Note: This article is part of a series.
People ask me, “what was the single best experience of your trip?” That question stops me in my tracks. How could there be a “best” when that two-month flow of what are now storied memories felt so strange and familiar, so deep and pell-mell, so endlessly fascinating and yet, at times, grindingly difficult?
So I take this question and reshape it through my response, speaking to what was, unquestionably, the single most resonant moment of the trip. I use that word advisedly. For the single most resonant moment of my journey occurred while walking into the large ancient temple that marks the site where the Buddha, supposedly, sat under the Bodhi tree and got enlightened. the “Mahabodhi Temple” at Bodh Gaya, in India.
This temple sits directly in front of a direct descendent of the original bodhi tree, itself a shrine to the Buddha.
Notice all the sitting devotees. They were there on the day we visited as well, seemingly thousands of them, scattered around the grounds singly and in clusters, devotees from all corners the world, most of them chanting.
This temple was originally constructed by the Emperor Ashoka, 250 years after the Buddha was said to have got enlightened (c.a. 500 B.C.), as one of Ashoka’s many monuments to the Buddha, most of them containing relics. Indeed, we heard the name Ashoka so many times on our three week pilgrimage through the places in India and Nepal that the Buddha was born, got enlightened, taught his first disciples, and died, that I became very curious about him. Who was this emperor who built so many monuments to the Buddha, and why? Here’s what one website says about Ashoka.
In the history of the world there have been thousands of kings and emperors who called themselves ‘Their Highnesses’, ‘Their Majesties’ and ‘Their Exalted Majesties’ and so on. They shone for a brief moment, and as quickly disappeared. But Ashoka shines and shines brightly like a bright star, even unto this day. So wrote H.G. Wells, British historian and noble seeker of the truth about mankind’s tumultuous past.
Ashoka was anointed the new emperor or ruler of the Mauryan Empirein 274 BCE. His grandfather, Chandragupta, had set out to conquer the weaker surrounding kingdoms to expand the territory of his people in 324 BCE, and was the first to rule over a unified India. AsAshoka’s father, Bindusara, established a reign much the same as his father’s, controlling a larger kingdom than ever before known. When Bindusara became gravely ill, Ashoka succeeded him, although one hundred of his other brothers were mysteriously murdered. Many historians believe Ashoka had his own brothers eliminated so that he could succeed his father.
A Sudden Change of Heart
Ashoka’s reign as emperor began with a series of wars and bloodshed, culminating in the Kalinga War of 260 BC. The mammoth loss of life and suffering witnessed on the battlefield made him turn away from war. He subsequently became deeply influenced by Buddhism, and adopted the dharma, which consists of basic virtuous teachings that can be practiced by all men regardless of social origins. “Dharma” is derived from the Sanskrit word for “duty”.
Towards a New Imperial Unity
Ashoka saw the dharma as a righteous path showing the utmost respect for all living things. The dharma would bring harmony and unity to India in the form of much needed compassion. Serving as a guiding light, a voice of conscious that is the dharma can lead one to be a respectful and highly responsible human being. Edward D’cruz interprets the Ashokan dharma as a “religion to be used as a symbol of a new imperial unity and a cementing force to weld the diverse and heterogeneous elements of the empire”. Ashoka’s intent was to instigate “a practice of social behavior so broad and benevolent in its scope, that no person, no matter what his religion, could reasonably object to it”.
The Moral Order of Dharma
Ashoka’s dream was to unify a nation so large that its people of one region shared little in common with those of another region. Diversity of religion, ethnicity and many cultural aspects held citizens against each other, creating social barriers. The moral order of dharma could be agreed upon as beneficial and progressive by all who could understand its merits; in fact, the dharma had long been a primary practice for members of Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. Dharma became the link between king and commoner; everyone lived by the same law of moral, religious and civil obligations towards others.
Ashoka took what the Buddha taught, a message about the way to end the universal suffering that is our life on this Earth, and applied it to an empire.
Ashoka seems to have been a truly remarkable emperor, an enlightened being who in the midst of war had converted to peace, and who subsequently devoted his life to using his vast power to enhance the common good.
So, back to my story, the most resonant moment of my trip. Okay, here goes:
It came while slowly, as one person in a long line, walking into the Mahabodhi Temple, immersed in sound, the sound of thousands of voices chanting, each in a different language, with its own music — a polyphonic swelling of sound, of soul, so powerful that I almost fainted. It was as if I had fallen into the well of time, descended down through the ages, plummeting back thousands of years, all of them filled with this sound of devotional chanting, day and night, back through human history. My descent flashed into astonishment: that through 2500 years the transmission of the Buddha’s message has come down to us somehow still intact, still pure.
I found out later that indeed, pilgrim chanting at the Mahabodhi Temple runs continuously, day and night.