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By Gaurav Sharma
India has eternally served the world with an oceanic infinitude of religious doctrines and postulations in order to bridge the fissures of boundaries which have been created by the puny mind of man.
While superficially it may appear that such a multitude of religious credos amplify the fault lines between men, such a notion is akin to thinking that different opinions and views are pernicious to the health of a democracy.
The current of history is replete with epochs that marked a departure from the customary thoughts and prevalent mode of living, specifically, when they reached the nadir of degraded existence.
And this is also true for the genesis of Buddism.
The Birth of ‘The Awakened One’
Buddha, also known as ‘Shakyamuni’ or Gautama Buddha, literally translates as ‘The Awakened One’. He is thought to have been born between the 6th and 4th century BCE, a time when the people of India, although following the Vedas in the namesake, had deviated from the true goal of Vedic philosophy.
Ritualistic ceremonies and rites for material pleasures had become prominent. Animal sacrifices, which form an important edict of the early Vedic schools, had reached a flash-point of unscrupulous meat eating.
More importantly, the Vedic scriptures had been usurped while becoming the sole preserve of the priestly class or the brahmanas, who had eschewed the essential tenet of non-violence and consequently become like degraded dirt.
To revitalize the decaying morality of individuals, Buddha propounded one of the most basic yet critical precepts of Dhammapada: “All beings fear death and pain, life is dear to all; therefore the wise man will not kill or cause anything to be killed.”
By rejecting the Vedic rituals, Buddha saved the people and the animals from the barbaric onslaught of the corrupt and degenerate priests.
The crown jewel of the the Vedanta–Srimad Bhagavatam declares boldly: “In the beginning of the age of Kali, the Supreme Personality of Godhead will appear in the province of Gaya as Lord Buddha, the son of Anjana, to bewilder those who are always envious of the devotees of the Lord.”
On the contrary, Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, was born in Lumbini, Nepal, and his mother was Queen Mahamaya. By making such a statement, the revered Hindu scripture clearly appears to be at odds with framework of history.
A deeper scrutiny into the life of Buddha suggests otherwise and, indeed verifies the claims of the scripture.
Siddhartha became the Buddha after he attained spiritual enlightenment during his meditation under the Bodhi tree in Gaya.
Furthermore, Siddhartha’s mother, Queen Mahamaya, died several days after Siddhartha’s birth, leaving him to be raised by his grandmother, Anjana.
Buddhists, however, staunchly denounce the claim that Buddha was an incarnation of the Hindu God Vishnu. Conversely, they cite it as a concerted attempt by Hindus to stem the flow of Buddhism.
In the metaphysical realm, Buddhism, with its emphasis on ‘non-self’ or non-belief in the existence of the soul and God embraces and espouses Shunyata– the void or nothingness that is the essence of everything to which we must return.
This stands in stark opposition to the propositions of the Vedas which clearly accept the existence of a Supreme controller and, in fact, seek to reestablish the link between God and man.
While the Buddha unequivocally refused to discuss how the world was created or what was existence in Nirvana, the Vedas contain vivid descriptions of the spiritual world and the creation of its counterpart.
Demystifying the Riddle
While the distinctions might seem to be the only visible commonality amongst the two fraternal religions, there are striking parallels where the tide of humanistic Buddhist teachings congregate with the profound spiritual wisdom of the Vedas.
The Buddhist conception of arahant is synonymous with the Hindu brahmin. The Dhammapada states: “Not by birth is one an outcast; not by birth is one a brahmin. By deed one becomes an outcast, by deed one becomes a brahmin.”
Treading on similar lines, the Bhagavad Gita elucidates a set of qualities that fine-tunes the Buddhist concept of Brahmin with the Vedic conception.
Both Krishna and Buddha define purity as a state of mind and reject birth as a determinant of ones spiritual progress.
Within the Buddhist tradition Nirvana–release from the cycle of birth and death is attained when the ‘three fires’ of raga, dvesha and moha–passion, aversion and ignorance are extinguished.
Nirvana bears a striking resemblance to the Hindu concept of Moksha, which is also achieved by transcending the three modes of ignorance, passion and goodness.
Even the means of breaking the shackles of suffering or the fetters of Karma bear a staggering similitude.
The Noble Eightfold Path–the system of eight steps propounded by the Buddha for progressing towards Nirvana are nothing but mere offshoots of yama and niyama–a set of basic do’s and don’ts as mentioned by the Hatha-Yoga of Patanjali.
