Caste politics

Riddle No. 1: The difficulty of knowing why one is a Hindu

To mark BR Ambedkar’s 125th birth anniversary, an annotated excerpt from his 'Riddles in Hinduism'.

When the government of Maharashtra published BR Ambedkar’s Riddles in Hinduism posthumously in 1987, the Shiv Sena sought a ban. Today, as the state and the Hindu right try to appropriate Ambedkar as a “Hindu” figure, his fierce critique shows us how and why he had no love for Hinduism.

India is a congeries of communities. There are in it Parsis, Christians, Mohammedans and Hindus. The basis of these communities is not racial. It is of course religious. This is a superficial view. What is interesting to know is why is a Parsi a Parsi and why is a Christian a Christian, why is a Muslim a Muslim and why is a Hindu a Hindu? With regard to the Parsi, the Christian and the Muslim, it is smooth sailing. Ask a Parsi why he calls himself a Parsi, he will have no difficulty in answering the question. He will say he is a Parsi because he is a follower of Zoroaster. Ask the same question to a Christian. He too will have no difficulty in answering the question. He is a Christian because he believes in Jesus Christ. Put the same question to a Muslim. He too will have no hesitation in answering it. He will say he is a believer in Islam and that is why he is a Muslim.

Now ask the same question to a Hindu and there is no doubt that he will be completely bewildered and would not know what to say. [See annotation No. 1 below]

If he says that he is a Hindu because he worships the same god as the Hindu community does, his answer cannot be true. All Hindus do not worship one god. Some Hindus are monotheists, some are polytheists and some are pantheists. Even those Hindus who are monotheists are not worshippers of the same gods. Some worship the god Vishnu, some Shiva, some Rama, some Krishna. Some do not worship the male gods. They worship a goddess. Even then they do not worship the same goddesses. They worship different goddesses. Some worship Kali, some worship Parvati, some worship Lakshmi.

Coming to the polytheists, they worship all the gods. They will worship Vishnu and Shiva, also Rama and Krishna. They will worship Kali, Parvati and Lakshmi. A Hindu will fast on the Shivaratri day because it is sacred to Shiva. He will fast on Ekadashi day because it is sacred to Vishnu. He will plant a bel tree because it is sacred to Shiva and he will plant a tulsi because it is dear to Vishnu.

Polytheists among the Hindus do not confine their homage to the Hindu gods. No Hindu hesitates to worship a Muslim Pir or a Christian goddess. Thousands of Hindus go to a Muslim Pir and make offerings. [2] Actually there are in some places Brahmans who own the office of a hereditary priesthood of a Muslim Pir and wear a Muslim Pir’s dress. Thousands of Hindus go to make offerings to the Christian goddess Mat Mauli near Bombay. [3]

The worship of the Christian or Muslim gods is only on occasions. But there are more permanent transfers of religious allegiance. There are many so-called Hindus whose religion has a strong Mohammedan content. Notable amongst these are the followers of the strange Panchpiriya cult, [4] who worship five Mohammedan saints, of uncertain name and identity, and sacrifice cocks to them, employing for the purpose as their priest a Mohammedan Dafali fakir. [5] Throughout India many Hindus make pilgrimages to Mohammedan shrines, such as that of Sakhi Sarwar in the Punjab. [6]

Speaking of the Malkanas, Mr Blunt [7] says that they are converted Hindus of various castes belonging to Agra and the adjoining districts, chiefly Muttra, [8] Ettah and Mainpuri. They are of Rajput, Jat and Bania descent. They are reluctant to describe themselves as Musalmans, and generally give their original caste name and scarcely recognise the name Malkana. [9] Their names are Hindu; they mostly worship in Hindu temples; they use the salutation “Ram-Ram”; they intermarry amongst themselves only. On the other hand, they sometimes frequent a mosque, practise circumcision and bury their dead; they will eat with Mohammedans if they are particular friends. [10]

In Gujarat there are several similar communities such as the Matia Kunbis, [11] who call in Brahmans for their chief ceremonies, but are followers of the Pirana saint Imam Shah and his successors, and bury their dead as do the Mohammedans; the Sheikhadas at their weddings employ both Hindu and Mohammedan priests, and the Momnas, [12] who practise circumcision, bury their dead and read the Gujarati Koran, but in other respects follow Hindu custom and ceremony.

