Showing posts with label India. Show all posts
Showing posts with label India. Show all posts

26 November 2010

Writing in India

For some time I have wanted to write a review of an article by Johannes Bronkhorst, now almost 30 years old.[1] The title is unprepossessing - "Some observations on the Padapāṭha of the Ṛgveda" - but the conclusions are interesting. The first part of his article recaps an earlier article that discusses the relative ages of the two forms of the Ṛgveda text. These two forms are Saṃhitāpāṭha and Padapāṭha. The Saṃhitāpāṭha (Sp) is the text as it is spoken. Sanskrit writing very early on recorded a great deal more of the spoken language than does our English script. Particularly as we run words together in spoken language we change the sounds subtly. In Vedic these changes - known as sandhi 'junctures' - are meticulously notated in the written text. By contrast the Padapāṭha (Pp) is more like English writing in that it records only the words themselves. The Pp is generally supposed to have been composed as an aide de memoir to help keep the oral tradition accurate. The extant Pp is attributed to Śākalya who's dates are uncertain.

I cannot reproduce Bronkhorst's complex arguments for the relative dating of Sp and Pp, but he concludes that the recension of the Pp that has come down to us is older than the recension of the Sp. Bronkhorst, as is his way, tells us his conclusion at the beginning: "I know of one plausible explanation: the Padapāṭha of the Ṛgveda was written down from its beginning" (p.184); and then offers his evidence.

The first evidence I have already mentioned: that the way we speak English is like the Sp, and the way we write it is like the Pp. He is suggesting that the relationship between Sp and Pp is just like the relationship between spoken and written English. The second is that the Pp contains some signs such as the daṇḍa (punctuation mark) and avagraha (similar to an apostrophe for noting elisions: like n't for not) which only really make sense in writing - they have no phonetic value of their own, and do not affect pronunciation generally. Like English punctuation they make reading easier. Bronkhorst also mentions a rule in Pāṇini's grammar which relates to the use of iti in more or less the same way as Western scholars use sic. He says:
"Pāṇini puzzles over the question of how the [manuscript] of the Ṛgveda (= Padapāṭha) must be read such that a correct recitation (= Saṃhitāpāṭha) is the result." (p.185)
This suggests that Pāṇini is likely to have been working with a written text.

As Bronkhorst himself says, there is no unanimity on the date for the beginning of writing in India. Bronkhorst himself opts for the case made by Bühler [2] who places the date at about 800 BCE.
"If we accept Bühler's ideas, and estimate that it took the Brahmans about a century to adopt the alphabet and adjust it to their needs, the earliest possible date for [the written text] becomes 700 [BCE]. A later date must however be prepared." (p.186)
Perhaps Bronkhorst reflects the state of knowledge at the time he was writing, though it is hard to imagine 78 years having passed with no contribution. In any case the subject has definitely moved on since Bronkhorst's article. Compare Richard Salomon in Indian Epigraphy [3]:
Bühler's suggestion of an early date of ca. 800 BC, or possibly earlier, for the 'introduction of prototypes of the Brāhma letters' in India is hardly plausible in light of modern knowledge, but more cautious estimates such as that of A. B Kieth [4] that 'the real development of writing belongs in all likelihood to the fifth century' are not unreasonable. (p.13)
Salomon points out that both the literary and epigraphical evidence is "vague or inconclusive" (p.12). It is rather more conventional to date writing in Indian to the 4th century BCE because this is the earliest date that can be confirmed by inscriptions minus a century. [5] (This practice of adding or subtracting a century to allow things to develop is pretty standard for scholars, though I sometimes wonder how justified it is!). However Salomon (p. 12) notes that pottery shards with Brahmī script writing found in Sri Lanka in the 1990's are variously dated to the 6th-4th century BCE, with most recent articles opting for the later end of the spectrum (i.e. towards the 4th century). [6]

Writing did not develop spontaneously in India, but was adapted from outside models. There is ample evidence for contact between India and the rest of the world. Already by the time the Buddha was born (ca 480 BCE) the Achaemanids were exacting tribute from the north-west of India (as far as the Indus River), and possibly were a substantial presence. As proof of contact Bronkhorst cites the Biblical mention of aloe-wood in Numbers (xxiv.6) which may date from between 900-722 BCE. Unfortunately the materials used for writing in India were not always durable, and stone inscriptions were not widely used until the reign of Aśoka (who may well have been imitating the Persian kings in his inscriptions).

