Buddha not Marx:  Ambedkar’s Unequivocal Affirmation of a “Modern Religion”

(in multiple parts)

Part II of “Ambedkar, Religion, and Islam”

I have argued in the first part of this essay that Ambedkar was never far removed the ideal of spiritual fulfillment and that he sought to achieve this within the matrix of institutionalized religion in some form or the other.  What, then, of his relationship to Marx?  In spite of his relentless critique of Hinduism, some would say more specifically Brahminism, Ambedkar could not escape some of the very idioms that have given Hinduism and the other religions that have arisen from the soil of India their distinctive character.  As an illustration, and at least as a provocation, one might want to consider his warm acceptance of the idea of a guru, a status he bestowed on the Buddha and, quite possibly, on Kabir and Jyotirao Phule.  He had a more complicated relationship to Marx, with whose writings he had acquired considerable familiarity as a student of Vladimir Simkhovitch at Columbia University in 1913-14.  Simkhovitch had published in 1913 a book entitled Marxism versus Socialism, the very title of which is suggestive of the critical if appreciative outlook that Ambedkar’s teacher, and later Ambedkar himself, would have of Marx’s body of thought and all that it had wrought.

Ambedkar continued his studies in economic history, social thought, and sociology over the years, and he accepted most of Marx’s theses about the oppressive nature of capitalism and the inevitability of class struggle even if he found his ideas of historical materialism and what may be called the iron laws of history somewhat rigid and overly determined by Marx’s grounding in the history of the West.  Marx read widely, no doubt, but much of what he had to say of India can be encapsulated under the Asiatic Mode of Production.  (No doubt, too, some of his more rigid defenders will take umbrage at this characterization, but many of Marx’s sources have to read with extreme circumspection.) Besides all this, of course, was the brute fact that, as a Dalit, Ambedkar was assimilated to the experience of oppression from birth.  Books could sharpen his understanding of humiliation and exploitation, and move him to explore what drove men to find satisfaction even enjoyment from degrading others, but he knew firsthand what it meant for a people to be born into poverty, reduced to indignity at every turn, thwarted in every endeavor to improve themselves, and ground into the dust. “Had Karl Marx been born in India and written his famous treatise Das Capital sitting in India,” Ambedkar was to say, “he would have had to write in an entirely different fashion.”  The very first question that Ambedkar might have put to Marx would have most likely been this:  How would the dictatorship of the proletariat contend with caste? Did Marx really have a comprehension of this phenomenon called caste?

The late essay, “Buddha or Karl Marx”, a fragment from a larger book that Ambedkar may have written but the manuscript of which has not been found, offers the reader a keener sense of the shortcomings that he attributed to Marxism and the reasons for his attraction and conversion to Buddhism—all this, perforce, also being the backdrop to his outlook on the history of Islam in India.  We need only to turn to it very briefly.  He argues that little survives of Marxism of the mid-19th century and “much of the ideological structure raised by Karl Marx has broken to pieces.  There is hardly any doubt that [the] Marxist claim that his socialism was inevitable has been completely disproved.”  What remains of the “Marxist creed”, says Ambedkar, can be summarized in a Buddha-like four-fold path:  the function of philosophy is to reconstruct the world; there is class conflict; the private ownership of property entails exploitation and sorrow; and, lastly, as private property is the source of such sorrow, it must be abolished.


Dr. Ambedkar is shown delivering his historic speech, “The Buddha and Karl Marx”, on 20 November 1956 before delegates of the 4th World Buddhist Conference held at Katmandu, Nepal. KIng Mahendra of Nepal (extreme right) and Mrs. Ambedkar are also shown in the photograph.

