In the debate on caste between the Untouchable Ambedkar and the Hindu God expert Mohandas Gandhi 75 years ago this month, Ambedkar reminded readers what caste distinction meant in practice:
The Untouchable was required to carry, strung from his waist, a broom to sweep away from behind the dust he treaded on lest a Hindu walking on the same should be polluted. In Poona, the Untouchable was required to carry an earthen pot, hung on his neck wherever he went, for holding his spit lest his spit falling on earth should pollute a Hindu who might unknowingly happen to tread on it.
Gandhi’s reply did not belittle the degradation of the Untouchables, but did attempt to shift the blame away from the Hindu religion. Ambedkar had cited extensive passages in the Hindu sacred scriptures mandating the separation of Indians by caste. Since he couldn’t dispute their plain meaning, Gandhi simply asserted that these particular scriptures didn’t count: “The Smritis for instance contain much that can never be accepted as the Word of God. Thus many of the texts that Dr. Ambedkar quotes from the Smritis cannot be accepted as authentic.”
Thus, following in the footsteps of Christian God experts who pick and choose which Bible passages are divine and which are not, based on their own personal preferences, Gandhi elevated himself to God’s level by sorting out the true God commands from the fakes. He also took pains to shield against the danger that a scholar might establish that the oldest and most authentic parts of the scriptures were those that contained the most objectionable parts:
Who is the best interpreter? Not learned men surely. Learning there must be. But religion does not live by it. It lives in the experiences of its saints and seers, in their lives and sayings. When all the most learned commentators of the scriptures are utterly forgotten, the accumulated experience of the sages and saints will abide and be an inspiration for ages to come.
Thus it is the whims of “sages and saints” we must listen to, and not the actual words of the allegedly sacred texts. Gandhi’s particular whim was that “Caste has nothing to do with religion. It is a custom whose origin I do not know and do not need to know for the satisfaction of my spiritual hunger. But I do know that it is harmful both to spiritual and national growth.” Then, having admitted that caste was harmful, he proceeded to defend it anyway.
The law of Varna teaches us that we have each one of us to earn our bread by following the ancestral calling. It defines not our rights but our duties. It necessarily has reference to callings that are conducive to the welfare of humanity and to no other. It also follows that there is no calling too low and none too high. All are good, lawful, and absolutely equal in status. The callings of a Brahmin – spiritual teacher – and a scavenger are equal, and their due performance carries equal merit before God.
Gandhi's “law of Varna” was the essence of caste: that we have a duty to be locked within the same life our ancestors had. Otherwise, the whole mechanic of karma – rebirth in a particular caste based on how good a past life you had led – wouldn’t work right.
What Gandhi called a “scavenger” was an Untouchable who was required to live on the undigested corn kernels he picked out of cow manure. But since that calling was equal in the eyes of God to that of a powerful Brahmin, that made everything ok.
Ambedkar then published a rebuttal to Gandhi’s response, leading off with a kick to the groin. Gandhi himself had been born into the “Bania” caste of grocers and traders – why didn’t the “law of Varna” apply to him? Gandhi never sold so much as a carrot, but instead waltzed about like a wannabe Brahmin, going to law school and lecturing others on what God did and did not want them to do.
Gandhi’s case is a perfect example of the economic lunacy of caste. It is hard to picture Gandhi surviving as a grocer without going bankrupt; yet his brilliant organizational and communication skills made him a natural for the profession he entered. In all the millions of words Gandhi wrote and spoke over his career, I am not aware of any instance when he offered an explanation of this laughable hypocrisy.
For all his sanctimony, Gandhi’s true feelings about the Untouchables may have been revealed when he criticized Christian missionaries for trying to share the Gospel with them: “Would you preach the gospel to a cow? Well, some of the Untouchables are worse than cows in understanding ... they can no more distinguish between the relative merits of Islam and Hinduism and Christianity than a cow.” In the midst of Gandhi’s “Be kind to Untouchables” campaign, a bill was introduced in the Indian parliament to allow Untouchables to enter Hindu temples. Gandhi had vigorously opposed this idea a few years earlier. He now gave it lip service, but not enough to move even his own Congress party, so it failed.
Ambedkar made good on this threat to abandon Hinduism in 1935. The question became, where would he land? The most politically significant move he could have made would have been to Islam, already a powerful and militant minority. Islam also preached, and in many countries practiced, the equality of all races before God. But Ambedkar despised the rigidity of Islam, especially its shabby treatment of women. He also knew that Muslims had ruled India for centuries before the British arrived, never lifting a finger toward the abolition of the caste system. Besides, as an Indian nationalist, he much preferred to adopt a religion that arose in India -- for the same reason he never gave Christianity a second thought.
Thus he toyed at length with Sikhism, an Indian amalgam of Hinduism and Islam, that played a critical role in the Indian balance of political power. Sikhs, though, insisted that men wear beards, a practice that Ambedkar didn’t want to follow himself, and didn’t think he could sell to other Untouchable men. Besides, Gandhi kept insisting that Sikhs were actually just a subcategory of Hindus. Even though the Sikh leaders vigorously disagreed, Ambedkar wanted to get as far away from Gandhi as he could.
Some historians argue that what Ambedkar really wanted was not to leave Hinduism at all, but to use the constant threat that he might do so and take millions of Untouchables with him as a political club to bring about true reform inside Hinduism. This may explain why he took 20 years to make up his mind. Ultimately, he settled on Buddhism, which satisfied his requirement for a religion of Indian origin. At a ceremony in October, 1956, Ambedkar and 500,000 other Untouchables formally converted to Buddhism. The mass abandonment of Hinduism would have been even greater had not Ambedkar died in his sleep two months later.
What seems to have appealed to Ambedkar is that Buddhism is the most flexible and diverse of the major world religions. There is variety within Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, but not as much as within Buddhism. At one extreme is the “Imperial Way” Buddhism of the Japanese military dictatorship, and at the other a gentle philosophy that barely qualifies as a “religion” at all. Ambedkar chose that latter extreme; as one of his admirers put it:
Buddhism does not believe in revelation; does not depend on miracles; does not lay emphasis on mystic or metaphysical abstractions; does not hold out a promise of heaven; does not believe in coercion. It stands for equality and unity. It has no rituals, no ceremonies, no priests with hereditary rights, no glorification ceremonies, no Shankracharya to dogmatize. In place of fear of God, there is morality. It is based on purity of thought, deed and action, compassion and love, self-respect and self-help.
Re-read that paragraph, replacing the word “Buddhism” with the word “humanism.” Reads pretty well, doesn’t it? So why didn’t Ambedkar go one step further, and stand by his original prescription that “You must destroy the Religion ...”? The best explanation I can come up with is simply that everyone makes mistakes.