How America’s Philosopher of Democracy Influenced India’s Leading Caste Reformer

Bhimrao Ambedkar’s vision of a more equal society combined John Dewey’s pragmatist ideas with a novel form of Buddhism

How America’s Philosopher of Democracy Influenced India’s Leading Caste Reformer
Images of Bhimrao Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian Constitution, and Buddha. (Indranil Mukherjee/AFP via Getty Images)

When Bhimrao Ambedkar — the leading reformer of India’s caste system who also helped write its constitution — placed his hands on a lectern overlooking his followers in a dusty field in the city of Nagpur on Oct. 14, 1956, the eyes of the estimated 400,000 people present were on him. They were all part of India’s oppressed castes and were about to publicly convert to Buddhism with him, in the hope of escaping the discrimination and ostracization that came with being Dalit, formerly known as “untouchable,” in India. Ambedkar saw in Buddhism — his vision of Buddhism, at least — a “social gospel” ready to help oppressed groups claim respect and dignity.

As probably the world’s largest voluntary mass conversion, the Nagpur event spawned a myriad of similar conversion events in India, which had a lasting effect on Buddhism in India and beyond. According to the 2011 census, of the 8.4 million Buddhists in the country, 87% follow Ambedkar’s form of Buddhism — Navayana or “new vehicle” Buddhism, sometimes called Ambedkarite Buddhism. (The other 13% follow Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism.) Even today, Dalits across India continue to convert from Hinduism to Buddhism en masse to escape casteism and untouchability, which is still practiced in the country despite being legally abolished in 1950. And millions flock to Mumbai every year to pay respects to their “Babasaheb” (“Respected Father”), as he is lovingly called, on his death anniversary at Chaitya Bhoomi, which is both Ambedkar’s cremation spot and a Buddhist temple.

While working on my recent book “The Evolution of Pragmatism in India” (2023), in which I explore the complex relationship between Ambedkar and the influential American philosopher and democratic theorist John Dewey, I came across a new clue that links Ambedkar’s creative engagement with Buddhism to his early interest in Dewey’s “pragmatism,” which sees science as a problem-solving tool, approaches truth as a question of what works best and views democracy as an ongoing process of making a better community — an outlook Dewey developed in such landmark books as “Democracy and Education” (1916), “Experience and Nature” (1925), “The Public and Its Problems” (1927) and “The Quest for Certainty” (1929).

The literature on Ambedkar is voluminous, a reflection of the long shadow he has cast in India, where he is a household name. Hundreds of books on his life and legacy have appeared over the decades, as have several films, including the recent documentary “Chaityabhumi” (2023) by the director Somnath Waghmare. Almost every account of Ambedkar’s life mentions Dewey as an early teacher during the young Indian’s time at Columbia University (1913-16) and then moves on: Dewey is relegated to the past and minimized in the narrative arc of Ambedkar’s formation. Likewise, most commentators treat Ambedkar’s turn to Buddhism as a radical departure, unrelated to what preceded it.

But as I delved more deeply into the biography and writings of this major Indian thinker and leader, I began to see the different strands of his worldview — Deweyan pragmatism, opposition to caste oppression and, finally, Buddhism — as intricately intertwined and indeed cross-pollinating. Many important parts of Ambedkar’s approach to democracy and justice can be understood better by examining his engagement with Dewey’s thought. For instance, Dewey’s focus on democracy as a way of life gets a new spin from Ambedkar when he uses it to criticize the habits of the caste system and how they keep groups apart. He appreciated the American philosopher’s emphasis on flexibility in a world of uncertainty and changing experience. Dewey’s resistance to seeking metaphysical foundations or timeless truths also resonated with Ambedkar, who wanted solutions to concrete problems in the world (like caste oppression) — ideas, in other words, that worked.

Ambedkar was born in 1891, into a Dalit caste considered “untouchable” as per the Indian caste system, meaning his presence and touch were seen as religiously polluting by the dominant castes in Indian society. Dalits were limited to the most objectionable and dangerous occupations, such as removing dead livestock and cleaning sewers. Due to their low status, they were excluded from using village water sources and Hindu temples.

Over the course of his lifetime, through many momentous victories as well as crushing defeats, he became one of the preeminent proponents of civil rights in India in the 20th century. He spent decades advocating for the rights of the excluded to enter temples, to use public water sources, to gain meaningful and safe employment, and to have political representation that looked after their interests, not just those of the dominant castes. He launched educational and advocacy organizations composed of Dalits and plied his trade as a lawyer on behalf of their rights.

