Dalit children sit next to a painting of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar at the 2006 Vanangana conference in Chitrakoot. Photo by Ami Vitali/Panos


The Indian pragmatist

Ambedkar was not only a politician, but a profound thinker whose philosophy of democracy challenged the caste system

by Scott R Stroud + BIO

Dalit children sit next to a painting of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar at the 2006 Vanangana conference in Chitrakoot. Photo by Ami Vitali/Panos

When one thinks of American pragmatism, one often puts too much emphasis on the American part. It might even stunt our enquiry, irrevocably fixating on thinkers such as John Dewey, William James, and Jane Addams. But there is more to the story of pragmatism than what happened in the United States around the turn of the 20th century. Pragmatism itself was a flexible, loosely allied approach to thinking that held few maxims in common other than the idea that our theorising and arguing ought to come from lived experience and ought to return back to experience as the ultimate test of its value. Its advocates such as Dewey greatly affected nations such as China through his teaching and lecturing, leading us to see that pragmatism has a global narrative connected with it. Is there a similar tale to be told about pragmatism and its interactions with India?

Portrait of John Dewey (1932) by Samuel Johnson Woolf. Courtesy the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC

Any narrative of pragmatism’s influence and evolution in India will centre on Bhimrao Ambedkar, a student of Dewey’s at Columbia University in New York. Some might recognise Ambedkar (1891-1956) as a chief architect of the Indian constitution in the 1940s. Others might recognise him as the indefatigable leader of India’s ‘untouchables’ (now denoted by the self-chosen label ‘Dalit’), given his constant advocacy for the rights of those oppressed by the complex and long-rooted caste system. Ambedkar himself was a so-called untouchable, which only fortified his commitment to seeking justice in the law and in social reforms for India’s most vulnerable populations. At the end of his life, he channelled his frustration at the prevailing caste consciousness within Hindu society into a conversion effort that tried to convince his fellow Dalits to convert away from Hinduism and into a more egalitarian Buddhism. On 14 October 1956, just weeks before he died, he led what was at the time one of the world’s largest voluntary mass conversions. This event held in Nagpur featured Ambedkar, his wife Savita, and an estimated 500,000 Dalits converting to Buddhism. For reasons such as these, Ambedkar was voted the ‘greatest Indian’ in post-independence India in a poll that included more than 20 million votes being cast.

Ambedkar was not merely a political figure or leader. He was also a philosopher. One can see the evidence for this in the reconstructed Buddhism that he advanced in his final years, coalescing in his rewritten ‘Buddhist Bible’, The Buddha and His Dhamma, which was completed just before his death on 6 December 1956. In this book, Ambedkar reconstructed the narrative of the Buddha, de-emphasising traditional formulas such as the four noble truths, and foregrounding poverty, injustice and the building up of social communities. In short, he reconstructed the Buddhist tradition and its myriad texts to show how it could function as a social gospel, or an engaged philosophy that could even meet the growing waves of those inspired by Karl Marx and Russian communism in the 1950s.

The intersections of Ambedkar’s political activism and his philosophical acumen were vividly displayed earlier in his life. The 1930s was a period marred by Ambedkar’s conflict with the powerful symbol of the Indian independence movement, Mahatma Gandhi. Having lost faith in the Hindu tradition as amenable to social reform, Ambedkar grew so disillusioned that, by 1935, he proclaimed in a speech that, although he was born a Hindu, ‘I solemnly assure you that I will not die a Hindu.’ By 1936, he was very loudly criticising Hinduism and its holy texts, and imploring his fellow Dalits to convert away from Hinduism to escape their oppressive status as ‘untouchables’. In an infamous speech – undelivered because of its explosive criticisms of sacred Hindu shastras (holy texts) – Ambedkar argues that the caste system is harmful not only because it is oppressive, but most importantly because it destroys the unity and respect among members that are essential to democracy. Ambedkar’s activism on the specific issue of caste oppression was underwritten by a full-throated philosophy of democracy.

