This is an excerpt from Chapter 4 of Mark Hager’s recently published book, ‘Elusive Ideology: Religion and Socialism in Modern Indian Thought,’ currently available through Kindle, Barnes and Noble, Barefoot Cafe, Sarasavi and Expographic The book’s Introduction and its Chapter 1 on Swami Vivekananda appeared in the August 2022 issue of Echelon entitled ‘What Should Modern Independent India Be and How Can It Get There?’ A portion of Chapter 3, appeared in the September issue of Echelon and the Oct. 7, 2022 issue of Economy Next, entitled ‘Sri Aurobindo: Mystical Awareness Supplants Production?’ A different portion of Chapter 3, entitled ‘Bipin Chandra Pal: ‘Socialism in India’s Past and Future,’ appeared in the December 2022 issue of Echelon and the December 5, 2022 edition of Economy Next
Well-launched Untouchable and relentless achiever, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956) met the world at Mhow in Central India, youngest child of a military officer. Despite financial and social adversity due to untouchable status, Ambedkar attained impressive achievements in his early life. He took his B.A. in 1913 from Bombay’s Elphinstone College. By 1923, he had earned his M.A. and Ph.D. from Columbia University in the United States and his M.Sc. and D.Sc. from the University of London, all with theses on Indian economic issues. He had also read law at Gray’s Inn and qualified as a barrister in 1920.
Back in India, Ambedkar pursued a varied career in academics, law, and journalism, gaining prominence as a political leader on behalf of Untouchables. Among his activities was the organization of non-violent civil disobedience (satyagraha) aimed at securing rights of Hindu temple entry for Untouchables. In 1947, he became chair of the drafting committee for independent India’s Constitution. He decisively influenced that document. Also in 1947, he became Minister of Law in independent India’s first cabinet, but he resigned in 1951 to protest Nehru government policy on Kashmir, foreign relations and programs for Untouchables. Thereafter, he continued until his death to pursue a public career, which increasingly included participation in Buddhist organizations.
The first two chapters of this Part explored two distinguishable attitudes toward the Hindu religious tradition. Das attempts to fashion society according to Manu’s detailed socio-religious doctrines. Aurobindo and Pal attempt to extract from Hindu tradition less detailed, more general precepts of sound social order. They adopt a critical or selective posture toward the tradition, a willingness to recognize limitations and shortcomings. In his work, Ambedkar offers still a third attitude toward Hindu tradition, an attitude of unrelenting rejection and rebuke. Where Das, Aurobindo, and Pal see freedom, harmony, and cooperation, Ambedkar sees oppression, strife, and struggle. Far from urging modern India and the world to school themselves on the genius of Hinduism, Ambedkar calls for its extermination.
DEMOCRACY: “ENDOSMOSIS” VERSUS CAPITALISM AND CASTE
Ambedkar greatly concerns himself with issues of democracy. Democracy to Ambedkar is “not merely a form of government,” the framework of institutions he calls “political democracy” or “parliamentary democracy.”‘ There is also what he calls “social and economic democracy,” or sometimes simply “social democracy.” This involves two related but distinguishable strands, one of them basically spiritual, the other economic. In exploring them we can see how Ambedkar situates himself within our problematic.
Ambedkar describes the spiritual component in various ways. It is, first, the “principle of fraternity,” a sense of “common brotherhood,” “unity and solidarity” in social life. Fraternity, he writes, “is only another name for democracy.” It is “primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience.” He equates fraternity with what he calls “social endosmosis,” described as follows:
An ideal society should be mobile, should be full of channels for conveying a change taking place in one part to other parts. In an ideal society there should be many interests consciously communicated and shared. There should be varied and free points of contact with other modes of association.
For Ambedkar, democracy—as fraternity and social endosmosis—implies the sharing of experience in social life. Endosmosis is the precise opposite of endogamy, caste.
A second spiritual aspect Ambedkar labels the “functioning of moral order in society.” Because democracy is a regime of freedom, vast aspects of social life are left unregulated by law. This means that citizens must sense and practice a “moral order.” This moral order is really just the principle of fraternity from a different angle, because “fraternity” and “morality” are the same. Key to moral order is what Ambedkar calls “public conscience,” a conscience agitated at every wrong, no matter who the sufferer may be. It means that everyone, whether suffering that particular wrong or not, is willing to join the sufferer in seeking relief. Public conscience implies the sharing of suffering, an aspect of “endosmosis” or the general sharing of experience.
The economic component of democracy, thinks Ambedkar, lies in equality. There must not be “a class which has got all the privileges and a class which has got all the burdens to carry.” Class cleavage threatens democratic stability by provoking violent unrest. It threatens the fundamental idea of democracy, which is “one man, one value.” The idea of “one man, one value” is captured only partially by the egalitarian political practice of “one man, one vote.” It must be completed by egalitarian economic structures.
Ambedkar’s conception of democracy as fraternal spirit and egalitarian economy animates his condemnations of both caste and capitalism. “The two enemies are Brahminism and capitalism,” he writes. Both caste and capitalism represent systems of social division that are also systems of economic exploitation. There is Marxist hue to his conclusion that caste and capitalism are but two manifestations of the same ubiquitous ill: division of societies into classes.
Ambedkar equates capitalism with inequalities of wealth as well as with poor living standards and working conditions. He also finds capitalism incompatible with democracy. Private capital exercises self-interested control over social life and workplaces, compelling the economically weak to suffer “dictatorship of the private employer.”
Ambedkar rejects naïve analyses of capitalism, of which he finds Gandhi especially culpable. His criticism of Gandhi applies in varying degrees to thinkers discussed above who confuse capitalism with either industrialism or with mere selfishness. The evils of capitalism, Ambedkar argues, should not be blamed on “machinery and modern civilization.” Industrialism and modernity hold out a promise of liberating humanity from brutish existence and making possible for all a life of leisure, culture and socio-economic equality. He calls for “more machinery and more civilization.”
