“That kind of a Hinduism is a religion that stops with temples; there is no place in it for love.” On the 130th Anniversary of the birth of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, Raj Gauthaman revisits his contribution to the literature on caste and religion. Read this excerpt from Dark Interiors: Essays on Caste and Dalit Culture, jointly published by SAGE Publications India and Stree-Samya Books.
Though he is described as a pioneer Marathi Dalit intellectual who wrote and fought for oppressed Dalits across the country, he is much more than that: one of the geniuses of modern India. Dr. Ambedkar excelled in Western education and also in the traditional Indian method of learning: He was familiar with the liberal thought of the British tradition.
Dr. Ambedkar firmly believed that ‘for human life, religion is essential’. But in India ‘what is known as religion is no religion at all. Only a set of rules‘. (19) He differentiated his ideal religion from the Hinduism that existed. His ideal consisted of modern democratic principles that included freedom, equality, and brotherhood. He did not plan to destroy Hinduism but he said that Brahminism should be eradicated and Hinduism saved. (20)
(20) Eradicating Brahminism meant doing away with the caste system and caste discrimination. For this, we have to remove the dominance of the Vedas and Sastras. Like Buddha and Guru Nanak, we have to deny the authority of the Sastras. (21) Of course, Hinduism will try to prevent this. So Ambedkar’s early thoughts were to extract the essence of the Upanishads, by jettisoning some portions, inserting some new concepts, and bringing about an innovative religion. (22) Influenced by the thinkers of his time, Ambedkar thought he could extract the exceptional features from an ancient culture, adapt them to modernity and forge a new path.
Dr. Ambedkar respected religion and believed that it could activate one’s conscience and direct it towards social justice. (23) On the other hand, through rationalism (read atheism), it is difficult to bring about social justice. He wrote about the limitations of atheism and rationalism. As long as it does not come into conflict with the caste and class loyalties of the rationalist who professes atheistic ideas, his rationalism will work. If it touches the rationalist’s interests, then it would fail. (24)
Similarly, religion too can deliver justice only within one race, clan, or caste. Religion cannot deliver when these different identities are at work. He pointed out as an example the case of whites and blacks in America where Christianity could not bring about equal justice. Therefore, in India, we can never expect Hinduism to bring about social justice for the untouchables. The reason is that for the Hindu his caste is sacred and permanent; it is his religious foundation that makes him believe in this. (25) A Hindu believes that God created caste. Dr. Ambedkar thought this was unfortunate.
The basic unit of the caste discrimination of Hinduism is untouchability and Ambedkar’s ideas on this subject are important. All over the world from ancient puranic times people believed that by touching some objects or people, filth, dirt or pollutant can be contacted and spread. Similarly, some believed that evil could be spread. They held that this kind of contamination could happen through eating and drinking as if it were contagious. On the same lines, they believed that birth, puberty, wedding, population, and death can also cause pollution. Individuals polluted by these factors were quarantined for some time.
The mother in childbirth, the woman after puberty and during menstruation, men and women during the marriage or inappropriate acts of sex; in death, the corpse and its relatives were isolated. Water and blood functioned as the purifying elements. (In Vedic religion fire had an important role.) Such practices prevailed all over the world but there is an important difference between Hindus and the rest.
In Hindu culture, not a few individuals, but certain sections of people are treated as untouchables and polluted based on birth and were segregated permanently. Nowhere else in the world can this practice be found. What was temporarily imposed in the Hindu tradition was made lasting on a group of people based on their birth. (26) (It is because of this feature, that Dalit liberation is not possible by an individual but only by all the mass of Dalit people.)
There was another dimension to this pollution aspect. If this mass of people, declared perpetually polluted based on birth, touch any sacred place or artifact and individuals, then all are affected by pollution. The penalty of untouchability was slapped on the mass of people who lost in the struggle for supremacy between the brahmins and Buddhists that lasted from AD 400 to AD 600. (27) Iyothee Thass has expressed the same thought. There is a historical basis in the plea of both these thinkers that to liberate themselves from untouchability, Dalits must change to Buddha Dharma.
