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Role of Buddhism in fight against caste oppression in Tamil Nadu

09 Apr 2024 - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}      

Buddhism flourished in ancient India, including Tamil Nadu from the early years of the Christian era till about the 14th century. At its height, it enjoyed royal patronage and was the religion of the elite which at that time comprised the urban and mercantile classes. 
Buddhism ceased to exist in India in the medieval period for a variety of reasons, and saw a revival of sorts only in the closing years of the 19th century. 
The discoveries of British archaeologists and anti-colonial and religious revivalist movements in Ceylon and India spurred by Europeans interested in Eastern thought, were factors responsible for increasing interest in Buddhism at the end of the 19th century. 
In Ceylon, the Buddhist revival was a part of a nationalistic upsurge, the search for a national identity. But in India, its revival was part of the movement to liberate the traditionally oppressed “untouchable” castes, now called Dalits.
The first to use Buddhism as a weapon to fight for Dalit liberation was Pandit C. Iyothee Thass (1845-1914) of Tamil Nadu. He was followed by Swami Achhutanand Harihar of Uttar Pradesh and Babu Mangu Ram of Punjab. Finally, Dr.B. R. Ambedkar brought it to the Indian foreground by strongly portraying it as the theology of Dalit liberation.

Iyothee Thass 

Born in a “Parayar” family, Iyothee Thass began his life as a doctor of Siddha medicine (Tamil Ayurveda). As an acclaimed Siddha doctor, he was well versed in Sanskrit and Pali and also English. He also won acclaim as a Tamil litterateur. He began to advocate the cause of hill tribes in the 1870s, and the untouchable Hindu castes in the 1890s. In 1891, he founded the Panchamar Mahajana Sabha, an organization of the untouchable castes.  
He launched a magazine called “Dravida Pandian” along with Rev John Rathinam in 1885. In 1886, he issued a statement, almost half a century before Dr B. R. Ambedkar, saying that the so-called untouchables were not Hindus at all.
Thass established ‘Dravida Mahajana Sabai’ and submitted a petition to the Indian National Congress with hundreds of signatures of Dalits, urging the Congress party to declare the word ‘Pariah’ as contemptuous. By then, the term “Pariah” had become part of the English language for a contemptible person.
When the 1901 Census was being conducted in India, Thass urged untouchables to register themselves as “Casteless Dravidians” not as Hindus. He repeated the demand during the 1911 census. 
Having been converted to Buddhism in 1898, Thass urged the British rulers to refer to untouchables as ‘Original Buddhists’. Thus, Thass was a forerunner of the current Buddhist icon, Dr. B.R.Ambedkar, who converted to Buddhism with thousands of Dalits in 1956. 
Upon conversion, Thass met Colonel Henry Olcott of the Theosophical Society and asked for his help to promote Buddhism among Indian Tamils. He visited Ceylon to get Diksha (initiation) from Bikkhu Sumangala. On his return to India, he established the “Sakya Buddhist Society” in Madras with branches in Burma, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Fiji and South Africa, where many Tamil Dalits were working as indentured labour in British-run plantations.  

Indian freedom movement 

Like Ambedkar in later years, Thass was against the Indian freedom movement saying that it embodied the values of the upper caste Hindus, who used caste, religion, education and wealth to dominate the oppressed castes.
Thass interpreted the Tamil classics from a Buddhist viewpoint. His book “Indirar Desa Sarithiram” (History of India) is held up as the first subaltern history of India, or history from the standpoint of the suppressed. 
Thass called his Buddhism ‘Tamil Buddhism’, which differed from Buddhism elsewhere in the world as it was markedly anti-caste. He did not approve of Sri Lankan Buddhism in which the various Nikayas were based on caste. He had differences with the Maha Bodhi Society in India founded by Anagarika Dharmapala for its lack of interest in caste issues.
Sub-caste identities, he felt, were the main obstacle in organising Dalits under a broader political platform. All Dalits put together were a major caste group, but their division into sub-castes (Pallar, Parayar ets.,) prevented them from coming on a common platform. He felt that en masse conversion to Buddhism was the way out. 
Iyothee Thass’ ideas predated the all-Tamil Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu. The Dravidian movement also said that the Tamils were not Hindus and that they had a casteless society before the advent of Brahminical Hinduism. Thass called the Dalits or untouchables “Poorva Thamizhar” (original Tamils). He blamed Brahmins for the extinction of Buddhism in India. He blamed the Brahmins for the  hierarchical caste system based on birth. According to him when Buddhism reigned in Tamil Nadu, the caste system was not prevalent. 
Activities of Thass’ “Sakhya Buddhist Society” caught the eyes of British officials conducting the 1911 Census. One official wrote: “One of the most significant of recent religious developments is the formation of the South India Sakya Buddhist Society with the object of converting the people to Buddhism....The lofty principles and beautifully simple life enunciated by the founder of the religion seem to appeal with peculiar force to the Tamil-speaking artisans and the middleclasses in the localities mentioned above.”
In his book “Religion as Emancipatory Identity - A Buddhist Movement among the Tamils under Colonialism”  G. Aloysius points out that for Thass, a Buddhist identity was not different from a Tamil identity. 
“The Buddha was not a ‘north Indian’ and therefore, not an “Aryan God”; but he was very much a Dravidian/Tamil Indian and the author of the Tamil script,” Thass said. 
He said Buddhists were the protectors and promoters of Tamil literature and other arts such as music, painting and architecture. “The genuine way of being a Tamil is to be a Buddhist, that is, casteless, in every sense of the term.”
Shrinidhi Narasimhan of Brandies University, in her paper “Between the Global and Regional: Asia in the Tamil Buddhist Imagination” says in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Buddhist revival in every country had local, Asian and Western links. The paper highlights the links between Iyothee Thass, Col.Henry Olcott and Anagarika Dharmapala. Each of these Buddhist movements had a distinct local flavour but was interlinked too.   
“Modern-day Buddhism is commonly understood to be a co-creation of Asians, Europeans, and Americans” and several scholars such as David McMahan have argued that nineteenth-century Asian Buddhist revival movements were premised on Asian engagements with modernity and anticolonial contestations of European imperialism.”

Meiji rule

“In Japan, for instance, the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the establishment of Meiji rule in the mid-nineteenth century precipitated the most violent suppression of Buddhism in Japanese history, which compelled the Buddhist community to turn to America, Europe, and elsewhere in Asia and look for ways of reconstructing a Buddhism that would succeed under the new political regime,” Narasimhan points out.
“In Ceylon, on the other hand, British imperialism and Christian missionary activity were the main catalysts for a Buddhist revival. The absence of a Buddhist ruler in Ceylon since the removal of the last Kandyan king by the British in the early nineteenth century contributed to the sense that Buddhism had become weak on the island. In addition, the influence of Christian missionaries and the persistence of caste-based divisions within Buddhist Nikayas provided further impetus for a Sinhalese Buddhist revival.”
“Besides this, economic developments like the growth of new commercial networks and improvements in communication and transportation also influenced the nature of movement within the nineteenth century Asian Buddhist world,” Narasimhan says.