Sixty-five years ago, today, October 14, 1965, Dr BR Ambedkar shook India when he converted to Buddhism.
I try to note the major events of his life. Partly because it deserves to be celebrated. But also to allow people who may not know him otherwise to know a little more about this remarkable figure of 20th century Buddhism. It may well provide an important part of the puzzle as to what Buddhism will look like in the 21st century.
Known to those who admired him as Babasheb, BR Ambedkar was first of all one of the singular figures of the Indian revolution. Then he served in the leadership of the nascent republic. And, finally, as a religious leader. In all of these turns, he was a revolutionary.
Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar was born on April 14, 1891.
Although untouchable (the term in general use became “Dalit”, largely led by Ambedkar himself), his father, like his grandfather before, served in the British Army, and because of it, he had access to an education.
Nonetheless, the indignities he suffered ranged from not being allowed to sit inside the classroom, to having to sit on a burlap sack he brought with him so as not to contaminate the ground, to have access to water at school only if a paid servant was there to pour water that the boy would otherwise not be allowed to touch again because his touch would contaminate it for everyone , marked his understanding of many things.
The boy was brilliant. He graduated from the University of Bombay, then won a scholarship to Columbia, where he obtained his first doctorate. From there he earned a law degree and a second doctorate at the London School of Economics before turning to what would become his life’s work. In 1924 he founded the Bahishkrit Hitkaraini Sabha, the Association for the Welfare of the Pariahs. Three years later, he led a mass march to the Chowder Tank in Colaba, outside Mumbai, demanding that the untouchables have the right to draw water.
As civil rights leaders, Dr Ambedkar and Mohandas Gandhi worked in a difficult alliance. While Ambedkar was committed to independence, he had little faith in the mainstream culture and continued to lobby for Dalit communities. When Gandhi and others introduced the term ‘harijans’, meaning ‘people of God’, to the untouchables, rather than their own preferred term ‘dalit’, Ambedkar objected to the term being imposed on them as a example of further marginalization. He joked that if his people were the children of God, then the upper castes would all be the children of monsters.
When India gained independence, Dr Ambedkar was appointed Indian Prime Minister of Law, essentially India’s first Attorney General. But, faced with endless frustrations at her attempts to advance civil rights on behalf of all marginalized people, as a climax, when her attempt to enshrine gender equality in laws regarding marriage and marriage legacy was thwarted, he resigned his post.
Instead, Dr Ambedkar turned his attention to a new project.
For decades, feeling that there was no place for him or the Dalit community in Hinduism, he was on a spiritual quest. He explored the Sikh faith in depth, but ultimately opted for Buddhism as the best way for himself and his people. He embarked on serious study and wrote several books describing what he believed to be Buddhism’s great contribution to both modernity and oppressed peoples. In 1956, as I said, sixty-five years ago today, Dr. Ambedkar formally converted to Buddhism in a public ceremony.
And immediately after his formal conversion, he led half a million Dalits present at this ceremony in their conversions. Yes, it was half a million people.
The movement was based on twenty-two vows, giving the emerging tradition its distinctive flavor.
I will have no faith in Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwara and I will not worship them.
I will have no faith in Rama and Krishna who are supposed to be the embodiment of God and I will not worship them.
I will have no faith in Gauri, Ganapati and other Hindu gods and goddesses and I will not worship them.
I don’t believe in the incarnation of God.
I do not and will not believe that Lord Buddha was the incarnation of Vishnu. I think this is sheer madness and false propaganda.
I will not perform Shraddha and I will not give pind-dan.
I will not act in a way that violates the principles and teachings of the Buddha.
I will not allow any ceremony to be performed by Brahmins.
I will believe in the equality of man.
I will strive to establish equality.
I will follow the noble eightfold path of the Buddha.
I will follow the ten paramitas prescribed by the Buddha.
I will have compassion and kindness for all living beings and I will protect them.
I won’t steal.
I will not tell lies.
I will not commit carnal sins.
I will not take intoxicants like alcohol, drugs, etc.
(The four previous proscriptive vows [#14-17] are five precepts.)
I will strive to follow the Noble Eightfold Path and practice compassion and loving-kindness in everyday life.
I renounce Hinduism, which is harmful to mankind and hinders the advancement and development of mankind because it is based on inequality, and I adopt Buddhism as a religion.
I firmly believe that the Buddha’s Dhamma is the only true religion.
I believe that I am being reborn.
I solemnly declare and affirm that I will henceforth lead my life according to the principles and teachings of the Buddha and his Dhamma.
While his several books laid out his hope for Dalit Buddhism, or, as many call him, Ambedkar Buddhism, he later passed away the same year of his formal conversion, and the implementation therefore fell on others. .
The Wikipedia article on Dalit Buddhism describes its distinguishing features.
“Most Indian Dalit Buddhists espouse an eclectic version of Buddhism, primarily based on Theravada, but with additional influences from Mahayana and Vajrayana. On many subjects, they give Buddhism a special interpretation. Of particular note is the emphasis on Shakyamuni Buddha as a political and social reformer, rather than simply as a spiritual leader. They note that the Buddha asked his monastic followers to ignore caste distinctions and that he criticized the social inequality that existed in his day. According to Ambedkar, a person’s unhappy conditions are not only the result of karma or ignorance and greed, but also the result of “social exploitation and material poverty – the cruelty of others.”
The same article quotes scholar Gail Omvedt who summed up Dr Ambedkar’s unique perspective of Dalit Buddhism. “Ambedkar Buddhism apparently differs from that of those who have accepted by faith, who ‘go and seek refuge’ and accept the canon. This is clear from its basis: it does not fully accept the scriptures of Theravada, Mahayana or Vajrayana. “
Dr Omvedt then asks the question: “Is a fourth yana, a Navayana, a kind of modernist version of the Enlightenment of the Dhamma really possible within the framework of Buddhism?” Considering the existence of the movement, along with other variations of modernist or rational Buddhism in the 20th and 21st centuries, which other Buddhists may not like, the answer obviously becomes yes.
Today the movement exists across India, although concentrated in Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh, and has the majority of Indian Buddhists, probably around five million people.
So today, sixty-five years after Dr Ambhedkar’s conversion, it seems worthy to take a moment to pause and consider himself, his movement, and perhaps how some variations of these Reform Buddhisms might turn out. a healing balm for a troubled world.
Lots of Babasheb bows!
Lots of bows!