Dalit History Month: Reviving Buddha’s Dhamma, an inheritance entrusted by Ambedkar
It is very difficult for Dalits divided on many lines to organise themselves without social and cultural capital. Buddha’s Dhamma, as reconstructed by Ambedkar, addresses this lack of cultural capital, writes Mrudula.
Written by Mrudula Vanan
We just celebrated another Dalit History Month amidst the grim reality of continued caste-based oppression — our men are still sent into sewers; our women are raped brutally and their rapists get away scot-free; our children in educational institutions are nudged towards dropping out or dying, in the name of merit; and our youth are frustrated by the lack of opportunities to realise their potential, and take to crime or intoxication as a consequence.
One may argue that our lives are not as bleak anymore, given that some of us are getting ahead economically, or the fact that we are growing more assertive. We have managed to gain ostensible national and global interest in our cause from ‘allies’ in media, academia and civil society.
These are all consequences of contemporary responses to Babasaheb Ambedkar’s call to educate ourselves about caste oppression. Dalit rage is finally being heard. It is finally gaining social currency. It is good to see our anger validated, finally. However, one can’t help but notice an increasing keenness to platform ‘Dalit rage’ as a commodity in the attention economy.
Babasaheb told us to agitate against our conditions of oppression — which has undermined our relational capacities, rendering us too dysfunctional to co-operate and organise effectively.
Anger against injustice can be a sacred resource that can help mobilise us out of our complacent bargain with our oppressors, especially when we have been rendered so deprived as to be unable to access any other form of energy. But we do have to ask ourselves whether holding on to anger as a primary source of energy that motivates us towards challenging our oppression is skillful?
It may be entertaining for covert sadists of the oppressor class, but what does reactive anger do for us? Does organising primarily around shared anger help us overcome our internal conflicts such as lateral violence, or betrayals arising out of a lack of shared ethics, low interpersonal trust, envy, etc.?
Or would anger propel us to create mechanisms that facilitate sharing resources and access achieved by some with our class oppressed brethren, who feel betrayed by their own.
What sustainable mechanisms do we have that induce hope and enthusiasm among class oppressed brethren, to transcend their circumstances, even if some material aid is given? The poor amongst us remain hungry and resented by their well-off counterparts, who move up the socio-economic ladder by cutting off from their brethren, psychologically weakened by disconnection and isolation. Thus, we are easily seduced into betraying our collective interests for the validation of token representation or petty incentives offered by predominantly Savarna socio-political leadership.
Caste is a religious problem
No amount of legal reforms, policy interventions, economic progress, or even socio-political progress has eradicated caste, which has merely shapeshifted through time. This is only natural since the issue of caste doesn’t merely pertain to external behaviour that can be checked by mere law or education. It is driven by deeper impulses, encouraged by the values of an irresponsible religious ideology that fails to check the narcissism of certain classes. It is for this reason that Babasaheb called it a “spiritual battle”. His words “Educate, Agitate and Organise” must be read in context to understand the full battle we are en-tasked with:
“You have assured me of your love and affection. It was quite unnecessary. I want an assurance of another kind. It is an assurance of strength, unity and determination to stand for our rights, fight for our rights and never to return until we win our rights. You promise to do your part. I promise to do mine. With justice on our side, I don’t see how we can lose our battle. The battle to me is a matter full of joy.
The battle is in the fullest sense spiritual. There is nothing material or sordid in it. For ours is a battle, not for wealth or for power. It is a battle for freedom. It is a battle for the reclamation of human personality which has been suppressed and mutilated by the Hindu Social System and will continue to be suppressed and mutilated if in the political struggle the Hindus win and we lose. My final words of advice to you is educate, agitate and organise, have faith in yourselves and never lose hope.”
Babasaheb was clear about why he insisted that the Scheduled Castes particularly organise our time, energy and material resources around socially engaged Buddhism.
In The Forms of Capital, Pierre Bourdieu defines social capital as “the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalised relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition — or in other words, to membership in a group…”
Social capital or networks are organised around cultural capital, which according to Bourdieu “can exist in three forms: in the embodied state, i.e., in the form of long-lasting dispositions of the mind and body; in the objectified state, in the form of cultural goods (pictures, books, dictionaries, instruments, machines, etc.), which are the trace or realisation of theories or critiques of these theories, problematics, etc.; and in the institutionalised state, a form of objectification which must be set apart because, as will be seen in the case of educational qualifications, it confers entirely original properties on the cultural capital which it is presumed to guarantee.”
It is extremely difficult for Scheduled Castes who are scattered and divided on numerous lines such as class, education, region, language, gender, sexual orientation, etc., to organise themselves and share the necessary knowledge, skills, financial resources, and energy to annihilate caste, without social and cultural capital which they can convert to economic capital.
This is how the Hindu priestly class, despite comprising only a small percentage of the Indian population, have historically remained a critical minority, influencing power and dominating Indian cultural norms.
It is therefore pertinent that we appreciate the work and effort Babasaheb put into reconstructing Buddha’s Dhamma as a solution to the lack of cultural capital amongst our communities.
Why Buddhism and not Atheism
“Higher and wealthy class will not feel the necessity of religion. The officers among them have bungalows to live in, servants to serve them, they have money, wealth and respect, the men of such sort need not think of religion or to be worried about it. Religion is necessary for the poor. Religion is necessary for the Depressed people. The poor man survives on hope. The root of life lies in hope. What will happen to life if hope is lost? Religion makes us hopeful, and gives a message to the depressed and the poor — do not be afraid, life will be hopeful, it will be! Therefore, the poor and the depressed mankind cling to the religion.”
— Dr BR Ambedkar on the occasion of his conversion to Buddhism, in a speech on October 15, 1956
It is natural to wonder why one shouldn’t renounce all religions to fight caste, if it is a religious problem. Firstly, centuries of dehumanisation has left us mentally and emotionally crippled. Buddha’s Dhamma has universal, secular values we can develop in ourselves to grow out of our broken, dehumanised state — wherein we are caught up in ignorantly reacting to the carrot-and-stick tactics of caste politics — and become wholesome human beings, acting from our innate human capacity for wisdom.
Secondly, we need religion to establish a common ethical foundation that enables peace, harmony and trust within our communities — enabling us to overcome our differences and share resources (emotional and spiritual merits, intellectual and material resources) — across various intersecting divides.
Thirdly, since we are fighting against a social order institutionalising the practice of craving for purity and aversion for impurity under the deluded belief that both are permanently fixed by birth, we have to religiously institutionalise the wisdom of the four noble truths, especially the practice of the eightfold path — which is the antidote to the constricted ethos of varna-ashrama-dharma.
Finally, Buddhism is inherently atheistic, and focuses on improving human relationships for the creation of equality, liberty and fraternity.
“There is a tremendous difference between the Buddha’s religion and other religions. It is not possible to have changes in other religions because those religions relate man with God. Other religions preach that God has created Nature. God has created all-sky, air, moon, sun, etc. God has left nothing for us to do, so we must worship God.”
– Dr BR Ambedkar on October 15, 1956 after his conversion to Buddhism
It is true that some people idolise and worship Buddha, but it is only as a symbol for the most basic denominators to hold on to, as they practise and learn to realise the potential to be their own light.
When some of us are not actively persecuted or violated, we are generally immersed in an ecosystem that keeps our worst impulses just below the surface. This makes it pertinent to remember that the oppressed are not beyond moral reproach merely by the virtue of being victims of oppression. We too are humans, with the capacity for wholesomeness — wisdom, love, compassion, appreciative joy and equanimity, rationality, and generosity — and just as capable of destructive behaviour driven by unchecked impulses clouded by delusion.
In The Politics of Intelligence, feminist writer Andrea Dworkin writes about how women, as an oppressed class, are deprived of their capacity for moral intelligence. Dworkin writes:
“Moralism is the set of rules learned by rote that keeps women locked in, so that intelligence can never meet the world head on. Moralism is a defence against experiencing the world. Moralism is the moral sphere designated to women, who are supposed to learn the rules of their own proper, circumscribed behaviour by rote. Moral intelligence is active; it can only be developed and refined by being used in the realm of real and direct experience. Moral activity is the use of that intelligence, the exercise of moral discernment. Moralism is passive: it accepts the version of the world it has been taught and shudders at the threat of direct experience. Moral intelligence is characterised by activity, movement through ideas and history: it takes on the world and insists on participating in the great and terrifying issues of right and wrong, tenderness and cruelty. Moral intelligence constructs values; and because those values are exercised in the real world, they have consequences. There is no moral intelligence that does not have real consequences in a real world, or that is simply and passively received, or that can live in a vacuum in which there is no action.”
This holds true for all systemically dehumanised classes, especially Dalits. We have been conditioned into spiritual ignorance by the caste order, which has rendered us susceptible to either dogmatic moralism or callousness. The consequences of this is that we mostly end up harming ourselves or our communities — the effects often show up either as self-harm or displaced violence against our own families and communities.
Buddhist ethical principles or Dhamma enables people to cultivate the moral intelligence required to trade candy for gold, so that we can access wholesome energies such as goodwill, compassion, appreciative joy and equanimity, for our historic quest for an equitable social order.
We cannot sustainably rely on external acts of violence and discrimination to be instigated into strategising and acting against caste. If caste is a way of life manifesting from a state of (broken) mind that clings to a false pride and supremacy, Buddha’s Dhamma is the only epistemological framework that cuts through that delusion.
A movement for the revival and propagation of Buddhism in India
“An idea needs propagation as much as a plant needs watering. Both will otherwise wither and die; …the fructification of an idea needs the resources of strenuous husbandry.” — Dr BR Ambedkar in Ranade, Gandhi and Jinnah
The Buddhist Fraternity Movement was initiated with this understanding as a response to Dr Ambedkar’s hope that we will struggle sincerely to propagate Buddha’s Dhamma in India. Our objective is to develop, unite and orient ourselves culturally around Dr Ambedkar’s rendition of Buddha’s Dhamma.
The objective is to collaborate with various other Buddhist societies and organisations across the nation to coordinate our cultural activities; to (re)establish viharas as resource centres of learning, networking and community building, with socially engaged monks who share Dhamma with the masses from an Ambedkarite perspective; to publish a uniform version of Dr Ambedkar’s The Buddha and His Dhamma (which is edited differently by different publications, sometimes diluting its message).
Initiatives undertaken by the Buddhist Fraternity Movement (BFM)
Dr Bharati Prabhu, founding member of the BFM, has been organising graduation ceremonies across the nation for 100 SC/ST students every year for the last 12 years to celebrate their educational achievements and imbibe confidence in first generation graduates.
After years of mobilising Tamil Buddhists, BFM started expanding at the national level in 2022. Three National Conferences have been held so far — in Bengaluru, Kolkata and Bodh Gaya. Each of these conferences has renewed our awareness of how Buddhism is interpreted and integrated in different cultures.
In order to facilitate this nationwide fraternity building, we have initiated the ‘Learning-Teaching English Movement’, to promote English language communication skills (speaking, reading and writing) among youngsters from Scheduled Castes, with Dr Ambedkar’s writings and speeches as the foundational course material.
In order to develop in Dhamma, we have initiated virtual Dhamma Talks conducted every Sunday, by Bhantes (monks) or Upasaks who understand the importance of socially engaged Buddhism for the oppressed castes. This is intended as a resource in English for those of us who live scattered across the nation and don’t (yet) have Viharas in our neighbourhoods.
We are also drafting a Dhamma Act for the purpose of availing constitutionally granted cultural rights — funds for maintenance of our Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis, construction of Viharas in our areas, etc.
A month-long Dhamma Rally from Sabarimala to Nagpur is also in the works, scheduled for September, 2023. We are organising a journey across the nation with statues of Gautama Buddha, Emperor Ashoka and Babasaheb Ambedkar, to spread seeds of awareness of Buddha’s Dhamma from the Ambedkarite perspective by visiting fertile, receptive places. We will conclude the journey by installing Emperor Ashoka’s statue in Deekshabhoomi, Nagpur.
None of our endeavours are intended towards antagonising any other religion, but towards reclaiming our cultural capital. In his speech after conversion on October 15, 1956, Babasaheb has said:
“Our mission is so stupendous that even one minute in a lifetime cannot be wasted. I do not have time to make an ill omen for others by scratching my nose.”
We make our humble efforts to realise and revive the inheritance entrusted to us by Babasaheb, and share it with all, with complete awareness that we may not enjoy the fruits of Dhamma in our lifetime. Because without Dhamma, the movement is at the risk of being defeated by our own fear and fury which can be easily manipulated.
Courtesy : TNM
Note: This news piece was originally published in thenewsminute.com and used purely for non-profit/non-commercial purposes exclusively for Human Rights
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