Thanks to BJP we are learning new history everyday. Tipu Sultan was a hero, a patriot when I was young. Now he is anti-national. Inspired by one of Amit Shah’s recent tweet, I decided to go “further back”. How much do we know about the Buddhist persecution during the 400-500 BCE? Very little. I am not sure how many desh bhakts know their history before the so called “others” arrived, but I was introduced to a certain Ajatshatru by a Tagore poem, Pujarini, from his collection “Katha O Kahini”.

I couldn’t find on wikipedia, what I learnt from Tagore. Wikilpedia merely says, Lord Buddha and King Bimbisar were contemporaries. Bimbisar was the most avowed Buddhist who practiced and propagated Buddhism. When his son Ajatshatru overtook the throne, he imprisoned Bimbisar and ultimately killed him (multiple versions of this available in Jain and Buddhist text, one says Ajatshatru killed, other says Bimbisar committed suicide due to fear of being killed at son’s hands). It seems after father’s death Ajatshatru had a change of heart and propagated Buddhism.

But the chilling story of Ajatshatru’s vioelnce and persecution, and the killing of Srimati which had forever remained etched on my soul, is not found on wiki or Google. The impact that Tagore poems have on you is beyond perception of anybody who haven’t read them in Bengali. But let me share a few stanzas and try a rough translation:

অজাতশত্রু রাজা হল যবে,
পিতার আসনে আসি
পিতার ধর্ম শোণিতের স্রোতে
মুছিয়া ফেলিল রাজপুরী হতে
সঁপিল যজ্ঞ-অনল-আলোতে

The day Ajatshatru became Raja, taking his father’s throne.
Father’s religion was wiped out, at the stroke of sharp sword
Off the palace, was thrown into fire, all the Buddhist Shastra Rashi (teachings/scriptures).

কহিল ডাকিয়া অজাতশত্রু
রাজপুরনারী সবে,
“বেদ ব্রাহ্মণ রাজা ছাড়া আর
কিছু নাই ভবে পূজা করিবার
এই ক’টি কথা জেনো মনে সার–
ভুলিলে বিপদ হবে।

So declared Ajatshatru
To the women of the palace,
Vedas, Brahmins, King and nothing else,
Is there in the world worth worshiping
This should be in your heart and mind,
Forget this, if you dare, there will be grave dangers.

সেদিন শারদ-দিবা-অবসান–
শ্রীমতী নামে সে দাসী
পুণ্যশীতল সলিলে নাহিয়া,
পুষ্পপ্রদীপ থালায় বাহিয়া,
রাজমহিষীর চরণে চাহিয়া
নীরবে দাঁড়ালো আসি।
(This stanza introduces the character of Srimati, a Daasi in the palace of Ajatshatru, she is the queen’s maid)

That autumn evening
Srimati took a sacred cold water bath
with flowers and light in her hand
She came to the queen, together they go to worship Buddha at the Stupa everyday. But today queen is scared. She tells:

শিহরি সভয়ে মহিষী কহিলা,
“এ কথা নাহি কি মনে,
অজাতশত্রু করেছে রটনা
স্তূপে যে করিবে অর্ঘ্যরচনা
শূলের উপরে মরিবে সে জনা
অথবা নির্বাসনে?’

Trembling in fear queen tells (to Srimati)
Do you not remember,
Ajatshatru has given order,
Whoever will worship at the Stupa
Will be killed with a spear
Or will be thrown out of the city?

দ্বার হতে দ্বারে ফিরিল শ্রীমতী
লইয়া অর্ঘ্যথালি।
Srimati went from door to door, asking each of queen, princess in the palace – Amita, Shukla – to go with her to the daily evening prayer but everybody expressed shock and fear at her suicidal attempt to visit the Stupa.

“হে পুরবাসিনী’ সবে ডাকি কয় (O woman of the palace)
“হয়েছে প্রভুর পূজার সময়’– (It’s time for Lord’s aarti)

শুনি ঘরে ঘরে কেহ পায় ভয়,
কেহ দেয় রাতে গালি।

Hearing her, some got scared, some gave her abuses.

Undeterred Srimati went alone to the Stupa for the evening prayer of Lord Buddha. Soon, the Kings’s men spotted something unusual in the King’s garden near the Stupa.

এমন সময়ে হেরিল চমকি
প্রাসাদে প্রহরী যত-
রাজার বিজন কানন-মাঝারে
স্তূপপদমূলে গহন আঁধারে
জ্বলিতেছে কেন যেন সারে সারে
প্রদীপমালার মতো!

Suddenly they all see
All the kings men
There in the middle of the King’s garden (built by Bimbisar, an avowed Buddha worshiper)
At the foot of the Stupa
In the dark of the night
Why do we see rows and rows of light?

The security guard with his naked sword comes rushing to the Stupa

মুক্তকৃপাণে পুররক্ষক
তখনি ছুটিয়া আসি
শুধালো, “কে তুই ওরে দুর্মতি,
মরিবার তরে করিস আরতি!’
মধুর কণ্ঠে শুনিল, ” শ্রীমতী,
আমি বুদ্ধের দাসী।’

The security guard with his naked sword
comes rushing to the Stupa and asks,
Who are you there crooked mind?
Performing aarti, do you want to die
In sweet voice, Srimati said, “Me Srimati, Buddha’s Dasi.”

সেদিন শুভ্র পাষাণফলকে
পড়িল রক্তলিখা।
সেদিন শারদ স্বচ্ছ নিশীথে
প্রাসাদকাননে নীরবে নিভৃতে
স্তূপপদমূলে নিবিল চকিতে
শেষ আরতির শিখা!

That day, on the white marble
splashed gushes of blood.
On that autumn evening
Under the clear sky in the king’s garden
at the foot of the Stupa
Was doused the flickr of the last ritualistic light.

Srimati was killed for worshiping Buddha, as per Ajatshatru’s orders. Her act of defying all orders and going to the Stupa alone to worship Buddha was an act of protest against Brahminical patriarchy. It should be noted that the King wants the women of the palace to stop worshiping. It is always the women who are controlled. The killing of this most ordinary woman is telling of Ajatshatru’s violence and persecution, and today we pretend nobody except the Muslim invaders perpetuated violence. We pretend everything was so hunky dory before the Muslims came. The lies they tell. The hate the spread.

The poem also shows several unique female characters, queen, wife and daughter something so unusual for writings those days and the most interesting is the character of the daughter Shukla, who was sitting by the open window reading a book of poem and stories when Srimati entered her royal chamber. Imagine, 4th century BCE and a woman was reading books.