December 6 is observed as the Mahaparinirvan Diwas, or the death anniversary, of Dr BR Ambedkar, the Father of the Indian Constitution. ‘Parinirvan’ can be translated as ‘nirvan’ after death, or freedom from the cycles of life and death. Dr Ambedkar breathed his last on December 6, 1956, less than two months after he had converted to Buddhism, fulfilling his declaration of “I will not die a Hindu”.
With his trenchant criticism of major religions, Ambedkar is often mistaken to be against religion, when he was deeply spiritual and conscious of the importance of religion in public life. While his views on Buddhism being superior to other religions are well-known, Ambedkar also believed the Buddha’s path to be superior to the major religion-rejecting philosophy, Marxism.
In an essay, written in his lucid and methodical style, Ambedkar has compared Buddhism with Marxism, saying that while both strive for the same end of a just and happy society, the means propounded by Buddha are superior to those of Marx.
“The Marxists may easily laugh at it and may ridicule the very idea of treating Marx and Buddha on the same level. Marx so modern and Buddha so ancient! The Marxists may say that the Buddha as compared to their master must be just primitive…. If the Marxists keep back their prejudices and study the Buddha and understand what he stood for I feel sure that they will change their attitude,” Ambedkar writes.
In showing the similarities between Buddhism and Marxism, Ambedkar first condenses the basic philosophy of both into neat bullet points.
For Buddhism, he lists, among 25 points: “The function of Religion is to reconstruct the world and to make it happy and not to explain its origin or its end; That private ownership of property brings power to one class and sorrow to another; That it is necessary for the good of Society that this sorrow be removed by removing its cause; and All human beings are equal.”
Of Marx, he says all that is left “is a residue of fire, small but still very important.” The residue he summarises in four points, including, “The function of philosophy is to reconstruct the world and not to waste its time in explaining the origin of the world; That private ownership of property brings power to one class and sorrow to another through exploitation; That it is necessary for the good of society that the sorrow be removed by the abolition of private property.”
Dr Ambedkar says Buddhism’s commitment to abolishment of private property is apparent in how its ‘Bhikshus’ give up all worldly goods. He says the rules for Bhikhshus owning property or possessions are “far more rigourous than are to be found in communism in Russia.”
To establish a happy and fair society, the Buddha had laid down a path for believers. Ambedkar writes, “It is clear that the means adopted by the Buddha were to convert a man by changing his moral disposition to follow the path voluntarily. The means adopted by the Communists are equally clear, short and swift. They are (1) Violence and (2) Dictatorship of the Proletariat…It is now clear what are the similarities and differences between Buddha and Karl Marx. The differences are about the means. The end is common to both.”
The driving force of India’s Constitution also says Buddha was a democrat. “As to Dictatorship the Buddha would have none of it. He was born a democrat and he died a democrat,” Ambedkar writes.
Importance of religion
Ambedkar writes that while Communists claim the State will eventually wither away, they don’t answer when that will happen, and what will replace the state.
“Communists themselves admit that their theory of the State as a permanent dictatorship is a weakness in their political philosophy. They take shelter under the plea that the State will ultimately wither away.”
Of the two questions, says Ambedkar, what is more important is what replaces the state, and if it is anarchy, then the building up of the Communist state would have been a useless effort.
“If it cannot be sustained except by force and if it results in anarchy when the force holding it together is withdrawn what good is the Communist State. The only thing which could sustain it after force is withdrawn is Religion. But to the Communists Religion is anathema. Their hatred to Religion is so deep seated that they will not even discriminate between religions which are helpful to Communism and religions which are not,” Ambedkar writes.
‘Buddhism ultimate aid to sustain Communism’
Ambedkar makes distinctions between Buddhism and Christianity, which he says Communists “hate”, and claims Buddhism has not the faults of the older religion. Instead of glorifying poverty and suffering in this world and making people dream of the hereafter – as he claims Christianity does – Ambedkar says Buddhism talks of being happy in this world and of earning wealth through lawful means.
“The Russians do not seem to be paying any attention to Buddhism as an ultimate aid to sustain Communism when force is withdrawn… they forget that the wonder of all wonders is that the Buddha established Communism so far as the Sangh was concerned without dictatorship. It may be that it was a communism on a very small scale but it was communism without dictatorship a miracle which Lenin failed to do…The Buddha’s method was to change the mind of man: to alter his disposition: so that whatever man does, he does it voluntarily without the use of force or compulsion,” Ambedkar writes.
He goes on to add that while “Communist Dictatorship in Russia has wonderful achievements to its credit”, equality “will be of no value without fraternity or liberty”, and “It seems that the three can coexist only if one follows the way of the Buddha. Communism can give one but not all.”