What Ambedkar and His Legacy Mean to People Today

vidya-bhushan-rawat-contesting-marginalisations

It is tempting to think of B.R. Ambedkar’s legacy as a hegemonic one, for today there is no one who contests his ideas and legacy. Just as one was a socialist of one variety or the other in the mid-20th century India (even the Bharatiya Janata Party adhered to ‘Gandhian socialism’), everyone now is an Ambedkarite, or at least not opposed to the man and his ideas. However, in the absence of a coherent ideology that could be identified as Ambedkarism, the term has been pulled in many directions, which has both diluted it and, in some ways, allowed a creative efflorescence. It remains, at best, a nebulous concept.

Much before it became an academic rage, Ambedkar’s thoughts were a beacon for activists in post-independence India. Contesting Marginalisations: Conversations on Ambedkarism and SocialJustice, Vidya Bhushan Rawat’s collection of interviews with the many foot soldiers and friends of what has come to be called the ‘Ambedkarite revolution’, attempts to collate what is sometimes left out of academic studies. It brings together many different perspectives on what constitutes Ambedkarism and, more importantly, what it has meant to individuals and activists working in various spheres.

The diverse selection of the individuals interviewed in this book provides a comprehensive picture of what Ambedkarism is or can be – these include associates and inheritors of Ambedkar who helped keep his ideas alive after he passed away, as well as contemporary activists who are guided by Ambedkar’s thoughts. The ideas debated centre around the connection between caste and class, conversion to Buddhism, human rights, secularism and culture. The personal experiences of those who grew up in Dalit families add another dimension to the discussions and help the reader understand the evolution of their ideas.

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Reading Ambedkar: Buddhism as Optimism

Buddhism has been accused of being pessimistic in its approach towards life because of its recognition of suffering being part of human existence. This, of course, is not true- one just has to look at the great developments in art and culture during Buddhist times and at the countries that practice Buddhism (South East Asia, China) to see that people that are influenced by Buddhism is anything but that, as Jawaharlal Nehru points out in his The Discovery of India.

Dr Ambedkar in The Buddha and his Dhamma, underlines how, contrary to being pessimistic, Buddhism is a religion of a dynamic middle path. He asks in the Introduction (page 19):

If life is sorrow, death is sorrow and rebirth is sorrow, then there is an end of everything. Neither religion nor philosophy can help a man to achieve happiness in the world. If there is no escape from sorrow, then what can religion do, what can Buddha do to relieve man from such sorrow which is ever there in birth itself? The four Aryan Truths are a great stumbling block in the way of non-Buddhists accepting the gospel of Buddhism. For the four Aryan Truths deny hope to man. The four Aryan Truths make the gospel of the Buddha a gospel of pessimism. Do they form part of the original gospel or are they a later accretion by the monks ?

He addresses this question in the later part of the book (page 428):
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Why did the Buddha renounce the world?

Popular versions of the reasons why the Buddha renounced the world to seek enlightenment hover around the story that the prince Siddhartha Gautam was pained to see the suffering of a sick, a dead and an old man while on a tour. Dr Ambedkar, in his own interpretation of the Buddha’s story and the Dhamma (The Buddha and His Dhamma), provides an altogether different version. 

According to Ambedkar, Siddhartha had opposed the declaration of war by the Sakya Sangh on the neighbouring Koliyas. Since his was a minority view, he had to bow to the majority and had to take recourse to one of the options left with him.

Siddharth realised the consequences that would follow if he continued his opposition to the Sangh in its plan of war against the Koliyas. He had three alternatives to considerto join the forces and participate in the war ; to consent to being hanged or exiled ; and to allow the members of his family to be condemned to a social boycott and confiscation of property. (page 49) 

Siddhartha opted for the second option and went into exile. His subsequent conversation with his wife Yashodhara reveal that his renunciation had her support.

In the Introduction to the work Ambedkar gives a pointer to his the re-telling of this story.
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