Brahma, Dharma & Democracy : another Hindu Riddle

Dr B.R. Ambedkar wrote Riddles in Hinduism: An Exposition to Enlighten the Masses in 1954–55. But he did not manage to publish it in his lifetime. He made “four press copies” that his personal secretary Nanak Chand Rattu typed out “on a fine strong paper”. When Rattu submitted that making four typed copies of the same manuscript seemed unnecessary, Ambedkar responded thus: “Look,” he said, “what is the title of the book—Riddles in Hinduism—which is itself a reply. I haven’t got my own press and naturally it has to be given to some Hindu press for printing. It can be lost, burnt or destroyed and my several years of hard labour will thus go waste. Doesn’t matter what the cost involved. I must have a spare copy with me”. Rattu records this in his memoir Last Few Years of Dr Ambedkar published in 1997.
In 1987, the Maharashtra government’s education department finally published Riddles in Hinduism under Volume 4 of the multi-volume series called ‘Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches’, known by the acronym BAWS.
Scholars and lay readers scarcely engage with Riddles in Hinduism where Ambedkar is rather preoccuiped with Brahmanical texts. He quotes from a wide array of Vedic and post-Vedic texts to prove that Hinduism itself is a myth and hardly qualifies to be called a religion. Ambedkar’s engagement with the past is not without concerns about the repercussions for the present, especially for democracy. A fine example is Riddle no 22, “Brahma is not Dharma: What Good is Brahma?”. We feature here an excerpt from Riddles in Hinduism: The Annotated Critical Selection published by Navayana to commemorate the 125th birth anniversary of Ambedkar. In this riddle, Ambedkar mulls on the danger to democracy when religion is involved, specifically Brahmanism. More important, he alerts us to the distinction between Brahmaism and Brahmanism, and argues how Brahmaism—that springs from the statement Aham Brahmasmi, regarded as one of the Mahavakyas or Great Sayings of the Upanishads—could well have laid he foundation for spiritual democracy. Why it did not is the riddle that Ambedkar has a go at.


Riddle No. 22: Brahma is Not Dharma: What Good is Brahma?[1]

RIH spine

Good government means good laws and good administration. This is the essence of good government. Nothing else can be. Now there cannot be good government in this sense if those who are invested with ruling power seek the advantage of their own class instead of the advantage of the whole people or of those who are downtrodden. Whether the democratic form of government will result in good will depend upon the disposition of the individuals composing society. If the mental disposition of the individuals is democratic then the democratic form of government can be expected to result in good government. If not, a democratic form of government may easily become a dangerous form of government. If the individuals in a society are separated into classes, and the classes are isolated from one another and each individual feels that his loyalty to his class must come before his loyalty to everything else, and living in class compartments he becomes class conscious, [he is] bound to place the interests of his class above the interests of others[. He] uses his authority to pervert law and justice to promote the interests of his class and for this purpose systematically practises discrimination against persons who do not belong to his caste in every sphere of life—what can a democratic government [then] do?

In a society where classes clash and are charged with antisocial feelings and a spirit of aggressiveness, the government can hardly discharge its task of governing with justice and fair play. In such a society, government, even though it may in form be a government of the people and by the people, it can never be a government for the people. It will be a government by a class for a class. A government for the people can be had only where the attitude of each individual is democratic, which means that each individual is prepared to treat every other individual as his equal and is prepared to give him the same liberty which he claims for himself. This democratic attitude of mind is the result of socialization of the individual in a democratic society. Democratic society is therefore a prerequisite of a democratic government. Democratic governments have toppled down largely due to the fact that the society for which they were set up was not democratic.[2]

[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Democracy is more than a political machine. It is even more than a social system. It is an attitude of mind or a philosophy of life.[/pullquote]

Unfortunately, to what extent the task of good government depends upon the mental and moral disposition of its subjects has seldom been realized. Democracy is more than a political machine. It is even more than a social system. It is an attitude of mind or a philosophy of life.

Some equate democracy with equality and liberty. Equality and liberty are no doubt the deepest concern of democracy. But the more important question is what sustains equality and liberty? Some would say that it is the law of the state which sustains equality and liberty. This is not a true answer. What sustains equality and liberty is fellow-feeling. What the French revolutionists called fraternity. The word fraternity is not an adequate expression. The proper term is what the Buddha called maitree.[3] Without fraternity, liberty would destroy equality and equality would destroy liberty. If in democracy, liberty does not destroy equality and equality does not destroy liberty, it is because at the basis of both there is fraternity. Fraternity is therefore the root of democracy.

The foregoing discussion is merely a preliminary to the main question. That question is—wherein lie the roots of fraternity without which democracy is not possible? Beyond dispute, it has its origin in religion.

In examining the possibilities of the origin of democracy or its functioning successfully, one must go to the religion of the people and ask—does it teach fraternity or does it not? If it does, the chances for a democratic government are great. If it does not, the chances are poor. Of course other factors may affect the possibilities. But if fraternity is not there, there is nothing to built democracy on. Why did democracy not grow in India? That is the main question. The answer is quite simple. The Hindu religion does not teach fraternity. Instead it teaches division of society into classes or varnas and the maintenance of separate class consciousness. In such a system where is the room for democracy?

The Hindu social system is undemocratic not by accident. It is designed to be undemocratic. Its division of society into varnas and castes, and of castes and outcastes are not theories but are decrees. They are all barricades raised against democracy.

From this it would appear that the doctrine of fraternity was unknown to the Hindu religious and philosophic thought. But such a conclusion would not be warranted by the facts of history.

The Hindu religious and philosophic thought gave rise to an idea which had greater potentialities for producing social democracy than the idea of fraternity. It is the doctrine of Brahmaism.[4]

It would not be surprising if someone asked what is this Brahmaism? It is something new even to Hindus. The Hindus are familiar with Vedanta. They are familiar with Brahmanism. But they are certainly not familiar with Brahmaism. Before proceeding further a few words of explanation are necessary.

There are three strands in the philosophic and religious thought of the Hindus. They may be designated as (1) Brahmaism (2) Vedanta and (3) Brahmanism. Although they are correlated they stand for three different and distinct ideologies.

The essence of Brahmaism is summed up in a dogma which is stated in three different forms. They are—

(i) Sarvam Khalvidam Brahma[5]All this is Brahma
(ii) Aham Brahmasmi[6]Atmana (Self) is the same as Brahma. Therefore I am Brahma
(iii) Tattvamasi[7]Atmana (Self) is the same as Brahma. Therefore thou art also Brahma.

They are called Mahavakyas, which means Great Sayings, and they sum up the essence of Brahmaism.

The following are the dogmas which sum up the teachings of Vedanta[8]

  1. Brahma is the only reality
  2. The world is maya or unreal

III. Jiva and Brahma are—

(i) according to one school identical,
(ii) according to another not identical but are elements of him and not separate from him,
(iii) according to the third school they are distinct and separate.

The creed of Bramhanism may be summed up in the following dogmas—

(i) belief in the chaturvarna
(ii) sanctity and infallibility of the Vedas
(iii) sacrifies to gods the only way to salvation.

Most people know the distinction between the Vedanta and Brahmanism and the points of controversy between them. But very few people know the distinction between Brahmanism and Brahmaism.[9] Even Hindus are not aware of the doctrine of Brahmaism and the distinction between it and Vedanta. But the distinction is obvious. While Brahmaism[10] and Vedanta agree that Atman is the same as Brahma,[11] the two differ in that Brahmaism does not treat the world as unreal, while Vedanta does. This is the fundamental difference between the two.

[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]For a man to say “I am Brahma” is a kind of arrogance.[/pullquote]

The essence of Brahmaism is that the world is real and the reality behind the world is Brahma. Everything therefore is of the essence of Brahma.

There are two criticisms which have been levelled against Brahmaism. It is said that Brahmaism is a piece of impudence. For a man to say “I am Brahma” is a kind of arrogance. The other criticism levelled against Brahmaism is the inability of man to know Brahma. “I am Brahma” may appear to be impudence. But it can also be an assertion of one’s own worth.[12] In a world where humanity suffers so much from an inferiority complex, such an assertion on the part of man is to be welcomed. Democracy demands that each individual shall have every opportunity for realizing his worth. It also requires that each individual shall know that he is as good as everybody else. Those who sneer at Aham Brahmasmi (I am Brahma) as an impudent utterance forget the other part of the Mahavakya, namely Tattvamasi (thou art also Brahma). If Aham Brahmasmi had stood alone without the conjunct of Tattvamasi it may not have been possible to sneer at it. But with the conjunct of Tattvanmsi the charge of selfish arrogance cannot stand against Brahmaism.RIH front cover 1 April

It may well be that Brahma is unknowable. But all the same this theory of Brahma has certain social implications which have a tremendous value as a foundation for democracy.[13] If all persons are parts of Brahma then all are equal and all must enjoy the same liberty, which is what democracy means. Looked at from this point of view Brahma may be unknowable. But there cannot be the slightest doubt that no doctrine could furnish a stronger foundation for democracy than the doctrine of Brahma.

