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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 36, New Delhi, August 22, 2020

Prime Minister Modi, Take-up the concerns of subalterns instead of co-opting Buddha for political gain | Badre Alam Khan

Friday 21 August 2020

by Badre Alam Khan

Buddha’s Challenge to Brahminism
by Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd
January 2019 | 260 pages | SAGE Publications Pvt. Ltd

 Before participating in the Bhumi Pujan (ground-breaking ceremony) at Ayodhya on 5th August, the PM Modi has earlier highlighted the rich legacy of India’s heritage and philosophical thoughts of Lord Buddha and said that his teachings as vividly described in the Eight-fold Path can help to overcome the current global crisis in general and India in particular, amidst the Covid-19. However, his speech has not clearly spelt out substantive socio-economic programmes to address the genuine concern of subaltern masses including migrant workers who suffered a lot, amid pandemic. The point has to be noted that after sudden and unplanned national lockdown the announcement by PM Modi on March 24, 2020, (which was considered as the most stringent and severe lockdown in the world so far) that led to the suffering and the plight of millions of migrant workers. The fact cannot be denied that some of them have lost their precious lives on the highway and by train accident before reaching their homes.

 While delivering his virtual speech on the occasion of Dharma Chakra day event at Delhi recently, PM Modi has said that amidst huge challenges, the solutions can come if nations and societies across the world will follow Lord Buddha’s teachings and his Eight-Fold Path seriously. Secondly, while addressing at the India-EU(European Union) summit jointly organized, the PM has underlined that India and the EU are natural partners because of both Nations have had long traditions of democracy, pluralism and inclusivity to promote trade and investments.

Thirdly, while addressing at the ECOSOC (Economic and Social Council, which is a very important body of the United Nation) meeting, PM Modi noted that India always believes in promoting universal values like multilateralism, humanity, peace, democracy, and pluralism at large. The role of the UN must now redefine and needs to be reform, after the larger threat posed by Covid-19 pandemic, expressed by him. Moreover, PM Modi has also underlined that India believes an approach like Sabka saath, sabka vikas and sabka viswash to achieve goals sustainable development as envisioned by the UN earlier. He also reminded that India has been so far successful in terms of containing the larger threat of Covid-19, as a comparison to other countries. However, after seeing the huge surge of Covid-19 patients at the nation-wide and increasing trends of death toll regularly, the claim made by the ministers of the ruling government and PM Modi has now vehemently criticized by opposition parties for failing to contain the outbreak of deadly Coronavirus and providing timely medical facilities. And finally PM Modi while participating in the Bhumi Pujan programmes at Ayodhya on 5th August has delivered a speech and highlighted the importance of the Ram Rajya to bring out prosperity and happiness to humanity at large.

 Let me admit here that due to constrain of space, I am not going to comment and critically engage with several speeches recently delivered by PM Modi at various national and international platforms virtually. I will limit myself to discuss and critically reflect on the speech given by PM Modi on Lord Buddha, while engaging with Kancha Ilaiah’s book  titled “God as Political Philosopher: Buddha’s Challenge to Brahmanism”, 2019 on the occasion of Dharma Chakra day. While showing the empirical studies which has been done on Indian’s poor and marginalized by national and international organizations, I will try to demonstrate that that country like India is lagging behind in most of the socio-economic dimensions such as educations, employment, and poverty, health, and happiness indices. The fact cannot be denied that problems like mob-violence, caste atrocities against Dalits, domestic violence against women, encounters, attacks on Human Right activists and minorities have been significantly increased in the public domain especially since the BJP-RSS led PM Modi government came to power at the Centre and various states. The recent arresting and harassments of anti-CAA protestors by the Delhi Police under the false pretext of being allegedly involved in Delhi riots can be cited as a case in point here.

Here one can ask the question, before highlighting Buddha’s egalitarian and universal values like peace, non-violence, compassion, and respect for women, poor and humanity at large, the PM Modi himself should introspect and reflect on the actual performances and role of its own government seriously. As Citizen of secular India, one can ask the question why his government is failing to address the said issues and problems. Keeping the sad and extremely depressing situations of our country in mind, here it is argued that only symbolic appropriation of Buddha for having political motives will not help to overcome the problems faced by subaltern masses without genuinely implementing his (Buddha) egalitarian values in a substantive manner.

