“Heritage, heresy or heterodoxy?”
The few scholars who have acknowledged Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s ‘Buddha and His Dhamma’ have classified it as one of these three. This is one of those books whose reception has been so ambivalent that it confirms that its message is indispensable. The unpublished preface by the author begins with the two questions he is often asked, the first being why he has such high degrees and the second about his interest in Buddhism. Right at the outset, this sets the tone for the rest of the book that goes on to challenge notions about who is allowed to access knowledge and religion.
Baba Sahib discovered Buddhism at a young age after challenging his father who insisted that he grow up reading the Ramayana and Mahabharata. His father hoped that reading these books would prevent him from feeling inferior due to his dalit identity and inspire him to see how “small men” like Drona and Karna can also rise to great heights. However, Baba Sahib was aversed by these stories and their characters and called them out for hypocrisy, misogyny and fraud. He asserts that Buddha’s Dhamma is the best religion for a modern, scientific world and intends to offer a concise and reflexive account of Buddhism, challenging the existing tradition of books that he felt were too didactic and did not actively engage readers in thought.
As mental health practitioners at Pause for Perspective, we looked at this book from the lens of social justice as well as mindfulness as both of these are at the heart of the work that we do. Through a review of this book, I intend to find the roots of our mindfulness based practice in the early stories of Buddha.
As mindfulness based mental health practitioners, we constantly revisit our intention, attention and stance. I have already described Baba Sahib’s intention in writing this book in the previous section. His attention is on four major problems that he sees with the existing narratives and tries to address these through this book.
In this article, I will focus on the first problem; that of Buddha’s parivraja. Where the traditional story is that he saw a sick, dead and old person and decided to renounce his life of wealth and comfort to explore the nature of suffering, Baba Sahib asks how it is possible that a 29 year old had not witnessed any of these before. From this we can see that Baba Sahib’s stance is one of curiosity and questioning. In order to make sense of the existing narratives, he puts them through two tests of authenticity; anything that is rational and pertaining to the welfare of human beings is the word of the buddha, and the rest needs to be challenged; to the end of demystifying and making it accessible as well as challenging the status quo.
A major criticism of this book is that Baba Sahib is seeking to either theologize his political stance or that he is seeking to politicize the practice of Buddhism. However, this criticism assumes that Buddhism is inherently apolitical which is exactly what Baba Sahib is challenging by persistently situating the story and teachings of Buddha in their socio-political context. We can see this in his telling of the story of Buddha’s youth until he took parivraja.
Through this book, we see that Ss a young person, Siddhartha was already challenging norms around traditional masculinity and power. He refused to hunt in spite of being coerced to do so in order to conform to his Kshatriya identity. Upon witnessing a ploughman hard at work in a field, he questioned why human beings exploit other human beings in this way. He showed little interest in all the palaces, harems and women that were conferred upon him by his father in an attempt to indoctrinate him into a life of wealth and power. Already in these stories we can see the foundations of the 5 Skillful Habits of a Mindfulness practitioner:
- Respect for limits
- Respect for mortality
- Mindful consumption
- Compassionate speech
When Siddhartha turned 20, he was initiated into the Sakya Sangh, a committee of men over 20 belonging to the Sakya Clan. He was committed and well-loved by all until 8 years later when a conflict between the Sakyas and a neighbouring clan compelled the Sakya Sangh to consider war. Siddhartha took a strong stance against war and implored them to settle the dispute over water in a fair and non-violent manner. This was the reason he was asked to exile himself.
Through siddhartha’s life we see the stance of an ally. A person who subverted discourses of masculinity, caste, and religion.
Siddhartha did not choose to leave upon witnessing suffering, he was compelled to leave because he took a stance against war as it would cause suffering.
As he dawns his robe and his begging bowl in preparation to leave his kingdom, his subjects gather around him mourning the loss. He implores them not to follow him but instead to embrace his stance against war. He later learns that the war had been prevented and wonders if his purpose has been served but decides, upon contemplation, that conflict continues to exist between classes and within people and that his purpose is to find ways to address the suffering caused by this.
As mental health practitioners, I think this is something we come across as well. Supporting our clients to resolve their inner conflict fuels our sense of purpose but doesn’t fulfill it. This story of Buddha’s parivraja has helped me make sense of my ever-expanding role from an art therapist supporting one client at a time to a mental health advocate impacting communities and systems.
We can also learn from his journey that led him to reject the chaturvarna system and the concept of karma which tie people to their identity locations through fate. Holding an awareness of how these systems and ideas not only influence but also govern even the most intimate aspects of our clients’ lives as well as our own is essential to our role as mental health practitioners; so that when people come to see us, they do not leave thinking they deserve the life that has been doled out to them because of their identity location.
At Pause for Perspective, we hear Baba Sahib’s message loud and clear to be allies to those living in the margins, to call out our own locations of power and be mindful of ways in which we are responsible for the experience of marginalization. We hear him ask us to look closely at systems that marginalize and to bear witness to our own and peoples suffering through the lens of mindfulness and social justice, as allies and those experiencing and holding power.
On this independence day may we work towards deconstructing ideas of power in our lives and the systems we live in. May we work toward liberty, equality and fraternity for all its people.
This article is written by our former Art Psychotherapist and Fellow Aishwarya Dattani
Ambedkar, B., Verma, A., & Rathore, A. (2011). The Buddha and his dhamma : a critical edition. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.