Vivekananda Meets Ambedkar: Five Fundamental Themes They Would Agree On
Both Swami Vivekananda and Ambedkar saw all of us Indians as one stream, with differences between us being no more than a result of branching off from the union.
Swami Vivekananda, the monk who preached practical Vedanta, and B R Ambedkar, hailed as the modern Bodhisattva, represent the transition of Indic spirituality into a tool for social transformation in the modern times. It is interesting to see how these two great architects of modern India, who laid the spiritual foundations of social emancipation, converged in cardinal points of national resurgence.
1. The Spiritual Unity of India
The very idea of India as a nation goes against the Western concept of nation-state, as the latter is built on the idea of racially and linguistically homogenous people. Both Swami Vivekananda and Ambedkar envision India’s unity as something that transcends race and language. They see it as cultural and spiritual. For Swami Vivekananda, India is “the Aryan, the Dravidian, the Tartar, the Turk, the Mogul, the European – all the nations of the world, as it were, pouring their blood into this land”, and there is also “the most wonderful conglomeration” of languages. Vivekananda acknowledges that there is more difference between two Indian races than between the European and the Eastern races.” But there is “one common ground”, which is “our sacred tradition, our religion”. So the religion in this nation (by which he means no sectarian creed) is the basic substratum that binds Indians beyond the racial and linguistic difference. To Swami Vivekananda, the “national union in India” has to “be a gathering up of its scattered spiritual forces”. He said, “A nation in India must be a union of those whose hearts beat to the same spiritual tune.”
Ambedkar independently came to the same conclusion. In his paper presented at the Colombia University, he analysed in detail the nature of national unity in India. Unlike the one-race, one-language unity in the West, India possessed, according to him, “a deeper and a much more fundamental unity”:
It may be granted that there has not been a thorough amalgamation of the various stocks that make up the peoples of India, and to a traveller from within the boundaries of India the East resents a marked contrast in physique and even in colour to the West, as does the South to the North. But amalgamation can never be the sole criterion of homogeneity as predicated of any people. Ethnically all people are heterogeneous. It is the unity of culture that is the basis of homogeneity. Taking this for granted, I venture to say that there is no country that can rival the Indian Peninsula with respect to the unity of its culture. It has not only a geographic unity, but it has over and above all a deeper and a much more fundamental unity— the indubitable cultural unity that covers the land from end to end.
Interestingly, unlike the Indian Left today, Ambedkar did not consider geographical nationalism as a good basis for defining nationhood. Discussing the problem of nationhood in his seminal work ‘Thoughts on Pakistan’, he considered the binding fibres of a nation to be spiritual:
If (national) 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.
2. The Aryan Race Theory
Intimately connected to the question of national unity of India and her society is the vexed question of Aryan race and invasion theory (now revised to “migration” theory by Marxist historians). One should remember that race concepts in general and Aryan race theory in particular were accepted as axiomatic during the times of both Swami Vivekananda and Ambedkar. Nobody questions the veracity of these theories on the basis of indigenous reading of Indic texts. Jawaharlal Nehru, despite all his bravado about “scientific temper”, accepted the Aryan race theory as the revealed truth. But both Swami Vivekananda and Ambedkar valiantly wrestled with the Aryan race/invasion theory. In both, one finds passages where they seemed to have accepted the Aryan as a race to begin with. But as they dwelt more into the subject, they rejected the Aryan race as well as the invasion theory. The Swami rejects Aryan race theory with contemptuous sarcasm:
According to some, they came from central Tibet, others will have it, they came from central Asia. There are patriotic English men who think that the Aryans were all red haired. If the writer happens to be a black haired man the Aryans were all black haired. Of late, there was an attempt to prove that the Aryans lived on the Swiss lakes. Some say now that they live at the North pole. Lord bless the Aryans and their habitations. As for the truth of these theories, there is not one word in scriptures, not one, to prove that the Aryans ever came from anywhere outside of India and in ancient India was included Afganistan. There It ends. And the theory that the Shudra caste were all non-Aryans and they were a multitude, is equally illogical and equally irrational.
In a remarkable statement, Vivekananda considered “the great Tamilians” as “one of the great ancestors of the Aryan race”. He further asked the proponents of Aryan invasion theory, “in what Veda, what Sukta” they discovered that “the Aryans came to India from a foreign country” and where they “got the idea that they slaughtered wild aborigines” from.
Ambedkar studied the Vedas for understanding the reason behind the emergence of caste system. With the objectivity of a good social scientist he studied every existing framework regarding the ancient Indian society. He naturally had to deal with the racial interpretation of the emergence of caste system. And now his much oft-quoted conclusions remarkably gel with that of Swami Vivekananda:
1. The Vedas do not know any such race as the Aryan race.
2. There is no evidence in the Vedas of any invasion of India by the Aryan race and it having conquered the Dasas and Dasyus supposed to be the natives of India.
3. There is no evidence to show that the distinction between Aryans, Dasas and Dasyus was a racial distinction.
4. The Vedas do not support the contention that the Aryans were different in colour from the Dasas and Dasyus.
Ambedkar also saw Rig Veda (except Purusha Suktha) as having “a sense of unity and a consciousness” of merging heterogeneous tribes to form an Indo-Aryan nation. Essentially it was this ‘sense of unity and consciousness’ that he sought for the entire Hindu society. In his analysis of the emergence of untouchability (Untouchables: Who were they?), he considered entire India as being populated by Tamil or proto-Tamil speakers who got diversified into diverse cultural groups rather than different races. Even here he did not connect this to the origin of untouchability or caste:
If the Brahmins are Aryans the Untouchables are also Aryans. If the Brahmins are Dravidians the Untouchables are also Dravidians. If the Brahmins are Nagas, the Untouchables are also Nagas. Such being the facts the (race) theory (of the origin of untouchability) must be said to be based on a false foundation.
3. The Importance And Utility Of Sanskrit
As a modern nation building process started churning, both Swami Vivekananda and Ambedkar started exploring in their own ways the cultural and social integration of the Indian masses. To spiritually and culturally empower the masses and remove the birth-based disabilities and discriminations that the social stagnation had created, they advocated Sanskrit as an ideal tool of emancipation. Vivekananda saw a social mission in Sanskrit education:
My idea is first of all to bring out the gems of spirituality … from the still more inaccessible chest, the language in which it is preserved, the incrustation of centuries of Sanskrit words. In one word, I want to make them popular. … The great difficulty in the way is the Sanskrit language — the glorious language of ours; and this difficulty cannot be removed until — if it is possible — the whole of our nation are good Sanskrit scholars. …. Sanskrit education must go on along with it, because the very sound of Sanskrit words gives a prestige and a power and a strength to the race. The attempts of the great Ramanuja and of Chaitanya and of Kabir to raise the lower classes of India show that marvelous results were attained during the lifetime of those great prophets; …
Ambedkar seemed to have taken the cue from Swami Vivekananda. In Babasaheb’s opinion, Persian stands no comparison with Sanskrit as the latter is according to him “the golden treasure of epics, the cradle of grammar, politics and philosophy and the home of logic, dramas and criticism”. Author Makarand Paranjape observes that the idea of making Sanskrit…
..not only India’s national language but also India’s official language can be traced back to none other than India’s first law minister Dr BR Ambedkar. Following the Independence of India in August 1947, the Constituent Assembly of India had debated the language question extensively. After months of debate, Hindi with the Devanagari script was clearly emerging as the favourite. There was a draft to this effect with proviso to continue using English for official purposes for a period of an additional fifteen years. It was in this context that in September 1949 the then law minister Dr BR Ambedkar moved an amendment to substitute Hindi with Sanskrit so as to make Sanskrit the official language of India.
Religious conversions have always created hot debates in India. While the agents of proselytising Abrahamic religions have claimed that the conversions happen because people want to escape the tyranny of caste system, Ambedkar took the question of conversion head on. Conversions need to be resorted to if Hindu society is to get rid of the evil of untouchability and casteism. But Ambedkar warned that in conversion for social emancipation, national security should take precedence. In his words:
What the consequence of conversion will be to the country as a whole, is well worth bearing in mind. Conversion to Islam or Christianity will denationalize the Depressed Classes. If they go over to Islam, the number of Muslims would be doubled; and the danger of Muslim domination also becomes real. If they go over to Christianity, the numerical strength of the Christian becomes five to six crores. It will help to strengthen the hold of Britain on the country.