Ambedkar (middle row, far right) with colleagues at the London School of Economics and Political Science, London, 1916-17. Courtesy Wikipedia

His thought was creative and powerful. But no thinker springs fully formed onto the intellectual scene. Where did Ambedkar find the inspiration for the image of democracy he was going to construct – and then employ – in his fight for social justice in India? Ambedkar was one of the most well-read Indians of his period, possessing a personal library of around 50,000 books at the time of his death. But he was also one of the most highly educated Indian leaders of his day, with academic and legal credentials from institutions such as Columbia University, the London School of Economics, and Gray’s Inn. One of the most intriguing things about Ambedkar is that he pursued much of his Western education in the US, and not just in the well-known universities so many of his Indian (and upper-caste) compatriots frequented. Ambedkar went to Columbia in 1913-16 and was exposed to one-of-a-kind progressive intellectuals bent on using academic research to change societies and practices for the better. At Columbia, Ambedkar would study intensively with the US economist and taxation specialist Edwin R A Seligman; the Russian-born economic historian, ornery anti-Marxist and amateur gardener Vladimir Simkhovitch; and perhaps the most impressive philosopher of the day, John Dewey.

In his later years, Ambedkar remembered all these figures but Dewey and his pragmatism stood out. While Ambedkar was making his way back to Columbia in 1952 to receive an honorary degree, Dewey died of pneumonia. Distraught, Ambedkar wrote to his wife Savita from New York lamenting the fact that he missed the chance to see his beloved teacher: ‘I was looking forward to meet[ing] Prof Dewey.’ Ambedkar’s letter then revealed what Dewey had meant to him: ‘I am so sorry. I owe all my intellectual life to him. He was a wonderful man.’

The courses Ambedkar took from Dewey gave the young Indian reformer a powerful overview of pragmatism

Ambedkar had accomplished so much, both in the millions of words he wrote or spoke to intellectual or general audiences, and in the political and social activism he pursued. But what sort of intellectual debt did he owe Dewey? While many have noted this intriguing letter, none have truly explored the historical and intellectual relationship between Dewey and Ambedkar. This is a shame, since both are intellectual giants in their own rights, and their confluence can show us what Ambedkar saw as valuable in Dewey – and how Ambedkar’s own pragmatism extends the pluralistic tradition of pragmatism. Ambedkar was not just an activist – he was also a philosopher. The philosophy he advocated was a form of pragmatism fitted to the concerns of democracy amid social divisions such as those of caste.

While taking classes at Columbia University, Ambedkar stumbled into Dewey’s classroom. He shouldn’t have been there – the young Indian had signed an agreement in 1913 with the Maharaja of Baroda, his financial supporter, that he would study only finance and sociology at Columbia. But Dewey had a profile that would have been difficult for Ambedkar to resist in his coursework. The US pragmatist was at the top of his game in the 1910s, engaged in the philosophical work that would inform his book Democracy and Education (1916). Dewey was also hard at work creating institutions such as the American Association of University Professors in 1915 – with figures such as Ambedkar’s advisor, Seligman – dedicated to protecting academic freedom at US universities.

Dewey’s philosophy was also making its mark on the US scene. By the time he had joined Columbia’s faculty, he had already gained fame with his early writings from his time at the University of Michigan and his operation of the ‘Laboratory School’ at the University of Chicago, an example of how Dewey’s practical experiments informed his philosophical writings. By the time Ambedkar heard Dewey at Columbia, Dewey had left his older philosophically Idealist vocabulary behind and was engaged in exploring the interaction of community and experience in human life. Resisting the older emphases in much European philosophy toward the unchanging and certain, Dewey revelled in an ever-changing and uncertain world.

Dewey’s thought emphasised this important nexus of experience. It merged his two guiding lights – G W F Hegel and Charles Darwin – into a vision of philosophy as doing justice to the lived qualities of experience, as well as the human capacity for reflection or enquiry. Our powers of reason were not godly or divine, but they came from and returned to courses of experience that called for our engaged attention to reconstruct them. Dewey’s philosophy dovetailed with his work on education and pedagogy, as they both saw the human as a habit-bearing being that could bring these habits to bear on experience that offered more problems than resources. He saw the power in our ability to intelligently change the habits of self and other to become better adapted to our social and natural environments. Dewey’s philosophy aimed to theorise the world so as to enable us to better adjust to it or to adapt it to our needs. His thought was oriented at reconstructing ourselves and our communities, more so than simply to describe the truths of the world.

The courses that Ambedkar took from Dewey in psychological ethics and political philosophy gave the young Indian reformer a powerful overview of pragmatism. He saw Dewey as extending and enlarging the tradition of philosophy that William James (1842-1910) and Charles S Peirce (1839-1914) had helped to shape, and that contemporary figures such as Jane Addams (1860-1935) and Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch (1867-1951) were both theorising and putting into practice in the social sphere. There are many stories to be told about Ambedkar, but there is one that has yet to be fully explored. It is a story of influence, imagination and emancipation. It is the story of Ambedkar as a pragmatist.

