Do Ambedkar’s writings about a Brahmin counter-revolution in 187 BCE hold
a glimpse of India today?This is the question that comes to mind as India
celebrates his birth anniversary – in the backdrop of rising inequality.[image:
Do Ambedkar’s writings about a Brahmin counter-revolution in 187 BCE hold a
glimpse of India today?]
In his incomplete work *Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Ancient India*,
Dr BR Ambedkar credits Buddha and his teachings for laying the foundation
of a revolution more than two millenniums ago. Buddha (died 486 BCE)
repudiated the authority of the *Vedas*, harped on good conduct for
salvation, and denounced the caste system as well as the ghastly, expensive
ritual of animal sacrifice.
Under the Buddhist revolution, knowledge was not deemed the monopoly of the
twice-born. Into the sangha, the monastic order Buddha founded, the Shudras
were admitted – they could become bhikku, the Buddhist equivalent of
Brahmins. Salvation was not ruled out for women, who had their own order,
the bhikkhuni sangha.
Not only was the hegemony of Brahmins challenged, they also experienced a
loss of status under the Mauryan dynasty (321 BCE-187 BCE). This was
because “Ashoka made it [Buddhism] the religion of the state”, Ambedkar
writes in *Revolution and Counter-Revolution*. That delivered the “greatest
blow to Brahmanism. The Brahmins lost all state patronage and were
neglected to a secondary and subsidiary position”.
Ambedkar writes that the withdrawal of state patronage affected the
earnings of Brahmins, as Ashoka banned animal sacrifice, over which only
they could preside in return for lavish gifts. “The Brahmins therefore
lived as the suppressed and depressed classes for nearly 140 years during
which the Mauryan Empire lasted,” he notes.
The Brahmin counter-revolution
The only escape for the Brahmins from their ignominy was to usher in a
counter-revolution. The man who led the charge against Buddhism was
Pushyamitra, commander of the Mauryan army. He assassinated King
Brihadratha, usurped the throne and inaugurated the Shunga dynasty.
Pushyamitra was a Brahmin. His aim was to “destroy Buddhism as a state
religion” and deploy the state power to facilitate Brahmanism’s triumph
Ambedkar provides evidence to bolster his theory of counter-revolution. For
one, Pushyamitra performed the Ashvamedha
<https://www.britannica.com/topic/ashvamedha> or horse sacrifice on his
accession, as if heralding the restoration of Brahmanism’s preeminent
status. For the other, Ambedkar writes, “Pushyamitra… launched a violent
and virulent campaign of persecution against Buddhists and Buddhism.”
Ambedkar refers to Pushyamitra’s proclamation that set a price of 100 gold
pieces on the head of every Buddhist monk.
Pushyamitra is indeed depicted in Buddhist texts as the community’s
principal tormentor. In *Political Violence in Ancient India*, Upinder
Singh writes of a Buddhist legend that says that “on the advice of a wicked
Brahmana, Pushyamitra decided to rival Ashoka’s fame by destroying the
84,000 stupas that the latter had built”. Singh notes that archaeologist
John Marshall linked the “great damage” that was “wantonly inflicted” on
the famous Sanchi Stupa to Pushyamitra.
Ambedkar also mentions two later rulers, Mihirakula (520 CE) and Shashanka
(7th century CE), who killed Buddhists to try to root out Buddhism. “The
whole history of India is made to appear as though the only important thing
in it is a catalogue of Muslim invasion,” he writes. “If Hindu India was
invaded by the Muslim invaders so was Buddhist India invaded by Brahmanic
Manu Smriti and revival
There are many similarities between the two invasions, but also one crucial
difference – Islam did not supplant Hinduism, but Brahmanism drove out
Buddhism and occupied its place. Whatever remained of Buddhism in India
disappeared because of the iconoclasm of Muslim rulers. Ambedkar then
delves into the mechanism through which Brahmanism struck such deep roots
that Muslim rulers could not uproot it.
He says it was because of the promulgation of Manu’s code of law or the *Manu
Smriti*. Unlike many contemporary historians who date the *Manu
between 200 BCE and 200 CE, Ambedkar painstakingly cites sources to show it
was compiled between 170 BC and 150 BCE. That places the *Manu Smriti* in
According to Ambedkar, Manu’s code established the right of Brahmins to
rule, turned them into a privileged class by a margin, converted the Varna
into caste, degraded the status of Shudras and women, introduced the idea
of “graded inequality”, and created “conflict and anti-social” feelings
among castes. Manu bestowed on Brahmins monopoly over the teaching of the
*Vedas*, apart from re-introducing the ritual of sacrifice.
Undoubtedly, *Revolution and Counter-Revolution* creates a neat binary of
Brahmins and Buddhists without the greyness implicit in any reading of the
past. Perhaps Ambedkar’s own experience of the inequality perpetuated by
caste permeated into his aborted work. His insights did indeed influence
the framing of the Indian Constitution, which signified a revolution of the
democratic kind. It abolished untouchability, recognised the equality of
all citizens before the law, and provided for positive discrimination or
reservation for depressed groups.
