Hours after Zee TV’s much publicized and ambitious new serial Buddha, produced by B.K Modi, premiered at 11.00am (IST) on 8 September, there were reports of cable operators in Nepal blacking out the programme. Their contention: Buddha was born in Kapilvastu in Lumbini, Nepal, not India. It was unacceptable for them that India was being shown as his birthplace. Sudhir Parajuli, chairman of Nepal Cable TV Association, was cited in media reports as saying the decision to not show the programme was made so as not to hurt the sentiments of Nepalis and to protect social harmony.
Soon after, actor Kabir Bedi, who plays an important role in the serial, apologized on Twitter. “Yes, my friends, I mis-spoke. Forgive me. Lord Buddha was certainly born in Lumbini, Nepal. My apologies to all whose feelings were hurt,” he tweeted, making some wonder why he was the one doing the apologizing. Undoubtedly, Lumbini has been declared a world heritage site by Unesco and an inscription on a pillar erected by Mauryan emperor Ashoka testifies that the Lord Buddha was born in 623 BC in Lumbini, in the Terai plains of southern Nepal.
In this context, the Nepalese discontent is important as far as story telling accuracy goes, though not good enough perhaps to black out the programme. If you watch the serial (which I did quite eagerly), its Indian setting and the mindset behind the script propels another bunch of thoughts. Given that a sizeable population of Buddhists lives in other countries and Buddhist anecdotes and lore abound at tourism sites, temples and monasteries globally, this serial (Zee TV is beamed in more than 168 countries) is likely to spark mixed feelings as the story evolves. India is not even in the top 10 countries of the world with the highest proportion of Buddhists, which is topped by Thailand, followed by Cambodia and Myanmar. Whereas in the top 10 countries with the largest national Buddhist populations, India is at number 10.
Contrarily, Sarnath, the deer park where Buddha first taught the Dharma is in Uttar Pradesh near Varanasi. Buddhism is a world religion but as a persuasion it developed around Bihar, then known as Magadha. In contemporary times, our country is also the exile residence of the 14th Dalai Lama, the spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhists.
Even that doesn’t sum up the multiple reactions that Buddha’s life story may evoke. After Buddhism travelled West, the most insightful understanding of Buddhist studies was developed in universities abroad taught by Western scholars. While monasteries and Buddhist arts may have flourished in the East and foreigners from all over flock to India for Buddhist meditation and prayer retreats, it was Swiss psychoanalyst and therapist Carl Jung who is known as one of the most intense interpreters of the religion. When you consider all these dimensions, the expectations from Buddha, the teleserial, inflate enormously in depth and nuance. Thousands could be watching from their couches to see how the makers justify this enormity. Will they stick just to the historical story diminishing the vast potential of a narrative that is as relevant today as it was in Gautam Buddha’s era? Or, will they explore and plunge into the complex psychological and spiritual nuances of the master who tried to show us the Middle Path, thus making the series globally memorable?
At the moment, in its first episode, the lavish and ornate sets, the over-decorated royal family and their clearly Indian familial anxieties makes it only as good (or predictable) as the television interpretations of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. It is too involved with period sets and costumes and the placement of good versus evil. The direction consciously allows the ambience and décor to compete with the underlying message—thus making room for fuzziness. This approach may be suitable for hyper-grandiose mythological stories from the Mahabharata or those inspired by Lord Ganesha’s childhood or Hanuman’s travels but for the Buddha, the approach may need an aesthetically sensitive tweaking.
As a rather naïve reaction on my part, I found the first episode’s excessive emphasis on a male child for the long barren queen Mahadevi Maya, who then becomes the mother of Prince Siddharth, a bit disheartening. Clearly, even history made no space for the possibility of a female Buddha, who was intended by the King father to become the greatest warrior. “Daughters impel dowries, sons impel more kingdoms through conquest, what girl child are you talking about?” was the caustic remark of a friend who watched the episode with me.
Right. Now let’s see how Buddha makes global sense from priests in Thai temples to Richard Gere’s Hollywood crowd and the Tibetan Buddhists of India. What an irony though that the first episode itself has generated a controversy to “possess” the birthplace of the most astute advocate of dispossession.