If anti-industrialism is no solution, neither is “moral rearmament” of the “propertied classes,” which is how Ambedkar describes the Gandhian notion of capitalist “trusteeship.” As Chapter 5 will explore, Gandhi’s doctrine on “trusteeship” envisions large property-holders devoting their wealth primarily to common well-being. The notion that “moneyed classes” would “hold their properties in trust for the poor” Ambedkar calls “ridiculous.” Both the anti-industrial approach and the capitalist-as-trustee approach miss the central nature of capitalism, which is “wrong social organization,” “private property” in production. It is capitalism that must disappear.
Ambedkar disputes the notion that the Indian National Congress represents the common interest of the whole Indian nation. Though the congress includes in its membership the lowly and modestly comfortable as well as the fabulously rich, it nevertheless sits under the sway of “wealthy people” and “big business” and will basically serve as “protector of the capitalists.” Ambedkar concludes that a self-conscious working-class party must emerge to protect the downtrodden. In 1936, he helped organize the Independent Labor Party to oppose the Congress in Legislative Assembly elections under the 1935 Government of India Act. The Party’s purpose, he declared, was “to fight for the interest of the untouchables, the working classes, the poor and deprived people.” Ambedkar’s formation of the ILP, though perhaps a good idea in itself, arguably typified his tendency to overemphasize electoral and parliamentary action as principal means of fighting entrenched power. We shall return to this theme.
Much of Ambedkar ‘s thought centers around critical analysis of caste. Caste he sees as India’s peculiar variant of class divisions characterizing all societies up to the present. Caste and class, he thinks, are “next door neighbours,” distinct yet close. A class system has permeable boundaries allowing a degree of social mobility and intermarriage. A caste system, however, sets up rigid boundaries stemming from endogamy, so that castes are walled off from each other. “A caste is an enclosed class,” Ambedkar writes. Though caste and class both violate social endosmosis, caste does so more aggressively and rigidly.
Like most social ills, caste proceeds most fully from higher social echelons. Caste exclusivity is practiced most fully among Brahmins. In fact, Ambedkar argues, caste originated with exclusionary practices of Brahmins, then was imitated in decreasingly exact fashion by progressively lower classes. The atmosphere of exclusivity sets up a “fissiparous” logic resulting in multiplication of castes.
Caste inflicts damage both spiritual and economic. Spiritually, caste constricts the morality and public conscience of Hindu society, leading People to practice morality and respond to suffering only within caste-bound limitations. Economically, caste relationships largely correspond to property. Ambedkar analyzes low-caste Shudras and Untouchables from a Marx-like viewpoint as classes of propertyless labor.
The chief predicament faced by thinkers -wishing to portray Hindu culture as socially progressive is what to do about caste. We have seen above how the problem of interpreting caste provokes Hindu-oriented thinkers into fits of ambivalence. Ambedkar avoids this because his first concern is to criticize caste. Opposition to caste animates his entire rejection of Hindu religion and society. To combat caste, one must combat the “religion of Caste.” To ask people to give up Caste is to ask them to go contrary to their fundamental religious notions,” he concedes.
Ambedkar accuses Hinduism of lacking precisely what Aurobindo and Pal find it rich in: mutual solidarity and communal consciousness. Where those thinkers portray caste at least partly as an expression of solidaristic spirit, Ambedkar insists that “anti-social spirit” is its “worst aspect.” He argues in loosely Durkheimian fashion that, insofar as Hindu society lacks a “unified life and a consciousness of its own being, it is not truly a “society” at all. A society truly exists only to the extent that its members share activities such that common emotions are aroused in them. For society to exist as a coherent whole, its members must “possess things in common with one another.” This implies both religious and economic components.
With respect to religion, Ambedkar mentions common celebration of festivals as an index of social bondedness. Hindu castes, he argues, celebrate festivals largely in separation from one another, thus obstructing emergence of a common life transcending caste. Economically, to “possess things in common” implies common ownership in production, so that success and failure in “associated activity” are shared. Hence, in his mind, a society must be socialist in the Marxist sense before it can truly be a “society” in the Durkheimian sense, with the sharing of social experience Ambedka calls “endosmosis.” It is not of course, only Hinduism that he finds lacking in this respect.
To Ambedkar, caste is India’s paramount social problem. Political democracy cannot flourish without the social and religious revolution needed to eradicate it. Though himself a socialist, he rejects the Marx-like viewpoint that “equalization of property” is India’s paramount social task. Especially in India, the Marxist view that property relation-ships determine all others fails to convince. Religious attitudes weigh more heavily than economic structures in determining Indian hierarchies. Because of this, no meaningful movement toward economic equality can occur in India without prior spiritual transformation re-placing caste with a “spirit of equality and fraternity.”
DEMOCRATIC RELIGION: ATTACK ON HINDUISM, EMBRACE OF BUDDHISM
Ambedkar’s twin focus on spiritual and economic transformation places him squarely within our problematic. Though he addresses economic dimensions more thoroughly than thinkers examined above, Ambedkar departs from materialist socialism by giving priority to spiritual over economic change.
Though the problem of caste is religious, its solution cannot be sought in mere abolition of religion. Such might he the Marxist solution, but Amhedkar declines to applaud. Unlike Marx, Ambedkar sees religion as crucial to any social order. He approves Burke’s claim that “True religion is the foundation of society” and lays out a Durkheitnian position that social morality requires religion.” It is not the case, however, that all religions are equally true or adequate, as the negative example of Hinduism proves. Amhedkar insists that religion should comport with reason and science and should offer relief to the downtrodden.
