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Caste, Power, Privilege, and the Second Noble Truth

A student of Ambedkar sits before a poster of the leader of ex-untouchables. Photo by Alan Senauke.

The first installment of this series considered the Four Noble Truths through the lens of social or systemic suffering. The question is: how can we use the Four Noble Truths as a tool for social analysis? My experience among India’s Buddhists, followers of the brilliant and exemplary untouchable leader B.R. Ambedkar, leads me to examine India’s enduring caste system — a source of suffering for more than two thousand years — through this lens.

Shakyamuni Buddha’s First Noble Truth outlines various forms of suffering that mark this human realm. The Second Noble Truth speaks to the origin or cause of suffering.The Dhammacakkapavattana Sutta describes the origin of suffering:

It is craving (thirst) which produces re-becoming (rebirth) accompanied by passionate greed, and finding fresh delight now here, and now there, namely craving for sense pleasure, craving for existence and craving for non-existence (self-annihilation).

Craving is the active expression of the Buddhism’s Three Poisons: Greed, Hatred, and Delusion. Our personal habits are deeply entrenched and it is not difficult to see how craving works in our individual lives. But considering suffering as it works in social systems such as race, gender, caste, community, and nation, questions come up that don’t fit easily within the scope of early Buddhist texts.

Taking in the breadth of social suffering, we have to ask: whose craving? Suffering arises within the entire system, but it does not impact everyone equally at any given moment. If we look to the laws of karma, cause and effect might play out over several lifetimes. If we look to principles of social justice — not so clearly articulated in the Buddha’s teachings, but urgently present in Western religious traditions — we look for resolution within this lifetime and within our society.

Greed, hate, and delusion enacted by one sector of society create disproportionate suffering and oppression in other sectors of society. The burden of racism, or caste, is carried by its immediate victims. Thinking systemically we understand that, for instance, white supremacists also suffer directly and indirectly from racism. I have sympathy for their predicament. But my healing instinct turns first to the immediate victims. Whether this is a correct or appropriate response in a “Buddhist” sense, I am not sure. It brings to mind a parable from early Buddhism.

It’s just as if a man were wounded with an arrow thickly smeared with poison. His friends & companions, kinsmen & relatives would provide him with a surgeon, and the man would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble warrior, a priest, a merchant, or a worker…’

Before these and other questions were answered, the man would die. The matter at hand is to remove the arrow now and save a life, not in some indeterminate future after all questions have been answered. We don’t hesitate, stopping to analyze all causes and conditions and how the bowman himself might have been suffering. Just pull out the arrow!

If we look at caste in terms of the First Noble Truth, clearly there is suffering throughout the system. The heaviest weight of suffering falls on the backs of those countless groups or subcastes labeled untouchable, servants, and tribal peoples. But caste has created a structure that dehumanizes everyone, blocks our ability to connect, wastes resources of intelligence and creativity, and cultivates a rigid system of social power. Clearly the caste system is a source of suffering for all involved.

The origin of India’s caste system is controversial among scholars. The idea of a fourfold division of society, varna, is found in some Vedic texts dating back more than three thousand years. Among the early Hindu Dharmasastras, the “Laws of Manu” divide society into Brahmins (priests); Kshatriyas (rulers and warriors); Vaishyas (farmers, merchants, and artisans); Shudras (laborers and servants); and those unnamed “untouchable” peoples who fall outside the system entirely. As Brahmanic/Hindu culture displaced Buddhism in medieval India, varna seems to have been the basis of an elaborate system of jati, which we translate as caste, forming thousands of rigidly defined social groups. Dr. Ambedkar called this a system of “graded inequality,” depending on:

• An endless hierarchy of one caste or sub-caste over another;

• Strict endogamy, meaning no inter-marriage among castes and sub-castes;

• Dietary restrictions — no sharing of food and water among castes based on notions of caste purity/impurity;

• Physical segregation among castes in villages, limited access to education;

• Designated occupations according to caste;

• Restricted access to temples and rituals on the basis of caste.

In recent years a strong argument has been made that the British colonial administration institutionalized the fixed quality of caste. 19th Century census processes went hand in hand with a British need to organize and discipline colonial labor. The colonial authorities developed lists of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes whose vestiges can be seen even today, when caste has been constitutionally outlawed in modern India.

While historians and social scientists may continue to argue about the origins of a caste system — Was it referenced in this text or that; was it introduced by early Aryan settlers; is there a genetic basis; and so on — the function of caste seems clear. The caste system is based on institutionalizing the power of one group over another, and the preservation of that power.

