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Returning to my spiritual roots : Buddha’s Dhamma

“Every generation has to reinvent the project of spirituality for itself. (Spirituality = plans, terminologies, ideas of deportment aimed at resolving the painful structural contradictions inherent in the human situation; at the completion of human consciousness, at transcendence.)”

The Aesthetics of Silence, Susan Sontag

I have embraced Gautam Buddha’s Dhammaby taking Dr BR Ambedkar’s 22 vows on November 14, 2022, at Nagpur.

I hereby declare that I’ve relinquished harmful world views (such as Hinduism’s Brahmanical supremacy) thrust upon me when I was ignorant, after realising how they have crushed my will, denied my dignity and impaired my mental well-being.

As an indigenous woman, I do not consider this a “conversion” in any sense; it is a long due return to the roots established by my spiritual and ideological ancestors.

Buddha Surya Vihar Hall, Nagaloka, Nagpur
Buddha Surya Vihar Hall, Nagaloka, Nagpur

Arriving at this path has been a long, chaotic journey obscured by numerous distractions, unwholesome norms and values that kept me broken — or Dalit — by design.

While I haven’t been a very religious person, I have always been inclined towards a vague, undefined pursuit of “spirituality,” unsure of what that entailed.

I have tried taking refuge in many false gods  —  social, religious, philosophical, political ideologies, perhaps even “love” — in vain, until I stumbled upon these words by Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, who are noted scholars on world religions at Yale’s Divinity School and Department of Religious Studies:

“Religious ecologies are ways of orienting and grounding whereby humans undertake specific practices of nurturing and transforming self and community in a particular cosmological context that regards nature as inherently valuable.”

That clarified my spiritual quest as a search for something that could keep me grounded, oriented, nurtured through transformation — religion being the institutionalised structure that supported and disciplined such a quest.

I used the Tucker and Grim framework to evaluate the religious tradition I was conditioned into, that is, Hinduism, by perusing its foundational texts (See: Bhagavad Gita and Manusmriti) and and Dr Ambedkar’s critique of the same (See: Philosophy of Hinduism and Riddles in Hinduism).

Chapter 9, verse 32, The Holy Gita, Commentary by Swamy Chinmayananda, Chinmaya Prakashan; 2nd edition (1 December 2000).
Chapter 9, verse 32, The Holy Gita, Commentary by Swamy Chinmayananda, Chinmaya Prakashan; 2nd edition (1 December 2000).

I refuse to take refuge in scriptures, rituals and priests that ordain inequality through arbitrary, dehumanising and deterministic categorisation of human beings.

Scriptures, rituals and meanings that shapeshift for the convenience of the privileged or maintaining the status quo fail to ground me.

Scriptures that are incomprehensible, convoluted and inaccessible by design, do not orient me towards any clear, meaningful or beneficial values.

Scriptures, rituals and priests that justify my deprivation to nourish some others on arbitrary basis such as birth-based merit, fail to nurture my spirit.

The essentialism inherent in the Varna-Ashrama-Dharma which aims to fix me to dogmatic scriptural definitions based on my caste and gender does not see my humanity. It fails to recognise or strengthen my will to transform and transcend my circumstances. In fact, it seems to actively aim towards weakening my will; subjugating my consciousness in service of the status quo.

It (Caste) is a form of “mental slavery” that binds one through one’s own complicity to a certain diminished social role.

Dr BR Ambedkar

Towards spiritual autonomy

In his electrifying speech What Way to EmancipationAmbedkar makes a strong case to persuade folk belonging to Scheduled Castes to convert and discard their identity as broken, oppressed victims of Brahminism (masquerading as Hinduism).

Scott R Stroud writes in his exposition1“Pragmatism and the Pursuit of Social Justice in India: Ambedkar and the Rhetoric of Religious Reorientation,” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 46 (1), 2016: 5-27. analysing John Dewey’s influence on Ambedkar’s insistence towards religious conversion:

“The individual’s mental attitude toward self and society is not the only aspect relevant to social amelioration, but it is the vital element that conditions, enables, and transforms other factors. External, political, or material changes matter little if one’s internal orientation stays the same.”

