In the midst of B.R. Ambedkar's speech to a group of reformists entitled "The Annihilation of Caste", he makes a series of unlikely proposals for reforming Hindu society, including subjugating Hindu priests to the state and binding them to teaching only from a "Hindu Bible".
(1)There should be one and only one standard book of Hindu Religion, acceptable to all Hindus and recognized by all Hindus. 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.
(2)It should be better if priesthood among Hindus was abolished. But as this seems to be impossible, the priesthood must at least cease to be hereditary. Every person who professes to be a Hindu must be eligible for being a priest. It should be provided by law that no Hindu shall be entitled to be a priest unless he has passed an examination prescribed by the State and holds a sanad from the State permitting him to practise.
(3)No ceremony performed by a priest who does not hold a sanad shall be deemed to be valid in law and it should be made penal for a person who has no sanad to officiate as a priest.
(4)A priest should be the servant of the State and should be subject to the disciplinary action by the State in the matter of his morals, beliefs and worship, in addition to his being subject along with other citizens to the ordinary law of the land.
(5)The number of priests should be limited by law according to the requirements of the State as is done in the case of the I[ndian ]C[ivil ]S[ervice].
To some, this may sound radical. But to my mind there is nothing revolutionary in this. Every profession in India is regulated. Engineers must show proficiency, Doctors must show proficiency, Lawyers must show proficiency, before they are allowed to practise their professions. During the whole of their career, they must not only obey the law of the land, civil as well as criminal, but they must also obey the special code of morals prescribed by their respective professions. The priest's is the only profession where proficiency is not required. The profession of a Hindu priest is the only profession which is not subject to any code. [...] The whole thing is abominable and is due to the fact that the priestly class among Hindus is subject neither to law nor to morality. It recognizes no duties. It knows only of rights and privileges. It is a pest which divinity seems to have let loose on the masses for their mental and moral degradation. The priestly class must be brought under control by some such legislation as I have outlined above. It will prevent it from doing mischief and from misguiding people. It will democratise it by throwing it open to every one. It will certainly help to kill the Brahminism and will also help to kill Caste, which is nothing but Brahminism incarnate. Brahminism is the poison which has spoiled Hinduism. You will succeed in saving Hinduism if you will kill Brahminism. 1
The intent of this list of suggestions is elusive, because it is clear that no democratic Indian state could enact or enforce such a law. Eleanor Zelliot refers to it as "naïve and legalistic, based on abstractions rather than possibilities".2 Bhagwan Das, on the other hand, quotes the list approvingly and sees it as reflective of an Ambedkarist view of the place of religion in general: "Even if a law could be enacted, Hindus would not respect it. But the suggestions are still relevant. Buddhists can take a cue from them."3 I believe that one may read from this list an important aspect of Ambedkar's view of the ideal relationship between spirituality and the law.
Context of the Speech
"The Annihilation of Caste" was presented to the Jat-Pat-Todak Mandal (Caste Destruction Society), a group of caste Mahars who did not want to hear about conversion away from Hinduism. Christian missionaries were already agitating for conversion to some extent, making any talk of conversion a danger to the cause of Hindu reform. As a result, Ambedkar only mentions conversion once in the speech, just below the quoted portion: "[Reform] means conversion—but if you do not like the word, I will say it means new life." He refers to his own intended conversion only as "decid[ing] to change". A few months later, finding these restrictions too tight for his taste, he gave another speech entirely to a group of Mahar Untouchables, telling them that Hinduism was "not worthy to be called a religion" and commanding them all to "change your religion", a resolution they unanimously adopted. At that conference he also convinced a group of Mahar hermits to renounce Hinduism and burn their Hindu symbols.4
Ambedkarite Basis for Religious Reform
The most immediate context for these proposals is the justification Ambedkar gives to them immediately afterwards. He explains that there is no difference between the role of a Hindu priest and any other "profession". Like a doctor or a lawyer, a priest performs necessary functions in the community and is called upon when needed. The state regulates other professions with examinations and certification awarded solely on merit; why should religion be any different?
