11. Are neo-Buddhists- Hindus?

11.1. The challenge of Ambedkarite neo-Buddhism

On 2 October 1956, two months before his death, the former Law Minister Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar led several hundreds of thousands of followers, mostly belonging to his own ex-untouchable Mahar caste, into conversion to Buddhism.1 He extracted twenty-two promises from his followers.  We will list them here with their original numbers but regrouped in two categories.  The first category consists of positive expressions of commitment to the Buddhist way:

“7) I will never act against the tenets of Buddhism; 

“11) I will follow the Eight-fold Path of Lord Buddha;

“12) I will follow the ten Paramitas of the Dhamma;2 

“13) I will have compassion on all living beings and will try to look after them;

“14) I will not lie;

“15) I will not commit theft;

“16) I will not indulge in lust or sexual transgression;

“17) I will never take any liquor or drink that causes intoxication;

“18) I will try to mould my life in accordance with the Buddhist preachings based on Enlightenment, precept and compassion;

“20) I firmly believe that the Bauddha Dhamma is the best religion; 

“21) I believe that today I am taking a new birth;

“22) I solemnly take the oath that from today onwards I will act according to the Bauddha Dhamma.”

It is debatable whether the “firm belief that the Bauddha Dhamma is the best religion” was ever part of the formal resolutions taken by the Buddha’s disciples, but let us not pick on this; we may accept that these promises by Ambedkar’s followers are just an emphatic expression of their entry into Buddhism.  It is a different story with those promises which articulate Ambedkar’s own social and anti-Hindu agenda:

“1) I will not regard Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh as gods nor will I worship them;

“2) I will not regard Rama and Krishna as gods nor will I worship them;

“3) I will not accept Hindu deities like Gauri, Ganapati etc., nor will I worship them;

“4) I do not believe that God has taken birth or incarnation in any form;

“5) I do not believe that Lord Buddha was the incarnation of Vishnu, I believe this propaganda is mischievous and false;

“6) I will never perform any Shraddha nor will I offer any Pinda [i.e. Brahminical funeral and post-funeral rites];

“8) I will not have any Samskara [ritual] performed by Brahmins;

“9) I believe in the principle that all are equal;

“10) I will try to establish equality;

“11) I embrace today the Bauddha Dhamma, discarding the Hindu religion which is detrimental to the emancipation of human beings and which believes in inequality and regards human beings other than Brahmins as low-born.”

This list of promises is unique in the history of Buddhism, in that it not only professes to follow the Buddhist way, but also attacks a non-Buddhist tradition and rejects the devotion to a number of Gods whose worship was propagated outside India by Buddhism itself.  The Japanese-Buddhist Goddess Benzai-ten is none other than Saraswati, the Chinese-Buddhist God Shui-tian is Vedic Varuna, etc., all imported by Buddhism without the help of a single (non-Buddhist) Brahmin.3 As D.D. Kosambi notes: “Pali records started by making Indra and Brahma respectful hearers of the original Buddhist discourses.  The Mahayana admitted a whole new pantheon of gods including Ganesha, Shiva and Vishnu, all subordinated to the Buddha.”4

Dr. Ambedkar repeated on the occasion of his conversion. what he had been saying for years: that only conversion could really change the social status of the lowest castes.  However, unlike many of his followers, Ambedkar did not convert to Buddhism merely because he found it socially useful.  He had studied Buddhism and did believe that it was the most rational and humane religious tradition, the best for all human beings, untouchables and touchables alike.  He consequently rejected the “opportunistic” conversions to Islam and Christianity, not merely because he considered these religions a threat to India (on that point, the Hindutva spokesmen are entirely on his side), but because he considered these religions inferior to the humanism and rationalism of Buddhism.

An additional reason for his choice of Buddhism was his highly unlikely belief that Buddhism, an elite religion thriving on patronage, had been the original religion of the Dalits.5 in Ambedkar’s view, the Dalits should not seek a new religion but return to their original religion.  This motive is analogous to the approach of the Arya Samaj’s Shuddhi movement for reconversion of Indian Muslims and Christians to their ancestral religion: instead of “conversion”, it is advertised as a “homecoming” or ghar-wâpasî, as the Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram calls its re-conversion ceremonies for christianized tribals.

Today, there are about 6 million neo-Buddhists, most of them from Ambedkar’s own Mahar caste and related Scheduled Castes.  Occasionally, local mass conversions to Buddhism still occur in these communities.  Unlike the Dalai Lama, who emphasizes the closeness of Hinduism and Buddhism before his Indian hosts, the Ambedkarite tendency in Buddhism is overtly anti-Hindu and tries to maximize the separateness of Buddhism.

Nevertheless, Hindutva author M.V. Kamath quotes a testimony by social scientist Neera Burra, who “found many people who claimed they were Buddhists but had not taken the vows because they would not be allowed to eat meat and would have to give up all their gods and goddesses”.  Burra also observed about neo-Buddhist Mahars who did convert to Buddhism: “It is not an exaggeration to say that every single household I visited had Hindu gods and goddesses installed in positions of respect”, side by side with the Buddha and Babasaheb Ambedkar.6 The clean break with Hinduism has not yet been achieved.

11.2. Buddhist welcome to Ambedkar

In a brief critique of the Ambedkarite version of Buddhism, Sita Ram Goel draws attention to the fact that Dr. Ambedkar candidly admits that his own Buddhism has little to do with the Buddhist doctrine as laid down in the Pali Canon.7 When we turn to the indicated passage in Ambedkar’s book The Buddha and his Dhamma, we do come across statements which are rather surprising under the pen of a convert to Buddhism.  He writes that the Nikayas (the core literary testimony about the Buddha) are unreliable, and that the story of Siddhartha Gautama leaving the world at 29 after seeing a dead, a sick and an old person for the first time, is “absurd”.  He rejects the “four Aryan Truths”, because they “deny hope to man.  The four Aryan Truths make the Gospel of the Buddha a gospel of pessimism.  Do they form part of the original gospel or are they a later accretion by monks?”8

Questioning the historicity of the founding narrative of a religion is certainly a permissible and even a commendable exercise, but it is hard to reconcile with being a propagator of that same religion.  Unless, of course, one chooses to redefine that religion completely, without reference to its founder’s original intentions.  While the Buddha (at least the only Buddha we know, the one attested in Buddhist Scripture) was quite unambiguous about the futility of worldly pursuits, Dr. Ambedkar would want Buddhism to focus on the pursuit of social reform:

“What was the object of the Buddha in creating the Bhikkhu?  Was the object to create a perfect man? (…) if the Bhikkhu is only a perfect man he is of no use to the propagation of Buddhism because though a perfect man he is a selfish man.  If, on the other hand, he is a social servant he may prove to be the hope of Buddhism.  This question must be decided not so much in the interest of doctrinal consistency but in the interest of the future of Buddhism.”9

Ambedkar’s attempt to turn Buddhism into a philosophy of worldly social action necessarily implied a departure from the Buddha’s programme of non-worldly liberation.

Hindu Revivalists like to point out that Ambedkar was seriously criticized by authentic Buddhists for mixing Buddhism with what Ambedkar’s book describes as social reform, but what these Buddhists considered a message of hatred and separatism.  Dhananjay Keer, biographer and outspoken admirer of Ambedkar but also sympathetic to the Hindutva movement, reports:

“The Mahabodhi, a famous Buddhist journal in India, opined that The Buddha and his Dhamma is a dangerous book.  Ambedkar’s interpretation of the theory of karma, the theory of ahimsa and his theory that Buddhism was merely a social system, constituted not the correct interpretation of Buddhism but a new orientation.  Indeed the whole of the book, observed the reviewer, explained the hatred and aggressiveness the neo-Buddhists nourished and displayed.  ‘Ambedkar’s Buddhism’, added the reviewer, ‘is based on hatred, the Buddha’s on compassion’ (…) The title, pleaded the reviewer, should be changed from The Buddha and his Dhamma to that of Ambedkar and his Dhamma; for Ambedkar preached non-Dhamma as Dhamma for motives of political and social reform.”10

Another paper, The Light of Dhamma (Rangoon), observed that “although this was a book by a great man, unfortunately it was not a great book”.  Dhananjay Keer explains: “The reviewer pointed out that the great Doctor tampered with the texts and whenever he found views in Buddhism inconvenient to his own, denounced them as later accretions made by monks.  The author was nevertheless a great and good man; the tragedy was that it was neither a great book nor a good book, concluded the reviewer.”11