Ambedkar distinguishes between a religion of “rules” and one of “principles.” Rules prescribe action externally to the actor, rendering it unconscious, habitual and servile. Principles, by contrast, act as guidelines for judgment, facilitating independent choice and action. Conscious responsible choice in light of principles makes up true religious life. Religion, he writes, “must mainly he a matter of principles only.” As he continues, “The moment it degenerates into rules it ceases to be religion, as it kills responsibility which is the essence of a truly religious act.”
Hinduism, Ambedkar thinks, lies far from a religion of principles. So rule-bound as scarcely to deserve the name “Religion,” it is “nothing but a mass of sacrificial, social, political and sanitary rules and regulations…nothing but a multitude of commands and prohibition.” It is, moreover, a system of “legalized class-ethics…iniquitous in that they are not the same for one class as for another.” What Ambedkar calls “true Religion” teaches spiritual principles equally applicable to all, guiding adherents toward a conscious life of moral responsibility.”
What Indian society needs then is not abolition but transformation in religion. Ambedkar ultimately concludes that Hinduism should be replaced by Buddhism. Before getting there, however, he toys with other possible avenues. In 1936, Ambedkar suggests reforming Hindu-ism itself by eliminating its caste aspect, which he calls “Brahminism.” This would require repudiating Brahminical texts, which he characterizes as political class lies. As he puts it:
…[Y]ou have got to apply the dynamite to the Vedas and the Shastras, which deny any part to reason, to Vedas and Shastras, which deny any part to morality. You must destroy the Religion of the Shrutis and the Smritis. Nothing else will avail.
Ambedkar’s suggestions for Hindu reform verge upon the fantastic. First, there should be a standardized “book of Hindu religion” accepted and recognized by all Hindus. Preaching of other sacred texts should be penalized by law. Second, the Brahmin priesthood should be abolished or regulated by the state. In sum, Ambedkar proposes reconstruction of Hinduism into a new and official civil religion “in consonance with Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, in short, with Democracy.” He cannot say how this new religion would be recognizable as Hinduism, except to suggest it should draw on principles from the Upanishads.
Ambedkar searches widely for a religion compatible with democratic values. In the same year that he endorses radical transformation of Hinduism, he admonishes fellow Untouchables to convert away from it:
If you want to organize yourself, change your religion. If you want to gain self-respect, change your religion. If you want to create a society which ensures co-operation, and brotherhood change your religion. If you want to achieve power, change your religion. If you want equality, change your religion. If you want independence, change your religion.
To high-caste audiences, Ambedkar stresses democratic reform of Hinduism. To low-caste audiences, he stresses conversion to some alternate faith. When he first formulates the latter suggestion, he remains unclear what direction to take it in. Which other religion? Should an entirely new religion be founded? Suggestions focus on Islam, Christianity, and Sikhism, all protected by special minority rights under the Government of India Act. Meanwhile, however, Ambedkar sermonizes his audience with Buddhist messages of spiritual self-reliance.
It is not until 20 years later in 1956 that Ambedkar announces conversion to Buddhism and launches his campaign of Buddhist conversion among Untouchables. His embrace of Buddhism turns substantially on doctrinal appeal. Beyond this, however, he finds value in the fact that Buddhism is Indian, not Western. If an alternative to Hinduism must be found, better that it be Buddhism with its indigenous heritage, rather than be imported like Christianity, Islam, and to a lesser extent Sikhism.
Like Hindu-oriented thinkers, Ambedkar seeks to ground an ideology of India’s and the world’s future in India’s religious past. He partly endorses the notion that ancient India excelled in democracy. He associates it with Buddhism, noting both Buddha’s purported approval of democratically-governed communities and the democratic procedures practiced within the sangha itself. Ambedkar suggests that the Indian history of democracy links closely with the history of Buddhism.
Buddhism and democracy align not only historically but also ideologically. They link through their common foundation in “morality,” true religion. Morality distinguishes Buddhism from Hinduism. Hinduism, is “not founded on morality.” Morality is not “integral” to it, at best only secondary. In Buddhism, morality is the core. “The religion of the Buddha is morality,” Ambedkar writes. “Buddhist religion is nothing if not morality…What God is to other religions morality is to Buddhism.” It is in Buddhism that he finds “True Religion,” a Religion of Principles.
Ambedkar sometimes seems unsure whether Buddhism should be classified as religion at all. Though he speaks of “Buddhist religion” and though it corresponds to “True Religion,” he partly wants to place Buddhism in a category of its own. In Buddhism, calling it “Dhamma” (alternate word for “dharma”), morality is all: “Morality is Dhamma and Dhamma is morality,” while in religion, morality is “not the root,” but only secondary. Despite distraction over how to classify Buddhism, Ambedkar’s consistent concern is with religion in a Durkheimian sense: exaltation of morality to the status of “sacred” in society. Buddhism turns morality itself into religion.
If Ambedkar links Buddhism to Durkheimian concerns, he also links it to Marxist ones. Though the purpose of religion is to interpret the world, the purpose of Buddhism is to change it, he explains, borrowing from Marx’s Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” His adaptation of Marx’s aphorism distinguishes Buddhism from religion and may imply that Buddhism represents the Marx-like abolition of religion or that it changes the world through morality in ways that worn-out “religions” never could.
Ambedkar wants to draw toward Buddhism sympathies that might otherwise go to Marxism. In courting those sympathies, he stresses sometimes similarities and sometimes differences he sees between Buddhism and Marxism. Both Buddhism and Marxism begin with problems of worldly suffering. He suggests that Buddhist doctrine on dukkha, suffering, represents an early version of Marxist doctrine on exploitation. Buddhism and Marxism jointly repudiate “supernatural” concerns, concentrating instead upon removal of worldly injustice. The Buddha’s conception of dukkha is “material,” writes Ambedkar, focused largely around the problem of poverty. Buddhism and Marxism also take similar positions on property ownership, he explains. Just as Marxism banishes private ownership of productive property, the Buddhist sangha bans private property among its members. Moreover, Buddhism generally fosters an attitude of propertylessness among its adherents. In fact, he concludes, more than a trifle simplistically, Marxism adds nothing of substance to Buddhism.
Despite his socialism and Marxist interpretations of Buddhism, Ambedkar vehemently denounces communism, which he associates with violent change and repressive rule. He claims that Buddhism provides superior means of achieving goals it shares with communism. One of these is “reformation of the mind,” spiritual transformation required to actualize a higher social life. Another is a “democratic and republican form of government,” as in the early sangha. It remains to be seen how Ambedkar finds Buddhism superior in attaining goals shared with communism.
DEFEAT OF DEMOCRATIC BUDDHISM BY HIERARCHICAL HINDUISM
The mixture of Ambedkar’s Buddhist and Marxist notions finds expression in two book-length studies of Indian history: Who Were the Shudras? and The Untouchables. These works illustrate Ambedkar’s proclivity to think simultaneously in terms of religious struggle and class struggle. He interprets Indian history as a set of religious and class struggles resulting in prolonged entombment of democracy.
In Who Were the Shudras?, Ambedkar inquires how there came to be a subjugated varna, the Shudras, in Hindu society. Present-day Shudras, he argues, are not the original ones. They are a motley collection of tribes and groups subordinated and degraded by a powerful Hindu culture. They are called Shudras because, while subjugating them, Hindu culture pushed them into the lowest and most degraded varna. Little remains of the group that originally occupied the Shudra varna, but present-day Shudras are propertyless, like the original ones also became after a prolonged religious class war.
Who then were the original Shudras? The original Indo-Aryan society, Ambedkar argues, comprised only the three high-born varnas: Brahmin, Kshatriya, and Vaishya. The Shudras were a wealthy and powerful group within the “Kshatriya class.” Ambedkar sees evidence in the Vedas that at an early stage there were two different Aryan groups that later merged into one. These came with two distinct ideologies, embodied mainly in their creation myths. One supported the varna system and the other opposed it. Shudras belonged to the anti-varna group, which practiced a republican form of society rather than a hierarchical one.
Though republican in ideology and former practice, the original Shudras came to occupy the second varna rank as a distinct group of Kshatriyas (warrior/governors) in Indo-Aryan society. There they engaged in a sort of see-saw class struggle with Brahmins, in which Shudra kings at some moments subjected Brahmins to “tyrannies and oppressions and indignities” while Brahmins at other times subjected Shudras to the Brahmin “pretension to social superiority” and “claim for special privileges,” which Ambedkar describes as “outrageous” and “unbearable.”
In this early class struggle, Brahmins eventually gained the upper hand. This occurred as Brahmins developed a keen “class consciousness” of their “class interests.” They may even have begun transforming themselves from “class” to “caste,” presumably through endogamous exclusivity. As religious specialists, moreover, Brahmins held the ultimate upper hand. In order to defeat their antagonists once and for all, they began refusing to perform for Shudras the sacred string rite of upanayana, which qualifies initiates to participate fully in Hindu religious life. Denied the religious status conferred by upanayana, the Shudras also lost their rights to education and property. Combination of these disabilities led to subjugation as the fourth varna. Motley subordinated groups and tribes subsequently wound up in that propertyless fourth varna, while the original Shudras largely vanished over time.
Several features of Ambedkar’s account warrant emphasis. First, he portrays the modem caste system as the outcome of class struggle waged through the vehicle of religion: denial of upanayana to Shudras. Second, he identifies religious degradation with economic exploitation. Loss of upanayana for the original Shudras means a descent into propertvlessness. It is a typical Ambedkar departure from materialist Marx-ism to portray a religious factor determining the economic, rather than the reverse. Third. Ambedkar portrays the struggle as pitting a more democratically-minded group, Shudras, against a more hierarchically-minded group, Brahmins. Variants of these themes emerge in Ambedkar’s other historical study.
The Untouchables sets out Ambedkar’s thesis on the origins of untouchability. In Ambedkar’s account, the groups that later became Untouchables were conquered tribal groups forced to settle on the perimeters of conqueror settlements. Vanquished groups were propertyless “paupers,” economically dependent on the “wealthy community” to which they were subject. Ambedkar calls these groups “Broken Men.”
At some point, the Broken Men became Buddhist, along with most of Indian society. The Broken Men then became the peculiar victims of a momentous religious class struggle between Buddhism and Brahminism. Buddhism was the religion of the majority, the masses, the anti-hierarchical “leftists,” while Brahminism was the religion of hierarchical “rightists.” For a while, Buddhism dominated the subcontinent and put Brahmin supremacy on the defensive, but Brahminism eventually triumphed in a victory for caste hierarchy. It caused the wane of Buddhism throughout India, while visiting the peculiar new harm of untouchability on the Broken Men.
Ambedkar argues that the class struggle between Brahminism and Buddhism played out through the religious symbolism of diet and practices with respect to cows. In early times, he argues, all of Indian society had practiced the eating of meat, including beef. Moreover, cow sacrifice was a crucial component of Brahminical religion. Ambedkar argues that Brahmins abandoned cow sacrifice and became vegetarians in order to defend and enhance their religious prestige against competition from Buddhism. His analysis is complex and somewhat hard to follow.
The Buddhist masses objected to Brahmin cow sacrifice, he contends, on both religious and economic grounds. With respect to religion, cow sacrifice violated Buddhist non-violence. With respect to economics, it offended the sense of utility in a mainly agrarian population valuing multiple uses of cows other than for eating. Buddhist monks, meanwhile, acquired religious prestige by eating meat only if slaughtered for some reason other than to feed them. In order to seize the upper hand in religious symbolism, Brahminism took two strategic steps: it adopted vegetarianism and abandoned cow sacrifice. Cow worship replaced cow sacrifice, with consequent prohibition on cow-slaughter and special abhorrence of beef-eating. These moves helped Brahiminism defeat Buddhism and incidentally inflicted disastrous secondary effects upon society’s lowliest, the Broken Men.