What does it mean to consider Ambedkar as a pragmatist? Does it mean we are somehow capturing his essence, and excluding the other important labels often attached to him and his life story? In short, no. Just as Ambedkar can be described as a Buddhist and as a politician, he can also be described as a pragmatist. Each of these labels gives us a way of understanding and foregrounding certain facts and themes in his life story; no label captures everything or is the ‘final’ descriptor of who one is.

It is in this spirit that Ambedkar can be talked about as a pragmatist, meaning that he and his thought developed to some extent in reaction to other pragmatists such as Dewey. Thinking about Ambedkar as a pragmatist highlights certain themes in his approach and his thought that we may not have appreciated before. It also makes sense of the newly discovered archival evidence that I explore in my book The Evolution of Pragmatism in India (2023), indicating that Ambedkar sought to combine Dewey’s views on democracy with Buddhism as early as 1914.

Ambedkar’s reception of Dewey in forming his own philosophy – his own pragmatism, as I see it – is complex. Dewey inspired Ambedkar to evolve a sort of pragmatism that targeted caste oppression, but which built up a vision of democratic social systems that allowed individuals to matter.

Dewey gave Ambedkar ideas, ideals and even methods to experiment with or even resist. He saw in the philosophy espoused by his American teacher a source of novelty and creativity. Through his courses with Dewey, and in the many books by Dewey that he continued to purchase and annotate into the 1950s, we can see how Dewey’s pragmatism was an important touchstone or inspiration for Ambedkar. It was not something he would blindly copy or duplicate. Instead, it became a resource and a source of motivation to do certain things in certain ways once he returned to India. In a methodological sense, it showed him the value of reconstruction. Dewey had problems with the quest for certainty among philosophers ranging from Plato to Immanuel Kant to many of his contemporaries; Ambedkar felt a similar constriction when it came to the claims to timelessness and divine certainty made on behalf of the sanatan (eternal) tradition stemming from the ancient Vedas. Ambedkar saw this same tradition as underwriting the customs of caste that had divided Indian society and oppressed individuals like him for thousands of years.

There was nothing Ambedkar could do in this lifetime to remove the stain of untouchability in the eyes of others

The pragmatist commitment to philosophy as a way not just to grasp the eternal truths of the world and hold on, but instead to purposefully change or reconstruct it, struck a chord in Ambedkar. One common thread across all the disparate parts of his intellectual and practical life was the idea that he should not remain content with the world as received by him or his surrounding culture. He felt the command to change this world, and to change those that might have power over it, through his activism, his political manoeuvres, and even his impassioned speeches. The world for Ambedkar was what we could make of it, and he saw a path to reconstructing it in a more just manner that would erase the sort of hate and suffering he felt as an ‘untouchable’.

But reconstruction must aim for something. What did Ambedkar’s selective and creative pragmatism aim for as its goals or ends? What sort of moral ideals did it strive to realise? One of the recurring themes in Ambedkar’s harsh criticisms of caste throughout his life was that this graded social system suppressed the ‘human personality’ of those in ‘lower’ castes. It limited the occupations that individuals could pursue, the clothes they could wear, and even the paths they could travel, to birth status. It was at birth that one received one’s special mix of traits or potentialities from past lives, as Ambedkar saw the caste system play out in his life. He was an untouchable because of his birth placement, one that resided at the very bottom of the graded hierarchy of caste groups, and one that most other ‘higher castes’ saw as ritually polluting. There was nothing that Ambedkar could do, at least in this lifetime, that would remove the stain of untouchability in the eyes of others enraptured by these customs.

For Ambedkar, this was an affront to the worth of the individual. Drawing from Dewey’s early works – especially his essay ‘The Ethics of Democracy’ (1888) – Ambedkar came back from his education in the West and argued that caste customs hurt the ‘growth of personality’ and developed only ‘the personality of the few at the cost of the many – a result scrupulously to be avoided in the interest of Democracy.’ Each person was unique in their mix of impulses, drives and interests, and the best sort of society would help individuals create and recreate themselves with their social engagement. All he saw with caste was a restraining and limiting of what roles and talents an individual could develop. Ambedkar would often refer to his battle against the caste system – epitomised by his hatred for the practice of untouchability – as ‘a battle for the reclamation of human personality, which has been suppressed and mutilated by the Hindu social system.’ For Ambedkar, as well as for young Dewey, society worked best when it offered freedom and opportunity for each individual to develop as a valued member of a community. Democracy became the philosophy that facilitated this evolution of each person beyond strictures of separated classes or castes.