If he says that “I am a Hindu because I hold to the beliefs of the Hindus,” his answer cannot be right for here one is confronted with the fact that Hinduism has no definite creed. The beliefs of persons who are by all admitted to be Hindus often differ more widely from each other than do those of Christians and Mohammedans. Limiting the issue to cardinal beliefs,[13] the Hindus differ among themselves as to which beliefs are of cardinal importance. Some say that all the Hindu scriptures must be accepted, but some would exclude the Tantras, [14] while others would regard only the Vedas as of primary importance; some again think that the sole essential is belief in the doctrine of karma and metempsychosis.

A complex congeries of creeds and doctrines is Hinduism. It shelters within its portals monotheists, polytheists and pantheists; worshippers of the great gods Shiva and Vishnu or of their female counterparts, as well as worshippers of the divine mothers or the spirits of trees, rocks and streams and the tutelary village deities; persons who propitiate their deity by all manner of bloody sacrifices, and persons who will not only kill no living creature but who must not even use the word “cut”; those whose ritual consists mainly of prayers and hymns, and those who indulge in unspeakable orgies in the name of religion; and a host of more or less heterodox sectaries, many of whom deny the supremacy of the Brahmans, or at least have non-Brahmanical religious leaders.

If he says that he is a Hindu because he observes the same customs as other Hindus do, his answer cannot be true. For all Hindus do not observe the same customs.

In the north, near relatives are forbidden to marry; but in the south cousin marriage is prescribed, and even closer alliances are sometimes permitted. As a rule, female chastity is highly valued, but some communities set little store by it, at any rate prior to marriage, and others make it a rule to dedicate one daughter to a life of religious prostitution. [15] In some parts the women move about freely; in others they are kept secluded. In some parts they wear skirts; in others trousers.

Again if he said that he is a Hindu because he believes in the caste system, his answer cannot be accepted as satisfactory. It is quite true that no Hindu is interested in what his neighbour believes, but he is very much interested in knowing whether he can eat with him or take water from his hands. In other words it means that the caste system is an essential feature of Hinduism and a man who does not belong to a recognised Hindu caste cannot be a Hindu. While all this is true it must not be forgotten that observance of caste is not enough. Many Musalmans and many Christians observe caste, if not in the matter of inter-dining certainly in the matter of inter-marriage. But they cannot be called Hindus on that account. Both elements must be present. He must be a Hindu and he must also observe caste. This brings us back to the old question: who is a Hindu? It leaves us where we are.

Is it not a question for every Hindu to consider why, in the matter of his own religion, his position is so embarrassing and so puzzling? Why is he not able to answer so simple a question which every Parsi, every Christian and every Muslim can answer? Is it not time that he should ask himself what are the causes that has brought about this religious chaos?

The annotations

The title: For most of the riddles in the Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches (BAWS) edition, the editors begin with a note about where and in what state the riddle was found. Riddles 1, 3, 4, 5 and 6 do not however carry an explanatory note from the BAWS editors.

1: Derived from Sindhu, the native name for the Indus river, the term "Hind" was first used in Persian and came to be established after the eleventh-century polymath Al-Biruni (973–1048), commissioned by the king Mahmud of Ghazni (in present-day Afghanistan), travelled to the Indian subcontinent in 1017 and wrote the famous encyclopaedic account of India called Tarikh-al-Hind.

The word "Hindu", derived thus, did not indicate a religious group but was used as a geographical demarcator for the inhabitants of the land near and east of the Indus. Later, the word may have been adopted by those inhabitants to distinguish themselves from the Muslims who came to initially rule the northern parts of India. The ancient texts that the so-called Hindus today claim their roots from – the Vedas, Ramayana, Mahabharata, Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads – do not ever use the terms Hindu or Hinduism.

Kalidasa (circa fifth century CE) or the absolute-monist Sankara (ninth century) or the qualified non-dualist Ramanuja (twelfth century), simply no one – fictional characters, poets or philosophers – could have understood anything by the term Hindu. Yet, while expounding upon them it is customary today to prefix the word Hindu to their works.

