Gautama Buddha’s Phena Sutta (The Foam) is said to have been composed in Ayodhya. On a certain occasion, when he was staying here, he thus addressed the brethren:
Like to a ball of foam this body is:
Like to a bubble blown these feelings are:
Like to a mirage unsubstantial
Perception: pithless as a plantain trunk
The activities: a phantom, consciousness.
Millennia later, when John Stratton Hawley, a professor of religion from Barnard College, New York, visited Ayodhya a month after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, he asked; “Where is all that rubble?”
He was told that it had mostly been carted off. That said, however, the mosque itself was not made of huge blocks of stone. It had used large bricks of the old Jaunpuri style. This is something Hawley and his co-writer Vasudha Narayanan concluded in The Life of Hinduism (2006). So the expectation of finding massive blocks of stones as rubble was misplaced.
But beyond the “rubble”, or the absence of it, and the temple-versus-mosque tension that Ayodhya now evokes, the Phena Sutta brings to mind the many other strands of India which can be found in reference to Ayodhya.
The site of Ayodhya, at least till the end of the 6th or early 5th century BC, was considered too forested for human habitation. Its early inhabitants are said to have come from the regions to the south and west of the area and were a part of the urban iron age culture known as the Northern Black Polished Ware Culture.
In Mauryan times, it is believed that Buddhism and Jainism prospered here. Saketa, found in ancient Buddhist texts, and Vishaka, Vinaya or Vinita, mentioned in Jain texts can be identified with Ayodhya. The oldest religious tradition at Saketa appears to have been the worship of tribal images. Uttarakuru, where Mahavira preached, had a shrine of Yaksha Pasamiya.
The Buddhist scripture Samyutta Nikaya speaks of the Buddha dwelling in Ayojjha. Historian BC Law in Historical Geography of Ancient India (1954) says that Ayojjha represents the Sanskrit Ayodhya of the Ramayana and the A-yu-te of Hiuen Tsiang.
Another traveller from China, Fa-Hien, called it Sha-Che. Fa-Hien, who visited around 400 AD, wrote, “the country yielded good crops, was luxuriant in fruit and flower, and had a genial climate. The people had agreeable ways, were fond of good works, and devoted to practical learning. There were above 100 Buddhist monasteries, and more than 3,000 Brethren who were students of both the ‘Vehicles’…”
When Hiuen Tsang visited Ayodhya (7th century AD), it had become an important religious centre under the Guptas. He found 1,000 monasteries and 3,000 monks studying books of both the “Great” (Mahayana) and the “Little” (Hinayana) Vehicles of Buddhism.
BC Law also points out that Ayodhya was the birthplace of the first and fourth Jain Tirthankaras. It is called Ishvakubhumi in Jain writings, and the first Tirthankara, Rishabhanatha, is believed to have been born here. Prof BB Lal, former director-general of the Archaeological Survey of India, conducted excavations in Ayodhya between 1975-76 and found a terracotta image showing a Jain ascetic. Ascribed to the 4th century AD, it is the oldest image found in Ayodhya.
The Mani Parbat, one of the oldest mounds of the city, which archaeologist AE Cunningham photographed in the 1860s, is where Buddha is said to have preached from. (This has become part of Hindu folklore, and is believed to be part of the hill, containing the sanjeevani herb, that Hanuman carried from the Himalayas to revive the injured Lakshmana on the battlefield.)
By the close of the 6th and early 5th century, BCE, Ayodhya is said to have emerged as an important marketplace as it was at the junction of two important highways. During the period of the Buddha and the Mahavira, merchants became significant, financially supporting preachers. There was a lot of riverine trade, too, as boats carried goods such as slaves, commodities of everyday use, ghee, honey, beeswax, lac, condiments and stones. The intense activity is established by the large number of coins found in Ayodhya. The coins disappeared after the first two centuries AD, perhaps reflecting a slowdown in economic activity. According to John Allan in the Catalogue of the Coins of Ancient India (1936), Ayodhya experienced a shortage of gold coins after the 5th century AD. They were later found only in the 11th century AD.
The tussle to stake ownership over Ayodhya, and define it by the Hindu-Muslim question, has concealed the myriad other factors that have gone into making the city and, by implication, India.
Lord Ram as a bodhisattva in the Anamaka Jataka. Or Vimalsuri’s Paumachariyam (a Jain version of the Ramayana) which characterises the Rama Katha characters as creations of the Jain tradition? That is another story. Or stories.