The earliest form of writing we know about is the Kharoṣṭhī script which is clearly modelled on the Aramaic script used by Achaemanid Persian administrators. The Brahmī script is less clearly modelled on an outside script, but most scholars still see a relationship to Aramaic. I accept the arguments of Steve Farmer and Michael Witzel that the Indus Valley script is a form of graphic communication, but does not represent language - i.e. it is not writing, but similar to graphic signs in Sumeria about the same time.[7]

The received tradition is that (religious) Indians were not interested in writing because sacred texts were memorised and passed on orally. Though of course this does not explain why merchants and administrators would not use it, especially when they were in direct contact with cultures that did use writing much earlier. Although the evidence for an absolute date for writing in India, after more than a century of study is, in Salomon's words "disappointingly inconclusive"; and although Bronkhorst cannot establish a relative date for the Ṛgveda Padapāṭha, except in relation to the Saṃhitāpāṭha, we see in his article a contradiction of the old chestnut that ancient Indians were not interested in writing. The Ṛgveda was written down early on, probably by the time of Pāṇini, which suggests that writing may well have been in use during the life time of the Buddha, or not so very long afterwards. The writing down of the Buddhist canon in the 1st century BCE, therefore, was not the radical innovation that it is sometimes portrayed as. As the recent discovery tells us, writing may have been in use in Sri Lanka for 3 or 4 centuries by that time.

What Bronkhorst shows is that the relationship to writing may have been more complex, both at any give time and across time, than we generally think.


  1. Bronkhorst, Johannes. 1982. "Some observations on the Padapāṭha of the Ṛgveda." Indo-Iranian Journal. 24: 181-189.
  2. Bühler, Johan Georg. Indian Paleography, edited by John Faithful Fleet. Bombay: Bombay Education Society's Press, 1904. (Reprinted by Oriental Books Reprint Copr. 1980)
  3. Salomon, Richard. Indian Epigraphy: a guide to the study of inscriptions in Sanskrit, Prakrit, and the other Indo-Aryan languages. Oxford University Press, 1998. [This is an excellent and authoritative guide to the history of writing in India]
  4. Salomon is citing from E.J. Rapson (ed.) 1922. Cambridge History of India, vol. 1 'Ancient India'. Cambridge University Press, p.126.
  5. e.g. A. L. Basham. The Wonder that was India. 3rd revised edition. Rupa & Co. 1967. Writing is down played to the extent of not being mentioned in many histories of India, e.g. Stein, Burton. A History of India. Blackwell,1998; Thapar, Romila. The Penguin History of Early India : from Origins to AD 1300. Penguin, 2002.
  6. I've seen the 6th century figure seized upon and used as evidence of Brahmī being invented in Sri Lanka.
  7. A good place to start is Farmer, Steve. A One-Sentence Refutation of the Indus-Script Myth. 2005-2008; also excellent is Steve Farmer, Richard Sproat, and Michael Witzel, The collapse of the Indus-script thesis: The myth of a literate Harappan civilization. Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies 11-2 (13 Dec. 2004): 19-57.

image: Ṛgveda Saṃhitāpāṭha 1.1-2.

