Refreshing the soil

The path of Buddhism can end the curse of caste.

All that ails this civilisation – the inequality, the poverty, the filth – is because of caste. So too the violence, subterranean sometimes but always palpable, ready to surface. Every day, even sixty full years after Independence, the sun sets in India on a landscape disfigured by violence, a violence perpetrated by caste Hindus on people they consider 'untouchable'. Physical violence, psychological violence, the violence of enforced separation, of enforced poverty, the violence of hunger and despair: for 200 million Dalits and 50 million Adivasis, India is an intensely violent land.

In his monumental A Study of History, A J Toynbee points out that civilisations have always disintegrated because of internal strife. When it came, the external blow was only the coup de grace, the final act in a long series of catastrophes caused by crises within. Indic civilisation, founded on Hindu notions of 'graded inequality', has always been vulnerable. Yet besieged as it is today by external threats both real and imagined, and impending ecological collapse, India will require all of its citizens to stand shoulder to shoulder and work together for the common good.

One might think that the Republic of India should be able to muster such cooperation. But for the caste Hindus, what does 'republic' really mean for them? What do notions of equality, liberty and especially fraternity mean for them? These are the same people who shouted the loudest about apartheid in South Africa, the same people who work themselves into a frenzy when their compatriots are beaten up in Australia and elsewhere, yet they are largely uncaring, or even applaud, when Dalit students in India's premier medical university are segregated and beaten.

At the same time, the dystopian Republic of India has an outstanding Constitution, authored by a genius forged in the crucible of caste discrimination. And it was this genius, again, that foretold the rest, for B R Ambedkar himself observed that political equality meant nothing if there was no social equality.

For any revolution to succeed on the ground, it has to rest on theoretical constructs that can provide both inspiration and sustenance. In turn these theoretical constructs need a receptive social milieu for them to take root and flower. How can Brahminism or Hindu Dharma provide such soil, rooted as they are in principles antipodal to notions of equality? The reason the Indian Constitution has failed to provide a defence against casteist violence and discrimination is that there is little soil prepared to absorb its meaning. When the Hindu scriptures and epics dismantle nearly every construct of the Constitution through their teachings and examples, how can it come as a surprise that the Constitution is a meaningless document and that Indian society remains at war with its own people?

What, then, is the way forward? The answer, again provided by Ambedkar, is conversion – and, given the weight of history, conversion to Buddhism. Buddhism has a record of fighting Brahminism and caste. For a while, during the Mauryan times, it did seem that notions of caste had weakened, as discernible in the diverse backgrounds of scholars at Nalanda University, for example.

This was perhaps so, until Hindu reaction extirpated Buddhism from the land. And it is in Buddhism again that Ambedkar found hope, the hope of recovering the inviolable dignity of each and every individual.

It might seem to some that Buddhist converts have simply created another 'caste'. But this cannot be the case, because anybody can become a Buddhist. The Buddha's disciples came from every caste and, as with rivers merging into the ocean, lost their caste identities. Buddhism has provided an antidote to the psychological disease of caste-based hierarchy since the Sakyamuni's times, and it can do so now, today.

The future of caste? Caste had better die in the near future, for otherwise it will be Indic civilisation that is dead.

~ Shiva Shankar is a Buddhist Ambedkarite who lives in Chennai.

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