Thursday, 22 March 2007

Politics and Ambedkar Buddhism in Maharashtra

Timothy Fitzgerald paints a grand portrait of a blistering man, Dr B.R Ambedkar, the founder of the single largest Buddhist group in India, numbering roughly 4 million, most of whom are untouchables from Ambedkar's caste, the Mahar. Ambedkar himself was a remarkable polymath (PhD, barrister, politician, etc.). His public conversion to Buddhism at Deeksha Bhumi in Nagpur, and the subsequent conversion of most Mahars and some non-Mahars, can only be understood in the context of Ambedkar's lifelong struggle to achieve social and political emancipation for the depressed classes in general and the untouchables or scheduled castes in particular. His ideology, including his later interpretation of Buddhism, is an important one in its own rights in the modern social and political history of India, and the Buddhist element is not properly comprehensible outside the context of his political struggle. (79)

His early work exposed the nastiness of the caste system, and its tragic effects. In his aetiology, endogamy, which began among Brahmans, became in a sense mechanically' replicated among the remaining people who stood outside the Brahman strata, so that the system once started has had a kind of unbreakable propensity to self-replication. Thus, untouchable castes themselves replicate a hierarchical ranking order and in this way contribute to the continuation of the very system which exploits them. (84) Jesus Christ came to set us free, and only he can make us free indeed: the horrors of false politico-religious systems such as Hinduism throw our need into our faces. May we all recognise this and turn to worship Christ, who will set us free.

Sadly Ambedekar, who died in 1956, did not take this way. His opposition to Hinduism took many forms and involved him in many alliances, but he ended up a Buddhist. It is ironic that by renouncing Hinduism and converting to Buddhism, the members of the schedules castes who converted [with him] lost their rights to reservations (92). A further irony is that some of his followers now openly worship him (94), of which he himself would have strongly disapproved. He in fact always emphasised the social transformation [politics+religion!] aspect of Buddhism rather than the personal enlightenment aspect.

Ambedekar opposed Gandhi, who comes across in Fitzgerald's account as considerably less heroic than in popular myth. Pages 87-88 summarise his radical objections to Hindu ideology, the caste system and his shredding of Gandhi's arguments (89) in favour of that system minus untouchability. Ambedekar's passion and energy are well brought out in this account of a very political Buddhism.

Finally, the struggle to integrate doctrine and practice is honestly explored in a brief page on present-day experiences of untouchable Buddhists (98). Their struggles in a very restrictive and sometimes hostile environment against the higher castes and against each other have really moved me to prayer.