From this alone, we can see that Ambedkar does not perceive religion as a manner of tradition, and that he would be unimpressed by arguments that Hinduism has been practiced a certain way for 3000 years, so the tradition must be continued in the same form. On the contrary, Ambedkar sees religion as a profession like medicine and law that is constantly improving and fits itself to the needs of the people. This attitude is summarized by his famous statement to a Mahar conference: "Religion is for man, and not man for religion."5 In this belief he was not alone, nor was he the first: Ludwig Feuerbach had cast Christianity in a similar light a century earlier in Das Wesen des Christentums when he called its "true" essence "anthropological".6
Rodney Starke and Roger Finke are only echoing these words of Ambedkar and Feuerbach when they present as a "new paradigm" their economic theory of religion. According to Starke and Finke, rather than religious adherence being an "opium" used by the few to brainwash the many, individuals make choices of religious attitude "guided by their preferences and tastes ... follow[ing] the dictates of reason in an effort to achieve their desired goals."7 It is hard to say whether this is a universal paradigm, but Ambedkar saw its appeal and political application. He considered the "new paradigm" a turning point in the development of modern civilization: "Man in the antique world did not call upon his maker to be righteous to him. Such is this ... Revolution in Religion."8 He saw "equality and human dignity" as laws that would hold stronger and truer for modern Indians than the law of caste.9
Consider the paradigm Ambedkar was pitted against. In the Manusmriti, Manu states that "castes are inherited by birth and they cannot be given up."10 Following this tradition, one's ability to make choices based on "preference and taste" is highly limited; questions of how one makes a living, where one worships, and who one is allowed to eat with cannot be decided based on personal convictions, but must adhere to the unchanging law of caste. When Ambedkar makes the distinction in this speech between the fearmongering of the "priestly class" and the desires and needs of the people, he is looking to the "new", anthropological paradigm as the model which subverts these traditionalist claims. In short, Ambedkar's rebuttal to traditionalism opened the door to both Hindu reform and, eventually, conversion to Buddhism.
The Hindu Code Bill
While Ambedkar is famous for his Buddhist movement and authorship of the Indian Constitution, another of his great struggles was not directly related to either of these subjects. From April 1947 to October 1951, a period inclusive of the entire debate over the Constitution, he pushed for the passage of a revised Hindu Code which he authored and sponsored. The debate over this code occupies over 1300 pages of the official edition of Ambedkar's writings, and it was the prolonged ambivalence of the government over the reform of the Hindu Code which eventually drove Ambedkar to resign as law minister of India.11
The Hindu Code is an aspect of Indian law dating to the 18th century, when the British were compelled to codify unwritten traditions in India based on a combination of British law and inaccurate English translations of Persian translations of prehistoric religious texts. While India is a secular nation and does not have religious courts, there is a great variation in matters of family law. During the Hindu Code debate, Ambedkar justified the British system as follows: "This country is inhabited by very many communities. Each one has its special laws and merely because the State desired to assume a secular character it should withdraw itself from regulating the lives of the various communities, undoubtedly would result in nothing but chaos and anarchy."12 It is clear that Ambedkar supported the regulation of such aspects of private life as marriage, separation, inheritance, adoption, and funerals, and on this principle at least he was not playing favorites, as the bill applied the same rules to Hindus and Buddhists.13
Ambedkar had a strong belief in establishing equality and human rights through European-style legality, which was part of the reason he was chosen to author the Indian Constitution despite his anti-authoritarian streak.14 His plan for the Hindu Code, reflecting this belief, was ambitious and consequential. The bill would have legalized divorce, permitted intercaste marriage and adoption, standardized property ownership across the wide diversity of local traditions, and allotted a much larger inheritance to daughters and widows than the prior norm.15 The intent of these reforms can be easily gathered from the lengthy debate on the bill: to render all Hindus equal in the eye of the law, including Dalits and women, and to bring the practice of divorce under the auspices of the Indian justice system rather than leaving it to be worked out by the parties involved. He and his supporters justified these changes, not by asserting that Hinduism itself needed reform, but by claiming that they were returning to the standard of Hindu texts.16
