|Buddhism in India -- Lifting the Curse of Untouchabilitiy:
An Article by Ken and Visakha Kawasaki
Poverty is not news in India. The crush of people, the crush of destitute
people, is numbing. Nearly 260 million of India's more than 1 billion
people live below the poverty line. India is the world's largest
democracy, but more than half a century after independence from British
colonial rule, its entrenched caste system aggravates persistent economic
troubles and makes a travesty of the ideals of justice and equality.
"Discrimination suffered by women, the lower castes, and tribal groups is
a crying denial of the democracy that is enshrined in our constitution,"
President K. R. Narayanan said recently.
What are the origins of the caste system? Nearly a thousand years before
Buddha's birth, nomads speaking an early form of Sanskrit entered the
Indian subcontinent from the north-west, probably through what is now
Afghanistan, slowly spreading down through the Punjab into north-central
India. They settled into villages and merged with the local population
In this caste-bound society, there were some homeless dropouts called
samanas who played little or no part in the economy as either producers or
consumers. They devoted themselves to the search for religious truth, but
they did not follow the prevailing religious orthodoxy, the Brahminical
religion based on the Vedas. They were highly individualistic and engaged
in a variety of practices. Most samanas were celibate wanderers, without
families or other social ties. They could travel freely even from kingdom
to kingdom. Being respected by all levels of society, they were given food
and hospitality. Some were teachers, arguing their philosophies of
materialism, nihilism, determinism, and eternalism. Listening to such
debates was actually a popular form of entertainment. Many samanas sought
to develop psychic powers. Some were naked and unbathed, others wore loin
clothes and bathed three times daily. Some followed bizarre rules and
Buddha accepting a request for ordination from the Untouchable, Sunita.
(From Buddhism in Pictures, The Buddhist Information Center, Sri Lanka)
From these forest wanderers came new strains of mysticism as well as the
organized religions of Buddhism and Jainism. The culture wars of the first
millennium B.C. set the Brahminical tradition against the samanic one. The
samanic faiths were almost as pluralistic as today, but what they had in
common was their refusal to accept the authority of the Vedas and the
Buddhism became the most influential of these samanic religions. Prince
Siddhattha, who later became Buddha, was born into the ksatriya caste.
Buddhist literature provides us with a major source of information about
Brahminism and Buddha himself frequently ridiculed the Brahmins as greedy
to consume the animals, including cows, they slaughtered in their
Buddha was no mere reformer of Brahminism as some claim. He lived, taught,
and died as a non-Vedic and non-Brahminical religious Teacher. Nowhere did
he ever acknowledge any indebtedness to the existing religious beliefs and
practices. Buddha considered himself as initiating a rational religious
method, as opening a new path. He was frequently condemned, criticized,
and insulted by noted teachers and sects of the Vedic-Brahminic tradition.
Buddha turned Brahminism on its head. In the Upanisads, karma or action,
was dependent upon ritual, caste, and status, and its qual- ity was
dependent upon context. What was right for a person of one caste to do
could very easily be wrong for a person of another caste. Buddha declared
kamma (the term in Pali) to be purely an ethical matter of thought, word,
or deed. According to him, the quality of any action, good or bad,
virtuous or evil, depended upon the intention behind it. Kamma was the
same for all, regardless of who did it. Buddha taught that one was not
noble by birth, but by one's thought, word, and deed. Noble intentions led
to noble speech and actions, and nobility made one a Brahmin, regardless
The society of these settlers was stratified into hereditary status groups
for whom it was usually taboo to intermarry. Within these groups, or
castes, each man had a place in society and a function to fulfil, with its
own duties and rights. The duty of the Brahmin was to teach and sacrifice.
The duty of the ksatriya was to protect the people. The duty of the vaisya
was to breed cattle, to farm, trade and lend money. The importance of duty
in this society can be seen in the epigram, "It is better to do one's own
duty badly than another's well," which was later elaborated in the
Bhagavad Gita. The duty of the sudra, or untouchable, was only to serve
the three higher castes. Sudras had to eat the remnants of their master's
food and to wear his cast-off clothing. Sudras could be expelled or slain
at will. A Brahmin killing a sudra performed the same penance as for
killing a dog or a cat. Sudras were not allowed to hear or to repeat the
Vedic scriptures. One subgroup of untouchables was the candala. Candalas
were not allowed to live in an Aryan village, but had to dwell in special
quarters outside the boundaries. Their main task was the carrying and
cremation of corpses. They also served as executioners of criminals.
