(concluding part of 5 parts of “Ambedkar, Religion, and Islam”)
Poster of Ambedkar outside Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi, with the exhortation: “Save the nation, Save the Constitution.” Photo: Vinay Lal, 23 January 2020.
As if Hinduism was not sufficiently offensive, repugnant to every person with only a modicum of moral sensibility and not altogether devoid of the notion of human dignity, India had to bear the oppressive burden of a faith that, whatever its history in other countries, further diminished the prospects of human freedom in that ancient land. “Islam speaks of brotherhood”, and “everybody infers that Islam must be free from slavery and caste”, but, in truth, says Ambedkar, “Islam divides as inexorably as it binds” and it cannot but abide by a firm distinction between “Muslims and non-Muslims”. The brotherhood it promises is “for Muslims only”, and for “those outside the corporation, there is nothing but contempt and enmity.” But this is far from being its only offense in this respect, since the Muslim is also enjoined, by the terms of “Muslim Canon Law”, to withdraw his cooperation from non-Muslims if he should happen to live in a country that is not governed by his brethren. Ambedkar is quite clear on this—grist for the mill for those Hindus who have long harbored a suspicion that the Indian Muslim’s loyalty to Islam precedes his or her loyalty to India. What Ambedkar understood by the requirement of “Muslim Canon Law” may have been very different than what is understood by those who are content to insist that many Indian Muslims would rather cheer for the visiting Pakistani cricket team than for the Indian team, but the sense that the Muslim is disinclined to live under the jurisdiction of any religion other than Islam is pervasive. Whether the Muslim is singularly alone in having such a disposition is however a question that is seldom posed.
To understand further Ambedkar’s misgivings about Islam, we can profitably turn to his reading of the Indian past and the vexed question about the disappearance of Buddhism from the land of its birth. Ambedkar agonized that Buddhism had not only “ceased to live in India but even the name of Buddha has gone out of memory of most Hindus.” He does not, as modern scholars are wont to do, furnish a plethora of reasons to account for Buddhism’s disappearance: the growing distance between the monks and the laity; the re-emergence of Hindu kingship and the shrinking patronage for Buddhist monasteries; the growing similarities between Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism; the spread of vegetarianism among Hindus; the Brahminization of Buddhism; the defeat of the Buddhists in debates with Shankaracharya; and so on. We can surmise, given his learning, that Ambedkar was not unaware of some of the scholarly literature surrounding the disappearance of Buddhism from India, but the scholarly narrative on this question appears to have been of little interest to him. Ambedkar distinguishes between the decline and the fall of Buddhism, but he does not hide his punches: “There can be no doubt that the fall of Buddhism in India was due to the invasions of the Musulmans. Islam came out as the enemy of the ‘But’ [idol].” Islam was destructive of Buddhism wherever it went, and Ambedkar quotes with approval the verdict of the British historian Vincent Smith: “The furious massacre perpetrated in many places by Musalman invaders were more efficacious than Orthodox Hindu persecutions, and had a great deal to do with the disappearance of Buddhism in several provinces (of India).” He anticipates the objection that Islam was hostile as much to Brahminism as it was to Buddhism, but this, far from falsifying the claim that the “sword of Islam” was responsible for the evisceration of Buddhism, only suggests that we need an interpretation that would render an account of the circumstances that permitted Brahminism but not Buddhism to survive “the onslaught of Islam.”
The Ruins at Nalanda, in Bihar, India, the seat of a famous university and a large monastery that was destroyed in 1193 by the conqueror Bhaktiyar Khilji. This is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.