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RELIGIONS AND HUMAN RIGHTS : Buddhism vs Brahminism

Nalin Swaris

(Ed. Note: The following is an exerpt of a monograph first given as the key note address at the Consultation on Buddhism, Human Rights and Social Renewal. Started in September SOLIDARITY will publish the excerpt in a series of issues.)

Buddhism, has practically disappeared from the land of its birth. The religion which would come to be known as the religion of India is Brahminism. As early Buddhism transformed itself from a movement of social protest to a status religion headed by monastic landlords, the lines seem to have blurred between the ideas and practices propagated by the first Buddhists and those which they vigorously opposed. To appreciate the radicalism of early Buddhism and to critically evaluate the character of Buddhism as it has become, we need to understand the principle features of Brahmin theology and ethics.

Brahmanism developed from around the 8th century BCE, in the lands between the Yamuna and Ganga rivers - the doab ( two river land) and which was referred to by brahmins as the Brahmarishidesa - the land of the holy rishis, or seers. Using their monopoly control of ancient traditions and rituals, the brahmins were able to ingratiate themselves to tribal chiefs and kings by providing them legitimation and theological rationalisation for the hierarchically stratified society that emerged in the doab.

Brahmin theology aimed at providing a theory to maintain and reproduce this historically arisen social order as if it were a divinely ordained cosmo-social scheme of things willed by the creator god Brahma. The brahmin theory of four colours - varnadharma - was in fact an ingenious theological structural function explanation of society. According to the originating myth of this social order, a male - Purusha - had been sacrificed and his body dismembered. The parts of the body were reassembled and the body revivified in such a way that the brahmins came out of the mouth (brahmana) the ruling warrior class out of his shoulders ( ksatriya), the landowning peasants out of his stomach ( vaisya) and the property-less domestic slaves and land labourers ( sudras) from his foot. The people who lost their lands to the expanding agricultural economy, or resisted incorporation into it were ‘outcastes’ and regarded as the most ritually polluting of humans. They were called the candalas in the Buddha’s Day.

"Brahmin polemics against women and sudras were particularly fierce"

The myth of the dead and resurrected male god as the mystical body of the new society, effectively excluded women from the public sphere, religious and secular. Brahmin polemics against women and sudras were particularly fierce. The priest-theologians declared that women were ritually unclean and that the womb of women produced only a animal-like existence doomed to decay and death. They therefore ruled that the male children born to the three upper strata of society - the ‘ariya’, should be born again through a birth-rite performed by the priests. A birth-rite was deemed unnecessary for women and the sudras since they were regarded as intrinsically and irredeemably impure. The repeated injunctions against women by the brahmin god-king and law giver Manu - that they should be constantly watched over, kept in subjugation and given no freedom, is understandable because of the wholly fictional and fantastic character of the brahmin theory of social order.

"So how could social position have been determined by an innate nature?"

The brahmins had to denounce women as a dangerous illusion- Maya - and relegate them to the realm of the impermaenet and unreal, because they were aware that the life which came from the womb undermined in practice their grand scheme of reality. Whatever the pretensions and conceits the brahmins conceived in their head, the real concepts of the womb put paid to their theory that the humans beings who constitute the four social ranks, emanate from four different sources and form four separate species or jatis.

As the Buddha pointed out to a group of brahmin scholars, all these distinctions dissolve in the womb of woman. Men from the four ranks could and did have intercourse with women of the other ranks and had normal human offspring. If the brahmin theory of separate species or jatis is true, he argued, such unions should have produced a strange hybrid. If a creator god had determined the order of human society, then society at all times and all places would display the same social structure. But this, the Buddha argued, was demonstrably false.

While the brahmins spoke of a necessary division of society into four strata, among the Greeks only two divisions were recognised - that of the free and the slaves. But even there, the free borns were falling into slavery and slaves were ascending into the ranks of the free. "So how could social position have been determined by an innate nature?" the Buddha asked.

What prevents people from changing their life-conditions is not nature, but culture. The brahmins were naturalising culture so that they could present social reproduction as a natural occurrence, like the ever recurring seasons of nature.

As we saw above, a new society had emerged in the Mid-Gange Valley, which was quite distinctive in character from the society of the doab which had been fully brahminised. Contrary to the view popularised by nineteenth century Western Indologists, the brahmins were relative newcomers in the Middla Country, which they at first as ‘the accursed lands of heathens", because this region was not developed under the aegis of the priestly caste. brahmins. Their ideas were frontally attacked by the wandering teachers of the sixth century BCE, foremost among them being the disciples of the Buddha. All the moral philosophers of this period, rejected the authority of the Vedas, brahmin rituals and belief in a personal god. The school founded by Siddhartha Gotama spread far beyond the shores of India and became a truly Pan Asian ‘religion’.

The radical edge of early Buddhism was blunted once it became a status religion and its institutions integrated into the dominant system of production. It is therefore not surprising that the cults that developed as the ‘true religions of India’ were the worship of gods like Siva, Krishna and Rama to whom the people could pray for help as they could not to the human and humane Teacher of Compassion and Egalitarianism - the Buddha.

The Buddha on the Biological Unity of the Human Species

"Vasetta Suttha affirms the biological unity of the human species"

The Vasetta Suttha is an extraordinary discourse, in which the Buddha radically demonstrates and affirms the biological unity of the human species. It is a stupendous intellectual and ethical assertion when one considers that the unity and equality of the human race came to be accepted at least in theory, only in the twentieth century CE, after the Second World War, with the Universal Declaration of Fundamental Rights.

The Vasettha Sutta was occasioned by a question put to the Buddha by two young students of brahmin theology. What did the teacher Gotama think, they asked, of the brahmin doctrine that each of the four separate ranks of society are different by birth and that their social functions are an articulation of their separate natures or jatis ?

In reply, the Buddha invited them to review the different forms of life in the world. In the first place, he pointed out, there are different forms of plant life. These flora, he said, could be classified into separate species, by their distinct species marks. The same, he said for the animals that live in water, on earth and for the birds that fly in the skies. They can all be classified as separate species because of their distinct species-marks. But when it comes to the human life-form he said:

Not in the hairs nor in the head
Nor in the ears nor in the eyes
Nor in the mouth nor in the nose,
nor in the lips nor in the brows

Nor in the shoulders or the neck
Nor in the belly or the back
Nor in the buttocks or the breast
Nor in the anus or genitals

Nor in the hands nor in the feet
Nor in the fingers or the nails
Nor in the knees nor in the thighs
Nor in their colour or in voice

(Human) birth makes no distinctive mark
as with other kind of birth
As corporeal beings there are indeed perceptible differences
among humans.

But the differences spoken of among humans
are purely conventional.

The Buddha here exposes the hidden strategy behind ideologies of racial and sexual difference. The human body is morphologically the same. Significant difference is created by selecting one or more features of the human body - skin colour, shape of nose, the texture of the hair or the genitals in order to identify them as signs of essential difference.

The Buddha pointed out that when a group of people perform the same occupational functions from generation to generation the illusion arises that they are ‘farmers’, ‘warriors’ or ‘priests’ by birth. The brahmins could then claim that a farmer or warrior or priest performs these functions because they are articulations of the idea of a farmer, warrior or priest, ‘nature’ conceived by the god Brahma.

This, he pointed out, is an inversion of the real order in which ideas are produced. First, he said, there are, repeated cultural practices. This gives rise to the idea of ‘farmer’, ‘warrior’, ‘priest’, ‘manual labourer’ etc. The conceptual order, is derived from the practices of everyday life, not the other way around. By reifying the conceptual order as a divinely conceived and unchangeable reality, the brahmins, he said, were trying to prevent social change. The truly wise know, he concluded, that the seemingly unchangeable social order of his day, had "thus become through human action and is the result of human action".

In real life, wherever ‘a Law’ did not prevent it people were transgressing the divine order, falling in love and marrying across culturally imposed barriers and changing their occupations. This would not be possible, he pointed out, if culture was determined by nature.

In fact, he pointed out, what humans call ‘nature’ is itself a cultural determination: it is a domonstrable fact that the notion of ‘nature’ had changed from epoch to epoch and that it differs from society to society.

The Agganna Sutta: The Archaeology of Power

In the Vasettha Sutta, the Buddha adopted what he called a method of analysis by (empirical) investigation and distinction and showed how the concept of fixed and unchangeable occupations had arisen condtioned by actual social practices. On another occasion, he applied the principle of conditioned co-genesis to clarify the historical genesis of the social division of labour. This too, was in response to a question put to him by the same two brahmin students of theology.

In striking contrast to most Western social theories, the Aganna Sutta does not begin with the assumption that at the beginning of social evolution there were only separate individuals. In the beginning, he says there were just beings - sattha. Consistent with what we know from contemporary anthropological studies - the Buddha begins with human groups in the food-gathering stage. Anthropologists and palaeontologists agree that unto now, we humans have spent the greater part of our existence on this planet in the stage of hunting and gathering.

