Ambedkar on Religion, Buddhism and Marxism

Note : The following article was written by  Tanvi Patel,  as part of her project work at the JNU, where she was doing her post graduate course. It is  reproduced without any changes, and would welcome comments and posts from readers. In particular we would like to get the reactions from our friends in the Buddhist community of the followers of Dr. Ambedkar.

Ambedkar on Religion, Buddhism and Marxism

By Tanvi Patel, November 2006

  • Why Convert?

In 1935 Ambedkar announced, ‘Although I have been born a Hindu, I will not die a Hindu.’ And it culminated in October 1956 in the city of Nagpur where he and 400,000 followers took the ‘three refuges’ of traditional Buddhism and an additional 22 vows.

Conversion to Buddhism became one of the aspects of dalit negation of the appropriation by the hegemonic forces of Brahmanism. Through conversion dalits sought to counteract the imposed external definitions and have strived to assert their humanity as both the autonomous makers of their identity and contributors to the making of Indian society. Conversion has been a kind of social rebirth.

Conversion was a form of escape from internal colonialism by the Hindu upper castes

He believed that Hinduism did not provide for human liberty, equality, fraternity and universal justice as it ritually hierarchized people. Through sanctions from its sacred texts Hinduism perpetrated grave injustices against the lower castes and women. It was, as a religion not self reflexive and humanitarian in the least.

Using the metaphor of Imperialism, the ‘colonized’ i.e. the dalits were unable to escape in any physical sense as they had no independent territory of their own; neither could they send the colonizers (Brahmins) home. They were unable to easily lay claim to an independent history and culture in fact they gained their identity by their incorporation into the repressive and exploitative dominant culture and society. Conversion offered an opportunity to the subordinated groups to escape the colonizers cultural and religious dominance.

Many alternatives tried by him had failed

Ambedkar had initially tried to encourage the process of Sanskritization, in the form of rejecting customs which marked caste as ‘low’, amongst the dalits. He also tried to promote reform from within Hinduism in the 20’s but these attempts were not effectual. Thus social reform within Hinduism failed to provide an ideological and organizational alternative and a new one had to be sought.

He toyed with the idea of demanding a separate homeland for the untouchables, but this was not feasible and he soon gave this idea up. He also thought of establishing a new religion to replace Hinduism but this too proved futile. Finally in the late 20’s and early 30’s he made public his decision to renounce Hinduism.

Disillusionment with Gandhi and the Congress

Conversion was resorted to by Ambedkar as he was disillusioned by Gandhi and the Congress which were dominant forces shaping the face of an imminent Independent India. He felt that Gandhi’s position on the varnashrama, that it was a legitimate part of Hinduism, was problematic as it directly promoted the maintenance of the caste system. He also felt that the Congress and Nehruvian Socialists did not give due importance to caste and local identities and so these were not, according to him, possibilities for dalit liberation. Ambedkar built a political alternative to the congress, which he believed would grant the dalits the independent voice they needed.

Marxism was not an answer

Having forsaken liberalism and religious reformation, having accepted the exploitation of workers and peasants, with a rational and secular outlook, the natural direction for Ambedkar to move should have been leftward towards Marxism which put forward a coherent theory of exploitation. But though it provided many themes which Ambedkar accepted, Marxism in its embodiment in the Indian Communist movement failed to offer a real alternative to him.

Ambedkar believed that the eradication of caste could not be possible if only the economic base was changed, what was needed, he felt, was a repudiation of Hinduism as a religion and the adoption of an alternative religion, which he found in Buddhism.

  • Ambedkar on Religion

Purpose of Religion:

To him the purpose of religion was to explain the origin of the world and reconstruct the world.

Tests of Religion

In his treatise, “Buddha and future of His Religion”, after comparing Buddhism with Hinduism, while comparing Buddhism with other non-Hindu religions, Dr. Ambedkar concludes by enumerating the tests a religion must pass:

“(i) That society must have either the sanction of law or the sanction of morality to hold it together. Without either society is sure to go pieces. In all societies law plays a very small part. It is intended to keep the minority within the range of social discipline. The majority is left and has to be left to sustain its social life by the postulates and sanction of morality. Religion in the sense of morality, must therefore, remain the governing principle in every society.

(ii) That religion as defined in the first proposition must be in accord with science. Religion is bound to lose it respect and therefore become the subject of ridicule and thereby not merely lose its force as a governing principle of life but might in course of time disintegrated and lapse if it is not in accord with science. In other words, religion if it is to function, must be in accord with reason which is merely another name for science.

(iii) That religion as a code of social morality must recognize the fundamental tenets of liberty, equality and fraternity. Unless a religion recognizes these three fundamental principles of social life religion will be doomed.

(iv) That religion must not sanctify or ennoble poverty. Renunciation of riches by those who have it may be a blessed state. But poverty can never be. To declare poverty to be a blessed state is to pervert religion, to perpetuate vice crime, to consent to make earth a living hell.”

Dr. Ambedkar asks which religion fulfills these requirements today, reminding that the days of the Mahatmas are gone and the world cannot have a new Religion. It will have to make its choice from existing religions. Some of the religions might satisfy one or two tests but Buddhism is the only religion satisfying all tests. He observes:

“So far as I know the only religion which satisfies all these tests is Buddhism. In other words Buddhism is the only religion which the world can have. If the new world – which be it realized is very different from the old – must have a religion – and the new world needs religion for more than the old world did – then it can only be religion of the Buddha.” [Buddha and future of his religion”, p. 9]

  • Some Tenets of Buddhism

In his first sermon after enlightenment, Buddha spoke of the avoidance of two extremes, of worldly yielding to the passions and sensuality, on one hand and extreme and painful self-mortification on the other. This is what is called the ‘Middle Way’ defined as ‘right views, right aspirations, right speech right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right contemplation.’