Buddhist monk Jivaka wrote: “In India the movement started by Ambedkar was not Buddhism but a campaign for social reform under the name Buddhism, and he has promulgated the idea that bhikkhus are for the purpose of social service.  But his book ‘The Buddha and His Dharma’ is misnamed for he preaches non-Dharma as Dharma, even sweeping away the four Aryan Truths as a later addition by scholar-monks, maintaining that the Buddha distinguished between killing for a good reason and purely want only, and saying that He did not ban the former; and to cap it all he writes that the Dharma is a social system and that a man quite alone would not need it (…) Hence the so-called New Buddhists or better named, Ambedkarists, surround bhikkhus aggressively and tell them what they should do and abuse them if they are not actively engaged in social work or preaching reform.  The result is seen in the acts of violence they have committed, the rioting that has taken place in Nagpur and Jabbulpur and other places.  For Ambedkar entered on his new religion with hate in his heart and his followers are still nourishing and fanning the flames of hate in the uneducated masses they lead.”12

In a report to his Government in 1992, the Sri Lankan High Commissioner to India, Mr. Neville Kanakaratne, noted the “regrettable fact” that a great majority of Indian Buddhists were members of the Scheduled Castes who converted under Dr. Ambedkar’s leadership in order to assert their political rights “rather than through honest self-persuasion and conviction”.  By contrast, the effort by the Mahabodhi Society to spread Buddhism through proper information and teaching had achieved “very little”, according to the Sri Lankan High Commissioner.13

If we accept the High Commissioner’s assessment of such purely political conversion, implying that there is little genuine enthusiasm for the Buddha’s spiritual message in these Ambedkarite conversions, we must notice at the same time that in the margin of the politically Buddhist community, centres of genuine spiritual Buddhism are evolving, to the dismay of purely political converts.  Thus, the Leftist commentator Gopal Guru complains that Ambedkarite Buddhists are starting to take an active interest in Theravada Buddhist meditation: “Some of the Buddhist organizations are busy spiritualising Ambedkar’s Buddhism with a view to supplanting the need to look at Ambedkar’s Buddhist conversion movement as an emancipatory, critical concern.”14

For one, the London-based Trailokya Buddha Mahasangha “tries to disseminate the spiritual content of Buddhism” during “workshops of 3 to 7 days’ duration”, a classical format to introduce interested laymen to the basic practices of Buddhism.15 This Trailokya Buddha Mahasangha was founded by Dennis Lingwood (b. 1926), a British-born monk who took the name Sangharakshita at his initiation in 1949 (by the same monk who was to initiate Dr. Ambedkar in 1956).  Far from Ambedkar’s depreciation of Buddhism’s spiritual core in favour of social reform, Sangharakshita aims at creating “a new society where each individual’s spiritual development forms the centre of all activity”.16

A Scheduled Caste convert explains: “The Dalit movement lacks the positive approach of Buddhism.  I no longer call myself a Dalit.  I consider myself a Buddhist.”17 By contrast, another one complains: “Sangharakshita came to turn us into good Buddhists.  But the problem is not becoming a good Buddhist, but a combative Buddhist. (…) How can one obtain mental peace if there is no peace in society?”18 To which the Buddha, who lived in an equally turbulent age, might have said that if you want to wait for peace in the outside world before starting to make peace inside, you will wait forever.

A less controversial but essentially similar Buddhist presence is the Vipassana association of the Burmese master Sayagyi U Ba Khin as represented by S.N. Goenka.  As I have been able to see for myself, this tradition of Buddhist meditation has struck firm roots in Ambedkar’s own Maharashtra, mainly through its Vipassana International Academy in Dhammagiri near Jalgaon where 10-day courses for laymen are offered.  This way, a process of rapprochement between traditional Buddhists and Ambedkarite neo-Buddhists is already visible, so that we are probably witnessing the genesis of a genuine new Indian Buddhism.

11.3. Ambedkar on the Hindu roots of Buddhism

Dr. Ambedkar intended his conversion to Buddhism to be seen, both by his followers and by outsiders, as a break-away from Hinduism.  Two generations later, the Ambedkarite neo-Buddhists are finding that those who have taken up the study and practice of Buddhism in right earnest, are very close to those Hindus who are serious about their Yogic and Vedantic paths.  They should have known that this was inevitable: even Dr. Ambedkar, while generously ascribing unique achievements to the Buddha, did acknowledge the indebtedness of the Buddha to earlier Hindu thinkers.

Thus, Ambedkar traces Buddha’s rational approach, which he values so much, to Kapila, the founder of the Samkhya-Darshana, the “viewpoint” focusing on cosmology: “Among the ancient philosophers of India the most preeminent was Kapila (…) The tenets of his philosophy were of a startling nature.  Truth must be supported by proof.  This is the first tenet of the Samkhya system.  There is no truth without proof.  For purposes of proving the truth Kapila allowed only two means of proof-1) perception, and 2) inference”.19

According to Dr. Ambedkar, Kapila is the source of one of Buddhism’s most fundamental concepts, causality, and also of the related Buddhist rejection of the belief in a personal Creator of the universe: “His next tenet related to causality-creation and its cause.  Kapila denied the theory that there was a being who created the universe.”20

Kapila’s arguments are listed, and the last one introduces yet another fundamental concept of Buddhism: suffering (dukkha).  It is brought in from an unusual angle:

“Kapila argued that the process of development of the unevolved is through the activities of three constituents of which it is made up, Sattva, Rajas and Tamas.  These are called three Gunas. [Sattva is] light in nature, which reveals, which causes pleasure to men; [Rajas is] what impels and moves, what produces activity; [Tamas is] what is heavy and puts under restraint, what produces the state of indifference or inactivity (…) When the three Gunas are in perfect balance, none overpowering the other, the universe appears static (achetan) and ceases to evolve.  When the three Gunas are not in balance, one overpowers the other, the universe becomes dynamic (sachetan) and evolution begins.  Asked why the Gunas become unbalanced, the answer which Kapila gave was that this disturbance in the balance of the three Gunas was due to the presence of Dukkha (suffering).”21

Buddhism is quite close to the Samkhya-Yoga viewpoint: to Samkhya for its philosophical framework, to Yoga for its methods of meditation.  Yet, sectarian Buddhists claim that the Buddha had first studied with two yogis, Arada Kalam and Uddaka Ramaputta, and had left them in utter dissatisfaction to go and invent a totally new system.  This is typically the talk of “followers”, of people who have never done any independent seeking themselves: in real life, discarding everything you have learned and building something totally new from scratch just does not exist.  In the Pali Canon the Budda leaves the two teachers after they stated that they could not take him further on the path of meditation they had already done; they admitted that they knew no more than they had taught him.

In Dr. Ambedkar’s narrative of the Buddha’s career, we also, read that one of the practices taught by Arada Kalam in his Dhyana Marga (path of meditation) was the observation of the breathing-process, anapanasati)22; till today, this is one of the first practices which a student of Buddhist meditation gets to do.  Alright, the Buddha thought that their teaching did not go far enough, and so he went out and took it further.  But all the same, he built on what he had learned from others, as we all do, and therefore a lot in Buddhism is older than Buddhism.  The Buddha rejected some of the things he had learned, such as unnatural breathing exercises and extreme asceticism.  But then, he adopted so many things that were already quite common, such as his elementary ethical prescriptions (pañchasîla: truthfulness, non-violence, non-stealing, chastity, non-intoxication).

This, according to Dr. Ambedkar, is what the Buddha was doing under the Bodhi tree after four weeks of meditation: “Gautama when he sat in meditation for getting new light was greatly in the grip of the Samkhya philosophy.  That suffering and unhappiness in the world he thought was an incontrovertible fact.  Gautama was, however, interested in knowing how to do away with suffering.  This problem the Samkhya philosophy did not deal with.”23

This is indeed the way human progress is normally made: your master has taken you this far, and from here you take another step according to your own insight.  It is a different matter whether the method of liberation from suffering which the Buddha developed and taught, was all that new.  At any rate, Ambedkar was sufficiently willing to acknowledge the Vedic roots of Buddhist philosophy, and thereby gives a handle to those Hindu revivalists who insist that Buddhism is but a branch on the tree of Hinduism.

On the other hand, Ambedkar could also be extremely critical of Hindu philosophy.  First of all, he thought that it had nothing to offer, on the contrary.  He approvingly quotes Thomas Huxley describing Upanishadic asceticism as “reducing the human mind to that condition of impassive quasi-somnambulism, which, but for its acknowledged holiness, might run the risk of being confounded with idiocy.”24 Unfortunately, whoever equates the concentrated mental alertness developed in meditation with “somnambulism” and “idiocy”, can hardly extol Buddhist meditation which develops a very similar state of mind.  But the point is precisely that Ambedkar did not see Buddhism as a system of meditation.