The Buddha begins with this initial, simple and undifferentiated stage. There was no social differentiation or hierarchy - not even the differentiation between masculine and feminine. Humans were known as just human beings. The Buddha mentions that humans lived for a long period of time as food gatherers, until they invented the technique of food cultivation. The development of agriculture became the genetic stage for further developments. Consolidation of food production and the creation of surpluses in food had an impact on social relationships. The primitive clan began to disintegrate. Pairing marriage and separate household became the basic unit of society. The settled way of life and the setting up of separate households made accumulation and hoarding of goods possible. This led to social conflict and necessitated the institution of private property. Boundaries were marked to divide the hitherto undivided earth into privately owned units. The possibility of grabbing land and retaining it as private property only served to inflame the greed to accumulate wealth. Far from ending social strife, the institution of property increased theft, lying and violence.

It is at this stage, when egoism and insatiable greed had developed under historically developed conditions, that the need for a central institution to pass laws, judge infringements of the law to punish violators of the law, became a social necessity. In order to maintain peace and to ensure the just distribution of property, the people came together and proposed in common assembly:

Suppose we were to appoint a certain being who would show anger where anger was due, censure those who deserved it and banish those who deserved banishment! And in return, we would grant him a share of the rice. So they went to the one who was the handsomest, the most pleasant and capable, and asked him to do this for them in return for a share of the rice, and he agreed. (vs..20)

The Buddha then goes on to explain the titles of rulers as originally understood by the people. A ruler's "first and enduring title" was `The People's Consensus'- Maha-Sammata. The Buddha calls it the pathamam akkharam - "the first constituting element".

The second title of the ruler - Khattiya (Ksatriya), `Lord of the Fields', was the second constituting element - dutiyam akkharam. It defined the nature and extent of a ruler's power. The elected ruler is vested with power of lordship over the people and their lands. The definition is interesting because it delimits the jurisdiction of the ruler. He is given powers of `over-lordship' but not rights of proprietorship over the people or the lands. Such claims were made by monarchs of the Buddha’s Day only on the basis of violent conquest. The attribution of the origin of over-lordship to a social entitlement, and not to a privilege of birth, implies that the people can withdraw the mandate if the rulers violates the contract made with them.

The third title and constituting element of power was raja. This defines the quality which should inform just governance and which gives legitimacy to the power of the Great Elect: A Raja is one who "Gladdens others with Dhamma". The Buddha shifts the significance of the word raja = "resplendent power" and makes it signify not power but "radiant righteousness". Since the Maha-Sammata was freed from direct productive labour he would have no personal means of subsistence.

Following the ancient tribal custom of balanced reciprocity, the people decided to remunerate him for the services he agreed to perform on their behalf. Here, the Buddha explains the socio-genesis of taxation. The people agreed to transfer a share (bhaga) of their produce to a central pool or treasury (kosa), to safeguard the public interest and commonwealth. The Buddha speaks of "a share of rice". What was handed over was a share of the produce, but not land, the principle means of production. Taxation, according to the Buddha, began as a voluntary tribute, even though it had degenerated into extortion and expropriation in his time.

The Buddha’s explanation of the origins of kingship and the state is in striking contrast to the brahmin theory of the divine origin of the monarchy. Because of alarming conditions of social anarchy the people turned to the gods for help. The god Manu agreed to become the ruler of humans on condition that he would be given lavish gifts (grain, animals and the most beautiful of young women) in return for maintaining law and order. The theory provided a theological rationale for taxation. The peoples' fear of social anarchy is used to justify the privileges of the king who functions as the guardian of the brahmanic cosmo-social order. Brahmanic ideologists placed the first kings like Prthu and Manu outside the vanna scheme. Kingship was the result of a separate act of creation. Kings were established in office by a divine legate, - a brahmin priest - who was empowered to anoint the king. Like the Christian divine right of kings, the brahmin theory provides a descending analysis of power.

The Buddha rejected such mystification of royal power. After, recalling the circumstances that led to the election of a Maha-Sammata, he immediately adds that he was "a certain being" - ekam sattam- chosen from among the people themselves. There is no mention of gender, birth or wealth qualifications. The only criteria mentioned are ethical. The Great Elect was expected to rule justly and gladden the hearts of his people. In the Agganna Sutta, the Buddha provides a historical-genealogical explanation of the social division of labour, the emergence of social classes, the hierarchical stratification of society, and the monarchical state. With the emergence of each occupational group and social rank, including royalty, the Buddha insists:

They originated among these very same beings, like ourselves, no different, in accordance with Dhamma (conditioned co-genesis) and not contrary to Dhamma (conditioned co-genesis)

Whether a person is king or a sudra or an untouchable outcaste, everyone shares a common human nature. They belong to the same species - jati.

The Agganna Sutta: Some Theoretical Conclusions

1. The Buddha, is the first thinker in the history of the world, who formulated a contractual theory of power. The Agganna Sutta is the first known discourse on politics where the source of state power is traced back to a great consensus among the the People (Mahajana Sammata). The contract was not necessitated because human beings are by nature egoistic individuals. According to the Buddha, individualism and egoism began to manifest themselves under specific, historically arisen conditions: the transition from a nomadic to a settled way of life, after human beings had developed techniques for the production of their means of subsistence, the breakdown of clan solidarity with the setting of separate households as the principle unit of ownership and production. "What was once regarded as immoral ( the private ownership of the means of production) came to be regarded as moral".

2. The Buddha rejected the brahmin theory about the divine origin of language. The brahmins traced language to the Creative Word Of God - Om. The Divine Mind and the Divine Word are one. All realities are fragmentation of the divine word, become incarnate in perishable matter. To know the hidden meaning of a thing or a person, we must know its true meaning as conceived and uttered by the Word of God. All words, according to brahmin theory, are made up of stable sound elements- aksaras - which have a fixed and immutable meaning. The brahmins alone, who are the custodians of the Sacred Vedas have access to the true meaning of an aksara as determined by God. By tracing the power of words to God, the brahmins could claim that their discourse about social order was a divine discourse.

The Buddha provides a historical explanation for the origin of aksaras. Language, like society, for the Buddha is a sankhara - constructed reality. The meaning attached to a word is a social convention, not divine creation. The Buddha wields a two edged sword in the Agganna Sutta. He undercut not only the brahmin theological view of society, but also the very language they use to substantiate it.

3. In the Aganna Sutta the Buddha traces a long historical process which culminates in the emergence of an hierarchical society with the power being shared at the top by priests and kings. He began by dismissing the spurious notion of priestly-birth through a divine male mouth. All humans including the brahmins, despite their pretensions are born of the nether mouth of women - they are, he said, like everyone else - yoni jato - vulva born. By doing so the Buddha revalidated the feminine-maternal order which the brahmins had disqualified as intrinsically impure. Taking a different approach, he reasserted what he stated in the Vasettha Sutta (vs.611) - voharam ca manussesu samannaya pavuccati - the differences spoken of among human beings are merely conventional.

4. From the Buddha's point of view, every just social order and every just political constitution must begin with the recognition of the essential equality of human beings, which is rooted in their common species-nature. There is no foundation for discrimination before the law ( Dhamma) between human beings, individually or collectively. This principle is not based on conventional or positive law, but on the law of conditioned co-genesis. This is not an a-priori category. It was derived a-posteriori, by observing and verifying the processes which are operative in the birth and demise of human thoughts. feelings and actions. Social institutions have under specific historical conditions. They are are rebirthed from generation to generation and taken on the appearance of fixed and unchangeable things. Since human beings have forgotten or have been indoctrinated with a false knowledge of the beginnings of ‘things’ around them, they have come to believe that the products of human action are alien forces which they cannot control. The perceived differences among human are nominal, not essential.

Human beings are not different from one another, they are equal not unequal. This is in accordance with Dhamma .

5. The Vasettha and Agganna Suttas enunciate basic principles for the formulation of a Bill of Fundamental Human Rights:

- all men and women are equal according to a Fundamental Law - Dhamma
- power does not come from a divine or mysterious source.
- the power of kings and of the State, comes from the people, is constituted by the people and is intended for the welfare of the people.
- governments which do not enjoy the free and just mandate of the people are illegitimate.
- these truths are - Dhammena - according to the principle of righteousness and rulers as well as the ruled are subject to the basic law.

In the Agganna Sutta we see an anticipation of a constitutional monarchy and the Rule of Law. The great kings - maharajas - declared that they were the absolute rulers of all the realms they had conquered by force of arms and that their will was the supreme law of the land. In this context the Buddha was once asked

Who Master is the King of kings?
He replied: The Dhamma alone is the King of kings.
(The Gradual Sayings 111.114)

Posted on 2001-08-27
Asian Human Rights Commission

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