Ambedkar, Democracy, Upanishads
For a proponent of modernity in the colonial environment, Christianity should have been a natural choice for Ambedkar. But he zeroed in on Buddhism. Part eight of our history of Hindutva.
How can we understand Dr B.R. Ambedkar in a holistic manner? We can do that “only” if we understand him in the deeper contexts of the definitive moments of his socio-spiritual evolution. One of the earliest and wholehearted supporters of Dr Ambedkar was Shridhar Pant Tilak, son of Lokmanya Tilak. This brilliant young man defied the trustees of Kesari and invited Dalit youths to Tilak’s Gaikwad Wada home for a music recital. In fact, Dr Ambedkar’s biographer Dhananjay Kheer also notes in Dr Ambedkar: Life and Mission that the former had attended a tea party at Tilak’s Gaikwad Wada home at the invitation of Shridhar Pant Tilak, who passed away under tragic circumstances.
In spite of Ambedkar’s opposition to Tilak’s conservatism, Tilak Junior’s social awareness should have assured Ambedkar that not all was lost within Hindu society. However, he saw, with increasing bitterness, an emerging Congress leadership, which, he felt, was appropriating the cause of members of the scheduled classes without providing any radical reforms. Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar perceived this as inhibiting an urgent need in Hindu society.
A most probable unstated and even unconscious influence on Dr Ambedkar could have been Sri Aurobindo. As seen earlier in this series, Sri Aurobindo was brought by Sayajirao Gaikwad to Baroda, and he influenced the thinking of the reformist king. Sri Aurobindo contributed to the development of Baroda and was also instrumental in writing a lot of the late Sayajirao’s important speeches.
Sri Aurobindo, who had condemned the undemocratic elements of the caste system in no uncertain terms, had written way back in 1907:
“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 the fixed, hereditary, anti-democratic caste-organisation into the pliable self-adapting, democratic distribution of function at which socialism aims. In the present absolutism in politics and the present narrow caste-organisation in society, he finds a negation of that equality that his religion enjoins. Both must be transformed. The historic problem that the present attitude of Indian Nationalism at once brings to the mind, as to how a caste-governed society could coexist with a democratic religion and philosophy, we do not propose to consider here today. We only point out that Indian Nationalism must by its inherent tendencies move towards the removal of unreasoning and arbitrary distinctions and inequalities.” (The Unhindu Spirit of Caste Rigidity, Bande Mataram, 20 September 1907)
Sayajirao also 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 the core or that it is unique to Hinduism. 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.”
Historian Dr Ruma Bhattacharya explains (Maharaja Sayajirao-III’s Ideas and works on Caste System and Untouchability, 28 October 2008, Humanities and Social Sciences Online):
“(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 Nanad in South India, Ravidas in Oudh, Chokamela in Maharashtra, Haridas Thakur in Bengal.”
Parallel to these developments on the national scene was the emergence of Mahatma Gandhi. He was trying to take reformist ideas forward and transform them into actions with the help of moderates in Congress circles. But he was repeatedly defeated by the orthodoxy that was dominating the Congress at every level.
Meanwhile, the Khilafat movement led to the consolidation of Muslims into a strong political force and inadvertently awakened in them the idea of reviving an Islamic empire. That resulted in a series of riots with Hindus mostly at the receiving end. Even under such circumstances, the orthodoxy was not ready to integrate the so-called untouchables with the rest of the Hindu society by recognizing their denied share in the power structure of Hindu society.
In 1924, Hindu Mahasabha leader and Congress stalwart Lala Lajpat Rai had observed:
“It is inconceivable to think of a democracy that recognizes ‘untouchability’ as part of individual ‘Dharma’ and as a permissible form of religious and social prejudice. It is useless to talk of a democratic State as long as this kind of prejudice sways our mind and influences our conduct…The process of building a nation is a moral process. You cannot engage in a work of this kind with success by practicing duplicity…It is sufficiently humiliating that we should have to mention untouchability at all in our programme; but to have avoided it for fear of offending the sensibilities of some classes of our countrymen could have been worse. It would have been immoral. The democratic mind should clear itself of all such prejudices.” (Ideals of Non-Cooperation and Other Essays, 1924)
In the anti-caste discourse of the 1920s, Hindu leaders, whether it was Sri Aurobindo or Sayajirao or Lajpat Rai, had looked down upon caste as “undemocratic”, “rigid” and the corruption of a system that was free from discrimination originally. Dr Ambedkar’s criticism of caste at a later stage would lead to the evolution of the same line of argument.
