top nav spacer
You Are Here: Home » Dhamma » The Suffering of Caste

The Suffering of Caste

nti girls 1

Students at Nagaloka/Nagaruna Training Institute, a residential program in Nagpur for young Ambedkarite students from all over India. Photo by Alan Senauke.

The Four Noble Truths in Our World

Truth #1: The Suffering of Caste


Sitting cross-legged under the Bodhi Tree on the banks of the Neranjara River, the Buddha vowed not to get up from his seat until he attained complete enlightenment, free from the tangle of birth and death. On the night of his awakening he experienced the arising of three great knowledges. In the night’s first watch he recalled his past births, the unfolding of time and memory. During the second watch he saw how all beings are born and die and are reborn according to their actions or Karma. In the third watch, with insight into the Noble Truths as a tool, he directed his mind to the exhaustion of all defilements. By the light of the morning star his awakening was complete.


The Four Noble Truths was the Buddha’s great discovery, his first gift to us. In briefest form, these Truths are: the Nature of Suffering, the Cause of Suffering, the End of Suffering, and the Path to the End of Suffering. In the classical sutras and twenty-five hundred years of subsequent commentary each aspect of these Truths has been minutely considered and taught in the context of individual life. If one wishes to be free, one can use the Truths as an analytical tool, and follow the path of practice.


We often look at society as a mysterious entity, with its constructs of wealth and poverty, war and peace, oppression and privilege. Each of these forces or systems seems to be and is, in fact, larger than any one of us in our individual being. But individuals are the building blocks of each system. Systems exist on the basis of individual participation and consent. They cease to exist when we withdraw our consent.


In a sense social systems are like individuals. A social body has parts with distinct but interrelated functions, just as our bodies have the various organs. These systems can also be seen through the lens of the Four Noble Truths.

1. A system suffers; it is functional or dysfunctional.

2. The cause of this dysfunction is always some expression of greed, hatred, and delusion.

3. We can imagine a harmonious society, free from violence and oppression. (Dr. King spoke of this as the Beloved Community.)

4. The path to this harmonious society is surely much like the Buddha’s Eightfold Path: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. We might tweak this or that factor, or add a few pertaining to education, the environment, etc. But complex systems, on a large or small scale, seem to conform to similar patterns.


This essay is the first of four pieces that use the Noble Truths as analytical tools in a social context. I have been travelling to India in recent years, working with Ambedkarite Buddhists, peoples who used to be classified as “untouchable,” caught in an ancient and oppressive web of caste. Based on that experience I offer here a concise view of the suffering of caste as a sign of the First Noble Truth in our world, in confidence that eventually we will see how this suffering itself offers impetus for liberation. Our Buddhist sisters and brothers in India are not there yet. We are not there yet, in the crumbling edifice of empire. But on a clear day we can catch a glimpse of that Beloved Community. We can try to move towards it.


The Hell of Caste


There is no doubt, in my opinion, that unless you change your social order you can achieve little by way of progress…You cannot build anything on the foundations of caste. You cannot build up a nation, you cannot build up a morality. Anything you will build on the foundations of caste will crack and will never be a whole.

Dr. B.R. Ambedkar: Annihilation of Caste, 1936


The caste system’s historical roots, while impossible to pinpoint, go back at least to India’s Brahmanic texts of the 1st millennium BCE. These texts delineated a jati or caste system based on four varnas (literally “skin color”) that classified hereditary social standing. In time there arose thousands of caste and sub-caste or “untouchable” communities, distinguished by occupation, name, and custom. Untouchable populations were ostracized by all the other castes, excluded from religious rituals, education, and countless everyday activities.


The “hell of caste” is hard for many of us in the West to imagine, despite our own history of slavery and racism. Like the persistence of racism in the West, the Indian caste system is legally outlawed by India’s post-liberation constitution, yet it is very much alive in all of India’s huge cities and more virulently in rural areas where a majority of the population resides. There is an argument that the reality of caste hardened under British colonialism, which systematized, enforced, and used small and large distinctions as a tool of social control. These more rigid definitions of caste and position have continued as modern India has evolved into a nation presently dominated by powerful and conservative Hindu parties and social movements.


