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.

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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.

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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: https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2019/12/30/the-centrality-of-religion-in-the-life-of-b-r-ambedkar/

For Part II, ‘Buddha not Marx:  Ambedkar’s Unequivocal Affirmation of a ‘Modern Religion’, go to:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2019/12/31/buddha-not-marx-ambedkars-unequivocal-affirmation-of-a-modern-religion/

 

*Before Vivekananda: Glimpses of ‘Indian Spirituality’ in 19th Century America

Part I of Vivekananda and Uncle Sam:  Histories, Stories, Politics

 

Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) in  Jaipur, 1891.

Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) in Jaipur, 1891.

As India celebrates the 150th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda, the paramount place of his sojourns in the United States in giving shape to the most widely accepted views of this ‘son of India’ becomes all too apparent.  Much of what has been said and written about him is nearly akin to the puranic lore that is so deeply encrusted into the fabric of everyday life in India.  What might Vivekananda have been, one wonders, had he not commenced the first of his three speeches at the World Parliament of Religions in 1893 with those five words, ‘Brothers and Sisters of America’, which are said to have won him a standing ovation at that unusual gathering and, one hundred twenty years later, still win him the approbation of those who view him as the greatest emissary of Hinduism to the West?  Just what aspects of Vivekananda’s legacy have endured in the United States, and to what effect?

The history of Hinduism’s reception in the West has often been written with the assurance that the beginning is clearly marked by the convocation that is known as the World Parliament of Religions, certainly the first gathering of its kind when representatives of what were deemed, at least by the Parliament’s organizers, as the ten great world religions met to reflect both on the diversity and unity encompassed by ‘religion’.  In India the Parliament is chiefly remembered for the speech that launched Vivekananda on to the world stage, but in the United States it occupies a yet more significant place, though seldom recognized, in the intellectual history of the country.  The notion of ‘religious pluralism’, which in principle serves as the bedrock of American civil culture, was given its first substantive hearing at the World Parliament in 1893; similarly, the academic (and, to some extent, popular) study of comparative religion may, in some respects, be viewed as having originated in the immediate aftermath of the World Parliament.

What is indubitably certain is that when Vivekananda first arrived in the United States, almost nothing was known of Vedanta, Hinduism, or, more broadly conceived, Indian religions.  Perhaps it is apposite that he had to be ‘lost’ before he could be ‘found’–and this itself can be read in several registers–and Hinduism could be received in a country that is generally believed to hold its doors wide open for people of different faiths and beliefs:  arriving in Chicago a couple of days before the Parliament was to open, Vivekananda discovered that he had misplaced the address where he was to report.  It is said that he wandered about and finally fell asleep, hungry and tired, in an empty railway wagon.  On waking up the following morning, Vivekananda, in the manner of a Hindu fakir, started going from door to door in the hope of getting some nourishment for his empty stomach. But the sight of this swarthy and turbaned young man in orange robes alarmed the housewives of the neighborhoods through which he walked; however, a certain Mrs. Ellen Hale, who had read reports on the impending Parliament of Religions, surmised that Vivekananda was one of its delegates and welcomed him to her home.  In time, as many Indians have fondly believed, Vivekananda would repay the debt by furnishing spiritual nourishment to empty souls.

Returning, however, to the question of what was known about Hinduism in the US before the arrival of Swami Vivekananda, a few considerations come to mind.  American periodicals, such as the Christian Disciple and the Theological Review (1813-1823) and the North American Review, which commenced publication in 1815, had begun to carry occasional articles on Hindu customs and mores, and especially ‘Hindu idolatry’, but such pieces were invariably informed by an Orientalist outlook.  The understanding of Hinduism, if one can even call it that, was mediated, on the one hand, by Charles Grant’s highly influential A Poem on the Restoration of Learning in the East (1805) and, on the other hand, by the interest shown in the life and work of Rammohun Roy, the founder of the reformist and theistic movement known as the Brahmo Samaj.  The American Transcendentalists, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau in particular, had more than dabbled in some of the sacred books of the Hindus.  The young Emerson, not yet out of his teens, had made bold to interpret ‘Hindu theology’ in a lengthy poem, now known only to scholars, called Indian Superstition (1821).  Emerson’s then paltry knowledge of Hinduism may be surmised from his invocation of ‘the stern Bramin armed with plagues divine’ (l. 71), or of devotees engaged ‘in wild worship to mysterious powers’ (l. 47).  In time, Emerson would gravitate towards a considerably more complex, indeed sympathetic, view of Hinduism—as is suggested, for instance, by his poem ‘Brahma’, where the impress of the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita is clearly suggested.  His younger contemporary, Thoreau, entered into a wider engagement with Indian texts, and took copious notes from the Gita, the Upanishads, the Vishnu Purana, and the Manusmriti.  ‘In the morning’, Thoreau wrote of his experiences at Walden Pond, ‘I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat-Geeta, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial; and I doubt if that philosophy is not to be referred to a previous state of existence, so remote is its sublimity from our conceptions.’  The Tuesday chapter of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers is given over to dense quotations from Thoreau’s favorite Hindu writings.

Thoreau was also doubtless the first person in the United States to describe himself as a yogi.  Yet, for all his mental peregrinations, he never travelled outside the United States; indeed, he confined himself to New England.  Thoreau was far from having ever seen an Indian, let alone a Hindu yogi; and many Indians have all but overlooked his remark that ‘no Hindoo tyranny prevailed at the framing of the world, but we are freemen of the universe, and not sentenced to any caste.’  There is nothing to suggest that, in the aftermath of Emerson and Thoreau’s reasonably sustained engagement with Indian philosophy, interest in the Vedas, Upanishads, the Gita, or Hindu myths was kindled among Americans.  To be sure, Sanskrit had made some inroads, howsoever slight, into the curriculum at a few of the principal American institutions of higher education.  Edward Elbridge Salisbury was installed as Professor of Sanskrit and Arabic at Yale University in 1841, and Salisbury would also go on to play a pivotal role in giving shape to the American Oriental Society, founded in 1842 as the first learned organization of its kind in the United States.  Yale would subsequently become home to William Dwight Whitney (1827-94), author of a widely used Sanskrit grammar (1879) and translator of the Atharva Veda.  By the late 1880s, Sanskrit was being taught at more than half a dozen American universities, among them Johns Hopkins, Harvard, Columbia, and Yale.  One might, with due diligence, summon a few other similar nuggets of American interest in India, and especially in Hinduism; but, viewed in totality, one is inescapably drawn to the conclusion that when Vivekananda arrived in Chicago as one of a handful of people charged with representing Hinduism to the American public and the wider world, Hinduism remained an utter novelty to Americans.  Certainly there would have been no one, whether among the public or even in the academy, to contest his readings of Hinduism or of Indian society more generally.

(to be continued)

Hindi translation published as “America mein Vivekananda ki virasat”, Prabhat Khabar (12 January 2014), p. 14.  For a PDF, click here:  AmericaMeinVivekanandaKiVirasat.

For a translation of this article into Portuguese by Artur Weber and Adelina Domingos, see:  https://www.homeyou.com/~edu/antes-de-vivekananda-vislumbres

For Laura Mancini’s Spanish translation of this article, see:

http://expereb.com/antes-de-vivekananda-vislumbres-de-espiritualidad-de-la-india-en-america-del-19o-siglo/

For a Polish translation by Marek Murawski, see:  http://fsu-university.com/czesc-i-vivekananda-i-uncle-sam-historie-opowiadania-polityka/

A Bulgarian translation by Zlatan Dimitrov is available here:  https://guideslib.com/publications/glimpses-of-indian-spirituality-in-19th-century-america/