Liberty, Equality, Community

Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar's Vision Of A New Social Order

By Gail Omvedt

It is truly an honour to be given the opportunity to deliver the first Dr. Ambedkar memorial lecture of the new century and the new millennium. Though this is officially the 5th Dr. Ambedkar Memorial Annual Lecture for the Year 1999, it has been very fortunately postponed to the year 2000! Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar’s vision and life truly stands at the junction of the old and the new; coming from the depths of the society marked by hierarchies of inequality and involuted complexities of fixed exploitation to a leading role in the formation of a new order, symbolized by his role in the drafting of India’s Constitution, symbol of a new order, Ambedkar was indeed a man marking the beginning of an era, a man whose life and thought encompassed both analysis of, rage about and struggle against the old exploitation and the visions of the new society. Whether or not the Constitution and the India that emerged from the struggle for freedom and equality truly represents Ambedkar’s vision is a separate question; today I would like to focus on exactly what that vision was.

These are days of both assessing the past millennium and laying out our hopes and visions for the new one. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Ambedkar is here India’s most significant figure. While Indira Gandhi and Mahatma Gandhi’s names have been taken around the world as important figures of the millennium, it is not they nor any other of the rather bewildering collection of Indians mentioned (including Godse and Bacchan!) but Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar who has to be considered India’s man of the millennium. Already awareness of the significance of Dalit and the role of Dalits in Indian society is spreading, and in the future when people look back on the traumas and changes that Indian society has undergone, and at the contributions its people have been making to global society, they will agree that it is Babasaheb who best represents the global-Indian heritage. Nehru was a national figure at most; his daughter Indira was also a national figure.

Mahatma Gandhi was indeed a global figure, who is recognized throughout the world today as a forerunner of the ecological movement. But Babasaheb’s harsh judgment in 1939- “this Gandhi age is the dark age of India” (Vol I: 352) I think will stand: the values that Gandhi represented, the proclamation of Hinduism and the glorification of a village society, in whatever idealized form, were ultimately backward values, the values of a pre-modern society. It was Babasaheb who stood within the Indian tradition of modernism, justice, freedom and equality and who gave the ideals of the French revolution local form and shape. I am using strong words here because the debate over these values is raging sharp and fierce today in India, because Babasaheb Ambedkar himself used strong words and took sharp positions on the issues involved, issues of development, freedom and equality.

Ambedkar’s vision of a new social order can be summed up in the way in which he so often did, with the great slogan of the French revolution, “liberty, equality, fraternity.” I would change the final term to “community” because I think it captures for our gender-concerned times the real meaning of the final term. Liberty, equality and community are the three most important components of a human vision for the new millennium.

In using these, I am quite aware that these great values of the Enlightenment and the French revolution are today under attack. They are under attack not only in India from advocates of pseudo-swadeshi who would see them as merely “western” but also world-wide, from post-modernists and eco-romanticists who think “progress” is impossible and from Leftists who have taken “liberalism” and “liberty” as bad words. It is important to assess this attack and Ambedkar’s response. Part of this response has to do with the Indian context of his efforts. For this context was not only a heritage of caste inequality and oppression. It was also, and even more importantly, a heritage of Buddhism and other Indian traditions which Ambedkar saw as the beginnings of modernity, equality, liberty and community for India. In this sense the values that the French Revolution helped to give a world-wide push to are not really “western” at all, but world values. It is perhaps not accidental that “Enlightenment” is also a Buddhist term, perhaps with some different meaning. Prabuddh Bharat was the name Ambedkar gave to his final weekly newspaper, after Janata, after Bahishkrut Bharat. It was not only an equalitaritarian, free and fraternal India that he sought to achieve, but also an enlightened one, an India of rationality and science - an India true to its own heritage in linking with the most developed ones of Europe and elsewhere.

I will focus on three main points to summarize Dr. Ambedkar’s vision of a new social order.

First, in contrast to the Gandhian and eco-romanticist position, Ambedkar shared with Marx and with liberal Enlightenment thinkers a belief in progress, a conviction that the history brought with it an advance in human welfare. In Marxist terms we can interpret this as the advance if the forces of production which brings with it an advance in human capacities; in liberal terms we can speak of an advance in freedom. Ambedkar also believed that human history is a history of progress, a forward movement and not simply a phase in endless cycles or final degeneration. He differed with Marx in interpreting the motive force of human history, so that it is also necessary to examine Ambedkar’s views regarding the great debates on the role of idealism and materialism in human life and social structure.