I was certainly moved by the pragmatism underpinning his rationale for conversion. It inspired me to read more about Buddhism and intellectually appreciate some of its tenets. However, that wasn’t enough to motivate me to convert. I was still personally sceptical for the following reasons.

Firstly, I was unsure of how Buddhism was distinct from “Hinduism,” given how much it has been appropriated into the latter.

Secondly, I couldn’t see how adopting Buddhism would secure my basic spiritual quest for grounding, orientation, nurturance or transformation. For instance, the concept of anattā or ‘non-self,’ seemed too abstract for me to accept.

Thirdly, I was uncomfortable with how, in my (mis)understanding at the time, some of Buddhism’s tenets seemed dangerously apolitical tending towards justifying oppressive social conditions and individualising misery.

Fourthly, I wasn’t sure how much I could commit to the five precepts or the Panchshila given that they felt rigid in the sense of Kantian categorical imperatives.

The void as a result of chronic dissociation

Meanwhile, certain life events circa 2020–21 threw me spiralling into a void I’ve run from for as long as I can remember. It finally caught up with me. This time I was determined to sit with it.

I perceive this void as an all encompassing darkness containing uncomfortable stuff that had become inaccessible to me due to years of hiding, pretending and being absent to some overwhelming feelings of shame and anxiety.

My family’s upward mobility in a society deeply fractured by caste came at the expense of our emotional and mental well-being. Perhaps because it was a movement from grasping and clinging to external rungs of status symbols rather than an organic growth, it lacked the wholesomeness, security and stability derived from one’s roots.

I use the word roots as a metaphorical representation of a continuum of values, culture, history and language among other things — connections that facilitate the nourishment of an individual’s organic sense of being and belonging with the whole.

Ambitious individuals from Oppressed Castes, like my father, unwittingly believe that cutting off from our roots and emulating our oppressors, is the key to success and safety in ‘elite’ spaces.

Sociologist MN Srinivas derisively refers to this process of abandonment for survival, status and recognition as Sanskritisation, wherein Bahujans emulate Brahmins while simultaneously dissociating from their own culture. However, he fails to acknowledge that as a response to the roadblocks to growth in a colonising culture.

As a result of these choices from a generation before, I felt ungrounded, disoriented and spiritually sterile, over time — like a paper bag caught in the wind. It was in this context that I decided to attend a 10-day Vipassana course (I was told it would help me focus and stay grounded). That was my initiation into Gautam Buddha’s Dhamma.

Revolution: How to be one’s own light

“If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.”

Popular Proverb

Gautam Buddha established spiritual democracy through disseminating the very technique he used to liberate himself, that is, Vipassana, rather than merely preaching the wisdom he obtained post-enlightenment.

He understood the limitations of received knowledge and cognitive knowledge, that is, knowledge arrived at through using the faculties of human intellect vis-à-vis experiential knowing.

It is easy to forget or manipulate received wisdom/knowledgewhile it is relatively difficult to change cognitive wisdom or knowledge, it can be diluted through prolonged conditioning vide misinformation, internalisation of prejudices/biases or bounded rationality (See: Herbert A Simon).

Gautam Buddha highlighted the value of knowledge from actual experience as the foundation of human autonomy and freedom.

For instance, one could hear or read about how tasty a particular dish is; or they might imagine or assess the taste of the said dish from the ingredients and cooking technique used. However, Buddhism considers such ways of knowing as inadequate and insists upon actual experience of said dish to truly know its taste.

That being said, the practical utility of received or cognitive wisdom is not completely discounted; they are even considered as essential for the construction of objective reality.

But Gautam Buddha discovered that human beings could not access knowledge outside of the mind-body framework, which is the very apparatus through which we know or perceive reality.

Thus, the main aim of Vipassana is to nurture the development of ‘living wisdom’ or experiential knowledge, through right concentration, that is, focus only on the unconscious, natural breath to improve one’s equanimous awareness of their bodily sensations.

The term Vipassana means ‘to see things as they are,’ derived from the ancient language of the masses, Pali. It is the crucial instrument that fundamentally differentiates Buddha’s Dhamma from any other religious or spiritual traditions that insist more upon the importance of received knowledge or wisdom.

