Bihar is the poorest state

by francine Hardaway on November 28, 2005

Bihar is the poorest state in India. I am here following in the Buddha’s footsteps, although I think I am more aptly following in the footsteps of Buddhist monks who come here from the major Buddhist countries of the world –Sri Lanka, Thailand, Korea, Japan, Taiwan. India is not really Buddhist; it’s Hindu.

But the Buddhist shrines happen to be here, and yesterday we visited Rajghir, where the Japanese Buddhists have built a Peace Pagoda on top of the mountain where Buddha lectured, and Nalanda — the excavated remains of a university that is 2500 years old.

Walking through the campus of Nalanda, which the British excavated in the early 20th century,any visitor gets a jolt. The western world didn’t invent anything. Nalanda had lecture halls, science rooms, libraries, dormitories, and most of the accoutrements of the modern university. All this was built in the 5th century BC, and at the height of Nalanda’s influence, Chinese scholars came here and took the books and teachings of Buddha back to China with them. Guess who destroyed Nalanda? The Msulims. And a few earthquakes, which caused it to be buried under mounds of dirt.

The spread of knowledge so long ago is awe-inspiring, because of the lengths of the journies. Even now, a trip of 80 km roundtrip with a few shrine visits takes a day over Indian roads.

The towns in Bihar are strung out along the main roads, markets facing the street, homes and farms in the interior. Although Bodh Gaya is a tourist mecca, the nearby farming villages grow all kinds of vegetables that make up the largely vegetarian diet. Every town has numerous stores in which you can buy a phone card or a SIM chip for your mobile, and my phone worked continuously even in the most rural areas. Not data, just voice. For data, it’s still one line per town, and every modem connects to it. During the day, it’s impossible to get on the Internet from Bodh Gaya, although I’ve already optimized the hotel’s machine by saving the dial in password and downloading Firefox so I don’t have to struggle with Internet Explorer’s fat load.

Yesterday for the first time I found I was not in love with India. The beggars are so obnoxious and omnipresent that they make the Chinese look like laggards. They paw and beat you, showing their missing teeth and their physical deformities, which they wave like badges of pride. They actually defeat their own causes with their aggressive behavior. I am told that the government has homes for these people, and they do have beds to sleep in at night, but they prefer to beg at the shrines during the day. I think the begging is the biggest deterrent to building a tourism industry in India.

That’s in Bihar, where I am. In Bangalore there are no beggars; because of the presence of worldwide commerce, the government has carted them all away. I don’t know whether that’s better or worse, but I know we faced the same issues in downtown Phoenix on a much smaller scale, and it led to the magnificent homeless campus that opened last month.

Another issue I have with India on this trip is the use of English. The British have been gone long enough that the Indians, although they learn English, speak Hindi or another local language for their everyday life. So although they can often form English words and speak the language, they don’t really understand what you say to them. Repeatedly they cheerfully answer the wrong question, telling me the date when I ask the name of the town. In Bihar, there is no real technology presence, and the people are helpful without being effective.

Nevertheless, I still see how eduation is valued even in Bihar; it’s exactly the reverse of the States. At home, the houses are opulent and the schools are falling down. In Bihar, the homes may be boxes, but the schools are clean and painted. And in every market town, there is the equivalent of the Princeton Review — a business that prepares students to take the exams for the IIT and the medical schools. There are Zoology centres, math centers, and physics centers in the middle of nowhere, coaching these kids for a better life.

It stuns me that Dwarko Sundrani, son of a wealthy merchant in India, chose to come here fifty years ago and dedicate his life to helping this village. What an amazing commitment. On the other hand, both the Hindu and Buddhist religions speak of dedicating one’s life to something besides the self, so it’s not as strange as it would be for a westerner. As Sri’s brother said to me yesterday: “The cow gives milk, but she doesn’t drink it; the river runs for everyone; the tree bears fruit only for others.”

I never thought of it that way!

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