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)