To support democracy because we are all children of God is a very weak foundation for democracy to rest on. That is why democracy is so shaky wherever it made to rest on such a foundation. But to recognize and realize that you and I are parts of the same cosmic principle leaves room for no other theory of associated life[14] except democracy. It does not merely preach democracy. It makes democracy an obligation of one and all.

Western students of democracy have spread the belief that democracy has stemmed either from Christianity or from Plato and that there is no other source of inspiration for democracy. If they had known that India too had developed the doctrine of Brahmaism which furnishes a better foundation for democracy they would not have been so dogmatic. India too must be admitted to have a contribution towards a theoretical foundation for democracy.

The question is what happened to this doctrine of Brahmaism?[15]

To see how Ambedkar further discusses the importance of Brahmaism as a foundation for democracy, and Brahmanism as the exact opposite, buy a copy of Riddles in Hinduism: The Annotated Critical Selection with an introduction, “The Riddle of Ambedkar”, by Kancha Ilaiah. Featured Drawing by Laxman Aelay reproduced from Siddalingaiah’s memoir A Word With You, World  published by Navayana in 2013.


[1] The BAWS editors write: “This chapter consists about 20 pages out of which first two pages and the concluding six are in the handwriting of the author. The rest are typed pages with all necessary modifications by Dr Ambedkar.”

[2] This echoes Ambedkar’s speech to the Constituent Assembly in 1949, where he says: “We must make our political democracy a social democracy as well. Political democracy cannot last unless there lies at the base of it social democracy. What does social democracy mean? It means a way of life which recognizes liberty, equality and fraternity as the principles of life. These principles of liberty, equality and fraternity are not to be treated as separate items in a trinity. They form a union of trinity in the sense that to divorce one from the other is to defeat the very purpose of democracy.” http://, accessed 17 March 2016.

[3] Maitri is a key Buddhist concept which is translated as ‘benevolence’, ‘loving kindness’ and universal love. P. Lakshmi Narasu, a Tamil scholar of Buddhism says in The Essence of Buddhism (fist published in 1907), that from maitri come karuna (compassion) and mudita (goodwill) (55). Ambedkar wrote a foreword to the third edition of Narasu’s work in 1948 and published it himself. According to the scholar G. Aloysius, Ambedkar kept in his possession the manuscript of Narasu’s unpublished last work, Religion of the Modern Buddhist. Aloysius traced this manuscript with Vasant Moon in 2000, when Moon was editor of the BAWS volumes, and republished it in 2002 with an introduction, where he says, “Ambedkar was so highly influenced by The Essence of Buddhism that he described it as the ‘best book on Buddhism that has appeared so far’.” Ambedkar was deeply influenced by the ideals of the French revolution—liberty, equality and fraternity—and from a very early stage, such as in his Mahad Satyagraha intervention (1923–1927), he constantly invoked these ideas. Later, he sought and found the equivalences of these very ideas in Buddhism. For Ambedkar’s speeches at Mahad, see Teltumbde 2015.

[4] [I have borrowed this term from Prof Hopkins’ The Epics of India.] The reference here is to American Sanskritist Edward Washburn Hopkins’ 1902 work, The Great Epic of India: Character and Origin of the Mahabharata. Hopkins, who taught at Yale University and was the author of such books as Caste in Ancient India (1881) and Manu’s Lawbook (1884), says: “As Vedanta is commonly used of Sankara’s interpretation, I employ Brahmaism to connote a belief in the All-soul without necessarily implying a concomitant doctrine of Illusion, Maya” (1902, 101n3). Hopkins, who uses the word ‘Hindu’ to refer to modern Hindus but never uses the descriptor ;Hinduism’ in his work, identifies what he called six ‘approved epic systems’: “(1) Vedism or orthodox Brahmanism; (2) atmanism or Brahmaism (properly Brahmanism, but this term connotes a different idea), that is, an idealistic interpretation of life; (3) Samkhya, the dualism spoken of above; (4) Yoga, the deistic interpretation of Samkhya; (5) Bhagavata or Pasupata, different but both sectarian interpretations of Yoga; (6) Vedanta or Illusion-idealism” (85–6). Hereon, Ambedkar improvises on Hopkins.

