Dalit Buddhist Revolution: Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, We Salute You

I spent the weekend learning about B.R. Ambedkar. What a brilliant man and powerful advocate for social justice for the Untouchables of India, for women, for labour, and the “depressed classes” the world over. I read his treatise “The Annihilation of Caste” [which I downloaded from Verso Books for less than $3], with commentary by Arundhati Roy.  Ambedkar was everything Obama should have been but wasn’t. Ambedkar was as brilliant and learned as Obama—even more so, Ambedkar had advanced degrees in law, political economy and economics. Not only did he run for political office in India and win multiple times, despite his status as an Untouchable, but when he won political office, he never forgot where he came from or why he was there.

DBR Dalit Buddhist Revolution

While in high office, Dr. Ambedkar used every facet of his learning, skill, position and power to free the Dalits from their state of total abjection and slavery. He passed or attempted to pass laws that destroyed the caste system, that ended the deplorable maltreatment of women in India and granted them equal rights, that improved the working conditions of labourers of all kinds. Furthermore, he fearlessly stood up to British Imperialism, the ruling class of India, and the Brahmins that governed religious life amongst Hindus. Ambedkar stood up to Gandhi when Gandhi supported the continuation of the caste system in post-colonial India. Ambedkar was the chief author of the Constitution of India, and is remembered by the nation as it’s chief constitutional architect.

Dr._Bhim_Rao_AmbedkarAmbedkar’s treatise, “The Annihilation of Caste” opened my eyes to the operation of racism and privilege in my own life and country. It showed me that I was born into a “white caste” of privilege while others were born into a “black caste” or “brown caste” of oppression that determined both my life chances and theirs. Scholars, including Ambedkar, acknowledge that “caste” and “race” are different forms of inequality that work differently, but nonetheless, there is much that white people can learn from the teachings of Ambedkar about both racism and caste. Caste is structural inequality between members of the same or similar “race” or ethnic group, while racism is structural inequality between people of supposed different “races” (which is itself a fiction).

Arundhati Roy’s history of the Dalit movement documents that, in contemporary terms, “Dalit” refers to a broad class of the oppressed:
“For a brief period in the 1970s, the Dalit Panthers in Maharashtra tried to bridge the gap. They gave the Marathi word ‘Dalit’—oppressed, broken—an all-India currency, and used it to refer not just to Untouchable communities, but to “the working people, the landless and poor peasants, women and all those who are being exploited politically and economically and in the name of religion”. This was a phenomenal and politically confident act of solidarity on their part. ”
[Excerpt From: Arundhati Roy, B.R. Ambedkar. “The Annihilation of Caste.” iBooks.]

I especially encourage white American Buddhists of all classes to read Ambedkar’s “The Annihilation of Caste” to learn about their own white caste privilege and the operation of caste, race and class within Buddhism and American culture. Today amongst the Buddhists, the poor and working class are indeed subjected to caste inequalities, though most of us are of the same “race”. But Ambedkar proclaimed, as he converted to Buddhism shortly before his death, that Buddha set up his sanghas, in principle and practice, to defeat the caste system and to establish a communal life without caste. Ambedkar converted to Buddhism specifically to free himself from the Hindu caste system, so that he would not die an Untouchable. And when he converted, millions of Dalits converted to Buddhism to liberate themselves from the caste system. Today, 90% of India’s Buddhists are Dalits, formerly of the ‘untouchable’ caste.

The lesson of Ambedkar is this: if you want millions of converts to Buddhism, WORK FOR JUSTICE. Advocate for the poor, uplift the powerless and the oppressed, work toward the just distribution of wealth and power, and you will have your millions of converts.

The Buddha’s social vision to establish a common way of life without caste must still must be practiced with diligence within our sanghas today. Western sanghas are rife with a structural caste system that blindly ignores the whole question of class privilege, relative wealth, power and poverty within the sangha. It ignores how those issues shape the dynamics of the sangha, who has access to “the Teacher” and who doesn’t, how sangha decisions and activities are carried out and who benefits from them. Until those issues are honestly faced and dealt with, there won’t be any real change in the dynamics and power relations within western sanghas.

And Dr. Ambedkar was not afraid to stand up to the cruelty and hypocrisy of religious institutions, even those that were entrenched in the culture for thousands of years. As part of their campaign to destroy the caste system, Ambedkar and his followers publicly burned a copy of the Manusmirti, the Brahmanic scriptures that set forth the law of the Varna, the laws which established the Hindu caste system. That act was considered an utter sacrilege, like burning the Buddhist Vinaya Pitaka, or Leviticus in the Bible.

I, for one, refuse to be part of any sangha in which I and others in my situation are so devalued and count for so little. I will not give my money or support to any sangha that blindly perpetuates a caste system that privileges the white and wealthy, and denies equal voice, access and power to the poor, the working class, the queer, the disabled, youth, racialized peoples, and ethnic minorities within the sangha. Gautama Buddha would have expected no less from his followers today.

When I find a sangha that actually practices Buddhism, without caste or class, racism or sexism, then I will join it. The sangha doesn’t have to be a utopia—that’s impossible—but it should openly acknowledge these issues and work on them. That is the collective awakening that Western Buddhism needs to have before it can hope to generate an awakening in the rest of the world.

Ambedkar’s Buddhism, called Navayana Buddhism or the Fourth Way, distinguished between religion and dhamma. “The purpose of Religion is to explain the origin of the world,” Ambedkar said; “the purpose of Dhamma is to reconstruct the world.” Ambedkar’s major work on Buddhism was The Buddha and His Dhamma, available free online.

You can begin to learn about B. R. Ambedkar’s powerful life and work in this film:

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4 thoughts on “Dalit Buddhist Revolution: Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, We Salute You

  1. any one can answer
    why those Hindu Dalits who left Hinduism and converted to Buddhism are taking reservation under SCST quota?
    now they are not the Dalits under Hinduism caste system.

    1. I’m sorry that I don’t know enough about the current situation of the Dalits in India to comment. I read in biographies of Dr. Ambedkar that he was also afraid that if the Dalits left the Hindu caste system, that they might be denied entry into the reservation and quota system that he himself had devised. But he felt that, on balance, it was more important than Dalits experience their own sense of dignity under a new spiritual system that regarded them as equal to everyone else.

    2. Firstly, Dalits weren’t and aren’t Hindus. They were and are the slaves of the entire Hindu society and were abused and exploited in their hands as if dalits were some an exclusive private property of Hindus who have some sort of birth right to exploit them ! Dalits never lived in the Hindu society but in the ghettos. They had no give and take with Hindus, however, since they were supposedly owned by the Hindu society, were named and labelled as per the convenience by their masters.

      Most important to know that the whole Dalit community represents the descendants of those ancient group of people who revolted against the Vedic authority, challenged the Brahmin’s supremacy and laid their own path that deviates from the Vedas. In retaliation, Brahmins declared them demons and Untouchables (this includes those buddhist too who didn’t flee to north east and remained in the mainland of India) thus were tormented, boycotted, and eventually slaved !

      The reservation is granted to this community because of this historical reason which led them to face the indignities for centuries and far from the dream of self administration and were traditionally abused all the time !. Reservation is for the purpose of equal representation to all, specially to those who were dominated for millennia. It has nothing to do with religion. It is nonsense to say that by changing the religion, the social and economical status too will change immediately after the conversion. Dalits are just delivered through the hell of caste, Vedic cult and centuries of subjugation, their wounds are still green, caste is still haunting and maiming. Though we are declared no longer the slaves of Hindus, we are still dominated. Historical evidences are clear for us to identify separate from Hindus, despite this, Hindus oftenly claim us to be an integral part of them as if we are puppets and identity is not the matter of our choice. All in all, hindus do this to gain numerical advantage and pretend to be large in numbers. Meanwhile, exploitation is rampant and it doesn’t matter whether we are converted or not. This is why reservation is still relevant.

      One more truth, our ideology always since past is much against that of Hinduism and favours that of Buddhism. Though Buddha’s path is seeming new today to us “naive” Buddhists, and our ‘Navayana’ sect of Buddhism might have been condescended several times, nevertheless, the time is not far when this ‘Navayana’ will be the largest “wheel” to be followed and many future great Buddhists will flourish there !
      – A Navayana Buddhist

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