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With Ayodhya’s Buddhist history unearthed, it’s now Kashi and Mathura’s turn

Travelogues and fresh archaeological evidence point to Ayodhya being a Buddhist centre for centuries, before Brahmanism displaced Buddhism, ironically, when the Mughals were in power. Kashi and Mathura likely followed a similar trajectory

The 1990s witnessed two landmark political campaigns, Mandal and Kamandal. Mandal was for social justice while Kamandal (or Ram Temple) cried foul at the religious injustice. The Ram Temple agitators, despite their rightwing religious coating, seemed to put forward one logical argument: Their movement is to correct a historical wrong; Muslim invaders and rulers destroyed many Hindu temples, including that built in Ram’s birthplace; what is wrong in reclaiming those in a modern secular state?

Unfortunately, very few liberals, secularists and progressives responded to this argument. They wanted to avoid any contradictions and simply preserve and nurture secularism in India without being sucked into the debate of historical myths and truth. Some of the leftist historians, in an attempt to counter this claim, have taken great pains in showing Aurangzeb as a secular emperor who used to give grants to Hindu temples. A temple in Ujjain is said to be one such. Earlier, Mughal Emperor Akbar’s Din-e-Ilahi and other secular attempts had gained credence in mainstream history. However, by keeping silent on the charges of Hindu nationalists, the much-repeated accusation of Muslims attacking and usurping Hindu temples is accepted as a truth not only by the masses but also by the progressive intellectuals.

In a recent article[1], Justice (retired) Markendeya Katju not only accepted it but justified it by saying that “It is true that many Hindu temples were destroyed by Muslim invaders, and mosques built on their sites, sometimes even using the material of the temple. For example, the Quwwat ul Islam mosque near the Qutub Minar in Delhi has pillars with Hindu carvings, or the Gyanvapi Masjid in Varanasi whose rear wall has Hindu carvings, or the Atala Devi Masjid in Jaunpur. But is India to move forward, or backward? It would be a different matter if a Hindu temple is illegally demolished today and converted into a mosque. But where this was done allegedly 500 years ago, does it carry any sense to go about restoring the structure to its Hindu original?”

On the contrary the Dalitbahujan discourse has never been defensive in its arguments but in fact has been on the offensive against the right-wing stance. In Gulamgiri and in his other works, Jotiba Phule showed how the Brahmin invaders violently attacked the indigenous masses, usurped their land and turned them into permanent slaves by labeling them Shudras and Atishudras. Dr Ambedkar went on to research communal violence in ancient India, concluding that the history of India is nothing but a mortal conflict between Buddhism and Brahmanism. He found that India has witnessed many violent communal onslaughts on the Buddhists.

The recent excavation at the disputed site of Ayodhya attested to Ambedkar’s finding. It is interesting that now and earlier when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have had the opportunity to lead the government at the Centre, it has tried hard to search for traces of a mythical river Saraswati. But none of the Indian historians are sincere enough to trace the history of India based on the Buddhist scriptures. It took a British archaeologist, Alexander Cunningham, to trace India’s past through the writings of Chinese travellers and other Buddhist records. He explored the sites mentioned by Xuanzang and found that the present city of Ayodhya was originally a city called Saket (Saketa).[2] Buddhist texts revere the city and Xuanzang and Faxian also mention it in their travelogues.

According to Xuanzang, the Buddha spent six years in this city. The most famous female Buddhist personality Vishakha was resident of this city before her marriage to Purranaa Vardhana. Naturally, Saket drew the attention of Ashoka. He built a 200-foot-high stupa which was preserved for a long time. Xuanzang, who has described the  stupa in his travelogue, also saw a monastery, identified as Kalakadarma or Purvavadarma by Cunnigham. These monasteries were lost in the modern era under the present site of Mani Parvat. But this was not a natural process.

The Brahmins told Cunningham that the “monkey king” Sugriva accidently dropped this mountain, used by monkeys to assist Ram, at this place. But this information was a mere brahmanical myth to link this site with  Ram. The locals told him the other story: The mound was formed by the labourers shaking their baskets on this spot every evening on their return home from building the temple of Ramakot. This place is still called “Jhowa Jhar” or “Ora Jhar” which means “basket shaking”.  There shouldn’t be the slightest doubt that this was a deliberate attempt by brahmanic forces to erase the Buddhist heritage. Interestingly, the myth doesn’t pertain to this site alone; there are similar myths about the mounds of Banaras, Nimsar and other places (Cunningham 2000: 323).

Saket has witnessed a constant struggle with brahmanical forces, losing its identity and being renamed as Ayodhya in the process. The first massive attack on this city followed the usurpation of Magadhan kingdom by a Brahmin, Pushyamitra Shunga. He killed the last Mauryan King Brihadratha and started a bloody communal campaign against the Buddhists. This proved to be disastrous for the nation. The Buddhist Viharas, which were the centres of mass education, were destroyed and the monks were killed. Terming this phase as a counter revolution, Dr Ambedkar writes, “How pitiless was the persecution of Buddhism by Pushyamitra can be gauged from the proclamation which he issued against the Buddhist monks. By this proclamation Pushyamitra set a price of 100 gold pieces on the head of every Buddhist monk.” He also quotes Haraprasad Shastri, who said: “The condition of the Buddhists under the imperial sway of the Shungas, orthodox and bigotted, can be more easily imagined than described. From Chinese authorities it is known that many Buddhists still do not pronounce the name of Pushyamitra without a curse.”

