Buddhism in India

Buddhism in India

A Way of Caste Liberation and Patriarchy?

Buddhism in India

A Way of Caste Liberation and Patriarchy?

1. Introduction

Buddhism originated in the Indian Subcontinent and spread around Asia and became a world religion without major wars. Buddhism provides an alternative to Hinduism, an ethic code based on experience and moral, rather than gods and rituals. However, the very place it originated from has not survived as the center of the Buddhist religion, with only 8.4 million Buddhists in India, which is less than one percent of its population. There are an estimated 535 million Buddhists living worldwide (Harvey 2012).

This paper will provide an introduction to Buddhism, its history and core belief. Buddhism will be examined as an alternative to other religions. The paper will show how Ambedkar created a new Buddhism to reach liberation from the caste system and how lately low-caste Hindus are embracing Buddhism in a new way. The conflict which arises through conversion will be discussed before coming to the conclusion.

Can Buddhism provide more equal social structures with more rights for women?

Can low-class people improve their lives, by converting to Buddhism?

2. History of Buddhism

2.1 Siddharta Gautama

The founder of Buddhism was Siddhartha Gautama, born Lumbini, in present-day Nepal in the 6th Century BC. Leaving his family behind, he commenced a journey in the search of wisdom. Speaking and teaching about the causes and cures of human suffering, before achieving nirvana (enlightenment). Buddha was an “empiricist” who believed that experience was the key to wisdom. He was more a thinker and psychologist than a religious figure, focusing on how meditation can become an effective barrier against suffering and cravings. He almost exclusively focused on suffering, warning people to blindly follow Brahmin-led rituals. There are not any documents from Buddha’s days, but councils were held by his followers, and by repetition, his teachings were memorised. Only two centuries later parts of his teaching were written down, however, in another language called Pali. The actual life of Buddha was not as important as the leader of other religions (Mishra 2004).

2.2 Spread of Buddhism

Two movements have emerged, one known as Mahayana, the other as Theravada. Mahayana (Tibet, Central Asia, China, Korea and Japan) and Theravada (Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia and Burma). In the third Century, King Aśokā spread Buddhism within India and to foreign countries, it flourished in India until the eighth century. From then, it declined and Muslim conquests from the 7th century and till the 16th century, also have had a diminishing effect on Buddhism. Buddhism was rarely practiced for a long time. (Mishra 2004).

2.3 Revival of Buddhism

Buddhism slowly revived in the 19th and 20th Century. In 1891, Sri Lankan Buddhist leader Anagarika Dharmapala founded the Maha Bodhi Society. This is seen as the first step in reviving Buddhism, restoring and building Buddhist shrines.

Buddhist organizations were founded around the country. In 1892, the Bengal Buddhist Association was founded and when the 14th Dalai Lama, took exile in Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh in 1959, India regained a status of Buddhism in the world, and numbers of Buddhists increased with Ambedkar initiating mass conversions.

3. Core Elements of Buddhism

The core belief of Buddhism is stated in the Four Noble Truths: Firstly, suffering (incapability of satisfaction) is an inescapable part of human life and is caused by our desire for pleasure and material goods. Eliminating desire will bring an end to suffering (cessation of pain). In order to eliminate desire one must follow the Noble Eightfold Path consisting of Right View, Intention, Speech, Behavior, Livelihood, Effort, Mindfulness, Meditation.

Buddha discovered the middle path, saying that the truth is neither in one of the extremes, but in the middle (Mishra 2004). Max Weber saw Buddhism as a “religious technology” whose goal is personal salvation (Queen 1996). Buddha preached that everyone has the same opportunity to reach salvation when following the Dhamma. There is no such thing as caste discrimination. One enters the earth with the same status as everyone else. The deed (action) one does, defines one’s status.

