(in multiple parts)
Part I of “Ambedkar, Religion, and Islam”
“There is no doubt in my mind that in the majority of quarrels”, wrote a famous Indian, “the Hindus come out second best. My own experience but confirms the opinion that the Mussulman [the everyday Hindustani world for Muslim] as a rule is a bully, and the Hindu as a rule is a coward.” These rather querulous words belong to Mohandas Gandhi, writing at the tail end of the Khilafat Movement at a difficult moment in the struggle for Hindu-Muslim unity, a subject which was to preoccupy Gandhi his entire adult life in India. But they could just as easily have emanated from the pen of B. R. [Babasaheb] Ambedkar, whose withering critiques of caste Hindu society are now part of the commonsense of the liberal and secular Hindu worldview but whose views on Islam, and more specifically on the history of Muslims in India, have received little critical scrutiny. Ambedkar would almost certainly have contested whether there is even such a thing as a “liberal and secular Hindu”, but let that pass: what cannot, however, be doubted is that, beyond seeing Hindu-Muslim unity as a chimera, he was predisposed, and for good reasons, towards viewing nearly everything from the standpoint of the Dalits. His observations at the First Round Table Conference in London, held between November 1930 and January 1931, are telling in this respect: “The Depressed Classes welcomed the British as their deliverers from age-long tyranny and oppression by the orthodox Hindus. They fought their battle against the Hindus, the Mussalmans and the Sikhs, and won for them this great Empire of India.” The particular manner in which Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs are, without any fanfare, merely placed in apposition to each other points to Ambedkar’s own priorities and the historical and philosophical viewpoint from which he assessed the Indian past. He earmarked the Hindu as the eternal and mortal foe of the Dalits, their unrepentant and degenerate oppressor, but, for reasons that he would delve into here and there, he also found it difficult to embrace Sikhs and Muslims, religious minorities in India, as brothers bound together in a fellowship of suffering.
Ambedkar was a serious student of history and politics and one might reasonably suppose that the best way to apprehend his views on Indian Muslims is to wade through his voluminous writings. There is something to be said about such an approach, but the conceptual framework must stem, in the first instance, from two anterior considerations. First, though it is not fashionable to speak of him in this vein, he was a man of intense religiosity. He is associated with his (to Hindus) infamous pronouncement that he had been born a Hindu but was not going to die as one. Though of course the fact of his conversion to Buddhism, to which I shall advert later, is well known his remark has often been interpreted as a sign of his disavowal of religion altogether. Indeed, there have been many attempts to sequester him into the camp of Marxism, and there was much in Marx’s worldview that he admired. However, his concern for the oppressed and his championing of the idea of equality do not suffice to turn him into a Marxist. What is rather more striking is Ambedkar’s lifelong quest for spiritual fulfillment, though here again this scarcely comports with the public view of him as the most trenchant critic of the institution of caste and as the chief architect of the Indian Constitution. His statues in which the country is awash commonly depict him as a lawgiver, as the Moses of modern India, not as a figure of serenity or religious contemplation.
Secondly, Ambedkar was not content to only abandon Hinduism, but found it necessary to embrace another religion. He found it impossible to think of a life of fulfillment, either for himself or his people, outside religion: as he declared before his followers at a speech on 18 March 1956, “Without religion, our struggle will not survive.” Later that year in October, just two months before his passing in December, he led some half a million Dalits on a mass conversion to Buddhism, or rather a neo-Buddhism which he termed Navayana, “The New Way”. Scholars have been very much interested in how Ambedkar’s Buddhism differs from the more conventional understandings of Buddhism, but for the present purposes the more salient question are these: Why did he convert at all? And, when he did so, why did he not convert to Christianity, Sikhism, and even more so Islam? What might have led him, considering the country’s circumstances, to embrace a religion that had but few followers in India and could not have offered the comfort or security of numbers?
The postcolonial scholar may object to representations of Ambedkar as someone who thought that life in India was wholly inconceivable without religion as a species of Orientalism, but Ambedkar was unequivocally clear about how religion had shaped him and the place it was destined to occupy in the liberation of Dalits. “Character is more important than education”, he was to tell a gathering of Depressed Class youth at a Conference of Untouchable Railway Workers in February 1938, but what he adds thereafter is what is most instructive: “It pains me to see youths growing indifferent to religion. Religion is not an opium as it is held by some. What good things I have in me or whatever have been the benefits of my education to society, I owe them to the religious feelings in me. I want religion but I do not want hypocrisy in the name of religion.”
