Hinduism on Trial: Deciphering Ambedkar’s “Philosophy of Hinduism”

Disha Chakraborty

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

Dr. B. R. Ambedkar’s tract “Philosophy of Hinduism” was first included in the third volume of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches published by the Education Department of the Government of Maharashtra in 1987. The volume was reprinted by Dr. Ambedkar Foundation in 2014. Since 2016, the text has been made available both in eBook and paperback formats on numerous e-commerce websites.

Ambedkar starts off his piece, “Philosophy of Hinduism,” by stating, “…I shall be putting Hinduism on trial to assess its worth as a way of life” (5). He takes a long wound path to reach the end of his aim which is to prove how Hinduism fails the test of both social utility and individual justice by adopting unabated favour towards a single caste of the fourfold caste system. Before entering into his argument, Ambedkar chooses to define the terms, ‘philosophy’ and ‘religion,’ and the phrase ‘Philosophy of Religion.’ He distinctively defines the three terms and the connotations with which they will be used to bolster his argument.

Ambedkar proposes a ‘two-fold’ understanding of the term ‘philosophy’ which implies philosophical teachings as well as critical reasoning which question and assess those teachings. He lists the former under ‘descriptive science’ and the latter under ‘normative science,’ both of which he considers elemental to the understanding of Philosophy of Religion. Ambedkar uses the term ‘Religion’ to simply imply theology or natural theology which in turn concentrates upon the claims of the existence of an omniscient, eternal God, His control over nature and events, and on His ‘sovereign, moral’ government. Ambedkar in a pertinent statement describes religion as “…the propounding of an ideal scheme of divine governance the aim and object of which is to make the social order under which men live a moral order” (6). It is on the grounds of this definition that he establishes the immoralities and irrationalities of the divine sanctions of Manu in the Manusmriti and the verse of “Purushasukta.” The Philosophy of Religion, thus, is both normative and descriptive. These are the major aspects of the three aforementioned terms as listed by Ambedkar, who, after defining these, goes on to place in words, the importance of revolutions in the realm of religion, and the various consequences these have brought about.

To assert the importance of revolutions as an important criterion of his argument, Ambedkar declares revolution to be the mother of philosophy. He cites examples of the Copernican Revolution and Darwinian Revolution to elucidate how these forces of reason and rationale freed religion of its wild growth by introducing medicine and science essential to the social wellbeing of a community. Revolution was instrumental in growth and evolution by conferring agency on man and helping man transcend from savage society to modern society, from antique society, at last, to a civilised society. Ambedkar talks at length about the different types of societies over time concerning the forms of religion practised in each of them. He engages with these discourses to weave his way towards his ultimate subject on trial, ‘Philosophy of Hinduism,’ by using the discourses on religious revolution and evolution of societies as building blocks of his argument.

From religious revolutions, Ambedkar takes recourse to the theological basis of both savage society and modern society, and the differences in between. He engages in this discourse to churn out the two primordial factors for his main argument on Hinduism; ‘social utility’ and ‘individual justice’ intrinsic to savage society and civilised society respectively. A savage society lacked any definite or structured idea of God but conferred divine sanctions on events of elemental importance and utmost crises such as birth, death, marriage, agriculture among others by engaging in rites, magic, totem and fetishism. In his assessment of the religion of savage society, Ambedkar states how the bond between religion and morality is more intimate than the same between religion and God. The reason for the strengthening of the former bond can allude to the sense of communal harmony integral to the antique society where the community partook of the sacrificial meals and divine festivities together, and most importantly, the absence of any codified caste system or varna established religion as a ‘political and religious whole.’

The religion of modern society stands at sharp contrast to that of the savage society. Ambedkar further breaks down modern society into antique society and civilised society. Ambedkar elucidates this discourse on the religion of modern society by contrasting and comparing the religious ideals of antique society and those of the civilised society. The modern society harbours the idea of a divine, omnipresent and omniscient Father for God, created in the likeness of man, a likeness in both physical appearance and common vices which men often succumb to. Ambedkar depicts modern society as anthropocentric where man is placed at the centre unlike in savage society whose core formed the whole community practising a religion. Thus in savage society, ‘social utility’ of the divine codes becomes essential, for the divine codes and sacraments had to align with the benefits and interests of the community which formed the centre. Similarly, the idea of ‘individual justice’ is of primary importance to the anthropocentric modern society where men worshipped different Gods who best suited their interests. Having established the ideas of social utility and individual justice, Ambedkar proceeds to lay the ground for his argument which forms the crux of “Philosophy of Hinduism.”

