Buddhism and Social Democracy; Indian Perspective

Speech by 

Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, one of the greatest architects of the modern India whose foresight and sharp insight upheld dignity of the new born Indian state by contributing a loins share in shaping it as a sovereign Democratic Republic. The light of his wisdom has served the humanity in general and India in particular through various dimensions. The path finding work done by him is standing as the source of inspiration for the world for socio-political inclusion and realization of social Democracy. By the two virtual gifts to his motherland he has indebted India which the Indian could hardly be able to either understand or repay it in the future. At the climax of his service to the nation and humanity he gifted the most significant jewels to the Modern World in general and to India in particular, i.e. the Political Democracy through the Constitution of India and the revival of Buddhism to paved the path to consolidate Social Democracy.

Democracy, a socio-political system in which all citizens equally participate in the process of decision making and in the advancement of their nation and society. The basic philosophy of the democracy calls for the equal share of all segments and strata of the society. Dr. Ambedkar defines democracy –“A form and a method of Government whereby revolutionary changes in the social life are brought about without bloodshed. That is the real test. It is perhaps the severest test. But when you are judging the quality of the material you must put it to the severest test.”1 

The Collective efforts, peaceful and constitutional ways and a Justus social life where equality of opportunity is available for all citizens is what anticipated by Dr. Ambedkar. Social change towards the inheritance of modern values for the progress and health of society is expected requisite in the dream of his democratic nation. Employment of constitutional and peaceful means for change is must for the long life of the democracy. The history has seen various socio- economic revolutions, most of them involved bold and iron. Keeping pace with his scholarship and foresight he puts the severe test to be without bloodshed, with peaceful means. It is the rare event in the history to talk of social revolution with peace. “Democracy is not merely a form of Government. It is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience.”2 The collective consciousness and collective representation is at heart of the Ambedkar’s vision of the democracy. The man who poured his rigorous efforts in shaping the constitution workable in India which will provide justice to the marginalized and disadvantaged section of the society and will promote and enrich high human values and his lifelong struggle for achievement of the same in the Indian society made him uneasy with the anticipation of the herculean task before the new born republic. Political Democracy, which governs the state machinery within the established rules and procedures, is handicap without the citizens inherit the democratic values in them. The real challenge for the realization of the social Democracy without which mere Political Democracy will exist and the real benefit of the Democracy would have been mere a dream. Democracy a socio-politico system in which all citizens equally participate in the process of decision making and in the advancement of their nation and society. India under the legacy of long socio-political and psychic slavery of various internal and external powers was completely new for this system of the self-governance.

In his last speech at Constituent Assembly he speaks of his heart. “On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this Assembly has so laboriously built up.” 3

The another hindrance in achieving the goal of society without exploitation both on political and social levels made him uneasy because of his tireless experience of the social injustice at the heart of the Indian social organization. The Polity may assure the justice only in political structural sphere, but the large segment of individual life is involved in society which does not inherit the values of equality and justice. “Political tyranny is nothing compared to the social tyranny and a reformer who defies society is a more courageous man than a politician who defies Government.” 4

So long as you do not achieve social liberty, whatever freedom is provided by the law is of no avail to you.” 5 Political system has little to do when societal norms and values contradict it. Even the Central Asian and European rulers ruled India without trying to alter the social structure. They did this to rule for long run. Social welfare or justice was never their aim. If the same theme is followed by the so called democratic system it would yield no concrete output and will be proved as barren as earlier. Right and opportunities in Law and constitution and deprivation in society would not have led any social change. “Justice has always evoked ideas of equality, of proportion of compensation. Equity signifies equality. Rules and regulations, right and righteousness are concerned with equality in value. If all men are equal, then all men are of the same essence, and the common essence entitles them of the same fundamental rights and equal liberty. In short justice is another name of liberty, equality and fraternity.” 5

The contradictions persisted in the newly introduced democratic system, that equality in respect of law and disparity in the field of socio-economic sphere has religion as their root in socio-cultural and religious structure. The institution of religion influences the society more than the political system. Religion lies at the bottom of the socio-cultural, economic sphere of the human life. It governs and directs the mind of the individual and society. Therefore the religious system must be healthy, promotion equality of opportunity and nurturing the value of progressive and inclusive human life. The discrimination on the ground of birth rooted in the religious beliefs leads to the virtual death of the democracy. The religious system led by the Hinduism does not allow to take rational steps against it traditional beliefs of birth and caste based hierarchy. Hence it stands between the Liberty, Equality and Fraternity which is the ultimate goal of the Democracy. Dr. Ambedkar points out “Religion must mainly be a matter of principles only. It cannot be a matter of rules. The moment it degenerates into rules, it ceases to be a religion, as it kills responsibility which is an essence of the true religious act.” 6

He tried to alter traditional Hindu system of hierarchy and discrimination throughout his life but the socio-religious force never allowed him to do so. The Hindu religion and its inherited caste based discrimination and hierarchy with unscientific beliefs would have hindered the process of inquiry and reason among followers which would have taken the democracy to one of the karmakandas (rituals) which does not put just any positive impact on society the concept of revolution stays far away. “In the Hindu religion, one can [not] have freedom of speech. A Hindu must surrender his freedom of speech. He must act according to the Vedas. If the Vedas do not support the actions, instructions must be sought from the Smritis, and if the Smritis fail to provide any such instructions, he must follow in the footsteps of the great men. He is not supposed to reason. Hence, so long as you are in the Hindu religion, you cannot expect to have freedom of thought” 7