Candalas were required to dress in garments of corpses they had cremated,
to eat their food from broken vessels, and to wear only iron ornaments. No
man of higher castes might have any but the most distant relations with a
candala on pain of losing his religious purity and falling to the
According to Brahmins, Brahma, the creator-god, had sacrificed himself,
and it was his sacrifice that sustained the cosmos. Brahmins claimed to be
"gods on earth" and appropriated for themselves the right to officiate in
the sacrificial cult they brought with them. Brahmins practiced domestic
rituals for themselves, but they also served the ruling caste by
performing public rituals.
Buddha denied all authority to the Brahmins and their scriptures.
Brahminical rites--indeed, all rites and rituals--were useless and
pointless. Buddha condemned animal sacrifices, preaching the doctrine of
ahimsa, non-violence, which, because of it association with Mahatma
Gandhi, has often been mistaken for a Hindu principle.
Buddha refuted the idea of an omnipotent creator-god by demonstrating that
the universe develops according to laws of causation. He denied the
existence of a cosmic soul, further demonstrating that man has neither
soul nor enduring self. Buddha never used Sanskrit, the language of the
Brahmins, but taught in the vernacular Magadhi, which was later arranged
into Pali. The Sangha was open to all, both men and women, regardless of
caste. Although members of the untouchable castes were often forbidden
entry into Brahmin temples, Buddhist monks taught them freely and ordained
those who wished to enter the Sangha, where members were ranked only by
seniority. In a number of Jatakas, Buddha described previous births when
he had been born as a candala.
For close to a millennium, Buddhism and Hinduism, the later, organized
form of Brahminism, were the main contenders in the cultural and social
life of the subcontinent. Buddhism spread and became a worldwide religion,
but, after a series of catastrophic Muslim invasions and conquests,
Hinduism emerged supreme within India. The caste system survived and
became even more rigid over the centuries.
An Untouchable and his wife.
Those who naively believe that the caste system is a class system are
wrong. Class differential can be found all over the world, but the caste
system exists only in India, where it is an inseparable part of Hinduism,
upheld by the holy books. The Laws of Manu and the Bhagavad Gita are the
root causes of the oppression of untouchables.
Sir Winston Church declared, "These Brahmins who mouth and patter the
principles of Western Liberalism, and pose as philosophic and democratic
politicians, are the same Brahmins who deny the primary rights of
existence of nearly sixty million of their fellow countrymen whom they
call 'Untouchable' and whom they have by thousands of years of oppression
actually taught to accept this sad position. They will not eat with these
sixty millions, nor drink with them, nor treat them as human beings. They
consider themselves contaminated even by their approach. And then in a
moment they turn round and begin chopping logic with John Stuart Mill or
pleading the rights of man with Jean Jacques Rousseau."
Today, there are approximately 160 million Untouchables, more than
one-sixth of India's population, at the bottom of India's caste system.
They are discriminated against, denied access to land, forced to work in
degrading conditions, and routinely abused by police and by higher-caste
groups that enjoy the state's protection. In what has been called India's
"hidden apartheid," entire villages in many Indian states remain
completely segregated by caste. National legislation and constitutional
protections only mask the social realities of discrimination and violence
faced by those living below the "pollution line."
When the Untouchable movement began in the 19th century, some militants
rejected their identity as Hindus and saw an alternative in Buddhism.
Pandit Iyothee Thass, a Tamil, argued that Tamils were originally
Buddhists. Brahmananda Reddy organized a small Buddhist movement in Andhra
Pradesh. There were also several brilliant upper caste intellectuals, such
as Dharmananda Kosambi, who identified themselves with Buddhism.
During the struggle for Indian Independence, two leaders claimed to be the
champion of the Untouchables. Mahatma Gandhi called them Harijan, a
preposterous euphemism which means "Children of God." Gandhi espoused the
need for guaranteeing certain rights to the Untouchables, but he was
himself a Brahmin. Gandhi believed the caste system to be a healthy
institution and strongly defended it: "How can a Muslim remain one if he
rejects the Koran or a Christian remain a Christian if he rejects the
Bible? If Caste is an integral part of the holy books of Hindus which
define Hinduism, I do not know how a person who rejects Caste can call
himself a Hindu?" Aware of statements like this, Untouchables hardly
consider Gandhi a hero.
