July 05, 2020
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Whose Ambedkar Is He Anyway?

The true riddle of Ambedkar is: why did he consider himself a Hindu at all, despite having seen the ugly side of discrimination and his trenchant criticism of the religion?

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Whose Ambedkar Is He Anyway?
An RSS march puts Ambedkar at par with founder K.B. Hedgewar
Photo by Indian Express Archive
Whose Ambedkar Is He Anyway?
  • The Beginning Ambedkar’s name derives from his name village ‘Ambavade’, located in Ratnagiri district in Maharashtra
  • Soldier Dad His father Ramji Maloji Sakpal retired as a subedar from the British Indian Army in Mhow
  • First Student Ambedkar was the 14th and last child of his parents. He was the only one of them to go to high school.
  • In Bombay Ambedkar was the first ‘unto­uchable’ to enter Elphinstone High School, affiliated to University of Bombay
  • Home Life When Ambedkar was 15, his marriage was arranged with 9-year-old Ramabai. She passed away in 1935.
  • Second Marriage In 1948, he married a Brahmin doctor, Sharda Kabir, who then took on the name Savita


On October 13, 1935, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar announced at the Depressed Classes Confer­ence in Yeola, in the Bombay Pre­s­idency: “I had the misfortune of being born with the stigma of an Untouchable. However, it is not my fault; but I will not die a Hindu, for this is in my power.” A few months later, in May 1936, he published Annihilation of Caste, a devastating cri­ti­que of Hinduism, focusing on its most distinguishing and dogmatic feature—caste.

Towards the end of this address to the Hindus, whom he calls “the sick men of India”, he says: “This would probably be my last address to a Hindu audience on a subject vitally concerning the Hindus.” He then makes it abundantly clear that he is determined to quit Hinduism: “I am sorry, I will not be with you. I have decided to change. This is not the place for giving reasons. But even when I am gone out of your fold, I will watch your movement with active sympathy, and you will have my assistance for what it may be worth.”

On October 14, 1956, a few months before he died, Ambedkar formally emb­raced Buddhism with an estimated half a million followers in Nagpur, a city that happens to be the headquarters of the ultra-right Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) that today, with remarkable lack of shame, claims Ambedkar as its own.

But the riddle Ambedkar leaves us with is this: why and how did Ambedkar, as an Untouchable, come to deem himself a Hindu, although it seems the label was thrust upon him? Like one of the advance readers of this draft introduction asked: Why is a Gandhi cap called a Gandhi cap when Gandhi did not wear one?

We must remember that Hin­d­u­ism is a neologism coined in the early 19th century. As historian Upinder Singh reminds us in A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India, “The English word ‘Hinduism’ is a fairly recent one and was first used by Raja Rammohun Roy in 1816-17.”

First, we need to understand that Ambedkar made the statement—that he was unfortunate to be born an Untouchable ‘Hindu’ but shall not die as one—when he was unsure if or when the British would leave India. He made it at a time when the anti-colonial struggle was taking definite shape under the leadership of a slightly reform-minded Bania leader, Mahatma Gandhi, who was later killed by a Brahmin terrorist who espoused the supremacist ideology of the Hindu Mahasabha.

In 1935, Ambedkar was perhaps of the opinion that such a statement from him would make the Brahmins take a more serious reformist course, for he knew that Brahmins, though numerically insignificant at an estimated three to five per cent of the population, were actually in real control of caste-infested Indian society, despite Gandhi being seen as the leader of the political movement at the time.

He extensively researched Hindu­­­ism and has recorded his distaste for this religion in several works. At the outset, there is need for clarity on one crucial issue. Hindu liberals argue that Hinduism as such is good, and that Hindutva is bad. They say there is a fundamental difference between Hinduism, as practised by the elite castes, and Hindutva, which is a ‘modern’ 20th century political response associated with organisations such as the Arya Samaj, the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha.

We have even had Communists, from S.A. Dange to A.B. Bardhan—in fact a whole spectrum of ‘left-liberal-secular’ intellectuals—extolling the greatness of Hinduism and decrying Hindutva as a perversion. This Hinduism-Hindutva binary does not hold much water. It is at best a ‘good cop, bad cop’ strategy.

