Sermon: Lessons for UUs from India’s Anti-Caste Activists, from Buddha to Ambedkar, By Amit Mehta

2019 July 28
by DoMC

Lessons for UUs from India’s Anti-Caste Activists, from Buddha to Ambedkar

Summer Sermon, First Unitarian Congregation Society of Brooklyn

Amit Mehta

July 21, 2019

When my wife Marci suggested I speak on caste, I told her I didn’t know my caste or think it impacted my life.  She answered that she knew my caste, from uncles who had volunteered it, and found me as convincing as someone white not knowing their race.


She’s right.  I’m Vaishya, a privileged caste.  Correlated with that, my ancestors were educated and my parents obtained advanced degrees, so could immigrate to the First World when they did.  They treated as given that I would pursue advanced studies, which set the stage for my social capital and professional opportunity. Nearly half my extended family lives in the US and the other half’s living standards sit way above India’s average.  All own homes and hold degrees.  


We UUs focus on race, another unfair social hierarchy based on lineage and backed by religion.  To counter, we combine progressive politics and loose religiosity. We need religious counterculture partly because religion often drives the unfairness.  


American colonial churches gave biblical support for killing the indigenous, even if some dissented.  Likewise, early US and then Confederate churches gave biblical support for slavery, Southern churches for Jim Crow, and Africaner churches for apartheid.  Today, many churches give biblical support for homophobia.  


Like the Quakers and Liberation Theology, Unitarianism built counterculture putting a different lens on the same Judeo-Christianity, to make it fair.


Instead of doing that, India’s leading anti-caste activists tried to knock down Hinduism and build something different.  Exceptions exist, lower caste Hindus like Narayana Guru, who in 1888 defied the hierarchy by conducting rituals upper castes claimed to monopolize.  But 20th century activist Bhim Ambedkar echoes his best known predecessors:  


“You must have the courage to tell the Hindus that what is wrong with them is their religion – the religion which has produced in them this notion of the sacredness of caste.”


By attacking, India’s activists built religious counterculture more boldly than we UU’s do, so they found it harder to lift off.  But once airborne, they shook mainline religious culture to the core, with aftershocks lasting millennia.  


UU is kinda fringe today, but have you ever wondered how, if we took off like that, our decisions today might affect our flight tomorrow?  Here, India sends a caution: Our adversaries will try to cleave off and appropriate our religion to sideline our politics. Today, we should anticipate and obstruct that cleave by tightly interweaving our politics and religion.


I speak not from India’s counterculture but as its target.  I grew up a caste-privileged Hindu, still consult my childhood Hindu teacher, take my wife and daughters to temple, and cope with tragedy in Hindu ways.  I cannot separate memories of my mom and hers from their Hindu practice. I identify as Hindu-Unitarian and hope that’s not an oxymoron.  


I’ve met their target, and it’s me.




Caste is an “important determinant of life opportunity for a fifth of the world’s population.”  Lower castes face restricted job opportunities, sometimes to manual cleaning of dry toilets; low intergenerational class mobility; higher incarceration; and, especially in villages, verbal and physical abuse; limited access to temples, roads, and water; segregated spaces to eat, school, and live; and violence including rape and murder – especially by recently empowered low castes against the even lower.  The atrocity stories are as blood curdling as the abysmal conviction rate of perpetrators, revealing what Arundhati Roy calls the “gangrenous heart of Indian society.” When Dalits, or untouchables, seek police protection, the police collude with their tormentors and even destroy forensic evidence.


If you’re feeling deja vu, you’re not alone: Frederick Douglas, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and W.E.B. Dubois referenced Indian caste in their writings on race.  In 1873, the Indian anticaste activist Jyotirao Phule dedicated his book about Dalits to the people of the United States, for abolishing slavery.  The great 20th century activist Bhim Ambedkar is one of ours.  He earned his PhD at Columbia, lived here in New York during the Harlem Renaissance, and corresponded with W.E.B. DuBois.  More recently, “Dalit Lives Matter” banners appeared three years ago.  


