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Ambedkar’s Ideal Of Maitri

Babasaheb’s universalist vision of the community based on maitri enriches the political imagination everywhere

Remembering a Visionary: Followers pay tribute to Ambedkar at Chaitanyabhoomi on his death anniversary
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During a stay at Shravasti, the Buddha asked the bhikkus, “Suppose a man is preparing to dig the earth. Does the earth resent him?”

“No,” the bhikkus replied.

“Suppose a man wishes to paint pictures in the air using lac and colour. Will he be able to do it?”

“No, he can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because the air has no dark patches.”

“Your minds also shouldn’t have dark patches. They reflect evil passions. Suppose a man tries to set the Ganges on fire with a strip of burning fern. Will he succeed?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Because the water in the Ganges is not inflammable.”

“Just as the earth is not resentful, just as the air does not lend itself to any action against it, just as the River Ganges keeps flowing without letting the fire disturb it, bhikkus like yourselves must bear the insults and injustices done to you without letting them affect your maitri towards the offenders. It is your sacred obligation to keep your mind as firm as the earth, as clean as the air and as deep as the Ganges. No action will then be able to disturb your maitri. Those who hurt you will then soon become tired. Let your maitri be boundless and your thought vast and beyond feeling any hatred. According to my dhamma, practising karuna is not enough. It is essential to practise maitri alongside.”

***

In the Buddha’s advice to the monks, maitri ought to become intrinsic to human nature. Its presence in them should stay constant, like the unchanging substance of wind, earth and water. Whatever their opponents might do to them, the maitri residing inside them should stay firm, unaffected. Cultivating a solidity for the maitri in the self was nothing less than a sacred obligation—their dhamma required this of them. Kindness and compassion by themselves prove morally inadequate when unaccompanied by the sentiments of maitri. In this understanding, maitri appears a preserving and nurturing force for individuals as well as for a community. It protects them from giving in to hatred, vengeance and any other destructive sentiments and nourishes life-sustaining instincts in them. The Buddha’s discussion also gives enormous agency to the dominated and the powerless to direct their self-transformation in the direction of maitri.

The Buddha episode from Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar’s last book, The Buddha and his Dhamma (1957), which I re-narrated at the start, shifts the meanings of maitri—as friendship and friendliness in Sanskrit and as loving-kindness in Buddhist thought—in new directions. Earlier on in this book, Ambedkar describes maitri as “fellow feeling to all beings, not only to one who is a friend, but also to one who is a foe; not only to man, but to all living beings.” Could anything other than maitri, he asks, “give to all living beings the same happiness which one seeks for one’s own self, to keep the mind impartial, open to all, with affection for everyone and hatred for none?” In asking that fellow-feeling, happiness and affection be offered impartially to all human and non-human life, and not allowing space for regarding the other as a foe or for hating the other, Ambedkar’s ideal of maitri renewed the imagination of community as well as of social struggle.

In his later writings, Ambedkar clarified that he had used the term ‘fraternity’ earlier to mean maitri. In his posthumously published Riddles of Hinduism, he observed that equality and liberty were not sustained by law, but by ‘fellow-feeling’, and added that the proper word for this latter phrase was not what the French revolutionaries termed, ‘fraternity’ but ‘what the Buddha called maitri’. Without maitri as the foundation, he continued, the pursuit of liberty undermined equality and vice versa.

The value triad, liberty, equality and fraternity, is indelibly tied of course with the French Revolution. Although the revolutionaries saw fraternity as a founding secular ideal of the new Republic which symbolised the end of closed social arrangements, the term ‘fraternity’ was ambiguous enough to be defined variously in France later, from a civic ideal that restrained individualism to a religious one that enabled the proper exercise of liberty and equality.

Ambedkar too imagined fraternity differently, in relation to Indian society. In his famous undelivered speech, Annihilation of Caste (1937), he described fraternity as ‘another name for democracy’.  Besides a form of government, he continued, a democracy also meant a community life where individuals and associations freely pursued their interests and associated with whomever they wished: “It is essentially an attitude of respect and reverence towards one’s fellow men.”

Religion, Ambedkar continued, offered a moral foundation for fraternity. But Hinduism, which he viewed as a ‘Religion of Rules’, i.e., a ritual bound religion with which the believers had a mechanical relationship, could not offer it. Instead, a Religion of Principles, i.e., a religion in ‘the sense of spiritual principles, truly universal, applicable to all races, to all countries’, was needed.

In the Annihilation of Caste, where he still saw scope for a reform of Hinduism and the caste order, Ambedkar wrote that the Upanishads might be able to provide Hinduism ‘a new doctrinal basis’ that was ‘in consonance with Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’. Many years later, he acknowledged in Riddles of Hinduism that the philosophy of the oneness of reality found in a few of the Upanishads had ‘greater potentialities for producing social democracy than the idea of fraternity’, but this philosophy, which he termed ‘Brahmaism’, had no ‘social effects’ and let caste and gender inequalities as well as untouchability remain.

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In making maitri the foundational ideal for his vision of a democratic community, Ambedkar had reached out to another inheritance of Indian civilisation—Buddhism. He found in maitri a satisfying moral vision for the work of transforming Indian society. Departing from a human-centred idea of community, maitri gestures to the sentient world at large and fosters an expansive political consciousness where nation, religion, race, caste, gender and language, among other sources of social identity, do not come in the way of experiencing community life freely and vastly. The male-centred image of brotherhood implied by fraternity also makes way for a wider sense of solidarity encompassing human as well as non-human life.

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Ambedkar’s brief address made on All India Radio on 2 October, 1954 clarifies several key details:

“Positively, my social philosophy may be said to be enshrined in three words: liberty, equality and fraternity. Let no one, however, say that I have borrowed my philosophy from the French Revolution. I have not. My philosophy has roots in religion and not in political science. I have derived them from the teachings of my master, the Buddha…Law is secular, which anybody may break, while fraternity or religion is sacred, which everybody must respect.”

Only the prior presence of a fraternity, or maitri, where togetherness with all living beings formed the basis of community life, ensured the free and egalitarian functioning of social institutions. People might freely violate secular law, but will hold back from violating a sacred phenomenon like maitri. Only a community founded on a theological vision, not secular reason, could attain a democracy. And Buddhism offered that sacred foundation.

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The word ‘fraternity’ in the Preamble to the Indian Constitution is running up against a truly rich moral horizon. How might the ideal of maitri, which abjures hatred as well as the idea of a foe, inspire new political creativity in the present? The transformation of the caste order in India was indeed uppermost among Ambedkar’s reformist concerns. His universalist vision of the community however enriches the political imagination everywhere. 

This essay will appear in Chandan Gowda’s Another India (Simon & Schuster India) due for release next month.

Chandan Gowda is ramakrishna hegde chair professor, institute for social and economic development, Bengaluru

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