Ambedkar’s most direct attack on Hindu sensibilities was his merciless pamphlet Riddles in Hinduism.25 Its central thesis is the absolute reduction of Hindu culture to a mere cover for caste and untouchability.  That part was largely ignored by the public, because it was the type of thing which so many westernized writers and Christian missionaries had been saying for some time.  The part which really caused offence was the chapter Riddles of Rama and Krishna, which contains a lot of ordinary scandal-mongering.  We learn that Rama’s associates, the Vanaras, are conceived in general debauchery by the gods with all kinds of nymphs and goddesses and mortal women, and that Rama himself seems to have been conceived illegitimately by the sage Shrung on Kaushalya, wife of Dasharatha.  Similar things are explicitly said about the Pandavas in the Mahabharata, and about many worthies in the Vedic, Epic and Puranic lore.  Krishna was the greatest lecher of his age, doing it with whole villages of girls and married women.

All this was taken from Scripture and hard to refute.  However, the exercise can also be tried on the Buddha.  Indeed, one V.N. Utpat wrote a booklet Riddles of Buddha and Ambedkar in reply.  It points out that the Buddha’s conception was even more illegitimate than that of Rama and Krishna: his mother was visited at night by a white elephant.  Heartless as the Buddha was, he left his wife and child behind without asking their opinion, to set out on his selfish quest for personal liberation.  By giving up his throne, he also robbed his own son of the inheritance of the throne, and when later his son came to ask him for his rightful inheritance, the Buddha cynically offered him initiation into his miserable monk order.26 And so on: people (including the human being Siddhartha Gautama the Shakyamuni) have to make choices in life, and in their decisions there will always be a dark side available for foul mouths to pick on.

11.4. Hindu reaction to Ambedkar’s conversion

Dr. Ambedkar was an unforgiving critic of Hinduism and the most prominent among formal converts out of Hinduism in the modern age.  One might, therefore, expect the Hindu movement to be equally critical of Dr. Ambedkar.  However, this is not the case, quite the contrary.  Except for the arch-traditionalist like Swami Karapatri,27 the predominant approach is to co-opt Ambedkar.  At Sangh Parivar functions, a picture of Ambedkar is mostly displayed along with pictures of Maharana Pratap, Shivaji, Guru Govind Singh, Hedgewar, Golwalkar and other more obvious Hindutva heroes.  During BJP President L.K. Advani’s flopped Rath Yatra (car procession) before the 1996 Lok Sabha elections, his car carried just two pictures: of freedom fighter Subhash Chandra Bose and of Dr. Ambedkar.

Before elaborating on this general policy, we will first consider the handful of exceptions to the rule.  In reaction to the mass conversion, the traditionalist Swami Karapatri arranged a big meeting in Kanpur to oppose “Buddhism and materialism”.28 In Maharashtra, the heartland of both Ambedkarism and Hindutva, violent altercations between the two movements have taken place, mostly in the agitation for the renaming of Marathwada University as Dr. Ambedkar University in the late 1980s and early 90s.  This renaming was opposed not by the Sangh Parivar but by the Shiv Sena; as this is an action movement with no intellectual dimension at all, it did not bother to back up this agitation with any reasoned argumentation in writing against Ambedkar.

On the contrary, even the Shiv Sena too has a general policy of co-opting Dr. Ambedkar.  Thus, V.S. Naipaul testifies about an Shiv Sena centre in a Mumbai slum area: “There was one portrait.  And interestingly, it was not of the leader of the Shiv Sena or of Shivaji, the Sena’s warrior god, but of the long-dead Dr. Ambedkar (…) Popular-and near-ecstatic-movements like the Shiv Sena ritualize many different needs.  The Sena here, honouring an angry and (for all his eminence) defeated man, seemed quite different from the Sena the newspapers wrote about.”29

Ambedkarites of the Dalit Panther movement have allegedly made two failed attempts on the life of the late Jeevan Kulkarni, an amateur-historian belonging to the Hindu Mahasabha.30 His crime was that he had developed a critique of Dr. Ambedkar’s understanding of Buddhism, along the same lines as that quoted above from Buddhist sources.31

The mainstream approach is to neutralize Ambedkar’s attack on Hinduism by “putting it into context” and emphasizing the nationalist motive of his conversion to Buddhism rather than a foreign religion.  The embarrassing fact of his formal break with Hinduism is rendered harmless by means of the typically Hindu method of incorporation: Buddhism is defined as simply one of the sects of Hinduism.  Even Veer Savarkar, in spite of his earlier invective against Buddhism, called Ambedkar’s conversion “a sure jump into the Hindu fold”, and said that “Buddhist Ambedkar is Hindu Ambedkar”.32 Fact is that Ambedkar’s choice of Buddhism, after two decades of suspense starting with his announcement in 1935 that he would not die as a Hindu, came as a great relief to the Hindu movement.

One reason for his embracing Buddhism was that he wanted a rational and humanist religion, for which he thought Christianity and Islam did not qualify.  This did not evoke much interest in Hindutva circles, but they showed all the more sympathy for the second reason: that Buddhism was an indigenous religion which would not bring with it extraterritorial loyalties.  Ambedkar has explained: “I will choose only the least harmful way for the country.  And that is the greatest benefit I am conferring on the country by embracing Buddhism; for Buddhism is a part and parcel of Bhâratîya culture.  I have taken care that my conversion will not harm the tradition of the culture and history of this land.”33

Another fact which genuinely endears Dr. Ambedkar to Hindutva activists, is his sincere patriotism.  He had a lively concern for the well-being and safety of India, e.g., while Jawaharlal Nehru stopped the army from reconquering all of Kashmir from Pakistan and allowed the Chinese to overrun Tibet in his mindless Hindi-Chini-bhai-bhai euphoria, Dr. Ambedkar warned against the danger of Islamic and Communist aggression and even suggested that India join the pro-Western SEATO (South-East-Asian Treaty Organization): “The Prime Minister has practically helped the Chinese to bring their border down to the Indian border.  Looking at all these things, it would be an act of levity not to believe that India, if it is not exposed to aggression right now, is exposed to aggression and that aggression might well be committed by people who are always in the habit of committing aggression.”34 During the framing of Indian Constitution, he advocated and succeeded in providing for a strong centre as he said that a week centre had invited foreign invasions in the past.

In 1954, when Jawaharlal Nehru was wilfully being fooled by the Chinese who were silently occupying Aksai Chin, Dr. Ambedkar said in an election speech in Nagpur that “Nehru’s foreign policy had made India a friendless country, that Nehru had bungled the Kashmir issue and had sheltered men who were dishonest, and that India was encircled by a kind of United States of Islam on one side and on the other side Russia and China in a combination for the conquest of Asia.”35 He was proven right on this score in 1962 and 1965.

Dr. Ambedkar’s conversion provoked a few Hindu authors to publish reflections on Buddhism and its relation with Hinduism.  Thus, Ram Swarup wrote his Buddhism vis-à-vis Hinduism (1958), which is on the same wavelength as Ananda Coomaraswamy’s approach, already discussed.  His focus is on the spiritual common ground of the two traditions (or the Hindu tradition and its Buddhist offshoot), though he acknowledges a difference in style and atmosphere.

“Buddhism is returning home to India after a long exile of a thousand years and, like the proverbial prodigal son, is being received with open arms.  Religious tolerance of the average Hindu partly explains the warm reception.  But a more important reason is the fact that Buddha and Buddhism form an intimate part of Hindu consciousness.  Buddha was a Hindu.  Buddhism is Hindu in its origin and development, in its art and architecture, iconography, language, beliefs, psychology, names, nomenclature, religious vows and spiritual discipline. (…) Hinduism is not all Buddhism, but Buddhism forms part of the ethos which is essentially Hindu.”36

11.5. Arun Shourie on Ambedkar

On 26 February 1996, Ambedkarites roughed up Arun Shourie, literally tarring his face during a speech of his in Pune.37 In his weekly syndicated column, published in the Observer of Business and Politics and in thirty provincial newspapers (and now available in book form)38, he had scrutinized Ambedkar’s record and questioned a number of now-common notions about him.  He had refuted the popular description of Dr. Ambedkar as the “father of the Constitution” or “modern Manu” (in a reference to the ancient patriarch Manu, to whom the “lawbook” Manava-Dharma-Shastra is attributed) by showing that Dr. Ambedkar’s contribution to the writing of the Constitution was in fact very limited, and that Ambedkar himself had never claimed otherwise.