DNA indicates that castes, genetically indistinguishable around 0AD, stopped intermarrying then, which brings us up to date.  The Hindu Manusmriti, from 200 BC, tells the story differently: The creator God Brahma made Brahmin priests and intellectuals from His head, Kshatriya rulers and soldiers from His arms; Vaishya capitalists (like me) from His thighs; and Shudra laborers from His feet.  The Manusmriti criminalizes Shudra education and specifies property and servant relationships like slavery.  Introduced later, Dalit untouchables and indigenous Adivasis rank below Shudras on the totem pole.


I never heard of the Manusmriti until 2019. I grew up with the Upanishads and the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, including the Bhagavad Gita.  These have beautiful passages about mental discipline, devotion, desire, satisfaction, and the idea that we are one, sharing infinite consciousness with everything.  


But they also have nasty language that informs an alternate reading:


  • I learned that dharma, or duty, means following conviction.  

  • Others read it as caste work.  In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna, an avatar of the preserver God Vishnu, counsels Arjuna to fight because Arjuna is a kshatriya, a warrior by caste, and would lose face if he didn’t man up and perform his dharma.  


  • I learned that we must detach from wealth and fame which, like junk food, leave us only wanting more, hence the theme “selfless efforts without expectations.”  

  • Others read that as a message to undercastes, do your work and expect nothing in return.  


  • I learned that Diwali, the Festival of Lights, celebrates the victory of knowledge over ignorance, of virtue over the villain Ravana in the Hindu war epic Ramayana.

  • Others see it as celebration of casteist conquest.  In it, the victorious Rama, another avatar of Vishnu, kills the Shudra Shambuka for the crime of studying the Vedas.  In the 1800’s, lower castes in Tamil Nadu turned the story on its head, with Ravana the hero and Rama the villain. 


  • I learned that karma means mean people suffer eventually  

  • Others extend that logic: “Whether one is born… a dalit or a brahmin is no accident but the working out of the natural laws of karma and rebirth.”  Caste ain’t unfair.  The privileged earned it… in past lives.  Per the Upanishads, “people of evil conduct can expect to enter a foul womb, like that of a dog, a pig, or a Chandala,” a type of Dalit.


  • I dismissed caste as an anachronistic distraction from the message

  • Others saw it as the message, giving caste cosmic and mystical backing, so mortals in our tiny nook of the universe can’t challenge it.


Over the centuries, caste hierarchies and practices have evolved with changing politics, economics, and group interests.  Nonetheless, ancient documents remain relevant. In his study of a 2006 atrocity in Khairlanji – where Shudras gang-raped an upwardly mobile Dalit woman and her daughter, and castrated her two sons, before murdering all four – Anand Teltumbde lists among his recommendations to deal with this,


“If one could strip [caste] of its religious mystique with a counter-ideology, or by any other means, atrocities may be prevented by impacting the mindsets of their potential perpetrators.”

Dalits have fled by converting or leaving, but caste followed them.  Today, caste hierarchies exist among South Asian Muslims and Christians and the diaspora.  In case you think all this far away, in a recent expose, NPR reported that here in the United States, 50% of Dalits surveyed reporting living in the closet, in fear of being outed – a common situation where Dalits change their names to evade detection and privileged castes sniff them out.




Its defenders aside, caste elicits three responses:


  1. “Caste sucks but it’s not Hindu; Adversaries like predatory Christians call it Hindu.”  The Hindu American Foundation says that.

  2. “Caste really sucks, but the real Hinduism isn’t to blame.  Those casteist jerks read it wrong.”  My childhood Hindu teacher says that.

  3. “Caste really sucks and demands major surgery on Hinduism.”  India’s leading anticaste activists – Buddha, Kabir, Phule, and Ambedkar – say that.


Surgery has risk.  In India as here, the religious right can still marginalize the left by calling them atheist.  So the religious left can’t just excise religion but must implant a replacement. Even then, they’re vulnerable, because adversaries try to cleave off and appropriate the religion to sideline the politics.  Anti-caste activists have suffered this.


But a tight interweave, between religious and political, obstructs a clean cleave, so the appropriator digests subversive seeds they didn’t recognize.  Anti-caste activists have scored a few of these, including with the Bhakti tradition in Medieval times, which impacted the way my extended family prays today, and Buddhism in ancient, to which we now turn.  