“Scheduled Castes” as “Protestant Hindus”
The 1917 Calcutta Congress session had passed a resolution “respectfully asking religious heads to help the growing desire to reform Hinduism in the matter of its treatment of the suppressed classes”. (Lajpat Rai, Ideals of Non-Cooperation and Other Essays). But even years after this, the situation wasn’t showing any sign of changing for the better.
At Mahad, Dr Ambedkar and his followers had to confront violence in their fight for the rights to enter the temple tank and temple premises. On January 4 1931, Dr Ambedkar submitted to the Round Table Conference a “Supplementary Memorandum” in which he stated that the term “Depressed Classes” was considered by the so-called untouchable communities as “degrading and contemptuous”. Instead, he suggested three official names: “Non-caste Hindus”, “Protestant Hindus” or “Non-conformist Hindus”.
That was two years after Dr Ambedkar had announced in Jalgaon at a conference of Dalits that their disabilities could not be rectified within the Hindu fold. The nomenclature gives credence to the charge that Dr Ambedkar wanted to restructure Hinduism in a Protestant mould. At the same time, his vision of annihilation of caste was a continuation of the vision of Indic reformers as opposed to restructuring Hinduism into an Abrahamic religion.
Dr Ambedkar envisioned a casteless Hindu society where his people would be accepted without disabilities and discrimination, and the Hindu orthodoxy had failed to meet his expectations at every level.
After he felt that all the doors had been closed, in 1934, Dr Ambedkar wrote to Bhaurau Gaikwad:
“I would advise the Depressed Classes to insist upon a complete overhauling of Hindu society and Hindu theology before they consent to become an integral part of Hindu society. I started temple entry satyagraha only because I felt that that was the best way of energizing the Depressed Classes and making them conscious of their position.”
In 1935, the visionary made his final declaration of conversion. Though he had resolved to leave Hinduism, which he perceived as “a veritable house of horrors” for the Dalits, his love for Indic dharma never left him. It is from this unfinished manuscript titled Riddles in Hinduism, in which he had made the most unjustifiable and uncharitable attack on Hinduism, that we can see just how deeply rooted his thinking was in the Hindu philosophical system and his expectation for its application in the social context. The passages need a detailed revisit as they are often avoided carefully in discussions of Dr Ambedkar.
Let us start with the acidic way in which he describes Hindu society:
“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.”
So, did Dr Ambedkar find the entire Hindu dharma worthless? That seems to be the case, until he springs a surprise:
“From this, it would appear that the doctrine of the 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 that had greater potentialities for producing social democracy than the idea of fraternity. It is the doctrine of Brahmaism.”
Making the Upanishads the spiritual basis of a new casteless Hindu society was an idea very close to Dr Ambedkar’s heart. He advised those Hindus who wanted to remove casteism that they need not search for a spiritual basis of casteless Hinduism outside Hinduism. In his Annihilation of Caste (1936), he wrote:
“… 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.”
If Dr Ambedkar aspired to remould Hinduism into an Abrahamic—simply a Protestant-like—religion, influenced by colonialism, he would have repeated the Western rhetorical criticism of Vedic Advaita. (He calls Advaita “Brahmaism”, a term he borrowed from The Great Epic of India: Character and Origin of the Mahabharata by Edward Washburn Hopkins). But in Annihilation of Caste, he proceeded to give a brilliant defence of Vedic Advaita against the usual Christian theological criticisms:
“There are two criticisms which have been leveled against Brahmaism. It is said that Brahmaism is piece of impudence. For a man to say ‘I am Brahma’ is a kind of arrogance. The other criticism leveled against Brahmaism is the inability of man to know Brahma. (But) ‘I am Brahma’…can also be an assertion of one’s own worth. In a world where humanity suffers so much from an inferiority complex, such an assertion on the part of man is to be welcomed. Democracy demands that each individual shall have every opportunity for realizing its 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 Tatvam Asi (Thou art also Brahma). If Aham Brahmasmi has stood alone without the conjunct of Tatvam Asi, it may have been possible to sneer at it. But with the conjunct of Tatvam Asi, the charge of selfish arrogance cannot stand against Brahmaism.”
