Ambedkar on Buddhism and Religion in the Indian Past

(in multiple parts)

Part III of “Ambedkar, Religion, and Islam”

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A popular print of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, chief architect of the Indian Constitution, and founder of Navayana Buddhism.

In his writings on Buddhism, Ambedkar drew overwhelmingly upon his understanding of the Indian past and the place of religion in it.  It is the historical specificity of Buddhism in India to which he was drawn when Ambedkar would make his final case for Buddhism and its attractiveness to Dalits.  There are a number of arguments that Ambedkar advances which it will suffice to mention.  First, his own research led him to the conclusion, which finds its most elaborate exposition in a book entitled The Untouchables: Who Were They and Why They Became Untouchables? (1948), that the Untouchables were ur-Buddhists or none other than the original Buddhists of India.  Secondly, and consequently, in converting to Buddhism, the Dalits would only be returning to their home.  We, in India, have heard in recent years of ghar wapsi, or the attempt to steer Muslims and Christians back to the Hindu fold from where they were allegedly enticed by clever proselytizers, but Ambedkar had something quite different in mind when he would counsel the Dalits to convert.  This was going to be a different form of ghar wapsi, the return, in myriad ways, to the warmth, security, and nourishment of the womb.  Thirdly, the very fact that the Hindu caste order had reduced the ur-Buddhists to the status of Untouchables pointed to the twin facts that Buddhism alone had offered resistance to Brahminism and had not succumbed to the hideous system of caste.  On Ambedkar’s reading, the “Four Noble Truths” that the Buddha had discovered, even as they constituted a set of precepts for humankind in general, held a specific and historically conditioned meaning for Dalits.  Too much has sometimes been made of Ambedkar’s embrace of Buddhism as a religion that came out of the soil of India, but there can be no doubt that in his mind Buddhism’s very constitutive being had been shaped by the experience of the lower castes.  Thus Buddhism alone could become a spiritual and political home for Dalits.


Babasaheb Ambedkar delivering a speech at the mass conversion at Nagpur on 14 October 1956

It should not be supposed that Ambedkar, especially as he continued his studies in both comparative religion and Indian history, never entertained any doubts about the suitability of Buddhism for Dalits.  The predominant understanding of Hinduism, especially in the public domain, insisted upon treating Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism as variations on Hinduism, certainly as cognate religions that, to use the language of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, enjoyed a “family resemblance”.  Ambedkar was fully aware that many Hindus were wholly comfortable with the idea of the Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu. It is immaterial, for our purposes, how Ambedkar negotiated this slippery terrain and what views he held on the deviousness of the Hindu mind, and far more germane that he may have understood Buddhism’s putative similarity to Hinduism equally as an asset and a liability.  Dalit converts might benefit from conversion to Buddhism without incurring the hostility of orthodox Hindus:  if the sheer crassness of this analogy may be forgiven, it would be akin to shopping at a different branch of the same gigantic store.  On the other hand, at least in the 1920s and through the 1930s, Ambedkar very much doubted that anything was to be gained by “becoming Buddhist or Arya Samajist” as such conversions would do nothing to eradicate “the prejudices of the people who call themselves as belonging to [the] upper varna”.  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.”  Two years later, writing in the same journal on March 15, Ambedkar put forward the programmatic formula for possible Dalit liberation blandly and without equivocation:  “If you have to convert, become Musulman.”  The communication would be preceded by what some might have taken to be a rather ominous headline, “Notice to Hinduism.”

To what extent increasing Muslim separatism eventually turned Ambedkar away from Islam as a possible home for Dalits is an interesting question.  In arguing that Ambedkar saw Buddhism as singular in its repudiation of caste, I have already suggested the grounds on which he rejected both Sikhism and Christianity as viable alternatives. Nothing more need be said on this count except to aver that, on Ambedkar’s view, neither religion had been able to escape the dragnet of caste; moreover, the hostility of upper-caste Christian converts and Sikh leaders alike to mass conversion, which it was feared would lead to the Dalitization of the faith in each case, was all too palpable. How far one can agree with Ambedkar’s assessment of Sikhism is a question for anyone who is invested in seriously probing why he eventually opted for Buddhism rather than one of the other faiths that had originated in India or taken root in the country’s soil. Just as his understanding of Marx’s views on religion seems rather conventional, shaped partly one might say by the climate of opinion engendered at a time when Stalin’s Soviet Union had made the public profession of religious belief altogether disreputable if not hazardous, similarly one is uncertain how far he had really made a study of Sikhism and its scriptures before coming to a determination that it did not offer Dalits the religious home that he sought for the community.

Whatever benefits the converts to Christianity might have been said to have enjoyed before independence by belonging to the faith of the ruling colonial elite would obviously be short-lived in the wake of the liberation of the country from the yoke of foreign rule.  Muslims in India, on the other hand, enjoyed the security assured to a very sizable and vocal minority—indeed, even as Muslims were a minority in India, Islam was a worldwide religion and Indian Muslims had the power to make their grievances known to Muslims elsewhere in the world.  It rebounded to Islam’s credit that it had a global presence and Ambedkar appears to have held the view that, at least outside India, Islam had shown itself capable of mounting a challenge to social ills.  Muslims in some of these respects offered a stark contrast to Dalits:  if the notion of the Muslim ummah was something of a guarantee that oppression of Muslims would at least not go unnoticed, there seemed to be no one outside India who was prepared to take up the cudgels on behalf of the Dalits.


