Fri, 23 Mar 2007 10:09:10 -0800
Tuesday, March 20, 2007
Ambedkar and Buddha
Dr Ambedkar And The Evolution Of Religion: From Animism To Agnosticism
By Rishikesh Bahadur Desai
A student once asked his teacher,
“Master, what is enlightenment?”
The master replied,
“When hungry, eat. When tired, sleep.”
This shows how simple ideas are confused for complex issues.
We will keep coming back and forth to the title of this paper,
‘Evolution of religion from Animism to Agnosticism’. Simply put,
Animism is believing that anything and everything is God. Agnosticism
is to stop worrying about God and carrying on with our work.
Stages of evolution: ‘Change of the concept of God to an idol to an idea’
Primitive man feared natural phenomena like lightning, rain, and
floods. He called them God as they seemed to control his life. Any
weird performance that was believed to control these was magic. Thus
Magic was equated to religion. Thus, rituals, beliefs, ceremonies,
prayers and sacrifices came to be equated with religion.
Belief in the existence of a Supreme Being or God. This power could be
Good or Bad. Rituals done to propitiate an indifferent power or
appease an angry power became religion. Then came the third stage:
that it is this God who created this world and also man.
People who began spreading the idea became preachers. They found it
was easier to market the idea by using idol worship.
This was followed by the belief that man has a soul, and the soul is
eternal and is answerable to God for man’s actions in the world. So,
belief in God, belief in soul, worship of God, curing of the erring
soul, propitiating God by prayers, ceremonies, sacrifices, etc became
It is the view that there is no proof of either the existence or
nonexistence of God. But since any God that may exist appears
unconcerned for the universe or the welfare of its inhabitants, the
question is largely academic.
It is also the view that the concept of God as a being is meaningless
because it has no verifiable consequences. Therefore it cannot be
usefully discussed as having existence or nonexistence.
Buddha’s statement “Be Godly, rather than wasting time looking for
God”, best explains the phenomenon.
Here is a story that tries to explain agnosticism.
A monk was meditating by a river when a young man interrupted him.
“Master, want to find God.”
The master grabbed him by his neck, and plunged his head under water.
After holding him there for a minute, the master finally pulled him up
out of the river. The young man coughed up water and gasped to get his
breath. When he eventually quieted down, the master spoke. “Tell me,
what did you want most of all when you were under water.”
“Air!” answered the young man.
Well, why do you want God when what you want Air?. Live in today, not
tomorrow, the master said.
These, in brief, are the stages of the evolution of the concept of religion.
What is Hinduism according to Dr Ambedkar?
For him it was a refined form of Animism. He said :”I renounce
Hinduism, which is harmful for humanity and impedes the advancement
and development of humanity because it is based on inequality.
What made Dr Ambedkar denounce Hinduism?
He considered that it provided a justification and sanctity to
inequality. He converted to Buddhism as he believed it promoted
equality, and rational thought.
Dr Ambedka considered Hindu Society to be a collection of castes, and
each caste being a closed corporation. He said the caste system is a
multi floored building with neither ladders nor windows. Unlike a
club, the membership of a caste is not open to all and sundry. The law
of Caste confines its membership to persons born in the caste. Castes
are autonomous, and there is no authority anywhere to compel a caste
to admit a new-comer to its social life.
He enumerated the evils of Hinduism in the following manner;
1. It has deprived man of morals and a 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.” No matter what the
Hindus say, Hinduism is a menace to liberty, equality and fraternity.
On that account, it is incompatible with democracy”, he said.
Ambedkar was of the firm opinion that Hindutva was nothing but a ploy
by upper caste Hindus to maintain control over society and its
What then is the Dhamma?
Dhamma is righteousness, which means right relations between people in
all spheres of life. Dhamma is Prajna, Karuna and Samata. That is
understanding, love and equality.
Are religion and Dhamma one and the same?
The answers to this question are found in Buddha’s dialogues with
Sunakkhatta, and between the Buddha and the Brahmin Potthapada.
Sunakkhatta or Shunya Kartha:
In this we see the breaking down the beliefs of Guru and disciple,
mystic powers and revealing the beginning of things.
Buddha met Potthapada at Shravasti in Anathapindika Vihara. (The
Rekulagi Mount in Bidar district is named after this Vihara)
Pottapada asks him “Is the world eternal?
He also questions him about ‘Eternity’, ‘soul’ and ‘rebirth’.
“That, Potthapada, is a matter on which I have expressed no opinion.
That is because, these questions do not relate to elements of right
conduct, nor to detachment, nor to purification from lusts, nor to
quietude, nor to tranquilisation of heart, nor to real knowledge, nor
to the insight (of the higher stages of the Path), nor to Nirvana.
Therefore is it that I express no opinion upon it”. In short, it is
meaningless to think, believe, discuss or hold a view about these.
This is further proof of the Agnosticism of Buddha’s Dhamma.
Hence Buddhism is called a faith of less luggage.