Following this is the discussion on the four truths. These are that sorrow exists, that there is an origin of sorrow, an ending to sorrow and a path to the ending of sorrow. The origin of suffering lies in craving; it is the overcoming of this that is the way to end suffering.

Men freed from bonds of strong desire are free; none other share such perfect liberty…Affliction is not known where no desires abide; where these are, endless rises sorrow’s tide. When dies away desire, that woe of woes, even here the soul unceasing rapture knows (Kural No. 37)

Ambedkar believed that some of the Buddha’s most important teachings were enumerated in the Tripitakas wherein the Buddha talks of the necessity of a religion which is rational, compassionate and moral. He believed that the function of religion was to reconstruct the world, not necessarily to explain its origin or end. The Buddha believed that it was the desire to possess that caused misery as greed caused conflicts of interests between different classes. The Buddha also emphasized the equality of all humans and it was high ideals and not noble birth that made a man great.

The Buddha used the concept of Karma in a very different way from the Hindu Brahmanas. Buddha stressed on the ethicisation of karma, that it was actions of violence and non violence against any sentient being, which affected human destiny. He emphasized the importance of righteous and loving actions over hollow rituals and sacrifices.

There are significant differences between the different Buddhist sects such as Mahayana, Theravada, Vajrayana etc. The animosity between different sects is primarily because there has been a tendency to forget the Buddha’s injunction to avoid and extreme attachment to views.

Ambedkar wanted to provide his followers with a ‘bible’, a simple but comprehensive text of Buddhism, based on what he felt were the most important passages of the Pali canon. Thus he took up as his last work, the task of rewriting Buddhist scriptures.

  • Why Buddhism over other religions?

Ambedkar wanted a religion that would recognize the spiritual brotherhood of mankind, the recognition of the dignity of the individual human being and his right to the opportunity for growth. He was searching for a religion which recognized the role of love and compassion, but not one that preached paternalistic charity which hurt individual dignity. He found these values and a promise of rational action in Buddhism that was guided by reason and a universalistic set of moral values.

Impact of Buddhism on Early Dalit Thinkers

A Dalit leader Pandit Iyothee Thass of Tamil Nadu first took up Buddhism at the beginning of the 20th C and gave it a mass base in Tamil Nadu and in parts of Burma and South Africa settled by Dalit migrant labourers. He identified dalits with Buddhists by arguing that the Tamil Paraiyas were not only Buddhists but descendents of the Buddha’s own clan, the Sakyas. In this interpretation acceptance of Buddhism by dalits would not really be a ‘conversion’ to a new religion but liberation and a return to their original identity.

Bhima Bhoi of Orissa in the early 19th C created the Mahima Dharma cult aimed at the upliftment of dalits. This was fashioned around Mahayana Buddhist principles.

Ambedkar’s choice of Buddhism owed much to Iyothee Thass and to Laxmi Narasu another leader of this Sakya Buddhism of the early 20th C.

Buddhist past of India

Ambedkar was influenced by the Buddhist past of India. The rise of the Magadha Mauryan states has been characterized by Ambedkar as that of the ‘Buddhist revolution’ which was revolutionary in transcending Vedic tribal particularism and in denying caste and gender inferiority. He was convinced that the Buddhist Age was tremendously rational and enlightened. Ambedkar argued that Dalits were in fact originally Buddhists who had been rendered untouchable. He looked at the conversion of untouchables to Buddhism as a kind of returning home

The Rejection of Conversion to other Religions

Ambedkar had rejected Jainism, as it was too austere, it glorified wantlessness and suffering, and this did not appeal to the materialistic mind of Ambedkar. Judaism and Zoroastrianism do not encourage conversion of other people into their fold.

He was drawn to Sikhism for some time due to its emphasis on equality. Also he believed that as Sikhism was a home-grown religion it may not alienate the dalits. But later Ambedkar saw that caste feeling did prevail amongst the Sikhs and the fact that the Sikhs as a community were only concentrated only in one region, Punjab, made him refrain from converting to that religion.

Islam, though it was supposed to be equalitarian, did in practice have many hierarchical structures. Other factors that made him wary of Islam were the foreign origin of this religion, the forced conversion of dalits to Islam and the social evils amongst Muslims for instance the condition of women in that community.

.As it had a large following in India he felt that the dalits identity may get compromised if they converted to this religion. Also in this period of the partition brewing he did want to antagonize the situation.

He was also critical of Christianity too, as it was seen as a foreign religion. Here too he observed the practice of caste distinctions. The Christian concept of rewards and punishments after death was to him like the Hindu karmic theory which supported social positions of the caste system based on past life karma, this he did not agree with.

Earlier in the late 20’s Ambedkar viewed Buddhism as a religion linked to Hinduism. Because of the vast majority of upper caste individuals who had turned to Buddhism in the 19th C, it was seen as a kind of reformed Hinduism, he therefore did not consider converting to it, it was only later after studying Buddhism did his resolve grow stronger.