Ambedkar’s thorough expose of the Hindu texts and everything the Hindus hold dear shows that there is no scope to evolve a positive, non-violent, egalitarian  religion based on these texts. In Annihilation of Caste he says emphatically:

“You must not forget that if you wish to bring about a breach in the system, you have got to apply the dynamite to the Vedas and the shastras, which deny any part to reason; to the Vedas and shastras, which deny any part to morality. You must destroy the religion of the shrutis and the smritis. Nothing else will avail.”

Bulking up Hindus

Today, the nation is being ruled by a strident BJP, which proclaims that the est­ablishment of a Hindu rashtra—a Hindu theocratic state—is its ultimate goal. As part of this agenda, it is also trying to coopt Ambedkar in major ways, despite his repeatedly and vehemently critiquing this religion and wished for its annihilation. He refused to die with the ‘Untouchable Hindu’ label. After saying he’d not like to die a Hindu, if only Ambedkar had immediately converted to Buddhism—or, even better, to a non-Indic religion—such cooption would have been impossible.

Ambedkar and his wife Savita conve­rting to Buddhism in Nagpur

However, the reason why Buddhism lends itself to easy cooption is because of a provision in the Constitution that, ironically, Ambedkar himself oversaw. Explanation II of Article 25(2)(b) of the Constitution categorises Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains as “Hindu”, even if “only” for the purpose of “providing social welfare and reform or the throwing open of Hindu religious institutions of a public character to all classes and sections of Hindus”. For all purposes, the law treats Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism as sects of Hinduism. Later, codified Hindu personal laws, like the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, and the Hindu Succession Act, 1956, merely reinforced this position, and these statutes were applied to Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains. Pertinently, under Indian law, even an atheist is classified as Hindu.

Had Ambedkar opted to convert to Islam or Christianity, it would have been near impossible for the Sangh parivar to try to coopt him into its pantheon.

Had Ambedkar, therefore, opted for say Islam or Christianity, it would have sent a different message to the Dalits as well as to the Hindus. There are many who ask what is wrong if the BJP promotes—rather appropriates—Ambedkar in various ways. Some Dalits who say Ambedkar is their messiah have colluded with the Hindutva party—prominently Udit Raj, BJP MP from Delhi and chairman of the All-India Confederation of SC/ST Organisations; Ramdas Athawale, of the Republican Party of India (A) and a Rajya Sabha MP from Maharashtra; Ram Vilas Paswan, Union minister of food and public distribution and long-term BJP ally; and Ram Shankar Katheria (the BJP’s own RSS-trained Dalit leader and MoS for HRD).

We may recall that Udit Raj was once Ram Raj, and when he tried to stage a mass conversion of Dalits to Buddhism in 2001 at Delhi’s Ram Lila grounds, the BJP-led government made every effort to sabotage the event. However, Dalit politicians hobnobbing with the BJP is a political move and has little to do with Dalits—or rather Ambedkarites—becoming right-wingers. Decades ago ‘Harijans’ worked for the Congress to even defeat Ambedkar in polls.

By the time Ambedkar embraced Buddhism in 1956, the Buddha himself was being coopted into Hinduism. He was declared one of the ten avatars of Vishnu. Right-wing nationalists such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak got into the act and came to seriously believe that the Aryans were a fair-skinned race who migrated from the icy Arctic circle, destined to be the ruling class of India and the world. Several scholars and philosophers in the West—from Sch­openhauer to Nietzsche—believed in Aryan supremacy at a time when the whites were trying to justify both racism and imperialism. Even Gandhi, during his South African years, espoused the innate superiority of ‘high-caste Indians’, given their ‘Aryan blood’, over the native blacks. This sentiment was to then fuel the racist ideologies of Hitler and Mussolini. The point is that Brahminic Hinduism, even before it assumed the garb of Hindutva, had a fascist tendency.

Rather early in his political career, on returning from his studies in New York and London, Ambedkar presented evidence before the Southborough Committee on Franchise in 1919. Ambedkar quoted the Aga Khan Committee report of 1909 submitted to the British Viceroy to argue that the ‘Untouchables’ were indeed not Hindus. Based on this report, the J.H. Hutton-led census of 1911 separated the ‘Untouchables’ from the category of Hindus, and by 1916, the bureaucratic term ‘Depressed Classes’ came to be officially used by the British government (later renamed ‘Scheduled Castes’ after the Government of India Act of 1935).