Shourie had also highlighted the fact that Dr. Ambedkar never won an election, not even when he stood for a seat reserved for Scheduled Caste members.39 On top of his individual defeat, his Scheduled Castes Federation in 1945-46, and his Republican Party in 1952, were utterly routed at the polls.  In the 1937 elections, Ambedkar’s British sponsors were gravely disappointed to see the landslide victory of Congress in the reserved constituencies.40 Ambedkar’s electoral record certainly belies the routine description of him as “the leader of the Untouchables”: during his lifetime, most “Harijans” looked to Mahatma Gandhi as their benefactor in spite of Ambedkar’s scathing criticism of the Mahatma’s paternalistic approach.  In respect of religion, Scheduled Caste people often venerated their own Hindu Sants rather than awaiting Ambedkar’s (or in the South, Periyar’s)41 directives on conversion.42 Many of them are now with the BJP, which follows suit in the glorification of Ambedkar and has set up its intra-party Scheduled Castes Cell, but which channels their Ambedkarite enthusiasm away from Ambedkar’s anti-Hindu position.

What seems to have hurt the Ambedkarites most is Shourie’s highlighting Dr. Ambedkar’s consistent collaboration with the colonial authorities, his “opposing the National movement throughout his public career right up to and including 1946”, the fact that “throughout those vital years1942 to 1946-while the nationalist leaders languished in prison, Ambedkar was such a loyal and enthusiastic minister in the Viceroy’s Council”, and that “as late as April 1946 Ambedkar was telling the Viceroy, Lord Wavell, that ‘if India became independent, it would be one of the greatest disasters that could happen’”.43 Eventhough Shourie’s position is well-documented, he stands practically alone with his demystification of Ambedkar.

One thing in Ambedkar’s career which Shourie has not criticized, is his conversion to Buddhism, except to say that Ambedkar had developed a rather personal version of Buddhism.  Shourie himself is a practitioner of Buddhist Vipassana meditation, and as a crusader for political morality, he has no inclination to criticize a tradition which teaches a practical path to self-improvement, and which stresses the need to take responsibility for one’s own life rather than blaming “society” or “the other community” for one’s own sufferings.

11.6. Rajendra Singh on Ambedkar

In the past decade, the Sangh Parivar has gone all out to applaud Ambedkar, de-emphasizing the conversion episode except for its nationalist motivation.  Its publishing-house Suruchi Prakashan published a laudatory biography in 1991: Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, an outstanding Patriot, by C.S. Bhandari and S.R. Ramaswamy.  BJP lawyer Rama Jois has dedicated his booklet about social justice, Our Fraternity, to “Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, Great Patriot and Social Reformer”.  Both publications are aimed at incorporating Ambedkar’s egalitarianism into hoary Hindu tradition, to the extent that they discuss Ambedkar’s relation with Hinduism at all.  The BJP and RSS party-line is that if you go back far enough in the Vedic tradition, you reach a point where the medieval caste relations were not yet attested, so there need be no incompatibility of a Hinduism fresh from its rediscovered sources with an Ambedkarite concern for social equality.

During his visit to Europe in 1995, the RSS Sarsanghchalak Prof. Rajendra Singh spoke at a celebration of Dr. Ambedkar’s 104th birth anniversary hosted by the Friends of India Society International in London.  He started by emphasizing that the RSS was quite serious about propagating the glory of Dr. Ambedkar: “Sangh celebrated the [centenary] of late Dr. Ambedkar four years ago.  In that one year, many functions were arranged by our Parivar.  We also published a small life & work sketch of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, outlining his key achievements.  We could distribute twenty million copies of that small booklet throughout the country.”44

Rajendra Singh also enlisted Ambedkar in the RSS programme of “character-building” by presenting Ambedkar’s life story as an inspiring example: “Dr. Ambedkar never got disappointed with difficult tasks, but faced the situation with great courage.  I am especially appealing to the younger generation of students to take a leaf out of Dr. Ambedkar’s life.  At difficult times, his life can be a great inspiration.”45 This boy-scout type of appeal to personal character marks the difference between the RSS and the parties claiming Dr. Ambedkar’s legacy, such as the Indian Republican Party in Maharashtra and the Bahujan Samaj Party in North India, which believe in unsentimental power (and muscle) politics.

After going through Ambedkar’s life story, the Sarsanghchalak does the usual number of extolling Ambedkar’s role in drafting the Constitution: “His contribution in drafting the Constitution is therefore unparalleled and bears the stamp of his erudition and hard work.”46 Having made this captatio benevolentiae, he feels ready to take on the delicate point of Dr. Ambedkar’s break with Hinduism:

“In 1935, because of the highly discriminatory treatment meted out to the Dalits, he announced that though he was born a Hindu, he would never die as one.  This caused a lot of commotion in the country, and it is rumoured that he was offered millions of Rupees by the Nizam if he brought the Dalits to the fold of Islam, and similarly by the Christian missionaries.  He outright told these group leaders that these religions were alien to the Indian soil [and] these religions would take away his culture from him. (…) He gave a very important message to the Dalits before embracing Buddhism.  He said that he was embracing Buddhism because it promised equality to all and was a path of this very soil with many common features and thereby not taking the Dalits against the culture of this country.”47

The RSS supremo enlists Ambedkar as an argument of authority in favour of his own organization: “He came to the RSS camp in Pune and appreciated its patriotism, discipline and complete absence of untouchability.  But he said he was in a hurry and Sangh work appears to be a little slow.”48 Read: Ambedkar certified that the RSS was on the right path, the only difference being the speed with which they intended to get untouchability abolished throughout Hindu society.  The RSS could only influence its volunteers and their families, not the recalcitrant traditionalists, whom Ambedkar wanted to force to abandon the practice of untouchability immediately by political and legal means.

Prof. Rajendra Singh concludes his eulogy: “We salute the Architect of our Constitution, his erudition and hard work, his great patriotism and practical outlook.  But it was natural that he could not stomach the indignities heaped on the Dalits and the attitude of our upper castes in the Hindu society appeared to change too slowly.  Let us take a vow on this occasion to make the Hindu society free from aberrations, a society full of harmony, self-confidence and knowledge, so that it can carry the message of the great Rishis to the whole world.”49 If incorporating a declared enemy into your own pantheon is a virtue, a compliment for being unusually virtuous cannot be denied to the Hindus in general or to the Sangh Parivar in particular.

11.7. Savarkar on Buddhism and Untouchability

For the remainder of this chapter, we will focus on more polemical contributions, taking on the claim with which Dr. Ambedkar justified his conversion, viz. that Buddhism is free of caste and untouchability and even originated as a revolt against these institutions.  This view is quite popular among the secularists, e.g. Praful Bidwai claims that Buddhism “drew adherents from those very layers of Hindu society which lay at the oppressed and underprivileged bottom of the hierarchy”.50 In 1931 already, a Congress commission had claimed about “caste restrictions” that “the whole soul of the nation had rebelled against them in the shape of Buddhism”.51

The first challenge to this view had already been thrown in Veer Savarkar’s book Hindutva.  At least on some points, for at first sight it seems to confirm the conventional view.  Under the title “Institutions in favour of Nationality”, Savarkar explains how the caste system gained in strength as a reaction against Buddhism, and how it strengthened social and national cohesion:

“The system of four varnas which could not be wiped away even under the Buddhistic sway grew in popularity to such an extent that kings and emperors felt it a distinction to be called ‘one who established the system of four varnas’.  Reaction in favour of this institution grew so strong that our nationality was almost getting identified with it.”52 Savarkar thereby accepts and repeats a very commonly held notion about Buddhism, viz. that Buddhism tried to “wipe away the system of four varnas”.

The statement is puzzling if one considers Hindutva as a mere pamphlet, for it is at odds with Savarkar’s own anti-caste stand taken in the very same book (including a plea to physically unify the Hindu nation by inter-caste marriage).  Either he didn’t think of the contradiction or he was just being scholarly, subtly differentiating the positive role which he attributes to the caste system in the post-Maurya age, from the negative role which he thought caste was playing in modern India.  The same explanation could be given to the fact that he did not turn pro-Buddhist after noticing a historical antagonism between Buddhism and the caste system.  The question is, however, whether this antagonism is all that historical; we will take that up in the next section.

