The PM Modi should implement Buddha’s Egalitarian Principles to overcome the Sufferings of Masses rather than Symbolically Appropriate him in the Age of Covid-19 

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A few days back PM Modi addressed three significant meetings virtually at New Delhi in which he had given motivational speeches and underlined India’s contributions in terms of providing medicines and other necessary goods to several countries for fighting against the threat of Covid-19 pandemic on the one hand and highlighted rich ancient heritage and philosophical ideas of Lord Buddha on the other. During his address, PM has also said that India believes and committed to promote universal values like democracy, pluralism and multilateralism, inclusivity and ‘human-centric globalization’ to overcome the global common problems faced by humanity at large amidst Covid-19. However, his speeches were not clearly chalked out concrete socio-economic programmes to deal with genuine concern of subaltern masses.

While delivering his virtual speech on the occasion of Dharma Chakra day event at Delhi, PM Modi aid that amidst huge challenges, the solutions can come if nations and societies across the world will follow Lord Buddha’s teachings and his Eight-Fold Path seriously. Secondly, while addressing at the India- EU (European Union) summit, PM Modi has pointed out that India and the EU are natural partners because of both Nations have long traditions of democracy, pluralism and inclusivity to overcome shared problems and issues by promoting trade and investment.

And finally, while addressing to the ECOSOC (Economic and Social Council, it is an important body of the United Nation) meeting, PM Modi noted that India always believes in promoting universal values like multilateralism, humanity, peace, democracy, and pluralism. Moreover, PM has also said that India believes in Sabka saath, sabka vikas and sabka viswash to achieve sustainable development goals and committed to fighting against an ongoing threat like the Covid-19 pandemic. He also reminded that India has been so far successful in terms of fighting against the threat of Covid-19, and helped developing countries. In addition, PM Modi also mentioned that India has recently helped and provided necessary medicines and extended other facilities in several countries to contain the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, after seeing the huge surge of Covid-19 patients and rising the trends of death tolls regularly, the claim made by the ruling government is now contested by opposition parties.

However, due to constrain of space here, I am not going to comment on all three speeches delivered at various national and internal forums virtually.  I will restrict myself to discuss and critically reflect on the speech given by PM Modi on the occasion of Dharma Chakra day at New Delhi. While citing the empirical studies done on Indian’s poor and marginalized by national and international organizations, I will try to demonstrate that our country is lagging behind in most of socio-economic fronts such as educations, employment, poverty, health, and happiness indices. The fact cannot be denied that instead of overcoming these substantive issues, the problems like mob-violence, caste atrocities against Dalits, domestic violence against women, encounters, attacks on Human Right activists and minorities have been drastically increased in the public domain especially since the BJP-RSS led by PM Modi government came to power at the Centre and various states.

Here one can ask the question, while before taking about Buddha’s humanitarian and universal values like peace, non-violence and pluralism, compassion, respect for women and humanity to the world community, PM Modi himself has to introspect the actual performances and role of its own government seriously. It is crucial to ask the question of why his government is failing to address the said issues and problems.   Keeping the sad situation of our country in mind, here it is argued that only symbolic co-option of Buddha for political motives will not help to overcome the problems faced by subaltern masses without implementing his egalitarian philosophy in a substantive manner in days to come.

To be precise here, while addressing on the occasion of Dharma Chakra day, PM Modi has stressed the need to adopt and pay serious attention to the Lord Buddha’s egalitarian teachings mainly his Eight-fold Paths in which Buddha had broadly talked about the respect for a human being, holding right speech & view, good conduct, justice, compassion, dignity, respect for poor and woman, etc. While addressing on the said occasion, PM Modi underlined that Lord Buddha had long back taught us universal values. “Respect for people. Respect for the poor. Respect for women. Respect for peace and non-violence”, said Modi. While addressing earlier in 2019 at United Nation PM Modi emphasized that a country like India has given ‘Buddh’ (refers to Gautama Buddha) and not ‘Yuddh’ (war) to the global community.  Moreover, he said that Lord Buddha’s universal teachings are not relevant only in the context of India but also at the global level in these difficult times. In this respect, while addressing to people on said occasion, PM Modi has underlined:

“Today the world fights extraordinary challenges. To these challenges, lasting solutions can come from the ideals of Lord Buddha. They were relevant in the past. They are relevant in the present. And, they will remain relevant in the future”.

