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Rethinking the Importance of Buddhism: An Analysis of Ambedkar's "What the Buddha Taught"

Sneha Mahato


Studying Buddhism and Buddha’s ethics vastly has been one of the major concepts of case studies for Ambedkar as he believed that would lead him to freedom from the chains of class and caste which his religion bound him to. The Hindu religion, which is what the majority of India follows, has always been in the clutches of the curse of the caste system from older times. Even now after thousands of generations, many poor souls have suffered because of it. Belonging to the Dalit class from birth, Ambedkar had always felt like a victim of the society’s caste discrimination, which ended up with him in fighting for his freedom by pursuing education, and ultimately converting to Buddhism. One may question why Ambedkar chose Buddhism and not Christianity, Jainism, or Islam; in response to which Ambedkar wrote many books and essays explaining his theories.

In his essay, “Buddha and future of his religion”, Ambedkar elaborates on his case study and the reason why he chose Buddhism rather than any other religion. He compares Christ, Mohammad, along with their teachings to that of Buddha and his teachings. Ambedkar states that Buddha never claimed to be the giver of salvation nor was he a godsent prophet; unlike Christ who secured his place in Christianity by having the condition that one could achieve salvation only by accepting him to be the son of God. Mohammad also claimed to be the holy prophet and only accepting him as such would bring one salvation. Ambedkar also compares Krishna’s directions with Buddha’s ethics. Unlike Christ and Mohammad, Krishna went further and claimed himself to be ‘parmeshwara’, one who is higher than god. Buddha simply introduces himself as the son of Suddhodana and Mahamaya - and does not secure his place in his religion by carving out his importance in it - notes Ambedkar.

Buddha says he is the one who leads a path to salvation, but one must make the choices of his life on his own. He is the Marga Data (Way Finder) and not Moksho Data (Giver of Salvation). Buddha describes that the purpose of religion is to reveal the fact that it is one’s own duty to save the soul that has been given to him by his maker (i.e., God). This message is sent by God through a chosen one, and that eventually turns into a religion. Buddha never claimed himself to be the messenger of God, while the prophet or the son of God promises to be the giver of salvation. Buddha claimed that his message was a message from one human to another and he was no divine being nor played any part in God's plan. Ambedkar also compares Moses with Buddha since the former claimed to have a divine origin of his teachings, referring to them as messages sent by Jehovah, the God.

How does the world know of the teachings of Buddha and what do his ideologies stand for? There are many ways of viewing this. Some may take Samadhi to be his principal teachings and to some, it may be Vipassana. Metaphysics and mysticism contrast with each other. People wonder about what Buddhism is based on, which brings out the question: what exactly is the social message of Buddha, or if there is any at all? Many questions related to this arise, such as if Buddha taught about love, justice, equality, liberty, fraternity, and so on.

In his book 1 Part 4 Enlightenment and the vision of a new way, Ambedkar portrays the struggles that Buddha - going by Gautama before his enlightenment - faced in the search for enlightenment. He went through four stages from four weeks of meditations to reach a conclusion. Inspired by the Shankhya philosophy, he realised that unhappiness and suffering are inevitable and the way to find relief from it was not a part of Shankhya philosophy; but he came out with a way to surpass the misery and that was by Samma Bodhi (Right Enlightenment). Ambedkar also includes in his book the path for a Bodhista to becoming Buddha, where a Bodhista has to live ten lives as a Bodhista to become a Buddha. Those include Mudita (joy) as the first life, Vimala (purity) as the second; following with third life and the fourth lives as Pravakari (brightness) and Arcishmati (intelligence of fire). In his fifth life which is the Sudurjaya (difficult to conquer), he understands the link between what is relative and what is absolute. Following this comes his sixth life, Abhimukhi, and his seventh life that is Durangama (going far off) where a Bodistha becomes greater than time, and space, and becomes equal to infinity. At this point, he becomes detached from the desires of the world. Then come the eighth and ninth stages of life which are Acala and Sadhumati. After this follows the tenth and final stage that is Dharmamegha where one achieves the ‘infinite eye of a Buddha’.

In Part three ‘What is Dhamma’, Ambedkar notes down every element of Buddha's Dhamma and distinguishes between them for classification. Buddha's Dhamma consists of three parts; which are the Dhamma, Not-Dhamma (Adhamma), and the Sadhamma, which consists of the philosophical meaning of the Dhamma.