He explained the social relevance of the MahaVakyas after that:
“It may well be that Brahma is unknowable. But all the same, this theory of Brahma has certain social implications which have a tremendous value as a foundation for Democracy. If all persons are parts of Brahma then all are equal and all must enjoy the same liberty, which is what Democracy means…Brahma may be unknowable. But there cannot be slightest doubt that no doctrine could furnish a stronger foundation for Democracy than the doctrine of Brahma.”
Taking a significant step forward, he criticized the Western and Christian scholars who attribute Christianity and Greek thoughts as the seeds of democracy:
“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 is 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.”
Till now, a traditional Hindu would enjoy what Ambedkar had to say. But, what follows is the riddle. It is an uncomfortable question that can be answered only through honest introspection by Hindus who care about the survival of the entire Hindu society:
“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…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…What is more ridiculous is the teaching of the Great Shankaracharya. For it was this Shankaracharya who taught that there is Brahma and this Brahma is real and that it pervades all and at the same time upheld all the inequities of the Brahmanic society.”
Here one can say that Dr Ambedkar was uncharitable to Adi Shankara, the latter’s Manisha Panchakam being a spiritual statement that contains space for social emancipation. But the relevant point here is the good doctor’s notion of social democracy—that it ought to have a spiritual basis and that it is Advaita that provides that spiritual basis rather than the Abrahamic “fatherhood” of God. One can also see how he takes forward the idea of Sri Aurobindo, Sayajirao and Lajpat Rai that democracy is part of the spiritual conception of Brahman. His anger comes from the non-implementation of the social implication of Advaita. In fact, Swami Vivekananda’s similar observations about Hinduism merit recollection here.
In a criticism as harsh as that of Dr Ambedkar, Vivekananda wrote to his friend Alasinga in 1893:
“The poor, the low, the sinner in India have no friends, no help—they cannot rise, try however they may. They sink lower and lower every day, they feel the blows showered upon them by a cruel society, and they do not know whence the blow comes. They have forgotten that they too are men. And the result is slavery. Thoughtful people within the last few years have seen it, but unfortunately laid it at the door of the Hindu religion, and to them, the only way of bettering is by crushing this grandest religion of the world…. Religion is not in fault. On the other hand, your religion teaches you that every being is only your own self, multiplied. But it was the want of practical application, the want of sympathy—the want of heart. The Lord once more came to you as Buddha and taught you how to feel, how to sympathize with the poor, the miserable, the sinner, but you heard Him not. Your priests invented the horrible story that the Lord was here for deluding demons with false doctrines!”
“True indeed, but we are the demons, not those that believed…A hundred thousand men and women, fired with the zeal of holiness, fortified with eternal faith in the Lord, and nerved to lion’s courage by their sympathy for the poor and the fallen and the downtrodden, will go over the length and breadth of the land, preaching the gospel of salvation, the gospel of help, the gospel of social raising-up—the gospel of equality. 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…religion is not in fault, but it is the…hypocrites, who invent all sorts of engines of tyranny in the shape of doctrines of Pâramârthika and Vyâvahârika.”
If interchanged, what Dr Ambedkar says about Vedic Advaita can well fit in as a passage from the writings of Vivekananda and what Vivekananda had written to Alasinga may well be part of a passage in Dr Ambedkar’s Riddles. In fact, this is the real riddle that Dr Ambedkar attacked mercilessly. His vehement criticisms of mythologies and epics in the unfinished manuscript reflect the pain of a passionate patriotic leader who loved the essence of Hindu spirituality and society but was literally thrown out by the arrogance of Hindu orthodoxy.
There is hardly any doubt that a Hindu will find most of the “riddles” stated by Dr Ambedkar nothing less than abusive. But these harsh words are mere whispers compared to the cacophonic abuses hurled upon the depressed classes by orthodoxy and non-Dalit castes. That is why Ambedkar believed that by denying Dalits their share in the spiritual and cultural structures of Hindutva, of which Vedic Hinduism is a subset though a dominant one, we are diminishing Hindus as a nation. If and only if this fundamental flaw is rectified in Hinduism will all other “riddles” become irrelevant.
Beyond Marx And Max Weber
Dr Ambedkar always rejected the bhakti tradition, connecting it with hero worship which, in turn, he cited as the reason for the downfall of Hindu society. Brought up in a religious sect rooted strongly in the bhakti tradition, however, he never failed to acknowledge his indebtedness to his religious upbringing.
Speaking at a conference of SC Railway workers, he said:
“Character is more important than education. It pains me to see youths growing indifferent to religion. Religion is not opium as is held by some. What good things I have in me or whatever benefits of my education to the society, I owe them to the religious feelings in me.”
Apart from the calculated rejection of the Marxist view of religion while particularly talking to the workers, the words of Ambedkar also reveal another important aspect of his life. The religious environment of his early life provided him with an ever-abiding moral-spiritual compass. Even after he had embraced Buddhism, it continued to be with him till the end of his life. In fact, Kheer notes that his faithful assistant Rattu had recorded that the last time he saw his master, which was on the night of December 4 1956, he heard him singing a song of Kabir.
Dr Ambedkar’s family belonged to the Kabir Panth. Kabir was the radical proponent of Vaishnava Bhakti through the guru lineage of Ramananda of the Sri Ramanuja tradition. Writing in this context, Prof Edmund Weber explains in the Journal of Religious Culture (No 18b, 1999):
“Concerning the religious background of Ambedkar, we have to take notice that his family belonged to the Kabir Panth. This Bhakti religion did not acknowledge any jati and varna boundaries in religious, not yet in practical respect, and worshipped the Nirguna Rama. The origin from a Ram Bhakti Hinduism strongly denying the ruling varna system by religion and interpreting the Holy in the Nirguna way determined his further religious and political development.”
Given such historical spiritual roots of his family, his statement that he owed all that was good in him to the religious feelings in him, makes him the epitome of a larger Indic guru tradition that has been constantly rebelling against social stagnation. He can be seen as an evolute, even if far removed, from the Sree Vaishnav Sampradaya of Sri Ramanuja.
Despite the harsh criticism of Hindu mythology and beliefs that Dr Ambedkar exhibited in his writings, his attitude towards the beliefs of Hindu Dalits was again one of compassion. In his biography of Ambedkar, Kheer narrates an incident:
“An old devout man went to his ‘Baba Saheb’ and entreated him to allow him to bring the image of Ganapati the Hindu God. Ambedkar smiled at the guileless old man and said to him in a loud voice: ‘Who told you I do not believe in God? Go! Do as you like!’ And then the old man fulfilled his vow.”
As a matter of fact, he was careful that the Dalits should not fall into the traps of non-Indic religious and political ideologies. Prof B.G. Gokhale explains in Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar: Rebel against Hindu Tradition:
“It would have been quite in character with his movement if it had finally resulted in a certain loss of ‘religiosity’ among his followers. That Ambedkar was aware of this possibility is evident from his speeches and writings. For a rationalist, such a loss could not be alarming and far from a fatal circumstance. But Ambedkar had within him a deep sense of the spiritual and his vision of future of his people was not just regarding economic advance, social equality or political bargains… He was aware that by their conversion to other faiths or their espousal of Marxism they would create more and serious problems for themselves either as new minorities or turn themselves to a new tyranny under a ‘Dictatorship’ that would use them and exploit them ruthlessly, if not worse than Hinduism had done. Secondly he knew that the untouchables were a deeply religious people whose spiritual hunger had to be satisfied only by offering them an alternate religious system if they were not to be transformed into a rootless mass… The rebel within marched out of the fold but assured the Hindus that he was close enough to them as their equal in the contributions of their new faith to the making of Indian culture.”
For a proponent of modernity in the colonial environment, Christianity could have been a natural choice. It was the time when the “Protestant ethics” of Max Weber and Marxist ideas of the Soviet Union were dominating the intellectual realm. It is to the eternal credit of Dr Ambedkar that he rejected both these dominant players and zeroed in on Buddhism. Again, his Buddhism was different from all other types of traditional Buddhisms found around the world. His was a Buddhism that he saw as a socio-political implementing of the spiritual thesis of Vedic “Brahmaism”.
The author is a Contributing Editor of Swarajya
This article was carried in the December issue of the magazine. Get Swarajya delivered to your home – subscribe now.
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