Dr. Ambedkar and Brahmins

Justice R.A. Jahagirdar (Retd)

Rakshit Sonawane’s account of how Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar’s son and the so-called followers of Babasaheb treated Dr. Savita  Mai makes very sad reading (Indian Express, Friday, 30th May, 2003). The devotion with which Babasaheb’s Brahmin wife looked after him in his fading life and health went totally unheeded; worse, even Babasaheb’s appreciation of the way she nursed him and cared for him was sought to be erased by his followers.

When Babasaheb’s The Buddha And His Dharma was posthumously published, it was published without the Preface written by Babasaheb. The Preface which was written on 15th March, 1956 contained touching references to the help he had received from his wife. After the great leader’s death, his widow had become persona non grata to his followers and the publishers suppressed the Preface and along with it, Babasaheb’s expression of his fine feelings for his wife.

All this came to be known only when Bhagwan Das, a Punjabi Buddhist Litterateur included that preface in his Rare Prefaces written by Dr. Ambedhar published in 1980. In this Preface Babasaheb had given an account of his early religious expressions, the origin of the book, and the circumstances under which the book came to be written. These points were incorporated by Mr. R. R. Bhole (the then Chairman of People’s Education Society) in his Foreword (dated 19th November 1957) to The Buddha and His Dharma published first in 1957 but the references made by Babasaheb to his wife Savita were avoided. The non-inclusion of Babasaheb’s Preface in the edition of his own book was in fact an insult to his memory. How could a poor summary of Babasaheb’s narration be a substitute for the original Preface written by him? Even in a later edition (1974) in the Preface written by Justice R.R. Bhole (he was a Judge of the Bombay High Court at this time) not a word was said about Mai Ambedkar. (Source Ambedkar and Buddhism by Sangharakshita: Windhorse Publications, 1986).

This attitude of Babasaheb’s followers is in sharp contrast to Babasaheb’s own attitude towards Brahmins. Babasaheb’s anti-Brahmnanism did not lead him to hate Brahmins. This can be seen from several facts which I am giving in chronological order.

Let us begin with Babasaheb’s surname. The family name ofAmbedkars was Sakpal but the family took the surname of Ambawadekar, after the village Ambawade in Ratnagiri District. In a short autobiographical account, Babasaheb has recalled that he had a Brahmin teacher named Ambedkar in his school. Babasaheb affectionately remembers that his teacher used to give a share of his food. This teacher thought that Ambawadekar was a clumsy name and shortened it to Ambedkar which was then put in the school record.

Later when Babasaheb was in the second standard of the High School (present Sixth standard), he had a Brahmin teacher named Pendse whom Babasaheb remembers as an affectionate person. On one rainy day when Babasaheb went to the school completely drenched, Pendse teacher sent him with his own son, to Pendse’s house where arrangement for a hot water bath was made.

In Elphinstone High School, Bombay, Babasaheb was asked to write on the blackboard to which some students in the class objected because their tiffin boxes kept behind the blackboard would be defiled. The mathematics teacher told those students that Babasaheb would write on the blackboard and they were free to remove their tiffin boxes. The mathematics teacher was a Brahmin called Joshi (This autobiographical account is included in Bhalchandra Phadke’s Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar – 1985, Shri Vidya Prakashan, Pune). When in school Babasaheb used to go to Charni Road Garden (now S.K. Patil Udyan) to study. Krishnaji Arjun Keluskar, the Brahmin Headmaster of Wilson High School, who used to frequent the same garden, noticed the studious boy. Keluskar had pleasant talks with Babasaheb who says that these talks used to set him thinking. In 1907 Babasaheb, being the first Matriculate in the Mahar community, was felicitated in a public meeting where Keluskar was a speaker. Keluskar presented to Babasaheb a book on Buddha written by him in Marathi. Being nothing if not an avid reader, the new matriculate lost no time in devouring the book which contained the sublime story of the Enlightened One. One could be pardoned if one hazards a guess that Keluskar sowed the seeds of conversion in Babasaheb’s mind. Keluskar continued to take interest in the untouchable boy and was instrumental in getting financial help from the Maharaja of Baroda for Babasaheb’s higher education.

In the well-known Mahad Satyagraha where the Chavdar Lake was “polluted” by the untouchables, .Bapurao Joshi, a leading Brahmin citizen of Mahad, was a strong supporter. The caste Hindus wanted to purify the lake, but Bapurao Joshi jumped into the lake before that, challenging the pollution theory.

Sangharakshita (in the book mentioned earlier) has narrated an incident connected with the Mahad Conference. Two prominent non-Brahmin leaders of Maharashtra offered to support Babasaheb in his campaign on the condition that no Brahmins, even the liberal-minded Brahmins sympathetic to the cause of the untouchables, should be allowed to participate in the campaign. Babasaheb flatly rejected the offer by declaring that the view that all Brahmins were enemies of the untouchables was erroneous. What was objectionable was the spirit of Brahminism viz., the idea that some castes were higher than the other. Babasaheb said that a Brahmin free from the spirit of Brahminism was welcome. Not birth, but worth — that was what counted. This in effect was a basic Buddhist principle.

On one occasion Babasaheb was hesitant to fully take this stand. Maha Bodhi Society of which a Bengali Brahmin (not a Buddhist) was the President published a journal which had worldwide readership among the Buddhists. Babasaheb was reluctant to write for that journal because the President of that Society was a Brahmin. However in order to make known his views on Buddhism to the largest possible number of people, he did contribute an article of 6500 words. This was the famous “The Buddha and the Future of His Religion” which appeared in April-May 1950 Special Issue of Maha Bodhi, the official organ of the Society.

When Babasaheb was under a siege while piloting the Hindu Code Bill, which was opposed tooth and nail by the Kayastha President of India, it was two Brahmins — Hridaynath Kunzru and N.V. Gadgil — who made strong speeches in its support in the Lok Sabha. Incidentally it should be noted that Gadgil had been seriously injured while trying to force entry in a temple at Poona along with the untouchables. However, it must also be mentioned that the Bengali Brahmin, Dr. Shyama Prasad Mookerji, denounced the Bill as the one which would destroy the Hindu society.

As a rule, a sitting judge of a High Court cannot comment upon a bill pending in the legislature. Casting aside this rule, Justice P.B. Gajendragadkar (of the Bombay High Court) delivered lectures supporting the Hindu Code Bill. Justice P.B. Gajendragadkar’s elder brother. Professor Ashwathamacharya Balacharya Gajendragadkar, took premature retirement from his post in Elphinstone College, Bombay, to accept the offer of Babasaheb to become the first Principal of Siddharth College, Bombay, – the first college established by Peoples Education Society. Incidentally, Babasaheb and Prof. Gajendragadkar were classmates in the college and both of them passed the BA examination in the same year i.e. 1912.

Freethinkers born in the so-called high castes are not proud of their birth in those castes, nor are they ashamed of it. They did not choose to be so born. People like us who have chosen to be freethinkers have been highly influenced by rationalism in Babasaheb’s writings. Some of Babasaheb’s so-called followers today are knocking at the doors of a leader who wanted the Government of Maharashtra to refrain from publishing Babasaheb’s books. If Babasaheb was in a grave, he would have undoubtedly turned in it.