Translating Desires in Bodhgaya: Buddhism and Development in the Land of Buddha's Enlightenment
This dissertation is a study of how Buddhism informed development projects as they were emerging in Bodhgaya, located in the Indian state Bihar. Bihar had a national reputation for being corrupt, prone to outbreaks of violence, and for having high rates of illiteracy, poverty, and child mortality. It was thus positioned as a place in dire need of development. In recent years, particularly since the Mahabodhi Temple, the temple marking the site of Buddha's Enlightenment 2500 years ago, was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002, the Bihar state government has sought to intensify international tourism to Bodhgaya as a means to ameliorate Bihar's underdevelopment. Drawing on sixteen months of ethnographic research with Bihari and foreign NGO workers, villagers, streetvendors, foreign Buddhists, and others, this study explores the two varieties of development in Bodhgaya most often discussed and publicized – large-scale projects pursued by the government and grassroots projects pursued by Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs).
The foremost government project, the City Development Plan for Bodhgaya, was an urban renewal and development plan that envisioned transforming Bodhgaya into something of a Buddhist theme park over a fifty year period, and was developed by a committee of non-local Indian businessmen, government officials from the central and state governments, foreign development experts, and Buddhist monks and ambassadors from Thailand, Myanmar, Tibet, Japan, and Sri Lanka. During my research period the pursuit of this project involved the forced removal of villages, the destruction by paramilitary and police of homes and long-standing local businesses, and the removal of street vendors, all of which were met by vigorous protests. As a counterpoint to the government-led development projects, this study explores how Buddhist practice informed the shape of grassroots development projects pursued through the more than 500 NGOs registered in the Bodhgaya area. I pay particular attention to how conflicts and miscommunications between foreign donors and Bihari NGO staff were constitutive of NGOs as both sites through which Buddhists could pursue socially engaged practice and Biharis could pursue work in a part of India where currency is increasingly needed but wage earning occupations are scarce.
So as to illuminate how contemporary power relations in Bodhgaya relate to the ongoing emergence of geographically disperse networks of exchange, this study approaches these varieties of development as a part of the history of Buddhism and the ongoing emergence today of a "Buddhist world," one that has spread, diversified, and been forged and reforged for more than 2000 years. At a moment when much international media attention is given to Islam and Christianity, this perspective, drawing inspiration from postcolonial approaches to history, views Buddhism as a global force of non-European origin mobilizing hundreds of thousands of people, informing international and national policy, and compelling state interventions to facilitate the movement of capital. Through this Buddhist worlding process, a process I approach as an assemblage of historically contingent cultural practices and relations, international connections are forged as national boundaries and local sovereignties are varyingly contested and affirmed in the pursuit and production of desires for such things as modernity and varieties of mobility. In particular, I consider the role of NGO development projects in constituting the form that Buddhist social engagement has taken in Bodhgaya while also being the product of Buddhist desires to pursue social forms of spiritual practice. Further, this theoretical approach helps me to consider the government led tourism project not simply as the inevitable outcome of neoliberal capitalism, hut as a cultural project constituted by a diverse array of cultural processes.
South Asian Studies;
0326: Cultural anthropology
0638: South Asian Studies