In the achievement of these objectives, Ambedkar argues, communism commits its gravest sins.  The Marxist creed is addicted to violence and to the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat.  The Buddha, by contrast, was a proponent of ahimsa, but he did not adhere to as rigid a conception of ahimsa as did Mahavira, the founder of Jainism.  To this end, he was more reasonable since he recognized that the use of “force” may be necessitated at times and that it is critical to distinguish between “force as [creative] energy” and “force as violence”.  As for dictatorship, the idea was entirely foreign to the Buddha:  “he would have none of it” and he was a “thorough equalitarian.”  The Buddha and Marx may have sought similar ends, but Ambedkar declares that the Buddhist way is far more efficacious and far more in keeping with notions of human dignity and freedom: “One has to choose between government by force and government by moral disposition.”  The Buddha sought only that each person brought up under his teachings should “become a sentinel for the kingdom of righteousness”, a paragon for others in that he would do what was good not because he had been forced to do so but because his “moral disposition” had shaped him to do the same “voluntarily”.  Ambedkar rounds off the essay with a denunciation of communism’s moral failings with what should by now be recognized as a characteristic affirmation of the centrality of religious life:  “But to the Communists religion is anathema.  Their hatred of religion is so deep-seated that they will not even discriminate between religions which are helpful to Communism and religions which are not.”


The reasons that led Ambedkar to steer clear of Marxism also explain, in part, his turn towards Buddhism. So much has been written on what finally led him to embrace Buddhism that it is unnecessary to visit this terrain except in the briefest terms to clear the path that leads us to his views on Islam.  The Buddha, to reiterate, was to him a figure who was democratic to the core and without peers as a moral exemplar.  In one speech after another, Ambedkar described how his political philosophy was enshrined in three words:  “liberty, equality, and fraternity.” People might naturally imagine that he had derived these values from the French Revolution, but they were mistaken in holding to this conception:  “My philosophy has roots in religion and not in political science.  I have derived them from the teachings of my master, not Marx.”  Classical liberal thought compromised on equality, and communism had little regard for liberty:  “It seems that the three can co-exist only if one follows the way of the Buddha.”

(to be continued)

Translated into Swedish by Eric Karlsson and available here:  https://medicinskanyheter.com/eric-karlsson/buddha-inte-marx-ambedkars-otvetydiga-bekraftelse-av-en-modern-religion.html



14 thoughts on “Buddha not Marx:  Ambedkar’s Unequivocal Affirmation of a “Modern Religion”

  1. Thank you for this essay, as we also struggle amongst Balkanized ethnic, capitalist and racial wars in the US and attempt to apply Buddhist world views to solving 0ur local problems from homelessness to environmental degradation.


  2. Thanks, Vinay, for another illuminating post.

    Although I don’t think it would be fair to say I take umbrage with the statement that “much of what he had to say of India can be encapsulated under the Asiatic Mode of Production” (so perhaps I’m not to be grouped with ‘[Marx’s] more rigid defenders,‘ although of late I often find myself defending Marx on this or that), I am inclined to believe that this characterization does not in fact—all things considered—do justice to Marx’s writings on India, even if it does capture at least the spirit of his better known published work. For the precise reasons why, I recommend Kevin B. Anderson’s book, Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies (University of Chicago Press, expanded ed., 2016), which endeavors “to present Marx as a thinker deeply concerned with non-Western and pre-capitalist societies in their own right, rather than as a mere adjunct to this theorization of modern Western capitalist societies” (wherein the Asiatic Mode of Projection serves more or less as an ‘Orientalist’ comparative foil).

    As for the hypothetical question, “How would the dictatorship of the proletariat contend with caste?” it might be helpful to remind readers that what Marx understood by the phrase “dictatorship of the proletariat” is likely not at all what today’s readers would infer from those words. There is succinct and fair summary by Jon Elster of what Marx did mean by that phrase, citing the “exhaustive researches of Hal Draper and Richard Hunt:”

    “As these authors point out, and as is clear from Marx’s own writings, dictatorship at his time and in his work did not necessarily mean anything incompatible with democracy. Rather it involved a form of extra-legality, a political rule in breach of the existing constitution [which no doubt frightens those who treat constitutions as sacred documents on par with ‘revealed’ religious literature]. That violation of a constitution need not involve a violation of democracy is easily shown by using as an example the extreme case in which the existing constitution require unanimity for constitutional change [one might imagine other, perhaps more probable scenarios, as when, say, democrats act in an extra-legal manner against a duly elected but now ‘populist’ authoritarian government in continual breach of a Liberal democratic constitution, ‘fighting fire with fire’ as we say, while lacking full ‘popular’ (or clear majority) support]. If a majority of 95 per cent of the population takes matters in their own hands and set up a new constitution requiring only a two-thirds majority, they act unconstitutionally but hardly undemocratically. Rather the latter term would apply to the 5 per cent who oppose the change. [….] [Elster’s admittedly subtle but important] point is simply that there must be some correspondence between how difficult it is to change the constitution and the proportion of citizens who want it to be that difficult to change it. If this correspondence does not obtain, there is a need for a political revolution and a new constituent assembly.