Before commenting on PM Modi’s speech on Buddha, let me first discuss current problems witnessed by the citizen of India. To note that India masses are currently grappling with challenges such as communalism (take for instance,  by profiling of Indian Muslims as seen in the case of Tablighi Jamaat for allegedly blaming the spreading  of Corona-Jihad), suppressing of dissenting voices, the rise of domestic violence against women amidst Covid-19 pandemic. The recent arresting of Muslim youths and social activists by Delhi Police under the false pretext of inciting masses (however, the fact is that they were protesting against an anti-constitutional act like CAA in peaceful and non-violent manner) that prepared ground for Delhi riots which occurred in the month of February 2020 can be cited as a case in point here. The recent rise of police violence and encounters as happened in the U.P and elsewhere can be cited as another example. In spite of the huge suppressions and muzzling of dissenting voices, agitations on the streets are not happening because citizens supposed to follow the social distancing norms and guidelines of the government. Hence, people of India supposed to not hold public meetings including protests as recently seen in the USA after the custodial death of George Floyd ( a black person) under the popular slogan of ‘Black Life Matters’.

In this piece, while engaging with Kancha Ilaiah’s book (God as Political Philosopher: Buddha’s Challenge to Brahmanism, 2019), I will try to critically comment on PM Modi’s speech which was delivered on the occasion of Dharma Chakra day recently. The PM speech will be critically scrutinized in the light of the last 6 years of  BJP tenure at Centre on the one hand and keeping in mind huge inequality and sufferings of masses on the other. The point must be noted that after sudden national lockdown announcement by PM Modi on March 24, 2020, (which was considered as the most stringent lockdown in the world) that led to the suffering of millions of migrant workers and some of them have lost their lives on the highway before reaching their homes.

Before commenting on recent problems especially witnessed by subaltern masses, let me first highlight the socio-economic and political philosophy of Buddha, as discussed by Ilaiah in his book. He made a crucial point that Buddha was an egalitarian political philosopher rather than a religious figure that has been so far neglected by the so-called Hindu nationalist and other secular parties too. As llaiah writes in his introductory chapter:

“Scholars treated Gautama Buddha as a saint and religious thinker and not as revolutionary or a political theorist. The responsibility for cooption and distortion lies with colonial as well as nationalist scholars. During the nationalist period except Mahatma Jyotirao Phule and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar all scholars of philosophy treated Buddhism as part of Hinduism” (P-2).

To note that Buddha’s teachings which were vividly described in his Eight-Fold Path hardly got any place in the public sphere. For instance, as of now in the most of Indian Universities and its curriculum, we cannot find that Buddha (who was a most egalitarian thinker of his own times even more than Plato and Aristotle in some respects) as a political thinker has been included and taught to students in higher public institutions including progressive institutions like JNU and Delhi University. For a long period of time, Indian students have been reading thinkers like Manu and Kautilya, as a part of the syllabus in Indian universities but not Lord Buddha as a political philosopher. It has to be noted that both brahminical thinkers (Manu and Kautilya) had upheld Varnadharma theory and hierarchical Hindu social order; the point has also been mentioned by Ilaiah in his book. For him, it had happened because of ‘Eurocentric’ and monolithic reading of our Indian ancient historical past which was done by colonial intellectuals (such as James Mill and Max Muller) and Hindu nationalist thinkers from a religious perspective rather than looking through the lens of heterodox traditions that had been existed in India’s history and culture since time immemorial.  In doing so, they considered the Kautilya and Manu, as political thinkers and their views have been accepted and taught to students in the art of governance and administrations.  In this respect, Ilaiah rightly says,

The only two ancient Indian political philosophy on whom some studies have been conducted are Manu and Kautilya, the upholders of  the most hierarchical dimension of Hindu  Thought” ( P-2)

While extending this argument further, he continues,

Both European and Hindu Nationalist Scholars depended excessively on Manu’s laws and Kautilya’s Arthashastra which by and large presented a monolithic, authoritarian Varnadharma theory” (P- 19)

It is ironic that Buddha was considered as another religious avatar (like Vishnu) within the broad fold of Hinduism. That might be the reason why Buddha is still not included in the pedagogy of Indian universities. However, Indian Marxists like D.D. Kosambi, R.S. Sharma, Romila Thapar, and Debiprasad Chatotpadhaya have done noteworthy works and studied the ancient past from ‘Marxists perspective’ and thereby they highlighted the Buddha’s political and social philosophy to a large extent, the point is also accepted by llaiah in his book (p-19). Besides, these academic works, B.R. Ambedkar (especially in his important book, The Buddha and His Dhamma) had provided a more sharp and deeper understanding of Buddha from the vantage point of oppressed, added by  Ilaiah. (P-20) In short, barring few Indian Marxists historians and more impotently by B.R Ambedkar, colonial intellectuals and Hindu nationalist thinkers had not been bothered to highlight the enlightened and egalitarian thinkers like Buddha in their writings.

