On April 25, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj addressed a function in Ulaanbaatar (the capital city of Mongolia) celebrating the 100th birth anniversary of the 19th Bakula Rinpoche. This was the first visit by an Indian External Affairs Minister to Mongolia in 42 years.“Venerable Kushok Bakula has left his earthly abode, but he lives in our memories and our thoughts. His teachings will continue to guide us and will continue to guide the generations of Indians and Mongolians to come. He has left an indelible bond of friendship between our two countries. While celebrating his birth centenary, let us rededicate ourselves to the enlightened teachings of Venerable Kushok Bakula and imbibe his philosophy for the betterment of the world and the welfare of humanity,” said Sushma Swaraj during her address.
The Pethub Stangey Choskhorling Monastery, that Rinpoche built in the heart of Ulaanbaatar in 1999 is a symbol of that “indelible bond of friendship” between the two nations. It is also symbolic of the deep-rooted spiritual connection he had felt with the people of Mongolia.
Appointed as Indian Ambassador in January 1990 by the then Rajiv Gandhi government, Rinpoche oversaw the peaceful transition of this former Soviet satellite state to democracy. However, his association with Mongolia long precedes his decade-long tenure as Ambassador.
Sowing the seeds for the future
It was during the early 1940s, when Rinpoche, who was studying at the famous Drepung Losaling monastery in Lhasa, first heard about Stalin’s ‘Great Purge’ (1936-38), which was carried out in Mongolia by his comprador Khorloogiin Choibalsan.
During this period of terror, when every potential opposition to the Stalinist regime was either killed or sent to labour camps, Choibalsan shut down over 700 Buddhist monasteries and killed at least 30,000 people, of whom 18,000 were Buddhist monks. Stories about the destruction of ancient Buddhist manuscripts and monks being forced to disrobe and renounce their vows had begun to nurture a long-held desire within Rinpoche to help people in these places.
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Therefore, unlike many Tibetan monks, who went Westwards in the 1970s and 80s, Rinpoche always had his eye on the East, where Buddhism had once flourished, but suffered a rapid decline as a result of the communist rule.
Buddhism first flourished in Mongolia during the reign of Kublai Khan in the 13th century. Until 1921, when Mongolia fell into the hands of communism and became a Soviet satellite state, Buddhism enjoyed a special place in the hearts of Mongols. In fact, by some accounts, Buddhist monks made up nearly a third of the entire male population in Mongolia before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.
For unexplained reasons, Stalin softened his position on religion after World War II, and in 1946, the former USSR “enabled the formation of an organisation known as Central Spiritual Board of Buddhists of the USSR (TsDUB). Through this, it funded the revival of Buddhist temples in the Republic of Kalmykia and Buryatia,” writes Shridhar Prabhu for Swarajya.
To the uninitiated, the Russian provinces of Kalmykia and Buryatia have long historical ties with Tibetan Buddhism.
Having said that, Buddhist monks and monasteries were kept under the watchful eye of the infamous Soviet secret service, the KGB. This is important to understand this because similar efforts were underway in Mongolia, and despite restrictions, Rinpoche found a way to make his mark.
In 1969, when Rinpoche was a Member of Parliament, he led efforts to establish an organisation called the Asian Buddhist Conference for Peace (ABCP) with its headquarters in Ulaanbaatar.“The organisation had the tacit support of both the Soviet authorities in Moscow and the Mongolian communist government. As the first Buddhist NGO in inner Asia, ABCP facilitated cooperation among Buddhist communities struggling under communism, and crucially brought them into dialogue with Buddhists from other Asian countries, including Tibetan Buddhists living in India,” writes Sonam Wangchuk, in his official biography of Bakula Rinpoche.
Sonam Wangchuk had served as Rinpoche’s personal secretary for nearly three decades.
Despite the erstwhile Soviet Union’s desire to use the ABCP as a propaganda tool (projection of a ‘soft face’ and harbinger of ‘world peace’ in contrast to the ‘war mongering’ West), the senior Buddhist monks at the helm of this organization saw this as a real opportunity to revive Buddhism.
“Many restrictions remained in place. Monks could only be enrolled after the approval of government agencies and the activities of the monasteries were closely monitored. However, even these symbolic gestures were helpful, since they re-established a crucial close link with past heritage and allowed people to keep in touch with their faith,” writes Sonam Wangchuk.
It was probably Rinpoche’s pioneering role in ABCP, which inspired Rajiv Gandhi’s decision to appoint him as Indian Ambassador to Mongolia in 1990. Among other things, Rinpoche had worked to get permission for a visit by the Dalai Lama to Mongolia in 1979.
Some could even say that the appointment was destined to happen. As per a popular Mongolian legend, in the 19th century, a monk whose name remains unknown, predicted that Buddhism in Mongolia would come under assault by ‘inimical forces’.
Rinpoche in the Mongolian countryside with his followers. (Source: Sonam Wangchuk)
“He further prophesized that sometime after the destruction of Buddhism in the region, Arhat Bakula (one of the 16 direct disciples of Buddha) will come to Mongolia and revitalize the Mongolian Buddhist tradition. He further foretold that after Buddhism among Mongols receives ‘a crushing blow at the hands of the red barbarians in the early twentieth century,’ the Mongolian Buddhist heritage will be restored to its former glory,” writes Professor Vesna A Wallace, an eminent professor of Mongolian Buddhism from the University of California in her book “Bakula Arhat’s Journey to the North: The Life and Work of the 19th Kushok Bakula Rinpoche in Russia and Mongolia.”