Hello listeners, I'm Krishna with Hindulit, a podcast on Indian literature, mythologies, and history.
I was advised to make clearer which episodes were mythology and which ones were history. My earlier episodes can be broadly placed under mythology or spiritual stories. My last 3 episodes on Verghese Kurien, the milkman of India, are of a historical figure and the events discussed therein are historical.
Today's topic will also follow the same historical theme. I will discuss the jurist, economist, politician, writer, and social reformer Dr.Â Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, affectionately and respectfully called Babasaheb [meaning Respected Father]. He campaigned against social discrimination particularly towards the Untouchables, or the Dalits. I will provide a summary of Ambedkar's life and a summary of the hereditary based caste system in India.
In a small village called Ambadwe, in the Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra, India there was a man named Ramji Sakpal. Ramji was a Subedar in the army, under British Rule. A Subhedar is a senior army official said to be equivalent to a Field Marshal or General today.
Ramji had an uncle, who, because of spiritual aspirations, decided to renounce materialistic desires and live as an ascetic. Ramji decided to meet his uncle one day and sought his uncle out in Mhow, a cantonment (military or police headquarters) near the Indore District in the state Madhya Pradesh. Madhya Pradesh translates to ' The Middle State', where Madhya means middle and Pradesh means state. On a map of India, Madhya Pradesh is the central state.
When Ramji arrived at Mhow and met his uncle, he invited the uncle to visit his home. The uncle declined, stating that, as he had renounced the world, he would no longer step into a home. Ramji was disappointed.
Seeking to console him, and moved by his nephew's love and disappointment, the ascetic uncle blessed him and said, "I bless you. You shall have a son, who will achieve fame world-wide."
With his uncle's blessing, Ramji returned home.
Ramji and his wife Bhimabai gave birth to a son on April 14th, 1891.
"I want to call my son, Bhim, for, with the blessing of your uncle, he will be formidable," said Bhimabai to Ramji.
Ramji was progressing in his role in the British-Indian army. He earned enough to afford an education for his children. However, a few years later he retired from the army and returned to live with his family. The pension from the army was sufficient to feed and house his family, but not sufficient to educate and otherwise improve the lives of his children. When his wife Bhimabai asked him what he would do, Ramji said he would reach out to friends who could help him get a job.
Ramji managed to acquire a job. The financial situation of the family was looking up. Life sometimes throws its twists. Bhimabai, who was suffering from some sickness, died. Ramji had lost his wife, and his children their mother.
Ramji despaired. Who would care for his young children now that his wife had passed and he needed to take up a job to support the family? Ramji's sister, Mira, came to his aid. She agreed to care for his children.
And so Bhim, came to be brought under the care of his aunt. Ramji with the support of his sister, was able to care for his children. As an educated man himself, Ramji taught and educated his sons. He taught his children stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata. With his new job, he was able to send his children to primary school.
At this point, I want to deviate from Bhim's story to describe the caste system.
India suffered and continues to suffer from a form of discrimination called the caste system. The caste system is a social and religious construct where people are segregated into various castes by birth. The castes are the Brahmins, the Kshatriyas, the Vaishyas, and the Shudras. The Brahmins were ranked the highest, followed by Kshatriyas, the Vaishyas, and the Shudras.
When I was a student in India, we were taught about the caste system (as part of an education that was trying to impress on young minds that such discrimination was deplorable), the individual castes were described as such.
The Brahmin caste was the priestly class, involved with the conduction of religious matters.
The Kshatriya caste was the warrior class, who engaged in ruling and warfare. They were the royalty or the soldiers.
The Vaishyas were the skilled artisans and merchant class. They were the people engaged in a skilled trade.
And finally, there were the Shudras, the laborer class who engaged in unskilled labor.
The way it was generally described, the upper castes such as Brahmins and Kshatriya's ruled over the lower castes and created rules that oppressed them. The Brahmin class, given their influence and authority due to their importance in religion could influence politics in a way where their caste was regarded with higher esteem than the other castes. The Kshatriya's
who constituted the ruling class, would follow the direction of their Brahmin advisors instituted laws that punished the lower castes more severely than the Brahmin or Kshatriya caste.
There is another group of people called the untouchables. There is some confusion in whether the Shudras and the untouchables were the same people, but it appears the untouchables were a separate group, generally considered outcastes. The untouchables group or caste, if we may call it, were a group of people who often did jobs that nobody else wanted to do. They often worked, with meat, trash, sanitation, and the dead.
The untouchables were prohibited from eating with members of other castes and were required to live in separate areas of the villages designated for them. They were also required to have separate seating arrangements and utensils in public places including temples, and they were prohibited from entering places of worship, and were generally socially excluded.
The rules of the caste system allowed for men of higher caste to marry anyone of their caste or a lower caste. Women would only marry someone in their caste or higher. A man of a lower caste was not allowed to marry a woman of higher castes.
The rules outlined were rigid and hereditary. People didn't become part of a caste, they were born in it.
That in sum is what I learned in school and is the understanding of most people. This description is an oversimplification, but hopefully it serve the intention of helping people see that practicing social discrimination whether by caste, class, race or other means is not something that we should encourage or support.