4. Is Buddhism and Hinduism similar?

Buddhism and Hinduism share many similarities, such as the concepts of Karma (deed) and Dhamma (social conduct or law), a spiritual level beyond our physical world. Both see freedom of materialism as a way to reduce suffering (asceticism), practice meditation and yoga, and see the freedom of rebirth as the highest (spiritual) achievement. In Hinduism, Brahmins are the only ones capable of receiving mokṣa (liberation), and other humans and animals have to climb up the ladder to become a Brahmin first and then can get mokṣa. Whereas in Buddhism any living being can attain nirvana (liberation). Old Buddhist scriptures write:

Not by birth is one an outcast; not by birth is one a brahman. By deed one becomes an outcast, by deed one becomes a brahman. (Vasala Sutta)

Buddhism has rather been seen as a philosophy with an ethic code, because of absence of worshipping, rituals and priests. However, Mahayana Buddhism has adopted certain practices, such as worshipping Buddha as a god and praying (Buddha had forbidden the idea of having a god). Vice versa, Brahmanism was highly influenced by Buddhism regarding philosophy and literature and it was challenged with ideas of equality (in terms of gender and caste) and non-violence (Queen 1996).

In the Puranas (old Indian literature), Buddha is seen as an important deity, described to be the eighth incarnation of Lord Vishnu. This is denied by Buddhists since Siddharta was an actual historical person and not a legend or a god. In some Puranas, however, a Buddha is simply a person with wisdom or any “Enlightened One”, so not necessarily Siddharta Gautama.

As for centuries, Buddha was also praised among Hindus, Hinduism subsequently subordinated to Buddhism, reasoning by saying that Buddhism is part of Hinduism. During a conversion to Buddhism, the convert denies that Buddha is an incarnation of Vishnu (Queen 1996).

Buddhism and Hinduism spread to other countries in different ways. Buddhism spread through missions and international interchange, whereas Hinduism mostly spread through immigration (of traders) (Eliot 1998).

5. Buddhism as a feminist alternative?

As in Hinduism, the women’s status is lower than the men’s, does Buddhism provide an alternative for women?

The early history of Buddha doesn’t depict a very women-friendly way of living. Yasodharā (Siddhartha’s wife) and her child were left behind when Siddhartha left for a journey. His personal self-searching seemed to have been more important than his wife and newly born child. After he became a Buddha, he was reluctant to ordain women as nuns. Mahāprajāpatī (Buddha’s aunt, who had raised him), had requested three times for a women’s ordination but Buddha rejected each time. After she and other female relatives had shaved off their hair, dressed in robes and had walked a long distance, Buddha rejected their effort and denied them again. Buddha’s cousin Ānanda tried to help, he asked if women had the same chance of reaching the highest spiritual level as men. Buddha confirmed. Then he reminded him how Mahāprajāpatī had cared for him and nurtured him after his mother had died. Finally, Buddha was convinced, and allowed nuns to be ordained. After the establishment of a nun’s order, the Therīgāthā (lit: elder [nun’s] verses) scriptures were written, which depict a very strong Buddhist nun order (Queen 1996; Gross 1993).

In Buddhism, the men are called bhikshu sangha and the women bhikshuni sangha, it literally means people living on alms. They depend on donations for their food, clothing and shelter. The bhikshuni sangha had to accept eight rules, which give higher respect to the bhikshu sangha (“A bhikshu may admonish a bhikshuni, but no bhikshuni may admonish a bhikshu”). This can be interpreted in a way that Buddha saw the male order as inferior and therefore subordinated the female order. However, the sole fact that there has been a women order from the beginning, demonstrates gender equality (Queen 1996).

A popular belief was also that women first have to be reborn as men, for the purpose of reaching enlightenment. Even though Mahayana scriptures state that women’s abilities are equal to men’s. Theravada — which is the older form of Buddhism — is more conservative towards women, as for example in Sri Lanka the revival of the Buddhist nun monastery was met with skepticism (Gross 1993).

6. Ambedkar’s Buddhism

6.1 Ambedkar’s life

Ambedkar, the key figure of Buddhism in India, lived from 1891 to 1956. From his childhood on he had experienced discrimination, when he had had to sit in the burlap in the back of the classroom and water had to be poured from above to avoid physical contact. In virtue of his father’s army job and education, he was taught English from early on. He went to college in Mumbai (as one of the first to Dalits), and completed two doctoral degrees from Columbia University (New York) and from the University of London (Queen 1996).

