Buddha In Hindu Worship: Ignorance, Love And Appropriation
The case of a 'mistaken identity' of a deity in a temple in Salem, Tamil Nadu, is being used to further a narrative of 'Hinduism appropriating Buddhism'.
On the contrary, the entire episode reinforces the extremely porous boundaries between, and spiritual unity among, the various Dharmic traditions.
A Madras High Court judgement of 2 August 2022 has directed that a Hindu temple at Salem, Tamil Nadu, be taken over by the Archaeological Survey of India. This is because the idol at the sanctum sanctorum of the temple is actually that of Buddha.
The judgement, while not restricting public visits to the temple, had asked that the rituals and ceremonies at the temple be stopped.
In the temple in question, the deity is being worshipped as ‘Thalaivetti Muniappan’.
This judgement raises some interesting questions.
Clearly, the divine form, which has now been established as Buddha, who for the local population has been a local village Deity, in both identities, is very much a part of the larger Hindu family of religions as Buddhism, too, is a part of the same family. The boundaries between Shaivism, Vaishnavism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism as well as other regional, village-level and tribal traditions have always been porous and there has always been theo-exchange.
The villagers who started worship at the Salem temple did so to honour the deity whose identity they did not know. But they understood its divinity and they wanted to honour it in the way they knew best. This actually saved the idol from becoming a museum piece, bereft of any worship.
Usually, there is a prejudicial narrative that is constructed and propagated with respect to Buddhism in India. It is that Buddhism was an anti-Vedic rebellion which became a mass movement and that during the Bhakti movement, Vedic Brahminism captured and destroyed or transformed Buddhist places of worship into ‘Brahminical’ temples.
In reality, history does not play out through such straight-jacketed streams of ideological persuasion.
Buddhism was never a rebel movement against the social structure of the times. In fact, if anything, it added new categories of defilement to existing social structure.
However, Buddhism soon came to a harmonious equilibrium with other Hindu Dharmas. It should be remembered that two of the greatest achievements of Buddhism in ancient India that we know today, namely Nalanda and Ajanta, happened under the patronage of kings following Vedic Dharma. Many Vedic kings had shown great affection for Buddhism.
The destruction of Buddhism in India was not due to 'Vedic Brahminism' but mainly because of Islamist invasions. In fact, non-Buddhist Hindu kings went out of their way to protect Buddhists from massacres during the Hun invasion as did Hindu priests of a later era go out of their way to protect Buddhist shrines.
So, if non-Buddhist Hindus established worship in a Buddhist shrine, as in Salem, it should be remembered that it was more because of the common bonds of the sense of sacred than out of any sense of appropriation.
A good example of what happens to a Buddhist shrine, where non-Buddhist Hindus too abandon it, is what happened to the Buddhist Chudamani Vihara at Nagapattinam. Here, the Buddha Vihara was established in the eleventh century by a Sumatran Buddhist king with the active support of emperor Rajaraja Chola, who himself was a staunch Shaivite — Sivapatha Sekara — he who adorned his head with the feet of Shiva.
With the Islamist invasions, the vihara saw a downturn in its fortunes; it also lost worshippers. Yet it stood for centuries — until in the nineteenth century, Jesuit monks, using their influence with colonial authorities, pulled it down.
In Salem, the Buddhist shrine was saved from any such fate and the Buddha idol did not end up in some museum either in India or worse, in some foreign country. The main reason for this was the rituals and worship happening at the temple. The worship kept the Buddha always in the midst of human aspirations, prayers and ceremonies. Men, women and children got solace by praying to Buddha with a mistaken identity and surely Buddha, with his infinite compassion and his Dhamma, would have preferred such a presence rather than being labelled 'correctly' and sitting alone in a museum.
And yet, the judgement of the Madras High Court should be welcomed. Let the true identity of the deity be known and let proper Buddhist ceremonies be made to take over.
And that brings us to a question.
The non-Buddhist Hindus who worshipped Buddha as a local deity did not do it out of malice or because they wanted to appropriate Buddha. They revered him and loved him and worshipped him in the way they knew. And they worshipped him as the highest expression of divine. Yet, the worship had to be stopped and the temple taken over by the archaeological society.
Now let us consider the coastal basilica of Vellankanni. Recently, a lot of Hindu deities' sculptures have been recovered from Vellankanni. There is a long-standing tradition, quite credible-sounding, that it was the temple of Hindu Goddess Vel-Nedun-Kanni Amman which was taken over by the European colonialists and fanatics and the goddess was turned into Mary.
One should remember that in making a Hindu goddess into Mary, the Divine Feminine, as creatrix and matrix of all existence, is positioned below a 'male god in the sky'. This is apart from the aggression and appropriation which the exercise obviously implies.
Will the High Court also take this into consideration and ask the Archaeological Survey of India to conduct a study of the basilica?
One hopes the Madras High Court judgement can be used to put an end to a series of such appropriations.
As you are no doubt aware, Swarajya is a media product that is directly dependent on support from its readers in the form of subscriptions. We do not have the muscle and backing of a large media conglomerate nor are we playing for the large advertisement sweep-stake.
Our business model is you and your subscription. And in challenging times like these, we need your support now more than ever.
We deliver over 10 - 15 high quality articles with expert insights and views. From 7AM in the morning to 10PM late night we operate to ensure you, the reader, get to see what is just right.
Becoming a Patron or a subscriber for as little as Rs 1200/year is the best way you can support our efforts.