Diametrically opposed to this viewpoint was that of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar,
who was born in 1891 into the untouchable Mahar caste of Maharashtra. At a
time when less than 1 percent of his caste was literate, Dr. Ambedkar
obtained a Ph.D. from Columbia University in New York and a D.Sc. from the
University of London. He coined the term Dalit or "broken people" which is
now in common parlance. His earliest efforts involved establishing a Dalit
movement in Maharashtra by founding newspapers, holding conferences,
forming political parties, and opening colleges to promote the education
and welfare of Dalits. In the 1930s, as a delegate at the London
Roundtable Conferences, he argued that Dalits were a minority entitled to
their own electorate. He also led campaigns for religious rights for
Dalits, including lifting prohibitions on allowing Dalits to enter Hindu
temples. He was named the minister for law in the first Nehru cabinet in
independent India and served as chairman of the drafting committee for the
Dr. B. R.Ambedkar
Untouchability was abolished under India's constitution in 1950, and
certain rights and quotas are reserved for the "scheduled classes," mainly
due to the efforts of Dr. Ambedkar. This has not in any way, however, led
to the elimination of discrimination of Untouchables. The practice remains
very much a part of rural India. Newspaper accounts of attacks on
Untouchables are commonplace. Dalits in India are still being burnt alive,
their women raped, their children murdered. Dalits dare not cross the line
dividing their part of the village from that occupied by higher castes.
They cannot use the same wells, visit the same temples, drink from the
same cups in tea stalls, or lay claim to land that is legally theirs.
Dalit children are frequently made to sit in the back of classrooms. Most
Dalits continue to live in extreme poverty, without land or opportunities
for better employment or education. Most are still relegated to menial
jobs–scavengers, toilet cleaners, removers of dead animals, leather
workers, and street sweepers. Many Dalit children are sold into bondage to
pay off debts to upper-caste creditors. Tens of millions of Dalit men,
women, and children work as agricultural laborers for as little as Rs.15
to Rs.35 (US$0.38 to $0.88) a day.
Those who suffer the most are women. Dalit girls have been forced to
become prostitutes for upper-caste patrons and village priests. Sexual
abuse is used by landlords and the police to inflict political "lessons"
and to crush dissent within the community. A government official of Tamil
Nadu once pointed out that the raping of Dalit women exposes the hypocrisy
of the caste system in that "no one practices untouchability when it comes
Dr. Ambedkar believed that Hinduism itself, because it was so tightly
identified with the caste system, was the major cause of oppression.
Gandhi, on the other hand, sought to improve the lot of Untouchables
within the framework of Hinduism. In debates with Gandhi in the 1930s, Dr.
Ambedkar put forth the challenge that if all Hindu scriptures that
supported caste were thoroughly renounced, he could continue to call
himself a Hindu. If they were left in place, then he could not. He saw the
need for a religion that would provide the spiritual and moral basis for
equality as an integral part of these struggles.
In 1935, Dr. Ambedkar made the bold pronouncement, "I was born a Hindu,
and I had no choice about that. But I will not die a Hindu!" This sent a
tremor throughout much of India. For the next twenty years, leaders of
other major religions, mainly Muslim and Christian, tried to lure him.
During this time, Dr. Ambedkar investigated these other religions to
discover which offered Dalits the most advantage and protection.
By 1956, he had reached his decision. On the full-moon day of October in
that year, in a public ceremony in Nagpur, he led 500,000 Dalits in taking
precepts and accepting Buddhism as their new faith. The precepts were
administered by the Arakanese monk, Ven. U Chandramani.
