Towards an Awakened Society
In the early years, Dr. Ambedkar was still struggling with his spirituality and slowly defining for himself this awakened vision. Therefore, most of his work for the liberation of his people came within a framework of activism concerning laws, committees, and commissions in the British India. For example, he gave evidence before the Southborough Committee for franchise and representation to the Indian legislatures in 1919. This was his first successful campaign without any mandate from his people. He successfully gained representation for depressed classes in the legislative assembly in Bombay. He was invited to participate in the Round Table Conference during 1932-1934 in order to discuss the future constitution of India, which he subsequently drafted. At this conference, he clashed with Gandhi, who denied the independent political rights of untouchables by deliberately trying to keep them in the fold of Hinduism. He also submitted a memorandum to the Cabinet Mission Plan in 1946 on behalf of the All India Scheduled Caste Federation (AISCF) in order to guarantee civil and political rights for them in free India.
The limited effect of such work within the system led Dr. Ambedkar to increasingly work outside of it as well. He began initiating mass protest movements, such as the Mahad Water Tank Movement (1927), and the Kalaram Temple Entry Movement (1934). He consciously created conditions for the illiterate people around him to become aware of the reality of the caste system. These conditions included writing books addressing various issues, editing several newspapers, launching political parties, and forming social organizations.
After clashing with Gandhi on the issue of the political empowerment of untouchables, Dr. Ambedkar realized the futility of changing the minds of the high caste Hindus. Although Gandhi outwardly showed his commitment to the untouchables, his real purpose appears to have been political. He wanted to ensure numerical power to Hindus (i.e. high-caste Hindus) vis-à-vis Muslims. These events led Ambedkar to renounce the systemic container of Hinduism. On May 30-31, 1936 at Dadar in Mumbai, he delivered a lengthy speech entitled "What way Liberty?" In this historic speech, he detailed the path leading towards liberty and gave a call to conversion. He did not make it clear as to which religion he was going to convert. However, at the end of this speech, he gave a clarion call to his people, which echoed the teaching of the Buddha, to "be your own light and refuge":
While thinking over what message should I give you on this occasion, I recollected the message given by the Lord Buddha to his Bhikkhu Sangha just before his mahaparinirvana and which has been quoted in Mahaparinibbana Sutta:
"Once the Bhagwan, after having recovered from illness, was resting on a seat under a tree and his disciple venerable Ananda went to the Buddha. Having saluted, he sat beside him and said, 'I have seen the Lord in illness as well as in happiness. But from the present illness of the Lord, my body has become heavy like lead, my mind is not is peace. I cannot concentrate on the Dhamma, but I feel consolation and satisfaction that the Lord will not attain the parinibbana until a message is given to the Sangha.'"
"Then the Lord replied, 'Ananda! What does the Sangha expect from me? Ananda, I have preached the Dhamma with an open heart, without concealing anything. The Tathagata has not kept anything concealed as some other teachers do. So Ananda, what more can the Tathagata tell the Bhikkhu Sangha. So Ananda, be self illuminating like the sun. Do not be dependent for light like the Earth. Believe in yourself, do not be dependent on others. Be truthful. Always take refuge in the truth and do not surrender to anyone.'"
I also take refuge in the words of the Buddha to be your own guide. Take refuge in your own reason. Do not listen to the advice of others. Do not succumb to others. Be truthful and take refuge in the truth. Never surrender to anything. If you keep in mind this message of Lord Buddha at this juncture, I am sure, your decision will not be wrong.
In order to realize an awakened society, Dr. Ambedkar saw than an inner revolution among his people needed to take place in tandem with the social and political work of gaining equal rights for untouchables. This internal revolution he found in the act of conversion from the dependency and subservience of being an untouchable in Hinduism to the independence and empowerment of a Buddhist identity and complete development as a human being. In this way, Dr. Ambedkar began to develop a vision for his people in order to make them realize the importance of the Buddha Dhamma. He saw that religious reformation is often a precursor to political emancipation. In his Annihilation of Caste, he cited such examples in the revolutions of Protestant Europe, the first Mauryan ruler Chandragupta, and the contemporary revolution of Guru Nanak and the Sikhs in Punjab. He concluded that the emancipation of the mind is a necessary preliminary for the political emancipation of the people.
