Sunday, November 30, 2003

Decline of Buddhism
D.R. Chaudhry

Buddhism in India: Challenging Brahmanism and Caste
by Gail Omvedt. Sage Publications, New Delhi. Pages XIII+314. Rs 350.

Buddhism in India: Challenging Brahmanism and CasteGail Omvedt, a well-known scholar of the Dalit movement in India, deals with the origin, growth and decline of Buddhism in India in this book. It is not a simple history of Buddhism, rather she studies the spread of Buddhism in India, especially its relevance for the Dalits and the hope it extends to them as a route to freedom from the dehumanising and stultifying stranglehold of Brahmanism in India.

The book is divided into nine chapters. Chapter 1 deals with the background to the rise of Buddhism in the middle of the second millennium BC. It was a period when the world saw crucial cultural and social developments. Chapter 2 deals with the salient teachings of Buddhism which placed an emphasis on liberating oneself from cravings that generate sorrow and suffering in life. The impact of Buddhism on the caste system is examined in the next chapter.

With Chapter 5 the book enters difficult terrain. It deals with the phenomenon of decadence and decline of Buddhism. The most important cause, in Omvedt’s opinion, was an alliance between the Brahmans and kings who could get the status of Kashtriyas with the help of the Brahmanical clergy. Violence was resorted to in a big way to establish the hegemony of the Brahmans. The next chapter examines the first period of the revival of Buddhism in the 19th century. Chapter 8 examines Ambedkar’s Buddhist leanings and the massive Dalit conversions of the 1950s and after. In conclusion, it is stressed that Buddhism believes in the theory of karma/rebirth, and stresses the psychological and moral development of the individual and reconstruction of the world. This makes sense, argues Omvedt, and can be a source of inspiration for reconstructing society in the new millennium. She also maintains that Ambedkar’s version of Buddhism is based on the original teachings of the Buddha.

What is Ambedkar’s version of Buddhism? Omvedt is highly lucid in her analysis of the issue. Ambedkar interpreted Buddhism as a religion that posed a challenge to Brahmanism, Marxism and the existing interpretations of Buddhism itself. Brahmanism was a major source of evil in India and Buddhism its most effective antidote. Ambedkar saw Indian history as “a history of conflict between Brahmanism and Buddhism”. For Marx, religion was a part of a superstructure that would vanish automatically when the social structure underwent basic transformation. Ambedkar thought otherwise and treated religion as a necessary moral code for society.

Ambedkar respected the basic teachings of Buddhism expressed through egalitarianism, universalism and rationalism. However, its basic principle of dukkha in life left him cold. He was keen to find a solution to the problem of social conflict which, he felt, was at the root of suffering in the world. His was an attempt to make Buddhism an instrument of social change.

Ambedkar’s attempt to rescue Buddhism from abstract monasticism and relate it to the social context, was very much in tune with the latest trend of “Engaged Buddhism” which has been gaining ground in the world lately. The job of a Buddhist is not to retire in a cave, meditate, free himself from craving, grasp the ultimate reality and attain nirvana, as the traditional notion of Buddhism suggests. “Meditation is not to escape from society, but come back to ourselves and see what is going on. Once there is seeing, these must be acting,” observes Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk who founded this movement. Sulk Sivaraksa, a leading Thai dissident and a pupil of Hanh, is emphatic when he says that the essence of religion lies in deep commitment to larger responsibilities in life and the practice of Buddhism must answer questions that our situations raise. His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, in his address to the Interfaith Conference held at Cape Town, South Africa, in December 1999, laid stress on activism as an essential component of religious discourse in the modern complex world.

That Buddhism struck deep roots in several Asian countries but withered away in the land of its origin poses a riddle to which a satisfying answer has yet to be found. The commonly held explanation that the persecution of the Buddhists was responsible for this does not find favour with A.L. Basham. In his opinion, decadent Buddhism wilted under the fierce attack of resurgent Hinduism under the aggressive campaigning of Sankara and eventually Buddha was incorporated into Hinduism as the ninth avtar of Vishnu.

Gail Omvedt disagrees with the above explanation. Lack of historical evidence, that is absence of historical chronicles unlike in China, led to such facile generalisations. She refers to Buddhist sources that point to a great deal of violence in the millennial-long conflict between Buddhism and Brahmanism. Hieun Tsang and the late 16th-and-early-17th century Tibetan chronicler Taranatha, refer to such incidents. This, along with the alliance between kings and the Brahmanical priesthood, dealt a lethal blow to Buddhism in India.

Gail Omvedt’s treatise is a highly important contribution to the growing corpus of literature on Buddhism. Her interpretation of the decline of Buddhism paves the way for other Buddhist scholars to delve into the matter more deeply.