 To be specific here, while addressing on the occasion of Dharma Chakra day, the PM Modi has stressed the need for paying serious attention to the Lord Buddha’s egalitarian teachings, as mentioned in his Eight-Fold Paths in which Buddha had emphasized on right speech & view, good conduct, justice, equality, compassion, dignity, respect and care for poor and woman, etc. While addressing the said occasion, the PM underlined that Lord Buddha had long back taught us universal values. “Respect for people. Respect for the poor. Respect for women. Respect for peace and non-violence”, pointed out by the PM Modi. While addressing earlier in 2019 at the United Nation, he said that a country like India has given ‘Buddh’ (refers to Gautama Buddha whose teachings were based on values like peace, non-violence and humanity, emphasis added) and not ‘Yuddh’ (war or recent phenomenon called terrorism) to the world community. While addressing the people on said occasion, PM Modi said that Lord Buddha’s universal teachings are not relevant only in the context of India but also to humanity at large in these difficult times. In this respect, he has said:

 “Today the world fights extraordinary challenges. To these challenges, lasting solutions can come from the ideals of Lord Buddha. They were relevant in the past. They are relevant in the present. And, they will remain relevant in the future".

 Before critically commenting on PM Modi’s speech especially on Buddha, let me first discuss current problems faced by the citizens of India at large. To note that India masses are now facing serious challenges such as communalism (take for instance, in the case of Tablighi Jamaat, a section of electronic media has tried a lot to profile the entire Indian Muslim community for the spreading of Corona-Jihad), suppressing of dissenting voices, and arresting of students and human rights activists, amidst Covid-19 pandemic. More importantly, the rise of Police violence and encounters as happened in the U.P and elsewhere clearly indicates that law and order situations are not under control and thus worsening every day. In spite of the huge suppressions, oppressions and muzzling of dissenting voices, the point must be noted that protests even peacefully on the streets are not happening (as taken place in the USA after the custodial death of George Floyd under the popular slogan of ‘Black Life Matters’) because of Indian citizens supposed to follow the social distancing norms and guidelines/advisories of the Central government so that the outbreak of Covid-19 can be contained.

 Before commenting on PM Modi’s speech on Buddha, let me first discuss and highlight the socio-economic and political philosophy of Buddha, as nicely discussed and articulated by Ilaiah in his book. He made a significant point that Buddha was an egalitarian political thinker and revolutionary of his own time rather than a religious figure (especially another avatar of Vishnu) that has been so far projected by the so-called Hindu nationalist forces and even a section of nationalist scholars. As llaiah writes in his introductory chapter:

“Scholars treated Gautama Buddha as a saint and religious thinker and not as revolutionary or a political theorist. The responsibility for cooption and distortion lies with colonial as well as nationalist scholars. During the nationalist period except Mahatma Jyotirao Phule and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar all scholars of philosophy treated Buddhism as part of Hinduism” (P-2).

 To note that Buddha’s egalitarian teachings which are vividly described in his Eight-Fold Path hardly got any serious attention in the public sphere and university circles too. Take for instance, as of now in the most of Indian Universities and its curriculums, we would not find that Buddha (who was a most egalitarian thinker of his own times even more than Plato and Aristotle in some respects) as a political thinker has been included in the syllabus and taught to Indian students undergraduate and postgraduate level in higher public institutions.

For a long period of time, Indian students have been reading thinkers like Manu and Kautilya, as a part of the syllabus in Indian universities but not Lord Buddha as a political philosopher. It has to be noted that both brahminical thinkers (Manu and Kautilya) had upheld Varnadharma theory and hierarchical Hindu social order; the point has also been highlighted by Ilaiah in his book. For him miss-readings of Buddha and other secular legacies of ancient past happened because of ‘Eurocentric’ and monolithic interpretations of Indian ancient historical past done by colonial intellectuals (such as James Mill and Max Muller) and Hindu nationalist thinkers. Rather than looking through the lens of plural and diverse traditions that had been existed in India’s history and culture since time immemorial; they have had studied the ancient past from a religious perspective. In doing so, they considered the Kautilya and Manu, as political thinkers and their views have been accepted and taught to students so that they could be familiar with ancient culture and traditions including their views in the art of governance and administrations. In this respect, Ilaiah rightly says:

 “The only two ancient Indian political philosophy on whom some studies have been conducted are Manu and Kautilya, the upholders of the most hierarchical dimension of Hindu Thought” ( P-2)

 To explain the arguments further, he said;

 “Both European and Hindu Nationalist Scholars depended excessively on Manu’s laws and Kautilya’s Arthashastra which by and large presented a monolithic, authoritarian Varnadharma theory” (P- 19)

 It is paradoxical to note that Buddha was considered as another religious avatar (like Vishnu) within the broad fold of Hinduism. To expose the motive of communal forces to appropriate Buddha especially when secular historians said that most of the temples were earlier Buddhist shrines. In this respect, Ilaiah underlined that communal forces made an argument that Buddhism was not a different school of thought but part of Hinduism. To elucidate the points further, Ilaiah writes in his footnote:

 “In 1989 when the controversy over the Ram Janmabhoomi and Babri Masjid arouse, Hindu communal elements stated arguing that Buddhism was not a separate school but part of Hinduism. They put forth this argument because some progressive Indian historians raised that as a majority of so called Hindu temples were old Buddhist shrines, the Hindus (that is, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad,), should allow the Buddhists to take them back. In retaliation, Hindu communal forces started claiming Buddhism to be indivisible from Hinduism”, (Ibid.,p-98)

 One basis of the above points, we can understand that why Buddha is still not included in the pedagogy of Indian universities as a political thinker and considered as a religious figure. However, Indian Marxists like D.D. Kosambi, R.S. Sharma, Romila Thapar, and Debiprasad Chatotpadhaya have had done significant works and studied the ancient past from ‘materialistic perspective’ by applying Marxists methods of historical materialism. In doing so, they had highlighted the Buddha’s political and social philosophy to a large extent; the point is also mentioned by llaiah in his book (p-19). Besides, these academic works, B.R. Ambedkar (especially in his important book like, The Buddha and His Dhamma and other writings) had provided a deeper understanding of Buddha’s political and social philosophy from the vantage point of oppressed (Bahujan), added by Ilaiah. (P-20) Barring few Indian Marxists historians and more importantly B.R Ambedkar, colonial intellectuals and Hindu nationalist thinkers had wrongly narrated Buddha’s social and political philosophy from the lens of religion. In doing so, they put him within the fold of Hinduism in their writings.

While discussing the main points of Buddha’s which had been vividly mentioned in his Eight-fold Path, Ilaiah’s writes; “Right views, Right aspirations, Right speech, Right conduct, Right means of livelihood, Right Effort, Right mindfulness and Right Rapture” ( p-215).

 It has to be noted that PM Modi has recently in his virtual speech exhorted the world community to follow the Eight-Fold Path and universal teachings of the Lord Buddha especially to work for larger humanity in the post-COVID -19 world. However, one could ask the question; has the ruling party like BJP so far taken concrete and solid steps to improve the social-economic conditions and reduce the sufferings and huge plight of masses while following Buddha’s teachings seriously? Since PM Modi government had captured power at Centre in 2014 onwards, it is empirically correct to argue that the conditions of subaltern masses- for whom Buddha was committed to work -have been further become worse and decline substantially in the public sphere. Instead of following the path of Buddha and building an Atma Nirbhar Bharat (the point has been reiterated by PM Modi while addressing on the occasion of 74th Independence Day, 2020 from the Red Fort), the PM Modi has visited at Ayodhya and laid down the foundation stone for the construction of the grand Ram Temple and attended the Bhumi Pujan (ground-breaking ceremony) and performed rituals on 5th August 2020, amidst the threat of deadly Covid-19 pandemic at the nation-wide. This step taken by the PM has been vehemently criticized by Left-progressive forces in India for having compromised with the principle of secularism and Constitutional values. Contrary to the Hindu Nationalist forces, a section of social scientists and activists have argued that instead of constructing more and more Temples, the ruling government must concentrate on establishing secular institutions like hospitals and Schools, amidst the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic.

