The Unexplored Connection Between Sri Aurobindo, Sayajirao Gaekwad, And Babasaheb Ambedkar
A seer-poet, an enlightened ruler, and a doctor for the nation—what was it that connected these three great Indians?
This 15 August is the 148th birth anniversary of Sri Aurobindo.
Here, we take a look at the possible influence of Sri Aurobindo on another one great son of India: Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar.
Outwardly, they seem to have worked in unrelated domains. But a closer scrutiny into deeper aspects beyond the superficial hints strongly at a possible influence.
The Raja connection
Sayajirao Gaekwad III (1863–1939), the Maharaja of Baroda State from 1875 to 1939, emerges as the connection between the two.
In 1892, the Maharaja and Aurobindo met. Sayajirao Gaekwad asked him to take up a teaching job in Baroda University.
From February 1893 to February 1906, Sri Aurobindo spent full thirteen years in Baroda. He ended up as both the Vice-Principal of the college as well as the king’s personal secretary.
In this capacity, Sri Aurobindo also wrote the speeches for the king. This was also the time Sri Aurobindo was contributing to the magazines run by freedom fighters in Bengal.
The British already had their doubts about the Baroda king as being sympathetic to the Hindu revolutionaries. British officials, including the regent, started giving trouble to the ruler and Aurobindo being in the employ of the princely state was one of the major causes.
But far from being disturbed by that, the king was defiant. For example, the British had banned Bengalis from joining the military. But the Baroda king gave military training to Jatin Bannerji, one of Aurobindo's friends, making him join the Baroda cavalry.
Sri Aurobindo, not wanting to cause any problem for the king, left Baroda. The king requested Sri Aurobindo not to leave. But Aurobindo was already determined. He took up a job in Bengal that paid only one-fifth of the salary of what he got in Baroda.
Even after Sri Aurobindo left, the British viewed the king with strong suspicion.
In his secret letter to the British government, Viceroy Hardinge traced the hostility that the king had for the British 'to the pernicious influence of the Poona Brahmins’ who 'with a concerted object ...kept up a constant glorification of the Gaekwad.'
The letter also speaks of the influence Aurobindo had on the king even years after he had left, observing that 'his employment in the State gave a great impetus to the anti-British movement.'
Then there was an 'akhara', a wrestling club in the heart of Baroda that was run by Hindu monks, which the report pointed out, was where 'sedition has been openly preached ... without any opposition from the State police.'
The intelligence reports of the British also spoke about Shankar Wagh, a barber in the employ of the palace who was 'known to be an extremist and a great friend of V.D. Savarkar.' (Fatesinhrao Gaekwad, 'Sayajirao of Baroda, the prince and the man', 1989)
It was this seditious king of Baroda under the ‘pernicious influence of the Poona Brahmins’ and Sri Aurobindo, who also gave a young Bhimrao Ambedkar a scholarship initially for his studies in India.
In 1913, aged 22, the young Ambedkar was supported by the Baroda State Scholarship of £11.50 per month for three years, for his post-graduation in Columbia University.
Later, when Dr Ambedkar returned India, the king nominated him as a member of Baroda Legislative Assembly and a special electoral law was passed that only those who would share the assembly along with the Scheduled Communities could contest for the election.
This then provides the historical context of the possible channel of influence for Sri Aurobindo on Dr Ambedkar.
Views on caste: original conception and later devolution
Let us consider the views Sayajirao-III expressed on the caste system. Historian Dr Ruma Bhattacharya explains:
(Sayajirao) disagreed with the view that the rigid caste system with its concomitant out-castes was a part of the Hinduism in the old Vedic times. In fact, society was then divided into four classes on the basis of division of labour and these four classes were not castes. One could improve his quality and ability and get into the next higher class. He expressed his views that the ideas of untouchability are only a later refinement born of ignorance and conceit and nurtured by self-complacency. He pointed out the fact that untouchables were not feeble in spirit or mentality. As an example, he mentioned the names of some famous saints of India, who were respected even by the Brahmins. Such as Nanda in South India, Ravidas in Oudh, Chokamela in Maharashtra, Haridas Thakur in Bengal.(Maharaja Sayajirao-III’s Ideas and works on Caste System and Untouchability, 28 October 2008, Humanities and Social Sciences Online)
This thought-process has an ‘Aurobindonian’ signature to it. Sri Aurobindo writes:
The division of castes in India was conceived as a distribution of duties. A man’s caste depended on his dharma, his spiritual, moral and practical duties, and his dharma depended on his svabhāva, his temperament and inborn nature. A Brahmin was a Brahmin not by mere birth, but because he discharged the duty of preserving the spiritual and intellectual elevation of the race, and he had to cultivate the spiritual temperament and acquire the spiritual training which could alone qualify him for the task....Essentially there was, between the devout Brahmin and the devout Sudra, no inequality in the single virāṭ puruṣa of which each was a necessary part. Chokha Mela, the Maratha Pariah, became the Guru of Brahmins proud of their caste purity; the Chandala taught Shankaracharya: for the Brahman was revealed in the body of the Pariah and in the Chandala there was the utter presence of Shiva the Almighty.Caste and Democracy, ‘Bande Mataram’, September 22 1907
In the writings of Dr Ambedkar also this narration comes out. In his reply to Mahatma Gandhi, Dr Ambedkar once wrote:
The essence of the Vedic conception of varna is the pursuit of a calling which is appropriate to one’s natural aptitude. ... While I reject the Vedic varnavyavastha for reasons given in the speech, I must admit that the Vedic theory of varna as interpreted by Swami Dayanand and some others is a sensible and an inoffensive thing. It did not admit birth as a determining factor in fixing the place of an individual in society. It only recognised worth while caste is based on the principle of each according to his birth. The two are as distinct as chalk is from cheese. In fact, there is an antithesis between the two.
