Recalling Naga Ancestry at Conversion to Buddhism


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The 1956 conversion to Buddhism was mostly of Mahars of Nagpur region of Maharashtra. By converting millions of these Mahars to Buddhism, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar returned them to the religion of their ancestors. Dwelling on the topic of ancestors, Babasaheb in  his Conversion Speech at Nagpur, told the large gathering, “We are  the descendants of Naga people who were Buddhist and who spread Buddhism throughout India. The Nagas were enemies of Aryans and they fought many wars against them.” The fact that the very name of this city (of conversion) is Nagpur, that the hillock of Nagarjuna is only 27 miles from here and that even the river flowing through this city is called Nag-River – all these point out that Nagas lived here, he emphasized

Rig-Veda speaks of a snake god Ahi Viritra who was the enemy of the Aryan God Indra. How sever the enmity of Nagas with the Aryans was is seen by reading the horrible story of burning of Khandava Vana by Arjuna Pandava and thus killing thousands of Nagas living inside. A detailed description of this annihilation is given in, Chapter 228 of Mahabharata. This account is so shocking that many of the genocides, history has witnessed look minor as compared to this.

Nagas and Dravidians are the same:

Although there were other races like Nisads, Rakshsas, Daityas living in pre-Aryan times, the Nagas occupy a very important place in the history of India. Naga kings were very powerful and the Aryans had very hard time winnig over them. Dr.Babasaheb Ambedkar goes to a great length, in his book, “Untouchables” to show that Nagas were a civilized people who ruled a great part of India.

Dr.Babasaheb states that the Nagas of old times and the present day residents of South India the Dravidians (including Maharashtrians) are the same people. The first thing to remember is situation of the language, he says. Though today the language of South India differs from the language of North India it was not always the case. Dravida is not the original word; it comes from “damil” which was the corrupt Sanskritized version of the word Tamil. Tamil or Dravida was not merely the language of the South but it was the language of whole India before the Aryans came. Nagas of North India gave up Tamil but he Nagas of South India retained Tamil. To differentiate the Nagas of the South from those of North, they were called Dravidians.

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Dasas also the same as Nagas. It is not difficult, he says to understand how the Nagas came to be called Dasas in Vedic literature. Dasa is Sanskritized form of the Indo-Iranian word Dahaka. Dahaka was the name of their king which in Sanskrit became Dasa a generic term applied to Nagas. Thus the Dasas are the same as Nagas and the Nagas are the same as the Dravidians.In his book “Who Were the Shudras” Dr. Ambedkar points out in Rig-Veda Dasas and Dasyus are described as enemies of Indra and Devas.

Both Dasas and Dasyus who were civilized and in fact more powerful than the Aryans but in battles they lost and their cities were leveled down by Indra and Devas. What was the origin of the word Dasyus is difficult to say but a suggestion has been put forth that it was the word of abuse used by Indo-Aryans to Indo- Iranians, he writes.

Nagas were identified by burial of the dead:

Dr. Naval Viyogi in his book “Nagas the Ancient Rulers of India” has a given a detailed account of the Nagas of India. He writes, ” In India Nagas had serpent as their totem. Worship of serpent was in practice in Western countries Assyria, Palestine and Iran, and it came to India through migration of these people to India. The worshipers were Naga people. These people according to Rigveda were non-Sanskrit speaking non-Aryans. Takshila was the original seat of Takshakas or Nagas from where they spread throughout the country.”

The discovery of Indus Valley Civilization (2250 -1700 BC) by unearthing the cities of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa by the Archaeological Survey of India showed that it was the civilization of Dravidians, the non-Aryan Nagas. Their cities were well designed with roads, drainage and brick houses. Along with the local citizens people from foreign countries seem to have been living there. They had trade contacts with western countries including Mesopotamia and it may be so that some of these foreigners were the residents and developers of these cities.