Second, in today’s India, indeed in the world, when Nehruvian statism is yielding to liberalism as a method and philosophy of economic development, it is necessary again to characterize Ambedkar’s economic and political philosophy. This I would describe as a form of social liberalism and I will briefly trace his writings on economics and socialism, conclude with a look at his thinking in the final years of his life, expressed mainly in his essay “Buddha and Karl Marx.” Last but not least, I would to examine Ambedkar’s religious contributions, which are both at the practical level and at the level of philosophy. Here we must deal with his version of Buddhism, a “liberation theology” of Buddhism or more accurately, a Navayana Buddhism.

Ambedkar’s Conception of History: Materialism, Idealism and Human Progress Is there such a thing as “progress” or “historical development”? At one time, it would have been surprising to even ask such a question. The greatest heritage of revolutionary values has been the belief that humans are emerging out of slavery, out of poverty, into a world that offers an improvement in human existence. It is still perhaps the confidence of the majority of humanity: millions greeted the stroke of midnight last December 31 and the new dawn of January 1 in the hope and confidence that the new millennium would bring, not necessarily a utopia, but at least a better world than existed earlier.

Yet in recent years the confidence that progress is possible has come under attack. Eco-romanticism, taking its justification from Mahatma Gandhi, tend to see history as heading into a downspin. We hear everywhere rhetoric of greater and greater destruction. We hear it even from some western interpretations of Buddhism. For instance, Sangharakshata - in spite of his similarities with Ambedkar at other points - sees a radical distinction between social and spiritual evolution, arguing that “the line of biological development is not single but double. Every step in the evolutionary process results from a coalescence between an upward movement of material progress and a downward movement of psychic or spiritual degeneration” (1957: 60) The Evolving Mind, a more nuanced book by another English member of the same order, also makes a distinction between material and mental evolution, arguing that Buddhism carries on a process of spiritual evolution while biological evolution comes to an end (Cooper, 199x). In this belief, historical development or social evolution has little to offer; humans must seek to evolve at the spiritual and mental level only. Even many self-styled Marxists seem to be falling under the rhetoric of dispair, supporting eco-romanticists, and attacking not simply capitalism but any form of market economy (note about “market socialism”), any form of industrial development. Thus, combining an apparent Marxism with eco-romanticism, Maria Mies argues that the French revolution is finished; its ideals cannot be extended to Dalits, women or other sections of the marginalized in the world, and we must turn away from this vain effort to achieve “growth” to acceptance of a society based on limited needs, subsistence production, and stasis. Such ideas have a very wide spread today, not simply in India but just a much if not more in the U.S. and Europe.

Ambedkar himself gave a very early answer to the romanticisation of a pre-industrial life and to the morality of “simple needs” in a 1918 essay reviewing a book by Bertrand Russell.

“This time-honoured complaint of the moralists against `love of money’ is only a part of their general complaint against the goods of the world and finds its justification in the economic circumstances which gave rise to this particular belief….At a time when the whole world was living in `pain economy’ as did the ancient world and when the productivity of human labour was extremely low and when no efforts could augment its return, in short, when the whole world was living in poverty it is but natural that moralists should have preached the gospel of poverty and renunciation of worldly pleasures only because they were not to be had…” (Vol 1: 490) This marks Ambedkar’s disagreement with any romanticisation of poverty and with attempts to idealize an “eastern” pacifism and harmony with nature as contrasted with “western” aggressiveness and commercialism. In opposition to an ethic of subsistence and limiting needs, he urges the development of human productivity and the accumulation of wealth; he also goes on to cautiously distance himself from the condemnation of property so common to radicals and romanticists: “The trouble therefore one might say is not with property but with the unequal distribution of it” (Vol 1: 491). This position he retained lifelong; for his final writings on Buddhism distinguished it clearly from what he considered to be the glorification of poverty in Christian tradition.

