Evaluating Ambedkar in the Reformist Tradition

This paper was first published on the National Seminar- New Dalit Agenda for the 21st Century organized jointly by the Indus Research Centre, New Delhi and Ambedkar  Chair, IIPA, New Delhi that took place on 12 April.

So long as caste remains, there will be no Sanghatan and so long as there is no Sanghatan the Hindu will remain weak and meek .Indifferentism is the worst kind of disease that can infect a people. Why is the Hindu so indifferent? In my opinion this indifferentism is the result of Caste System which has made Sanghatan and co-operation even for a good cause impossible.

Many of our nation’s self-proclaimed secular progressives would claim that the aforementioned statement must have been made by an ardent advocate of Hindutva with an aim of bringing in a sturdy Hindu society. In other words, in the parlance of the current discourse, this will be branded a communal statement. However, the votaries of such branding would be surprised, even shocked when they realize that this ‘communal’ statement was made by the iconic and erudite Dr. Ambedkar, and can be found on page-31 of his stellar work on India’s social anomalies, the Annihilation of Caste. Now for long Dr.Ambedkar has been consistently portrayed in overtly anti-Hindu hues but very few of our scholars look into the circumstances in which the good doctor operated.

It is undeniable that the issue of caste continues to be one of the major problems that has plagued Indian society for long. Scholars and leaders of every ideological hue have agreed that there exists a caste problem in our nation. It is an undeniable and unfortunate fact that many social evils do afflict Indian society at large and many of them are the results of misinterpretation and distortion of Hindu texts. As a consequence, right on top of these conundrums sits the irregularities we have in the domain of caste. Even in the twenty first century we have people who still believe in the notion of caste hierarchy. These notions often lead to horrendous acts of violence against people belonging to backward castes.

As many students of Indian history and politics will know, whenever the issue of a Dalit narrative is raised, the bulk of our secular progressives belonging to the Marxist school of thought, make the same old statements blaming Hindu texts and broadly, the entire Hindu heritage for all “evils” that have supposedly flowed from the so-called caste system. In doing so they choose to ignore the fact and historical reality of Hinduism’s capacity for internal revitalization and reform. Further, these progressives always cite and quote the sayings and writings of Dr. B.R.Ambedkar in order to give their claims authenticity since the good doctor is the Dalit community’s greatest icon. But what they mostly do is carefully cherry-pick those of Ambedkar’s words which only suit their ideological leanings.

For the sake of ideology, these ‘progressives’ have put him in the club of anti-India radicals like E.V.Ramaswami Naicker, and in the process, have created a ‘Dalit’ narrative which is at times separatist in nature. This gives rise to the doubt as to how much of Ambedkar’s writings they have actually read. As students of history will know if they are not deterred by ideology, many acts of reform were envisaged and implemented in the Hindu society whenever orthodoxy reared its dreadful head. Yet our scholars take a negative view of even the Hindu reform activities calling them forms of ‘Brahmanical-Hegemony’ in an attempt to suppress their genuine positive contributions.

But unlike them, Dr.Ambedkar was aware in his times of how the advocates of social reform who were also proponents of ‘Hindu Nationalism’ fought to remove the social evils and always heaped praises upon them in most of his writings. As he opined ‘The Hindus have their social evils. But there is this relieving feature about them, namely that some of them are conscious of their existence and a few of them are actively agitating for their removal.'(Page-118, Thoughts on Pakistan). With that in mind I attempt to present how the social narrative as envisioned by Ambedkar was in consonance with the Hindu social reformers.

