Reading Ambedkar: Buddhism as Optimism

Buddhism has been accused of being pessimistic in its approach towards life because of its recognition of suffering being part of human existence. This, of course, is not true- one just has to look at the great developments in art and culture during Buddhist times and at the countries that practice Buddhism (South East Asia, China) to see that people that are influenced by Buddhism is anything but that, as Jawaharlal Nehru points out in his The Discovery of India.

Dr Ambedkar in The Buddha and his Dhamma, underlines how, contrary to being pessimistic, Buddhism is a religion of a dynamic middle path. He asks in the Introduction (page 19):

If life is sorrow, death is sorrow and rebirth is sorrow, then there is an end of everything. Neither religion nor philosophy can help a man to achieve happiness in the world. If there is no escape from sorrow, then what can religion do, what can Buddha do to relieve man from such sorrow which is ever there in birth itself? The four Aryan Truths are a great stumbling block in the way of non-Buddhists accepting the gospel of Buddhism. For the four Aryan Truths deny hope to man. The four Aryan Truths make the gospel of the Buddha a gospel of pessimism. Do they form part of the original gospel or are they a later accretion by the monks ?

He addresses this question in the later part of the book (page 428):

9. That birth is sorrowful is an exaggeration by the Buddha can be proved by reference to a sermon of his in which he has preached that birth as a human being is a very precious thing.

10. Again, if the Buddha had merely referred to Dukkha such an accusation could be sustainable.

11. But the Buddha’s second Aryan Truth emphasises that this Dukkha must be removed. In order to emphasise the duty of removal of Dukkha he spoke of the existence of Dukkha.

12. To the removal of Dukkha the Buddha attached great importance. It is because he found that Kapila merely stated that there was Dukkha and said nothing more about it that he felt dissatisfied and left the Ashram of Muni Alara Kalam.

13. How can this Dhamma be called pessimistic. ?

Elsewhere, he asks, if Buddhism does not believe in the soul, how does it explain rebirth? Then he proceeds to provide a somewhat flimsy explanation:

4. There is no contradiction. There can be rebirth even though there is no Soul.
5. There is a mango stone. The stone gives rise to a mango tree. The mango tree produces mangoes.
6. Here is rebirth of a mango.
7. But there is no Soul.
8. So there can be rebirth although there is no Soul.

Ambedkar’s explanation of the concept of rebirth is problematic because it takes recourse to an analogy which is not the best form of reasoning- indeed it contradicts what Ambedkar considers to be the Buddha’s central message- that every phenomenon has a cause.

His explanation of causation that he considers to be central to Buddhist thought, is also the best defense of optimism for mankind. Because it does not accept any supernatural causes of phenomenon, it puts human action- not its withdrawal,
in the foreground, as a means of redemption.

According to Ambedkar (page 216):

9. (The Buddha) maintained that not only every event has a cause but the cause is the result of some human action or natural law.

10. His contention against the doctrine of Time, Nature, Necessity, etc., being the cause of the occurrence of an event, was this.

11. If Time, Nature, Necessity, etc., be the sole cause of the occurrence of an event, then who are we ?

12. Is man merely a puppet in the hands of Time, Nature, Chance, Gods, Fate, Necessity ?

13. What is the use of man’s existence if he is not free ? What is the se of man’s intelligence if he continues to believe in supernatural causes ?

14. If man is free, then every event must be the result of man’s action or of an act of Nature. There cannot be any event which is supernatural in its origin.

15. It may be that man is not able to discover the real cause of the occurrence of an event. But if he has intelligence he is bound one day to discover it.

This is called the law of Kamma or Causation. 21.

This doctrine of Kamma and Causation is the most central doctrine in Buddhism. It preaches Rationalism and Buddhism is nothing if not rationalism.


Author: bhupinder singh

an occasional blogger

3 thoughts on “Reading Ambedkar: Buddhism as Optimism”

  1. Pingback: World Spinner
  2. tell me what is the difference between the theory of Dr ambedkar and karl marx send at –prof.harishsaroha

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