(CRI is proud to present a 3 part series titled Bodhi Sattva’s Hindutva. In this 2nd part, Aravindan Neelakandan explores Ambedkar’s critique of Hindusim, on his thoughts on the question of Pakistan, Vedic traditions and Varna System) Read Part 1 here

Dr.Ambedkar was an ethical pragmatist and a practical patriot. He realized that if Hindus remain disunited the future of nation was doomed. Hindus need to be united not momentarily in flashes of emotion or hours of crisis but in a sustained manner. His solution to achieve a sustained Hindu unity, both cultural and political, was to abolish caste system completely. But what was his perception of Hinduism itself?

The public psyche has been fed to saturation with his quotes highly critical of Hinduism and his statements denouncing Hinduism in no uncertain terms. ‘I was born a Hindu but will not die one’ is a statement that has been made so popular by a section of his followers. However when one goes through the writings of Dr.Ambedkar one finds that he has used the word ‘Hindu’ in two ways. In one level of association, the term refers to what he would call ‘Brahminical’ or Smrithi-based religious system that endorses at different levels birth-based discriminations. Unfortunately even today most of the traditional ‘Hindu’ heads fall in this category. Then he uses the term ‘Hindu’ in another meaning – to embrace all indigenous spiritual traditions of India. Here he too embraces the term.

How much did Baba Saheb Ambedkar love Hindus? Here is the authoritative statement from the good doctor himself. One can see here the soul of a Hindu Sanghatanist in rapture and anxiety. Rapture at the freedom which Hindus have obtained and anxiety because they might get it lost in linguistic feuds:

 I was glad that India was separated from Pakistan. I was the philosopher, so to say, of Pakistan. I advocated partition because I felt that it was only by partition that Hindus would not only be independent but free. If India and Pakistan had remained united in one State Hindus though independent would have been at the mercy of the Muslims. A merely independent India would not have been a free India from the point of view of the Hindus. It would have been a Government of one country by two nations and of these two the Muslims without question would have been the ruling race notwithstanding Hindu Mahasabha and Jana Sangh. When the partition took place I felt that God was willing to lift his curse and let India be one, great and prosperous.[i]

Why should Baba Saheb Ambedkar love a people whom elsewhere he had denounced completely? Why should the author of the ‘Riddles of Hinduism’ become euphoric about Hindus becoming free of Islamist threat? To find the answer one has to go through the writings of BabaSaheb deeply. Dr.Ambedkar had visualized Vedic community as an egalitarian one. His own study of Vedic literature led him to reject the Aryan race theory concocted by the British.  He also discovered valuable insights that revealed to him the real nature of Shudras. In the ‘Preface’ to his monumental book ‘Who were the Shudras?’ Dr.Ambedkar expressed his thankfulness

… to the writer of Adhyaya LX of the Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata. Whether it is Vyasa, Vaiashampayana, Suta, Lomaharshana or Bhrigu it is difficult to say. But whoever he was, he has rendered great service by giving a full description of Paijavana. If he had not described Paijavana as a Shudra, the clue to the origin of the Shudra would have been completely lost.[ii]

In a crucial passage he further noted in his ‘Preface’ as to whom this book (Who were the Shudras?) would actually appeal:

The only class of Hindus, who are likely to welcome the book are those who believe in the necessity and urgency of social reform. The fact that it is a problem which will certainly take a long time to solve and will call the efforts of many generations to come, is in their opinion, no justification for postponing the study of that problem. Even an ardent Hindu politician, if he is honest, will admit that the problems arising out of the malignant form of communalism, which is inherent in the Hindu social organization and which the politically minded Hindus desire to ignore or postpone, invariably return to plague, those very politicians at every turn. These problems are not the difficulties of the moment. They are our permanent difficulties, that is to say, difficulties of every moment. I am glad to know that such a class of Hindus exists. Small though they be, they are my mainstay and it is to them that I have addressed my argument.[iii]

Who were these minority Hindus on whom Ambedkar had such a tremendous faith? As seen earlier the only section of Hindus whom Dr. Ambedkar perceived as genuinely interested in erasing casteism and integrating Dalits with Hindu community were the Hindu nationalists. If we take this into consideration one will realize that the whole discourse of Dr. Ambedkar was aimed at the proponents of Hindutva. He was offering them a clear and holistic road map to realize the elusive goal of Hindu Sanghatan.

