The birth of Annihilation of Caste and the birth of creation

Annihilation of Caste, Babasaheb Ambedkar’s most revolutionary work, was first published on 15 May 1936—eighty-seven years ago today. It is a text worth turning and returning to as long as we are left with the problem of caste. Caste may refuse to give us its date of birth or aadhar card—but the idea of its complete annihilation has a definite date of birth. And aadhar, evidence.

Caste is premised on inequality. Equality must be our norm. And the annihilation of caste is the birth of equality. Equality is the heartbeat that runs through all of Babasaheb’s this-worldly actions and work. Yet, when he set down to write The Buddha and His Dhamma, this idea of equality had to be reconciled with ideas of birth, death and nibbana; with the theory of non-soul, Anatta—something that has bearing on all life and all matter. The shunya loomed.

Baba echoed the Buddha in denying both soul and god, and saw religion, dhamma, as nothing but a sacred morality, the making possible of a life of liberty, equality and fraternity. A middle path. Navayana.

At Navayana, we are currently working on, among other things, 2021 Navayana Dalit History Fellow Ankit Kawade’s draft manuscript, “Ambedkar contra Nietzsche: The Genius of the Chandala and the Gospel of the Superman”. This illuminating comparative work ends with these poignant words that shine a light on a possible way forward:

It is only in creation—of a collective life based on egalitarian principles—that the possibility of any ethics of annihilation lies. For Nietzsche, for Ambedkar, and, most importantly, for us, here and now. Only our creations embody what it really means to be an annihilationist.

It is from this ground that we must read and reread these dependent arisings in Babasaheb’s opus, his gospel (Book IV; Part II; Section I:1 & 2, “Rebirth”). We must reflect on them in the present and toward the future without caste: on this historic day when annihilation was born, and a new creation was birthed.

from Section I:1

4. The thesis of the Annihilationists was summed up in one word, Ucchedvad, which meant that death is the end of everything. There is nothing left after death.

5. The Buddha was not an eternalist. For it involved a belief in the existence of a separate, immortal soul to which he was opposed.

6. Was the Buddha an annihilationist? With his belief in the non-existence of the soul, the Buddha would naturally be expected to be an annihilationist.

7. But in the Alagaddupamma-Sutta the Buddha complains that he is called an annihilationist when as a matter of fact he is not.

8. This is what he says : “Though this is what I affirm and what I preach yet some recluses and Brahmins, wrongly, erroneously and falsely charge me in defiance of facts, with being an annihilationist and with preaching the disintegration, destruction and extirpation of human beings.

9. “It is just what I am not, and what I do not affirm, that is wrongly, erroneously, and falsely charged against me by these good people who would make me out to be an annihilationist.”

10. If this statement is a genuine one and is not an interpolation by those who wanted to foist a Brahmanic doctrine on Buddhism the statement raises a serious dilemma.

11. How can the Buddha not believe in the existence of the soul and yet say that he is not an annihilationist?

12. This raises the question: Did the Buddha believe in rebirth?

from Section I: 2

39. Annihilation has therefore a two-fold aspect. In one of its aspects it means cession of production of energy. In another aspect it means a new addition to the stock of general floating mass of energy.

40. It is probably because of this two-fold aspect of annihilation that the Buddha said that he was not an absolute annihilationist. He was an annihilationist so far as soul was concerned. He was not an annihilationist so far as matter was concerned.

41. So interpreted it is easy to understand why the Buddha said that he was not an annihilationist. He believed in the regeneration of matter and not in the rebirth of the soul.

42. So interpreted, the Buddha’s view is in consonance with science.

43. It is only in this sense that the Buddha could be said to have believed in rebirth.

44. Energy is never lost. That is what science affirms. Annihilation in the sense that after death nothing is left would be contrary to science. For it would mean that energy is not constant in volume.

45. This is the only way by which the dilemma could be solved.