Undergirding all of this was his expansive academic training, a rarity for a Dalit in his day. Ambedkar became arguably the most educated Indian of his time, with degrees from the London School of Economics and Columbia University, and went on to author a series of pioneering books exploring the origins of untouchability and caste, among other topics, spanning four decades. His final work was what he thought of as a Buddhist “bible,” “The Buddha and His Dhamma,” which was published posthumously in 1957.

Starting in the mid-1920s, Ambedkar’s efforts to alleviate the suffering of India’s oppressed brought him into conflict with a growing number of leaders from the Indian elite — many from dominant castes — who saw self-rule as India’s most pressing need and viewed the issue of caste as a divisive distraction from the primary question of independence from the British. Ambedkar, however, argued that merely replacing British masters with the Indian ruling class would leave the oppression of Dalits and disadvantaged castes unaltered.

This was explicitly seen in 1932, when Ambedkar secured separate electorates for Dalits during negotiations with the British (an arrangement in which Dalit candidates would stand for specific seats and be elected only by Dalits rather than having to count on votes from dominant castes to get elected). But Mahatma Gandhi opposed this move, arguing that it would divide Hindus and “vivisect and disrupt” Hinduism. Gandhi embarked on a “fast until death” that forced Ambedkar to take back these concessions, but this affair further convinced him that Hindus from dominant castes did not care much about the social oppression faced by Dalits.

Ambedkar agreed to Gandhi’s demands, but in 1935 he shook Indian political circles with his proclamation that even though he was born a Hindu, “I solemnly assure you that I will not die as a Hindu.” It was one of the first public declarations that Ambedkar had given up on social reform within the fold of Hinduism. Salvation and emancipation appeared to him to lie beyond the religion he had been born into and that had labeled him “untouchable.” In the following year, he took his critique of Hinduism and its holy texts further in his planned address “Annihilation of Caste” in which he argued for destroying Hinduism as a “religion of rules,” especially those strictures integral to caste customs. Instead, he sought a religious orientation that had flexibility and could treat all its members as equals deserving of respect. But this speech was deemed so controversial that the entire conference was canceled to prevent its delivery. Ambedkar still published it as a book, however. While he did not yet specifically advocate for Dalits to convert to Buddhism, his frustration with what he saw as the democratic limitations of Hinduism and his growing search for something to replace it was evident.

As India lurched toward independence, Ambedkar remained at the center of Indian political discourse pushing for the protection of Dalits and other oppressed groups. Jawaharlal Nehru, who was to be the first leader of independent India, invited him to lead the drafting of India’s Constitution. He became the country’s first law minister in 1947, but he resigned a few years later in 1951 because of rifts within the government over provisions in the Hindu personal laws related to divorce and inheritance. Later, when his efforts to get elected to the Indian Parliament were unsuccessful — he lost in the 1952 regular election and a by-election in 1954 — he mostly retired from politics and pursued his campaign for Dalit conversion to Buddhism, which culminated in that dusty field in Nagpur in 1956.

Even though he died less than two months after that historic event, the end of his life also marked the beginning of a way of rethinking Buddhism and social progress in India. For Ambedkar, Buddhism was not just about enlightenment; it was about achieving a real democracy, one that prized equality and unity among community members. He saw it as a social and political philosophy aimed as much at political emancipation as it was at individual enlightenment. His approach was called Navayana (or “new vehicle”) Buddhism because these sociopolitical aspects set it apart from other long-rooted traditions of Buddhist thought.

As a graduate student at Columbia University from 1913 to 1916, Ambedkar took John Dewey’s courses on “Psychological Ethics” and “Moral and Political Philosophy.” Buried in a lengthy recollection from Nima Adlerblum, who had been a student of Dewey’s in the 1910s and 1920s, are remarks about “a student from India” who was always “reading Dewey’s articles.” She remembered that he “recopied the class notes after each lecture. Whenever he read some to me, it felt as if I heard Dewey himself talking.” Adlerblum then gets to something significant for the Ambedkar-Buddhism story:

He also showed me his attached comments, searching for a bridge between Dewey and Buddhism. Both, he said, aim at the highest morality. But Dewey’s drive for a good society might be more conducive to happiness than nirvana. … In the United States he met Dewey who gave a new turn to his life. … In infusing Dewey’s concept of an idealistic democracy, he may be of some help in easing the ugly, ingrained tradition of the Untouchables.

