Kushok Bakula’s role in India-Mongolia relations

Dr Ganesh Malhotra
A popular Mongolian legend, in the nineteenth century, at the time of the Eighth Bogdo Gegeen, Jebtsundamba Rinpoche, who was the head of Mongolian Buddhism, a Mongolian monk whose name remains unknown, predicted that Buddhism in Mongolia will be assaulted by inimical forces. He further predicted that some time after the destruction of Buddhism in the country, Arhat Bakula will come to Mongolia to 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 cultural heritage will be restored to its previous glory.
In 1989, just a year before the peaceful democratic revolution in Mongolia, Kushok Bakula was appointed as the Indian Ambassador to Mongolia. Thus, he became the first Buddhist monk to hold an ambassadorial position and take part in the development of the bilateral relations between India and what will soon to become a democratic Mongolia for the next ten years. In this new role, he arrived in Mongolia on December 31, 1989, and on January 2, 1990, he presented his diplomatic credentials to J. Batmunkh, who at that time held the post of the Chairman of the Great People’s Khural (Mongolian Parliament). On that occasion, Kushok Bakula expressed his view of the Buddha ?kyamuni as the first Indian Ambassador to Mongolia and bewildered the Mongolian governmental officials by attending the meeting in his monastic robes and presenting them a ceremonial, white, silken scarf (khata) as an expression of his wishes for their long and prosperous lives. Several months after that, he witnessed the overthrow of one-party rule and the establishment of a new political system that was supportive of the human rights, freedom of religious expression, and democratic, multiparty elections. The democratic changes in the country allowed Kushok Bakula to openly assist Mongolian Buddhists in their attempts to revitalize their Buddhist knowledge and practice and to rebuild their temples and monasteries, most of which were razed to the ground under Stalin’s influence.
Kushok Bakula began to travel across the extensive, rugged terrains and dusty roads of Mongolia. During his frequent expeditions to Mongolia’s rural areas, he visited the rebuilt temples, imparted teachings to Buddhists in rural areas, performed rituals of blessings and empowerments, and called for the return to Buddhist ethical values, which were neglected during the communist period. As Kushok Bakula’s popularity grew, Mongolian people from various corners of the country were converging on the Indian Embassy, waiting in queues every morning to receive his blessings, and soon he became affectionately called among Mongolians as Elchin Bagsh (Ambassador Teacher). On May 29, 1991, Kushok Bakula initiated the first public celebration of the Buddha’s birthday in democratic Mongolia, which was held at the National Cultural and Recreational Centre and attended by thousands of people. Another significance of that event was that for the first time after the seven decades of religious oppression, Mongolian political leaders, headed by the President of Mongolia, Punsalmaagiin Ochirbat, participated at a public, religious ceremony. Observing the conditions of Buddhist monasticism, Kushok Bakula noticed the pressing need for the proper training of Mongolian monks, among whom many did not adhere to monastic regulations for a variety of reasons, one being the lack of monastic institutions that could house monks and provide them with daily necessities and adequate education. He often publicly pointed out the importance of upholding one’s monastic vows, which he saw as indispensible for the flourishing of Buddhism in Mongolia. Not long after filling the post of Indian Ambassador, Kushok Bakula procured Indian visas and funding for Mongolian monks who desired to study in Tibetan monasteries in India such as Gomang, Sera, the Buddhist School of Dialectics in Dharamsala, the Central Institute of Tibetan Higher Studies, and so on, at the time when it was virtually impossible for Mongolians to acquire such a visa. More significantly, in 1999, Kushok Bakula built the Pethub Stangey Choskor Ling Monastery in Ulaanbaatar, which is commonly referred to by Mongolians as Bakula Rinpoche’s Monastery. The monastery was built in the Tibetan architectural style, and it is named after Kushok Bakula’s main monastery in Ladakh. This monastery in Ulaanbaatar became a prominent venue for the training of young monks, public teachings, and ritual empowerments bestowed by Kushok Bakula himself. Until recently, in addition to Gandantegchenling Monastery, now recognized as the official centre of Mongolian Buddhists, Bakula Rinpoche’s monastery was the only teaching monastery that provides room and board for the young monks. Prior to granting the novice ordination to young candidates, some of whom came from as far as Buryatia, Kushok Bakula carefully examined the candidates and their families to determine their motivation and suitability for a monastic life. At the time when well trained Buddhist teachers were in great need in Mongolia, Kushok Bakula brought highly qualified lamas from Ladakh and Sikkim to educate students in his monastery. To this day, young monks of his monastery continue to be educated in Buddhist doctrine, in the classical Tibetan and Mongolian languages, English, Mathemat-ics, and Geography. Upon graduation, the best students are sent to India for higher monastic education. With the financial assistance from the Tibet Foundation U.K., in 2002, a clinic of traditional Buddhist medicine was built on the monastery’s grounds, where Mongolian and Tibetan traditional doctors offer medical care to both monastic and lay communities. Kushok Bakula’s various activities dedicated to the restoration of the Mongolian Buddhism and culture included his undertaking to convince the Indian Government to allow for the relics of the Buddha, kept at the National Museum in New Delhi, to be brought to Mongolia for viewing. As a result of that effort, in August of 1993, the Indian Deputy Minister of Culture brought the Buddha’s relics to Ulaanbaatar. The relics were on display at the Central Cultural Palace for a month and worshipped by tens of thousands of people.
As the Indian Ambassador, Kushok Bakula sought ways to facilitate India’s fruitful cultural relations with Mongolia that would enrich the lives of Mongolian people and create new educational opportunities for young people. In so doing, he set up the Indian Cultural Centre, equipped with audio-visual material, books, artworks, and the like to enable Mongolians to study Indian languages and classical Indian dances. He also helped to establish the Mongolian-Indian Friendship Farm in the city of Darkhan and the Training and Industrial Center in Ulaanbaatar, which was named after Rajiv Gandhi. Likewise, under his initiative, more than fifty Mongolian students were sent for training in Indian colleges and universities under various exchange programs.
On the basis of his endeavours and accomplishments among the Mongols, to this day Kushok Bakula has been revered as a prophesized, bodhisattvic emanation of Arhat Bakula, who fulfilled the hopes and prayers of Mongolian Buddhists. In the year 2008, on the occasion of the ninety-first anniversary of Kushok Bakula’s birthday, several distinguished figures in Mongolian political, cultural, and academic spheres wrote of him in their essays either indirectly or directly as a bodhisattva who brought the nineteenth-century prophecy to reality.
During his diplomatic service in Mongolia, Kushok Bakula travelled to Beijing every two months on his diplomatic mission. During those visits, at the request of Chinese Buddhists, he discretely offered teachings at the time when giving religious teachings there without governmental permission was prohibited. At the conclusion of his diplomatic service, Kushok Bakula returned to India in the year 2000, but he regularly visited Mongolia, imparting teachings and empowerments, despite his frail health. On November 24, 2004, Kushok Bakula died at the age of eighty-seven.
(The author is  J&K based strategic and political analyst)