The Champion of Untouchables

It is an unfortunate historical fact that the two most notable names in our freedom struggle, Lokmanya Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi were not very vocal against the forces of Hindu orthodoxy that were slowly gaining strength inside the Congress party, and at one point dominated the Congress at every level. These forces were disinclined to assimilate the depressed castes with the rest of Hindu society, and foiled all attempts of the radical reformers in the broader Hindu nationalist movement. That is why in most of his works on Hindu society, Dr.Ambedkar showed his proclivity to the said advocates of social reforms as can be seen in this extract from his ‘Who Were the Shudras’:

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 along 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 main stay and it is to them that I have addressed my argument.

swamiOne such noble Hindu was Swami Shraddhanand of the Arya Samaj who declared in the 1919 Amritsar Congress session:

Is it not true that so many among you who make the loudest noises about the acquisition of political rights, are not able to overcome their feeling of revulsion for those sixty millions of India who are suffering injustice, your brothers whom you regard as untouchable? How many are there who take these wretched brothers of theirs to their heart?. give deep thought.. I make this one appeal to all of you, brothers and sisters. Purify your hearts with the water of the love of the motherland in this national temple, and promise that these millions will not remain for you untouchables, but become brothers and sisters…

In the Calcutta Congress session in 1920, the Swami proposed a three point program with special section on the untouchables, but the party then firmly under Gandhi’s leadership declared the program to be ill-timed. By 1921, the Swami was frustrated with Gandhi’s negligence regarding the welfare of the untouchables and resigned from the Congress. Dr.Ambedkar himself alluded to this contentious issue in his ‘What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables’:

Was it because the Congress intended that the scheme should be a modest one not costing more than two to five lakhs of rupees but felt that from that point of view they had made a mistake in including Swami Shradhanand in the Committee and rather than allow the Swami to confront them with a huge scheme which the Congress could neither accept nor reject? The Congress thought it better in the first instance to refuse to make him the convener and subsequently to dissolve the Committee and hand over the work to the Hindu Mahasabha. Circumstances are not quite against such a conclusion. The Swami was the greatest and the most sincere champion of the Untouchables. There is not the slightest doubt that if he had worked on the Committee he would have produced a very big scheme..

Now Swami Shraddhanand has been portrayed by most of our contemporary historians as just a ‘Brahminical Hindu revivalist’ putting his social reform activities on the backseat. We can take a look at what the scholar John Zavos had to say about the Arya Samaj and Swami Shraddhanand to comprehend the so-called ‘Brahmanic Hegemony’:

Aryas involved in the Suddhi movement, on the other hand, sought an active redefinition of the Hindu community which effectively eradicated what were perceived as oppressive elements of the jati system in favor of a form of merit-based varna. . at the 1923 Session of the Mahasabha. Sraddhananda tabled three resolutions based on the Arya vision of a restructured Hinduism. The first dealt with the untouchables, calling for practical concessions (such as access to wells and schools) as a prelude to their assimilation (through suddhi) into the Hindu community. The second dealt specifically with the Malkana Rajputs. The third dealt with suddhi as a process of conversion from other religions, calling for the acceptance ‘by the whole Hindu community of converts regardless of which ‘sect’ had performed the suddhi rites (Leader 8 August 1923). Resolutions one and three, then, made fairly definite allusions to the recognition of merit-based varna. Both implied the acceptance by the ‘Hindu community’ of reclaimed Aryas, whether untouchable or non-Hindu, who had been invested with twice-born status in accordance with Dayananda’s flexible varna structure.

Swami Shraddhananda veered more towards a merit-based egalitarian society over upper-caste dominance. But this egalitarian vision was derailed by the Swami’s untimely death in 1926 at the hands of a fanatic Islamist named Abdul Rashid.

Answering the doctor’s riddle

Our progressive scholars never fail to point how Ambedkar’s perception of Hinduism as devoid of democracy and highlight the ‘Riddles in Hinduism’, which is a harsh critique of the Hindu religion:

The Hindu social system is undemocratic not by accident. It is designed to be undemocratic.