[5] This is a much quoted verse from 3.14.1 of Chandogya Upanishad (c. 600 BCE, considered one of the earliest Upanishads), which is regarded as one of the ‘Mahvakyas’ or ‘Great Pronouncements’ of the Upanishads. See Ganganath Jha’s 1923 Sanskrit–English edition of the Upanishad along with a translation of Sankara’s Bhashya, Chandogya Upanishad and Sri Sankara’s Commentary—I. The entire verse translates as: “All this is Brahma; beginning, ending and continuing in It. One ought to meditate upon It calmly. Now, because man consists in his will. According as his will is in this world, so will the man be after he has departed hence. He ought to have (this) will” (Jha 1923, 179–80). Max Müller in The Upanishads: Part 1 (in the SBE series) renders this as: “All this is Brahman (n.) Let a man meditate on that (visible world) as beginning, ending, and breathing in it the Brahman). Now man is a creature of will. According to what his will is in this world, so will he be when he has departed this life. Let him therefore have this will and belief” (Müller 1879, 48).

[6] This statement, meaning “I am Brahman” or “I am that”, is regarded as another of the Mahvakyas from Brihadaranya Upanishad, 1.4.10: “Verily in the beginning this was Brahman, that Brahman knew (its) Self only, saying, ‘I am Brahman.’ From it all this sprang. Thus, whatever Deva was awakened (so as to know Brahman), he indeed became that (Brahman); and the same with Rishis and men. The Rishi Vamadeva saw and understood it, singing, ‘I was Manu (moon), I was the sun.’ Therefore now also he who thus knows that he is Brahman, becomes all this, and even the Devas cannot prevent it, for he himself is their Self” (Müller 1879, 48).

[7] Broken down as tat tvam asi. Literally “That thou art”, meaning “Thou art that”. It states the relationship between the individual and the Absolute and is frequently repeated in the sixth chapter of the Chandogya Upanishad, culminating in 6.8.7. See Jha 1923, 132. “Now, that which is the subtle essence,—in That, has all this its Self; That is the Self; That is the True; That thou art, O Svetaketu.” This is part of the father–son dialogue between Uddalaka Aruni and Svetaketu. For the entire conversation that leads up to this definitive statement, see Müller 1879, 98–101.

[8] Ambedkar is writing after both academic (such as the scholarly, Orientalist SBE series of books) as well as pop versions of Vedanta (those peddled by right-leaning supremacist voices such as Vivekananda’s after the much-vaunted speech at the Parliament of World’s Religions in Chicago in 1893, sustained by the well-networked Ramakrishna Math) had established themselves as the front of some kind of political Brahmanism. See Meera Nanda’s exposition of this in the context of the colonial period and its implications in post-independence history and contemporary Hindutva (Nanda 2010). See also Freystad 2010 and Nanda 2004.

[9] The sentence here in the BAWS edition oddly reads: “But very few people know the distinction between Brahmanism and Vedanta.” Since it almost repeats the previous sentence, and since Ambedkar means to distinguish here between Brahmanism and Brahmaism, this is likely an error either on the part of the BAWS editors or Ambedkar, and has been corrected as “Brahmanism and Brahmaism”.

[10] Brahmaism came to be discussed also because of the reformist Brahmo Samaj founded by Raja Rammohun Roy in 1828 in Bengal, which sought to propagate ‘true Vedanta’. The Brahmos believed in what they called ‘Adi Dharma’ and ‘casteless’ Vedic Aryanism. While rejecting Brahmanism and caste, the Brahmos upheld the principle of the Brahman—the supreme being or spirit. There were debates within the Samaj over repudiating the Vedas. For an account of Brahmo Samaj and its history, see Kopf 1979. See also Hatcher 2007, who looks at the work of Tattvabodhini Sabha, an offshoot of the Brahmo Samaj. The Arya Samaj, founded in 1875 in Lahore by Dayananda Saraswati, believed in the supremacy of Vedas and Aryans. For an account of how Vivekananda and Ramakrishna Mission came to represent Vedanta for the times—and for the West—see Jackson 1994. See further 178n18 to this riddle.

[11] Again, Ambedkar is improvising on Hopkins.

