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A Reinterpretation of Buddhism

of Buddhism Buddhism in India: Challenging Brahmanism and Caste by Gail Omvedt; Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2003; pp xiii+314, Rs 350.
LAXMAN SATYA This is a longue duree history of Buddhism from its origin in the sixth century BCE to the present. More precisely, it is a study of the conflict between Buddhism and brahmanism from the dalitbahujan perspective. As the title suggests, the sweep of the analysis is quite challenging. The author contends that the past two and half millennia of Indian history is shaped by the above conflict that not only challenged but also undermined the caste system on which the entire edifice of brahminical ideology was based. Although this conflict systematically began with Buddha

A Reinterpretation

of Buddhism

Buddhism in India: Challenging Brahmanism and Caste

by Gail Omvedt; Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2003; pp xiii+314, Rs 350.


‘gana-sanghas’ (tribal republics) as opposed to the brahmin supported monarchies. Even though the ancient ganasanghas were eventually destroyed by the monarchies, yet the bhikku sangha survived and even thrived. One of the reasons for this could be the admission of ‘bhikkunis’ (women) in the sangha. The middle of the first millennium BCE was therefore a tumultuous time in India that gave birth to two ideological strands, i e, brahmana and samana, the former authoritarian and monarchical while the latter republican and democratic. Buddhism also challenged brahmanism at a more theoretical level. It argued that birth did not make a brahmin but virtue, morality, and learning that could be acquired through cultivation by any individual irrespective of one’s birth or related status. Yet the brahmins developed an entire gambit of cosmological literature, priestly rituals, and a monopolistic language (Sanskrit) to consolidate caste hierarchy and their own domination over it. After having done this, they went about trying to absorb or destroy any new forces that emerged in the society to challenge their authority. The ideology based on ‘varnashrama dharma’ (meaning, the performance of caste duty as a responsibility with a superimposed belief in consequences afterlife) became the be-all and end-all of an oppressive ideology that guaranteed the supremacy of brahmins (priests) and kshatriyas (warriors) while ensuring the subjugation of vast majority of people that included the vaishyas (merchants) and sudras (cultivators).

How did Buddha challenge this steel frame of brahminic ideology? In a very simple and direct manner, says Omvedt, “Buddha interpreted karma not in terms of the chain of actions leading to rebirth itself, but in terms of the immediate, psychological, subjective actor in the immediate present. This focus on the concrete acting individual

his is a longue duree history of Buddhism from its origin in the sixth century BCE to the present. More precisely, it is a study of the conflict between Buddhism and brahmanism from the dalitbahujan perspective. As the title suggests, the sweep of the analysis is quite challenging. The author contends that the past two and half millennia of Indian history is shaped by the above conflict that not only challenged but also undermined the caste system on which the entire edifice of brahminical ideology was based. Although this conflict systematically began with Buddha’s nirvana, the traces of it can be located in the pre-Buddhist wandering ascetics and teachers who lived an austere life in the forest seeking liberation from rebirth (‘samanas’). Buddha’s teachings questioned the very authenticity of scriptures and also questioned the legitimacy of the priestly class that had already come into existence during Buddha’s lifetime. Instead it advocates self-reliance, “be your own lamp, guide, and seek refuge in yourself”. It also rejected the existence of soul (‘anatta’) and thus questioned the fundamental basis of ‘karma-moksha’ (rebirth-salvation) cycle as advocated by the brahmins. And if the goal is to achieve salvation, then it is to be done in this world itself. Now the reason why brahmanism could not absorb Buddhism was quite simple. Buddha was an institution builder. And his institution of the ‘bhikku sangha’ was modelled on the contemporary

Economic and Political Weekly December 16, 2006 and especially on the intention of his action was a unique contribution of Buddhist thinking” (p 56). Instead of worrying over rebirth and karma, Buddha refocused on ‘metta’ (love) and ‘karuna’ (compassion) besides the training of self that can act righteously with dispassion. So the self, that is ignored and even denigrated by brahmanism, acquires a central position in Buddhism. From this of course follows the ‘anicca’ (impermanence of things) and the rejection of ‘atman’ (soul). In fact, the whole notion of a supreme being, associated ritualism and magic is fundamentally rejected. Instead, the stress is placed on rationality, reason, peace, and calm associated with self-control and discipline, both physical and psychological.

