Buddha OR Karl Marx

Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar

Published in Issue III, September 2013

A comparison between Karl Marx and Buddha may be regarded as a joke. There need be no surprise in this. Marx and Buddha are divided by 2381 years. Buddha was born in 563 BC and Karl Marx in 1818 AD. Karl Marx is supposed to be the architect of a new ideology-polity a new Economic system. The Buddha on the other hand is believed to be no more than the founder of a religion, which has no relation to politics or economics. The heading of this essay “Buddha or Karl Marx” which suggests either a comparison or a contrast between two such personalities divided by such a lengthy span of time and occupied with different fields of thought is sure to sound odd. The Marxists may easily laugh at it and may ridicule the very idea of treating Marx and Buddha on the same level. Marx so modern and Buddha so ancient! The Marxists may say that the Buddha as compared to their master must be just primitive. What comparison can there be between two such persons? What could a Marxist learn from the Buddha? What can Buddha teach a Marxist? None-the-less a comparison between the two is a attractive and instructive. Having read both and being interested in the ideology of both a comparison between them just forces itself on me. If the Marxists keep back their prejudices and study the Buddha and understand what he stood for I feel sure that they will change their attitude. It is of course too much to expect that having been determined to scoff at the Buddha they will remain to pray. But this much can be said that they will realise that there is something in the Buddha’s teachings which is worth their while to take note of.


The Buddha is generally associated with the doctrine of Ahimsa. That is taken to be the be-all and end-all of his teachings. Hardly any one knows that what the Buddha taught is something very vast: far beyond Ahimsa. It is therefore necessary to set out in detail his tenets. I enumerate them below as I have understood them from my reading of the Tripitaka:


  1. Religion is necessary for a free Society.
  2. Not every Religion is worth having.
  3. Religion must relate to facts of life and not to theories and speculations about God, or Soul or Heaven or
  4. It is wrong to make God the centre of R
  5. It is wrong to make salvation of the soul as the centre of Religion.
  6. It is wrong to make animal sacrifices to be the centre of religion.
  7. Real Religion lives in the heart of man and not in the
  8. Man and morality must be the centre of r If not, Religion is a cruel superstition.
  9. It is not enough for Morality to be the ideal of life. Since there is no God it must become the law of life.
  10. The function of Religion is to reconstruct the world and to make it happy and not to explain its origin or its end.
  11. That the unhappiness in the world is due to conflict of interest and the only way to solve it is to follow the Ashtanga Marga.
  12. That private ownership of property brings power to one class and sorrow to another.
  13. That it is necessary for the good of Society that this sorrow be removed by removing its cause.
  14. All human beings are equal.
  15. Worth and not birth is the measure of m
  16. What is important is high ideals and not noble birth.
  17. Maitri or fellowship towards all must never be abandoned. One owes it even to one’s enemy.
  18. Every one has a right to learn. Learning is as necessary for man to live as food is.
  19. Learning without character is dangerous.
  20. Nothing is Nothing is binding forever. Every thing is subject to inquiry and examination.
  21. Nothing is final.
  22. Every thing is subject to the law of causation.
  23. Nothing is permanent or Every thing is subject to change. Being is always becoming.
  24. War is wrong unless it is for truth and justice.
  25. The victor has duties towards the vanquished.


This is the creed of the Buddha in a summary form. How ancient but how fresh! How wide and how deep are his teachings!



Let us now turn to the creed of Karl Marx as originally propounded by him. Karl Marx is no doubt the father of modern socialism or Communism but he was not interested merely in propounding the theory of Socialism. That had been done long before him by others. Marx was more interested in proving that his Socialism was scientific. His crusade was as much against the capitalists as it was against those whom he called the Utopian Socialists. He disliked them both. It is necessary to note this point because Marx attached the greatest importance to the scientific character of his Socialism. All the doctrines which Marx propounded had no other purpose than to establish his contention that his brand of Socialism was scientific and not Utopian.


By scientific socialism what Karl Marx meant was that his brand of socialism was inevitable and inescapable and that society was moving towards it and that nothing could prevent its march. It is to prove this contention of his that Marx principally laboured. Marx’s contention rested on the following thesis. They were:—


  • That the purpose of philosophy is to reconstruct the world and not to explain the origin of the universe.
  • That the force which shapes the course of history are primarily economic.
  • That society is divided into two classes, owners and workers.
  • That there is always a class conflict going on between the two classes.
  • That the workers are exploited by the owners who misappropriate the surplus value, which is the result of the workers’ labour.
  • That this exploitation can be put an end to by nationalisation of the instruments of production i.e. abolition of private
  • That this exploitation is leading to greater and greater impoverishment of the workers.
  • That this growing impoverishment of the workers is resulting in a revolutionary spirit among the workers and the conversion of the class conflict into a class struggle.
  • That as the workers outnumber the owners, the workers are bound to capture the State and establish their rule, which he called the dictatorship of the proletariat.
  • These factors are irresistible and therefore socialism is inevitable.


I hope I have reported correctly the propositions which formed the original basis of Marxian Socialism.


Before making a comparison between the ideologies of the Buddha and Karl Marx it is necessary to note how much of this original corpus of the Marxian creed has survived; how much has been disproved by history and how much has been demolished by his opponents.


