Modern India: Ambedkar and 'Duhkha'

NEW YORK, November 7, 2012 — The notion of religious conversion as a political tool, and a relatively lesser-known chapter in modern India's political history, both received an airing here when political theorist and historian Partha Chatterjee engaged author Ananya Vajpeyi in conversation on her new book, Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations of Modern India.

Arguably the first comparative study of its kind, Vajpeyi's book explains how modern India came to be by rooting the philosophies and actions of the five founders of India — Mohandas Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Rabindranath and Abanindranath Tagore, and B.R. Ambedkar — in traditional and historical Indian texts of all kinds.

Vajpeyi explained her intention to explore the "moral imagination" of these five figures, the recipe behind their appeal to the nation. Each chapter is dedicated to a different figure and is characterized by terms that explain its subject's moral imagination according to both Vajpeyi's interpretation of same and how they are defined by more general scholarship.

The talk honed in on Vajpeyi's understanding of Ambedkar, specifically, as a man who in the final stage of his life converted to Buddhism, encouraging a mass conversion of 400,000 Hindu Dalits (formerly known as "untouchables") to Buddhism in the process. Ambedkar himself was a Dalit; he knew the group's plight firsthand. In the middle of the talk, Chatterjee noted that Ambedkar promoted conversion both to reject the Hindu caste system and to search for a "normative self." Vajpeyi continued: though Ambedkar didn't believe in the salvation of the individual soul, he sought a religion focused on collective renunciation and on duhkha, or suffering — as the path to "liberation."

At this, Vajpeyi paused to pose her own question. Why would a modernist like Ambedkar, a political genius responsible for drafting a large portion of the Indian constitution, turn to religion at the end of his life? Vajpeyi posited that this turn was a result of Ambedkar's likely feeling that he failed to establish "reverence for law [as] the political religion of the nation," as put by the American President Abraham Lincoln, whom Vajpeyi cited during the talk. For Ambedkar admitted upon converting that he didn't believe in either the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism or the story of how Siddhartha Gautama became the Buddha. If such was the case, then could Ambedkar's conversion to Buddhism even be considered a conversion in the sense that he changed his beliefs? Vajpeyi and Chatterjee agreed that his conversion was actually, for the most part, a political choice in the vein of a true "political tactician."

Despite the talk's focus on Ambedkar's efforts to alleviate the Hindu caste system, Vajpeyi asserted the politician's larger-scale efforts towards widespread social transformation in conjunction with the establishment of Indian independence. Unfortunately, however — as Vajpeyi indicated in distinguishing between "a world of ideas and a world of praxis" — there is a fundamental contradiction between what the founding figures of India imagined for their country and what ultimately came to be.

Reported by Renny Grinshpan

Video: Highlights from the program (6 min., 18 sec.)


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