By Avial Anand*
From Yeola in 1935, when Dr. Ambedkar announced he would not die a Hindu, to Nagpur in 1956, when he converted to Buddhism, there is a considerable distance in time. But, there was a need in him to make a public announcement in 1935 about moving away from Hinduism.
This germ of the idea of leaving the Hindu bosom and taking refuge elsewhere, in another religious denomination, was matured long and hard by Ambedkar and many of his sympathizers and associates. Shortly after Yeola’s announcement in 1935, a Mahar conference was held in Mumbai in 1936.
It was in 1936 that Ambedkar was invited to Lahore for a Jat-Pat-Todak Mandal speech, only to see the invitation rescinded later. He later published his unspoken speech as a booklet under the title Annihilation of Caste, in which he reiterated his decision “not to die Hindu”, and also advocated a thorough restructuring of Hinduism from scratch.
As a result of the opposition and questions he faced regarding his intention to stray from Hinduism, he wrote a room titled “Far from the Hindus” in which he provided his perspective on four main objections. He said there:
“Socially, the Untouchables will absolutely and immensely gain because by conversion the Untouchables will be members of a community whose religion has universalized and equalized all the values of life. Such a blessing is unthinkable for them as long as they are in the fold Hindu.”
The religion to which to convert was then not yet fixed. There is a well-recorded account of his struggle to choose a place to land, so to speak, after leaving Hinduism. It took him nearly 20 years to develop the belief that it was in the Buddhist faith that he and those who trusted him would find a new home.
In Ambedkar’s mind, there was no doubt about leaving the Hindu fold completely and irrevocably. In fact, right after taking senior monk U Chandramani’s Buddhist vows in Nagpur on October 14, 1956, he administered the now well-known 22 vows to all onlookers who wished to convert to Buddhism.
But something of this nature happened from the start. Biographer Keer notes in his book on Ambedkar that V.D. Savarkar “said that the Buddhist Ambedkar was a Hindu Ambedkar”. A section of Hindus have always maintained that Buddhism is nothing more than an offshoot of Hinduism.
In recent times, religious scholar Arvind Sharma has expressed surprise at Ambedkar’s decisive break with Hinduism, which he says contradicts the history of the two faiths. In a room entitled Modernity in Light of Hindutva, he notes:
“[T]he two Indian communities that belong to the Indian religious tradition and are the least enthusiastic about inclusive religious identities are the Ambedkarite Buddhists and the Sikhs. Ambedkarite Buddhism deviates from traditional Buddhism by insisting that upon conversion to Buddhism, its followers not only accept the Buddhist confession of faith (by embracing the Buddha, his teaching and his order), but also renounce to Hinduism.
Sharma is of the opinion that the two religions existed side by side, more or less, without any significant mutual exclusivity. But as Lal Mani Joshi noted in his book “Discerning the Buddha”, “There is evidence of Brahmanical Hinduism’s intolerance and hostility towards Buddhism…”
A section of Hindus have always maintained that Buddhism is nothing more than an offshoot of Hinduism.
None of this prevents or discourages the efforts of a section of Hindus to constantly try to subsume Buddhism within the fold of Hinduism. In September 2021, several organizations in the United States, primarily with Hindu right-wing leanings like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHPA), Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS), and others announced October as Month of Hindu heritage.
“Dharma-based organizations, including those of the Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist and Jain traditions around the world, are pleased to announce the addition of another major festival, in effect an entire month of festivals, in October as Hindu Heritage Month.”
As usual, they had no problem including the Sikh, Buddhist and Jain traditions under the heading of “Dharma-based organizations”, and had labeled them all as Hindus, who were apparently working to organize a Hindu heritage month, nothing less.
But Ambedkar had made the conscious choice to leave the Hindu bosom and adopt the Buddha Dhamma. In the preface to his book, “Buddha and his Dhamma”, he writes: “I consider the Dhamma of the Buddha to be the best. No religion can be compared to it.”
In his speech in Nagpur on October 15, 1956 one day after the conversion, as reproduced by his partner Nanak Chand Rattu, he ended with a quote in Pali from Buddhist texts:
“Charath bhikkave charikam bahujana hitaya bahujana sukhaya lokanukampaya… Desetha bhikkave dhammam adi kalyanam majjhe kalyanam pariyosane kalyanam (Go, O bhikkus and wander for the gain of the many, for the welfare of the many, in compassion for the world… preach the Dhamma which is beneficial in the beginning, beneficial in the middle and beneficial in the end )…So, brothers and sisters, this is my religion.”
Ambedkar was well aware of the powers of majoritarianism and the hostility of a large majority of Hindus to the act of conversion. He had been constantly bombarded with questions about the benefits of conversion for the so-called Untouchables. He was also well aware of the historical animosity that many Brahmins bore towards Buddhists.
This was to protect new converts from general derision and doubt which he sought through his 22 vows to ensure that the conversion was a conscious conversion from (Hinduism) while at the same time being a conversion au (Buddhism). He never harbored any illusions about Buddhism belonging to a benign family of religions within Hinduism. He had definitely chosen the Buddhist Dhamma over the Hindu Dharma.
* Writer based in Delhi NCR