Recent research argues that the term came into vogue with Orientalist and colonial scholarship. For an overview of the debates around "Hindu" and "Hinduism" and a nuanced counter-argument see D.N. Lorenzen (2006, 7–10). In her essay “Syndicated Hinduism” (1989, 54), Romila Thapar says, “The term Hinduism as we understand it today to describe a particular religion is modern.”

Ambedkar, for his times, was far-sighted in seriously interrogating a term around which Indian nationalism and anticolonialism came to be constructed. Thanks to colonial taxonomy, the notion of the "Hindu" became fixed: suddenly it came to stand for all those Indians who were not Muslim or British by birth.

The word "Hindooism"/"Hinduism" was gifted to the English language by Rammohun Roy. Upinder Singh says, “The English word ‘Hinduism’ is a fairly recent one and was first used by Raja Rammohun Roy in 1816–17.” (2009, 433) The new coinage began to infiltrate modern reflections on tradition (see also Lorenzen 2006, 3).

The cross-disciplinary scholar Sibaji Bandyopadhyay alerts us to the fact that Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay (1838–94), despite being a prominent father figure as far as the spawning of indigenously modern discourses is concerned, had great reservations about the deploying the term "religion" for Hinduism, which he saw as dharma; but in spite of his fulminations against the “the monstrous nature of misuse of a name”, i.e., against the erroneous substitution of dharma (understood as "custom") by religion and his unease over the circulation of the commodity called "Hinduism" in the free-market of ideas Chattopadhyay too ended up using it (2015, 75–9 for Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, 95 for Rammohun Roy).

Negative in orientation in terms of two given sets of population, the identity of the "Hindu" went on to become flexible – functioning as a free-floating signifier signifying nothing positive, the "Hindu" could increasingly arrogate or appropriate to itself any group/sect that remained unaccounted for, excluding the already accounted-for Muslims and the British.

It is likely that while trying to crack the riddle “Who is a Hindu?”, Ambedkar is gesturing towards this answer: precisely, no one.

2: Ambedkar discusses this at some length in the introduction. See Note 7 there.

3: The spelling used in the BAWS edition, Mant Mauli, seems like an error. Ambedkar could be referring to the Mount Mary Church in Bandra, Mumbai, officially the Basilica of Our Lady of the Mount. Besides Christians, Hindus, Parsis and Muslims throng it. According to Klostermaier, the local name “Mat Mauli” may be seen as a “Hinduisation” of “Mount Mary” (Klostermaier 1972). According to the Maharashtra State Gazetteer of 1986 Mat Mauli could be “corruption” of “Mata” or “Mother” Mauli.

4: Panch Piriya is a term applied to the worship of the "Panchon Pir" or five saints, of whom the most prominent figure seems to have been Ghazi Miya or Salar Mas’ud, the nephew of Mahmud of Ghazni. Muslim "deities" have been incorporated into the pantheons of many rural Hindu and subordinated castes. In Punjab, where the ‘cult’ seems to have originated, the list of the Panchon Pir consists of prominent Sufi saints from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Over time, there was a dilution of Islamic elements and the inclusion of local Hindu deities and deified dead (Hiltebeitel 1988, 255–6).

5: Hiltebeitel notes that despite the influence of the Arya Samaj and corresponding Muslim fundamentalist movements, Hindu attendance at the tombs of Muslim martyrs and saints remained a visible phenomenon. “In addition to the pilgrimage and tomb-centred worship which continues to this day, the five saints are worshipped in the homes as family deities. Daily, weekly, and annual worship is performed in the usual manner for household deities, often assisted by a Muslim Dafali, the hereditary priest of Ghazi Miya” (1988, 255–6).

6: Max Arthur Macauliffe, a colonial officer in Punjab between 1864 and 1893, wrote of the Sakhi Sarwar fair in 1875: “Hindus as well as Musalmans make offerings at the grave, and invoke the divine intercession of God’s Musalman favourite” (Macauliffe 1875, quoted in Mir 2010, 108).