Ambedkar explains that Buddha’s Dhamma stands for the achievement of the purity of life by achieving purity of body, speech, and mind. Purity of the body can be achieved by harming no other living body/soul and rejecting any sensual desire. The purity of speech is achieved by being truthful to oneself and others. By being aware of the malevolence and emotion of his own and accepting it and then abandoning those emotions and feelings, one can achieve purity of the mind. Dhamma strives to reach perfection in life. One may succumb to the human weaknesses that hold them down; such as lusting after what is not given, taking a life, or indulgence in liquor from achieving purity, Ambedkar points out. Overcoming these obstacles ultimately leads one to achieve perfection in life. And that, according to him, is what stands for Dhamma.

Ambedkar claims Nibbana to be the central doctrine of Buddha, the main motive of Dhamma; and that to live life in Nibbana is to live life in peace. Nibbana brings real happiness as the Buddha suggests. Ambedkar brings light to the difference of belief on what Nibbana is, comparing Laukik, Vadic, Brahmanic and Upanishadic interpretations to that of Buddha’s doctrine. It is the salvation of the soul by finding peace. The salvation of the soul and recognising it as the independent entity is the concept of the Brahmanic belief. Buddha denies recognition of the soul as a part of Dhamma, hence rejecting Brahmanic beliefs and the Upanishads, which include the recognition of the soul. The Laukik view did not appeal to Buddha as it showed the materialistic, not spiritual, need of humans. Ambedkar points out that Buddha saw the yogic concept of Nibbana to be futile and temporary until the yoga lasted, bringing no pain but also no joy. Ambedkar describes Buddha’s doctrine to be one of absolute detachment. In the view of Buddha, happiness should come before the desire to achieve salvation of the soul. One must seek happiness by “being in Samsara while he is alive”. The salvation of the soul was a foreign concept to Buddha’s doctrine, states Ambedkar. Leading this was the third concept of Buddha’s Nibbana, to keep in check one's passion, as it is like a flame - “which is always on fire”. The suppression of appetite should be done to bring happiness since with appetite comes an increase in said appetite. One should keep a limit to his wants. Though having new things brings happiness for the moment, it also brings unhappiness later on. He says that a man is always in want, and that leads him to be always unhappy. He is still unhappy even if he has more than enough for him because he never stops to know why. This, he explains, is the concept of greed. One's greed and never-satisfied appetite for materialistic things evade him from reaching Nibbana. Buddha talks about passion being the most forceful way to make a man lose his path to Nibbana and happiness. Being prey to his passion makes a man unhappy. The forms of passion are divided into groups. Lust, greed, and infatuation come in one category of man losing his happiness. Hatred, anger in a man makes him ultimately lose his happiness and eventually the path to Nibbana. Being ignorant and dull also leads to one losing his path to salvation.

Ambedkar throws light on Buddha’s doctrine of impermanence through the great Buddhist philosopher Asanga. There is the impermanence of composite things, individual beings and the self-nature of the conditions of an individual thing, as portrayed by Asanga, “all things are produced by the combination of causes and condition, and have no independent noumenon of their own. When the combination is dissolved, their destruction ensures”. “The body of a living being consists of the combination of four great elements--viz., earth, water, fire and air--and when this combination is resolved into the four component elements, dissolution ensues. This is what is called the impermanence of a composite entity.”

There is an order to the way of the world, states Ambedkar. Buddha views it through nimayana, the orderly sequence. A believer of God may view the moral nature of humans as a divine act which is maintained by divine dispensation. However, Ambedkar does not find this answer satisfactory as it does not answer for the unjust and immoral acts performed by humans. If God was behind the morality of humans, how could he be responsible for the immorality of the world? Ambedkar does not deny the theory that the world is the creation of God, or the role of the cosmos in maintaining the mechanism of life. But it is not the divine dispensation, claims Ambedkar, who is responsible for the moral order of the world. Buddha's answer to this is Kamma Niyam where a man himself is responsible for the moral order of the world. His own actions lead to the good or bad of the world. “It is the Kamma Niyam and not God which maintains the moral order in the universe.” A man's akusala (bad) results in the moral disorder whereas good moral is a result of kusala (good), according to Buddha. This shows karma as a part of Dhamma. In contrast to noting down all the various parts of Dhamma, Ambedkar also makes a comparison to what is not Dhamma.

In Part four of book three, Ambedkar shows all the various aspects that are not included in the formation of Dhamma. Even though there is an answer to every occurrence in nature, there might come a time when one is bound to question the reason behind a certain event. That sometimes results in blaming the supernatural. Pakauda Katyana rejects the theory that says there is a reason behind every event. Makhali Ghoshal agrees with this theory, but also believes nature is responsible for the unanswerable. Buddha, Ambedkar states, rejected both these doctrines. He questioned the idea of time, nature, God, etc. to be the hand behind every course of action. This does not justify the role of humans in the universe. Human beings are behind every occurrence, and after enough time and knowledge, one can find the answer to the unknown.

