The Abode of the Righteous

By Aditya Dev Sood

The Buddha of the Airport As we walk off the tarmac, the moon shines full and bright, lending the dark clouds of night a blue-black shimmer, a haunting presence. I hope this is an auspicious welcome to Bihar, the heart of that other India, which is not shining with the glow of liberalization and globalization of the past two decades. I’m here to set up fieldwork for a healthcare initiative in several rural districts of the state.

I get into the white Ambassador that has been assigned to me. The driver heats his engine for a bit, before coaxing it fully to life. kaun hotal chalaile? who hotel I get-go ya, he asks me, as we turn out of the airport parking lot. The language seems sweet, pleasing to my ears and easily disarms the gruff and combative khadi-boli attitude that I bring with me from Delhi. As we pull up to the ITDC hotel, my driver gestures to me to be careful in opening my door, lest I disturb the several women in their finery, who are even now getting out of a Maruti van and making their entrance into the hotel. The moment is striking for the sublime attunement that many Biharis seem to exhibit, towards one another’s consocial wellbeing. It is as if they have all known one another in generations past, which, in fact is true, given the long and continuous record of civilization in this region.

The word Bihar derives from vihara, monastery, truncated from brahmavihara, literally ‘an abode for the righteous, the benevolent, the kind.’ Bihar was the first monastic state, of which the Buddhist polities of Tibet, Sri Lanka and Thailand are contemporary, perhaps vestigial, examples. The region was once crosscut by a network of vihara-s, which provided religious, educational, health, and other social services to the laity around them. They served as an essential social and institutional infrastructure for the region’s ancient empires, the least of their functions having been the provision of hospitality for pilgrims, traders and visitors on official business to any local region.

My own hotel looks a mausoleum dating from the only India that existed in my childhood: white marble floors, shahi korma, and behind the reception, the time in New York, London and Osaka. If all this looks like the past to me, here in Bihar these State-run hotels might represent something like order and stability. Later in the night there are people whistling and chatting up and down the hallways and then, more ominously, people yelling incessantly, for over an hour, as if at a construction site. Sir, ve bhi guest hain, aap samajh lijiye hamari position. That the management cannot maintain decorum among its guests seems part of a larger problem abroad in the land.

With two million residents, Patna is no town, yet the scale of its buildings and the organization of its streets make it feel smaller than it really is. The city sits lightly on a state of eighty-eight million people, who largely live in rural settlements in the countryside and on the edge of forestlands. The city feels intimate, its commercial areas still animated by small-scale entrepreneurs and family run shops, still not integrated into Indian or international networks of capital. Given the limited opportunities that Patna offers, upwardly-mobile Biharis will travel to all parts of India for higher studies, and migrate to the larger, more vital and growing metropolises of Delhi, Bombay and Bangalore for work. Many of the brightest young men and women of this region continue to sit for competitive exams which lead to positions in India’s various administrative cadres.

Maurya, Chanakya, Pataliputra, Amrapali, names associated with Bihar’s golden age dot the city of Patna, in the form of hotels, restaurants, rest stops and roadways. Twenty-three hundred years ago, this jagged and jangling city was the center of the world, or at least of the Magadha Empire, and was called Pataliputra. I am reminded of Phnom Penh, in Cambodia, a smallish city in what has been a notorious region in our own times, but which was also once, in the distant past, the capital of the greatest empire of its age.

As we drive out of Patna city, Sharaf-ud-din, my driver, tells me he is from Vaishali, a township that will fall on our route up north, to the border with Nepal. He narrates for me story of how the Buddha once passed through this region, whereupon the famous seductress and courtesan named Amrapali sent him an invitation to come and stay with her in her kotha. To the dismay of his followers, and the townspeople alike, the Buddha accepted. For a fortnight Amrapali dressed him up as her consort, danced for him, had him dance with her, and share in her food, drink and person. This was surely the end of the Buddha’s enlightenment – but no, at the end of the fortnight it was Amrapali who put out the red light, and joined fledgeling Sangha as its first nun. Gaya, where we will go tomorrow, is the place where Gautama achieved his enlightenment. Everywhere I go in Bihar, it seems, I will find the Buddha walking back.

The first king of the Mauryan dynasty was advised by the great councilor Chanakya, who also wrote the Arthasastra, the Discourse on Power. This is a treatise of such severe realpolitik and singularity of purpose, that it will jar the sensibilities of most contemporary readers living in a modern social welfare state. In the absence of the rod of the king, says Chanakya, the law of the fish obtains: big fish eats little fish. But through the scientific application of power, order can be established in society. The exercise of power requires dispassion and discipline, for it is not a pretty thing, but necessarily involves coercion, punishment, deception, intrigue, theft, gamesmanship, as well as continuous and violent trials of strength between one pretender to the throne and another. Conflict is intrinsic to human sociality, but the technologies of power described in the Arthasastra promise to organize that conflict into the architecture of a vast and powerful State, and make possible trade, wealth, and ever more sophisticated forms of social and cultural life.