The Marxian Creed was propounded sometime in the middle of the nineteenth century. Since then it has been subjected to much criticism. As a result of this criticism much of the ideological structure raised by Karl Marx has broken to pieces. There is hardly any doubt that Marxist claim that his socialism was inevitable has been completely disproved. The dictatorship of the Proletariat was first established in 1917 in one country after a period of something like seventy years after the publication of his Das Capital the gospel of socialism. Even when the Communism—which is another name for the dictatorship of the Proletariat—came to Russia, it did not come as something inevitable without any kind of human effort. There was a revolution and much deliberate planning had to be done with a lot of violence and blood shed, before it could step into Russia. The rest of the world is still waiting for coming of the Proletarian Dictatorship. Apart from this general falsification of the Marxian thesis that Socialism is inevitable, many of the other propositions stated in the lists have also been demolished both by logic as well as by experience. Nobody now I accept the economic interpretation of history as the only explanation of history. Nobody accepts that the proletariat has been progressively pauperised. And the same is true about his other premises.


What remains of the Karl Marx is a residue of fire, small but still very important. The residue in my view consists of four items:


  • The function of philosophy is to reconstruct the world and not to waste its time in explaining the origin of the world.


  • That there is a conflict of interest between class and class.


  • That private ownership of property brings power to one class and sorrow to another through exploitation.


  • That it is necessary for the good of society that the sorrow be removed by the abolition of private property.



Taking the points from the Marxian Creed which have survived one may now enter upon a comparison between the Buddha and Karl Marx.


On the first point there is complete agreement between the Buddha and Karl Marx. To show how close the agreement is I quote below a part of the dialogue between Buddha and the Brahmin Potthapada.


“Then, in the same terms, Potthapada asked (the Buddha) each of the following questions:


  1. Is the world not eternal?
  2. Is the world finite?
  3. Is the world infinite?
  4. Is the soul the same as the body?
  5. Is the soul one thing and the body another?
  6. Does one who has gained the truth live again after death?
  7. Does he neither live again, nor not live again, after death?


And to each question the exalted one made the same reply: It was this-


“That too, Potthapada, is a matter on which I have expressed no opinion”.


“But why has the Exalted One expressed no opinion on that?”


“(Because) This question is not calculated to profit, it is not concerned with (the Dhamma) it does not redound even to the elements of right conduct, nor to detachment nor to purification from lust, nor to quietude, nor to tranquillisation of heart, nor to real knowledge, nor to the insight (of the higher stages of the Path), nor to Nirvana. Therefore it is that I express no opinion upon it.


“On the second point I give below a quotation from a dialogue between Buddha and Pasenadi King of Kosala:


“Moreover, there is always strife going on between kings, between nobles, between Brahmins, between house holders, between mother and son, between son and father, between brother and sister, between sister and brother, between companion and companion.


Although these are the words of Pasenadi, the Buddha did not deny that they formed a true picture of society.


As to the Buddha’s own attitude towards class conflict his doctrine of Ashtanga Marga recognises that class conflict exists and that it is; the class conflict which is the cause of misery.


On the third question I quote from the same dialogue of Buddha with Potthapada;

“Then what is it that the Exalted One has determined?”

“I have expounded, Potthapada, that sorrow and misery exist!”


I have expounded, what is the origin of misery. I have expounded what is the cessation of misery: I have expounded what is method by which one may reach the cessation of misery.


‘And why has the Exalted One put forth a statement as to that?’


‘Because that questions Potthapada, is calculated to profit, is concerned with the Dhamma redounds to the beginnings of right conduct, to detachment, to purification from lusts, to quietude, to tranquillisation of heart, to real knowledge, to the insight of the higher stages of the Path and to Nirvana. Therefore is it, Potthapada that I have put forward a statement as to that. ‘


That language is different but the meaning is the same. If for misery one reads exploitation Buddha is not away from Marx.


On the question of private property the following extract from a dialogue between Buddha and Ananda is very illuminating. In reply to a question by Ananda the Buddha said:


“I have said that avarice is because of possession. Now in what way that is so, Ananda, is to be understood after this manner. Where there is no possession of any sort or kind whatever by any one or anything, then there being no possession whatever, would there, owing to this cessation of possession, be any appearance of avarice? “There would not, Lord”.


Wherefore, Ananda, just that is the ground, the basis, the genesis, the cause of avarice, to wit, possession.


‘I have said that tenacity is the cause possession. Now in what way that is so, Ananda, is to be understood after this manner. Were there no tenacity of any sort or kind whatever shown by any one with respect to any thing, then there being whatever, would there owing to this cessation of tenacity, be any appearance of possession? ‘


‘There would not. Lord.’


‘Wherefore, Ananda, just that is the ground, the basis, the genesis, the cause of possession, to wit tenacity. ‘On the fourth point no evidence is necessary. The rules of the Bhikshu Sangh will serve as the best testimony on the subject.


According to the rules a Bhikku can have private property only in the following eight articles and no more. These eight articles are: —


1  }

  1. } Three robes or pieces of cloth for daily wear.
  2. }
  3. A girdle for the loins.
  4. An alms-bowl.
  5. A razor.
  6. A needle.
  7. A water strainer.


Further a Bhikku was completely forbidden to receive gold or silver for fear that with gold or silver he might buy some thing beside the eight things he is permitted to have.


These rules are far more rigorous than are to be found in communism in Russia.


… To be continued in next issue


(Reproduced from Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Writing and Speeches Vol. 3, Page No. from 439 to 462 in the interest of our readers)

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