The mainstream historians, however, don’t take this account seriously. Buddhist scholars recall this incident with much grief. They have taken pains to trace the remains of this mass communal violence.  One of the surviving evidence of this brutal act was traced by Shantiswaroop Bauddha. He says the river flowing adjacent to present Ayodhya is known as Saryu but this river before reaching the city and after crossing it is called Gandak. He asks how this limited stretch of the river got a different name. He says “Sar” in Pali as well as in the local indigenous language means “head”. Using this clue he concludes that when Pushyamitra Shunga ordered his men to behead the Buddhist monks and masses, the river Gandak was filled with the heads of the Buddhists. This stretch of the river thus became known as Saryu (full of heads).  Interestingly, he said, the present Yogi government of Uttar Pradesh, in an attempt to erase the marks of this communal violence, has passed a resolution to rename Saryu river as Gandak. Not surprisingly, he is also following the age-old brahmanical tactics of renaming cities of historical importance.

Buddhist ruins unearthed at the site in Ayodhya designated for the Ram Temple complex

The mass violence against Buddhists did not end with Shunga’s attack. Buddhism continued to become a target of Brahmanism even in later centuries. There are very few records of riots available in history but it is well known that the Huns (6th century) and kings like Shashank (7th century) also unleashed violence against the Buddhists. Yet, Buddhist religion, culture and civilization was so deep-rooted among Indians that it was not easily and voluntarily replaced by the brahmanical culture. This point is again ignored by the dwija historians. Mudrarakshas[3] and Gail Omvedt[4] were the only two scholars who brought attention to it.

The biggest challenge before the Brahmins was the absence of any figure that could counter the widespread popularity of the Buddha. The destruction of Buddhist sites and killing of Buddhist intellectuals and masses had limited impact. It only proved Brahmanism’s martial dominance, not social acceptance.

Therefore, in an attempt to claim social superiority and mass acceptance, they devised new tactics. To counter the Buddha, they created the legend of Ram in Saket, alias Ayodhya, and the legend of Krishna in another Buddhist city, Mathura. Vikramaditya (Skandagupta) played a key role in weaving the story of Ram set in Saket. He mischievously retraced the journeys of Ashoka who revived all the sites related to the Buddha to create a false narrative. The city of Saket which had already lost its name to Ayodhya was further painted with Ramaaite colour.

In an attempt to hide the Buddhist identity of the city, the debris of three great stupas were covered up to form mounds known as Mani Parvat, Kuber Parvat and Sugriva Parvat. Many more temples were constructed and narratives concocted to connect them to Ram. Trying to match up to Ashoka, who built 84,000 stupas across India, Vikramaditya built 360 temples in Ayodhya alone. However, even this strategy failed to have much impact at the time. The obvious reason was that the legend of Ram had not yet become popular. The people were not in the habit of visiting temples of brahmanical deities – as Buddhists, they still preferred their stupas. As a result, in the years that followed, Vikramaditya’s mission to popularize Ram through creation of sites and structures  fizzled out.

Alexander Cunningham observes that “by [the] seventh century more than three hundred of the original temples of Vikramaditya had already disappeared and we may reasonably infer that the city had been gradually declining for some time previously. The Buddhist monuments, however, would appear to have been in good order, and the monks were just numerous as in the eminent Buddhist city of Benaras.”

Apart from the inability to replace the Buddha with Ram as the central figure, the second obstacle to the spread of Brahmanism was their traditional and essential ritual of Yajna that involved mass killing of domestic animals, particularly cows and oxen. The Yajna benefited Brahmins, who enjoyed the fruits of the labour of the toiling masses, but the toiling masses themselves suffered.

The failure of Brahmanism ultimately forced the Brahmins to imitate Buddhism. However, in original Buddhism (Ashokan form of Buddhism), which involved mass education and social welfare, there was nothing to imitate for the Brahmins. In fact, social awareness and welfare was contradictory to Brahmanism. However, the emergence of the Mahayana sect of Buddhism meant there was scope for the Brahmins to imitate.  The worship of the image of Buddha, the concept of Bodhisatva, chanting, and the lyrical worship of the Buddha (which was of course also popular in the Theravada tradition) and vegetarianism provided Brahmins with a lot of customs they could adapt and adopt.