The reality of caste is hereditary bondage passed from generation to generation under a dominant Brahmanic or Hindu social system. Contrary to the Buddhist meaning of the same words which points to freedom, in this system karma means fate or the caste one is born into, and dharma means the duty to live out one’s life within the confines of caste proscriptions and expectations. These duties include strict endogamy, or marriage only within one’s caste, ensuring a fixed heredity. In daily life untouchability precludes those of different castes, or non-castes, from living within the bounds of a village, sharing food or drink, having access to education, or entering Hindu temples. Seen as “unclean,” even the shadow of an untouchable is considered polluting to caste Hindus.


Ambedkar and the Facts of Dalit Life

Many outcast Indian communities refer to themselves as “Dalit,” a term meaning “broken to pieces.” But many also identify as “Ambedkarites,” in reference to and respect for Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the towering leader of a modern untouchable movement.

NTI Ambed student

A young student at Nagaloka/Nagaruna Training Institute sits before a portrait of Dr. Ambedkar. Photo by Alan Senauke.

Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (or Babasaheb, as his devotees call him) was born in 1891 in a poor but educated Mahar family. Traditionally the Mahars — the largest untouchable community in the region of Maharashtra — lived outside the boundaries of a village and worked as servants, watchmen, street-sweepers, and haulers of animal carcasses. Dr. Ambedkar’s father, Ramji Sakpal, served in the colonial Indian Army, where he was schooled in Marathi and English. He instilled a love of learning in his children and lobbied for their admission to government schools. But untouchable students often had to hear their lessons while crouched outside the classroom window.


By virtue of his brilliance and good fortune the young Ambedkar was among the first untouchables to attend an Indian university, taking a degree in economics and political science from Bombay University. With scholarship support from the ruler of Baroda state, by his early thirties Ambedkar had earned doctorates from Columbia University, the London School of Economics, and a place at the bar at London’s Gray’s Inn. He came back from the West as one of the best-educated men in India. But returning to work as a finance secretary for his benefactor, the Gayakwad of Baroda, he was unable to find housing, and was barred from dining with his colleagues. He suffered the indignity of his own clerks tossing files on his desk for fear of his “polluting” touch.


As he pursued a legal career, Ambedkar wrote and campaigned for human rights and against untouchability. I will have more to say about Dr. Ambedkar and his teachings as we further explore India’s caste system and the other three Noble Truths. But for now I want to outline a picture of caste as suffering or dukkha, much as the Buddhas sketched the nature of suffering in his first sermon.


Dalits or untouchables live beneath the lowest rungs of the caste system ladder, which would be the Shudras and low caste groups known as Other Backward Classes (or OBC) who experience similar social, economic, and educational discrimination. Dalits, OBC, and tribal people together comprise more than 60% of India’s 1.27 billion people (2013 estimate).


The many untouchable or Dalit communities, differentiated by region, ethnicity, and subcaste, have been identified with occupations such as butchering, removal of rubbish, sweeping, removal of human waste and dead animals, leatherwork, and so on. Jobs like this are still seen as impure activities, polluting to higher castes. And that pollution is somehow contagious. As “impure,” untouchables are still systematically excluded from aspects of ordinary Hindu life.


Human Rights Watch reports:

India’s Untouchables are relegated to the lowest jobs, and live in constant fear of being publicly humiliated, paraded naked, beaten, and raped with impunity by upper-caste Hindus seeking to keep them in their place. Merely walking through an upper-caste neighborhood is a life-threatening offense.


A 2010 study compiled by the World Council of Churches, the World Student Christian Federation, and the World YWCA says:

Atrocities against Dalit people are a daily occurrence. The Scheduled caste and scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989 in India defines the type of abuses which are illegal, including:


forcing Dalit people to eat obnoxious substances

assaulting Dalit women with intent to dishonor and outrage her modesty

using a position of dominance to sexually exploit a Dalit woman

corrupting or fouling a Dalit water source. 


