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Buddhism and the Caste Question: A Review of Omvedt’s Buddhism in India

Aiswarya Maity


Buddhism in India: Challenging Brahmanism and Caste, authored by Gail Omvedt, an American-born Indian sociologist, is a critical reading of the history of Buddhism in India from an anti-caste perspective. As a human rights activist, Omvedt has been involved in several Dalit and anti-caste movements in India and this book, originally published in 2003, is one of the several she has written on this subject.

Omvedt tracks the presence of Buddhism in India right from the ‘basic Buddhism’ propagated by Buddha himself to the more modern Buddhist Renaissance with an eye on its prospects. She likens the original rise of Buddhism in a ‘tumultuous India’ to its revival in similar dynamic conditions. These two historical moments correspond to a) the well-known combat between Brahmanism and Buddhism with Buddha’s specific attack against the Brahmanic varnashrama dharma. And b) the positing of Buddhism and Marxism in contrast with each other by B. R. Ambedkar. In this context, Omvedt considers Ambedkar’s brand of Buddhism, Navayana Buddhism, as revolutionary. Ambedkar posited Navayana in contrast to the three accepted ways of Buddhism (Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana). He was able to create Navayana by rejecting at least four aspects of basic Buddhism. These four denials are – (i) the concept of pravrajya or ‘going forth’ which means an aspiring Buddhist leaving his life at home behind to become a Bhikku (Buddhist monk) (ii) the ‘four Aryan truths’ which included the truth of suffering, the truth of the cause of suffering, the truth of the end of suffering and the truth of the path that led to the end of suffering (iii) The juxtaposition between the karma-rebirth cycle and the denial of the existence of the soul (anatta). And (iv) The concept of a bhikku. Ambedkar further emphasizes his personal belief that Buddha was a man and not a spiritual being as proponents of Mahayana claimed. He sides with reason against bare faith.

Omvedt goes on to capture the importance of the interpretation and reinterpretation of Buddhism over years of scholarship in the course of its evolution. Navayana embodies this concept in its view that religion is essentially heuristic. We indeed have a lot to learn for ourselves from the course of Buddhism in India and what it brings to the table. Siddhartha Gautama, known to us today as ‘Buddha’, left his home at the age of 29 (he is adopting the practice of pravrajya here). He aimed at finding ‘the truth behind suffering and death’. This marks the beginning of him laying the foundation of Buddhism, a principle teaching of which he sums up in the words he addressed to his principal attendant Ananda: “All complex phenomena are transitory. Strive with diligence”. Today, many critics have applied this theory of Buddha’s to Buddhism itself, questioning whether it is transitory too against a backdrop of the religion’s limited adoption today.

Within what kind of societal space was Buddha developing his religion? The society of the day saw a division between the Indic people and the Vedic people. The Indic people were cosmopolitan: a peaceful, religious, agriculturally-centred group. They worshipped goddesses and had a matriarchal structure of society. On the other hand, the Vedic people were pastoral, nomadic, war-making people. They led spiritual lives based on sacrifice and magic. They had a patriarchal social structure. The Vedas were popular among the Vedic people at this time. Sacrifice was urged to gain victory at war, freedom from disease and to ‘gain women’. Alongside this, different political forms were emerging. On one hand, were the monarchical kingdoms at the centre and on the other were the tribal gana-sanghas which were classist oligarchies based on kinship. The Kshatriyas claimed charge of the gana-sanghas as ‘Aryan nobility’. Morals had begun to stoop dangerously low. Parricide was common and immorality rampant. Buddha urged for the ‘consciousness of the individual against social upheaval’. In his famous ‘fire sermon’, he preaches liberation from suffering in such a world through a person’s detachment from their five senses and mind.

Various traditions of faith and thought emerged during this time as in the following. The Samana tradition rose with the alleged purpose of ‘striving for the truth’. The samanas were recluses who were often viewed as pessimists. The rise of such a tradition of recluses who could choose to not fetch their own bread is attributed to the production of agricultural surplus at the time. The Jains divided the samanas into kriyavadis (who believed in action and responsibility) and akriyavadis (ascetics who did not believe in action and responsibility which led to certain moral nihilism and evil behaviour in them). Another group of identified akriyavadis were the Ajivikas. The Ajivikas were primarily defined as pessimistic, rational ‘fatalists’. Now, ‘fatalism’ referred to the denial of the causality of karma backed by a strong belief that karma was inexorable and ‘will’ did not exist. Three core concepts emerging at this time constituted ‘fatalism, ‘materialism’ and ‘dualism’. Materialism harboured traditions such as Tantra and Lokayata. Tantra was an overtly sexual tradition that aimed to fight Theravada puritanical attitudes towards sexual intercourse. It considered female-male intercourse as the very basis of life. Brhaspati, guru of the gods, was the founder of Lokayata. History bears records of him teaching the demons materialism just to trick them. The famous teacher Charvak is also associated with this tradition. Lokayata was an empiricist logic that asserted there was no soul or consciousness and that everything was a result of just the four elements (earth, fire, water and air). Critics have been divided over the ages over assigning Lokayata to either ‘hedonism’ or a form of ‘nature-love’ (part of Brahmanic learning) that lead to the establishment of natural science. Another tradition, Dualism, was a Sankhya system founded by sage Kapila. Kapila asserted a dualism between prakriti (female, active, materialistic presence) and purusha (male, passive presence embodying the consciousness of spirit or self). The goal herein was the ‘liberation of purusha from the bonds of the world’. This meant freedom from prakriti which throws light on the view of the female as ‘maya’ and simply a temptation for men to avoid.

