With justice on our side, I don't see how we can lose our battle. The battle for me is about joy. . . . For ours is not a battle for wealth or for power. It is a fight for freedom. It is a battle for the reconquest of the human personality.
(Dr. BR Ambedkar, All India Depressed Classes Conference, 1942)
On February 21, Seattle, Washington became the first city in the United States to ban caste discrimination. Seattle City Council's vote adds caste to the city's anti-discrimination statutes. At a time when the South Asian diaspora is finding its voice and place in the United States, the repressive and discriminatory aspects of India's old caste system are also being imported into communities and workplaces.
Kshama Sawant, a Native American member of the Seattle City Council, observed, “The fight against caste discrimination is deeply connected to the fight against all forms of oppression. Legislation to this effect is in the works in a number of cities and states in the United States. In 2021, Colby College, Harvard University, University of California, Davis, and the California Democratic Party developed policies against caste discrimination.
The caste system takes many forms across Asia. Undoubtedly, it was exploited and manipulated during British colonial rule in India, until independence in 1947. But its sources can be traced back 3 years to the Vedic traditions of ancient India, which described four castes or varnas determine the major roles in society. Brahmins were priests and teachers; The Kshatriyas were rulers and warriors; The Vaishyas were traders and farmers; and the Shudras were servants and menial workers.
Beneath all these groups was a large population of “untouchables” or “Dalits” – broken people, as they are now often called – whose work brought them into contact with corpses, dead animals and excrement. Work like this involved contact with things defined by Hindu ritual and belief as impure, so the untouchables were themselves characterized as ritually impure. For the high castes, the touch or even the sight of an untouchable carried an immutable taint of pollution.
In the third century CE, the rules on caste and subcaste (teak) have been codified in the Laws of Manule Manusmrti, which is still today considered the definitive compendium of laws and regulations for Hinduism. These rules prohibit inter-caste marriage, the sharing of food between Shudras and Untouchables with members of the three upper castes, and the segregation of castes into separate, degraded settlements in many rural communities.
India's independence was bolstered by a remarkable constitution adopted in 1950, in which caste discrimination was prohibited in two clear articles.
Article 15: The State shall not discriminate against any citizen solely on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or any of them. In particular, no citizen may, on grounds solely of religion, race, caste, sex or any of them, be subjected to any incapacity, liability, restriction or condition. . . .
Article 17: Untouchability is abolished and its practice in any form whatsoever is prohibited. The application of any incapacity resulting from untouchability will be an offense punishable according to law.
And yet, society – built by laws – often clings to old patterns, backward habits and customs rather than law. In the United States, we see it in deeply rooted forms of racism, whether willful or unconscious, despite constitutional amendments and a significant body of law supporting racial justice and equity. The same goes for caste in India, and now in the Indian diaspora in the West.
Positively, we can say that my social philosophy can be summed up in three words: Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. Let no one say, however, that I borrowed my philosophy from the French Revolution. I do not have. My philosophy has its roots in religion, not political science. I took them from the teachings of my Master, the Buddha.
(Dr BR Ambedkar)
When talking about the Indian constitution, anti-caste movements and the revival of Buddhism in the homeland of Shakyamuni Buddha, a central figure comes to mind: Dr BR Ambedkar. Dr. Ambedkar was the first Minister of Justice of India and the main architect of the Indian constitution. At anti-caste rallies in Seattle and elsewhere, East and West, one finds his solemn image. His Buddhist conversion or deeksha in October 1956 began a living Dalit Buddhist movement that has grown to encompass millions of former "untouchable" and lower caste communities, who have renounced their old oppressed identities, embracing Buddhist practice and a new spirit of respect of self and elevation.
Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar was born in 1891 into a Mahar family. Traditionally, the Mahars - the largest untouchable caste in the state of Maharashtra - lived outside the boundaries of a village, working as servants, caretakers, street sweepers and transporters of animal carcasses. Ambedkar's father, Ramji Sakpal, served in the colonial Indian army, where he was educated in Marathi and English. He instilled a love of learning in his children and lobbied for their admission to public schools.
By virtue of his genius and good fortune, young Ambedkar was among the first untouchables to attend the prestigious Bombay University. With the support of a scholarship from the ruler of Baroda State, Ambedkar obtained doctorates from Columbia University, the London School of Economics and a place at the bar of Gray's Inn in London at the start of the thirties. He returned from the West as one of the best educated men in India. But returning from England to work as Baroda's finance secretary, Dr Ambedkar could not find accommodation and was banned from having dinner with his colleagues. He suffered the indignity of his own clerks throwing files on his desk for fear of his "polluting" touch.
As a lawyer, writer, publisher and activist, Dr. Ambedkar became a strong advocate for the so-called “depressed classes”. He identified the caste system, which he called a system of "graded inequality", as inseparable from the religious system of Hinduism across the Indian subcontinent. By the mid-1930s, he had concluded that Hinduism would never admit untouchable or Dalit communities on the basis of respect and equality. In 1935 he said: "Although I was born a Hindu, I solemnly assure you that I shall not die a Hindu. From then on, over the next 20 years, Dr. Ambedkar studied all the religious traditions of India. He was courted by Christians, Muslims, Sikhs and other groups interested in adding Dalit communities to their already large constituencies.
But from his earliest days Ambedkar was drawn to Buddhism which, though dormant in India, his native homeland, represented to him a religion based on reason and non-discrimination or, as he argued, was rooted in liberty, equality and fraternity. In the 1950s, Ambedkar prepared to convert to Buddhism and began writing his seminal work, published posthumously, The Buddha and his Dhammawhich was a unique compilation intended to serve as a "Buddhist bible" and offering a radical and unique social interpretation of Buddhist teachings
On October 14, 1956, at Deekshabhoomi, Nagpur, Dr BR Ambedkar and his wife Saviti received the Three Refuges and Five Precepts from Bhante U. Chandramani, the senior Buddhist monk in India. Dr Ambedkar then turned around and gave the refuges, precepts and 22 special vows – renouncing Hindu worship and rituals and affirming Buddhist practices – to the 400 people present at the ceremony. Over the next few months, more than a million followers of Dr. Ambedkar converted to Navayana Buddhism (the New Vehicle), which combines religious practice with social service and upliftment. The conversion movement in Dalit communities now includes over 000 million self-identified Buddhists across India.
While the anti-caste movement in the West includes Dalits and other lower caste communities, the movement itself is not affiliated with any particular religious orientation. There are Buddhists, Christians, Muslims and others in the ranks. But they all honor Dr Ambedkar and his courageous and transformative vision of a casteless world.
In future articles, I will write in more detail about Dr. Ambedkar's radical Buddhist vision. Stay tuned.
Hozan Alan Senauke