Dr. Ambedkar's Vision of Dhamma and Practice
Vision of Dhamma
Dhamma is the perfection of life: In The Buddha and His Dhamma, Dr. Ambedkar describes the path of the bodhisattva and presents the sublime teaching of non-attachment through quotes from the dialogue between the Buddha and Subhuti in the Diamond Sutra. In this sutra, the six perfections (paramita) of giving, morality, patience, energy, meditation, and wisdom are taught as not only practices for the individual but also ones to instigate others to do.
Dhamma is to live in Nibbana: Dr. Ambedkar strongly affirmed the nature of Nibbana as experienced here in this life and in this world. He wrote that the Buddha clearly rejected notions of Nibbana held by other schools of thought at the time. Specifically, the Buddha saw that the Brahmanistic and Upanishadic notions of the salvation of a soul made Nibbana into a goal achieved after death. Dr. Ambedkar quotes the famous Fire Sermon (Adittapariyaya Sutta, S.iv.19) to show how the Buddha's notion of the extinction of the passions, and not physical death, made Nibbana into a much more practical this-worldly goal. Nibbana or "awakened vision" tells one of the difficulties in the realization of the Eight-Fold Path. The chief of these difficulties are the five fetters (samyojana) or five underlying tendencies (anusaya). The third fetter of dependence on the efficacy of rites and ceremonies is especially important in this context. Dr. Ambedkar felt that no good resolutions, however firm, will lead to anything unless we shed ritualism. By ritualism, he meant the belief that outward acts associated with priestly power and holy ceremony can afford one assistance of some kind. It is only when we have overcome our ties to salvific ritual, that humans can be said to have fairly entered the stream of liberation and have a chance to sooner or later win victory.
Dhamma is Karma - the instrument of moral order: Dr. Ambedkar clearly stated that the moral order or the world (kamma niyama) does not depend on a creator god or any other gods. The moral order may be good or bad but this depends on humans and nothing else. The Buddha discovered that the world (loka) revolves due to karma. There are three worlds: the sensual world, the form-ish world, and the formless world. The state of Nibbana, where the law of karma is not operative, is a way of being and acting beyond these worlds. However, the world in which most of us live most of the time is the world of sensual pleasures. The mental states in the sensual world are destructive because enormous strife and suffering come about due to competition for sensual desires. This world is made up of sounds, forms, colors, tastes, tactile objects, ideas, concepts etc. Sometimes, the ideas or concepts are just imposed by society, such as caste or graded inequality in India.
Caste as a consciousness comes into being due to social practices and conventions and is wrong view (miccha ditthi). It is a mental and social conditioning whereby the individual is crushed. Individuals have little or no choice. Clearly, this goes against the Buddha's teaching of karma and the power of intention (cetana). The intention or mental state behind an action indicates its moral quality and action per se does not determine the nature of karma. As mental states precede actions by body and speech, positive mental states lead to positive actions of body and speech and negative mental states lead to negative actions of body and speech. Thus, the law of karma emphasizes personal responsibility and positive action, not passivity to harmful social conventions. In this way, it clearly does not support that the idea that birth in a lower caste is the deserved result of one's unwholesome past actions.
Practice - purification of mind, body and speech by meditation and morality
Thus Dr. Ambedkar made it explicit that purification of mind, body and speech is the Dhamma. Dr. Ambedkar emphasized the training of mind in meditation, as did the Buddha, for developing intention or thought, which leads to right states of consciousness. He paraphrases the Sallekha Sutta (M.i.40):
You are to expunge by resolving that, though others may be harmful, you will be harmless.
That though others may kill, you will never kill.
That though others may steal, you will not.
That though others may not lead the higher life, you will.
That though others may lie, traduce, denounce, or prattle, you will not.
That though others may be covetous, you will covet not.
That though others may be malignant, you will not be malignant.
That though others may be given over to wrong views, wrong aims, wrong speech, wrong
actions, and wrong concentration, you must follow (the Noble Eightfold Path in)
right outlook, right aims, right speech, right actions, right mode of livelihood, right
effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.