Brahmanism for this while had been preserving its orthodoxy through enabling a nominal acceptance of the authority of the Vedas. Brahmans came to create their own elite status. Lineage was not strict as people from ‘outside’ were often adopted as Brahmans on the basis of merit. What was this ‘merit’ that qualified a Brahman then? They were essentially the ‘knowers and possessors of the Vedas’. They were known to be priests and ritualistic householders with worldly concerns. We see the emergence of hierarchy as a ‘necessity’ for the existence of the Brahmans. Brahmans began to proclaim divine creation of the varnas (this is a possible interpolation in the Rig Veda). Purushsukta records the Brahmans made from the mouth of the divine being, Kshatriyas from the arms, Vaishyas from the thighs and the Shudras from the feet. The Dharmashastras (the science of social law) expanded on the Chaturvarnya (societal division into four varnas), especially in the Manusmriti. Varna was associated with an occupation basis with Brahmans engaged in the priesthood, Kshatriyas in warfare, Vaishyas in several different jobs and Shudras in ‘lowly’ tasks such as serving upon the three ‘higher varnas’. The ‘lowest’ member of society came to be considered those born ‘against the grain’ which meant the mother having higher varna than the father. Abstaining from certain food came to claim Vedic Aryan origin. Brahmans identified as vegetarians and birthed the concept of ‘purity-pollution’ (sovala-ovala). Pollution was attributed to Shudras. Those who failed to perform their ‘caste-assigned duties’ (swadharma) were outcaste. Examples are the Mallas and Licchavis. Professions of agriculture and medicine underwent degradation in status. Ambedkar, as is well-known, in “Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development”, identifies these varnas as self-created ‘closed classes’ practising endogamy. The ultimate link of these closed classes to a purely hereditary structure is taken as the ‘birth of Brahmanism’. All this while, Brahmanism succeeded by appropriating the existing cults as in the case of Vaishnavism and Shaivism. The Brahmanic ‘trinity of Gods’ was created. The Bhagavad Gita provided a cosmological-philosophical justification of varnashrama dharma. Swadharma was stressed as one’s only social responsibility (no scope of individual salvation); Krishna says before the war in Mahabharata that a bad swadharma was better than a good apardharma. Intermixture of varnas was condemned.

To explain the stark contrast that Buddhism posed to Brahmanism, Omvedt then describes the establishment of Sangha. The Sangha created by Buddha was a society with collective decision-making structure based on the Vajjian oligarchical confederation. This was the first democratic monastic organisation of this type. It evolved from being a temporary residence for monks in the rainy season. Buddha has been known to modify his teaching according to a listener’s capability as shown in his teaching of ‘rectitude’ to the Pataligama householders. However his Sangha followed the principle of ‘bahujan hitaya, bahujan sukhaya’ (it was for all). The Sangha’s goal was Enlightenment (stop to rebirth on the attainment of nirvana). Nirvana was the transcendental freedom from samsara (material world). Buddha had three ideals underlying nibbana (nirvana): (i) The happiness of a sentient being was distinct from salvation of the soul (ii) Happiness of sentient being was in samsara while still alive, and (iii) control over perpetual flames of passion. Members of the Sangha had seven conditions for welfare to mould them into solitary, dutiful beings devoid of craving. They had no vows of poverty or obedience and only accepted seniority as superiority. This Buddhist monasticism can be considered as a form of communism. Sangha provided bhikkus with clothing, shelter and medical care. Members were called mundakagahapatis (shaven householders) as they were not ascetics. In exchange for food and dana (gifts), the Sangha provided education, social refuge, loans and promises of good future births. Thus Buddhism encouraged commerce and trade. However, Buddhism was not singularly meant for the monks. It prescribed ethics for the householder in three sections: sila (righteous conduct), samadhi (meditation) and panna (intellectual insight).