7: Edward Arthur Henry Blunt (1877–1941) was a British civil servant appointed to the United Provinces. In 1931, he wrote The Caste System of Northern India with Special Reference to the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh, which Ambedkar is referring to.

8: Present-day Mathura.

9: By passing the Indian Councils Act of 1909 the British granted Muslims a separate electorate and proportional political representation, after which the Arya Samaj looked to increase the ranks of the Hindu community. One of the ways this was done was through shuddhi or purification rituals, in which they converted/purified Chamars, Doms and other "Untouchable" castes. One of the most important shuddhi campaigns, according to Christophe Jaffrelot, was of the Muslims Rajputs from the Malkana caste, which may explain their reluctance to identify as Muslim, despite the social fluidity (Jaffrelot 2010, 150–1).

10: Paraphrased from Blunt 1931, 206–7.

11: DD Kosambi (1956/2008, 389) cites the colonial ethnographer RE Enthoven to say that the Matia Kunbis were low castes who were “half Hindu half Muslim by religion”. The Kunbis (also Kunabis, Kanbi), broadly, are non-elite tillers in western India, included among the OBC (Other Backward Classes) in present-day Maharashtra.

While the jati has Shudra origins, claims have been made to Kshatriya status and the hyphenated Maratha-Kunbi identity since the colonial period. The seventeenth-century Marathi saint-poet Tukaram identified himself as a Kunbi. Rosalind O’ Hanlon tracks the aspiration for upward social mobility among the Kunbis since the 1860s (1985).

12: Ambedkar is relying on Census reports for such information. The 1911 Census has this to say: “In Gujarat there are several similar communities – such as the Matia Kunbis, who call in Brahmans for their chief ceremonies, but are followers of the Pirana saint Imam Shah and his successors, and bury their dead as do the Mohammedans; the Sheikhadas who at their weddings employ both a Hindu and a Mohammedan priest; the Momnas who practise circumcision….” (Census of India, 1911, Vol 1, 118).

The Momnas apparently are a modern branch of the Aga Khan Ismailis who “belonged originally” to the Hindu caste of Leva Kunbis. See Lokhandwalla 1955, 117–18. On the role of the Census and other colonialist methods that sought to freeze fluid, evolving communities into fixed lists, see Dirks 2001.

13: A cardinal belief is the basic principle on which a religion is hinged. For instance, though there are several Christian denominations, there are some core beliefs accepted as common (such as the trinity, the divinity of Christ and his bodily resurrection) that are foundational to all. A person who rejects any of these beliefs cannot be called a Christian. In Islam, there are seven articles of faith (such as belief in Allah and Judgment Day) that every Muslim believes in.

14: See Riddle No. 14, where Ambedkar discusses Tantrism and the Tantra texts.

15: The religious practice referred to is the votive offering of pre-pubescent girls, known as Devadasis, to deities in Hindu temples, requiring them to become sexually available for community members. It is traditionally believed that the girls are "serving" the society and have been ordained to do so. For her services to the temple, the Devadasi enjoyed grants made either to her personally or to the temple (Nair 1994, 3159).

Communities like the Basavi, Matangi and Jogini connote similar practices in other regions. Devadasis are usually from Dalit and other oppressed castes, and the custom continues to this day, according to the National Human Rights Commission. See Kannabiran (1995) for a discussion on women, religion and the state in colonial and post-colonial India.

Ambedkar, in a speech in 1936 to Vaghyas, Devadasi, Joginis and Aradhis in Kamatipura, spoke of the need to give up the profession as one they were forced into because of their oppressed caste position: “You will ask me how to make your living. I am not going to tell you that. There are hundreds of ways of doing it. But I insist that you give up this degraded life. You marry and settle down to normal domestic life as women of other classes do and do not live under conditions which inevitably drag you into prostitution.” For more, see Rege 2013, 145–9.

Excerpted with permission from Riddles in Hinduism: The Annotated Critical Selection, BR Ambedkar, with an introduction by Kancha Ilaiah, published by Navayana on the occasion of Ambedkar’s 125th birth anniversary.

We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

Top picks, best deals and all that you need to know for the Amazon Great Indian Festival

We’ve done the hard work so you can get right to what you want amongst the 40,000+ offers across 4 days.

