Ambedkar’s rethinking of religion

‘Ambedkar combined fearless and trenchant criticism of religion with a deep sympathy and understanding of it. When he diagnosed Hinduism as a religion of inequality because it sanctified caste or when he converted to Buddhism with his followers, Ambedkar was saying that religion can be and must be criticized. This was not to reject religion but to actually arrive at a more just and righteous religion.’ Prathama Banerjee delves into Ambedkar’s thoughts

It is urgent that we return to Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar’s thoughts on religion today. He helps us in our immediate fight against a resurgent Hindutva that targets Dalits, Muslims and dissenters in general. More generally, he helps us develop both a critique and an understanding of religion as a phenomenon. Ambedkar’s rethinking of religion has not been studied enough. One, because the religion question in India has historically been reduced to the “Hindu-Muslim question”. And two, because “progressives” have always neglected religion – liberals by insisting that religion is or should be a matter of private faith and Marxists by insisting that religion is false consciousness of people who do not recognize their own true economic interest. Yet religion continues to play a determining role in our contemporary – both in politics and in ordinary people’s everyday lives – and most of us remain but helpless witnesses to this fact.

Bhimrao and Savita Ambedkar

Ambedkar’s rethinking of religion is a vast subject. Here, I can only foreground a few important aspects of it and invite the readers to elaborate on them further. First, Ambedkar combined fearless and trenchant criticism of religion with a deep sympathy and understanding of it. This was unique – because in his times, public figures either criticized religion for being a divisive or irrational force, or like Gandhi, felt that all religions were true and worthy of respect. Our modern-day sensibility of sarvadharmasamabhava – equal treatment of all religions by the state, which stands in for Indian secularism –partakes precisely of this idea that all religions are intrinsically good. While Ambedkar insisted that religion was both inevitable to and necessary for public life, he strongly denied that all religions are good. When he diagnosed Hinduism as a religion of inequality because it sanctified caste or when he converted to Buddhism with his followers, Ambedkar (even at the cost of alienating sympathizers such as the Jatpat Todak Mandal of Lahore, which then refused to let him deliver his Annihilation of Caste lecture) was saying that religion can be and must be criticized. This was not to reject religion but to actually arrive at a more just and righteous religion.

Secondly, Ambedkar fought against the reduction of religion to identity. Modernity, we know, emerged in Europe by pitting Reason against Religion and State against Church. Yet modernity failed to either abolish religion or turn it into private faith. Religion continued to play a role in public life, including in the shaping of the modern European state, as the German philosopher Carl Schmitt pointed out, and philosophers of modernity, such as Hegel, conceptualized the world as a map of religious units (Christianity/Europe, Hinduism/India, Confucianism/China, Islam/Near East and so on). Religion thus re-entered discourses of modernity, but through the backdoor as it were. Religion was now recognized not as religion per se but as the mark of culture/civilization. This (patently false) equation between culture and religion came to be universalized through colonial rule, which anthropologized and administered people across the world as religio-cultural communities. Consequently, nationalism, such as in India, also predominantly took on the form of religious nationalism.

Ambedkar with Karmaveer Bhaurao Patil and Sant Gadge Maharaj

Hence, in Ambedkar’s times, criticism of religion had become a doubly difficult task because it was perceived as a criticism of national culture. So when Ambedkar criticized Hinduism, it offended many of his contemporaries, including Gandhi, because it appeared to be also a criticism of Indian nationalism. But this did not deter Ambedkar. He openly stated that a nationalism that excluded and persecuted a large section of the nation’s people – namely, the Untouchables – was hardly nationalism worth its name. Along with Rabindranath Tagore, Ambedkar was a rare courageous individual who dared critique nationalism at the height of India’s nationalist movement – a risky enterprise for any public figure. “I have no country,” he said to Gandhi. (This reminds us of Marx’s famous statement that the working classes have no country.) Importantly, when Ambedkar called Untouchables a “social minority” and asked for separate electorates for Depressed Classes, on a par with separate electorates for Muslims, he actually redefined the categories of majority and minority from being religio-cultural to being juridico-constitutional categories. This, as we know, was crucial for the history of our democracy in post-1947 India.