Then Potthapada asks him. What have you expounded then?
I have expounded, what Dukkha is; what is its origin; what is its
cessation; what is the method by which one may reach the cessation of
Difference between religion and Dhamma
Religion, is said to be personal, and one must keep it to oneself.
Contrary to this, Dhamma is social. It is fundamentally and
Religion is ritualistic. Dhamma is not. Religion insists on
unquestioning devotion. Dhamma is based on knowledge got by
The fundamental difference between religion and Dhamma
Against the Upanishadic concepts of “Sat-Chit-Ananda,” Buddhism
focused on the fact that impermanence, the non-existence of the soul
and sorrow were the realities of life.
At a level, this seemed a pessimistic as opposed to an optimistic
perspective, but it emphasised the role of reason and individual
effort in the search for liberation.
Hence it is said: The purpose of Religion is to explain the origin of
the world. The purpose of Dhamma is to reconstruct the world.
Why did he choose Buddhism over Hinduism?
He changed to a new religion and a new World because he wanted to
believe in the equality of humans and to endeavor to establish
In May 1956, in a BBC talk titled ‘Why I like Buddhism and how it is
useful to the world in its present circumstances’, he 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 between people against
a slave and master relationshoip), and Samata (equality). This is what
man wants for a good and happy life. Neither god nor soul can save
society. Only Dhamma can do it”.
In his speech in Bombay in May 24 1956, he declared his resolve to
embrace Buddhism. There 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”.
At the Yeola conference in 1935, Dr. Ambedkar declared that he will
not die a Hindu as it perpetuates caste injustices.
A Buddhist monk Lokanath visited Ambedkar’s residence at Dadar on June
10, 1936 and tried to persuade him to embrace Buddhism. Lokanath, born
as Salvatore, was an American of Italian descent who had settled in
Ambedkar also took Pali classes from Acharya Ishvardatt Medharthi in Delhi.
After publishing a series of books and articles arguing that Buddhism
was the only way for the Untouchables to gain equality, Ambedkar
publicly converted on October 14, 1956 in Nagpur. He took the three
refuges and five precepts from a Buddhist monk, Bhadant U Chandramani,
in the traditional manner and then in his turn administered them to
the nearly five lakh followers that were present.
Ambedkar would die less than two months later, just after finishing
his definitive work on Buddhism.
How Buddhism changed his life and our life.
Among Dr Ambedkar’s contributions, popularising Buddhism is one of the
most important. There are strong reasons to believe that some vital
portions of the Indian Constitution were influenced by Buddhist
principles. The freedom of thought and expression listed in the
Constitution, was influenced by Buddha’s tenets. It is one of the most
important portions of that rule book. Buddha was one of the earliest
thinkers in the world who advocated the need for freedom of thought.
Article 19 of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights
guarantees that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and
expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without
We can see that Buddha spoke against intellectual interference by
scholars, books or religious rituals. “Don’t turn to any book in times
of crisis. Use your own mind”, he said.
What is today known as Navayana, or Ambedkarite Buddhism or Dalit
Buddhism or even Indian Buddhism, is a culmination of the thought
processes of two of India’s greatest thinkers, Buddha and Ambedkar.
Difference between Ambedkar’s interpretation of Buddhism and other kinds.
Ambedkar’s emphasis is on Shakyamuni Buddha as a political and social
reformer, rather than merely as a spiritual leader.
He points out that the Buddha required his monastic followers to
ignore caste distinctions, and that he was critical of the social
inequality that existed in his own time. Ambedkar’s understanding of
Buddhism denounces, other-worldliness or supernaturalism, Karma,
rebirth, and the related doctrine of “bondage” and liberation
Ambedkar did not believe that a person’s unfortunate conditions at
birth are the result of previous karma. This was a strong argument
against Hinduism’s support to the Caste system.
For him, becoming a Buddhist was to adopt rational humanism as a
philosophy of life.
We will end with a story of the Bodhisatva that probably explains the
conceptual evolution of religion from animism to agnosticism.
Bodhisatva’s story of a cow in search of God. Boddhisatva was born a
cow. It was told God existed everywhere, in air, water, fire, soil,
grass and stones. It started searching for God. It touched grass to
check if God was there. “Neti Neti”, (no, no), it said and went away.
It drank water to see if that was God. “Neti, Neti”, it said and went
away. Similar was its experience with air, fire, soil, and stones.
Finally it was convinced that none of these contained God and went
1. Buddha and his Dhamma: B R Ambedkar
2. Caste and Hinduism: Gail Ombvedt
3. Ambedkar’s legacy: Ranjit Hoskote
4. Columbia University publications on Ambedkar
5. Shamsul Islam Ambedkar as Hindu
6. Dr. Ramendra Patna College, Patna University
Paper presented in the UGC sponsored national conference on Dr
Ambedkar and Social Justice in the Karnataka college, Bidar on March
Rishikesh Bahadur Desai
Reporter, The Hindu, Bidar