By listing these and other offences, the law reveals the awareness of the many ways in which Dalit and Tribal people are subject to indignity, violence and abuse. 
It is estimated that a crime is committed against a Dalit person every 18 minutes. The problem for many is not the law but the lack of political will, at local and national levels, to apply it. In 2006, the official conviction rate for Dalit atrocity cases was just 5.3%. 
The statistics are horrifying:


In rural areas, 37.8% of government run schools make Dalit children sit separately from other children

In 27.6% of rural villages, Dalits are prevented from entering police stations

• In 33% of rural villages, public health workers refuse to enter Dalit homes

48.4% of Dalit villages are denied access to water sources

In 70% of rural villages, Dalit and non-Dalit people cannot eat together. 


Untouchability was legally abolished by India’s secular constitution of 1950, bolstered by continuing protective legislation. But Juliette de Rivera of Human Rights Watch writes, “New laws are useless unless they are implemented, as we have seen with previous efforts to ensure protection of Dalit rights.” In rural India, where legal process and cosmopolitan views are hard to come by, things are even worse. In a June 2003 edition of “National Geographic News” Hillary Maxwell wrote:

Human rights abuses against these people, known as Dalits, are legion. A random sampling of headlines in mainstream Indian newspapers tells their story: “Dalit boy beaten to death for plucking flowers;” “Dalit tortured by cops for three days;” “Dalit ‘witch’ paraded naked in Bihar;” “Dalit killed in lock-up at Kurnool;” “Seven Dalits burnt alive in caste clash;” “Five Dalits lynched in Haryana;” “Dalit woman gang-raped, paraded naked;” “Police egged on mob to lynch Dalits.”


Maxwell adds:

 India’s Untouchables are relegated to the lowest jobs, and live in constant fear of being publicly humiliated, paraded naked, beaten, and raped with impunity by upper-caste Hindus seeking to keep them in their place. Merely walking through an upper-caste neighborhood is a life-threatening offense.


Dalit women have to reckon with a threefold oppression: caste, poverty, and gender discrimination even within their own communities. Rape and sexual violence are India’s shame cutting across all caste and economic lines.

In a 2013 report, Rashida Manjoo, the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, singled out the oppression of Dalit women:

Many experience some of the worst forms of discrimination. The reality of Dalit women and girls is one of exclusion and marginalization, which perpetuates their subordinate position in society and increases their vulnerability, throughout generations.


This is the social expression of the First Noble Truth in India. The documentation of oppression, rape, and other atrocities is endless and uncontestable. You can read about such acts daily in any of India’s newspapers. But as we know from the arc of every movement throughout history, repression brings resistance. And resistance is the catalyst for social change. As we continue our study of caste and the Four Noble Truths, this will shine forth clearly.



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.

Use these simple buttons to share!
Share on FacebookEmail this to someoneShare on TumblrTweet about this on Twitter

Comments (8)

  • Susmita

    “Dalits, OBC, and tribal people together comprise more than 60% of India’s 1.27 billion people (2013 estimate).

    • 48.4% of Dalit villages are denied access to water sources

    • In 70% of rural villages, Dalit and non-Dalit people cannot eat together. 

    These figures are shocking! This enormous social challenge is hardly talked about in public forums, education or media, at least when I grew up in Calcutta, Can something small and simple be started by engaged buddhists and former-dalits like inviting liberal upper caste men, women and teens of the community to share a meal with the Dalits and OBO?