We see in the Hindu Code Bill an intermediary stage between using internal and external pressure to reform Hinduism. Obviously, the bill changes the traditional relationship between Hinduism and the law: with its passage, Hindu families affected by divorce or intercaste marriage would no longer be able to sue on the grounds that their religion had been disrespected. But Ambedkar's wording of the bill also allowed Hindu power structures to remain in place. Because the original draft applie to all Indians who were not Muslim, Parsi, or Christian, it did not encourage Dalits to convert away from Hinduism to obtain additional legal rights. Rather, Ambedkar aimed to bring the same legal rights to all Indians that he wanted for his own supporters; the bill was written with the human rights interests of even the most conservative Brahmin in mind. In his defenses of the bill, too, Ambedkar shows an acceptance of what he saw as some problematic aspects of Hinduism. Instead of objecting to the textual basis of Hinduism itself, he engages Hindus on their own terms, citing the Dayabhag, Kautilya, Parashara Smrti, and Brhaspati Smrti.17
However, Ambedkar's Untouchable birth and participation in the Dalit civil rights movement was not exactly appealing to the conservatives who sought such justifications. The fact that the same man who had burnt the Manusmirti was now proposing radical changes to the existing system of Hindu law led to an ugly debate where he was accused of attempting to pollute the law with "a spirit of supreme contempt for anything Hindu"18 and even of "aim[ing] at the utter demolition of the structure of Hindu society".19 It is remarkable that he introduced the bill in the first place, and even moreso that he pursued its adoption for four years. In less capable hands th bill would have been abandoned, but Ambedkar made sure this happened. Although the controversy did not die down after his resignation, the bills eventually passed with most of the reforms intact.20
The Hindu Code Bill legitimatized Ambedkar's legalistic approach to bringing about social change, and gave weight to the "new paradigm" of valuing the desires of common people over the demands of the Brahmins. It also asserted the ability of the state to make its own decisions on matters of family law rather than bowing to religious authorities. Finally, the actual reform accomplished gave underrepresented groups such as Dalits and women new legal rights, which could be seen as a movement by government towards Ambedkar's goals. However, compared to his proposed reforms in The Annihilation of Caste, the consequences of this bill on the structure of Hinduism were relatively minimal. This bill was clearly not equivalent to what Ambedkar was trying to accomplish with this propositions.
Hinduism and Indianness
The Hindutva movement, which has been active since the early 20th century, promotes defense of Hinduism as a national policy for India. Although not all Indians are Hindus and not all Hindus are Indians, Hindu nationalists appeal to tradition and authority to argue that support for Hinduism is the mark of a true patriot. They are assisted by the close link between the words for "Hindu" and "Indian" in many Indian languages (e.g., Hindustan for India). If he honestly aimed to reform Hinduism, therefore, Ambedkar would not have been able to get very far without an authentically Indian authority to appeal to.
In a 1954 speech, shortly before his death, Ambedkar said that "positively, my social philosophy may be said to be enshrined in three words: liberty, equality, and fraternity." Understanding the obvious implication of this trifecta, he added, "Let no one, however, say that I have borrowed my philosophy from the French Revolution." He goes on to explain how Buddha interpreted the relationship between these three ideals.21 But if he recognized the origin of this phrase, then he clearly was referencing the French Revolution, and more generally Enlightenment principles. It is curious that Buddha, whom he calls his "master" in this speech, is only an interpreter for the French motto. In his other writings, Ambedkar uses "liberty, equality and fraternity" as the three chief signs of humane and just religion: they represent to him everything that Hinduism is not.22 Is this a sign that he held European values more highly than Indian values, and wished to make over India in the image of Europe? Certainly this has been an active strain of criticism about his life's work, and the debate over the Hindu Code bill was largely a question of Indianness versus international opinion.
