Ambedkar: Educate, Agitate, Organize!
The following is from an email exchange with an Engage! reader.
[Engage! Reader]: “I resonate with what you have written and like the mission of the Ambedkar society. I curious if you have any collection of his works that you would suggest or other reading that engage with him.”
Hi Engage! Reader: thanks so much for your thoughtful email. On Ambedkar: I have read some of his books: Annihilation of Caste; The Buddha and His Dhamma; and Buddha and Karl Marx. I also have a critical edition of The Buddha and His Dhamma, which is an annotated analysis of the book, by Aakash Singh Rathore and Ajay Verma. (2011 Oxford Univ Press).
But reading Ambedkar’s books didn’t help me understand his approach to Buddhism, which is by all accounts radical. He rejected the Four Noble Truths as the starting point of Buddhism and instead focused on the Eight-Fold Path. He rejected non-self, karma and rebirth as irreconcilable doctrines. He dismissed meditation as ‘mysticism.’ He rejected both Theravada and Mahayana traditions. (He did not say anything about tantra/vajra that I know of). He denounced the monastic hierarchy as ‘parasitic.’ This is about as radical as it gets, both as a critique of Buddhism and a reconfiguration of it. Ambedkar basically threw out most of what we understand to be Buddhism today and completely reinvented it as the Navayana. But how can we understand what the Navayana is? He died six weeks after becoming a Buddhist at age 65, so he did not leave a religious legacy in the traditional sense.
Most recently I uncovered a quote by him in which he explains that though he followed his master’s teachings (the Buddha), he came to different conclusions:
No great man really does his work by crippling his disciples by forcing on them his maxims or his conclusions. What a Great Man does is to awaken them to a vigorous and various exertion of their faculties. Again the pupil only takes his guidance from his master. He is not bound to accept his master’s conclusions.
Ambedkar thought it was perfectly legitimate to begin with the Buddha’s teachings but come to different conclusions and develop radically different ideas and practices, based on the social conditions of today, not those of 2500 years ago.
The best and only way I have come to understand BRA’s Navayana is to look at his life. His life was his practice, and everything he did to cultivate his own mind and benefit humanity was his dharma.
Let’s look at his most famous mantra: ‘Educate, Agitate, Organize.’
Educate: For BRA, cultivation of mind is the greatest practice, and by that he meant ordinary secular education. “Cultivation of mind should be the ultimate aim of human existence.” —BRA. This is apparently what BRA meant by ‘enlightenment.’ BRA would approve of Buddhists today who bring an educated point of view to Buddhism.
Agitate: This seems to be BRA’s equivalent to ‘awakening’ ; to be awake is to be morally, intellectually and politically awakened and mobilized for social justice.
Organize: Ambedkar offered his Navayana as a way to organize a community that could care for each other and mobilize for social justice.
I came to understand Ambedkar’s approach to Buddhism by letting go of nearly everything that I had been taught about Buddhist doctrine and practice. What I was left with was my life. It became clear to me that I had to stop practicing ‘Buddhism’ in all its institutional forms and do my life. Stop making Buddhism a substitute for your own life. Your life is the path. Ambedkar’s life was his path and it was his practice.This is a radically modern and secular approach to Buddhism.
Stop making Buddhism a substitute for your own life. Your life is the path. —S. Bartone
So if you’re an artist, your art is your practice; if you’re a school teacher, your teaching is your practice. If you have a family, your family is your practice. There is no special “Buddhist” thing you have to do other than cultivate your mind, care for your community and seek justice.
Furthermore, you said your small sangha is based on relational anarchism. Well, BRA left no institutional form for his Buddhist converts, no sangha or church. He never appointed any one to take charge of the new Buddhists converts, although he welcomed Buddhist teachers to help educate them. He never gave any indication that he thought he might be the one to lead them. All he did was set an example, and his example was his life.
There are numerous organizations and institutions that carry out facets of Ambedkar’s work, in India and the West, but none of them looks like a typical Buddhist sangha. The nearest one to me is called Boston Study Group; it is a group of highly educated Ambedkar Buddhists who promote university research and forums on Ambedkar’s philosophy.
So those are just some thoughts I’ve had on Ambedkar Buddhism, which btw is the dominant form of Buddhism in India today.