For Ambedkar, religion is a ‘social force’, a ‘livewire’ and ‘divine governance’. However, he states that not all religions are equally good. The ideals of a religion strive to help the followers attain material benefit and it is the disparity in the concentration of wealth, distribution of knowledge and security which underlines the failure in the execution of the ideals of the religion or gross inequalities in the very ideals itself. The error with the Philosophy of Hinduism is quite along these lines. Ambedkar, while stating the two criteria for testing the doctrines of a religion, i.e., social utility and individual justice, also brings into the fold of criteria, the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity – ideas derived from the French Revolution. Using these terms, Ambedkar raises three burning questions concerning Hinduism:

1. “Does Hinduism recognise Equality?” (25)

2. “Does Hinduism recognise Liberty?” (39)

3. “Does Hinduism recognise Fraternity?” (44)

Ambedkar answers each question in the negative by unveiling through scriptures (primarily the Manusmriti), the blatant inequality, orders of subservience and seeds of inter-caste hegemony and hatred entrenched in the sacred texts. There are, however, directions to attain knowledge, wealth, security and spiritual nourishment reserved for the class of ‘supermen’, the Brahmins at large, the Kshatriyas and the Vaishyas. The four-fold caste system thus decries the interests of the Shudras while the worst is meted out to the Untouchables, the Unseeables and the Unapproachables who are not only ostracised from the four-fold caste system but cornered to the darkest recesses of society. Ambedkar approaches the subject of the Untouchables at the end of his argument.

(In pic: Ambedkar delivering a speech about renouncing Hinduism at Yeola, Maharashtra on 13 October 1935. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

To account for Hinduism’s stance on and accordance with the ideals of ‘Equality,’ Ambedkar quotes verses from the Manusmriti while identifying the caste system as akin to the deadliest plague in Hinduism. For Ambedkar, Manu is not the father of the caste system but its progenitor while his verses are perpetrators of the inhumane caste system whose doctrines enabled the subjugation of the Shudras over centuries and denied basic rights of knowledge, security and wealth to them, thus keeping the Shudras blanketed in the fold of darkness, despair and poverty under the pretence of divinity and pre-determinism. The caste system instead of being evenly compartmentalised is inequitably hierarchical where the concentration of knowledge, wealth and promise of societal respect and security diminishes on moving down the strata. Ambedkar states that Manu does not stop at denying the Shudras access to the Vedas but stripes them off their choice of labour by conferring divinely ordained slavery upon them. In this scheme of caste and hierarchy, it is to be noted that only the Hindu women share an equal footing with the Shudras by being subjected to slavery and subjugation. Narada, the successor of Manu, states, “In the inverse order of the four castes slavery is not ordained except where a man violates the duties peculiar to his caste. Slavery (in that respect) is analogous to the condition of a wife” (qtd. in Ambedkar 26).

Ambedkar moves from the subject of slavery to Manu’s laws on caste intermarriage as he again proves how prohibiting intermarriage is another blow to the prospect of equality. As is well-known, in his paper, titled “Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development,” the ever argumentative Ambedkar enunciates how the practice of endogamy within respective castes prevents social fusion, interaction and mobilisation thereby keeping the assets of each caste aloof from one another and throttling collective growth and upliftment. On the other hand, exogamy can promote fusion and mobilisation as well, thereby breaking the very basis of Brahminical supremacy and therefore exogamy is stringently forbidden by Manu.

The fate of the practitioners of intermarriage is well known. Once an alliance is found out between an upper-class woman and a lower class man or vice versa, the pair is separated and punished in lieu with the scriptures while the offspring is ostracised as baseborn or ‘chandal.’ Ambedkar states how individual justice fails to escape inequality and favouritism in the Manusmriti. For example, Ambedkar offers the following verse from Manusmriti, “For mutual abuse by a priest and a soldier, this fine must be imposed by a learned king; the lowest amercement on the priest and the middlemost on the soldier” (26). This inequality widens on moving down the caste structure. To illustrate interspersed unfairness and entrenched, subjective hatred directed at the Shudras even in the event of naming a Hindu child, Ambedkar cites the following verse, “Manu will not tolerate the Shudra to have the comfort of a high sounding name. He must be contemptible both in fact and in the name” (38).

Ambedkar next answers his second question on the recognition of liberty by Hinduism. Since he already established that there is no space for equality of castes in Hinduism, the prospect of liberty, too, gets compromised. With the presence of social, judicial and economic double standards, and the dreary treatment of the Shudras chained by Brahminical interests and scriptures, liberty is far from being accepted, let alone practiced, as a basic law. On the subject of fraternity in Hinduism, Ambedkar comments that individualism gets the upper hand over fellow feeling. Because of Hinduism’s scripturally prescribed forms of labour and division of individuals into specific caste-based labours, he holds Hinduism accountable for the division of labour as well as labourers.

Ambedkar observes how the glaring absence of fraternity and unwarranted favouritism in the scriptures of Hinduism has led to innumerable inter-class wars out of mutual jealousy, unprecedented in any other religion. The warring castes made India vulnerable to recurrent foreign onslaughts. Ambedkar notes that the absence of fraternity in the scriptures barred mobilisation while the flagrant division of labourers into different castes enabled only the Kshatriyas, the military class, skilled in armoury and weaponry to fight foreign invasions. Consequently, the fall of only the population of the Kshatriyas brought the entire nation and all four castes to their feet. With these assertions, Ambedkar rests his case on the question of individual justice, equality, liberty and fraternity in Hinduism.

The second part of Ambedkar’s argument in “Philosophy of Hinduism” deals with the question of social utility in the doctrines of Hinduism. The religion’s stand on the social utility of the Hindu community can be predicted from the conclusions of the first part of the argument wherein the unequal distribution of wealth and resources bellies the very ideals for which social utility stands. Ambedkar considers the Manusmriti to be a scriptural basis meant to attend to the socio-political interests and societal supremacy of the Brahmins at large, at the cost of the wellbeing of the three other varnas, but primarily the Shudras. The doctrines of the Manusmriti thus cater to the upliftment and security of the Brahmins only. Manu tips the scale of knowledge towards the Brahmins, of military and security towards the Kshatriyas and mercantile affairs to the Vaishyas while reserving only inhumane prospects of slavery, subservience and eternal service to the Shudras. Since the Brahmins are placed at the highest echelon in the Chaturvarna, they are privy to knowledge, security, trades and unpaid service by the other castes. The structurization and organisation of the caste system, therefore, benefits none but the Brahmins and the ideals of utility espoused by the Manusmriti are not entirely social but wholly unattainable by other castes but the Brahmins.

On the relation between social utility and Hindu caste system, Ambedkar states that Chaturvarna stands thrice condemned as a ‘social organization’, ‘producer’s organisation’ and ‘…as an ideal scheme of distribution’ (67). He further points towards the subtle similarity between the ideals of ‘supermen’ propounded by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in his philosophy and the stance of Manu towards the Brahmins as the ideal caste. Ambedkar agrees that the parallels drawn between Nietzsche's infamous concept of ‘supermen’ which inspired the Nazis and Manu’s laws will surely anger the Hindus but he draws attention towards the two distinct but morally akin forms of hatred and inequality bred by the philosophies of Manu and Nietzsche. In his defence of the European class conflict against the one in Hinduism, Ambedkar states, “…in Europe, the strong have never contrived to make the weak helpless against exploitation so shamelessly as was the caste in India” (70). The scope for mobilisation in the West somehow enabled the proletariat to rise up against capitalist exploitation but the same cannot be said of the Shudras in India.

Ambedkar concludes his argument by stating that the philosophy of Hinduism fails to uphold both the ideals of social utility and individual justice. Ambedkar accuses Hinduism of keeping the Shudras and the Untouchables in the dark for generations. To answer again why Hinduism fails the trial, Ambedkar explains that while community and individual formed the core of savage society and civilised society respectively, Hinduism takes into consideration only the socio-political interests of one particular class, the Brahmins, and therefore fails to uphold any constructive, constitutive ideal. Though Ambedkar quotes largely from the Manusmriti and the verse of “Purushasukta,” he defends his choice of sacred texts by stating that the horrors of the caste system are entrenched in the Vedas, Upanishads and the Gita as well. Ambedkar sums up the Gita as “…Manu in a nutshell” (81).

Ambedkar draws “Philosophy of Hinduism” of Hinduism to a close by vividly defining the historical marginalization, ostracisation and demarcation of the Untouchables, the Unseeables, and the Unapproachables and other Criminal Tribes such as the Pindaries and the Thugs. These tribes are worse off in their standing because they have not only been denied inclusion in the four-fold varna system but are also left to fend for themselves entirely in the outskirts of Hindu settlements. Ambedkar claims that the primitive tribes amount to roughly 79.5 million (considering the statistics of Ambedkar’s era) in the Hindu population. This staggering figure is yet to attain enlightenment, which again adds to the burgeoning list of failures of Hinduism.

Before concluding, Ambedkar goes back to the three terms with which he began the “Philosophy of Hinduism” – philosophy, religion and philosophy of religion. He forcefully asserts that the philosophy of Hinduism fails to uphold the ideals of the three distinct terms and thus is a set of doctrines marred with instances of inequality, favouritism, social and spiritual disintegration of a man and his community. In his tirade against Hinduism as a religion, Ambedkar also states that he follows the lead of Edmund Burke on the necessity of religion as a set of doctrines for governance. He, on the other hand, augments his argument by citing doctrines intrinsic to Hinduism, thus painting a real, rational and unapologetic picture of Hinduism. However, as far this particular text is concerned, Ambedkar offers little space to a discussing the position of Hindu women who, as he himself states in passing, were as morally wretched as the Shudras and the primitive tribes. Furthermore, in this text, Ambedkar’s emphasis seems to be more on the articulation of a problem than conceptualizing a solution. The fact, however, remains that he vouches for the ‘annihilation of caste’ and a possible rational turn to the irrational doctrines of religion to bridge the immeasurable disparity between the castes and tribes in Hindu society.

Works Cited

Ambedkar, Bhimrao Ramji. “Philosophy of Hinduism.” Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, vol. 3, edited by Vasant Moon, Dr Ambedkar Foundation, 2014, pp. 1-92.

Author Information

Disha Chakraborty studies English Literature at Presidency University, Kolkata. Her areas of interest include European classical literature, the radical writings of the Romantic Age, and the burgeoning feminist authorship in the Victorian Age. She also loves reading confessional poetry and inter-war poetry.

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