What is important is to know the basis adopted by the census commissioner for separating the different classes of Hindus into those who were 100 per cent Hindus and those who were not. The basis adopted by the census commissioner for separation is to be found in his circular, in which he laid down certain tests for the purpose of distinguishing these two classes. Among those who were not 100 per cent Hindus were included castes and tribes which: a) deny the supremacy of the Brahmins; b) do not receive the mantra from a Brahmin or other recognised Hindu guru; c) deny the authority of the Vedas; d) do not worship the Hindu gods; e) are not served by good Brahmins as family priests; f) have no Brahmin priests at all; g) are denied access to the interior of the Hindu temples; h) are said to cause ‘pollution’ by touch or within a certain distance; i) bury their dead; j) eat beef and have no reverence for the cow.

Ambedkar uses a mathematical metaphor to say that even if one of these criterions is not met, a person cannot be “100 per cent” Hindu. In other words, one can be partly Hindu, but never fully Hindu unless you are a Brahmin. These criteria, of course, were devised for the 1911 census using both shastraic prescriptions and the ways in which caste was practised in day-to-day lives. These leave us with the conclusion that most people who are counted as Hindu are never fully Hindu.

How is one a Hindu?

In the first riddle in Riddles in Hinduism, ‘The Difficulty of Knowing Why One is a Hindu’, Ambedkar looks at the importance of religion in one’s life. But he comes to the conclusion that the idea of being a Hindu does not share the definiteness that belonging to Islam, Christianity or Zoroastrianism gives a person. At best, there is a vague connotation of religion with polytheism as its core value. There can be many gods and but there is no set of core principles that constitute a system of beliefs. There is nothing that anchors or binds people. After all, the word religion comes from the Latin root religare, which means to bind and to be bound by an obligation.

If we consider those who converted to Islam in the Indian subcontinent, they too allowed for certain aspects of the Hindu caste ideology to infiltrate their belief system and even today, such values govern their lives to an extent. The egalitarian values of Indian Muslims would have collapsed if they had not realised that their notion of a universal god is different from the regional Hindu notion of god (that is bound to the subcontinent) and Hindu polytheism and idol worship.

Muslims in India adopted the caste system and created a sometimes unbridgeable caste divide between the supposedly superior category of Ashrafi Muslims (Syed/Sheikh/Mughal/Pathan) and the so-called converts who were classified as Ajlaf and even Kamina or Itar (meaning base). This has led to the contemporary Pasmanda movement, being based on a Persian term that means “those who have fallen behind”, referring to Muslims of Shudra and Ati-Shudra origins.

The Christians, particularly the Catholics, also fell prey to the caste trap under the garb of acculturation. The educational institutions established by them turned out to be centres where the Brahminical classes were trained in English. Caste Hindus converted these Catholic schools into modern gurukulas, keeping Shudras and Ati-shudras out. In turn, Brahminic intellectuals trained in English in Christian educational institutions treated Ambedkar as an intellectual outcaste for decades.

An unusual juxtaposition, a costume sadhu sits by Ambedkar’s portraits

Photo by AP

The Orientalist Christian scholars also treated the Hindu works that Ambedkar critiqued as books sacred to all Indians—inc­luding Dalits, Tribals and Other Backward Classes. Jesuits saw wisdom in the Vedas and Vedanta, whereas Ambedkar, coming from a sramanic tradition, repudiates the Veda and all the texts that are post-facto subjected to the adjectival tyranny of ‘Hindu’. Hinduism, thus, became an elephant—rather a holy cow—with spiritually blind men and women groping around it. Ambedkar, following in the tradition of the Buddha and the Lokayata philosophers, repeatedly dissected this sacred cow.

When it came to saving his government, Nehru, an avowed rationalist, allowed the legislation of Hindu codes—and paved the path for Ambedkar’s resignation.

