Saturday, May 24, 2008

Buddhism and Untouchability

Generally, Buddhism has been viewed favourably by erstwhile untouchable groups in India. I have argued that in India Buddhism was never an exclusive identity. Hence it is tough to identify its true nature. The castes that followed Buddhism generally took their purity-pollution concepts to this religion too. My previous post illustrates that phenomenon. My opinion is that there were no true Buddhists(as a religious identity) but for few Buddhist monks. Few families might have followed Buddhist way of life but were known by their caste identity.

In addition to that there were incidences of untouchability in Nepal and Japan that appear to have a common factor in Buddhism.

But I have come across many studies that point out that many professions were considered low and hence the people in many societies. In other societies it was just a social phenomenon but in India it was religiously sanctioned feature.

With this background, I feel, there exists ambiguity about Buddhist attitude towards untouchability. The problem is compounded as the development of Untouchability that included slave farmers may be post Buddha. When it comes to untouchables who were slave farmers*, I think that it has something to do with Vaisyas(free common men like farmers, herders, smiths) becoming Sudras thus further pushing Sudras(slaves/serfs) into Asprishyas(who probably during Vedic period included undertakers, forest tribes etc... only).

Recently I came across this message at Indo-Eurasian_research Yahoo group. It's about Untouchability in historical China.


"Untouchables" long existed in China in the form of various groups of jianmin
"lowly people". They were clearly separated from regular, "good households"
(liangmin) in official population registers. Their exact components varied from
place to place. But most were in such universal "untouchable" professions as
entertainers, undertakers, prostitutes, professional beggars, garbage
collectors, etc. Some groups had fancy stories about their origin not unlike
that of Roma people/Gypsies (re. the nails to be used to crucify Jesus). Those
lowly people were forbidden to marry with "good households". Nor were they
allowed to go to school and to participate in civil service examinations.

From 1723 on, Emperor Yongzheng (reign 1723-1734) issued repeated edicts
abolishing such "lowly households" in government population registers. Two
particular remarks can be made here:

1. It took a "Barbarian" Manchu emperor to legally abolish "untouchability" that
had existed in China for centuries.

2. Emperor Yongzheng's decision was inspired by the Buddhist maxim that "all
lives were created equal," a notion that came from the Indian subcontinent among
all places.


Naturally, Qing legal actions could not eliminate many or perhaps most of those
"lowly people" who continued to engage in their traditional professions. For
instance, in Shaoxing (Zhejiang province), even on the eve of the Cultural
Revolution, many undertakers still came from traditional "duomin" families.

A somewhat meek point is that, because China's "lowly people" almost never
engaged in farming (which in Confucian ideology was the second most respectful
profession), untouchability in premodern China represented a very small and
mostly urban social component.


(Emphasis mine)

Buddhism in the hands of nomadic people (who didn't show much interest in purity-pollution) probably showed its true face at least in one aspect.

Note: Farming might have been noble profession in China but not so according to purity rules of Hinduism. Though it wasn't as low as the so-called low professions like scavenging, leather works etc... it wasn't an exulted profession. However, it was never deemed too low as almost all sections of the castes engaged in it.

10 comments:

Maju said...

Very interesting, really.

I've read that in China the class that traditionally was less considered was not farmers but traders. Not sure if this may have varied along the time.

Also, re. purity prejudices in Buddhism, I have been told that in Tibet butchers are percieved as sort of lowly caste specially and that for lama to eat meat, it must have passed through several hands before, as it's, in their logic, the only way to avoid the spiritual damage of killing an animal.

You say:

The castes that followed Buddhism generally took their purity-pollution concepts to this religion too.

That certainly has happened largely with other conversion trends, right?

Manjunat said...

That certainly has happened largely with other conversion trends, right?

True. As far as I can say strongly in the case of Christians and weakly in the case Muslims. But I think in Christianity it has been balanced by the literate outlook of that religion. At least in South India overall condition of Dalit converts to Christianity and Islam is better than their Hindu counterparts. Though the same couldn't be said for North India, I suppose.

I've read that in China the class that traditionally was less considered was not farmers but traders
In South India, though the ritual purity of traders was higher than that of farmers, the latter had a dominant position in the society because of their sheer numbers. Maybe true in other Indian societies too. But in Kerala even ritual purity of traders was lower than the farmers.

Maju said...

Btw, you may be interested in the strange caste of the Agotes that existed till recently (20th century) in some parts of Navarre. They were by all standards like untouchables and their origin is very mysterious (though the most common belief is that they were Gothic refugees from the early Middle Ages).

See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agote (according to the article Agotes were also known in France, Brittany and Spain, though it's unclear what parts of these two large modern states).

It mentions: ... so pestilential was their touch considered that it was a crime for them to walk the common road barefooted.

There was also a subgroup in Asturias that were assigned their own separate place in churches and treated somewhat like untouchables of sorts. (See:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vaqueiros_de_alzada)

From memory, the Vaqueiros practiced an strange custom called the "covada" (from cova: cave), when the husband would pretend to be pregnant instead of his pregnant wife (can't remember many details).