Ambedkar, like Marx, is against exploitation, but not against development and accumulation. At a social level, he believes in progress in history, and at an individual level he gives legitimation to the honest and energetic efforts of “householders” to work and earn. While he does not fit into a clear historical materialist position, his writings show an evolutionary and “stagist” view of history. For instance, in his early essay on “Philosophy of Hinduism” he analyzes religions as associated with particular types of societies which he categorizes in a series: “savage societies” and “antique civilised societies” and “modern civilized societies.” (Vol III: 3-22). This is a social evolutionary model, though different from the more economically based versions offered by Marx or more conventional sociologists. History, then, does show us progress. What is its the motive force? Or, put in another way, what plays the basic role in determining social structure and conditioning human actions? This, of course, is the great question of sociological and historical materialism versus idealism (or pluralism); and basic positions might be marked out as deriving from Marx, Durkheim or Weber. Was Ambedkar an idealist because he gave so much importance to the role of religion and ideas in human action?

In his essay on Russell, he says rather offhandedly, “The economic and philosophical outlook of a society are more intimately connected than is commonly supposed and chipped of its exaggeration, the Economic Interpretation of History holds true"”(Vol 1: 489). At the other end of his life, he would seem to have moved towards idealism. When settling his accounts with Marx he lists all the basic theses of Marx, states that most of them have been disproved, and says flatly, “Nobody now accepts the economic interpretation of history as the only explanation of history” (Vol 3: 444). In The Buddha and His Dhamma he very apparently gives the clear priority to “mind” as determinant. Under “What He Accepted” in existing Indian philosophical themes, he includes “recognition of the mind as the centre of everything. Mind precedes things, dominates them, creates them. If mind is comprehended all things are comprehended. Mind is the leader of all its faculties. Mind is the chief of all its faculties. The very mind is made up of those faculties. The first thing to attend to is the culture of the mind” (Vol 11: 104) Does this mean that Ambedkar has moved from a form of economic materialism to idealism as the main force in history? Supporting this thesis is the fact that his life work concludes with his religious and spiritual concerns, and that much of his writing on Indian history emphasizes in practice the ideal-ideological factors. For example, “Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Indian History,” his most sweeping study of the Indian past, classifies its stages in religious terms: Brahmanism, Buddhism and Hinduism. Similarly, his studies on caste emphasize the role of the ideological force of Brahmanism in the creation and maintenance of this most important structure of Indian society.

However, I would argue that we can best characterize Ambedkar’s view as pluralistic. As I have noted (Omvedt, 1998), though he has an implicit and very significant sociological theory, he was not a trained sociologist or historian, and does not spend any time developing or explicitly stating his methodology. If he had done so, he would probably have said, as Max Weber did, that he was emphasizing the role of ideas primarily as a corrective factor. Just as Weber spend much of his professional life in debate with Marxist methodology and socialist ideas, so Ambedkar did also.

Not only do all of his writings show a concern for logical, Ambedkar was seriously concerned to have a rigorous scientific method. Thus his discussion of karma in The Buddha and His Dhamma links it to causality. Though he stresses “mind” as central, even in this, his final and important work, his orientation is very much towards the material world, as shall be seen.

Even in his rejection of Marx, Ambedkar - who was never one to use words sloppily -- rejects the “economic interpretation” as the “only explanation”; he never denies the role of material factors and economic impulses as a necessary part of any overall historical and social explanation.

This would be Weber’s position. Ambedkar’s philosophy of history is consistent with a pluralistic explanation of history, though not of a purely materialistic one.

Ambedkar’s Political Economy: Social Liberalism

Throughout his life, it was the values of the French revolution, liberty, equality and fraternity (community), summed up in “social justice,” which defined Ambedkar’s orientation. However, his specific economic thinking can be said to have gone through three major stages (see also Omvedt, 1999).

The first phase is represented by his writings of the 1920s, which include two major books - The Problem of the Rupee and The Evolution of Provincial Finance in British India - and a number of articles. Ambedkar was trained in classical economics (ie in the economics of the earlier twentieth century which was already moving into Keynesianism). These show him as a liberal economist, though with significant influence of Keynesian. He argued for a low rupee, though one that would, as he saw it, balance the interests of workers (wage-earners) with those of capitalists and other entrepreneurs.

His study of the effects of British policy in India cite some of the critiques of British rule, in particular condemning the ways in which the British government was running India in the interest of British manufacturers.

