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Embracing Buddhism in Ambedkar’s Buddha and his Dhamma

"Be Thy Own Light": Embracing Buddhism in Ambedkar's Buddha and his Dhamma.

       "I solemnly assure you that I will not die a Hindu", declared Ambedkar at Yeola a town near Nasik on 13th October 1935.The event was the Bombay Presidency Depressed Classes Conference. The statement was not only pessimistic but also emancipatory. Ambedkar's anti-caste struggle can be divided into three phases. Despite his attempts Ambedkar was unsuccessful in securing temple-entry rights for the untouchables. It was the final effort by the Untouchables to seek some assimilation within the Hindu fold. The Yeola conference affirmed Ambedkar's decision to finally renounce the religion of his forefathers. However, his actual conversion to Buddhism took place on 14th November 1956. Ambedkar's attack was not only at a religion which denied him equality and self-respect but also directed at Gandhi who was fervently trying to absorb the untouchables within the discriminatory Varnashrama . The aim of this paper is to explore Ambedkar's decision to convert to Buddhism as an alternative religion for the untouchables. In his book Buddha and his Dhamma, Ambedkar established Buddhism as a moral, egalitarian religion respected by the world.

       Eleanor Zelliot in her essay 'Ambedkar's Conversion', discusses the various drawbacks of both Gandhi and Ambedkar in addressing the issues of untouchables: "Gandhi and Ambedkar both saw the situation with partial vision". Gandhi saw them through the "eyes of Caste Hindus and Ambedkar looked from within the Caste. Ambedkar's rejection of Hinduism may be read as an attempt to force Hindus to "modernize" their theology, allowing a religious development parallel to the partial modernization of occupational and political structure (Zelliot, 7).

In the year 1932 in a statement given to the Indian Franchise Committee, Ambedkar recognized untouchability as a permanent feature of Hinduism. Ambedkar argued that an ordinary Hindu looked upon untouchability as a part of his religion. This inhuman way of behaviour was a way of observing his religion rather than any motive of deliberate cruelty. "Abandonment of untouchability to him involved a total abandonment of his religion and Hinduism"(Zelliot, 4).

       Valerian Rodrigues in the essay entitled "Making a Tradition Critical: Ambedkar's Reading of Buddhism' observes that  Ambedkar had access to the:

                   "rich 'sant' and Hindu sectarian traditions of the Maharashtra                                saints and his own family's allegiance to the kabirpanth. Their                          subaltern basis, egalitarianism and non-caste, open-ended                          approach and consonance to popular beliefs could have been a             great strength for redefining and reconstituting Hinduism..."                                  (304).

Although Ambedkar was sympathetic to these subaltern traditions and  acknowledged their limited capacity to redefine the Great Tradition of Hinduism he did not pursue this approach. Thus, Ambedkar had recognized the shortcomings of Hinduism to eradicate untouchability at a permanent level.

       Ambedkar's vow to convert had a catalytic effect on the educated and uneducated Untouchables. There was no mistaking of their resolve to leave Hinduism which had come to be regarded as an instrument of suffering and degradation (Zelliot, 13). Various religious paths were considered and the chief competition for Buddhism in the mind of Ambedkar was Sikhism. Zelliot also highlights the delay that was caused between Ambedkar's Yeola declaration and the actual conversion. She points out Ambedkar's lack of "organisational work" among the Mahars and other castes to prepare for a conversion. Ambedkar was more interested in defining issues, awakening the masses by example and oratory and working on the highest level of politics. From 1937 to 1951 Ambedkar was busy working in the government which further delayed his conversion.  

       Ambedkar drew the source material for Buddha and his Dhamma from Buddhist canonical and non-canonical literature in Pali, Sanskrit and Chinese and from the texts belonging to the Theravada, Sarvastivada and Mahayana schools of Buddhism (Rodrigues, 310). In an unpublished and incomplete Preface to Buddha and his Dhamma, written in April 1956 Ambedkar justified his inclination towards Buddhism. He wrote:

"the direct answer to this question is that I regard the Buddha's Dhamma to be the best. No religion can be compared to it. If a modern man who knows science must have a religion, the only religion he can have is the Religion of the Buddha. This conviction has grown in me after thiry-five years of close study of all religions" (Rathore and Verma, xxv).

       In his compiling of Buddha and his Dhamma one must acknowledge the intellectual tradition to which he was exposed to. Ambedkar believed in the emancipatory potential of modernity. In Buddha and his Dhamma, Ambedkar's aim was to reconstruct Buddhism which responded to the demands of modernity and culture. While his work was addressed to a "highly differentiated constituency" he also kept himself abreast of the emancipatory requirements of his specific constituency, the untouchables" (Rodrigues, 306).

       According to Christopher S. Queen, Ambedkar's Buddhism can be understood as "socially engaged Buddhism" : "The application of dhamma to the resolution of social problems emerged in the context of a global conversation on human rights, distributive justice, and social progress" (Rathore and Verma, xiv).Moreover, Ambedkar was fulfilling a moral duty towards the contemporary society. In its present form Buddhism was highly distorted and it was a responsibility of Ambedkar to free it from any misconceptions. Ambedkar highlighted the problems of Buddhism and his commitment to enlighten the readers. Ambedkar wrote in the Introduction to the book:

" The first problem relates to the main event in the life of the Buddha namely, Parivraja...The traditional answer is that he took Parivraja because he saw a dead person, a sick person and an old person. The second problem is created by the Four Aryan Truths...if life is sorrow, death is sorrow and rebirth is sorrow, then there is an end of everything".

