Sunday, April 06, 2014

Bodhisatta Ambedkar

I'm preparing for tomorrow's "Buddhism and Modern Thought" class, our one session on Ambedkar's The Buddha and his Dhamma. Ambedkar is discussed in the "engaged Buddhism" literature but rather less in the "Buddhist modernism" discourse, although he's certainly part of it. I hope students will be (as, I guess, I am) both attracted by the idea and somewhat put off by the reality of a revival of Buddhism in India in the context of Dalit liberation. Attracted because it shows the Dharma to be politically powerful. But also put off somewhat since the Buddhism Ambedkar describes is so different from the one which has emerged in the West - political and secular rather than psychological and vaguely mystical... which is precisely the point of our reading him!
Ambedkar's take on the Four Noble Truths, holy of holies of western Buddhism, is a case in point. Nobody could be attracted to Buddhism by the "Four Aryan Truths," he writes, since they make suffering an individual thing when everyone - not least the Buddha - knew that it was caused by social strife, and should be addressed that way, too. Indeed, the First Truth should be understood as a rhetorical exaggeration in service of the second - if not, Nibbana risks becoming a fantasy of an afterlife, when the true point is to live righteously in this life. How tellingly different from  the individualized spirituality of the modern West into which our new Buddhisms so conveniently fit!

And while we're at it, Ambedkar asserts that it strains credulity to think that Gautama went twenty-nine years without seeing sicking, old age and death. Following a Marathi play by the doyen of Indian Marxist historians, Dharmanand Kosambi's Bodhisatta, Ambedkar describes Gautama's home-leaving as the result of a political debacle. Most of his clan, the Sakyas, decide to wage war on their enemies, and are at a loss what to do with pacifists iike Gaurama; his leaving solves the problem. But the great epiphany comes when the Sakyas make peace with the Koliyas. Should Gautama return?

He had left his home because he was opposed to war. "Now that the war is over, is there any problem left to me? Does my problem end because war has ended?" On a deep reflection, he thought not. "The problem of war is essentially a problem of conflict. It is only a part of a larger problem. This conflict is going on not only between kings and nations, but between nobles and Brahmins, between householders, between mother and son, between son and mother, between father and son, between sister and brother, between companion and companion. The conflict between nations is occasional. But the conflict between classes is constant and perpetual. It is this which is the root of all sorrow and suffering in the world. True, I left home on account of war. But I cannot go back home, although the war between the Sakyas and Koliyas has ended. I see now that my problem has become wider. I have to find a solution for this problem of social conflict. How far do the old-established philosophies offer a solution of this problem?" Could he accept any one of the social philosophies? He was determined to examine everything for himself. (41) (1.II.6. 4-12)

I'll have more for you after tomorrow's discussion, I'm sure. But here is something which is unlikely to come up but very interesting. It's an articulation of the theistic problem of evil very (suspiciously) close to the theodicy "trilemma" I focused on a few projects ago.

For if the moral law has originated from God, and if God is the beginning and end of the moral order, and if man cannot escape from obeying God, why is there so much moral disorder in the world? What is the authority of the Divine Law? What is the hold of the Divine Law over the individual? These are pertinent questions. But to none of them is there any satisfactory answer from those who rely on Divine Dispensation as the basis for the moral order. (131) (3.III.6:11-12)

If there is a supreme creator who is just and merciful, why then does so much injustice prevail in the world?" asked the Blessed Lord. "He who has eyes can see the sickening sight; why does not Brahma set his creatures right? If his power is so wide that no limits can restrain [it], why is his hand so rarely spread to bless? Why are his creatures all condemned to suffering? Why does he not give happiness to all? Why do fraud, lies, and ignorance prevail? Why does falsehood triumph over truth? Why does [=do] truth and justice fail? I count your Brahma as one of the most unjust, who made a world only to shelter wrong. If there exists some Lord all-powerful to fulfil in every creature, bliss or woe, and action good or ill, then that Lord is stained with sin. Either man does not work his will, or God is not just and good, or God is blind. (133) (3.IV.2:43-44)

Page references to B. R. Ambedkar, The Buddha and his Dhamma: Critical Edition, ed. Aakash Sing Rathore and Ajay Verma (Oxford, 2011) and this online source. Image source.

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