The Great Indian Festival (21st-24th September) by Amazon is back and it’s more tempting than ever. This edition will cater to everyone, with offers on a range of products from electronics, home appliances, apparel for men and women, personal care, toys, pet products, gourmet foods, gardening accessories and more. With such overwhelming choice of products and a dozen types of offers, it’s not the easiest to find the best deals in time to buy before your find gets sold out. You need a strategy to make sure you avail the best deals. Here’s your guide on how to make the most out of the Great Indian Festival:

Make use of the Amazon trio – Amazon Prime, Amazon Pay and Amazon app

Though the festival officially starts on 21st, Amazon Prime members will have early access starting at 12 noon on 20th September itself, enabling them to grab the best deals first. Sign up for an Amazon Prime account to not miss out on exclusive deals and products. Throughout the festival, Prime members will 30-minute early access to top deals before non-Prime members. At Rs 499/- a year, the Prime membership also brings unlimited Amazon Prime video streaming and quick delivery benefits.

Load your Amazon pay wallet; there’s assured 10% cashback (up to Rs 500). Amazon will also offer incremental cashbacks over and above bank cashbacks on select brands as a part of its Amazon Pay Offers. Shopping from the app would bring to you a whole world of benefits not available to non-app shoppers. App-only deals include flat Rs 1,250 off on hotels on shopping for more than Rs 500, and flat Rs 1,000 off on flights on a roundtrip booking of Rs 5,000 booking from Yatra. Ten lucky shoppers can also win one year of free travel worth Rs 1.5 lakhs.

Plan your shopping

The Great Indian Sale has a wide range of products, offers, flash sales and lightning deals. To make sure you don’t miss out on the best deals, or lose your mind, plan first. Make a list of things you really need or have been putting off buying. If you plan to buy electronics or appliances, do your research on the specs and shortlist the models or features you prefer. Even better, add them to your wishlist so you’re better able to track your preferred products.

Track the deals

There will be lightning deals and golden hour deals throughout the festival period. Keep track to avail the best of them. Golden-hour deals will be active on the Amazon app from 9.00pm-12.00am, while Prime users will have access to exclusive lightning deals. For example, Prime-only flash sales for Redmi 4 will start at 2.00pm and Redmi 4A at 6.00pm on 20th, while Nokia 6 will be available at Rs 1,000 off. There will be BOGO Offers (Buy One Get One free) and Bundle Offers (helping customers convert their TVs to Smart TVs at a fraction of the cost by using Fire TV Stick). Expect exclusive product launches from brands like Xiaomi (Mi Band 2 HRX 32 GB), HP (HP Sprocket Printer) and other launches from Samsung and Apple. The Half-Price Electronics Store (minimum 50% off) and stores offering minimum Rs 15,000 off will allow deal seekers to discover the top discounts.

Big discounts and top picks

The Great Indian Festival is especially a bonanza for those looking to buy electronics and home appliances. Consumers can enjoy a minimum of 25% off on washing machines, 20% off on refrigerators and 20% off on microwaves, besides deals on other appliances. Expect up to 40% off on TVs, along with No-Cost EMI and up to Rs 20,000 off on exchange.

Home Appliances

Our top picks for washing machines are Haier 5.8 Kg Fully Automatic Top Loading at 32% off, and Bosch Fully Automatic Front Loading 6 Kg and 7 Kg, both available at 27% discount. Morphy Richards 20 L Microwave Oven will be available at a discount of 38%.

Our favorite pick on refrigerators is the large-sized Samsung 545 L at 26% off so you can save Rs 22,710.

There are big savings to be made on UV water purifiers as well (up to 35% off), while several 5-star ACs from big brands will be available at greater than 30% discount. Our top pick is the Carrier 1.5 Ton 5-star split AC at 32% off.

Also those looking to upgrade their TV to a smart one can get Rs. 20,000 off by exchanging it for the Sony Bravia 108cm Android TV.

Personal Electronics

There’s good news for Apple fans. The Apple MacBook Air 13.3-inch Laptop 2017 will be available at Rs 55,990, while the iPad will be available at 20% off. Laptops from Lenovo, Dell and HP will be available in the discount range of 20% to 26%. Top deals are Lenovo Tab3 and Yoga Tab at 41% to 38% off. Apple fans wishing to upgrade to the latest in wearable technology can enjoy Rs 8,000 off on the Apple Watch series 2 smartwatch.