Buddhism took birth in India, where it dominated for a thousand years.  It then vanished from India around 600 AD, until Dalit conversions rekindled it in 1956, led by Bhim Ambedkar.  


Ambedkar wrote the seminal expose Annihilation of Caste, a speech he meant to give in 1936.  He made caste embarrassing, and upper caste consciousness awkward and retrograde, among educated and urban Hindus.  From the grave, he continues to challenge us: “I had the misfortune of being born with the stigma of an untouchable,” he writes, “but I will not die a Hindu, for this is in my power.”  


Ambedkar converted to Buddhism, and eight million Dalits followed.  He didn’t convert to fight discrimination. Caste follows Dalits into Buddhism, which if anything makes them easy to identify.  He converted for dignity. These conversions followed a Buddhism born from Indian social conditions around 600 BC, the reign of Brahmanism, meaning the whole caste totem pole, an ancestor to my Hinduism.  “Against [Hinduism’s] prevailing corruptions Buddhism recoiled like a whiplash and hit back – hard.”




I don’t practice, study, or mean to idealize Buddhism, which today has 3-500 million followers outside India, many branches, and its fair share of regressive practices and progressive critics.  I’m also no historian.


Nonetheless, I believe the following:  


  • Brahminism was hierarchical, based on lineage. 

  • Buddha sidelined lineage and ranked people by wisdom and conduct.  Old Buddhist texts call Brahmins proud, deceitful, and greedy. Responding, old Brahmin texts call Buddhists worthless heretics or envious undercastes.


  • Brahminism restricted membership in the priestly order by caste, and still does today.  

  • Buddha included, in high positions, people from the lowest castes.


  • Brahminism placed us in a cosmic order that requires we access God through rituals Brahmins conduct, like the ones they conducted when I got married, cremated my parents’ bodies, and dispersed their ashes.

  • Buddha sought not only to cut out the middleman but also downplayed finding higher truth in unseen cosmic order.  He preached searching with self-awareness and sound judgement.


Buddha combined anti-caste social activism with religion calibrated to appeal to theists and atheists alike.  Sound familiar?… Unlike us, Buddha didn’t adapt prevailing religion but instead proposed an alternative, which dominated India from 400BC to 600AD.  


Buddhism evolved over that millennium.  It became a religion of empire. It accommodated caste hierarchy, which the Buddhists didn’t annihilate, even with a thousand years to do it.  Still, I regard the tensions between Brahminism and early Buddhism as roughly accurate.


Asked why Buddhism faded from India, I once would have said Hindus peacefully assimilated it.  I hadn’t learned of Tibetan and Chinese sources that document a violent expulsion, or the mutual venom in Brahminist and Buddhist writings that betrays fighting between them.  


I’d have said Hindus honored Buddha by making him an avatar of Vishnu.  But any student of Buddhism could’ve told me Buddha didn’t want that. Deification was sacrilege.


I would’ve said Hindus incorporated the key Buddhist teachings.  They kinda did, but now I put it differently: Hindus, to sideline the politics, attempted to cleave off and appropriate Buddhist religion.  They took meditation and meditative detachment from worldly desires. Those weren’t tightly interwoven with Buddha’s anti-Brahminist politics, which the Brahmins tried to leave out.  


But Buddhist religion also held a card that was closely interwoven with the politics, so couldn’t be cleaved so cleanly.  The rough cut included a subversive seed that would grow into the tree that dominates Hinduism today: Buddhist in origin, the Hindu supreme religious goal of moksha undermines caste.  




Buddhism describes moksha as recognizing that our conscious decision-making self is far less than we think, maybe zero.  Hinduism took that and changed two words: our conscious decision-making self is far more than we think, maybe infinite.  That seems opposite, but isn’t.  Once the boundary around my conscious self vanishes, because nothing sits within it, I’m both nothing and everything.  As put by the Hindu Mundaka Upanishad:


“The… Self lies hidden in the heart.  Everything in the cosmos, great and small, lives in the Self…. The… Self meditated on [itself] and projected the Universe…  The Self has neither caste nor race.”