From Ambedkar’s examination of the riddles in Hinduism, it is clear that the labouring Shudras—as cattle-rearers, tillers of the soil, pot-makers, fisher-folk, weavers, carpenters, barbers and so on—are not discussed in the Hindu texts at all. Untouchables, too, seldom get mentioned, except in terms of injunctions in the post-Vedic texts on how to avoid them such as in the Manusmriti, the Yajnavalkyasmriti and the Dharmashastras.

Not that these social divisions did not exist at the time when these texts were composed. All the broad divisions, based on the chaturvarna system, were in place, and the divisions were based on occupation and livelihood. Ambedkar’s entire effort in Riddles in Hinduism appears to be able to tell the world that the Hindu spiritual texts hardly contain anything spiritual—and to do so at a time the world was besotted with what Indian texts could teach it!

Why is it that most Hindu gods and goddesses bear arms and kill at the slightest provocation to establish dharma, like an army does in an occupied territory? Why does Hinduism espouse such intense intellectual and physical violence? For ans­wers, Ambedkar wanted to examine the moral strength of textual Hinduism: be it Vedic incantations full of magic or latter-day mythological fables, or gods who display an absolute and habitual disregard for morals.

He was never too concerned, unlike Phule or Periyar, with the day-to-day lives of the Brahmins and Banias. Phule characterised them as Bhatjis and Shetjis, whose essential characteristics were that of oppression and exploitation, producing a culture of hatred for labour. Ambedkar was more int­ellectual and philosophical in his approach, and hence described Indian society as “a gradation of castes forming an ascending scale of reverence and a descending scale of contempt—a system which gives no scope for the growth of the sentiments of equality and fraternity so essential for a democratic form of government”. Also, as Ambedkar says in Annihilation of Caste, “the caste system is not merely a division of labour. It is also a division of labourers.”

The sanctity of the caste system became the basis for enormous inequalities not only in India but the world over, ever since casteist Hindus began to settle overseas, whether in the UK, USA, Canada, Australia, South Africa, the Caribbean, or Southeast Asia. Wherever they went, they took caste with them. If the Brahmin-led science establishment in India does manage to land on Mars using foreign technology for this purpose, we can be sure they shall introduce caste there—after all, a replica of India’s Mars Orbiter Mission was personally taken by the Indian Space Research Organisation’s chairman to propitiate Lord Venkateshwara at the Tirupati temple before the launch of the actual spacecraft from Sriharikota in 2013.

While ordinary foreigners come to think of Hinduism as a benign religion of ahimsa and vegetarianism, they know or care little about the violence and untouchability that the so-called sacred books of the Hindus propound. Even the Orientalist and Indological scholars—from William Jones to Sheldon Pollock—were and are more fascinated by Hinduism and its many manifestations than horrified by it. But Ambedkar, even while forced by circumstances to depend on the work of these Orientalist scholars, comes to conclusions that are the very opposite.

The Reformer and the Radical

Even a look at the titles of the chapters included in this annotated selection will reveal that Ambedkar had a deep desire to reform Brahminic Hinduism. One of his key concerns was to expose the brazen contradictions that exist within the texts of Hinduism. In ‘Riddle No.  18: Manu’s Madness or the Brahminic Explanation of the Origin of the Mixed Castes’, he offers painfully elaborate tab­les about the different varna categories into which various smritis fit the progeny of varna-samskara, that is miscegenation or the intermixture of jatis, resulting in a further proliferation of jatis.

Ambedkar may seem unsparing and unrelenting in the Riddles, but his ref­ormist impulse is more evident in public interventions such as the Hindu Code Bill (1951-55), a large-scale exercise in the repair of Hinduism. Opposition to the bill came from Hindus of all hues. The scholar Sharmila Rege, in her analysis of Ambedkar’s writings on Brahminical patriarchy, explains the scenario:

“Intense opposition came from all quarters. For one, the president threatened to stall the Bill’s passage into law. Hindu sadhus laid siege to Parliament. Business houses and landowners warned a withdrawal of support in imminent elections...the Hindu Code Bill posed the imminent threat of women gaining access and control over resources and property, the possibility of removal of the restrictions of caste in marriage and adoption, and the dawn of the right to divorce. All this seemed to intimidate the structural links between caste, kinship and property that form the very core of Brahminical patriarchy.”

