Deliverance and Divergence – Dr. Ambedkar’s bold retelling of the Buddha story


In seeking to understand the deep-rooted realities of social exclusion and discrimination, Dr. Ambedkar did not hesitate in recasting the traditional narrative of the Buddha story, an account and teaching he valued immensely in his own struggles.

In popular retelling of the Buddha’s life, the “Four Great Signs” play a crucial role in urging the Prince Siddhartha, the Buddha-to-be, to seek renunciation from his princely life and “go forth.” These signs corresponded to Siddhartha coming across an old man, a sick man, a corpse and, finally, a monk.

The Four Signs are considered by the Buddhist tradition as the reasons for Siddhartha’s perplexity with life’s vagaries and the progressive and inevitable degeneration of the body resulting in death. They also formed the basis of his conviction that one way of life, that of the monk’s, represented a way out of what seemed like inescapable sorrow. These impressions from the Four Signs gave rise to  the strong desire to renounce his current life and seek out the mysteries underlying life.

To Ambedkar, this setting, as the springboard to the prince renouncing all his princeply trappings and going out of the householder’s life to seek answers, was “absurd on the face of it.” As he goes on to explain in his introduction to his work, The Buddha and his Dhamma, the story with the four signs did not seem reasonable since the events or the occurrences were too common not to have been noticed by Siddhartha earlier.

So, Dr. Ambedkar took it upon himself to correct this traditional account and bring it in accord with reason. This was no mean undertaking because for centuries the Buddha story had come down to us with almost a set structure, and was much respected.

But as Ambedkar puts forth in the Prologue to his book, which he quoted from an encyclopedia of religion: “From time to time men find themselves forced to reconsider current, and inherited beliefs…”

In his reconstruction, Ambedkar takes the bold step of completely doing away with the four signs. Instead, he has the prince Siddhartha inducted into a council of the people of his region, the Sangh of the Sakyas. It is here that the young prince participates in the fair running of territorial affairs.

The reason for seeking renunciation is presented almost as a political expedient. At one point, war seemed imminent with the neighboring Koliya principality over sharing of river waters. The Sakyans wanted to go to war to teach the Koliyans a lesson, once for all. 

Siddhartha objected with reasoning that was in keeping with his inherent sense of fairness and concern for all. Yet, he found himself in the minority, and he refused to assent to the majority position. This brought him into conflict with the military commander who reminded him of his vows when he joined. Reneging on them risked the penalty of death or exile. Siddharta chose exile and with the consent of his parents and his wife, he stepped out of his mansion into a life of renunciation, as a parivrajaka (a renunciant).

Deftly removed from Dr. Ambedkar’s narrative are the Four Signs he found unreasonable. Not just that, also absent in no less a significant manner is the rationale for the renunciation – to seek an end to life’s inevitable degeneration from birth to death and the sorrow attendant in the process. 

The strong urge to find a solution to the seeming inexplicability of man’s fate in an existential sense is replaced by the assumption of the higher moral ground in striving for peace. As Siddhartha later tells the Magadhan king Bimbisara, who was astonished to see one of his bearing in a renunciant’s garb: “I have been wounded by the strife of the world, and I have come out longing to obtain peace…”

Here, in Ambedkar’s version, the reason for the renunciation was not to end the circle of suffering that is represented by birth, sickness, old age and death. It was not to find a state beyond the mortal lot of human beings; it was instead a this-worldly endeavor to seek out peace and harmony in human interactions and relationships. In this one sees echoes of some of Dr. Ambedkar’s concerns when he addresses the presence of caste as part of Hinduism, for example, on account of the lack of social spirit among Hindus. As he puts it in his tract, Annihilation of Caste, the “anti-social spirit is the worst feature of their own Caste System.”

Ambedkar’s Siddhartha is, then, a Noble Statesman rather than a religious seeker after life’s great mysteries. Despite being acutely aware himself of the suffering and indignities suffered by his own community, Ambedkar chose not to construct a false messiah who would lift his fellow-beings out of their distress by dint of religious insight alone. 

Instead, Ambedkar’s Siddhartha is a pragmatic and ethical person, deeply affected by violent posturings of his fellow-beings, sensitive to the culpability of his own people as well, and vividly aware of the consequences of violence.

Ambedkar also has Siddhartha delve deeper at a later stage into the reasons he left home. During this process of reflection, the latter discovers truths no less revolutionary than the ones revealed in traditional accounts of Siddhartha’s enlightenment.

Thinking deeper into what led him to renounce his earlier life, it dawned on Siddhartha that, “The conflict between nations is occasional. The conflict between classes is constant and perpetual. It is this that is the root of all sorrow and suffering in the world.”

With remarkable sleight of hand almost, Ambedkar has Siddhartha achieve a breakthrough in and by his own analysis, and discover the true cause of sorrow and suffering in the world, which he realizes is the “problem of social conflict.”

For an admired ideal as the Buddha, who was Ambedkar’s beacon in his fight against various expressions of social conflict, such as social discrimination and social inequality, it was only proper that he was deeply alive to the fundamental cause of distress in the world, in terms of social relations.

Ambedkar’s presentation of Buddha’s life in accordance with his own convictions was met with some derision and criticism in the Buddhist world as outlined here. Yet, it is well known that several aspects of Buddha’s life-story were written down, especially in a coherent form, several centuries after the passing away of the Buddha. It has always been a constructed, assembled account.

And it is not so that the Buddha does not talk about how he was disturbed by conflict and violence. In the Attadanda Sutta of the Sutta Nipata Pali collection, he states: “When embraced, the rod of violence breeds danger & fear: Look at people quarreling. I will tell of how I experienced dismay.” But these are matters of scholasticism.

Ambedkar’s mission, so to say, was not to change the story entirely and irrationally, to rid it of its bearings and much of its traditional setup. After all, even in Ambedkar’s account, the young Prince Siddhartha receives his early education in the “Vedas, Vedangas and Upanishads,” in the manner of a traditional upper-class person of his times.

But, to Dr. Ambedkar, the ethical foundations of any system of teachings – and beliefs – were crucial and also its human-centeredness. As he states in  his work Buddha or Karl Marx, “Man and morality must be the centre of religion.” He adds further in the same text that, “the unhappiness in the world is due to conflict of interest and the only way to solve it is to follow the Ashtanga Marga [the Buddha’s Eightfold Path].”

As the considerations leading up to the renunciation of Siddhartha in Ambedkar’s retelling demonstrate, a sense of ethicism (in terms of non-harm), and social harmony deeply informed Siddhartha’s decision.

It was this creed, this system of beliefs with unshakeable foundations in morality, social equity and social concord that Ambedkar wanted to advocate to his followers and anyone who would listen. It was also shorn of any unexplained, fated events, which smacked of predestination and in which one had to believe in.

Ambedkar had declared in the unpublished Preface to Buddha & his Dhamma, that the “Religion of the Buddha” was the only one suited for a “man who knows science.” He wished for a consistent, logical and ethically sound teaching rooted in the relations between human beings.

And he was bold enough to craft his own account in his own uncompromising manner, basing it on his cherished ideals of moral probity and social equality.

Umang Kumar is a writer based in Delhi NCR.

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