To an extent we could also consider the Roma sort of European untouchables, though they are certainly a clear endogamic outgroup at least partly by choice.

Manjunat said...

Maju:
Thank you very much for those interesting facts.

Ravi Mundkur said...

Regarding Purity- pollution, I wonder whether the concepts travelled out of India along with Buddhism.Existence of similar notions in the Tamil society during the Sangam period (as described by Hart and reviewed in your blogs) points towards such a feeling.

Manjunat said...

Ravi:
I think it need not be Buddhist influence. Many societies had developed pollution concepts against certain professions and also against women. In Japan, according to Wikipedia article, certain groups were already condemned to be outcasts by the time Buddhism entered. Buddhism initially in fact tried to liberate them. But political dimensions changed and Buddhists also actively persecuted them. Maybe initial Budhists were non-Japanese and later the natives came into prominence bringing their prejudices into Buddhism.

Are you aware of menstrual blood taboo among Koragas?

Vidya said...

My opinion is that there were no true Buddhists(as a religious identity) but for few Buddhist monks.

This is very true atleast in the initial history. ie atleast it was'nt there as compartmentalized as a distinct religious entity.However after some royal patronage and involvement the case might have been different.

Manjunat said...

However after some royal patronage and involvement the case might have been different.

That could be to some extent true for north and east India. But even in these regions I am not clear true Buddhists ever existed. I think exclusive religious identity could be a complicated phenomenon. The central docrtine of a religion need to reject other gods/religious thinking. But as far as I can see there are too many similarities between Vedik/Buddhist and Jain thought.

But that is true in the case of Islam, Judaism and Christianity too. Here I think, exclusive ethnic identity gave rise to antagonistic exclusive religious identity. May be the same thing happenend in the case of Sinhalese. Have you come across any study that examines Buddhism's rise in Srilanka?

HimalayanSpirit said...

I have argued that in India Buddhism was never an exclusive identity.

I have not seen your arguments. But whatever it is, your conclusion is not correct. Buddha, and his Sangha for many generations after him, had given initiation to lay disciples too. They were called "upasaka". There are initiation rites and even Buddha had discussed this topic very deeply in the Pali canon. He even goes on to teach the lay disciples of his, topics like how to make your wife happy and your husband happy etc. Lay disciples had to take refuge into the three Jewels of Buddhism (Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha) before they were officially considered followers of Buddha (or Buddhist in english). There are lay Buddhists in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Burma, China, Taiwan and basically anywhere where Buddhism was spread, whether the Mahayan or Hinayana sect.

If you analyze the Buddhist caves, you will find the inscription of the mention of lay people, men and women alike, who had donated for the construction of those caves and viharas, and no where are the castes specified. Only profession is specified in some cases.

My opinion is that there were no true Buddhists(as a religious identity) but for few Buddhist monks.

Just another Hindu's attempt to discredit Buddhism or even disparage it. If there could be true Jains - Chandragupta was a Jain after conversion - then why can't there be true Buddhists? And even the monks weren't few. Not for nothing was this religion so popular from the western borders of Afghanistan and even Persia till the Eastern parts of Asia. Buddhists records themselves speak of the presence of many many monks. The Chinese pilgrim (I forgot the name) mentioned the presence of many hundreds of monasteries (Buddhist places of study and worship) along with the presence of only a few dozen Deva temples (Brahmin/Hindu temples). You should note that in that era only the Brahmins were Hindu - as is "Hindu" defined in the modern times.

Untouchability of Japan has nothing to do with Buddhism because it predates Buddhism's first footing in that island. As for Nepal, it is a Hindu majority country, with the elite Hindus (the Brahmins and Kshatriyas) being the most dominant. No wonder untouchability is present there.


Untouchability did not exist in India before Buddhism. It is a post-Buddhist, Gupta period, creation (of the Brahmins).

And your account of untouchability in China doesn't represent any analogy with that of India. Prostitutes, beggars, etc are despised everywhere, even in the west. On the contrary, in India prostitutes and courtesans of the kings court had a very high social status. Untouchability is directly linked to caste system - that is a system which maintains differences between different groups of different ethnic and racial origins by the restrictions of marriage, inter-dining, professions etc. Angulimala of the famous Buddhist tale was of Brahmin birth, but was still despised by the society and considered outcast. That doesn't mean he wasn't Brahmin. His birth had already decided his caste. But his being a despised person was decided by his deeds.

If you are looking for "untouchables" in the world, you will find them in every country. But this is only because you have mixed the definition of Hindu untouchable with that of the general literal meaning.

manju said...

Angulimala of the famous Buddhist tale was of Brahmin birth, but was still despised by the society and considered outcast. That doesn't mean he wasn't Brahmin. His birth had already decided his caste. But his being a despised person was decided by his deeds.


I was wondering how a low caste person could be enlightened and would find his Nirvana. Now it makes sense. He had an inherent self as a Brahmin. You would appreciate that there were castes whose profession was rob and kill. And there were so many low caste thieves. But it had to be an exceptional Brahmin.