Ajanta Caves and the failure of Buddhism

Right. I attacked Sikhism when I was in Punjab, I’ve given Islam a kicking, and I’ve been patronisingly smirking at Hinduism throughout. I guess it’s time to talk about how badly Buddhism has let itself down.

Let’s have a brief summary of its history. Once upon a time, a man achieves enlightenment. He gains some followers and teaches them how to achieve it too. This man doesn’t talk about god. It doesn’t interest him. For him, the universe itself is god, and achieving enlightenment means realising your own oneness with the divine universe. The idea of there being a pantheon of deities is unenlightened thinking; praying to idols is a distraction from the higher aim.

The first form of Buddhism, as taught by the early disciples of Buddha, became known later by the pejorative term ‘Hinayana‘ or ‘Lesser Vehicle’. It means, basically, doing what Buddha said: practising the rigorous mental and moral exercises he prescribed in order to achieve enlightenment. Buddhism as a philosophy and a spiritual path, not as a religion. The closest it comes to idol-worship is the construction of stupas: plain domes, which represent enlightenment, and which students use as meditative aids.

The antithesis to Hinayana is Mahayana, the ‘Greater Vehicle’. This is the form of Buddhism which embraces all the usual gubbins of religion. Buddha becomes divine, essentially the primary god of the pantheon. A host of other gods are assimilated from Hinduism and elsewhere, like the Four Heavenly Kings and Yama, god of death. Other disciples who have achieved enlightenment, or are on the path to it, become the semi-divine bodhisattvas, equivalent to angels. Myths are created about Buddha’s life and achievements; entire alternative life stories are made up with the justification of ‘previous incarnations’. Temples are built, filled with idols of the new gods, and decorated with depictions of the myths, to awe the pious into obedience and donation.

Temple sculpture at Ajanta Caves, which does nothing to aid one’s meditative path to enlightenment

Guess which of these two competing forms of Buddhism was the more successful? The names give a clue, since history is written by the victors. It was inevitable that if Buddhism were ever to spread as a popular religion, it would be in the Mahayana form. It may be possible for a few acolytes in monasteries to strictly follow the path laid out by Buddha, and reap its spiritual rewards, but for a society to function, most people need to be farmers, labourers and merchants, and they can’t spend all day meditating. They can spend a few minutes each day mumbling supplications, but mostly they need to be farming, labouring and trading. It’s a meme war out there, and this ascetic, strictly-follow-the-teachings-of-your-founder crap just isn’t fit enough to survive.

However, its inevitability doesn’t make the degeneration of Buddhism into the timeless pattern of superstition and submission any less disappointing. Buddha’s epiphany and subsequent teaching was one of the greatest attempts in the history of mankind to knock us out of that pattern. The fact that it failed reflects very badly on us as a race, on our ability to improve ourselves, as long as we’re still essentially the same advanced tool-making apes we’ve been for the last 200,000 years.

Maybe this isn’t supposed to be the lesson of a visit to the Ajanta Caves, but it’s what I got from them.

First I had to get there. It’s too far to hire an autorickshaw and a taxi would be expensive, so I opted for the bus. I try hard to get the right pronunciation of place names when I’m talking to Indians, but sometimes I just can’t seem to get it right. When I’m told the correct version it sounds identical. Like in Aurangabad, trying to arrange a bus to Bhopal. “Where?” Bhopal. “Where?” Bhopal. “Huh?” BHO… PAL. [shakes head] [I point at map] “Oh, Bhopal!” A similar thing occurred on the Ajanta bus, the conductor failing repeatedly to understand my request for “Ajanta”, even though it’s presumably a) the only reason a tourist would ever get that bus, and b) a common enough occurrence that they do. Still, he didn’t get it, but after the third time he asked, three people sitting around me erupted into a chorus of “Ajanta! Ajanta!”

Proof that I reached the Ajanta Caves eventually, in case the reader is worried

It wasn’t sorted even then. I paid for the ticket to Ajanta. Two and a half hours later, the bus had stopped in a dusty little town and pulled away again. The conductor came over to inspect my ticket, and pointed back at the place we’d just left: “Ajanta.” Ajanta Caves, I asked? I’d expected to see a visitor centre with big signs. “Oh, Ajanta Caves. Next stop. 10 rupees more.” What, you thought I wanted to visit Ajanta town before? Why would you imagine a tourist, asking for Ajanta, would mean that pointless stinking pisshole, rather than the world famous and popular tourist attraction down the road with the same name?

