Brahma against Brahmanism — Ambedkar’s Battle over the History of Ideas

The right-wing in its endeavour to keep the opposition in the loop of reactivity that it has created to secure its hegemony has started deploying even Ambedkar frequently. Its favourite rumour is of course about the fact that Ambedkar chose to convert to an Indic religion rather than Islam and Christianity, glossing over another fact that he didn’t choose Sikhism (though after much pondering). Of course, his main concern behind not choosing Islam and Christianity was to continue the struggle of the Shudras on the very socio-ideological turf on which the caste system originated. Conversion to Islam or Christianity would have externalised him and his supporters from the day-to-day struggle for the abolition of the caste system that is anchored in the Hindu community. As Sikhism had already internalised the caste hierarchy prevalent in the Hindu society, a conversion to Sikhism would not have changed anything. In the end, for Ambedkar, it was the marginality of Buddhism and its ambiguous integration into the Hindu culture, along with its rationalist foundation that made Buddhism attractive for the Dalit conversion. As Gail Omvedt, rightly says,

“Buddhism could not even offer the limited resources of community support that Sikhism could, but it was also a religion that Ambedkar could shape on his own, could mould to suit what he felt to be the spiritual and moral needs of Dalits. Sikhism already had its set religious hierarchy, to which Ambedkar – however strong and determined a leader – would have been subordinate.”

Ambedkar converted to Buddhism because he didn’t want any distraction from the focus on the caste question and to get embroiled in other kinds of hegemonic conflicts involving the leadership of other religious identities. Buddhism was a vacant space to fit in and rebuild, yet it opened up a different level of resources for the anti-caste movement —  it allows the oppressed and the exploited to reclaim and reinterpret the whole legacy of the politico-ideological struggle against the caste system throughout the written history of India. By reinvigorating this legacy, the present struggle against caste builds a new perspective on Indian history —  towards the ideological, political, and social struggles of Indian people. The recognition and reclamation of these struggles in Indian history is an important ideological task that Ambedkar considered very crucial. 

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While describing one of the riddles of Hinduism, Ambedkar says something which could have become a weapon in the struggle for reinterpreting and reclaiming the philosophical legacy of India from its conventionalised appropriation by the right-wing forces. Unfortunately, because of the ineptitude of the liberal elements of the status quo and the demoralised self of the left, the same words are being mobilised to appropriate Ambedkar for Hindutva. 

Ambedkar in his Riddle No. 22, discusses the characteristics of democracy, beyond electoral fetishism. According to him, democracy cannot even be reduced to a mere form of government. For him, “it is a form of the organization of society.” In fact, good government to a large extent “depends upon the mental and moral disposition of its subjects…. Democracy is more than a political machine. It is even more than a social system. It is an attitude of mind or a philosophy of life.”

Ambedkar considers equality and liberty as “the deepest concern of democracy,” yet he considers their equation with democracy not correct. The most crucial element that defines democracy is what sustains even equality and liberty. It is not “the law of the state” that sustains them, but fraternity, fellow-feeling. The better expression for this, according to him, is MAITRI — compassionate companionship. “If in democracy, liberty does not destroy equality and equality does not destroy liberty, it is because at the basis of both there is fraternity.”

Thus, Ambedkar asks the crucial question that forms the basis of one of the riddles of Hinduism. “Why did democracy not grow in India?” As the roots of the fraternity are found in the ethical and social life of the community, which for Ambedkar is organised in religion, it is the lack of fraternity in the Hindu religion that doesn’t allow democracy to grow in India. 

But this leads Ambedkar to a further investigation, which is very crucial for us today, as it provides a perspective to rewrite the history of ideas in India. He says that the absence of fraternity in Hinduism does not mean “that the doctrine of fraternity was unknown to the Hindu religious and philosophic thought.” In fact,

“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.”

Had anybody other than Ambedkar written this, one could imagine the response from the “politically correct” community. Remember the reaction to EMS Namboodiripad’s innocent remarks in 1990 on the significance of Advaita Vedanta and Shankaracharya from his comrades!

Coming back to the text, Ambedkar here differentiates between Brahmaism, Vedanta, and Brahmanism. “Although they are correlated they stand for three different and distinct ideologies.”