Indeed if one reads ‘Riddles in Hinduism’ they may feel that the secularists are actually correct. But in the same so-called anti-Hindu text they will find this gem of wisdom:

The Hindu Religious and Philosophic thought gave rise to an idea which had greater potentialities for producing social democracy than the idea of fraternity. It is the doctrine of Brahmaism…

‘Brahmaism’ according to Dr.Ambedkar is the principal philosophy of the Upanishads which is best explained in its three key Mahavakyas or ‘The Great Sayings’:

  1. Sarvam Khalvidam Brahman- All of this is Brahman.
  2. Aham Brahmasmi- Atmana (Self) is the same as Brahman. Therefore I am Brahman.
  3. Tat tvam asi- Atmana (Self) is the same as Brahman. Therefore thou art also Brahman.

As the good doctor goes on to explain:

It is said that Brahmaism is piece of impudence. For a man to say “I am Brahma” is a kind of arrogance. The other criticism leveled against Brahmaism is the inability of man to know Brahma. ‘I am Brahma’ may appear to be impudence. But it can also be an assertion of one’s own worth. In a world where humanity suffers so much from an inferiority complex such an assertion on the part of man is to be welcomed. Democracy demands that each individual shall have every opportunity for realizing its worth. It also requires that each individual shall know that he is as good as everybody else.this theory of Brahma has certain social implications which have a tremendous value as a foundation for Democracy. If all persons are parts of Brahma then all are equal and all must enjoy the same liberty which is what Democracy means. Looked at from this point of view Brahma may be unknowable. But there cannot be slightest doubt that no doctrine could furnish a stronger foundation for Democracy than the doctrine of Brahma. To support Democracy because we are all children of God is a very weak foundation for Democracy to rest on. That is why Democracy is so shaky wherever it made to rest on such a foundation. But to recognize and realize that you and I are parts of the same cosmic principle leaves room for no other theory of associated life except democracy. It does not merely preach Democracy. It makes democracy an obligation of one and all…..Why then Brahmaism failed to produce a new society? This is a great riddle.

So is there any answer to Babasaheb’s Riddle? I would venture to say yes. Now as Dr. Ambedkar explained, the Upanishads’ primary principle is equality since Brahman is innate in all of us. This principle can be a great weapon against almost all forms of socio-religious bigotry. An application of this equability of Brahman in society was carried out by the great Bhakti saint Ramanujachrya who created one of the first mass movements for the upliftment of the depressed classes. Even Sant Kabir and Guru Nanak stated that the relationship between man and the divine should be that of constant companionship since divinity is in us all. These savants like the Vedantists viewed the Self (Atman) as beyond worldly divisions of religions and sects, and even gender. The Self, is nirguna, beyond the qualities that make for differences between human beings. The names of Ramanuja, Kabir and Nanak as radical reformers can be found in the Annihilation of Caste.

It is also a fact that most Hindu reformers during the days of British Raj used the principles of Upanishads efficiently to weaken social obstacles and renew the Hindu society. Its effect was so broad that even an eminent historian, to borrow Arun Shourie’s terminology, like KN Panikkar was unable to ignore it:

One of the early writings of Rammohun Roy was the translation of an Abridgement of the Vedanta. He also defended Vedanta against the criticism advanced by the Christian missionaries. Afterwards almost all reformers of this period invoked Vedanta for the reforms they were trying to undertake. Keshab Chandra Sen’s notion of universalism was rooted in his conception of Advaita. Vivekananda saw it as the future religion of the world...

rkvIndeed the radical reforms of the Brahmo Samaj were broadly inspired by the teachings and principles of Vedanta. But the greatest exponent of Vedantic social unity has to be Sree Narayana Guru who challenged the foundations of orthodoxy in Kerala and reversed and renewed its entire social system. The fact that many of the social egalitarian characteristics of Kerala are the results of Narayana Guru’s vision is recognized by everyone including the Communist Party, which was first elected to power in the state in 1957. An important point to remember here would be the fact that Sree Narayana Guru belonged to the lower-caste Ezhava community and yet was able to transform society from within the tradition speaks of Vedanta’s social appeal.