That though others are wrong about the truth and wrong about deliverance, you will be
right about truth and right about deliverance.
That though others may be possessed by sloth and torpor, you will free yourselves
That though others may be puffed up, you will be humble-minded.
That though others may be perplexed by doubts, you will be free from them.
That though others may harbor wrath, malevolence, envy, jealousy, niggardliness, avarice,
hypocrisy, deceit, imperviousness, arrogance, forwardness, association with bad
friends, slackness, unbelief, shamelessness, unscrupulousness, lack of instruction,
inertness, bewilderment, and unwisdom, you will be the reverse of all these things.
That though others may clutch at and hug the temporal nor loose their hold thereon, you
will clutch and hug the things that are not temporal, and will ensue renunciation.
I say it is the development of thought which is so efficacious for right states of
consciousness, not to speak of act and speech. And therefore, Cunda, there must
be developed the thought to all the foregoing resolves I have detailed.
(BAWS XI, 285-286)
This sutta can be interpreted as one's own resolve to transform oneself into a buddha even when the world around is steeped with various vices.
Morality & Ethics (sila)
- the bridge between the individual and the social or the foundation of a just
The highest realization in Buddhism is the emancipation of the mind, which Dr. Ambedkar also understood as liberty. The antithesis of liberty is slavery. According to the Buddha, there are two kinds of slavery: inner and outer. A certain deity asked the Buddha:
The inner tangle and the outer tangle-
This generation is entangled in a tangle.
And so I ask of Gotama this question:
Who succeeds in disentangling this tangle?
The Buddha replied:
When a wise man, established in Virtue
Develops Consciousness and Understanding
Then as a Bhikkhu ardent and sagacious
He succeeds in disentangling this tangle. (S.i.13)
Liberty is freedom from any control and in return demands no will to control others. The ethics of Buddhism ensures this freedom from control. Therefore, sila is the foundation of a just society. It is universal and not marked with sectarian feeling. If it does, it will only protect the "group interest," and according to Dr. Ambedkar will become anti-social. Sila is right or ethical behavior by one person towards another. Thus Dr. Ambedkar wrote that religion is personal, while Dhamma as the practice of sila is interpersonal. Therefore, society cannot do without Dhamma or righteousness.
In this way, Dr. Ambedkar clearly shows an understanding of the difference between the type of morality belonging to personal power and threat and the type belonging to collective power and personal responsibility. He makes the observation that the former type belongs to religion, which is concerned with the relation between humans and God. This type of morality helps to maintain peace and order and "is attached and detached as the occasion requires" to protect the interests of a particular group (Sangharakshita, 1986:156). In the latter understanding of morality, Ambedkar speaks not of religion but of Dhamma:
Morality is Dhamma and Dhamma is Morality. Morality and Dhamma arise from the direct necessity for man to love man. It is not to please God that man has to be moral. It is for his own good that man has to love man. (Sangharakshita, 1986:156)
This Dhamma is the universal morality which protects the weak from the strong and which safeguards the growth of the individual. It gives common models, standards, and rules. Finally, it ensures that liberty and equality can be established.
The only remedy lies in making fraternity universally effective. What is fraternity? It is nothing but another name for the brotherhood of men which is another name for morality. This is why the Buddha preached that Dhamma is morality and as Dhamma is sacred so is morality. (Sangharakshita, 1986:157)
This morality, however, is not just a set of ideals, but part of the three-fold training of the mind in morality, concentration, and wisdom. For Dr. Ambedkar, training in sila is formalized for non-monastics in the practice of the five basic precepts (pancasila) and the "taking of refuge" in a ceremony called diksha. In the institutionalization of the diksha ceremony for untouchables converting to Buddhism, Ambedkar included taking the five precepts as well as twenty-two additional vows. Dr. Ambedkar made this ceremony of taking refuge central to his vision of a new Buddhist identity for the lay Buddhist movement he led among untouchables. He recognized the fundamental need of a very conscious statement of Buddhist identity for his community as it renounced Hinduism and embraced Buddhism. In order to face the oppressive system of caste society in India, this new Buddhist identity could not be fuzzy or passive, especially since there was no monastic order to lead and defend the community. He also felt a strong lay community was imperative to re-establishing a proper ordained community in India, since he saw the existing monastic order, especially in Theravada countries, as corrupt (Sangharakshita, 1986:123).