But this was not all. Ambedkar also argued that to reduce religion to cultural identity was really to empty religion of its real significance. His task then was to rescue religion from self-proclaimed religionists, who had reduced religion to merely a set of cultural markers and practices, and return to religion the two critical dimensions of philosophy and theology. This was the third important aspect of Ambedkar’s rethinking of religion that we must turn to. In his text Philosophy of Hinduism, Ambedkar said that religion was constitutive of the human condition because it dealt with elemental questions of life such as of birth and death, nourishment and disease. But to say that religion is part of human ontology does not at all mean that religion is basically the same in all places and at all times. Quite to the contrary. The history of religion is a history of revolutions, Ambedkar said, and to understand religion we must pay attention to the convulsive changes that religion has gone through in the world. “Revolution is the mother of philosophy,” Ambedkar said. Interestingly, Ambedkar did not go by the conventional narrative of modernity. The rise of science and its alleged triumph over religion was not really the defining event of his story. To Ambedkar, the most important revolution in the history of religion was the invention of God!

B.R. Ambedkar addresses a public meeting in Delhi, 1955

This is the most fascinating aspect of Ambedkar’s account of religion. Through an anthropological study of “primitive” religions, Ambedkar argued that early forms of religion did not have a concept of God or even of morality. Religion, concerned as it was with death, disease, birth, growth, food, scarcity and so on, propitiated forces of nature, such as sun, rain, wind, pestilence, etc. These forces were neither good nor evil. They were a-moral; they were simply there to be placated, harnessed, and sometimes even fought. Morality did exist in society in the form of norms of human interaction, but that was a domain separate from that of religion. In other words, religion was simply about life in all its exigencies, dangers and flourishing.

God and a ‘political society’

It was only in ancient, as opposed to primitive, times that the idea of god came to be integrated into religion – leading to the first revolution in the history of religion. The concept of god had an extra-religious origin. It probably emerged from out of deference to great and powerful men – heroes and kings – or from out of pure philosophical speculation about the author/architect of the world. The invention of god was followed by a second major revolution. That was the integration of religion with morality. In earlier times, the relationship between gods and humans was imagined as a form of kinship – gods were often called fathers/mothers. “Political society” – a term Ambedkar uses here – was thus composed of descendants and worshippers of a common progenitor-god – and consequently, competing polities had competing gods. In other words, lineage and kinship rules applied to human interaction more than abstract moral rules. In later times, however, once society came to be imagined as composed only of humans, and gods became transcendental figures lying outside political society, the god-human relationship changed from being that of kinship to that of faith and belief. Instead of watching over public and civic life of the community, god now appeared to watch over the individual – and regulate his/her personal conscience and conduct. Lineage loyalties came to be replaced by moral injunctions. Morality and religiosity came to coincide. Henceforth, it also became possible to imagine a polity composed of people worshipping different gods, just as it became possible to imagine a universal god, overseeing the affairs of a universal humanity irrespective of the fact that humanity was divided between different nations or polities. From then on, a change of religion no longer implied a necessary change of nationality.

Dr Ambedkar at the fourth world conference of Buddhists in Kathmandu on 20 June 1956. Also in the photo are Savita Ambedkar and Burmese prime minister U.Nu

Notice that Ambedkar’s is not the standard story of secularization, but a more complex story of change in the relationship between politics and religion. It is not as if religion becomes irrelevant to politics in modern times. Rather because of the change in the nature of religion and in the nature of human-god relationship, in modernity, religious belonging and political belonging no longer have a straightforward relationship. They come together in complicated ways, and sometimes even compete with each other. Religion continues to have a role in public life but in terms of very different normative principles. To quote Ambedkar,

The Religious Revolution was not thus a revolution in the religious organization of Society resulting in a shifting of the centre – from society to the individual – it was a revolution in the norms. … There may be controversy as to which of the two norms is morally superior. But I do not think there can be any serious controversy that these are not the norms. [p 22]

In other words, in modernity, debates around religion take the form of debates around the normative framework of public life – when, that is, religion is not reduced to mere cultural identity.

