By Lekha Shankar
Indian actor Gagan Malik, who gained international fame when he played Gautama Buddha in a 2014 film shot in Sri Lanka titled Sri Siddhartha Gautama, made waves when he donned Buddhist robes to undertake a two-week-long monkhood at the famed Wat That Thong temple in Bangkok.
The two-week monkhood is behind him, but Malik (now called Asoko) does not seem ready to give it up yet. He plans to go as a Buddhist monk, complete with orange robes and shaven head, to various cities in India, at the end of this month, and share what he has learnt with Buddhist monks there, and then return to Bangkok, for a further extension of his monkhood penances.
“I’ve learnt a lot, but I need to learn a lot more. That’s why I plan to go to the forest to learn Vipassana meditation. I have a long way to go,” he told this writer, when I met him for an interview at his temple, which was kindly arranged by one of his Buddhist advisers, Dr Pongsak Tangkana, who had made a film called Buddhism The Message with Malik.
“Earlier, even sitting still for long spells used to be difficult for me,” confessed Malik. “But I’ve improved on all that. Breath control is another important task, which I’m working on.”
So what is the toughest part of monkhood? “This is not a sport about toughness, like karate,” says Malik.”It’s about concentration and focus.”
He described meditation as a “medicine for good health”.
Yet it is the Dhamma which he considers to be Buddhism’s most important feature.
“Buddha’s Dhamma is not about religion, it’s about improving one’s life,” says Malik, adding, “Buddhism is not about religion, it’s about humanity. “If you follow Dhamma, you can become a better individual, whether you’re Hindu or belong to any other religion,” he says. And that’s why he does not think that his plans to spread the Dhamma in India will be considered “conversion”.
“It’s simply about awareness, to become a better human being,” Malik says.
Malik feels that Dhamma lessons should be given to young children at school. “The ages 5-13 years are very important for a child. Love, peace and compassion are the qualities that should be instilled in them then. Also, the habit of giving.” That is why when he started the Lotus World Project at Sri Lanka in 2014, the year he converted to Buddhism, Malik gave out books to tots wherein they could record their daily good deeds. He called it the “one good deed a day project”.
“Dhamma should be taught as a subject, like Science or Maths, and they should have ‘practical’ classes, too,” he says.
One of the most important laws of Buddhism, for him, is the Law of Impermanence. Malik believes that the recent pandemic had drawn attention to this law, around the world. “Everything, from health to environment, to human interaction, during Covid, taught one about the Law of Impermanence,” he states.
Malik admits that it was a huge learning curve for him, to move through so many professions – businessman, cricketer (he played for Ranji Trophy) and show business, including modelling. He is a TV star and movie actor.
“They are just different phases through the journey of life,” he simply says.
The climax, of course, came when he was selected to play the lead in the Buddha film, at Sri Lanka, after more than 300 people had auditioned for it from around the world. That is when his life took a new turn.
“The story of his life moved me totally. I had many questions, and wanted the answers.”
That is when Malik decided to convert to Buddhism. The actor said he was moved by the amazing response to the film around the world. Everyone, from the President to the chief monk of Sri Lanka, attended the opening. He received many accolades, including an award from the UN, during a World Buddhist Film Festival that UN conducted. Thus, his recent monkhood training in Bangkok was only an extension of his Buddhist faith that had started nearly a decade back.
Malik admits that, for an actor, “his chief assets are his looks”, and it was not easy for him to shave his hair and eyebrows, and wear Buddhist robes. “But it’s part of my total commitment to Dhamma,” he said
Was it easy to convert from a star to a bhikshu? “I’m not a superstar like Shah Rukh Khan, so it was no problem for me,” says Malik simply.
Malik has also started an organisation, the 13 Ratana Bhoomi project in Bangkok, which is a one-stop place, including a site, for people to learn about Buddhism.
A part of this project was to collect many Buddha statues to distribute in India. Malik informs that he has presented as many as 60 statues to Muslims in Bodh Gaya, the sacred Buddhist town in India, which he visits often.
Would it be easy for the actor to get back to his “job” as movie star, after his spiritual life as a monk? “It won’t be easy, but of late I’ve only chosen films with a message, and that will continue!” he answers.
He shares that his wife is also very spiritual, and supported him totally in his monkhood phase.
Needless to say, the Indians he admires a lot are Emperor Ashoka, who spread Buddhism around the world, and Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, who revived Buddhism in the country.
According to Malik, Mayawati, who served as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh for four terms, is a Buddhist. “Our Prime Minister also admires Buddhism,” he says.
Malik has just created a song on Buddhism, which will be translated into several languages, including Hindi, Bengali, Thai, Vietnamese and Sinhalese.
Does the recent communal unrest in his country bother him? “Of course. Religion is not just a stamp that you get when you are born. You need to understand its right meaning, one of which is not to hurt other people but to be compassionate,” he states.
He didn’t see anything contradictory in him playing the role of Rama, on Zee TV. “I was born a Hindu, and the stories of Rama are an important part of my psyche,” he says.
Just like the stories of Buddha have now become important to him.
According to the Hindu actor-turned Buddhist monk, “People are worried about the past, which is finished. They worry about the future, which we can’t predict. Let’s be mindful of the present, and make every moment count,” he declared.
He added that “mindfulness” also meant being mindful of other people. “War is not an answer,” said Malik, referring to the current war in Ukraine. “We all need each other. Peace and compassion are the only answers that matter today.”