Back in India, he started to fight for the depressed classes, just after Gandhi had initiated his disobedience campaign. He fought for access to water tanks, entrance to Hindu temples and admission to schooling for the “untouchables”. He became an advocate for separate electoral votes for the depressed classes. This created opposition from Gandhi, the Congress and orthodox Hindus. This seems surprising, as Gandhi himself advocated for the rights of Harijans (“children of God”). Despite the fact that Muslims and Christians had their separate electoral votes, he did not want the same for the Harijans. Eventually, when the British Government had adopted his demands in The Act of Pune, Gandhi went on hunger strike. As Ambedkar had become really unpopular and had tried different ways to improve the situation of his class, such as improving education and gaining access to Hindu temples, his mind came to realize that the answer to the problems did not lie in Hinduism. At the 1935 Depressed Classes Conference, he announced that he was born as a Hindu, but he will not die as one. In his speeches, he urged for unity and self-reliance among the scheduled castes and encouraged women to participate in order to make a successful movement (Queen 1996).

Despite rejecting the British rule over India, when the Second World War broke out and the British were in a rather weak condition, he encouraged “Untouchables” to join the British army, whereas Gandhi and the congress saw the opportunity to initiate another non-cooperation movement (Sangharakshita 1986). He later drafted India’s constitution and then became India’s first Minister of Law and Justice under Nehru. Publicly converting in Oct 1956 to Buddhism, he renounced Hinduism and Hindu gods. He saw Buddhism as the only alternative for the oppressed as well as for the rest of the world (Queen 1996).

6.2 Ambedkar’s influence

Through his life work, he became an idol for lower caste people (Queen 1996). He drafted India’s constitution, started a civil right movement, founded newspapers, colleges, political parties and initiated the biggest conversion worldwide. He became known as “Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar” and was seen as “the second Manu”. The Manusmriti (ancient legal Hindu script) privileges and sees Brahmins as inferior, but Ambedkar wrote better “rules” than Manu (whose laws were oppressive toward outcasts) (Queen 1996). In 2008, the Ambedkar Memorial Park was opened in Lucknow, in the state of Uttar Pradesh.

6.2 Ambedkar’s orientation of Buddhism

Ambedkar’s final project to write The Buddha and his Dhamma had not been completed before his death. His idea was to use the Buddhist philosophy, not to explain the origin but to initiate change. There is a great similarity seen with Karl Marx (“That the purpose of philosophy is to reconstruct the world and not to explain the origin of the universe.”). According to Ambedkar, the biggest conflicts are found within a country between classes. He wrote:

The conflict between nations is occasional. But the conflict between classes is constant and perpetual. It is this which is the root of all sorrow and suffering in the world.

Ambedkar’s Buddhism differed from the Buddhism that was known until then. He left out the monastic way of life and many points from the old scriptures, such as the Four Noble Truths including the idea of karma and rebirth. Critics add that he picked out only some parts of Buddhist trad
itions, edited them and added his own material in a way that suited him. His major point was freedom in social, intellectual, political and economic terms. Back then, some suggested calling it “Ambedkarism”, and that his followers and converts were not “true” Buddhists. Nevertheless, Kausalyayan, a Buddhist monk, who translated The Buddha and his Dhamma to Hindi, concluded that Ambedkar’s Buddhism is a “new orientation, but not a distortion” (Queen 1996).

7. Conversion to Buddhism

7.1 Reasons for converting

The most controversial point is that in Hinduism birth defines status, and not deed.

Buddhism, compared to Islam and Christianity, is a nontheistic religion (without a god) and therefore does not require daily worshipping and a thick set of rules. Converting to Islam or Christianity might likely continue discrimination within in the new community. A social hierarchy is also found within Christianity in India, which sometimes results in conflict. Buddhism allows them to be separated from the Hindu religion, taking a more neutral position and providing a progressive and open path. For Ambedkar, socio-political emancipation and religious liberation were inseparable. Since, according to Ambedkar, Hinduism could not provide religious liberation for the scheduled castes, only Buddhism was able to introduce a social-political freeing (Beltz 2005).

