By Ari Pliskin
Preparing for the Socially Engaged Pilgrimage in India, I asked Shantum to review the newsletter we were preparing. Though he is a devout Buddhist who lived with and was introduced to Buddhism by downtrodden Indian Buddhists in Uttar Pradesh, he warned us against overly simplifying the situation. Though there is definitely a revolutionary role played by Ambedkarite Buddhism in liberating “untouchables”, Shantum explained, it stems primarily from a social and political base rather a Dharmic one. In fact, there is more of an emphasis on ‘equality’ than ‘liberation’. Dalits form the bottom rung of the oppressive Hindu caste system. There are many nuances that complicate this story:
- Buddhism isn’t totally free of social distinctions. While proclaiming castelessness, some Buddhists still marry according to caste expectations, just like Hindus.
- There are many stratifications based on sub-castes amongst the Dalits.
- There are reformist Hindus who reject the caste system.
- Dalit is just one self-identification by people who are considered “untouchable”.
- Dalits or “untouchables” are actually considered to be outside of the caste system altogether. They are “outcastes”.
- In terms of socio-economic status, Dalits aren’t the worst treated group in India. Muslims are treated worse than Dalits and “tribal” peoples, even worse than Muslims.
- Because of benefits of affirmative action policy, some people seek fake identification as Dalits in order to illegitimately reap the benefits.
- Though many Dalits venerate Ambedkar (a Buddhist) and loathe Gandhi (a Hindu), Ambedkar and Gandhi respected each other and sometimes praised the other. They both worked to eradicate the curse of untouchability, but had different means, to achieve this end.
- Ambekar’s second wife (after the first died) was a Brahmin (the ‘highest’ caste) woman who converted to Buddhism at the same time as Ambedkar.
- There are many prominent Dalits, including a former president, former Chief Justice of the Supreme court, and the Chief Ministers of important states such as Uttar Pradesh.
All this is not to say that Dalits haven’t faced discrimination and that Ambedkarite Buddhism hasn’t helped them. It’s just that the more you know, the more complicated things get. As Charlie says “go figure”.