan environment and convenience for getting alms from a nearby village, the future Buddha decided this was a suitable place for striving and congenial to his meditation practice (Dhammika 1996). Under the canopy of a Pipala tree – now known as the Bodhi tree – Gautama sat in sublime contemplation on the nature of suffering and the root of its
causes among all sentient beings. Then, on the full moon of vesak, after three days and three nights of concentration, his mind was purified and Gautama was enlightened.

Historically, the term Bodh Gaya came into use around the eighteenth century and was primarily adopted to distinguish the sacred site from the larger city of Gaya, a prominent center of Hindu pilgrimage some 7km away (Asher 2008).2 Prior to this, the place of Buddha’s enlightenment had various designations including Uruvela, Bodhimanda, Sambodhi, Vajrasana and Mahabodhi.Although the forest hermitage where Buddha obtained enlightenment was not a significant site of pilgrimage during the Buddha’s life, over the centuries disciples of the Buddha began to visit the place and gradually transformed the site into a living center of Buddhist worship and sacred veneration. Linked to the establishment of Buddhist pilgrimage at Bodh Gaya is the central monument, or Vihara,commonly referred to as the Mahabodhi Temple or “Great Awakening” temple today. Although there is a wide difference of opinion among modern scholars about the origins and date of the Mahabodhi Temple, early archaeological scholarship have traced the first commemorative shrine around the tree (the bodhi-ghara) along with a protective stone railing and diamond throne (referred to as the Vajrasana), to the Mauryan emperor Ashoka in the third century BCE (Guha-Thakurta 2004; Asher 2008). As part of Ashoka’s campaign to promote the Buddha-Dharma (teachings) in its homeland, the emperor is often credited with helping legitimize the practice of pilgrimage and royal patronage to these sacred sites of Buddhist memory.

Over the course of many centuries, theMahabodhi Temple Complex at Bodh Gaya was embellished and other key sites linked to the spiritual itinerary of its founder also became thriving religious centers of pan-Asian pilgrimage attracting Buddhist royalty, monastics, and lay devotees throughout the Indian subcontinent and beyond (Doyle 1997). The history of Buddhist influence at Bodh Gaya is documented by numerous inscriptions, archaeological findings and travel accounts by pilgrims themselves. Foremost among these are the accounts of the Chinese pilgrims Faxian in the fifth century and Xuanzang in the seventh century. The latter describes the presence of a Ceylonese monastery named the Mahabodhi Sangharama that was built by King Meghavana and housed over a thousand monks to the north gate of the Mahabodhi Temple. During this time, Bodh Gaya was part of the Kingdom of Magadha, and the heart of a powerful Buddhist civilization that endured for many centuries. It was not until the fall of the Pala Dynasty and the growing influence of Muslim rule around the twelfth century that Buddhism became largely extinguished from its land of origins and many of these monuments and pilgrimage centers were destroyed or fell into ruin.

The recent historical and social transformation of Bodh Gaya from a relatively abandoned site (at least with respect to Buddhist state patronage and pilgrimage activities) into a global destination that attracts millions of Buddhist pilgrims and tourists each year begs the following questions: What happens when a rural town populated by Hindu and Muslim residents becomes deeply enmeshed within the sacred geography of Buddhists around the world? How do transnational processes and conflicting agendas involving pilgrimage, tourism and heritage come to shape the development of Bodh Gaya as an international destination? How do religious, economic and social aspirations intermingle and connect people across national boundaries? Finally, how does Bodh Gaya as a place of universal value compare to other sites within the imagined community of World Heritage?

On June 26, 2002, the Mahabodhi Temple Complex at Bodh Gaya was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. As a place of cultural heritage and a monument of “outstanding universal importance,” this inclusion has reinforced the ancient significance of Bodh Gaya as the place of Buddha’s enlightenment (WHC 2002). In this dissertation, I take this recent event as a framing device for my historical and ethnographic analysis that details the varying ways in which Bodh Gaya is constructed out of a particular set of social relations. I argue that World Heritage sites like the Mahabodhi Temple Complex are important global spaces of convergence where history, memory, narratives and groups are entangled through UNESCO’s universal claims. In order to delineate the various historical and spatial tensions that underlie the inscription of the Mahabodhi Temple Complex as a World Heritage site I examine a set of interrelated transnational processes that are the focus of his dissertation: 1) the emergence of Buddhist monasteries, temples and/or guest houses tied to international pilgrimage; 2) the role of tourism and pilgrimage as a source of economic livelihood for local residents; and 3) the role of state tourism development and urban planning. Before describing the layout of chapters that form the basis of this historical ethnography, it is important that I discuss some of the broader theoretical issues relevant to this dissertation. In particular, I will assess the comparative and theoretical value of World Heritage as an object of social analysis in relation to anthropological perspectives that include: space and place, memory and global connection.

Writer: David Geary
B.A., Simon Fraser University, 1999
M.A., Carleton University, 2003

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