‘Monk business’ turning profits for fakes

In a small Indian town where the holiest temple for Buddhists was erected on the very spot where the Buddha gained enlightenment, with tens of thousands of pilgrims visiting every day, fake monks are becoming routine.

The Indian town of Bodh Gaya is considered the birthplace of Buddhism. It is here that the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment 2,600 years ago.

Just 200 meters away from the temple, locals shave their kids’ heads to make them look like Buddhist monks and Hindu schoolboys play truant from school to attend prayers in the temple and to earn up to $US 4 a day.

Young monk-for-hire Sonu Kumar says he is “learning the mantras” while sitting during the prayers and that he is being given money by the lama for it.

Fake monks are often paid to attend prayers, chant Buddhist scriptures, and make up the numbers for tourists during special prayers. This, after all, is the main season for foreign pilgrims to visit Bodh Gaya.

Those posing as monks are also attracted by the donations made by pilgrims, who give money to holy men to gain merit in this life.

Ramesh Majhi, a true monk, says “We don’t demand anything. For example, if we’re sitting here and Buddhist pilgrims from overseas feel like giving us something, we accept it. We don’t count it.”

This is not good news for temple authorities, who are aware of the problem but find it difficult to weed out those pretending to be monks.

“Some people disguise themselves as monks, they try to wear the robes and pretend to be a monk to take advantage of these offerings by the devotees,” says Nangzey Dorjee, the member secretary of the Bodhgaya Temple Management Committee. “This is the main season and we have had certain cases – we are trying to take care of that. We ask our senior monks to go around and do random checks, and if they see any doubt then ask them to chant the sutras. Then we try to convince them, “Please, this is not the way.”

But it is not so simple, with many producing certificates and identity cards from obscure organizations to prove they are monks.

“How can you fake these cards?” demands monk Vishwanath Yadav. “I have all the certificates to prove I am a monk. You need these documents, they are all checked before you can enter the temple.”

In today’s world, everything is available for a price. Even religion has become a commodity. For those interested in making it a livelihood, all you have to do is dress right and shave your head to pass as any other devotee.