While discussing the core points of Buddha’s which had been encapsulated in his  Eight-fold Path, Ilaiah  mentioned; “ Right views, Right aspirations, Right speech, Right conduct, Right means of livelihood, Right Effort, Right mindfulness and  Right  Rapture” ( p-215). It has to be noted that PM Modi has recently in his virtual speech exhorted to the world community to follow the Eight-Fold Path and universal teachings of Lord Buddha especially to reduce sufferings of masses and work for larger humanity in the post-Covid -19 world. However, one could ask the question; has the ruling party like BJP so far taken concrete steps to ameliorate the social sufferings of masses and followed seriously Buddha’s teachings? Since PM Modi led BJP had captured power at Centre in 2014, it is empirically tenable to argue that the conditions of subaltern masses- for whom Buddha was committed to work -have been further decline substantially in the public sphere.

In this respect, numerous studies have been conducted by national and international human rights organizations and civil society bodies aptly demonstrated that conditions of marginalized masses had got further deteriorated since 2014 onwards. Take for instance, on the question of the rate of unemployment, human and social development index; India’s ranking is declining continuously. In 2019 of the Global Hunger Index, India ranked 102 out of 117 countries even lower than neighboring countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal. In the UN World Happiness Index of 2020, our country had got 144 ranks out of 156 Nations. According to a recent report of ILO (International labour organization), nearly 4000 million people in India will sink into poverty because of Covid-19 lockdown world including India is passing through an economic downturn.  In short, contrary to the current ruling establishment, the socio-economic and health conditions of India’s poor are continuously declining in comparison to most developing countries, as also hinted above. On the basis of above empirical social realities and report cards of PM Modi government since 2014 onwards, one can ask the question how can in future India play a leading role and able to provide leadership to the world community, if its own people conditions in all walks of life are so pathetic? Barring providing some symbolic supports while launching flagship prgrammes, the ruling government has done nothing concrete to address the concern of toiling masses. Even the robust welfare measures such as MGNREGA’s budget have been reduced and labour laws are diluted by the current government. Besides, rather than addressing the material concern of masses, the government is committed to further privatizing the PUS like railways and other profit-making public sectors.

On the question of women, Buddha was far ahead in his time in comparison to brahminical thinkers like Manu and Kautilya. Even he was more progressive than the western ancient political thinkers like Plato and Aristotle, the point has also reminded by Ilaiah in his book.  In short, both Aristotle and Plato had not been given equal treatment to women, slaves’ and thus abolished private property and the patriarchal structure of the family, as did by Buddha by providing equal space and collective community ownership in Sangha irrespective of caste, creed and gender considerations. While stressing the need for critically examining political thinkers a view from a gender perspective, Ilaiah writes,

“The feminist critique of political philosophy as with regard to all other subjects holds that inequality between men and women is as major an issue as class, caste and state in every society. The views of political thinkers must, therefore, be studied from a gender perspective in order to understand social relations in their entirety” (p-180).

Let me now conclude here, no doubt PM Modi speech on Lord Buddha was motivational in nature as stated above but he has not provided any robust and concrete socio-economic programmes to achieve Buddha’s egalitarian notion of society which was encapsulated in the slogan, ‘bahujan hitaya and bahujan sukhaya’ (it refers to welfare and the happiness of majority especially of oppressed, as also mentioned by Ilaiah, p-210). But the question arises so far what steps have been taken by the PM Modi government itself for the last 6 years to address the concern of marginalized? Honestly speaking in the light of empirical realities cited above, one could argue that the socio-economic problems of subaltern masses especially Dalits, tribals, women, and minorities have tremendously increased on the one hand and their dissenting voices have been largely muzzled and suppressed on the other.

Having said that let me reiterate my point once again merely giving motivational and rhetorical speeches on several national and global forums often devoid of substantive socio-economic progrmmes, will not help us in a society like India in the long run to ameliorate the conditions of masses. Hence, if the ruling government led by PM Modi is really committed to slogans like Atma Nirbhar Bharat and sabka saath, sabka vikash and sabka viswash, and really keen to fulfill the dream of Buddha’s egalitarian society (which was also endorsed by Babasaheb Ambedkar in his idea of state socialism and other writings); must now chalk out substantive socio-economic welfare measures to reduce acute sufferings of subaltern masses rather than symbolically appropriating Buddha with political motives in the age of Covid-19.

The author is a Research Scholar at the Department of Political Science, University of Delhi



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