Because of the cow’s new sacred status, profane treatment of cows took on the character of sacrilege. This applied to any eating or handling of cows living or dead. Broken Men, however, had no choice but to eat beef and handle dead cows. The division of wealth in settlements had always been such that the well-to-do would eat fresh-slaughtered beef while their dispossessed underlings would eat only carrion beef from already-dead cattle. As prohibition on cow-slaughter gained allegiance, the wealthy stopped eating even slaughtered beef. Due to economic plight, however, Broken Men could not afford to stop eating carrion, “their principle sustenance.” By eating cow meat, the Broken Men committed sacrilege, rendering them untouchable to higher castes. Moreover, their lowly status left them in occupations handling dead cow materials, as in the leather trade. This made them even more untouchable. It did not, however, violate either Buddhist non-violence (ahisma) or Brahminical cow-protection for untouchables to consume carrion beef. Hence, carrion beef eating continued, despite being sacrilegious from the viewpoint of orthodox Brahminism. Buddhist religion allowed lowly Broken Men to eat what economic exploitation forced upon them. Hindu religion, meanwhile, worked actively against them, foisting upon them the degraded status of Untouchable, thus rendering them even more vulnerable to economic exploitation.
In The Untouchables, as in Who Were the Shudras?, Ambedkar explains how present caste inequalities stem from past class struggles waged through religious symbolism. He tells also of symbiosis between religious degradation and economic exploitation, and of triumph of hierarchy over democracy.
BUDDHISM REINVENTED: MARXISM OR PURE RELIGIOUS IDEOLOGY?
In 1956, Ambedkar announced his personal conversion to Buddhism and launched his campaign of mass Buddhist conversion among Untouchables. Revival of Buddhism, he hoped, would reverse the verdict of Indian history by eradicating hierarchy, religious degradation and economic exploitation. Untouchables would gain most of all from Buddhism’s resurgence.
A crucial task for propagating Buddhism, Ambedkar thinks, is “No produce a Buddhist Bible.” He sets out to do just that and launches a work called The Buddha and His Dhamma. The book looks and reads like a Bible, with chapters and short numbered verses, along with doses of myth-like poetical language. Siddhartha is born miraculously, with the 32 marks signifying greatness. Passages on the young Siddhartha’s sensual temptations are racier than the Song of Solomon. Women press upon Siddhartha “with their full, firm bosoms in gentle collisions” and beseech him to “Perform thy rites of adoration here.
There is not just myth and titillation but also political instruction in Ambedkar’s retelling. The account soon departs from tradition and pursues a political agenda. In place of the Sorrowful Sights—which in the traditional story launch Siddhartha’s search for the roots of suffering—Ambedkar substitutes Siddhartha’s early insight into the nature of economic exploitation:
- Once he went to his father’s farm with some of his friends and saw the laborers ploughing the land, raising builds, cutting trees, etc., dressed in scanty clothes under hot burning sun.
- He was greatly moved by the sight.
- He said to his friends, can it be right that one man should exploit another? How can it be right that the laborer should toil and the master should live on the fruits of his labor?
If such is Siddhartha’s insight, what could Marx possibly add? Later on Siddhartha discovers that “the conflict between classes is constant and perpetual.” As he further reflects: “It is this which is the root of all sorrow and suffering in the world.” The resolution of suffering, according to Ambedkar’s Siddhartha, must be found in a new social doctrine, which is Dhamma.
The social insights ascribed to Siddhartha dovetail with Ambedkar’s notion of Buddhism as anti-exploitational, anti-hierarchical religion. “Dhamma is social,” which implies “right relations between man and man in all spheres of life.” One might therefore expect that Ambedkar’s exposition of Buddhist principles would emphasize socially transformative action as key to Buddhist life. Such is not the case, however. Nowhere does Ambedkar articulate how Buddhism applies to transforming social institutions. Ambedkar’s Buddhism, though linked with a “Social Message” of fraternity and social morality contains scarcely any theory of collaborative social action or vision of ideal institutional arrangements. This is strange because collaborative action aimed at rectifying injustice and building communities seems to capture some of what Ambedkar means by “endosmosis,” the sharing of social experience.
Ambedkar takes care to spell out certain specific principles of Buddhist conduct. Noteworthy about these principles, however, is that they focus exclusively on cultivating personal virtue. He summarizes the “Buddhist Way of Life” with admonitions like “Do good…Commit not sin…Cherish no anger…Win your enemies by love.” He describes “Righteous conduct” in terms of the five traditional Buddhist proscriptions: non-killing, non-theft, sobriety, continence and truthfulness. He suggests that “man’s inequity to man” can best be solved through cultivating “good disposition.”
In consonance with other thinkers examined here, Ambedkar stresses the role of religion in restraining material appetite. Buddhism urges neither indulgence nor asceticism, but moderation in material satisfaction. All suffering stems from the quenchless greed of passion. “Nibbana,” (alternate word for “nirvana”) or salvation, means “control of passions.” It is odd that Ambedkar stresses this traditional doctrine that all suffering steins from passion, since he argues equally emphatically that all suffering stems from economic exploitation. He finesses this ambiguity between traditional and Marxist Buddhism by suggesting vaguely that “uncontrolled acquisitive instinct” is the “correct analysis of class struggle.” He articulates no Buddhist solution to “uncontrolled acquisitive instinct,” however, except for mere cultivation of personal virtue. No collaborative or institutional approach emerges.