In his book “Brahmanism, Buddhism and Hinduism” Lal Mani Joshi says, “Archaeological evidence is more reliable and authentic than literary evidence. Elements of historic religious beliefs and  practices of India go back to the Harappan culture or Indus Valley Civilization. For example, we find the holy animals like deer, lion, horse, elephant, bull and the sacred snake represented in the plastic art of Mohenjodaro and Harappa are also often given an important place in Buddhist art and literature of historic times. A seal from Mohenjodaro shows a human ascetic seated cross-legged on a pedestal; the ascetic is shown with a head-dress resembling the symbol of the Buddhist Triratna as found in the art of Bharhut and Sanchi. The seal depicts a Muni or Sramana of the prehistoric Sramana religion _ the forerunner of Buddhism. Buddhism and also Jainism were of non-Aryan, non-Vedic origin. Along side the Vedic tradition there was an ascetic (Sramana) stream of religious thought and practice having its origin in prehistoric times. That it is to this Sramanic culture that Buddhism has its closet affinity though Buddhism is a unique product of the Buddha’s direct insight.” The residents of Indus Valley Civilization were belonging to this culture of pre-Buddhist religion.

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Burial of the dead was one of the chief characteristic of Naga culture. In the beginning the Aryans were also burying their dead as described in Vedas but, Viyogi shows that the Aryan burial of the  dead was different than that of the Naga’s. In due course the Aryans started cremating the dead but the Dravidians/Nagas continued it till the time of their Aryanization.

Yemen in Arabia, Persian Gulf and Mesopotamia provide evidences of rock cut graves with shaft like entrance strikingly reminiscent of those of Malabar Coast. Hence it is evident that tradition of burial of the dead with stones on the grave (Megaliths) came from Western Asia by sea route.

The coming of Aryans:

At about 1700 BC the Aryans came to India. According to the Western writers the Aryans invaded India and conquered the inhabitants mostly the Nagas. Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar in his book,” Who Were the Shudras” does not, however subscribe to this finding that the people of Aryan race invaded India. The Aryan people did not come to India as a whole single group to invade India, but they came at many different times in small groups and in doing so got intermingled with many tribes on the way say some historians to which Dr. Ambedkar agrees.
The theory of Aryan invasion is an invention by the Western writers says Dr. Ambedkar. And that this theory is upheld by the Brahmins because it helps to maintain and justify their over-lordship over the non-Brahmins. He gives many references from Rig-Veda to prove his point and shows that in India two different Aryan people (races) were living, the Alpine raze and the Mediterranean race. Giving a benefit of doubt to the Western writers he adds that out of the two races, the Mediterranean race which came to India from the Europe around the Mediterranean basin may have invaded India – if at all the invasion did occur. The Aryans fought with the Dravidians /Nagas and were responsible for the destruction of the Indus Valley Civilization.
The Aryans drove the native Dravidians out of the valley and the Dravidians escaped to the South and settled there. The Megalithic burial sites abounding in Maharashtra, Vidharbha and the South India explain their existence in South India. It was the custom in South and Central India to bury the dead bodies or the remains, singly or collectively and erecting large heaps of stones, known as Megaliths over them.

Excavation in sites like Kaundinyapur, Mahurjhari, Khapa, and Panwar has shown the presence of the Megalithic culture. Mahurjhari which is situated some 15 km west of Nagpur, contains one of the largest concentrations of burial sites. Items found in its excavation reflect its relation with Buddhist religion. Author D. Sankalia writes, “They buried their dead. The children were buried in wide-mouthed jars and the adults in full length-large jars. In Nagpur, Bhandara and Chanda district we have vestiges of Megalithic culture in the form of monuments where dead bodies were buried.”

Dr. Viyogi further writes that the decline of Vedic culture began after the terrible destruction of the Mahabharata War. At the same time a fresh wave of the Naga-Asura, the builders of Megaliths had reached India from West. The development of non-Vedic Jain and Buddhist Sramana culture took place. Most of the Kshatriyas who took part in the Mahabharata War were killed. Further the Brahmin Rishi Parashu Rama came out with a move to exterminate Kshatriyas from the earth as many as 21 times. These all gave a terrible blow and weakened the Vedic culture.

