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India Talk

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by Sangharakshita

The Venerable Sangharakshita

Lecture 157: India Talk ... and Friends, Kulamitra has spoken of my giving a lecture this evening, or suggested that I might be giving a lecture this evening, but in fact I'm not. At most I'm giving a sort of talk. I'm giving a sort of miscellany of impressions. So I hope that nobody is in fact expecting too much, because for three whole months I was not only in India but I was immersed in India. I was immersed in the Indian Buddhist movement. I was immersed in our own movement out there in India, and I think that if I was to sit down seriously and put my mind to it, I could very easily write a whole book about the experiences of those three months, because they were so rich and so diverse, so variegated, so multifarious. Perhaps even a whole volume wouldn't be enough. So I'm not going to be able to do justice to those three months in India just in the course of forty or fifty minutes of speaking. At best I can offer you just, so to speak a slice of the cake. A slice which may, I hope, whet your appetite for more, because you will be getting more in different forms because accompanying me for much of the time was Nagabodhi with his cine camera and he has, I hope, a cinematographic record which, when it's all been put together, edited, provided with commentary, background music and so on [Laughter] - not I hope the inevitable sitar, which I didn't hear once during the whole three months! [Laughter] - you'll be able to get a fuller and even richer impression.

But for the benefit of those of you who perhaps don't know very much about me or very much about the movement or very much about India or our work there, perhaps I'd better start by just filling you in with a bit of background. I was not just in India. I was not just among Buddhists. More specifically most of the time I was among ex-untouchable Buddhists who are in a way a very special category of Buddhists. So the question naturally arises, who are these ex-Untouchables? What in fact is an ex-Untouchable? What is an Untouchable? So here I have to give you, I think, a little bit of information about the Indian background and specifically the Hindu background, the orthodox Hindu background. According to orthodox Hinduism, as embodied in various shrutis and shastras as they call them, society is made up of four main castes. There are the Brahmins who are the teachers; there are the Kshatriyas who are the landowners, the warriors, the fighters, the administrators, the rulers; there are the Vaishyas who are the traders and sometimes also the agriculturalists, and then there's the Shudras who are the servants, the serfs who wait upon the other three castes; and then there are the Untouchables. And the Untouchables are outside the caste system altogether. By the way all of these castes are hereditary. You are born into a caste, you belong to a caste because your father and his father and his father had belonged to that caste. It's an entirely hereditary system. And these four main castes are subdivided into two thousand, and there are roughly two thousand of these hereditary, partly occupational, partly tribal, castes in orthodox Hindu society, even today. In fact they are still very much present. Their presence is very powerfully felt even in Indian politics but we won't go into that at the moment.

But outside this caste system proper, outside the four main castes with their two thousand sub divisions, there are the Untouchables. The Untouchables are, certainly were, quite literally untouchable. They usually lived near a Hindu village, not too near. They were dependent upon the caste Hindu occupants of the village for their subsistence. They weren't permitted to own land, they weren't permitted to wear proper clothes. They weren't even permitted to eat proper food. They did the most menial work of the village, that is to say scavenging work, removing night soil, removing dead bodies, carcases of calves, dogs and so on, and in return for that they were given cast off clothing. Sometimes they were given to right to occupy a certain piece of land near the village, and they were given scraps and leavings of food, but they were not supposed to be given anything more than that, and this system obtained in India in most parts of India, if not in all parts of India, where the orthodox Hindu social system was set up, for hundreds upon hundreds of years right down practically to the present day. Well yes we can say right down in fact to the present day.

So this is the background. We have these Untouchables living in small communities near the caste Hindu villages and doing that sort of work, and of course perhaps another point I should mention is that they were not permitted to have any sort of orthodox Hindu religious teaching. They usually had sort of gods of their own, goddesses of their own, spirits of their own whom they worshiped. They weren't properly assimilated into the Hindu fold, though they were usually regarded as Hindus, at least for statistical purposes.

Now amongst these Untouchable communities there was one in particular with which we are concerned tonight; one with which I've been very much concerned during my time in India, and they are called the Mahars. The Mahars are one of the ex-Untouchable communities of the state of Maharashtra, mainly of the state of Maharashtra. India consists of some dozen or so quite large states, most of them bigger in extent than the United Kingdom itself, and Maharashtra is one of these. It's situated in the Deccam as it's called, which is sort of South India or getting towards South India, and it stretches from, one might say, Bombay in the West, Bombay being the capital of Maharashtra state now, to Nagpur in the East and beyond - Nagpur being practically in the middle of India. So you can see it's sort of South Western India in which we find this state of Maharashtra. The population incidentally is a little bit less than the population of the United Kingdom, though the area is greater. So we find these Mahar people mainly in the Maharashtra state, and they were originally scattered among the different villages. Maharashtra state, like the rest of India, consisted mainly of village communities with just a few very big cities - Bombay, Nagpur, Sholapur - and so on. So these communities of Mahars, along with other very much smaller ex- Untouchable communities, they lived near the caste Hindu villages and here they carried out the sort of duties that I described. In Maharashtra, one might say perhaps, their position was even worse than it was in many other parts of India, even right down to the present day. Within living memory their conditions have been very very bad indeed. For instance they weren't allowed to go through the Hindu village at certain times of day when their shadow might fall on other people. This is within living memory. They had to carry a spittoon hung round their neck to spit into - Indians are always spitting you probably know - because they weren't supposed to spit on the wayside in case a caste Hindu foot stepped on it, and they were also supposed to carry a small broom with which they swept their steps or the imprint of their steps behind them, so that no trace of their passage should be left. All these practices and customs were enforced within living memory, within the memory of all the people among this community. And of course they subsisted on cast off clothing, leftovers of food, and had no rights at all. You may be interested to know that there in India some of our Indian Order members, some of our older Indian Order members, remember as small children experiencing this system of being sent by their parents to the caste Hindu houses for the scraps of food and the cast off clothing which was all that they were entitled to in the way of wages, apart from the bodies, the carcases of the dead animals that they removed. They were entitled to those, they were entitled to the skin, to the bones, but that's all. So this was their plight. They had no education. They were not allowed to have access to water, to the village well. I've had my own experience in this connection traveling among these people years and years ago. When I've been staying with them they haven't sometimes been able to offer me proper drinking water, only muddy water from the river, because that's all they were permitted to draw. So I had my own personal experience of these sort of conditions.

So the condition of these Mahars was very very miserable indeed. There were some alleviating factors.

Some of them got into the British Army, at least into the East India Company Army, and that way they got a bit of education. But in modern times they've produced one very remarkable figure, one very remarkable man whom they regard nowadays as their emancipator. Before I go on to speak about him perhaps I should say a bit more about the numbers of the Mahars. Usually, if one takes Maharashtra state as a whole, the Mahars are about one tenth of the whole population, but on the whole they tend not to be sort of congregated together. They usually exist in small communities near the caste Hindu communities, for which they do scavenge and work. So they're in a minority everywhere, or practically everywhere, so this also conduces to their state of oppression and servitude. The fact that they're in a perpetual minority and they're in a minority everywhere in the State. Though in modern times, in quite recent times, there has been of course a sort of flow of population to the big cities so we've got quite big ex-Untouchable Mahar communities now in different parts of Bombay, in Pune, in Nagpur and so on. But the majority of these people, they still live in the villages in the way that I've described, under the conditions that I've described to some extent. So the population of Maharashtra is I think about 35 to 40 millions now - the population of ...

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