Dr. Ambedkar and Sikhism

Kanshi Ram’s last rites were performed last week as per Buddhist rites. His family has apparently not approved of this. What is interesting in this episode is that Kanshi Ram was born in a Sikh family, and as far as I can recollect, he hasn’t ever said anything on the issue of Dalits and Sikhism- whose tenets deny casteism. Nor did he convert to Buddhism.
Kanshi Ram’s family said they suspected foul play in Kanshi Ram’s death and would file a case against Mayawati. They sought a probe into the circumstances leading to Kanshi Ram’s death and objected to the last rites being performed according to Buddhist traditions.

(news report)

However, there is more to the relationship between Dalits and Sikhism. The founder of the Dalit movement Dr. Ambedkar had once himself seriously considered conversion to Sikhism at one point. His interest then waned, though the reasons are not known, and he finally converted to Buddhism with half a million of his followers.

***

By 1935, Dr. BR Ambedkar’ s disgust with Hinduism and its caste system was complete. His patience at reforming Hinduism from within by securing for the untouchable castes the right to drinking water from public places, using metal utencils and receive education, was wearing thin. Earlier in 1929, he had advised his followers to embrace any religion that would give them respectability. Following this advice, some of his followers took to Islam.

Referring to his own personal decision in the matter, Ambedkar said that unfortunately for him, he was born a Hindu Untouchable. It was beyond his power to prevent that, but he declared that it was within his power to refuse to live under humiliating and ignoble conditions.

“ I solemnly assure you that I will not die a Hindu”, he thundered.

He called for an end to the decade long struggles he had led for temple entry and which was brutally opposed by caste Hindus. Ambedkar’s call to the Untouchables to stop frittering away their energies over fruitless attempts and to devote themselves to carve out an honorable alternative for themselves shocked the nation, especially the caste Hindus.

As to conversion, he said it will be done in five years and he would reconsider his decision if caste Hindus assured him by positive results. He added that he wanted to absorb his community into some powerful community and was thinking of embracing Sikhism.

On April 13-14 1936, Dr. Ambedkar addressed the Sikh Mission Conference at Amritsar. He had earlier indicated that this would be his last speech he would deliver as a Hindu. The main feature of the conference, however, turned out to be the conversion of five prominent Depressed Class leaders of the Thiyya community of Kerala headed by Dr. Kuttir and 50 others from UP and Central Provinces to Sikhism.

In May 1936, he called a conference of the Mahar community to which he belonged, and his abominations and the condemnation of Hinduism was biting, coarse and yet smashing and dissecting. He ended his speech with a quotation from the lips of the dying Buddha- he asked his people to seek refuge in Buddhism. This quotation from the Buddha led to speculations that Bhimrao was veering towards Buddhism. He himself, however, avoided a straight answer. A few days before, however, he had sent his son and nephew to Harminder Sahib as a gesture of goodwill towards Sikhism. They stayed there for over one and half months.

By June of that year, Ambedkar after consulting his colleagues decided to embrace Sikhism- his friends and colleagues felt that he should seek the support of the Hindu Mahasabha leaders in their conversion to Sikhism, for the Mahasabha leaders believed that Sikhism was not an alien religion. It was an offspring of Hinduism and therefore the Sikhs and Hindus were allowed to intermarry and the Sikhs were allowed to be members of the Mahasabha. In his proposal, Dr. Moonje agreed to the inclusion of these neo- Sikhs in the list of Scheduled Classes and enjoy the benefits under the Poona Pact, if Ambedkar preferred to embrace Sikhism in preference to Islam and Christianity and that he agreed to counteract the Muslim movement to draw the Depressed Classes into the Islamic fold.

Ambedkar said that he preferred to embrace Sikhism which offered less than social, political and economic power than Islam and less material attractions than Christianity (western nations). He favoured Sikhism in the “interests of Hindus”.

Dr. Moonje and Dr. Kurtakoti (the Shankracharya) in giving their blessings obvioulsy chose the “least evil”. In choosing thus, they also showed their belief that Sikhism is another branch of Hinduism and that it owed the same culture and principles.

