There was a time, when politics was a vocation that drew the brightest and most idealistic in society, charged with the dream to serve the larger good. Sadly, those days are long gone. Successive generations have also begun to take, understandably but regrettably, a very dim view of religion. There are innumerable instances of religious gurus and priests being exposed for morally bankrupt behaviour. The misuse of religion for narrow political gain — across the political spectrum — has made the waters even murkier.
In an age where both politics and religion have suffered such an enormous decline, Babasaheb Ambedkar offers us an example to learn from. For Ambedkar, the challenge of social revolution was inextricably bound to the art of inner transformation.
Ambedkar’s spirituality did not allow for a crude separation of the personal and the political. Ambedkar’s insistence on a spiritualisation of human life constitutes the truly notable radicalism of his political struggle. This is his most significant contribution but also his most forgotten legacy. Learning from Ambedkar can inject both our politics and religious traditions with a more wholesome dynamic and contemporary relevance and respect.
Meaningful politics in an unjust society comprises endeavours to alter the balance of power in favour of the deprived and oppressed. How radical such an attempt is, turns on how comprehensive, how universal and how enduring is the vision of transformation. Do we get to experience freedom at the deepest level? Or do we continue to remain caught in the endless cycle of desire, fulfilment and lack — that becomes an eternal source of bondage and unfreedom, even more overpowering than any external servitude?
It is this striving that drew Ambedkar to various religious traditions and finally, to Buddhism. This was not for him an end-of-life realisation, as some believe.
As early as 1936, in his classic work Annihilation of Caste, in a passage generally ignored, Ambedkar said: “I believe true religion is the foundation of society, the basis on which all true civil government rests, and both their sanction.” He reiterated this view 20 years later: “For the religious system although today is unrelated to the secular system, yet is the foundation on which everything secular rests since the secular system cannot last very long unless it has got the sanction of the religion however remote it may be.”
Lest there be any misunderstanding, lets be clear that Ambedkar is not making a case for a theocratic state. His emphasis is on the fostering of values that would engender a humane society, based on loving kindness, an impeccable Buddhist virtue. The question he asked himself was: What would foster such a society, imbued with these values? And his clear answer was that this requires a process of inner transformation, without which all activism and all social engineering would, sooner or later, hit a dead end.
He was drawn to the religious traditions because the change they seek is more fundamental than those limited to transforming specific structures of power, whether based on gender, class, caste, race, region or community. This is what makes his spirituality so powerfully radical in political terms. Ambedkar’s was a ceaseless struggle to arrive at a praxis that would enable liberation from the world of sorrow, not only for the Dalits, but for all beings on Earth.
For Ambedkar, the main hindrance to human liberation is what he calls the delusion of self: “There are two forces prevalent in Society: Individualism and Fraternity.
Fraternity is a force of opposite character. It consists in a sentiment which leads an individual to identify himself with the good of others whereby the good of others becomes to him a thing naturally and necessarily to be attended to, like any of the physical conditions of our existence.”
But for Ambedkar it was of the greatest significance how this fraternity was to be built, and he rejected both Gandhi and Marx in this respect. He wrote: “One has to choose between government by force and government by moral disposition.
The Buddha’s way was 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 people so that they would do voluntarily what they would not otherwise want to do.” Thus, without an inner transformation of the individual, social revolutions remain incomplete and unsustainable.
Force and compulsion, even if moral (as with Gandhi), do not carry change for very long. Our morality must be based on an understanding of the nature of reality, the science of life, which is what we discover in religious traditions, when we study them with requisite seriousness.
It may be best to view Ambedkar’s legacy within a pantheon of activists who brought reconstructed spiritual resources to address the key challenges of their own time and context. These include Gustavo Gutierrez and Paulo Freire and their theology of liberation in Latin America.
And Martin Luther King, who argued that “power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anaemic”. This understanding of power helps King positively formulate the unbreakable bond between love, power and justice. He said: “Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love”. This is quintessential Ambedkar!
As is the work of anti-Vietnam war Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh and African-American Christian Buddhist feminist, Bell Hooks. Most of all, we cannot but concur with D R Nagaraj’s attempt to show a deeper unity via spirituality in the politics of Ambedkar and Gandhi, way beyond their immediate differences.
I do not agree with Ambedkar’s rejection of all spiritual traditions other than Buddhism. My own inclination is like that of Raimon Panikkar, a great proponent of “intra-religious dialogue”, who once said, “I left Europe [for India] as a Christian, I discovered I was a Hindu and returned as a Buddhist, without ever having ceased to be Christian.”
The degeneration of religions has very much to do with the unholy alliance that has emerged historically between institutionalised religion and the structures of power in society. This is truly ironic because the founders of religious traditions were all social revolutionaries. And this has badly obscured the invaluable deeper truth embodied in these traditions.
The dominant values of our time include Ayn Rand’s “virtue of selfishness”, imposition of sameness in both McDonaldised global capitalism and totalitarian states, intensifying hatred for excluded minorities and the strident assertiveness of certainty of knowledge and dominion over nature, which spans both the Left and the Right. The consequences of these are vividly before us — the continual crises afflicting global capitalism, growing inequality and violence within society, as also a planet in serious danger of destruction, underscored most recently by Covid-19.
Working for the annihilation of caste, Ambedkar would have wanted us to affirm the oneness of all existence, in recognition of our interconnectedness, way beyond the separate self. Only on that basis can we live a life animated by the Buddha’s exhortation often cited by Ambedkar: “Just as the earth does not feel hurt and does not resent, so also you Bhikkus must continue to bear Maitri towards your offenders . . . Let the ambit of your Maitri be as boundless as the world”.
And develop necessary upekkha(detachment) without which it would become impossible to have either the stamina to sustain the struggle for change or the wisdom to bring it to a creative fruition.