Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Defender of Conversions and a Friend of Christianity

Ambedkar I am deeply interested in Indian Christians because a large majority of them are drawn from the untouchable classes. My comments are those of a friend. They are not the strictures of an adversary. I have drawn attention to their weaknesses because I want them to be strong and I want them to be strong because I see great dangers for them ahead. They have to reckon with the scarcely veiled hostility of Mr. Gandhi to Christianity taking its roots in the Indian Social structure. But they have also to reckon with militant Hinduism masquerading as Indian Nationalism wrote Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar more than half a century ago. Excerpts from his writing ‘Essays on Untouchables and Untouchablity- Religious’.


Introduction  

 

As Christians we may or may not agree with Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar on many metaphysical issues. We may disagree with his some of his analysis on social issues. We may even critique his life and works. But we should do all these things as friends of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar. Among all the luminary leaders of our nation, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar was one genuine friend of Indian Christians for whose work we should thank God.Here in this article, we bring excerpts from Babasaheb Ambedkar’s writing ‘Essays on Untouchables and Untouchablity-Religious’ under three sub headings:

 

  1. Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar- Defender of Conversion
  2. Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar- Refuting the Opposition of Gandhiji to Christian Conversion
  3. Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar- Critique of the Church Policies as its Well-Wisher

 

  1. Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar- Defender of Conversion

 Babasaheb Ambedkar takes the arguments against conversion heads on and refutes them in his own way.  Ambedkar writes:   

 

“Four principal objections have been urged by the opponents against the conversion of the Untouchables: 

 

(1) What can the Untouchables gain by conversion? Conversion can make no change in the status of the Untouchables. 

(2) All religions are true, all religions are good. To change religion is a futility. 

(3) The conversion of the Untouchables is political in its nature. 

(4) The conversion of the Untouchables is not genuine as it is not based on faith.” 

 

Ambedkar analyzes and demonstrates that these arguments are based on fallacious assumptions and empty evidences. The arguments that Babasaheb Ambedkar gave are worth reading and in fact when adapted will make powerful cases against the critiques of conversion.  

 

Refutation for the Charge 4: The conversion of the Untouchables is not genuine as it is not based on faith.

 

Ambedkar cites many historical precedents where the citizens got converted following the conversion of the King. He cites the European cases where thousands were baptized because the King was first converted. He then argues that compared to those conversions, the current conversions are genuine. 

 

Ambedkar writes:  “Today religion has become a piece of ancestral property. It passes from father to son so does inheritance. What genuineness is there in such cases of conversion? The conversion of the Untouchables if it did take place would take after full deliberation of the value of religion and the virtue of the different religions. How can such a conversion be said to be not a genuine conversion? On the other hand, it would be the first case in history of genuine conversion. It is therefore difficult to understand why the genuineness of the conversion of the Untouchables should be doubted by anybody.”

 

 Refutation for the Charge 3: The conversion of the Untouchables is political in its nature. 

 

Ambedkar writes: The third objection is an ill-considered objection. What political gain will accrue to the Untouchables from their conversion has been defined by nobody. If there is a political gain, nobody has proved that it is a direct inducement to conversion. The opponents of conversion do not even seem to know that a distinction has to be made between a gain being a direct inducement to conversion and its being only an incidental advantage. This distinction cannot be said to be a distinction without a difference. Conversion may result in a political gain to the Untouchables. It is only where a gain is a direct inducement that conversion could be condemned as immoral or criminal.

 

Unless therefore the opponents of conversion prove that the conversion desired by the Untouchables is for political gain and for nothing else their accusation is baseless. If political gain is only an incidental gain then there is nothing criminal in conversion. The fact, however, is that conversion can bring no new political gain to the Untouchables. Under the constitutional law of India every religious community has got the right to separate political safeguards. The Untouchables in their present condition enjoy political rights similar to those which are enjoyed by the Muslims and the Christians. 

