Reading Ambedkar's works in conjunction with the historical realities of his times provides interesting insights into the mind of the most revered historical figure of contemporary India.
In the agricultural fields of Cambodia, lie dormant land mines embedded in the ground by various groups including but not limited to the US Army and Chinese forces. Those that implanted them in the ground have now forgotten about their exact locations. A group of kids venturing into uncharted areas to play hopscotch may never come back home. A farmer may explode in front of others as a misstep from the daily path can detonate the bombs. A rough estimate to clear the country of this hazard runs into several million dollars every year for a couple of decades. The nation already impoverished by colonization, consequent wars, and infighting can ill afford such a project when its economy has already been made to collapse. Fertile fields, hereditarily owned spaces, and temples lie empty and abandoned because the world with all its do-gooder activist organisations is yet to find a lasting solution to the menace. Each time wilderness takes over, the coloniser though out of the picture on paper, bags a silent win. The war for self-determination and real freedoms never really ends despite having ended several decades ago.
A similar pattern of embedded explosives exists in India, albeit the location of the planting here is the mind of the colonised populace. The reason for its first planting, who and which faction planted it, when and why will soon be dimmed by the amnesia that generational loss of cultural and historical transmissions bring with it. Case in Point: Polemical literature of the career politician, Bhimrao Ambedkar, Dalit Sawarna politics and the current wave of evangelical neo-colonialism.
No individual has had as much influence on independent India’s politics as Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. He was independent India’s first Minister of Law and Justice and is remembered most for his role as Chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee. Indeed, if there is one figure in India’s modern history who receives adulation from all shades of the political spectrum, it is Ambedkar. This has prompted some voices to call for replacing Gandhi with Ambedkar as the Father of the Nation. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that such is his relevance in today’s politics that both the right and the left appeal to the authority of his words when engaged in polemics over rights, policy, religion, economics, or anything else under the sun.
As expected in an adversarial context, quoting Ambedkar partially to bolster one’s position and ignoring the inconvenient parts of his writings has become the standard operating procedure of how ideologues from the left and the right both try to appropriate him. Things have come to such a pass that any scholarly analysis of Ambedkar’s works and ideas is met with not just disapproval but is actively suppressed and slandered. The pressure to conform is so high that it is speculated that a part of the reason for the end of Arun Shourie’s political career is due to his scathing critique of Ambedkar in his book, ‘Worshipping False Gods’.
Of course, it is in the context of caste that Ambedkar has attained the stature of infallibility. For he is not just seen as the driving force behind India’s contemporary affirmative action policies but is also a genuinely inspiring quasi-spiritual figure for a large section of modern India’s poor and dispossessed. With that, there can be no quarrel and it would be indeed self-defeating to pick holes in a myth meant to offer succour to the believers. But there is the real and active dimension of Ambedkar’s place in India’s current identity politics, which makes it imperative to study Ambedkar without getting swayed by the rhetoric of the left or the right. As we have noted in the previous parts of this series, the clues to addressing modern India’s caste problem do not lie in the deconstruction of the Purushasukta but in untangling the web of academic make-believe that is the fountainhead of the colonial conception of caste (CCC).
In our previous article, we have already shown that the British were interested in the Sanskrit language to use it as a tool for getting better control over the governance of the natives. Creating interlocutors amongst the natives, strategies for it, and further experimentation when the earlier ones failed; formed much of the discussions and correspondences on policy implementations between the Empire and its appointees.
John Muir was one such civil servant of the East India Company who came to Calcutta in 1828. In 1844, Muir was appointed the Principal of the Sanskrit College at Benaras only for a year, and by that time he had learned Sanskrit and collected material that ‘he considered an arsenal against Hinduism’1. In the college at Benaras, he brought about changes in policy within the traditional education system that marked the departure from a Hindu pedagogy to one with a Christian framework in place2. Although his official work in India spanning almost three decades was of a revenue policymaker and tax collector3, he facilitated a battery of Evangelists in the provinces where he served. Muir urged Christian Missionaries to learn Sanskrit in order to combat the hydra-headed Paganism4. Not one but three doctorates in philosophy were conferred on him for his outstanding “service to the Empire”, a euphemism that should technically be decoded as one of the best colonizers that the Empire could produce. His purported ‘original’ translations from Sanskrit depended almost entirely on somebody else’s French translation of the Vedas.
