Ambedkar’s American Guru

What will break the spell of the sanatan or the eternal is reflective thought, which Ambedkar understands in a classic Deweyan manner. Most of our life is unreflective and habitual, he says. Only a situation that presents a dilemma forces us to reconsider our habits and the philosophical assumptions that support those habits

Ambedkar studied at Columbia University (1913–1916) and was deeply influenced by John Dewey, at that time a professor of philosophy at Columbia, and the nation’s best-known public intellectual. Ambedkar attended Dewey’s lectures, read his books and took his ideas home with him. Back in India, after many years of civil disobedience against caste discrimination, and after a long, frustrating fight against Mahatma Gandhi’s paternalistic reformism, Ambedkar, along with nearly a million of his fellow untouchables, publicly renounced Hinduism and converted to Buddhism.

Ambedkar followed Dewey in finding in modern science an attitude, a temperament, that had the potential to challenge unexamined tradition and prejudices by cultivating a collective, democratic “will to inquire, to examine, to discriminate, to draw conclusions only on the basis of evidence after taking pains to gather all available evidence … to treat all ideas as working hypotheses to be tested by consequences they produce”.  Ambedkar followed Dewey in believing that the content of modern scientific theories demanded rational acceptance by all people, universally, because these theories are the products of the most systematic practice of the scientific attitude. He believed that with modern science, a new kind of knowledge was born that could replace the theological, metaphysical and supernatural foundations of knowledge.

Ambedkar, like Dewey, believed that the most important task facing intellectuals was to reconstruct the inherited cultural values and social ethics by bringing the spirit and the content of science to bear upon them: science had metaphysical and ethical implications, over and above its instrumental uses.

… Ambedkar carried his commitment to a Deweyan scientific temper into his understanding of the Buddha. Ambedkar understood the Buddha as a Deweyan pragmatist and a scientific critic of the status quo. Ambedkar turned Dewey’s call for reconstructing philosophy and society in the light of scientific inquiry into the central message of the life of the Buddha – with good justification, for the Buddha, after all, was a rebel against the mystical idealism of Brahmin priests in his own time. Dewey’s ideas helped Ambedkar make the historic rebellion of Siddharth Gautama relevant for his own quest for a civic religion of ‘equality, liberty and fraternity’ in India. Dewey was by no means Ambedkar’s only inspiration: powerful 19th century anti-caste movements in his own province were important influences, as were the histories of numerous heterodox, anti-Vedic, materialist sects/schools that have always existed on the fringes of Hinduism. But Dewey, and his American experience more generally, served Ambedkar as a bridge between the past dalit traditions of protest, and a self-consciously liberal and secular worldview. By emphasizing scientific temper as the central message of the Buddha, Ambedkar made respect for systematic inquiry a part of religious obligations of dalit neo-Buddhists.

Dr B Mungekar and Mr Vardhe at Ambedkar Center at Columbia University

While Dewey’s influence on the Chinese Enlightenment, the May 4th Movement, is very well documented, as is his continuing influence in China today, his indirect connection with the aborted Indian Enlightenment is hardly known outside the small circle of dalit scholars and other students of Indian social movements. Unfortunately, even these scholars tend to treat Ambedkar’s American experience and his great regard for Dewey as just one more biographical detail, ‘counting for very little’. Eleanor Zelliot, the American scholar of dalit movements, goes the farthest in exploring Ambedkar’s American experience. But even she gives it very little importance: ‘American influence on Ambedkar really counted for very little. It is more likely that in those early years in America, his own natural proclivities and interests found a healthy soil for growth … and strengthened him in his lifelong battle for dignity and equality of his people.’ There is very little appreciation of either the formative influence Dewey’s philosophical ideas had on Ambedkar’s thinking, or of their possible relevance for the contemporary struggles for secularism and democracy in India.

Ambedkar’s ‘Music in the Storm’

October 14, 1956 holds a special significance for the dalit community in India. On that day, Bhim Rao Ambedkar publicly renounced Hinduism and converted to Buddhism. Ambedkar died shortly afterwards. He is reported to have spent his last hours on this earth putting finishing touches to Buddha and His Dhamma, accepted as a sacred book by neo-Buddhists in India.

