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What did Ambedkar like about Buddhism?

By Pranav Khullar

Even as Mulk Raj Anand was etching out the character of Bakha, the untouchable boy, and articulating the exploitation of the less privileged classes in his novel ‘The Untouchable’, another man was beginning to envision a radical restructuring of India’s socio-economic religious fabric. Ambedkar’s articulation of the oppression of untouchables stemmed from his view of religion, which he laid down as being for man, not man for religion.

Ambedkar’s anguished spiritual-reformist radicalism puts him in a long lineage of writer-rebels, from Valmiki to Maharishi Vyasa and to the saint-poets of the Bhakti pantheon, from Namdev to Eknath to Tukaram. He finally anchored himself in the all-embracing humanist vision of the Buddha, which, he felt, alone could break these deeply embedded prejudices, which divide each man from the other.

Ambedkar was unique in his definition of what it means to have equal opportunities, and his critique of oppression was based on the notion of a distributive paradigm. His articulation of this oppression of untouchables brought their exploitation and marginalisation into the mainstream of public discourse. Ambedkar’s adaptation of the Western concepts to justify the human rights of the oppressed based on democracy, fraternity and liberty was equally unique, conveyed in his Marathi idiom ‘manuski’, meaning humaneness.

Much like the transformed King Ashoka, who envisioned the principles of moral and spiritual welfare of his people, based on the Buddhist notion of ‘karuna’, compassion, and the Buddhist way of life, Ambedkar too found his spiritual and intellectual grounding in the cardinal tenets of Buddhism, a way of life which embraced all, and called out to all men and women equally.

This spiritual-reformist zeal was seen earlier in Jyotiba Phule whose ideas can be seen as an early forerunner to Ambedkar. But Ambedkar embodied this Buddhist notion of humanism completely. The fact that Ambedkar himself was a Mahar, the lowest and the largest untouchable caste in Maharashtra, his personal background, his humiliation at school and college, provided the trigger for his spiritual-reformist dream of eliminating the caste mindset in society itself, and not just the removal of untouchability with which he began his mission.

Ambedkar was firmly of the view that the Dalits themselves have to redefine their relationship with society. Since he considered the abolition of the caste system as a prerequisite to the removal of untouchability, as basic as what Abraham Lincoln considered about the abolition of slavery as an essential prerequisite for a just social order, Ambedkar provided a brutal and scathing critique of the centuries-old caste system, stating that the true emancipation of the Dalits could only come through the elimination of a caste mindset.

His vision has a universal appeal, in that, “any religion that compels the ignorant to be ignorant and the poor to be poor, can at best be described as a visitation.” Religion, he envisioned, at its core, is an all-inclusive vision, which provides space to all, and cannot be the reason for divisions between each of us. These are all man-made divisions which Ambedkar wanted dismantled, so that each of us is empowered by religion, not disempowered.

The writer is joint secretary, GoI



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Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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