What They Still Don’t Understand About Ambedkar And Hinduism
Recently, a website carried a critique of Aravindan Neelakandan’s article published in Swarajya on 14 April.
Here, Neelakandan sets the record straight and reveals where the critique went wrong.
A far-left website has reacted to my article The Ambedkar They Don’t Want You To Know About. A lot of noise has been made about "distortions and out of context quotes". So what are these distortions and how out of context were the quotes? Here is a brief analysis:
1. Upanishads and Democracy
The website quotes from the Annihilation of Caste and claims that the actual quote of Dr B R Ambedkar implies that "Ambedkar was only 'told' by others that his desired new doctrine could be based in the Upanishads, and his scepticism towards that claim is plain to see – provided they actually read Dr Ambedkar, and not Neelakandan’s distortion of him." The article quotes Dr Ambedkar:
I am no authority on the subject. But I am told that for such religious principles as will be in consonance with Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, it may not be necessary for you to borrow from foreign sources, and that you could draw for such principles on the Upanishads. Whether you could do so without a complete remoulding, a considerable scraping and chipping off from the ore they contain, is more than I can say.
Then the article states:
This passage makes it clear that Ambedkar was ‘told’ by others that his desired new doctrine could be based in the Upanishads, and his scepticism towards that claim is plain to see – provided they actually read Ambedkar, and not Neelakandan’s distortion of him.
Now, note that the quotation that I used was actually not from Annihilation of Caste but from another work that came almost a decade later – Riddles in Hinduism, which also incidentally contains scathing attacks on Hinduism. Five years ago, in a series that I wrote, elaborately looked into the subject (Bodhisattva's Hindutva series, dated 16 April 2012). I have made the connection between the simple remark he made in Annihilation and then the exhaustive treatment he gave to the subject in Riddles. Let me make a small recap here.
In Riddles, Dr Ambedkar makes the harshest pronouncement against the Hindu social order. He writes:
The Hindu social system is undemocratic not by accident. It is designed to be undemocratic. Its division of society into varnas and castes, and of castes and outcastes are not theories but are decrees. They are all barricades raised against democracy.
After such a harsh criticism the doctor springs out a surprise:
From this it would appear that the doctrine of fraternity was unknown to the Hindu religious and philosophic thought. But such a conclusion would not be warranted by the facts of history. The Hindu religious and philosophic thought gave rise to an idea which had greater potentialities for producing social democracy than the idea of fraternity. It is the doctrine of Brahmaism.
In my 2012 article, this is what I commented:
Making Upanishads as the spiritual basis of a new casteless Hindu society was an idea very dear to Dr Ambedkar. Ten years ago, he had advised those Hindus who wanted to remove casteism, that they need not search for a spiritual basis of casteless Hinduism outside Hinduism: “… for such religious principles as will be in consonance with Liberty, Equality and Fraternity it may not be necessary for you to borrow from foreign sources and that you could draw for such principles on the Upanishads.”
So, what Dr Ambedkar described as a 'may', he made into the spiritual basis for democracy in a decade. What is this ‘Brahmaism’? Dr Ambedkar has borrowed the term from the works of Edward Washburn Hopkins, The Great Epic of India: Character and Origin of the Mahabharata. In subsequent paragraphs he associates this with the three mahavakyas. Then he provides a strong defence against the Western critique of the statements:
Those who sneer at Aham Brahmasmi (I am Brahma) as an impudent utterance forget the other part of the Maha Vakya namely Tatvamasi (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 Tatvamasi the charge of selfish arrogance cannot stand against Brahmaism.
Then Dr Ambedkar states that "there cannot be slightest doubt that no doctrine could furnish a stronger foundation for Democracy than the doctrine of Brahma’. While Dr Ambedkar very clearly makes the mahavakyas-based doctrine of Brahma —which he calls Brahmaism as the basis of social democracy—it is amusing to note that left academics even go to the extent of associating this doctrine of Brahma – Brahmaism – with Brahmo Samaj – a monotheistic movement of the early colonial period.
Then, Dr Ambedkar makes the statement that I have quoted, which let me quote it in full:
To support Democracy because we are all children of God is a very weak foundation for Democracy to rest on. That is why Democracy is so shaky wherever it made to rest on such a foundation. But to recognize and realize that you and I are parts of the same cosmic principle leaves room for no other theory of associated life except democracy. It does not merely preach Democracy. It makes democracy an obligation of one and all. Western students of Democracy have spread the belief that Democracy has stemmed either from Christianity or from Plato and that there is no other source of inspiration for Democracy. If they had known that India too had developed the doctrine of Brahmaism, which furnishes a better foundation for Democracy they would not have been so dogmatic. India too must be admitted to have a contribution towards a theoretical foundation for Democracy.
Based on this, I have made my statement that Dr Ambedkar considered the mahavakyas of the Upanishads the basis of democracy.
In fact, in 1949 while countering the Communist attack on the Constitution, Dr Ambedkar pointed out that Buddha’s Sangha was also a democratic institution and then stated: “he must have borrowed them from the rules of the Political Assemblies functioning in the country in his time” which was of course pre-Buddhist Vedic India.
I could have stopped with this had I desired to just praise Hinduism. But in my article series Bodhisattva's Hindutva in 2012, I further wrote:
Till now a traditional Hindu would enjoy what Baba Saheb had to say. But now Ambedkar comes to the riddle part of it. It is an uncomfortable question which can be answered only through honest introspection by Hindus who really care about the survival of all Hindu society.
Then I quoted in full the scathing attack Dr Ambedkar launched on Hindu society as to how they failed the lofty concept of Brahmaism:
Why then Brahmaism failed to produce a new society? 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? …
And then I wrote:
That Baba Saheb Ambedkar placed this truly remarkable passage inside his book that offers the harshest critique of Hinduism should be a real eye-opener. In fact Swami Vivekananda had made very similar observations about Hinduism is worth remembering here.
So the statement that Dr Ambedkar considered the mahavakyas of Upanishads as the basis of democracy stands.
2. Dr Ambedkar and Christian Conversion
In the article, I have given two new factoids on the manner in which not only Dr Ambedkar but also the other tall national leaders of the Scheduled Community movement in India viewed the missionary support with suspicion. I have already stated in the 2012 article series the reason for the rejection of Christianity by Dr Ambedkar in his own words, which is even more damaging, for a left-‘secular’ intellectual. Dr Ambedkar says:
If they go over to Christianity, the numerical strength of the Christians becomes five to six crore. It will help to strengthen the hold of Britain on the country. On the other hand, if they embrace Sikhism they will not only not harm the destiny of the country but they will help the destiny of the country. They will not be denationalized.
When Swami Dharma Teertha, a convert to Christianity, asked Dr Ambedkar why not convert to Christianity, Dr Ambedkar replied by saying that if it was only a question of his personal conversion he would readily go along with the suggestion. But it was about the society. More importantly he explained that "going over to Buddhism was like change of rooms within a house, easier but to Christianity was like change of houses".
Further, when he stated that "to support Democracy because we are all children of God is a very weak foundation for Democracy to rest on" and suggested ‘Brahmaism’ based on mahavakyas as the strongest basis of democracy. He definitively rejected one of the fundamental faith axioms of not only Christianity but also Islam. Because for Dr Ambedkar, democracy was not just a political system but a way of life. When he found the very fundamental faith of Christianity, the fatherhood of God, as a shaky foundation for democracy he naturally rejected Christianity. Thus Christianity stands rejected by Dr Ambedkar for three reasons: one: because of its extra-territorial based political nature, two: its alien nature, and three: theological deficiency to support democracy.
3. Conversion and Hinduism
The left-secular author quotes Dr Ambedkar criticises the nature of Hindu who would not spread the light of his religion and who would not share the intellectual and social inheritance as mean and states that it is worse than the cruelty of the forced conversion of Muslims and Christians. Can this be construed as Dr Ambedkar considering as legal the forcible conversion? If so by whom?
What he states in the very next paragraph is very significant. He asks:
That the Hindu religion was once a missionary religion must be admitted. It could not have spread over the face of India, if it was not a missionary religion. That today it is not a missionary religion is also a fact which must be accepted. The question therefore is not whether or not the Hindu religion was a missionary religion. The real question is, why did the Hindu religion cease to be a missionary religion?
