Dalits and Buddhism

Pratap Tambay

Published in Issue V, April 2014

The key problems of the Dalits are caused by the exploitative thought, speech and action structures common to the social life of communities in India. These structures are expressions of the exploitative social grammar embedded in the Hindu scriptures. This grammar looks logical and harmless if interpreted in its descriptive sense. But it has over time morphed into a prescriptive grammar, gained unprecedented legitimacy and drives social life of Indian communities hidden under the camouflage of an insidious value system. This value system is based around the concept that the value of the life of the tiniest animal to the universe is equal to the value of the life of the largest animal in the universe. Here again, this seems consonant with modern views of the structure of the universe and seems logical and harmless, since it adequately describes reality. The problem again is that over time, this value system morphed into a prescriptive value system, whereby individual’s social mobility is limited and constrained by birth and death. Due to the above nature of the Hindu scriptures, the Dalits at the bottom of the structure continue to suffer and those above them manage not to feel guilty about it. It is clearly in the interest of the non Dalits to perpetuate the structure. There is little incentive for them to support rebellion by Dalits against the structure. Many of them are unable to see the complete unfairness of the system at all times, since it’s not their problem. Non Dalits do not have the looted (by birth) destinies which typifies the Dalits. Most have not seen the pain, hunger and powerlessness without recourse which is a permanent feature of Dalit lives. Finally, the structure has so much legitimacy now that most non Dalits may never be able to rid themselves of the unfairness of it all. And since they are not too unhappy with it, their efforts to modify it are always going to be tentative. They are unlikely to initiate a cleanup of their own scriptures in a hurry. But liberation of the Dalit community requires breaking free of the stranglehold of Hindu scriptures. In fact it is mandatory. Burning copies of these scriptures is only symbolic liberation. The root cause of the problems of the Dalits are the very core nature of the Hindu religion. So liberation for Dalits requires complete abandonment of that religion. It requires burning away all the impurity in ones mind caused by these scriptures. But this is only the first step. The important next step is to imbibe something which will provide adequate structure for ones personal and social life. Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar investigated many such alternatives and chose Buddhism. Most people, who sincerely walk on the path that Dr. Ambedkar walked in investigating alternatives to Buddhism and choosing among them, are unlikely to arrive at any other choice. Buddhism is a very good alternative, especially in the Theravada version, which retains the words of the Buddha in their pristine purity. The message of the Buddha is simple, clear and complete. Dalits are anyway moving towards it. Any other choice will create problems for the Dalits. But that part of the story of the relevance of Buddhism to Dalits is well documented and I will not repeat that history here. Till date, the Dalit movement has been past focused and limited to symbolic battles and victories, due to the very stage of the struggle. But, with the erosion of state power (and reservations) in the 90’s, along with the increase in informedness and increasing political awareness of the masses, the Dalits are now ready for an acceleration in the Dalit movement. In fact, if the movement does not accelerate, then the Dalit masses, which had started stirring a little, may go back to sleep. And Dalit elite, falling prey to the propaganda of the hindutva brigade may betray the Dalit movement. The risk of failure may be high, but the risk of inaction is certainly higher. The opening provided by the current break from the onslaught of the hindutva brigade must be capitalized on. We must initiate strategies to prevent the hindutva brigade from gaining strength. The social, political and economic focus of the Dalit movement will never fully solve the problems of the Dalits completely due to reasons discussed above. This is becoming more and more obvious day by day. Dalits need to break from the past and create their selves anew. Buddhism is the direct way of doing this. Building self-respect without building other-hatred and yet building a self-sufficient and independent way-of-life is possible easily through full-fledged option of the Buddhist religion. I would exhort all Dalits to convert to Buddhism if they haven’t already. If they have, I would request them to re-dedicate themselves to becoming better Buddhists in all aspects of their lives. One of the good ways of doing this would be to do a 10 day course at various centres of the Vipassana Research Institute (www.dhamma.org). As per Gail Omvedt’s biography, Dr Ambedkar travelled to Burma and requested the monks there to come and preach in India. They did not come at that time. But the Vipassana Research Institute owes its origin to the monks of Burma. They came late. Perhaps they should have come earlier. But that is less relevant. They are now here. Dalits should queue and benefit from the dhamma in its purest form. Dr. Ambedkar would have certainly wanted it to be that way. After all the most direct resistance against the hindutva brigade is to move away from their core – i.e. the Hindu religion. With love towards all and malice towards none.

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