The intellectual challenge of reading Ambedkar in contemporary India is huge and exciting at the same time. This is not merely because of the burgeoning number of Ambedkarites in the socio-political and academic realms of this country. The ever increasing potential of reading what was once hard and fast texts of political antagonisms in a much more creative and sympathetic manner is alluring in itself, the challenges thrown by it much higher than a ‘straight forward’ understanding of texts. Ambedkar, much like his quintessential ‘other’, Gandhi, offers tremendous possibilities for such a reading.
The peculiarities of Ambedkar’s texts in question, ‘Krishna and his Gita’ and ‘Annihilation of Caste’, are many. The former text is part of a much wider endeavour by Ambedkar under the broad title “Revolution and Counter revolution in Ancient India”. It was a natural and logical outcome of the herculean intellectual project –the construction of a counter history for the Dalits-that was his life’s work. Ambedkar couldn’t have but faced the Gita, the ancient but frequently invoked text of Hinduism in his pursuit of an alternate and touchable history. To “corrupt” [i] the text upon which rests unimaginable defences of centuries of injustice and apathy was a paramount political responsibility for him.
In the case of ’Annihilation of Caste’, the second text in consideration, the peculiarities start from the fact that it was an undelivered speech. But although the speech failed to reach its initial target, namely the audience of the Jat-Pat-Todak Mandal Annual Conference of 1936, it strongly resonated with the wider Hindu public in its later written avatar. One can safely claim that ‘Annihilation of Caste’ is perhaps the most well known piece of writing among the vast corpus of Dr.B.R.Ambedkar’s works today. For those who reckon the potency of unuttered words in history, the irony is hard to miss. What is also hard to ignore is the vehemence of the title, coming especially from an ardent believer of non-violence and of the legislative process. ‘To destroy somebody or something completely’ is how the Oxford dictionary defines the word ‘annihilate’. Ambedkar seems to have reached the point of no return while giving shape to this much celebrated speech. His convictions regarding the thoroughly rotten nature of the Hindu religion appears to have fully solidified by then. The attempt here is to look at these two texts briefly in the light of two other exciting pieces of writings- Aishwary Kumar’s ‘Ambedkar’s Inheritances’ and excerpts from D. R. Nagaraj’s critical work ‘The Flaming Feet’.
Aishwary Kumar seeks to go beyond the simple and hostile nature of Ambedkar’s reading of the Gita. Kumar sets in motion a variety of elements to understand the distraught yet intimate relationship that Ambedkar shares with the Hindu religious texts ( here the Gita). History, modernity, universality, hermeneutics and most importantly the overbearing force of politics are the matrices through which he approaches the critical corpus of Ambedkar’s unfinished attempt, “Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Ancient India”. This is done by drawing a parallel between Ambedkar and Walter Benjamin, the German philosopher. In their meticulous attention to both form and content, to the hermeneutics and politics of texts, Kumar identifies a pair of “equally distraught figures in twentieth century thought”.
On the other hand, Nagaraj is concerned with the apparent” irreconcilability” of Gandhi and Ambedkar, the two critical figures of 20th century India. He asks whether there is anything real and fundamental about this much hyped antagonism, an answer for which will have far reaching consequences for the Dalit movement in India. In pursuing this, Nagaraj rigorously apprehends the differences between the Gandhian and the Ambedkarite approaches to the Dalit question. But more importantly, the conclusion he draws is that “both Gandhiji and Ambedkar can and should be made complimentary to each other”.[ii] Nagaraj draws upon the notion of “ontological difference to distinguish between contingent details of historical fact and the truth of a deeper historical concern”.[iii] The deeper historical truth, according to him, reveals not the conflicting facts but a dynamic unity.
