Saturday, May 29, 2010

DDK on social aspect of Buddhism

Features | Online edition of Daily News - Lakehouse Newspapers
Buddhist doctrine for all

Ven Dr Beligalle Dhammajoti

Some scholars with a little knowledge of Buddhism are of the opinion that there is no socio-economic and political philosophy of Buddhism. A well-known scholar, Max Weber, who is considered as’ father of sociology of religion’ explaining the socio-political aspect of Buddhism says: “Buddhism had no sort of tie with any sort of social movement, nor did it run in parallel with such and it has established no social and political goal.” He further says that Buddhism is a social and anti-political and it can be considered to be an ‘other-worldly religion.’
Max Weber

This is a misleading and distorted concept of Buddhist doctrine. It is very clear that Max Weber never analyzed and understood Buddhist teachings deeply. Early Buddhism is in no way another-worldly religion. It includes a well-defined socio-economic and political philosophy and also a philosophy of history. Professors D D Kosambi and Rhys Davids explicitly recognize that there is a socio-economic and political philosophy of Buddhism and their idea give one lie to the above-mentioned notion of Max Weber.

A dagoba seen through a gong. Picture by Saman Sri Wedage

Another misconceived idea of Buddhism states that Buddhism is such a sublime system that ordinary people cannot practice it. One has to retire to a monastery if one desires to be a true Buddhist.

This is a partial and distorted view. The doctrine of the Buddha is meant not only for mendicant monks but also for ordinary men and women living in their homes with their family members. The Noble Eightfold Path, meditation on loving-kindness and ten perfection are meant for all. They can be practised in their daily life.
Competitive society

It is extremely incorrect to say that Buddhism is social. Addressing the first 60 Arhaths, the Buddha says: “O monks walk on tour, for the good of the many, for the happiness of the many, for the welfare of the many, good and happiness of human beings and celestial beings.” This shows that the Buddha has laid much emphasis on the members of society and their welfare. Therefore the old Buddhist monasteries had become the spiritual centres and the centres of learning and culture. The five precepts are meant for the whole human society. Any person can observe them and lead a spiritual life and that would be of great benefit for him and to this competitive society.

The Sigalovada Sutta explicitly explains the family and social relationships. It gives a set of instructions and teachings that pertain to man’s socio-economic and spiritual progress. Modern man can lead a very happy and prosperous life if he understands the significance of these social relations explained in the Sigalovada Sutta.

Some scholars are of the opinion that Buddhist philosophy is interested only in higher morality and it ignores the social and economic welfare. This is also another misconception of Buddhist socio-economic and political philosophy. The Kutadanta Sutta explains the way and approach of development of a country with proper planning and also it shows the nature of socio-economic progress. We should not forget that the Buddha expounded these words in the 6th Century BC and even today that they are of great value.

The Cakkavattisihanada Sutta explains poverty, revolution, poverty-related crimes and the reasons for the chaotic situation of a country and also the reasonable grounds for arising those social ills. Today our competitive global society experiences these socio-economic and political ills and tribulations that are explained in the Cakkavattisihanada Sutta.
Moral degeneration

In the Agganna Sutta we find a theory of the origin of social classes. There the Buddha explains the arising and evolution, the origin of State, the evolution of human race and social grades, the changing nature of moral values and the relationship between moral degeneration and the deterioration of environmental elements. The Sutta explains how beings were becoming less hard-working, less honest, less ethical and how they lost their physical and mental qualities with the passage of time.
Dogmatic views

Fundamental unreasonable concepts related to social organisations were radically transformed by the Buddha. The Buddha explained the nature of those concepts and their connection with the ditthis or dogmatic views of certain religious traditions.

The socio-economic and cultural transformations by the Buddha can be seen explicitly even in the present time in our Buddhist societies. Making a comment on the social upheaval of Buddhism, Narendranath Bhatthacharya says:

“The rise of Buddhism was certainly to serve some social purpose. It had some distinct social and functional role. But very few attempts have been made to understand all these.”

It is a well-known fact that Buddhism is capable of making a drastic transformation of the present day competitive and war-like Society. For such a transformation, it needs a proper knowledge and correct understanding of the Buddha’s teachings.

The first significant work in the Buddhist social field was Die Religion des Buddha (1957) written by C F Koppen. In his book Koppen explains.

“.....the Buddha was viewed as the emancipator of the oppressed and a great political innovator.”

