Scandal gnaws at Buddha's holy tree in Bodh Gaya
By Simon Denyer
Mon Feb 4, 2008 12:27pm IST
BODH GAYA (Reuters) - Tales of corruption,
looting and religious rivalry are swirling around the spot where Buddha
is said to have gained enlightenment in eastern India some 2,500 years
ago, sullying one of Buddhism's holiest sites.
Buddhist scriptures describe it as the "Navel of the Earth", and 100,000
pilgrims and tourists visit every year, packing the town of Bodh Gaya in
Bihar and its Mahabodhi Temple.
An ancient pipal tree, Ficus religiosa or sacred fig, grows at the back
of the temple, said to be a descendent of the one Buddha sat under for
three days and nights in the sixth century BC, before finding the
answers he sought under a full moon.
But with the tourists and pilgrims comes money, and with the money has
come mounting charges of less than saintly behaviour.
Priests and monks allege that thousands of dollars in temple donations
have mysteriously vanished, that a thick branch of the ancient holy
Bodhi tree was lopped off and sold in Thailand in 2006, and that ancient
relics have disappeared.
Hindus also revere the site and it is a Hindu monk, Arup Brahmachari,
who is leading a campaign to expose the wrongdoing.
"I am not fighting as a Hindu, I am fighting because I love God," he
said. "Buddha was a son of God, and someone is misbehaving with his
Many Hindus accept Buddha as an incarnation of Vishnu.
The temple land has been owned by a nearby Hindu monastery for
centuries, and the temple is managed by a committee where Hindus retain
a majority over Buddhists.
But representatives of both religions stand accused.
Charges have been brought against the powerful former secretary of the
Bodhgaya Temple Management Committee, a Hindu, as well as the
committee's former public relations officer and the former Buddhist
chief priest of the temple.
A police report obtained by Reuters accuses the three men of "nefarious
activities" and asks for their private wealth to be investigated.
Witnesses questioned by police said the priest had ordered an employee
to cut off "substantial parts" of the tree and take them to his home.
The trio were also accused of selling off fallen leaves to pilgrims and
pocketing the proceeds.
Former temple secretary Kalicharan Yadav denies the allegations, saying
the branch was removed in 1978 when the tree was pruned, and said the
charges against him were political, trumped up only after his party lost
power in Bihar.
Its central stupa rising 187 feet above the ground where Siddhartha
Gautama is said to have become the "Awakened One", the temple is thought
to have been built 1,500 years ago and was declared a UNESCO World
Heritage Site in 2002.
Inside, in front of a giant golden statue of Buddha, pilgrims from
Japan, Sri Lanka, China, Thailand and the West kneel and chant. Outside,
others collect fallen leaves from the giant tree and others growing in
the temple courtyard.
Clad in white robes, the barefoot and bearded Brahmachari excitedly
points out the spot where the branch was chopped off, as well as empty
niches around the temple grounds where he says statuettes of Buddha
stood until recently.
"They sent the branch to Thailand, and sold it for 6 crore rupees ($1.5
million)," he said, adding he had been beaten up twice and had received
several death threats since starting his campaign.
The government, he said, was simply not interested.
"Nobody is listening. I am fed up of writing letters."
But he is not alone in his anger, joined by Buddhist priests running
many of the other temples and monasteries which have sprung up in Bodh
Although its accounts are audited, the priests complain the temple does
nothing to support local schools and hospitals, despite having a
"Money is coming in, but where the money is going nobody knows," said
Bhante Pragyadeep, treasurer of the Buddhist Monks Association of India.
District magistrate Jitendra Srivastava has been running the temple
committee since the scandal surfaced and the last committee's term
"All secretaries have been embroiled in controversy," he said. "It is
Significant amounts of money had been spent "beautifying the temple and
giving it world-class facilities", he said, and no allegations of
corruption had surfaced since he took over.
While the charge of cutting a branch was now sub judice, allegations of
deeper wrongdoing had not been substantiated.
"A lot of people say this but I have no credible evidence. It remains to
be seen if these people have taken this money."
Meanwhile, many Buddhist priests say they, and not Hindus, should be
running one of the holiest sites in their religion.
But magistrate Srivastava said that would be no guarantee of honesty in
"A thief can be a Hindu or a Buddhist," he said. "A thief is a thief, he
has no religion."
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