Dr. Ambedkar's Movement For Justice
Just Society through a Model Society (sangha) of Just People
The vision of an awakened society led the Buddha to set in motion the Wheel of the Dhamma. The Buddha set in motion the wheel of the Dhamma when he awakened five disciples in Sarnath. According to Dr. Ambedkar, the Buddha organized the Bhikku Sangha to make this just society a living reality and to set a model for the society to imitate.
But the blessed Lord also knew that merely preaching the Dhamma to the common man would not result in the creation of that ideal society based on righteousness. An ideal must be practical and must be shown to be practicable. Then and then only people strive after it and realize it. To create this striving, it is necessary to have a picture of a society working on the basis of the ideal and thereby proving to the common man that the ideal was not impracticable but on the other hand realizable. The Sangha is a model of a society realizing the Dhamma preached by the blessed Lord. (BAWS XI, 434)
According to Dr. Ambedkar, the code of the bhikkhu, the patimokkha, was formulated to make the sangha an ideal society. Thus, the bhikkhu must always be seen as subordinate to and enfolded into the sangha or ideal society. The training of a bhikkhu/bhikkhuni is aimed at making him/her a perfect citizen of the ideal society. In another sense, the rules of the monastic are not meant for making a perfect being, but for creating a servant of the society who will be committed to ending suffering and to living the ideals of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. The monastic should not be indifferent to the suffering of lay people. S/he must fight for establishing an ideal society.
Since the Buddha established the sangha in order to lay the foundation of an awakened society, he preached his Dhamma to all without distinction, to monastic as well as to lay people. Ambedkar felt there was no difference between the monastic and a lay person as far as the practice of the Dhamma goes. The distinction, however, is in the degree of involvement in the preaching and propagating of the Dhamma, essentially of time and commitment. Monastics are the full-timers, having neither the worldly responsibilities of marriage nor private property. On the other hand, lay persons are the part-timers, insconsed in worldly duties. As the full-timers have no private property, the part-timers have had to support them with dana. The part-timers have mainly given alms, and provided abodes and robes to the full-timers. The Buddha put in place these dependencies, which are also freedoms, as a check and balance mechanism to ensure that the full-timers should not betray the mission. The part-timers could complain to the larger sangha about the misconduct of any of the full-timers. Thus, the bond of alms between monastic and lay person was instrumental in the successful spread of the Dhamma.
However, this bond of alms was taken to extremes when the lay emperor Ashoka supported and interfered in the matters of sangha. The history of this disappearance of Buddhism in India is the history of the gradual weakening of this bond of alms and the disappearance of the nucleus of the Buddhist society, the monastic sangha. How could any teaching survive with the destruction of its organization and propaganda base? Buddhism eventually disappeared, because although the lay sangha strove hard, they could not give their best energies and could not organize themselves effectively.
Despite his often strong criticisms, Dr. Ambedkar did not wish to do away with the monastic sangha. On the contrary, he saw the sangha as having an important role in the awakened society. His ideal society was the Buddhist Sangha. But here is a departure from the tradition. He wanted lay persons to be part and parcel of the New Sangha. With this basic view in mind, Dr. Ambedkar expressed his views on the reconstruction of the sangha to suit modern society.
Firstly, he felt that the absence of a dhamma diksha for lay followers was a grave omission. Throughout history, the bhikkhus have been initiated and organised but the lay sangha has not. Except for a few insignificant exceptions, the Dhamma is common to both. Dr. Ambedkar wanted to correct this anomaly, and so accepted the challenge to initiate his own lay followers in the Dhamma. He also suggested the creation of lay preachers who could go about and preach the Buddha's Dhamma among the people and look after the new converts to guide their practice, rather than creating newly ordained monastics or depending on foreign monastics for this purpose. He felt these lay preachers must be paid and that they could be married. He wanted to restructure the Sangha so as to fit it in the modern society. Unfortunately, Dr. Ambedkar did not live long enough to build a movement to actualize this new understanding of the role of monastics in an awakened society.