The proposed reforms for Hinduism play into this argument easily, because they seem to be partially an attempt to rewrite Hinduism from scratch in order to model it after Christianity. Rather than a diverse bundle of contradictory sacred texts, which different strains of Hinduism honor in different orders and ways, Ambedkar would have a group compile "one and only one standard book of Hindu Religion" which would become the only legal text for teaching Hinduism in the country. He does not mention the word "Bible", but the parallel is obvious. Meanwhile, he would eliminate the caste distinctions which render all Brahmins priests by birth, and instead outlaw preaching or holding ceremonies without accreditation, and allow any Hindu to become a priest if they pass an examination. This resembles the method by which some sects of Christianity accredit priests.
However, a closer look reveals some clear discrepancies with how Western nations treat religion, and suggests that Ambedkar was modeling his ideal Hinduism on his understanding of Buddhism. The Buddha and His Dhamma is his "one standard book", specifically written to encourage a single orthopraxy and the elimination of "not-dhamma" popular beliefs,23 and in this aspiration it resembles Theravada Buddhism.24 In Ambedkar's Buddhism, we find a set of open standards for the priesthood similar to those laid out in The Annihilation of Caste: the Sangha is free of all barriers of caste, sex, and status, and monks are certified by oral examination.25 This, too, accurately reflects how Theravada is practiced in Southeast Asian countries, with the exception that the nun's lineage died out in the medieval era.
Additionally, and more bizarrely to Western eyes, the state plays a large role in the proposed reform. The priest is required to be "the servant of the State", the number of priests will be fixed by the state, and the state will draw up an examination which all priests will be required to pass. This system does not seem to be a blueprint for a religion so much as an parallel agency to the Indian Civil Service, the immense administrative and education bureaucracy mentioned by Ambedkar. Since the separation of church and state was an issue long since settled by Ambedkar's time, he could not be said to be drawing on any contemporary Western source. Rather, these reforms must point deeper, to Ambedkar's understanding of the nature of Hinduism itself.
Hinduism as Non-Religion
If our understanding is correct, then Ambedkar imagined an egalitarian Hindu reform which would ground it in Buddhism, and enforce this reform across the nation by law. This would be an ambitious program indeed. But doesn't regulating religiousness undermine one's capacity for free expression, the entire basis of the "new paradigm"? Ambedkar's statement of personal philosophy, given many years after this speech, reaffirms this : "Law is secular, which anybody may break while fraternity or religion is sacred which anybody must respect."26 This statement portrays religion as a matter of voluntary association ("fraternity") which could not be manufactured by the law. There is the possibility that Ambedkar had completely reversed his position on Hinduism after going through the ordeal of the Hindu Code Bill and preparing for his own conversion to Buddhism. Even if that is the case, how do we resolve the initial contradiction?
The answer is in Ambedkar's conception of Hinduism, and this answer may also supply us with a resolution for some of the remaining problems with his proposed reforms. Ambedkar, deriving his understanding of religion from Max Muller, recognized that "in all ancient Society, Law and Religion were one." He therefore recognized the Manusmriti as a "Code of Laws", but not as a "book of Religion" in the modern sense,27 because it did not fulfill his requirements for modern religion—namely, it lacks social utility, justice,28 and the "fraternity" associated above with religion, not to mention equality and liberty.29 He wrote that "what Hindus call Religion is really Law", a statement that seems clear enough given his legal background and legalistic critique of Hinduism, but appended a clear denunciation of claims to religious status: "Frankly, I refuse to call this code of ordinances, as Religion."30
In Ambedkar's perception, the Manusmriti must be reread, not as an expression of transcendental order, but as a Draconian and fundamentally unjust code of laws originating in the mind of the "hireling" Manu in order to serve "the interests of a class ... whose title to being supermen was not to be lost even if they lost their virtue."31 This condemnation mirrors the description of the modern priestly class as one that " recognizes no duties [and] knows only of rights and privileges." By placing the Manusmriti in historical context and reevaluating it as a self-serving tract, Ambedkar delegitimizes and desanctifies. Of course, just because it is a legal system that favors one group over another does not necessarily mean it is uninspired. The legal system of the Qu'ran is justified today as being the direct command of God, and likely some Brahmins would defend the Manusmriti with a similar argument. In response, Ambedkar points to the less than divine origins of the book, as a production of a minor class of guru,32 to show that rather than deserving the protection of "religious freedom", it ought to be treated as a legal text and regulated in that way.