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The rise of Buddhism in Vidharbha- Nagbhumi:Although Buddhism was started in North India it became the religion of the people of Viharbha very early. Archaeological discovery of Maha-stupa at Pauni throws light on it. The tooth relic of Tathagata was taken by the Nagas to this Nagbhumi and was enshrined in the Maha-Stupa of Pauni. Excavation by the Archaeology Department of Nagpur University in 1969-70, showed that the remains of the Stupa were of pre-Mauryan period. Dr. S.B.Deo produces detailed description of the age of Stupa, which ranges from the earliest or pre-Ashokan period to Ashokan period. From pre-Mauryan period Pauni was the main centre of Hinayana Buddhism from where Buddhist art, craft and culture spread to Andhra Pradesh, Nagarjunakonda, and Amaravati. Dr. Deo further says that the glory of Mahastupa of Pauni was at its peak up to the third century AD; after that the use of it discontinued. Around 262 BC Ashoka fought the Kalinga war where in a lot of people were killed which made Ashoka to revolt against violence and embrace Buddhism. He built many Vihars and stupas. The Sanchi Stupa built in the third century BC, the Chaitya Caves of Bhaje near Bombay built in 2nd century BC, and the Amraoti Stupa in Andhra Pradesh built in 150 BC, to name a few are examples of the spread of Buddhism in South India.

In Maharashtra near Aurangabad about 60 miles away are the famous Ajanta Caves. Built by carving the rocks of the hills these caves are as old as 1st century AD to 7th century AD. The wall paintings are all of Buddhist religion, depicting the instances from Buddha’s life. Here, out side of the 19th cave is a sculpture of Nagraj and his queen which makes us to believe the fact that Nagas were living there and they were Buddhists.

However the Naga rule came to an end as many Naga rulers were defeated by Samudra Gupta during 340-375 AD. Prof. M.M. Deshmukh in his book “Prachin Bharatacha Itihas” writes “Mathura, Padmavati, Vidisha were famous kingdoms of Nagas in Gupta era. These Naga kings had marriage relations with Wakatak kings of Vidharbha. The Nagas ruled two hundred years before being defeated by Guptas.” These defeats of Naga kings produced a real threat to Buddhist power and
the Buddhist religion, including that of Vidarbha.

Mahars were descendants of Nagas:

Dr. Viyogi writes that, “When we shed a glance on the names of Naga Kings of historical age, we find their names had suffix like Nag, Nak, Nandi, Dutta and Sen. That the words Nak and Nag were synonymous and were interchangeable is seen by the name of Sishunag the Naga king of Kashi. Shishunag who established Sishunag dynasty in Magadha is called in some texts as Shishunag and in some others as Shishunak also.”

In olden times the Mahar names mostly had Nak as suffix in their names. When we trace the use of suffix Nag or Nak with their names it becomes clear that they were Naga -Buddhists. In 1818 in the battle of Koregaon, Mahar warriors won the battle for the British. A memorial is erected which mentions the names of the Mahar warriors. Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar in his speech in 1941 (Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Writing and Speeches, Vol, 18, p.382) said, “We (Mahars) fought from the side of the British and brought the end of Peshwa rule. …The victory pillar of Koregaon stands as a testimony to it. On the pillar there are two names of the British, four of UP siders and all others are of Mahar soldiers.” There are twenty three names of Mahar soldiers and all of them have suffix Nak in their names. The names for example are: Somnak Kamalnak Naik, Ramnak Yesnak Naik, etc. As a further example we come across the famous name of the brave Shidnak Mahar of Shivaji’s time. Another Mahar of fame was named Nagnak Mahar who with very little help conquered Wiratgad from the Muslims and brought it under the control of the Marathas. It is clear that the names of Mahars had Nak as a suffix in their names.