“While the land tax prevented the prosperity of agricultural industry the customs taxes hampered the manufactures of the country. There were internal customs and external customs, and both were equally injurious to trade and industry” (Vol 6: 75). His economic writings of the 1920s reflect this. His economic theory, it has been recently and convincingly argued, was a liberal one, with concerns for responsible government financing that would be welcomed by liberalizers today. He retained, of course, an important concern for the role of the state, but he certainly believed in the potential of the market and trade for increasing individual and national wealth. In a recent analysis of his economics, S. Ambirajan has argued, I think correctly, that this is the main period for characterizing Ambedkar’s writings, since after this he did not usually write as an economist, and that the “Buddhist economics” of his last period was very different from the “small is beautiful” form usually associated with that (Ambirajan, 1999).

However, the 1930s did usher in a second phase of Ambedkar’s economic thinking. By then he had become heavily involved in social movements not only of Dalits but also of workers and peasants generally, and with this he came into contact with Indian communists and in many ways came under the influence of Marxism. This never really left him. It was during this period that his weekly Janata was filled with articles urging the unity of “peasants and workers” against “capitalists and landlords”; that he made his famous Mahad statement characterizing the enemies of Dalits as “capitalism and Brahmanism.”

In many ways, his economic and political thinking of this phase can be characterized as a form of what feminists used to describe as “dual systems” theory. Just as early socialist feminists in the U.S. talked of “capitalism and patriarchy” or Black radicals of “capitalism and racism,” so Ambedkar began to focus on “capitalism and Brahmanism.” These, in a famous speech at Mahad in 1938, he said, “There are in my view two enemies which the workers of this country have to deal with. The two enemies are Brahmanism and Capitalism…By Brahmanism I do not mean the power, privileges and interests of the Brahmans as a community.

By Brahmanism I mean the negation of the spirit of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. In that sense it is rampant in all classes and is not confined to the Brahmans alone, though they have been the originators of it” (reported in Times of India, February 14, 1938) In taking these Brahmanism and capitalism as the focus of struggle, Ambedkar was inclined to accept a Marxist explanation of social-economic exploitation with only the necessity of adding an appreciation for the role of caste as an autonomous, exploitative and oppressive social structure. This meant, in effect, taking Marxism as the theory with which to analyze capitalism and supplementing it with an analysis of caste focusing on religion and ideology. This period climaxed with the proclamation of the need for “state socialism” in States and Minorities. It is the Ambedkar of States and Minorities who is usually cited today by various types of socialists and Marxists as justification for their own position.

However, a “dual systems” approach to a theory of society and history is ultimately inadequate, and Ambedkar moved away from it. In fact by the late 1950s it would seem that he was already coming to a rejection of a Marxist approach to economic issues - leave alone criticizing its inadequacy on social issues. The tumultuous political events of the time, mirrored in Ambedkar’s continuing lead in Dalit struggles for equality and liberation, led to his this third and final period, which I would describe in terms of a search for a “Buddhist economics.” As Ambirajan has rightly pointed out, this is not the “Buddhist economics” of “small is beautiful”; rather, in his final essay on “Buddha or Karl Marx,” Ambedkar returns to an appreciation of the role of the private accumulation of wealth (ie of the “market” in conventional economic terms) and gives us a reinterpretation of state, market, community through a Buddhist parable. The householder, striving to increase his wealth honestly and forthrightly, provides the foundation of the economy. The king, symbolizing the state, has the necessary role of ensuring against the poverty of the most oppressed - poverty which would result in chaos or revolution if he did not intervene. Finally, the Bhikku Sangh represents community, the ideal communist society.

In spite of these shifting phases, though, there is no doubt that Ambedkar’s political-economic philsophy was a form of liberalism. He was an individualist and a rationalist, returning always to the basic Enlightenment values linked to Indian tradition. To take one important statement, in elaborating the morality of modern society, he argues that while in “antique society” the moral code laid down by religion is based on utility, in “modern society” it is based on justice - which he later defines as equivalent to the values of liberty, equality and fraternity: “Utility as a criterion was appropriate to the Antique World in which, society being its end, the moral good was held to be something which has social utility. Justice as a criterion becomes appropriate to the Modern World in which the individual being the end, the moral good was held to be something which does justice to the individual” (17).

