Critical Analysis of Ambedkar's Thoughts on Hinduism and The Annihilation of Caste

  • An intellectual point of view on Dr Ambedkar’s writings on Hinduism and Caste. Different viewpoints always improves our understanding.

‘The Annihilation of Caste’ was a trailblazer speech in multiple senses. 


Firstly, Dr. Ambedkar could not deliver this speech for the fact that the Jat-Pat-Todak Mandal, organisers of the speech, had a fear in their mind that the speech would stir the hornet’s nest. Secondly, it was a reversal of Dr. Ambedkar’s thoughts expressed in his earlier essay ‘Castes in India- Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development’ and therefore a complete full stop to his hope for reforms in Hindu society. Thirdly, the speech was a rational offerings for his decision to derelict the Hindu fold. 


While drafting a speech Dr. Ambedkar had been convinced about the sordid nature of Hinduism. According to him Hinduism is edified on the caste system, like a four storied building without staircases to pass from one floor to another and pillories (shudras).


Aside, on caste here is what noted Gandhian Dharampalji wrote in Rediscovering India, “For the British, as perhaps for some others before them, caste has been a great obstacle, in fact, an unmitigated evil not because the British believed in casteless-ness or subscribed to a non-hierarchical system but because it stood in the way of their breaking Indian society, hindered the process of atomisation, and made the task of conquest and governance more difficult.”


Also read Vedas and other scriptures on caste


His analysis provided ammunition to anti-national forces within and outside country who used his thoughts to interpret Hinduism and whip it left right and centre. It has become a norm to quote Dr. Ambedkar’s thoughts on Hinduism as a counterforce to Dharmik scholars. 


Also read When caste was not a bad word


The contribution of Dr. Ambedkar on caste is good but his analysis is not critically appreciated and this privilege is not even offered to Mahatma Gandhi, branded as ‘the father of the nation’. There may be several reasons for this lack of analysis. The main reasons be apprehension of losing votes of Neo-Buddhists (Ambedkar’s followers) or widening the Hindu Buddhist divide. However, in every evolving and mature society an unemotional debate is called for to separate fact from fiction. A country cradling guilt about its history and cultural ethos would never be able to establish itself in the galaxy of powerful nations. Hence, the deeper intent of an honest appraisal of every idolized person in India is required for unleashing the truth.


Also read Who drafted and how Indian is the Indian Constitution


For a student of Indic studies mastery in the Sanskrit is a must, whosoever desires to ferret out the gems of Indian civilization is required to be a versatile in Sanskrit. It is the mother of all Indian languages is unfathomable and philosophers’ paradise. To understand what is contained in the scriptures and other texts a knowledge of Sanskrit is essential. It is also because many Sanskrit words do not have corresponding English words.


Indic scholar and author Rajiv Malhotra wrote, “Not only does Sanskrit, like all languages, encode specific and unique cultural experiences and traits, but the very form, sound, and manifestation of the language carries effects that cannot be separated from their conceptual meanings. The non-translatable nature of Sanskrit and its deep meanings are compromised by the cultural digestion of dharma into the West through the inadequate translation of vocabulary.” Source & to read full article


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Hence, to understand the true meaning of any Sanskrit a knowledge of Sanskrit is essential. It thus becomes imperative to ascertain the expertise of Dr. Ambedkar in Sanskrit and for that purpose it is best to know his own admission. Let us go one by one.


In the preface of Who were The Shudras Dr. Ambedkar states “….If the warning is for the reason that I cannot claim mastery over the Sanskrit language, ‘I admit this deficiency. But I do not see why it should disqualify me altogether from operating in this field. There is very little of literature in the Sanskrit language which is not available in English. The want of knowledge of Sanskrit need not therefore be a bar to my handling a theme such as the present…” here he admits that he is not a master of Sanskrit language and depends on translating sources to make his opinion on Sanskrit literature equally audacious is to asseverate that most of the Sanskrit literature is available in Sanskrit”.


Mahatma Gandhi penned a series of articles in Harijan, under the title A vindication of caste - Dr.Ambedkar’s indictment’, where Gandhiji contested Dr. Ambedkar’s The Annihilation of Castes and pointed out the limited understanding of Sanskrit by Dr. Ambedkar. In response to Gandhi’s article Dr. Ambedkar shot a defence once again admitting his non- proficiency in Sanskrit “Let me examine the substance of the points made by the Mahatma. The first point made by the Mahatma is that the texts cited by me are not authentic. I confess I am no authority on this matter. But I should like to state that the texts cited by me are all taken from the writings of the late Mr. Tilak, who was a recognized authority on the Sanskrit language and on the Hindu Shastras.”


Dr Ambedar’s ability to present facts logically was brought out in his masterpiece Thoughts on Pakistan


Although Dr. Ambedkar relied on Tilak to understand a Sanskrit text, but strangely his conclusions on Dharmashastras were a far cry from Dr. Ambedkars. I must point out that there was a time in Maharashtra when protagonist such as Vitthal Ramji Shinde, close associate of Shri Tilak and a torchbearer of the Dalit movement in Maharashtra, stepped down from Depressed Classes Mission for the unfettered rise of the secessionist faction under the leadership of Dr. Ambedkar. V.R Shinde was harping on Dalit reforms within the Hindu fold contrary to the opinion of Dr. Ambedkar. (Viirji )


One of the concluding remarks in The annihilation of Caste is that Hindu Dharma provides zero leeway to the rationality of human being and a supremacy of Vedas and Upanishads is unchallengeable in Hinduism which is Achilles heel according to Dr. Ambedkar.


