By Pallavi Bhattacharya
Centuries after it disappeared from India, Buddhism has staged a comeback here as a tool for social reformation. It remains to be seen whether its essence, that which makes it a way of living peacefully and gently, will be adopted as readily
On October 16, 2002, when most Indians were celebrating Dussehra, symbolic of the victory of justice over injustice, five Dalit families in Jhajjar, Haryana were mourning relatives who had been lynched by upper caste people. The incident was a millionth repeat of the injustice that has plagued Indian society for millennia, where it has branded a section of itself as less than human and perpetrated the grossest injustices against them. Even today, 55 years after the Indian Constitution outlawed it, 22 per cent of the country’s population continues to bear the cross of ‘untochability’.
Although caste-based political movements have attempted to liberate Dalits politically and socially, another, more controversial choice made available to them is that of religious conversion. This is the choice that families of the Jhajjar victims made, when 11 days after the gruesome massacre, they converted to Buddhism. In doing so, they followed the example of Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar, an architect of the Indian Constitution, and a Dalit, who embraced Buddhism with 3,80,000 followers just six weeks before his death in 1956. Babasaheb, who had combated narrow casteist mindsets all his life, ultimately decided that the best course of action would be to forge a new religious identity for Dalits: one that would free them from oppression and empower them with inner strength.
Babasaheb examined Islam, Christianity and Sikhism before turning to Buddhism. One reason was that right at its origin 2,500 years ago, it had become a tool for a caste revolution. Many of those oppressed as lower castes at the time took refuge in the Buddha’s dhamma because it offered the possibility of a dignified life beyond caste or gender.
Said Ambedkar: “Buddhism teaches social, intellectual, economic and political freedom—equality not only between man and man but also between man and woman. If you study carefully, you will see that Buddhism is based on reason.”
In the Buddha’s time, Dalits had already borne the yoke of caste for a couple of thousand years. The aboriginal inhabitants of India, they were enslaved by Aryan tribes during 1800-1500 BC. Gradually, the Aryan system of division of labour hardened into a rigid system determined by birth. In this, the aboriginal Indians were the lowest of the low, made to do the most menial of jobs. Before long, they had been categorized as ‘untouchables’.
According to the law book Manusmriti, untouchables could not own property or go to heaven unless they worshipped Brahmins. It was explained that they were being punished for sins of previous lives, a hypothesis that gave Dalits an inferiority complex.
The Buddha’s Attitude
Around the fifth century BC, an anti-caste revolution began in India. Gautama Buddha, born a Kshatriya (warrior caste) prince, began talking of a dharma whose social expression, the sangha (community), was devoid of caste and gender distinctions.
In a story from the Pali sutras, we are told that a Brahmin enquired the Buddha about his lineage, who answered: “No Brahmin I, no prince, / No farmer, or aught else. / All worldly ranks I know, / but knowing go my way / as simply nobody: / Homeless, in pilgrim garb, / with shaven crown, I go my way alone, serene. / To ask my birth is vain.”
Indeed we hear of the Buddha equally welcoming Upali, the barber; Suniita, the scavenger; Ambapaali, the courtesan; Saati, a fisherman; Subhaa, a smith’s daughter; and Punnaa, daughter of a deerstalker, into his fold and teaching them the dharma. For, he believed: “By birth is not one an outcast, / By birth is not one a Brahmin. / By deeds is one an outcaste, / By deeds is one a Brahmin.”
Bhikkus ordained by the Buddha were from various communities. A bhikku wasn’t a priest but a monk, who lived on alms and was a guide on religious and social matters to the larger lay sangha. The Buddha told them: “O bhikkus, just as the rivers when they have fallen into the great ocean lose their identity, just so brethren, do these four castes—Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, Shudras—when they begin to follow the doctrine and discipline as propounded by the Tathagata, renounce different names of castes and rank and become members of one society.”
The bhikkus would accept food from all castes, including ‘untouchables’. This was significant since caste rules dictated that one rather starve than accept food from a person of caste lower than one’s own. The deliberate breaking of caste rules signified the contempt of the aware mind for superficial distinctions, evident in this poem by an early bhikku: “I made a hut / From three palm leaves by the Ganges / Took a crematory pot / For an eating bowl,/ Lifted my robe off a trash bin / Two rainy seasons passed and I / Spoke only one word / Clouds came again / But this time the darkness / Tore open.”
Using a crematory pot as food bowl and taking a robe from garbage were marks of renunciation that indicated a blurring and eventual dissolution of caste boundaries. Needless to say, Buddhism came to be known as the religion of the common man. However by the 12th century AD, the Brahmanical religion had reinforced itself and Buddhism was practically extinct in India.
When Ambedkar took refuge in the Buddha, dharma and sangha on October 14, 1956, he marked the return of what had by then become a world religion. That this was done to transcend caste oppression seemed an appropriate echo of the historical Buddha’s times. The movement that began that day is referred to as neo-Buddhism.
Most neo-Buddhists follow the Theravada school of Buddhism. Ambedkar himself didn’t wish to get embroiled in the Hinayana-Mahayana controversy, preferring to follow ‘Buddhayana’, vehicle of the Buddha. Since Ambedkar’s death, an estimated one crore Dalits, mostly from Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh, have followed him into Buddhism. According to Bhante Dipankara Sumedho, chairperson of the Buddhist Cultural Foundation: “Dalits embrace Buddhism for dignity rather than for economic reasons.”
In recent years, mass conversions of Dalits to Buddhism have been organised by Udit Raj, Chairman of the All India SC/ST Confederation. On November 4, 2001, 3,000 Dalits accepted Buddhism in New Delhi. Udit Raj along with his wife and two children, also converted here. This was the second most important mass adoption of Buddhism in India since Ambedkar’s 1956 ceremony.
Says Udit Raj: “I realized that the condition of my people could only be improved if they could embrace Buddhism, which does not believe in caste. I have found Buddhism to be rational and logical.” He also sees caste as a psychological barrier. “Dalits have been psyched into believing that they can’t change their fate, that they are being punished for past sins,” he says. “Embracing Buddhism has helped them come out of these fatalistic misconceptions.” He is not comfortable with the word ‘conversion’, though. “Buddhism is not alien; India is its motherland. Buddhist philosophy is practical; it talks of human rights and how to eradicate suffering,” he says.
There are reports of continuing ostracisation of neo-Buddhists. Udit Raj confesses that this is true but feels: “They have at least regained self-esteem. Even if the upper castes look down upon them, they know they belong to a religion that believes in universal brotherhood.” Raj floated the Lord Buddha Club in 1996, which has set up libraries, schools, and educational and cultural centres for Dalits all over India.
Eminent Buddhist missionary Ven. L. Ariyawnsa Nayaka Mahathera said during his 1968 speech at the Buddhist National Conference in Mumbai: “Most new Buddhists are Buddhists only in name as they have no education and training in the Buddhist way of life. Unfortunately, Babasaheb passed away within two months after initiating the movement. So, they need assistance and guidance for practicing the dhamma properly.” He advised bhikkus to roam from village to village to propagate the teachings.
Bhante Sumedho of the Ashoka Mission Vihara, New Delhi, points out: “There are many traditional Buddhists who are not religious and Awakened Buddhists (neo-Buddhists) who try their best to follow the Buddhist way of life.” A visit to the Vihara confirms this. Founded by Cambodian monk Ven. Dharmavara Mahathera in 1948, it is a place where neo- and traditional Buddhists meet regularly for spiritual practice.
Lama Lobzang, president of the Vihara, says: “Traditional Buddhist monks are unable to reach out to the neo-Buddhists mainly because of the language barrier. We need more monks who would teach neo-Buddhists in their own dialect.” Organizations like the Bharatiya Boudh Maha Seva, Punjab-based Buddha Parchar Samiti, Taiwanese Corporate Body of Buddha Education Foundation, and the Vipassana Visodhan Vinyas in Igatpuri, Maharashtra have translated Buddhist works into Indian languages for neo-Buddhists.
Many neo-Buddhists continue to be deeply connected to Hindu deities and sometimes celebrate Hindu festivals. Bhante Sumedho sees nothing wrong with this. “One finds festivals common to Hinduism and Buddhism, especially those that occur on full moon days. Also, King Ashoka accepted Buddhism on Dussehra and made it the national religion on Deepavali. So these are special days for us too.”
One may embrace Buddhism by taking diksha from an eminent monk. The conversion ceremony is simple. One takes refuge in the Three Jewels—Buddha, dhamma and sangha, and chants the five precepts that one will abstain from killing, stealing, adultery, lying and intoxicants. Yet the essence of the dharma lies in its practice, in transcending afflictive emotions and cultivating mindfulness, compassion and loving-kindness.
Even though Buddhism has managed to stage a comeback in India as a tool for social reformation, it remains to be seen whether its essence, that which makes it a way of living peacefully and gently, will be adopted as readily. For that, conversion is not a pre-requisite at all. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama says: “If you have a particular faith or religion, that is good. But you can survive without it,” and that, “my religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.”
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