After describing Buddhism as antagonistic to caste, Savarkar surprisingly accuses Buddhism of having promoted and aggravated the institution of Untouchability.  His reasoning is that Buddhism has invented ahimsa (quod non) and the notion of “right livelihood” (one item on the Buddhist “eightfold path”, meaning the prohibition on making a living by sinful means), and has consequently indicted those who make a living through un-Buddhist occupations:

“Even today not only common people and good many propagandists but even historians seem to be labouring under the delusion that the Buddhists did not recognize the principle of u,ntouchability, and that no one was considered untouchable in the Buddhist regime.  What is laid down in someone’s religious texts is beside the point.  What the actual practice was is the most pertinent thing.  One unavoidable result of the violent way in which the Buddhists tried to establish the principle of ‘Ahimsa’, and of their declaring animal-hunting and flesh-eating punishable by death, of their over-enthusiastic and relentless efforts to search out such offenders and give the harshest capital and other severe punishments, was that the practice of untouchability instead of being wiped out became still more firmly rooted, widespread and most distressing.”53

Reference is apparently to Ashoka, though his decrees against killing were somewhat less draconic than pictured here by Savarkar.54 Nevertheless, it makes sense to reason that Ashoka’s policy of discouraging the killing and maiming of animals added to the stigma on killing animals (as done by tribals who were still at the hunter-gatherer stage) and on working with dead animal substances (as done by leatherworkers/Chamars or scavengers/Bhangis).  Incidentally, even the Shaiva Hindu king Harsha of Kanauj “caused the use of animal food to cease throughout his dominions and prohibited the taking of life”55, so the stigma on professions tainted by violence is certainly not an exclusive contribution of Buddhism.

The analogy with the despised Burakumin of Japan could be cited: they are the progeny of butchers who bear the hereditary stigma of their ancestors’ disrespect for the Buddhist rule of non-violence and right livelihood. Indeed, to Indian ex-Untouchables, this should sound familiar:

“In the Middle Ages (…) Buddhism was responsible for the fact that one man was put lower than another.  Buddhism prohibits the killing of sentient beings.  People who killed oxen or horses and skinned them to work the leather, were looked down upon. (…) Their life was considered as only one seventh in worth of that of ordinary mortals. (…) They had to avoid places where others gathered, when they went to other villages they had to put out their sandals, when they met farmers they had to throw themselves in the dust.”56

Savarkar tries to prove his point by quoting a Chinese Buddhist traveller as observing: “whichever caste or community-as for example the ‘Chandalas’-did not give up the violent professions and did not observe Ahimsa according to the Buddha faith, were banished from the towns as untouchables; they had to form colonies of their own outside the towns and cities like those of the lepers.”57 The name of the traveller is not given, but if we assume that the reference is accurate, it is still not very strong evidence, for a foreigner may easily have misinterpreted this institution, particularly a Buddhist pilgrim who saw India as a Buddhist country and therefore tended to explain social phenomena in terms of Buddhist influence,

According to Savarkar, Untouchability “in the Buddhist period especially instead of being weakened it was most scrupulously and mercilessly observed. (…) Those of the untouchables who are still under the delusion that the Buddhists gave no quarter to untouchability and so extol that sect, should do well to remember that the Chandals, the Mahars and other untouchables were far more miserable under the violently non-violent Buddhists than under the Vedic people who accepted the principle of Ahimsa with its limitations.”58

This is interesting speculation, and the topic “the condition of the Untouchables under Buddhist regimes” ought to be taken up in right earnest to prove or disprove it.  Until then, we should leave it as just Savarkar’s opinion.

11.8. Jeevan Kulkarni on Buddhism and caste

Dr. Ambedkar’s chief argument for Buddhism was that this was the only religion that did not in any way encourage or justify social injustice.  He, along with the majority of modern writers on Buddhism, especially liked Gautama’s supposed protest against the caste system.  The question is whether the social-reformist qualities which Ambedkar ascribed to the Buddha were not in the eye of the beholder.

One Hindutva polemicist who accepted Dr. Ambedkar’s challenge was the HMS amateur-historian (and veteran of India’s desperate defence of its northeastern frontier against the Chinese invaders in 1962) Jeevan Kulkarni.  He argues that the Buddha did pursue a political agenda, but not an egalitarian one, that “he tried only to establish supremacy of Kshatriyas over the Brahmins” while “the fate of the two other classes remained the same”.59 The pro-Kshatriya bias in early Buddhist literature has been noted by others as well, e.g. linguist Madhav Deshpande: “On the higher philosophical plane, Buddha totally rejected hereditary caste rank.  But on the lower social plane, Buddha asserted a social hierarchy different from that of Brahmanical belief.  He clearly asserts that Kshatriyas are superior to Brahmanas.”60

Kulkarni argues further, along with many Western students of Buddhist history, that Gautama’s objectives were not of this world, and that “Buddha was not a social reformer (…) The theory much trumpeted about the role of Buddha as a social reformer was discarded by a galaxy of scholars prior to Dr. Ambedkar’s version (and also of infamous writings of Laxmi Narsu) of Buddhism.  Most of them have decidedly proved that Buddha had never discarded caste system”.61

Kulkarni calls Western authorities to the witness stand.  Sir W.W. Hunter has written: “It would be a mistake to suppose that Buddhism and Jainism were directed from the outset consciously in opposition to the caste system.  Caste, in fact, at the time of the rise of Buddhism was only beginning to develop; and in later days, when Buddhism commenced its missionary careers, it took caste with it into regions where upto that time the institution had not penetrated.”62

Hermann Oldenberg is quoted as explaining how Buddha had other concerns than social reform: “Caste has no value for him, for everything earthly has ceased to affect his interests, but it never occurs to him to exercise his influence for the abolition or for the mitigation of the severity of its rules for those who have lagged behind in the worldly surroundings.”63 R. Spencer Hardy wrote: “The existence of the four great tribes is recognized continually in the Jatakas, and inferiority of caste is recognized as giving rise to the same usages and as being attended with degradation.”64 Prof. T.W. Rhys-Davids has given details about caste practices in over 100 Buddhist communities.65

The list of Western supporters of Kulkarni’s critique could easily be extended, e.g. Alex Wayman writes: “It is generally stated in Western writings on Buddhism that Buddhism is directly opposed to the caste system.  While it is true that such distinctions in status perpetuated by social norms were not the basis for admission into monasterial monk training, and also true that Buddhist literature contains some sharp attacks on what are referred to as ‘Brahmin pretensions’, lay Buddhists had to respect social norms and even Buddhist literature generated by the monks differs in response to the caste system, usually remaining silent about it.”66

This is confirmed by the Dutch Buddhologist Prof. Zürcher: “In modem popularizing writings, one often reads that ‘egalitarian’ Buddhism was essentially a ‘protest movement’ against the Brahminical caste system.  It is true that the Buddhist view of caste is different from and more rational than the religious justification which one finds in Brahminism.  But neither the Buddha himself, nor any pre-modern Buddhist teacher after him has combated the caste system.  The explanation of the egalitarian attitude which we find in the sangha, is simple.  Caste is a social distinction, which belongs in the world of the laity, where it is completely proper and self-evident.  As soon as someone becomes a monk, he in principle steps completely out of the world.  He renounces his family and family ritual, and therefore also the caste to which his family belongs.  Like all other Indian ascetics inside and outside Buddhism, he is a complete ‘outsider’: for him, social distinctions-those of caste included-have not become objectionable, but meaningless.”67

Kulkarni’s argument against claims of Buddhist egalitarianism even finds support among Indian Marxists, at least among those of an earlier generation who had not yet taken to using Buddhism as a stick with which to beat Hinduism.  The rhetoric about “egalitarian Buddhism vs. oppressive Hinduism” is now so influential in India’s collective consciousness that I consider it worthwhile to hear their testimonies too.  The eminent historian D.D. Kosambi pointed out that in the recruitment of monks, the candidate’s social position was not entirely disregarded: “…runaway slaves, savage tribesmen, escaped criminals, the chronically ill and the indebted as well as aboriginal Nagas were denied admission into the order.”68

To ensure peace for itself and avoid trouble with society (creditors, aggrieved slave-owners etc.), it was a logical decision for the Buddhist Sangha to keep out all those who could attract angry attention.  The encounter with worldly suffering (typified by an old man, a sick man and a corpse) had convinced Gautama to turn away from the world and to focus on spiritual exercises.  The monks did not want to be disturbed with social problems, and the atmosphere they created for themselves in their monasteries was meant to focus their attention on their spiritual practice, not on the social needs of the laymen:

“No rotting half-eaten corpse, no leprous beggar with festering sores mars the smooth harmony of sumptuous frescoes and reliefs to remind the monk of the Founder’s doctrine.  Nor does the art portray the normal hardships of the poorest villager, whose surplus the monk could eat, but whose misery was easily discounted on the callous theory that the suffering must have been deserved because of misdeeds in some previous birth.”69

Not unlike clerics in other religions (including Brahmins), Buddhist monks tended to develop a certain smugness regarding the privileges which came with their spiritual prestige.  This is but a general human failing and cannot be held against Buddhism as such, but it is nonetheless notable that if Buddhism wasn’t any worse than others in this respect, it wasn’t any better either.

