Why Ambedkar Quit Hinduism

B.R., Ambedkar
Hinduism was a very different experience for Ambedkar. More than a way of life, it was a system of oppression.

Very few leaders have condemned Hinduism in such strong terms as Dr B.R. Ambedkar. He called it “a veritable chamber of horrors” – and set up a ‘Manu Smruti Dahan Din’ (Manusmriti Burning Day) on December 25, where copies of the ancient legal texts were set alight in a pit along the sea.

It’s difficult to imagine such acts being tolerated today by the Hindutva, so one can imagine the audacity of doing it in 1927. But there was a reason Ambedkar chose to take on Hinduism in such strong terms. His lived experience, and those of the Dalits he led, all confirmed that caste was so much bigger than just a practice to be outlawed – it was inbuilt into the system around them. For many Dalits, Hinduism mandated that they were somehow to be treated as impure humans, solely by virtue of their birth.

Perspective is everything. Hinduism is often called a way of life. Much like life, your experience with it can vary depending on your position at birth. The caste system as laid out by Manu, grades society into four varnas – Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra – and one avarna (Untouchables, today identifying themselves as “Dalit” or “Trampled Upon”).

B.R. Ambedkar chose not to mince his words for a reason. As an ‘Untouchable’, his experience with Hinduism had been nothing short of a nightmare – one that started generations before his birth. As a child, he was segregated at school, not allowed to fetch his own water and made to sit on a jute sack which he had to carry home. A simple cart ride with his family could quickly turn into an interrogation of caste by the cart puller – and when the Ambedkars revealed theirs, they saw how fast the inherent kindness of strangers could disappear. This is why he would later write:

Hinduism is a veritable chamber of horrors. The sanctity and infallibility of the Vedas, Smritis and Shastras, the iron law of caste, the heartless law of karma and the senseless law of status by birth are to the untouchables veritable instruments of torture which Hinduism has forged against untouchables.

For many, reading the above excerpt for the first time can seem baffling. But without experiencing the life of a Dalit, one cannot easily perceive how institutionalised the notion of caste is.

Ambedkar survived the many barriers his caste placed in him, becoming one of the most highly educated barristers in India at the time having studied at (and later completed doctorates from) both the London School of Economics and Columbia University. Yet, hotels in Baroda denied him stay. The notion of caste was so rigidly embedded into India that even Christians and Parsis denied him lodging.

That was the nineteenth century. Surely, mindsets would have changed with the twentieth-century-democracy which Ambedkar helped write

The Tsundur Massacre of 1991 is just one of several that have happened since Independence. A spate of violent attacks on Dalits by the upper caste Reddy community was triggered when a Dalit student accidentally touched a Reddy girl with his foot in a crowded cinema. He was beaten up for this – triggering protests from the Dalit community. For daring to raise their voices, 14 were massacred by armed mobs.

Or take the Melavalavu massacre in 1997, where an elected Dalit leader of a village panchayat was beheaded for refusing to step down.

Even today, Dalits are persecuted for being the only community to cut, transport and consume beef. Incidents of Dalits being flogged for this are increasingly common.

Across India, and historically, Dalits have faced numerous violations of basic human rights – being denied access to water, temples, roads and most importantly – institutions. It’s a shocking experience for a section of the population that numbered over 166 million at last count. Yet despite their size, they are targeted with impunity – the conviction rate of crimes against Scheduled Castes was as low as 3.4 percent in Gujarat.

In Ambedkar’s time, the prominent social reformers were proving inadequate, with even Gandhi proving reluctant to call for the complete abolishment of the varna system. Once democracy arrived, the Dalits would be just another cog in a machine designed to crush them – unless they found a way out.

From 1935, Ambedkar advocated Dalits to convert to other religions. Buddhism, Sikhism, Islam – it didn’t matter which. “After giving deep thought to the problem, everybody will have to admit that conversion is necessary to the Untouchables as self-government is to India.”

Ambedkar’s ultimate gift to India was its Constitution – of which he is considered the chief architect. Thanks to it, Dalits gained the right to vote – giving them a say in policy making for the first time in over two thousand years. And when the dust had settled from Partition, Republic-building and his ideological bouts with Mahatma Gandhi – he led half a million Dalits through a mass conversion to Buddhism in 1956.

It’s hard to say if Ambedkar felt like a winner. He was certainly joyous at having walked away from the oppression he was born into, saying “This conversion has given me enormous satisfaction and pleasure unimaginable. I feel as if I have been liberated from hell.”

But he also understood the caste system well enough to know how it would persist. He didn’t adopt Buddhism for his own personal Nirvana – he did it to set the Dalits on a path away from Hinduism.

In his famous, undelivered speech called “The Annihilation of Caste” he wrote, “Brahminism is the poison which has spoiled Hinduism. You will succeed in saving Hinduism if you will kill Brahminism.” He felt that Hindus need not turn to the West to acquire principles of liberty or equality – that they were to be found in the Upanishads themselves.

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In 1997, a statue of Ambedkar in Mumbai’s Ramabai Ambedkar Nagar colony was desecrated with a garland of shoes. When the local Dalits took to the streets in protest, the State Reserve Police Force opened fire – killing ten of them. Many were shot above the waist – with no attempt to spare their lives. Prior to the shooting, they were lathi-charging Dalits in their own homes. It was textbook over-aggression – but the accused policeman was later acquitted. When the United Nations filed a complaint, India defended the cop’s actions to the world.

Even in 2016, India refuses to discuss caste with the United Nations. It’s clear that Ambedkar was farsighted in his pessimism, as he wrote prior to the formation of the Republic. “We are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics, we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality.”

You can find Ambedkar’s image in many of the poorest households in India today. In Dalit colonies (as an informal form of segregation persists in our cities and villages), in their shops, cars and person – a slightly chubby man with spectacles and a bright blue suit, his arm often outstretched and pointing. “Jai Bhim” is their prayer – and every year on April 14, “Ambedkar Jayanti” – tens of millions remember Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar.

For India’s most downtrodden people, he is the only symbol of humanity that they have ever known.

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