Is Buddhism the cause of untouchability?

Ever since Shri Babasaheb Ambedkar chose the Buddha’s way for his people there has been this widespread belief that Buddhism will help emancipate the untouchables. But,

– the nagging doubt about Buddhism’s primary complicity in bringing about the cause of untouchability has remained in some.

It is possible to cause something by not necessarily intending it. In the case of Buddhism, it’s intention was not to cause the isolation of groups that worked menial and what are called “unclean” occupations. However, it’s insistence on and abstinence from meat-eating seems to have had the unintended and undesirable effect of making such occupations seem unclean to the extent of becoming untouchable.

It’s very simple – so great was the attachment to purity that one was not prepared to become unclean by approaching and cleaning up impurity.

The difference with pre-Buddhist Hindu Dharma is glaring. Here the impurity was only notional that could be purified by spiritualizing it. So, people took up occupations according to their lights and capacities. There could not have been occupations and consequently groups that were “untouchable” in itself.

Readers might be interested to know of a similar case with regards to Japan’s burakumin.

I have highlighted the most relevant portion below –

With the coming of Buddhism to Japan in the middle of the sixth century C.E. came an opprobrium against eating meat, which was extrapolated to concerns about the impurity in handling meat. As in India, this injunction came to be associated with handling dead humans as well. Consequently, anyone who engaged in related activities was, by definition, impure and to be avoided. This emphasis on purity and impurity had a long history in Japan associated with Shinto, yet the Buddhist doctrines invigorated and dogmatized this proclivity within Japanese society.

As Buddhism permeated its way through Japanese society, the notion of pollution came to include the idea that it could be caused by contact with the bodies of dead animals, and thus came to be associated with leather work and even the eating of meat. Gradually the Shinto concepts of imi (taboo) and kegare (pollution) which were associated with human death became linked to the Buddhist prohibition on taking any life. First government proclamations which outlawed the eating of flesh of certain domestic animals occurred in AD 676.

–Varta–

Shri Metaempiricus observes –

This is an interesting line of analysis. We should also understand that buddhism was the first organized religion with a clear social philosophy. Buddhism with its thousands of Vinaya rules always remained an elitist and bourgeoise religion thriving on state patronage. Ambedkar’s claim that the history of India can be concised into a struggle between Brahmins and Buddhists is also wrong. As the Brahmins were also part of the Buddhist sangha in great measure and the latter day Brahminical practices have had a strong influence from Buddhism and Jainism. And most latter day Brahmins in many regions of India were ex-Buddhists. Obviously many of the Buddhist practices were carried forward.

Palahalli S replies –
 
I agree.
 
I think Shri Ambedkar argued the Buddhist-Brahmin conflict angle from the point of hypothesis that could still be disputed. The Buddha himself seems not to have spoken against Brahmins but crude perversions that seeped in in their practices. Shri Kedar makes that point here.
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One Response

  1. This is an intresting line of analysis. We should also understand that buddhism was the first organized religion with a clear social philosophy. Buddhism with its thousands of Vinaya rules always remained an elitist and bourgeiuos religion thriving on state patronage. Ambedkar’s claim that the hostory of India can be concised into a struggle between Brahmins and Buddhists is also wrong. As the Brahmins were also part of the Buddhist sangha in great measure and the latter day Brahminical practices have had a strong influence from Buddhism and Jainism. And most latter day Brahmins in many regions of India were ex-Buddhists. Obviously many of the Buddhist practices were carried forward.

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