This brings us to the fourth important aspect of Ambedkar’s rethinking of religion – namely, his take on the relationship between religion and morality. On the face of it, Ambedkar was saying something very simple – that a religion must be judged in terms of the morality it fosters among its followers. On those terms, Hinduism is clearly wanting, because it sanctifies hierarchy, inequality and untouchability. Buddhism, on the other hand, is a moral religion because it does not discriminate on grounds of caste, gender and species – it historically admitted low-castes and women into the sangha and critiqued the sacrifice of innocent animals in the Vedic fire. But Ambedkar, clearly, is making a far more complex move here than just valorizing morality in the name of religion. In The Buddha and his Dhamma, written just before his death, Ambedkar offers us a conception of religion in its purest and barest form, ie a religion without the mediation of gods and prophets and without grounding in any notion of an eternal inner being such as soul or atman. For him, the religious subject and the subject of religion is not god, not soul, but the ordinary, mortal, finite human being in his or her everyday life. He distinguished Buddha from Krishna, Christ and Muhammad based on the fact the Buddha never claimed to be either god or god’s messenger. Neither were his words of the nature of revelations or god’s words. Nor did Buddha claim any miraculous powers or special insights into extra-worldly questions (such as what happens after life, what is the nature of the self and so on). Buddhist texts were simply meditations on the human condition, no more and no less – centred around the philosophical concepts of shunyata (emptiness), dukkha (suffering, both social and personal), impermanence of the world, “dependent origination” (ie the interconnected and inessential nature of all things) and ahimsa or non-violence. Based on this understanding of the world as ephemeral and ever-changing, without the guarantees of god’s grace and of an afterlife of the soul, but for that very same reason, imbued with the infinite possibility of transformation, Ambedkar proposed new Buddhism as a religion of the world, meant to change lives for the better right here right now, by inspiring responsible action and moral conduct among its followers. Hence his emphasis on sila – without which even knowledge was futile. And hence Ambedkar’s statement that in navayana, religion is morality and morality religion.

Revision of the karma theory

As we know, Ambedkar was a trenchant critic of the traditional, brahmanical conception of karma – which said that sufferings in this life were the result of sins in a previous life. He was also a sharp critic of the modern nationalist theory of karma ­– which said that one should undertake action as sacrifice, without either fear of or desire for the fruits of action. According to Ambedkar, the former justified the current plight of the Untouchables as caused by their own prior failings and the latter denied political status to the Untouchables’ efforts at liberation, because it was evidently desirous and interested action. Through a critique of the Bhagavadgita in his Revolution and Counter-Revolution in India and through a reframing of Buddhist texts, Ambedkar proposed a revised theory of karma to imply that every action had an inescapable consequence, however delayed or deferred it might be, which fructified right here in the world and affected collective lives. In other words, every actor was ultimately responsible for his or her actions because it came to bear not only upon themself but upon the world in general. To own up responsibility was thus to be moral. Through this revision of the karma theory, what Ambedkar did was to foreground ordinary, everyday activities of life as the critical site of moral judgments – the realm of the quotidian, where caste really played out in all its violence and discrimination – thus denying the centrality ascribed by the nationalist elite to spectacular revolutionary, exceptional or sacrificial action.

Ambedkar in his Deeksha robe

But to be moral, Ambedkar further argued, was not simply to follow the right rules. In fact, morality was not about rules at all. It was about principles. Rules told us exactly what to do and how to do it. Rules called for conformity. Manusmriti was precisely such a set of elaborate rules that demanded faithful following. Principles however do not tell us what to do. They call for interpretation and judgment. Rules generate obedience, principles generate creativity. Rules determine, principles produce a responsible freedom. A true religion is a religion of principles rather than rules, because it fosters a creative, responsible and free religious subject. To quote from The Annihilation of Caste:

The principle may be wrong but the act is conscious and responsible. The rule may be right but the act is mechanical. A religious act may not be a correct act but must at least be a responsible act.

A remarkable and counter-intuitive statement if anything – that an act qualifies to be a religious act when, wrong or right, it is undertaken in responsibility!

Religion for societal transformation

It could of course be asked that if Ambedkar’s real stake was in morality as responsible action, then why call it religion at all. The story becomes even more interesting here. It is clear that Ambedkar had quietly moved away from the modern Kant-ian sense of morality as a purely mentalist and rational judgment (Kant said that morality needed no religious backing). Ambedkar’s morality clearly called for a certain sanctity, which was beyond merely the sanctity of reason. It required a commitment that was akin to religious faith, inspiring, if necessary, a fight to the end, even sacrifice. This was not because Ambedkar was a traditionalist in the conventional sense (though he did take tradition quite seriously, both as an object of critique and as a source of new ideas, as proven by his lifelong engagement with Sanskrit and Pali texts). This was because, as Ambedkar said in his 1950 essay Buddha and the Future of his Religion, “the new world needs a religion far more than the old world did”. That is, morality as religion is particularly the need of modernity. Harking back to his earlier distinction between rules and principles, Ambedkar said that the new world needed a religion because law (the regime of rules as it were), in which we as moderns put too much faith, was an ineffective and unreliable instrument for the transformation of society. To quote him again:

Ambedkar speaks at Deekshabhoomi in Nagpur after his conversion

[The law] is intended to keep the minority within the range of social discipline. The majority is left and has to be left to sustain its social life by the postulates and sanction of morality. Religion in the sense of morality, must therefore, remain the governing principle in every society.