Where slavery existed, Buddhism did not abolish it.  The Buddha never ordered the masters to set the slaves free, nor the slaves to revolt against their masters.  Buddhist monasteries continued the labour arrangements existing in society at large.  In his study on slavery in ancient India, the Marxist historian Dev Raj Chanana noticed the stark contrast between the actual history of Buddhist social practice and the more “progressive” picture given by modern writers, who fail to register the existence of serfdom in connection with the Buddhist monasteries:

“On reading the modern works concerning the Buddhist order in India one gains the impression that no slave labour was employed in the monasteries.  One would be inclined to believe that all the work, even in the big monasteries like [those] of Kosambi or Rajagriha, was carried out by the monks themselves.  However, a study of Pali literature shows clearly that the situation was otherwise.”70

From the beginning, Buddhism shared the disdain for manual labour expressed by certain Brahminical and ancient Greek sources, which held that philosophical pursuits required a freedom from labour tasks.  According to Chanana, this attitude to labour had not always existed in India to the same extent: “This attitude to manual work as an imposition is in contrast with the view expressed in an earlier epoch, in the Rigveda, where there is no expression of any dislike of manual work.  This is, in part at least, due to the absence of the division of labour as seen in the well-known verse describing various jobs, intellectual and manual, undertaken by members of one and the same family.”71 In the case of Buddhism, however, “we must not forget that the Buddha, anxious to free his monks of material preoccupations, had forbidden almost all manual labour to them.”72

To the slaves, Buddhism gave the same justification of their condition as is always scornfully attributed to Hinduism.  Chanana summarizes: “On the other hand he advised the slaves to bear patiently with their lot and explained the same as follows.  If a person is born a slave, it is the consequence of some bad acts of an earlier life and the best way for him is to submit willingly to his lot.  He should submit to all sorts of treatment at the hands of his master and should never allow any feeling of revenge to grow within himself, even if the other should try to kill him.  In such cases, a change of destiny is promised to the slave in the next birth. (…) In case, however, such a person is lucky enough to obtain manumission from his master, he may obtain ordination and thus try to secure salvation from the cycle of transmigration, i.e. release from the slavery of life and death.”73

So, the same allegation of using the karma doctrine as an opium for the people to keep them happy in their submission has been levelled against the Buddha as well as against Puranic Hinduism: “That he derived his conclusion from the widely accepted belief in the theory of karma, of the retribution of acts, need not be stressed again and again.  To him and his followers birth in a particular group was the consequence of certain good or evil acts.  Since the retribution was believed to be inexorable, unvarying, like the working of a machine, he could not but advocate complete submission to one’s destiny (…) we may agree that the Buddha (from what we learn about him in the Tipitaka) sincerely believed in [karma].  But even from this angle it is clear that disobedience on the part of a slave or servant was considered as an evil act.  The same view was held of bad treatment on the part of a master.”74

The Hindutva horizon being typically limited to India, Jeevan Kulkarni overlooks what could have been one of his strongest arguments: the fact that Buddhism’s non-interest in social reform is amply demonstrated by its career outside India.  Everywhere it integrated itself into the existing social and political set-up, from bureaucratic centralism in China to feudal militarism in Japan.  There is no known case of any of these branches of Buddhism calling for social reform, let alone for a social revolution as far-reaching as the abolition of caste would have meant in India.  After centuries of profound impact of Buddhism, Tibetan society was in such a state that the Chinese Communists could claim in 1950 (with exaggeration, but not without a kernel of truth) that 95% of the Tibetans were living in slavery.  Buddhism does not seem to have made Tibet’s traditional feudalism any more egalitarian than it had been in the pre-Buddhist past.

Outside India, a number of sources confirm that Buddhist monasteries employed slaves: “There are numerous references to prove the existence of slaves in the Buddhist monasteries in China. (…) These slaves were normally in charge of the maintenance of the monasteries but could also be sent to aid the peasants at the time of ploughing, harvesting, etc.  Public slaves and criminals used to be formed into groups and known as the ‘families of the Buddha’ .”75 Perhaps “slave” is too strong a term here, as many slaveholding societies had intermediate forms of semi-free serfdom; but “egalitarianism” is certainly a different thing.  Apart from slave-owning, the monasteries also upheld milder forms of social inequality.  In China, they were feudal landlords, and under the Tang dynasty (618-907) the Sangha was even the biggest land-owner in the empire, until it was expropriated (in what has been mis-termed the “Buddhist persecution”) because its tax-exempt status disrupted the economy.  It also goes without saying that the traditional inequality between men and women was fully accepted: nuns were always lower in rank than monks.76 We may therefore agree that by and large, Buddhism cannot be considered a pioneer of modern egalitarianism.

Coming to the specific form of inequality which is the caste system, in a survey of the Buddhist canon, we do find a number of references to this subject.  These instances show that Buddhism was not meant as a social revolution, even when it was critical of caste inequality.  Thus, in a list of parables from the Pali Canon, we find the well-known simile: “Whether kindled by a priest, a warrior, a trader or a serf, from whatsoever type of fuel, a fire will emit light and heat; even so, all men, regardless of caste, are equally capable of the highest spiritual attainment.”77 This merely says that the spiritual dimension is common to all, not that the differentiation of men into castes or even the secular inequality between these castes should be abolished.

Another instance is the famous story from the Divyavadana (2nd century AD?), of the noble monk Ananda and the low-caste girl Prakriti.  The girl tries to seduce the monk, but through the Buddha’s miraculous intervention, her efforts are counterproductive, and it is she who follows the monk into the Sangha: she becomes a nun.  But the public objects to the ordination of an outcaste, and so the Buddha explains that caste divisions have no bearing on spiritual life.78  But he does not say that henceforth, his audience should intermarry with the lowest castes.  He does just the opposite: he contrasts worldly and spiritual spheres, and justifies the neglect of caste discrimination in this case with reference to the girl’s spiritual vocation, thereby acquiescing in the persistence of caste in lay society.  On the other hand, even if only for theorical purposes, the text’s demolition of caste inequality is thorough, e.g. it is said that in a previous life, the two had already been lovers, though then their castes had been the opposite.79

Another promising example is where the Buddha grills a Brahmin with Socrates-type questions to extract from him the insight that to be a Brahmin, or conversely to be unworthy of the practices of Arya Dharma, birth is not the criterion.80  The modern editor explains that the Buddha “vindicates his own universalist outlook and severely criticizes the whole theoretical basis of the brahminical caste structure”.81 Here, then, we reach the limit of Savarkar’s and Kulkarni’s revision of the claim of Buddhist egalitarianism: eventhough Buddhism did not reform society in an anti-caste sense, some Buddhist texts did develop a theoretical criticism of caste.  Yes, there was an anti-caste element in Buddhism, often voiced by Brahmin-born monks.82

Brahmin writers have not only codified and justified the existing caste system, and possibly hardened it; in the final editing of many influential classics of Puranic Hinduism, they have also unnecessarily extended caste distinction beyond the social sphere, incorporating spiritual liberation in the calculus of karma and caste duties.  The crassest example of this tendency is the Shambuka story in what experts consider the youngest layer of Valmiki’s Ramayana, where Rama “has to” kill the low-caste ascetic Shambuka because the latter’s spiritual vocation is contrary to his caste duties and therefore harmful to society as a whole.83

In anti-Hindu polemic, this episode is always held up as proving the true and irreducible inhumanity of Hinduism.  However, J.L. Brockington contrasts this episode of the Ramayana (7:67) with the contrary evaluation of a similar act in an older layer of the Ramayana, viz.  Dasharatha’s paying dearly for his killing Shravana, an ascetic of mixed Vaishya-Shudra descent (2:57): “There has been an enormous shift in attitudes between the period of the former, among the earlier additions, and the latter, among the latest parts included in the text”, viz. an appalling hardening of caste discrimination.84 The harsh caste discrimination of recent centuries is a vaguely datable innovation in Hindu social history, not an age-old conditions.85

A case could be made that this appropriation of spirituality by the Brahmin caste is what the Buddha criticizes in the Prakriti story and elsewhere.  What he objects to is not the existing social system on the basis of caste, but precisely the improper extension of caste division to the spiritual sphere, beyond the worldly sphere where social distinctions belong.  We may add that Sri Lankan Buddhists, who have a long history of fighting predominantly Hindu Tamils, and hence a strong sense of separateness from Hinduism, observe their own caste distinctions.86

Buddhism’s lack of interest in social reform was implicitly admitted by Dr. Ambedkar himself, when as Law Minister he defended the inclusion of Buddhists in the category of citizens to whom the Hindu Code Bill would apply.  He declared: “When the Buddha differed from the Vedic Brahmins, he did so only in matters of creed, but left the Hindu legal framework intact.  He did not propound a separate law for his followers.  The same was the case with Mahavir and the ten Sikh Gurus.”87 That should clinch the issue.