Buddhism had a emancipatory social message of equality, compassion and justice

Society can be cruel and discriminate against people; therefore it is necessary to have a religion that preaches equality felt Ambedkar.
The Buddha taught that sadhamma must break down barriers between man and man, that worth and not birth is the measure of man and it must promote equality between man and man. Buddhism questioned the rule of inequality in life wherein the weakest are always marginalized and deprived. It promoted equality which would help the best to survive, even though the best may not be the fittest. Ambedkar felt that this religion combined three principles which no other religion does. It taught Prajna (understanding as against superstition) Karuna (love) and Samata (equality) all of which he deemed to be very essential.

Buddhist texts are consistent throughout in emphasizing that righteous and wise men can come from any Varna or social group. In contrast to the Brahmanical tendency to downgrade physical labour, Buddhism gives a dignified place to it. In many Jatakas the Bodhisattva is a farmer or an artisan or a poor wage-worker; and often shown as a skilled ironsmith, or carpenter, or engineer. These tendencies in Buddhism gave it an immense transformative power which posed a challenge to Brahmanism by advancing the emancipation of the dalits.

The religion of the Buddha is perfect justice, springing from a man’s own meritorious disposition.’ (Buddha and His Dhamma)

Brought Karma Theory to Bear on the Present Life Only

Buddhism rejected the idea of ‘Moral Law as ensuing from divine will which binds man to obey God, and it is obedience to God which maintains the moral order’. The concrete human self is the focus of the Buddha’s teachings Instead of a ‘first cause’ as espoused by the Upanishads, Buddhism believes in a causal chain of karma which is more scientific and empirical than the Upanishadic first cause thesis. ‘“It is the Kamma Niyam and not God which maintains the moral order in the universe.” That was the Buddha’s answer to the question. The moral order of the universe may be good or it may be bad. But according to the Buddha, the moral order rests on man and on nobody else.’(Buddha and his Dhamma)

Thus Buddhism gives agency to the individual to determine his/her own karma by stressing on freedom of choice in actions which then determine karma. Thus the chain of karma can be destroyed and overcome. This made Buddhism rather progressive as it gave its adherents the a new lease on life by making them see the possibilities of their own free will and agency, it encouraged its adherents to question the ‘divine commandments’.

Discouraged Supernaturalism and Encouraged Rationality

Buddhism is based on reason and experience. The Buddha advised his followers not to accept his teachings blindly without reference to reason and experience. Buddha preached as a guide or margadata and not as a god or mokshadata. While founders of other religions asserted infallibility for themselves, the Buddha made no such claim.

There are few things put forth as commands. It is not authoritative in nature in fact its adherents are given agency. ‘The tone is calm and discursive; ideas are presented; they are urged, but the basis is rational; it is calmness, the truth, reasonability that convinces everyone.’ (Omvedt 2003: 63)

The Buddha rejected superstitions. He maintained that not only every event has a cause but the cause is the result of some human action or natural law.

In repudiating supernaturalism, the Buddha had three objects.
17. His first object was to lead man to the path of rationalism.
18. His second object was to free man to go in search of truth.
19. His third object was to remove the most potent source of superstition, the result of which is to kill the spirit of inquiry. This doctrine of Kamma and Causation is the most central doctrine in Buddhism. It preaches Rationalism, and Buddhism is nothing if not rationalism.
22. That is why worship of the supernatural is not Dhamma. (Buddha and His Dhamma)

Buddhism is a universal religion he felt, which did not allow itself to be passed into oblivion as it was based on reason and experience as opposed to the sterile and static doctrines of other religions. Buddhism’s rationality and stress on the observable human experience appealed to Ambedkar’s modern sensibilities. He saw justice and reason as necessary prerequisites for a peaceful coexistence.

Buddhism also remained in consonance with a material and modern world that Ambedkar strove for his people to be a part of. It was a common misconception that Buddha regarded ascetism as an ideal; in fact he was averse to any absolutist position. ‘It is the control of passions, self-discipline, the removal of lust and desire that is the dominant theme in all the early recorded teachings. Even in the midst of worldly luxury it is said that a person can attain such self control.’ (Omvedt 2003: 55)

In the words of the Buddha:

Anyone who, though adorned in fine clothes is tranquil, who is peaceful, disciplined, self controlled, virtuous, who renounces violence towards all beings, such a person is a Brahman, a samana, a bhikku’ (Dhammapada No. 142 in Omvedt 2003: 55)

In fact Buddhism also allowed the eating of meat, provided that the one eating has not personally killed or had the animal killed. ‘The one who kills not the one who (unknowingly) eats is guilty.’ This fit in well with the dietary habits of the dalits, who were non-vegetarian. Also it gave the Mahars a reason to abandon ‘ritually impure’ caste based occupations like tanning, or butchering.

Love and righteousness are more important to the Buddhist than simple adherence to rules and rituals. This is in major contrast both to the ritualistic, caste bound pseudo-morality of the Brahmans, and to the literalistic, non-psychological morality of the Jains.

KN Kadam feels that the Buddhist principle of Dhamma is the life and breathe of the Indian Constitution, which Ambedkar played a great role in formulating.