Muir’s disdain for the native traditions and knowledge systems can be gauged from his own words, which he spoke to indicate his displeasure at the grave error of imparting knowledge-based on ancient Sanskrit literature5:
… the religious, ritual, and social institutions, the Mythological legends, and the Astrological superstitions as well as the philosophical and scientific systems of the Hindoos with all their errors, form a considerable part of the subjects of the College course. The Metaphysical systems are notoriously characterized by grave errors, the Vedanta being decidedly pantheistic, the Nyaya maintaining the eternity of matter, and the Samkhya in one of its branches being of an atheistic tendency; and even the Astronomy, which the scientific books of the Hindoos teach, is the exploded Ptolemaic. It may therefore not unnaturally be asked by a person not acquainted with the history of the various educational schemes which have been current in India, how such a system as this, (which would appear to have a directly opposite tendency to that of the English and Vernacular schools established by Government for the enlightenment of the people, and the removal of their ancient errors), how such a system as this ever came to receive the patronage of the state.
In his book, Matapariksha, written in Sanskrit in the form of a dialogue between student and teacher, Muir is rather explicit about his evangelical leanings, to put it mildly. He ‘proves’ Christian scripture as the only true one, as its founder had power to work miracles, it is a source of one ‘True’ God and it is equally valid for all the races. Whereas the miracles in the Hindu Shastras are ‘mere ornamental’ and cosmology in the scriptures like Puranas are erroneous.
How within a century even “western science” has proved the above statements to be grossly wrong is not the focus of this paper, the reason for the above quote is to provide a sampling of the polemic that was prevalent about Hinduism and how Ambedkar’s work relies on this prevalence in the British evangelical ‘academia’ for his theories on Caste.
Ambedkar himself had no first hand knowledge of Sanskrit and depended heavily on Muir’s works for his own understanding of Hinduism. Therefore, it comes hardly as a surprise that his views have a striking dissonance with his contemporaries like Ananda Coomaraswamy and Aurobindo Ghosh, who were also writing primarily in English and whose erudition is beyond the shadow of a doubt. Muir’s influence on Ambedkar has far-reaching consequences on the latter’s political views in just the way that Muir would have intended. He was after all a committed Christian whose sole purpose in translating the Sanskrit texts was to demonstrate their ‘inferiority’ in comparison with Western science and Christianity. Let us examine a few Ambedkarite tropes on Hinduism, also called “riddles”, to get a sense of the depth of his understanding.
In his much-quoted work, ‘Who were the Shudras?’, Ambedkar propounds a unique theory of the origin of the Shudra castes. As per him, the Shudras were one of the Kshatriya communities of the Aryan race. He claims that the Shudra subclan of the Kshatriyas was perpetually in conflict with the Brahmins, as a result of which the Brahmins refused to invest the Shudras with the sacred thread. Owing to the loss of the sacred thread, speculates Ambedkar, the Shudras became socially degraded, fell below the rank of the Vaishyas, and came to form the fourth Varna.
This hypothesis views the Vedas in the image of the Bible, ignoring the multiplicity of shastras and their contextual application. For example, Shudras had their own rites that would be carried out at the end of 10-14 years of apprenticeship under the guru. A Pagdi, a shawl or a gandabandhan or an arangetram have the same significance of the guru-shishya parampara for that particular artisanal profession as thread ceremony is to the students of the Veda. Therefore, not undergoing the sacred thread ceremony was not a form of oppression as is commonly assumed in the popular imagination today.
Ambedkar’s deduction of the Shudras’ fall, over and above being based on dicey logic, is also racist in its fundamental assumptions. Ambedkar believes that the Shudras were a Kshatriya sub-clan in the Indo-Aryan society but are distinct from the Shudras of modern Hindu society. He writes6,
…for the Shudras of the Indo-Aryan Society are absolutely different in race from the Shudras of the Hindu Society. The Shudras of the Hindu Society are not the racial descendants of the Shudras of the Indo-Aryan Society. This confusion has arisen because of the failure to realise that the meaning of the word ‘Shudras’ in the Indo-Aryan society is quite different from the meaning it has in the Hindu society. In the Indo-Aryans the word Shudra was the proper name of one single people. It was the name of a people who belonged to a particular race. The word Shudra, as used in the Hindu society, is not a proper name at all. It is an epithet for a low uncultured class of people. It is a general cognomen of a miscellaneous and heterogeneous collection of tribes and groups, who have nothing in common except that they happen to be on a lower plane of culture. It is wrong to call them by the name Shudras. They have very little to do with their namesakes of the Aryan society, who had offended the Brahmins. It is a pity that these innocent and backward people of later days have been rolled up with the original Shudras and subjected to the same penalties for which they had given no cause.