09 April 2010

The Stream of Life

I was reading through Rune Johansson's Pāli Buddhist Texts and came across this little verse [1].
accayanti ahorattā
jīvatam uparujjhati
āyu khīyati maccānam
kunnadīnam va odakaṃ

Days and nights elapse
Vitality declines
Mortal life is exhausted
Like water in streams
We are used to using rivers as metaphors. We understand the idea of the ever changing stream of the river, flowing from head waters to the sea, especially if we come from moist temperate climates. But in North India there is another phenomena which may not be so familiar.

In Feb 2009 I was in Bodhgaya for the convention of the Triratna Buddhist Order. One day I took the time to walk a little out of town to cross the long bridge over the River Falgu (called the Nirañjana in the Buddha's day) to the little village of Senani (also called Sujata in association with the young women who is said to have offered the Bodhisatta some milk-rice after he gave up self-torture). In Senani the farmers still pull a wooden plough behind bullocks despite the fact the iron age began about three millennia ago and resulted in the original clearing of this land. However the fields looked green and productive on this side of the river, where there was only brown dry fields around Bodhgaya. On the edge of the village is a stūpa which was built to commemorate Sujata.

The accompanying image from Google earth [2] shows Bodhgaya and the Falgu/Narañjana, the Mahabodhi Temple complex, the bridge and Suajata's stūpa. Although the bridge is about 600 meters wide, as I walked accompanied by one of the ubiquitous 'school children' [3] of Bodhgaya, I saw only sand. The mighty river had completely dried up, and this was not even the hot season, this was during the coolish winter. This is what this image shows - the brown colour is sand, not water. At higher magnifications one can see the patterns and cart tracks in the sand, as well as the little hut next to the bridge that Śaiva sadhus occupy when it is dry. Pulling back even more one sees that the river peters out in both directions, though I think it probably forms a tributary of the Ganges during the monsoon. There is even a word for this phenomena in Sanskrit: vārṣikodaka 'having water only during the rainy season [varṣa]'.

Certainly I am not used to such contrasts. It occurred to me that the verse above had to be understood in this context - this cyclic flooding and then complete drying up of even substantial rivers. I could not have imagined life becoming exhausted like a small stream because I've (more or less) always lived on islands with abundant rainfall all year round. But in this region when even a large river can completely dry up, what chance does a small stream have? And the verse is saying that life is like a small stream in this region - it may flood, but soon is will disappear. The verse is much more compelling when seen in this context.

The use of the word jīvata is interesting. It begins as a past-participle of jīvati and therefore means 'lived', but comes to mean the life-span, or 'vitality' (itself from Latin vita 'life' and probably cognate with jīvata). The noun jīva is an important technical term in Jainism where it denotes a kind of soul which moves from life to life. The verse makes a contrast by choosing another word for life: ayu (Sanskrit āyus). We find this word in āyurveda which means something like the 'knowledge of life' i.e. a literal rending in English would be biology (though they do not quite mean the same thing!). Āyus is related to the Greek word æon, and to English 'eternal, always'. So buried in the history of these words is the notion of eternity, the belief or wish that life will go on and on.

The Canon records that these words were spoken to Māra in the Squirrel Sanctuary near Rājagaha in the heart land of the samaṇa movement. I've noted before that Johannes Bronkhorst has argued that the idea of rebirth came from this region from amongst the samaṇa groups of whom the Jains were pre-eminent in the Buddha's time [Rethinking Indian History]. Māra here argues that the jīvata rolls along like the chariot's wheel, he literally denies that days and nights pass and that life ends. The verse above is the Buddha's rely. The status of Māra is a long story - was he 'real', allegorical, metaphorical? One way we could take this story is as a psychodrama with Māra representing that part of our psyche which coined these words for life which has 'eternal' as a connotation. Māra is our refusal to face up to our own impending death. The refusal to face death is quite a common theme and I have dealth with it at least once before in my essay: From the Beloved.

However we read the verses I find it very helpful to have walked in that landscape when trying to get into the mindset I find in the Pāli texts.

