Reading Ambedkar's “Buddha or Karl Marx”: Rethinking Equality in Times of Disparity

Ishan Purkait

The subject matter of the essay “Buddha or Karl Marx” is taken from a speech delivered by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar before the delegates of the Fourth Conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists held in Kathmandu, Nepal, in the year 1956. In his closing address to the delegates, Ambedkar spoke of a comparative study of the ideas proposed by Gautama the Buddha and Karl Marx. The text was first published in 1987 as part of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, Vol. 3, by the Education Department of the Government of Maharashtra. This volume was reprinted by Dr. Ambedkar Foundation in 2014. However, the editorial note from the source publication of 1987 mentions that among Dr. Ambedkar’s belongings were found three different manuscripts on the topic with corrections in his own handwriting. These three manuscripts were compared and compiled to prepare the first edition of the text.

(In pic: Ambedkar delivering his historic speech on "Buddha or Karl Marx" at Kathmandu on 20 November 1956. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

In his attempts to investigate the failings of an Indian society that was beset by the evils of caste discrimination, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar attempted to compare the teachings of two great historical figures who wished for the establishment of a society where all human beings would be equal – the Buddha and Karl Marx. This comparison, on the face of it, is completely absurd. The period that separates the Buddha and Karl Marx is over 2,000 years. Yet, Dr. Ambedkar claims that this comparison is very feasible and that there is much that Marxists can learn from Buddhism despite their hatred towards all religions.

Dr. Ambedkar begins the essay by giving the reader a clear and concise idea of the complete teachings of both the Buddha and Karl Marx. The Buddha’s teachings of the doctrine of Ahimsa encompass only one aspect of his vast sermons, and Ambedkar attempts to shed light on them to give the exercise a more well-rounded approach – he shows how the teachings of the Buddha provide guidelines for every sphere of life, attempting to create a society where all are equal in spirit, not just in name. Then he examines the creed of Karl Marx, who believed in the inevitability of his theory of “Scientific Socialism” over capitalism or the ideas of a Utopian socialist society. Ambedkar takes care, however, to point out how most of Marx’s ideas have been disproved, either theoretically or in practice. The “dictatorship of the Proletariat” predicted by Marx did not arrive spontaneously but as a result of a meticulously planned revolution that involved large-scale bloodshed and civil war. He concedes, however, that some fundamental tenets of Marxian philosophy remain intact and relevant – namely those that deal with the problems of class struggle, problems of public and private property, and a focus on reconstruction of the world order over explanations of its origin.

This begins the preliminary comparisons between the propositions of the Buddha and those of Karl Marx, where Dr. Ambedkar examines the stance of the Buddha’s teachings on the matters considered of supreme importance by Marx. While the Buddha recognizes class and power struggles as an inevitable consequence of the societal structure, he chooses to focus on the enlightenment of the individual; he does, however, appreciate that the abolition of the concept of private ownership of property could go a long way towards the removal of disparity in society – as removing the very basis of ownership would eradicate avarice and the want for more material possessions. Dr. Ambedkar has illustrated every statement with the help of excerpts from the teachings of the Buddha, and he ends this chapter with a list of the rules of the Bhikshu Sangh, noting that these were far more stringent than any rules imposed in Communist Russia. From this, we can conclude that the Buddha did propose something akin to modern-day Communism well before the time of Marx.

Subsequent sections deal with the means proposed by the Buddha and Marx, the evaluation and relative feasibility and efficiency of those means. The Buddha advocated that his followers live life according to the guidelines of the Pancha Sila and the Noble Eight-Fold Path, to remove misconduct in personal life and inequity among men respectively. The third doctrine of Nirvana enunciates the various hindrances in the path to attaining righteousness, and the fourth, the doctrine of the Paramitas, lists ten virtues one must observe in the course of daily life to avoid falling into sin. The Communists, however, have far more simplistic means – violence and the dictatorship of the proletariat; much less emphasis is placed on guidelines for the individual. It is problematic, however, that the Buddha’s teachings also justify violence provided it is for “truth and justice”. This is problematic for the simple reason that all wars in human history have been justified with claims that each side is fighting for Truth, God or the like. While Communism outright recommends violent means, Buddhist policies do not, contrary to popular opinion, outright reject violence as a means to the end. Dr. Ambedkar concludes that the only differences between Buddhism and Communism are in the means, as the end is the same – while communism requires violence, bloodshed and enforcement, the teachings of the Buddha are aimed at changing the mindset of people and getting them to follow the path of their own accord.

Dr. Ambedkar discusses whose means are more effective in one of the most crucial sections of the book, Chapter VI, which contains more examples and lines from the teachings of the Buddha as Ambedkar tries to explain to the reader his viewpoint. The Buddha, says Ambedkar, never denied that it was necessary to punish those who had committed wrongs, and if violence was necessary, so be it. The Buddha, says Ambedkar, ‘would have probably admitted that it is only the end that justifies the means. What else could?’ (451) This argument does not outright call for violent means, but if the end is to be reached, it does not exclude violence as one of the possible means. As for Dictatorship, the Buddha was firmly opposed to it, Ambedkar writes. A man who lived his life in a completely democratic state would never stand for autocracy. Ambedkar cites examples from the Buddha’s own life to show that the Bhikshu Sangh was probably one of the most democratic organisations ever created, in line with the principles of its founder. Ambedkar does not, however, seem to look favourably upon the means proposed by the Communists. He uses a large amount of rhetoric (unlike any other part of the book) and tells us that the Communists will destroy their own resources and assets to come to power, and eventually oppress their people, with no scope for criticising the government or speaking one’s mind – creating a situation far inferior to one suggested by the Buddha. (In the larger context of Ambedkar’s criticisms against the practice of Marxism, it might be pertinent to remember the Gulag concentration camps built by Communist Russia repressed and executed millions of people from 1930 to 1950s. – Ed. Note.)

It may be observed that in this essay, Ambedkar does not just raise the question – does India need Buddha or does it need Karl Marx? He quite unambiguously offers an answer – for India, Buddha, with his emphatic demand for a casteless society and the enlightenment of the individual, is far more relevant, and perhaps, appropriate than Marx.

In conclusion, the text presents an interesting take on a comparison that some readers might, on a superficial level, dismiss as baseless. In my personal view, Dr. Ambedkar’s own opinions are prevalent in the text and I feel he does not devote equal space to both sides of the argument he is presenting and is effervescent in his praise for Buddhist teachings while rarely showing any Communist policies in a positive light. I also feel it is problematic how Ambedkar is ready to justify violence provided it is for "truth and justice" just because the Buddha’s teachings say so. That being said, “Buddha or Karl Marx” is an engaging essay provoking the reader, interested in the theory and praxis of equality, to interrogate the Marxist discourse and rethink the Buddhist philosophy.

Works Cited

Ambedkar, B. R. “Buddha or Karl Marx.” Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, vol.3, edited by Vasant Moon, Dr. Ambedkar Foundation, 2014, pp. 441-462.

Author Information

Ishan Purkait studies English literature at Presidency University, Kolkata. He is interested in exploring modernist and postmodernist literatures as well as various forms of dystopian literature. Ishan spends much of his time gaming, and has initiated research into ludology, narrative techniques used in games, and surrealist art.

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