Commentary: Umesh Pandey
The past week brought an event that shocked many people in this country and across the region when one of the holiest shrines of Buddhism — the Mahabodhi temple in Bodh Gaya, India — was the target of sectarian violence.
The nine bombs that went off in the wee hours of Sunday, July 7 injured two people and caused (thankfully) only minor damage to the sanctuary that is sacred for all Buddhists. Five bombs were detonated in the temple complex, four in the town, and four others were found and defused.
The 1,500-year-old temple is located at the site where Lord Buddha attained enlightenment. The bodhi tree that stands there today was grown from a sapling of a tree in Sri Lanka, which itself began life as a sapling of the one under which Lord Buddha himself meditated at Bodh Gaya. The tree was unharmed, to everyone’s great relief.
The Mahabodhi temple is visited by pilgrims from all over the world, and usually is a must-visit on the itinerary of any head of state, prince, princess or prime minister from any Buddhist country travelling to India.
An attack of such audacity on a major religious site has not been seen since 2001, when the Taliban blew up the Buddha statues of Bamiyan in Afghanistan.
At Bodh Gaya, whether it was sheer luck or a miracle that nobody was killed is something you can decide. But what is really surprising is the fact that someone has claimed responsibility.
A relatively unknown organisation used Twitter to tell the world that it was behind the bombing. I do not want to name the organisation but it originates in a South Asian country that has been blamed for many terrorist attacks.
In any case, there is still no confirmation of the group’s tweeted claim. Many theories have emerged; some see the hand of Maoist rebels, others point to religious extremists, be they Muslim or Hindu.
The Indian government is under pressure to find answers quickly to one of the strangest incidents to occur recently on its soil. Although many religious destinations of Hindus have been targets in the past, this was the first in which a Buddhist shrine was targeted.
No one knows what the real motive was behind this act of terrorism. Some fingers are being pointed to domestic politics in Bihar, the Indian state in which the temple is located, while others are saying it is the outcome of the regional tensions in Southeast Asia.
The latter theory leads to Myanmar, a country that has faced international condemnation for failing to protect Muslims from persecution by Buddhist extremists. These attacks often are led by monks, who have strayed far from their spiritual path to foment terror among their Muslim brothers and sisters who have been living peacefully in the country.
The hateful messages delivered by monks and other members of the Buddhist extremist group 969 are widely distributed on DVDs and posted on YouTube. The worldwide media attention has not only tarnished the image of Myanmar and threatened its reform process, but has given rise to talk about “revenge” attacks.
Though I am a Hindu, I find peace when I visit Muslim mosques or Christian churches. I am no expert on religion but as far as I know, none of the world’s religions calls for revenge. Sadly, shocking acts have been committed in the name of “religion” for centuries.
All acts of terrorism are heinous, but attacking a place of worship, a hospital or school is as low as any group can sink. Any organisation taking pride in such a crime should look at itself in the mirror and ask what principles it really is fighting for.
Even during wartime, sacred places of worship are off limits. That’s what makes an attack on a religion’s single holiest site so vile.
Mahabodhi to Buddhists is what Mecca is to Muslims or Bethlehem to Christians. No one would ever dare to think about placing a bomb or creating chaos to stir sentiment at these places.
If it turns out that the attack in Bihar had its roots in some kind of sectarian revenge campaign, it has the potential to rock the foundation of Asean. As a group, Asean prides itself on tolerance, and its 10 member countries generally have good reputations for fostering religious harmony.
The regional ramifications of what has been considered a domestic problem in Myanmar could be far worse if things get out of control. But having been born in a Buddhist society, I can say that forgiveness will take priority. Revenge will not be something that any genuine Buddhist would seek, even in the face of an act of terrorism.