  1. The reference is Saṃyutta Nikāya i.109 - pg 201-202 of the single vol ed. of Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation. [I'm tempted to offer a prize for anyone who knows what a 'felly' is without looking it up!]
  2. If you want a closer look at Bodhgaya on Google then the coordinates are: Latitude: N 24° 41.75, Longitude: E 84° 59.49
  3. The 'students' scam money out of tourists and pilgrims by asking them to buy school books for them, which they immediately sell back to the shop. This scam has a second level in which the dupe is invited to visit the school where the headmaster informs them that the child is out of school because they haven't paid their fees, which the generous dupe pays for them - 0nly to see them on the street again the next day. (It happened to a friend of mine!)

30 January 2009

Rethinking Indian History

Indian HistoryIn discussing the time of the Buddha it is axiomatic, especially in Buddhist accounts, that Brahminism was the main religion of the Āryan peoples who dominated the Ganges valley at that time. Buddhism is sometimes seen as a reaction against Brahmin orthodoxy, or even as a reform movement within it. While the latter view is clearly ridiculous, the former is backed up by many satirical and polemical texts which have Brahmins, and and their religion, in their sights. I have written about some of these before. The Brahmins are credited with the ideas of karma and rebirth, and with the idea of ātman as an immutable essence of the person. Also at this time, often viewed as an offshoot of Brahmanism were the Śramaṇa movements which denied the Vedic authorities and held a wild variety of views about the world and pursued a variety of religious practices, the most characteristic being severe austerity. Recently scholars have proposed a different model of India in the 5th century BCE in which the Brahmins were not dominant in the Magadha region and, in fact, did not become so until around the beginning of the common era.

Prof. Johannes Bronkhorst, building on a lifetime of Indological research, proposes that although speaking Indo-Āryan languages the Magadhans - centred around the area of modern day Bihar - were culturally distinct from the Brahmins of the western Kuru-pañcala region - the area around modern day Delhi. Bronkhorst suggests that, in fact, Brahmins saw the eastern Ganges valley region as wild and highly undesirable. Brahmins were moving Eastwards, none the less, and creating the conditions to extend their hegemony.

The idea of two cultures eventually merging is supported by archaeological evidence in the form of styles of pottery. One of the features which differentiated the Magadhans was the making of round funeral mounds (precursors of the stūpa). The Brahmins, who preferred square mounds, left negative comments about them in their texts. The two cultures preferred, at least for some time, different styles of government. A feature of Māgadha, for instance, was the small oligarchical state. It was in this kind of state, where a small number of senior men governed, that the Gotama the Buddha was said to have been born. Other Māgadhan states were more like city states ruled over by a king. Geoffrey Samuel, who has independently proposed a two culture model, suggests that the two regions developed contrasting images of kingship: the warrior king (cakravartin) and the wisdom king (dharmarājā) were associated with the western and eastern ends of the Ganges Valley.

Meanwhile, in Māgadha the śramaṇa tradition was developing a series of new religious ideas which were to revolutionise the Brahmin world view. It was in Māgadha that the three notions which came to define Indian religion were developed: karma, rebirth, and ātman (the immutable Self). Contrary to the received tradition, Bronkhorst argues that the early Upaniṣads show the Brahmins in the process of assimilating these ideas. They show at times, for instance in the Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad (BU), a form of rebirth (actually redeath, punarmṛtyu) not linked to karma; and then in the same text, in a section believed to be later in time, a version of rebirth linked to actions in life. In the first chapter of BU ātman often means simply "body".