A new counter-revolution?
On this day of Ambedkar’s birth anniversary, a question therefore: is India
in 2018 witnessing a counter-revolution of the kind Pushyamitra ushered in
so violently in 187 BCE? This question needs to be asked not just because
of the spurt in atrocities committed on Dalits and the denial of their
rights. It should be raised because the legal basis for establishing
equality seems threatened.
For instance, the Supreme Court has decreed that the college, not the
department, should be taken as a unit for calculating reserved posts, the
number of which is consequently expected to dwindle. Then on March 20, the
court infamously diluted
the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act,
1989, by giving the accused a degree of protection from arrest, with an aim
to curb misuse of the law. This goaded Dalits to call a Bharat Bandh
on April 2. It saw the upper castes mobilise and attack Dalits. In a
throwback to the 1990 protest against the VP Singh government’s decision to
provide job quotas for Other Backward Classes, the upper castes
organised a bandh
of their own
against reservations on April 10.
It is the Sangh Parivar that has sustained upper caste hopes on rolling
back reservation. For instance, before the 2015 Bihar elections, Rashtriya
Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat spoke of reviewing the policy of
Or take the position the Narendra Modi government took on K Mahajan versus
State of Maharashtra
the case that led to the March 20 Supreme Court order. Amarendra Sharan,
amicus curiae (adviser to the court) in the case, accused
the government of agreeing that “anticipatory bail could be given in case
there is no prima facie case being made out under the Scheduled Castes and
Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act”. He also said it was the
additional solicitor general who had supplied data on misuse of the Act.
The luminaries of the Bharatiya Janata Party – Union minister Anant Kumar
for instance – have repeatedly spoken of framing a new Constitution. To
achieve such a goal, the BJP needs to win majority in the 2019 Lok Sabha
elections. This mission the government’s position on K Mahajan services –
it polarised the upper castes and sections of Shudras against Dalits.
[image: Dalit activists and supporters march against the Supreme Court
order on the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of
Atrocities) Act during the Bharat Bandh on April 2. (Credit: PTI)]Dalit
activists and supporters march against the Supreme Court order on the
Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act during
the Bharat Bandh on April 2. (Credit: PTI)‘Graded inequality’
It may seem bewildering that the Sangh, undeniably the principal sponsor of
21st-century Brahmanic thought, should repeatedly win the support of
non-upper castes. Ambedkar’s “graded inequality” explains the phenomenon
“… Inequality is not half so dangerous as graded inequality. Inequality
does not last long. Under pure and simple inequality two things happen. It
creates general discontent which forms the seed of revolution. It makes the
sufferers combine against a common foe on a common grievance.”
By contrast, graded inequality, of which the caste system is an example,
prevents the rise of general discontent that can become the “storm centre
of revolution”. Ambedkar explains: “[With] the sufferers… becoming unequal
both in terms of the benefit and the burden there is no possibility of a
general combination of all classes to overthrow the inequity.”
This possibility is further reduced because the ruler adopts the divide and
rule policy, of which the Modi government’s position on K Mahajan is an
instance. It will soon sub-categorise
the Other Backward Classes into three groups and slice and distribute the
27% reservation unequally among them. The government is also keen on
passing the National Commission for Backward Classes Bill, which will vest
in Parliament the power to exclude and include a social group from the
reservation pool. This may just become the route to squeeze in Jats,
Marathas and Kapus into the Other Backward Classes for reservation. The
phenomenon of graded inequality will prompt the Shudras to fight among
themselves; the beneficiaries will likely swing behind the BJP.
[image: Prime Minister Narendra Modi has concertedly sought to appropriate
the legacy of Ambedkar. (Credit: PTI)]Prime Minister Narendra Modi has
concertedly sought to appropriate the legacy of Ambedkar. (Credit:
and communal tension
The other method of ushering in counter-revolution is through co-option of
radical forces. A resurgent Brahmanism co-opted Buddha as the ninth avatar
of Vishnu, blunting whatever edge Buddhism retained after attacks from
Pushyamitra, Mihirakula, and Shashanka. Likewise, Prime Minister Narendra
Modi has concertedly sought to appropriate Ambedkar.
Another favoured method of counter-revolution is to fan communal tension to
spawn affinity among castes. In his *Annihilation of Caste*, Ambedkar
notes, “A caste has no feeling that it is affiliated to other castes,
except when there is a Hindu-Moslem riot. On all other occasions each caste
endeavours to segregate itself and distinguish itself from other castes.”
It is to forge a bond among castes that Sangh footsoldiers target Muslims
in the hope the BJP will benefit from it electorally.
Commentators have often spoken of the “Muslim question”, the “Dalit
question” and such like. It is strange that they have never thought of
discussing the “upper caste question”. It is to the reactionary elements
among the upper castes that commentators should turn to preach, for it is
their conduct that imperils the ideas of liberty, equality, and fraternity
enshrined in our Constitution. The very ideas, however rudimentary, that
Pushyamitra’s counter-revolution of 187 BCE undermined.
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