In ‘Krishna and his Gita’, Ambedkar dismisses the Gita as a mere defence of the dogmas of counter –revolution, devoid of any principles worth the name. This is one charge which he extends to the Hindu religion as a whole in’ Annihilation of Caste’ as well. Targeting the philosophic defence of fratricidal war that the Gita offers on the basis of the perishable nature of the human body and the transmigration of the soul, Ambedkar calls it an “unheard of defence of murder”.[iv] He is equally critical of the Gita’s defences of the Chaturvarnya and the Karma Marga, which are also shown by him to be based on fragile and unsustainable premises.
Such attempts to provide a philosophical basis for the counter revolutionary movement that took place in ancient india were necessary since Budhism proved to be too strong a current to be easily broken. The defence offered by the proponents of counter-revolution prior to Gita hinged only on the authority of the Vedas, which was obviously inadequate. Thus, Ambedkar shows the Gita to be a text written predominantly for aiding in the process of the counter revolution which sought to ultimately restore bahminical authority in the Hindu society. In the second part of the essay, he strives to prove the Gita to be a text posterior in time to Budhism and Jaimini’s ‘Purva Mimansa’. In a painstaking and detailed analysis of the text, he reveals it to be permeated by Budhist ideology. Even the dialogic form of the Gita is cited as giving evidence to it being modelled on Budhist Suttas. The challenge thrown by Ambedkar regarding the antiquity of the Gita is both detailed and compelling.
Ambedkar doggedly draws parallels which were hitherto non-existent between texts and traditions. But there seems to be a genuine dilemma at work which he struggles to grapple with in his ‘annihilation’ of the Gita. On the one hand, Ambedkar is determined to show the Gita in its ‘true coulours’, i. e, as a vehicle of the dissemination of counter-revolution. But, he is also reluctant to let go of the text, to dismiss or ignore it, completely. How else could one account for his meticulous attention to those details that reveal the textual brotherhood between the Gita and Budhism , not to speak of the triumphal tone that his essay assumes in conclusion in having successfully drawn the “parallel”? Aishwary Kumar can see Ambedkar committing an act of “hermeneutic fratricide” [v] here; in denigrating the Gita as merely a propaganda literature of Brahminism by failing to acknowledge the cross influences. The question he poses, “What does Ambedkar do with this skewed, disjoint, textual brotherhood?”, is undoubtedly pertinent.
But does Ambedkar really go to the extent of commiting a textual fratricide here? To me, what stands out is the ambiguous and fraught nature of his relationship with the text. Kumar says,” this limited concession to the probable and partial originality of the Gita and a more circumspect attitude toward his own dating of the texts would have marked the generality of Ambedkar’s ethical responsibility. It would have marked his commitment to an interrupted yet conjoined history and memory of religious heterodoxies that punctuate Indic classicism”. Yet, I think, it is the sheer weight of these heterodox traditions and conjoined history that imbue Ambedkar’s essay with its unintended ambiguity. The claim that Kumar makes that Ambedkar becomes “the most modern reader and practitioner “of the Gita in committing this “act of unacknowledged fratricide” is indeed interesting. That is what he is desperately trying to do by revealing the counter revolutionary interests of the Gita. But, the very fact that the Gita borrowed heavily from Budhism , makes it a much more complex text than it appears to be. And by acknowledging and utilising this shadow of the budhist thought looming large over the Gita in his attempt to undermine the text’s antiquity, Ambedkar unwittingly opens the porous doors of textual and traditional neighbourhoods of ancient India. Ambedkar is clearly inspired by the clarion call of politics to slay the ‘other’ but is prevented from accomplishing his aim by the omnipotence of history which confronts him in its deceptively heterodox form. ‘Fratricide’ remains, I think, at best an unfinished task for Ambedkar.