Dr. Ambedkar clearly explained why he preferred Buddhism to all other
alternatives. Primarily, he found three principles in Buddhism which no
other religion offered. Buddhism teaches wisdom, as against superstition
and supernaturalism; love and compassion in relations with others; and
complete equality. Considering Marxism, Dr. Ambedkar recognized that the
communist movement had shaken the religious systems of many countries, but
he did not see that it had provided a solution. Not only failing to
eliminate poverty, Marxism, he said, used poverty as an excuse for
sacrificing human freedom. Dr. Ambedkar said that Buddhism teaches social
freedom, intellectual freedom, economic freedom and political
freedom--equality not only between man and man but also between man and
Dr. Ambedkar and his wife taking precepts in Nagpur in 1956.
Dr. Ambedkar felt it was necessary to preserve Buddhism in India and to
protect it from corruption by Hinduism. He exhorted his followers to swear
not to regard Vishnu, Shiva, Rama, Krishna, or any of the other Hindu
deities as gods nor to worship them. He denounced as malicious propaganda
the Hindu claim that Buddha was the incarnation of Vishnu. Dr. Ambedkar
vowed never to perform any Hindu ceremony or to offer food to Brahmins. He
promised never to act against the tenets of Buddhism. Following his
example, New Buddhists proclaim their belief in the equality of all
Since Dr. Ambedkar's renunciation of Hinduism, millions of Dalits have
followed suit and taken refuge in Buddhism Most converts have come from
Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh. According to the 1990 census there were 6.4
million Buddhists in India. Five million of these were in Maharashtra, the
remainder includes traditional Buddhist populations in the hill areas of
northeast India (West Bengal, Assam, Sikkim, Mizoram, and Tripura) and
high Himalayan valleys (Ladakh District in Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal
Pradesh, and northern Uttar Pradesh), as well as Tibetan refugees. This
was a 35.9 percent increase since 1981, making Buddhism the fifth largest
religious group in the country. New Buddhist communities have experienced
significant social changes, including a marked decline in alcoholism, a
simplification of marriage ceremonies, the abolition of ruinous marriage
expenses, a greater emphasis on education, and a heightened sense of
identity and self-worth.
The conversion of Dalits and the growth of Buddhism in India must be
viewed against the backdrop of the recent resurgence of militant Hinduism.
Hindus have violently opposed the mass conversion ceremonies. Some Dalits
have been beaten as they attempted to travel to Bodhgaya for such
ceremonies while others have been turned back by local police.
For the past four years India has been led by a coalition government led
by fundamentalist Hindus. Although these Hindu leaders have publicly
pledged themselves to preserve Indian's secular tradition and religious
diversity, they have at the same time appealed to and championed the
rampaging extremists who threaten Muslims, Christians, and Dalits
demanding that India formally become a "Hindu nation." They claim that
Hinduism was the primeval religion of India. In their skewed view of
history, there was no Aryan invasion, no subjection of Dravidians, no
society before the establishment of a fixed caste system, no Buddhist
kingdoms, no King Asoka. They recognize the magnificence of the great
university at Nalanda, but not its Buddhist tradition. They argue that
until the Muslim invasions, all Indians were Hindus. The Muslim invaders
destroyed Hindu temples and built mosques on the rubble. These foreign
terrorists pointed their swords at Hindus and forcibly converted them to
the alien faith of Islam. Because of this injustice, patriotic Hindus now
have the duty to reverse that history. This, roughly put, is the Hindu
nationalist creed. It explains why the construction of a Hindu temple in
Ayodhya, a small town in Uttar Pradesh, is so important to them. They
claim that Ayodhya is the birth place of Rama, one of the avatars of
Vishnu. There is absolutely no evidence that the mythological god Rama was
ever "born" anywhere, of course, but the claim seeks to validate Hindu
aggression towards India's downtrodden Muslims.
What the Hindus refuse to recognize is that, throughout India, while
Muslim mosques may have replaced Hindu shrines, those shrines were very
often built atop the ruins of Buddhist monasteries. When the Chinese monk
Huien Tsiang visited Ayodhya in the seventh century, he counted one
hundred Buddhist monasteries, but only ten Hindu temples there. Clearly,
Ayodhya, as well as most of India at that time, was more Buddhist than
Hindu. That Buddhists have a stronger claim to the site than either the
Muslims or the Hindus is sure. If it is indeed true, as the
fundamentalists maintain, that a Hindu nation cannot come into being until
the temple is rebuilt, Buddhists would unequivocally declare that it
should never be rebuilt.
