BR Ambedkar
Aravindan Neelakandan
Bodhi Sattva’s Hindutva: Part 3
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Baba Saheb Ambedkar was a holistic patriot. His patriotism emerges from his vision of India as an evolving spiritual-civilizational process. He saw its essence as ultimate liberation of humanity in all dimensions –material, political and above all spiritual. To understand his harsh criticism of Hinduism and his discovery of an alternative, we need to understand him in the deeper contexts of the definitive moments of his socio-spiritual evolution. One of the earliest and full-hearted supporters of Dr.Ambedkar was Shridhar Pant Tilak – son of Lokmanya Tilak. This brilliant youth defied the trustees of Keshari and invited Dalit youths to Tilak’s Gaikwad Wada for music recital. Dr.Ambedkar had attended a tea party at Tilak’s Gaikwad Wada at the invitation of Shridhar Pant Tilak.[1]

Unfortunately this promising youth died under tragic circumstances. Despite Ambedkar’s opposition to Tilak’s conservatism, Junior Tilak’s social awareness should have assured Ambedkar that not all is lost with Hindu society. However he saw with increased bitterness how caste-Hindu vested interests were gaining their strength around Congress leadership, under the shadow of Mahatma Gandhi. Dr.Ambedkar perceived this as inhibiting the radical social reform that was needed in Hindu society.

In fact Sri Aurobindo had condemned caste system in no uncertain terms.  As early as 1907 Sri Aurobindo wrote:

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. In the present absolutism in politics and the present narrow caste-organisation in society he finds a negation of that equality which 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 co-exist 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.[2]

Mahatma Gandhi was trying to take these thoughts forward and transform them into actions with the help of moderates in Congress circles but again and again he was defeated by orthodoxy that was dominating Congress at every level. Meanwhile 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.

Even under such circumstances the orthodoxy in Hindu society was not ready to integrate Dalits with rest of the Hindu society by recognizing their denied share in the power structure of Hindu society. In 1924 Hindu Maha Sabha leader and Congress stalwart Lala Lajpati wrote acidly:

It is inconceivable to think of a democracy which recognizes ‘untouchability’ as part of individual ‘Dharma’ and as a permissible form 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 country men could have been worse. It would have been immoral. The democratic mind should clear itself of all such prejudices.[3]

Earlier the 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”.[4]

Even years after the passing of these Congress resolutions the situation had not improved any better.  Dr. Ambedkar and his followers had to face the brutality of a violent orthodoxy in their fight for the rights to enter the temple tank and temple premises at Mahad. On the 4th January 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 Dalit communities as ‘degrading and contemptuous’.

 Instead he suggested three official names: “Non-caste Hindus”, “Protestant Hindus” or “Non-conformist Hindus”.[5] This was actually two years after Dr.Ambedkar had announced in Jalagon at a conference of Dalits (May 1929) that their disabilities could not be rectified within Hindu fold.

In other words renouncing even the caste-infested Hinduism was psychologically a tough decision for Dr.Ambedkar. He had repeatedly envisioned a casteless Hindu society where his people would be accepted without disabilities and discrimination and at every such step Hindu orthodoxy failed his expectations and Hindu reformers, even those who could stand up against the most powerful Empire on earth then, remained powerless to counter effectively the stranglehold of orthodoxy.

Hindu orthodoxy because of their suicidal arrogance and inhumanity had closed the doors in the face of one of the greatest sons Hindu civilization had ever produced. Thus in 1934 after the violent ordeal of Nasik Satyagraha, Dr. Ambedkar wrote a letter to the leader of the movement in which he declared:

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 energising the Depressed Classes and making them conscious of their position.[6]

And in 1935 the final declaration of conversion came from Ambedkar like the Vedic thunderbolt of Indra striking the serpent Vrtra. Here the serpent that was struck was casteism.  The inhuman treachery of the orthodoxy left a deep scar of bitterness in Baba Saheb which he overcame only through compassion and his erudite scholarship. 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. Even in the worst critique of Hinduism, which he attempted, ‘Riddle in Hinduism’ this love is evident.  In this book Dr.Ambedkar makes the harshest pronouncement against Hindu social order. It is not only devoid of democracy but it is designed that way:

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.[7]

It would appear that Dr.Ambedkar had found entire Hindu Dharma worthless. Then 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.[8]

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 adviced those Hindus who wanted to remove casteism, he had adviced 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.[9]

Now we are nearing the crucial point of the thesis which the author puts forth in his ‘Riddle’. If Dr.Ambedkar’s aim is merely mindless condemnation of Hinduism, as was done by Dravidian racist EVR, then he could have embraced with glee the usual Western criticism of Vedic Advaita which Dr.Ambedkar calls ‘Brahmaism’. (He had borrowed from work ‘The Great Epic of India: Character and Origin of the Mahabharata’ by Edward Washburn Hopkins).