However, the learned Ambedkar decries the same liberty to human rationality in his aforesaid reply to Mahatma Gandhi when he argues “……dependence on saints cannot lead us to know the truth. The saints are after all only human beings, and as Lord Balfour said, "the human mind is no more a truth-finding apparatus than the snout of a pig."  


In a nutshell Dr. Ambedkar is denouncing and demanding human rationality thereby evincing a paragon of self-contradictory arguments on two different occasions. A common Hindu may ask by taking a word of Lord Balfour as to whether Dr. Ambedkar wanted to employ an apparatus as equal as snout of pig to challenge a supremacy of Vedas and Upanishads?


Also read Buddha and the Veda N What is common to the Dhammpada and the Bhagavad Gita  


The next question may come to mind is why translated literature should not be used to interpret Sanskrit texts.


The primary reply is that a true interpretation requires not only a knowledge of the language, but the grooming in the civilization too. In the legal world also there are two phenomena for the interpretation of statute. One is the interpretation of words and other is construction which takes into account a circumstance and ecology leading to formulation of law. Hence, mere knowledge of the words is incomplete if surrounding conditions are unknown to the law maker. The same analogy is applicable to translator of the text. If he fails to grasp the civilizational premise the product would be a distorted version of the original text. Thus the works of many western scholars on Sanskrit are half-baked, de hors the spirit of Sanskrit.


Dr. Ambedkar’s expositions on Hinduism are backed by the work of western scholars on the subject. In his famous essay “Who were The Shudras” the first chapter’s first page mentions, in the bottom note, name of John Muir, a British scholar in Sanskrit as a reference; then comes name of Wilhelm Geiger a German orientalist as a reference and this list goes on and on.  Source MEA site


Therefore, here is a unique case where Dr. Ambedkar was well aware about the circumstances prevailing at his time, but had restricted knowledge of Sanskrit. Hence, in his wisdom he relied on western scholars who might be men of letters of Sanskrit words but had minimal understanding of Dharmik postulates of Hindu civilization. As a result can output of this duo be authentic?  


By the end of The Annihilation of Caste Dr Ambedkar appeals to have only one standard book of Hindu religion acceptable to all Hindus and recognized by all Hindus. He says, “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 so, and the preaching of any doctrine, religious or social, contained in these books should be penalized”.


Such an extreme demand seems irrational and lack of understanding of Sanatan Dharma.

Also read Comparing Indic vs. Abrahamic Faiths – A Primer


At a later stage in life respected Dr. Ambedkar became a Buddhist that too has no single book (we all evolve with time). Tripitak or Tipitak, a universally accepted authority on Buddhism consists set of 40 books and it is 11 times bigger than the holy Bible. According to website of Buddhist Society, patron by his holiness Dalai Lama only the Abhidamma Pitaka consists of seven books. Besides that there are several other streams of opinions in Buddhist tradition analogous to the Hinduism.


A balance study of Dr. Ambedkar’s work is required to be appreciated in this way to understand convoluted translation of Dharmik scriptures in general and Sanskrit literature in particular by western scholars. 


Manu Smriti was burnt by eminent jurist Dr Ambedkar for the promotion and propagation of Caste system. However, subsequently a jurist of the Supreme Court and former chief justice of Punjab and Haryana High Court late Shri Rama Jois wrote Ancient Indian Law: Eternal values in Manu Smriti wherein he praised Manu Smriti and establishing striking similarities in several dictums of Manu Smriti and articles in the Constitution of India.


Also read Freedom-fighter K M Munshi’s view on evolution of Caste


Hence, a Hindu has to decide whether it is desirable to destroy the sacred books or to interpret them in the holistic way to make them more suitable for the contemporary world. Destruction of anything is easy, but in this process, there are possibilities to throw a baby with bathwater. So let us accept that no book or religion is perfect. Rather it is the duty of human being to make it relevant. By virtue of having no founder and not one holy book Sanatana Dharma has provided ample scope for interpretation and re-interpretation of its scriptures across centuries.


Also read Ambedkar erred, Buddha was a Hindu N Ambedkar was also an Economist


Did you know that ‘Ambedkar’s London doctoral thesis was on the management of the rupee. His Columbia dissertation was on the state-centre financial relations under the guidance of Edwin Seligman, one of the foremost authorities on public finance in the world.’


I am also sharing extracts from the book 'Life and Mission: Dr Ambedkar' by Dhananjay Keer.

1. “Dr M B Niyogi said that denunciation of Hinduism as was done by Ambedkar while embracing Buddhism had no place in the original Buddhist rituals. Pg. 501
2. Radhakrishnan believed that Buddha had attempted to achieve a purer Hinduism. Times of India 7/2/1956. Pg. 501

3. It may be noted that a leaflet issued by Mahasthavir Chandramani and other Bhikkus said that Hinduism and Buddhism are branches of the same tree. Pg. 503

This article is written with an intent to provoke thought and is not meant to cast aspersions of any person, living or dead. At various times noticed Dr Ambedkar’s honesty in admitting facts, I can only admire this quality of his.


Author is a lawyer based in Thane, Maharashtra.  

Also read

1. Shivaji’s Karmas not Caste matter

2. Caste as social capital  

3. History of the word Dalit


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