[12] Related concepts in Buddhist thought are attadipa and dhammadipa. The scholar of religions Peter Schalk dwells upon this. “The reference to dhammadipa in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta (D.I.100), has to be translated as ‘(whoever) has the dhamma as (guiding) light’” (Schalk 2006, 86). Schalk’s delineation of concepts related to this idea of each person being individually enlightened is worth citing at length: “In the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, the dying Buddha is reported to have said that the disciples 
 should not have any other sarana (refuge) other than the dhamma (D.II.100–01). He also uses the term atta (self), in connection with dipa: attadipa (having oneself as dipa). It is implied by the context that the monks should have themselves as dipa and not the dying or dead Buddha or anybody else. Furthermore, the Buddha introduces the concept of dhammadipa, which here is not tatpurusa ‘the dipa of the dhamma’, but which is bahuvrihi ‘having the dhamma as dipa’. Therefore, we have four terms that are connected with each other in a semantic chain: dhamma, dipa, atta and sarana. Connecting these, the Buddha is reported to have said to Ananda: ‘…therefore, Ananda, dwell you (all), having yourselves as dipa, having yourselves as refuge, having no other refuge, having the dhamma as dipa, having the dhamma as refuge, having no other refuge’ (D.II.100). Atta is of course here not ‘the soul’, but the logical counterpart of reference to somebody else than myself, to ‘the other’, who is made explicit in the text. The atta and the dhamma have common attributes, to be a sarana and to be a dipa. It is implied that dipa is a simile for sarana” (87). “D” here refers to Digha Nikaya, the Collection of Long Discourses of the Buddha. Mahaparinibbana Sutta is the sixteenth and longest of the thirty-four discourses (suttas) that make up the Digha Nikaya.

[13] The word ‘sramana’, although used sparsely in Brahmanical literature, makes its first appearance in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad IV.3.22: “There (in that state) a father is not a father, a mother is not a mother, the worlds are not the worlds, the gods are not the gods, the Vedas are not the Vedas. There a thief is not a thief, the murderer is not a murderer, a candala is not a candala, a paulkasa is not a paulkasa, a sramana is not a sramana, an ascetic is not an ascetic” (in Radhakrishnan 1998, 263). Sankara—the non-dualist Vedantic who literally used the second portion of Jabala Upanishad verse 4 (the portion sanctioning renunciation at any time of one’s life) as his personal slogan—in his gloss on Brihadaranyaka Upanishad IV.3.22 defined the ‘state’ that was beyond empirical distinctions as avidya-kama-karma- vinirmuktah (nescience-desire-ritual action–free). He argues that the ‘Self in Deep Sleep’ was essentially indivisible. (For Sankara’s commentary on Brihadaranyaka Upanishad IV.3.22, see tr. Som Raj Gupta 2008, 925.) Sankara’s gloss can be adduced to support Ambedkar’s thesis that even if Brahma were unknowable the theory of Brahma has a “tremendous value as a foundation for democracy”. Unfortunately, despite his tirades against the samuchhaivadi system of ashrama (see Notes 10, 16 and 17 to Riddle No. 17, p.132, 134–5) and his constant exhortation of Brahma, when it came to the question of varna, Sankara was steadfast in following the Manu line. However, the reason why Sankara failed to take the democratic impulse inherent to the (unaccountable) concept of Brahman to its logical conclusion at the social level may not be due to his theory of maya, which does not quite mean ‘unreal’.

[14] Ambedkar is drawing here on the Deweyan concept of ‘associated life’, which he picks up and develops further into a political tool at length in Annihilation of Caste. AoC 11.3 says: “The associated mode of life practised by the Sikhs and the Mahomedans produces fellow-feeling. The associated mode of life of the Hindus does not. Among Sikhs and Muslims there is a social cement which makes them bhais [brothers]. Among Hindus there is no such cement, and one Hindu does not regard another Hindu as his bhai” (2014, 256). In 14.2 of AoC: “Democracy is not merely a form of government. It is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience” (260). Ambedkar uses Dewey’s exact words from Democracy and Education (1916, 101). Both Dewey and Ambedkar believed that democracy should not be restricted to the political realm, but should also manifest itself in other areas, such as education, industry and the public sphere. On Dewey’s influence on Ambedkar, see Mukherjee 2009, 356.

[15] It appears that Ambedkar, without naming the Brahmo Samaj and its various offshoots, is critiquing their reformist efforts, for despite speaking of everyone being accessible to Brahman and the Brahman residing in everyone (which means a spiritual democracy), in actual fact the ideologues of Brahmaism did little to ensure real democracy in the social realm. Many, including the populist Gandhi, finally did believe in the racist Aryan supremacy theory. On Gandhi’s espousal of Aryanism, see Desai and Vahed 2015 and Roy 2014. On how European thinkers fell for the Aryan theory, see Figueira 2002.


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Dr. B R Ambedkar Written by:

Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (14 April 1891 – 6 December 1956), popularly known as Babasaheb, was an Indian jurist, economist, politician and social reformer who inspired the Dalit movement and campaigned against social discrimination against the Dalits, while also supporting the rights of women and labour. He was Independent India's first law minister and the principal architect of the Constitution of India.

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