This, coming from the greatest constitutionalist and legal reformer of our times, unmistakably tells us that Ambedkar was rethinking religion here with reference to the limits of the modern state and modern liberalism’s “rule of law”. (It was not accidental that he finally converted to Buddhism after his resignation as law minister from Nehru’s cabinet, having experienced the impossibility of fully reforming the Hindu joint family, the crux of both caste and gender discrimination in India, by law.)

This then is the last important aspect of Ambedkar’s rethinking of religion that I want to emphasize – namely, that Ambedkar posits religion as a force that operates at the limits of state and law. The greatest testament to this fact is that on 2 December 1956, just four days before he died, Ambedkar wrote up “Buddha or Marx”! In this essay, he shows how Buddhism and Marxism share some basics – including the understanding that private property is the source of all inequalities (hence the Buddhist conception of the bhikshu and the Marxist conception of the proletariat, referring to those who have nothing to lose and therefore those who potentially are the real force of change). But Marxism parts ways with Buddhism, because having wished away religion as the “opium of the people”, it inevitably turns to the State as the primary instrument of social change (as did, in his times, both Soviet socialism and Nehruvian socialism). The result, as we know, is dictatorship and violence. To ensure equality, thus, Marxism sacrifices liberty. Ambedkar contrasts the “dictatorship of the proletariat” with the ancient Buddhist sangha, which, according to him, institutionalized democratic governance of those who voluntarily entered the community of the adept. Buddha, he said, was more flexible about the principle of non-violence than he was about the principle of democracy. Unlike Gandhi and the orthodox Jains, Buddha understood that in some cases violence was inevitable and even just. But Buddha never condoned dictatorship – for he believed that right conduct could never be enforced or coerced; it had to emerge from changed dispositions. The changing of disposition required not law but religion. The following is as clear a statement as can be, of Ambedkar’s argument that religion emerges where the jurisdiction of the state ends:

The Communists themselves admit that their theory of the State as a permanent dictatorship is a weakness in their political philosophy. They take shelter under the plea that the State will ultimately wither away. There are two questions, which they have to answer. When will it wither away? What will take the place of the State when it withers away? … The Communists have given no answer. At any rate no satisfactory answer to the question what would take the place of the State when it withers away, though this question is more important than the question when the State will wither away. Will it be succeeded by Anarchy? If so the building up of the Communist State is a useless effort. … The only thing, which could sustain it after force is withdrawn, is Religion.

Ambedkar addresses the crowd at Deekshabhoomi in Nagpur on 15 October 1956, the day after his conversion

Let me end here by pointing out Ambedkar’s unmatched originality in the rethinking of religion. As opposed to the modern secularization thesis, which sees pure politics emerging after the cessation of religion, Ambedkar’s proposition is that religion comes into play precisely when secular politics fails or is exhausted. It is therefore a mistake to believe, as many do, that Ambedkar conceptualized religion as a subordinate instrument for politics. It is true that he named “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” – the unmistakably political slogan of the French Revolution – as ideals of his religion. But it must not be forgotten that unlike anybody else, he made Fraternity the basis on which Equality and Liberty became possible. Fraternity was a community of understanding and compassion (karuna in Buddhist terms), which could only be ensured by good faith and silata towards others, ie by a religious disposition and not by mere disciplined or rule-governed behaviour, nor by pure political rationality. In other words, Ambedkar’s rethinking of religion cannot be understood within liberalism’s framework of secularism and religious tolerance. It cannot also be understood, as some seek to do, within the framework of “civil religion”, as proposed by Jean Jacques Rousseau in The Social Contract. For one, civil religion is a religion, shorn of the church and of theological elaboration, clearly in service of the modern state. For the other, civil religion is based on a concept of a natural and originary equality of all humans – as Rousseau famously said, “all men are born equal” – thus making possible the imagination of a primordial and pre-given political community. But as Ambedkar never failed to remind us, all men, rather humans, are not born equal. There is no prior political community that gets corrupted in later times and can therefore be recovered from an earlier pristine and primitive state. Political community has to be built, painstakingly, against all odds and for the first time ever, from an ancient condition of hierarchy and exploitation. Hence, the need for a new and unprecedented religion, because nothing short of or less than religion will do.


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