The sun has slipped behind the tarpaulin roofs of a Mumbai slum. Day labourers are streaming home from ten-hour shifts working on construction sites or tending the gardens of nearby private schools. In this particular web of slum lanes, many workers are Dalit, the untouchables of old—a status so low they were not even part of the caste order. Most months, their financial situation boils down to what people around here call ‘earn and eat’. But for two years, some of these families set aside what little they could for bricks and mortar, and now they have a deep-blue room, five metres a side, that stands distinct from all the other hand-built homes in the slum.
A temple devoted to the Buddha: many slums in urban India have one. This particular place of worship is tucked behind a scrap shop. In the West, the Buddha is often seen as an extinguisher of his own personality. Indeed, after attaining his enlightenment, it is said that he referred to himself as tathagata, ‘gone’. But he is far more surprising than that conventional image—or the one of a placid sage sitting in the lotus position, half smiling—lets on. Although many aspects of the Buddha’s life remain elusive, he is perhaps the first individual personality that we can recognise in the subcontinent’s history. In modern India, his legacy has helped hundreds of millions of poorer-caste citizens to become newly present—allowing them to emerge from the Hindu caste system’s iron cage. Fifteen-year-old Vijay watched his father lay bricks for the little blue temple. “Buddha had no caste, so I have no caste,” he says. “It’s better this way.” His older brother Siddhartha chimes in: “Buddha was for equality.”
Siddhartha is one of a dozen boys in the slum who were named after the Buddha—a man born Siddhartha Gautama near the foothills of Nepal’s southern border with India, probably in the 5th century BC. In his lifetime, the Buddha created a spiritual philosophy that has rightly been called one of the turning points in the history of civilisation. Less known, but perhaps equally important, were his rational challenges to reigning beliefs about caste and religious authority. Some scholars see him as a social subversive, some as a wry critic of self-important merchants, priests and kings. To others, he was a philosophical, and even political, experimentalist.
The religion that began with his experiments eventually spread throughout Asia, from the western edges of Afghanistan to Japan, gradually becoming what it is now: the fourth largest in the world. But in India it flourished for a millennium, and then all but disappeared, for reasons that are still mysterious. Only in the mid-twentieth century, as British colonial rule gave way to an independent India, was the Indian Buddha revived in the place of his birth—dusted off and reclaimed for his political utility as much as for his ethics. To several of the fathers of the modern nation, the Buddha provided a rational faith that could be weaponised against the hierarchies that still warp Indian society. And today, the Buddha continues to inspire people like Siddhartha and Vijay in their struggles to assert their own individualities.