They borrowed almost every ritual element of Mahayana and added to it their brahmanical flavour. It was not an easy exercise; they had to conceal their own identity. They had no option other than to replace their vedic deities of Brahma, Indra, Agni, Vayu, Mitra, Nasatya, etc with a human god to counter the Buddha. Moreover, they also brought changes in their food habit. They stopped eating beef, which until then was their favorite food, and took a step further by becoming strict vegetarians. Realizing that the character of Ram had very limited impact, they now took a new approach of developing his biographical legend. Initially, it was propagated only among the elites. They probably believed in the trickle-down theory. The Gupta period (320-550 CE) proved to be the classical age of brahmanical textual creation. This is precisely the reason that modern dwija historians term this period as the golden age. The Ram was later popularized most during Mughal Emperor Akbar’s regime when a Brahmin of Ayodhya, Tulsidas, composed Ramacharitmanas, a biography of Ram in a local dialect. He left nothing to chance to claim the superiority of Brahmins over the rest of the people.

It thus took many centuries to replace the Buddha with Ram. According to a historian Julia Shaw[5], Ram became popular only during the Rajput period (12th century onwards).  Quoting a study of H.T. Bakker, she says that “the contrived nature of the Ramaaite landscape only comes out in the later recensions of the 15th and 16th centuries when these older sites become “Ramaatized”.

Bakker writes: “Apart from one or two exceptions it is not until the 11th and 12th centuries that elsewhere in India, the first archaeological and textual evidence for an independent and widespread Rama cult emerges. Not surprisingly, therefore, apart from the still unconfirmed evidence for a 10th-century Rama temple at the Janmabhumi site, it is not until the 11th and 12th centuries that an argument for the first direct associations between Ayodhya and Rama can be made. Its rise to prominence coincided with the mass settlement of Rajputs (a princely clan from Rajasthan) in the area … Despite the subsequent archaeological hiatus until the 18th century following the Mughal ban on Hindu temple construction, it was during this time that Ayodhya developed into a Ramaaite pilgrimage centre at the ‘All India’ level.[6]

It is thus a consistently crafty and violent communal agenda of Brahminism over more than fourteen hundred years that resulted in Buddhism and minor indigenous religions becoming extinct from India. The masses had become literate and educated at the time of the Buddhist civilization, particularly during Ashoka’s time. The ascent of brahmanism had the opposite effect. The destruction of monasteries was the biggest blow to the efforts to educate the common man. This ultimately turned Indians into an illiterate mass.

The recent accidental excavation of Buddhist ruins at the disputed site of Ayodhya once again proves that the Ram has no association with Ayodhya. There should not be the slightest doubt that the Dhammachakra, the lotus symbol, pillars and artefacts are Buddhist symbols. Their presence at the base of the so-called Ram-Janmabhumi clearly shows that this site was also originally a Buddhist Vihar which was usurped and damaged by the brahmanical forces. These remains also suggest that it was a mere accident that Mir Baqi built a mosque at this site where centuries ago there existed a Buddhist Vihar.

This accidental excavation also proved the futility of Ram-Janmabhumi movement and the BJP and its allies’ anti-Muslim propaganda. This evidence has provided an opportunity for secular forces to unmask the false narratives of Hindu nationalism. The site has historical significance – it is Buddhist heritage, world heritage. Unfortunately, very few progressives seem to be concerned. It is interesting that after the demolition of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya, the right-wing forces coined the slogan Ayodhya to ek jhanki hai, Kashi-Mathura baki hai (the demolition of Babri Mosque is just a beginning, Kashi and Mathura are awaiting a similar fate). The slogan has acquired a new meaning with the unearthing of the Buddhist ruins.  If at all any excavation is carried out in Kashi and Mathura, the myths of Hinduism will again be debunked.


[1] Katju, Markandey (2019). The Ayodhya Verdict is Based on a Strange Feat of Logic, The Wire, 11 Nov Retrieved on May 15, 2020 from https://thewire.in/law/the-ayodhya-verdict-is-based-on-a-strange-feat-of-logic

[2] Cunningham Alexander (2000). The Four Reports During The Year 1862-63-64-65 Vol 1, The Director General Archaeological Survey of India, New Delhi. Originally published under the same title in 1871 by Government Central Press, Shimla.

[3] Mudrarakshas. (2009). Dharma Grantho ka Punarpath. Allahabad: Itihasbodh Prakashan

[4] Omvedt, Gail. (2003). Buddhism in India: Challenging Brahmanism and Caste. New Delhi: Sage Publication.

[5] Shaw, Julia. (2000). Ayodhya’s sacred landscape: ritual memory, politics and archaeological fact. Antiquity 74: 693-700

[6] Bakker, H.T. (1986). Ayodhya: The history of Ayodhya from the 17th century BC to the middle of the 18th century. Groningen: Egbert Forsten

An earlier version of this article has appeared in Round Table India. It has been republished here with the author’s permission.

Copy-editing: Goldy/Anil

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About The Author

Ratnesh Katulkar

Ratnesh Katulkar is a social scientist at the Indian Social Institute, New Delhi. He has been active in the Dalit Movement and has recently authored a book ‘Babasaheb Dr Ambedkar aur Adivasi Prashn?'

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