Although originally conceived and practiced here, a Chanakyan state has not existed in Bihar for almost a thousand years. In the 12th Century, the Buddhist monasteries of Bihar were sacked, looted, and comprehensively destroyed by the invading armies of Mohammed Bin Bakhtiyar Khilji. Since then, the region has almost always remained subordinate either to Delhi or Calcutta, as part of Mughal, British, and now contemporary Indian polities. In the meanwhile, local identities and power structures have fragmented into autonomous units that effectively administer themselves, and perceive little advantage from subordination to either colonial or post-colonial Indian state machineries. During the foment of 1968, these fragmented and local centers of power became fused with Naxalism, an extreme Left-wing peasant-and-peoples ideology, which called for armed and violent struggle against the state. Students in several universities in Bengal, Bihar, and other parts of India were radicalized, and went underground, sometimes serving for decades thereafter in the politburos of various Naxalite factions. In southern Bihar, and across a so-called Maoist corridor running all the way south to parts of Andhra Pradesh, Naxal cadres impose their own taxes, provide protection, administer swift local justice, and stage shoots outs with the Indian Police.

Left-liberal apologies for Naxalism have often focused on the failings of the modern Indian welfare state, and the exclusion of remote, tribal, and scheduled caste communities from the ambit of development. The centuries-old pragmatism of Chanakya provides a simpler analysis: danda, the rod, or punitive action, has not sufficiently been applied, and this has allowed the State to appear repugnant in the eyes of local chieftans. The solution to Naxalism, according to the Arthasastra, would be the direct threat of punitive action, always also allowing for the option of assimilation and conversion through negotiation or seduction. After the beheading of a police constable last week, the Government of India announced a multipronged paramilitary offensive across several Naxal-afflicted states in India, which one hopes, will not include Bihar.

Along Bihar’s highways I see so many shacks of thatch, with shrubs and bushes to filter the sun, with creepers and vines to provide shade to buffaloes and family alike. There is something beautiful about the domesticity that these spaces promise, the intimacy with grass, leaf, buffalo and earth that they suggest. It is beguiling only until one realizes that one has no knowledge of how to milk a buffalo, cook on a dung fire or bathe out of a five-liter Dalda tin, in the open, on the side of the highway. The beauty and domesticity of these hamlets gives way to roadside shops with commercial sign-boards, Pan Parag, Pepsi, Vodafone, and then again to markets trading in the cruder stuff of which we make human habitation: cement, steel, tire, petrol, car wreckage.

Thousands of years after Asoka’s battle at Kalinga, we continue to learn and relearn that mere force, no matter how skillfully deployed, can offer no secure foundation for peace and security. Moreover, the only durable raison for modern states is a social welfare contract: the right to levy taxes and exercise power is secured not merely through guarantees of protection, but rather through the creation of the infrastructure necessary for the delivery of health, education, legal, financial, transit, transport, and regulatory services. Ultimately, I remind myself, this is why I’m actually here in Bihar: to merely deliver better healthcare in this region would to deliver one single dimension of the State’s many and long-outstanding promises of development.

I am in mind now, of the tale of the encounter between the Buddha and Angulimala, the fierce forest bandit. Angulimala was studying at a university somewhere in Punjab, when he fell afoul of the campus authorities, who then demanded that he pay an obscene fee as his tuition: one thousand human fingers, but only little fingers, cut from the right hand. To collect this bounty, he went underground, hiding in the forests of north India and waylaying travelers, all to cut off precisely one of their fingers. He wore these severed and rotting fingers round his neck and shoulders like a bandolier, which gave him a terrible appearance. Gautama’s was to have been his thousandth and last pinkie finger, but try as he might he could not keep pace with the Buddha. Exhausted, he yelled out: Stop! Now the Buddha turned on him: Stop! Enough of the cycle of exclusion and retribution and violence, it is time to join the fold. In this way, Angulimala became one of the leading monks of the Sangha. Empathy, dialogue and conversion through example seem to be a running theme in the stories of the Buddha.

The sons of Chanakya, the sons of Gautama the Buddha, and the sons of the forest-bandit Angulimala, are all commingled, and live together in the state of Bihar. When they succeed in refolding their fragmented local polities into new institutions for mutually-enabling action, new modern-day vihara-s, we will once again know that Bihar, that State, which could claim to be an abode of righteousness.