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A virtual conference sponsored by Canopy Forum and the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory (CSLR) featuring scholars, experts and practitioners who will examine the many religious traditions of South Asia and their diverse publics. Participation by invitation only. View selected videos and browse all essays here.

“Untouchability, the Cultures of Death, and the Configuration of Communal Identity in Medieval Indian Buddhist Monasticisms”

Nicholas Witkowski

My current book project creates a framework for reading South Asian Buddhist texts that chronicle the practices of non-elites living under the emergent authoritarian purity politics of Brahminical social hierarchy. Generally speaking, scholars have argued that Buddhism, like other religious movements in South Asia, was compelled to adapt to the rise of the Brahminically administered caste system at the turn of the Common Era. As a consequence of the increasing political power of Brahmins, argue scholars such as Gregory Schopen, all religious groups—including the Buddhists—sought to marginalize, if not outright exclude, the outcaste presence within their ranks (60-104). In this paper, I preview the argument from my book project that outcaste resistance to Brahminical power within the Buddhist monastic context was potent enough to guarantee legal autonomy to outcaste Buddhist monastic communities. Outcaste legal power seems to have been substantial enough that in certain bodies of law, they prevailed over the juridical parties pushing for the wholesale adoption of Brahminical purity norms within the Buddhist monastic institution. This paper is comprised of two parts. In the first section, I discuss the characterization in the Brahminical Mānava Dharmaśāstra (c. 2nd century CE) of the outcaste cāṇḍāla community within the death economy as bonded laborers subalternized by Brahmin purity politics. According to the Mānava Dharmaśāstra, Brahminical law requires that the cāṇḍāla communities be confined to the death economy, and that the only remuneration for their labor was the privilege of scavenging for scraps of clothing (and other goods left behind by the dead) on the cremation grounds. In the second section, I will present two passages from the Buddhist monastic law codes (Vinaya), which depict outcaste cāṇḍāla scavengers not as mere subalterns in the Brahminical caste system, but rather as a community of religious specialists within the Buddhist context, who wielded substantial authority among the publics of early medieval South Asia. These cāṇḍālas were known in the Buddhist monastic context as pāṃśukūlikas (scavengers for funereal fabric on the cremation ground) who practiced an asceticism that drew directly upon their experience as subalterns within the impure world of the death economy.

Part I: The Cremation Ground as a Cāṇḍāla Prison: The Conceptual Confinement of the Subaltern in Brahminical Law Codes

I begin with a passage on regulation of the cāṇḍālas from Book Ten of the Mānava Dharmaśāstra (10:51–10:56):

[51] Cāṇḍālas and śvapacas [a related outcaste group], however, must live outside the village…
[52] Their garments are the clothes of the dead…
[55] They may go around during the day [in the villages and towns] to perform some task at the command of the king. They should carry away the corpses of those without relatives—that is the settled rule.
[56] They should always execute those condemned to death in the manner prescribed by the authoritative [Brahminical] texts and at the command of the king; and they may take the clothes, furniture, and ornaments of those condemned to death.

