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.