It is striking that Ambedkar takes pain retelling the Siddhartha story so as to link Buddhism with critique of economic exploitation only to retreat into pure religious ideology when outlining tenets of actual Buddhist observance. His only attempt to connect Buddhism with institutional community life comes in portraying the sangha as practical embodiment of Buddhist principle:
- But the Blessed Lord also knew that merely preaching the Dhamma to the common men would not result in the creation of that ideal society based on righteousness.
- An ideal must he practical and must be shown to be practicable. Then and then only people strive after it and try to realize it.
- To create this striving it is necessary to have a picture of a society working on the basis of the ideal and thereby proving to the common man that the ideal was not impracticable but on the other hand realizable.
- The sangh is a model of a society realizing the Dhamma…’
Amhedkar notes with approval certain features of life in the sangha. The monks (bhikkus) do not live unto themselves but always as part of their community, the sangha. They do not obey superiors, but only Dhamma in a regime of free thought. There is mutuality in cultivating character and virtue. Bhikkus are propertyless. All these features may be taken to represent ideals of egalitarian community for Ambedkar.
In portraying the sangha as practical community organized around Buddhist principles, Ambedkar almost pushes his Buddhism beyond confines of pure religious ideology. He does not, however, probe sangha organizational details, nor explain how they or facsimiles might be reproduced in the outside world. He takes no notice that the sangha has no production problem to solve, since it relies on material support from the wider society. Ambedkar should notice serious problems in showing how the sangha, with no production problem, represents a model for society at large, which does have production problems. Failure to explain how the sangha might be a model for a society with production requirements is especially strange in a thinker normally keen in appreciating economic issues.
Not only the collective sangha, but individual bhikkus have social tasks, according to Ambedkar. The bhikku’s role is not merely to practice self-culture, but also to act as “social servant devoting his life to service of the People…” But no mention emerges of how bhikkus should serve the people other than by propagating Dhamma. If Ambedkar imagines bhikkus as agents of institutional social change, he does not say so.
CONSTITUTIONAL SOCIALISM, BUDDHIST VIRTUE
It is not in his Buddhist thought but in his constitutional thought that Ambedkar spells out his concrete social and economic ideas. Ambedkar chaired independent India’s constitutional Drafting Committee, earning esteem as chief architect of the Constitution with the ironic appellation of “modern Manu.”” During the constitutional drafting, he argued for embedding state-centered socialism within the Constitution itself. Though he did not succeed in this, he did help secure endorsement of socialism in the Constitution’s preamble and also secured in the Directive Principles of State Policy a constitutional agenda for what he calls “economic democracy.”
Despite Ambedkar’s oft-voiced opposition to communism, he favors a highly-centralized public economy that he calls “State Social-ism.” He portrays state socialism as crucial to India’s rapid industrialization. Private capitalism, he argues, cannot carry out the industrialization task for India and certainly cannot accomplish it without producing vast wealth disparities. Though some private enterprise should be tolerated, key industries should be state-owned and operated, with lesser industries also state-owned but operated perhaps by quasi-independent state corporations, Insurance should he nationalized and compulsory. Agriculture should become a state industry, the government acquiring all farmland and establishing a system of “collective farms.” Capital should be disbursed to industries and enterprises by the state. In short, Ambedkar proposes a highly centralized socialism, with public ownership and planning articulated mainly at the level of the national state.
As indicated, Ambedkar fought hard to secure such socialist arrangements within a framework of “Constitutional Law.” Why? A constitution that merely secures political freedoms may leave citizens open to tyrannies of wealth. It is a higher form of constitutionalism that secures against economic as well as political tyranny. This would help to place socialism beyond legislative suspension or disruption at the hands of temporary anti-socialist majorities. Seeking to protect against parliamentary anti-socialism, Ambedkar favors securing socialism within a fixed and non-suspendable constitution. The only alternative lies in protecting socialism with lawless “Dictatorship,” which might suspend parliamentary democracy altogether if it threatens socialism. Keen to protect both socialism and parliamentary democracy, he can only conclude that parliamentary democracy should be bound within a fixed and unalterable socialist constitution.”
This line of thought reveals much. Ambedkar, socialism emerges simply as a structure of ownership and organization imposed upon the economy by the state. Its implementation of socialism is a purely ma- serial and economic task, without direct linkage to spiritual or moral transformation in social relations. Socialism is less social movement than an institutional framework, which can be created whole-cloth by the Constitution and implemented by the state.
What this view of socialism lacks is a theory of collaborative social action and community-building, Ambedkar does not ask that sort of communities will characterize the socialist order. His theory of contains no comment on transforming everyday attitudes, habits and practices in actual social life so as to create egalitarian communities. Of course, he insists that there is a spiritual dimension to social transformation. This he assigns to Buddhism. As indicated above, however, his portrayal of Buddhist practice makes it a species of pure religious ideology: social transformation through the cultivation of private personal virtue. Here too, Ambedkar lacks a theory of collaborative social action and community-building.
METHODS OF CHANGE: THE BLIND SPOT IN CONSTITUTIONALISM
More than any other thinker examined here so far, Ambedkar comprehends socialism as a productive system organized around public ownership. At the same time, he thinks ambitiously about the religious dimensions of oppression and liberation. The oddity is that though he explores in detail both sides of our problematic—religion and economics—he fails to synthesize them: He oddly seems to fall for pure religious ideology and materialist socialism at the same time.
As shown above, Ambedkar believes that social democracy requires two components that go beyond parliamentary political democracy. There is the spiritual component: fraternity, morality, endosmosis. There is also the economic component: equality and non-exploitation. In Ambedkar’s vision, Buddhism provides the spiritual component, state socialism the economic. They may both be necessary, but little common ground connects them. To Ambedkar, Buddhism is simply the practice of personal moral virtue, while socialism is simply the practice of public productive ownership and economic planning by the national state. A Buddhist and a socialist, Ambedkar is neither a socialist Buddhist nor a Buddhist socialist. The spiritual problem and the productive problem find resolution at entirely different levels with entirely separate methods and techniques.