  • Patrick S. O'Donnell

    Just a clarification: varna in the first instance refers to the the Vedic hierarchical division of labor and patrilineal social system: brāhmanas (priests), ksatriyas (soldiers, administrators, rulers), vaiśyas (farmers, merchants, artisans, etc.), and śudras (servants, landless laborers, etc.). The first three groups are called ‘twice-born’ (dvija) meaning they participate in a religious rite of passage and initiation ceremony that permits them to fully participate in Vedic study and ritual, while the śudras were deemed impure and excluded from Vedic religious practices. The varna system is not, speaking strictly and historically, the caste or jāti system, although it would be fair to say that it provides the rough religious (Rg Veda 10.90) and conceptual template and/or ideological sanction for that system, a necessary yet not sufficient condition for its historical realization (and the two terms are later in fact later closely allied, sometimes even interchangeable). The conceptualization and rationalization of this system are said to locate ‘homo hierarchicus’ within a a macrocosmic hierarchy extending ‘from Brahmā to the tufts of grass (brahmādistambaparyanta).

    As Gerald J. Larson, among others, points out, “It is difficult to know…if the system in ancient times resembles the system as it is described in the traditional law books and in modern field studies. The groupings mentioned in the Veda could possibly be littler more than a social division of labor, a kind of ancient class system.” Moreover, even with the development of the caste or, better, jati-system, we should keep in mind that the social life did not and does not always mirror the prescriptive ambitions of the texts (i.e., we should not make descriptive inferences from their articulation of normative goals). Again, as Larson notes, the “more rigid, modern system of caste probably develops during the long centuries of (c. 1200-1750) Muslim dominance [first, the Turko-Afghan Muslims of the Delhi Sultanate, and then the Mughals of the early 16th century] in India when Hindu traditions became much more defensive and in-grown for the sake of communal survival.” Evidence of less rigidity and difference in earlier times is clear where we see priests becoming rulers and rulers coming from other than priestly or ksatriya groups. Indeed, “śudras, and even untouchables, came to power at one or another region or time on the subcontinent.” Nothing I said here should detract from the important material in this post (my fondness for Ambedkar is seen here:

    Incidentally, I have a basic bibliography on the life, work, and world of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar available here:

  • Saurav

    I grew up as a upper-caste Hindu (just writing here for sake…..I consider myself as a Human nothing more)……Lived a life of complete luxury and moved to the west.

    For the first time in my life at the age of 21 I was stunned by the Equality in western societies. Jobs considered degrading in India like cleaning toilets, masonry were actually well-paid and well-respected. I was stunned by this – in India unless you own a Business or work in a High-Tech Software Job… are more or less paid next to nothing …..a few ppl are paid so less that you they can hardly get by 2 times food/day.

    I came back to India in 4 years and was disturbed…….Something was not right..,,.I was first exposed to Dhamma while I was browsing the web…..The first 2 lines I read ripped me apart……I came across something so pure and I havent read anything like that before. The same day i went in refuge of the Buddha. I started reading the pali canon and as days passed by I became more and more compassionate, aware and understood the ground situation in India. Rage grew in me but I realized that this would achieve nothing. I could relate how Buddha would have felt about the situation 2,500 years back when he said that life is Suffering.

    Yes its true Caste system is real and frightening in India – whether in cities or villages. But more than that it is the psychological thing that lower castes have which is a concern..their fear that if they walk out of their prescribed areas they would be hurt…..which in fact does happen if they step out.

    I have a deep urge to do something…..change something for the miserable 90% of the population. Someday I hope I get that power to bring about a dramatic change in the situation.

  • Tabitha

    I hope you get the power to change the caste system too. The instances of violent rape and murder of low caste women in the news fill me with despair. Even though there is no acknowledged caste system in the states, poor people suffer here too, especially women and children. I will keep you in my thoughts and practice.



  • Priyadarshan Nanaji Shambharkar

    Dear Sir,

    The caste certificate of mine shows my sub caste as ‘mahar’ which make me feel very bad so I want to change it as a ‘nav-bauddha’ which is already mentioned on my school leaving certificate.
    Can anybody tell me the procedure & documents required to change the same.

    Thanks and waiting your valuable opinion.

  • jeffrey brotherton

    You hit the nail on the head. I was searching for the same form some time ago and found a great service with a huge forms library. I’ve forgotten the last time I filled out a form on paper. I mostly use PDFfiller to edit. You can easily fill DoL OWCP-1168 (expired) here

© 2017 Buddhist Peace Fellowship

Scroll to top