On October 14, 1956, BR Ambedkar converted to Buddhism with at least half a million followers in Nagpur. The conversion had come two decades after he had declared that although he was born a Hindu, he would not die as such. The announcement of the conversion in 1935 came after a series of agitations for the human rights of the “untouchables”. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the futile Satyagraha from 1930 to 1935 to demand temple entry for the “untouchables” at Kalaram Temple in Nashik.
During the conversion ceremony 66 years ago, Ambedkar took 22 oaths to his followers. These dealt with the rejection of belief in Hindu gods and the pursuit of the way of Buddha. The participation of AAP Minister Rajendra Pal Gautam in one of these conversion ceremonies where the 22 oaths were taken angered the BJP leaders.
During all these years there has been no objection to the oaths and those who follow them. On the other hand, conversion to Buddhism continued intermittently on a smaller scale in several states, involving SCs, STs, and a section of ancient Shudras (modern OBCs). Especially after the OBCs were reserved in 1990 according to the Mandal Commission, more and more OBCs started to discover Ambedkar, some of them being attracted to Buddhism.
In his Revolution and counter-revolution in ancient India, Ambedkar wrote that ancient Indian history was nothing but “the story of a mortal conflict between Buddhism and Brahmanism”. According to him, unholy Buddhism was a revolution in ancient India, ushering in an era of equality, compassion, non-violence and rationality. He called the assassination of Emperor Ashoka’s descendant Brihadhrath by Pushyamitra Sunga a “counter-revolution” to revive Brahmanism. This was long before religions like Islam and Christianity came to the subcontinent.
Hostility to Buddhism escalated with the arrival of invaders, leading to its decline. However, it survived in other countries where Ashoka had spread it. In his home country, devastated Buddhist structures were discovered and excavated during British rule. It included the discovery of the Ajanta Caves in 1824 and the Ashoka Pillar (which is the national emblem) in 1904.
For independent India, the nation builders including Ambedkar devised an egalitarian constitution that ended caste and gender discrimination. He went further and converted to Buddhism, sparking its revival. Since then, Buddhism has become a refuge for SCs, STs and some OBCs – recipients of the reservation in search of a new identity – as the rapid socio-economic transformation of Ambedkarite Buddhists within a few generations has become their aspiration. .
Those who opposed the event which Gautam was attending claimed that the religious feelings of Hindus were hurt and that he should resign. Gautam eventually did, but there’s more to the episode than politics: the AAP’s all-India plans against the BJP.
Since the creation of the OBC quota, various “secular” parties have attempted to create a huge bank of Bahujan votes (SC, ST and OBC), which together is greater than the combined strength of upper caste voters. The OBCs, by the way, happen to be the largest part of the vote bank (52% according to the 1931 census).
Claims of religious feelings hurt by the 22 oaths show the majority pride in subjugating historically aggrieved communities. The peaceful congregation was made up of people leaving the Hindu fold to embrace Buddhism; they recited the 22 oaths devised by Ambedkar in 1956 for converts; and religious freedom is a constitutional right. If people who desert Hinduism hurt the feelings of Hindus, what about the feelings of communities who have been exploited, subjugated and forced to live a servile life simply because by birth they did not belong to an upper caste?
Ironically, Mohan Bhagwat – sarsanghchalak of the RSS, which is the parent body of the BJP – said concepts like varna and caste are outdated and should be forgotten. He advocated remorse for the mistreatment of brothers as inferior simply because of their birth in a particular community.
If Bhagwat and the Sangh Parivar are genuinely interested in ending the caste system, the remedy has been suggested by Ambedkar in his caste annihilation. Ambedkar went beyond suggesting inter-caste marriages and dinners together to bridge the caste gap. Emphasizing that the origin of caste is found in the sacred texts of Hinduism, Ambedkar wanted the divine sanction to be broken. The crucial question is whether those who believe that such texts are apaurusheya – not (written) by humans – will be prepared to do so.
Bhagwat is right that things like varna and caste systems are outdated, but is he ready to change old beliefs (about caste, varna and gender) by modifying or denying the controversial sacred dictates that determine the attitude of orthodox Hindus?
It’s difficult but not impossible. Religious leaders can change beliefs. In 1992, then-Pope John Paul II issued an apology for the Church’s persecution of Galileo and said that he had been wrongfully convicted in 1633. Galileo was forced to renounce his support for heliocentrism, which was contrary to the religious beliefs of his time. .
Ambedkar has been used as political currency by parties of all persuasions, who carefully curate its views according to convenience. Congress shunned him for decades after independence for his anti-Congress stance and his arguments with Mahatma Gandhi, but now hails him as a liberal thinker. Communists (who seek to combine “Lal Salam” with “Jai Bhim”) forget that he rejected communism on the grounds that it favored violence and dictatorship. The RSS and the BJP revere him, totally ignoring his bitter criticism of Hinduism and the remedies he suggested to right wrongs.
The author is a senior journalist based in Mumbai