  • The Similarities between Marxism and Buddhism

The language used may be different but the meaning is the same for many ideas of Marx and the Buddha. If for misery one reads exploitation Buddha is not very different form Marx. They disliked the acquisitive instinct in man. The Buddha believed that tanha or desire or the desire to possess which causes (class) conflicts is the root cause of misery and evil in the world. Though Buddha never stated it directly, the previous idea indicates that he may have been against private property and this brings him closer to Marx who too believed that a truly equitable society could be brought about only if private property were abolished. Both thinkers accepted thatclass conflict existed, that it came about through man’s greed, which was a cause of misery and exploitation. Dr. Ambedkar feels that, on this point there is complete agreement between the Buddha and Karl Marx. He explicates his position to his disciple Ananda as follows:

14. “This is the chain of causation, Ananda. If there was no craving, would there arise pursuit of gain? If there was no pursuit of gain, would there arise passion? If there was no passion, would there arise tenacity? If there would be no tenacity, would there arise the love for private possessions? If there would be no possession, would there arise avarice for more possession?”
15. “There would not, Lord.”
16. “If there would not be the love of private possession, would there not be peace?”
17. “There would be, Lord.”
18. “I recognise the earth as earth. But I have no craving for it,” said the Lord.
19.  Therefore it is, say I, that by extirpating all cravings, by not lusting after them, but by destroying and abandoning and renouncing them all, that I acquired enlightenment. (Buddha and His Dhamma)

Thus we see that Buddha’s solution for escaping the cycle of misery was destroying craving within oneself. This he believed could be achieved by being part of the Sangha as the Sangha was democratic, communistic in it’s sharing of property, and extremely flexible. If any precedence was given to one bhikku it was in terms of seniority, not in terms of birth or social status or of any presumed ‘merit’ of knowledge. This is similar to the way Communists declassed members before they entered the party.

In the Tripitakas the Buddha states that the function of religion is to reconstruct the world and to make it happy and not to explain its origin or end. This pattern of thought is mirrored in Marx’s emphasis on praxis and his disdain for idle theory. Marx’s famous saying in the Theses of Feuerbach, ‘Philosophers have only interpreted the world differently; the point however is to change it’ is very similar to that made by the Buddha.

Buddha in the same Tripitaka states that God must not be the centre of Religion. The rational nature of the Buddha made him question the existence of a singular ‘God’ as he had never seen or experienced this phenomenon. Thus Buddha can on a level, be considered to be an atheist. Marx too did not believe in God for the same reasons that Buddha did not. But the Buddha did recognize a need for religion while Marx believed that religion was the ‘opium of the masses’ (add here)

Both the Buddha and Marx believed in dialectics. The Buddha’s rational nature made him believe that everything was subject to enquiry and examination and that nothing was final, not even his own teachings. This was much like Marxist philosophy which was self reflexive and critical and open to changing itself from within.

To remove the cause of misery Buddha also preached the Panch Sila. ‘Abstinence from stealing i.e. acquiring or keeping by fraud or violence the property of another’ was one of its tenets. This is much like the Marxists critique that the capitalists wrongfully and fraudulently appropriated the surplus profits that were the product of the exploited labour force.

  • Where Ambedkar agreed with Marxists

Marx expounded his theories about 150 years ago. Most of Marxism is demolished during these years. But what remains of the Karl Marx, Dr. Ambedkar feels, is a residue of fire, small but still very important. The residue in his opinion consists of four items:

(i) The function of philosophy is to reconstruct the world and not to waste its time in explaining the origin of the world.

(ii) That there is a conflict of interest between class and class.

(iii) That private ownership of property brings power to one class and sorrow to another through exploitation.

(iv) That it is necessary for the good of society that the sorrow be removed by the abolition of private property.

The achievements of the Soviet Union exercised a powerful attraction for Ambedkar. This lasted through much of the 1940s with Ambedkar calling for nationalization of land and basic industries for some time calling himself a state socialist. Ambedkar like some communists felt that State Socialism was necessary for the rapid industrialization of India. Private enterprise cannot do it, and if it did it would produce those inequalities of wealth which private capitalism has produced in Europe and which should be a warning to Indians. He accepted that class and exploitation was a result of property, but took a far more conservative stand on the abolition of private property.

Ambedkar in the 1930s lead the anti-landlord struggles in the Konkan and fights of textile workers in Bombay- in both cases uniting with caste Hindus and also sharing a platform with communists. During the same time there was for a brief period a coming together of the socialists, communists and Dalits under the banner of the Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti. Themes that they united on were land reforms and peasant rights. Where he broke with the Marxists was over issues of caste and religion.

Though Ambedkar saw Buddhism as an alternative to Marxism, he ironically posed Marxist questions. His words echoed his interpretation of Marx’s famous saying in the Theses of Feuerbach, ‘Philosophers have only interpreted the world differently; the point however is to change it.’ In his essay on ‘Buddha or Karl Marx’ Ambedkar had rephrased this as ‘The function of philosophy is to reconstruct the world and not to waste its time in explaining the origin of the world.’ He used Marxian ideas to formulate the problems but used Buddhist mans and methods to achieve these ends.

Ambedkar saw the Sangha as the ideal Communist society wherein there a was democratic, communistic sharing of property, where status was in terms of seniority, not in terms of birth or social status or of any presumed ‘merit’ of knowledge.

  • The Divergences between Buddhism and Marxism

Similar End Divergent Means

The ends of Buddhism and Marxism were similar but differed in the methods they used to achieve these ends. Buddhism aimed to change the thought of men through the Dhamma, to transform man by changing his moral disposition so that the he would follow the right path voluntarily. “The Buddha’s method was different. His method was to change the mind of man: to alter his disposition: so that whatever man does, he does it voluntarily without the use of force or compulsion. His main means to alter the disposition of men was his Dhamma and the constant preaching of his Dhamma. The Buddha’s way not to force people to do what they did not like to do although it was good for them. His way was to alter the disposition of men so that they would do voluntarily what they would not otherwise to do.” (Buddha and his Dhamma)

The emphasis was on the ethicisation of the emerging market economy and monarchy, through righteous living for householders and the righteousness of the ruler. The Commune of the Sangha tried to change the outlook of the lay people directed to righteous behaviour, through love, while Marxism stressed on the use of violence and force to break the existing system and thereby change it. Ambedkar believed that force could not be a lasting means to effect change. He stated the problem with using force as follows ‘…force failing no further hope of reconciliation is left. Power and authority are sometimes bought by kindness; but they can never be begged as alms by an impoverished and defeated violence.’ (Buddha or Karl Marx)

But some thinkers feel that Ambedkar’s critique of Marxism using violence and force is unjust as in Marxism violence is not violence but self defence. In fact Ambedkar himself believed that violence was necessary when he preached self protection for the untouchables.

