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Two Lessons from Ashoka and Ambedkar

Shiva Shankar

(Talk presented at the conference on ‘Dr.Ambedkar and the Modern Buddhist World’, Nagaloka, Nagpur, October, 2006)

Dear Friends,

We all learn early that in 250 BC the Mauryan king Ashoka waged and won a cruel war with the neighbouring kingdom of Kalinga, yet when he went to inspect his spoils, it was not triumphant glory that was his chief emotion, but a great sorrow for the misery that he had wrought on all living things. So profound, we then learn, was his compassion for people he had just earlier considered his enemies that he converted to Buddhism, promoted Buddhism as the state religion, and ushered in a graceful period of our history to go down as Ashoka, the Great King.


I wish to point out two lessons that must be learnt from this historic event on the fiftieth anniversary of the equally historic event of Babasaheb Dr. Ambedkar’s Fourth Turning of the Wheel.

One, why did Ashoka consider it necessary for himself, and for his subjects, to convert to Buddhism? Could he not have accomplished as much remaining ‘Hindu’?

Clearly Ashoka himself felt that he could no longer remain in the folds of the faith he had earlier followed, given that he with missionary zeal promoted Buddhism as his State religion. This glaringly obvious message seems not to have been grasped by most Hindus however, which leads me to the second lesson:

Why do most Hindus learn this nugget of history, yet continue in their unthinking, unfeeling ways having learnt nothing?

These two lessons are related to two great themes, both central to Ambedkar’s lifework, namely those of fraternity and of an education that can lead to it. We can continue to ignore them only at our peril, for to ignore them will mean that we continue to reap the inevitable consequences of a cruel and unjust society, consequences that have crippled it for millenia.

The crippling of the moral fibre of the people of this land because of the ‘unparalleled social abuse of untouchability’ is clear, indeed starkly so. Hinduism is a baleful religion, the thousands of millions of ‘untouchable’ people who over the centuries were consigned to a living hell is not only its historical legacy, but a reality that is very much alive today. How can any person remain unshaken by this genocidal crime? To paraphrase Ambedkar, how can anybody remain in that religion which does not treat everybody as equal? I mean here not the victims for whom conversion cannot be a matter of choice, but Hindus themselves, the perpetrators, willy-nilly, of this evil. How can any person with a conscience remain a Hindu? Is Hinduism so thick a fog of self-absorbed delusion and alienation that Hindus cannot percieve what they have done, and continue to do, to fellow humans?

It is not my purpose here to analyse the Hindu psyche, nobody has done it more thoroughly than Ambedkar himself, and the root cause of the disease is surely his observation that Hinduism is a ‘religion of rules and not of principles’. For how else can a people have inflicted such agony and pain on fellow humans for over a thousand years? Even assuming that untouchability was imposed on vanquished Buddhists, how do they continue to adhere to this evil today if it were not on account of some rules they must follow?

Thus Hinduism not only deadens the conscience of a people, but also their intellect, their capacity for critical thought and action. And this brings me to the second lesson – it is not at all surprising that Hindus continue to learn nothing from Ashoka’s conversion. Learning is mimicry, it is not meant to lead to critical evaluation and understanding. And this mimesis, blind mimicry, shall lead us all to disintegration if we will not extricate ourselves out from the Hindu mire in time.

All this was of course painfully clear to Ambedkar. His choice of Buddhism, twenty full years after announcing he would not die a Hindu – which were years of much reflection – was deliberate. Buddhism, apart from its wonderfully amicable spirit, is also free from meaningless, worthless ritual. Its emphasis on responsible action and self-evaluation – be a lamp unto yourself – surely held a special attraction for him. For in Buddhism Ambedkar saw the means of not only liberating his people from cruel oppression, but also in inculcating in them a self-critical awareness.

Dalit or non-Dalit, all of us who live in the Republic of India are Ambedkar’s children, and the lesson of his conversion is meant for all of us. And for those of us who are followers in his caravan, the task we must set ourselves on this great day is how best to carry forward his vision.


Shiva Shankar, a Buddhist, is a Professor at the Chennai Mathematical Institute. He says: I am an Ambedkarite, and participate in many educational initiatives for children from ‘historically subjugated communities’.

Picture courtesy: the internet. The first century BC/CE sculpture (originally from Amaravati, Guntur district, Andhra Pradesh, but now preserved in the Musee Guimet in Paris, France) depicts a ‘Chakravartin’, possibly Ashoka.   

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