 Having said that let me here highlight the plight and pathetic conditions of toiling masses. As several studies which have been conducted by national and international human rights organizations and civil society bodies had shown that conditions of India’s subaltern masses have got further deteriorated, since 2014 onwards. Take for instance, the rate of unemployment and on social development indicators; India’s ranking is declining continuously. In 2019 of the Global Hunger Index, India ranked 102 out of 117 countries even lower than neighbouring countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal. In the UN World Happiness Index of 2020, our country got 144 ranks out of 156 Nations. According to a recent report of the ILO (International Labour Organization), roughly 4000 million people in India will sink into poverty, because of the Covid-19 pandemic that followed by strict lockdown which has created an economic downturn in India. In short, contrary to the current ruling establishment, the socio-economic and health conditions of India’s poor are continuously declining in comparison to developing countries, as also hinted earlier. On the basis of the above empirical and after looking at the report cards and actual performances of PM Modi government on substantive issues since 2014 onwards, one can ask the question of how can in future India play an important role and able to provide leadership to the world community, if it’s own people conditions in all walks of life remain to be so pathetic? Barring providing some symbolic supports while launching several flagship programmes, the ruling government has so far done nothing concrete to address the concern of marginalized masses. Even the robust welfare measures such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Employment Guarantee Act- MGNREGA’s budget has been reduced and the Labour laws have been diluted by the current government. Besides, rather than addressing the material concern of masses, the government under the pressure of national and international capitalist classes is committed to further privatizing the PUS like Railways and other profit-making public sectors undertaking.

 On the question of women’s liberation, Buddha was far ahead in his own time in comparison to brahminical thinkers like Manu and Kautilya. Even Buddha was more progressive than the ancient western political thinkers like Plato and Aristotle, the point has also been reminded by Ilaiah in his book. Both Aristotle and Plato had not given equal treatment to women, slaves and poor. And both had not advocated for abolition of private property and the patriarchal structure of the family, as did by Buddha in 6th Century BC, while providing equal democratic space and the collective notion of community ownership in the Sangha irrespective of caste, creed and gender considerations. While stressing the need for critically examining political philosophy from a gender perspective, Ilaiah writes in his book:

 “The feminist critique of political philosophy as with regard to all other subjects holds that inequality between men and women is as major an issue as class, caste and state in every society. The views of political thinkers must, therefore, be studied from a gender perspective in order to understand social relations in their entirety” (p-180).

 Let us forget for while about addressing the socio-economic and political concern of women, it is to be noted that during the lockdown, the level of domestic violence has increased almost two-fold, as pointed by the National Commission for Women (NCW) and other international bodies along with feminists of South Asian countries.

 No doubt PM Modi’s speech on the Lord Buddha was motivational in nature, as stated above. However, he has not spelt out any robust and substantive socio-economic programmes and concrete public policies at the national level to achieve Buddha’s egalitarian notion of society which was nicely encapsulated in the slogan, ‘bahujan hitaya and bahujan sukhaya’ (it refers to the welfare and the happiness of majority particularly of oppressed masses, as also noted by Ilaiah, p-210). But the question needs to be asked here, so far what steps have been taken by the PM Modi government itself for the last more than 6 years to address the concern of marginalized and to reduce the sufferings and plight of migrants, poor and homeless? Contrary to the BJP-RSS claim (to note that after completion of one year in May 2020, the BJP leaders were busy in celebrating the achievements of the Modi government), one could argue that the socio-economic problems faced by subaltern masses especially Dalits, tribals, women and minorities have enormously increased in the public domain. Instead of addressing the concern of said social groups, the dissenting voices of citizens, social activist and students have been largely muzzled and suppressed by the ruling establishment as hinted earlier.

 Before concluding let me reiterate the point once again only giving motivational speeches on several national and global forums often devoid of substantive socio-economic programmes, will no longer help us to ameliorate the conditions of subaltern masses. Therefore, if the ruling government led by PM Modi is truly committed to the own slogans like Atma Nirbhar Bharat, sabka saath, sabka vikash and sabka viswash, and really keen to realize the dream of Buddha’s egalitarian philosophy (which is duly enshrined in the Constitution of India too); must now focus on addressing acute sufferings and plight of subaltern masses rather than relies on crony capitalism and rapid privatizations as stated above. Therefore, only symbolic appropriation of Buddha with having political motives will no longer help to overcome the huge problems witnessed by subaltern masses without implementing his egalitarian socio-political philosophy in the age of Covid-19 pandemic.

 The author is a Research Scholar at the Department of Political Science, University of Delhi 

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