Ambedkar believed that Buddhism offered fraternity, liberty and equality while Communism could offer some amount of equality but not fraternity and liberty as Marxism dismissed values like compassion and brotherhood as bourgeois illusions and its methods included the use of violence or force that compromised the rights of some people. Even the equality that communism provided, Ambedkar felt, was not adequate as there was little room for individual choice in a society that functioned based on a rigid doctrine.

Thus one can say that Marxism and Buddhism differed with regard to their views about humans in society. Positivist and empirical Marxism, as mentioned above, did not encourage questioning, it was doctrinaire and there was no scope given to individual choice, thus human nature was seen as a collective product. Buddhism on the other hand encouraged questioning, it was not doctrinaire and believed in the importance of the transformation of the individual from which social change would flow.

On Religion

Ambedkar felt that the Dhamma was ‘sacred morality’ and served the function of social integration. In contrast to Marx and Weber, he did not believe that religion would vanish with the progression of modernity, but that a new and rational religion would develop to give a moral basis to the values of rationality and individualism. Gail Omvedt believes that the Navayana Buddhism of Ambedkar is an example of Durkheim’s projected religion of rationality.

Marx viewed religion was simply looked upon as alienation and never considered as a solution to human exploitation. Marx had given a scientific explanation of religion, that “Religion was the Opium of the people” which had no emancipatory potential. Marx believed that it only allowed people to anesthetize themselves, thereby, Religion changed material struggle into a kind of spiritual comfort. It transformed real needs to hopes of an illusory world. What Marxism did not account for was that death, disease and old age are human realities that continue even in a classless society, thus Marxism does not have an answer or solution to the universal nature of human suffering that cuts across class boundaries.

Buddhism and the Economy

For the Marxists religion is seen as part of the ‘ideological superstructure’ which is produced by the socio-economic structures, but having no independent causal influence on them. But Ambedkar maintained that religion and cultural change could indeed influence the economic base.

It was Max Weber who pioneered theories discussing the economic role of religion and his linkage of capitalism with Protestantism in Europe, went a step beyond Marx. He stated that people see meaning of life and salvation as being as important as material interests. Also Religious ideologies and world views can affect the ways in which material interests operate. He said that some religions foster the creation of an ethically motivated individual who is oriented to economic entrepreneurship. But his indication was not towards Buddhism as he saw it as anti-rational, anti-individualistic and other-worldly, as its rules of the Sangha did not support a rational economic ethic though Gail Omvedt feels that this is an untenable argument as it ignores the rationality inherent in Buddhism and downplays the continued association of Buddhism with commerce and merchants. She believes that both Protestantism and Buddhism gave social sanction and respect to the successful merchant and to accumulation done through moral means. Both encouraged rationalism and denied the ritualistic life.

For the growth of capitalism a religion is needed which is rational and which supports economic activity and prosperity. Buddhism fulfills both these criteria. Historical evidence shows that in the first millennium BC while the society was dynamic and prospering, Buddhism endorsed and gave an ethical foundation to growth by promoting equality and mobility.

The Sangha realized that though itself it had collective property, this model could not be applied to the lay people. It was not a socially realistic prescription for economic life. Therefore, monarchy and the market were both supported but an effort was made to humanize and moralise them.

Unlike Marxism, Buddhism does not ask the wealthy to give up their private property, but asks them to feel for those less fortunate and show greater concern for human relations. It emphasizes the 8 fold path and other teachings, so that once the values of love and kindness to all sentient beings, have been imbibed, exploitation of the less privileged would automatically stop. Marxists would criticize this idea as serving the interests of the bourgeois and being status quoist, as, though there is an effort to soften and humanize it, the master-employer relationship is maintained.

Buddhism supported the acquisition of wealth; in fact possession of private property was the crucial characteristic of the gahapati or householder. : ‘He (a householder) should divide his money in four parts; on one part he should live, with two expand his trade and the fourth he should save against a rainy day.’ (Buddhist text in Omvedt 2003: 70.). This sounds almost capitalist as there is stress on reinvestment for profit but there is no mention of redistributing the profits amongst the workers or those less fortunate.

Separate social categories are maintained throughout Buddhist writings but efforts are made to humanize the relationship between these categories. Yet the fact remains that as the very basis of these social categories is never questioned there is maintenance of a patriarchal and to an extent hierarchical society. The Buddhist ethics is what would be called by Marxists to be an ethics appropriate to capitalism, and not to a classless society. But Gail Omvedt says that welfare economies of the sort supported by Buddhism in which employees are assured their rights and benefits, probably fares better than some communist economies where hierarchy and exploitation are practiced ironically in the name of abolishing inequality.

  • Differences between Ambedkar and the Marxists

Ambedkar was disillusioned by the Marxists as they had been rather unreceptive about the Poona Pact, which was to deal with the issues of the Dalits. EMS Namboodiripad’s comment in his History of the Indian Freedom Struggle makes this clear: ‘However this was a great blow to the freedom movement, for this lead to the diversion of the people’s attention from the objective of full independence to the mundane cause of the upliftment of Harijans.’

