TO BABA SAHIB DR. AMBEDKAR’S
(Khushi Ram, Vancouver)
PROLOGUE: Will murderous attack on Vienna Ravidas Gurdwara bring about any change? NO! They will continue as Ravidasia Sikhs/Adi-Dhrarmi Hindus. Most Ravidasi Gurdwaras will disown sant Rama Nand and follow Sikh Maryada in full. Even Ravidasi Sants will change their system and become real Sikh preachers. Following article written long back is more relevant today. Baba Sahib’s path is the quickest, the safest and completely metamorphosing personally and collectively. Just read, think and act.
1. Although, it is a historical fact that Baba Sahib Dr. Ambedkar is the real saviour of the untouchables, yet some persons, who otherwise accept him as a great leader, oppose his movement for conversion to Buddhism. A balanced attempt is made here to deal with this issue.
Caste System and untouchability have been prevalent in India since Vedic times. All the books of ancient India refer to caste system laudably and to denigration of the non-Aryans whether Shudras or Ati-Shudras. Inequality is deeply entrenched in Hindu society both at ideological and institutional levels. Whereas the upper three castes (Brahmins, Kashatryas and Vaishyas) shared (however unevenly) the three main sources of prestige viz. knowledge, power and property, the Shudras and the non-caste people were denied all of them. In modern time there are actually two main castes viz. the upper caste touchables and the lower caste untouchables, like the Whites and the non-Whites of the U.S.A. All through history there have been plenty of pro-caste system books and no anti-caste book except for the teachings of Lord Buddha. It was for Dr. Ambedkar to start a real onslaught on caste system.
2. Dr. Ambedkar had a very difficult task of awakening and organizing the backward communities who had been suffering for thousands of years due to caste system because they had accepted their poor status as an article of their Hinduistic religious faith, their exploitation being sanctified by tradition and enforced by the ruling castes. The untouchable castes were much more seriously divided amongst themselves than any upper caste. DR. Ambedkar tried to convince the Hindu leaders that caste system had proved ruinous to India but it had no big effect. To awaken his people he published various newspapers from time to time and started some agitations. Ultimately he came to the conclusion that belief in Hinduism is the real cause of the backwardness and exploitation of the untouchables. His classical analysis of the situation is contained in his book, “ANNIHILATION OF CASTE”. Finally toward the end of his life when he had completed his book, “THE BUDDHA AND HIS DHAMMA”; he embraced Buddhism and exhorted his people to follow his lead.
3. Let us first consider why Dr. Ambedkar turned to Buddhism? Why he made conversion to Buddhism as his final mission so far as the Untouchable are concerned?
(a) Having personally suffered under the caste system of the Hindus, Baba Sahib had made annihilation of caste and up lift of the oppressed castes as the chief mission of his life. He saw that religion is the main source of an average man’s Philosophy of life and held that Hinduism is a bad philosophy of life for the poor masses which resulted in their willingly agreeing to their being exploited by the higher castes. The Untouchables were the worst and yet willing sufferers under the caste system of the Hindus all through history. He had also seen the sad demise of the various Hindu reform movements (Arya Samaj, Brahmo Samaj and Prarthna Samaj etc) and of Shudras reformers (Ravidasi and Kabir Panthi sects and Ramnami movement of Ghasi Ram Chamar of Madhya Pradesh, Jatava agitation of U.P, Ad-Dharmi movement of Punjab etc.) and even of the movements of R.Swami Naikar and Joyti Rao Phule who criticised Hinduism vehemently but gave no alternative religion to their followers. Their followers remained in the Hindu fold and hence Shudras with all their handicaps. In fact all these movements strengthened the caste consciousness of the Hindus, both the high and the low. The idea of Adi-Dharam or Ravidasi religion being revived/recognized by government is futile whereas Buddhism is already recognized as a religion nationally as well as internationally. As masses can not live without a religion, good or bad, Dr. Ambedkar chose Buddhism as an alternative religion for the depressed communities for very good reasons.
(b) Moreover, Dr. Ambedkar had seen the antagonism going on between Mahars, Chamars and Mangs, (the three main communities) of his state of Maharashtra and the lack of unity between Malas and Madigas of Andhra Pradesh, rivalry between Dusadhs and Chamars of Bihar, enmity between Chamars, Ramdasias and the Balmikis, of Punjab (more examples can be added from other parts of India) which led to their exploitation even politically. Today the higher castes are more united, politically and socially, than ex-Untouchable castes themselves. The high caste Hindus/Sikhs take full advantage of the disunity amongst the Untouchables due to creation of Jati (community) based organizations. For example in spite of being 32% of the population of the Punjab, the Schedule Castes have no political or social clout in that State and continue to be exploited and put down.