Ambedkar Yatra [Journey]:  Popular or Bazaar Print showing Dr. and Mrs. Ambedkar and the Buddha bestowing his benediction on them.

After all this, Ambedkar still found Islam inhospitable.  There is really no other way to put it, even if the impulse to disguise this sentiment is irresistible.  By the mid-1930s, the Hindu-Muslim question had been rising to the fore and had become much more than a festering sore, and the so-called “Pakistan Resolution”—so-called since Pakistan was never mentioned by name—of the All-India Muslim League, passed at the annual session of the organization at Lahore in March 1940, had spawned in the minds of Muslims the idea that a Muslim homeland in the Indian subcontinent might be theirs for the asking.  This might have been the time to lead his fellow Dalits to the promised land; to the contrary, Ambedkar made a decisive turn away from Islam. There is a noticeable and disturbing streak of positivism in some of his writings, something to which the scholarly assessments of his work have paid no attention whatsoever, but it is to his credit that he was no adherent of Social Darwinism—the very opposite of Vinayak Savarkar, whose lionization by the Hindu right as some kind of thinker and brave soul is laughable and an effrontery to all canons of evidence, reasoning, and common sense.  Had Ambedkar been so, he might have counseled the Dalits to convert to Islam at this opportune moment and add considerably to the already sizable number of Muslims in South Asia.  However, as Muslims sought to close ranks behind them, it had become inescapably clear to Ambedkar that they were so self-absorbed in their own history that any consideration for Dalits could only arise from rank self-interest.  The “Depressed Classes”, he had claimed in late 1930 at the Round Table Conference, “had no friend”:  even the “Muhammadans refuse to recognize their separate existence because they fear that their privileges may be curtailed by the admission of a rival.”

It has been an article of belief for the most loyal Ambedkar scholars that any talk of his antagonism towards Muslims is a form of mischief-making when it is not an expression of virulent misrepresentation and even hatred of the great man.  Anand Teltumbde, a Dalit scholar of formidable reputation who is also married to one of Ambedkar’s granddaughters, attempted to preempt criticisms of Ambedkar’s views on Islam with a short, poorly written, and rather ill-conceived book called Ambedkar on Islam (2003) that purports to take apart eleven “myths”.  Leaving aside the question of whether Teltumbde has any comprehension at all of “myth” outside the rather jejune and positivistic framework which places it in opposition to “history”, the question is whether, as “Myth 1” states, “Ambedkar was against the Muslims.”  Does the critical apparatus of thinking necessitate that one should be against or for something?  That Ambedkar may have formulated a highly critical history of Indian Muslims should come as no surprise and need not be construed as a sign of Islamophobia.  Ambedkar was seldom reticent in his views and in this vein appears to have subscribed to a hierarchy of religions.  He welcomed the discipline of “comparative religion” as it had helped to break down “the arrogant claims of all revealed religions that they alone are true”, but he also found it a matter of discredit to such a “science” that it had “created the general impression that all religions are good and there is no use and purpose in discriminating them.”  It may be inadvisable on the grounds of political expediency to advert to Ambedkar’s critical assessment of Islam, but Ambedkar himself never shirked from adopting positions which he had arrived at after careful study and reflection.

(to be continued)

For Part I, “The Centrality of ‘Religion’ in the Life of B. R. Ambedkar”, go to:

For Part II, ‘Buddha not Marx:  Ambedkar’s Unequivocal Affirmation of a ‘Modern Religion’, go to:


1 thought on “Ambedkar on Buddhism and Religion in the Indian Past

  1. One important fact about Islam in India that most devout Muslims and their defenders fail to recognize is that Indian Islam has absorbed the institution of caste almost entirely. While it may not exist in the domain of religious life, as with Hindu temples which have historically not admitted Dalits and Christian churches which often had a separate mass for Dalits, Indian Muslims have their own caste hierarchies and an Ashraf or a Habib belongs to a charmed circle which has a much different status than those who lie outside this group, who are often over represented in our nation’s slums even today. As far as I can tell, Ambedkar too seems to have failed to take into account this total social fact, preferring to view caste hierarchies as a theological or religious phenomenon when in reality it is a sociological one. It is entirely sensible if Ambedkar turned away from Islam, seeing Muslims’ unwillingness to accept Dalits into their fold, blinded by their own caste hatred.

    I also must take issue with your characterization of Teltumbde’s book. The popular usage of the word “myth” indeed refers to something that is false and I feel that your taking issue with this usage of the word (and deployment of an argument about the issues of a positivistic differentiation between myth and history which I am in fact sympathetic to) was wholly unwarranted and misplaced in this case and is telling of the uncharitable lens with which you seem to have approached his work.


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