Buddhists despised accumulation of wealth. This dislike ultimately prompted a rapid-growing economy and the creation of a welfare state. Existent subordination in society was met with a plea for better treatment of the subordinates. Buddha’s idea of a ‘superman’ in society was one with self-control and concern for others. Buddha conversed with Magadha kings Ajatasattu and Bimbisara. He had had political influence. Agriculture was highly esteemed in Buddhism. Such prescriptions and popular Buddhist literature like the Pali canon was written in the language of the people. Jataka stories commonly having themes of karma-rebirth were popular. Buddhism, through these stories, asserted that lying and murder were much greater sins than sex and stealing property. Eventually, Buddhist methods shifted from simple moral instruction to seeking devotion. Devotion included gifts to the Sangha, a few rituals and worshipping Buddha’s relics in stupas. Stupas and statues became more elaborate and costly over time. Asoka built 84,000 stupas.

Gradually, Buddhism grew in popularity. It had three accepted ways as mentioned before. Whilst the oldest Theravada branch stressed on ethics and individualism, Mahayana shifted to ‘devotionalism’ as consolidated by Vajrayana. Devotionalism was ‘throwing oneself upon the mercy of the gods’. Theravada believed Buddha was a teacher but not divine and differed from original Buddhism only in its belief in karma-rebirth. It faded out on account of its blurred social morality and deviation from Buddha’s teachings. Mahayana, however, considered Buddha a ‘more-than-divine being’. The concept of Bodhisattvas emerged who would attain nirvana and thus merit for all. This ‘transfer of merit’ characteristic made Mahayana a saviour religion. Mahayana was part of the bhakti movement in India. Strong devotional sentiments like these were rising across the globe (for example, Christian devotionalism in Roman Empire) as a possible collective social reaction against unsatisfying political control. Though Mahayana broadened Buddhism’s social outlook, it ran the risk of giving in to extreme essentialism. Vajrayana was simply a ‘secret’ consolidation of Mahayana principles in ‘an age of Brahmanic dominance’. Omvedt answers the question of how three such different yanas could lay out a ‘common Buddhism’ with these points: (i) nobody can deny one’s self-identification with Buddhism (ii) theory of paticca samuppada supports one yana being born out of another (iii) they have certain common features such as ideas of ethics and liberation from passions as the goal. Though this bold picture of a ‘Buddhist India’ existed with Buddhist Emperor Asoka and abundant Buddhist architecture and literature, a ‘Hindu India’ has appropriated this idea to an extent that Buddhism has often been misinterpreted as simply a ‘protestant Hinduism’.

This is where the advent of Hinduism in a revised form is discussed by Omvedt. The origin of Hinduism in India is traced to the adoption of the Bhagwata and Shaiva cults. However, the caste system played a huge rule in its consolidation. Despite the claim it made, Ambedkar noted that caste was not a division of labour but a division of labourers. French sociologist Louis Dumont explained how Brahmans required the Shudras to be ‘impure’ in order to maintain their ‘purity’. This ‘purity-pollution’ concept led to ‘untouchability’. Brahmans started categorising Buddhists too as ‘untouchables’. Brahmans also wounded global trade, promoted by the Buddhists, with the ‘inward-looking’ Hindu philosophy. Brahmanism created its dominance with partially-adopted non-violence, integrated caste-based agrarian economy and bhakti devotionalism targeted at a feudal society. Buddhism ultimately could not survive against this dominance as Brahmanic Hinduism had expanded into a social practice with its ‘tolerance’ that integrated indigenous cults and religions. This Brahmanic success is noted in Chinese scholar Hsuan Tsang’s observation while visiting India that people generally spoke of India as ‘the country of the Brahmans’. Buddhism had disappeared from everywhere other than Harsha’s kingdom. However Indian historical records like itihasa-puranas recording decline of Buddhism are disputed because of chiefly Brahmanic patronage. Furthermore, the Brahmans were now visibly gaining the ruling kings’ favour. But why did the rulers of the time prefer Brahmanism over Buddhism? This may have derived from the fact that Brahman priests promised rulers unencumbered benefits without moral demands whereas depiction of self-sacrificing Buddhist and Jain kings would shame them. With the Turkish invasion and advent of Islam, the Brahmans managed to win over Muslim rulers’ favour in the same way. Many people started converting to Islam. Bhakti movements replaced heretic Buddhism and Jainism. This ‘sword of Islam’ is taken to have cemented the Buddhist decline.