But in a world that was divided between the two extremes, Buddhism proposed a Middle Path (‘Madhyamikavada’) or the dual approach. Sangha for the bhikkus and bhikkunis and household for the family “man”. The sangha that ran on democratic and even socialist principles provided the essential food, shelter, clothing and medical care to the bhikkus who taught ‘dhamma’ (moral code of righteousness). The sangha that was primarily a monastic institution expanded into educational, medical, and financial institutions. Buddhism thus provided the young men with two concrete institutional options to get away from the material corruption and ritualism of brahmanism.

These Buddhist institutions expanded all the way to the level of the state itself. Here the difference was even starker. The brahminical ideology supported monarchy and bestowed it with the duty to protect the varnashrama dharma, cows and brahmins with full authority to exercise harsh punishments and even violence to preserve social order. The samana literature on the contrary calls for the imposition of order in society without the use of force. The king’s authority rests on the people, therefore it was the responsibility of the monarch to take care of the people and look after the poor and the destitute. The state itself had to be ruled on certain ethical principles based on welfare and moral authority rather than physical force and violence. While the duty of the kshatriya king in the brahminic ideological schema was to preserve the hierarchical social order with unquestionable force, Buddhism rejected violence and made the monarch responsible for his action, because action alone determines a person, not birth. So the whole conception of statecraft in Buddhism is totally contrary to the brahminical approach. The former also allowed for female influence to flourish in the political life of the state considering the numerous grants and endowments given by women from Buddhist royal families to monasteries and educational institutions in ancient times. This was not surprising considering that they held property and also had access to liberation. No such thing was permitted in the brahminical patriarchy where women were reduced to perpetual inferiority and creatures of desire, argues the author.

But one area where Buddhism radically departed from brahmanism was in the use of the language of the people: Pali as opposed to Sanskrit, the language of rituals and elites. And as it spread further and further, it began to be taught in Prakrit (vernaculars). No such thing ever happened with brahmanism whose predominant mode of ritual communication was limited and secretly guarded by the brahmins themselves as “sacred knowledge”. For brahmins, the Vedas were divinely ordained but not so for the Buddha who had respect for them simply as a body of knowledge and nothing more. Omvedt makes a strong persuasive case that it will be more appropriate to designate ancient India not Hindu but Buddhist. This is because, the earliest literature and architecture is Buddhist. The prime example of it is the finely carved ‘viharas’, ‘stupas’, ‘chaityas’ (halls), cave temples, statues and monasteries. Especially due to the fact that there is no Hindu temple before the Gupta period and even those that were built by the Guptas were small in size.

The first thousand years of Buddhism began with the emperor Asoka of the Mauryan dynasty in the 3rd century BCE. Even though Asoka himself embraced Buddhism, all the kings that followed him until Harsha (7th century CE) patronised all religions. The author argues that it is problematic to clearly distinguish between the Hindu and Buddhist kings of ancient India. And those who have tried to do so in modern times are clearly pursuing a communal agenda. It was during the time of Asoka that Buddhism spread to south India and the Deccan. The Sangam period (1-3rd CE) and the Kurral Kavyas (4-6th CE) clearly show a strong Buddhist influence. Similarly, the Satavahanas from the 1st to 3rd century CE also patronised Buddhism and spread its sway over modern day Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat.

But the strongest point of Buddhism was with the economy. The merchants and agriculturists formed the primary social base of Buddhism for they abhorred brahminical rituals and sacrifices. Both these classes also preferred an open economy that is minimally regulated by the state, or a sort of free-enterprise system. On the contrary, brahmanism not only looked down upon the agriculturists as sudras but also denounced the merchants and advocated state control of the economy to advance their own power and authority.

Decline of Buddhism

The Buddhist society was highly monetised with a well-developed network of local and long distance trade that connected ports to the hinterland. For a thousand years, this political economy of commerce had brought rich dividends not only from foreign merchants but also from Indian merchants going overseas on trade and business. But the brahmanism that revived during the latter half of the 1st millennium CE, declared foreign merchants as ‘mlecchas’ and injected the fear of sea and imposed a ban on sailing the “black waters”. The triumph of brahmanism created an inward looking conservative society based on a self-sufficient village economy where everyone was tied to the dominant landlord through the ‘jajmani’ system that demanded service from the lower castes. In other words, brahmanism encouraged feudalism and pushed the society backwards economically. Trade declined and India retreated into insularity. A dynamic capitalistic society was succeeded by backward, agriculturally-oriented feudal society based on the imposition of a regressive and oppressive caste system. So brahmanism was instrumental in the transition of classical India to feudalism. Even in the field of education, brahmins never permitted free and open dialogue because of the very secretive nature of their knowledge coupled with rote memorisation and the authoritarian gurushishya tradition of the gurukul. So it was obvious that Buddhism could not coexist with brahmanism. Why did Buddhism decline and disappear from the land of its birth? The book devotes an interesting chapter on this question.