    Could one consider the dictatorship of the proletariat as a constituent assembly, in which the working-class majority of the nation democratically but unconstitutionally imposes a new constitution? In 1848 Marx refers to the ‘right of the democratic popular masses, by their presences, to erect a moral influence on the attitude of constituent assemblies’—and one might consider the dictatorship of the proletariat as a more direct means for achieving the same end.”

    But this, Elster informs us, “would be misleading,” citing, among other things, Marx’s writings on the Commune in France, “the prime historical instance of the dictatorship of the proletariat,” and which accords no role to (anything like) a constituent assembly while acting as a “direct” democracy. His conclusion: “The dictatorship of the proletariat, then, is characterized by majority rule, extra-legality, dismantling of the state apparatus and revocability of the representatives [one of the powers of a direct democracy; as Elster explains, Marx appeared to not appreciate the problems associated with direct democracy, and conversely, the Millian virtues of representative democracy].”

    Finally, more than a few Marxists today have a far more sophisticated or at least nuanced approach to religious worldviews and spirituality than they did during the lifetime of Ambedkar. One illustration of this (another being the social movements and organizing intrinsic to the praxis of ‘liberation theology’) is found in the articles of the special issue on “Marxism and Spirituality” of the journal Rethinking Marxism, vol. 28, nos. 3-4 (July-October 2016), which includes an interview with the Dalai Lama, a Buddhist leader (technically, of Tibetan Buddhists, but figuratively of a much wider circle of Buddhists from other traditions around the globe) who has described himself as “a Marxist monk, a Buddhist Marxist.”


    • Hi Patrick, I am grateful for this extensive and thoughtful comment and effort to engage with me. I am certain that readers who turn to the comments will feel likewise. In responding to you very briefly, I have to say what is obvious but is generally forgotten: these blog essays are comparatively short, and while they naturally reflect my thinking, are also intended as a necessary provocation. I have been privately told that anything more than 1000 words becomes difficult for most readers and I cannot develop ideas at great length. The essays provide no footnotes, again because of the particular forum in which they appear.

      Often, needless to say, it becomes absolutely necessary to crystallize what may be a complex set of arguments into a single statement. This, in short, is what must be kept in mind in thinking of what I said about Marx and his knowledge of India. I’ve done quite a bit of reading about this over the last 35 years and am aware of many attempts to salvage Marx from the Asiatic Mode of Production problem, but the singular fact remains that AMP is tied not only to his understanding of property and class relations but also to his understanding (insofar as we are concerned only with India for the present purposes) of Indian society as a whole and Hinduism in particular. His understanding of Hinduism, I regret to say, was not very sophisticated, but I am mindful of what he could have known in the mid-19th century. That was not very much, considering the state of scholarship, and he had to rely on the commonly known translations and, as is well known, on the accounts of travelers like Bernier. The popular reporting those days (not that we are all that advanced in our times) was fixated on “abominations” such as sati, female infanticide, “Juggernaut”: this was the “barbarous” religion of the Hindus as Marx knew it. AMP in my formulation is just a short hand for all of this.

      On the question of religion, I do not doubt that Marxists in general have a more sophisticated understanding of religion today than they did in Ambedkar’s time. Ambedkar was writing at a time when the public profession of religious belief in the Soviet Union was itself difficult. I advert to this in Part III which is ready but which I am not posting immediately so that the pieces are spaced out. But, here again, the two principal considerations are, first, not what I think of Marx and his relationship to religion as such, but the view embraced by Ambedkar. Secondly, you have to admit, I would think, that however complex the Marxist view on religion today, at least among some scholars, the popular understanding of Marxism as hostile to religion cannot be discounted. Ambedkar would have been aware of that. In the US, it is not too much to say, communism and atheism are practically synonymous. Bernie and some others may have made “Democratic Socialism” a bit popular, but communism and socialism are code words for religion-hating people in much of popular discourse. How Buddhism and Marxism both came to inform Ambedkar’s view is indeed of importance, but a full-length interpretation is well outside the scope of the essay.