Here it is very interesting to note that Koppen was a close friend of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

Karl Marx ruthlessly criticized religion and the widely accepted concept of omnipotent God. Buddhism is completely free from that criticism, for it has no concepts of God. Trevor Ling in his great work on Buddha, Marx and God explains that Buddhism is free from his critique. French scholar La Loubere says that Buddhism is totally different from other religions as it does not possesses a doctrine of God and it teaches rebirth (re-becoming or Punabbhava) without accepting the concept of a soul. Addressing the Berlin Science Academy in 1856, Albrecht Weber explained that Buddhist teachings were so helpful for social reformation and it had accepted the equality of all human beings.

DDK and Unilinear Progression in India

The Hindu : Arts / Books : Social patterns in early south India
This is an extremely timely anthology of 17 essays on social formations of early south India (from the prehistoric beginnings to circa 1300 CE) which Rajan Gurukkal has contributed to leading publications since the early 1980s. Of these, two essays — “The Course of Social Historiography of Kerala” and “Semiotics of Ancient Tamil Poetics: A Methodological Consideration” — are published for the first time. Many of the already published ones have been revised/modified for this collection.

The essays have been grouped under four heads: historiography and method; early social formations (up to the ‘Early Iron Age'); social transformations (tracing the transition from the ancient to early medieval); and the new social formation (into which the ancient agro-pastoral social transformation had dissolved itself).
Marxist method

Given that the Marxian thinkers and practitioners in India are under attack all round, it is courageous of Gurukkul to have reiterated his strong conviction in the validity of Marxist methodology of studying the dynamics of Indian society through the millennia. His introductory chapter, “Conceptual Preliminaries” sets the tone and tenor by underlining the central thesis of social formation. It successfully demolishes the myth of homogenised uni-dimensional notion of the definitional parameters of ‘social formation' not only through Marx's own formulations but also by alluding to the more recent refinements of the theory of ‘mode of production' in the writings of such renowned structuralist-theorists and anthropologists of Marxian tradition as Althusser, Balibar, Godelier and Poulantzas.

There is a subtle semantic departure in the definition and framework of the concept of social formation adopted in these essays. Instead of being viewed as a combination of ‘modes of production', it is sought to be defined as an ensemble of a few unevenly evolved ‘forms of production' (emphasis added) interconnected to one another and structured by the dominance of one form that need not necessarily be superior to the rest in terms of technology and productivity. The defence offered is that, since the expression ‘mode of production' is widely used to mean a specific social totality of epochal identity almost on a par with ‘social formation', ‘forms of production' is found to be more appropriate and free of confusion.

It is essential for a historian to bear in mind the distinction Marx draws between the universality of economic, political, and ideological practices, and the variety of determinate institutional forms, which can be located historically. It is heartening to see Gurukkal recalling D.D. Kosambi and seeing in him “a historian committed to anti-deterministic stance with ‘source first' approach.” Kosambi's contempt for the OMs (‘Official Marxists') and his deviations from the Marxian scheme of unilinear progression of historical changes in the context of India are well- known. No wonder his formulation “ single mode prevailed uniformly over the whole country [India] at any one time...” is the most abiding influence in this anthology.

And yet, Gurukkal is not averse to speaking his mind fearlessly. To illustrate, he forcefully asserts: “in the absence of classical society in South Indian history, the direct application of the feudal model became difficult.” Recognising that the particularities of the ‘Indian feudal model' are not pan-Indian, he takes up the agrarian social formation in the Tamil south as a case study to bring out its distinctiveness. In the process, he goes on to critique the so-called ‘gradualists/evolutionists' (including his own peers M.G.S. Narayanan and Chamapakalakshmi — this anthology is dedicated to the latter). Accusing them of having ‘diffusionist assumptions', he argues that they simply critiqued Burton Stein's ‘Segmentary State Model' (put forward as an alternative to the ‘feudal' paradigm) to defend the feudal model without providing any alternative theoretical framework to suit the specificities of the region concerned (Tamilakam). Such formulations demonstrate Gurukkal's grounding in Marxian theory and firm grasp over empirical evidences.
Major changes

The major changes that the social formation underwent over time are presented in detail. For instance, the transition from kin-labour to non-kin labour; from thrust hoe to plough; from millet to paddy; from clans to hereditary occupation groups and caste; from chiefdom to monarchy; and from heterodox ideology to Brahmanism. In the process, illustrations have been drawn from the experiences of the Tamil macro region as well as of the Kerala micro region. There is a specialised study of the technology of irrigation and institutions of water management, particularly the cascaded reservoir system, and the community practice of prioritised distribution. This book fills a significant gap in the study of social formations in early south India.

Keywords: South Indian history, Rajan Gurukkal, Social history