It was not Ambedkar’s idea to remove religion from human life. He tried to find the origin of religion in the doctrines of tribal society, their symbols, and what they shunned. The original belief of tribal society was oriented towards nurturing the lifestyle of the people. At the ideological level, it tried to counterbalance the total inability of human groups against the might of nature. Dr. Ambedkar points out that when tribal society disappeared giving place to a new civilization, God took the place of this old ideology.
Thus from the beginning religion was not concerned about individuals but with society. (28) Like language, religion also made individual human beings relate to society. In this, religion functioned as a mechanism to regulate society. (29) There is no doubt that all these ideas of Ambedkar were a result of his Western education. If we examine this concept we observe that at all times to compensate for its sense of helplessness, human society follows in one form or the other the old magic and totems of the tribes. Atheism, which ridicules theism, can function as a substitute for religion for some people. Similarly, intellect and science can fulfill the role of religion. This of course needs deeper inquiry.
Though intellectually Ambedkar appreciated the need for and the role of religion, he did not approve of Hinduism which had created caste for social control based on discrimination. He declared, ‘O Hinduism! Thy name is inequality’ and ‘The very soul of Hinduism is inequality’.(30) That kind of Hinduism is a religion that stops with temples; there is no place in it for love. Therefore, he said, it cannot love fellow human beings or render any service to them.
Though religion, like language, can facilitate social relations, here it seems to function with prejudice. He said that the thought of service and freedom, equality, and brotherhood is alien to Hinduism because it rests on caste discrimination. (31) Every Hindu thinks about another person only in terms of higher or lower and never in terms of being equal. His conclusion was,
For Hindus inequality is a lifestyle ordained by God; it’s a religious doctrine; lifestyle. To this extent, it is an ineradicable feature of Hinduism. The concept of inequality has been built into the thought and action of Hindu Society (Ibid: vol.4:66).
This idea can even be taken as the Dalit view of religion. Ambedkar made many insightful observations about the brahminic Hindu social structure. He pointed out how it had been laid down that Hindu social organization has been created by God; it is based on a hierarchical gradation; Caste-based vocation was decided by birth: there should be no intermingling of caste; in this scheme of things the brahmins are the preeminent humans; Everything has been formed with their well-being in mind; towards this end, the socioeconomic standard of the oppressed caste people was kept at a low level by means of ignorance and violence. (32)
Ambedkar believed that Hindus only looked at people from the lens of superiority or inferiority, never as equals.
All societies in the world have class distinctions. They are normal and natural. However, these natural differences were not glorified as an everlasting ideal. Ambedkar pointed out that in the brahminic Vedas, the portion titled ‘Purusha Suktham’ extolled these class differences as being the ideal, sacred and divine and he refuted that stand. He said that brahmins guarded and nurtured Hinduism because the structure of graded society helped in maintaining their hegemonic hold over people. (33)
19 B. R. Ambedkar and Vasant Moon, 1979. Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches., 22 vols. (Bombay: Government of Maharashtra, Department of Education., 1979–2010): vol. 2: 91; vol. 1: 90.
20 Ibid.: vol. 2: 93.
21 Ibid.: vol.1: 87; vol.2 :74.
22 Ibid.: vol.2: 94.
23 Ibid.: vol. 5: 396.
24 Ibid.: vol. 5: 397.
25 Ibid.: vo. l 5: 368; vol. 5: 102.
26 Ibid.: vol.7.: 259, 265, 266.
27 Ibid.: vol 7.: 379.
28 Ibid.: vol 5.: 408–09.
29 Ibid.: vol. 5: 410.
30 Ibid.: vol. 4: 87; vol. 3: 66.
31 Ibid.: vol. 5.: 451.
32 Ibid.: vol. 4: 126.
33 Ibid.: vol. 7: 240; 726.
Excerpted with permission from Dark Interiors: Essays on Caste and Dalit Culture, published by SAGE Publications India and Stree-Samya Books.