It was the consistent practice of Vipassana which rendered rites, rituals, unintelligible mantras, priests and their life-crushing dogmas, irrelevant — enabling people to become their own light, challenging the unwarranted exalted role of the priestly class in the Brahmanical Supremacy Cult™.

“Democracy is a form of government only because it is a form of moral and spiritual association”

John Dewey

The technique was and still is taught for free to anyone who develops the will to learn, not only because it cannot be valued in terms of money, but to also keep the practitioner’s ego in check by subjecting them to the discipline of monkhood for 10 days, which is the minimum duration required for an average person to be established in the practice.

Thus, the practical experience of Dhamma expelled my scepticism and apprehensions about it.

Counter-revolution: Reinforcing darkness

The love and light of Gautam Buddha, naturally provoked violent reactions from the priestly class who clung to false notions of their own purity and projected their natural impurities — which are inherent part of human existence — onto those below them in the varna and gender hierarchy.

The priestly caste, being a class of social engineers struck back with various strategies to protect their privilege of continuing to outsource their misery stemming from false, foolish beliefs (See: Dr. B.R Ambedkar’s Revolution and Counter-Revolution; Braj Ranjan Mani’s Debrahmanising History).

Apart from violent crackdowns on Buddhist viharas, one of the quieter ways Brahminism succeeded in ousting Dhamma was through diluting the technique of Vipassana.

Perpetuating ignorance and weakening the will of the masses by culturally conditioning us — through rumours/ misinformation — with an attitude of defeatism is how they have always prevailed.

True love as the fruit of the pursuit of truth

All that being said, I do not believe that Prince Siddhartha Gautama abandoned the privilege and opulence he was born into, desirous of starting a revolution or putting crooks and priests out of employment. SN Goenka refers to Gautham Buddha as a scientist who set out to inquire into his own being, choosing his inner life as a laboratory, to pursue and trace the root cause of inevitable human suffering — unfulfilled desires, misfortune, loss, sickness, old age and death.

His enlightenment enabled him to realise that anyone could develop equanimous awareness of one’s unconscious breath and bodily sensations — by not generating a reaction of either craving or aversion to such sensations — to break free from shackles of deterministic behaviours stemming from their unconscious will.

But it was the love for fellow humans that motivated him to return to society to share the merits of his discovery with anyone willing to receive, instead of renouncing the world like other enlightened ones.

His Dhamma is universal, democratic, scientific and non-sectarian. Even the five precepts are only a basic disciplining framework to prevent human beings from becoming too thick and desensitised, so that we remain sharp and sensitive enough to access subtler realities by staying in touch with our lived experience.

Dhamma and social justice

So much unnecessary suffering comes into the world because people will not accept the ‘legitimate suffering’ that comes from being human.

Carl Jung

I had grown weary of woke people in social justice movements over the last year or so. I couldn’t help but see how people’s unconscious, unchecked trauma and ill-will overrides their good intentions; and desire for justice.

Many folk in movement spaces are driven by their narcissistic wounds rather than any overarching sense of purpose; prioritising their egos over the outcome they claim to be fighting for.

As Taylor Swift sings in ‘Anti-Hero’:

Did you hear my covert narcissism I disguise as altruism
Like some kind of congressman? (Tale as old as time)

Besides, the convenient reduction of complex human beings, to objects one could easily label as — toxic, triggering, problematic, etc, — is how one gradually becomes emotionally and mentally dull enough to believe in foolish social orders such as the caste system.

Dhamma emphasises on the importance of right effort.

I do not honestly believe that I’d have much success attempting to smash powerful, complex, entrenched value systems such as Brahminism or patriarchy — and the resultant material realities — without having an alternative value system to offer.

People’s false beliefs and unwholesome behaviours are their problem and I am no more interested in wasting my time and energy into “correcting” them. I can only refuse to be an object that absorbs their misery.

While the phrase ‘personal is political’ is useful to promote the awareness of how sociopolitical realities influence individuals (and vice versa), I have noticed how one can easily lose sight of the critical limits of that nexus.

The origins of trauma might be an external source, but an individual’s mind-body framework is the primary site of suffering, as well as its source.