Discovering such valuable hints in reconstructing ancient Indian history, Dr.Ambedkar visualized a Vedic society where the Varna system was not birth-based but based on merit. Here we should remember that Dr.Ambedkar found even this Varna system absolutely meaningless in the current social context as this cannot be imposed on the society in any practical or meaningful way:

A close examination of this ideal has convinced me that as a system of social organization, Chaturvarnya is impracticable, harmful and has turned out to be a miserable failure. From a practical point of view, the system of Chaturvarnya raises several difficulties which its protagonists do not seem to have taken into account.[iv]

Yet Dr. Ambedkar, the Vedic historian, visualized a Vedic society based purely on merit and not on birth. It’s worth quoting Dr.Ambedkar’s view in detail here:

According to ancient tradition as embodied in the Puranas the period for which the Varna of a person was fixed by Manu and Saptarshi was a period of four years and was called Yug. At the end of the period of four years there occurred the Manwantar whereby every fourth year the list was revised. Under the revision some changed their old Varna, some retained it, some lost it and some gained it. The original system seems to have in contemplation the determination of the Varna of adults. It was not based on prior training or close scrutiny of bias and aptitude. Manu and Saptarshi was a sort of a Board of Interview which determined the Varna of a person from how he struck them at the interview. The determination of the Varna was done in a rough and tumble manner. This system seems to have gone into abeyance. A new system grew up in its place. It was known as the Gurukul system. The Gurukul was a school maintained by a Guru (teacher) also called Acharya (learned man). All children went to this Gurukul for their education. The period of education extended for twelve years. The child while at Gurukul was known as Bramhachari. After the period of education was over there was the Upanayan ceremony performed at the Gurukul by the Acharya. The Upanayan ceremony was the most important ceremony. It was a ceremony at which the Acharya determined the Varna of the student and sent him out in the world to perform the duties of that Varna. Upanayan by the Acharyas was the new method of determining Varna which came into vogue in place of method of determination by Manu and Saptarshi. The new method was undoubtedly superior to the old method. It retained the true feature of the old method namely that the Varna should be determined by a disinterested and independent body. But it added a new feature namely training as a pre-requisite for assignment of Varna. On the ground that training alone develops individual in the makeup of a person and the only safe way to determine the Varna of a person is to know his individuality, the addition of this new feature was undoubtedly a great improvement.[v]

BabaSaheb Ambedkar in his argument with Mahatma Gandhi points out that the Varna system is not only different from caste system but inherently opposed to it:

The principle underlying caste is fundamentally different from the principle underlying Varna. Not only are they fundamentally different but they are also fundamentally opposed. The former is based on worth. How are you going to compel people who have acquired a higher status based on birth without reference to their worth to vacate that status? How are you going to compel people to recognize the status due to a man in accordance with his worth, who is occupying a lower status based on his birth? For this you must first break up the caste system, in order to be able to establish the Varna system…. While I reject the Vedic Varnavyavastha for reasons given in the speech I must admit that the Vedic theory of Varna as interpreted by Swami Dayanand and some others is a sensible and an inoffensive thing. It did not admit birth as a determining factor in fixing the place of an individual in society. It only recognized worth. The Mahatma’s view of Varna not only makes nonsense of the Vedic Varna but it makes it an abominable thing. Varna and Caste are two very different concepts. Varna is based on the principle of each according to his worth-while Caste is based on the principle of each according to his birth. The two are as distinct as chalk is from cheese. In fact there is an antithesis between the two.[vi]

Dr.Ambedkar also rejected any revival of traditional Varna system also as attempted by Arya Samajists.  It was not the principle of categorization based on worth that forms the basis of Varna system which Dr.Ambedkar rejected. He explained:

To me this Chaturvarnya with its old labels is utterly repellent and my whole being rebels against it….If new notions are to be inculcated in the minds of people it is necessary to give them new names. To continue the old name is to make the reform futile. To allow this Chaturvarnya, based on worth to be designated by such stinking labels of Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra, indicative of social divisions based on birth, is a snare.[vii]

As a seasoned historiographer Dr.Ambedkar sees throughout Indian history two fundamental movements: one of social emancipation and another of social stagnation. He sees the roots of both in larger Hindu culture itself and aligns himself with the movement for social emancipation. He sees Buddhism as the culmination of this emancipation movement. Social emancipation was not something new to Vedic civilization brought in by Buddhism. Rather Dr.Ambedkar sees Vedic period and its continuation as one in which women enjoyed educational rights:

That a woman was entitled to Upanayan is clear from the Atharva Veda where a girl is spoken of as being eligible for marriage having finished her Brahmacharya. From the Shrauta Sutras it is clear that women could repeat the Mantras of the Vedas and that women were taught to read the Vedas.  Panini’s Ashtaadhyai bears testimony to the fact that women attended Gurukul and studied the various Shakhas of the Veda and became expert in Mimansa. Patanjali’s Maha Bhashya shows that women were teachers and taught Vedas to girl students. The stories of women entering into public discussions with men on most abstruse subjects of religion, philosophy and metaphysics are by no means few. The story of public disputation between Janaka and Sulbha, between Yajnavalkya and Gargi, between Yajnavalkya and Maitrei and between Shankaracharya and Vidyadhari shows that Indian women in pre-Manu’s time could rise to the highest pinnacle of learning and education.[viii]

Dr.Ambedkar further explains:

That at one time women were highly respected cannot be disputed. Among the Ratnis who played so prominent a part in coronation of the King in ancient India was queen and the King made her an offering as hid to the others. Not only the King elect did homage to the Queen he worshipped his other wives of lower castes. In the same way the King offers salutation after the coronation ceremony to the ladies of the chiefs of the Srenies (guilds). This is a very high position for women in any part of the World.[ix]

He sets the implementation of Manu Smrithi as the bench mark for the fall of Hindu women. To him this was the triumph of counter-revolution in India.  The same Ambedkar, who completely rejected the inhuman dimensions of Manu Smrithi, demonstrated that the Smrithi tradition with diverse traditions it contained can be distilled to create a Hindu law that is just and democratic. Hindu Code Bill, he believed, shall be instrumental in molding Hindus into a unitary society based on the principles of liberty and equality. Talking about the Hindu Code Bill in 1950, he declared:

The present bill is progressive. This is an effort to try to have one civil law for all the citizens under the constitution of India. The law is based on the religious scriptures of the Hindus.[x]

Thus we see Baba Saheb Ambedkar advocating the formation of a Hindu society which has learnt its lessons from its past follies and tragedies, a Hindu society which is inclusive and universal and ready to make it assertive in the new global context of the battle of civilizations. That Baba Saheb Ambedkar opted for Buddhism in bitterness, as Hindu society stubbornly and foolishly refused to come out of the clutches of casteist vested interests donning the garbs of religious authority, was actually the failure of Hindu society and its leadership to realize the dangers it was facing and adapt itself to the new challenges. Yet all these factors could never diminish the love Dr.Ambedkar had for the nation as we will see next, how he constantly worried about the national security and made the interests of India the primary factor in all his equations.

[i] Dr.Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, Thoughts on linguistic states, Anand Sahitya Sadan, 1955:1989, p.16

[ii] Dr.Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, Who were the Shudras?: How they came to be the fourth Varna in the Indo-Aryan society, Thackers, 1946:1970, p. xxii

[iii] Dr.Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, Who were the Shudras?: How they came to be the fourth Varna in the Indo-Aryan society, Thackers, 1946:1970, p. xix

[iv] Dr.Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, Annihilation of Caste: With reply to Mahatma Gandhi, 1944:pdf document: p.34

[v] Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, Writings and Speeches, Vol 3, Education Dept., Govt. of Maharashtra, 1987, pp.286-7

[vi] Dr.Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, Annihilation of Caste: With reply to Mahatma Gandhi, 1944:pdf document: p.66

[vii]  Dr.Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, Annihilation of Caste: With reply to Mahatma Gandhi, 1944:pdf document: p.34

[viii] Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, Writings and Speeches, Vol 3, Education Dept., Govt. of Maharashtra, 1987, p.432

[ix] Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, Writings and Speeches, Vol 17, Part 2, Education Dept., Govt. of Maharashtra, 1979 p.122

[x] Dr.Ambedkar statement made on 11-January 1950: quoted in Vasant Moon (trans.Asha Damle), Dr. Baba Saheb Ambedkar, National Book Trust, 1991:2002 p.192

Image Courtesy – Buddhambedkar.blogspot.com

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Aravindan Neelakandan

Co-author of acclaimed book "Breaking India", Aravindan Neelakandan has worked for the past decade with an NGO in Tamil Nadu serving marginalized rural communities in sustainable agriculture. He is also a popular science writer in Tamil and is part of the editorial team of highly popular Tamil web portal www.tamilhindu.com.

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