Gandhi voiced concern over the proposed conversion, but Ambedkar continued to increase his contacts with the Sikh Mission. There was even a proposal to start a college in Bombay for the proposed neo- Sikhs. 13 of his followers who were asked to study the Sikh religion at Amritsar actually converted to Sikhism and returned to Bombay, where, writes Ambedkar’s biographer Dhananjay Keer, they were coldly received as they had only been asked by Ambedkar to study and not to convert.

Soon, Bhimrao went on a tour of Europe. It seems after returning in 1937 his love for Sikhism had evaporated. He continued to talk of his proposed conversion though, and in 1955 along with half a million adherents went over to Buddhism.

(Much of the above I had written in 1997, and as far as I recollect is mainly based on the notes I took from the wonderful biography of Dr. Ambedkar written by Dhananjay Keer.)

Update: The Story of Kerala’s first Sikh Convert
(Thanks to Bajinder for pulling the story out of his archives)

a story by Ramesh Babu
in hindustan times(cannot get exact date)

Nintyone-year old Sardar Bhupinder Singh from Kadakarapally is the only living Malayalee Sikh in Kerala. People call him “Sikh Chettan”, that is, elder brother.

On Baisakhi day in 1936, fed up of caste barriers, Bhaskaran embraced Sikhism and became Bhupinder Singh. he was not alone. Around 300 families, mostly from backward castes, converted at that time.

There is a historical background to this conversion. During Vaikkom Satyagraha in 1922, at the instance of Mahatma Gandhi, a few Akalis came to Vaikkom to make langar for satyagrahis. After successful completion of satyagraha and the Temple Entry Proclamation, some of the Akalis stayed back. Some youth were attracted by the discliplined life and joined Sikhism.

Bhupinder has a different story to tell: “After Vaikkom Satyagraha, backward castes basked in a renewed vigour. At that time, Ambedkar exhorted people that if you don’t get self-respect and dignity in your own religion, you should get out of it. This prompted many of us to join Sikhism.

Initially it was tough. “My father was liberal enough but his brother opposed my conversion tooth and nail. But I stuck to my belief.”

After becoming a Sikh, Bhupinder went to Gujaranwallah and Lahore for theological studies. He worked some time in Khalsa College. But the returns were inadequate. So he joined the British Royal Army as a technician in 1940. He retired in 1968 as Subedar.

Though he married a Sikh, his daughters and sons are Hindus and married under Hindu Ezhava customs. “When the community shrank we found it very difficult to find matches. So none of us insisted the second generation to follow our example. Many families later re-converted to Hinduism. It is one of the reasons for our decline in Kerala.”

Bhupinder complains that when numbers became dwindled, the Sikh Committee stopped showing any interest in them.

Every Sunday Bhupinder visits the only gurdwara in the State of Elamakkara in Kochi. Recently the Kochi Gurdwara Committee honoured him with a saropa.

The nonagenarian always keeps a low profile. “Once S S Barnala came here. He was eager to know more about Malayalee Sikhs. He asked me so many things and wanted me to write a book, but I politely refused.:

Leading a solitary life after his wife’s death, Sardar Bhupinder has only one wish: “Till thee last breath I want to be a true follower of the Panth.”


Picture Acknowledgement

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27 thoughts on “Dr. Ambedkar and Sikhism

  1. indscribe

    From what I have gathered, Dr BR Ambedkar contemplated a lot. Yes he also thought about Sikhism. I think what stopped him was that Sikhs were mostly concentrated in India.
    With conversion to Buddhism, he felt that the Dalits would get an international religion and support of ‘brethren from far Eastern countries’ . That, I guess, was the main reason for conversion to Buddhism. He studied Islam also and many enthusiastic Maulanas keep going to him for converting him but the Shia-Sunni schism seemed to have dissuaded him.

    Reply
    1. Harmesh Lakha

      Baba Sahib Dr Ambedkar was only interested in a home grown religion. This is why he rejected Christianity and Islam. He only went over to buddhism after he felt he was getting no support from the sikh leadership regarding the proposed conversion. Sikhism was his first choice religion. Sikh leadership were not interested in the expansion of sikhism as they feared, instigated by Gandhi, that they would lose all control to the new dalit sikhs. If only the sikhs followed the true agenda of Guru Govind Singh of a new casteless society; the Guru had hoped that this would act a contagion that would spread rapidly throughout India especially amongst victims of the caste system (the lower castes ie the shudra varna who form nearly 80% of India’s population). This was a great loss and sikhism is a stunted religion and has lost its missionary zeal.

      Reply
  2. Siyaah

    You seem to have a good grasp of India based social issues. Didn’t know about the Ambedkar – Sikhism connection. Though now that you bring it up, it makes complete sense.

    Reply
  3. bhupinder

    Indscribe: I think you have a good point- International support would have been widened because of the far Eastern countries being Buddhist as well. Dr Ambedkar must have been cognizant to this fact.

    Ambedkar had also, in his work, Origin of Untouchability tried to prove that the untouchables had once been Buddhists. Some other reasons were:
    - Buddhism was an Indian religion and Buddha was nearer to the untouchable classes
    - Buddhism could withstand scientific rigour
    - Buddha’s humility (The Buddha saw himself merely as a margdarshak and not God (Jesus), or God sent messenger (Prophet Mohammad)or a mokshdata

    However, while we know why he embraced Buddhism, he never explained why he lost interest in conversion to Sikhism (of course, one can extrapolate).

    Siyaah: Whatever little understanding that I have, was gleaned the hard way- trying to change the world :-)

    Nowadays, I merely try and understand.

    Reply
  4. Kirpal Singh

    Long ago,I read in a book that Dr.Ambedkar told Mahatma Gandhi about his desire to convert to Sikhism but Gandhi became angry & vigorously advised against adoption of Sikhism.

    Reply
    1. Harmesh Lakha

      The Sikh leadership, including Master Tara Singh, had been advised by Gandhi and the brahmin leaders that they mustnot accept the proposed conversion as that would shift the monopoly of power from the high caste sikhs such as the bhapas abd jatts to the dalit sikhs. Gandhi and the brahminical forces also did not want the the message of casteless society advocated by sikhism to spread to the rest of India – the land of caste, to which Gandhi and brahminical forces subscribed.
      If the sikhs had accepted the proposal at that time today sikhs would have numbered 250 to 300 million, and would have had lot of clout in all power structures and what had happened to them in 1984 would probably never would have happened. Furthermore if they had accepted the conversion their demand for autonomy would have had a more realistic chance of being met. But the Sikh leadership was duped by Brahminical forces at every stage to work with these forces so that the sikhs were simply used to get indendence for India. Gandhi and Nehru renegated. The oppression of the sikhs started.

      .

      Reply
  5. readerswords Post author

    I have not read the long article on Kapur Singh indicated above but have skimmed through the second one. Needless to say, this blog strongly disagrees with the conclusions drawn on Mahatma Gandhi, for whom I have an attitude of critical admiration.

    Reply
  6. Jasdeep

    Sikhism has been hijacked by the bigots , for them physical identity is on top agenda , the principles of Sikhism have been derailed .
    This may also be one of the reasons for Dr. Ambedkar’s support to Buddhism.

    Reply
  7. readerswords Post author

    Harish Puri’s EPW article actually has a lot of interesting historical speculations about the Sikh clergy and leaders’ response to Ambedkar, including the fear that its rapid all India spread among the depressed classes would fundamentally alter the caste structure within the Sikhs and threaten the dominant castes (Jutt/ Khatri Sikhs).

    It is my contention that Sikhism is not so much an anti- caste religion as it is a religion that sought to partially ally caste antagonism even without fully contesting its forms. For example, it was really an achievement of early Sikhism to deny the sanctity of Brahmanical texts like the vedas- something achieved only by Buddhism near two thousand years earlier. It even went on to incorporate writings from so called “lower castes” like chamars into its sacred scriptures (the same one to whom all Sikhs bow their heads to). Community eating (langars) is another one as is the theoretical denial of the superiority of any caste in the fold.

