(Roughly) Daily

“As for us Indians, we have our own problem before us. It is the problem of the world in miniature. India is too vast in its area and too diverse in its races. It is many countries packed in one geographical receptacle.”*…

Dalit children sit next to a painting of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar at the 2006 Vanangana conference in Chitrakoot

The current approach to this challenge seems to be (to oversimplify, if only slightly) to create a majoritarian Hindu state that homogenizes those differences. But it wasn’t always so. Scott Stroud tells the story of Bhimrao Ambedkar, an Indian student of John Dewey, who worked for a very different, more inclusive, kind of country…

When one thinks of American pragmatism, one often puts too much emphasis on the American part. It might even stunt our enquiry, irrevocably fixating on thinkers such as John Dewey, William James, and Jane Addams. But there is more to the story of pragmatism than what happened in the United States around the turn of the 20th century. Pragmatism itself was a flexible, loosely allied approach to thinking that held few maxims in common other than the idea that our theorising and arguing ought to come from lived experience and ought to return back to experience as the ultimate test of its value. Its advocates such as Dewey greatly affected nations such as China through his teaching and lecturing, leading us to see that pragmatism has a global narrative connected with it. Is there a similar tale to be told about pragmatism and its interactions with India?

Any narrative of pragmatism’s influence and evolution in India will centre on Bhimrao Ambedkar, a student of Dewey’s at Columbia University in New York. Some might recognise Ambedkar (1891-1956) as a chief architect of the Indian constitution in the 1940s. Others might recognise him as the indefatigable leader of India’s ‘untouchables’ (now denoted by the self-chosen label ‘Dalit’), given his constant advocacy for the rights of those oppressed by the complex and long-rooted caste system. Ambedkar himself was a so-called untouchable, which only fortified his commitment to seeking justice in the law and in social reforms for India’s most vulnerable populations. At the end of his life, he channelled his frustration at the prevailing caste consciousness within Hindu society into a conversion effort that tried to convince his fellow Dalits to convert away from Hinduism and into a more egalitarian Buddhism. On 14 October 1956, just weeks before he died, he led what was at the time one of the world’s largest voluntary mass conversions. This event held in Nagpur featured Ambedkar, his wife Savita, and an estimated 500,000 Dalits converting to Buddhism. For reasons such as these, Ambedkar was voted the ‘greatest Indian’ in post-independence India in a poll that included more than 20 million votes being cast.

Ambedkar was not merely a political figure or leader. He was also a philosopher. One can see the evidence for this in the reconstructed Buddhism that he advanced in his final years, coalescing in his rewritten ‘Buddhist Bible’, The Buddha and His Dhamma, which was completed just before his death on 6 December 1956. In this book, Ambedkar reconstructed the narrative of the Buddha, de-emphasising traditional formulas such as the four noble truths, and foregrounding poverty, injustice and the building up of social communities. In short, he reconstructed the Buddhist tradition and its myriad texts to show how it could function as a social gospel, or an engaged philosophy that could even meet the growing waves of those inspired by Karl Marx and Russian communism in the 1950s…

The politician and thinker whose philosophy of democracy challenged the caste system: “The Indian pragmatist,” from @scottrstroud in @aeonmag.

Rabindranath Tagore


As we contemplate community, we might recall that it was on this date in 1492 that all remaining Jews were expelled from Spain. On March 31 of that year, the joint Catholic Monarchs of Spain (Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, the patrons of Christopher Columbus) had issued an edict– the Alhambra Decree— ordering the expulsion of practicing Jews from the Crowns of Castile and Aragon and its territories and possessions by this date that year.

Expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 by Emilio Sala Francés (source)

Written by (Roughly) Daily

July 31, 2023 at 1:00 am

%d bloggers like this: