If Dr BR Ambedkar’s birth anniversary is a day of celebration, it is also a day of reflection. To honor the struggle of someone as dedicated and revolutionary as Dr. Ambedkar, one must be able to look back on what has been achieved and also look forward to what needs to be done.
Admittedly, the wish for the complete annihilation of caste in India appears to be a tall order, so deeply and intimately does caste seem to be enmeshed in the Hindu way of life. But Babasaheb’s call was at bottom for the annihilation of ritualistic, shastra-based Hinduism. This he outlined to suggest the way for the renewal of the Hindu faith, shorn of the continuing notion of caste.
As part of the reform that Dr. Ambedkar envisioned in his classic tract The Annihilation of Caste (AoC), he stated: “There should be one and only one standard book of Hindu Religion, acceptable to all Hindus and recognized by all Hindus. This of course means that all other books of Hindu religion such as Vedas, Shastras, and Puranas, which are treated as sacred and authoritative, must by law cease to be…”
We know what the immediate effect of the recommendations contained in his undelivered speech. A body such as the Jat-Pat-Todak Mandal, ostensibly dedicated to the removal of caste among Hindus, backed off from allowing him to deliver his lecture. Dr. Ambedkar was well aware of his acute unpopularity among the caste Hindus whom he had tasked with the burden of dealing with the institution of caste in their faith. But despite the scorn he regularly received, he did not entirely give up hope that some future generation of Hindus would pay heed to his words.
It goes without saying that Dr. Ambedkar’s words have not gone entirely unheeded among the caste-Hindus. Yet the crucial task of the reorganization of the Hindu religion, if one may call it that, remains largely without any measurable progress. Several academics have argued that caste has actually hardened in urban India. With the Hindu right politically in power in India since 2014, the “Hindu character” of the nation seems to get only deeper and more widespread.
But how does one assess the “Hinduness” or the religiosity, the affinity for the faith among Hindus at large? Who are the “lakhs of Hindus” who are crowding the banks of the Ganga at Haridwar during peak Corona-season, for instance? How does the fear of contracting a dreaded disease, whose vaccine is just becoming available, become subsumed in the ardent desire to indulge in a ritual, the ritual bath? What faith inspires them — the lakhs who seem to be ordinary Indians from all walks of life — to keep track of and participate in these Hindu rituals? Are they under the spell of some Brahmanical belief system or is there some other, more mundane form of aastha that drives them?The author Mishi Saran, in her book Chasing The Monk’s Shadow which traced the travels of the Chinese monk Xuanzang, was at the site of another Kumbh several years ago. She wistfully wondered, seeing the hundreds upon thousands of Hindu devotees assembled, how Hinduism seemed to continue on from strength to strength, whereas Buddhism had faded away from India.
Unless one can come to grips with what constitutes the often undefinable Hindu belief system, which includes under its umbrella a bewildering variety of practices, one cannot reasonably harbor hopes for its dismantling. Rituals and shastras are at the core of this Hinduism, whether we call it Brahminical Hinduism or a more popular version, the Puranic Hinduism, and they are not going away anywhere anytime soon.
The shastras need not be the actual Vedas or Puranas – they could be Satyanarayana Puja booklets or even the “Om Jai Jagadeesh Hare” aarti apparatus. As Buddhist scholar Steve Collins had pointed out in his journal article, “On the Very Idea of the Pali Canon”, the actual Pali canonical texts like the Tripitaka have rarely been the foundational texts in most Buddhist monasteries. A variety of other documents – Collins refers to “pseudo-jatakas and other pseudo-canonical works” – have made up the collections of texts regularly used to practice and propagate Buddhism.
Ambedkar’s practical suggestion such as marriages across caste lines to dissolve caste boundaries remains an area that few pursue as a missionSo, one might have to move away from the Indological view that Hinduism resides solely in its so-called canonical texts – the shastras – and by abandoning them (and their authority) one can somehow hope to engender a more rational, ritual-less faith. One might not agree entirely with writers like Guru Prakash who talk of the Hindu beliefs among Dalits as “subaltern Hindutva, ” and claim that the “Dalit Hindus or lower-caste Hindus are more Hindu than upper-caste Hindus.”
But one has to pay heed to the anxieties of a Kancha Illaiah when he talks about the OBCs thinking of themselves as “Neo-Kshatriyas” in the Hindu order and also “adopting the Brahmin-Baniya culture.” This is significant because OBCs make up a significant chunk of India’s population, and none other than India’s prime minister, a lifelong RSS member, counts himself as an OBC. As Illaiah notes matter-of-factly, “If the Shudras get freed from this psychological slavery from Brahminism, the liberated Shudras also would not allow the Dalit liberation to follow.”
Thus, there seems to be no guarantee that even if the so-called fourth varna is unshackled from the spell of Brahmanical Hinduism, the hierarchical caste system will be weakened. What then of the so-called upper-castes who are deeply invested in the Hindu faith anyways – and with a resurgent Hindu right in political power, find themselves immersed in a Hindu ecosystem more and more.
There is no easy solution to the issue of annihilation of caste. A remarkable intellect like Dr Ambedkar struggled with the issue throughout his life. His practical suggestion such as marriages across caste lines to dissolve caste boundaries remains an area that few pursue as a mission. Considerations of caste in marital alliances still remain strongly traditional and hide-bound. He upheld Buddhism as the rational and moral alternative to a life-philosophy based on Hinduism but its adoption, even among the so-called lower-castes, remains patchy.
One has to be reasonable regarding expectations of overthrow of centuries-old oppression. Social change, especially for cases involving deep-rooted prejudices, is very slow. As scholar Kwame Anthony Appiah has outlined in his book, “The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen”, mere moral arguments do not augur social change. He lists other precipitating factors such as deliberate feelings of shame and dishonor to dissuade harmful social practices. One size does not fit all and Indian society is considerably more complex than the societies Appiah examines.
Dr Ambedkar was very clear in AoC that the responsibility for ridding the Hindu faith of caste rests on the caste Hindus. While there seems to be little evidence of caste Hindus undertaking any groundbreaking steps to extirpate the system of caste, it is undeniable that an increased highlighting of issues of caste and moral shaming through a variety of platforms has caused a greater recognition among upper-caste Hindus of the baggage it denotes.Reactions to such highlighting has manifested itself, among other things, in the brazen appropriation of Dr Ambedkar and the cause he represented. But a lot more right-wing ideologues talk about it than had previously done, which can only be seen in positive light.
Still, it makes little sense for the modern anti-caste movements to expend inordinate amounts of energy in trying to run down the Hindu religion in generic, repetitive and non-creative fashion, without clear targets. The movements will have to choose the best strategy and prioritise its actions to protect the well-being of the oppressed classes and at least ensure the guarantees that Babasaheb wrote into the constitution. All the while it must keep in mind the well-known, and in some senses fundamental, exhortation of Babasaheb to Educate, Agitate and Organize.—
*A writer based in Delhi-NCR