      This brings me to your point about the dictatorship of the proletariat. I hesitated before I used it, partly because in the common view the phrase is generally associated more with Lenin than it is with Marx. In Lenin, it is much more than an abstraction; it is also something far more than a signification of the extra-constitutional. The view advanced by Jon Elster (with whom, incidentally, I took a course on Marx at the University of Chicago in the mid-1980s, before dropping it since his “rational choice” outlook did not at all agree with me) has some credibility insofar as the element of extra-legality and extra-constitutionality is a necessary and critical component of it. I am the last person to find such an element objectionable, considering that I have long been an advocate of Gandhi’s ideas and modus operandi. However, I do think that the reading furnished by Draper & Hunt, and Elster, is somewhat on the benign side. Extra-legality cannot be permitted to become a front for the naked use of violence; regrettably, it has become that all too often, especially in political regimes that swear allegiance to communism/socialism. But I agree with you that a “constitution” is not necessarily to be treated as a sacred text or as revealed religion, though it is going to the other extreme to suppose that a Constituent Assembly, assembled to write a constitution (as was the case in India, Pakistan, and South Africa at the end of apartheid) may be treated as an instantiation of the dictatorship of the proletariat. I would, in any case, have to give some more thought to this formulation.

      Finally, to return to the question of religion, what you say of it has also been argued apropos of Marx and ecology. There is a school of thought, of whom the best-known figure is likely John Bellamy Foster, that is associated with the view that Marx was far more sensitive to questions of ecology than is commonly supposed and that Marxism cannot be seen as offering a blank cheque to developmentalists. I am not utterly convinced but the humanist element in Marx, if I may put it this way, makes all such readings possible.

      What will follow in Part 4 especially may not to be the liking of many (including perhaps you, though I say that without any certainty), as it takes a very critical look at Ambedkar’s views on Islam in India.


  3. I forgot to mention that the material from Elster is found in his book, Making Sense of Marx (Cambridge University Press, 1985), in the last section of chapter 7. Those comments reveal his longstanding interest in and scholarly work on constituent assemblies, which is one source of his critique of Marx’s uncritical fondness for direct democracy.

    And I cited, in an inaugural post from Religious Left Law in 2010 (Feb. 11), a quote from the Dalai Lama in an interview from 1993 (and published in 1996) in which he says he thinks of himself as “half-Marxist, half-Buddhist.”


  4. Permit me to clarify my remark above about “fighting fire with fire,” a metaphor invoked to capture the essence of a strategic decision: I don’t intend it to endorse the idea that any means (e.g., violence is the sole or best means to combat violence) are justifiable in light of righteous or good or democratic ends. Nor should it be the only strategy adopted by democrats involved in extra-legal actions (cf. civil disobedience and discretionary departures from legal rules misleadingly described as ‘lawful departures’ from same). It rather suggests something very close to what firefighters do in the state of California (and other western states) when they set “backfires” to assist them in creating containment “lines” around fires. They use fire (smaller, deliberate fires), in effect, to fight a large fire such that it burns out or slows down when it reaches the burned-over ground (forest service hand crews and heavy machinery like bulldozers do this elsewhere around the fire). It is used sparingly, carefully, and in an extremely controlled manner. In short, sometimes, given a number of conditions and constraints, fire can be used to fight fire.


