On Ambedkar Jayanti, meditations on his speech Mukti Kon Pathe?, which critiqued Hinduism

In a Bombay Presidency Mahar Conference held on 31 May 1936, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar delivered a speech titled 'Mukti Kon Pathe?' (What Way to Salvation?). A year before, in Yeola in Nashik district, he proclaimed his decision to renounce Hinduism. This sent waves of shock across India, especially impacting so-called Hindu reformers. He was severely criticised for this. Nevertheless, he remained firm on his decision. He had all reasons for it.

The speech, 'Mukti Kon Pathe?', then became the most intensely thoughtful critique of Hinduism. It also became the blueprint for the religion he was going to embrace. It was only on 14 October 1956, 21 years after his proclamation, that he converted to Buddhism in Nagpur. But the speech he had delivered two decades before turned out to be the manifestation of the vision behind his conversion. Unlike many of his earlier works, when this speech was transcribed and published as a small book, it became his most passionately articulated work.

On Ambedkar Jayanti, meditations on his speech Mukti Kon Pathe?, which critiqued Hinduism

Mukti Kon Pathe? is one of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar's most passionately articulated works

In this, interestingly, he argued for his experiences which later transformed into insights to understand his philosophy of emancipation and what he meant by ‘annihilation of caste’. His ideas and arguments in this small but seminal work, responsible for transforming the consciousness of generations of Dalits, were crystal-clear. His passion for annihilating caste was reflected in each word he uttered at the conference. Not only did he explain the ‘spiritual’ gains from conversion, but he also touched upon the material aspects of it. Mistaking his decision and reason for conversion as being only polemic, especially in this speech, would never offer the reader a glimpse of the imagination from which he was speaking. He said:

"There are two aspects of conversion: social as well as religious, material as well as spiritual. Whatever may be the aspect or line of thinking, it is necessary to understand at the beginning the nature of Untouchability and how it is practised. Without this understanding, you will not be able to realise the real meaning underlying my declaration of Conversion. In order to have a clear understanding of the problem of Untouchability and its practice in real life, I would want you to recall the stories of atrocities perpetrated against you."

He was advising untouchables to revisit their experiences and think. When I read this small book first in Marathi and then in English, I was astounded by the depth of his understanding of religions in India, as well as the possible way out from centuries-old slavery. This speech became the vast canvas of reasons for untouchables to consider renouncing Hinduism.

But the problem was more severe. Untouchables were not even allowed to think freely, let alone act upon their thoughts. Since his stay in America and Europe provided him with the experience of being assimilated or accepted as a fellow human being, he could see what it means to be kept silent for centuries in India.

This gave birth to a weird kind of material dialectics, but if we read his speech patiently and honestly, we find that he acquired an understanding of this oppressive weirdness, which, over the years, developed as a ‘common sense’. He wanted to regain this strength (good sense, as opposed to common sense). While addressing the Mahars at this conference, he said:

"Financial strength is also just the same. It is an undisputed fact that you have a little bit of manpower; but finances you have none. You have no trade, no business, no service, no land. The piece of bread thrown by the higher castes is your means of livelihood. You have no food, no clothes. What financial strength can you have? You have no capacity to get redress from the law courts. Thousands of Untouchables tolerate insult, tyranny, and oppression at the hands of Hindus without a sigh of complaint, because they have no capacity to bear the expenses of the courts.
As regards mental strength, the condition is still worse. The tolerance of insults and tyranny without grudge and complaint has killed the sense of retort and revolt. Confidence, vigour, and ambition have completely vanished from you. All of you have become helpless, unenergetic, and pale. Everywhere there is an atmosphere of defeatism and pessimism. Even the slight idea that you can do something, cannot peep [penetrate] into your minds."

He then vehemently explained to the untouchables:

"In the Hindu religion, one can[not] have freedom of speech. A Hindu must surrender his freedom of speech. He must act according to the Vedas. If the Vedas do not support the actions, instructions must be sought from the Smritis, and if the Smritis fail to provide any such instructions, he must follow in the footsteps of the great men. He is not supposed to reason. Hence, so long as you are in the Hindu religion, you cannot expect to have freedom of thought."

After over 50 years since Babasaheb converted to Buddhism, my interactions with people across caste lines who claim to have been fighting for the ‘annihilation of caste’ have provided me with different sets of experiences. However, I have always tested them with what Babasaheb said in this speech, and to my anticipation, much of these anti-caste crusaders appeared to be hypocrites.

The reason is simple, and perhaps naïve. Babasaheb warned and explained to untouchables in the conference that “If there is any reason for your being treated as Untouchables and unequals, it is your relation with the Hindu religion.” Over the years, this speech had made an impact on my mind. I began to ask questions such as, "Is it possible for a person to remain within Hinduism and aspire to annihilate caste?", "Wouldn’t it be hypocrisy to cling on to a religion which is fundamentally based on inequality and justifies the oppression of one by another?", and "What is the psychological impact of a religion which restricts two people from loving each other?"

I think this speech provided me with a multitude of dimensions about and through which I could think, and perhaps find answers to such questions. It would not be an exaggeration to say at this point that this speech had attained a historical significance, as it had challenged the slavery put into place by Hinduism/Brahminism. It showed people a way to get rid of the toxic and abnormal system of caste(s).

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Updated Date: Apr 14, 2018 18:52:01 IST

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