Buddhism was born under the Bodhi tree when Siddhartha Gautama saw through the nature of his own existence and realised that there is no absolute self that can be identified with. Everything in the world is dependent and the self is just a construct of the mind. Liberated he was from the oppressive nature of constructed self, he set out to teach what he discovered to millions and his teachings whose cornerstone is Anatta (no self) and its counterpart Metta (as I am, so they are) reached far and wide not only across the Indian subcontinent but also reached to the east and the west. The cultures of the east are permeated by Buddhism and the east is predominantly Buddhist.
The linguist argues that the word “thera” is derived from Pali word “thera” and the interesting words like therapist and therapy are derived from it. Though Buddhism travelled far and wide, in India, it met slow demise thanks to Brahmanism invasion of Buddhist India, which was followed by the But-Shikan (The destroyer of the Buddha, the word But does not just mean the statues, but it implies the Buddha). The history bears the witness to how rising Islam which was iconoclastic destroyed Buddhism in the present day Afganistan and Pakistan. Great Buddhist scholar, Bhagwan Das, used to describe how the communities in Pakistan are still permeated by Buddhism.
Buddhism travelled to the west as far as the ancient Greek, it influenced the west philosophy as well.
Though Buddhism allegedly disappeared from India by 1400 AD, it remained alive through the teachings of Siddhas and Nathas. The prominent Nathas like Machcchindranath and Gorakhnath were Buddhist Siddha. Kabir and Ravidas were preaching Buddhism. Kabir was meticulous in using ulat-bhasha (upside down language or twilight language) to teach essential Buddhism to the masses. In the medieval times, Buddhism was alive in India through the teachings of Siddhas and Nathas.
Arrive the Modern period, the British and German archaeologists and French Indologist discovered Buddhist past and history based on the travel records of the Chinese monks. This was a time when the British Indologists and Brahmans invented what is now known as Hinduism. The myth of the Aryan origin of the British and India’s higher castes was not only created but also forged. Indians till today follow the system of oral teachings and they recite gathas, akhands, and vanis.
More than written words, the Indian religious schools are based on recitals and singing together. It is important to note that the prominent English educated Brahmans tried to model Hinduism based on Christianity. The book “Gift of Monotheism” anchors the Christian worldview in Hinduism. Though Brahmans were claiming that they are the leaders of Hinduism, the non-Brahmans across India were claiming non-Hindu and non-Brahman identities. This was prominent among the so-called untouchable castes. For example, the Punjabi-speaking untouchables declared themselves as Adi-Hindus. The Telugu-speaking untouchables declared themselves as Adi-Andhra. The Tamil-speaking untouchables declared themselves as Adi-Dravidas. Great non-Brahman scholars like Iyothi Thass, P.L. Narsu, and Dada Keluskar (who was a close friend of Jotiba Phule and Ramji Ambedkar) wrote extensively on Buddhism. Indian non-Brahmans began to see Buddhism as their religion from the antiquity and religion of the majority of Indian’s non-Brahman population.
Babasaheb Ambedkar understood this from very early on. His love for Buddhism began before he left for America for higher studies. Dada Keluskar’s biography of the Buddha read by Babasaheb Ambedkar when he was a teenager influenced him so much that one of the biographers of Babasaheb Ambedkar writes that he carried Buddhist books with him to America. There is an evidence that Babasaheb Ambedkar read books by Rhys Davis in the Columbia University. Buddhism was the part and parcel of Babasaheb Ambedkar’s quest of the emancipation of India’s non-Brahmans.
In Buddhism, Babasaheb Ambedkar found the counterargument to Brahmanism which is the complete antithesis of Buddhism. However, Buddhism for Babasaheb Ambedkar was the complete way towards the reclamation of human personality realisation of which was one of the important purposes of democracy in Babasaheb Ambedkar’s quest for making India a truly democratic country.
Buddhism is surging forward in China. It is making comeback in Japan slowly, but surely. It is said that many books are released in China on Buddhism every day. The western hemisphere is not also an exception where Buddhism has not only influenced poets and artists, but now increasingly appealing to scientists who are working on understanding the human mind. Buddhism is here to stay. India was the switchboard of Buddhism in the past and whenever Indians travel abroad they boast of being Buddhists. Now that switchboard is dominated by the handful of upper caste Indians who wants to further and continue their power in the economic, political, and global sphere. Buddhism is an important reality economically and diplomatically. But there is a problem for India’s minority established classes. Either they have to discard Buddhism or co-opt it. They cannot afford to discard Buddhism for many reasons and one of the reasons is isolation in the South Asia, South East Asia, and Far East Asia. Their strategy is to propagate a wrong view that Buddhism is a branch of Hinduism which is not tenable before Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, and others in South East Asia. They have not heard any of the texts and castes of Hinduism, what they only heard and practised is the Buddha Dhamma. So they will never accept this view though the upper caste Hindus are hellbent on this view. They will meet the cold response, maybe even hostile. So India’s minority upper caste Indians project themselves as the Buddhist. This is what Modi will do when he will travel to Sri Lanka in May 2017 to participate in the UN Vesak Day celebrations.
Sri Lanka is an easy prey to the propaganda of upper caste Hindus. It is fertile ground for Hindu fundamentalists to push their view of Buddha as the incarnation of Vishnu. Sri Lanka is looking forward to inviting more Indian Hindus to Sri Lanka and it often invents new sites related to fictitious Ramayana. Sri Lanka has been very agile in discovering imaginary places in India’s poems to attract tourists. My brief visit to Mahabodhi Society office in Sri Lanka a few years back was full of surprises. The society founded by the Great Bodhisattva of our times, Anagarika Dharmapal, was adorned with the photos of BJP leaders and this was when the BJP was not in the power. One can understand Sri Lanka’s concerns to create friendship between the Hindu (?)-dominated North and East Sri Lanka and the majority of the Sinhala Buddhists, but any interference from India’s upper castes will increase the problem and not solve it. The North and East Sri Lankan so called Hindus are divided into castes and Tamil-speaking untouchables have been the worst hit by the civil war in Sri Lanka. There are many Tamil-speaking lower castes; particularly the ex-untouchables are slowly becoming aware of what is happening in India in terms of revival of Buddhism.
With the arising Ambedkar era in India, Buddhism is bound to grow. It is growing by leaps and bounds and it is completely in tune with basic Buddhism and Buddhist vision of the world. This time, Buddhism in India is not just about peace, but it is about Just Peace, an important word found in the writings of Babasaheb Ambedkar. What can Buddhism do about social justice? Babasaheb Ambedkar looks at Buddhism as not only a force to establish social justice but profound democracy in India. Thanks to the internet and other modes of involvement, India’s social and economic exploitation through the caste system is becoming visible. It is also becoming visible that the world’s most discriminated communities are embracing Buddhism to fight exploitation and discrimination is also a model in itself to emulate by exploited masses all over the places.
It is hoped that the present Buddhist countries will not fall prey to the rhetoric of Hindu Nationalists like Modi and will strive hard to establish Buddha Dhamma where it has already solidly emerged.
Author – Mangesh Dhaiwale, Human Rights Activist