Brahminism vs. Buddhism: Reading Ambedkar's “Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Ancient India”

Ditsa Mandal

All About Ambedkar: A Journal on Theory and Praxis, Volume 1, Number 2, July-September 2020

“Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Ancient India” by Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar is a text that is included in Volume 3 of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches first published in 1987 by the Education Department of the Government of Maharashtra. The text, as found in the said volume, consists of 288 pages and is divided into 13 chapters. Ambedkar originally planned to write 7 chapters under this broad heading, but the compilation committee could find only a few chapters and some pages in Ambedkar’s original collection. Not all the chapters are complete. This volume includes the chapters both in their complete and incomplete forms, as per the availability of the materials. Overall, in a very organized manner, Ambedkar, in this text, conveys to the readers the rise of Buddhism as a revolution, and how the Brahmins in India dealt with it. This Brahminical intervention Ambedkar considers to be the counter-revolution leading to the eventual downfall of Buddhism in India.

Dr. Ambedkar begins his survey from the time when the Kingdom of Magadha in Bihar was founded by Sisunaga, in 642 B.C. Sisunaga belonged to the non-Aryan race. Under the Sisunaga dynasty, the Magadha kingdom grew into an empire but was replaced by the Nanda dynasty, who ruled till 322 B.C. Then Chandragupta took over the throne, and established the Maurya dynasty, which was a restoration of the Naga dynasty itself, as Chandragupta was related to the Naga dynasty. Under Ashoka, the Maurya dynasty became enormous through various conquests. Ashoka made Buddhism the religion of the state, which was, according to Ambedkar, a revolution that successfully threw out the evils of Hinduism including casteism. For 140 years the Brahmins remained the suppressed class, and to end this, Pushyamitra committed regicide and gave Brahmins sovereignty over all other classes. The rebellion of Pushyamitra is regarded as the counter-revolution by Dr. Ambedkar and as the main cause behind the downfall of Buddhism in India. Ambedkar voices his dissatisfaction with the emphasis laid on the Muslim invasions in India. He argues that the Muslim invasions of Hindu India only destroyed the external symbols of Hindu religion, while the Brahminist rebellion against Buddhist India destroyed the principles that governed the spiritual life of the people.

According to Ambedkar, the gospel of the counter-revolution of the Brahminists was the Manusmriti, which promoted the transformation from varna to caste system, upheld misogynist ideas, strictly forbade inter-caste marriage and interdining, and put emphasis on birth, and not on worth, as the sole cause of supremacy of the Brahmins over others. The Manusmriti positioned the Brahmins on the highest rung of the social ladder, who, irrespective of having or not having any morality or learning, were assigned rights and control over the spiritual affairs of the people. As the Brahminists overpowered the Buddhists in India, the flexibility of the former Chaturvarna system was lost and thus it came to be replaced by the caste system. The Chaturvarna system allowed intermarriage and imposed no restrictions on interdining, while the latter restricted both. Ambedkar cites examples from the Hindu mythology to illustrate his point, and mentions the disrespect Manu shows towards the Shudra women and Shudra food, so much so, that Shudra food, in the Manusmriti, is said to be as impure as ‘semen or urine’. The triumph of Brahmanism also enjoins the marrying off of a girl even before she reached her puberty, imposes rules on widowhood and prevents their remarriage, while not uttering a word against the custom of ‘Sati’, or, the burning of widows on the funeral pyre of their husbands. Ambedkar strongly believed that the only possible reason behind girl marriage, enforced widowhood and Sati is the promotion and preservation of the Caste System.

(In pic: Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar giving 22 vows after renouncing Hinduism at Deekshabhoomi, Nagpur, on 14 October 1956. Photographer: Unknown. Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons.)

The maltreatment of women and the Shudra is elaborated on by Ambedkar. The inhumanity of the laws against the Shudras, as noted in the Manusmriti, causes the readers to shudder. Manu repeatedly insists that a Shudra is a person unfit for the society, contemptible and is bound to serve the higher castes throughout his life, which is the only purpose of his birth. Furthermore, the way Manu encouraged the suppression of women has been discussed by Ambedkar in detail. Not only did he curb the basic rights and freedom of a woman, but he also subjected a woman to corporal punishment. The man has been granted freedom in every decision-making process and the woman has practically been advised to stay chained throughout her life and be treated as the ‘inferior sex.’ The motive was not to tie up a man to a woman but it was to tie up the woman to a man and to leave the man free, says Ambedkar. The severity of the laws against ‘Stri and Shudras’ speaks of their rise in the Buddhist period which was an eyesore to the Brahminists. In the pre-Manu days, the woman was held in a position equal to the man, and it was Manu who degraded her. Ambedkar questions the Brahminists, “Why did Manu degrade her?” and demands an answer to this.

While further elaborating on the issue of the Shudras, Ambedkar throws light on the fact that the Shudras were not non-Aryans, as generally thought to be. He goes on to cite examples from Hindu mythology to illustrate the point. He discusses the origin of the Shudras describing them as descending from King Sudas, and, therefore, the status of the Shudras in the Aryan society was related to higher ranks. The Shudras could be the ‘reigning- monarchs’ even, served by the Brahmins and the Kshatriyas. He raises the question, “Why were the disabilities imposed upon the Shudras, who were civilized and Aryans?” Ambedkar strongly condemns Manu’s downgrading of the Shudras and the women. In this connection, he goes on to point out the severity of rules that the Brahminists imposed on the outcastes. To strengthen the Caste system the rules for the outcastes were extremely essential for the Brahminists, for, as he says, only by punishing the outcastes the Caste system could be maintained.