In any of us, that consciousness has potential to become self-aware, which is moksha.  “Attain this goal,” the Mundaka Upanishad urges.  The Isa Upanishad describes what follows:


“One who sees all beings in the self alone and the self in all beings, feels no hatred.” 


Moksha plays Hinduism’s lead role – the ultimate goal of life – and humans uniquely and universally sit perched next to it.  Liberal Hindu intellectual Anantanand Rambachan calls that perched position “divine immanence” and, since it miniaturizes differences like caste, considers it foundational for a liberal Hinduism:  


“The doctrine of divine immanence, so deeply rooted in Hinduism… must become a powerful searchlight to illuminate and heal the exploitative and oppressive structures of Hindu society.”


The seed has grown into a Sequoia.  The anti-caste message isn’t flashing neon, so it stays hidden in plain sight, but it’s unmistakable once you see it.  In modern Hinduism, through the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, we find divine immanence woven everywhere.




Returning to the ancient, as the Buddhist Mauryan empire faltered, Hinduism recaptured the initiative.  Undermined and appropriated, Buddhism vanished from India around 600AD.  


Fast forward to today:  Dalit anticaste activists in the US remember that history, and don’t want to be appropriated themselves.  They decline partnership with liberal privileged-caste Hindus, including our partner group Sadhana, not for Sadhana’s lack of trying.


Individually, I try to join the fight by donating money and time to groups that advocate and educate.  Collectively, we UUs are in the fight, through the UUA’s Holdeen India program. (Keep in mind that our Unitarian organization has global reach, including in India). But collectively, beyond interrogating our privilege, we liberal Hindus can’t enter the fight.  Not without Dalit partners.


That poses an existential threat to liberal Hinduism.  As Hindus, casteism is our heritage, responsibility, and primary religious challenge, to which all others are secondary.  No liberal Hinduism worthy of the name can fail to inspire Dalit anti-caste activists to partner with us.  

A false debate over authenticity clouds the lineage of that Sequoia so holds us back.  Admittedly partisan, historian Brad Ranjan Mani holds a kernel of truth when he says:  


“The brahmanic ideologues borrowed many strands from Buddhism, used them to strengthen their defenses, disclaimed indebtedness, and instead tried to write off Buddhism as a[n]… offshoot of the [Hindu]… tradition…  Such borrowed… words are… recited by modern votaries of brahmanism to take on their critics…. [but these] Hindu ethics… [are] a Buddhist achievement,… a refinement inherited by later forms of [Hinduism].” 


Whether or not our ancestors peacefully assimilated other traditions, we Hindus claim they did.  So we should feel no compunction to acknowledge where we got the seed of that Sequoia tree. 


Recall three responses caste received: (1) overblown and not Hindu; (2) not overblown, but not real Hinduism; and (3) Hinduism needs radical surgery.  I wanna add (4), telling today’s counterculture, “our ancestors took your seed, and it grew into a tree that we can’t give back any more.”  


The Brahmins appropriated Buddhist moksha, which today sits etched into Hinduism’s heart, as ours as anything else there.  Hinduism holds casteism and anti-casteism, neither extricable. That empowers and obligates us to choose.


We liberal Hindus should acknowledge that appropriated Buddhist message for what it is, outgrowth of seed taken from the anti-caste religious counterculture 2500 years ago.  Acknowledging that debt may give us…


  1. Our foundation, a genuinely Hindu challenge to caste hierarchy

  2. Firepower to help annihilate caste, coming straight from an avatar of Vishnu (since we deified Buddha)

  3. Our ticket into the fight, as a relative of today’s anti-caste counterculture, with whom we legitimately share a common ancestor, Buddha


And for we architects of UU religious counterculture, it sends a caution: anticipate the attempt to cleave us and appropriate or religion to sideline our politics.  Make sure we tightly interweave our politics and religion, today, as the Buddhists did 2500 years ago. If we explode and go mainstream, whether that happens tomorrow or after a thousand years, that interweave might make the difference between fading away and changing the world.


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