When Huen Tsang visited India (early 7th CE), Buddhism was already in an advanced state of decline. Large Buddhist centres of Kapilavastu and Kusinagara were facing the problems of depopulation and

Economic and Political Weekly December 16, 2006

de-urbanisation. And within a century, Buddhism had completely vanished. Omvedt cites the works of many scholars to explain this decline and disappearance. A L Basham and D D Kosambi attribute it to the revival of reformed Hinduism based on the ‘avatar’ concept and an attempt to absorb the Buddha as some kind of an incarnation of Vishnu. Aggressive campaigning and counter institution-building by people like Sankaracharya backed this brahminical project. But more importantly, Buddhism had become centred in monasteries rather than among the people. Large Buddhist monasteries became a drain on production and the sangha lost touch with the common folks. However, the author notes that aggressive brahmanism beginning with Sankara led to physical attacks on Buddhist monasteries and monks. Buddhist sources also record a great deal of violence by the Saivite kings of the 9th century against Buddhist monuments and monasteries throughout India. This violence and destruction of Buddhist symbols begun by the brahmins continued well into the British period when the colonialists robbed the famous Ajanta and Ellora sculptures and paintings and took them to England where they are presently stored in British museums.

The Bhakti Movement

But what proved decisive was the issue of royal patronage that Buddhism lost out to the brahmins. The political dynasties that arose after 8th century CE, all supported brahmanism. Omvedt argues that much more than a revived Hinduism, it was the access and control of political power that enforced the domination of brahmins. They created an ideology that demanded obedience from below and enforcement of authority from above while they themselves kept control over rituals, the archaic language and their own designated sacred texts. Brahmins imposed no moral restriction on kings so long as they enforced the caste system. Omvedt also disagrees with scholars who argue that Islam gave the final deathblow to Buddhism. On the contrary, the author contends that Islam had many things in common with Buddhism. Both were missionary religion based on universal principles and an egalitarian appeal. Both also had a strong commercial base. The only difference however was that Buddhism discouraged militarism. But the brahminical imposition of strict caste ideology created two outlets for the lower castes to escape oppression. One was conversion to Islam and the other was the rise of the bhakti movement in the 12th and 13th century as a protest against orthodox brahmanism and caste system. So the author rejects the thesis of Richard Eaton who argues that the converts to early Islam were from the tribal fringes of Indian society.1

Recorded evidence of the denial of temple entry to untouchables can be broadly placed between 7th and 12th century CE, a period that also saw the rise of Saivism and Vaishnavism. Therefore, the rise of the Bhakti movement at the end of this period was no surprise. Some of its more radical leaders challenged caste, patriarchy and openly exposed brahminical hypocrisy. Omvedt argues that the bhakti movement had a strong Buddhist influence over its leaders like Kabir, Ravidas, Mira and Tukaram. However, the main difference between bhakti and classical Buddhism was that the former called for devotion while the latter called for self-controlled questioning and striving to seek the truth through individual effort without subjecting the self to anything or anybody. Further, it was rather unfortunate that the brahmins took control of recording the bhakti movement. In the process, they appropriated, reinterpreted and even distorted the fundamental protest of the radical bhakti saints. The reason why this happened was because the bhakti saints did not create institutions like Buddhism and could not prevent the brahmins from appropriating their ideas. The bhakti saints strongly criticised caste but never provided an alternative to it like the Buddhist sangha. Buddhism on the other hand challenged brahmanism and competed for power and control. Hence, bhakti’s opposition to brahminical oppression was emotional, intuitive and romantic.

Resistance and Alternatives

How did the brahmins play their cards under the British rule? According to the author, the British rule was fundamentally different. The white conquerors never settled in India nor did they adopt its culture. But the brahmins collaborated with the British and took full advantage of western education and also hijacked the leadership of the nationalist movement. The caste system penetrated even more deeply into society during British rule. The European pseudoscientific idea of racial supremacy fitted well with the brahminical idea of caste superiority. However, it was in the 19th century that dalits and bahujans for the first time began systematically exploring an alternative to Hinduism and its caste system. The Mahima Dharma Movement in Orissa was a pioneer in this respect in identifying Buddhism as that alternative. Unconcerned about the impact of colonialism, the movement directed its attack against the varna system and challenged the brahminical control of the temple of Jagannath in Puri.

