No light for caste away Tharus
Sudeshna Sarkar

In The Great Sons of the Tharus: Sakyamuni Buddha and Emperor Asoka, Nepali author Subodh Kumar Singh, contends that the Buddha belonged to a community that is today living as bonded labourers.

HE belonged to a clan of kings and founded one of the most vibrant religions in the world—and yet, the descendants of the Buddha have become outcasts in Nepal, a new book says.

The Great Sons of the Tharus: Sakyamuni Buddha and Emperor Asoka, written by Nepali author Subodh Kumar Singh, contends that the Buddha, who lived and propagated his religion of non-violence and moderation between the fifth and fourth century BC, belonged to a community that today is at the bottom of the social hierarchy in Nepal, living as bonded labourers.

Born as Prince Siddhartha in the kingdom of Kapilavastu in southern Nepal, the Buddha is one of Nepal’s most cherished national icons. While Buddhists all over the world make pilgrimages to Nepal to visit its Buddhist shrines, the Tharu community, now predominantly found in the midwestern districts, live a life of abject misery, dogged by poverty, illiteracy and lack of land.

Singh, himself a Tharu, says the Buddha as well as one of his greatest followers and rulers of ancient India, Emperor Asoka, came from the Tharu community. "The word Tharu comes from Sthabir in Sanskrit, meaning monk or the Buddha," Singh says. "The Tharus are therefore the Buddha’s people." The book quotes Indian scholar Gauri Shankar Dubedi, who says after the Buddha attained enlightenment, he returned to his homeland when people flocked to him to become monks. But to ensure that society would not collapse, some were told to stay back and became known as Tharus.

A succession of invasions by the Rajput kings, who were Hindus, eroded the influence of the Tharus, Singh says. "In 1854 A.D., Jung Bahadur Rana, the first Rana prime minister of Nepal, promulgated the Mulki Ain – Nepal’s indigenous legal system. Society was divided into castes like in India and Brahmins and the Kshatriyas, the scholars and the warriors, were placed on top, while Tharus were at the bottom of the social hierarchy. The land they owned in the terai plains was distributed among army generals and government officials, uprooting the community and making them landless." In the 1950s, the Nepal government helped by the World Health Organisation (WHO) conducted a successful malaria eradication campaign in the terai. It made people from northern Nepal and India rush to stake a claim to the fertile land. "Squashed between the two, the marginalisation of the Tharus was complete," says Singh.

They became slaves of the new landowners, giving rise to the infamous kamaiya system—bonded labour in which families for generations worked more than 18 hours without wages.

Singh, an analyst at the American embassy in Kathmandu, had his interest in his community’s history whetted by an earlier research by his father, Ramanand Prasad Singh, a former attorney general of Nepal. "Historical records were written mostly by the Brahmins, who ignored the Buddha and his descendants," he says. "Look at the Ramayana and the Mahabharat. They write about the Shudras, the lowest rung of Hindu society, but ignore the Buddha. I thought it was time someone tried to set the record straight." In his book, Singh points out various rites that were observed by the different clans of the Buddha and are still preserved by the Tharus.

While the Buddha preached non-violence, since the 1990s when the Maoist guerrillas began their People’s War in Nepal, pledging to bring social equality, Tharus joined the armed uprising in masses. They were also mercilessly hunted down by the security forces.

Singh’s book, while hailed by the Tharus, has been received with disbelief and scepticism by conservative Nepali society, he says. "They do not like to think the Buddha was a Tharu," he says. "They prefer to believe the myth that he was a Shakya. But Shakya is only a title, not a community." — IANS