How the Buddha saved the "untouchables"

By Charles Perera, Lankaweb, Oct 21, 2006

Venerable Sunita, who was an untouchable, is a far relative of Indian Dalits

Colombo, Sri Lanka -- They are the Chandalas, the Untouchables. Mahatma Gandhi called them the children of God- Harijans. They belonged to the lowest caste in the Indian Hindu Caste System. In ancient India they were little better than animals.

They did menial, lowly work no body else would do. They cleaned Streets, drains and toilets. They buried dead animals, picked food in the dirt heaps and wore only loin clothes. They were not allowed into Kovils- the Hindu Temples. They should neither come face to face with the high caste gentry, nor should they look into their faces. They should walk such that their shadows did not fall on a member of a higher caste. They were prohibited from learning. If they were heard to recite the Vedic prayers, their tongues were cut. They had to hide themselves in street corners, when there were people in the places they laboured.

Sunita was a Chandala in Rajgaha in ancient India. He was thin, his dark skin contoured his fleshless bones. His lean stomach had sunk deep back on to his bones. His black hair was unkempt and dishevelled. He was one morning cleaning the roads and drains, dressed in a dirty loin cloth, that hardly covered his nudity. He may not have washed from a long time, because a chandala could not approach, let alone drink the water, or wash himself with water from a well in Rajagaha, without being castigated for soiling the wells, which were meant only for the people of the higher casts.

That morning Sunita could not clean the dirty road soon enough and to his great dismay saw a group of yellow robed monks walking down the road. He did not know where to hide as there were no shelter or an alleyway. He backed against the wall, making himself very small, and folding his arms in front of him stood humbly as possible bending his head far down as he could.

The group of monks he saw was the Buddha and his retinue of Bikkhus on their way to their Monastery. The Buddha saw Sunita, the chandala standing humbly against the wall frightened and terrified like a hunted fox. He approached him and speaking to him gently said, do not have fear Friend. Do you want come with us ?

Sunita could not believe his ears, tears welled in his eyes, he brought his hands together in front of him saluting the Compassionate Buddha, and respectfully said in a frail voice. I am a Chandala my lord, I have all my life been given orders, and had never been addressed so kindly as you do. If you would accept this dirty Chandala, I will follow you my Lord.

The Buddha then there ordained him, and on arriving at the Monastery gave him an object of meditation, and was asked to meditate. Meditating earnestly, Venerable Sunita become a noble one, an Arahat. The Buddha addressing the Venerable Sunita said, that the Order of the Sangha is like the sea into which the waters of the four great rivers flow once in the sea, you cannot take a handful of water and say this is the waters of the River Jamuna, this is the waters of the river Ganges, for once in the sea the waters become one with the waters of the sea. Now Venerable Sunita noble one respected and venerated by all , from a humble citizen to the King.

In 1956 five millions Dalits lead by Dr.B.R.Ambedhkar became Buddhists. They said they are not converted to Buddhism, but going back to the religion of their ancestors.On 4 November,2001, sixty thousand Hindhi Dalits gathered at the Ambedkar Bhavan led by Udit Raj, Anand Kumar and Hukum Das and became Buddhists taking Deeksha from Bhante Buddha Priya Rahula.

In this month of October 2006, it is hoped to give deeksha to 100 000 Dalits making them Buddhists.

The Dalits consisting of 160 million people in India . They are still a discriminated population group, despite untouchability was officially banned in 1950. To stop discrimination against Dalits government passed legislation known as The Prevention of Atrocities Act in 1989. The act specifically made it illegal to parade people naked through the streets, force them to eat faeces, force them to drink urine, take away their land, foul their water, interfere with their right to vote, and burn down their homes.

Nevertheless discrimination against them is said to have not abated.