Jyotiba Phule in western India extended the scope of the dalit movement from its anti-caste character to include farmers and women. He then launched a general social awareness campaign of awakening the sudras and ati-sudras from their slave status by founding institutions to fight priestly domination. He encouraged people to organise social and religious ceremonies without priests and found schools for girls to promote gender equality through education. In his book Gulamgiri (1873) he presents a harsh critique of brahmanism and depicts them as Aryan conquerors and oppressors.

According to Omvedt, the 19th century saw the revival of Buddhism in India. It first started in Bengal and then spread to western India and Sri Lanka with the formation of Maha Bodhi Society in 1891. In Tamil Nadu, Buddhism became a mass revivalist movement under Pandit Iyothee Thass who declared that dalits were not Hindus and that the Dravidian people and aborigines were originally Buddhists, whose history can be traced back to the Mauryan times. He also accused the brahmins of trying to erase Tamil Buddhist identity by absorbing them into the caste system. He was also a fierce critique of the swadeshi movement of the nationalists in the early 20th century because of its upper caste and Hindu religious orientation that was irrelevant to the dalit struggle for social liberation. Brahminic knowledge was useless to the dalits because it never taught or valued the practical arts of agriculture, irrigation, trade and transportation.

Bhimrao Ambedkar was the main dalit leader instrumental in the revival of Buddhism in the 20th century. Omvedt idealises Ambedkar as the “…greatest of Indian of the millennium” (p 242). Ambedkar launched his first struggle for the rights of the dalits to fetch water from the village well and followed it up with the issue of temple entry and freedom to live anywhere in the village. He became the leader of the untouchables and sought separate electorates, which the mainstream nationalist leader Gandhi opposed with a fast unto death in 1932. Ambedkar finally gave in to

Economic and Political Weekly December 16, 2006 pressure for the latter’s life by signing the Poona Pact that declared dalits to be Hindus, a decision that is resented by dalits even to this day. However, he disagreed with Gandhi’s designation of untouchables as “harijans” and continued to maintain that the greatest barrier to the advancement of dalits was Hinduism. He also challenged Gandhi’s notion that caste had nothing to do with Hindu religion. According to Ambedkar, Gandhi had really nothing to offer to the untouchables, therefore his position was unacceptable to the dalits. Instead, Ambedkar proposed conversion to Buddhism.

This book on the whole is very well written and the central contradiction is sharply brought out. However, in its enthusiastic admiration and support for dalit movements, the analysis loses its critical perspective on the relationship between the dalit struggle and the British empire. For example, Ambedkar’s Poona Pact with Gandhi receives a passing reference and its consequences are never fully analysed. Did the conversion from one religion to another solve the problem of dalits? In fact it did not. The book also fails to note a major weakness in the dalit movements

during the colonial period. How did dalit leaders and intellectuals look at the British colonial period and the role of Christianity? It is a common tendency of the dalit intellectuals and leaders to refuse to place the struggle of the downtrodden within the broader framework of colonial oppression of the Indian people in general. Instead of identifying the struggle of the dalits with the struggle of the colonised people, the dalit movements and their interpreters skirt the issue of the nature of British imperialism, colonialism and racism. In fact the dalit movements in the 20th century can be criticised for not only being insular but also apologetic of the British colonial rule. Similarly, Christianity is looked at as a liberating force rather then an accomplice of the British empire. Thus, the dalit consciousness as propagated and promoted by the leaders of dalit movements, gets trapped in the same caste categorisation that the British colonisers themselves had created as an instrument of oppression.2 So in one sense, the dalit struggle by not taking a critical position vis-à-vis India’s colonial experience, is in fact profoundly participating in its own oppression alongside the upper caste oppression, very much

to the comfort and chagrin of the white imperialist masters. The ending of the book is therefore rather disappointing because it fails to expose this weakness in the dalit struggle for liberation. Furthermore, except for Jyotiba Phule, no dalit leader or movement in the 19th and 20th century deals appropriately with the position of women within the dalit community.

Nevertheless, this is a very good book to have in one’s collection. The historical narrative of Buddhism, brahmanism and Bhakti movement is simply a delight to read. The poems and quotes from primary sources betray author’s wide knowledge and grasp of the subject at hand. Even the debates and controversies of scholars over the past two centuries is very well exposed and analysed. Finally, the subject has been brought well up to date.




1 See Richard Eaton, The Rise of Islam and the

Bengal Frontier, 1204-1760, University of

California Press, Berkeley, 1993. 2 See Nicholas Dirks, Castes of Mind: Colonialism

and the Making of Modern India, New Delhi,

Permanent Black, 2002.

Economic and Political Weekly December 16, 2006

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