Studies of subalternity generally recognize that control over bodily movement is central to the orientation of all governing regimes. Those individuals deemed subaltern, that is to say, those deemed unfit to participate in the governance of their own bodies, are subject to governance tactics that fall under the regime of spatial confinement and surveillance. Foucault has discussed these governance strategies at length in his study of the “panoptic mechanism” driving early modern state formation.1Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Alan Sheridan trans., (New York, 1995), 200. The early modern European context to which the philosopher-historian has applied this term may, at first, seem too disciplinarily distant for students of medieval South Asia to consider its applicability in the early Brahminical context. However, it is important to note that Foucault does not regard his Discipline and Punish primarily as a study of the brick and mortar institution proliferating in early modern Europe. In an interview given several years after producing Discipline and Punish, Foucault stated that he was “aiming to write a history not of the prison as an institution, but of the practice of imprisonment.” In other words, Foucault utilizes the physical architectures of containment (prisons), which proliferated in early modern Europe, to illustrate how a set of governance strategies, or “governmentalities” (gouvernementalité), facilitated an emergent concept of politico-theological space; see Michel Foucault, “Questions of Method,” in Burchell, Gordon, and Miller, eds., The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality (Chicago, 1991), 75. Here, I wish to adapt his conception of “panoptic” power relations to my analysis of the discursive strategies employed by Brahminical jurists to assert their role as managers of nascent state structures throughout the subcontinent in the early centuries CE. In Brahminical legal codes, the jurists advocate for a “panoptic mechanism” of governing society in the sense that each body’s purity status is continually surveilled, categorized, and, based on ritual standards set by the Brahmins themselves, confined. For the Brahminical authors of these texts, the development of protocols for confinement of the subaltern body necessitates the mapping of social space. The Brahminical depiction of the cāṇḍāla follows a cartographic pattern of dehumanization, alienation, and abstraction documented and theorized by subaltern scholarship and the related French historiography of the everyday. 

In her brilliant study of post-slavery life in the United States, Wayward Lives, Saidiya Hartman first explains how the racist and misogynist gaze of the state apparatus “subjected young black women to surveillance, arrest, punishment, and confinement…” (xiv). Hartman tells her reader that slogging through the archive of state “surveys and sociological pictures” of early twentieth century black ghettos “left me cold.” The clinical gaze of white overseers representing the state—the social worker, the vice investigator, the parole officer, the psychologist—that pervades the archive serves to gain control of the black body by producing “cold” images of black spaces. The photographs of black residential areas are labeled in order to “make domestic space available for scrutiny and punishment.” Printed on each image of alleyways, bedrooms, and apartment stoops are phrases such as “‘Home’ – One Room Moral Hazard” and “Damaged Goods” (19-21). Henri Lefebvre refers to the “cold” images exemplified in Hartman’s articulation of the visually overdetermined ghetto as “abstract space.” Lefebvre argues that “this space is a lethal one which destroys the historical conditions that gave rise to it, its own (internal) differences, and any such differences that show signs of developing, in order to impose an abstract homogeneity” (370). If the black body appears in these “abstract spaces” at all, it is to ramify hegemonic white epistemologies about how elites may dispose of subaltern labor. Hartman is keenly aware that coercive mobilization of subaltern bodies is possible only because subaltern spaces have been rendered visible through surveillance. “These photographs extended an optic of visibility and surveillance that had its origins in slavery and the administered logic of the plantation.”2Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval (New York, 2019), 21. It is by surveilling and cataloguing subaltern space that the forces of governance attempt to constitute, control, and confine the subaltern body. I will call this hegemonic spatial representation of subaltern bodily confinement panoptic cartography.

Much of the archive of data we have for the subaltern figure of the cāṇḍāla in first millennium South Asia is, like the record of surveillance of the bodies of young black women, compiled primarily by the hegemonic legal apparatus of the time. By and large, the positionality of the cāṇḍāla in Brahminical law codes is defined according to that narrative mode I have called panoptic cartography, in the sense that the body of the subaltern is conceptually organized according to a narrative of spatial confinement. For Foucault, the paradigm of the panoptical mechanism functions as a schematic for the institutional dynamics of surveillance and control that drive the disciplinary imperative of the hegemonic forces that arrange social hierarchy. Whether it be the prison, the factory, the school, the asylum or the hospital, the organs of the state all seek to generate a form of subjectivity that is always already catalogued hierarchically, on the basis of this conceptual interpellation, and then spatially confined. “The panoptic mechanism arranges spatial unities that make it possible to see constantly and to recognize immediately.”3Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Alan Sheridan trans., (New York, 1995), 141. 

