Religion in Modern Asia Newsletter

Special Report: Friction over Buddhism Workshop


(Editor's note: the following report was originally dated November, 1995, but was only received after issuance of the last issue of the Newsletter; although the situation has since changed, we felt the report would still be of interest to our members):

The World Buddhist Cultural Foundation (WBCF, headquarters in India) originally planned to hold its second International Workshop in Bangkok, Thailand in February, 1996. The theme of the Workshop was to be "Conformity between Hinduism and Buddhism." Plans were to invite notable religious Hindu and Buddhist leaders from India, while Thailand was to send representatives of the Buddhist sects and other notable monks---including the Supreme Patriarch of Thai Buddhism--- and representatives from various Mahayana sects were also slated to attend.

This plan, however, created several problems:

(1) The names of several notable Thai monk were borrowed without permission and presented as supporters of the conference. Among them were the Supreme Patriarch of the Thai sangha and the presidents of two large Buddhist universities; one newspaper claimed that even the Thai queen's name was so used. The exploitation of the prestige and names of such figures constituted fraud, it was alleged, and some went so far as to call it a kind of sacrilege. The claim that the queen's name was used, however, is of somewhat doubtful authenticity, since only one Thai-language newspaper reported it, and only one time.

(2) The WBCF held its first International Workshop last year in Sarnath (Benares, India), and most participants were apparently Hindu devotees. Further, resolutions at that Workshop apparently included one to the effect that the Buddha was an incarnation of Vishnu, and that the Buddhist religion shared the same base with Hinduism, in other words, that Buddhism is only one branch of Hinduism.

In response, Thai Buddhists claimed that the activities of the WBCF represent a Hindu attempt to "swallow up" Buddhism, and that they will not allow such a group to hold its congress in Thailand, nor to allow Thai Buddhists to attend such a congress.

(3) Last year, the Thai Embassy in New Delhi reported to the Thai Foreign Ministry that the executive president of WBCF was Bhupendra Kumar Modi, one of India's few top entrepreneurs, and also a senior executive of the radical Hindu organization Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP); that report was subsequently passed on to representatives of Thai Buddhism on September 29 (1995). The Thai Embassy released as public documents materials relating to the first and second WBCF International Workshops, together with a copy of an article published on February 16, 1995 in Bombay's Economic Times.

The report from the Thai Embassy notes only that VHP was suspected of responsibility for the riots at the Babri Mosque in Ayodha (December, 1993), and that it was subjected two years ago to an prohibition on association and activities, thus making it an illegal organization. In fact, that prohibition was canceled in 1995, but the Thai Embassy report made no mention of that fact.

As a result, Thai newspapers have issued articles to the effect that "an illegal Hindu extremist organization is taking on the guise of Buddhism in the effort to destroy and subsume Thai Buddhism" and that "the coming Workshop is sure to cause conflict within Thailand."

While the above appear to be the general issues involved, more can be read from the vernacular media in Thailand.

(1) First, claims have been made that the WBCF planned to sponsor a walk---a "great parade"---from India to Thailand, involving around one-hundred Indian Buddhist monks and Hindu holy men.

(2) One Thai newspaper claims that the February 16, 1995 article in the Economic Times reported that the WBCF was founded during the period when VHP activities were prohibited, and represents a front organization for the VHP. The upper echelons of VHP leadership are active in WBCF committees, it is said. Also, the Indian nationalist party Bharatiy Janata Party (BHP) was said to be attempting to have one of its leaders also participate in the Workshop.

(3) Photographs of the first International Workshop showed a reversed swastika. The swastika is a long-time Buddhist symbol (though I've never seen one in Thailand), but it appeared that the Indian Buddhists were using a reversed swastika. Is this to be taken as an indication of strong Hindu influence on the Indian delegations? The newspaper that released these photographs, on the other hand, evaluates the issue as though the swastika were sheerly a Nazi symbol.

(4) Remarks by Indians in Thailand have been limited in the vernacular newspapers to two or three lines, and express their lack of knowledge of any such groups, and claims that they personally are unrelated to any extremists organizations.

(5) One high-ranking Thai monk was quoted as saying the entry of Hindu extremists to Thailand was not merely an issue of conflict between Buddhism and Hinduism, but involved Islam as well. Namely, even if Hindus and Buddhists were to reach some kind of accord, the net result would be conflict with Muslims in south Thailand. This would likely occur since, it was said, Hindu extremists already have a history of conflict with Islam evident in the riots at Ayodhha.

