Pioneering Social Justice

Ram Puniyani

Published in Issue II, July 2013

Today two and a half millennia after the birth of Mahatma Gautam Buddha, when we celebrate his Purnima, what strikes us most forcefully is the fact that while on one hand there is a great emphasis to pay obeisance to him, on the other hand, we realize that the noble ideas which he put forward then are still very relevant and necessary even today. Not only that, one is also pained to see that while the number of religious sects grew in his name, his mission of social justice for all, remains far from attained in his own land of birth.


Gautam Buddha, Siddharth was born in 536 B.C. and at the age of 29 left his home and hearth to find the solution to the misery of the society. After wandering for six years, he got enlightenment at the age of 35 under a pipal tree in Bodh Gaya, after which he spent all his life preaching the wisdom of social justice to the fellow beings.


His doctrine came in the backdrop of massive social changes. This was the time when collapse of clans, tribal ties and customs increased the class oppression. Large slave owning states were coming into being at that time. The central part of his teaching was that man, through his own efforts, without the mediators, could seek the attainment of nirvana. In changing social dynamics of the first millennium BC, Buddhism was amongst the major Shramanic traditions, which challenged the hegemony of Brahminic tradition. Like other Shramanic traditions, it refused to accept the authority of Vedas and Brahmans. Brahminism was the ideology, which supported the status quo of social hierarchy. In contrast to this, Buddha put forward the doctrine of ‘impermanence’, the idea of constant change in social production and social relations. In contrast to the blind faith, he emphasized the role of reason and individual effort in search for liberation. It is interesting to note here that, while the Brahminic precepts excluded Shudras and woman from the knowledge and used the exclusive elite language, Sanskrit, Buddha opened his path for all and preached in Pali and Prakrut, the language of the average people. He opened up his Sanghas to all the castes and to both the genders. He focused his attention to the worldly problems rather than getting dragged in the debates of soul and Brahma.


His Ashtangika Marg, eight fold path for elimination of human misery comprised of right observation, right determination, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right exercise, right memory and right meditation.


This simple message, away from the elite centric Brahminical discourses, appealed to the people in large numbers. It showed a path of liberation to the low castes from the upper castes and also to women for a better status. One of the remarkable aspects of Buddhist teaching is the emphasis on democratic norms. Collective community decisions were projected as the guarantee for the survival of the community and interests of all the members of community. Democratic norms, social justice and gender equality saw their emergence in the teachings of Buddha.


The interaction between Brahmanism and Buddhism changed and influenced each other. To begin with, the Brahminical rituals changed and adopted the principle of non-violence towards cattle. On the other side, the Buddhist Sanghas started getting corrupted and influenced by some of the Braminical values of hierarchy and idol worship. They also started receiving rich-corrupting offerings from the affluent in society.


The conflict between Buddhism and Brahmanism went on at various levels. Shankar forcefully brought back the philosophy of status quo, upholding the eternal and infallible nature of Vedas, which according to him is the only source of knowledge. It recognized the impersonal deity of Brahma as real, dismissing the whole world of phenomenon as unreal. Accordingly, as only upper caste males could have the access to Vedas, so path of liberation was open only to upper caste males. At political level, kings like Pushyamitra Shunga and Mihirakul persecuted Budhhists in large number. Also as a message of humiliation to Buddhist teachings and Buddhism, Hindu king Shashank of Gauda cut off the Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya. The inner degeneration of Buddhist Sanghas and Brahminical counter-reaction practically wiped out Buddhism from the Indian soil, while it survived in different countries. The remaining job of destroying monasteries etc. was completed by the Turkish invaders who were lured by their wealth. Islam being against the idol worship gave these vandals the ideological cover for their evil acts.


It was during the freedom struggle and the accompanying secularization process, that Dr. Ambedkar and Dalits as a whole articulated their experience of oppressive character of prevalent Hinduism, i.e. Brahminical Hinduism. Dr. Ambedkar went on to say after exhausting his patience that “I was born a Hindu, I had no choice about that, but I will not die a Hindu” in 1935 and after a deep study of Buddhism he decided to embrace this religion in 1956 along with his followers. He also saw the Indian History as Revolution (Buddhist phase) and counter-revolution (the Brahminical reaction-Shankar, Pushyamitra Shung etc.) Since then, large mass of Dalits and other subalterns have been looking forward to Buddhism as a possible route to salvation from the miseries of this world, which are aplenty for them.


With the resurgence of communal politics clothed in the attire of Hindutva (Brahminical Hinduism based religious Nationalism, akin to Islamism, the most overt manifestation of which is Taliban), one is getting a feeling of roll back on the processes, which stood for Social Justice. The heightened importance being given to Sanskrit, the introduction of courses in astrology and training of priests in Brahminic rituals in Universities, are a newer counter-revolution to the secularization process, which has been going on in the country through the ideological and political activities of the likes of Jotiba Phule, Ambedkar, Gandhi, and Communists.


The current strategy of this Neo-Brahminical counter-reaction is quite diverse. On one hand, it wants to co-opt Buddha as the one who was a mere vehicle of ‘traditional Hindu values’. Hindutva ideologues at deep level recognize the mass appeal of Buddhist teachings having a libratory potential for Shudras and women, so they are cleverly sidetracking the social attention from his teachings by asserting that Buddha said nothing new. Hope, this Buddha Purnima, the dalit politics will wake up to the threats to the teachings of Buddha from those who are out to convert him in to a mere ninth avatar of Vishnu.

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