Line 55 of section ten of the Mānava Dharmaśāstra, for example, clearly stipulates that the cāṇḍāla “may go around during the day [in the villages and towns],” but only “to perform some task at the command of the king.” The outcaste cāṇḍālas are prohibited from entering upper-caste space unless they are performing bonded labor for the state. The last section of the passage cited above specifies that the cāṇḍāla is required to “carry away the corpses of those without relatives” and to “execute those condemned to death.” The legal requirement that the cāṇḍāla perform these two types of labor signals not only the degraded ritual status imputed to the cāṇḍāla body, but also the locale in the Brahminical imaginaire to which that body must, perforce, be confined. The Brahminical legal tradition assigns the cāṇḍāla to the lowest profession in the hierarchy of ritual purity: bonded labor in the death economy.

In Wayward Lives, Saidiya Hartman argues that the mapping of subject populations onto a set of spatial coordinates within the socio-political order is rooted in the desire to confine—and then harness the labor of—these bodies. In light of this insight, it is difficult to read this passage from the Brahminical legal tradition as anything but a cartography of economic exploitation guaranteed by a hegemonic apparatus of socio-political confinement.4Foucault argued for the centrality of an optic of visibility and surveillance to attempts by the French state to corral early modern bodies unmoored to the old feudal estate and harness their labor to the new factories of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. And James C. Scott, in Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States (New Haven, 2017), 139, provides yet another example of the intimate relationship between the exploitation of labor and surveillance in his discussion of the confinement of the peasantry in the earliest states. “Peasantries with long experience of on-the-ground statecraft have always understood that the state is a recording, registering, and measuring machine.”

The Cremation Ground as a Place of Cāṇḍāla Ascetic Religious Practice: A Brief Discussion of the Mobility, Autonomy, and Power of the Subaltern in the Buddhist Vinaya

In the second section of this paper, I will focus on the appearance of these outcaste cāṇḍāla scavenger communities within the Buddhist legal codes, or Vinaya. The Vinaya is a compendium of legal cases dealing with the transgressions of Indian Buddhist monastics. The Vinaya is a highly underutilized source, valuable not only for articulating the social realities of Buddhist institutional life, but for re-visioning the autonomy and socio-economic power of outcaste communities in South Asia in the first five hundred years of the Common Era. I will present two passages from the Buddhist law codes, which depict the outcaste cāṇḍāla scavenger as a Buddhist practitioner, who practices an asceticism that draws directly upon their experience as subalterns within the impure world of the death economy.

This passage is representative of an entire corpus of case law in the Vinaya dealing with the acquisition, distribution, and repurposing of garments scavenged from the cremation ground.

The following Vinaya case suggests the presence of two contending legal parties within the Buddhist monastic juridical establishment. The first is a repressive upper-caste contingent of monastic legal authorities, or Brahminizing monks. The second is a community of outcaste monks seeking legal recognition and autonomy from the authoritarian purity politics of these Brahminizing monks. The first group aimed to produce a Brahminizing legal framework, which presumes that upper caste authorities can mobilize the coercive power of the state to confine the bodies of outcastes to the ritually impure locations associated with the death economy. The second group was an anti-Brahminical coalition aiming to import into Buddhist law codes the legal norms already developed by the community of laborers in the death economy for managing communal relations among scavengers of pāṃśukūla (clothing scraps on the cremation ground) and other cemeterial commodities. 

