Home Features Interviews Prof. Anupama Rao on Babasaheb Dr. B. R. Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism

Prof. Anupama Rao on Babasaheb Dr. B. R. Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism

DalitCamera: What is your opinion on Ambedkar’s conversion into Buddhism? Religion as a form, do you consider it as a religion conversion?

Anupama Rao: I think we could think about it as a form of secular criticism, you know in a very robust manner, so let me suggest that one way to think about the question of conversion would be to say and one could make this argument that Ambedkar actually comes to the question of religion late. If we think about the fact that for Gandhi from the 1920s the consistent question is the relationship between caste and Hinduism, not just caste in Hinduism but, Hinduism and untouchability. And the argument that he will finally comes to is to say that untouchability is not part and parcel of an organizational order of caste.  It is an excrescent and it stands outside of caste. From the start the question for Gandhi is very clear that there is some relationship between caste and Hinduism, and caste and untouchability. It seems to me that what is very interesting about Ambedkar as a thinker is that he comes to the question of relationship between caste, untouchability and Hinduism in a very different way.

First, the initial set of moves that we actually see Ambedkar engaging and really experimenting with when he first returns from Colombia and then again from Britain in the 1920s into 1932 is to take the available resources of the colonial state, the colonial policy and to work within the domain of Rights logic. And so, he begins in a sense from not by forefronting questions about “”What is the history of untouchability?”, “Who are untouchables?”, “What is their relationship with Hinduism?”; he actually takes a detour around that question in order to say we ought to be able to define and describe untouchability on a new ground. Those strategies are absolutely fascinating because he takes the colonial state which is inegalitarian, which is based on the notion of nominated representation, he takes it at its idealist best and he says, “If representation in democratic representation is universal, this is the Declaration of the Rights of Man, this is a universal right, that the citizenship is a universal right, then, let us actually behave as if that right can be instituted. If we are to institute that right, if we are to make a possibility, what are the implications for a community that is fractured, that is dispossessed, that is stigmatized and that actually does not own anything?”. This is a regime of representation based on property ownership, not to mention nomination by the British State, so what would it mean to take that on its own terms? To behave as if it is a possibility and then to create rights for the depressed classes. This is an enormously radical move on Ambedkar’s part, he works within a logic of representational democracy and then he tries to actualize it. And the place that he really comes to across the 1920s until 1932, until the round table conference and the separate electorates demand in pune pact, is to work that logic to say “we demand universal rights and then, because we are a dispossessed community we want special rights”. That is what the separate electorate finally convenes in.

One easy way is to say that what Ambedkar really needs to do is to give people who don’t understand in a sense his complex ideas and thoughts a way to understand the nature of his critique, the total critique he has of the Hindu society.

So, Ambedkar begins not by accepting the received way of talking about untouchability, which is to say there is a relationship between it and Hinduism. It is to actually say let us shift the conversation, that is a secularizing move too. It says, this is the question of interest, it is a question of rights, it is a question of dispossession, it is a question of material deprivation, so, it is very interesting to me that Ambedkar comes to the question of religion after the failure of the separate electorates and the Pune pact moment, the engagement in a sense with Gandhi and the Gandhian logic and then of course conversion by 1956. So, Ambedkar’s relationship then to Buddhist conversion is a very very complicated one. The easy way then to say it, is to say well Ambedkar comes to the conclusion especially after that debate with Gandhi and the fact that after Pune pact he and Gandhi are going to be constant agons in the public political sphere. But, he comes to the realization that dalits also need to have some investment, some belief, they need to have faith, we have a long history of internal reform within religion, Nirgun bhakt, people deciding to become sects that are kind of quasi Hindu but maybe not. We have got the examples of Sikhism and so on so forth, radical internal critiques of Hindu inequality. One easy way is to say that what Ambedkar really needs to do is to give people who don’t understand in a sense his complex ideas and thoughts a way to understand the nature of his critique, the total critique he has of the Hindu society. That it is economic, it is political, it is ritual, it is social, it is sexual. That is the profundity of Ambedkar’s thought, that it is a total critique of the caste order. So, we could say that the ordinary people need something that they can latch onto because critique is not enough, critique is ceaseless questing, it is hard, it hurts the head, and it is a difficult thing to be engaged in the process of constant critique, so, what do we have is a set of ritual practices.

I actually think that what Ambedkar is doing is something a little bit more radical, I think quite interesting, because I think he sees Buddhist conversion not as religious conversion from one religion to another as we tent to see it. But, that it is a religious conversion that as per him poses the greatest challenge to the Hindu order. That is why I call it a more of a secular criticism, because it is then challenging Hinduism as an order of power. And, this is what I meant by saying that the conversion to Buddhism is a form of secular criticism. He is actually questioning and he makes the argument that Buddhism is not religion, that it is actually about the possibility of creating ethicality, a society which cannot be ethical because it cannot practice social relationships with each other, that the people in a caste society experience a perverted form of socialization and so the ethicality of actual social engagement is what the Buddhism provides. This is briefly what I think of Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism.

Anupama Rao, teaches in Department of History, Columbia University. Her book, The Caste Question (University of California Press, 2009) theorizes caste subalternity, with specific focus on the role of anti-caste thought (and its thinkers) in producing alternative genealogies of political subject-formation through the vernacularization of political universals. She has also written on the themes of colonialism and humanitarianism, and on non-Western histories of gender and sexuality. Recent publications include: Discipline and the Other Body (Duke University Press, 2006); “Death of a Kotwal: Injury and the Politics of Recognition,” Subaltern Studies XII; Violence, Vulnerability and Embodiment (co-editor, special issues of Gender and History, 2004), and Gender and Caste: Issues in Indian Feminism (Kali for Women, 2003). https://history.barnard.edu/profiles/anupama-rao , email: arao@barnard.edu

Video: Ravichandran Bathran, Transcription: Archana Bidargaddi, Video Date: 31-Oct, 2014