But, if Ambedkar’s political-economic philosophy can be characterized as liberalism, what kind of liberalism was it? In an important essay, Ralf Dahrendorf has discussed the three main types of liberalism, classical liberalism, social liberalism and neoliberalism. In classical liberalism, the liberalism of Adam Smith, John Locke and others, the individual is posed at the center of society; the state is justified only because it protects the life, liberty and property (or in terms of the American Declaration of Independence, the “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”) of individuals. But this form of liberalism landed historically and logically into contradictions: if the claim to property is justified, as Locke did, by the fact that individuals have put their labour into it, and if the existence and power of the state is justified as protecting “life, liberty and property” - then what can be said of a society characterized by the division between those who possess inherited property and those who do not? What of the fact of actually existing propertiless and impoverished individuals who do not even have the opportunity to acquire property by honest labour? How can the state or the right to property be justified in fact in terms of human rights and human values? Volumes have been written on this by liberal philosophers; but we can simply point out here that the contradiction between inherited inequality and human rights can only be resolved if we admit an important role of state intervention to establish equality - or if we seriously weaken the effort to establish and provide equal rights for all individuals. The first is the way of social liberalism (and there are many forms of this), the second of neoliberalism.

Ambedkar was a social liberal in this sense, as is (to take one important example), India’s Nobel prize winner Amartya Sen. He focused on state policy, including state welfare policy, arguing for its role in reducing poverty and compensating for or correcting conditions of social injustice. Whether or not this led him towards socialism (and I don’t think socialist liberalism is a contradiction in terms!) is a matter of our definition of socialism. Throughout most of his life Indian communists and socialists, including those in Congress, had identified socialism with state control, and it is not unlikely that Ambedkar was becoming disillusioned with this, that he was critical of Indian leftists not only for their attitude towards caste, but for their unwillingness to accept constitutional democracy. Towards the end of his life he was apparently seeing himself more as a “social democrat” than as a “state socialist.”

This can be seen in his speech presenting the Constitution which he had played the major role in drafting. There he makes several important points which deserve to be emphasized today. For example, he quotes Thomas Jefferson to emphasize the inherent right to change the Constitution. Jefferson had argued that every generation had the right to create a new Constitution for itself if it felt necessary; to refuse this right would mean that “the earth belongs to the dead and not to the living.” Ambedkar cites this, adding, “what Jefferson has said is not merely true, but is absolutely true.” However, he says, there will never be a need to reject India’s Constitution as such, because of its flexible scope for amendment (Vol. 13: 1211).

Then he turns to a warning about the danger to democracy in India. Here he argues first that agitation and satyagrahas should be given up in favor of parliamentary methods of trying to achieve change (in other words, he would be very sympathetic with current concerns that hartals and bandhs have gone too far!). But this is followed by an even more important appeal: that the main dangers to the existence of India as a democratic nation come from inequality, from casteism, which is a negation of India’s existence as a nation, and from the tendency to worship “mahatmas” and yield to authoritarianism. It is in regard to inequality, prefacing his famous warning that “those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy,” that he makes his eloquent statement of social democratic values: “We must make our political democracy a social democracy as well. Political democracy cannot last unless there lies at the basis of it social democracy. What does social democracy mean? It means a way of life which recognizes liberty, equality and fraternity as the principles of life” (Vol 13: 1216).

Finally, he concludes with stating that the “down-trodden classes are tired of being governed, they are impatient to govern themselves. This urge for self-realization in the down-trodden classes must not be allowed to develop into a class struggle or a class war….That would indeed be a day of disaster.” (1217-18). Ambedkar profoundly believed that problems of inequality and exploitation could be resolved without recourse to class warfare … And this led him to Buddhism.

Ambedkar’s Religious Views: Towards “Navayana” Buddhism

It has become familiar by now to note that in leading millions of ex-Untouchables to Buddhism, Ambedkar was singlehandedly responsible for the revival of Buddhism as a mass religion in the land of its birth - roughly a millennium after its disappearance. This would itself be a considerable feat. What is usually not recognized, however, is that Ambedkar did not simply “revive” a traditional form of Buddhism; he also took up the task of reinterpreting and rejuvenating Buddhism as a religion for the contemporary world.

