Buddhism is the main focus of the Jaipur Literary Festival in 2013 and the Dalai Lama is one of the chief attractions this year. So in keeping with that, I am sharing here some excerpts from the Buddhist period in my book Sex and Power (Sect II, pp.67-110). I know that the literary festival as indeed a lot of the global discussions on Buddhism focus on ahimsa (non-violence), with this idealistic vision of a harmonious society. [Read the 2nd excerpt from my book on how Buddhism impacted on social perceptions of women and sex here].
But in my book I look at how Buddhism actually was a powerful social revolution in India that became popular among the masses because Buddha openly and strongly challenged the caste based hierarchy and the superiority of the Brahmin and upper castes, as well as their social and economic exploitation of the lower castes and poorer people.
Buddhism changed the whole power structure of Indian society in the period from about 500 B.C. to 100 A.D. in a manner that was hugely radical. And even though most modern Buddhist practitioners talk about non-violence etc. Buddha, as leader of this revolution, believed that if pushed against the wall, when the trampled classes are left with no other option, it would not be wrong for them to take up arms to fight for justice. Indeed, it was within the walls of Buddhist monasteries that some of the world’s deadliest martial arts like Kung Fu were conceived and developed, to allow people to use their own bodies as weapons for self-defense.
For me another very striking aspect of the Buddhism was that as a philosophy it was the first time the idea of a universal human identity was introduced. Prior to that when people thought of personal identities, particularly 2400 years ago, they thought about what family, or clan, or class or race or religion they belonged to. But they did not think of themselves or of other people as being human!
The popularity of Buddhism soared. For Buddhism was a social insurgency as well, one of the earliest organized movements in India demanding equality and justice…Buddha had to take a strong and confrontational stand on issues of race, caste and class. In publicly rejecting the caste system’s method of human valuation, Buddha had challenged the spiritual laws of racism and declared the social boundaries that separated one human from another to be false and illusory…
Buddha also called for a more even-handed society in terms of wealth distribution. He reasoned that it was due to a king’s inequitable hoarding of wealth that poverty was created, and argued that poverty was the root of crime. In fact, his demands were some of the earliest formulations of workers’ rights and included fair labour conditions…consistent wages, sick leave and official rest days.’
Buddha introduced the idea of a universal humanity into society’s understanding of itself. He established that human experiences …and desires and emotions…were the same for all…regardless of the color of skin, caste or profession….It was [perhaps one of ]the earliest attempts to comprehend the nature of the human being in its entirety….the perception that , as a species, humans shared a [common] existential identity and goals.[Citing Sex and Power: Defining History, Shaping Societies, Penguin Global, 2009, pp.67-110: The Buddhist Period].