Just the above passage gives rise to a lot of questions. as we have pointed out in the previous article, the “degraded fourth varna” would include celebrated architects, musicians, rathakars and so on, who even after two major colonizations enabled India to thrive as the manufacturing hub of metal, gold, textile etc. Their “lacking in culture”, being “degraded by society” are British evangelical tropes required to “civilize” the heathen and bring light of the Bible to them. That Ambedkar the native internalizes them without investigation of his own traditional systems of knowledge is what needs to be studied to understand where the distortion of the narrative that reduces Hinduism to caste begins.
Secondly, as should be clear from the above paragraph, the “caste theory” is just a subset of two different defunct theories, namely the theory of race supremacy, and that of the Aryan Invasion. His above thesis on caste is based on whether the Aryas were natives or invading outsiders. That they did not invade is now universally accepted. If the original Shudras are not the contemporary Shudras where did the latter come from? Did the Aryan race consist only of brahmins who remained the same “race” over the millennia that he seems to be analysing? At first reading, the theories he seems to propound in this book seem to give rise to more questions than provide logical and reasonable proof for his position. It’s on a deeper contextual reading and by situating the work in the political milieu of the time that he is writing the book that the answers to his position can be found.
Consider this. Beginning from the Natyashastra, to remembered tribal histories of the chandalas, the bhangis, or the Bhavayi performers, textual evidence abounds that point to the Shudras originally being Brahmins7. That the falling from ‘purity’ gives rise to the fourth class which is neither static nor stable is acknowledged even by him albeit in an indirect way even within the book itself. There is another reason that Ambedkar has no use of such data. Why it is so will be evident shortly.
We find Ambedkar weaving a web of dense interconnections between passages and characters of texts centuries, and often millennia, apart to extrapolate their meaning in the service of his pet theories, with total disregard for the traditional hermeneutics of the very texts he quotes has a very specific contemporary purpose. Take, for example, his inferential take on a character named Paijavan mentioned in the Shanti Parvan of the Mahabharata.8
Paijavana is a Shudra who performed Vedic yajna. To identify Paijavana, Ambedkar looks for clues in Yaska’s Nirukta, in which Sudas, son of Pijavana is a king. Etymologically, Paijavana is the son of Pijavana. So, Ambedkar establishes that King Sudas is Paijavana. Sudas also finds mention in Rigveda as the son of Paijavana, who is also known by the name of Divodasa. Thus the genealogy just established by Ambedkar gets contradicted. He now jumps to the Vishnu Purana where another Sudas is mentioned as a descendant of Sagara but he ignores this as the information is not useful for his speculation. To state it in simple terms, Ambedkar goes out of his way to build an entire theory of the origin of Shudras on what he optimistically believes is evidence but which, in fact, falsifies his claims. Also, most interestingly, there is no doubt that Sudas was a Shudra king, which points to two anomalies in the Ambedkarite narrative of caste:
- Shudras could be kings
- The suffix dasa does not mean slave
Even if we go by Ambedkar’s theory that the Aryan race Shudras were Kshatriyas, there is just one example of this so-called degradation in 5000 years of recorded history!
Noted Marxist historian R.S.Sharma criticized Ambedkar’s book “Who were the Shudras” for relying solely on translations of texts for his information, and stated Ambedkar wrote the book with the sole purpose to prove Shudras were of high caste origin, namely Kshatriyas, which was very popular among the highly educated parts of the lower castes during that time period. Why this would be a necessity, that is proving that Shudras were descendants of a warrior race, has a very interesting back story.
In the backdrop of the racial reconceptualization of Indian history in the Colonial period, the Mahars found their self-perceived place in Hindu society to be dependent on British approval. The Mahar regiment had displayed great loyalty to the East India Company in the battles of Kathiawad (1826) and Multan (1846). However, a faction of the regiment joined the ‘Indian Mutiny’ in 1857, earning the displeasure of British officers and reaffirming their racist bias regarding the non-martial racial origins of the Mahars. Towards the end of the 19th century, they were officially declared a non-Martial race, and their recruitment in the British army was discontinued in 18929. This caused much distress in the community as they found themselves in no man’s land – between (1)the progressive disintegration of the traditional (pre-colonial) Balutedari arrangement that provided the community sharecropping arrangement with cultural benefits and rights and (2) the sudden extinction of a steady employment source for more than seventy years. Thus, finding a way back into the army by whatever means available became the pivot of Mahar politics in the subsequent decades. As the power equation between the coloniser and the colonised demanded, proving their martial antecedents using a spurious theory was the most attractive recourse available to the leaders of the community, including Ambedkar. As a result, he took a great deal of trouble to ‘prove’ that the Shudras, including Mahars, were a ‘martial race’.
