Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Buddhism and Brahmanism

Buddhism and Brahmanism

Gail Omvedt



In his Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Ancient India, Dr. Ambedkar states: “The history of India is nothing but a mortal conflict between Buddhism and Brahmanism.” This is, in part, his counter to the Marxist view of history as nothing but a history of class struggles; it is also a statement about what he saw as the essential feature of Indian civilization. As Ambedkar saw it, the crucial conflict was not between Brahmans and non-Brahmans, nor between Aryans and non-Aryans (a theory which he rightly rejected), nor was it a conflict between the Vedas and the rest of Indian tradition. Rather it was between two world views, both generated within India itself. This was the basic theme of my “Open Letter to Bangaru Laxman.”

The problem with the Hindutva position has not been that it seeks to value and to emphasize the greatness of ancient Indian culture, but rather that is chooses exactly the wrong aspects to value. I should first dispose of the “Aryan theory,” since some have mistaken my position on this. Whether as presented by Max Muller and the Europeans, or by Lokmanya Tilak, or by Jotirao Phule, it fails both empirically and as a satisfying explanation of Indian history,. As it is usually taken, the “Aryan theory” is all of a piece in seeing the basic conflict as between Aryans and non-Aryans, it sees the Aryans as invaders who destroyed the Indus civilisation and established the caste system with the conquered indigenous inhabitants turned into slaves and shudras.

The historical evidence shows that while Indo-European speakers did come from outside, they came in various groups and waves. There is no archaeological evidence that they destroyed the Indus civilization, though there is a good deal of evidence from the Rig Veda that the Vedic peoples looked on others as dark-skinned inferiors, scorned them, and treated them as enemies; and the idea that the upper castes are descended from Aryans and the lower castes from the conquered natives is simply unscientific:

India is a land of fairly complete racial intermixing. The social fact remains, though, that many people believe, if not in the “Aryan theory” as such, that they themselves are the lineal and social descendants of Aryans - and this is the most damaging aspect.

This also means that the Vedas are important not so much in themselves as for what they were made to be in the later development of Brahmanism. For their times, they were a grand work of literature and speculation. But, Brahmanism as it later developed during the first millennium BC, in conflict with the shramana traditions and especially with Buddhism, took them as something more than this: reinterpreting their basic themes, and using the very letter “Purush sukta” as a justification, it built on them a justification for their own religious and social superiority and for varnashrama dharma.

It is this, and it is the forbidding of knowledge of the Vedas to shudras and women, that was the major negative step. It is no wonder that the Vedas evoked both a mystique, and later a scorn for them among large sections of the masses. In the first millennium B.C., however, at the time of the developing agricultural- urban civilization, the rise of surplus, of cities and trade, the emergence of a truly dynamic and open society, a major ideological conflict broke out between the two trends of Buddhism and the developing Brahmanism.

This conflict was at a philosophical as well as a social and political level. At a social level it was expressed as a basic conflict between a world view emphasising “Being” and one emphasising “Becoming”. This was not, as one commentator has it, the difference between “Fulness” and “Void.” The Buddhist stress on impermanence, or becoming, was not a belief in nothingness; existence was real, but it was transitory.

Even the later philosopher Nagarjuna, who brought in the concept of sunyata, was only arguing against the notion that somehow there were ultimate forces or things which had a permanent reality of their own or swabhava. He was not describing sunyata as a void.

Buddhist insistence on becoming and the lack of an essential being had social implications as well. For the developing theory of Brahmanism, essence became extended to the social world, with the dividing up of society into parts: the Brahman, Ksatriya, Vaishya, and Sudra had the characteristics of their varna as part of their essential being, Manu, for instance, writes that the Brahman “may, however, make a sudra do the work of a slave, whether he is brought or not bought; for the self=existent one created him to be the slave of the priest. Even if he is set free by his master, a servant (sudra) is not set free from slavery; for since that is innate in him, who can take it from him?” (The Laws of Manu, Penguin, p.196).

Even in the Bhagavad Gita, this notion of the essential nature and Dharma of the different castes is stressed, for Krishna tells Arjuna both at the beginning and the end that it is better to do one’s own duty, however badly performed, than another’s duty well done. Here the idea of svadharma is a statement for the duty of the ksatriya to fight; it implied then that of the sudra to serve. In contrast to this, the Buddha identified human beings in terms of what they do. This is stated in the Sutta-Nipta, “What is a Brahman” (Book 3, Sutta 9), the Buddha is asked by Vasettha, a Brahman, to settle a debate between him and a friend about whether it is “birth” or “Life” that makes a Brahman. The Buddha replies that whereas grass and trees, insects, snakes, fish, and birds have diverse species - he used the term jati - among humans this is not so. “Men alone show not that nature stamps them as different jatis. They differ not in hair, head, ears or eyes, in mouth or nostrils, not in eyebrows, lips, throat, shoulders, belly, buttocks, back, or chest.” He then goes on to say that one who lives by keeping cows is a farmer or kassako; one who lives by handicrafts is a tradesman or sippiko; one who lives by selling merchandise is a vanijjo, one who lives by services done for hire is a pessiko or wage-worker; one who lives by taking things not his is a robber; one who lives by warfare is a yodhajivao or soldier; one who lives by sacrificial rites is a yajako or priest; one who rules is a monarch or raja. Interestingly, the Buddha does not here use the common terms for the four varnas, including Sudra or Ksatriya; rather it is terms that today still survive as roots for functional occupations.

All the evidence shows that the caste system, or varnashrama dharma, hardly existed in its realised form in the time of the Buddha; it was rather a project of many Brahmans who developed it through the centuries, supported by philosophical developments and religious teachings and above all, by the power of kings. The sutta quoted above shows another important feature of the times: that “brahmanism” was not to be identified with all brahmans, that many of them in fact resisted, it, and many joined as followers and supporters of the Buddha. Just as there is no “essence” which determines the moral choices and actions of the different castes, so many born Brahmans rejected the theory of birth, essence, and caste and became supporters of different philosophies- and so the anti-caste movement today has to be wary of identifying “Brahmanism” with born Brahmans.

(This article was published in Indian Reporter in 2001)
Courtesy: www.dalitrights_kerala.blogspot.com

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