(c) According to Baba Sahib, Buddhism is a religion that can unite the Untouchables on all India basis, culturally and religiously, replacing regional cults as now followed by various lower castes and can give them an honourable identity, leading to political unity. Any member of the lower castes who wants to go up or has gone up, generally tries to conceal his caste, because it is a humiliating phenomenon, (except for those who want easy but cheap leadership amongst their own ignorant caste people only on castist emotions) Even the word “Dalit” has become derogatory, just as the words Mehtar, Mahasha, Ad-dharmi, Adi-Dravida, Ramdasia, Jatav and Mazahabi had become polluted in the past. Changing nomenclature of caste is like quack medicine, it is charlatanism, it is child-like make-believe pretension. By calling themselves Buddhists, the ex-Untouchables of India can have an INDEPENDENT HONOURABLE AND INTERNATIONALLY RECOGNIZED IDENTITY at par with that of Muslims, Christians, and Sikhs and also reduce the numerical strength of the Hindus/Sikhs in Indian/Punjab politics.
(d) In his book “The Untouchables - Who Were They and Why They Became Untouchable?” Baba Sahib has argued that today’s Untouchables are ex-Buddhists. They were segregated and suppressed through the mechanism of caste system because they refused to give up Buddhism. For the oppressed Buddhist, entry to high caste being tightly barred, they could enter only the Shudra communities which they did. It was only through cultural influence of the ruling high castes that they adopted many customs and rituals of the Hindus over the centuries. Buddhism continued its concealed existence under the cult of the Siddhas who were lapsed Buddhists. Neither Namdev nor Kabir belong to the Hindus and nor Ravi Das fits with Khalsa ideology; they all have roots in Buddhism. Look at their key concepts: “Sahaj Marg” of Kabir and Ravidas is the same as “Madhyam Marg” of Buddha; Satsang is an adaptation of Buddhist Sangha; “Khalaas”concept (Kauh Kabir jan bhae khalaaseh, kahe Ravidas khalaas chamara) is derived from Nirvana of Buddha. They all ridiculed the rituals and rites of Hinduism and stressed the need for Dhyana instead of chanting Mantras. That all the three above mentioned Gurus felt oppressed by caste system is clear from their own writings. However they only protested against discrimination and could not go beyond that due to their limitations. It is a tragedy that followers of these gifted reformers have given up their real teachings and are fortifying their own castes and trying to be more Hindu/Sikh than the Hindus/Sikhs themselves.
(e) Dr. Ambedkar wanted a religion for his people over which they could have their own control. He did not want them to be like victims of Arab imperialism always looking to Mecca or hand-maid of Western Christian Missionaries under Rome or under the hegemony of Akal Takhat of Amritsar. These hide bound religions are vested interest in the backwardness of Dalits. Buddhism is fully capable of shattering Brahminical hold on the minds of the masses and caste system. Buddhists have a historically honoured culture and heritage of their own of which they are proud. Just think of the ancient universities of Nalanda and Taxila, of Bodh Gaya and Sarnath, of Sanchi and Ajanta Caves. Buddhism can easily give a very honourable place to such reformer as Adi Guru Namdev, Satguru Kabir and Bhagwan Ravi Dass as they are in reality upholders of Buddha’s fight against superstitions, ritualism and social discrimination.
(f) The Dalit community is under complete political domination of the Hindus/Sikhs/Muslims/Christians (as per dominance of any community in any region). Religion which motivates us most of all emotions, has not only to be carrier of sacred tradition but also of political activism. The main line religions having already become vested interest in backwardness of the Dalits, are incapable of leading the Dalit liberation movement. Baba Sahib being well versed in the history of all religions, was aware of the role of Buddhism in revolutionizing the thinking of poor masses. Buddhism has a humanistic approach to all the problems of human society and has a long history of struggle against caste system and religious superstitions. While giving a lecture in a series, “My Personal Philosophy” in a broadcast on A.I.R in October 1954 Baba Sahib said, “ Every man should have a philosophy of life, for every one must have a standard by which to measure. Negatively I reject the Hindu social philosophy. Positively, my social philosophy may be said to be enshrined in three words: liberty, equality and fraternity. My philosophy has roots in religion and not in political science. I have derived them from the teaching of my Master, the Buddha.”