Similar to the supernatural, Buddha rejects the doctrine of God being the creator of the universe since one cannot surely claim the existence of God. God is unseen and there is no proof of His existence, hence a religion based on speculation has no purpose, Buddha teaches. Buddha also rejects the doctrine of Dhamma based on the union of Brahma, as Ambedkar points out. In Vedantism, it is claimed that there is an omnipresent presence that is known as the Brahmin, and one has to give up Samsara for his soul to become the same as Brahmin. This doctrine Buddha believes to be based on false knowledge, and does not serve any purpose to the universe.

Ambedkar states that believing in the existence of God is not a part of Buddha’s Dhamma. Similar to it, the idea of the soul is based on speculation and hence has no purpose whatsoever. According to the Brahmanic belief, Atma(soul) though not a part of our body lives within us and after the destruction of the body, it detaches from the same and takes birth in another body. But many questions arise concerning the existence of the soul. What causes the existence of the soul? Where does the soul go after the destruction of the body? Is there the existence of an afterlife where the soul exists after the destruction of the soul? Buddha’s answer to these is the same as that of the existence of God.

Denouncing sacrifice - which was a part of Brahmanic religion - has been one of the most influential and important parts of Buddhism. Buddha believed that a religion where an animal is sacrificed to please the gods is a religion of no morality and is not worth following. When asked by Brahmin Udayin what the Buddha feels about sacrifice, he replied:

"Fit sacrifice performed in season due And free from cruelty, to such draw near Those well trained in the God-life, even those Who have the veil rolled back while (yet on earth), Who have transcended time and going-- Such do the enlightened praise, those skilled in merit. "Whether in sacrifice or act of faith, Oblation fitly made with heart devout To that good field of Merit--those who live. The Good--life, sacrificed, conferred,--so given Lavish the offering; devas therewith are pleased. Thus offering, the thoughtful, thereby becoming wise, Wins the blissful world from suffering free."

Ambedkar disapproved of the critics who tried to give Buddha’s doctrine a different meaning and misjudged the whole concept. They claimed that losing one’s passion is equal to death when one feels nothing. Anger, greed, hate, passion are human feelings and one losing them loses all human emotions, which is equivalent to death. They questioned whether Buddha meant that reaching salvation meant relinquishing their humanness. But if someone studies the fire sermon, they can understand that the concept says that life and death are like fire and it being extinguished is not the ultimate aim. It provides that passion is on fire. One must not fuel the flames of passion. To kill humanness, one must kill their human emotions - that is not what Nibbana stands for. Having enough control over passion will lead one to the path of righteousness.

Giving up one's craving is Dhamma. Ambedkar states, in the view of Buddha, one’s health and contentment surpass any other achievement. This does not imply that Buddha meant that, if misfortunate, one should not aim to change his conditions. Having a limit to one's desire and being content is what Dhamma stands for.

Considering everything, the question arises as to what exactly Buddha’s teachings stand for. What is the general motive of Buddha’s ideals and what does one take from them? There is arguably more than one answer to that, as every follower of Buddha or student of Buddhism can’t agree on any one exact ideal. In his book three ‘What the Buddha taught’ Part two, Ambedkar shows the multiple views on Buddha’s teachings. One may believe Buddha’s teachings to be esoteric as opposed to those who believe them to be exoteric. There is no one answer to which a general agreement could be made. Ambedkar questions the knowledge of Buddha’s followers as to what they believe is Buddha’s ultimate teaching. When asked, one may answer with some generalised point as “Buddha taught peace and ahimsa”. Questions about whether love, justice, liberty, equality, or fraternity was ever a part of Buddha’s social message does not usually arise. Ambedkar’s answer to this is that “Buddha has a Social Message. He answers all these questions. But they have been buried by modern authors.”

Ambedkar had many attempts in trying to reform the social reforms of the Hindu religion. But by receiving hatred from the higher caste and ultimately failing to bring any change, he decided to give up the Hindu religion and on October 13 1956, he converted to Buddhism. He embraced the ideals of Buddhism and along with him were his followers. This was a significant moment in Indian history that established Buddhism in the Indian society.

Works Cited





Author Information

Sneha Mahato studies English Literature at Presidency University Kolkata.



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