One would then ask why the case of Ambedkar was so different. The answer may lie in the fact that almost all the activists belonging to the Arya Samaj as well as the Brahmo Samaj expressed their viewpoints in a more academic manner which did not succeed in convincing the masses whereas spiritualists like Narayana Guru and his predecessors like Ramanuja, Kabir and Nanak used simple and native language which made their appeal broader.

Another important point to note is that Sree Narayana Guru was settled in Kerala and thus operated in a fixed area of influence whereas Dr. Ambedkar as well as the Arya and Brahmo activists attempted to have a pan-India appeal which did not succeed due to the mass mobilization of the Congress under Gandhi’s leadership.

Ambedkar’s Buddhism

I would now like to address an important issue at this point: many scholars on Dalit issues also point out that Ambedkar had no wish to stick with the Hindu community regardless of the works of social reformers as he wanted to in their words ‘annihilate’ the core of Hinduism. They attempt to validate this claim by highlighting the following appeal made by Dr.Ambedkar to Mahatma Gandhi:

What matters is how the Shastras have been understood by the people. You must take the stand that Buddha took. You must take the stand which Guru Nanak took. You must not only discard the Shastras, you must deny their authority, as did Buddha and Nanak.

Now this statement in contrast to the claim of our progressives, actually shows Ambedkar’s prolific understanding of the core essence of Sanatana Dharma which is free spiritual inquiry and personal choice, leaving the space wide open for any one who wishes to adopt it. A notable verse of the Veda is Yatra veda aaveda, meaning when the Vedic seeker of Truth finally realizes the Truth, the Veda (in the sense of texts/Shastras) itself must be discarded.

bhikshuBut what I wish to briefly focus on is Ambedkar’s version of Buddhism. If one takes a concise reading of The Buddha and His Dhamma, one can see that Dr. Ambedkar is frankly admitting that his own version of Buddhism has little to do with the doctrine of the Pali Canon. Notably the good doctor rejected the four Aryan Truths (which are foundational to the core of Buddhism) as to him they were prayers of pessimism. His version of Buddhism emphasized on social reform:

What was the object of the Buddha in creating the Bhikkhu? Was the object to create a perfect man…if the Bhikkhu is only a perfect man he is of no use to the propagation of Buddhism because though a perfect man he is a selfish man. If, on the other hand, he is a social servant he may prove to be the hope of Buddhism. This question must be decided not so much in the interest of doctrinal consistency but in the interest of the future of Buddhism.

As a result, the good doctor attempted to sever most of Buddhism from its spiritual core which led to him being criticized by well-known Buddhist organizations like the Mahabodhi Society. This historical fact conclusively brings Ambedkar closer to not only the reformers of the Arya Samaj and Brahmo Samaj but even to Hindu Nationalist leaders like KM Munshi and Veer Savarkar who all redefined the core concepts of Sanatana Dharma to usher in social progress. I would like to conclude my paper with the following quote by Aravindan Neelakandan:

His vehement criticisms of mythologies and epics in the unfinished manuscript, which today forms the book ‘Riddles’, are actually the pain of a passionate patriotic Dalit leader who loved the Hindu culture and society but was thrown out literally by the arrogance of Hindu orthodoxy.


  1. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, Riddles in Hinduism.
  2. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, Who Were the Shudras.
  3. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar,Thoughts on Pakistan.
  4. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, Annihilation of Caste.
  5. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar,What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables.
  6. John Zavos,The Ārya Samāj and the Antecedents of Hindu Nationalism.
  7. KN. Panikkar, Saint as philosopher: http://www.thehindu.com/thehindu/mag/2004/05/02/stories/200405020017040 0.htm
  8. Aravindan Neelakandan, Bodhi Sattva’s Hindutva, http://centreright.in/2012/04/bodhi-sattvas-hindutva-part-3/#.VRjt8eGnmaQ