Ambedkar’s Buddhism and his socialism fail to synchronize precisely because he confines his Buddhism to the personal sphere and his socialism to the state sphere. But it is in an intermediate sphere, the Sphere of collaborative action and community-building, where practice of spiritual virtue and implementation of socialism might bear mutual relevance. They might coalesce in creating and operating common local institutions, including those concerning production. In his activist career, Ambedkar was no stranger to community-building. He was in fact an exceedingly active organizer, especially of institutions aimed at educating Untouchables. It is odd that neither his Buddhist ideas nor his socialist ideas get expressed in terms of collaborative organization and community-building.
The split between Buddhist personal virtue and state socialism finds an echo in Ambedkar’s insistence on mind change and democratic government as the only acceptable alternatives to violent revolution. In each case, Ambedkar sees the virtuous individual and the progressive state as adequate forces of social transformation. Ignored in each case is the force of collaborative social action, independent of the state. It is especially striking that Ambedkar repudiates satyagraha—organized non-violent and often illegal resistance to authority—as an alternative to revolutionary violence. Democratic government, he argues:
…means that we must abandon the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha. When there was no way left for constitutional methods for achieving economic and social objectives, there was some justification for unconstitutional methods for achieving economic and social objectives. But where constitutional methods are open there can be no justification for these unconstitutional methods. These methods are nothing but the Grammar of Anarchy and the sooner they are abandoned the better for us.
Several things are strange about Ambedkar’s repudiation of non-violent satyagraha. First, Ambedkar had himself once been an organizer of satyagraha aimed at securing temple entry and drinking water rights for Untouchables. Second, Ambedkar ignores the spiritual role of satyagraha in fostering exactly the kind of fraternity, solidarity, and “endosmosis” he sees as crucial to successful change and a worthwhile social order. Third, he seems not to notice that non-violent direct action is arguably quite compatible with Buddhism and with one of its main values: ahimsa. Fourth, his insistence on “constitutional methods” relies on a surprising degree of trust in institutions of “political democracy.” This fourth point requires elaboration.
Ambedkar finds political democracy empty without social democracy, but insists that social democracy must be pursued exclusively through political democracy. Political democracy is a “form and method of government whereby revolutionary changes in the economic and social life of the people are brought about without blood-shed…” This surely overstates political democracy’s power to subvert entrenched social and economic structures.
Ambedkar seems both sufficiently and insufficiently aware of how a politically democratic state can be ensnared by entrenched social and economic power. He clearly recognizes that a politically democratic state may easily be captured by a socio-economic “ruling class,” as long as social and economic inequality persists. Yet he regards the democratic state, once established, as the sole legitimate means for fighting the very structures of social and economic power that subvert true democracy.”
Ambedkar sidesteps the obvious problem that elites dominating a politically democratic state may prevent it from attacking socio-economic structures undergirding their power. Focus on this dilemma might drive him to conclude that extra-parliamentary methods may be justified and even necessary in attacking socio-economic hierarchies, even under political democracy.
Too much the constitutionalist Ambedkar hastily disallows extra methods of change a democracy. We shall see that parliamentary Gandhi’s position is different and more satisfactory. To be sure, Ambedkar’s view, raises points to ponder. Under democracy, social change efforts should indeed be channeled heavily through lawful petitions upon government. Moreover, the meaning of satyagraha under democracy can become hazy. By whom and against what can it legitimately and effectively he directed? These are valid concerns, but Ambedkar’s adamant stance still disappoints. His life comes to its end just as wide-spread civil disobedience against racial caste rises in the U.S. Had he lived longer, might this have pushed him to think further on satyagraha?
Though Ambedkar understands better than Gandhi what capital-ism is, Gandhi sees better than Ambedkar what should be done to transcend it. Ambedkar’s attempt to constitutionalize socialism, securing it against temporary anti-socialist majorities, reflects his fear of elite state capture. Paradoxical then is his misplaced confidence that proper constitutional organization of the state itself can prevent it. if his fears are well founded, the confidence cannot be.
Ambedkar can be praised for willingness to wield state power against inegalitarian social structures. He ducks too easily, however, the problem that elite power may dominate the state itself and prevent it from being so wielded. For example, there is no strong reason to believe as Ambedkar does that an anti-socialist legislature could effectively be checked by the mere presence of a socialist constitution. Moreover, even progressive laws passed by a pro-socialist legislature would stand in danger of implementation by elites. In short, even within a nominally progressive democratic state, there is good reason to countenance extra-parlimentary forms of non-violent direct action against state and other institutions. This helps to ensure that movement toward social and economic justice does not falter. In the long run, socialism can secure itself against subversion only through a citizenry mobilized toward an action and participation in affairs. Ambedkar slights this dimension by excluding satyagraha in his enthusiasm for implementing socialism through a proper technical structure of government.
ECONOMIC VISION: IMPLICATIONS OF A NON-COMMUNAL FOCUS
Characteristic strengths and weaknesses of Ambedkar’s thought can be discerned in his approach to India’s most monumental economic problem: rural poverty, unemployment and backwardness. Amhedkar war-rants praise for examining the economics of rural backwardness more adequately than any other thinker examined here so far. He warrants criticism, however, for trusting too heavily in statist economic structures, without attention to nuances of community-building.
It is precisely in the rural villages that many modern Indian thinkers see opportunities for non-statist community-building. They develop an ideology of village community as foundation for a reconstructed society. Some germs of this ideology can he found in thinkers already examined. One problem with this ideology lies in exaggerating the communal character of villages, downplaying structures of division and exploitation within them. Strongly vigilant against this tendency, Ambedkar emphatically repudiates the entire ideology of village community. He refers to villages as India’s “ruination,” calling them “sinks” of social evil. It is certainly fair to repudiate glorification of Indian village life. His contempt for the villages, however, goes beyond realistic skepticism. It reflects inability to contend with issues of small-scale community and an ill-founded bias favoring statist solutions.