Even the rejection of varnavyavastha for which Dr Ambedkar gives an elaborate reasoning - mainly on the practical impossibility of classifying people belonging to ‘four thousand castes based on birth’ into four categories based on worth, is anticipated in the thought process of Sri Aurobindo.
In 1926, a few years before Dr Ambedkar penned down his Annihilation of Caste, Sri Aurobindo pointed out how the four-fold system could be viewed as a kind of failed experiment that 'sought to develop different types and marriage within the same caste was intended to help this system.‘:
Gradually the whole thing has become meaningless and the classification into castes serves no purpose — still the religious samskāra acts against its abolition. It is said that instead of abolishing the caste the proper course would be to restore it to reality. But that is not possible. There are Vaidyas who show natural fitness for Shastras, there are Brahmins who show no aptitude for Brahmins.Conversations: 12-Aug-1926
Sri Aurobindo also introduces another notion - that of dynamic psychological types which are more fluid and flexible and which is more individualistic than social - a dimension ignored by Dr Ambedkar.
However, there is a striking similarity between the way Sri Aurobindo and Dr Ambedkar see how the system became more and more rigid with the passage of time. Sri Aurobindo scholar and psychiatrist Dr Soumitra Basu explains:
Unfortunately, with the passage of time, the psychological and ethical ideas ceased to be the guiding principles and the typal life became fixed, conventional, hereditary and traditional. . . the plasticity of the typal stage was replaced by, a fixed and formalized arrangement. Sri Aurobindo points out that the conventional stage is born when the outward supports of the ideal become more important than the ideal itself. In the evolution of castes, the outward supports that hold the fourfold order comprised primarily of (a) birth, (b) economic factors, (c) religious ritual and sacrament and (d) family custom.The Caste System Of India - An Aurobindonian Perspective
Now this process is also narrated by Dr Ambedkar, through a scholarly speculative scenario:
In the transformation of Varna into Caste three stages are quite well marked. The first stage was the stage in which the duration of Varna i.e. of status and occupation of a person was for a prescribed period of time only. The second stage was a stage in which the status and occupation involved the Varna of a person ensured during lifetime only. The third stage was a stage in which the status and occupation of the Varna became hereditary.
... First it shows that Varna was determined by an independent body of people called Manu and Saptarshi. Secondly it shows that the Varna was for a period after which a change was made by Manu. ... The determination of the Varna was done in a rough and tumble manner. This system seems to have gone into abeyance. A new system grew up in its place. It was known as the Gurukul system. ... Upanayan by the Acharyas was the new method of determining Varna which came into vogue in place of method of determination by Manu and Saptarshi. The new method was undoubtedly superior to the old method. It retained the true feature of the old method namely that the Varna should be determined by a disinterested and independent body. But it added a new feature namely training as a pre-requisite for assignment of Varna. On the ground that training alone develops individual in the make up of a person and the only safe way to determine the Varna of a person is to know his individuality, the addition of this new feature was undoubtedly a great improvement. ... Varna instead of being Varna for a period became Varna for life. But it was not hereditary.Dr.Ambedkar, Revolution and Counter-revolution in ancient India
One need not concern with the micro-factual accuracy here. But the gradual rigidity that sets in into the Varna system can be seen in the ideas of both Dr Ambedkar and Sri Aurobindo.
Caste rigidity against democracy
This is the next more striking parallel. The core of Dr Ambedkar’s criticism of the caste system is that it is fundamentally undemocratic and hence against the very spiritual basis of what he called ‘Brahmaism’ based on the Upanishad Mahavakyas .
One of the earliest Indian seers of the last century to make this connection was Sri Aurobindo:
No monopoly, racial or hereditary, can form part of the Nationalist’s scheme of the future, his dream of the day for the advent of which he is striving and struggling. ... The Nationalist does not quarrel, with the past, but he insists on its transformation, the transformation of individual or class autocracy into the autocracy, self-rule or Swaraj, of the nation and of the fixed, hereditary, anti-democratic caste-organisation into the pliable self-adapting, democratic distribution of function at which socialism aims.Sri Aurobindo, ‘The Unhindu Spirit of Caste Rigidity’, 20-Sep-1907
Here one can note that Sri Aurobindo sees in the rigidity of the caste system an inherent anti-democratic element which he rejects as ‘un-Hindu’.
The same spirit and even key words can be seen in Sayajirao-III talking about caste system. He spoke about the “rigidity” of the caste system that led to ‘ignorance and superstition’. He considered caste as an obstacle in the context of the emerging 'national consciousness'.
His critique of caste thus foresees many of the thoughts developed by Dr Ambedkar.
Sayajirao rejected the essentialist argument that caste is unique to Hinduism and its core. According to him, Shri Krishna, had he lived in the modern era, would not have tolerated 'the rigidity of the caste system that sentences millions of our fellow men to life of misery, subjugation and degradation.'
Dr Ambedkar echoes the same spirit in his own words. He speaks of caste spirit as being anti-democratic. But he sees the core spiritual values of ancient India - enshrined in the Upanishadic Mahavakyas - as the very basis of democracy.
Social democracy and fraternity
In his final speech to the Constituent Assembly on 25 November, 1949 Dr Ambedkar defined social democracy and emphasised its importance. He said:
What does social democracy mean? It means a way of life which recognises liberty, equality and fraternity as the principles of life. These principles of liberty, equality and fraternity are not to be treated as separate items in a trinity. They form a union of trinity in the sense that to divorce one from the other is to defeat the very purpose of democracy.
Of all these three values, the greatest importance he attached was to fraternity. To him 'without fraternity, equality and liberty will be no deeper than coats of paint.'
This led Dr Ambedkar, who had rejected both the words 'socialism' and 'secularism' in the preamble of the Constitution, to introduce the word ‘fraternity’ in the Objective Resolution which is now permanently enshrined in the preamble of the Constitution.
It is again amazing how closely this resonates with the vision of Sri Aurobindo.
In his Ideal of Human Unity, (1915-18) Sri Aurobindo stated that ‘freedom, equality, brotherhood are three godheads of the soul.’ Of these fraternity formed ‘the real key to the triple gospel of the idea of humanity.’
According to him the peoples’ movements that did not make fraternity as their basis, had ultimately failed. Taking French Revolution as the example, he explained:
It (freedom) is the goal of humanity, and we are yet far off from that goal. But the time has come for an approximation being attempted. And the first necessity is the discipline of brotherhood, the organisation of brotherhood; for without the spirit and habit of fraternity neither liberty nor equality can be maintained for more than a short season.
For both Sri Aurobindo and Dr Ambedkar, this sense of belonging or fraternity should be ultimately spiritual.
In his Thoughts on Pakistan, Dr Ambedkar pointed out : “If unity is to be of an abiding character it must be founded on a sense of kinship, in the feeling of being kindred. In short it must be spiritual.”
Sri Aurobindo saw the triple principles of liberty, fraternity and equality as having a deep spiritual basis:
When the soul claims freedom, it is the freedom of its self-development, the self-development of the Divine in man and in all his being. When it claims equality, what it is claiming is that freedom equally for all and the recognition of the same soul, the same godhead, in all human beings. When it strives for brotherhood, it is founding that equal freedom of self -development on a common aim, a common life, a unity of mind and feeling founded upon the recognition of this inner spiritual unity. These three things are in fact the nature of the soul; for Freedom, Equality, Unity are the eternal aspects of the Spirit.
Both Sri Aurobindo and Dr Ambedkar derived the cardinal principles of ‘liberty, fraternity and equality’ from Indic and not Western sources.
Dr Ambedkar was born in the Kabir-panth which in turn derived itself from the Sri Ramanuja tradition. Thus, on one side he had the influence of Sri Ramanuja tradition of socio-spiritual influence. On the other side, through his benefactor, the Maharaja of Baroda, he seemed to have been also influenced by Sri Aurobindo’s socio-spiritual thoughts.
Though he chose conversion to the Buddha Dharma as a cathartic experience for the suppressed sections of India and as a shock-message for the Hindu society at large, to speed up social reforms towards a fraternity-based Sanghathan, his own positive and nation-building thought processes drank from the same spiritual fountain of Dharma that is eternal.
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