Ambedkar converts to Buddhism in Nagpur on 14 October 1956

Ambedkar’s turn to Buddhism came at the end of a long quest for a faith that would allow him to anchor his spirituality in a worldview that did not denigrate his community’s humanity. Turning to a reconstructed Buddhism was for him a necessary step toward destroying the metaphysical and cosmological gloss the core values of Hinduism put on hierarchy and natural inequality. His American experience and his Deweyan scientific temper, along with the anti-caste struggle of other low-caste rebels who had gone before him, all led him to the Buddha.

Ambedkar spent three years at Columbia University, where he worked for his Ph.D. in economics. He seems to have availed himself of courses offered by ‘as many top ranking professors at Columbia as he could, whatever their field: including Dewey, Edwin Seligman, James Harvey Robinson and Alexander Goldenweiser who gave him a ‘broad and deep exposure to an optimistic, expansive and pragmatic body of knowledge’. But it seems that Dewey was the closest to a guru Ambedkar had: he not only followed his ideas all his life but, according to his wife, Savita Ambedkar, ‘happily imitated John Dewey’s distinctive class room mannerism – thirty years after he sat in his classes. It is not known, however, if Dewey was aware of the influence he had on Ambedkar, and through him, on the lives of millions of distant strangers. As far as I have been able to ascertain, the two were not in any direct communication, although there is some evidence that Dewey took sporadic interest in the anti-colonial struggles in India. After his Columbia years, Ambedkar went on to obtain a D.Sc. from the London School of Economics and to pass the bar exam, returning to India for good in 1923.

For more than a decade after this return, Ambedkar remained optimistic that political and economic changes – access to education, right to vote etc. – would suffice to integrate the lower castes into the national mainstream. Ambedkar, in other words, did not start out with the religious question. Like most other left-leaning social reformers of his day, he gave primacy to structural reform, expecting the religious and the cultural realms to fall in place. But the bitter struggles of untouchables to exercise their right to drink water from segregated village wells (the famous civil disobedience at Mahad), their right to enter Hindu temples hitherto closed to them (temple¬ entry movements of Pune and Nasik) and his bruising debate with Mahatma Gandhi over the question of separate voting rights for outcastes (the famous Poona Pact of 1932 in which Gandhi prevailed) all led him to a realization that advancement of the untouchables was impossible without a prior reform of the core values of Hinduism. His disillusionment with Hinduism was complete by 1935 when he first declared his intent to renounce Hinduism. ‘I was born a Hindu, but I will not die a Hindu’ he is reported to have told Mahatma Gandhi. With this disillusionment, his quest for a new faith that can anchor his values of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’ began in earnest. Given his deeply religious temperament, Ambedkar could not bring himself to turn his back on religion, the course taken by the non-Brahmin, self- respect movement of Periyar in south India, and recommended by most Marxists. Ambedkar’s quest ended, twenty years later, with his conversion to Buddhism.

John Dewey

Ambedkar was making a classic case for an Enlightenment-style critique of religious reason in India. He expressly and repeatedly invoked the ideals of the French Revolution – ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’ – as the suitable ideals for democratic movements in India. What is more, like the philosophes of the French enlightenment, Ambedkar strove to give primacy to scientific reason as the new standard for a ‘constant revision and revolution of old values’ Ambedkar is unequivocal in his preference for the truth-enhancing values and methods of modern science of Galileo, Newton and Darwin, which he thought were fully commensurable with the teachings of the Buddha and the ancient non-Vedic materialists and skeptics.

Ambedkar answered the classic question facing all revolutionaries ‘What is to be done?’ with a bold call for annihilation of the worldview that allows and justifies caste. To accomplish this task he constructed a Deweyan Buddha.

Ambedkar’s Deweyan Buddha

Ambedkar’s Buddha teaches how to bridge the gap between facts and values, between how we know about the world we live in, and how we treat our fellow beings. In a statement that recurs throughout his speeches, interviews, and writings, Ambedkar presents the Buddha as teaching prajna (understanding, as against superstition and naturalism, as against supernaturalism) in order to create bonds of karuna (empathy) and samata (equality). Of the three, prajna is central for without it, the other two can falter. Thus Ambedkar’s Buddha teaches that ‘the path of all passion and all virtue … must be subject to test of prajna or intelligence … because without intelligence, generosity may end up demoralizing and love may end up supporting evil’. In more distinctively Deweyan terms, Ambedkar saw the Buddha as a prophet of a scientific ethos which, if given a chance to take root, can help create a civic culture that respects the fundamental values of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’.

It is how Ambedkar understands prajna and the centrality he assigns to it for democratic change where Dewey’s presence is most palpable, is where Ambedkar stands in stark contrast to all contemporary advocates of ‘alternative epistemologies’. In Annihilation of Caste, written some 20 years before his magnum opus, Buddha and his Dhamma he had already explicitly evoked ‘Prof. John Dewey, who was my teacher and to whom I owe so much’, to define his project of fostering ‘notional change’ through reflective thought.

Briefly, in Annihilation he urges his fellow Indians to forego the quest for certain and absolute knowledge of the ultimate Truth or Being, the kind of knowledge idealized by Brahmanical Hinduism. In words that distinctly echo Dewey’s, he proposes a new ideal of knowledge which embraces change, and which will learn to constantly revise all that is taken as settled.

Bhim Rao Ambedkar

Ambedkar bases his call for the re-evaluation of values on two long quotations from Dewey (without citing the source) to the effect that it is our duty ‘not to conserve and transmit the whole of our past achievements, but only as much as makes for a better future society’ and that we should not make ‘the past a rival of the present, and the present a more or less imitation of the past’. The contrast with underdog epistemologies is clear: inherited values are to be critically examined, not ‘privileged’ as sources of better truths.

What will break the spell of the sanatan or the eternal is reflective thought, which Ambedkar understands in a classic Deweyan manner. Most of our life is unreflective and habitual, he says. Only a situation that presents a dilemma forces us to reconsider our habits and the philosophical assumptions that support those habits.

Ambedkar’s preferred solution to this compartmentalization of scientific knowledge and social values bears the stamp of Deweyan thinking. His solution calls for breaking down the compartments between the instrumental and ethical implications of science. Ambedkar argues for actively using the same scientific revolution that replaced the bullock-cart with a train to reshape the Indian society’s understanding of natural laws and its preferred modes of fixing beliefs. He argues for the need to develop new principles of validating facts, and then using these principles to judge if the traditional facts about the natural and social order are warranted. He accomplishes this in his interrogation in Dhamma of the traditional Hindu cosmology that treats karma – the sum total of good and bad deeds that guides the immortal soul in its various rebirths – as a law of nature.

In fact, some traditional Buddhists object to Ambedkarite Buddhism as blasphemy since it rejects the ideas of karma and rebirth, both of which are accepted by mainstream Buddhists. But one could argue that Ambedkar has applied the Buddha’s injunction – to treat nothing as infallible and eternal – to the Buddha’s own teachings and reinterpreted them for the contemporary world. But in making the Buddha’s historic rebellion against Brahmanical Hinduism contemporaneous, Ambedkar has remained faithful to the letter and the spirit of the original texts.

Let us now turn to the centerpiece of the Buddha’s teaching, namely prajna, or understanding. Ambedkar presents the Buddha as giving permission to ordinary men and women, regardless of their station, to trust their experience over the authority of the learned Brahmins encoded in the Vedas and the Upanishads. But at the same time, the Buddha encourages them not to treat even their own experience, at any time, as infallible and exempt from revision. As against the unchanging cosmic order of the Vedas and the Upanishads, the Buddha taught that everything is always changing and there is no continuous and coherent self that experiences an unchanging reality. To cling to the idea of permanence is the source of suffering, while cultivating an attitude of ‘mindful contemplation’ of the ever-changing reality is the way to master and overcome suffering. Ambedkar interprets mindfulness to mean that ‘everything must be open to re-examination and reconsideration, whenever grounds for re-examination and reconsideration arise’. A re-examination, backed by ‘logic and proof’ and conducted with a spirit of ‘freedom of thought’ will itself change what the inquirer will value: not the certain knowledge of ultimate reality, but reliable knowledge of here and now. The Buddha (like Dewey) offers a method, not a doctrine, as a source of enlightenment.