Anyway, eventually I got there. Both feet weren’t off the bus before I was engaged in a Chat Harassment Level 2 attempt. I ignored him, and looked for the place where I could catch the shuttle bus from the visitor centre to the caves. “Don’t worry, not guide, not guide,” my pesterer reassured. So what are you? “I have a shop.” No surprise there. Where is your shop? “Inside visitor centre.” Why aren’t you in your shop? No answer. “Come and see my shop?” No. I keep going towards the bus stop. “Maybe after?” Definitely no.

The whole visitor centre itself is a con. It’s built by the ASI and MTDC to “facilitate” tourists, but it’s an entirely commercial enterprise, which creates an annoyance for them and encourages their botheration by stall holders. You have to pay separately for the shuttle bus, and for entry to the caves when you get there. So all the 10 rupees entrance to the visitor centre gets you is the opportunity to walk past 30 or so clamouring stalls to get to the bus stop.

I could go on, with further anecdotes of confusion and irritation as I inched my way slowly and painfully to the caves, but I want to get back to Buddhism.

A vista of the Ajanta Caves, this time without being spoiled by my face

The Ajanta Caves are undoubtedly a beautiful and fascinating place to visit. The setting, in a steep horse-shoe gorge, with pillared temple entrances arrayed around the outer cliff face, is stunning. Whereas Ellora is all about stone sculpture, Ajanta is famous for its paintings, though there is sculpture too. The paintings are badly damaged, but incredible that even this much has survived. The oldest caves date back to 100 BCE, and contain probably more intact paintings than we have left in total from our equivalent period. Flash photography is banned, to protect them, so it’s difficult to get any decent photos of the paintings. If you’re interested, visit Ajanta’s Wikipedia article instead. I’ll only post a couple of photos which highlight points I want to make about the failure of Buddhism.

Firstly, let’s kill off once and for all the idea that Buddhism doesn’t have gods. Cave 4 contains a relief panel showing Avalokiteshvara, a popular bodhisattva who was believed to bring aid to people in difficult times. The images around him show the various predicaments he is able to protect his supplicants from: fire, animals, shipwrecks, etc. Praying to a benevolent yet fickle imaginary being to look kindly upon your plight? That’s a god right there. Don’t try to deny it.

The Litany of Avalokiteshvara, a relief panel in Cave 4 of the Ajanta Caves

Cave 8 doesn’t have anything in it which I can use to criticise Buddhism. It’s where they keep the generators.

Cave 8 at the Ajanta Caves

The author of the little guide book I bought must have got bored, or been pressed for time, as he dismissed Caves 20-25 in a brief paragraph as unfinished and artistically uninteresting. The unfinished ones are interesting for that very reason – to see the builders’ process, cutting the cavern into the rock face, leaving rough blocks and pillars to be chiselled down later. There was plenty of artistic interest in what had been finished, too. He couldn’t dismiss Cave 26 though, which is a grand, cathedral-like hall, covered in fascinating images, including the popular story of the temptation of Buddha by Mara.

The temptation of Buddha by Mara, Cave 26, Ajanta Caves

In the myth, Buddha is meditating and on the verge of achieving enlightenment. The demon Mara arrives with his armies (top left) to attack him and prevent his transcendence. Buddha remains steadfast and the armies retreat, having failed (top right). Mara tries again, this time using sex to distract Buddha. He sends his voluptuous daughters, scantily dressed as usual, to dance and tempt him from his path (bottom). Buddha serenely ignores them, Mara fails, and enlightenment is achieved.

I wondered, am I unable to achieve enlightenment because I like looking at the daughters of Mara, and the other sensual statues at Ajanta, Ellora and elsewhere? Because I would probably have given in and failed at Mara’s test? Then I remembered: this never happened. Buddha’s historicity is controversial but if I had to place a bet, I reckon he probably did exist, and did reach some rare and noteworthy mental state which could be called “enlightenment”. But he did it through mental and spiritual effort: by meditating, by eradicating desires, by extending universal love to all things, by all the techniques which the Buddhist scriptures teach, and which have been discovered independently by others throughout history as well. It wasn’t some cosmic battle or trial by succubus. These stories were made up to broaden Buddhism’s appeal to people too thick to understand about transcendental mental states, who needed simple heroes to worship, and miraculous feats to admire. And, as an excuse to fill the monasteries with plenty of nude female sculptures.

So that was Ajanta. An excellent day out, spent looking at ancient art and thinking about how another major world religion is a hypocritical failure. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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