The essence of Brahmaism is coded in the mahavakyas which identify Brahma with me, you, and everybody. Vedanta accepts the mahavakyas but views the world as unreal or maya [thus making the principle of Brahma socially impotent]. And, Brahmanism brought in its defence of chaturvarna, infallibility of the Vedas, and sacrifices to gods as the only way to salvation, perhaps to complement Vedanta’s unconcern for reality. 

Ambedkar defends Brahmaism against those who consider it a piece of impudence. Even aham brahmasmi is not an arrogant statement, but “an assertion of one’s own worth” – a remedy against the inferiority complex from which humanity suffers today. Further, this vakya should be read along with tattvamasi – which allows each individual to know himself to be as good as everybody. “Democracy demands that each individual shall have every opportunity for realizing his worth.” And, Brahmaism provides a philosophical ground for this aspect of democracy.

For Ambedkar, the unknowability of Brahma too is of no significance. More important are the social implications of the theory of Brahma — that everybody is a part of the same cosmic principle. This provides a solid 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.”

According to Ambedkar, the Christian principle of us being children of God is a very weak foundation for democracy. He says,

“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.”

But then what happened to Brahmaism, “why did it fail to produce a new society”? Of course, it was due to the Hindu social system and its defence in the shape of the alliance between Vedanta and Brahmanism, best epitomised in the persona and “the teaching of the Great Shankaracharya.” Ambedkar says,

“For it was this Shankaracharya who taught that there is Brahma and this Brahma is real and that it pervades all and at the same time upheld all the inequities of Brahmanic society. Only a lunatic could be happy with being the propounder of two such contradictions. Truly as the Brahman is like a cow, he can eat anything and everything as the cow does and remain a Brahman.”

Beyond the symbolic burning of Manusmriti, Ambedkar’s agenda was to reclaim the philosophy of Brahma as a principle for social organisation. Once Hegel remarked that the history of philosophy would be better if less deserts and merits are accorded to particular individuals — “the more it deals with thought as free, with the universal character of man as man, the more this thought, which is devoid of special characteristic, is itself shown to be the producing subject.” (Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy) What Ambedkar proposes here is to free the concept of Brahma, which has the potential of founding a solid social bond of Maitri, necessary to achieve equality and liberty, and build a vibrant social democracy, from the Brahman who is like a cow…

(Ambedkar’s quotes are from Riddles in Hinduism: An Exposition to Enlighten the Masses, The Annotated Critical Selection, Navayana, Delhi, pp. 166-179)


Marx, Ambedkar and Indian villages

I used to wonder whether there can be a common explanation for one of the varieties of post-Independence Indian Socialists’ discomfort towards both Marx and Ambedkar (obviously to be politically correct, they have to keep mum on the latter, diverting all their anger towards Marx). I think there is one commonality between them that seem to disturb our champions of village democracy and rural communitarianism – Marx’s and Ambedkar’s powerful indictment of the Indian village system.

While Marx can easily be accused of orientalism for saying the following:

“we must not forget that these idyllic village-communities, inoffensive though they may appear, had always been the solid foundation of Oriental despotism, that they restrained the human mind within the smallest possible compass, making it the unresisting tool of superstition, enslaving it beneath traditional rules, depriving it of all grandeur and historical energies… We must not forget that this undignified, stagnatory, and vegetative life, that this passive sort of existence evoked on the other part, in contradistinction, wild, aimless, unbounded forces of destruction and rendered murder itself a religious rite in Hindostan. We must not forget that these little communities were contaminated by distinctions of caste and by slavery, that they subjugated man to external circumstances instead of elevating man the sovereign of circumstances, that they transformed a self-developing social state into never changing natural destiny, and thus brought about a brutalizing worship of nature, exhibiting its degradation in the fact that man, the sovereign of nature, fell down on his knees in adoration of Kanuman [Hanuman], the monkey, and Sabhala, the cow.”

What accusation can be hurled upon Ambedkar, a sufferer himself?

“It is said that the new Constitution should have been drafted on the ancient Hindu model of a State and that instead of incorporating Western theories the new Constitution should have been raised and built upon village Panchayats and District Panchayats. There are others who have taken a more extreme view. They do not want any Central or Provincial Governments. They just want India to contain so many village Governments.

