CasteAnd Caste-Based Discrimination Among Indian Muslims –
Part 4 – Early Anti-Aryan Movements in India
By Masood Alam Falahi
(Part 4 of Masood Alam Falahi’s Urdu book Hindustan Mai Zat-Pat Aur Musalman (‘Casteism Among Muslims in India’))
(Translated From Urdu by Yoginder Sikand, for NewAgeIslam.com)
It is a law of nature that when oppression reaches its zenith, people begin to rise up in revolt. Oppressed people raise their voice and protest, refusing to accept their conditions. Yet, there is no guarantee that their revolutionary stirrings will necessarily succeed. This is precisely what happened in the case of numerous revolutionary movements that emerged against Brahminism in the early period of Indian history. The Shudras and a large section of the Vaishyas were, from the very beginning, victims of the oppression of the Brahmins and, therefore, harboured deep resentment against them. The Kshatriyas had entered into an alliance with the Brahmins, patronising the latter in return for the religious sanction they received from them for their rule. Yet, a large section of the Kshatriyas became increasingly resentful of Brahminical hegemony and despotism. This was reflected, for instance, in the emergence of powerful anti-Brahminical movements led by Mahavir and Gautam Buddha, both of them scions of ruling Kshatriya clans.
Jainism and Buddhism
It is not clear if Mahavir was committed to ending untouchability. Unlike the Buddha, he did not mount a radical critique of the caste system, although, to begin with, all castes were welcome, at least in theory, in the Jain fold. It seems that Mahavir did not disagree with the Brahminical theory that birth in a particular caste is determined by actions in one’s previous life or lives.
In contrast to Mahavir, the Buddha launched a frontal attack on the caste system, and welcomed people of all castes to the community that he spawned. Yet, he proved unable to extirpate the caste system, which, by then, had become deeply-rooted in the Indian psyche. It cannot be said that destroying the caste system was his principal concern or mission, but it is true that the ideology ofvarna was not the basis of the society he wanted to bring into being. Undeniably, the Buddha powerfully decried casteism and Brahminical chauvinism and insisted on love and concern for all creatures. The Buddha is said to have advised his one of his followers thus:
O bhikku! Just as the Ganga, Jamuna and all other rivers flow into the sea and lose their earlier names and locations and start being called as the sea, similarly, when Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras, the four varnas, following my advice, join the Sangha, they lose their earlier family, customs and names and come to be called as bhikkus.[i]
From this quotation it is clear that while the total destruction of the caste system was not the intention of the Buddha, he passionately opposed caste-discrimination, which was the basis of the Brahminical or Hindu religion and society. This is readily apparent when the Buddha says, ‘Because of goodness and purity a lowly man becomes a Brahmin. No one is truly a Brahmin by birth. Rather, only by good deeds can one become a true Brahmin.’ Elsewhere, he stresses, ‘No one is a Chandal or a Brahmin by birth. Only by virtue of his actions does he become a Brahmin or a Chandal.’ Similarly, he lays down, ‘He alone is a true Brahmin who practices truth, love, cleanliness and mercy, who is generous and conquers his desires, and who has freed himself from ignorance and sin.’[ii]
It would not be wrong to say that these lofty ethical commandments of the Buddha failed to make much of a dent in the edifice of caste or greatly undermined Brahminism. One reason was that Buddhism gradually veered in the direction of world renunciation, a tendency not at all conducive to social transformation. Consequently, demolishing the caste system and putting an end to the degradation of the oppressed castes did not remain a central focus of Buddhism in the centuries after the Buddha’s death. The bhikkus, having renounced the world, were not, as a rule, inspired to make efforts to critique caste oppression or to bring about radical social change. They were satisfied simply with following the rules of the Sangha.
The well-known historian V.R.Narla, who served for many years as member of the Rajya Sabha, mentions in his book The Truth About Geeta that the Buddha was a reformist, and not, as is often imagined, a social revolutionary. The social changes that the Buddha desired, which, Narla claims, were by no means radical, did not materialise. His teachings did not lead to the creation of a new and vastly different social order. It is true, Narla writes, that the Buddhist Sangha did not recognise caste within it, and that even men from what were regarded as the lowest castes could becomebhikkus and enjoy an equal status with other bhikkus. Yet, this did not mean that outside the Sangha caste ceased to play any role. While the Buddha insisted that caste would not matter inside the Sangha and that the caste of a bhikku made no difference, it can be said, Narla argues, that he silently consented to caste in the wider society outside the Sangha. It is thus factually incorrect, Narla maintains, to claim that the Buddha destroyed the chains of caste and liberated the oppressed castes.[iii]
From all this it appears that both Jainism and Buddhism preached religious equality but not radical social equality. Obviously, this approach to equality was hardly sufficient for the overall emancipation of the oppressed castes and for mounting an effective challenge to Brahminism. Yet, the message of religious equality preached by Mahavir and, especially, the Buddha attracted vast numbers of people from the oppressed castes. Along with the Shudras, many Vaishyas and several Kshatriyas, groaning under Brahminical hegemony, were attracted to these religions.
