The Great Stupa at Sanchi

I’ve left Maharashtra. I’m (almost) done with caves. But I haven’t quite finished with Buddhism yet.

Sanchi is a small village in Madhya Pradesh, near (ie, in Indian terms, a two hour bus journey from) Bhopal. On a small hill just above the village are the Great Stupa and other monuments, a World Heritage Site and one of the oldest and most important Buddhist artefacts in the world. Or, as an entirely serious, but questionably translated, information plaque put it, the “numero uno among a string of Buddhist sites”.

The Great Stupa at Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh

Because they’re very old (dating back to the 3rd century BCE), the monuments represent an earlier and purer form of Buddhism than the cave temples at Ajanta and Ellora. The main type of monument is the stupa, a hemispherical dome which is used as an aid to meditation. Some are very large, like the Great Stupa, and Stupas 2 and 3 nearby. They look like they might be some kind of Buddhist equivalent of chapels, but they’re not buildings you can go inside. They’re solid objects you walk around, or stare at, to focus the mind on the path to enlightenment.

The story goes that when Buddha’s students asked what shape they should make their temples, he responded by turning his bowl over and placing it on the ground. But that’s rubbish. Archaeological evidence shows that stupas evolved in design from pre-Buddhist burial mounds. Also, I mentioned that some stupas are very big? Some are quite small, too. In fact, I was sitting on a bollard by the path, admiring the Great Stupa, when someone told me to stand up, because I was actually sitting on a stupa. The small ones aren’t even always hemispherical. They can be elongated and straight sided. Just like the Shiva lingams which were the object of worship du jour in India when Buddhism started (and still are). Funny that.

Before I got to the monuments themselves, I popped into the museum. There were a number of interesting things in there I’d like to show you, and comment on, but there was no photography allowed. I don’t understand it. Banning flash photography makes sense, when the flash could damage the vunerable pigments in ancient paintings or documents. But banning all photography? The light from the exhibits is already entering my eyes. What difference does it make if it enters a camera? What if I had a photographic memory? What if I was wearing Google Glass? What will they do in ten years’ time when the cameras are installed inside our eyes and are controlled by silent thoughts, and there’s no meaningful difference between seeing and recording?

After the museum I walked up to the stupas and monastery remains. It’s a great place to visit, mainly because (like the Jantar Mantars) it’s not like anything you’ve ever seen before. When you’ve had it up to your eyeballs with tombs, forts, palaces and caves – a standard feeling for anyone who’s been in India for over a month – it’s a relief to be staring at a giant, inexplicable, but strangly aesthetic dome-thing.

At first the stupas seem a bit more faithful, compared to the later cave temples, to original Buddhist teaching, since they’re intended as meditative aids, rather than places of worship. But then you find out how they’re also used to house relics. In 1851, a British archaeologist investigating Stupa 2 found caskets labelled as containing bone fragments of Sariputra and Maha-Mogalanasa, who were apparently prominent disciples of Buddha himself. The discovery was described as the equivalent of “finding the graves of Saints Peter and Paul.” The relics are now held in the nearby Sri Lankan Temple, and brought out for view once a year. I popped in, though it was still two weeks before their annual appearance. There was a donation box in one corner, and a sign explaining that money was being raised for the “meritorious act” of decorating the relic caskets in a layer of gold. The fact that anyone responsible for upholding and teaching the wisdom of Buddha could consider it a meritorious act to spend donation money on pimping up the temple’s property, rather than charitable works for the poor, tells you all you need to know about the moral authority of priests. Sadly, it’s not that surprising: these are Sri Lankans, after all, a Buddhist nation notorious for their questionable understanding of the principle of non-violence.

Here’s another clue that the significance of stupas is completely lost on those who are most supposed to understand them. The fact that I was told not to sit on one. Are they, as they should be, merely symbols of enlightenment, tools for focussing the mind? Or have they become totems, sacred objects of veneration? If it’s the former, what does it matter if I sit on it? In Buddhist philosophy, me-sitting-on-the-stupa is ontologically equivalent to the stupa alone, as it is to all things. Together, we’re just as good a meditative aid. If it’s an offence to sit on it, it suggests you’re thinking about it in entirely the wrong way, and it’s become the latter.

Conception of Buddha, Eastern Torana, Great Stupa, Sanchi

Finally, here’s a detail from the Eastern Torana (gateway) of the Great Stupa. It shows Buddha being conceived, asexually, according to the traditional story that his mother was visited in the night by a white elephant. The precise mechanics of that process don’t bear thinking about. Christianity is far from original in requiring its prophet to be free from the ‘taint’ of being a product of sexual intercourse (though it may be unique in the extremity of its prudishness, demanding the innocence go back two generations). Only the diseased minds of virgin priests could combine both a horror of sex, and a prurient, perverted obsession with it, to come up with the idea of a woman being impregnated by a mystical elephant – and during her sleep, as well, which makes it rape.

Most importantly, isn’t it enough for Buddha to have been an ordinary human, born of humans in the normal way? Isn’t it, indeed, better? His enlightenment is both more impressive, and more of an example, if he was just a man. To mythologise him, to make him a divine being seeded by magic elephant and predestined to reascend to the spiritual plane from which he came, nullifies the role of effort in what he managed to achieve, and leaves us no hope of doing the same.

Phew. Got that off my chest. I think that’s it for Buddhism: my travel plans after here are Khajuraho, Jhansi, Gwalior, Varanasi and Lucknow, which means the main themes from here on will be Hinduism and the 1857 Indian Mutiny.

2 thoughts on “The Great Stupa at Sanchi

  1. I read on a blog by someone trying out Google Glass that he’d been stopped from using it in a museum by a techno-savvy security guard. I suppose if you take photos and show other people, then they’re less likely to come and pay cashmoney to see the real thing.

    Also, isn’t the stupa for trainee Buddhists? So the stupa by itself might help you meditate by being shaped a bit like detachment, whereas a stupa with you sitting on it is quite annoying because it reminds you of all kinds of things about Westerners that bug you, like the rude way they treat your offers of information / advice / crystals and takes your mind back to attachment.

    • It’s possible to apply the current rules to Google Glass, though harder. Do they have prescription lenses for GG yet? If so, you could claim that denying your right to wear them was denying your right to view the museum at all, and discrimination against disability. But while stupid no-photo rules can just about be enforced with GG, they hint at a future where such rules would be meaningless. Maybe “cameras in the eyes” is an unnecessary flight of fancy. More likely, we’ll just have neural nets which automatically record all our experiences.

      Presumably the disincentive to other visitors is the imagined reason. But is it really the case? I doubt it. For one thing, people like collecting their own proofs of experience, rather than relying on other people’s.

      If I’d been asked not to sit on the stupa by a monk, who’d said, “excuse me, I’d like to use this specific stupa to focus my mind on oneness, and your arrogant Western arse is a distraction. If I were a more skilled meditator, it wouldn’t be, but alas, I am still learning,” then you might be right. But I was just told not to sit on it, as if it were obvious that only a philistine would do something as crass as sit on one of the holy lumps.

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