 

Note: Under the current provisions of the Indian constitution, Dalits stand to lose if they convert to Christianity. They will lose the reservation and they face the persecution from Hindu terrorists.  

 

Refutation for Charge 2: All religions are true, all religions are good. To change religion is a futility.

 

 Ambedkar points out that: The second objection rests on the premise that all religions teach the same thing. It is from the premise that a conclusion is drawn that since all religions teach the same thing there is no reason to prefer one religion to other. It may be conceded that all religions agree in holding that the meaning of life is to be found in the pursuit of ' good '. Up to this point the validity of the premise may be conceded. But when the premise goes beyond and asserts that because of this there is no reason to prefer one religion to another it becomes a false premise. Religions may be alike in that they all teach that the meaning of life is to be found in the pursuit of ' good '. But religions are not alike in their answers to the question 'What is good?' In this they certainly differ. One religion holds that brotherhood is good, another caste and untouchability is good. 

 

Further Ambedkar argues:  In raising the second objection the Hindu is merely trying to avoid an examination of Hinduism on its merits. It is an extraordinary thing that in the controversy over conversion not a single Hindu has had the courage to challenge the Untouchables to say what is wrong with Hinduism. The Hindu is merely taking shelter under the attitude generated by the science of comparative religion. The science of comparative religion has broken down the arrogant claims of all revealed religions that they alone are true and all others which are not the results of revelation are false. That revelation was too arbitrary, too capricious test to be accepted for distinguishing a true religion from a false was undoubtedly a great service which the science of comparative religion has rendered to the cause of religion. But it must be said to the discredit of that science that it has created the general impression that all religions are good and there is no use and purpose in discriminating them. 

 

Note: At this point, though we disagree with Ambedkar that the science of comparative religion has ‘broken down the arrogant claims of all revealed religions that they alone are true’ (as we think the charges of comparative religion has been clearly answered by Christian apologists from time to time), we agree with Ambedkar that each religion has to be examined on its merits and should not be dismissed under the statements that ‘all religions are true’. 

 

Refutation for Charge 1: What can the Untouchables gain by conversion? Conversion can make no change in the status of the Untouchables. Ambedkar writes:  The first objection is the only objection which is worthy of serious consideration. The objection proceeds on the assumption that religion is a purely personal matter between man and God. It is supernatural. It has nothing to do with social. The argument is no doubt sensible. But its foundations are quite false. At any rate, it is a one-sided view of religion and that too based on aspects of religion which are purely historical and not fundamental. 

 

Ambedkar then examines the origin of religion from his own perspective and the role of religion in the society.  Ambedkar, the chief architect of the Indian constitution and the one of the important figure in the Indian history who organized Dalits politically, quotes Prof. Charles A Ellwood:  

 

The function of religion is the same as the function of Law and Government. It is a means by which society exercises its control over the conduct of the individual in order to maintain the social order. It may not be used consciously as a method of social control over the individual. Nonetheless the fact is that religion acts as a means of social control. As compared to religion, Government and Law are relatively inadequate means of social control. The control through law and order does not go deep enough to secure the stability of the social order. The religious sanction, on account of its being supernatural has been on the other hand the most effective means of social control, far more effective than law and Government have been or can be. Without the support of religion, law and Government are bound to remain a very inadequate means of social control. Religion is the most powerful force of social gravitation without which it would be impossible to hold the social order in its orbit. 

 

After examining the role of religion in the society, Ambedkar compares Christian faith with Hinduism. 

 

Ambedkar writes:  This is the reason why Lord Balfour was justified in putting some very straight-questions to the positivists before he could accept Positivism to be superior to Christianity. He asked in quite trenchent language: " what has (positivism) to say to the more obscure multitude who are absorbed, and well nigh overwhelmed, in the constant struggle with daily needs and narrow cares; who have but little leisure or inclination to consider the precise role they are called on to play in the great drama of 'humanity' and who might in any case be puzzled to discover its interest or its importance? Can it assure them that there is no human being so insignificant as not to be of infinite worth in the eyes of Him who created the Heavens, or so feeble but that his action may have consequences of infinite moment long after this material system shall have crumbled into nothingness? Does it offer consolation to those who are bereaved, strength to the weak, forgiveness to the sinful, rest to those who are weary and heavy laden?" 