Let us for a moment take up Ambedkar on his word that the Shudras were a warrior Aryan race. On one hand while talking specifically for the Mahars, he had no compunction in using the Vedas translated by known evangelists to make a point of their royal lineage. On the other hand, Ambedkar’s claims of the royal origins of Shudras did not imply that Mahars were from the same lineage. For in the same book, he states that the Shudras of ancient times had no relation to the ones from the past. How he arrived at the conclusion remains one of the great academic puzzles that refuses to be solved. The question of how the Kshatriya status of antiquity could be applied to a people that were not from that race remains unanswered.
Most interestingly, while negotiating with the Empire for reinstating the Mahars in the army and securing naukaris for them, Ambedkar aggressively promoted the narrative of Mahars being a valorous warrior tribe. When in alliance with Draviadanists like E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker, he supported the calls for secession from “Aryavarta” based on invasion by the Aryas (read brahmins), whose lineage mysteriously remained intact. Funnily enough, this duplicitous stand is perhaps the reason why Ambedkar appeals to all strands of contemporary political discourse as everyone finds resonance with their own pet projects.
Ambedkar’s understanding of Hinduism must be evaluated in the wider context of his treatment of religion in general. We find his interpretation of the Hindu religion following the same template as his investigation of caste and race. Ambedkar was born a Hindu and yet he did not die as one. A few months before he died, he chose to convert to Buddhism, which he declared was the religion best suited to his scientific temper. His conversion was hardly an act of faith. Rather it was his final political statement. It is important to note that even though he admired Buddha and his religion, he found that he could not accept the teachings of the religion in their original form. Thus, Ambedkar set himself on the task of reconceptualizing the very religion he had adopted. He wrote his own “Buddhist Gospel” in which he fundamentally changed the character of Baudha Dharma by radically departing from the traditional hermeneutics of Budhha’s teachings. In this new form, the stress of Buddha’s teachings was not on individual liberation but on collective justice. In fact, so deep was the incongruence between the original Buddhism and Ambedkar’s vision of Social Justice that he had to redefine the central Buddhist tenets like the four noble truths, the eightfold path, and the ideas of suffering, rebirth, and monkhood. To put it plainly, the Navayana Buddhism of Ambedkar has very little correspondence with the Buddhism of Siddhartha Gautama.
To understand Ambedkar’s revisionism in more detail, let us consider the first two noble truths of classical Buddhism:
- Dukkha: Suffering is an intrinsic part of life in samsara.
- Samudaya: Dukkha arises from mental cravings and attachments.
According to the classical Buddhist understanding, suffering is ubiquitous and its root cause is mental attachment to the objects of senses. As this theory is politically inconsequential, Ambedkar had to revisit the doctrine of suffering and radically alter it to make it useful for his political rhetoric. Virginia Hancock notes10,
Ambedkar makes several obvious changes to early Buddhist doctrine. The first Noble Truth that life is suffering becomes the “second postulate,” and the most important characteristic of Buddhism becomes its concern for human relationships. The second Noble Truth, that suffering arises from mental craving, is also described in social terms as “sorrow, misery, and poverty”.
It would not be unfair to term this revisionism as Abrahamization of Buddhism as the concern of the religion shifts from the spiritual emancipation of the individual to the realm of collective justice envisioned on the grand canvas of history. We will return to this theme later in the essay but for now, we would like to ask an important question that does not seem to have been answered clearly enough before. The question is, “Why did Ambedkar choose to convert to an ‘Indic’ religion, nevermind the conceptual caveats inherent in the process, instead of adopting Christianity or Islam?”
The popular answer is that he did not want to lead an exodus out of the Indic fold, which would have spelled doom for the already precarious demographic composition of the new India. This is an explanation popular among the so-called Indian Right who believe that by choosing Buddhism, Ambedkar intended to keep the Dharmic culture of the land intact. But then, why convert at all? “Because Gautama Buddha rejected caste,” we are told, implying that since Buddhism had rejected the caste system, it was a natural choice for a reformer like Ambedkar to embrace the path of a reformer like the Buddha. This is patently untrue. As Koenraad Elst writes11,
Buddhism wasn’t more casteist than what went before. It didn’t bring caste to India any more than the Muslims or the Britons did. Caste is an ancient Indian institution of which the Buddha was a part. But he, its personal beneficiary, didn’t think of changing it, just as his followers in other countries didn’t think of changing the prevailing system.
