A BUDDHIST MARXIST
“Men are mortal. So are ideas. An idea needs propagation as a plant needs water. Otherwise both will wither away and die.”
-Dr. B.R Ambedkar
"He viewed the binary between ‘Buddha and Marx’ as a discourse rather than a debate and believed that this idea needs to be heavily discoursed to bring forth a notion that might be closest to truth or perfection. He believed that Buddhism can contribute to the evolution of communism as a more efficacious and acceptable philosophy."
Ideas are never simply transferred from one socio-economic and cultural context to another. They evolve and adapt to their new habitat. People from different backgrounds analyze these ideas and present their understanding of the same. A comprehensive reading of Babasaheb’s work reveals that he was multifaceted. One of the relatively lesser-known aspects of Ambedkar’s life is his affiliation with Buddha. In this article, I have tried to present his analysis of communism. Being a devout Buddhist, he compared Buddha and Marx and presented a distinct understanding of Marxism. In the very first line of his speech, ‘Buddha or Marx’ Babasaheb acknowledged the possibility of this comparison being considered as a joke. Prima facie, both of them are completely different from each other. Buddhism is a religion, a way of life whereas Marxism is a doctrine that emerged in the 19th century as an economic concept which further became the foundational lodestar of communism.
THE PRIVATE PROPERTY
Marxists believe that economic disparity divides society into two distinct classes- haves and have-nots. The ownership of private property is one of the primary causes of class conflict between the bourgeoisie and the proletariats. They outright reject the notion of private property as they consider it a means of exploitation. Similar voices are echoed by Buddhists as they believe that ownership of property brings power to one class and sorrow to another. Buddha’s own attitude towards class conflict is expressed in his doctrine of Ashtanga Marga (Eight Fold Path); he recognizes that class conflict exists and that it is the cause of misery. Buddhism further claims that it is necessary for the good of society that this sorrow be removed by removing its cause.
In a Bhikshu Sangh, a Bhikku (ordained Buddhist monastic) can own only these eight articles and no more; three robes or pieces of cloth for daily wear, a girdle for the loins, an alms-bowl, a razor, a needle, and a water strainer. Further, it is completely forbidden for a Bhikku to receive gold or silver as it’s feared that he might buy something besides these eight things he is permitted to have. The apparent similarity of thought between Buddha and Marx on this front furthers Babasaheb’s claim that a comparison between them will prove to be fruitful and one should not abandon the attempt, just by considering the former as ancient and the latter as modern.
DO THE ENDS JUSTIFY THE MEANS?
One of the basic tenets of Buddhism also constitutes the core idea of communism. The Tripitaka (ancient collections of Buddhist scriptures) states that “Maitri or fellowship towards all must never be abandoned. One owes it even to one’s enemy.” The ends envisaged by both Buddha and Marx are more or less alike but the means proposed by them to achieve those ends are divergent. Buddha proposed that there are only two causes of the existing misery in society. A part of the misery and unhappiness of man was the result of his own misconduct. He preached that we should implement the practice of Panch Sila (vows to abstain from anger, stealing, lying, lust, and intoxication.) to improve our conduct. Further, he believed that a part of misery and unhappiness in the world was a result of inequity among men. For the removal of man’s inequity towards man, Buddha prescribed the Noble Eight-Fold Path. The Eight-Fold Path aims to establish a kingdom of righteousness and thereby end sorrow and unhappiness from the face of the world. On the other hand, communists believe that the end can be achieved only by a revolutionary overthrow of the bourgeoisie by the proletariats .
The evaluation of the means by Babasaheb uncovered the underlying contradictions between these attitudes towards the End. Buddhism has always been associated with the doctrine of Ahimsa but Buddha’s Ahimsa was not as absolute as the Ahimsa preached by Jainism. Babasaheb argued that Buddha was against violence but he was also in favor of justice and where justice required he permitted the use of violence. Buddha stated and I quote “One must never surrender to evil powers. There may be wars, but it must not be for selfish ends…” Babasaheb believed that Buddha might have justified the means with ends in view. He further reiterates the point that force can be used for creation as well as destruction. Although Buddha accepted the use of force as a necessary means, his personal attitude in Bhikshu Sangh made it clear that he was against any form of dictatorship. According to Buddha, the one who is wielding authority or some sense of power over others should not be a dictator. Rather, his position should be limited as being “first among equals.” Based on this premise Ambedkar argued that communists need to ensure that violence is used as the last resort and not as the first measure. Violence should always be a temporary measure and it should not become a permanent solution.
RELIGION, A WAY OF LIFE
In the critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Marx stated that religion was the “sigh of the oppressed creature in a hostile world, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions.” Marx’s criticism of religion is a reaction to the social context in which he was writing. In his critique, he has primarily focused upon the negative aspects of Christianity. The charges levelled against Christianity cannot be levelled against Buddhism. Ambedkar believed that the grounds on which Marxists were criticizing religion were not universally applicable and they needed to create a distinction between religions which are helpful to communism and which are not. He enumerated twenty-five core principles of Buddhism in which he showed that Buddhism relates to the facts of life and not to theories and speculation about God, Soul, Heaven, or Earth. He boldly claimed that Buddhism propagates the idea that “Man and morality should be the center of religion. If not, Religion is a cruel superstition.” He argued that traditional Marxists considered state as an instrument of coercion in the hands of the ruling class and believed that state would finally wither away after a classless society is established. In a classless society, where force or coercion won’t be used against anyone, the burden of creating a sense of belonging and responsibility among men will fall upon the shoulder of religion. He strongly believed that accepting a notion of religion is absolutely necessary for communists but they do have the liberty to propagate a form of religion that is in tandem with their core ideas. Babasaheb made a strong and responsible claim that the coherence of Buddhism and Communism is the way forward.
‘‘Communism can give one but not all.’’
- B.R. Ambedkar
By Kumar Harsh