The Fall of Lord Buddha
and the rise of Lord Ganesh
The Chinese pilgrim Fa-hien travelled through North India between 399 and 414 A.D. Writing for the folks back home – and to make a good impression and secure a job for his return –, he describes Buddhism as in full bloom, with hundreds of rich monasteries, some with thousands of monks. He’s in India to do the rounds of the pilgrimage sites and collect the latest innovations in Buddhist philosophical speculation. He tells us nothing about the actual teaching and practice of Buddhism (i.e. of the 5 major schools and dozens of sects). Nor does he mention what the competition is up. Consequently he leaves his readers back home (and most 19th century naïve European orientalists) with the impression that Buddhism is THE religion of India.
In 671 A.D. the Chinese pilgrim I-tsing arrived. He travelled more or less the same route as Fa-hien, learnt Sanskrit and eventually collected about 400 texts and which he sent home. But the picture he paints of the state of Buddhism was very different from that of Fa-hien. I-tsing reports the Buddhism was in serious decline, that there were few monks and that many monasteries were abandoned or in ruin. He too says naught of the competition.
In the 12th century A.D., after a revival, albeit tantric (in Bengal), the last Buddhist monastery, Nalanda, was ransacked, its library burnt and its monks murdered by Muslim bandits, all in the name of and to glorify of Allah, of course.
When, 5 centuries later, the first British invaders arrived, all knowledge of the Buddha and his teachings had disappeared from India. Not a single manuscript of the legend of the Buddha has been recovered from India.
So, what went wrong? Nothing went wrong! Dharmas arise and cease. They arise because of conditions. They cease when the conditions for their arising cease. So the Buddha’s liberating insights. The world had changed but the Buddhists hadn’t. They’d spent the intervening centuries elaborating and increasing the size of the package that held the Buddha’s magic cure-all pill. They’d not upgraded the quality of the pill. Indeed, the idiot savant, the brahmin born and educated Nagarjuna, had proved, logically, that the Buddhist package was empty (Sanskrit: sunja); indeed, that the whole Buddhist exercise was a running placebo whose rehabilitation (i.e. re-enabling) effect happened as one applied oneself to opening the package. In effect, Buddhism was a fascinating (thus producing mental catalepsy) ‘self-healing’ nonsense game, like Lego.
The Buddha, lately declared a deity by his dependents and represented (round about the beginning of the common era) as a slightly obese middle aged male with a sickly grin and a mop of curls,* had claimed to have solved one particular problem, namely suffering and the release from suffering.
Not enough, said the Indians. They wanted more. They wanted all their problems solved. So round about 100 A.D. a clever wag invented the Lord Ganesh, an obese, teenage boy with an elephant head. Like all teenagers, he knew the answer to everything. He could remove all obstacles, solve all problems. In contrast to the austere, dour and distant Buddha with his top-down instruction, this new, bottom-up problem solver was smart, tricky, cuddly, user friendly and present within the family (indeed within all living creatures).
With the invention and massive (fractal) elaboration of the bottom-up Puranas, Ganesh became the flavour of the millennium and the Buddha (and Vedanta), whose sell-by date had passed, dumped on the rubbish tip.
The Lord Ganesh (or Vinayaka) didn’t say much, didn’t have grand theories of birth and death, the nastiness of desire and salvation in the nest life or between lives (i.e. in Nirvana). He just solved problems, any and all problems. Ganesh was a product that just couldn’t miss. As the Sakya Buddha stumbled to final extinction, Ganesh went from strength to strength, and from 2 arms to at least 64 (as portrayed in the Ganesh temple round the corner from the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry). Today you can find a Ganesh temple in every other street in India.
The Old Buddha resolved one problem. New Ganesh resolved them all. The ancient Buddha and his priests lived apart from the common folk in distant monasteries. No one knows what his monks (the bhikkus) did apart from meditating and elaborating their theories, and to what extent they participated in social functions (such as performing the rites of passage).
Ganesh doesn’t say anything. His priests’ job is to make a fuss and a passable living performing the everyday rites. Ganesh is ever present in the home and can be called upon at any time to do his job, namely to solve the current problem.
So! Ganesh 1: Buddha 0
Nothing is known about Buddhism in India save from the evidence of archaeological sites and their stone inscriptions, the rare and biased, and extremely naïve eyewitness accounts of foreign religious tourists (writing ‘glowing reports’ for the folks back home) and some political-religious propaganda from Sri Lanka (i.e. the Mahawamsa and Dipawamsa). Indian eyewitness accounts of Buddhism and its social and religious effects simply don’t exist. The literature produced by a handful of monks (i.e. of mendacious hagiographers) over centuries and then exported to China and Tibet represents Buddhist ideals and are self-serving. They do not, as recent archaeologists (such as G. Schopen, see is: ‘Bones, Stones and Buddhist Monks’© 1997) have decrypted from a wealth of stone inscriptions, describe Buddhism as it was actually taught to and practiced by its lay-followers.
* … The most ancient legends have it that the Buddha (the name Buddha was superimposed on the Sakyan, self named Tathagata, centuries after his death) was a shaven-head, like his followers, male and female.