Ambedkar’s concern for establishing Buddhism as the religion of Untouchables comes from two convictions. First he believed that religion, in the broadest sense of a transcendental morality, is necessary for ordered social existence, and from his belief that what was known as “Hinduism” (probably the term “Brahmanism” would be more appropriate) could not serve this purpose. Both themes were present from very early. His earliest essay on religion, “The Philosophy of Hinduism” already presents his condemnation of Brahmanism; from almost the beginning we can see his sharp awareness that Dalits needed a new religion. And, though there was a period in which he seemed to waver, when for instance he argued in his challenge Gandhi that Hinduism could be acceptable if “all the shastras and puranas were given up,” the condition is so rigorous as to be unacceptable. Babasaheb was a born rebel against both the traditional forms of brahmanic varnashrama dharma and the reconstructed Hinduism pioneered by Vivekananda and Gandhi from the 19th century onwards.

In The Buddha and His Dhamma, he not only tried to present Buddhism for the masses of ex-Untouchables who followed his lead, he also put forward what I have called a “liberation theology” of Buddhism. In one of his most important last essays, “Buddha and Karl Marx,” Ambedkar had posed Buddhism against Marxism, seeing Buddhism as a solution to the problems of exploitation that Marxism posed. But this is not simply an attack on Marxism, it also works the other way also: Buddhism answers, according to Ambedkar, specifically “Marxist” questions, that is, its concern is not so much the problem of religious meaning as the problem of exploitation. Thus, Ambedkar’s The Buddha and his Dhamma radically challenges some of the basic tenets of Buddhism as it has traditionally existed, whether in Theravada or Mahayana or Vajrayana forms. This his clear from his introduction itself, which presents four basic problems that Ambedkar sees in Buddhism as it has been known: Ambedkar, first, rejects the traditional version of Siddhartha’s Parivraja or “going forth”, arguing that the story of being moved by the sight of a dead person, a sick person, and an old person was impossible to believe since such sights must have been known to anyone.

Second, he claims that the “four Aryan truths” - sorrow (dukh), the origin of sorrow, the cessation of sorrow, and the way to the cessation of sorrow -- are not part of the original teaching of the Buddha. “This formula,” he states flatly, “cuts at the root of Buddhism. If life is sorrow, death is sorrow and rebirth is sorrow, then there is an end of everything…The four Aryan Truths are a great stumbling block in the way of nonBuddhists accepting the gospel of Buddhism” (2).

Third, he asserts a “a terrible contradiction” between the doctrines of karma and rebirth, and the Buddha’s denial of the existence of the soul. Finally, he claims, finally, that the Bhikku can only be the “hope of Buddhism” if he is a social servant and not a “perfect man.” Ambedkar’s project in The Buddha and His Dhamma is to resolve these problems.

First, in regard to the Parivraja, he argues that Siddhartha left his home to prevent a war between his Sakya clan and the Koliyas over water. The cause is social, not religious. And, after his initial wandering, on hearing that the Koliyas and Sakyas have after all made peace, Gautam determines to continue his renunciation and search, because “The problem of war is a problem of conflict. It is only part of a larger problem. This conflict is going on not only between kings and nations but between nobles and Brahmans, between householders, between [friends and family members]…The conflict between nations is occasional. But the conflict between classes is constant and perpetual. It is this which is the root of all suffering in the world. I have to find a solution to this problem of social conflict” (57-58).

Second, in regard to the doctrine of dukkha, sorrow or suffering, Ambedkar argues it is not a necessary characteristic of the existing world, and in fact the purpose of Buddhism is to end suffering in this world. [Here he links this with a denial that Buddhism is pessimistic]. As he has the Buddha say in his first sermon, “No doubt my Dhamma recognizes the existence of suffering but forget not that it also lays equal stress on the removal of suffering. My Dhamma has in it both hope and purpose. Its purpose is to remove Avijja, by which I mean ignorance of the existence of suffering. There is hope in it because it shows the way to put an end to human suffering.” And in even stronger words, the five Parivrajakas greet this first sermon by saying, “never in the history of the world has salvation been conceived as the blessing of happiness to be attained by man in this life and on this earth by righteousness born out of his own efforts!” (130-131). Here, and throughout The Buddha and His Dhamma, Ambedkar makes very strong assertions that Buddhism is a religion (or a “dhamma”) that can resolve the problems of social and natural suffering.

