Monday, August 30, 2010

Neo-Buddhism: Balm over the angst of non-recognition

On 15th August,2010, The Times of India quoted Meena Kandaswamy, Professor in English, in Anna University, Chennai, saying through her blog (see “ I would like to describe myself as a woman writer obsessed with the revolutionary Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s message of caste annihilation…….Dalits are denied the right to land, Muslims the right to homes. We live in a society riddled with minority phobia.”

Indeed, where Meena Kandaswamy is placed, Tamil Nadu, there is another phobia – the fear of being upper (read brahman) caste. People belonging to that community may be bending backwards to prove they are not brahmans, as in Tamil Nadu there is 70% reservations for SC/STs.

In the meantime, Sharmila Rege , Director, Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule Women’s Studies Centre, University of Pune, has been equally involved in path breaking work in unearthing the buried histories of Dalits in India. Years of being ostracised by the Brahman community, the Dalits had been living in the outskirts of the village eating left over food by Brahmans and other communities, announcing the dead, burning death bodies, eating animals and doing menial work only, as education was totally denied to them. Their existence was non-recognition only.

Until, Dr B R Ambedkar came along.

Rising from their midst, Dr B R Ambedkar went on to do a Ph.D and become a Lawyer and finally the architect of the Indian constitution. He is best remembered today also as the founder of Neo-Buddhism which he used very ably as a weapon against social injustice bestowed upon the untouchables by the brahmans. He is also the father of the Dalit uprising in India.

It would be interesting to note that way back, while India was still under the subjugation of the British, Rabindranath Tagore, had written the famous lines in his poem Apamaanita:

Hey mor durbhaga desh
Jader korecho apomaan
Apomaney hotey hobe shobar shaman

Translated to English it means: Oh my unfortunate country, you will have to face the same undignified treatment in the hands of those your treat without dignity; only then will equality be restored among all.

One might argue that like all big talkers of present day, political parties mainly, the poet too had made no effort personally to make any difference. However, one cannot overlook his contribution to the making of Shantiniketan whose first students were in fact, the very poor, uneducated children of the neighbourhood.

Be that as it may, the real movement of the uprising of the down trodden happened when, Dr B R Ambedkar, having reached a conclusion after much study of all religions, that the way out of a decadent system, rooted in religion of the Hindus, must be wholly and absolutely thrown out of their lives. Only then he believed that the first step to liberation from brahminical subjugation and the regressive caste system would happen. The caste system which existed in India, much before Manu wrote his book Manusmriti, became strengthened by the text which is infamous for both being a text replete with oppressive dictum against women as well as the fact that it documented the divide of Indian society based on the four caste categories –brahman, vaishya, kshatriya and shudras, the last being the lowest caste. Not only that it gave brahmans superiority over all others and thus gave them unquestionable right to work diligently to dehumanise the sudras, under which the ST/ST sections of modern day India fell. The Manusmriti as well as the lawmaker Manu have been under the axe of feminists and psychologists for a long time. For one, the lawmaker seemed to be material fit for the loony bin, and for the text which proved to be a hate document taken too seriously by the brahmans. As a document that proved material for Psychoanalysis’ time-pass and the brahman’s excuse to continue to torture the sudras, it did well when Dr B R Ambedkar burned the text in public as a sign of protest.

Dr B R Ambedkar led by example. He belonged to the Mahar community which also fell into the untouchable caste. In order to throw away, once and for all, the disease ridden, caste based hindu religion, he, on October 14, 1956 converted to Buddhism, which he accepted as the only religion or practice which had no segregation of persons into different castes. Following him, hordes of Mahars turned to Buddhism, the very next day, after his conversion to Buddhism. It was in fact, Dr B R Ambedkar who conducted the mass conversion, in Nagpur. Ever since, Dalits have converted to Buddhism as their way of life. Please note, Dalits do not necessarily include Muslims and other minorities who in India of 2010 may also want to hold the Dalit ticket.

To go back in history, it is important to understand the social context in which we believe Buddha left his home in search for Truth, of that which is beyond, birth and death and the suffering in between. I have read and heard that it was the sight of four afflictions – death, suffering, disease, old age - that happen to all human beings that caused him to give up his home, his wife and his new born child, his kingdom, his aged father, all because he was overwhelmed with the need to find an answer to the end of suffering. It has been said that at that moment there was so much disturbance in his kingdom that he wanted to escape from there. Whatever, be the interpretations and the beliefs, it must be understood that since Buddha himself has not left any written matter in his hand and all that we know of him or what he preached only by way of word of mouth and texts written after he left his body, we must be cautioned that all what we know and read on Buddha and his teachings are at best only interpretations of what the listeners and the writers think they have heard him say.

Thus, in many ways, while Buddhism is a subject I too studied, I have preferred to follow what I have heard is the way of eliminating human suffering whether it is me or anybody else. And that is not a social movement but a practice which helps in annihilating the last thread of desire that might even bring me back again to this life of suffering, for if there is birth, then, suffering is a given. This is the traditional form of Buddhism, where the cause of suffering happens to be birth itself, and birth, irrespective of where one has taken birth, or in what caste, community has one thing that goes with all – there is suffering, mental and physical. Only nibbana can release one from that suffering.

Dr B R Ambedkar’s Neo-Buddhism, on the other hand, does not accept nibbana, as there is no where to go, except live this life with dignity. Hence, at the root of Neo-Buddhism, as started by Dr B R Ambedkar, there is social change that has to be achieved to gain that state of liberation from suffering. It is quite understandable that that should be the a priori reason for the birth of the new “religion” – Neo-Buddhism.

