Saturday, July 27, 2013

Dr Ambedkar: Breaking chains of caste

In 2005 I attended a meeting of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, in Nagpur, Maharashtra, India. Following that meeting I wrote this piece for our newsletter, "BODHI Times" (number 29). What follows is a slightly edited version. I should add that I recommend the book Ambedkar and Buddhism to anyone who wants to know more - I read this in the 1990s, when its author (Ven Sangharakshita, founder of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (now Triratna) and I corresponded.) He sent it to me - now it's free on the web. What follows is my essay:

There are more statues in India today of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the great Dalit (preferred to the offensive untouchable) leader who died in 1956, than of any other person born in the last millennium, including Mahatma Gandhi, who is so much better known in the West. Ambedkar and Gandhi — contemporaries whose careers often overlapped — were both involved in a great struggle. While Gandhi focussed on freeing India from the grip of colonial Britain, Ambedkar worked mainly to free Dalits from the cruelty and oppression of other Indians, who benefited from the institutional racism and discrimination of the caste system, central to orthodox Hinduism.

Using different methods (which rarely if ever involved Dalits in their formulation), Gandhi also tried to improve the conditions for the millions of people at the bottom of the Indian pecking order. For example, Gandhi used the word harijan (children of God) to describe Dalits, hoping this would uplift their position. Ambedkar and most other Dalits rejected this term as offensive and patronising. Rather than lobby for full socioeconomic and political equality, Gandhi argued that the traditional Dalit jobs — such as sweeping, labouring, and removing dead animals from villages — should be regarded by caste Hindus as dignified and honourable. This was seen as absurd by Ambedkar, who instead called for equal opportunity for Dalits to be educated, nourished and to participate in a fully democratic India, thus extinguishing the very concept of untouchability.

There is evidence that Gandhi — born into the third-ranking merchant caste — absorbed and expressed a psychology which placed Dalits in a lowly position, perhaps in conflict with the Mahatma’s conscious preference. For example, Gandhi is alleged to have asked a Christian missionary to pray for the harijans but not to try to convert them as they did not have ‘the mind and intelligence to understand what you talked. Would you preach the Gospel to a cow?’ (1) Many other examples are said to attest to the low regard which Gandhi had for the average ‘harijan.’ (2)

India’s first law minister

Ambedkar matriculated in 1907, an extraordinary achievement for a Dalit. The rarity of this accomplishment does not show any inherent defect in the mental ability of untouchables, but instead reflected their lack of opportunity and educational access. For many, it probably also reflected an environmentally determined loss of cognitive potential, shared by many chronically undernourished people. Ambedkar then earned four post-graduate degrees in the U.S. and UK, including a Ph.D. from Colombia University in New York and a D.Sc. from the London School of Economics. He became the best educated Dalit of his and possibly all time.

From the 1920s until his death Ambedkar personified and led the Dalits in their struggle for more rights and opportunities. He became integral to the emerging leadership of independent India, not only becoming India’s first law minister but also chairing the committee which drafted the Indian constitution. Ambedkar was far less successful in his attempts to reform Hinduism (as was Gandhi).

In 1935 Ambedkar declared that though born a Hindu he would not die a Hindu. Though he considered conversion to Christianity and Sikhism, Ambedkar formally converted to Buddhism in October, 1956. Within months of his untimely death in December of that year, several million Dalits had followed, thus extinguishing — at least in theory — any religious obligation to be subservient to higher caste Indians. Today, Buddhists in India who have followed Ambedkar’s example outnumber other kinds of Buddhists in India (such as Tibetans) by tens of millions. Yet, their story is hardly known, even among Buddhists in other countries.

This short piece cannot do justice to the complexity and richness of this movement, whose story and struggle is far from complete.


1. Zelliot, E., Gandhi and Ambedkar: A Study in Leadership, Jambhala Books, 3rd edn, Pune, 2005,
2. Omvedt, G., Ambedkar. Towards an Enlightened India, Penguin, New Delhi, 2004.