Multiple primary and secondary sources bolster the case that Adlerblum was referring to Ambedkar, as Dewey had no other Indian students that I have been able to identify during this period. A focus on caste oppression, rather than independence or self-rule, was very rare for Indian students studying abroad at that time.

If we take the Adlerblum recollection seriously, what points of connection might we see between Buddhism and pragmatism in Ambedkar’s ideas? An important example came later in Ambedkar’s life, in 1936, when he started to break from Hinduism proper. In his planned “Annihilation of Caste” speech, Ambedkar used a distinction he found in Dewey’s co-authored 1908 book “Ethics.” Ambedkar stirred controversy in that speech by saying that Hinduism must be destroyed. He then specified that he meant destroying it as a “religion of rules.”

“Rules are practical,” Ambedkar writes. “They are habitual ways of doing things according to prescription. But principles are intellectual; they are useful methods of judging things.” He goes on to elaborate the difference between these two concepts. But one thing that has gone virtually unnoticed is that this formulation came straight from Dewey. This distinction and description of ethical rules and principles came from Dewey’s “Ethics.” Dewey was referring to philosophers like Immanuel Kant, for whom morality is grounded in timeless truths and rational certainties. It is always wrong to lie, according to Kant, whereas Dewey’s approach was to look at the situation — not all lies involve uttering falsehoods (lies of omission, for example), and some lies or partial truths might be very helpful in certain contexts.

Ambedkar’s approach employs this distinction in a new area: religion. True to Adlerblum’s prediction, Ambedkar takes this crucial distinction in pragmatist ethics and merges it with his critique of Indian religions. What he wants is a religion based on “principles,” flexible intellectual “tools” that can help us think through new problematic situations. Rules tell you exactly what to do, but the ever-changing modern world moves past and eclipses ethical systems that were clear in the past. Time renders rigid religious commands out of touch with our needs and problems, Ambedkar argued. He believed that Hinduism might still hold promise as a “religion of principle,” however.

By the 1950s, Ambedkar had publicly proclaimed the religion of principle he sought: Buddhism. But it was to be a democratic Buddhism, one that emphasized the value of equality among monks and followers in general. It also emphasized fraternity and fellow feeling between friends and strangers alike, a value wrapped in the Buddhist concept of “maitri” or loving kindness toward others.

In his 1956 conversion ceremony, we see Ambedkar turn once again to the emphasis on principles in such a living social gospel. His conversion ceremony was of his own design and featured a set of 22 vows, which ranged from denying faith in Hindu gods to promises that one will follow the Buddha’s noble eightfold path (a standard part of most readings of Buddhism) and vows against lying, stealing and so forth.

Some of these can be seen as mere rules, specifying actions to do or avoid. The most powerful vows, however, are ones that remain ambiguous enough that they can guide one in creatively thinking through new situations that are yet to arise. For instance, Ambedkar makes sure to put equality in two vows, both functioning as principles: “I shall believe in the equality of man,” he recites, just before he utters the vow that “I shall endeavor to establish equality” — in both theory and practice.

These vows show the importance of equality, but they do not specify how one should establish it. This is a strength, not a weakness, of principles according to the pragmatist position. Dewey and Ambedkar would readily agree that ethics is about values being reflectively and creatively applied to a world full of conflicts. Some of these conflicts will be radically different from those we have had to deal with in the past. Principles give you wide guidance in thinking through these novel situations, all the while leaving the burden of deciding on us, not some timeless authority or law.

In his final years, Ambedkar sought to create the sort of “religion of principle” that he desired. It was to be a way of life that combined Buddhism with Dewey’s pragmatist vision, as he had dreamed about since his years at Columbia. One of the topics Ambedkar heard discussed in Dewey’s lectures was the power of habit and custom in the shaping of the self and human communities. We are made by our habits, and we can remake them in turn through intelligent action. Whereas Dewey placed emphasis on changing habits by reforming the schools that shaped them (Dewey devoted much of his work to education and influenced educators all over the U.S. and beyond), Ambedkar’s challenges with the habits of caste went further than schools could reach. Because of the division of society into castes with a descending scale of value, Dalits like him not only were looked down upon by dominant castes but also thought of themselves through the devaluing habits of caste.