Now Dr.Ambedkar proceeds to give a brilliant defense 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. ‘I am Brahma’ may appear to be impudence. But it 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 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.[10]

What about the second objection? Dr.Ambedkar uses that objection as a spring board to expand Vedic Advaita into a social philosophy.  This was something not attempted even by Sankara and that was not because Sankara lacked the intelligence needed for it:

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. Looked at from this point of view 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.[11]

Then Dr.Ambedkar calls to task 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 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.[12]

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:

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? What is more ridiculous is the teaching of the Great Shankaracharya. For it was this Shankarcharya 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.[13]

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. In a criticism as harsh as that of Baba Saheb Ambedkar almost word for word, Swami Vivekananda wrote:

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 sympathise 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.[14]

If interchanged, what Dr.Ambedkar says about Vedic Advaita can well fit in as a passage from the writings of Swami Vivekananda and what Swami Vivekananda had written to his friend Alasinga in the year 1893 may well be part of a passage in Dr.Ambedkar’s Riddles written in 1950s. In fact this is the real core riddle Dr.Ambedkar had been mercilessly attacking. His vehement criticisms of mythologies and epics in the unfinished manuscript, which today forms the book ‘Riddles’, are actually the pain of a passionate patriotic Dalit leader who loved the Hindu culture and society  but was thrown out literally by the arrogance of Hindu orthodoxy.

There is no doubt that a Hindu will find most of the ‘riddles’ stated by Dr.Ambedkar abusive and nothing less. But these abuses are nothing when compared to the abuses that have been hurled upon Dalits by orthodoxy and other non-Dalit castes. By denying Dalit 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 when this fundamental flaw is rectified in Hinduism, then all other ‘riddles’ Dr.Ambedkar speaks of will become irrelevant.

To understand what might be perceived as the abusive nature of the ‘Riddles’, one should understand Dr.Ambedkar in perspective. It is well known that Dr.Ambedkar always rejected Bhakti tradition which he connected with hero worship which in turn he cited as the reason for the downfall of Hindu society.  However talking at the conference of Dalit Railway workers, Dr.Ambedkar 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.[15]

Apart from the calculated rejection of Marxist view of religion when 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. It never departed him even after he embraced Buddhism and continued to reside in him till the end of his life.[16] Dr.Ambedkar’s family belonged to Kabir Panth. Kabir was the radical proponent of Vaishnava Bhakti through the Guru-lineage of Ramananda of Sri Ramanuja tradition of South India. Prof. Edmund Weber explains:

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 Nir-guna way determined his further religious and political development.[17]

If one combines the understanding of this deeper spiritual nature of Dr.Ambedkar with his words that all that was good in him he owed to the religious feelings in him, then one can understand how Dr.Ambedkar is a phenomenal fulfillment of a larger Indic Guru-tradition that has been constantly rebelling against social stagnation. Despite the harsh criticism of Hindu mythology and belief Dr.Ambedkar exhibited in his writings, his attitude towards the beliefs of Hindu Dalits was again one of compassion. Dhananjay Keer the authentic biographer of Dr.Ambedkar 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 heart of the old man and said to him in a loud voice: “Who told you I do not believe in God?” “Go! Do as you like!” was the reply. And then the old man fulfilled his vow.[18]

In fact Dr.Ambedkar was careful that the Dalits should not fall into the traps of non-Indic religious and political ideologies in their frustration with caste-Hindus. Prof. Balkrishna Govind Gokhale explains:

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 own people was not just in terms of 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 of religious percepts, values and ritual 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  [19]

For a proponent of modernity in colonial environment, Christianity could have been a natural choice positioning itself as a religion of modernism and democracy. It was the time when ‘Protestant ethics’ of Max Weber and Marxist ideas of Soviet Union were dominating the intellectual realm. It is then 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 passionate love which Dr.Ambedkar had for this nation and her culture, demands a radical reform in our part. When that is done, ‘The Riddles’ will lose its relevance and become a mere historic document and a caution against social stagnation. Then the only riddle to remain eternally shall be this: how the Bhakti tradition which Dr.Ambedkar considered as the cause of social stagnation was actually a catalyst in the producing a Bodhi Sattva who was the personification of social emancipation.

Next we shall see how Dr.Ambedkar’s actions manifested his love for Hindustan.

[1] Dhananjay Kheer, Dr. Ambedkar: Life and Mission, Popular Prakashan, 1990, p.93

[2] Sri Aurobindo, The Unhindu Spirit of Caste Rigidity, Bande Mataram, 20-Sep-1907

[3] Lajpat Rai, Ideals of Non-Cooperation and other essays, Ganesan Publishers, 1924, pp 29-30

[4] Ibid. p.125

[5] Dr. Bhimrao R Ambedkar & Rao Bahadur R. Srinivasan, Supplementary Memorandum on the Claims of the Depressed Classes for Special Representation  submitted at Round Table Conference,4-Jan-1931, London

[6] Dr.Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, Letter to to Mr. Bhaurao Gaikwad on 3rd March 1934.

[7] Dr.Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, Riddles in Hinduism, p.216

[8] Ibid.

[9] Dr.Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, Annihilation of Caste, 1944, p.52

[10] Ibid., p.217

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid, p.218

[14] Swami Vivekananda, Letter to Alasinga dated 20th August 1893

[15] Dr.Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, Writings and Speeches, Volume 17, Part 3,p.193

[16] His faithful assitant Rattu had recorded that the last he saw his master on the night of 4-Dec-1956, he heard him singing a song of Kabir. (Dhananjay Kheer, Dr. Ambedkar: Life and Mission, Popular Prakashan, 1990, p.513)

[17] Edmund Weber, Ambedkar and the Hindu Culture, Journal of Religious Culture, No.18(b), 1999 :

[18] Dhananjay Kheer, Dr. Ambedkar: Life and Mission, Popular Prakashan, 1990, p.477

[19] Balkrishna Govind Gokhale, Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar: Rebel against Hindu Tradition, pp.20-22 in ‘Religion and Social Conflict in South Asia’, Ed. Bardwell L. Smith, BRILL, 1976