If you’re looking for mobile phones, our top deal pick is the LG V20 at Rs 24,999, more than Rs 5000 off from its pre-sale price.

Power banks always come in handy. Check out the Lenovo 13000 mAh power bank at 30% off.

Home printers are a good investment for frequent flyers and those with kids at home. The discounted prices of home printers at the festival means you will never worry about boarding passes and ID documents again. The HP Deskjet basic printer will be available for Rs 1,579 at 40% off and multi-function (printer/ scanner/ Wi-Fi enabled) printers from HP Deskjet and Canon will also available at 33% off.

The sale is a great time to buy Amazon’s native products. Kindle E-readers and Fire TV Stick will be on sale with offers worth Rs 5,000 and Rs 1,000 respectively.

The Amazon Fire Stick
The Amazon Fire Stick

For those of you who have a bottomless collection of movies, music and photos, there is up to 60% off on hard drives and other storage devices. Our top picks are Rs 15,000 and Rs 12,000 off on Seagate Slim 5TB and 4TB hard drives respectively, available from 8.00am to 4.00pm on 21st September.

The sale will see great discounts of up to 60% off on headphones and speakers from the top brands. The 40% off on Bose QC 25 Headphones is our favourite. Top deals are on Logitech speakers with Logitech Z506 Surround Sound 5.1 multimedia Speakers at 60% off and the super compact JBL Go Portable Speaker at 56% off!

Other noteworthy deals

Cameras (up to 55% off) and camera accessories such as tripods, flash lights etc. are available at a good discount. Home surveillance cameras too will be cheaper. These include bullet cameras, dome cameras, simulated cameras, spy cameras and trail and game cameras.

For home medical supplies and equipment, keep an eye on the grooming and personal care section. Weighing scales, blood pressure monitors, glucometers, body fat monitors etc. will be available at a cheaper price.

The sale is also a good time to invest in home and kitchen supplies. Mixer-grinders and juicers could see lightning deals. Don’t ignore essentials like floor mops with wheels, rotating mop replacements, utensils, crockery etc. Tupperware sets, for example, will be more affordable. There are attractive discounts on bags, especially laptop bags, backpacks, diaper bags and luggage carriers.

Interesting finds

While Amazon is extremely convenient for need-based shopping and daily essentials, it is also full of hidden treasures. During the festival, you can find deals on telescopes, polaroid cameras, smoothie makers, gym equipment, gaming consoles and more. So you’ll be able to allow yourself some indulgences!

Small shopping

If you have children, the festival is good time to stock up on gifts for Diwali, Christmas, return gifts etc. On offer are gaming gadgets such as Xbox, dough sets, Touching Tom Cat, Barbies, classic board games such as Life and more. There are also some products that you don’t really need, but kind of do too, such as smartphone and tablet holders, magnetic car mounts for smartphones and mobile charging station wall stands. If you’re looking for enhanced functionality in daily life, do take a look at the Amazon Basics page. On it you’ll find USB cables, kitchen shears, HDMI cables, notebooks, travel cases and other useful things you don’t realise you need.

Check-out process and payment options

Amazon is also offering an entire ecosystem to make shopping more convenient and hassle-free. For the festival duration, Amazon is offering No-Cost EMIs (zero interest EMIs) on consumer durables, appliances and smartphones, plus exchange schemes and easy installation services in 65 cities. HDFC card holders can avail additional 10% cashback on HDFC credit and debit cards. Customers will also get to “Buy Now and Pay in 2018” with HDFC Credit Cards, as the bank offers a 3 Month EMI Holiday during the days of the sale. Use Amazon Pay balance for fast and easy checkouts, quicker refunds and a secured shopping experience.

Sales are fun and with The Great Indian Festival offering big deals on big brands, it definitely calls for at least window shopping. There’s so much more than the above categories, like minimum 50% off on American Tourister luggage! To start the treasure hunt, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of and not by the Scroll editorial team.