Further, Buddha was fiercely in favour of endogamy and did not mince his words when it came to criticizing the Brahmanas of the day for their penchant for marrying outside their castes, comparing them unfavourably to dogs, who in his words, maintained the purity of blood better than the Brahmanas.
As we have pointed out, the tenets of Navayana Buddhism, with their political connotations and deeply embedded historicism, lend themselves to politics more easily than to the spiritual aspirations of an individual and are, therefore, closer in their epistemology to Christianity and Islam, than they are to any Indic school of thought. So, it is reasonable to ask why Ambedkar chose to convert to Buddhism and go on to radically alter its core principles rather than embracing Christianity or Islam, which as we have pointed out above are closer to his ideal religion in principle. And here, the popular explanation that he did so to keep his followers within the Indic fold does seem fallacious. It is more likely that Buddhism was the best choice he had for its inherent malleability and it would be impossible for him to do as he pleased with the rigid structures of the Abrahamic faiths.
It is worth exploring how Ambedkar’s disillusionment with the Muslim leaders and the British government for what he perceived to be political betrayals had a bearing on his choice of religion. The investigation leads to deep insights into the trajectory of Ambedkar’s career in the broad context of the tumultuous and intricate period of modern Indian history. In the decade between 1936 and 1946, Ambedkar the politician seems to be fighting on three fronts that are antithetical to each other. A separate electorate for the Dalits, proving that they are a hereditarily martial race, and working towards achieving more governmental control by abolishing land grants given to the Mahars under Balutedari.
“Annihilation of caste” and the fiery criticism of Hinduism that garnered him wrath even from reformists Hindus as well as M.K. Gandhi is a reflection of the iconoclastic colonised western-educated mind that is ready to burn the Manusmriti as a form of protest. When the separate electorate demands for scheduled castes were quashed by Gandhi’s fast unto death and the popular opinion of the masses, the comparatively mellowed politician found himself to be a leader of a community that was beginning to feel the pinch of land reforms and increased taxation on one hand and exclusion from their traditional warrior professions because of fickle British policy on the other. He eventually had to resort to the Vedas and Shastra in his book ‘Who were the Shudras’ to prove that the Shudras were consecrated as kings, thereby unselfconsciously invalidating his own earlier hypothesis in ‘Annihilation of Caste’.
The need of the Empire to fight an ambitious war made them reinstate the title of ‘martial race’ to the Mahars, but the office and political active chair that Ambedkar had been angling for was denied to him repeatedly. Exactly during the time of publication of ‘Who were the Shudras’, the British deserted him and he went right up to London to protest against the perceived betrayal and injustice. An empire that was done fighting the war and on its way out of its most prized colony had no use of Ambedkar anymore. He was sent back empty-handed with the advice to “adjust to changed circumstances”12. A dejected, betrayed and unhappy Ambedkar on the verge of converting to Christianity then turned to Buddhism as a protest against the betrayal by the master. For a deeper analysis of the above historical happenings, the reader will have to wait till our book on caste is out later this year.
- History of Hindu-Christian Encounter (AD 304 to !996): Sita Ram Goel
- Vasudha Dalmia : Sanskrit scholars and pandits o the old school: The Benaras Sanskrit college and the constitution of authority in the late nineteenth century.
- Scottish orientalists and India: The Muir Brothers, Religion, Education and Empire Avri A Powell.
- History of Hindu-Christian Encounter (AD 304 to !996): Sita Ram Goel
- Re-Presented for the Pandits: James Ballantyne, ‘Useful Knowledge,’ and Sanskrit Scholarship in Benares College during the Mid-Nineteenth Century MICHAEL S. DODSON.
- Who were the Shudras – B.R. Ambedkar
- Book: Natya Shastra (with English Translations) Author: Bharat Muni Translator: Manomohan Ghosh M.A., Ph.D. Published by: Asiatic Society of Bengal, Calcutta
- Who were the Shudras – B.R. Ambedkar
- Politics, caste and the remembrance of the Raj: the Obelisk at Koregaon by Shraddha Kumbhojkar
- New Buddhism for new aspiration: Navayana Buddhism of Ambedkar and his followers: Virgina Hancock
- Ambedkar’s struggle for untouchables: Reflections by M.J Audi.