“Now, I shall set forth regulations on the customs of practice for cemetery monks. Cemetery monks wearing corpse clothing should not enter the monastery. They should not enter the Buddhist stūpa. If they do, they should stay at least two arms-lengths from it. They should not be allowed to use monastic quarters, bedding, seats etc. He may not enter the assembly to sit down. He may not preach the dharma for the benefit of lay people. He may not go to the houses of lay followers. If he has some business and he must go, he should stand outside the gate. Those whom the head of the household bids enter should say, ‘I live in the cemetery.’ If he says, ‘Now, I receive great benefit, I happily receive the Venerable One, the Ascetic Master, to come into my house,’ and you hear this, you may enter the house, but do not sit on the bedding. If he invites you to be seated, respond saying, ‘I live in the cemetery.’ If he says that it is difficult to encounter [such a person], then you should sit [and preach] for their benefit; do not hesitate!”5「屍林苾芻所有行法我今應制,屍林苾芻披死人衣,不得入寺、不禮制底,若樂禮者離一尋外,不受用僧房及床敷等,不入眾坐,不為俗人宣說法義,不往俗家。若有緣須至者,應立門外。主命入者,答曰:『我住屍林。』若言:『我今獲大福利,幸蒙聖者勝杜多人來過我舍。』聞如是語,即應入舍,不坐床座。若喚坐者,答曰:『我住屍林。』若說難遭,即應為坐,勿致疑惑。屍林苾芻不依教者得越法罪。」」(CBETA 2020.Q1, T24, no. 1451, pp. 282c14-283a7)[13]:黑【大】,〔-〕【宋】【元】【明】【宮】【聖】[14]:犬【大】,大【聖】[15]:虫【大】,蟲【明】

The passage begins with a series of rules regarding the encroachment of ritually impure monastic bodies—explicitly referred to as those of cemetery monks—on social spaces regarded as ritually pure. This series of rules is not explicitly referred to as “Brahminical,” but it clearly reflects anxieties about the intrusion of the highly contaminating corpse into social space—anxieties which animate the Brahminical Dharmaśāstra traditions. Just as the Mānava Dharmaśāstra creates legal restrictions on the cāṇḍāla body to prevent the transmission of dangerous forces associated with the corpse into the ritually sanctified centers of society, the Vinaya jurists have compiled a list of prohibitions on the pāṃśukūlika body entering the sanctified social spaces, whether monastic or lay. In the Mānava Dharmaśāstra, these Brahminical rules for surveillance and control are the final word on the management of cāṇḍāla bodies. There is no dissenting opinion. However, in this Vinaya case, what we find is that the rulings in the second half of the passage seem to undermine the very premise underlying the list of Brahminical purity regulations which precede them. Indeed, the ruling in the second half of the case states: “If he [the lay patron] says, ‘Now, I receive great benefit, I happily receive the Venerable One, the Ascetic Master, to come into my house,’ and you hear this, you may enter the house…” Here, we have a reversal of the prohibition from the previous line that a cemetery monk may not enter the house of a lay patron—a powerful statement enshrined in legal principle that the authoritarian caste hierarchy sweeping South Asia could still be challenged by outcaste religious communities, determined to see their impure social location of marginality not as a sign of castist and racialized inferiority, but as a wellspring of religio-cultural innovation and power.

The rationale for this resilience against the forces of Brahminization may be explained by a broader sociology of the cemetery in medieval Indian culture, which valorized ascetic engagement in ritually impure spaces. Rita Langer has argued in this vein “that what is deemed…indecent and polluted for ordinary people (such as shrouds) is a sign of sincerity, a badge of honor, for ascetics” (137-38). By this inverted social logic, the extreme impurity of the cemetery becomes the reason for its popularity among monastics. In his discussions of the Aghori ascetic community of contemporary India, many of whom are from low and outcaste families, Jonathan Parry has argued that these ritual professionals acquired magical technical capacities as well as social power and prestige by systematically violating Brahminical purity norms as part of their practices involving physical engagement with corpses on the charnel ground.6Jonathan Parry, 1985. “The Aghori Ascetics of Benares,” in Indian Religion, edited by Richard Burghart and Audrey Cantlie. London: Curzon Press. Thus, when the lay patron states to the Buddhist cemetery ascetic, “Now, I receive great benefit, I happily receive the Venerable One, the Ascetic Master,” what we are seeing is a Brahminically oriented legal authority within the Buddhist Vinaya compelled to admit the socio-religious power that attends the outcaste ascetic practitioner. 

This next case we will examine is particularly significant because, unlike the previous legal case, there is no Brahminical voice in the legal code at all. What I will argue after reading through this passage is that this case is representative of a community within the Buddhist monastic order that has transformed the folkways of deeply impure subaltern labor within the cremation ground into accepted (if still highly contentious) Buddhist religious practice. 

