Trailing the Buddha


Photographer Benoy K Behl’s pursuit of documenting ancient Indian art and the spread of Buddhism across the world does not show any signs of slowing. He is travelling to Siberia and Afghanistan to shoot art in the monasteries there, and his project will culminate in shows in London and New York, finds Anand Sankar (via Trailing the buddha).

Indian academia abdicates

Western historians trace this art form to Islamic school

Western historians trace this art form to Islamic school

This short post in Business Standard is an eye opener. It is another case of the Dysfunctional Indian academia, which is the story of abdication by the Indian academia in correcting colonial history. Western historiography, based on a colonial agenda and racial superiority is not being challenged – at least not enough.

To the lengthening line of non-specialists, who are re-writing Indian history, like Amaresh Misra (War of 1857), Anant Darwatkar (on Sambhaji Maharaj), Parag Tope (on Tatiya Tope’s role in 1857), Savitri Sawhney (on the Ghadar Party’s contribution to Indian Freedom Movement), we can now add the name of Benoy K Behl. As this article points out,

Some of Behl’s observations on the Indic vision might ruffle feathers in the academia, amongst certain ideologues. While politely saying that he “stays away from political issues”, he points out: “At some places, they are less confused than us. For example in Bali, they know that the Ramayana sets a benchmark for ethical rule. It is literature, an epic of ideas.

As Ganga descends from the heavens, it starts teeming with Nagas (fertility symbol)

As Ganga descends from the heavens, it starts teeming with Nagas (fertility symbol)

Awesome Work

Capturing Indian history across more than 20 countries, Benoy K Behl has spent,

almost two decades now, … to document the spread of Buddhism; his work evident in over 30,000 unique photographs that he has taken all over the world.

He has found that

“At many of these places people may not have seen present-day Indians but they still hold Indian culture in great regard”.

Unlearning and learning

Western history in the thralldom of the Greek Miracle and a colonial agenda of minimizing and subverting Indian history, is a bad (though usual) starting point to understand Indian history. To Benoy K Behl,

“The paintings of Ajanta appeared to me as a world of compassion. An entire world is enshrined there. It had an immense effect on me. I found all the things one had believed in and wanted to believe in there. I was really taught by that art. It is a really good way to learn. Western literature did not come in the way of art and me”.

At Ajanta, Behl says he found that the popular view was that the paintings were a “flash in the pan”. And that there was no documentation of what happened before and after these. “Sheer volumes of art are waiting to be discovered and with them, a perspective will emerge. People haven’t bothered to go to these places.

Mahajanaka vaanprastha

Mahajanaka vaanprastha

Desert Bloc legacy

Benoy K Behl makes an interesting observation that India discovered religion in the last few centuries. Early India never had religion. Which is exactly what the 2ndlook blog has said for the last few years.

“In ancient times, there was nothing called Hindusism, Jainism or Buddhism. This is a European construct of a divided religion. The philosophy of religion was not limited by these divisions in India or in Asia even”.

If I may add – The Europeans are a part of The Desert Bloc – where religion was born and propagated.

Gajalakshmi in Varaha cave

Gajalakshmi in Varaha cave

What Benoy K Behl brings to the table

An independent and interesting perspective. A rare commodity in the best of times. For distressed Indian history, it is invaluable.

Citing an example, Behl says, one of the stories that needs to be documented in India is the contribution of Kumara Jiva, a big name in Chinese Buddhism. “He was the son of Kumara Yana, an Indian nobleman who married Princess Jiva of Kucha (in China). Jiva took her son to the Kashmir valley, where he studied for 19 years. He became the greatest translator for Buddhist scriptures in China, especially the Lotus Sutra.” The Chinese government has built a statue recognising this at the Kizil caves, on the northern Silk Route in the remote Xinjiang Autonomous Region. Behl suggests that India must also “build a statue of Kumara Jiva” in recognition of his origins.

The ancient culture of India is important in world history. European writing has perhaps undermined this.” To substantiate this he says that Ashoka is still revered everywhere from the Volga basin to Japan.

New view on India

More of Benoy K Behl

The National Geographic has put together some good photographs – and I am sure there are more where these came from.

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  1. Parag Tope
    July 17, 2009 at 3:43 pm

    I largely agree with your article and I appreciate your recognizing the work that is being done by non-specialists.

    A comment about the following sentence:
    “Western historiography, based on a colonial agenda and racial superiority is not being challenged…”

    There have been several challenges to this – but all originating in the west itself – specifically from a liberal perspective. In fact – colonial history – has largely been rewritten all around the world – where colonial ideas are openly challenged.

    However, one dogma is replaced with another.

    While these challenges pose a new set of questions in terms of western history, in the context of India the issues are largely different.

    The progressivists in India have weaved a post-colonial narrative of Indian history. While they have successfully eliminated the obvious colonial biases, they continue to view Indian history through western lenses – a new set of lenses – progressivist.

    This approach, begins with a set of assumptions, and then forces all history to comply with these assumptions.

    The task for non-specialists like us, is not to challenge colonial history, but post-colonial revisionist history, written largely by the progressivist-liberal with their pre-defined views on the Indic past. Indian history needs to be freed from the fog of misinformation that has been created by the academics of post-colonial India.

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