 Ambedkar rejected this as it denies hope to man and makes Buddhism a gospel of pessimism. Thirdly, Ambedkar redefined the doctrines of soul, karma and rebirth. He sought to differentiate Buddhist understanding of soul from the brahamanical doctrine. Fourthly, Ambedkar discussed the position of the Bhikkhu who was a perfect man but also a social servant and a friend, guide and philosopher of the people.

       Ambedkar's aim was not to retrieve any original message of Buddha but to make it relevant and meaningful to the contemporary world. The other religions could not be subjected to such interpretations as they claimed their allegiance to a set of infallible truths directly based upon God's word (Rodrigues, 307). The central argument of Ambedkar's analysis counterpoised Buddhism to mainstream Hinduism. As Rodrigues observes, "Gautama is shown denouncing the varna organisation of society and the ideology behind it at Kapilavastu when against the wishes of its senapath he refused to perform his varna duties".

       Ambedkar did not subscribe to the view that Buddha's teachings were standardised and canonical. The foundations of Buddha's teachings were based on Panch Sila, the Ashtanga Marga and the Paramitas (283). Buddhism was scientific, logical and rational. According to Aakash Singh Rathore and Ajay Verma, Ambedkar in his neo-Buddhism or 'navayana' is "preoccupied with providing an account of Buddhism that can serve his broader political ambition: the liberation and upliftment of the Dalits."

       In Section 5 of Book 1 Buddha rejected the fundamental doctrines of the Bramhanas and the Vedas. Hinduism was based on the "infallibility of the Vedas, the importance of religious rites and ceremonies for salvation of the soul, the pattern of ideal society or Chaturvarna which was binding and unquestionable". Thus, Hinduism as "The rule of graded inequality governed by the question of rights and privileges" was rejected by Buddha (88). Everything in Buddhism was open to "re-examination and reconsideration whenever ground for re-examination and reconsideration arise" (89).

       Buddha agreed that "inequality exists in every society. But it was different with Brahmanism. The inequality preached by Brahmanis was its official doctrine. Brahmanism did not believe in equality. In fact, it was opposed to equality (90). Ambedkar viewed the caste struggle as a class struggle: "The conflict between classes is constant and perpetual. It is this which is the root of all sorrow and suffering in the world" (57-58).

       Unlike Hinduism which laid primary importance on the sanctity of the religious texts Buddhism advocated a religion of humanism: "If man is free, then every event must be the result of man's action or of an act of Nature. There cannot be any event which is supernatural in its origin" (250). In Buddhism the purpose of religion was to inculcate "righteousness". Since only "righteousness can remove this inequality and the resultant misery" (284).

       Buddhism was not a religion of divine revelation but constant struggle and strife. Ambedkar traces the various hardships suffered by Gautama before he attains Dhamma and becomes Buddha. As Buddha, "He realised that there were two problems. The first problem was that there was suffering in the world and the second problem was how to remove this suffering and make mankind happy" (75).

       Ambedkar's Buddha was a common man unlike Christ and Mohammad Prophet who were sons of God. Instead Buddha was "no more than the natural son of Suddhodana and Mahamaya" ( 215) and that  "he was one of the many human beings and his message to the people was the message of man to man" (222). Ambedkar argued that Buddha made no claim on Buddhism as a religion. There were no attempts on the part of Buddha's followers to record his life and Buddha's own refusal to appoint a successor (216).

       The fact that Buddhism was a scientific, rational and secular religion is discussed in Book 3. Ambedkar wrote of Buddha: "His religion is a discovery in the sense that it is the result of inquiry and investigation into the conditions of human life on earth" (217). Buddhism displaced the position of God and replaced it with morality. As a result , "the moral order rests on man and on nobody else"( 243).

        Ambedkar's purpose of writing Buddha and his Dhamma was to bring together the life and teachings of Buddha in a single consistent work. Central to Buddha's teachings was his concept of "Dhamma which had three classifications: dhamma, adhamma and saddhamma. To understand his dhamma one must understand all three"(226). Although dhamma was intended as an explication of Buddha's teachings, it was Ambedkar's voice that pervaded the text. Ambedkar selected those events in Gautama's life that most effectively communicated his own political message. According to Rathore and Verma,

" Ambedkar thus speaks through Gautama and politicizes the Buddha's philosophy as he theologizes his own political views. In a very real sense, the text represents Ambedkar's dhamma as much as it does the Buddha's" (x).

       Ambedkar's text succeeded in distancing Buddhism from Hinduism. Earlier Gandhi had argued that Buddhism was another essential component of Hinduism. Ambedkar's discourse and conversion was an attempt to break from any such interpretations. He aimed to reconstitute Buddhism as an autonomous or independent tradition opposed to Hinduism. Thus, by giving the untouchables their own religion Ambedkar sought to instil a sense of pride and self-respect in a section of people who were marginalized due to religious sanctions. I would like to conclude my paper with a quote which Ambedkar used in his address to Mahar gathering. It was Buddha's message to his Bhikku Sangh just before his Mahaparinirvan:

"... be self-illuminating like the sun. Don't be dependent for the light like the earth. Believe in yourself, don't be dependent on others. Be truthful. Always take refuge in the truth and do not surrender to anybody" (Conversion, 40).

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