Gradually, Jainism and, especially, Buddhism managed to gain such popularity that, especially in large parts of northern India, Hinduism was gravely threatened with extinction. It was at this time that the centre of Brahminism shifted down south. The Brahminists burned with the desire for revenge, to bring back the Shudras, their former slaves, under their hegemony. They plotted all sorts of conspiracies to extirpate Jainism and Buddhism and to restore Brahminical rule. Brahmins began to infiltrate the Buddhist Sangha, to Brahminise or dilute the Buddha’s original teachings and to destroy the Sangha from within. At the same time, they connived with Hindu kings to launch a slaughter, on a massive scale, of Jains and Buddhists, of both priests as well as lay persons. Jain and Buddhist monasteries and temples across the country were brutally destroyed or converted into Hindu shrines. The Brahmin king Pushyamitra Sanga announced a huge reward for every head of a Buddhist bhikku brought to him. The Shaivite king of Gaur cut down the tree in Bodh Gaya under which the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment. As Professor R. S. Sharma very rightly notes, it must not be thought that the extermination of Buddhism from India was simply a result of the ideological or missionary counter-offensive of the Brahminical revivalists. Rather, a key role in this project was played by terror and violence unleashed against Jains and Buddhists on a very large scale, which left the remaining Buddhists with just two alternatives—to either flee to other countries or else to embrace Islam. Massive numbers of Buddhists chose both these options.[iv]
This argument is echoed by S.L.Sagar, a well-known Dalit Buddhist scholar, who writes that Hindu revivalist kings ensured the destruction of Buddhism in India by the use of the sword, massacring vast numbers of Buddhists all across the country. Many others were forced to flee to other lands. To reinforce their campaign of hate against the Buddhists, the Brahmins filled their books with scurrilous references to the Buddha and branded the Buddhists as Untouchables.[v] Similar terror tactics were used by Brahmins and their allied Hindu kings against the Jains, as has been noted by numerous scholars.
The Jains and Buddhists who remained in India were absorbed into the larger Hindu fold and deprived of their separate identity. The Jains probably deliberately adopted many Hindu practices in order to be considered more acceptable, or less offensive to, the Brahmins. In order to bring the Shudras, most of who had turned Buddhists, back into the Hindu fold and under Brahmin hegemony, the Brahminical revivalists made some key modifications in their own religion and adopted certain Buddhist practices, such as vegetarianism, and even claimed the Buddha to have been an incarnation of their god Vishnu. In this way, they plotted to make Hinduism appear more attractive or acceptable to the Buddhist Shudras so as to bring them, once again, under the domination.
To further reinforce their tirade against Buddhism the Brahminical revivalists concocted even more scriptures that contained foul abuses against the Buddha. This is clearly evidenced in the case of theMahabharat, which contains very negative references to Buddhists, and in the Ramayan, where Ram is made to call the Buddha a thief. The Brahminical revivalists sent out missionaries across the country to engage with Buddhist and Jain scholars in debate and vanquish them and then drag them into the Hindu or Brahminical fold. A figure who played a key role in this regard was the eight century Shankaracharya, a Brahmin from Kerala, who is credited with philosophical disputations with the Buddhists and with the ultimate triumph of Brahminism.
Elaborating on the final victory of the Brahmins over Buddhism, ‘Guru’ Golwalkar, supremo of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, writes in his Bunch of Thoughts that the Buddhists wanted to destroy India’s ancient heritage (read Brahminism) and make the Indians (read Hindus) lose their connection with their religion. He presents the Buddhists as ‘traitors’ to the ‘motherland’ and Shankaracharya as the ‘saviour’ of the Hindus and their religion, which he equates with Indian nationalism. He portrays Shankaracharya and his disciples as spreading ‘light’ amidst the darkness, which he equates with Buddhism.[vi] From Golwalkar’s writings it is clearly evident that votaries of Brahminism consider all religions as treacherous that advocate any degree of social equality.
Buddhism is now almost completely extinct in the land of its birth. It has been so completely Hinduised that today, according to the Indian legal system, Buddhists are considered to be Hindus in matters of personal law. In 1956, Dr. Ambedkar, the great leader of the oppressed castes, renounced Hinduism and converted to Buddhism in order to achieve liberation from the curse of caste. Just two years prior to his conversion, he had played a key role in the reform of Hindu Personal Law in the form of the passing of the Hindu Code Bill. Yet, even after his conversion to Buddhism, he did not demand a separate Buddhist Personal Law. Nor did he demand that Buddhists not be governed by Hindu Personal Law. This is an indication of how completely Buddhism and its adherents had been absorbed into the Hindu fold and had lost their separate identities. In the wake of Dr. Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism many hundreds of thousands of other Dalits have followed suit but, yet, their social conditions and status remain unchanged and they also continue to follow many Hindu practices and a range of Hindu beliefs.
This, then, briefly, is the tragic story of two of the key anti-Brahminical movements in the pre-Muslim phase of Indian history.
[i] Quoted in Sultan Ahmad Islahi, Islam ka Tassavur-e Masavat, Markazi Maktaba-e Islami, New Delhi, 1985, p.41
[ii] Ibid., p.42-44.
[iii] V. R. Narla. Geeta, Haqiqat ke Aine Mai (translated by Syed Shahid), Universal Peace Foundation, New Delhi, 2003, pp.137-165.
[iv] R.S. Sharma, ‘Firqawarana Tarikh Aur Ram ki Ayodhya’, in Khuda Bakhsh Library Journal (96), December 1994, p.137.
[v] S.L.Sagar, Daktar Ambedkar Bauddh Kyo Baney, Sagar Prakashan, Mainpuri, p.150.
[vi] Quoted in Salahuddin Usman, RSS: Talimat wa Maqasid, Nizami Offset Press, Lucknow, 1993, pp.205-06