An excerpt of an interview with a 30-year-old Buddhist civil servant from Pune in Beltz’s Book shows how Buddhism has given them as sense of pride:

“My father converted to Buddhism to free us from the cruel discrimination prevalent in the Hindu religion. The main advantages of being a Buddhist are the following: we now live with pride (abhimana) as according to Buddhism all castes and all religions are equal. There is no place for feelings of superiority in Buddhism. In Buddhism, people belonging to all castes and religions are treated equally.” (Beltz 2005)

7.2 Conversions and its effect

Across India, people from Lower and Scheduled Castes have converted to Buddhism (as well as to Christianity and Islam). In 2015, a mass conversion with 500.000 people took place in Nagpur, MA. The reason is mostly to escape the caste system and its discrimination.

Mayawati, who served four terms as the prime minister of Uttar Pradesh converted in New Delhi at the 50th anniversary of Ambedkar’s conversion. Her reasons were not only of religious significance, but also of a social connotation, a mean to progress the social transformation with more female rights (The Hindu 2006).

Conversion to Buddhism has had several positive effects. Old rituals were partly replaced with new Buddhist ones. Some women started to embrace Buddhism by singing songs and telling their children stories of the Buddha (Beltz 2005).

Despite their liberation of the caste, Mahar people still identify themselves as Mahar, and inter-caste marriages are not common, since most Mahar prefer to marry among themselves. Within the Mahar there had been about 50 subcastes, some say there are now 5 or 12 subcastes. The subcastes did not marry each other, did not eat at each other’s house, and did not sit in the same row at public gatherings. These practices have become less common and within the Mahar society and ostensibly “inter-subcaste” marriages have become normal (Beltz 2005).

7.3 Reaction and Influence

Buddhism helped India to reduce caste inequality, emancipate women, introduce nun’s education, and apply non-violence used by Gandhi during India’s independence struggle.

Wankhede 2008, argues that the current Buddhists movements focused more on identity, and were lacking dynamics to be a political movement and to represent all oppressed classes.

In several Indian states, the BJP implemented Anti-Conversion Laws, with some states requiring individual permission one month prior to conversion to prevent forced acts: “No-one can convert using force, allurement or fraudulent means.” These definitions are vague, giving the judges a room for interpretation, making it easy to prosecute. These laws do not protect people from forced conversion, but take the personal liberty of choosing one’s religion or consciousness (Panadan 2010).

7.4 Spiritual conflict between Buddhism and Hinduism

A reasonable amount of Dalits converted to Buddhism ultimately denying that Buddha was an incarnation of Vishnu (Mishra 2004). Some Hindus see Buddhism as a part of Hinduism and do not object conversions. As a reaction to the conversion, the Hindu-nationalist RSS launched “Ghar Vapsi” (Hindi: Homecoming) campaign, to reconvert people back to Hinduism. These campaigns have already successfully worked among converted Christians and Muslims, who were sometimes even offered monetary incentives to convert back to Hinduism. Ghar vapsi has not achieved the return of Buddhists (Kim 2005).

Literature Index

  • Beltz, Johannes. 2005. Mahar, Buddhist and Dalit: Religious Conversion and Socio-Political Emancipation. Manohar Publishers & Distributors, June 6.
  • Bronkhorst, Johannes. 2011. Buddhism in the Shadow of Brahmanism. Vol. 2. Brill, February 14.
  • Eliot, Charles. 1998. Hinduism and Buddhism: A Historical Sketch. Vol. 1. Psychology Press.
  • Gross, Rita M. 1993. Buddhism After Patriarchy: A Feminist History, Analysis, and Reconstruction of Buddhism. SUNY Press.
  • Harvey, Peter. 2012. An introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, history and practices. Cambridge University Press, November 22.
  • Kim, Sebastian. 2005. The Debate on Conversion Initiated by the Sangh Parivar, 1998–1999. Transformation: 224–237.
  • Mishra, Pankaj. 2004. An end to suffering: The Buddha in the World. Macmillan, December 8.
  • Panadan, Davis. 2010. ANTI-CONVERSION LAWS. Journal of Dharma 35, no. 2: 131–141.
  • Queen, Christopher S, and Sallie B King. 1996. Engaged Buddhism: Buddhist Liberation Movements in Asia. SUNY Pr
    ess, March 14.
  • Sangharakshita (Bhikshu). 1986. Ambedkar and Buddhism. Windhorse Publications.
  • Wankhede, Harish S. 2008. The political and the social in the Dalit movement today. Economic and Political Weekly: 50–57.

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