The pali term jhana or zen used by Buddhists is derived from the Sanskrit word dhyan–to meditate. Both propose the cultivation of insight to prevent the oscillations of the mind.
In his fascinating odyssey of enlightenment, Buddha denied the existence of God. Yet, paradoxically, he was tempted by Mara– the Evil One, with many pleasures in an effort to make him relinquish his quest. Mara can easily be visualized as Yamaraj–the Hindu God who doles out punishments for ‘sinful’ activity.
The mesmerising correlations do not end there. In the Vayu Purana Daksha calls Shiva–the God in charge of the mode of ignorance–as Buddha.
The fragrant essence of the teachings of the Buddha– Look inward: Thou art Buddha, is a euphemism for the ambrosial Vedantic aphorism:
Tat Tvam Asi–Thou are That.
Tenali Ramakrishna, or Tenali Raman as he is more popularly known is Birbal's equivalent in South India. A court jester and a scholar exuding great wisdom, Tenali Raman was known as one of the greatest courtiers in King Krishnadevaraya's court.
The Vijayanagar Empire ruled a large part of South India between 1336 and 1646. In the 16th century, the kingdom rose to prominence under the eminent leadership of King Krishnadevaraya. His continuous victories against his enemies ensured a successful and peaceful reign for his subjects. As a patron of art and literature, many crafts and cultural assets thrived in the empire.
Krishnadevaraya's beloved courtier, Tenali Raman is the finest example of the splendour of the Vijayanagar empire. He was born in Tenali, a town in Andhra Pradesh. He lived here until he lost his father, after which his mother brought him to Vijayanagar. He was discovered for his excellent wit and wisdom, and appointed in the court. He was one of the king's ashtadiggajas (collective name for the eight poets and scholars).
A statue of Tenali Ramakrishna near a Municipal Office in Andhra Pradesh Image source: wikimedia commons
Tenali Raman as a scholar, published great texts of wisdom, which have now become artefacts of the Kingdom of Vijayanagara. But his fame does not lie in these achievements. He is known for the mischievous jester that mythical folklore portrays him to be. Through stories, many writers have used jokes to impart wisdom and morals to many generations of people. The stories of Tenali Raman are almost legendary in the Southern peninsula.
Textbooks have been written with his moral stories in mind, and these days, many self-help book are also incorporating his wisdom. His most popular stories are, 'Mother Tongue', 'Cursed Face', 'Saluting the Donkeys' and many more. Through these stories, Tenali Raman, in some way, brought about social justice. Perhaps this is why he is most beloved by many people even today.
Keywords: Tenali Raman, Vijayanagar empire, Krishnadevaraya, Jester, Wisdom
It must be noted that different religions and societies in Southeast Asia have alternative narratives of Ramayana, one of the greatest epic.
Here are some of the versions of Ramayana!
Dasaratha Jakarta: The Buddhist Version
Interestingly, this version of Ramayana does not mention Ravana at all and in fact, there’s no mention of Sita’s abduction, too. In this version, Dasaratha is the king of Benaras and not Ayodhya. Also, Rama and Sita leaves kingdom and go to the Himalayas and not forests. Then, after twelve years, Rama and Sita return back to Benaras and get married.
Paumachariya: The Jaina Version
In this version, Lakshamana is the killer of Ravana and not Rama. Here, Rama is an ardent follower of Jainism, and so he cannot be the killer of Ravana. Also, this version states an army of warrior and not monkeys, as stated in Valmiki’s Ramayana. Another interesting feature of this version is that Ramayana is not shown as a villain, rather a magnanimous king and follower of Jainism.
Gond Ramayani: The Gond Version
Gond is an adivasi clan belonging from Madhya Pradesh in India. Interestingly, in this version, the story begins from where Valmiki’s Ramayana ended; when Sita is rescued from captivity. Also, Bhima, one of the Pandavas from the epic of Mahabharata, is mentioned in this version. Unlike Valmiki’s Ramayana, Rama is not the protagonist in this version.
Ramakien: The Thai Version
This is considered as Thailand's national epic, and is still taught in some schools in the country. In this version, Ravana is shown as a learned scholar and a noble king in this version. Also, Ravana’s pursuit for Sita is depicted as true love. There are a lot of similarities between this version of Ramayana and Valmiki’s version, but this version lays a lot of emphasis on Hanuman.