In passing, at least, it is impossible to escape the observation that, word to word, Ambedkar’s injunction to the young could have come from the mouth of Gandhi. We know as well who is being targeted with these words: “Religion is not an opium as it is held by some.” There is a very considerable strand of work on Ambedkar that, uncomfortable as it is with his attachment to religion, laboriously struggles to locate his religiosity within the matrix of liberalism. What is hereby obscured, to take one illustration, is the extent to which Ambedkar committed himself to the accoutrements of institutionalized religion. He undertook a visit to Sri Lanka in 1950 with the express purpose of witnessing a Buddhist ceremonial: as he explained at a public gathering, “Ceremonial is an important part of religion. Whatever rationalists might say, ceremonial is a very essential thing in religion.” If the Buddha slayed ritual, and the rituals of the Vedas were odious to him, Ambedkar nonetheless saw the place of ritual in creating a community of sojourners even, I might say, a sense of citizenship that far exceeds liberalism’s staid if not platitudinous understanding of citizenship. He crafted a set of rituals that would constitute the diksha ceremony for those seeking to enter the portals of Navayana.
Ambedkar’s sense of what constitutes “religion” and what place it has in the struggle to achieve equality similarly did not permit him to place bhakti on the same footing as he might have placed Islam, Buddhism, or Christianity. This point cannot be underscored enough since the turn to bhakti has often been seen as the default move for those disenchanted by Brahminical Hinduism or otherwise left deeply disturbed by dogmas of upper caste norms and behavior. Ambedkar may well have accepted some elements of the interpretive framework that has long dominated the common understanding of bhakti, such as the indifference of the great bhaktas to notions of respectability, their rejection of the idea that Brahmins were the repository of wisdom, and their disavowal of the authority of the Vedas, but he was far less certain of the emancipatory place that had been assigned to bhakti. Ambedkar’s biographers have noted that his father was a member of the Kabir Panthis and Ambedkar’s own outlook is said to be imbued with the spirit of Kabir, who was equally dismissive of pandits and maulvis, Hindus and Muslims. The scathing missives that Kabir directed at believers startle with their candidness and frontal assault:
Qazi, what book are you lecturing on?
Yak yak yak, day and night . . .
If God wanted circumcision,
why didn’t you come out cut?
If circumcision makes you a Muslim,
what do you call your women? . . .
If putting on the thread makes you Brahmin,
what does the wife put on?
That Shudra’s touching your food, pandit
How can you eat it?
Hindu, Muslim—where did they come from?
Who started this road?
Look in your heart, send scouts:
where is heaven? [from the Bijak]
If all this quite likely went straight to Ambedkar’s heart, and his attitude towards Kabir bordered on reverence, he still could not see bhakti, not even the path laid out by Kabir, as offering a home to himself or to Dalits. What weighed on his mind was far more than the rejection of ceremonies and rituals in bhakti sects. Caste had a way of insinuating itself into every institution and the tiniest pores of Indian society and Ambedkar did not see bhakti cults as immune from the poisonous contamination of caste. Moreover, in view of the rather uncritical framework with which he viewed industrial and Enlightenment modernity, it is safe to say that he shared some of the critical perspective of late 19th century Indian nationalism with regards to the unsuitability of bhakti for a nation striving to become free and modern. The novelist and intellectual Bankimcandra Chatterjee, no friend of Muslims, was quite certain that the excessive devotionalism of Hindus had enfeebled them and made them vulnerable to foreign domination. Thus, in his Krsnacaritra, a treatise on Krishna, Bankim forcefully advanced the view that the salvation of Hindu India lay in jettisoning the Krishna who frolicked on the green with the gopis and danced with them under the dazzling light of a full moon and instead embracing the Krishna of the Mahabharata who had showed himself adept at modern statecraft and was full of political cunning. Though Ambedkar would have had little use for ruminations on awakening the Hindu from his stupor, there can be no doubt that he viewed bhakti as incompatible with his idea of a religion that was modern, rational, and scientific in outlook.
Translated into Swedish by Eric Karlsson and available here: https://medicinskanyheter.com/eric-karlsson/centralityen-av-religion-i-livet-av-b-r-ambedkar.html