The indifference to caste by the communists becomes a central lacuna at a time when Marxism was penetrating India as a powerful ideology. This lack of attention to caste can be seen in the following ways: as a failure to press the issue in the workers’ and peasants’ organizations within which they worked; as a failure to form any separate organization or front to represent dalits or take up struggles on caste issues (ironically the Gandhian and Hindu fundamentalists did have these) and as a failure to mention programmes for untouchability and caste issues in the political programmes of the Communist Party or other front parties. It was not until the second congress of the CPI in 1948 that the issue was taken up in detail.

The communists’ fight for untouchable rights proposed a confrontation with Ambedkar, denouncing him as ‘separatists’ ‘opportunistic’ and ‘pro-British’. It also treated caste prejudice as ‘bourgeois divisiveness’, it made no effort to go into the specificity of caste exploitation and asked untouchables to join the ‘democratic revolution’ (of which they were a ‘reverse force’ not the main force).

Also what bothered Ambedkar about the Marxists in India were their upper caste origins. He felt that their caste-status made them unwilling to look at forms of exploitation which questioned their male, upper-caste interests and also that they were incapable of handling caste or other ‘non-class’ contradictions.

Ambedkar believed that a science of historical materialism, which Marx had initiated was not capable of handling ‘non-class’ factors such as caste and patriarchy. ‘The class category provided a marvelous tool for Indian Marxists to interpret what they saw around them within one grand framework of a theory of exploitation and liberation, but at the same time blinding them to other factors in their environment, so that instead of being inspired by the multifaceted struggles of low caste peasants and workers to develop their own theory and practice, they instead sought to narrow these struggles and confine them within a ‘class’ framework.’ (Omvedt 1994:184)

Marxism downplayed non-economic factors such as gender and caste arguing that these could be taken care of with the socialist revolution and Ambedkar disagreed with the undue importance that Marxists gave to the economic sector also he believed that many of Marx’s these like the economic interpretation of history, the inevitability of revolution and the pauperization of the proletariat were not entirely true.

To him the effect of the Marxists on the social movements of Dalits was to pull them away from solutions that were socio-cultural in nature. Thus Ambedkar turned upside down the Marxian concept of base-superstructure. He believed that property was not the only source of power, religion and social status too could generate power and felt India needed a social-religious revolution rather than an economic one. He believed that if caste was annihilated the economic base would automatically change. Buddhism he stressed was an all round alternative to Marxism, capable of solving the problems of conflict and suffering as Marxism could not.

Amberkar did not agree with the Marxian concept of the ‘Withering away of the State’ as he felt that this had not happened in any communist society and was unlikely to happen. He also felt that the communists were unable to give a satisfactory answer to what would take the place of the State if it did wither away. He feels the building up of the Communist State is a useless effort. If it cannot be sustained except by force and if it results in anarchy when the force holding it together is withdrawn what good is the Communist State? He therefore avers that, the only thing which could sustain it after force is withdrawn is Religion. He observes:“But to the Communists, Religion is anathema. Their hatred to Religion is so deep seated that they will not even discriminate between religions which are helpful to Communism and religions which are not. The Communists have carried their hatred of Christianity to Buddhism without waiting to examine the difference between the two.” [Buddha and His Dhamma]

Also Ambedkar had problems with the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat that the Marxists proposed as he felt that any sort of dictatorship was violent and undemocratic. He felt that the communists did not recognize the fact that the Buddha had established communism within the Sangha without any force or violence.

He agreed with Marx that there was a need to reconstruct the world so as to make it more beneficial to the marginalized and bring about equity. But he argued that this need not be done through force and violence which the Communist’s used, as the strikes and actions they prompted were often to the detriment of the weakest sections of society. Ambedkar felt that though Marxism spoke of collective ownership what occurred in practice was actually state ownership where the dominant nationalist party replaced the class party with claims to represent the oppressed masses.

He believed that the world could be reconstructed effectively through non-violent means, through the Buddhist Dhamma and Sangha.

Marxists criticized Ambedkar as being ‘petty bourgeois’, identifying the idealism (return to religion) and reformism presumed to be implicit in his theory with a kind of backward ‘peasantist’ consciousness; this has invariably been the response of even the most favourable left assessments.

  • Where Ambedkar had divergences with Buddhism.

His rejection of the theory that the Buddha took Parivraja

The traditional answer is that the Buddha took Parivraja because he saw a dead person, a sick person and an old person. Ambedkar feels that this answer is absurd as if the Buddha took Parivraja at the age of 29, how is it he did not see these three sights earlier? As these were common events, Ambedkar feels it is impossible to accept the traditional explanation that this was the first time he saw them. Ambedkar believed that the Buddha actually left his home left to avoid a war over water between the two tribal oligarchies of Sakyas and Koliyas. Thus in Ambedkar’s interpretation, the Buddha’s search began with the Marxist problem of social exploitation and class struggle.

Rejection of the primacy of ‘The Four Aryan Truths’

Ambedkar felt that the four Aryan truths are a great stumbling block in the way of non-Buddhists accepting the gospel of Buddhism. For the four Aryan Truths deny hope to man. The four Aryan Truths made, according to him, the gospel of the Buddha a gospel of pessimism. He suspected that they did not form part of the original gospel but were a later accretion by the monks. Ambedkar had initially objected to the predominance of dukkha and then given it an extremely social interpretation, identifying it with social-economic exploitation. With this the goal of action becomes not only the liberation of the individual seeker, but the transformation of the world.