What are the basic differences between the two? At the very start we can easily state that while, traditional Buddhism is pitched on liberation from birth and death by attaining nibbana, Neo-Buddhism is about bringing about social change. It is about wearing the mantle of equality right from the start and urging, negotiating Press, public and politicians, policies and Lawmakers to see and enact laws to ensure that the down trodden and those who have been sanctioned against for centuries are seen as equal to all, without any disparity. Therefore to this end, the Dalit movement which began in Maharashtra, with the Mahars, has taken on a massive role in Indian Politics and in day to day conversations and doings in India. This now has more meaning as Dalits are not any more only the Mahars, but include all ST/SC classes across India. Dalits have all converted to Buddhism, but while traditional Buddhism is more involved with the vertical movement of the human consciousness, Neo-Buddhism is passionately concerned with the vertical movement of the once depressed classes and castes, up the ladder. This is resulting in the TN-effect across india. The TN-effect can best be described as a hate campaign against brahmans and a “do-unto-them-what-they-did-unto-us” strategy.

Traditional Buddhism is concerned with the “inner revolution” and hence practice a path of non-violence, while Neo-Buddhism, is militant and rigorous about the “outer revolution” that will bring about social change. Hence, the literature too of the Dalit movement in India, at once is engraved on the angst of non-recognition of their human presence for centuries and at the same time, punctuated with pain and anger, while looking forward to a new dawn.

It is psychologically impossible to bear suppression forever. This is not our natural state as human beings. It is also psychologically impossible that the suppressed will one day not take the same weapon of suppression and strike back at its predator in the same way.
This brings us back to what Rabindranath Tagore wrote in the beginning of the last century –

Hey mor durbhaga desh
Jader korecho apomaan
Apomaney hotey hobe shobar shaman

To be shamed and hit back with equal force is what the brahmans inherited by their own doings in the past. It is not what Dalits discovered as a weapon of retaliation.

In Maharashtra, all homes of Neo-Buddhists have the picture of Buddha and Dr Ambedkar placed side by side. In many homes Dr Ambedkar may be more prominently placed than the Buddha himself, but there seems to be a new arising in other parts of the country like UP, where Kashi Ram and Mayawati are taking things to their own meaningful end. One may see statue upon statue of both these “saviours” strewn across UP where the founder of Neo-Buddhist Dr B R Ambedkar is receding backwards, but certainly remain a part of their day-to-day conversation.

When Buddha began to speak to his following on the new way of life, the Buddhist way, the brahmans were equally disturbed as huge numbers of people left their backgrounds and followed the Buddha. This caused them to act against Buddhists and it became so bad that after Buddha left his body, his followers moved out of India to carry his words and preserve them. Thus, Buddhism grew more out of its country of origin, in fact, it flowered most in Japan.

The Dalit movement began in Maharashtra with Mahar uprising and conversion to Neo-Buddhism. It might have more than one prominent face today who seemingly is leading the way. It may be seen as one of the most powerful movements in the country today, which the brahmans all want to get on to the band wagon, for reasons of vote bank politics, or from being ostracised themselves, but it remains to see how many faces Buddhism will take, as it progresses in the hands of those who have adopted it as a potent religion for bringing in a social change in India. The question is, in the face of such pressure, will brahmans convert to Neo-Buddhism as so many are already seen to patronise it?

Yet, through all these ifs and buts, one thing comes through clearly – whatever we see is our perception of it. And our perception is after all only a perception and hence, since we as humans create a religion for our own need and I have at least not heard any God say that he has created that religion (if you have, please let me know), be it Buddhism or any other religion, it is the creator’s right, to bring out as many versions and interpretations of the same religion. However, it is equally important to remember that all are only perceptions of what we see the world as or what the need of society at large is. The real truth is: All things and feelings are transitory, forever changing, never one Truth. They vary as perceptions change. What is now is not, in the next the same. And there is no God, not even The Buddha, who has left his body 2600 years ago and who in his talks warned, I am told, his followers – If you see The Buddha on your way, kill him!

But he was talking of the spiritual path, not a social one, per say. Yet, a practicing Buddhist causes change in society outside, because he has changed inside.

To summarise, I would say that although there is on the surface a distinct difference between the purpose of traditional Buddhist practice and Neo-Buddhism, at one level they come together – they both work towards change, one from within and the other from without. But, that is only on the surface. Ultimately, they meet on a common ground – Change! Be it society or be it at the conscious level.

Note: As I have heard the meaning of - If you see The Buddha on your way, kill him - speaks of one who is striving towards nibbana, which is a path, one might start with a teacher for guidance but then it is a very individual one and must be travelled on one’s own steam. Not even a crutch like Buddha is welcome. Therefore, on the path of self-realization, the teacher including the Buddha himself must be done away with finally.

This article is inspired by a scholarly book – Mahar, Buddhist and Dalit by Johannes Beltz Published by Manohar Publishing & Distributors, 4753/23, Ansari Road, Daryaganj, New Delhi 110 002 and distributed by: Foundation, 4381/4 Ansari Road, Daryaganj, New Delhi 110 002 Price: Rs 750

The Hindu report on 29th August, 2010, In search of an identity by Ananth Krishnan, Sunday magazine section, page 7, (see link,9467,0,0,1,0 ) even sections of Chinese are taking to the Buddhist path.