It is not difficult to see the connection from this line of argument directly to Ambedkar's proposals for Hindu reform. In these proposals, Ambedkar is minimizing the theological implications of reform in order to focus in on legal changes. If the role a Brahmin plays in a village is that of a sort of rogue lawyer, rather than a metaphysical teacher, it is easier to understand why he cannot be allowed to enforce his laws without earning and receiving the approval of a government authority. Such unjust laws as those in the Manusmriti, too, could not possibly be certified for enforcement in a democratic nation; it is better to set up a single law-book, which regulates the behavior of local lawyers, and does not allow gross contradictions from town to town. When he says that "to my mind there is nothing revolutionary in this", he means that he is only applying the same standards to Hinduism as he would to his own profession as lawyer and legislator.
Was Ambedkar justified in this reductionist view of Hinduism? I am inclined to agree with Professor Zelliot that his proposals are "legalistic". However, they are certainly not "naïve" in the sense of unsophisticated or lacking understanding of Hinduism. Rather, they show that Ambedkar has read the Manusmriti and determined its legal structure, and is providing in his speech an analysis of the bare minimum reform needed to provide legal equality to the Dalits if they were to remain Hindus. If any of his reforms were ignored, Brahmins would retain the capability to enforce the unjust law of caste, and the Dalits would be no better off than where they started.
Protections in the Constitution
Ambedkar inserted into his drafts of the Indian constitution a concern for the rights of traditionally unprotected and oppressed people, similar to what we find in the Hindu Code Bill and his critiques of Hinduism. Not only does it categorically abolish untouchability33, establish an officer to monitor "scheduled castes and scheduled tribes",34 and outlaw religious and caste discrimination,35 but the preamble declares that the establishment of justice, liberty, and equality is the very purpose of the Republic of India. The preamble is echoed in section 38, which reads that "the state shall strive to promote the welfare of the people by securing and protecting as effectively as it can a social order in which justice, social, economic and political, shall inform all the institutions of the national life." Given the opportunity to write the Constitution, Ambedkar turned it into a vehicle for social justice and an affirmation of some of his lifelong values.36
In recent years, rather than ignoring these sections of the Constitution, the Indian government has endeavored to expand on them. The single officer appointed for the sake of Dalit rights in the initial Constitution was amended in 1990 to become a "National Commission". The provision in the Constitution to monitor the condition of socially backward classes (such as the Criminal Tribes) also became a full-scale Commission in 1992.37
The structure of the Indian Constitution shows the successful application of Ambedkar's legal ideas to a universal context. Here, he did not have any competing authority which required him to defend his political philosophy: Hinduism was not a social institution especially familiar with constitutions, and the main debate during the adoption of the Constitution was over the inclusion of "emergency powers".38
Ambedkar's proposals for Hinduism, although they conflict with the Western conception of "religious freedom", reflect his modern and humanistic values with respect to religion as a practice. They are linked to his belief that "religion was made for man" and betray a skeptical analysis of unjust power structures. The Hindu Code Bill, which changed the nature of the state's relationship with Hinduism, the Constitution, which promoted social justice, and the structure of the Buddhist movement he initiated at the end of Ambedkar's life reflect elements of the reforms he laid down here.