11.9. Conclusion

Neo-Buddhim is based on a mistake.  Dr. Ambedkar opted for Buddhism on the somewhat contrived assumption that the Buddhist Sangha Councils provided a native model for modern parliamentary democracy, and mostly on the wrong assumption that Buddhim was an anti-caste reform movement.  In Hindutva literature, in a few marginal corners, the latter assumption has been criticized, sometimes with reference to corroborative Western research.  However, emanating from upper-caste Hindutva authors and written in a heated polemical style, this is unlikely to reach let alone convince the neo-Buddhost audience.

The neo-Buddhists are not Hindus, because they say so.  Indeed, whereas all the other groups considered developed their identities naturally, in a pursuit of Liberation or simply in response to natural and cultural circumstances, only to discover later that this identity might be described as non-Hindu, the neo-Buddhists were first of all motivated by the desire to break with Hinduism.  The most politicized among them, all while flaunting the label “Buddhist”, actually refuse to practise Buddhism: because it distracts from the political struggle, and perhaps also because the Buddhist discipline is too obviously similar to the lifestyle of the hated Brahmins in its religious aspect.  It doesn’t come naturally to political militants to sit down and shut all activist concerns from their minds, whether to recite Vedic verses or to focus on the dependent origination of their mental motions.

Yet, in broad sections of the converted Dalit masses, the practice of Buddhism is catching on.  From a Hindu or a generally spiritual viewpoint, this is one of the most hopeful and positive developments of the post-independence period: many thousands of people who had truly been a Depressed Class, confined to lowly occupations, suffering humiliation and low self-esteem, often steeped in superstition and given to alcoholism, entered the path of the Buddha.  Rather than talk about the spiritual path and the glories of India’s sages, as anglicized upper-caste Hindus do, they talk politics but do regularly sit down to apply the methods taught by the Awakened One

Most thinking Hindus, from Veer Savarkar to Ram Swarup, have welcomed the conversion of Dr. Ambedkar and his followers to Buddhism.  Rather than joining hands with the Christians or Muslims, Dr. Ambedkar stayed within the national mainstream by taking refuge in the Buddha, thus averting what to Hindus looked like a looming disaster.  That he abjured the Hindu Gods and the label “Hindu” seemed to matter less, especially when research shows that many neo-Buddhists still participate in Hindu forms of worship.

That the neo-Buddhists will move closer to the Hindu mainstream, and possibly even take a leadership role in future waves of religious revival, is rendered more likely by the evolution in society.  Thanks to education, reservations, and the ever-widening impact of modernization on all Indians regardless of caste, the actual living conditions and cultural horizons of Dalits and upper castes become ever more similar.  It is logical, then, that caste animosities will gradually give way to the increasing realization of common Indian and common human concerns, in mundane as well as in spiritual matters.

So, from the Hindu viewpoint, the practical conclusion ought to be: let the neo-Buddhists be non-Hindus.  Their chosen religion will shield them from maximum exposure to anti-Hindu influences, and will encourage in them doctrines and practices with which most Hindus are familiar.  The religious development and deepening of neo-Buddhism and the process of social reform and psychological modernization in Hindu society ensures that the two will meet again in the not too distant future.


1This sub-section and stray paragraphs in this chapter re-use material used in my book Indigenous Indians: Agastya to Ambedkar, now out of print.

2Paramitas: ideals of spiritual perfection.

3A set of twelve Hindu Devas and a number of minor Hindu Gods are listed as Buddhist Gods (with their names in Mongol, Tibetan, Chinese, Japanese, Thai and Khmer) in Louis Frédéric: Les dieux du bouddhisme, p.258-268.

4D.D. Kosambi: Culture and Civilisation of Ancient India, p.179.

5Dr. Ambedkar argued this hypothesis of his (not too convincingly) in his book The Untouchables: Who Were They and Why They Became Untouchables?, reproduced in his Writings and Speeches vol.7, specifically p.315 ff.

6Neera Burra: “Buddhism, conversion and identity (a case study of village Mahars)”, included in M.N. Srinivas: Caste: Its Twentieth-Century Avatar, quoted by M.V. Kamath: “Caste: its twentieth-century avatar”, Organiser, 9-2-1997.

7S R. Goel: Samyak Sambuddha (2nd ed.), p.iii-vi.

8B.R. Ambedkar: The Buddha and His Dhamma (also republished as vol.11 of Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches), p.xlii.

9B. R. Ambedkar: The Buddha and His Dhamma, p.xlii.

10D. Keer: Ambedkar, p.521, with reference to Mahabodhi, December 1959.

11D. Keer: Ambedkar, with reference to The Light of Dhamma, January 1959.

12Jivaka: “Bhikkhus Who Lead Lay Lives”, The Buddhist 1959/60, p.157, quoted in Heinz Bechert: Buddhismus, Staat und Gesellschaft, vol.1, p.57-58.

13Times of India, 30-6-1992.

14Gopal Guru: “Hinduisation of Ambedkar in Maharashtra”, Economic and Political Weekly, 16 Feb. 1991, p.339-341.

15Gopal Guru: “Hinduisation of Ambedkar”, EPW, 16 Feb. 1991, p.339-341.

16Johannes Beltz: “Spiritualiser le Dhamma?  L’implantation contestee du Trailokya Bauddha Mahasangha en Inde”, Asiatische Studien (Zurich), 1997/4, p-1059.

17Interview by Johannes Beltz: “Spiritualiser le Dhamma?”, Asiatische Studien, 1997/4, p.1065.

18Interview by Johannes Beltz: “Spiritualiser le Dhamma?”, Asiatische Studien, 1997/4, p.1068.

19Dr. Ambedkar: The Buddha and his Dhamma, book 1, part 5, para 2, in Writings and Speeches, vol.11, p.83-87.

20Ambedkar: The Buddha and his Dhamma, 1:5:2.

21Ambedkar: The Buddha and his Dhamma, 1:5:2.

22Ambedkar: The Buddha and His Dhamma 1:3:3.

23Ambedkar: The Buddha and His Dhamma 1:4:3.

24Ambedkar: Philosophy of Hinduism, in Writings and Speeches, vol.3, p.85, with reference to Huxley: Evolution and Ethics, p.63-64, McMillan & Co., London 1903.

25Republished as Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, vol.4.

26V.N. Utpat: Riddles of Buddha and Ambedkar.

27T.C. and R.K. Majupuria: Sadhus and Saints, p.305.

28T.C. and R.K. Majupuria: Sadhus and Saints, p.305.

29V.S. Naipaul: A Wounded Civilization, p.65. The book was written during the Emergency, well before the all-out deification of Ambedkar in ca. 1990.

30That at least is what he told me (interview, HMS Delhi office, 1992). He died a natural death of cancer in 1995.

31J. Kulkarni: Historical Truths & Untruths Exposed, esp. Ch.1, “Ambedkar and His ‘Dhamma’”, and Ch.2, “False Notions of Atrocities Committed on Harijans”.

32Quoted in Dh. Keer: Ambedkar, p.503.

33Quoted in Dh. Keer: Ambedkar, p.498.

34Quoted in Dhananjay Keer: Ambedkar, p.455.

35Dhananjay Keer: Ambedkar, p.453.

36Ram Swarup: Buddism vis-à-vis Hinduism, p.1.

37The assault was acclaimed in Dalit Voice, 1-4-1996; Shourie’s reply can be read in his book Worshipping False Gods.. Ambedkar, and the Facts which Have Been Erased, p.625-639.

38Arun Shourie: Worshipping False Gods.  Immediately after being released (May 1997), proposals were in the air to ban the book (even one by a BJP backbencher, voiced at least inside the BJP executive; at that time, the BJP wooed the SC constituency and formed a coalition with the Ambedkarite Bahujan Samaj Party in UP).  However, a large section of the Leftist Government consisted of Other Backward Castes representatives (like Mulayam Singh Yadav, who ordered copies of Shourie’s book in bulk) who were in conflict with the Ambedkarite parties and annoyed with the proliferation of Ambedkar statues, and they assured Shourie (their one-time enemy for his fiery opposition to reservations for OBCs) that no ban would materialize.

