Why even devout Hindus should embrace Ambedkar’s philosophy

The last few weeks have seen the owning, usurping and the embracing of Babasaheb Ambedkar by the political class. He has become by far the most important Indian icon, deeply impacting the voting arithmetic of Indians. This has naturally led the Jai Bhim-haters to soften their stance and put up a facade of respect. The convenience of picking and choosing quotes and events from a person’s life to suit our beliefs, allows us to make Ambedkar everything from a Hindu reformist to a Pakistan hater. The larger canvas of his life experience and evolution is naturally ignored in order to duck assured discomfort. And it is not only electorally dependent politicians who find him essential, even individuals like me cannot but, at the very least, act Bhim-conscious.

Let me first confess, as an ahistorical, upper class, urban citizen, at school and at home, Ambedkar hardly ever figured in any discussion that I was present at. While the Mahatma was all pervading, the only fact reiterated about Ambedkar was the obvious one-liner – the architect of the Indian Constitution. But even that was, at times, undermined. My father & co (ordinary aristocratic citizens!) claimed at private dinner conversations that the name on the Constitution was his, but others put in the real work, meaning educated upper castes and classes – the truly intellectual. I am certain my father and his friends had not listened to, or read, the transcripts of the debates in the Constituent Assembly, and hence their understanding of this great man was extremely limited.

But that is not the point. Privilege makes it very difficult for us to accept that people from lower caste backgrounds can actually be smarter than us. If we come across a few, then they are looked upon as exceptions, but even that credit is taken away. We pat ourselves on our backs for the generosity showered on them; it was us who gave them the luxury of reservation. The problem is that this feeling exists at every step of the class and caste ladder, making collective realisation that much harder.

The commonly held negative opinion on the quality of public services, healthcare or bureaucracy stems from this caste and class discrimination. As a resident of Tamil Nadu I hear this many times in the form of insinuations and innuendos, and point to it for all our societal ills. If only more deserving and meritorious people had been in these positions of power, India would have been a far greater country! The complexity of merit as an idea and affirmative action as a transformational tool is completely ignored.

The human mind is fascinating and always finds ways to justify contradictions by creating contextual spaces and resisting any overlap. One such anomaly is the upper caste Hindu traditionalist’s vociferous debunking of the Aryan invasion in order to further nationalistic unity among the Hindu majority and, at the same time, finding integration with cultures of the lower caste Dravidian struggle. Let me be very clear, public relationships of convenience are very different from socio-emotional co-existence. Deep within these conversations lies Ambedkar’s voice of questioning without the baggage of tradition.

Spiritual inquiry

Ambedkar’s investigations of Hinduism and his expose of what I would like to call abstractive isolation is an essential debate for all. In religious and spiritual dialogue we seek the ideal, the place of awakening, where the laukika – as it is – ceases to exist. All sadhana (practice) hopes for that movement through self-enquiry, ritualistic practice or emotional surrender. In order to move into that state of being it becomes essential to leave behind the real, that being the uncomfortable and irreconcilable. And in realisation, the real we believe becomes crystal clear. A substantial problem that emanates from this line of thought is that by default the economic, political and social discrepancies caused by structures that enable spiritual growth are swept under the carpet. The other issue with spiritualisation of inquiry is that the pure cannot be argued or disputed and is placed beyond the tactile, earthy.

We hear ever so often of people talking about the spiritual as being the higher level of intellectual being than any debate on caste, gender or class – one belonging to the realm of existential freedom, and the other to societal functionality. Which is why we keep both these in separate boxes within ourselves. Ambedkar broke this bubble by revealing the treacherousness of socio-religious structures that oppress even while proclaiming to provide pathways to self-awareness. This is to me as much a questioning of the self as it is of the politics of religion. Ambedkar has asked whether the abstraction that we call brahman is real when we live lives of segregation and differentiation. Does spiritual awareness change how we relate to the world around? Do I help and support people out of pity, or do I really feel that we are equal? Do the religious or spiritual really allow me to erase condescension, or does it want to make more people like me? I think each one of us should dispassionately ask these questions.

Multiple realities

Ambedkar questioned the foundations of Hindu religious and spiritual institutions. The demolition of the Hindu religious strangleholds is what he sought, but even Hindu devout have to site Ambedkar within their belief. Can someone remain religious, be aware of its pitfalls and yet move beyond its limitations? I know Ambedkarites will see this as religious appropriation, undermining the basic foundation of his thought. But it is important that we allow for this possibility, if not we will be enforcing another form of intellectual tyranny.

