| (From top) Ramachandra Guha, Romila Thapar and DN Jha. Telegraph pictures
Patna, Aug. 28: Historians have questioned the demand to bring back a bowl said to have been used by Gautama Buddha from its present resting place in Afghanistan to Bihar.
Romila Thapar, professor emerita at Jawaharlal Nehru University, today distanced herself from the claim of RJD MP Raghuvansh Prasad Singh that she supported the demand to get back the bowl, or bhikshapatra, to India. Raghuvansh, speaking in the Lok Sabha on Monday, had said a movement should be launched to bring the bowl from the National Museum in Kabul to Vaishali, where, according to legend, Buddha is said to have donated the vessel to his disciples when on his way to attaining nirvana (salvation) at Kushinagar.
“I am not behind such a demand. It is for the first time that I am hearing from you that there is a demand doing the rounds about shifting of Buddha’s bowl from the museum in Kabul to Vaishali,” Thapar told The Telegraph.
Asked about the historicity of the bowl, Thapar said she had no idea. “I don’t know. I can’t say anything on it,” she said. Raghuvansh, the MP from Vaishali, however, stuck to his guns. “Archaeologist Alexander Cunningham wrote that Lord Buddha’s bhikshapatra that he had gifted to his disciples at Vaishali has been lying in the Kabul museum. The bhikshapatra found mention in the accounts of Fa Hien and Hiuen Tsang as well. My demand, which has taken the shape of a movement, has the backing of Romila Thapar besides several other historians, including I.N. Singh of Delhi University and Siddhartha Singh of Benaras Hindu University,” Raghuvansh told The Telegraph on Thursday.
Historian and social commentator Ramachandra Guha came out with a different perspective on the issue. “It is not the question of tracing the veracity of Buddha’s begging bowl. Be it in Kabul or wherever the vessel is, it carries the great Buddha’s message of universal peace. It is quite parochial to ask for the bowl to be restored back in Vaishali,” he told The Telegraph by phone.
“That the people of Afghanistan have preserved Buddha’s artefact for thousands of years establishes quite clearly that the great preacher, who was born in Nepal and attained enlightenment in Bihar, had a special place in their hearts. The people of that part of the land (Afghanistan) owned Buddha then,” Guha said.
He pointed out that the Taliban vandalised the giant statues of Buddha in the Bamiyan valley in 2001. “That his vessel is still preserved in the National Museum of Kabul is testimony to the fact that the people there respected his message of peace. Instead of asking for the bowl, the people of Bihar should take pride in the fact that Buddha’s message had spread beyond the boundary of Bihar, Nepal and India and is valued in several other parts of the globe even after 2,500 years of his passing away,” Guha said.
Cunningham, in his archaeological survey’s report published in the late 19th century, wrote that Kushan king Kanishka — himself a great patron of Buddhism — had taken Buddha’s bowl from Vaishali to Purushpur (Peshawar) which was shifted to Gandhar (present day Kandahar). The bowl was finally taken to the National Museum of Kabul in the 20th century.
Former head of the department of history, Delhi University, D.N. Jha, who happens to be from Bihar, was sceptical of Raghuvansh’s demand as it is based on Cunningham’s report. “Much water has flown down the Indus and Ganga since Cunningham wrote the report in the late 19th century. There is little archaeological and historical evidence to verify what Cunningham wrote,” he said.
Jha echoed historian Guha, saying Buddha’s message spread beyond the boundary of India and reached out to many countries in Southeast and East Asia. “Buddha belonged as much to Vaishali in India as much to the people of China, Japan, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bhutan and several other countries. His message of peace was for the entire humanity,” he said.
Officials at the Patna museum said they were not too keen on getting the bowl back. “We have old sculptures of George VI and Viceroy Hardinge, old paintings of Lieutenant Governor Bailey (the first governor of Bihar following separation from Bengal) and Sir Henry Wheeler. They are part of our history and we will feel very sad if the British government demands these artefacts from the museum,” a museum employee said on condition of anonymity.
Raghuvansh, though, is adamant he will carry on with his movement and convince the external affairs ministry to take up his demand.
“The people of Vaishali want Buddha’s bhikshapatra back and I will keep on leading the movement for it. S.M. Krishna as external affairs minister had promised me he would get the artefact back. Besides Indian historians, historians from Pakistan and Afghanistan too have backed our demand,” he said.