John Dewey

Like Dewey in A Common Faith, Ambedkar is seeking to separate the religious attitude (the religion of principles) from its institutional trappings (the religion of rules). Prajna allows him to equate ‘the cleaning of the mind as the essence of religion’: a genuine religious attitude becomes simply to act mindfully, to act with consciousness and responsibility and not obey any rules laid out in advance. He seems to believe, perhaps too optimistically, that once reason becomes the basis of a new morality; equality (samata) and empathy/love (karuna) will follow. He had the Buddha’s example before him. In a revolutionary break from the Brahmanical culture of his time, which limited access to the knowledge of Upanishads to a selected few, the Buddha made no distinctions of caste, class or gender. All were welcome to join his sangha (order) – and all came.

The Significance of Ambedkar’s Buddha

If, as Ambedkar observed, ‘the history of India is nothing but a mortal conflict between Buddhism and Brahmanism’ then Brahmanism has had an upper hand in the civil society, down to the contemporary times. Ambedkar’s turn to Buddhism is a valiant attempt to correct the imbalance. The new Buddhism, however, is not meant for neo-Buddhists alone. Its real significance lies in the challenge it poses to the cultural common-sense of the rest of the Indian society. Like his hero John Dewey, and like the philosophes of the European Enlightenment, Ambedkar is trying to make science relevant not just for new technologies, nor even for a new body of facts about nature, but for bringing about a change in the mode of thinking of the whole of Indian society. He is seeking a reconstruction of the conscious and unconscious taken- for-granted answers to questions regarding right and wrong, natural and unnatural, place of humans in the cosmos, etc. Ambedkar’s neo-Buddhism contains the seeds of Indian Reformation and Enlightenment rolled into one.

…… Indian scholars … completely ignored Ambedkar’s seamless fusion of the ideas of John Dewey, the quintessential Yankee puritan, and the Buddha, the quintessential Asian philosopher. Ambedkar’s Deweyan Buddha is a resounding affirmation of the universality of human aspiration for more truthful knowledge of nature in the service of human flourishing. The life and the teachings of the Buddha are a living example that there has always been a reserve of skepticism and critical rationality toward dominant traditions in India. And the Buddha–Dewey synthesis is a living example that the veritistic traditions of premodern cultures are perfectly commensurate with the goals and methods of modern Western science.

As his seamless weaving of modern science and the teachings of the Buddha shows, Ambedkar saw no incommensurability between the nature-endorsing and reason-affirming aspects of ancient Indian traditions and the ethos of modern science. He saw modern science only as a refinement and development of these nearly forgotten materialist and pragmatic traditions of the non-priestly, laboring castes in India. His Deweyan Buddha was a symbol of the unity of human reason and its still unfulfilled potential.

(Excerpted with the permission of the author and the publisher from ‘A ‘Broken’ People Defend Science: Dewey Meets the Buddha of India’s Dalits’ in  Breaking the Spell of Dharma:  A Case for Indian Enlightenment, Second Edition (2007), pp 31-82)


Published in the December 2010 issue of the Forward Press magazine

Forward Press also publishes books on Bahujan issues. Forward Press Books sheds light on the widespread problems as well as the finer aspects of Bahujan (Dalit, OBC, Adivasi, Nomadic, Pasmanda) society, literature, culture and politics. Next on the publication schedule is a book on Dr Ambedkar’s multifaceted personality. To book a copy in advance, contact The Marginalised Prakashan, IGNOU Road, Delhi. Mobile: +919968527911.

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