There have to be many Ambedkars and even a pious Hindu Ambedkarite is a possibility. I have to be careful here! Am I converting Ambedkar into a Hindu philosopher? Another appropriation? Certainly not, but the honesty of his enquiry, strength of conviction and tenacity to stand up against the powerful force me out of my comfort zone, bringing me face-to-face with who I am – including my faith and philosophy. I may choose to embrace Ambedkar and Rama, and allow myself solace in this contradiction!

At the other end, there is great resistance to non-Dalit Ambedkar voices, unless they conform to the language and tone of actual Dalit arguments. The empowered will never know how it feels to be an outcaste. This makes our entry into this dialogue problematic right from the beginning. But that does not mean that any non-Dalit who enters the fray is twisting its soul. Keeping aside the frauds, all those participating in this process are also doing it for personal reasons. There is an inner need to introspect, understand, feel and contribute that powers us. This is important, since it reveals an urge to change, and it is this spirit that creates collectives. We will make mistakes, at times be insensitive, even naïve but not insincere. Allow the privileged to come to social understandings from their own experiences and let them grapple with it, only then will the resultant sensitivity be true.

The fight for social equality has to come from varied voices. There will be disagreements and clashes but let us not reject multiple realities as long as the heart is in the right place. I was once asked whether I have the right to speak for a Dalit. I can speak for anyone as long as I am willing to understand the realities that make that person. And even after that learning I cannot be who he is and will never experience his living trauma. I have to realise him in and within myself. It is this internalisation that can change me and this takes time. Therefore yes, I will join my voice to the Dalit voice and do so, in all humility, knowing that I can never really know.

We should be thankful that Ambedkar lives among so many different people. Whether he is loved, eulogised, hated or decried, the fact that he is a consciousness gives us the strength that we are still a vibrant society. The moment he disappears from our midst we become truth-less.

Originally written for Scroll.in

The Sri Sri syndrome: What we should not forget about so-called gurus and godmen

Even as the high-decibel criticism of students from Jawaharlal Nehru University and Hyderabad University continues unabated, the riverside celebration of “Hindu-India” curated by the self-anointed Sri Sri has been forgotten. It has dissolved into the polluted air that hangs over the Yamuna. This so-called guru initially proclaimed that he would pay no fine or charge towards the environmental restoration. There was of course no question of his being accused of being anti-national or harming the flood-plains of a river. In fact, he was applauded. The certification came from none other than the prime minister himself.

We live in ridiculous times.

The defence of the event, violent in ecological terms, extravagant in financial and social terms and shockingly wasteful in terms of time, energy and sheer man-hours, has come not in terms of a reasoned explanation but in low and mean personal accusations levelled against environmental activists, finger-pointing towards the excesses by other religious groups and the reduction of every criticism into the pettiest forms of party politics. Serious discourse is, of course, lost.

Old phenomenon

But none of this is really new to us.

Religious showmen have had their way with politicians and governments for decades. Many have had numerous cases against them, with accusations ranging from sexual abuse to land grabbing and encroachment of reserve forests. But how many have resulted in convictions? Unmindful, these gurus continue their work.

In making such individuals stronger in recent times, I think two contrasting social movements have played a major role. One is better known as a model and the other as an ideology. The capitalist model has shown itself to be Machiavellian and the communist, oppressive. Navigating the in-between has not been an easy task, affecting everyone, the landless and daily wage earners being the worst hit. People need reassurance and voila, the guru grants their wish. “Things will get better for you, just do this, this and that,” he says.

At the same time, social power equations have considerably changed. The traditional misogynist, high-caste, high-class power groups are being challenged and all those who took their control for granted are now fragile. They seek refuge and security from such gurus. New socio-political tsars are aligning themselves with similar gurus in a new nexus that provides them the much-needed aura of a different order, of socio-cultural respectability. The only beneficiaries in all this are the godmen.

The good work argument

Nay-sayers like myself are many times asked one question, the obvious one. What about the social contributions, the self-help groups and institutions that these godmen have created or the schools they support, private hospitals they build, their focus on wholesome living, organic foods and the huge number of their volunteers who help during natural calamities? All this is undeniable, but how is this any different from the corporate social responsibility initiatives that even the most insensitive corporations spearhead? Even politicians and political outfits are involved in such activities.