Ambedkar’s philosophy orbits around another recognisably pragmatist commitment – the idea that communities matter in both science and ethics. Indeed, Ambedkar would maintain that vital senses of democracy went beyond the overtly political. Democracy was a habit for Ambedkar, as well as for Dewey, and not just a formal way of decision-making among elected officials. Throughout his writings, Ambedkar was fond of echoing Dewey’s phrase from Democracy and Education, saying that:

Democracy is not merely a form of Government. It is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience. It is essentially an attitude of respect and reverence towards fellowmen.

Later in his life, Ambedkar would refer to democracy as a way of life. All of this pointed to the central idea that social democracy was an ideal to be achieved in our everyday experience.

But what can we make of social democracy as a habit or a way of life? For Ambedkar’s pragmatism, democracy became more about how we interact with our fellow community members or citizens than about constitutions and voting exercises. Political institutions and laws are important, of course, but what was of primary importance for Ambedkar – and his teacher, Dewey – were the customs and habits that animated us in our myriad interactions with our friends and foes in social experience.

Part of Ambedkar’s philosophical genius lies in how he reworks this idea of deep democracy into a normative framework used to critique caste. He saw caste as both a group custom and as an individual habit of how one reacts to others. It was inherently and essentially divisive. Caste habits, and caste labels, told Ambedkar and his fellow community members how they should value and act toward each other. In his own case, it led others to exclude or limit contact with him. If democracy meant the formation of groups where each individual mattered, caste was, Ambedkar surmised, inherently antidemocratic. But on what standard ought we judge systems and communities as a whole?

This was a problem for the sort of philosophy that young Ambedkar heard in Dewey’s courses. Dewey would advise that ideals and moral values came from within a historical or community context. He was reluctant to appeal to sources of transcendental certainty, like God or pure reason, to settle matters. Ambedkar appreciated this intuition, but he needed something more than an appeal to culture or a tradition. For him, the problems of India were inherently connected to a millennia-old stratification of its communities into a hierarchy of occupation and value-determining classes based upon birth. As he would put it in an early publication, Indian society under caste was a tower with many floors but no stairways upon which one could ascend.

He criticised Russian communism for achieving equality through violent means that sacrificed the liberty of many

Ambedkar knew that much of this caste superstructure was grounded on claims to ‘timeless’ or divinely revealed matters in holy texts. Like Dewey, he could not appeal to moral certainties to counter other divine truths. But his pragmatic approach became speckled with constant appeals to three values – liberty, equality and fraternity. These were the values of the French Revolution that Ambedkar heard in Dewey’s course in March 1916, perhaps for the first time. Later in his life, Ambedkar would make overt efforts to translate these terms into Buddhist concepts. But the trichotomy remained. These terms were not tethered to one culture – including French – but instead became semi-transcendent values that could be used to critique any community as to its adherence to the democratic ideal and the value of developing the personality of each individual. Justice was the tense balance among these three valued aspects of individual and communal experience.

The power of these values, seen across Ambedkar’s speeches, as well as the preamble to the Indian constitution he took a heavy hand in drafting, was that they revealed the problems with caste and with potential solutions such as communism. Ambedkar would bring these values to bear to show how caste customs functioned to destroy the liberty and equality of those judged ‘untouchable’. He would also, later in his life, criticise the communism he saw in Russia for achieving equality through violent means that inevitably sacrificed the liberty of many and the sense of fraternity among the opposing groups in society. The way to make individuals matter must focus on their equal treatment and their ability to freely direct their lives. It also must result in the creation of a community characterised by shared interests and mutual respect, a state of affairs so central to the often-overlooked value of fraternity.

Ambedkar’s philosophy is an anti-caste philosophy but, in drawing upon the pragmatist ideal of deep democracy, it became something even more encompassing – a philosophy of democracy. Talking of Ambedkar’s pragmatism is a way of highlighting a constellation of important ideas and ideals from Dewey, retasked for the Indian context. It also allows us to see Ambedkar as a global philosopher, one concerned with caste and with other problems that undo the search for democratic communities. What results is something absolutely unique in the pragmatist tradition: an evolution of social democracy that brings new insights into the problems of oppression and division, and a creative way to reconstruct society through a tense and ever-changing balance of freedom, equality and fellow-feeling among all those who share a common fate together.