Ambedkar comments, the greatest impediment to nationalism has been none other than the Caste system. He counters the argument on the part of the Brahminists, who claim that every society, unlike an ideal one, possesses groups, and the Caste system is just another example of this. He quotes John Dewey’s ideas in this context and says that the caste system produces an anti-social feeling (and not a non-social one), because of the lack of reciprocity of interests amongst men. This results in the isolation of every group and fragmentation of society.

Instead of a Brahminical method, Ambedkar speaks in favour of the Buddhist method of guiding the society because Buddha emphasized that the leader of a society must not possess any private property. During the era of Brahminism, the leaders of the society, the elites, were busy taking care of their private property and thereby failed to guide the society. But the Buddhist Bhikshus, being devoid of any private property, could be dedicated to the uplift of the society in a whole-hearted manner. They were intellectuals and not merely educated people, unlike the Brahmins. The changes the Brahmins made to the old Vedic system made them selfish and self-centered, despite being supposedly enlightened. The education the Brahmins boasted of did not lead them to the advancement of learning and science; instead, they used it for the fulfillment of their own needs. As a result, instead of writing books on science, the Brahmins composed as many as 128 smritis, which, according to Ambedkar, are nothing but treatises that establish the supremacy of the Brahmins and justify their rights to special privileges. The decline of Buddhism in India and the rise of Brahmanism, thus, stopped the progress of science.

The privileges granted to the Brahmins were often limitless to the extent that Manu gave them the right to ‘dana’ that included women whom the Brahmins could even use as prostitutes. The Kshatriyas were reserved for battles, Vaisyas for trade; thus, the Brahmins were the only class with access to education and thereby, free to guide (rather misguide) the society according to their will. Ambedkar says that the greatest mischief to the Hindu society on the part of the Brahminists was the legal support that the Manusmriti and other smritis had given to Brahmanism. The smritis were neither books on ethics, nor on religion, but mere codes of law promoting Brahminical supremacy.

The supremacy asserted by the Brahmins knew no bounds. The ‘twice-born’ manipulated and moulded the rules in a way that best served their purpose. The Shudras were oppressed throughout and treated as worse than non-human entities by the three upper castes, who wrenched the Shudra blood till their thirst was quenched. The right to rebellion, Ambedkar says, was granted to the three upper classes, as they were the ones to benefit from the system. But even to prevent them from rebelling against the highest caste, the Brahmins reserved the right to punish all the three, especially the Kshatriyas who had the highest possibility to rebel.

Ambedkar considers the Gita to be the philosophical defense of the counter-revolutionists. He points out the repetitions and the contradictions amply found in the Gita. He quotes the scholars who speak about the inconsistencies and the lack of harmony in the text. Ambedkar expresses his own belief regarding this matter, saying that the Gita is not a gospel unlike the Quran or the Bible. It bears no message at all, hence the scholars are going on a false errand. What the Gita does is practically nothing but defend a few religious dogmas, like justifying wars, in the name of philosophy. Ambedkar believes that the Gita came into being only as a reaction to Buddhism and defends the counter-revolutionary ideals of the Brahminists. He also argues that much of the Gita has been borrowed from Buddhist philosophy and the Suttas, including observations on the ‘qualifications of a perfect devotee’ and the entire conception of Brahma Nirvana. Furthermore, the conflict between the Brahmins and the Kshatriyas has been highlighted by Ambedkar, which he analyses as class conflict and not as a communal issue. A quotation from the text might further illustrate the point: “They were class wars undertaken by one community with the avowed intention of exterminating the other root and branch” (408).

The text, “Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Ancient India,” thus discusses the rise of Buddhism as a revolution against the evils of Hinduism, and Buddhism’s eventual decline in the face of the counter-revolution launched by the Brahminists. Ambedkar directs his opinions at the perils of the Shudras and the women that resulted because of the harsh impositions of Manusmriti. The text provides a wholly different perspective from which we can review the history of India. The readers visualize the past through the eyes of the oppressed and the marginalized. Ambedkar is vocal about casteism and other inequalities prevalent in the traditional Hindu society, questions the inhumanities propagated by Brahminism, and points out how the upper-caste Hindus gradually regained supremacy by replacing the revolutionary changes that Buddhism had successfully brought about in the Indian society. Brahminism with all its evils is raising its ugly head in today’s society once again and now the relevance of Buddhism is felt more acutely than ever before. Considering the present circumstances, the spirit of Buddhism appears to be the only solution to the present crisis, the only way to restore peace and social justice.

Works Cited

Ambedkar, B.R. “Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Ancient India.” Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, vol. 3, edited by Vasant Moon and Hari Narake, Dr. Ambedkar Foundation, 2014, pp.149-437.

Author Information

Ditsa Mandal studies English literature at Presidency University, Kolkata. She is interested in Film Studies, particularly French Cinema.

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