Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Buddhism and Dr. Ambedkar

Dr. B. R. Ambedkar
Dr. B. R. Ambedkar

In an introduction to his scholarly written book, “The Buddha and His Dhamma”, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar had raised interesting questions on the fundamental tenets of Buddhism and had left them for probing to the coming generations. However it didn't happen as the book became so sacred to Ambedkar’s dedicated followers, Neo-Buddist's, that they completely neglected the issues raised by Dr. Ambedkar on the very religion! Here is an attempt to seek some answers to those queries.

  1. First question posed by Dr. Ambedkar is, why Buddha took Pavajja (Renunciation)? Traditional answer to this question is on a day he came across scene of death, ailing man and an old person, which made him think on the futility of the life.
Dr. Ambedkar do not accept the traditional explanation stating that it was impossible for a twenty nine year old prince to not have come across such a common phenomena occurring almost every passing moment throughout everybody’s life!

I agree with Dr. Ambedkar. We can see in the history of the religions various myths are created around the founders to elevate them in the eyes of the people. In my opinion it was difficult for the later Buddhists to explain the sudden renunciation of Buddha when he already had married to a beautiful woman and had an infant son when he left home unannounced. It was a cruel deed if judged on any moral ground. Hence it needed a strong logic to explain the deed of Buddha. This is why a story must have been created that Lord Buddha confronted three tragic episodes of the life on a single day that changed him suddenly and to seek answers to the inevitable he abandoned the family and mundane pleasures.

Superficially the story seems believable. Religious people don’t question. But an intelligent personality like Dr. Ambedkar, who was on the verge of embracing Buddhist faith with his millions of the followers, only could raise such vital question. It is agreeable that deed of Buddha, abandoning his sleeping wife and infant unannounced, in the middle of the night, was not a humanly act. However to justify his deed the clarification was given thorough the above myth.

However, not satisfied by this myth, Dr. Ambedkar creates another story to justify the act of Buddha's renunciation. According to this new myth Buddha left Shakya clan and his family to save Shakya and Koliya clan from the possible war between them over share of the river water. However this story also does not find any support from Buddhist literature.

2. Buddhism propounds four Noble Truths (Arya Satya) those include;
"This is the noble truth of dukkha (sorrow): birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, illness is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair are dukkha; union with what is displeasing is dukkha; separation from what is pleasing is dukkha; not to get what one wants is dukkha; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are dukkha."

"This is the noble truth of the origin of dukkha: it is this craving which leads to renewed existence, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there, which is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for existence, craving for extermination."

"This is the noble truth of the cessation of dukkha: it is the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving, the giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it, nonreliance on it."
"This is the noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of dukkha: it is the Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration."

It is said that this is the central doctrine of the Buddhism. However Dr. Ambedkar seems to be dissatisfied with this doctrine. According to him these principles are pessimistic in nature and cannot raise any hope in anybody if life to death and even Rebirth is suffering.

However it seems clearly that Dr. Ambedkar has not given much importance to the last two truths those clearly indicate “cessation of sorrow through Noble Eightfold Path”. Instead Dr. Ambedkar states that these noble truths are great hindrance for the non Buddhist to become Buddhist.

Still, the Noble Truths also can be criticized. First, according to this principle, everything is Dukkha…sorrow. Everything that man craves for is the sorrow. Craving for separation too is sorrow. If such is the case, even if one follows the Noble Eightfold Path, how he is going to get rid of the sorrow?

Cessation of suffering, it is said, is the cessation of all the unsatisfactory experiences and their causes in such a way that they can no longer occur again. It's the removal, the final absence, the cessation of those things, their non-arising. One can easily understand why Dr. Ambedkar didn’t give much importance to the cessation and Noble Eightfold Path. He asks rightly, if suffering is the base of the philosophy of this religion and which cannot promise any pleasure or hope then why at all this religion is needed?.

Dr. Ambedkar questions whether these principles are original tenets of Buddhism or later additions made by the unknown Bhikkhu’s? (Monks)

Here, we must consider a fact that though followers of any religion in later times do tend to add, remove or modify some principles of the religion to suite to their times or ever-changing needs, but hardly one can change the central doctrine. Buddha in his life seems to be a philosophically confused personality. Element of suffering he borrowed from Sankhya philosophers of his time and modified it to some extant. None else but the Four Noble Truths should be attributed to Buddha as his basic philosophy that has overwhelmed almost all the oldest Buddhist scriptures.

3. Dr. Ambedkar raises a serious question on the Buddhist concept of Soul, Deed and Rebirth. According to him, Buddha has denied existence of the Soul but is staunch believer in the deed (karma) and rebirth. This is a great paradox in Buddhist doctrine to which many answers have been proposed. Still, Dr. Ambedkar asks, if there is no Soul (Atma) how then there could be Rebirth? How there could be any act (deed) in an absence of the Soul?

This indeed is a valid question. There cannot be concept of rebirth in absence of the soul, though scholars have tried to find many explanations. From some scripts it seems that Buddha too had tried to find solution to this problem by raising counter questions, but not to the satisfaction. Existence of the soul is precondition to the concept of Rebirth.

Buddha does not meet this condition. This is a great lacuna in his basic philosophy. When I read Buddhist oldest scriptures, in fact I do not find much difference between Tripitaka’s or Jataka’s and Hindu Purana’s except mention of some Buddhist elements. All Vedic God’s keep on floating around in almost every story. Miracles too have occupied greater part of the Life of Buddha, though Buddhists claim Buddhism being scientific religion. That way Buddhism, as considered by the people in general, has not anything special to boast of. It has no independent philosophy to offer of its own.

DR. Ambedkar, though having serious doubts on Buddhism, had no choice but to embrace Buddhism, as Hinduism of those times (and to some extent even today) had crossed all the limits of inhuman practices of inequality and untouchability. Still a great scholar like him only could raise serious questions on a religion he was about to embrace with his millions of people!

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