“I hold that these village republics have been the ruination of India. I am therefore surprised that those who condemn Provincialism and communalism should come forward as champions of the village. What is the village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism? I am glad that the Draft Constitution has discarded the village and adopted the individual as its unit.”

Class Struggle, Development and Revolutionary Politics

1. What happened in China? Isn’t it capitalism that is being nurtured by the ‘Maoist’ party in China?

The course of development is determined by class struggle (at least the Chinese communists were emphatic about it, when they said that this class struggle goes on in their own ranks as well). The Chinese economy where it stands today too is not a result of any linear development; without deliberating on contradictions of the development process that revolutionary movements trigger, we generally tend to impute successes/failures of the revolutions or movements to the subjective choices of the leadership – their goodness and badness.

2. What is happening in Nepal? The Nepali Maoists are quite vocal about their aim to nurture capitalism in their country.

Even in the case of Nepal, we should try to understand the Maoists, by grounding their politics in the wider political economic processes which limit their ‘dream’ of an uninterrupted revolution, of ‘bypassing capitalism’. Their problem is at least partly our patriotism – like the anti-patriotic Zimmerwald Conference we should first of all decry and call for the defeat of the Indian state and capitalists who virtually hold half of the Nepali economy to ransom; then only can we see a proper anti-capitalist revolution emerging in landlocked Nepal. We should just go through news reports of the past five years, how threats from Indian capital and state (which Indians, including the leftists, generally understand as an expression of big brotherliness, rather than that of imperialism, because we ignore the economic basis of India-Nepal relationship) have regulated the Maoists’ radical initiatives.

3. What is the development strategy of the Maoists in India? Don’t they profess to compensate for lack of capitalism?

About our Maoists, I believe, our so-called movement people are waiting for their failure to be the proof of their wrong ideology, strategy, tactics or even ignorance about the development process. But that is not the way for the revolutionaries – they have to understand every struggle caught up in the particularisation of class struggle in various localities, first by affirming it to be part of the same movement. What will be the development strategy ultimately is determined by the articulation between various local (particular) struggles, and the class hegemony that directs that articulation.

4. How have non-Marxist socialists in India faired on this count?

The socialist movement (here I include many communist organisations too) in India today – because of their populist political base and vision (‘populism’ in a definite theoretical sense) is caught up in the cartesian binaries of big vs small, agriculture vs industry, village vs city, india vs bharat etc etc, in which the hierarchised composition – internal differentiation – of the preferred half (the ‘small’ or the agrarian community etc) are simply wished away, ultimately for the benefit of the well-to-do within this ‘small’/agrarian community (in practical terms increasing their bargaining power). (A parallel example in the urban areas could be the trade unionists protecting sectional interests or labour aristocracies by not taking account of labour segmentation). We have seen how socialists in rural areas have been reactive to any talk of class differentiation, and independent labour mobilisation, since they tend to divide, not unite the rural community.

5. But don’t you think every movement has to have a central focus that can broaden its base? A peasant movement will be homogeneous in this regard.

I think within the peasant movement, even before Independence, there were a few socialists who were quite clear about the complexity of the peasant question – how differentiation within peasantry determined the trajectory of even seemingly “homogenized” peasant struggles: to name some of them, Swami Sahajanand Saraswati (see his “Maharudra ka Mahatandav”) and Indulal Yagnik/Dinkar Mehta (in Gujarat) who understood the task of re-envisaging the rural struggles around rural labourers (which include those sections of the “landed” peasantry who simply reproduce their labour-power by engaging in farming). For a historical review of this aspect please read Jan Breman’s “Labour Bondage in West India”. The recent overstress on peasant homogeneity is phenomenon which is related with a definite rise of the kulak lobby (I am using this term in a purely objective sense).

