Lately I’ve been studying media influenced by Buddhism. I’m curious about the way that contemporary Indians and South Asians view Buddhist culture, what meanings they attach to Buddhist symbolism.
I just ordered The Buddha of Suburbia, a novel written by Hanif Kureishi, who also wrote the novel that become one of my favorite films, My Beautiful Launderette. The Buddha of Suburbia was also made into a film, and the film score was written by David Bowie, who apparently loved the book. The “Buddha of Suburbia” involves a middle-aged Pakistani man who lives in suburban London and becomes a spiritual guru to his fellow suburbanites. More on that book when I actually read it.
I also recently watched a controversial film by Vivek Agnihotri, Buddha in a Traffic Jam. There are lots of reviews of the film, most saying that it’s a terrible film, that it’s too blatantly political, little more than Neo-liberal propaganda. But none of the reviews I’ve read even so much as mention the title of the film and what it means. And of course, being a Buddhist convert, that is what I most want to understand.
I finally came across one reviewer, Akhil Oka, a young man from India, who explains that the film is about political extremism, the Naxalites (rural Maoists) vs. the ‘New India’, its educated and technologically elite middle class. He explains that ‘Buddha’ (and he pronounces it like a native speaker would: Bud-Ha) represents the ‘middle way’ between these extremes.
In the film, “Buddha in a Traffic Jam” is the title of a collection of propaganda written by a professor at a Business School in Hyderabad who is secretly a Maoist. So the title “Buddha in a Traffic Jam” seems to say that “avoiding extremes and taking the ‘middle way’ puts you in the ‘middle’ of a traffic jam that goes nowhere. Revolution, or extremism, is the more effective course.” The professor is a proponent of Maoist extremism, of radical revolution, yet his rhetoric does no more to free the impoverished tribal people than does the techno-optimism of the New Middle Class. The Adivasi, the rural tribes, become the pawns and victims of the political rhetoric of all the extremists represented in the film. None of their extremist posturing does anything to actually help their situation.
At the end of the review, the young man says (paraphrase): ‘there really is a Buddha in this film, and it’s the idea that we must not resort to blind bigotry—we must think.’ What I found striking about that line was that in the West, the teachings of the Buddha are (sadly) associated with not thinking. Whereas to South Asians, the teachings of the Buddha are regarded as the highest achievement of Indian philosophy, as supreme thought, and as thought with profound social and political implications.
Even more intriguing, if you dig through the YouTube links associated with this film, you come across another project of the filmmaker: #IAmBuddha. Now what could that mean? #IAmBuddha is the director’s educational project. He wants to start a kind of open university for ‘creatives’, to mentor other filmmakers and media creators and support their projects. From the IAmBuddha.net: Ideas, Innovation, Creativity:
#IAmBuddha is a movement which aims at exploring and bringing out the creative wealth and help make India an ‘Innovation Hub’ thriving on ideas & creativity.
So the impression that I am getting from this and other South Asian representations of ‘Buddha’ I’ve seen is that ‘Buddha’ is associated with high intellect, radical innovation and creativity, precisely the opposite of what the Buddha is associated with in western adaptations. #IAmBuddha is concerned with the new, with creating a culture of radical creativity and innovative production, not with meditation.
But perhaps another distinction must be made: perhaps the filmmaker and his supporters are not interested in Buddhism per se, as in the religious institution, but in the Buddha, as a cultural symbol of innovation and creativity, a radical cultural break from post-colonial India. That would certainly shock a lot of western Buddhists who are hung up on preserving Buddhism as an ‘ancient tradition.’ For these South Asians, the Buddha represents breaking with tradition, with inventing the new.
Watch the #IAmBuddha theme song video to get a sense of what this means:
Profile quote from the Twitter hashtag #IAmBuddha: “Because no one was born uncreative. You are Buddha. I am Buddha. We are Buddhas. # Foundation is a non-profit org for promoting innovation & creativity”
I have been wondering what the possibilities are for a Buddhist revival in India. It seems that India is rapidly developing a new, highly educated and technologically proficient middle class, exactly the class of people that one would expect to be interested in Buddhism. Even among the Dalits of Maharashtra, the inheritors of Dr. Ambedkar’s Buddhist legacy, many do not begin to actually practice Buddhism until they become educated and attain middle class status. It is the new Indian middle class, especially the technocrats, that one would think would be the most interested in Buddhism, or ‘the Buddha’. It seems that with Buddha in a Traffic Jam and #IAmBuddha, my hunch has born out. I’m betting that the Navayana that Ambedkar hoped for is manifesting in one form as #IAmBuddha. Buddhism in India, popularized by the rising middle class, becomes an aspirational attainment.
I’m down with it. #IAmBuddha. I am a creative producer. Beats spending the weekend sitting on your sore ass in a shrine room.