  5. Pingback: Ambedkar on Buddhism and Religion in the Indian Past | Lal Salaam: A Blog by Vinay Lal

  6. Quote from above “The July 1927 article in his journal Bahishkrit Bharat continues thus: “If we want to successfully confront the prejudices of Hindus, we have to convert to either Christianity or Islam in order to secure the backing of some rebellious community. It is only then the blot of untouchability on Dalits will be washed away.”
    Let’s think about this for a moment, just for fun. If the Dalits convert to Christianity, assuming you mean Anglican Christianity from Britain then the Dalits will be returning to the QUEEN of England who assigned herself the head of that religion. This won’t work for obvious reasons. And if the Dalits convert to Islam then they all have to move to Pakistan (a little later on).
    I’m finding that non Christians see “Christianity” as one group. Not at all so, in fact we are so fractured now we speak completely different languages, so to say. Protestant is like an umbrella term that defines all non Catholic Christians. Protestants have a heavy emphasis on the Old Testament (mostly Jewish history). Catholics follow the New Testament and mostly the 4 Gospels plus lots of theology that backs up the New Testement. True Catholicism has very similar concepts to Gandhi’s practice. In fact, Catholicism involves a daily Christian life of prayer, meditation, contemplation and fasting.
    I assume most people on this blog are non Christians or non Catholics so understanding this is important when you live in a country that used to be Christian. Protestants and Catholics don’t get a long at all. It’s a long interesting history.
    Thanks for the great article Dr Lal. I look forward to the continuation.


  7. That Buddhism can be considered liberatory, especially in contrast with Marxism, is perplexing, particularly in light of Buddhism’s own history in ancient India which was far from any ideals of justice and equality seemingly dear to someone like Ambedkar. As Krishna Mohan Shrimali explains, slavery was entirely countenanced by Buddhists and by the Buddha himself, “Slaves (dasa), themselves considered the property of their master (ariya) had no right to any possessions themselves. Anecdotes in the Pali texts show how a master could kill or cut off the nose and ears with no fear of penalty. Women slaves (dasis) were in a worse position still. A woman slave, made to sleep with her master, was beaten and had her nose and ears cut off by the master’s enraged wife… No slave, unless manumited, could be admitted to the Buddhist samgha by the Buddha’s own prescriptions.” (Krishna Mohan Shrimali, The Age of Iron and the Religious Revolution, Book 4 of A People’s History of India, ed. Irfan Habib, Tulika Books). Shrimali, in the same book, quotes the Buddha’s counsel to Sigala (Sigalaka Sutta) in which he says “Employers should treat their servants and work people decently. They should not be given tasks beyond their strength. They should receive adequate food and wages, be cared for in time of sickness and infirmity, and be given regular holidays and bonus in times of prosperity. They (servants) in turn, should rise early and go to bed late in the service of their master, be content with their just wages, work thoroughly, and maintain their master’s reputation.” This strikingly paternalistic and condescending stance regarding the proper relationship between servant and master indicates the ability of Buddhism, like many philosophies, to simply lull the oppressed and exploited masses to sleep, content with an abstract notion of virtue while, conveniently for the wealthy and powerful, not challenging the basic conditions in which they labor, save for a few concessions. As has been explained numerous times as well, Buddhism was, and remains, a horrendously patriarchal faith. When it comes to comparing Marxism and Buddhism as far as probing them for political and social liberation in today’s world, political Buddhism would seem to be quite lacking in comparison to Marx whose ideal society involves the destruction of all oppressive and exploitative structures, not their accommodation. While the Buddha was not discussing the capitalist mode of production which Marx was obsessed with understanding and critiquing, he was, it seems, not interested in a true critique of the exploitative structures which persisted in his own day which, in fairness, may not be what we ought to expect from spiritual leaders. In that case, the comparison between the Buddha and Marx is itself a bizarre one for Ambedkar to make because they were dealing in two different realms.


  8. Pingback: Deconstruction of an Icon of Resistance | Lal Salaam: A Blog by Vinay Lal

  9. Marxism is not wedded to the notions of the Asiatic mode of production and the iron laws of history, this is not what Marx intended. As Walter Rodney points out in Tanzanian ujaama and Scientific Socialism, “Although Marx completely disowned the proposition that a people must move to socialism via capitalism, it is understandable that bourgeois academics ignore this and interpret Marx to mean exactly what he said he did not mean.” https://www.marxists.org/subject/africa/rodney-walter/works/ujamaaandscientificsocialism.htm


    • Of course one old strategy adopted by self-described Marxist scholars and polemicists is to describe everyone else as “bourgeois”. What Marx meant is a matter of interpretation, and Walter Rodney, whose book on “The Underdevelopment of Africa” I teach, is far from being the final word on Marx.


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