According to Ambedkar the Buddha’s first sermon is not a proclamation of the four Aryan truths but of the ‘middle path’, rejecting asceticism on the one hand and indulgence in worldly luxury on the other, followed by the statement of a simple but noble morality. Carol Anderson a scholar on Buddhism believes that the four noble truths were not always central to Buddhism but that they emerged as a central teaching only in the middle of the first millennium. Her theory supports Ambedkar’s contention.

His reluctance to accept the Karma Theory

The third problem relates to the doctrines of soul, of karma and rebirth. The Buddha, Ambedkar says, denied the existence of the soul. But he is also said to have affirmed the doctrine of karma and rebirth. This to Ambedkar seems contradictory, as if there was no soul, how could there be karma or rebirth? Ambedkar feels that this contradiction needs to be resolved.

Ambedkar did not want the Karma theory in Buddhism as it convinced people to accept their social lot in life and thereby justified the caste system. Ambedkar seeks to reinterpret karma, at one point referring to it as biological-genetic inheritance.

Ambedkar also made a radical reinterpretation of Nirvana. According to him nirvana is not a metaphysical or psychological state or attainment, but a society founded on justice and peace. Thus he brought the transcendent view of Nirvana down to earth. It is an engaged Buddhism which disregards notions of another world and translates that into a society based on equality.

The Role of the Bhikku

The fourth problem relates to the Bhikkhu. Ambedkar believed that the Sangha should be a community dedicated to social service, but this idea of his runs counter to the traditional notion of any monastic organization in which the primary goal is spiritual self realization of the members. Ambedkar gives more importance to the social message of the Buddha as he believed that spiritual elevation would not be possible if people were robbed of humanity and condemned to social slavery.

The guiding principle he puts forward for what he takes and what he rejects is simple. Arguing that there were after all numerous interpolations in the texts and corruptions of time, he goes on to say of the Buddha,‘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 that is rational and logical, other things being equal may be taken to be the word of Buddha.’ (Ambedkar 1992:350-51)

To this Gail Omvedt responds asking whether this was simply Enlightenment rationality in the guise of religion. Was it going too far?’

  • Ambedkar’s Version of Buddhism

Ambedkar’s version of Buddhism does not accept in totality the scriptures of the Theravada the Mahayana or the Vajrayana. His Buddhism is sometimes called Navayana, a kind of modernistic Enlightenment version of the Dhamma. In Navayana the goal of the Buddha’s teachings is oriented to social reconstruction and individual advance in this life.

Some Buddhists ask whether Ambedkar’s version of Buddhism is legitimate, whether it is in keeping with the Buddhist tenets. But Gail Omvedt says that throughout the centuries there have been numerous reinterpretations of what the Buddha said and this is what gave rise to different sects with divergent perceptions Buddhism. In fact the Buddha encouraged his followers to rely on their own intellect and experience rather on scriptures or authority to interpret what Buddhism was to them. Thus it can be said that there is no one true and faultless version of Buddhism, so Ambedkar’s version of Buddhism stands valid, it is contested only because it is relatively new.

  • Neo-Buddhism: It’s History and Present Status

Ambedkar’s choice of Buddhism was met by the existing Buddhist organizations of India with stark indifference. In contrast to the enthusiasm of many grass-roots Mahars for conversion, Buddhist spokesmen in India responded with dismay to Ambedkar’s announcement of conversion. The telegram sent by the secretary of the Mahabodhi society (in Calcutta) began, ‘Shocked very much to read your decision to renounce Hindu religion… Please reconsider your decision.’

The explanation was simple: the Mahabodhi society though started by Sinhalese Buddhists was then dominated by Bengali Brahmins.

Today the small wave of high caste conversions to Buddhism have dried up and it has now come to be identified as an ‘Untouchable religion.’ But the conversion to Buddhism for many ex-untouchables has been liberating and beneficial.

The democratic Buddhist values and political philosophy of Ambedkar are widely disseminated amongst Buddhists throughout Maharashtra. There is a high rate of literacy and political consciousness amongst Buddhists, a willingness to work only for cash and a militant resistance to the power of Brahmins and dominant landowners such as the Marathas and Hatkars. ‘There is a widespread refusal to perform traditional polluting duties such as scavenging and a widespread refusal to participate in certain kinds of Hindu rituals.’ (Fitzgerald: 229)

But despite these apparent progresses Fitzgerald believes that the Buddhist community today lives by two contradictory value systems one through either habit or domination, the other through commitment or struggle. Buddhism represents a coherent democratic critique of caste and of Hindu ritual, even though the movement is still dominated and restricted by traditional notions of hierarchy. There have been cases in Parbhani district where Mahar Buddhists practice untouchability against other scheduled castes. Fitzgerald in the course of his study encountered Buddhists forcing Mangs to beg for water from the Buddhist well. Buddhists say that they are reluctant to give Mangs water because they still performed polluting occupations such as skinning dead animals.

There is ambiguity both in the ordinary Buddhist’s objective situation and also in their sense of self identity.

This may be because the spiritual aspect has taken a backseat what is more important is the egalitarian and emancipatory aspect of Buddhism, its potential for socio-political liberation. Fitzgerald believes it is a ‘conscious deliberate and well-articulated counter ideology of fundamental democratic change.’