 

The Untouchables can very well ask the protagonists of Hinduism the very questions which Lord Balfour asked the Positivists. Nay the Untouchables can ask many more. They can ask: Does Hinduism recognize their worth as human beings? Does it stand for their equality? Does it extend to them the benefit of liberty? Does it at least help to forge the bond of fraternity between them and the Hindus? Does it teach the Hindus that the Untouchables are their kindred? Does it say to the Hindus it is a sin to treat the Untouchables as being neither man nor beast? Does it tell the Hindus to be righteous to the Untouchables? Does it preach to the Hindus to be just and humane to them? Does it inculcate upon the Hindus the virtue of being friendly to them? Does it tell the Hindus to love them, to respect them and to do them no wrong? In fine, does Hinduism universalize the value of life without distinction?

 

Ambedkar then progresses to examine one more charge of opponents of conversion by saying the opponents of conversion are determined not to be satisfied even if the logic of conversion was irrefutable. They will insist upon asking further questions. 

 

  1. Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar- Refuting the Opposition of Gandhiji to Christian Conversion

 Ambedkar points out:  

Mr. Gandhi's opposition to Christian conversion is by now quite well known. And since 1936 he has become quite a virulent adversary of all missionary propaganda. He particularly objects to the missionaries spreading the Christian Gospel among the Untouchables. His antagonism to Christian Missions and the conversion of Untouchables to Christianity is based on certain propositions which have been enunciated by him in quite unmistakable terms. I think the following four propositions may be taken to sum up his position. I give them in his own words. He says: 

1. " My position is that all religions are fundamentally equal. We must have the same innate respect for all religions as we have for our own. Mind you, not mutual toleration but equal respect." (Harijan, 1936, pg 130)    

II. " All I want them (the Missionaries) to do is to live Christian lives, not to annotate them.      [Harijan, 1936, pg 353] Let your lives speak to us. The blind who do not see the rose, perceive its fragrance. That is the secret of the Gospel of the rose. But the Gospel that Jesus preached is more subtle and fragrant than the Gospel of the rose. If the rose needs no agents, much less does the Gospel of Christ need agents".      ([Harijan, 1936, pg 86). As to the work of the Christian Missions h

e says: 

III. "The social work of the missions is undertaken not for its own sake, but as an aid to the salvation of those who receive social service.     [Harijan, 1936,pg 137]  . . . .. While you give medical help, you expect the reward in the shape of your patients becoming Christians."       [Harijan, 18th July 1936, pg 178] 

As to the Untouchables he says— 

IV. " I do maintain . .. .. that the vast masses of Harijans and for that matter of Indian humanity, cannot understand the presentation of Christianity, and that, generally speaking, conversion, wherever it has taken place, has not been a spiritual act in any sense of the term. They are conversions of convenience.    [Harijan, 1936, pg 140-141]     They (the Harijans) can no more distinguish between the relative merits (words omitted?) than can a cow. Harijans have no mind, no intelligence, no sense of difference between God and no-God."       [Harijan 1936, pg 130]

  

Babasaheb Ambedkar then points out the double standard of Gandhiji: 

 

It is as recent as it is strange. I do not know of any declaration made by Mr. Gandhi expressing in such clear and determined manner opposition to the conversion of the Untouchables to Islam. The Muslims have made no secret of their plan to convert the Untouchables. The plan was given out openly from the Congress platform by the late Maulana Mohomed Ali when he presided over the annual session of the Congress held at Coconada in 1923. 