However, the British monk Sangharakshita, who met Dr. Ambedkar thrice and helped lead the neo-Buddhist movement in India after Ambedkar's death, did develop Ambedkar's basic concept further. He has integrated Ambedkar's criticisms of the bhikkhu sangha in the creation of his new orders, the British-based Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO) and the Indian-based Trailokya Bauddha Mahasangha (TBM) order nurtured by Dhammachari Lokamitra. In the spirit of Ambedkar's notion of married lay preachers who would spread the Buddha Dhamma about India, Sangharakshita has developed an intermediate form of Buddhist practitioner, called a dharmachari/charini or "dharma-farer," which dissolves the dichotomy between lay and monastic. Sangharakshita's order has sought to intensify serious training for those interested while not creating a distinction of superiority between those who choose less arduous courses. This flexibility of practice models has significantly allowed those with a high level of training to maintain a lay appearance, thereby facilitating involvement in social activities. The uniting factor of the different levels of practice is the commitment to social service within the community and the society. Sangharakshita's vision is one of a decentralized community of people sharing the same spiritual commitment without the need for ecclesiastical structure (Sponberg, 1996:90).
Dr. Ambedkar also had other concrete ideas for the creation of an awakened society based on the Buddha Dhamma. He had planned to establish a Buddhism and Religions Seminary where persons who wished to become preachers could be taught Buddhism and trained in the comparative study of other religions. He suggested the introduction of congregational worship in the Buddha Vihara every Sunday followed by a sermon. The Buddha and His Dhamma, itself, was an attempt to create a "Buddhist Bible" - a single volume work which could be a constant companion of the convert. Like the lay preacher, the Buddhist Bible represents a middle way intended to bridge the gap between the lofty ideals of monastic practice and learning and the daily needs of the larger lay sangha.
Dr Ambedkar and the Future of his Movement
Dr. Ambedkar made many provisions to create the Dhamma as a living force in India. Besides his emphasis on the Dhamma, which he wanted to make heart of his movement, he knew the importance of social awakening and politics. After his conversion, he planned to constitute a political party, The Republican Party of India. The aim was to ensure the social, political and economic justice enshrined in the preamble of the constitution of India in order to create an ideal society. Society, according to Ambedkar, cannot do without Dhamma nor without just government.
Society has to choose one of the three alternatives. Society may choose not to have any Dhamma as an instrument of government. For Dhamma is nothing if it is not an instrument of government. This means society chooses the road to anarchy. Secondly, society may choose the police, i.e., dictatorship as an instrument of government. Thirdly, society may choose Dhamma plus the magistrate wherever people fail to observe the Dhamma. In anarchy and dictatorship liberty is lost. Only in the third liberty survives. (BAWS XI, 316-317)
According to Ambedkar, the norm or the criterion for judging right and wrong in modern society is justice. Justice is ensured when the society is based on the principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity. The system of grading people as in the caste system will always lead to injustice. Ambedkar saw no solution in communism or capitalism, the two political currents dominant during his day. He found a solution in Buddhism. He said. "Man must grow materially as well as spiritually. Society has been aiming to lay a new foundation which was summarized by the French Revolution in three words, Fraternity, Liberty and Equality. The French Revolution was welcomed because of this slogan. It failed to produce equality. We welcome the Russian Revolution because it aims to produce equality. But it cannot be too much emphasized that in producing equality in society one cannot afford to sacrifice fraternity or liberty. Equality will be of no value without fraternity or liberty. It seems that the three (liberty, equality and fraternity) can coexist only if one follows the way of the Buddha" (BAWS III, 462, Italics and bracket added).