39Arun Shourie: “‘It is painful, it is shameful, it is hateful’”, Observer of Business and Politics, 22-11-1996, a reply to comments on his earlier article: “Is Ambedkar the Manu of our times?” Remark that in the passage quoted above, V.S. Naipaul (Wounded Civilization, p.65) rightly called Ambedkar “an angry and (for all his eminence) defeated man”.

40In the 1930s and 40s, like other acclaimed heroes of social reform such as M.N. Roy and “Periyar” Ramaswamy Naicker, Dr. Ambedkar was literally a paid agent of the British, even becoming the Member for Labour of the Viceroy’s Council.

41In ca. 1930-1960, E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker, a.k.a. Periyar, was the undisputed leader of the anti-Brahmin and separatist movement in Tamil Nadu.  His movement, the Dravida Kazhagam (Tamil Federation), was soon outgrown by its less radical offshoots, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (Tamil Progressive Federation) and the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (C. Annadurai’s Tamil Progressive Federation), which have jointly dominated Tamil politics for the last three decades.  Periyar was an atheist and passionate enemy of religion in general, but supported conversion to Islam rather than to atheism or Buddhism because it would frighten the Hindus more.

42Bjp Scheduled Caste Morcha president Bangaru Laxman (Organiser, 6-8-1995) accused Congress leader Sitaram Kesri, who had bracketed the Dalits with the minorities as sufferers of Hindu oppression, of thereby showing “disrespect to [Dalit] saints like Ravidas, Satyakam Jabali, Sadhna Kasai, Banka Mahar, Dhanna Chamar and others who protected Hindutva against foreign onslaughts.” (most of these were Ramanandi saints of the late middle ages)

43A. Shourie: “‘it is painful, it is shameful, it is hateful’”, Observer of Business and Politics, 22-11-1996, now in A. Shourie: Worshipping False Gods, p.607 ff.

44Rajendra Singh: “Dr. Ambedkar”, 14 April 1995, Sarsanghchalak Goes Abroad, p.62.

45Rajendra Singh: Abroad, p.62.

46Rajendra Singh: Abroad, p.63.

47Rajendra Singh: Abroad, p.63-64. Nizam: the Muslim ruler of Hyderabad, a large princely state in Central India, who was extremely wealthy thanks to the diamond mines there.

48Rajendra Singh: Abroad, p.64.

49Rajendra Singh: Abroad, p.64.

50Praful Bidwai: “Hindutva's fallacies and fantasies”, Frontline, 21-11-1998.

51Repoil of the Congress Committee of Enquiry into the Cawnpore Riots (1931), reproduced in N.G. Barrier: Roots of Communal Politics, p.125.

52V.D. Savarkar: Hindutva, p.27.

53V. D.  Savarkar: Six Glorious Epochs, p. 140.

54The exaggerated picture of intense repression against hunting should be read against the background of the preceding passage (Six Glorious Epochs, p. 138-139) on “the martyr louse”: the story goes that a 12th-century Jain king of Gujarat, Kumara Pala, forbade the exercise of all professions implying any form of killing and even had a man beheaded because he had knowingly cracked a louse.

55R.C. Majumdar, H.C. Raychoudhary, Kali Kumar Datta: An Advanced History of India, p.151.

56Akemi Koike & Allessandro Valota: “Het laatste taboe” (Dutch: “The last taboo”), Wereldwijd, May 1992.

57V.D. Savarkar: Six Glorious Epochs, p.140; reference is to Majumdar, Raychoudhary, Datta: Advanced History of India, p. 186; but in (a more recent edition of) this book, I have been unable to find this quotation.

58V.D. Savarkar: Six Glorious Epochs, p.141.

59J. Kulkarni: Historical Truths, p.26.

60Madhav Deshpande: “Language and legitimacy: Buddhist and Hindu techniques”, in V. Subramaniam, ed.: Buddhist-Hindu Interactions, p.27. The focus of his paper is on the resultant language policy in early Buddhism, viz. the rejection of Brahminical Sanskrit in favour of the metropolitan Magadhi Prakrit (comparable to the downgrading of clerical Latin in the late Renaissance period in favour of national vernaculars promoted by absolute kings and the emerging bourgeoisie).

61J. Kulkarni: Historical Truths, p.26. Prof. P. Laxmi Narsu’s Essence of Buddhism was Dr. Ambedkar’s acknowledged guide on Buddhism; he helped in getting the book published through Thacker & Co., Mumbai 1948; vide D. Keer: Dr. Ambedkar, p.400.

62W.W. Hunter: Imperial Gazetteer 1907; quoted in J. Kulkarni: Historical Truths, p.27.

63H. Oldenberg: Buddha (republished 1971), p.154, quoted by Kulkarni: Historical Truths, p.27.

64R. Spencer Hardy: Manual of Buddhism (1853), quoted by Kulkarni: Historical Truths, p.26.

65T.W. Rhys-Davids in Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1891-92, quoted by J. Kulkarni: Historical Truths, p. 26.

66A. Wayman: “The Buddhist attitude toward Hinduism”, Studia Missionalia 1993, p-330.

67E. Zürcher: Boeddhisme, p.49.

68D.D. Kosambi: The Culture and Civilisation of Ancient India, p.179.

69D.D. Kosambi: Ancient India, p. 179.

70Dev Raj Chanana: Slavery in Ancient India, p.81.

71D.R. Chanana: Slavery, p.59, with reference to Rgveda 9:112:3.

72D.R. Chanana: Slavery, p.82; in footnote, he aptly remarks the contrast with Christian monasticism, where, in the words of St. Benedict, “work is prayer”.

73D.R. Chanana: Slavery, p.61.

74D.R. Chanana: Slavery, p.62.

75D.R. Chanana: Slavery, p.85-86, with reference to J. Gernet (and to Chinese sources quoted by him): Aspects économiques du bouddhisme en Chine, Paris 1956.

76The fact is noted with naive indignation in Tibet by Erik Bruijn: Tantra, p.127 ff.

77Sangharakshita: The Eternal Legacy, p. 35.

78Sangharakshita: The Eternal Legacy, p.63.

79This scenario, incidentally, shows how the doctrine of reincarnation can undermine the caste system rather than support it, for it reduces caste status to something superficial, a coat which is taken off and exchanged for a new one with every new birth.

80Dhammapada 26, discussed in Sangharakshita: Eternal Legacy, p.10, and in Alex Wayman: “The Buddhist attitude towards Hinduism”, Studia Missionalia 1993, p-336.

81Sangharakshita: Eternal Legacy, p.63.

82As pointed out by Alex Wayman: “The Buddhist attitude towards Hinduism”, Studia Missionalia 1993, p.333-334.

83Bhagwan Singh, a Marxist yet nationalist historian who joined the Aryan Invasion debate with his book The Vedic Harappans, told me (interview, December 1996) that he thinks the Shambuka story, part of the Uttarakânda (“final part”, also containing Rama’s controversial repudiation of Sita) which is widely considered a later addition, is an interpolation by Buddhists precisely to blacken Brahminism.  But then how did those Buddhists smuggle it in?  If true, this would also confirm the anti-caste element in Buddhist polemic.

84J. L. Brockington: Righteous Rama, p.158.  Reference is to Shravana

85This contrast between less casteism in antiquity and more casteism in the Christian era is even proven by Buddhist anti-caste polemic itself.  As Maurice Winternitz (A History of Indian Literature, vol.2, p.265-66) notes about the Vajrasûchî, a text attributed to the Brahmin-born monk Ashvaghosha: “This work refutes the Brahmanical caste system very cuttingly.  The author (…) seeks to prove from the Brahmanical texts themselves, by quotations from the Veda, the Mahâbhârata and the law book of Manu, how frail the claims of the Brahman caste are.”

86In his book Vedda Villages of Anuradhapura, James Brown mentions that the Veddas (aboriginal tribals) “fit in the caste structure of the Sinhalese Buddhist peasantry” (p.3), but that they are “excluded from Buddhist ceremony” (p.29) and, as the lowest rung in society, they “receive dropouts” (p.34). On the other hand, while there is no intermarriage with Muslims (p.139), there is 15% of intermarriage with Sinhalese Buddhists (P.34).

87Quoted from Times of India, 7 Feb. 1951, in Dh. Keer: Ambedkar, p.427.

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