    At the same time, the gurus, right from Nanak onwards, ensured that the guru- dom remained within the Khatris, including ensuring marriage in the guru families only within the same caste (endogamy being one of the most fundamental characteristics of caste- ism).

    It’s questioning of caste was therefore revolutionary for medieval India, but fell far short of the requirements of a modern anti- caste movement. It was easier for Ambedkar to build on the hoary memory of a Buddhism than on the more concrete and limited scope for such a movement from an existing religion like Sikhism, with its own by then well- developed caste structures.

    Reply
  8. Pingback: The Deafening Silence of Dalits in Punjab « a reader’s words

  9. Baldeep

    Dhan Bhai Sahib Bhupinder Singhji,

    “Till thee last breath I want to be a true follower of the Panth.”, trully admirable.

    Reply
  10. prof.harish saroha

    BOTH HAVE SAME MESSAGE ,SAME ACHIEVEMENTS AND SAME QUALITIES.DR.AMBEDKAR WAS A GREAT SOCIAL SCIENTIST,FOUNDER OF NEW INDIA AND OUR COUNTRY A NEW CONSTITIUTION.HE WAS AGREAT SUPPORTER OR JUSTICE,EQALITY AND FREEDOM .HE HAS GREAT ROLE FOR FREEDOM .BOTH AMBEDKARISM AND SIKHISM ARE THE BY PRODUCT OF NIRGUN SAINTS’A GREAT RELEVANCE IN THE MODERN WORLD.

    Reply
  11. gurnish singh

    Dr ambedkar and other dalits wanted to move out of folds of Hinduism….and to embrace a religion which was against the caste system ,all of the million dalits who were going to accept a new religion were not interested in any other aspect of Sikhism, there was no love for gurbani and nor was there any prominent respect for gurus, i seriously doubt if they would have respected the sikh religion like those who accept the religion based on their interest in spiritual side, sikh way of life and gurbani . dr ambedkars conversion was more a socio-political conversion ..then actual religious conversion. Sikhs would have gained politically if dalits would have converted to Sikhism, but it would have been bigger challenge to make newly baptized Sikhs to adhere to the principles of Sikhism. ideally speaking, religion in general and sikhism in particular is path that leads a person towards reality, spiritual life and god along with social and political freedom.

    It would have been really dangerous for Sikh religion if so large number of people totally unaware of traditions and principles of Sikhism would have embraced it, it would have rendered large percentage of Sikhs religiously ignorant.

    Reply
    1. bhupinder Post author

      Much of what you state is mere conjecture. There is a spiritual side of religion(s), but also a political and social aspect- when social groups convert they convert not because of spiritual concerns but because of other factors, including opportunities for social mobility.
      It is unfortunate that the Sikh gurus did not attempt to attack caste directly, though they did away with many of its impact in day to day life. By accepting some aspects of the caste system (e.g. succession, marriages within the gurus’ families) , they kept open the doors from where caste could continue to influence. Thus, despite the fact that Sikhism did away with the scriptural authority that Brahmanical Hinduism conferred on caste, it has been possible for certain caste groups to maintain their hold over Sikh institutions, and maintain a caste structure within its adherents.

      Reply
  12. gurnish singh

    if dr. ambedkar would have converted to Sikhism then,a large divide would have resulted between Sikhs , akal takht dominated by Punjabi ethnic Sikhs ..making small percentage of total Sikh population would not have represented completely.

    Reply
    1. bhupinder Post author

      Well, there is a divide that exists even now- not only in Sikhism but all other religions as well. I don’t see why Dr Ambedkar’s conversion to Sikhism should have been so feared because of this conjecture.