 

Babasaheb Ambedkar wonders as to the reasons for this obvious double standard of Gandhiji and then writes:  

Why there should be a different measuring rod today because it is the Christians that are involved is more than one can understand. Mr. George Joseph was well within bounds when he said: “The only difference is that there are 75 millions of Muslims and there are only 6 millions of Christians. It may be worth-while making peace with Muslims because they can make themselves a thorn in the side of Nationalism: Christians do not count, because they are small in numbers." 

 

Ambedkar then refutes Gandhiji:  

But apart from this difference in his attitude towards Muslim and Christian propaganda, have Mr. Gandhi's arguments against Christian Missions, which I have summarized above, any validity ? They are just clever. There is nothing profound about them. They are the desperate arguments of a man who is driven to wall. Mr. Gandhi starts out by making a distinction between equal tolerance and equal respect. The phrase "equal respect " is a new phrase. What distinction he wants to make thereby is difficult to recognize. But the new phraseology is not without significance. The old phrase "equal tolerance" indicated the possibility of error. " Equal respect " on the other hand postulates that   all religions are equally true and equally valuable. If I have understood him correctly then his premise is utterly fallacious, both logically as well as historically. Assuming the aim of religion is to reach God— which I do not think it is—and religion is the road to reach him, it cannot be said that every road is sure to lead to God. Nor can it be said that every road, though it may ultimately lead to God, is the right road. It may be that (all existing religions are false and) the perfect religion is still to be revealed. But the fact is that religions are not all true and therefore the adherents of one faith have a right, indeed a duty, to tell their erring friends what they conceive to be the truth.  

 

That Untouchables are no better than a cow is a statement which only an ignoramus, or an arrogant person, can venture to make. It is arrant nonsense. Mr. Gandhi dares to make it because he has come to regard himself as so great a man that the ignorant masses will not question his declarations and the dishonest intelligentsia will uphold him in whatever he says. Strangest part of his argument lies in wishing to share the material things the Christian Missions can provide. He is prepared to share their spiritual treasures provided the Missionaries invite him to share their material treasures "without obligation".* (What he minds is an exchange.) It is difficult to understand why Mr. Gandhi argues that services rendered by the Missionaries are baits or temptations, and that the conversions are therefore conversions of convenience. Why is it not possible to believe that these services by Missionaries indicate that service to suffering humanity is for Christians an essential requirement of their religion ? Would that be a wrong view of the process by which a person is drawn towards Christianity? Only a prejudiced mind would say. Yes. (Emphasis ours) 

 

  1. Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar- Critique of the Church Policies as her Well-Wisher

 Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar then proceeds to critically examine the policies of Church and

one of her doctrines. While we certainly disagree with his critique on the doctrine, for which we will cite some of the reasons, we think the Church will hugely benefit from his critique on certain practical problems faced by the Church. We therefore start with his doctrinal critique which we respectfully disagree. 

 

Doctrinal Critique of Original Sin:  Ambedkar writes-  

 

The second reason for the absence of any urge is due I am afraid to the teachings of the Christian Church. The Christian Church teaches that the fall of man is due to his original Sin and the reason why one must become Christian is because in Christianity there is promise of forgiveness of sins. Whatever may be the theological and evangelistic basis of this doctrine there is no doubt that from a sociological point of view it is a doctrine which is fraught with disaster. This Christian teaching is a direct challenge to sociology which holds that the fall of man is due to an unpropitious environment and not to the sins of man. There is no question that the sociological view is the correct view and the Christian dogma only misleads man. It sets him on a wrong trail. This is exactly what has happened with the untouchable Christians. Instead of being taught that his fall is due to a wrong social and religious environment and that for his improvement he must attack that environment he is told that his fall is due to his sin.

