(First published in January 2001)
Dr. Ambedkar’s role as a prominent constitution maker of India is quite well known. However, his views on religion, particularly his reasons for renouncing Hinduism, the religion of his birth, are not as widely known. Ambedkar who was born in an “untouchable” family carried on a relentless battle against untouchability throughout his adult life. In the last part of his life, he renounced Hinduism and became a Buddhist. What were his reasons for doing so?
A detailed answer to this question can be obtained by studying his The Buddha and His Dhamma, Annihilation of Caste, Philosophy of Hinduism, Riddles in Hinduism etc. Nonetheless, some of his articles, speeches and interviews before and after his conversion to Buddhism throw some light on this question.
Ambedkar’s statement in 1935 at Yeola Conference is quite instructive in this regard. Ambedkar believed that the untouchables occupied a “weak and lowly status” only because they were a part of the Hindu society. When attempts to gain equal status and “ordinary rights as human beings” within the Hindu society started failing, Ambedkar thought it was essential to embrace a religion which will give “equal status, equal rights and fair treatment” to untouchables. He clearly said to his supporters “select only that religion in which you will get equal status, equal opportunity and equal treatment…”
Evidently, after a comparative study of different religions, Ambedkar concluded that Buddhism was the best religion from this point of view.
In his article “Buddha and the Future of his Religion” published in 1950 in the Mahabodhi Society Journal, Ambedkar has summarized his views on religion and on Buddhism in the following manner:
1. The society must have either the sanction of law or the sanction of morality to hold it
together. Without either, the society is sure to go to pieces. 2. Religion, if it is to survive, it must be in consonance with reason, which is another name for science.
3. It is not enough for religion to consist of moral code, but its moral code must recognize the fundamental tenets of liberty, equality and fraternity.
4. Religion must not sanctify or make a virtue out of poverty.
According to Ambedkar, Buddhism fulfilled these requirements and so among the existing religions it was the only suitable religion for the world. He felt that the propagation of Buddhism needed a Bible. Apparently, Ambedkar wrote The Buddha and his Dhamma to fulfill this need.
In the same article, Ambedkar has enumerated the evils of Hinduism in the following manner:
1. It has deprived moral life of freedom.
2. It has only emphasized conformity to commands.
3. The laws are unjust because they are not the same for one class as of another. Besides, the code is treated as final.
According to Ambedkar, “what is called religion by Hindus is nothing but a multitude of commands and prohibitions.”
In the same year, Ambedkar delivered a speech on Buddha Jayanti day in Delhi, in which he attacked Hindu gods and goddess and praised Buddhism because it was a religion based on moral principles. Besides, he pointed out, unlike the founders of other religions who considered themselves emissaries of god; the Buddha regarded himself only as a guide and gave a revolutionary meaning to the concept of religion. He said that Hinduism stood for inequality, whereas Buddhism stood for equality.
In May 1956, a talk by Ambedkar titled “Why I like Buddhism and how it is useful to the world in its present circumstances” was broadcast from the British Broadcasting Corporation, London. In his talk Ambedkar said:
I prefer Buddhism because it gives three principles in combination, which no other religion does. Buddhism teaches prajna (understanding as against superstition and supernaturalism), karuna (love), and samata (equality). This is what man wants for a good and happy life. Neither god nor soul can save society.
In his last speech delivered in Bombay in May 24 1956, in which he declared his resolve to embrace Buddhism, Ambedkar observed:
Hinduism believes in God. Buddhism has no God. Hinduism believes in soul. According to Buddhism, there is no soul. Hinduism believes in Chaturvarnya and the caste system. Buddhism has no place for the caste system and Chaturvarnya.
It is obvious that Ambedkar regarded Buddhism as a much more rational religion compared to Hinduism, rather the most rational religion. His main objection to Hinduism was that it sanctified inequality and untouchability through its doctrine of Chaturvarnya. Buddhism, on the other hand, rejected Chaturvarnya and supported equality. He commends Buddhism for rejecting god and soul and for emphasizing morality. According to him, prajna (understanding as against superstition and supernaturalism), karuna (love), and samata (equality), which Buddhism alone teaches, is all that human beings need for a “good and happy life”.
Ambedkar’s final religious act was to embrace Buddhism. His work The Buddha and his Dhamma contains his own understanding and interpretation of Buddhism. We may say that Buddhism as expounded in this book is what Ambedkar embraced and recommended. In this book Ambedkar has tried to interpret Buddhism in a rationalistic manner. Ambedkar did not believe in the existence of god and soul. This is obvious from the reasons he has given for embracing Buddhism as well as from his interpretation of Buddhism in Buddha and His Dhamma. In Buddhism, as interpreted by Ambedkar, there is no place for god and soul. Further, according to Ambedkar, Buddha did not believe in rebirth, karma and moksha as traditionally conceived. Besides, Buddha rejected the varna vyavastha.
It is widely recognized by scholars of Buddhism that Buddha did not believe in god and soul and also that he rejected varna-vyavastha. However, according to the traditional interpretation of Buddhism, Buddha did believe in rebirth and the related doctrine of “bondage” and liberation (nirvana). Ambedkar’s interpretation of Buddhism differs from the traditional interpretation on this point. But regrettably Ambedkar has not documented his book Buddha and his Dhamma. Therefore it is not possible to say how he arrived at his alternative interpretation of Buddhism. From a rationalist and humanist point of view, one may say that Buddhism is a better religion than Hinduism and that it is closer to rationalism-humanism compared to any other religion. Still, it cannot be denied that Buddhism is a religion and certain elements like faith, worship and other-worldliness or supernaturalism, which are common to all religions, are also found in Buddhism. Therefore the best thing is to give up all religions and adopt rational humanism as a philosophy of life.
Dr. Ramendra is Reader, Department of Philosophy, Patna College, Patna University.