Renewing ancient links
On a recent visit to Myanmar, I called on Daw Than Than Nu, daughter of the first Prime Minister of Myanmar, the legendary U Nu. I had carried along with me a collage of photographs of U Nu with Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee, from the time when Dr. Mookerjee, as President of the Mahabodhi Society of India, played a decisive role in cementing ties between the two countries and in ensuring that India gave as 'permanent loan' a portion of the relics of Buddha's chief disciples, Mahamogallana and Sariputta to the people of Myanmar.
In his letter expressing his gratitude, U Nu wrote, 'that this noble and generous gift of some portions of the sacred relics of the arahants Sariputta and Mogallana for permanent enshrinement in Burma, [would] further cement the already close and unique relationship between our two sister countries...The whole of the Buddhist world, I am sure, would join me in saying sadhu! sadhu! sadhu! for the noble gesture and meritorious deed of your good-self and the Mahabodhi Society of India.' Dr. Mookerjee was a specially invited guest in March 1951, when the sacred relics of the two arahants were finally enshrined in the Kaba Aye Pagoda, in Rangoon (Yangon).
Daw Than Than Nu, herself a well-known political leader who spent many years in India in exile, was deeply moved to know of this link of her father's with Dr. Mookerjee and of how both had worked for such a profoundly symbolic episode.
The sacred relics still lie at the Kaba Aye Pagoda, on the central and bustling Kaba Aye Pagoda Road. As we walked around the precincts, in the twilight and then entered relics vault-chamber, the echoes of that 'sadhu, sadhu, sadhu', faintly rose from within, it is a forgotten but crucial chapter in our history that had a great symbolic as well as strategic value and was initiated by one of our very own leaders and statesman.
In a recent study, 'Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee in the Eyes of his Contemporaries' edited by veteran historian Nikhiles Guha and published by the Kolkata-based Asutosh Mookerjee Memorial Institute, one finds more of how Dr. Mookerjee had very astutely reached out to the Buddhist world and begun a movement for renewing and re-stating our civilisational ties.
In 1952, Dr. Mookerjee visited the region then known as Indo-China (Indo-Chine) as the head of a cultural delegation at the invitation of the king of Cambodia, Norodom Sihanouk (1922-2012). Sometime in August 1952, Dr Mookerjee wrote to the Foreign Minister of Cambodia saying that he was looking forward to visiting that ancient country and to 'renewing the old bonds between my country and yours. Lord Buddha is a mighty connecting link between India and many other countries in the world today.'
It was finally in October 1952, that Dr Mookerjee visited Cambodia with another portion of the sacred relics of the arahants. J.M.Majumdar, a member of the delegation recalls that 'the reception at Phompenh airport was very impressive...The visit of the Holy Buddhist Relics to Cambodia created a sensation. People travelled hundreds of miles to be present at the airport to personally welcome the relics and take part in the ceremonies. The King of Cambodia and all the high dignitaries were also present at the airport. Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee was welcomed by the King and placed in the Royal Car. The Relics were installed on a decorated car and a long procession headed by the Royal Car proceeded through crowded streets towards the city. The procession travelled nearly seven miles and reached the Silver Pagoda late in the evening.'
Welcoming Dr. Mookerjee, King Sihanouk, expressed a deeply held collective feeling when he said, '...It is an immense "Kusala" for our country and people to have henceforth a direct bond with Lord Buddha owing to the arrival of the sacred relics on our soil. This is a unique event in the history of Cambodia which stimulates a unanimous and fervent enthusiasm. I see in this a supreme benediction that Buddha, in his great gentleness and infinite kindness, bestows upon our people for the Buddhist virtues that they practice with purity and conviction.'
In his address, Dr. Mookerjee spoke of how 'Centuries ago India sent her ambassadors of peace and goodwill to many countries in the world, especially in Asia, and they carried with them the torch of learning and wisdom, of truth, justice and equality and paved the way for world-fellowship. This ancient land of Cambodia and many other adjoining countries have passed through varying fortunes, good and bad, but they still bear indestructible signs of heritage that have come from our Motherland, Bharat, since time immemorial...'
As Prime Minister Modi embarks on his Sri Lanka visit for the 'Vesak' celebrations, one is reminded of these past episodes. In this day and age, it is he who has done much, in the course of the last three years, to renew our civilisational and spiritual bond with the Buddhist world, led by his faith in Buddha's message. As he once said, 'I see Lord Buddha in the 21st century across national borders, across faith systems, across political ideologies, playing the role of a bridge to promote understanding to counsel patience and to enlighten us.' Echoing Dr. Mookerjee's words, clearly, the link renewal has received a new momentum and energy under Prime Minister Modi.
(The author is Director, Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation, New Delhi. Views are personal.)