Despite having a huge majority in both houses of Parliament, Nehru succumbed to the right wing and scuttled the Bill. Nehru, for all his liberalism and progressiveness that the self-styled left-liberal-secular intelligentsia in India admires and loves him for, succumbed to the pressure of Brahminic Hindus both in his own government and Parliament.

Even the Communist parties and the broader Left were under the spell of the ideology of Brahminic Hinduism. Someone like Dange argued that there was evidence of primitive communism in the Vedas. Others like P.C. Joshi, B.T. Ranadive and E.M.S. Namboodiripad opined that an issue like untouchability was “mundane” compared to the “freedom movement”. Nor did Brahminic patriarchy bother them like it did Ambedkar.

Nehru, though an avowed rationalist, compromised with the Brahminical forces in order to save his government. He sacrificed his impassioned colleague and law minister of four years, choosing instead to please the conservatives, the very same lot that celebrated Gandhi’s assassination at the hands of a Hindu right fanatic. Ambedkar resigned over these developments, setting an exa­mple, showing that he was a statesman and not a selfish power-hungry politician. Writes Rege: “The Hindu Code Bill is seen as a manifesto of women’s liberation, and Ambedkar’s resignation as law minister over the sabotaging of the Hindu Code Bill is viewed as an act unparalleled in history.”

From the 1935 declaration that it was his misfortune to be born a Hindu, to his final battle to reform Hinduism culminating in 1955, it was over 20 years that Ambedkar tried everything in his power to make the Hindus see reason. While at it, Ambedkar drew upon his study and knowledge of Buddhist texts, which offered a counter to the ‘sacred’ Hindu texts totally lacking in morality and ethics.

There’s enough evidence we gather from his other works, and his interventions in the Constituent Assembly debates, that Ambedkar had made a proper study of all Abrahamic religions and their approaches to morality and ethics. For instance, the introduction to Riddles in Hinduism features a lengthy quote from the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament, where he compares Brahmins and Jews and shows how the Brahmins, unlike Jews, never were steadfast to their gods. He writes:

“Indeed the Brahmins have made religion a matter of trade and commerce. Compare with this faithlessness of the Brahmins the fidelity of the Jews to their gods even when their conqueror Nebuchadnezzar forced the Jews to abandon their religion and adopt his religion.”

He examines these texts from a humanist and personal ethical-moral point of view, and counters their irrationalism with cold logic and reasoning. Take, for example, the divine himsa (violence) practised by spiritually authenticated Hindu heroes turned into gods like Rama, Krishna, Indra, Vishnu, Narasimha and others in the name of dharma rakshana—protection of the Hindu dharmic order—against the highly evolved message of compassion and universal brotherhood that Gautama Buddha espouses.

While the Buddha never believed in killing anybody for whatever reason, all that the Hindu gods do is wreak vengeance in a mindless fashion till they reach their final goal, which could be just a piece of property as seen in the Mahabharata. M.S. Golwalkar, the RSS leader, had once said: “Obviously we did not expand into Central Asia and South-East Asia by sermons alone. It is significant that every Hindu god is armed.”

Buddhism, given its propensity to peace and the larger well-being of not only hum­ans but the world we live in, became a beloved universal religion because of its advocacy of the middle path. Unlike the other shramanic religion, Jainism, it does not advocate extreme non-violence as a reaction to Hinduism’s path of extreme violence. Buddhist kings in the past have waged wars and no Buddhist nation has disbanded its armed forces. (We also have the nearly theocratic Buddhist state in Sri Lanka that has unleashed genocidal violence on the minority Tamil people who happen to be Hindu. Discussing this, or even the state-backed violence against Rohingyas in Buddhist-dominated Mya­nmar, however, is beyond the scope and purpose of this essay.)

Texts and Access

Ambedkar’s work assumes renewed significance today since we are witnessing a dangerous revival of text-based Hinduism. The present BJP-led NDA government, like its predecessor in 1999-2004, is reimposing the hegemony of Sanskrit in not just temples but as an academic discipline of study. In Anglo-American universities, proto-Hindutva NRI bodies are promoting Sanskrit chairs. It appears that Hindu gods understand only a near-dead language.