Still, would Ambedkar really have expected reform-minded Hindus to pick up on his line of argument and begin pressing for complete government control over their own religion? Given the tone of his message, I do not believe that he thought anything of the sort. Perhaps he purposefully exaggerated the extent to which his reforms would have to be enforced in order to demonstrate how hopeless the situation was for Dalits. By the time this speech was made, Ambedkar had already given up on satyagraha as a means of social change, burned the Manusmriti, and quarreled with Gandhi over the subject of Untouchability. He seems to express a personal skepticism in the possibility for meaningful internal change when he ends his speech by saying, "I will not be with you. I have decided to change."39 Rather than preparing for battle, he is already bowing out of the discussion. If he could have conceived of a more reasonable approach to Hindu reform, he more likely would already have begun pushing for that reform himself in the public sphere, rather than offering it as a suggestion to others. Instead, I believe that Ambedkar used this list of reforms as a rhetorical device to accurately summarize the insurmountable extent of the caste problem in Hinduism.
1B. R. Ambedkar. Annhiliation of Caste, section 24. Retrieved from the online Columbia University edition at
2Eleanor Zelliot. From Untouchable to Dalit, New Delhi: Ajay Kumar Jain, 1996. p. 157.
3Bhagwan Das. "The Significance of Dr. Ambedkar's Writings and Speeches on Buddhism" In K.N. Kadam (ed.), Dr. B.R. Ambedkar: The Emancipator of the Oppressed. Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1993. p.125.
4Dhananjay Keer. Dr. Ambedkar: Life and Mission. Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1971. pp.266-276.
5Quoted in Zelliot, p.192 ("Religion is for man; man is not for religion"); also A.R. Biswas. "The Jurist of Modern India". In Kadam 1993, p.34.
6Ludwig Feuerbach. The Essence of Christianity. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1989.
7Rodney Starke and Roger Finke. Acts of Faith. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. p.38.
8B.R. Ambedkar. "Philosophy of Hinduism." In Vasant Moon (ed.). Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches. Bombay: Government of Maharashtra Education Department, 1987. Vol. 3, p.21
9Mishra 1997, op. cit.
10Srikanta Mishra. "Dr. Ambedkar's Role in Constitution Making." In Mohammad Shabir (ed.), B.R. Ambedkar: Study in Law and Society. Jaipur: Rawat Publications, 1997. pp.214-215.
11In Writings and Speeches, Vol. 14, pp.ix-x.
14Biswas 1993. p.73.
15Writings and Speeches, vol. 14, p. 11.
16Biswas 1993, p. 37.
18Writings and Speeches, vol. 14, p.411.
20Rina Williams. Postcolonial Politics and Personal Laws. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2006. Pg. 99-112.
21Ambedkar. "My Personal Philosophy". In Kadam 1993. p.1.
22S.K. Gupta. "Dr. Ambedkar's Perception of the Indian Society." In K.C. Yadav (ed.). From Periphery to Centre Stage: Ambedkar, Ambedkarism and Dalit Future. New Delhi: Manohar Publishers, 2000. p.105.
23c.f. Book III, Part IV.
24Peter Jackson. Buddhadāsa: Theravada Buddhism and modernist reform in Thailand. Bangkok: Silkworm Books, 2003. p.20.
25B.R. Ambedkar. The Buddha and his Dhamma V.1.2 (pp.305-307). Bombay: Siddarth Publication, 1984.
26In Kadam 1993, op. cit.
27Writings and Speeches , vol. 3, pp.332-333.
28Ibid., p. 71.
29Ibid., pp. 99-106.
30Nagendra K. Singh. Ambedkar on Religion. New Delhi: Anmol Publications, 2000. p. 12.
31Writings and Speeches, vol. 3, p. 76.
32Ibid., p. 78.
33In article 17.
34In article 338, unamended.
35In articles 15 and 16.
36K.I. Vibhute. "Social Justice: Constitutional Scheme and Spirit." In Shabbir 1997. pp.46, 49.
38Raju G. C. Thomas. Democracy, Security, and Development in India. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1996. pp. 77-78.
39Annhiliation of Caste, section 26.