Omvedt then outlines how the Bhakti movements were on the rise during this time and posed a subversive challenge to Brahmanism. This was a form of religious expression for ‘low-caste’ people led by sants (saints). Nandanar was the only ‘untouchable’ Shaiva saint. An instance of ‘“Brahmanising” of Bhakti’ would be the assignment of a Brahman guru to famous sant Ravidas. Famous North Indian sant Kabir said “this is Kaliyug: the age of phoney Brahmans”. Thus there is a bold note of rebellion against Brahmanism in Bhakti. The ‘Brahmamised’ knowledge of Buddha being an avatar of Vishnu was criticized. His words “the ten avatars are malarkey for those who really know” highlight why misinformation kept them away from Buddhism. Mirabai, Cokhamela and Tukaram were other notable sants. Nirguna bhakti worshipped ‘a god without qualities’ and saguna bhakti worshipped one with them. Bhakti died out because of lack of caste revolt and political power and its later opposition by Brahmanism. Brahamanism had its own opposition too. ‘Crypto-Buddhism’, founded by Sarala Das in Orissa, was a protest against court poets’ writing in Sanskrit. It was a synthesis of Tantra, Buddhism and Vaishnavite themes.

The Brahmanical politics of appropriation, as Omvedt points out, extended into the nineteenth century. Brahmanism managed to turn the three major colonial challenges to its favour through collaborating with the new rulers. These three colonial challenges were: (i) these foreigners, unlike previous rulers, did not ‘Indianise’ themselves (ii) intellectual and moral upheaval (iii) justifying own religions with reference to new Enlightenment values. The Brahmanical elite conveniently appropriate ‘Hindu’ to identify their own religion. Even social reformers read sacred texts and belonged to organisations named ‘Arya Samaj’ and ‘Brahmo Samaj’. However, inspired by French Revolution ideals and western historical rationality, Dalits and non-Brahmins openly demanded basic rights like land and water. Poet Bhima Bhoi and Mahima Gosavi revolted against caste in Orissa. Jyotiba Phule, from Maharashtra, founded the Satyashodhak Samaj (1875). In his work Gulamgiri (Slavery), he inverted the Brahmanic ‘Aryan theory’ to name the ‘Arya Bhat-Brahmans’ as the first conquerors. In this way, he ‘replaced Brahmanic learning’. Phule considered Hinduism a matlabi (self-interested), krutrim (artificial) and banavati (counterfeit) religion. He wished to replace it with his own Sarvajanik Satya Dharma Pustak: ‘a constructed monotheism postulating a vague but loving “Creator”’.

It is at this juncture that Buddhism made a comeback which owed to several factors. Europeans like H. S. Olcott and H. P. Blavatsky considered Buddhism ‘the true wisdom of the East’. Thomas William Rhys David’s ‘Pali Text Society’ (1881) translated a lot of the Pali canon. Dharmapala, Sarat Chandra Das and a Bengal Theosophist established the ‘Maha Bodhi Society’ in Colombo, the most important Buddhist Association in India till Ambedkar’s time. Pandit Iyothee Thass and P. Krishnaswamy founded the ‘Sakya Buddhist Society’, enabling mass Buddhist revival in Tamil Nadu. E.V. Ramaswamy founded the ‘Self-Respect Movement’. These efforts pushed up Buddhism whilst northern Dalit movements adopted ‘militant bhakti’ and attempts were made to ‘Hinduise’ rebels like Kabir and Ravidas as ‘figures of worship’. A crucial boost to Buddhism revival was Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar’s support with his Navayana brand. He famously proclaimed in Annihilation of Caste (1936) that “You must take the stand that Buddha took” whilst fighting Hindu Chaturvarnya. Ambedkar also saw Buddhism as an ‘all-around alternative’ to Marxism. Brahmanic elite took advantage of the freedom sanctioned by Marxism’s disregard for religion wherein gender and caste could be retained within a Brahmanical territory. Ambedkar said Buddhism was for the whole world because it placed morality first whereas other religions placed it second. Ambedkar, Sangharakshata and Vasant Moon all conducted mass conversions to Buddhism.

The modern Buddhist Renaissance emerged even against a backdrop of fading influence of few and poor Dalits whom Ambedkar had convinced into Buddhism for their own social betterment. This was due to ‘Dalit Panthers’ and other groups in the 1970s, radical Dalit-Bahujan activists, debates, books, songs and meditation courses. Mahayana Buddhist concept of Sukhavati (paradise) on earth can be realised backed by ‘classless society’ ideal linked with the scientific understanding of historical economic laws and French Revolution ideals mixed with liberalism and socialism. Even today, Buddhism has the potential of inspiring Dalits and Bahujans in their struggle and developing their sense of their own history and ‘stilling passion’ in the violent, chaotic world of today.

Omvedt's scholarship, needless to say, makes a solid contribution to Buddhist and Dalit studies.


Omvedt, Gail. Buddhism in India: Challenging Brahmanism and Caste. Sage, 2003.

Author Information

Aiswarya Maity studies English literature at Presidency University, Kolkata. Her research interests include Feminism and Surrealism. She works as a regular volunteer at Missionaries of Charity founded by Mother Teresa. She has been associated with schools in Kentucky as part of a project to better water quality in both India and the USA. Her work has been published by Future Publishers.



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