 

Note: Here we wish to point out that the doctrine of original sin does not rule out wrong doings of environment or establishment. In fact, the concept of original sin (i.e. all human beings are sinners) necessitates the Christians to work for an environment or establishment where power is decentralized and distributed across society (democracy with different branches of executive, judiciary and legislative) as it mistrusts one single individual (monarchy or caliph) or caste or group (aristocracy) to hold the entire power. In fact, the concept of original sin gives much more power in the hand of Dalits to work against Brahmanism than Buddhism. For example, the concept of original sin assumes that all human beings are created equally, all human beings have fallen equally and all human beings have equal access to salvation which is direct contradiction with the Hindu concept that Brahmins are created superior, Brahmins are not fallen like Dalits and Brahmins have greater access to salvation. Christianity destroys the root cause of caste system unlike Buddhism which continues to accept the root cause of caste system (Karma and reincarnation) though it denies the caste system itself. 

 

Christian Service Reaches Caste Hindus More than to Communities of Indian Christians:   

 

Ambedkar points out that:  It is necessary to bear in mind that Indian Christians are drawn chiefly from the Untouchables and, to a much less extent, from low ranking Shudra castes. The Social Services of Missions must, therefore, be judged in the light of the needs of these classes. What are those needs? The services rendered by the Missions in the fields of education and medical relief are beyond the ken of the Indian Christians. They go mostly to benefit the high caste Hindus. The Indian Christians are either too poor or too devoid of ambition to undertake the pursuit of higher education. High schools, colleges and hostels maintained by the Missions are, therefore, so much misplaced and misapplied expenditure from the point of view of the uplift of Indian Christians. In the same way much of the medical aid provided by the Missions goes to the Caste Hindus. This is especially the case with regard to hospitals. 

 

Note: This is a point which we must examine ourselves and if true, requires a realignment of our resources for the communities that most Christians belong. We must recall the words of inspired author James in the context: “Listen, my beloved brethren: Has God not chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the Kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Do not the rich oppress you and drag you into the courts? Do they not blaspheme that noble name by which you are called? (James 2: 5-7). This is quite true in case of caste Hindus too.  

 

Tolerating Paganism among Christian Communities:  Ambedkar writes:  

 

There is another thing which shows that Christianity has not been effective in wiping paganism out of the converts. Almost all the converts retain the Hindu forms of worship and believe in Hindu superstition. A convert to Christianity will be found to worship his family Gods and also the Hindu gods such as Rama, Krishna, Shankar, Vishnu, etc. A convert to Christianity will be found to go on a pilgrimage to places which are sacred to the Hindus. He will go to Pandharpur, and make offerings to Vithoba. He will go to Jejuri and sacrifice a goat to the blood-thirsty god, Khandoba. On the Ganesh Chaturthi he will refuse to see the moon, on a day of eclipse he will go to the sea and bathe—superstitions observed by the Hindus. It is notorious that the Christians observe the social practices of the Hindus in the matter of births, deaths and marriages. I say nothing about the prevalence of the Hindu social practices among the Christians. In as much as these social practices have no religious significance it matters very little what they are. But the same cannot be said of religious observances. They are incompatible with Christian belief and Christian way of life. The question is why has Christianity not been able to stamp them out? The answer is that the Christian Missionaries although they have been eager to convert persons to Christianity have never put up a determined fight to uproot paganism from the Convert. Indeed they have tolerated it. 

 

Note: This is again something we must insist on all Christians. There cannot be any compromise in uprooting paganism from the Christian faith. Speak openly against such pagan practices among any Christians. If we have fewer friends due to that, so be it.  

 

Tolerating the Evil Caste System among Christian Communities:  Ambedkar points out those missionaries who advocated caste system among Christian communities under the false grab of making gospel acceptable to Indian communities. 

 

Ambedkar quotes:  Dr. Heyne in 1814 wrote: Missionaries, in many instances, have fallen into a mistake of a very injurious nature to their rapid or even ultimate success. In converting a Hindu to Christianity, they oblige him to adopt a line of conduct by which he loses his caste; this, in India is considered such a disgrace. that it must present a powerful obstacle to conversion. But the political division of the Hindus is no part of their religious tenets, though it has been so mistaken by the most enlightened. In giving to the Hindus the Christian religion, allow them to retain their caste, and they could be found to embrace it without reluctance, and in considerable numbers."