He saw the ideal society as one full of channels for conveying change taking place in one part to other parts. In an ideal society, he remarked, there should be many interests, consciously communicated and shared. There should be varied and free points of contact with other modes of association. In other words there must be social endosmosis. This is fraternity, which is only another name for democracy. Democracy is not merely a form of government. It is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience. It is essentially an attitude of respect and reverence towards fellow beings. Finally, this reconstruction of the world is possible through Dhamma. Dhamma is essentially and fundamentally social. In this way, his ideal society is based on the universality of Dhamma, which consists of liberty, equality and fraternity. In the All India Radio broadcast of his speech on October 3,1954, Dr. Ambedkar clarified the usage of these terms:
my social philosophy may be said to be enshrined in three words: Liberty, Equality
and Fraternity. Let no one, however, say that I have borrowed my philosophy from
the French Revolution. I have not. My philosophy has roots in religion and not
in political science. I have derived them from the teachings of my master, the
The sad part of Dr. Ambedkar's movement, however, has been the lack of recognition in the entire movement of the role of Dhamma (the practice of liberty, equality and fraternity). As a result of this, the social organizations and political parties based on Ambedkar face the problems of caste and conflict. They fall asunder due to organizational problems. The success of Dr. Ambedkar's movement lies not just in education and agitation but in how effectively his followers organize themselves; that is to say how they use fraternity as a principle to make fraternity universal. Ambedkar wanted to establish universal fraternity which was not to be based on sectarian attitudes and caste prejudices. He wrote:
There are two forces prevalent in society: individualism and fraternity. Individualism is
ever present. Every individual is ever asking "I and my neighbours, are we all brothers, are we even fiftieth cousins, am I their keeper, why should I do right by them?" and under the pressure of his own particular interests acting as though he was an end to himself, thereby developing a non-social and even an anti-social self.
Fraternity is a force of opposite character. Fraternity is another name for fellow feeling. It consists in a sentiment which leads an individual to identify himself with the good of others whereby "the good of others becomes to him a thing naturally and necessarily to be attended to like any of the physical conditions of our existence." It is because of this sentiment of fraternity that the individual does not "bring himself to think of the rest of his fellow-creatures as struggling rivals with him for the means of happiness, whom he must desire to see defeated in their object in order that he may succeed in his own." Individualism would produce anarchy. It is only fraternity, which prevents it and helps to sustain the moral order among men. Of this there can be no doubt. (BAWS III, 44)
There are many offshoots of the political party of which Dr. B. R. Ambedkar himself planned and wrote a constitution. Their main motivation is anti-Brahmanism and anti-caste. However, most of them are trapped in their own prisons of caste or the interests of their group, and therefore become anti-social. Dhamma is the way to break the prison of caste and prejudices. Dhamma is to extend fraternity both horizontally and vertically in the social structure and hence the Dhamma can help in overcoming caste identities.
In conclusion, the most unfortunate part of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar's movement was his untimely death. He died just after the great conversion movement in 1956. Most of the ideas in his mind died with him. However, he left enough material and blueprints for his millions of followers to follow and organize themselves as an ideal society to set up a model for the world. The re-entry of Buddhism to India after a gap of hundreds of years has been very dramatic. Buddhism has come back as a mass movement among the untouchables.
The success of the Buddhist movement depends on the organization of a sangha of full-timers and part-timers. This sangha must transcend caste and should not get trapped in one caste or group. It needs to integrate with the larger Indian society by breaking isolation. This sangha should exemplify liberty, equality, and fraternity to live and act in harmony within itself. There is a necessity for trained dhammasevak (servants of the Dhamma). The dhammasevak must have at the same time a strong sense of history and should be ready to go beyond the great wall of caste. The new servants of the Dhamma must passionately fight for practicing and propagating liberty, equality, and fraternity. In short, Dhamma can re-ethicize Indian society but it depends on how the followers of Dr. Ambedkar understand and situate the Dhamma in the various movements organized under his name and philosophy.
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Mangesh Dahiwale is a member of the Trailokya Bauddha Mahashangha Sahayak Gana (TBMSG) founded by Ven. Sangharakshita to promote the advancement of ex-Untouchable Buddhists in India according to the vision of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. He coordinates the International Ambedkar Forum which organizes meetings to educate especially young Buddhists in several schools and universities in Bombay and New Delhi.