There is more to be said as a study of the caste system, but for this episode on Ambedkar's life, this summary suffices.
Bhim and his family were members of the untouchables caste. When Bhim went to school, he was required to sit segregated apart from other students in the class. During school break, Bhim would go out to play with other children. One day, he was thirsty and saw a communal water pot and cup. When Bhim reached for the cup, a worker shouted, "You! Stop it. Don't touch that cup!". Bhim looked up and saw an elderly man running towards him.
The old man said, "You cannot drink the water from here. If you want water, hold out your hands and I will pour some water for you."
Bhim cupped his hand obediently and drank the water from his hands as the old man poured water into his palms. The old man was careful not to let the cup touch Bhim. Bhim observed that the other boys in his school were not treated this way. He was hurt. He didn't understand why he was treated differently.
Another day, Bhim and his brother had to travel to Koregaon, a town in the state of Maharashtra. They were to meet with their father who was working there. The children took a train to Masur, another small town near Koregaon, where they expected their father to pick them up at the station. However, Ramji did not come to meet them, so the boys, with the help of the train station master, managed to hire a bullock cart to take them to Ramji. When the bullock cart arrived, the boys ran and climbed up the cart.
The cart driver asked the boys where they wanted to be taken. The boys replied that they want to be driven to their father Ramji Sakpal's office. Hearing this, the cart driver recognized that the boy's father was a member of the untouchable class and yelled at the boys.
"GET OFF MY CART!!" yelled the cart driver. "You are untouchables, you have polluted my cart."
Bhim and his brother got off the cart. They pleaded to the cart driver, "Please sir. We only want to get to Koregaon and we are children. If you don't take us to our father, we will be stranded here."
The cart driver said, "No.Â I cannot take you. You have polluted me, my cart, and my bullocks."
Bhim wondered how they could pollute anything. Compared to the cart driver, they were neatly dressed and had washed.
They offered to pay the cart driver double if he would drive them to Koregaon.
The cart driver's greed got the better of his disdain for pollution by untouchables. He agreed to drive the two brothers.
It made little sense that the touch of a person would pollute people, animals, or inanimate objects, but that was what Bhim faced.
A few days later, after Bhim and his brother had returned home, had another incident. On the way home from school, he went to a well and drew water from it to quench his thirst.
Some members of the upper castes saw Bhim drawing water from the well and drinking it. They shouted, "Look, that untouchable is drinking water from the well."
Another yelled, "He has polluted the well water."
These same people picked up a slipper and hurled it at Bhim.
Bhim pleaded, "Please sirs. I have only drunk water. What wrong have I done?"
But poor Bhim was shown no mercy. The upper caste people yelled and threw things at him. Bhim ran away, crying.
Bhim suffered from many such insults throughout his childhood. One day his sister, offered to cut his hair for him. Bhim asked his sister, "Why can't I go to a barber like the other boys in school?"
Bhim's sister explained sadly that they were 'Mahars'.
Mahars, in Maharashtra and other neighboring areas, and were a community of untouchables.
Bhim didn't understand what made him and his sister different from other people. Bhim's sister explained that this was how it had always been and she didn't know why.
Despite the constant mistreatment in society that was the norm, and the darkness that Bhim endured, there were glimmers of light. When Bhim's father, Ramji Sakpal, registered him for higher classes in school, he named him Bhim Ambavadekar since they hailed from the village Ambawade in the Ratnagiri district. As Bhim progressed in his education, he met a Brahman teacher named Krishnaji Keshav Ambedkar.
Krishnaji, unlike Bhim's other teachers, took a liking to Bhim and observed that the boy showed intellectual curiosity in his studies. He showered Bhim with parental affection and praised him when he solved problems correctly.
One day, Krishnaji, seeing that the other children and teachers would not eat with Bhim, called on Bhim to join him for lunch.
Bhim was surprised. He had always been spurned by his elders of other castes. He hesitated, knowing that a wrong step would earn him insults and perhaps physical abuse. But Krishnaji said, "Come on son. Won't you come and give your teacher some company while he eats?"
Encouraged thus by his teacher, Bhim joined Krishnaji for lunch and continued to each lunch regularly with his teacher.
Krishnaji took a great liking to the boy and encouraged his studies and supported his education. One day, as they were having lunch together, Krishnaji told Bhim, "Bhim, I am going to change your surname from Ambavadekar to Ambedkar."
Bhim out of respect for his teacher, and thankful for the affection that Krishnaji had shown him agreed to adopt his surname.
We have reached the end of this week's podcast. There is more to come in Ambedkar's life and his fight again caste discrimination. We have barely touched the surface. Please continue listening to Hindu Lit to hear more.
Before I conclude, I wanted to announce that HinduLit officially has a web presence. Please check out the brand new website at https://hindulit.com.
HinduLit.com will have access to the podcasts that you are presently listening to as well as the scripts for every episode. If you are someone who wants to read these stories rather than listen, you may do so there. You can leave a comment and even send us a message. I would love to see you there. There will be more improvements to come to the site shortly, but please stay tuned.
With that, we conclude this week's episode on HinduLit. Please join me again next time for more stories on Indian literature, mythologies, and history.