Then he answers the question:
My answer is this: the Hindu religion ceased to be a missionary religion when the Caste System grew up among the Hindus.
So, he wants caste to go, which alone could make Shuddhi sustained, failing which it would be "futile and a folly". Here it should be noted that Dr Ambedkar, who never considered even Mahatma Gandhi as genuine fighter for the cause of the Scheduled Community people, called Swami Shradanand who spearheaded Shuddhi movement as the "greatest and the most sincere champion" of Scheduled Community people. (What Congress and Gandhi have done to the untouchables', 1945, P 23)
To understand the full purport of this statement Dr Ambedkar made on casteless Hinduism being a missionary religion, one should also read Dr Ambedkar's rejection of Veer Savarkar's alternative to Pakistan proposal. Dr Ambedkar writes:
(Savarkar) does not propose to suppress the Muslim nation. On the contrary he is nursing and feeding it by allowing it to retain its religion, language and culture, elements which go on to sustain the soul of a nation. At the same time he does not agree to divide the country so as to allow the two nations to become separate, autonomous states, each sovereign in its own territory. He wants the Hindus and the Muslims to live as two separate nations in one country, each maintaining its own religion, language and culture.
One can understand and even appreciate the wisdom of the theory of suppression of the minor nation by the major nation because the ultimate aim is to bring into being one nation.(Thoughts on Pakistan, 1946, emphasis not in the original)
Taken together, what are the implications? Dr Ambedkar wanted caste to be annihilated. It would make Hindu Sanghathan possible as he explicitly said and it would allow Hinduism to become a missionary religion. The process would eventually absorb the 'minor' nations into the 'major' nation, rather than nurture the separatist tendencies. Dr Ambedkar here proves to be more Savarkarite than Savarkar himself.
4. Hindu Priest Service
The old establishment school points out the statement of Dr Ambedkar in the context of his saying about the establishment of a Hindu Priest Service. He did say that "it would be better if priesthood among Hindus was abolished". But he also found that it was impossible and he wanted to reform the system through the state and wanted the state to implement a book which he suggested could be based on Upanishads.
As we have seen earlier he would return back to the same theme after a decade as we saw and considered the mahavakyas of the Upanishads to be the spiritual basis of democracy. In connection with it is important to look at the preface Dr Ambedkar wrote to Swami Vidannanda Teertha's book Rashtra Rakshake Vaidik Sadhan. Swami wanted free India to adopt as its religion "the gospel preached by the Vedas which is scattered all over the Vedas which he has collected together in one place in this booklet," Dr Ambedkar noted. Then he wrote:
I do not know that the book will become the gospel of new India. But I can say that the book is not merely a wonderful collection of statements drawn from the Religious Books of the ancient Aryans but it brings out in a striking manner the vigour of thought and motion which prevailed among the ancient Aryans. What the book shows is that there is nothing in it of that pessimism among the ancient Aryans which dominates the modern Hindus.
Then he wanted Swami to also work on the reasons why present day Hindus have fallen from such lofty heights. He was happy that the work pointed out that the world as maya was not an original Vedic concept but a latter day invention. This further points to the way Dr Ambedkar would have wanted the state to create a Hindu book.
One should also remember that Dr Ambedkar while formulating the Hindu Code Bill (HCB) did not reject the Smrithis, which he had criticised so strongly, but collected all the positive aspects from them and proudly declared that his HCB was based on the 'religious scriptures of Hindus'. Dr Ambedkar could have had a similar conception for Hindu Priest Service as well. But what is really significant beyond the evident state control is what would have happened to the secular nature of the state had it really created and run such a Hindu priest service without corruption, and based on "the vigour of thought and motion which prevailed among the ancient Aryans", and on the mahavakyas. Combine with this Dr Ambedkar's claim that without the restriction of caste, Hinduism would become a missionary religion and his love for a homogenised India. Then what kind of Hindu Priest Service would have evolved if Dr Ambedkar's plan had been put into practice in an earnest manner?
Ghar wapsi would have been finished decades ago within India and we would be exporting Hindu missionaries to South Africa, Australia and Africa to network indigenous pagan spiritual traditions.
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