Why we must revisit Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s final turn to Buddhism.
The road from Nasik to Yeola is remarkably well-maintained. Verdant vineyards border the Nasik-Aurangabad highway as far as the eye can see; flowering bougainvillea shrubs adorn the divider running down the middle. Yeola itself is a small town — hardly more than a large village — where you see decrepit but still beautiful buildings from British times, bunches of purple grapes and piles of kinu oranges for sale, and signs in Marathi and English advertising fine Paithani saris. The closest place that you might have heard of is Shirdi, associated with the Sai Baba, just a few kilometres south. The Sahyadri mountains of northwestern Maharashtra dot the landscape with the “fists and fingers” of ancient rock that E.M. Forster wrote about in Passage to India; the source of the Godavari is in nearby Trimbakeshwar.
Deep inside Yeola, on a dusty clearing set amidst green fields, opposite a banyan grove that shelters a gracious old mosque, there rises a bare cement pillar and next to it, an enormous half-built stupa, both marking the spot where, on October 13, 1935, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar declared his intention to leave the Hindu fold. Schoolgirls on bicycles and slow-moving cattle crisscross the approach road; the air is replete with rural calm and winter sunshine. A foundation stone laid by the Government of Maharashtra on September 19, 2009, inaugurates the construction of a memorial. On January 21, 2013, the dome-like structure is still far from complete. It is eventually meant to house massive images of both the Buddha and Ambedkar. Admittedly, the centre of Ambedkarite Buddhist energy is Nagpur, where Ambedkar finally took Buddhist vows more than 20 years later, on October 14, 1956, and not Yeola or Nasik.
Nasik is also where the Kalaram Temple is to be found, the very site in the old city where Ambedkar led and later abandoned a temple-entry movement in the early 1930s. Wandering in the temple courtyard and on the narrow streets around its precincts, with their small houses, latticed wooden balconies, gnarled pipal trees, and clay-tiled sloping roofs, it is hard to imagine a time when access to this temple was so fraught an issue as to become the watershed after which Ambedkar could never allow himself or his community to be reconciled with the caste Hindu mainstream. We walk in and out and around, unmarked and unimpeded — the caravans of social justice have long moved on to other spaces and other symbols in our ever-imperfect country. The god within never cared, then or now, who comes in through the door or cannot.
Ambedkar’s unequivocal estrangement from and rejection of Hinduism inevitably invites reflection on other, often older forms of both protest and accommodation available in India’s long history of dealing with caste. I am reminded that in mid-2001 a group of scholars including Ashis Nandy, Sunil and Chitra Sahasrabuddhey, Vandana Shiva, Medha Patkar, Shiv Visvanathan, U.R. Ananthamurthy and others gathered in Manipal, on the coast of southern Karnataka, to talk about communalism and secularism, violence and non-violence, toleration and pluralism, economic liberalisation and alternative futures. After hours, the participants were guests of the late Murari Ballal (d. 2004), a trained economist, Kannada writer and social activist, who arranged for us to see the Sri Krishna temple in nearby Udupi, where his father was the dharmadhikari or head priest. Gandhians, atheists, Brahmins, scientists, philosophers, sceptics — it was the very last set of people you might expect to visit one of the holiest and most orthodox temples in all of southern India.
Despite their distaste for Madhva orthodoxy and for the proximity that some prominent local pontiffs had to the BJP (which was in power in Delhi at the time), everyone at that conference came in the wake of the late D.R. Nagaraj, a fiery thinker and teacher who was in the process of reconceptualising Dalit intellectual politics when he died suddenly at the age of 44 in 1998. Had he been alive, he would have attended the conference with gusto. Missing him acutely, we stopped at the small window, called kanakana-kindi, cut into the wall of the temple where Krishna is supposed to have turned his face in order for his untouchable devotee, the poet Kanakadasa to be able to see him from the outside. Kanakadasa’s claim upon and address to the god is said to have changed the very architecture of the temple, whose origins date to the time of Madhvacharya, one of the three great propounders of Vedanta doctrine, in the 13th century.
Fascinated by ambiguous historical figures like Kanakadasa, who represents both exclusion from and inclusion in a great tradition, Nagaraj, affectionately called “D.R.”, forced savarna and Dalit intellectuals alike to reconsider an entire series of oppositions that had stultified postcolonial discourse around social inequality. D.R. actively engaged in and supported modern Dalit radicalism, especially in literature and theory, but was not averse to exploring pre-modern modalities of protest, including bhakti poetry. He insisted on the necessity of revisiting the relationship between Gandhi and Ambedkar — and through such a move, rethinking the conflict between the categories “Harijan” and “Dalit”, that connoted, according to D.R., the self-purification of upper castes on the one hand and the self-respect of untouchables on the other, both being equally important aspects of a shared struggle for social justice. The emphasis had to be on the struggle as a shared one, because by definition a just society is one created by the efforts of all and concerned with the flourishing of all.
Visiting the Kalaram Temple in Nasik took me back a dozen years to the Sri Krishna Temple in Udupi. I thought about Kanakadasa’s devotion that breached a window in the temple wall and gave him unmediated access to the deity within; and about Ambedkar’s disillusionment with Hinduism that made him turn his face away from the unyielding god who would not accept his people, and eventually led to Babasaheb’s formal conversion to Buddhism. In Ambedkar’s turn to Buddhism lies a key to the future of caste in India — a key which we have not yet used to unlock the jail of inequality in which we remain trapped. Independence, the Constitution, and the vote, all fell short of making India truly egalitarian. Ambedkar saw this, and went in the end to religion: therein lies an utterly complex yet terribly important clue, if we are prepared to heed it.
The first instalment of a fortnightly column. The author is with the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi.