Bodhgaya and some thoughts about poverty

Bodhgaya is the site at which Buddha got enlightened and there’s a temple built some three hundred years after Buddha’s death. The huge bodhi tree there is a cutting from the original bodhi tree or at least the bodhi tree from when the temple was first built. Personally, i have my doubts as to whether the bodhi tree is *the* bodhi tree and if the site is the exact site but it doesnt matter – there is no doubt that it is the right Bodhgaya. The huge numbers of pilgrims from all around the world trooping through and praying certainly seem to believe in the sanctity and holiness of the temple and that in itself makes it a special place. There cant be too many other places in the world where so all the different branches of buddhism congregate and practice side by side.

At the Mahabodhi temple the other morning after I’d attended a dawn Zen service at a Japanese temple, I saw tibetan novice monks perform their prostrations as a Sri Lankan monk led a hundred white clad Sri Lankan pilgrims through pali chants. Next to them, a group of Thai monks chanted their own thai accented pali verses with a much smaller congregation of thais. While this was happening, assorted monks from all over the world walked clockwise around the temple carrying their begging bowls and dotted all around the temple grounds, monks, nuns and laypeople meditated quietly or chanted or counted beads or polished rice or read from scriptures or did walking meditation or just sat and looked at what other people were doing.

Amongst all of that, two begger children disguised with robes that could pass as novice robes had slipped past the security guard and were busy collecting leafs that had fallen from the tree. Later they would try to sell them to pilgrims as they appeared to be quite highly valued as keepsakes. The security guard eventually spied them and moved them along although not out of the temple – it appeared that so long as the children did not bother the pilgrims within the ground, they were allowed to stay.

Now Bodhgaya is quite a small town and as every buddhist country has a large temple there, the place is full of charities, free schools with free text books and free clinics. In fact there seems to be quite a lot of duplication of services with at least one abandoned school / clinic either through poor utilisation or funds drying up. On top of this, there is the money that the pilgrims themselves bring to the local economy – sufficient it is clear for there to be quite well-off businessmen and for the actual houses and streets of the village to be well maintained and reasonably serviced. And yet the place is full of beggers, pitiful old folk, women and children, cripples and the blind. I’ve been asked for money for text-books (incidentally, this is actually a sales-pitch by kids employed by the bookshop to increase sales), money for medicine, money for schools, money for food and just money.

It is undeniable that some of the beggers are actually desperate. One evening, all of the beggers on the street suddenly rushed past us. Curious, we followed and found that a couple of middle-aged european women had decided to give away several large sacks of food. Sitting on top of a cycle rickshaw packed with sacks of rice, the women were moved to tears by the spectacle of all the poor made to crouch patiently around them – there must have been between two to three hundred beggers there. It was pretty obvious it was going to be a disaster and in spite of four men armed with sticks to maintain order (hitting children and women to do so), the sacks were soon torn apart by the mob with only the rickshaw driver it seemed getting sufficient for himself and his two friends, absconding as they did with an entire sack to themselves. The european women were evidently shocked by this but it did not stop them from posing with their minders for a couple of self-congratulatory photos.

Something is just not right with this picture, either the services are not getting to the people or there are not enough services (with all the implications of poor governence, insufficiently skilled personnel and/or corruption) or that the beggers i saw fighting for food are actually from out of town and seasonal and not the scammers who prey on the credulous or a mixture of all those factors i’ve listed. Anyway, it’s unlikely i’ll find out what is actually happening in Bodhgaya as we will be leaving soon after only having stayed for a week but i have a feeling that the problem here will be quite a common one.

For myself, much as i would like to give to the poor, i have determined i will not give to beggers. I’m not sure that giving to a charity will be much better either, the two european women being a great example in microcosm of misguided charity, but it’s better than nothing. The best would still be to volunteer, at least that way i will be learning more of what actually happens in the field.

2 thoughts on “Bodhgaya and some thoughts about poverty

  1. hi sanjay,

    thanks for your comment and for posting the link. it is great to hear about successful programmes and such great work in Bihar. The statistics do make for very sobering reading though.

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