6. At least the socialists have a clear vision about alternative development.

Yes, the socialists have a clearer vision about development alternatives, but much of that has to do with their dualistic conceptualisation; they can remain happy with utopian anti-capitalism, by choosing one pole in the binary. The problem with communists is that they try to develop a labour standpoint – and labour-capital relationship does not constitute a cartesian contradiction, they are opposites in a dialectical contradiction – “capital is labour”/”labour is capital”, as Braverman said, “working class is the animate part of capital”. The development strategy is constituted through this continuous contradiction, through a generalisation or a political systematisation of the alternatives emerging in the daily experiences of the working class. The question here is to go beyond capitalism, to overcome capital as accumulated labour dominating the living labour – to overcome the subsumption/ alienation/ accumulation of various forms of labour by capital (capitalism expands not just by wiping away the “vestigial” forms of production and exploitation, but also by resignifying them). We cannot have a predetermined development strategy in this struggle, except that which will sharpen the class struggle.

7. But class struggle between capital and labour too leaves aside many other conflicts.

Not exactly. The issue before us perhaps is to understand how ‘other’ struggles (struggle between classes, not just labor and capital but other classes also; struggle within classes; struggles against the State, caste and gender struggles) are related to capital-labour conflicts. Why cannot they be seen as particularisations of capital-labour conflict? Labour does not mean just wage labour. Labour-capital relationship resignify the whole stratification of the society, even castes and gender are posed as specifications of that relationship:

a) Ambedkar can be helpful in understanding the caste system in this regard, when he talked about caste as not just a division of labour, but a division of labourers. In this framework, anti-casteism becomes a working class struggle to create unity among labourers.

b) An Italian-American activist-scholar, Silvia Federici has succinctly put:
“If it is true that in capitalist society sexual identity became the carrier of specific work-functions, then gender should not be considered a purely cultural reality, but should be treated as a specification of class relations…In capitalist society “femininity” has been constituted as a work-function, masking the production of the work force under the cover of a biological destiny. If this is true then “women’s” history is “class history”.

8. So are you against community level struggles, as communities are generally composed of diverse class interests?

A “Community” is not simply an aggregation of horizontal interests; it arises out of an articulation (which includes hidden and open conflicts) between various levels of interests. Its critical edge is determined by the nature of interests that dominate that articulation. We are not even hostile towards the idea of rural community, but the point is to see how it is internally constituted, and which class interest dominates it.

(I thank comrades, interacting with whom I wrote much of the text.)

The Meaning of Anti-Casteism

Ambedkar clearly defined the meaning of the struggle against the caste system. For him it was not simply a petty bourgeois assertion of identity, a struggle for mere representation, as many exponents for and against the dalit movement have propounded. In his ILP days and again in “Who were the Shudras” (1946), Ambedkar essentially viewed the origin and function of caste (and therefore casteism) as conversion of “the scheme of division of work into a scheme of division of workers, into fixed and permanent occupational categories”. So the revolt against the caste system (or casteism in a capitalist society) is a revolt against the material and ideological division of workers, against the labour market segmentation, against the individualist-competitive ethic (a petty bourgeois tendency) among workers (which frequently takes identitarian forms). Only by questioning and destroying the whiteness of the “white” workers, a larger united working class movement could be posed in racist societies like the US. Similarly in a casteist society like India, only by attacking the “upper/middle-caste-ness” among workers, a working class alternative could be posed. A drastic reorientation of the dalit movement (and therefore of the working class movement) is needed if it has to pose a real challenge to the caste system and casteism, as Ambedkar understood them. Dalit Movement has to re-emerge as the vanguard of the working class movement.

Ambedkar’s view on organisation

Some days back I was in Nagpur for a seminar on the Dalit question. A dalit leader told me an interesting fact (which needs to be verified) that Ambedkar’s slogan for the movement raised during the formation of Bahishkrit Hitakarani Sabha, (Association for the Welfare of the Ostracised) in 1924 was not shika, sanghatit vha va sangharsh kara (“EDUCATE, ORGANISE AND AGITATE”). It was actually shika, sangharsh kara, sanghatit vha (“EDUCATE, AGITATE AND ORGANISE”). And the change, according to him and I agree, was significant since the original slogan perceives an organisation as produced and reproduced (made, unmade and remade) within the process of movement. The change in the slogan leads to the status-quoisation of the movement, as within this changed framework the institutionalised structure of an organisation manipulates the movement for its own reproduction.