The Jains believed that all actions - both voluntary and involuntary - accumulated 'dust' on the jīva or soul. This weighs the soul down to earth. Austerity can burn up old karma, allowing the soul to be lightened and eventually liberated. They therefore pursued self-mortification to extremes. It was this kind of practice which the Buddha is said to have engaged in during his time as an ascetic. The Ājivakas, although believing in the notion of karma, did not believe that it could be mitigated, and so were more or less fatalistic - one could be liberated but it would take 8,400,000 aeons whatever you did. However, both believed that, actions having consequences, the best thing to do was not to act, and this taken to the extreme resulted in lying down and dying from starvation or thirst. A less extreme version of this was to refrain from moving for long periods of time, and to reduce food to an absolute minimum - the basis of their austerity practices. It was the Ājivakas who first developed the idea of a 'self' which did not participate in the actions of the person, and was not sullied by the consequences of such actions - although it was still bound to continual rebirth.

Karma, Rebirth, and an independent eternal self were to become the pre-occupations of the Brahmins as we see in the Bhagavadgītā, a text which seems to define modern Hinduism if any text can. Brahmins gave rebirth their own spin. Karma changed from being the special ritual actions associated with the sacrifice, to being actions performed in accordance with one's caste duty (dharma). The self is shown by Kṛṣṇa to be untouched by actions and thus it is Arjuna's caste duty to slaughter his relatives in battle, and he is not to worry since the ātman (either his or his relatives') cannot be killed or stained by the apparently 'sinful' action of murder. What emerges in the earliest Upaniṣads is a kind of hybrid of the old Vedic sacrificial religions - with the gods Indra, Soma, Agni at the centre - and the new ideas which featured Brahman as a kind of universal principle, and as time went on as Brahmā a creator god.

Signe Cohen has shown that the Upaniṣads, as well as recording the ideas of the new hybrid Brahminism, highlight internal issues of authority. The Bṛhadāranyaka, for instance, asserts the value of the Yajurveda over the much older Ṛgveda. This can be seen in the pre-eminent position of Yajñavalkya (the legendary composer of the Yajurveda) and the relatively lowly Ṛgvedic priests whom he defeats in debates, and one of whom is shown being taught by a Kṣatriya which is a reversal of the Brahminical social order. So there were tensions within parts of the Brahmin community, with innovators vying for influence. Significantly, the Bṛhadāranyaka is associated with the eastern extreme of the Brahminical heartland - where it would have had a greater exposure to the new ideas. Although it is common to speak of "Upaniṣadic" ideas, practices, or texts, in fact, the Upaniṣads are very heterogeneous - both compared to each other and even, at times (in the BU, for instance), when comparing sections within a text.

Buddhism developed on the margins of Māgadha where it overlapped with the Brahminical territory. The Buddha rejected the mainstream Māgadhan religious views of the Jains and Ājivakas; rejected the new hybrid Brahmanism being developed by eastern Brahmins, often associated with the Yajurveda traditions; and rejected the traditional Vedic sacrificial religion. However, he appears to have been quite knowledgeable about each of them - at least enough to compose satires and polemics.

In my own research I have been exploring parallels in idiom between the Pali texts and the early Upaniṣads, especially the BU. The fact that the Pāli texts are aware of the themes and idioms of the BU may previously have suggested that the Buddha might have known about this text - taking into account that it was an oral tradition with several versions. However, we now have to be more cautious. The early Upaniṣads are dated earlier than the Buddha on the basis that the earliest Buddhist texts seem to be aware of Upaniṣadic themes. But now we may say that the Buddhists were as likely to be responding to these ideas in Jain or Ājivaka circles. Both BU and the Pāli texts might have been drawing on a common pool of Māgadhan ideas and language. And actually this makes better sense, because the Brahmins were jealous of their teachings and tended to keep them secret! Not being a Brahmin (by most accounts anyway, and despite having a good Brahmin surname - Gautama!) the Buddha wasn't in a position to know the contents of the secret teachings (which is one way of translating the word 'upaniṣad'). If the secret teachings were in fact a Brahminical adaptation of Māgadhan teachings, which the we can be fairly sure the Buddha was exposed to, then this would better explain their presence in the Pāli texts. We also know that some Pāli texts, particularly the Dhammapada, seem to have drawn on a common pool of wisdom verses which were not specifically Buddhist or Brahminical.

This is a very different picture of history. Admittedly it is somewhat speculative and will need to be tested with further research - the book is only a year old and likely only to be available in university libraries, although it draws on Bronkhorst's many previous publications. However, I think it is plausible, and that is already corroborated by Samuel and to some extent by Cohen. It is certainly a more nuanced view of India circa 500 BCE. Some work remains to be done to reassess earlier research to see if what we already know makes more sense in this framework than it did previously. My initial feeling is that it does make more sense.

One thing that it highlights is the folly of trying to understand the socio-historical aspects of Buddhism without reference to the context which the Buddha operated in. Certain ideas and practices make better sense in a broader perspective than Buddhists are usually operating in. Sadly, Bronkhorst's book is a very expensive item at more than £130, and not likely to be available outside major university libraries. But you should be able to get your local public library to get it on "Inter-Library Loan". Cohen is similarly very expensive, but happily Samuel's is more reasonably priced and a good read.

  • Bronkhorst, Johannes. 2007. Greater Magadha : studies in the culture of early India. Leiden : Brill.
  • Cohen, Signe. 2008. Text and authority in the older Upaniṣads. Leiden : Brill
  • Samuel, Geoffrey. 2008. The Origins of Yoga and Tantra : Indic Religions to the Thirteenth Century. Cambridge University Press.

Alexander Wynn has just published a thoughtful review of Greater Magadha on H-net reviews.

26 January 2008

Ritual Purity or Rank Superstition?

Many Indian ideas about ritual purity, especially with respect to the body, have made their way into contemporary Buddhism. I want to look at a few examples of this. An examination of the origins of these ideas in Brahminical thought may be cause to re-assess the relevance in contemporary Buddhism.

A couple of years ago I was showing a friend of a friend (a follower of Tibetan Buddhism) some of my thangka paintings. One of these hung at the foot of my bed so I could see it first/last thing. "You don't sleep with your feet pointed at that do you?" - there was a note of shock in the question. "It's very bad karma" she said. I pondered this for some time before coming to any understanding of it. I knew already that Buddhists were not supposed to point their feet at shrines. But why? Because in India the feet are considered ritual impure. But again why? The feet are ritually impure partly because they are in contact with the earth, and the dirt and shit that cover it. But again why the ritual impurity? I think it goes back to the famous Purisa hymn in the Rig Veda. In this cosmogonic myth the four social groups - Brahmins, Ksatreyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras - are born from the various parts of Brahma's body. It later versions it is Prajapati's body. The Shudras, serfs, are born from Brahma's feet. The Shudras are not the lowest rung on the Hindu scale, but they are the lowest rung of the people who are not considered outcasts or untouchable. Shudras are not permitted to enter temples, nor to hear the sacred mantras. This is so much a part of Indian culture - one touches the feat of a respected elder in greeting for instance - that even the new Buddhists honour it though they are frequently from backgrounds which high caste Hindus consider beyond the pale, so ritually polluting that their touch requires elaborate purification rituals involving ironically cow shit and piss. When in 1923 Dr Ambedkar drank from a tank in a Brahmin village, they tipped a load of cow shit into it to "purify" it!

But feet are not ritually polluting in Western cultures. Although foot odour is universally considered uncool at best, it is the odour not the foot itself that offends. The foot is by contrast sometimes even an object of desire in the west! Where I come from it is de-rigour, and completely natural, to go about in bare feet in summer. So why am I adopting this Brahminical value into my practice of Buddhism, which if anything denies the validity of notions of ritual purity?

Right shoulder to stupa
In the centre of the warehouse I worked in two years ago is a 7m high stupa which is both beautiful and impressive. Buddhists traditionally keep a stupa, or any revered object or person, to their right-hand side. Some people who work in the warehouse go to elaborate lengths to go around the stupa clockwise, to keep right shoulder to the stupa. Some go about it quietly, while others are (at times) vocally critical of people who dare to go anti-clockwise, showing their left-side to the stupa. But why I asked? What is the point? Because, I was told, it is traditional. I am not superstition person and I found this puzzling. Again I think this goes back to Brahminical ideas of ritual purity. Even today in India the left hand is impure because it is used for cleaning the anus after taking a dump. The Indians use water and not toilet paper for this. So the left hand is unclean, often quite literally, and one eats with the right. Hence if you revere someone you keep your left hand away from them. Additionally the outcastes were required to dress with their left shoulder uncovered, while the higher castes uncovered their right shoulder - this uncovering the right shoulder is a constant, if entirely incidental, theme of the Pali Canon.

Now I'm right handed and I wipe my arse with my right hand. So by the logic of ancient India my right side is impure and I should either go clockwise around the stupa, but walk backwards; or go the other way. But after I wipe my bum I wash my hands and consider them clean at that point. No literal or ritual pollution! My own belief that it is the quality of awareness of the significance of the stupa which is important - and I can go any way around the thing if I have the right attitude.

Tantra and ritual impurity.
My other example emerges out of the antinomian practices of the Tantra. Antinomian means "released from moral obligations". It originates in a Christian context, but with reference to Indian religion it relates to actions which are ritually impure. So the tantric yogin chooses a consort from the untouchable castes, frequents a cremations ground and messes about with bones and skulls, and consumes meat, alcohol and sexual fluids. These are some of the most polluting things a caste Hindu could do. The point is that the Buddha does not make distinctions like pure/impure . So the yogin experiences these intensely polluting activities with a view to maintaining their equanimity in the face of very strong provocation, to overcome their cultural conditioning around the notion of pollution. For the first time there is a sense of cross-over with western culture. We too have taboos around death that mean human remains are disposed of very purposefully, and according to laws and special customs. However contact with death is not ritually polluting as it is for the Brahmin - it does not require lengthy ritual cleansing for instance. Meat eating, drinking liquour, and even the odd mouthful of sexual fluid, are not particularly taboo in western society. Having sex with a low class person might be seen as tacky in some circles, but again not ritually polluting in a way that requires ritual cleansing.

So it would seem that adopting Indian antinomian practices which are entirely "nomian" (if there is such a word) in the west is a bit pointless. And yet the shrines of Westerners, and Westerners themselves, are adorned with skulls, and bones, and other reminders of death - although I think the significance is lost on most people who simply see them as reminders of impermanence. We make a big deal about the "left handed" tantra, which once again invokes the Indian left-hand-bum-wiping thing and involves acting out polluting actions, and contrast it with right-handed tantra in which one only imagines doing the dirty thing. But to us those things aren't dirty, we aren't ritually polluted by them. Some things we may find unethical, and in that case we may feel remorse if we eat meat or drink liquor, it is not the same thing as ritual pollution.

I doubt that traditional Buddhists reading this are going to want to change the tradition. Some of these things go very deep - are embedded in our canons of scripture for instance. But the Buddha was quite critical of superstition (mangalikā) and we can read for instance the Mangala Sutta as a critique of superstition and a call to just practice the Dharma - i.e. to make yourself pure by good behaviour, not through rituals; have good fortune (also mangala) through reaping the benefits of good behaviour, not through omens, divination, or other superstitions and/or rituals. Let us not turn back the clock on the age of reason in adopting this ancient religion, let us investigate the origins of superstitions and decide whether they are still relevant, and move on if they are not.


19 January 2007

Jai Bhim!

Dr B R AmbedkarThink of an Indian politician - chances are if you are a Westerner you either thought of Gandhi or one of his scions. I usually don't like to write about politics or politicians since it only seems to encourage them. In this case however there is a definite tie in with Buddhism in India, so I'll break my own rule just this once.