At that time, there was a large group of householders who carried a corpse and put it in the cemetery. There was a group of pāṃśukūla monks who saw this and said to the other monks, “If we go to get pāṃśukūla fabric now, I think we can get a lot.” The other monks said, “You go by yourselves. We are not going.” The monks quickly headed off and obtained a lot of pāṃśukūla fabric. They brought it back and were cleaning and stitching it in the monastery. One of these monks saw another [who had stayed behind] and said to this monk, “Why didn’t you go with us to the cemetery to get material? We went to the cemetery and brought a lot of clothing back.” The monk said, “Bring it here and split it among us.” He answered, “You did not go with us. Why should we split it with you?” The two monks argued. The monks brought this matter up to the Buddha and the Buddha said, “It belongs to whoever went to get it.”7《四分律》卷39:「爾時有眾多居士,載死人置塚間。糞掃衣比丘見,即語餘比丘言:「我曹今往取糞掃衣,可多得。」彼比丘言:「汝等自去,我不往。」比丘即疾往,大得糞掃衣,持來至僧伽藍中淨浣治。彼比丘見,語此比丘言:「汝作何事而不共我往取衣?我往取衣大得來。」此比丘言:「持來共汝分。」答言:「汝不共我取,云何共分?」二人共諍。比丘白佛,佛言:「屬彼往取者。」」(CBETA 2021.Q4, T22, no. 1428, p. 850b26-c5)

This passage is representative of an entire corpus of case law in the Vinaya dealing with the acquisition, distribution, and repurposing of garments scavenged from the cremation ground. In this case, the legal regulation of the pāṃśukūla property dispute is framed within a narrative involving two parties of monks, for whom scavenging on the cremation ground is just a part of everyday practice—integral to the socio-economics of their Buddhist monastic community. What is so striking about this body of law in the Vinaya is that it departs dramatically from the panoptic cartography of the Dharmaśāstra passage I discussed earlier. Recall that the Mānava Dharmaśāstra depicts cāṇḍālas as mere functionaries stripped of all historical agency by dint of their position within the caste hierarchy. In strong contrast to the Dharmaśāstra depiction of the cāṇḍālas as imprisoned within a panoptic cartography, the Vinaya views outcaste ascetic communities as what I call an autonomous subaltern governmentality. Here, I follow the French social theorist of subalternity, Michel de Certeau, in his view that the statist panoptic cartographies of governing elites, such as the Brahmins, should not be trusted. While the Brahmins envisioned the subaltern subject as immobile, confined to the labor regimens of impure spaces, such as the cemetery, the Vinaya legal discourse is more consistent with a Certeauian view of the cremation ground monastic—one which tracks the everyday mobilities far beyond the ghettoized confines at the margins of the political order. As we saw in the previous case, despite resistance from a Brahminical contingent among Buddhist lawmakers, the Vinaya ultimately views the presence of the outcaste cemetery ascetic in the ritually pure zones of upper caste social spaces as normal. These “ascetic” practices—transmogrified from the socio-economic context of the “untouchable” professions in the death economy—came to represent a new source of cosmic magical power to the medieval Indian public. These “untouchable” monastics drew upon their “impure” socio-economic background within the death economy to market themselves as cosmic magicians, uniquely capable of engaging the dark arts with the purpose of carrying out the Buddhist monastic mission of serving society.♦

Nicholas Witkowski is Assistant Professor of the History of Religion at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. He received his PhD in Religious Studies at Stanford University. Dr. Witkowski’s current project, Lifestyles of Impurity, is a study of low-/outcaste communities in first millennium South Asia that employs the theoretical armature of historians of the everyday.

Recommended Citation

Witkowski, Nicholas. “Untouchability, the Cultures of Death, and the Configuration of Communal Identity in Medieval Indian Buddhist Monasticisms” Canopy Forum, March 10, 2022.