Saturday, August 27, 2005

Buddhism and Jainism in South India

South India had Buddhist and Jain past that predates Brahmanical Hinduism. The popular theory prevalent among South Indian intelligentia (especially, non-brahmins) is Brahmins destroyed these religions and drove the local Buddhist/Jain population to inferior caste positions [1]. Somehow, I find it difficult to agree with it. Not the least because this theory gives motley crowd of Brahmins some supernatural abilities, but it also defies the logic.

Religious practices of South Indians:

Along with phallus/goddess, snakes, numerous local gods and spirits are revered by South Indians (The discussion is only about Hindus). The obvious primitiveness of these supernatural powers shows they are the oldest forms of worship preceding both Buddhism and Jainism. If whole South India was Buddhist or Jain before the arrival of the Brahmins that would require whole population going back to its primitive forms of worship from more sophisticated religions. I find it highly improbable.

Elite religions:

Ergo, I would go by the theory that both Buddhism and Jainism were religions of miniscule elite classes in South Indian society [2]. The mass remained animist throughout the history.

Brahmins had it easy:

When Brahmins came down to South India they never had to ‘convert’ the local population [3]. Their Vaidik religion was just Indo-Aryanization of Dravidian beliefs and gods. Whereas, Buddhist and Jain elite remained aloof of the local population, Brahmins entered into their social life because of the common base of their religious beliefs. The cultural aspects of both these groups merged easily. Perhaps, when the locals saw that these northern people also worship the same gods the feeling of alien ness might have never developed. Anyway, illiterate local population hardly had any intellectualism to oppose caste divisions.

For Buddhists and Jains of South India, it could have been a gargantuan task to convert (supposing they had that inclination) the mass to those religions [4]. Only fear and education(preaching) would have helped their cause. The former was ruled out and the later was obviously never undertaken by the elites. So probably, non-Brahmin intelligentsia, instead of shedding tears for the past Buddhist/Jain ancestors, should at least partly blame those elites of South Indians for failing them. Then again, are you proud of your animist beliefs or would rather part of basically atheist religions.


1. I assume since most of the Brahmins from north-west of India, the origin of caste system, they must be lighter skinned because of their mixing with Indo-Aryans. However, a sizeable number of dark skinned Brahmins in South India shows that the Buddhist and Jain elites might have merged with them.

2. There is a very small population of Jains (Tulu/Kannada) in coastal Karnataka. They are generally prosperous and educated people. Present day Jains in India are by large rich merchants.

3. There is no provision for conversion in Brahmanical Hinduism. It shows that it’s not a religion spread from the proselytization. As I have discussed already, Hinduism is founded by Dravidian people sharing same set of beliefs throughout the country. Assimilation with Indo-Aryans (R1A-Dravidians) only resulted in literate construction of those beliefs not actually altering anything. Brahmins never had to indulge in proselytization in India.

4. Religions founded by individuals need fear and education (preaching). Perhaps, the former more than the later. You also need educated society to influence the others. I wonder whether East-Asian countries were more egalitarian when it comes education since historical times.

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