(6) The newspapers have carried no comments or rebuttals from the WBCF at all. This lack of response is also rather difficult to fathom. But rather than comments and refutations having been suppressed, it seems that such objections have simply not yet arisen.

(7) From my perspective on the side of research, what seems most unusual is the way that some Thai Buddhists have changed their response to Hinduism. Formerly, Hinduism was treated as a kind of superstition, but now it is viewed it as a dangerous "destroyer of Buddhism." Or perhaps it is merely that the latter perspective has only made itself so evident in recent months. From everything I have previously heard and read to date, those Thai Buddhists who have been critical of Hinduism have treated it as an "incomprehensible mishmash of ritual and magic."

In other words, on the one hand, they have taken a position of disinterest toward a "superstitious belief" ("the kind of thing they do in India or in Indian communities in Thailand has nothing to do with us"), while on the other hand they are treating this "superstitious belief" with precipitous concern as a piece of cultural garbage that should be positively discarded ("since Hindu elements have become mixed with Thai Buddhism, some people have come to think of Buddhism itself as nonsensical magic ritual. If we don't rectify this quickly, real Buddhism will be discarded, too, and we won't be able to hold up our heads as a civilized country---since Buddhists, after all, are supposed to be supremely rational"). Needless to say, the attitude has not been unequivocally critical, since many people continue to offer worship to small roadside Hindu shrines.

But that everyday, more generous view of Hinduism has been entirely absent from the media coverage accompanying the current events. As an example of the illogic of Hinduism, the media focuses solely on the Hindu claim that the Buddha was the ninth (some reports say the seventh) incarnation of Vishnu. And in that case, too, the editorial mood and the attitude of commentators (high-ranking monks and bureaucrats from the Religious Affairs Department) is not the casually dismissive one of, "That's what makes Hinduism so bothersome: all this talk about deities and incarnations. How can anyone really believe such foolish myths?"

Rather, the mood permeating the current commentary is a strident, aggressive posture that says, "As a Buddhist disciple, I will not permit nor allow talk about the Buddha being an incarnation of a god. I don't want to be involved in any argument having to do with who's founder is greater. And besides, that position is the standard one taken by Hindus whenever they intend to consume Buddhism. That's what happened back around 1700, when Hinduism obliterated and consumed Buddhism in India. We mustn't allow the same mistake to be repeated here in Thailand!"

This kind of aggressive position is extremely problematic, for at least the following reasons:

(1) From a historical perspective, the Thai position that claims Hinduism is attempting to obliterate and absorb Buddhism by the nefarious plot of reducing Buddhism to no more than a branch of Hinduism, is historically a rather typical Thai Buddhist (Theravada) ideological ploy. Speaking from the same historical perspective, one might contrarily argue that the rise of Indian Buddhism from the Asoka period on was the result of Buddhism's obliterating and absorbing the earlier indigenous religion. Further, one example of that kind of treatment can be seen within Thai (Theravada) Buddhism itself, where the Buddha is situated at the apex of a pantheon composed of numerous lesser deities.

(2) It is also problematic that such ideological interpretations are being so easily linked to current religious situation and events. Namely, the media appears trying to subsume current events within the above kind of mythical interpretation, without clearly elucidating what kind of intentions may lie behind the events. And since they have based their argument on an ideological view of history, their response is reduced to an ignoring and eliminating of the other, rather than one of genuine debate, a response that might be said to implicitly demonstrate the low level of doctrinal and historical study within Thai Buddhism.

(3) The term "Hindu" is being used in a generalized way within this ideological interpretation of history. With respect to the current events, a few commentators have expressed reservations, saying "There are good Hindu believers as well. The Indians in Thailand are different from the Indians in India," but that attitude of restraint is a fragile one, since one frequently hears such comments immediately followed by remarks describing the past annihilation of Buddhism or actions of the WBCF in a general way as "Hindu" strategies. And furthermore, the modern, ostensibly best-educated high monks and elders of the sangha, together with bureaucrats from the Department of Religious Affairs all seem to say more or less the same thing, although it may be that generalized impression is one created at the stage of composing newspaper articles.

In any event, it remains true that there is underway the production of a new image of the "Hindu," and that image has the potential to be influential in future ethnic and religious conflicts. That possibility alone should be cause for concern.

-- Jun 1, 1996, YANO Hidetake

Last updated: 2001/11/28 14:33:41

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