B.R. Ambedkar being sworn in Union law minister in Nehru’s cabinet

Photo Courtesy: Lokvangmay

The same Brahmins who controlled Sanskrit also acquired control over the English language and established their hegemony in courtrooms, government offices and in intellectual and cultural spheres, including the great Indian diaspora. In some ways, the text-based ritual-oriented Sanskritic Hinduism and the more market-oriented English-language-friendly Hinduism have both become cunning cultural tools. This has become rather more clear now than it was during Ambedkar’s time.

Brahmins seem to regard any effort to infuse morality into their religion as a fall into Kali Yuga because there is disregard for varnas and it’s the age of quotas.

The Brahminic forces could also make friendly alliances with the Christians—more so with the Catholics and Jesuits. That is because the Christian social forces gave them the weapon of English to retain their hegemony in the modern world. If the Christians had not educated the Indian Brahminic forces in colleges like St Stephen’s in Delhi, St Xavier’s in Mumbai, St Joseph’s in Bangalore, and the chain of Loyola colleges in the south and Presidency College in Calcutta, there would not have been a good English-educated Brahminical force in India.

This has resulted in a situation where Brahmins, who continue to monopolise Sanskrit—a language that Ambedkar sought to learn but was denied in India—also use market-friendly English for profit. This Janus-faced, janeu-wearing, fork-tongued nationalism speaks both English and Sanskrit at once.

Why should the absence of Dalit Bahujans as priests in Sanskrit-oriented temples be an issue? When we say that the Dalits and OBCs are not Hindu anyway, why should their claim to enter the sanctum of temples and chant mantras in a dead language even be entertained? The logic is simple. As long as these hugely profitable temples exist—some like the rich Tirupati temple are also the biggest tax evaders in the country—managing their affairs and having the right to priesthood must be open to all according to the right to equality ens­hrined in Article 14 of the Constitution. It is as much a civil right as accessing the water in a temple tank, which is what the Mahad satyagraha was all about.

However, in December 2015, a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court of India invoked Article 16(5) to hold that “exclusion of some and inclusion of a particular segment or denomination for appointment as archakas [priests] would not violate Article 14 [right to equality]”. This gives unusual rights to the Brahmins to exclusively be the priests and controllers of Hindu religion in the name of Agama Shastras. A non-Brahmin trained and proficient in priest craft will be ineligible simply because of the caste barrier. This proves that Brahminic Hinduism’s claim to perpetuating inequality—in other words, its inherent lack of spiritual democracy—is now backed by the highest court of the land.

To accept this is no less than accepting the killing of some Dalits every day as a necessary Hindu ritual—the National Crime Records Bureau of 2012 says every week 13 Dalits are killed and every day at least four Dalit women are raped. Or, to accept that a section of ‘untouchables’ has to do sewer work clad in a loincloth while at the other extreme the Brahmin maintains ritual purity. Those who believe in caste and untouchability can never wish for the welfare of all human beings. In fact, to be Brahmin means you can never be the well-wisher of other communities.

It is in this context that Ambedkar’s study of texts, and texts which someone in his station of life ought to not be even hearing, assumes immense significance. After all, in the Ramayana the Shudra Shambuka is murdered by Rama for doing penance and studying the Vedas, for that causes anarchy. The Gautama­dharmasutra lists severe punishments for a Shudra who comes even within hearing distance of a Veda. In George Buhler’s translation:

“4. Now if a Shudra listens intentionally to (a recitation of) the Veda, his ears shall be filled with (molten) tin or lac. 5. If he recites (Vedic texts), his tongue shall be cut out. 6. If he remembers them, his body shall be split in twain. 7. If he assumes a position equal (to that of twice-born men) in sitting, in lying down, in conversation or on the road, he shall undergo (corporal) punishment.”

Today, the Supreme Court more or less upholds this logic.

Absence of Production

Scholars have often described Aryans as cattle-raiders who staged enormous carnages in the name of Vedic sacrifices. At the yagna pit, thousands of cows, buffaloes and on occasion horses and even humans were sacrificed. Though in the stories about Krishna and his brother Balarama, cattle-rearers by caste, we do get some descriptions of pastoral life, the discourse around agriculture has never found significant space in Hindu texts.