Dhamma has enabled me to understand how oppressors are merely ignorant people who use power to outsource their misery by inflicting trauma on those relatively weaker. And it doesn’t just stop there, but also equips me with accessible tools (Vipassana) through which one is enabled to exercise their free will to liberate themselves from the deterministic cycles of misery originating from external sources.

I might not have the power to change oppressive people or structures around me (determinism) but I can make sure that I don’t unwittingly multiply or further propagate misery (free will).

Therefore, the decision to take refuge and grow in Buddha’s Dhamma is an initiative towards decolonising my life. I firmly believe this is an important aspect of my contribution to social justice.

Deeksha Bhoomi, Nagpur
Deeksha Bhoomi, Nagpur

Navayana Buddhism

None of this is to imply that merely by changing one’s religion one ceases to be oppressed under the mainstream religious control of socio-economic structures. But it is the first step towards taking control of our lives. We have been accustomed to a slavish mentality as a result of centuries of oppression.

Dr Ambedkar “wanted Untouchables to have access to a source of transcendent, world-making authority over and above the contingent and ultimately fleeting power of social movements, political parties, or state ideologies.2Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations of Modern India (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), 224.Ananya Vajpeyi

The importance of Dr Ambedkar’s decision to adopt Buddhism isn’t widely understood or appreciated by the people belonging to the Oppressed Castes in the Brahminical social order.

But have the sociopolitical changes over the last 75 years liberated our minds?

Caste hegemony has merely shapeshifted with time. The very same thinking processes underlying spiritual/religious hegemony of the priestly caste is transposed into secular arenas.

Formal education, media and art (culture-making arenas in general) are all the fortes of the (secular) Brahminical stranglehold; and they have thwarted the development of any critical thinking among the masses, rendering most of us gullible; easy to manipulate. The recurring pattern being— a certain class of people predominantly tend to decide how the rest of us must think and behave.

It was with this foresight that Dr. Ambedkar persuaded people to choose a religion by asking “what mental and moral relief does it bring the suppressed and downtrodden.”3Bhimrao R. Ambedkar, “The Buddha and the Future of His Religion,” Writings and Speeches, vol. 17 part 2 (Bombay: Government of Maharashtra, 2003), 98.

Scott R Stroud commenting on Dr Ambedkar’s political reinterpretation of Buddhism, writes:

Religion is a means for the improvement of life, but only after one has reconstructed it by attending to what is living and what is dead in its tradition-bound elements.

Scott R. Stroud, ”Pragmatism, Persuasion, and Force in Bhimrao Ambedkar’s Reconstruction of Buddhism,” Journal of Religion, 97 (2), 2017, 214–243]

The reclamation of Buddhism by Dr Ambedkar to reconstruct it as a means for the caste-oppressed folk’s democratic reorientation towards the self and others, was political pragmatism.

He envisioned such a reorientation to potentially free us from our habitual mental patterns of subservience to the intellectual authority of a class of people uninterested in anything but safeguarding their hegemony.

[Note: A study comparing indicators of well-being — literacy levels, gender-equality and workplace participation for women — has found that persons belonging to Buddhist Scheduled Castes are doing relatively better than their Hindu counterparts. Data corroborates Babasaheb’s prescience.]

None of this is to imply that by merely changing one’s religion one ceases to be Oppressed. It is rather about addressing the oppressors’ consciousness/world views that we might have internalised and normalised within our communities.

Further, Buddhism, in its universal, non-sectarian sense, has the potential to constructively unite Bahujans, enabling fraternity and cooperation for the development of sociocultural capital.

Most importantly, Dhamma is wholesome — containing the necessary values for a politics rooted in compassion and justice. If we could unearth the wellspring it holds, I see a very bright future for us, as a lot.

Namo Buddhay. Jai Bhim.

(PS: I’d like to express my deepest gratitude to Nikhil Motghare, Prerna Vishwapremi, Swagata Khan, Rahul Kumar, Siddharth Gautam and Dr Archana Meshram (among so many others) for their love and support through this process. They made November 14, 2022 so much more wholesome and meaningful for me.)

(Mrudula is a Bengaluru-based lawyer.)

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