Poster of Buddha and Dr. Ambedkar, displayed in many homes of New
Buddhists in India
During our pilgrimage, we were fortunate to meet many Indian Buddhists,
both monks and laymen. One Brahmin and his family were moved to convert to
Buddhism after a notorious incident in which Hindu fundamentalists
attacked and killed a Christian missionary and his sons by burning them
alive in their camping van. A university professor and his wife invited us
for lunch near Nalanda. The Buddhist altar was prominent in their neat
home. They were proud to explain that their small village had been the
birthplace of Sariputta, one of Buddha's foremost disciples. Even in that
village, they had been ostracized by their neighbors when they took refuge
in Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha. They expressed pity for the villagers
around them, tightly bound by the crippling traditions of Hinduism. We
were astonished to learn that there were more than 50 different caste
groups in that tight cluster of houses. As we returned along the narrow
dirt road, it was obvious which poor huts belonged to the Untouchables, in
this case, makers of alcoholic toddy.
Another Buddhist in Nalanda showed us his fine collection of ancient
artifacts, including Buddha images, shards, and coins which had been
turned up during plowing. He explained that the fields in the Middle Land
are littered with evidence of Buddhism's glorious past.
It is a shame that not a single sacred Buddhist site in India is
controlled by Buddhists. Around the beginning of the twentieth century
Anagarika Dhammapala founded the MahaBodhi Society, with the goal of
gaining possession of the MahaBodhi Temple, but today the temple compound
is controlled by a singularly corrupt Hindu-dominated committee. The other
Buddhist sites do not fare much better. As the pilgrim tries to worship at
the Nibbana Temple in Kushinara, the Bodhi Tree in Savatthi, or any of the
other sacred sites, he is incessantly bothered by local officials,
including official "caretakers" from the Archaeological Survey of India,
for donations, which are quickly pocketed.
The prospects for the resurgence of Buddhism in India seem quite hopeful,
but there are formidable tasks ahead for the new Buddhists. There are not
enough monks to teach the growing Buddhist communities, and the monks
already ordained need much more training. The Buddhist countries around
the world must help in supporting a bhikkhu training center in India. The
best place for this is in the city of Nagpur, which is already a center
for Buddhist activity since it was the site of Dr. Ambedkar's conversion.
There is also a great shortage of Buddhist books in Hindi and the
India may never again become a Buddhist nation, but all Buddhists hope
that someday Buddhism will have a stronger presence and influence there.
The country would certainly benefit from the steadying influence of the
Dhamma. Buddhists everywhere are indebted to this, the greatest legacy of
India. Let us repay our debt by assisting local Indian Buddhist
communities and the Indian sangha by supporting them in publishing,
education, and politics, so that Buddhism may again flourish and that
Buddhists may regain control over the sacred sites. Buddhist Relief
Mission would very much like to become a part of this urgent effort.
Fools of little wit move about with the very self as their own foe, doing
evil deeds the fruit of which is bitter. Random Dhammapada Verse 66
Replying to this email will send an e-mail to 8500+ members of Jharkhand Forum.
About Jharkhand Forum @ http://www.jharkhand.org.in/about-jharkhand-forum
Jharkhand Forum's Posting Norms http://jharkhand.org.in/posting_norms.htm
Add your ORG Name in Directory - http://directory.jharkhand.org.in
Join Jharkhand Network to Make New Friends @ http://JHARKHAND.ning.com
Jharkhand Forum is run by Internet Volunteer Groups, if you wish to
join it then follow this link http://volunteer.jharkhand.org.in
CHECK OUT JHARKHAND BLOG @ http://Jharkhand.org.in/blog
MAKE FUNDING SUPPORT APPEAL HERE @ http://FUNDING-APPEAL.blogspot.com
Get a FREE website for your NGO @ Http://Gift.Jharkhand.Org.In
Check out previous messages @ http://egroups.com/list/Jharkhand/messages
Get firstname.lastname@example.org by sending a blank mail to email@example.com
Yahoo! Groups Links
<*> To visit your group on the web, go to:
<*> Your email settings:
Individual Email | Traditional
<*> To change settings online go to:
(Yahoo! ID required)
<*> To change settings via email:
<*> To unsubscribe from this group, send an email to:
<*> Your use of Yahoo! Groups is subject to: