Buddhism And Brahmanism

Gail Omvedt

In his "Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Ancient India," Dr. Ambedkar states that "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 civilisation. As Ambedkar saw it, the crucial conflict was not between Brahmans and nonBrahmans, nor between Aryans and nonAryans (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 it 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 nonAryans, 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 archeological evidence that they destroyed the Indus civilisation, 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 compete 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 descendents of Aryans - and this is the most damaging aspect.

This also means the Vedas are important not so much in themselves as 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 later "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 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 BC, however, at the time of the developing agricultural-urban civilisation, 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 emphasizing "Becoming." This was not, as one commentator has it, the difference between "Fullness" 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 bought 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, identified human beings in terms of what they do. This is stated in the Sutta-Nipata, "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 uses 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; on 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 realized 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. Buddhism and Brahmanism - II

"Governance," the great theme of today, was also a preoccupation of Indian thinkers two to three millennium earlier. The views that evolved during the first millennium BC of the duties of kings and of the nature of the state are another crucial difference between Brahmanism and Buddhism, one that has as tremendous significance today as the issue of caste.

In the Brahmanical literature, the state is viewed as divinely created. The king is brought into being by the gods to maintain law and order, and he is charged in particular with protecting varnashrama dharma. This theme runs through all the sastras and puranas. In Manu, we have at the beginning of his chapter on kings an injunction to remember the divinity of kings, "Even a boy king should not be treated with disrespect, with the thought, `He is just a human being'; for this is a great deity standing there in the form of a man. Fire burns just one man who approaches it wrongly, but the fire of a king burns the whole family, with its livestock and its heap of possessions…" He goes on to stress punishment, the danda, as the main feature of kingship: "The Rod is the king and the man, he is the inflictor and he is the chastiser, traditionally regarded as the guarantor for the duty of the four stags of life. The Rod alone chastises all the subjects, the Rod protects them, the Rod stays away while they sleep; wise men know that justice is the Rod…. The whole world is mastered by punishment, for an unpolluted man is hard to find. Through fear of punishment, everything that moves allows itself to be used…The king was created as the protector of the classes and the stages of life, that are appoint each to its own particular duty, in proper order" (Penguin edition, 128-130).

The more "liberal" Arthashastra also is preoccupied with the maintenance of power, with family members, neighboring rulers, the collectively functioning oligarchies or gana sanghas, and the tribals all seen as threats. And everywhere in Brahmanical literature, the role of an ideal king included the duty of protecting the varna system, so that Rama was forced to kill the shudra Shambuk for attempting tapascharya, and even the great Shivaji had to be depicted by Ramdas as particularly the "protector of cows and Brahmans."

For Buddhism, in contrast, the king as a chakravartin ruler, is the social parallel to the Buddha himself. The king himself has to be moral - in the Tamil epic, Silappadikaram, written under the influence of Buddhism and Jainism, the city of Madurai is destroyed by fire and the king himself commits suicide for the sin of injustice. Failure to be moral can justify popular rebellion: in a Jataka story, "The Goblin's Gift," a king and his priest steal and hide the state treasury to deceive the Bodhisattva, and when this is revealed, the people kill him and place the Bodhisattva on the throne.

In a Buddhist origin story recounted in the Anganna Suta the king also comes into existence to prevent the crimes due to the rise of private property and to maintain law and order, but the story has no hint of gods or divine action in it. Rather the king is chosen by the people themselves and so is called the "maha-sammata" or "great agreement." Further, it is always stressed that order in society is maintained through popular welfare. As the Kutadanata sutta has it, "Now there is one method to adopt to put a thorough end to this disorder. Whosoever there be in the king's realm who devote themselves to keeping cattle and the farm, to them let his majesty the king give food and seed-corn. Whosoever there be in the king's realm who devote themselves to trade, to them let his majesty the king give capital. Whosever there be in the king's realm who devote themselves to government service, to them let his majesty the king give wages and food. Then those men, following each his own business, will no longer harass the realm; the king's revenue will go up; the country will be quiet and at peace; and the populace, pleased with one another and happy, dancing their children in their arms, will dwell with open doors" (I, 176).

Not punishment, but the provision of capital, the provision of fair wages, supplying seeds for the farmers - the prerequisites for a productive economy - were stressed. Further, in another sutra recited by Ambedkar in his last essay, "The Buddha and Karl Marx, the failure of a ruler to provide wealthy to the destitute is what leads to the downfall of the kingdom. The effort, after this, to prevent theft by punishment leads only to more and more violence, and to the final degradation of society. The story grapples with the dilemmas of welfare, but the clear message is that the prevention of poverty is a major duty of a state that wants to maintain order.

The model of relationship between the state and the economy contrasts also with the Brahmanical one, at least with that presented in the Arthashastra. This has no concern with welfare or the problems of the relief of poverty, but Kautilya presents us with an activist state, running factories, mines and brothels, facing prices, maintaining a huge bureaucracy engaged in economic intervention and management. Almost a precursor of the "brahmanic socialism" of the post-independence period! With this traders are seen as inherently wicked and thievish themselves, needing supervision. The image of the "dirty bania" begins here. In contrast, the Buddhist literature treats merchants and farmers, property holders and producers of all sizes, with great respect. The state does not attempt to replace their activities but engaging in production itself, but to set the conditions for production by providing capital, protection and removal of poverty. Almost a precursor, again, of an Amartya Sen-type social liberalism!

Ironically, the Buddhist model of kingship probably worked against it in the long run. After Ashoka, few rulers were fervent Buddhists; most for a long time patronized Buddhism but were usually personally attached to Brahmanic rituals and beliefs. This is not too surprising, since Brahmanism asked much less of them than the moral rectitude and provision of popular welfare required of a chakravartin ruler, and treated them as semi-divine, ready to ratify their ksatriya status as long as they upheld the varnashrama dharma.

Ashoka was a ruler who genuinely tried to follow the Buddhist model and treat popular welfare as his responsibility; it is his insignia that independent India has adopted as its own. Unfortunately, the reality seems to be otherwise, and if kings and priests - or politicians and bureaucrats - treat the state treasury as their own and conspire to hide it, there is too little sign of popular resistance. India needs to return to the Buddhist ideal of governance, to recreate a sense of public order and community.


Mr Khalid Anis Ansari
The Patna Collective


Posts a comment

© Indian Dalit Muslims' Voice
Back to top