When a baby is born in an Indian household-they invite hijra to shower the newborn with their blessings for their blessings confer fertility, prosperity, and long life on the child. But when that child grows up we teach them to avert their eyes when a group of hijras passes by, we pass on the behaviour of treating hijras as lesser humans to our children. Whenever a child raises a question related to gender identity or sexuality they are shushed down. We're taught to believe that anything "deviant" and outside of traditional cis-heteronormativity is something to be ashamed of. This mentality raises anxious, scared queer adults who're ashamed of their own identity, and adults who bully people for "queer behaviour".
Hijras are a community of people who include eunuchs, intersex, and transgender people. They worship the Hindu goddess of chastity and fertility, Bahuchara Mata. Most hijras, but not all, choose to undergo a castration ceremony known as "nirvana" in which they remove their male genitalia as an offering to their goddess. The whole community is vibrant with hundreds of people with hundreds of ways of expression, the true identity of a hijra is complex and unique to each individual. In India, hijras prefer to refer to themselves as Kinner/Kinnar as it means the mythological beings who excel at singing and dancing.
Hijras worship the Hindu goddess of chastity and fertility, Bahuchara Mata.homegrown.co.in
The hijra community works systematically, the community separates itself from the outside world and teaches lessons to the young ones in secret. Each community has a guru and the other hijras are their disciples or chela. The "hijra ways of life" are taught to the disciples in a secluded environment where they leave their families and live with other hijras in the community. More often than not hijras are thought of as nothing different from transgender and often referred to as transgender; however, scientifically these two terms denote a different class of people. Hijras are a part of the whole community of people with various identities and of spiritual and cultural values meanwhile, transgender merely refers to those people whose gender identity differs from the sex assigned to them at birth, they are a part of the community and do not represent the whole community.
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Historically and culturally the community has existed in the Indian subcontinent as long as the civilization has existed. There are mentions of hijra in The Mahabharata, a holy book of Hindus. Shikhandi who was neither male nor female is a mythological legend. In another version of Mahabharata Arjuna, one of the Pandavas was cursed to be the third gender by Urvashi, when he refused to be sexually involved with her. In a story by Padma Purana, it is seen that Arjuna transforms into a woman to take part in Krishna's mystical dance which only women can take part in. The Hijra figures are prominent in Indian Mughal History as well, referred to as Khwaja Siras and known for their loyalty to the ruler, they worked as the sexless watchdogs of the Mughal harems. They held important positions in court and various facets of administration during Mughal-era India, from the 16th to 19th century. The Hijra community is a testament to the sexual diversity that is integral yet often forgotten in Indian culture.
If the whole hijra community was looked upon with enamor and respect in our history, what happened that when we come across the community we look at them with contempt and are filled with a mixture of negative, fear, laughter, and odd emotions. It's owing to the fact that under British Raj, the Criminal tribes Act 1871 hijras were criminalized and the law was made to eradicate the whole community. However, these acts were abolished by the Indian government after independence, and by 2014, India, Nepal, and Bangladesh all had officially recognized third gender people as citizens deserving of equal rights where the third gender means individuals categorizing themselves as neither male nor female. Even though the progress is slow but in 2015 Madhu Kinnar became the first hijra mayor in India was elected in the city of Raigarh.
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Although the hijra community was revered by society and is invited to births and weddings for religious and spiritual ceremonies, they still become victims of abuse and discrimination. Violence and hate crimes against the community have become common. They are deprived of education, job opportunities, seating in restaurants, etc. leading them to live in poor conditions barely surviving. They often have to resort to begging and prostitution to earn a daily living. The government has tried to address this issue by introducing bills for the protection of the hijra community, with prison terms and other punishments for those offending them, but there is little to no less effect on the social stigma against the community.
In India, the hijra community comes under the umbrella term LGBTQ+ and we notice that they lack voice and representation when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights. We need to understand that when we fight for LGBTQ+ rights we fight for the whole community, we fight for hijras who have been victims of violence, hate crimes, and disrespect from none other than the people of our society. And although hijras are a part of the LGBTQ+ community as a whole, they have an independent subculture of their own. It is worth every effort to know about them, to study about them, to befriend them, and to smile at them for they are every bit of human as we are and they have nothing but blessings in their heart.