One cannot but see this statement of Ambedkar as a commentary over the cryptic remark of Swami Vivekananda that “every man going out of the Hindu pale is not only a man less, but an enemy the more”. Both Swami Viveakananda and Ambedkar also felt that it would be better for Hinduism to be a missionary religion than a socially stagnant one. Swami Vivekananda too pointed to his disciples that “born aliens have been converted in the past”.
Ambedkar believed that it was when Hinduism ceased to be a missionary religion that caste system and social stagnation became entrenched in the society. In a metaphor, that would alarm many today and cheer the proponents of Ghar Wapasi. Ambedkar considered Hindu culture as one’s own home. Rejecting the idea of conversion to Christianity, he explained that converting to Buddhism was like moving from one room to another in one’s own home. But converting to Christianity was like moving to another house, certainly more difficult [Dr Ambedkar to Swami Dharma Teertha quoted by G Aloysius].
5. An Indian Spiritual Basis For Freedom And Equality
Swami Vivekananda saw in all democratic movements the spirit of Advaita — inherent human spiritual impulse towards unity:
This is the dictate of Indian philosophy. This oneness is the rationale of all ethics and all spirituality. Europe wants it today just as much as our downtrodden masses do, and this great principle is even now unconsciously forming the basis of all the latest political and social aspirations that are coming up in England, in Germany, in France, and in America. And mark it, my friends, that in and through all the literature voicing man’s struggle towards freedom, towards universal freedom, again and again you find the Indian Vedantic ideals coming out prominently.
And he considered Advaitic experience the basis of all ethical systems:
There are moments when every man feels that he is one with the universe, and he rushes forth to express it, whether he knows it or not. This expression of oneness is what we call love and sympathy, and it is the basis of all our ethics and morality. This is summed up in the Vedantic philosophy by the celebrated aphorism, Tat Tvam Asi (Thou art That).
The same ethical and social impact of the Brahman being the essence of every human being — and all humanity as part of the same Brahman — did not escape the notice of Babasaheb Ambedkar, who found in it the spiritual basis for social democracy. He calls the concept of Brahman “Brahmaism”. (He had borrowed the term from the work The Great Epic of India: Character and Origin of the Mahabharata by Edward Washburn Hopkins.) Rejecting the criticism of Christian theologians that the Mahavakya “Aham Brahmasmi” was arrogant and impudent, Ambedkar puts forth a staunch defence of the Mahavakya:
Democracy demands that each individual shall have every opportunity for realizing his/her worth. It also requires that each individual shall know that he is as good as everybody else. Those who sneer at Aham Brahmasmi (I am Brahma) as an impudent utterance forget the other part of the Mahavakya namely Tat tvam asi (Thou art also Brahma). If Aham Brahmasmi has stood alone without the conjunct of Tatvamasi it may have been possible to sneer at it. But with the conjunct of Tat tvam asi the charge of selfish arrogance cannot stand against Brahmaism.
However, caustically Ambedkar adds to this:
This is a great riddle. It is not that the Brahmins did not recognize the doctrine of Brahmaism. They did. But they did not ask how they could support inequality between the Brahmin and the Shudra, between man and woman, between casteman and outcaste ? But they did not. The result is that we have on the one hand the most democratic principle of Brahmaism and on the other hand a society infested with castes, subcastes, outcastes, primitive tribes and criminal tribes. Can there be a greater dilemma than this?
Back in time, Swami Vivekananda echoes Ambedkar in a way we can exchange their quotes mutually:
No religion on earth preaches the dignity of humanity in such a lofty strain as Hinduism, and no religion on earth treads upon the necks of the poor and the low in such a fashion as Hinduism. The Lord has shown me that religion is not in fault, but it is the Pharisees and Sadducees in Hinduism, hypocrites, who invent all sorts of engines of tyranny in the shape of doctrines of Pâramârthika and Vyâvahârika
Thus we find the practical Vedanta of Swami Vivekananda and the Navyana Buddhism of Ambedkar converge at the cardinal points of nation building: Spiritual basis of national unity, rejection of racial interpretation of Indian social structure, importance of Sanskrit in empowering Indians, rejection of religious conversion to Abrahamic religions for the sake of social emancipation, and most importantly creating and implementing a social life based on the true spiritual values of India – as enshrined in the Upanishads and Buddha. The clarion call was made by Swami Vivekananda and the framework was given by Babasaheb Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. The onus is upon the Indians – that is us.
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