For Dr. Ambedkar, the institution of religion was too of individual development and a source of socio-cultural equality and fraternity. “The basic idea underlying religion is to create an atmosphere for the spiritual development of the individual.” 8 “I like the religion that teaches liberty, equality and fraternity.” 9 The socio-religious foundation which treats every human equally and promotes scientific inquiry is the basic pre-requisite for the political democracy to toke roots. Dr. Ambedkar viewed Buddhism as a platform to launch equality in socio-cultural, religious sphere of the Indian society. The religion of Buddha has the capacity to change according to times, a quality which no other religion can claim to have. If studied carefully, you will see that Buddhism is based on reason. 

There is an element of flexibility inherent in it, which is not found in any other religion.” 10 Without the assurance and promotion of dignity and self respect for all citizens no healthy social and political system and be realized. Buddhism which sees every human equal and potential enough to raise at the highest position with own efforts and persistence. Superiority of inferiority is not a function of birth but of one’s own merit and diligence.

The verse of the Dhammapada rejects the caste based superiority and establishes it on the virtue of merit the individual possess.

Na jañàhi na gotten,  na jaccà hoti bràhmano 
Yamhi saccan ca dhammo ca  so sucã so ca bràhmao. 11

Not by matted hair, nor by family, nor by birth does one become a bràhmin.
But in whom there exist both truth  and righteousness,  pure is he, a bràhmin is he.

Na jacca vasalo hoti ,na jacca hoti brahmano
kammana vasalo hoti,kammana hoti brahmano12

One is not low because of birth nor does birth make one holy.
Deeds alone make one low, deeds alone make one holy.

Dr. Ambedkar never wanted a religious system which rejects the scientific inquiry and forces and individual to believe whatever written in the scriptures and having been followed by tradition. It is not going to nurture modern and democratic values but making puppet that does not have any potential to innovate and produce a new thing and social order. The virtue of scientific inquiry and doubt and believing not by traditions or scriptures say but on one’s own discretion lays at the foundation of civilized and responsible society. Buddha promotes own discretion. Buddha addresses to Kalamas “It is proper for you, Kalamas, to doubt, to be uncertain; uncertainty has arisen in you about what is doubtful. Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’ Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,’ abandon them.” 13 The Buddha’s address to Kalamas attaracts Ambedkar which grants individual rights to innovate and doubt and discover the truth by oneself.

Buddhism along with equality and fraternity lays foundation for scientific innovation and discretion in the society which is the key factor for advancement of democratic values in society. The contradictions of socio-cultural and economic disparity in the social sphere which Dr. Ambedkar wanted to be ceased for the realization of true democracy losses their ground in the Buddhist thoughts of equality of human beings and in its scientific foundation.

Dr. Ambedkar observes Buddhism as an effective instrument to promote equality and fraternity at socio-cultural level and scientific inquiry and innovation, self dignity at individual level but he never allowed religion to rule over the nation than the political system. It should enrich the culture and personality and not to dominate political authority in negative manner. The Buddhism along with the other religious system should nourish the cultural diversity in nation but the same time it should not become the force against the integrity and sovereignty of the nation and its governance. “I do not want that our loyalty as Indians should be in the slightest way affected by any competitive loyalty whether that loyalty arises out of our religion, out of our culture or out of our language. I want all people to be Indians first, Indian last and nothing else but Indians.” 14

Thus, the embracement to Buddhism has potential and proving to be a peaceful revolution for positive socio-cultural change and cessation of contradiction of socio-economic disparity with the political democracy which was presented as a challenge for realization of the true democracy by Dr. Ambedkar. “For a successful revolution it is not enough that there is discontent. What is required is a profound and thorough conviction of the justice, necessity and importance of political and social rights.” 15 Through the revival of Buddhism Dr. Ambedkar has achieved a golden mean of a revolutionary social changes with peaceful means. Buddhism is proving to be not only a peaceful mean for revolution but also a tool for promotion of peace in India. The great and visionary patriot in Dr. Ambedkar is reflected throughout his service he rendered to his motherland in the most diverse and revolutionary ways. These two gifts of the Democracy and Revival of Buddhism to the humanity in general and to India in particular is the concrete source of inspiration to achieve a rich democratic culture and values for the forthcoming generation. Indians should now understand wisdom and patriotism of the great son of the nation and keep their conscience alive to integrate and construct the nation which will assure of justice, liberty and fraternity to its entire citizens regardless to caste, class, and gender and so on. This will bring socio-cultural emancipation for humanity.



  • Constituent Assembly Debates, Vol. VII. 1976, Parliament of India.
  • Dr. Ambedkar’s Speeches and Writings, 1998, Govt. of Maharashtra
  • Dhammapada 393. Pali Text Scoiety, 1923, London.
  • Anguttara Nikaya, Tika Nipata, Mahavagga, Sutta No. 65 Vipassana research Institute, 2003, Igatpuri
  • Dr. Ambedkar’s Speeches and Writings, 1998, Govt of Maharashtra

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