Equally, Shiva, a god with patently tribal characteristics, does not figure in an imp­ortant way in the main corpus of Hindu texts, except at a later stage as an act of cooption. Ambedkar speaks of how the Brahmins have changed their gods as and when it suited them, and wonders how they can be so unfaithful to their own gods.

The Brahmins of today have not given up their anathema for production and continue to hold dear the purity-pollution theory. Even today, even when forced by the odd case of penury, they would rather beg than take up agrarian work or any kind of physical labour they deem lowly. A majority of them have not even given up their so-called sacred thread (janeu), nor have they given up intra-caste marriage. They hold on as well to priesthood that demands rote-learning incantations in Sanskrit, a language even the Brahmins seldom understand.

Ambedkar does raise the key issue of food culture. Why did the Brahmins who happily sacrificed cows and feasted everyday on beef, with utter disregard to what this does to the economy, over time turn vegetarian? If everyday consumption of beef was one extreme, the total giving up of all meat is another. Both are unnatural. And we live in an age when a Shudra-origin chief minister cited Newton’s third law of motion, that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, to justify one of the worst anti-Muslim pogroms in post-independence India, and got to become prime minister. He is vegetarian.

Ambedkar’s critique of Hinduism also brings out one historical fact that matters more than any other—that the Hindu textual heritage shows a complete estrangement from the productive culture of the working castes of India. From the Rigveda to Bhagavad Gita, all the texts deal with war, Brahmin-Kshatriya and man-woman relations, their political, personal and social morality.

All other spiritual texts of the world engage with the production processes the people were involved with in the ancient or medieval period. One example should suffice: the Book of Genesis in the Bible  speaks of Abel as a keeper of sheep, and Cain as a tiller of the ground.

While critiquing the Hindu texts, however, Ambedkar somehow gave the impression that they spoke for his community too. They did not. It is this flaw in Ambedkar that makes him believe that he is born a Hindu and has to cease to be one at some point. It is this chink that the Sangh parivar wants to exploit—and do a ghar-wapasi for him—despite the fact that anyone reading Ambedkar will know that he has no regard whatsoever for Hinduism in any form.

Kali Yuga, the Best Time

Such is the abiding love Brahminic Hindus have for the hollow texts of the past—Ambedkar coldly calls the Vedas a “worthless set of books”—that they regard any effort to infuse morality into their religion as a fall into the Kali Yuga. The present may well be the best of times to live in India, for all the citizens now have their rights secured in an enlightened Constitution and are not held hostage to some book that carries hymns of hate.

In fact, even for the Brahmins, Ksha­triyas, and Vaishyas—and for women across castes—it is the present that is the best time. But led by the Brahmins, a majority of the Hindus believe that we live in Kali Yuga and this is an era of moral turpitude. Why? Because there is disregard for varnadharma—the Shudras and ‘untouchables’ have wrested some power—chaos reigns, and this will lead to complete destruction. Kali Yuga, then, according to the present Brahminic understanding, is a Shudra-Chandala yuga. For them, it is a yuga of reservation, where Dalit Bahujans can aspire to anything they want—including staking claims to priesthood.

The fear of Islamisation haunts Hindu institutions even today. They haven’t rea­lised that their ancient texts and modern practices could not save the regions that are modern-day Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh from shifting their religious allegiance from Brahminism to Buddhism and then to Islam. The Hindu Brahminical forces could succeed in all their wars against the native producer masses but once the ‘one book, one god’ appeal of Islam came into the land, Hinduism lost what little spiritual power it had. Their mantras could not stall the exodus in several parts of the Indian subcontinent. Ambedkar nowhere talks about this historical shift towards Islam, especially the Sufi strain towards which a lot of Dalit bahujans in the cow-belt gravitated. This was the most major dev­elopment in the religious sphere after Buddhism that impacted even Southeast Asia, which too saw a shift towards Islam from an earlier Sanskritic-Hindu base.

(Excerpted from the introduction to B.R. Ambedkar’s Riddles in Hinduism: The Annotated Critical Selection, published by Navayana.)

Kancha Ilaiah Dalit scholar Kancha Ilaiah is the author of Why I’m Not a Hindu

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