Ambedkar and his followers were starting to demand more concessions, rights and legal respect from others in India. Following his battles for access to water and temples in the 1920s and for greater legal protections against untouchability in the 1930s and 1940s, he knew that even more reform was needed. Those crushed by the caste system needed new ways of thinking of themselves and their value. He saw Buddhism as an answer to this problem, but Buddhism is really just a term for an assorted body of beliefs and prescriptions. In combining what he admired in Dewey’s philosophy with what he greatly respected in the complex Buddhist tradition, Ambedkar produced a Navayana Buddhism with a special character. One part of it — the notion of “ahimsa” — shows the pragmatist streak in his approach.

“Ahimsa,” often translated as nonviolence, was a moral concept of great concern for many schools of Indian philosophy. The Jains see “ahimsa” as the most basic duty, which leads their strictest monks to take austere measures to prevent harm even to microorganisms in daily activities. Ambedkar saw this employment of “ahimsa” to limit activities that could harm other creatures as noble, but sensed how it might limit the sort of anti-caste activism he wanted to pursue. He wasn’t pushing for violence, but he believed that harsh criticism and even self-defense shouldn’t be excluded automatically and always.

What Ambedkar does to the idea of ahimsa showcases the sort of synthesis between Buddhism and pragmatism that he had sought since his student days. In his epic work “The Buddha and His Dhamma,” Ambedkar reconstructs ahimsa as an integral part of Buddhism as a religion of principle. In talking about Buddha’s approach to violence, Ambedkar asks “whether His Ahimsa was absolute in its obligation or only relative. Was it only a principle? Or was it a rule?” Ambedkar answers this vital question for his reader: Buddha meant “‘Love all so that you may not wish to kill any.’ This is a positive way of stating the principle of Ahimsa … the doctrine of Ahimsa does not say ‘Kill not. It says love all.’”

Buddha, Ambedkar writes, “made a distinction between Principle and Rule. He did not make Ahimsa a matter of Rule. He enunciated it as a matter of Principle or way of life.” Expanding on Dewey’s way of thinking about principle-based ethics, Ambedkar concludes, “A principle leaves you freedom to act. A rule does not. Rule either breaks you or you break the rule.” Ahimsa as love becomes a flexible and adaptable guide to thinking through the challenges Buddha’s followers must face. It is the sort of specific value that, if preserved and practiced, composes a religion of principle.

When Ambedkar reformulated Buddhism as such a “religion of principle,” he followed through on a challenge that Dewey had set for him. The American philosopher was concerned about approaches that portrayed democracy as just about voting, institutions and laws. In contrast, Dewey always maintained that democracy was, at its most vital, a way of life — a manner of associating with others around you and being in the world. In other words, democracy embodied certain habits of valuing others and communicating with them to form different sorts of communities.

Ambedkar saw the gleam of this idea early on. Throughout the decades, one can find him returning in his texts to the touchstone he first found in Dewey’s “Democracy and Education” — “a democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience.” While Dewey saw democracy as a sort of everyday faith in human potential, Ambedkar saw Buddhism as a pragmatic means to put democracy into practice.

This is why it is so important to see the pragmatist aspects of Ambedkar’s Buddhism, evident in his discussion of subjects like ahimsa. Ambedkar was both a pragmatist and a Buddhist; indeed, his late Buddhism combines selected parts of Buddhism with specific themes and distinctions from Dewey’s thought.

Through the imperfect but always adaptable guidance of principles like ahimsa as love or the belief in treating individuals equally, Ambedkar showed us a new way to see democracy as a way of life. Whatever our training or instincts tell us about others, or whatever our community or tradition tells us is right, principles can be a way of thinking critically about ingrained habits of devaluing others. It’s hard to improve experience and community, but the charge of democracy is that we should be open to others and to new ways of improving our societies. Principles offer the promise of going beyond age-old traditions and rules.

Taking Ambedkar’s engagement with pragmatism seriously, we can then see his purposive reconstruction of Buddhism as his new way of creating democratic habits in individuals to instill respect — and self-respect — and to create the sort of society that values each person. When he stood in that dusty field in Nagpur and initiated the mass conversion of Dalits to Navayana Buddhism, Ambedkar cemented his place not only in the political history of modern India, but also in its religious history. He is a household name for multitudes in India not only because of his work on the Indian Constitution but because of his tireless advocacy for Dalits and his creative revision of Buddhism. Seeing the role of pragmatism as an integral part of his Navayana Buddhism only adds greater depth to the narrative arc of his extraordinary story, with its focus on the never-completed tasks of democracy as a way of life.

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