Lord Harries of Pentregarth, the Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Dalits and The Federation of Ambedkarite and Buddhist Organisations UK invited Professor Meena Dhanda of CTTR as a guest speaker at the 128th birth commemoration of Dr Ambedkar at the House of Lords on Tuesday 7 May 2019. The following is the text of the speech delivered by Professor Dhanda.
Dr Ambedkar on Religion and Morality
Honourable Chair, Reverend Lord Richard Harries, distinguished guests and fellow admirers of an exemplary human being: Dr B.R. Ambedkar, a superb jurist, an untiring champion of social justice, an uncompromising seeker of truth, a kind soul who taught us to follow the great Buddha in acknowledging the various causes of suffering and dedicate our lives to uprooting them. We are here to remember Dr Ambedkar’s contributions and it is my task today to share the essence of his thoughts on religion and morality.
Babasaheb extolled moral uprightness. As he writes in The Buddha and his Dhamma, Dhamma is first and foremost morality. Religion on the other hand, especially when ritualistically followed, he took to task for the hypocrisies it generated and the inertia it induced. He challenged the supposedly unchanging and supposedly infallible command of Religion with a capital R. He wrote: ‘Every religion preaches morality but morality is not the root of religion. It is a wagon attached to it. It is attached and detached as the occasion arises’ (Ambedkar 1957, p.322). In contrast ‘Morality is Dhamma and Dhamma is Morality’. Dhamma is social, essentially so. In Dhamma the need for morality does not arise from the ‘sanction of God’ but directly from the need for man to love man. ‘The purpose of Religion is to explain the origin of the world. The purpose of Dhamma is to reconstruct the world’ (Ibid.).
Rather than the rituals and sacrifices embedded in Religions, Ambedkar considers morality itself as ‘sacred’. The reason he gives for making morality itself ‘sacred’ is that there is a social need to protect what he calls “the best”. The best, however, he does not equate with the fittest. The best may actually be the weak, the ones who are in need of protection. Therefore, Morality as Dhamma, must impose restraints on the fittest to stop them from infringing on the rights of the weak.
Ambedkar speaks against the ‘anti-social’ morality of ‘thieves’ ‘businessmen’ and ‘fellow castemen’, because their morality is ‘marked by isolation and exclusiveness.’ It is a morality that protects narrow ‘group interests’ and that is what distorts this morality, making it ‘anti-social’ for Ambedkar. He concludes his argument for a universal morality thus: ‘A society which rests upon the supremacy of one group over another irrespective of its rational or proportionate claims inevitably leads to conflict. The only way to put a stop to conflict is to have common rules of morality which are sacred to all.’ (ibid., p.325).
Compare Ambedkar’s criticism of the ‘anti-social’ morality of ‘castemen’ with the following statement by Lord Bhikhu Parekh in a BBC4 radio show in 2003:
‘The evolution of caste here [in Britain] is proceeding along the same lines as caste in India. Caste becomes more like a civic association; a network (of) from where you can get capital, a network where from you can get your clients if you are setting up a business, a network of people who will canvass for you in local or national elections. Full stop. In other words what people are now doing with the caste system, they want to get rid of its unacceptable dimensions like restrictions of marriage or dining. Take full advantage of and (im)mobilise its full potentialities which will stand them in good stead in country and therefore caste in some form is bound to stay for a long time because people see advantages in it. And I can see that it is a good rational negotiating strategy’ (Parekh in Puri 2004, emphasis added).
Lord Parekh’s affirmation of caste as ‘a good rational negotiating strategy’ is precisely what Ambedkar would call an ‘anti-social’ morality. In its particularism, its exclusivity, its groupism, such an ‘anti-social’ morality undermines the kind of universal morality that Ambedkar sought to institutionalise in the law. Note, also, that besides offering an uncritical affirmation of the value of caste, Lord Parekh has, perhaps inadvertently, confirmed its longevity in the UK. We must now ask: can a universal morality permit casteism?
How do we comprehend the universal morality that Ambedkar wants us to recognise? Where can we find the standpoint from which to examine claims of value? A key requirement, for Ambedkar, is our willingness to subject received opinion to critical scrutiny. In accordance with the teachings of the great Buddha, Ambedkar challenges the belief in the infallibility of received thought, in particular the infallibility of the Vedas. As a votary of rational thinking, of demonstrable proofs and of flawless arguments, he was of the view that all credible thinking must track the truth. Thus, he writes that for the Buddha: ‘nothing was infallible and nothing could be final. Everything must be open to re-examination and reconsideration whenever grounds for re-examination and reconsideration arise. Man must know the truth and real truth. To him freedom of thought was the most essential thing. And he was sure that freedom of thought was the only way to the discovery of truth’ (Ambedkar 1957, p.89).
Sadly, the balancing acts of power games cloud judgment, sully the truth and compromise freedom of thought.
We have seen the obstruction of our moral compass in these hallowed buildings before. A hundred years ago when abolition of slavery was taking place across the world, agrarian slavery associated with the Dalit landless in British India was conveniently ignored. As Rupa Viswanath writes in the remarkable book The Pariah Problem: Caste, Religion and the Social in Modern India: ‘The Pariah was governed – that is, his servitude was maintained long after abolition – by a practical accommodation between high-caste landlords and state officials’. (Viswanath 2015, p.39) Despite their theological opposition to caste, in practice the Protestant missionaries were also in practice more often than not ‘at pains to accommodate the “caste scruples” of their non-Pariah converts’. (Viswanath 2015, p.45) Their ruse was that they could only concern themselves with the religious aspects of caste, not the civil aspect. Viswanath sees in these accommodations the working of a ‘caste-state nexus’. (Viswanath 2015, p.14)
It was such non-action against caste-based violations of citizens’ rights, facilitated by the British administration that led an exasperated Ambedkar to claim in a letter: ‘Indeed if the British Rule has achieved anything in India it is to strengthen and reinvigorate Brahmanism which is the inveterate enemy of the Untouchables…’ (Ajnat 1993, p.153) Ambedkar’s anti-colonialism never wearied of reminding the British State to enforce its own laws, for he was deeply convinced that the exercise of rights as equal citizens required the rigorous enforcement of the law.
Today we stand at a juncture where the duty of the ministers to institute protection against caste discrimination by a secondary order in the UK Equality Act 2010 risks being repealed. Once again, Dalits are being told that explicit legal measures are not required to protect them from the violation of their rights as equal citizens. Once again, by shelving the debilities emerging from caste hierarchies away from the scrutiny of the legal into the obfuscation of the social realm, the British government is failing to stand up to the power of the ‘caste-state nexus’: this time re-enacted on British soil by British citizens.
Dr Ambedkar would have protested, as surely as we must.
Ajnat, Surendra (1993) Letters of Ambedkar, Jalandhar: Bheem Patrika Publications.
Ambedkar, B.R. (1957) The Buddha and His Dhamma, Nagpur: Buddha Bhoomi Publication.
Puri, Naresh (2004) The Caste Divide, BBC Radio 4. Transcript of BBC radio programme broadcast in April 2003. Available at: https://www.countercurrents.org/dalit-puri050704.htm
Viswanath, Rupa (2015) The Pariah Problem: Caste Religion and the Social in Modern India, New Delhi: Navayana (copyright 2014 Columbia University Press).