Democracy and Buddhism – Babasaheb Ambedkar on the Buddha and John Dewey


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Babasaheb Ambedkar is believed to have said in 1952 that I owe my whole intellectual life to Prof. John Dewey. In Annihilation of Caste, he wrote, “Prof. John Dewey who was my teacher and to whom I owe so much.”

Meera Nanda found in Buddhism traces of Deweyen influence on the Buddha and His Dhamma written by Babasaheb Ambedkar. She even declared that the Buddha as narrated by Babasaheb Ambedkar was the Deweyan Buddha. But it can be equally true that many of the ideas in the philosophy of John Dewey look like a direct borrowing from the teachings of the Buddha, particularly, the concept of democracy. Reading about democracy in the philosophy of John Dewey is just like reading Pali texts and just the conceptual translation of Buddhism into modern language.

We do not know how much John Dewey was influenced by Buddhism, but we know for sure that he was exposed to Buddhism. He was there in the Chicago Parliament of World religion which was the first meeting point of America and Buddhism. His friends, particularly Paul Carus and William James, were exposed to Buddhism and they had studied Buddhism in details. Paul Carus wrote a book the “Gospel of the Buddha”: which is an account of the Buddha’s teachings written for the western readers. There is so much Buddhism that can be found in the conceptual framework of democracy in the philosophy of John Dewey.

For John Dewey, the ultimate aim of the democracy was the reclamation of human personality. For Dewey, the human personality was the end-all and be-all of the democracy, in which he was both the concepts as equivalent. For the Buddhists, the personality that is reclaimed at the highest level is that of the Buddha and therefore the to strive to become the Buddha is to strive to create a truly democratic society. In the scheme of democracy of John Dewey, Democracy is nothing but the society saturated by the values of the liberty, equality, and fraternity. The value of fraternity is not the derived value but it comes from the fact of existence that nothing is independent and exists on-its-own-terms, but that everything is dependent, nay everything is interdependent.

Therefore, for John Dewey, a non-social human being is an abstraction and for him, human beings become human beings only in relation with other human beings, and that the individual is a “concentrated society”. If we understand that an “atomised” individual is an abstraction, the new possibility opens up which makes an individual a social being and that full reclamation of the human personality become the goal of the individual life and society.

As everything is interdependent, it translates directly into an important value of fraternity (let’s call it community as the word fraternity has masculine connotations). The community is a natural value and promotion of the value of community is the essence of democracy. Anything that is against the value of community is therefore undemocratic and anti-social. From this value of community, the value of equality comes into being where the members are free to reclaim and cultivate their personalities to the highest level. The equality that John Dewey promotes is not a numerical equality, but the qualitative equality which ensures that all the members are free to be what they can be. And the liberty becomes an important value when it is grounded in community and equality. This is a small analysis of Dewey’s concept of demography based on his philosophy.

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John Dewey also saw the role of the mind in the democracy. He strove till the end of his life to find “methods” to study the human mind. He also talked about the human mind as a process, verb, and social. This description of mind as process, verb, social, and interdependent is actually the Buddhist description of human mind. However, John Dewey did not have methods to cultivate human mind on all different levels, the methods which are so prominently present in the teachings of the Buddha.

Babasaheb Ambedkar was the student of Dewey in the Columbia University, but he was also the profound student and practitioner of Buddhism from very early on in his life. He understood the philosophy of John Dewey and understood the role of intelligence in the modern world, but he also saw that though Dewey had important insights to offer to make democracy a reality, he had not had methods to create the democracy. The steps towards creating democracy are difficult and vary from one country to another because they have different histories and pasts. In India, the steps towards total democracy have a different sequence and it must start with fighting the inequality and hierarchy (graded inequality) and poverty, but it must also bring in the methods of the Buddha to enable individuals to become the true human personality and help others to become true human personalities. That maybe the reason why, Babasaheb Ambedkar, encouraged the Indians to recite the greatest mantra for the realisation of democracy in 1941 in India:

Buddham Saranam Gacchami
Dhammam saranam Gacchami
Sangham Saranam Gacchami

Dr Ambedkar wrote in the Annihilation of Caste that Prof. Dewey said, “every society gets encumbered with what is trivial, with dead wood from the past, and with what is positively perverse. As a society becomes more enlightened, it realises that it is responsible not to conserve and transmit the whole of its existing achievements, but only such as to make for a better future society. The school is its chief agency for the accomplishment of this end.”

‘”The best friends I have had in life,’ Dr. Ambedkar says, ‘were some of my classmates at Columbia and my great professors, John Dewey, James Shotwell, Edwin Seligman, and James Harvey Robinson.'” (Source: “Untouchables’ Represented by Ambedkar, ’15AM, ’28PhD,” Columbia Alumni News, Dec. 19, 1930, page 12, from the Columbia University archives.)

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