Written by Randeep Singh
Dr. B.R. Ambedkar was one of modern India’s most remarkable statesman. He drafted the Constitution of India, served as the country’s first Minister of Law and led the Untouchables in his fight against the caste system.
Ambedkar singlehandedly revived Buddhism in India. On October 14, 1956, he converted to the religion, prompting the mass conversion of hundreds of thousands of his followers. He created a new identity for India’s Untouchables, but he polemicized his interpretation of Buddhism in the process.
Ambedkar claimed that the Buddha did everything to uproot the caste system, but ignored the fact that the caste system remained entrenched in India throughout the Buddhist period (c. 268 BCE – 551 CE). He did not mention that the practice of Untouchability first emerged during this period. He gushed about how Buddhism gave India democratic parliaments with whip, quorum, resolutions, ballot voting and vote counting.
He inspires me nonetheless and I believe that Buddhism, as secularized political philosophy, can help undermine the caste system. It was the first religion to challenge the caste system by turning upside down the concepts upholding it. Its insights in this respect are interesting from a modern, secular perspective.
Buddhism is concerned with the end of suffering as a human problem. Its primary concern is to promote human welfare and happiness. It holds that only humans can end their own suffering through moral action, self-discipline, and understanding. No God, divine being, black magic, superstition or astrological charts are necessary.
Humans are equal in Buddhism in the sense of being equally capable of achieving enlightenment. They are equally subject to one universal moral law (‘Dharma’) with moral obligations to one another such as to respect one another’s life, liberty and dignity. This contrasts to the caste system which differentiates laws on the basis of caste.
The Buddha recognized the existence of caste in his society. He exhorted his followers, however, to emphasize the cultivation of moral character as an indication of self-worth. Caste or rather class in Buddhism arise due to human expediency, not divine sanction: it is a matter of vocation, not birth.
Caste is not static either. Like all existence, individual or collective, it is subject to change, interrelated and composite and conditioned by many interdependent factors. The seasons come and go, empires rise and fall and ancient communities perish. There is no “caste” other than the conditions giving rise to it.
Lastly, Buddhism left an important secular legacy for India. It inculcated a more humane ethic in politics (e.g. the reign of Ashoka). It formulated a social contract theory of government. It established inclusive social institutions such as universities, monasteries, and hospitals. Its appeal to reason, ethics and its concern for human well-being, can enlighten India yet.