Are we so innocent that we do not recognise the obvious brand-building, image-establishing part of the social activity agenda? Let us not treat their work any differently from that of a mega-corporate. Godmen are good ad-men. The “godly” makers of good hospitals and schools do not deserve an extra ring on the halo around their heads any more than makers of good medical equipment, cars or tractors.

The larger agenda pushes hazy spiritual institutions into the hard social sector – a huge gain for the religious orders. “Good” happens for society, of course, but then this is not due to institutional – or the godman’s – selflessness. It is because of the volunteers, who act selflessly, with hardly a hint of personal gain. The godman showers his blessings only to gather a harvest of great socio-political and financial power. There is also a deeper point: these “ships of good deeds” may not show it right now but when they appear from beyond the horizon, they may well be carrying undeclared toxic cargo inside.

Political targeting

Unfortunately in today’s times, real and honest social, political and environmental activists who have been walking the by-lanes and tortuous roads for years are branded and brushed aside as nuisance makers. Even worse, they are politically targeted, like in the case of the Green Peace campaigner Priya Pillai.

I find it very interesting that Christian schools, hospitals and colleges are all seen as conversion platforms, but none of the initiatives by the Hindu swamis are spoken of in a similar vein. These Hindu gurus are also converters – maybe not to a religion but certainly to a cult. Ashrams are recruiting grounds, indoctrination centres where a cult is created around a god-man/woman.

We have to ask ourselves a far more serious question. Why have we, as a people become vulnerable, so pliant, so completely subservient to these master-indoctrinators? Don’t get me wrong, the Sri Sris and Sathgurus may well be wonderful yoga teachers – and others religious scholars or ritualists. But when did these individuals become philosophers and mystics? It is this crossover that needs questioning. Somewhere during this shift, we have elevated them from the temporal to the celestial, the human to the super-human bordering on the divine and in the process subjugated our “god-given” gift of intellection to them. We have given up our “self” and its ability to seek, gifting it to someone else. It is time we reclaimed our minds.

Just be aware

Here, I could be asked: “But what is so wrong if I need their help and support?” Absolutely nothing, but can we all be aware and I mean truly aware of the maze that we are entering, the mirage of clarity that is presented and that in the end we are most likely to be as lost as we thought we were when we joined?

In the ashram we become one more character in the grand Broadway production. After hundreds of appearances we are inseparable from the character we act out. We may feel “full” and in-peace while inside, so much so that we are not self-critical. But once we leave the show, there is very little to hold on to and the question of who we are looms large over our heads. The moment we separate ourselves from these gurus, “realisation” vanishes and reality takes its place. Why? How does an ardent devotee then become an apostate or even a traitor?

Our unhappy land has seen thinkers who have urged that we free our minds of any baggage, to find pathways that we need to explore for ourselves. They have not asked us to emotionally sign up for a long-term assignment nor manipulated us into doing so. They have not tried to trap us in a spider’s web, where at the end of a three-day course we are asked to offer guru dakshina to the supreme leader. They have not asked us to take home a brain washing package.

There is no doubt that even today amidst these operators there are institutions and teachers who propagate various ways of religious living with integrity, sans any fluff or artificial flavours. But many are delusionists, who trap us in their net of charisma, mind play and clever one-liners. We forget our mind and consequently the questions that trouble us, and parrot those that the guru choreographs us into asking. There is of course great variety on offer: Some cater to the traditional Vedic crowd with their yagnas, pujas and tantric gesticulations. Then you have the ones who are most eloquent in Queen’s English, modern in the upper-middle class sense, ethnic to perfection, combining nuclear science, quantum mechanics and Vedanta with the greatest of ease. Apart from many shades of grey in-between.

It is time we recognised the institution of spirituality in India for what it is – a high-tech commercial enterprise – and these gurus for what they are – self-appointed chief executive officers who provide products to the consumer.

I will end with a practical tip as suited to our time-short times: If their products please you, even enable some change in you, go ahead and use them. But know them to be assembly line manufactures Made In India for Trade, not Transcendence. That is where the contact should start and that is where it should end.

Don’t let them hijack your mind and soul.

Originally written for Scroll.in