“The painting titled Bollywood Buddha has been removed from the exhibition due to the protest from Hindu fundamentalist. Though the show continued without the painting, the artwork is currently under Mumbai police custody. I hope that writer would also say something about it.
Thank you

That’s the comment that Dorjee Lama left for the post below and I need to thank him, not only because he left a comment (yay!) but also for the nugget of news about why “Beyond the Mandala” was shut for a few days in between. Thank you, sir. “Bollywood Buddha” is one of the works that, ironically enough, I thought was boring. Clearly, I don’t have an antenna for what might irk Hindu fundamentalists.

"Bollywood Buddha" by Tenzing Rigdol.

There are a number of things that are crazy about a bunch of Hindus getting all huffy about the silhouette of the Buddha being filled with a collage of actors’ photos. First, given the popularity of myth-based teleserials, Hindus clearly don’t have any issues with actors pretending to be gods. In fact, considering how Arun Govil, Deepika Chiklia (who played Ram and Sita respectively in the first mythological tv series, “Ramayana”) and Nitish Bharadwaj (he played Krishna in “Mahabharat”) went on to become members of parliament, it could be argued that India’s Hindu majority likes this synergy between acting and divinity. These actors had no background or experience in politics. They were roped in by political parties only because they had become weirdly synonymous with the roles they played. It was a case of the silhouette of Ram, Sita and Krishna being filled with the mug shot of an actor in life instead of in a work of art, and it worked fine with the electorate.

Incidentally, the role of Arjun in “Mahabharat” was played by a little-known Muslim actor whose name was changed to Arjun, clearly because the producers felt nervous about the idea of one of the major heroes being portrayed by someone whose surname is Khan.

Coming back to the point, what is even more mysterious about this attack on “Bollywood Buddha” is the fact that it’s credited to a Hindu fundamentalist group. I’m not saying that I’d spot any logic to a group of militant Buddhists attacking “Bollywood Buddha” but at least there’s some causality in a scenario where Buddhists are upset about how the Buddha is depicted. Hindus foaming around the mouth because of “Bollywood Buddha” doesn’t make even the vaguest sense. Because the fact of the matter is, shared words like karma and nirvana notwithstanding, Buddhism is not the same as Hinduism so why are Hindu fundamentalists getting their knickers in a twist? Especially when the work is by a man who may well be a Buddhist, for all you know.

Some Hindu texts may claim Gautama Buddha was an avatar of Vishnu but most scholars think that was a belated attempt at incorporating the renegade religion of Buddhism into Hinduism. Sure, before he became the Buddha, Prince Siddhartha was a Hindu. But the ideas in Buddhism are very different from those of Hinduism. From what is written of the Buddha’s story, it’s clear that he denounced Hinduism and promoted a religious philosophy that may have used a similar vocabulary but was distinctly different in its beliefs and attacked some fundamental Hindu ideas, like the importance of the scriptures and the caste system. This is probably why Buddhists were persecuted by Rajputs, for instance, and why there are instances of Buddhist monks being persecuted and stupas being destroyed by Hindu rulers. For most of its time in the Indian subcontinent, Buddhism may have existed harmoniously with Hinduism but this doesn’t make it an offshoot of Hinduism.

But as far as these Hindu fundamentalists who were offended by “Bollywood Buddha” are concerned, all this doesn’t matter. The fact that words like “maya”, “karma” and “nirvana” pop up in both religions is evidence enough that Buddhism belongs under the umbrella of Hinduism. And so off they go on a rampage. It’s just the kind of mindless thing I expect from right wingers.

Which is why I felt distinctly queasy when I read this article about banning Joseph Lelyveld’s biography of M.K. Gandhi, titled “Great Soul“, from the strictly conservative magazine Organiser. Written by Shyam Khosla, it isn’t illogical or rabid. It actually makes sense and describes the practice of banning books as — wait for it — irrational. Someone pass me the smelling salts. Now.

For those who aren’t familiar with Organiser, the magazine is considered something of a mouthpiece for Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS. The RSS is a right-wing Hindu nationalist organisation. It runs a number of charitable organisations and social service programs, which would be wonderful news for India if it wasn’t for the right-wing ideology that is propagated through the RSS’s initiatives. On the plus side, RSS has worked to break down caste barriers with programs like the one that trains Dalits and other backward castes to be priests in temples. They’ve also helped rebuild villages after natural disasters like the Gujarat earthquake of 2001. If only RSS didn’t also love Hitler, go ballistic against Muslims during communal riots and burn Christians and their homes. Their fanaticism  has succeeded in making the sight of rows of Indian men in badly-tailored khaki shorts — RSS meetings involve aerobic exercises and singing, in those shorts — chilling instead of comic.

Now, despite the fact that Gandhi’s assassin was a member of RSS, this is not the organisation that you’d expect would champion the rights of free speech and reason but that’s precisely what Khosla does.

Reference and interpretation of his sexual life can’t tarnish the image of the great man [M.K. Gandhi]. Nor can such criticism undermine his role in the freedom struggle. … There is no basis for blaming the author for any sinister motive or an attempt to denigrate Gandhiji. Why then demand a ban on a thoroughly researched work written with sincerity and objectivity? … Most of those demanding a ban are unlikely to have read the book. … Irrational demands for banning books without reading them have, unfortunately, become a habit with us. Censorship is counter-productive. … Tolerating, even respecting, contrary viewpoints has been our ancient tradition. People’s anger can be understood if the intention were to malign an icon or to heap insults on deities and faiths. That is not the case so far as Great Soul is concerned. Hence censorship or ban is totally uncalled for and unjustified.

This could have been written by a left-leaning liberal. It probably articulates (in slightly dodgy English) precisely what most left-leaning liberals thought when “Great Soul” was banned in Gujarat. Forget anyone else, this is roughly what I thought when I first heard about the controversy surrounding the book. Me and a chap who writes for the Organiser think alike. This is seriously frightening.

Damn the Indian Express for actually having articles and news in its pages. Had it not been for their bloody “View From The Right” section, I’d never have known. Maybe I should go back to getting only The Times of India every morning.

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