Third, he tries to resolve the contradiction between rebirth and the absence of a soul by interpreting karma in a socio-biological sense. The Hindu idea of karma is based on the soul and includes transmigration of soul; since Buddhism asserts that there is no soul, its idea of karma must be radically different. There is thus a similarity in words but a radical difference in meaning (337-8). Ambedkar interprets this to argue that the Buddhist conception involves rebirth, but not “transmigration”, and the difference is that transmigration asserts a nonmaterial soul which is the subject of transmigration and to which karma clings, while rebirth can be interpreted in a biological and materialistic form. Ambedkar asserts that the Buddha’s whole discussion of the idea was in the context of biological-genetic inheritance and environment; that the Buddha did assert some genetic heredity but believed that environmental influence was more - (pp. 338-344). Karma - or Kamma - basically refers to “causation” and more specifically to laws (niyamma) governing the social and moral order.

“The theory of the law of Kamma does not necessarily involve the conception that the effect of the Kamma recoils on the doer of it and there is nothing more to be thought about it….Individuals come and individuals go. But the moral order of the universe remains and so also the law of Kamma which sustains it’ (244).

The fourth major innovation in Ambedkar’s Buddhism was to treat the Bhikku Sangh as an organisation for social service. The fact that the Sangha was not acting so, in his experience, was to him a major block to accepting any of the already existing forms of Buddhism. (His introduction expresses his feeling that the journal of the Mahabodhi society, at that time the major organ propagating a revived Buddhism in India, was simply “dull reading”. Sangharakshata’s account in his study of Ambedkar and Buddhism mentions another important fact; though founded by the great Sri Lanka Buddhist Anagarika Dhammapala, the Mahabodhi society in India was dominated by Brahmans; specifically at the time of Ambedkar’s conversion, Shyam Prasad Mookherjee was its chairperson! He also records the fact that at the time of conversion, Ambedkar was reluctant to take the third of the “three refuges” ie to accept the authority of the Sangha, and that in effect he rejected the distinction between bhikku and layman by himself administering the oath of conversion to the lakhs of Dalits in attendence).

The Social Role of Buddhism

It can be argued that Ambedkar’s Buddhism, often called Navayana Buddhism, or the “Fourth Way” in contrast to the three traditional ways of Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana, is based on a very important sociological understanding. Ambedkar’s exploration of what religion is and what it should be began quite early; even before he came to Buddhism he was arguing that (from my paper). By the time of his choice of Buddhism he was distinguishing Buddhist dhamma from religion itself, that is from Christianity, Islam, Hinduism or whatever else is classified as “religion.” His argument can be upheld if we take almost all western-biased dictionary definition of religion as including a “faith in god”; clearly Buddhism which rejects notions of god and the soul, and stresses rationality and experimentation, was quite different. If we define religion in a Durkheimian way - which has now influenced the entire sociology of religion - Buddhism would be called a religion; and it is noteworthy that Ambedkar insists that Dhamma is not only morality, but “sacred” morality. It would appear that he had read Durkheim, but thought of him as an anthropologist rather than a sociologist. Ambedkar argues that Dhamma performs the same functions for society that other “religions” do, that though there are fundamental differences, society needs Dhamma (or the moral base of religion):

“Society has to choose one of three alternatives. Society may choose not to have any Dhamma as an instrument of Government…This means Society chooses the road to anarchy. Secondly, Society may choose the police, i.e. the dictatorship as an instrument of Government. Thirdly, Society may choose Dhamma plus the Magistrate wherever people fail to observe the Dhamma. In anarchy and dictatorship liberty is lost. Only in the third liberty survives. Those who want liberty must therefore have Dhamma” (317).

And his summing up of the difference between religion and Dhamma is indeed an echo of Marx: “The purpose of Religion is to explain the origin of the world. The purpose of Dhamma is to reconstruct the world” (322) This is very clearly an echo of Marx and likely consciously so; for Ambedkar had rephrased Marx’s point as “The function of philosophy is to reconstruct the world and not to waste its time in explaining the origin of the world” - in his last major essay, “Buddha or Karl Marx.” It was one of the four points he considered the “residue of fire” that remained of Marx (III: 444). Clearly, Ambedkar’s last and culminating project was to ask Marxist questions, but give Buddhist answers.

