[Buddha-l] Inquisition and untouchability

Dan Lusthaus vasubandhu at earthlink.net
Tue Sep 17 09:15:24 MDT 2013

>Did lived Buddhism result in the
> creation of untouchablity, de facto, in ancient times?  Was Jainism
> similarly involved?
> Tim Cahill

Excellent question. The answer is necessarily a bit murky, since to some 
extent it depends on how precisely and finely one defines the various 
factors involved. Did Buddhism invent social discrimination? No. Did it 
invent or import class distinctions? No. Did it provide criteria and 
institutional frameworks for imposing social sequestering? Yes.

In India, of course, the institution of outcastes sprung up around the 
Buddhists, so they could at times take rhetorical umbrage against it, and, 
theoretically at least, caste distinctions were ignored for those who became 
monastics. In the medieval period arguments against caste became more 
focused. See, e.g., Vincent Eltschinger, _Caste and Buddhist Philosophy: 
Continuity of Some Buddhist Arguments against the Realist Interpretation of 
Social Denominations_ (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2012).

In a broad sense, karma theory holds that your present life and 
circumstances are a consequence of past deeds, and your present activities 
affect your future circumstances. Killing is a no-no, so if you kill there 
will be future consequences, and if your profession is killing (e.g., 
butcher) you are on a path to unpleasant consequences.

Killing and death already carried some implication of "impurity" in places 
like Japan. So trades like butchers, tanners, etc. probably already had some 
stigma -- though actual contemporary evidence for that is unclear. Buddhists 
rendered those trades a caste, i.e., something that inheres in the entire 
family involved not just the butcher himself, and is passed on from 
generation to generation, even if the family attempts to find a new trade. 
The untouchables (burakamin, etc.) were forced to live in ghettos away from 
"regular" people; intermarriage with them was forbidden or avoided (still 
the case!), etc. They were considered unclean, impure, hence contact of any 
sort was to be avoided.

Similar developments occurred in China, but since China is more diverse, and 
they LOVE their meat (Japan is more drawn to seafood), butchers were never 
quite ostracized in the same way, and the outcaste institutionalization 
never took hold in the same way -- social organization tended to follow 
Confucian dictates rather than Buddhist sentiments.

Tibet, by the way, had similar outcaste treatment for butchers, etc. Most 
butchers in Tibet were muslims.

Since there were no Jain missionaries to E. Asia or Tibet that we know of, 
they had no direct influence.


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