Now if I asked an Indian Buddhist the same question they would most likely not think of a Gandhi, they would be more likely to think of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. In fact if you asked them about Gandhi they might be quit dismissive of him - which can come as a bit of a shock to those who think of him as a kind of saint who did so much for the oppressed people of Indian. So why would an Indian Buddhist think like this?

The simple answer is this: caste. Caste is the system of social stratification which goes back a 100 generations in India. It attained the status of immutable law early in this era, and is still central to Indian society. Most Indian Buddhists were born into social circumstances, i.e. into a caste, which not only oppressed them, but tried to cut off any escape routes. Caste is strongly linked to the Hindu idea of karma - which has similarities and differences from the Buddhist idea. The main thing here is that one's station in life is determined by the caste one is born into, and that is determined by actions in a past life. If one is born into poverty, oppression, poor health, and few opportunities, then one must deserve it, and one must accept it as one's lot. Clearly this ideology could only have been thought up by a privileged elite. Some castes were thought to be so low down the evolutionary scale, to have committed such heinous crimes in their past life and so brought penury upon themselves, that the mere touch of them polluted a higher caste Hindu - they were the untouchables.

Dr Ambedkar was born into the Mahar caste and at that time the Mahars were untouchable. This typically meant that they were forced to do the dirtiest, lowest paid, most dangerous jobs, denied education, and oppressed in various other ways. Ambedkar managed to escape his fate. Ambedkar found a liberal and philanthropic mentor and sponsor who paid for his education. Mind you he still suffered severe prejudice - and famously had to sit outside the classroom of his primary school listening to lessons through the window. Ambedkar persevered and eventually gained a doctor of law degree from Harvard University. He went on to become the first law minister of India in the Gandhi lead government. Ambedkar was the architect of the constitution of India, and importantly for his people succeeded in the abolition of untouchability.

Clearly Ambedkar was a great man who inspired his people to raise themselves out of the dirt. But why the antipathy towards Gandhi? Gandhiji opposed Ambedkar's desire to free all Indians from caste. Ambedkar proposed abolishing caste altogether, but Gandhi resisted him. He even went on one of his famous hunger strikes to force Ambedkar to back down and water down his anti-caste legislation. Gandhi believed that caste was what held Indian society together. He wanted to maintain caste duty for Hindus which meant dirty hard labour for the untouchables, but to show that it wasn't personal he suggested changing their designation from untouchables to harijans or "children of god". Gandhi spoke out against oppression, against religious intolerance, but he also supported the status quo of the caste system. Gandhi was a Brahmin. The cynical would simply say that was protecting the interests of his caste, or perhaps that he knew that high caste power brokers in India would not accept the ex-untouchables as equals.

1949 came and India became independent and the people formerly known as untouchables did begin to be able to make a few changes. But caste prejudice persisted and the uplift of the oppressed people was resisted. Ambedkar decided that Hindu prejudice against them was too strong. After lengthy consideration he became a convert to Buddhism, and led millions of his people to abandon Hinduism and embrace the Buddhadharma. This did not end the prejudice however nor the persecution, but it helped to give these oppressed people a vision of freedom for themselves and their children.

People who are born into those communities which were formally designated as untouchable, now refer to themselves as Dalit - oppressed. The Dalits revere Ambedkar as a bodhisattva, as a saviour who showed them how they could be free. They don't revere Gandhi because Gandhi was unwilling to treat them as equals. Attacks on Dalits continue to be common place in part so India. On 26 September 2006 Ambedkar's home state of Maharastra was rocked by the brutal rape and murder of the family of a Dalit man. The attack was allegedly committed by high caste Hindus in revenge for his opposition to the building of a road through his fields, and sparked a series of protests and strikes in the State.

October the 14th 2006 marked 50 years since the conversion of Dr Ambedkar to Buddhism. His followers greet each other with Jai Bhim! which means Victory to Bhimrao (Ambedkar)!

I recommend the BBC radio program Escaping Caste