In ‘Annihilation of Caste’, he is fundamentally concerned about the unsustainable nature of the institution of caste in an organic society. Ambedkar systematically demolishes different shades of defences striving to legitimise caste. Neither the ‘division of labour’ argument nor the justification of caste in the name of ‘eugenics’ stands the scrutiny of his ruthless exposition of the vested interests at work. The inability of Hinduism to take up a proselytising mission like Christianity or Islam is attributed to the uniquely enclosed nature of caste. The Hindu is prevented from sharing the “light” by his caste. Ambedkar is at his polemical best here, “if the Mohammeden has been cruel, the Hindu has been mean and meanness is worse than cruelty”, he says. Such a state affairs is sanctioned and endorsed by the Shastras which provide a divine basis for the caste system and hold men in their thraldom. Ambedkaris convinced that to destroy the rationale of caste, one will inevitably have to undermine the authority of the Shastras and the Vedas. Only a complete break from its scriptural past will reform the Hindu religion which, according to Ambedkar, is nothing more than a mass of sacrificial, socio political and sanitary rules devoid of principles. He even “corrupts”[vi] the much hailed ‘sanatan’ nature of values by opining that there must be a constant revolution of old values, striking a surprisingly similar tone with Faucault who argued for the “continuous critique of our historical era”.
Annihilation of Caste, despite having a reformative tone about it, in a way is Ambedkar bidding his good bye to Hinduism. This is revealed by the way he concludes his speech, after what can be termed an extremely provocative and powerful exposition of the cankers devouring the body politic of the Hindu society:
You must make your efforts to uproot Caste, if not in my way, then in your way. I am sorry, I will not be with you. I have decided to change. This is not the place for giving reasons. But even when I am gone out of your fold, I will watch your movement with active sympathy and you will have my assistance for what it may be worth. [vii]
The prescriptions he gives for a ‘religion of principles’ which precedes the above remarks also smacks of incredibility and utopianism. The cleansing act that he demands of the Hindus, interestingly, is far greater in magnitude than any project of ‘self purification’ [viii] ever endorsed by Gandhi. The institution of a single sacred book for the Hindus and the introduction of state supervision over priesthood are clearly tasks nigh impossible. Yet, it is as if Ambedkar is deliberately stretching the limits of his ambitious plan for a renewed religion, knowing full well that what he is actually asking the Hindu religion (as it is now) is to commit hara-kiri.
Any appraisal worth its name of Nagaraj’s essays will take several pages, and hence is beyond the scope of this note. I will only look at a single strand of thought from Nagaraj which to my mind is also central to the Dalit question. It will also, I think, let us appreciate the emancipatory leaps of the following declaration that Ambedkar makes in ‘Annihilation of Caste’:
“I will not join with them in performing the miracle-I will not say trick- of liberating the oppressed with the gold of the tyrant and raising the poor with the cash of the rich”.
The Gandhian project of removal of the scourge of utouchability through a process of ‘self purification’ of the Hindu society had every conceivable element for success except one-the sense of agency for the Dalit. Although the movement tried to mask and make up this fatal absence by a variety of other means like its romantic spirit, idealism and even suffering on the part of the Dalit, they were all far from being an adequate substitute for the craving for action and agency. Put simply, there was nothing for the Dalit to do, other than admire the big brother’s generosity and wait. Nagarj beautifully sums up this historical vacuum in the Gandhian project, “That was the basic limitation of the Gandhian mode:Sugreeva, Hanumantha, and Guha could never aspire to act the major part displacing the hero in the Ramayana. Only Rama is the hero and Ambedkar could never settle for the roles of Hanumantha and Sugreeva”.
Emancipation by others always stops short of empowerment. Every liberation struggle across the globe screams out this fact. The self respect of the Negro in today’s America comes from the historical memory of the self assertion by his predecessors in the Civil Rights movement. The oppressed can be aided in his struggle by every sympathiser of his cause, but the yoke has to be thrown off by his own hands, if real freedom is what the aim is. The political genius of Ambedkar lies in his realisation of this fact despite being confronted by the apparent moral supremacy of the Gandhian mission.
[i] Aiswary Kumar,’Ambedkar’s Inheritances’.
[ii] Nagaraj, ‘Self purification vs Self Respect’.
[iv] Ambedkar, ‘Krishna and his Gita’.
[v] Aishwar Kumar, ‘Ambedakar’s Inheritances’
[vii] Ambedkar, Annihilation of Caste