BUDDHISM IN INDIA: CHALLENGING BRAHMANISM AND CASTE
The starting-point of this book, in its Introduction, is B.R. Ambedkar’s interpretation of Buddhism, which is, no doubt, indispensable to any meaningful understanding of the intricate intertwining of Buddhism with Brahmanism and caste.
The first four chapters together deal with Buddhism in its complexity and diversity. The array of issues thrown up by these chapters include the background to the rise of Buddhism in the middle of the second millennium BCE, in a period when, as the author would have, crucial socio-cultural developments took place throughout the world, the related socio-economic and cultural characteristics of the society of the time, its political context, and the competing religious-ideological trends within which Buddhism functioned; basic teachings of Buddhism; formative role of Buddhism for nearly a millennium, its relationship to caste, its connection with India’s leading role in trade and other international linkages in the first global age, the question of how religious-philosophical systems foster or discourage scientific and technological advances; and changing forms of Buddhism in India, which includes both popular Buddhism as contrasted with the Buddhism of the monasteries.
The main arguments in these chapters are that the teachings of the Buddha (as given in the early Theravada Pali scriptures) places a unique emphasis on control of the passions, on achieving freedom from `craving’ as crucial elements in achieving liberation from sorrow and suffering; that in contrast to both Brahmanism and its main ethical competitor Jainism, it provided for a simple but positive morality for lay followers as well as those who became bikkus or renouncers; that Buddhism contrasted radically with Brahmanism in regard to the caste system (that is, the controversy over the role of birth versus action in determining social status), the origin and role of the state, the approach to merchants and farmers as social groups, and the position of women; and that Buddhism fostered a dynamic, open society in contrast to Brahmanism’s orientation to a hierarchical, village-focused, and caste-defined social system.
While chapter 5 is on the defeat of Buddhism in India, chapter 7 is on its first revival in the 19th century. The defeat is attributed primarily to the alliance between Brahmans and kings who used Brahman administrative service and got their status as Kshatriyas confirmed without any of the burdens of being moral kings; and violence in the establishment of the dominance of Brahmanism. The revival is explained in the context of colonial challenges and Indian responses when, among others, the great social radical Jotiba Phule emphasised and used the meaning and message of Buddhism for emancipation of the low castes from the thraldom of the caste system and the social, moral, and intellectual hegemony of Brahmans and Brahmans proximi castes, followed by individual conversions and their limitations, and the Dalit-based Tamil Buddhist revival in the early decades of the 20th century.
Chapter 6, on the complex question of impact of Buddhism in the centuries following its overt disappearance deals with the relationship between Buddhism and the bhakti movements as a crucial issue as these were major religious currents among the people in the medial Indian society.
In doing so, it throws light on the efforts of Nandanar in the Tamil bhakti tradition, Kabir and Ravidas in north India, Tukaram and Cokhamela in Maharashtra, Mirabai and the role of women in bhakti movements, and some aspects of the Orissa bhakti movements. The chapter argues that the social situation during the bhakti movements, which resulted in repression and perhaps murder of radical bhaktas such as Tukaram, and the efforts to totally wipe out the contributions of Dalit bhaktas such as Nandanar and Cokhamela, illustrated the dominance of Brahmanism and the hardening of caste sociall structure in medieval India.
Chapter 8 brings Ambedkar’s legacy to its logical culmination, and describes the import of his interpretation of Buddhism, and the massive Dalit conversions to it of the 1950s and after in the context of their significance for the future of Buddhism in India.
The concluding chapter returns to the questions raised in the Introduction, and argues that an interpretation of Buddhism without the framework of karma/rebirth, interpreting nibhana (nirvana) in this-worldly terms focusing on the psychological and moral development of the individual and the reconstruction of the world does indeed make sense; that Ambedkar’s Navayana Buddhism can thus find a genuine base in the original teachings of Gotama, and serve as a powerful force for reconstructing society in a new and challenging millennium.
To conclude, the recent large-scale conversion of Dalits to Buddhism, albeit as a protest movement, and the tempo, which this movement seems to maintain is indeed a challenge to Brahmanism and caste, both of which are anachronisms and an anathema on contemporary Indian society. It is to the credit of Omvedt that by giving the readers the massive literature on Buddhism in its quintessence in a slender volume, she has not only made a major academic contribution, but also and probably more importantly, given a meaning and message to the Dalit masses who are still victims of extreme forms of social prejudices, atrocities and discriminatory and exclusionary practices -- that here is an effective alternative which your messiah had shown you, follow it if and when you want and uphold your civil and social rights.