“THE MYTH OF THE BUDDHA’S BIRTHPLACE”
James M. Freeman
“We went looking for an ancient relic. What we found was a modern myth.”
Interviewed by Stephen M. Thompson, Ph.D.
Welcome to OpenBeast. Tell us about yourself.
My name is James M. Freeman and I’m the Producer, co-Director, and writer of the documentary film, “The Myth of the Buddha’s Birthplace.” I’m a retired professor of anthropology at San Jose State University, and this is my first film. I’m the author or co-author of seven non-fiction books, including three on India, which are about Kapileswar, the village in eastern India where “The Myth of the Buddha’s Birthplace” was filmed. I lived in that village for three and a half years in the 1960s and 1970s and returned there in 2007 to shoot the film.
The best known of my books on India is Untouchable: An Indian Life History, which was selected as a Choice Outstanding Academic book. My most widely read book is about Vietnamese refugees, called Hearts of Sorrow: Vietnamese American Lives. That book won an American Book Award. Some of my still photography of people from India and Vietnam has found its way into magazines such as Natural History and The Geographical (London), as well as the Smithsonian Traveling exhibition, “Exit Saigon; Enter Little Saigon.”
While a professor, I co-founded and served for many years as the unpaid Board Chair of two non-profit organizations: Aid to Children Witihout Parents, and Friends of Hue Foundation, Inc. The first was devoted to the protection and assistance of Vietnamese unaccompanied children in refugee camps throughout Southeast Asia, and now it helps people in Vietnam. The second has focused on assistance to vulnerable children and families in Vietnam. It was through these volunteer activities that I came to write three books about Vietnam and Vietnamese refugees.
What is “The Myth of the Buddha’s Birthplace” all about?
The film is about people in eastern India who have come to believe that the Buddha was born in Kapileswar village and not in Nepal, some 400 miles northwest, as most experts and Buddhists maintain. In 1928 a stone inscription was found in Kapileswar, which declares that the Buddha was born there. For many decades the villagers paid no attention to this, but in the past fifteen years they have held a ceremony celebrating the Buddha’s birthday, and they have created a myth connecting the Buddha to this village and its people. Dr. Annapurna Pandey and I, who are both anthropologists, went to the village in 2007 to find out how all of this took place, and to determine why the villagers continue to believe in a claim, which most experts reject.
So how did you even realize the happening of this myth?
We went looking for an ancient relic. What we found was a modern myth. Dr. Pandey visited Kapileswar in 2005. The villagers told her that each year they celebrate the Buddha’s birthday with a large festival because the Buddha was born there. They showed her a pamphlet containing a photo of a stone inscription, which supported their claim. I also knew about this pamphlet. I had acquired a copy many years ago but had been unable to discover the whereabouts of the stone. In 2007 we went to the village to look again for the Kapileswar inscription. As we interviewed people, they told us stories connecting the Buddha’s birth to the village. The person who guided us throughout the village turned out to be one of the major storytellers. We realized that these stories were not just idle tales but actual origin myths—created not in the distant past, but in the present.
Talk to us about the making of “The Myth of the Buddha’s Birthplace” and challenges faced.
The most remarkable thing about the making of our film was the extraordinary logistical support and encouragement we received from officials of the state of Odisha (Orissa). When they were informed of our interest in making this film, they gave us permission to film anywhere in the state. They provided transportation for us to visit, not only sites we knew about, but also others that they recommended we see. They allowed us to form our conclusions without hindrance from them, even though our views may disagree with theirs. The main challenge we faced was insufficient time to explore in detail all of the places we visited. We filmed during the rainy season, which gave us uniform light but the downside was that the moisture affected our equipment. We also missed the Buddha ceremony, which is held near the end of the Dry Season, so a freelance Indian crew did additional filming of the ceremony in 2008.
Who is your target audience?
“The Myth of the Buddha’s Birthplace” appeals to viewers who have an interest in India or South Asia, Hindu religion, Buddhist history, archaeological mysteries, myth, and religious faith. It is an ethnographic film, that is, it tells a story, which depicts the culture or lifestyle of a people. Its length of 35 minutes is suitable for presentation in a one-hour college or high school class with time for discussion of the issues brought up by the film.
Tell us about your crew?
Three of us went to India in 2007 to film “The Myth of the Buddha’s Birthplace.” Each of us brings a special expertise to the project. I lived for three and a half years in the village where the film was made. My outlook is that of a professional anthropologist who as an outsider knows the village and its people well.
Anthropologist Dr. Annapurna Pandey, the Executive Director who now lives and teaches in the U.S.A, was born and reared about 20 miles from Kapileswar. She provides a distinctive perspective through her network of contacts in Odisha, her knowledge of the culture, and her role as a believer in the local traditions.
My son, Karsten, a videographer, is the third member of the team. He did much
of the filming in 2007, co-directed the film, and did the rough cut editing. While shooting our film, he also shot a short promotional film at the request of the Government of Orissa called “Discover Orissa: the Buddhist Heritage.”
M. Sanjeeb Kumar from the Odisha Museum provided additional footage in 2007 and 2008.
In 2008, SPARSH, a freelance film team from Odisha, filmed the Buddha Birthday Ceremony, following my detailed instructions. The SPARSH team consisted of Sanjay Kanungo, Tapas Mohanty, and Promod Mohapatra.
The final editing of the film was done by Jennifer Chinlund, who is widely experienced in the editing of ethnographic films.
What’s your personal conclusion about Buddha’s Birthplace?
The evidence presented to date is insufficient to substantiate the claim that the Buddha was born in Kapileswar. Most experts take a stronger view–they emphatically reject the claim. There has been insufficient presentation of the evidence at peer-reviewed academic meetings and in peer-reviewed journals and books—which is a prerequisite for acceptance by experts. We collected a lot more information about this claim than we put in our film. Dr. Pandey and I wrote an article in 2009, “Buddha Slept Here?” found in my book Essays on Orissan Society, which provides a much more detailed exposition of the claim, its evidence, and the problems with the claim. Our film mentions the controversial claim but focuses on a more enduring story—the continuing faith of the people of Kapileswar, encapsulated in their origin myth.
What are your leisure time activities?
I am seventy-five years old. To keep fit physically and mentally, I swim and walk in the hills and play jazz piano. I am currently writing a screenplay, based on a true story, which involves a man from Orissa who went to Calcutta in the 1940s and participated in the Great Calcutta Killing of August 16, 1946, a pivotal event leading to the Partition of India and Pakistan.
For more details about “The Myth of the Buddha’s Birthplace” visit www.themythofthebuddhasbirthplace.com