      Reply
  13. Harmesh Lakha

    Gurnish Singh you have just put forward a nonesensical argument against conversion of the dalits to sikhism. You have no evidence to suggest that the dalits would have not been interested in the spiritual aspects of sikhism. You have made unsafe assumptions and I feel that you also feel threatened by the conversion. Most other religions of the world would welcome and embrace new converts with open arms, such as islam or christianity and would take them into their fold teach them all the tenants of their newfounded religion.This would have been a job for the spiritual body and the missionaries of the sikhs. Dr Ambedkar encountered similar attitude to your that put him off sikhism realising that sikhism was also infected with the cancerous caste system. It was one chance the sikhs had for expanding their religion into India and they have missed that chance. Sikhism has become a stunted religion as a result without any missionary zeal, restricted to Punjab and largely a hereditory religion with no new conversions at national or international level.This was a great achievement for the Brahiminical forces as they did not want the sikhism to spread to rest of India and threaten the hegemony of Brahmins in India. The problem lies with the people who control the Akal Takht, which is dominated by few castes ie bhappas and Jatts, who are not really interested in the spiritual religion of Guru Nanak or Guru Govind Singh but only in the monopoly of power and the booty and do not wish to share this with anybody else. Even in the Punjab they shower so much caste prejudice and discrimination against other lower caste sikhs, who get no representation at the Amritsar Committee and get fair share allocation of the booty. This is why they do not allow anybody to come near the power structures or money. If they can do that with their nearest low caste sikhs in the Punjab would they agree to mass conversions from rest of India? Sikhism is in theory is an egalitarian religion the contagion of which the Gurus wanted to spread to India. They were hoping that all those were victims of the caste system would leave brahminical religion and embrace sikhism. Sikhism was not created for Punjab only or the jatts or bhappas. 90% membership of sikhs was from low castes when khalsa was created but the jatts only came in as mercenaries and fought alongside Guru Govind Singh..The dream of the Gurus have been destroyed by the few racist monopolistic casteist Jatts, who have highjacked sikhism, being slowly destroyed from within and without by Brahminical forces. That is the truth whether you or anybody else likes it or not. It is now upto the low caste(lallo) sikhs, who are majority sikhs or organise them selves and oust the jatts/bahppas from the Amritsar committee or fight for proportionate representation at the committee and take legal action to test this in the Indian Supreme Court.

    Reply
  14. gurnish singh

    i dont know ..how is everyone ignoring the fact that…….they were listening to dr. ambedkar..not to gurbani…..after dr. ambedkars conversion ..to budhism ..how much teachings of budhism are respected and spread in india…..they still follow Hindu customs..(sikhs following hindu customs are widely criticized by baptized sikhs.)..i studied in a school where most of people were budhist..who followed dr.ambedkar, i never seen anyone reflecting the teachings of budhism… Caste ism has no place in sikh religion…and has spread like a plague which needs to be removed…every sikh who has knowledge and love for gurbani is respected and welcomed …no matter from which social background or caste he is from ….regarding the fear of power transfer…yes it was there ..but to put it correctly….it was feared that power would be transferred to those who had no love and knowledge about gurbani and sikhism…not about caste…
    while travelling i have met people in different parts of india…who told me that …they have great respect for a sikh..and they trust us….that is only because high standards maintained by baptized sikh…..in most sikh families its an individuals decision to get baptized…when he/she thinks that he would be able to follow completely..and respect gurus bana…..its not about caste..its individuals decision….my parents never told me ..that we are less in number..so to increase number of sikhs…you should get baptized…they rather warned me…that make sure …you would be able to follow this lifestyle …

    Reply
  15. gurnish singh

    i know i am being too idealistic on this…but ..guru gobind singh ..asked for a head….and then ..brave men who were ready to give there head were baptized..irrespective of caste…..what does that signify…..to become a khalsa …a person should have complete faith on guru and his orders..should be ready to give his head for guru……its not just taking people in bulk..and getting them baptized…because ..the brahmins refused to let them in….if the high caste hindus would have welcomed dalits with open hands….then still would they have converted? ……i know sikhs are less in number..and under attack..from all sides…but still …i would like to see sikhism as a idealistic religion.

