Dharma Files | How dharma and dhamma may seem similar but carry contrasting meanings

A look at the usage of the two terms by Swami Vivekananda and BR Ambedkar, and how they end up possessing antithetical orientations

Arvind Sharma January 09, 2022 16:12:37 IST
Dharma Files | How dharma and dhamma may seem similar but carry contrasting meanings

Representational image.

In this post I am deliberately contrasting dharma, as a broad and general category for Indic religions, with dhamma, as understood by BR Ambedkar, as a socially liberatory formulation of Buddhism for the former untouchables. A special feature of this contrast is that same or similar statements acquire very different meanings in the two contexts. Two examples illustrate my point.

  • Swami Vivekananda once said that it is good to be born in a religion but not good to die in one. By comparison, Ambedkar expressed a similar (but not identical) sentiment that “I was born a Hindu, but I will not die a Hindu.”

Vivekananda’s statement is spiritual in orientation, while the one made by Ambedkar is social in orientation. Vivekananda’s statement is a call to do away with religious boundaries; Ambedkar’s is a call to draw them more firmly — so that the transition from one to the other is as clear as it could possibly be, in the interest of social emancipation.

The context in which Ambedkar made the statement is worth noting. Untouchables had been carrying out a campaign for five years in the pilgrimage centre of Nasik to be allowed to enter Hindu temples. These efforts failed. Therefore, in 1935 he proclaimed, “I was born a Hindu, but I will not die a Hindu.”

Vivekananda was not insensitive to the unjust dimension of Hinduism. As he declared: No religion on earth preaches the dignity of humanity in such a lofty strain, as Hinduism, and no religion on earth treads upon the necks of the poor and the low in such a fashion, as Hinduism.

  • In 1996, Kancha Ilaiah published a book with the provocative title: Why I Am Not A Hindu. He explains his statement as follows: “I was not born a Hindu for the simple reason that my parents did not know that they were Hindus.”

As Nicholas B Dirks explains in his Castes of Mind (p.297): He (Ilaiah) goes on to make clear that this was not because his parents belonged to some other religious identity but rather because his “illiterate parents who lived in a remote South Indian village, did not know that they belonged to any religion at all.”

Members of the Kuruma caste, breeder of sheep, his parents brought him up in a world in which Hinduism was clearly the province of the upper castes — Brahmins, Baniyas, Ksatriays. “We knew nothing of Brahma, Vishnu or Eswara until we entered school. When we first heard about these figures they were as strange to us as Allah or Jehova or Jesus were.”

According to Ilaiah, the cultural life of Hinduism, determined in large part by protocols of hierarchy, ritual, and purity, steeped in beliefs that were seen as inaccessible and foreign, was not something he shared. Only in recent years, under the sway of a Hindu fundamentalist movement that has sought to recruit Dalits and other low-caste groups to a generic confessional idea of Hinduism, has he experienced any intimations of a possible connection. And yet, as a political activist and theorist, sceptical of a movement that seeks to build new conditions for the hegemony of an upper-caste Hindu chauvinism, he has written a book to reject the right of Hindus, and Hinduism, to claim him.

Now, basing his autobiography and his political identity in his lower-caste origins, he champions caste mobilisation as both a progressive political force and as antithetical to Hindu nationalism.

Note, however, that the founder of the Hindutva movement, VD Savarkar, was an atheist, and defined a Hindu as one who is not one. To cite his own words, he ends his tract Hindutva with a paragraph which contains the following line: “A Hindu is most intensely so, when he ceases to be a Hindu; and with a Kabir claims the whole earth for Benares…or at Tukaram exclaims: ‘My country? Oh brothers, the limits of the universe — there the frontiers of my country lie.’”

So both Ilaiah and Savarkar claim to be non-Hindus — but again in very different senses. A clue for developing the point further is provided by another comment by Ilaiah, that the lower castes should look to Jesus and Marx and Buddha for their emancipation, rather than to the Hindu gods. He would thus presumably opt for Ambedkar’s dhamma over dharma.

That two words, so closely related to each other as dharma and dhamma, should end up possessing antithetical orientations, is an irony of Indian history.

The author, formerly of the IAS, is the Birks Professor of Comparative Religion at McGill University in Montreal Canada, where he has taught for over thirty years. He has also taught in Australia and the United States and at Nalanda University in India. He has published extensively in the fields of Indian religions and world religions. Views expressed are personal.

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