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Ambedkar, Buddhism and Democracy

An excerpt from Dr. Ambedkar and Democracy about Ambedkar's analysis of the affinities of Buddhism with democracy that led to his conversion.

Dr B. R. Ambedkar, chairperson of the drafting committee of the Indian constitution after presenting the constitution to the first president Dr Rajendra Prasad. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

At times, it seems that Ambedkar looked at democracy as a western creation that he had learnt from outside and imported. Certainly, he has read most of the European and American political philosophers of democracy and drew most of his inspiration from outside for drafting the Indian Constitution. His intellectual affinities with the Western developed during his stays in the United States and in England. A good part of his ideas ensued from them. He also waited from the westerners an actual support. In 1931, his “Appeal on behalf of the Depressed Classes Institute”, by which he tried to collect 40,000 pounds sterling, asked “the Europeans and the Americans” to help a “deprived humanity” — a part of the human race (Dr. Ambedkar often resorted in his Marathi writings to the word manuski in English translated as  “humanness”). However, he found variants of humanism in the Indian civilization, through Buddhism.

Dr. Ambedkar was a religious person in some ways. He considered that “Religion is absolutely essential for the development of mankind” and diverged from the Marxists’ atheism in that respect. But his vision of religion was overdetermined by social considerations. He rejected Hinduism because he thought that the caste system was co-substantial to this religion, whereas equality was inherent in Buddhism:

Edited by Christophe Jaffrelot and Narender
Dr Ambedkar and Democracy
Oxford University Press, 2017

By remaining in the Hindu religion nobody can prosper in any way. Because of the stratification in Hindu religion, it is fact that higher varnas and castes are benefitted. But what about the others? The moment Brahmin woman delivers a child, her eyes are focussed towards a post of High Court Judge where it is lying vacant. On the contrary, when our sweeper ‘woman delivers a child, her eyes are focussed on a post of sweeper where it is lying vacant. The Varna-System of Hindu religion is responsible for such a strange social structure. What improvement can take place from this? Prosperity can be achieved only in the Buddhist religion.

In the Buddhist religion 75% Bhikkhus were Brahmins. 25% were the Shudras and others. But the Lord Buddha said, « O Bhikkhus, you have come from different countries and castes ». Rivers flow separately when they flow in their provinces, but they lose their identity when they meet the sea. They become one and the same. The Buddhist Sangh is like an ocean. In this Sangh all are equal.

This reading of Buddhism does not only have social implications – it also has political implications. Considering that the “religion of the Buddha gives freedom of thought and freedom of self-development to all”, Ambedkar argues that “the rise of Buddhism in India was as significant as the French Revolution” – a political even in the first place. Ambedkar saw deep affinities between Buddhism and the French Revolution. In an All-India Radio broadcast speech on 3 October 1954 he declared:

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. In his philosophy, liberty and equality had a place. (…) He gave the highest place to fraternity as the only real safeguard against the denial of liberty or equality or fraternity which was another name for brotherhood or humanity, which was again another name for religion.

In that sense, Buddhism is a democratic religion and Ambedkar, eventually found in this religion the societal values he had tried to promote via political democracy. Between 1919 and 1949-50 he tried to instill in the Indian society a more fraternal sense of human relations by making assemblies places of endosmosis, by arguing in favour of a new unity between the majority and the minorities within the Constituent assembly itself. To no avail: fraternity never resulted from these political arrangements. Hence the last resort device that conversion to Buddhism, a democratic religion, became in his eyes by the mid-1950s.

Christophe Jaffrelot. Courtesy: columbia.edu

Christophe Jaffrelot. Credit: columbia.edu

This rediscovery of Buddhism had important implications. If the teaching of the Buddha was democratic, then democracy is not an invention of the West – as the manner in which Dr. Ambedkar drew his inspiration from so many European and American scholars and leaders suggested -, but it’s a product of the Indian history. In his historic speech of 25 November 1949 where Dr. Ambedkar presented the final draft of the Indian Constitution to the Assembly which was to pass it on 26 January 1950, he pointed out that by becoming a parliamentary constituency “again”, India is back to its Buddhist roots:

It is not that India did not know Parliaments or Parliamentary Procedure. A study of the Buddhist Bhikshu Sanghas discloses that not only there were Parliaments—for the Sanghas were nothing but Parliaments—but the Sanghas knew and observed all the rules of Parliamentary Procedure known to modern times. They had rules regarding seating arrangements, rules regarding Motions, Resolutions, Quorum, Whip, Counting of Votes, Voting by Ballot, Censure Motion, Regularization, Res Judicata, etc. Although these rules of Parliamentary Procedure were applied by the Buddha to the meetings of the Sanghas, he must have borrowed them from the rules of the Political Assemblies functioning in the country in his time.

Such an “invention of the tradition” (to use the words of Eric Hobsbawm) shows that even in his interpretation of the historical impact of Buddhism over India, Dr. Ambedkar remains deeply interested in political ideas. This is evident from a tangible fact: on 13 October 1956, the day before he converted to Buddhism in a grand ceremony in Nagpur, he addressed a press conference in which he announced that he had drafted the constitution of his new party, the Republican Party of India. (He called it the Republican Party of India by reference, at the same time, to Lincoln’s American Republican Party and to the Republics of the Buddhist era in India). In this charter, it was stated that this party would “stand for the Parliamentary system of Government as the being the best form of Government both in the interest of the public and in the interest of the individual”. This party would also uphold “the secular character of the State”. These components of Dr. Ambedkar’s ideology of Republicanism reflect his liberal values, which are even more obvious in his deep attachment to the rule of law.


Excerpted, with permission, from Dr Ambedkar and Democracy edited by Christophe Jaffrelot and Narender Kumar.

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