    Reply
  16. strivingupward

    According to the Sikh Reht Maryada, the handbook for being a Sikh, a Sikh is a person who believes certain things. Being a Sikh means believing in the One God, the ten human Sikh Gurus Sahiban and their utterances and the Guru Granth Sahib Ji and in the Sikh Initiation of Amrit (often called baptism); there is a further condition of owing allegiance to no other faith. Unless these conditions are met, a person is not a Sikh whatever the individual may call her or himself. One becomes a Sikh through belief, not through some ritual. Therefore, there could never be a mass conversion to Sikhi. In fact, I would say that no one “coverts” to Sikhi. Rather one becomes a Sikh or perhaps even discovers that one is Sikh.. It is usually a rather gradual process.

    Likewise, no one is born a Sikh. There are be advantages to being born in a Sikh family and in being raised as a Sikh, but that alone does not make one a Sikh. If the belief is not there, one cannot rightfully be called a Sikh, however he or she may be taken by the world. The 5Ks and the turban are important, of course, the name Singh or Kaur is vital, but these do not make a person a Sikh.

    The point here is that Dr. Ambedkar Ji could not himself become a Sikh unless he believed these things, nor could he lead a “mass conversion.” It is simply impossible.

    Sikhi is an religion with certain fundamental beliefs. Only those who adhere to those beliefs are Sikhs. I see no gain to the Sikh Sangat in adding 300 million names to the list of Sikhs, whether they were formerly Dalits or Brahmins or Christians or atheists or whatever else they might have been, unless those 300 million people are really Sikhs. Of course, it would be most wonderful if they really were! What could 300 million Sikhs accomplish for the good of all humanity? It boggles the mind…

    Reply
    1. HARBANS LAL BADHAN

      O, GOD, where were you ? when the Human Rights and Fundamental Rights ( Economic, Social, Political, Educational & Religious Rights) of the Untouchables (Dalits) of India had been crushed, killed and slaughtered by the Hindus and Hindu Imperialism in India and in Hindu Society. How much Hindu Imperialism & Hindus are inhuman, cruel and hard towards Untouchables ( Dalits) of India, only the Untouchables (Dalits) know.
      The Untouchables ( Dalits ) of India have got, all the Human Rights and Fundamental Rights ( Economic ,Social, Political, Educational, & Religious Rights), only due to the life long struggle of Baba Saheb Dr. Ambedkar, the “MESSIAH” of the Untouchables ( Dalits) of India.Only, due to the blessing, love and affection of Baba Saheb Dr.Ambedkar, the Untouchables (Dalits) of India, have got the right to become, from the Untouchables ( Dalits) to Human beings and the citizens of India. Baba Saheb Dr. Ambedkar is a History, a Revolution and has become heart and the brain of the Untouchables ( Dalits ) of India.
      O, GOD, you are a myth, confusion and hopeless and the Untouchables (Dalits) of India have no faith in you. Only Baba Saheb Dr. Ambedkar fought for the equality and liberty of the Untouchables ( Dalits ) of India.

      (Harbans Lal Badhan)

      Reply
  17. Harbans Lal Badhan

    Indian Caste system is more dangerous and harmful than any other kind of Racial discrimination or slavery system. Indian Caste system is not only a religious, social, and economic evil but also a mental disease and mental sickness. It (caste system) should be banned at any cost by Act of Parliament or by the Law of the State. Otherwise, it (Caste system) will spoil and kill the democratic and secular character of any civilized state and society. Caste system will also slaughter the development and progress, unity, liberty, equality and peace of any society. To believe in Caste system is a crime against fundamental rights and human rights of an individual and humanity.

    Reply
  18. Harbans Lal Badhan

    If you want to save your religion, state and society annihilate the Indian Caste system and Untouchability at the earliest. Indian Caste system is more dangerous and harmful than chemical weapons. It (Indian Caste system) is also a great threat and challenge to unity and peace of Global society.

    Reply

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