(4) People are ultimately moved by ideology. Hinduism is an ideology and caste system is its big project of mutual relationship – social, economic, political, spiritual and cultural. The Shudras in particular have been victims of this unequal relationship and can not come out of this relationship till they come out of caste system for which they have to come out of Hinduism as Hinduism and caste system are co-terminus. On the other side is the ideology of Buddhism – and ideology of individual freedom, personal dignity, and equitable social and cultural relationship with political and economic institution depending on relations of production. The ideology of the Saints of medieval India represented by the concept of “Begum Pura”(city of fearlessness) of Guru Ravi Das is closely related to Buddhist ideology. By tying yourself to the band –wagon of religion controlled by higher castes, you shout slogans of their supremacy forgetting Guru Ravi Das’s concept of “Begum Pura”. Can this emancipatory concept of Begum Pura be realized without creating an independent culture of self- confidence and self-dependence? All literature relating to your problems and laying down their solution is coming out of the Ambedkarite Buddhist awakening mistakenly called Dalit Chetna. You can now have your own literature and poetry, your own music, your own rituals, your own heroes, own pilgrim centres and your own slogans. Baba Sahib discovered all this for you and now it is for you to grasp it and rise to great height. Just as slaves and feudal serfs could not get rid of slavery and serfdom within old order, the Shudras can not get rid of their wretched situation without getting rid off Hinduism which fixed for them the worst lifestyle and allowed them no life-chances.
(5) Having shown that conversion to Buddhism is the best course open to the ex-Untouchables for their amelioration, let us now consider the double mindedness of the leaders of these people on this issue.
(i) The most dominant social phenomenon of Indian scene today is the mass conversion of ex-Untouchables to Buddhism. The Hindus / Sikhs are trying to discourage this movement. Why? This is because Buddhists refuse to accept the supremacy of the Hindus/Sikhs and are developing their own honourable identity outside other’s influence. By opposing this movement you are strengthening your own enemies. Buddhist movement is the vehicle of all round progress of ex-untouchables as proud citizens of India and not under the hegemony of anybody else. Why not join this self respect movement and have a dignified identity? Just dissociate Ravi Das/ Kabir/Nam Dev from the Hindu/Sikh system of thought and link them to the Buddhist movement to which they originally belonged.
(ii) Those who do not want to leave the Hindu/ Sikh fold and yet want to fight for equal status are fighting a losing battle because they are fighting against their enemies on the latter’s terms which are harmful to the former. Your agitation for equal status in the society is very disturbing to higher castes. By helping you to set up your own Gurudawaras/Temples, the Hindus/Sikhs have cleverly got rid of your presence in their own religious places. Where is your agitation for temple entry and your struggle against offences relating to untouchability? By setting up caste-based religious places of your own, are you not collaborating in maintaining and strengthening caste system which has all along humiliated you? Only Buddhism creates a fort for you in your own possession from which you can fight on equal terms. Do you doubt the wisdom of Baba Sahib?
(iii) You now suffer from “Broken Consciousness” and broken identity. You want to be Hindu/Sikh but these communities do not accept you as equal partners in their system. Even you yourself are not able to give up your own Chamar and Mahar identity even in a foreign country where there is no need for old identities. The difficulty is that there is no such thing as a Hindu or Sikh without some caste affiliation. By going over to Buddhism you can break this vicious circle. Buddhism gives you a complete and dignified identity with its own ancient heritage and current prestige in the whole world. This will also take you off the battle for temple entry or equality in the affairs of the Gurdawara or bogus fight over the Bhagat / Guru status for Kabir and Ravi Das., because you take them out of their system.
(iv) Do we continue to do something because our forefathers have been doing it so far (in spite of better course now available)? Do we go to somebody for advice/help (a doctor /lawyer/teacher) simply because he is our relative even if more competent person is available? Should we shut our door on Ambedkar simply because his ideas disturb our routine thinking? Only ignorant or coward or an irrational person will say “Yes” to the above questions. Wise person who knows his interest will say “No”. Baba Sahib has shown a better course than previously known to us and most suited to the modern time. Let us adopt it for the sake of our children.
(v) It is seen that the Chamars of Punjab copied the Hindus more than other castes. They have their own priestly class (mahants) and barbers on the model of high castes and have Chuhras lower to them in caste hierarchy to feel superior. Being economically better off than all other lower castes, they benefited most from the educational facilities provided by the government and almost monopolised reservation in legislature and administration. They
now want to be proud of their caste (cf. Putt Chamaran De modelled on the slogan Putt Jattan De) However they protest when others call them Chamar. Did not Guru Ravi Das lament his birth as a Chamar? (meri jaat kamini, meri paat kamini----- jaati hochha pati hochha, hochha janam hamara---- meri sangat poch soch din rate, mera karm kutilta janam kubhati---) He struggled hard to be accepted as equal to high caste at least in the worship of God but did not succeed, and hated to be a low caste man. What is there to be proud of as a Chamar? By declaring yourself as a Chamar you can not rent a house in a good locality!!!. In the past low caste people had no option but to live as low caste people. Now Dr. Ambedkar has shown the way to be equal to others in all respect. Why not walk on that path?
(vi) Some backward looking devotees of Guru Ravi Das often accuse the followers of Dr. Ambedkar to have forsaken the Guru. This is a false accusation and in fact it is the former who have betrayed the mission of the Guru by becoming the camp followers of either Rama/Krishna or the Sikhs Gurus who over shadow Guru Ravi Das in the Chamar temples/Gurdwaras. How are the Hindu Devi Devtas or the Sikh Gurus related by blood to the Dalits? At least Dr. Ambedkar was born as an un-touchable. It is only through the Ambedkar movement that the mission of Guru Ravi Das can be realised. By following Ambedkar/Buddha, the Dalits are spear heading the enlightenment movement of modern India in the same way as the Protestant/Renaissance movements led the making of modern Europe. Ambedkar is the forward looking prophet of modern India while others are looking to the past for their inspiration. Let us help Ambedkar to give modern outlook to Indian people as the backward communities stand to gain the most in this process.
(6) No religion is free from defects, both of philosophy and practice. You may not agree with some “Truths” of Buddhist history/philosophy. Religion is not wholly a matter of truth or falsehood. It is a matter of usefulness or harmfulness to society. Hinduism has definitely a harmful mechanism of exploitation for the backward communities. You can not gain dignity as long as you are in the Hindu/Sikh fold, as they can not give up caste system. The best alternate is Buddhism.
(7) Dr. Ambedkar was born as a Mahar and as a Hindu but died neither as a Mahar nor as a Hindu. After great deliberation and struggle, he intentionally gave up both these identities and became a Buddhist. He even disbanded his communal based Schedule Castes Federation and set up secular Republican Party of India. He wanted his followers who were divided on caste lines to come under the banner of Buddhism on all-India basis as other communities like Sikhs and Muslims. By going over to Buddhism one becomes an autonomous human being. If you are not capable of coming out of your Chamarism and Maharism, please leave Baba Sahib alone; do not drag him back to the humiliating status of a 4th grade Hindu. You see how the Bhangi Jati, by calling themselves Balmiki have not raised their status to that of Maharishi Balmik of Ramayana but reduced him to the status of poor Bhangi (sweeper). Let that not happen to Baba Sahib. You have to leave your Chamarism / Maharism behind and improve your status as a Buddhist as Baba Sahib did. Your fore-fathers tried to have good identity by changing the name of their caste but failed because they did not come out of the Hindu fold, and high caste Hindus / Sikhs refused to give higher status to the new caste. The interest of any lower caste lies not simply in rising up in the hierarchical caste system but in annihilating the system as a whole as advocated by Dr. Ambedkar.You have to give up your caste links and join India-wide SELF RESPECT MOVEMENT of Buddhists. Buddhism de-links you from the Hindu caste system and gives you not only ALL INDIA RESPECTABLE IDENTITY but links to the worldwide Buddhist society.
(8) Do not be afraid if you can not become a full fledged Buddhist. Don’t you find turban-less Sikhs or beef eating Hindus or Muslims acting and looking like Europeans? Still they are proud of Sikh/Hindu/Muslim identity. Just start calling yourself Buddhist and enter your religion as Buddhism in relevant records. By doing this you will strengthen the hands of your well wishers and reduce the strength of your enemies. You will also be giving a NEW HONORABLE IDENTITY to your children who can strengthen it more and more in course of time.