In contemporary terms we call that “privilege.” The dictionary defines privilege as “a right or benefit that is given to some people and not to others.” Then, of course, we might consider the “origin” of systems of power and privilege. We might posit a Nietzschean or psychological “will to power.” And/or we may find that the quest for power is rooted in questions of group security and access to resources. These and other causes are all in play, leading to social systems that enforce inequality.

One can see these dynamics manifest in various forms of social class around the world. Like it or not, class systems of one kind or another rise and fall in society. Usually there is some fluidity to social class; some potential among groups and between generations to move from one class to another. But early in his academic studies in New York, Ambedkar wrote about the historical evolution (or devolution) of ubiquitous class structures into a culturally-specific caste system.

This sub-division of a society is quite natural. But the unnatural thing about these sub-divisions is that they have lost the open-door character of the class system and have become self-enclosed units called castes. The question is: were they compelled to close their doors…, or did they close them of their own accord? I submit that there is a double line of answer: Some closed the door: Others found it closed against them.

From Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development

B. R. Ambedkar, 1916

Dr. Ambedkar’s “double line” — Some closed the door: Others found it closed against them —points to an origin of caste in privilege that is more structural than historical.

What privileges or power do I speak of? In economic terms, the upper castes control participation in certain professions. (This does not just apply to Hindus. The caste system can be seen in modern Indian Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, and even in Buddhism.) In social terms, strict caste endogamy prevails, even in Indian communities in the West. In religious terms, entry to Hindu temples and access to religious rituals are controlled.

The door of privilege or power was closed early on by higher caste Hindus. Those who found it closed against them, cut off from social, economic, and spiritual opportunities, were Shudras / servants, Dalits / untouchables, Adavasis / tribal peoples. Tragically, the insidious mechanism of internalized oppression — which I’ll speak about in more detail in the next piece — creates a consciousness of inferiority, deference, lack of self-worth, and oppression that shapes the minds and lives of Shudras, Dalits, and others. These doors are still closed, though we can begin to see some light through the cracks.

If you wish to read more about India’s “ex-untouchable Buddhists,” Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, and young people making change in India, please see my recent book: Heirs To Ambedkar—The Rebirth of Engaged Buddhism in India (Clear View Press, 2014), available from or from

AlanSenauke1Hozan Alan Senauke, a world-renowned voice in socially engaged Buddhism, is a Soto Zen priest, folk musician, author, poet, and leader of Clear View Project.

Currently leading Clear View in offering Buddhist-based resources for relief and social change, Alan is a former Executive Director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, a founder of Think Sangha, and member and leader within the International Network of Engaged Buddhists.

Along with his Dharma sister Maylie Scott, Senauke received Dharma transmission from his teacher Sojun Mel Weitsman in 1998 during a ceremony at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center.

Robert Aitken Roshi, carrying his signature sign at a protest

About BPF’s The System Stinks

Buddhist social justice curriculum

To help promote collective liberation and subvert the highly individualistic bent of much mainstream dharma these days, Buddhist Peace Fellowship presents our second year of The System Stinks — a collection of Buddhist social justice media named for the favorite protest sign of one of our founders, Robert Aitken, Roshi.

This year, we’ve asked some of our favorite dharma teachers, practitioners, and activists to reflect on the Four Noble Truths — suffering; the causes of suffering; cessation of suffering; and a path to cessation — from a systemic, social justice perspective.

Other Buddhist groups from around the world have also used the Four Noble Truths as a lens for social movements: for good examples, the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, and the Sarvodaya movement in Sri Lanka. In a U.S.-based context (not predominantly Buddhist), where mindfulness is increasingly separated from ethics, we are eager to uphold this social justice tradition.

If you like what you see, spread the word to show the world another side of Buddhism!

We are deeply grateful to the teachers and practitioners who lend their voices to this cause. In alignment with our media justice values, all contributors to the 2014 series have been offered humble compensation for their work.

You can support engaged Buddhist media makers by donating to BPF.

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Comments (2)

  • Geoffrey Wood

    Good stuff. Two comments and two questions..

    One, we remove the arrow mindfully, so as not to yank it out and wound someone else in the process.

    Two, while talk of not investigating the bowman is appropriate, i think, one must realize that beyond generalizations of institutions and mindsets, every arrow is fired in a particular instance. ‘White’ people get pierced by others’ arrows of hate and ignorance as well. Not just systematically, but individually. The archer may still have one or more arrows in his or her hide.

    And the Qs:

    (1) Where does your sense of immediacy arise from?
    (2) How do you see or define victims?

    Thanks for exploring this topic. I am only a little familiar with Ambedkar, mostly via FB friends online. Looking forward to the next pieces.


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