Thus, while he has earlier and elsewhere used “religion” generally to include Buddhism, and within that distinguish Buddhism from other religions, in his final formulation he identifies Buddhist Dhamma as something that is basically other than religion. Religion is a philosophy that includes, in the language of some sociologists of religion, a “canopy of meaning” that includes theses about the origin of the universe, humans, usually their creator and so forth. It requires faith. In contrast, Buddhism works by reason, and the Dhamma is primarily morality, though a sacred morality. According to Ambedkar the result of this is that for religions (or non-Buddhist religions, depending on how the term is used), morality is only a secondary offshoot, “it is a wagon attached to it…attached and detached as the occasion requires” (322)). Dhamma is pure morality, but since it is sacred, ie placed beyond the ability of individuals to change it, it can serve the function of regulating the actions of the socially “strong” individuals who would otherwise override the claims of the “best” (3xx). Ambedkar’s stress on rationalism in Buddhism is also strong. To him, the person who accepts Buddhism does so as a free individual convinced that this is the way; in fact The Buddha and His Dhamma says nothing of the “three refuges,” the main “statement of faith” of the Buddhist believer. Ambedkar takes it upon himself to give his own interpretation of Buddhism in the way of almost any charismatic religious leader. (Perhaps he was similar in this sense to Gandhi, who felt free to claim that every value he approved of was in Hinduism). Ambedkar does give us a rationale for this. In arguing for Buddha’s own rationalism, in stating that any contrary interpretation that seems to be in the texts was a Brahmanical insertion, he offers a simple methodology for understanding them: “There is, however one test which is available. If there is anything which could be said with confidence it is: He was nothing if not rational, if not logical. Anything therefore which is rational and logical, other things being equal, may be taken to be the word of the Buddha” (350-51)

Would Ambedkar’s Buddhism be acceptable to other Buddhist believers? That is a question for all of them to answer! Few religious people are willing, initially, to accept a fundamentally new “path” in their faith - which is what Navayana Buddhism is. Nevertheless it continues to guide the aspirations of millions of ex-Untouchables and other converts, and it has been hailed by many, for instance Christopher Queen, as an example of “engaged Buddhism” which has correlates in many other Buddhist countries.


Aloysius, G., 1998, Religion as Emancipatory Identity: A Buddhist Movement among the Tamils Under Colonialism, New Delhi: New Age International Publishers Ambirajan, S., 1999,
“Ambedkar’s Contributions to Indian Economics,” Economic and Political Weekly, November 20 Bapat, Ram, 1998,
“Situating Ambedkar’s The Buddha and His Dhamma and Discovering His Own Saddhama Yana” Dahrendorf, Ralf, 1987,
“Liberalism,” in John Eatwell, Murray Milgate and Peter Newman, ed., The New Palgrave: The Invisible Hand, New York: W.W. Norton Gokhale, Pradeep, “Dr. Ambedkar’s Reconstruction of Buddhism” Herrenschmidt, Olivier, 1998,
“Ambedkar and the Hindu Social Order” Jadhav, Narendra, 1991,
“Neglected Economic Thought of Babasaheb Ambedkar,” Economic and Political Weekly, April 13 Omvedt, Gail, 1999,
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Dalits and the Democratic Revolution, New Delhi: Sage Omvedt, Gail, 1998,
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“Ambedkar and the Rise of the Fourth Yana,” in International Conference on “Reconstructing the World: Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar’s Understanding of Buddhism”, University of Pune: Department of Political Science, 7-9 October Sangharakshata, A Survey of Buddhism: Its Doctrines and Methods Through the Ages, London: Tharpa Publications, 1987 Sangharakshata, 1986, Ambedkar and Buddhism, Norfolk, England: Windhorse Publications Sumant, Yashwant, 1998,
“Situating Religion in Ambedkar’s Political Discourse,” Thorat, S.K., 1998,
“Ambedkar’s Views on Economic Development, Planning and the Role of the State,” for seminar, New Delhi, Centre for the Study of Regional Development, JNU Thorat,S.K. and Deshpande, R.S., 1998,
“Economic Models of Caste Ssytem: A Critical Review with Reference to Ambedkar,” ibid Zelliot, Eleanor, 1998,
“Dr. Ambedkar and the Search for a Meaningful Buddhism

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