Also that the Nagas were Buddhists is amply demonstrated, by inscription of the suffix Nak, found in the names of people who donated money to the building of Buddhist caves. Not only the suffix Nak was used by Mahars but it was also used by Marathas. The kuls of Marathas, Mahars and Kunbi is the same is showed by Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar. Buddhist caves prove that the Nagas were Buddhists. For example: The Kanheri Cave inscription says: This religious donation is of Nagnak of Nasik. The inscription of Karle cave reads: “this donation belongs to Maila mother of Mahadevnak, a householder. ” There is thus enough evidence to show that a great portion of the population of Maharashtra including Maratha, Mahars and Kunbis were Buddhist Nagas.

The Aryanization of Nagas:

The defeat of Naga kings, the decline of Buddhism and the rise of the Hindu kings added to the pressure on Nagas to convert to Hinduism. Even when the Nagas were powerful they had to sustain discrimination from the Brahmins. Many historic sources indicate that though Nagas ruled India yet because they were Buddhists they were treated like traitors or rebels by the Brahmins. To escape the discrimination it is said Nagas purified themselves with water of the Ganga, performed the Asvamedha Yagyas and were thus accepted into the folds of Vaishnavism of Hinduism.

Even the Naga kings, instead of opposing the Brahmins recognized Varna and caste system of Hinduism. The conversion process started with the Nagas of North India by giving up Tamil and adopting Sanskrit. And later not only the Nagas of North India but of all India including South India converted to Hinduism. Naga kings underwent a Brahmin ceremony known as “Hiranya Garbha Ceremony “to convert and to raise their social position in Hinduism.The Hiranya Garbha, where a large golden vessel was prepared for conversion, and a hefty sum of money was given to the priest, was indeed costly. Those common Nagas who could not afford the costly Hiranya Garbha purification, were thrown by the Brahmins to Shudra caste of Hindu religion, writes Dr. Viyogi.

As of today, and more so in those ancient days, the social prestige was much linked to the caste in Hinduism The higher the caste the more the prestige. Even powerful kings could not escape from this. Maratha king Shivaji who was originally from Shudra community had to arrange for a fake certificate as Kshatriya caste and pay money to Ganga Bhat a Brahmin from Benaras to perform his coronation ceremony.

A question arises, if most Nagas got converted themselves to Hinduism and were accepted into it what kept the Mahar Nagas from converting to Hinduism?

The Mahars were Non-Aryan Nagas and were very powerful. Mahatma Fule, says the invading Aryan Brahmins called them Maha-Ari (Greet enemy). Dr. Viyogi writes “Most of Western India was sometimes under the sway of Mahar or Mer tribe before the advent of the foreign people. Mahars who had given their name to Maharashtra were not confined to this land alone but they were occupant of Rajputana. The provinces which go by the name of Mhairwara (Ajmer) and Marwar (Jodhpur) were their ancient homes. Perhaps the Satavahana Kings (235 BC to 225 AD) to whom the historians call Hindus were not Hindus, but were non-Aryans belonging to Mahar tribe. The Marathas, Kunbis and Mahars were direct descendants of them. The Mahars remained the masters of the soil until they were ousted by the invaders (the Aryan Brahmins).” The Invaders reduced Mahars to the slavery of broken-men and made them to live outside the villages to protect the other
tribe’s people living inside the village. When the Gupta Kings made Cow killing a crime, the people inside the village stopped killing the cow and eating its meat, but the Mahars continued to eat beef as they were eating dead cow’s meat which was not banned by Gupta kings and which was permissible by their religion Buddhism. The Brahmins because of the hatred of Buddhism and because of the continuation of eating cow’s meat condemned the Mahars to untouchability, argues Dr. Ambedkar. He puts the birth date of untouchability at 400 AD.

Nagas who were well to do and who could give up beef eating assimilated themselves into Hinduism but those poor Nagas like the Ex- Mahars of Maharashtra who could not afford to give up eating beef were condemned as Untouchables.

It was very befitting to the occasion of conversion that Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar recalled the Naga ancestry and there by raised the courage of the converts to be brave and powerful as their Naga
Buddhist ancestors.

Author – Madhukar Kamble, Leander, Texas USA

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