But there are Buddhist organizations like Trailokya Bauddha Mahasangha Sahayak Gana which have developed a sophisticated contemporary doctrine which is fundamentally consistent with Ambedkar’s materialist and political praxis. For example the term dhamma revolution for them means both the moral and mental revolution of individual enlightenment and also the ending of caste and the establishment of a democratic society- through committed social action.

The assertion of Dalits and other low caste groups has taken on renewed force, beginning with the rise of the Dalit panthers in the 70’s. Today the interest in Buddhism among radical activists from Dalit Bahujan backgrounds is greater than ever. There are significant indications that the Buddhists are breaking with the traditional system. In this they are odds not only with the high castes but ironically also with other scheduled castes.

  • Critique of Ambedkar

Buddhism Chosen as a Political Strategy

Many believe that Ambedkar chose Buddhism mostly as a political strategy- as the Dalits by converting, would create their own identity amongst the Buddhist religion which had a very small population in India, whereas if they chose Islam or Christianity, the Dalits might have gained resources, but they would be lost in the mass of existing members of these religions.

Accused of propounding a diluted and incorrect version of Buddhism

Many Buddhists are critical of the views he propounded in ‘The Buddha and his Dhamma’. They believe that the Buddhism interpreted by him is not in keeping either with Theravada or Mahayana.

Others believe he was the enunciator of ‘Ambedkarism’ rather than Buddhism. Ambedkar’s ‘Buddha and hid Dhamma’ came under some amount of criticism from scholars, who accused him of tempering with texts and being instrumental and opportunist in his approach to Buddhism. “It frequently seems as if Ambedkar approached Buddhism not with the heart of faith but with the scalpel of a practical reformer and seemed to believe that he could take what he wanted and leave the rest” (Omvedt 2003:7)

Did he promote the rejection of an indigenous Dalit culture?

Even though Ambedkar claimed he wanted to break away from upper caste hegemony he himself and other dalit leaders after him have laid emphasis on the need to look and act like the upper castes and classes in terms of dress, education, occupation and manners. ‘Here you see in this conference these 20,000 to 25,000 women present. See their dress, observe their manners, mark their speech; can anyone say that they are untouchable women?’ Report of the depressed classes Nagpur session, (Meshram 1942 in Pandey 2006)

Did he take the anti-Hindu stand too far?

Unlike the Dali Lama who emphasizes the closeness of Hinduism and Buddhism Ambedkarite tendency in Buddhism makes every effort to not recognize convergences between Hinduism and Buddhism, it is overtly anti-Hindu and tries to maximize the separateness of Buddhism. In fact in the extra 11 vows which the Mahars were made to take when they converted to Buddhism emphasized that the Mahars reject all forms of Hindu ritual and worship including death rituals, such a drastic shift in such a short period could have made the process of conversion difficult and in certain cases ineffectual.

Rejection of Alternative Models of Development

He rejected any dialogue with alternative economic models as he baselessly associated these with the Gandhian tradition which promoted a village economy and ‘Ram-Raj’. He clearly did not see the imminent problems with the technocratic state-socialism and the large scale industrialization that it promoted.


  • Ambedkar, BR, 1992, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar writings and Speeches, Vol 11, compiled by Vasant Moon, Bombay, Government of Maharashtra.
  • Benjamin N and Mohanty BB, Ambedkar’s Quest for the Right Social Equality: An Interpretation, Social Action, Vol. 51, April June 2001.
  • Doddamani, Rajendra B, Dr. Ambedkar’s Concept of Buddhism, Mainstream, April 26, 2003
  • Fitzgerald, Timothy, Ambedkar Buddhism in Maharashtra, Contributions to Indian Sociology, 31 (2), 1997
  • Ghosh, Kunal, Buddha Vivekananda, Ambedkar, Progression in Indian Thought, Mainstream, Annual, 1997
  • Gore, MS, 1993 The Social Context of an Ideology: Ambedkar’s Political and Social Thought, Sage Publications, New Delhi
  • Kadam, MN, 1991, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar and the significance of His Movement: A Chronology, Popular Prakashan, Bombay
  • Kamble, Ramesh, Contextualising Ambedkarian Conversion, Economic and Political Weekly, October 11, 2003
  • Keer, Dhananjay, 1954, Dr. Ambedkar: Life and Mission, Popular Prakashan, Bombay
  • Ling, Trevor, 1966, Buddha, Marx and God, Macmillan, London
  • Narain AK, Ahir DC Ed, 1994, Dr. Ambedkar, Buddhism and Social Change, BR Publishing, New Delhi
  • Omvedt, Gail, 2003, Buddhism in India: Challenging Brahmanism and Caste, Sage Publications, New Delhi
  • Omvedt, Gail, 1994, Dalits and the Democratic Revolution: Dr Ambedkar and the Dalit Movement in Colonial India, Sage Publications, New Delhi
  • Pandey, Gyanendra, The Time of the Dalit Conversion, Economic and Political Weekly, May 6, 2006
  • Pinto, Ambrose, Hindutva vs Ambedkarism: Views on Conversion, Economic and Political Weekly, October 7, 2000
  • Srinivasan, R, Dalit Buddhists before Dr. Ambedkar, New Quest, 121, January-February, 1997

8 Responses to Ambedkar on Religion, Buddhism and Marxism

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  8. Ram says:

    A little correction in this article (for the author): The line under the heading, Ambedker on Religion.
    [Purpose of Religion:

    To him the purpose of religion was to explain the origin of the world and reconstruct the world.]

    It should be corrected as:
    To him the purpose of religion was not to explain the origin of the world but to reconstruct the world.

    Rest is fine.

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