Despite Ambedkar’s emphasis on fraternity and “endosmosis,” a powerful strain of liberal individualism permeates his thought. Individuals and states are far more real in his mind than are communities. To those critics of the Constitution he drafted as overly statist and in-sufficiently attentive to village communities, Ambedkar retorts that he prefers a constitution based on individuals. not communities.’ He insists that a socialist constitution should protect individuals from oppression not fuse them into vibrant communities.
Amhedkar’s statist bias emerges in specific rural policy proposals. Fundamental to India’s rural crisis is drastic population Pressure on land, with consequent small and divided land holdings, inefficient production, and underemployment. Ambedkar identifies deindustrialization, largely via British colonialism, as root of the problem. As a remedy, he proposes an industrialization strategy that would redeploy redundant low-productivity agrarian labor into higher-productivity industrial work capable of generating surpluses. Surpluses could then be invested to increase capitalization of agriculture, increasing its efficiency through larger holdings and lower labor-intensivity.
Ambedkar’s industrialization strategy overlooks key problems. An industrialization strategy requires proper balance if it is effectively to absorb redundant labor. For maximum employment, success could lie with light, labor-intensive industry, not capital-intensive industry.
It should concentrate on producing goods useful to an agrarian economy so that adequate markets exist, without unduly displacing existing modes of producing such goods. All of this urges that industrialization be synchronized with wise development of agrarian communities.
Industrial strategies that overlook integration of industry with agrarian communities could easily worsen matters, not improve them. It makes sense in a land like India to stress light agrarian-linked industry a priority and as a prerequisite to heavier industrialization.
Moreover, heavy industry tends to confer great power on huge enterprise generating disparities and elites antithetical to social democracy. This seems true even for enterprises under public ownership of an ostensibly democratic state” Ambedkar contemplates public ownership of industry resting chiefly the hands of the national state, rather than with smaller communities. This renders links between industrialization and community-building hard to sustain. In short, ‘Ambedkar overlooks much when proposing that India alleviate its agrarian crises through industrialization.
Another dimension of India’s rural crisis is gross inequality in land holdings which concentrates misery amongst those who own the least. In characteristic fashion. Ambedkar views this phenomenon simultaneously in terms of caste and class, religion and economics. It is the Untouchables who suffer the worst. Untouchables and caste divided from each other by religion, also constitute two distinct economic classes. Each village is a tiny system of class exploitation, reinforced by religious oppression. Caste Hindus own all productive property, including land, while Untouchables own nothing and therefore subsist as landless labour, impoverished and exploited! To Ambedkar, such a situation cries out for action by the state.
Ambedkar argues first of all for radical reform in land ownership, through the creation of Soviet-style state-owned collective farms. He rejects more moderate socialist proposals for land redistribution yielding egalitarian private ownership. It is not clear why. He might be offended by the retention of private property by the small, inefficient size of contemplated holdings, or by the prospect of continued low capitalization in the agrarian sector. All these are valid concerns, but Ambedkar misses possibilities for addressing them through cooperative farming and marketing, profit-sharing, common ownership of tools and machinery, and other forms of structured collaboration. These could profit from state aid, but would also require and foster solidarity, flexibility and creativity. Ambedkar fails to notice morale and productivity problems typical of Soviet-style collective farms, which seem to discourage any sense of local power, responsibility or incentive.
Ambedkar proposes a state plan of constructing separate villages for the Untouchables, providing them sure escape from caste Hindu exploitation. The state would commandeer uncultivated wasteland as well as private landholdings for this purpose. It is characteristic to imagine abolishing caste oppression through a single state initiative: separate villages. Progressive social action comes from the state, with the downtrodden its mere beneficiaries. Ambedkar does not explore how Untouchables might organize themselves for struggle against oppressive arrangements. No doubt such a struggle is challenging within a highly decentralized and entrenched village order. State initiative is surely necessary to assist low-caste efforts. Indeed, the separate-village proposal could be precisely the sort of state initiative needed to help Untouchables organize themselves. It is disappointing that Ambedkar comments so little on organizational initiatives Untouchables might take themselves. Such initiatives could help support new village arrangements. Ambedkar offers no commentary on how his proposed Untouchable villages should operate. Are they separate state-owned collective farms?
When it comes to what Untouchables can collectively do for them-selves, Ambedkar offers little except religious conversion. Conversion will remove the stigma of untouchability, which blocks economic progress, he thinks. Does he really imagine that conversion will remove stigma in high-caste attitudes or that it could by itself remove economic roadblocks? He mentions little to nothing on conversion entailing new arrangements. New arrangements come from the state.
We have explored Ambedkar’s rural policy ideas in some detail, to illustrate implications of an overly statist socialism, combined with religious notions insufficiently linked to social change effort. Ambedkar’s willingness to wield state-socialist power against oppressive structures is praiseworthy, but he misses the need for and inherent value of non-statist forms of transformation.
More than any other thinker yet examined here, Ambedkar weaves together religious perspectives on oppression and liberation with socialist ones. He explores spiritual and economic aspects of democracy, develops a Marxist critique of Hinduism and a religious critique of materialist socialism. He seems within reach of a socialist Buddhism or Buddhist socialism. In the end, however, he fails to press Buddhism beyond pure religious ideology and he settles for a statist socialism clumsily biased toward simplistic solutions. It is perhaps right-minded criticisms of village and caste that prompt him to emphasize the state rather than lesser spheres of community. Much is lost, however, in such an emphasis. Only in notions about the sangha does he link Buddhism with community-building. Even there, he fails to articulate a Buddhist agenda for transformation. Instead. he assigns social transformation to the state. which wields power but does not cultivate the spirit.