 

Note: While the general attitude of the Christians towards the caste system have changed after realizing that it is not another social system but a false doctrine that opposes the Gospel of Jesus (i.e. all are created equal, all have fallen and all have equal access to Salvation through Jesus), caste system in some form still prevails in some Christian communities. We must resolutely oppose any form of caste system in any Church and make it a point not even to entertain those who, if any, preach caste in Christianity under the pretext of making Christianity easier. We must oppose it publicly as Apostle Paul opposed when there was a division between Jews and Gentiles.  

 

Lack of Christian Movements against Untouchablity:  Ambedkar writes:

  

The first reason is to be found in the complete absence of desire on the part of the educated among the Christians to take up the cause of the community and fight for it. This is due in my judgment to the fact that within the Christian Community the educated class and the mass has no kinship. The Christian Community is a composite community. In some places it is divided into touchables and untouchables. In all places it is divided into high class and low class. The educated class is largely drawn from the touchable or the higher class. This educated class being detached from the lower or the untouchable class of Christians is not charged with the wants, the pains, cravings, desires, aspirations of the latter and does not care for their interest. The untouchable Christians are therefore leaderless and therefore unable to mobilize for the redress of their wrongs. 

 

The second reason why there is no movement among the untouchable Christians is due to certain faults in the mental make-up of the convert. The mental make-up of the untouchable Christian is characterized by a complete absence of any urge to break his bonds. What is the reason for this absence of any urge in the untouchable Christian ? It seems to me that there are two reasons which account for this. One reason is to be found in the antecedent of the untouchable who becomes a Christian. An untouchable becomes a Christian for some advantage or he becomes a Christian because he likes the teaching of the Bible. But the case is very rare of an untouchable becoming a Christian because of a positive discontent or dislike of the Hindu religious teachings. The result is that Christianity becomes only an addendum to his old faith. It does not become a substitute for his old faith. He cherishes both and observes them on occasions appropriate to each. 

 

Note: We have already answered Ambedkar’s critique of Christian doctrine of original sin which is the second reason in the second part which he cites. However, it is for the benefit of the Christian community to examine the other reasons what Ambedkar cites. 

 

Final Word:  Ambedkar concludes his essay by what seems to have been a prophetic voice which we must makes ponder at some of his points.

 

He wrote: 

I do not know what Indian Christians will think of what I have said of the weaknesses which infect their life. One thing I can say. It is this–I am deeply interested in Indian Christians because a large majority of them are drawn from the untouchable classes. My comments are those of a friend. They are not the strictures of an adversary. I have drawn attention to their weaknesses because I want them to be strong and I want them to be

strong because I see great dangers for them ahead. They have to reckon with the scarcely veiled hostility of Mr. Gandhi to Christianity taking its roots in the Indian Social structure. But they have also to reckon with militant Hinduism masquerading as Indian Nationalism. What this militant Hinduism will do to Christians and Christianity can be seen from what happened at Brindaban very recently. If newspaper reports are true a crowd of mild Hinduism quietly went and burned down the Mission buildings in Brindaban and warned the missionary that if he rebuilt it they would come and burn it down again?! This may be the solitary instance of misguided patriots or this may be just a piece of what the Hindus are planning to get rid of Christians and Christianity. If it is the shadow of events to come then Indian Christians must be prepared to meet them. How can they do that except by removing the weaknesses I have referred to? Let all Indian Christians ponder. (Emphasis ours). 

 

Excerpted from the 63 page Essay on the Untouchables and Untouchablity- Religious published in http://www.ambedkar.org/ adding our own notes.   

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3 Responses

  1. for projrct

  2. A lesser known fact is that BR Ambedkar approached British Missionary Pickett thrice to be baptised, but the request was denied for some unknown reason.

  3. Excuse me, Jarell Waskom Pickett (mentioned above) was an American Missionary who served in India for 46 years.

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