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Rise and fall of Buddhism in Kerala

R. Madhavan Nair
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Though a cardiologist by profession, K. Sugathan's interest transcends the frontiers of medical science and extends to linguistics and even social sciences.

He has already given ample evidence of his interest in fields outside medical sciences with his books “Mozhiyarivu” on linguistics, “Hartarivu” (about heart), and “Buddhanum Nanu Guruvum” (Buddha and Narayana Guru), which is on religion).  

 This is why his fourth book “Buddhamathavum Jaathi Vyavasthayum” (Buddhism and caste system), has not come as a surprise to even the scores of heart patients who head for his consulting room every day.

In ‘‘Budhamathavum Jaathi Vyavasthayum,” Sugathan discusses the rise and fall of Buddhism in Kerala drawing from extensive writings already available on this subject.

Fate of followers

His enquiry also leads to questions about the fate of the followers of Buddhism after that religion was eclipsed by the social upsurge achieved by the Brahmin community.

 The author points out that the Buddhist population had suffered a steady decline over the years. By the 1981 census, there were only 223 in Kerala, which is less than one person in one-lakh population, but the 1971 census showed their number as 605.

 Buddhism had a strong presence in Kerala until around 16t{+h} century, but then began a period of steady decline. Historians are divided over the fate of Buddhists after its influence began to wane.

And this is an area of prime concern in Dr. Sugathan's book. Though British and many historians tended to treat them as Hindus, the author is puzzled by the ambiguity about their position in the caste-ridden Hindu hierarchy.

Caste system

 The book examines the intricacies of caste system while discussing Buddhism in Kerala and puts forth the author's view that Buddhism reached Kerala from Sri Lanka where that religion was popularised by Emperor Asoka's children.

 The Buddhist monks found willing followers in people who were not given a place in Hindu religion and labelled ‘avarnas' (backward people who were not eligible for social privileges enjoyed by the upper crest.)

The author contends that it is the fast dwindling Buddhist religious group who were persecuted for not accepting dominance of Brahmin community and so were treated as a degraded lot, together with a small group of Jains whose population was also fast declining and the people who did not follow any religion who later emerged as Ezhavas and Theeyars.

This group though not originally considered Hindus have since been given that label. The author says, “this explains how Ezhavas (Theeyas) which  means ‘Sri Lankans' are now in the Hindu fold though originally they were not.”

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