Lucknow- Dr. B.R. Ambedkar's conversion to Buddhism on 14th October 1956 marked a pivotal moment in Indian history, signalling a significant shift in the social and religious landscape. This transformation was the culmination of his lifelong struggle against the injustices and inequalities faced by Dalits within the Hindu caste system. His decision to embrace Buddhism not only represented his personal liberation but also had far-reaching consequences for the Dalit community and the broader Indian society.
This article delves into the factors that led to Ambedkar's disenchantment with Hinduism and his subsequent conversion to Buddhism. It also explores the impact of his conversion on different regions of India, from the significant influence of Buddhism in Maharashtra to its recent resurgence in Gujarat. Furthermore, it examines why, despite Ambedkar's considerable efforts, the growth of Buddhism in Uttar Pradesh has been comparatively slower.
Dr. B.R Ambedkar spoke these words at the Yeola Conference in the Nasik district of Maharashtra on October 13, 1935. However, he was undecided on the religion he would choose to convert to. It took almost exactly 21 years for him to convert to Buddhism on October 14, 1956, in Nagpur, with lakhs of followers. The intervening years were spent in research and the diagnosis of each religion, including Islam, Christianity, and Sikhism.
After thoroughly examining these religions, Ambedkar's inclination towards Buddhism was evident by 1950. In his article "Buddha and the Future of his Religion," published in 1950 in the Mahabodhi Society Journal, Ambedkar found that Buddhism met the following parameters required in a religion:
The society must have either the sanction of law or the sanction of morality to hold it together. Without either, the society is sure to go to pieces.
Religion, if it is to survive, must be in consonance with reason, which is another name for science.
It is not enough for religion to consist of a moral code, but its moral code must recognize the fundamental tenets of liberty, equality, and fraternity.
Religion must not sanctify or make a virtue out of poverty.
Ambedkar took steps to extricate Buddhism from the grasp of Hinduism. On October 14, 1956, when Ambedkar finally embraced Buddhism, he made sure there was no scope for Brahmanization of the religion. Apart from the five basic Panchsheel principles and the three vows, he administered 22 vows to his followers. These vows not only forbade its followers from worshipping Brahma, Vishnu, and Mahesh but also exhorted them to dismiss the propagation of Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu as a lie. They also renounced a belief that had been prevalent in other sects of Buddhism – rebirth. It is believed that through the rejection of the concept of rebirth, Ambedkar intended to attack the basis of caste. Master Mangoo Ram, the founder of the Ad-Dharm movement in Punjab during the 1920s, also favored Dr. Ambedkar's movement for religious conversion.
The impact of conversion had a lasting impact in Maharashtra. Dalits, especially Mahars, converted in droves to Buddhism. The influence of Buddhism is quite perceptible in the social and cultural milieu of Maharashtra. Buddhists in Maharashtra constitute around 6% of the total population, which is 77% of the Buddhist population in India.
Lately, Buddhist ideology has also seen an uptick in the neighboring state of Gujarat. This year, on April 14th, on the occasion of Ambedkar Jayanti, around 50,000 people converted to Buddhism in Gandhinagar, Gujarat. It was one of the biggest conversion ceremonies in the state of Gujarat. This mega rally may have provided an impetus for conversion to Buddhism. On May 21, 2023, around 500 families from Vishad Hadmatiya village converted to Buddhism in a ceremony, making Vishad Hadmatiya village the first village where no Dalit is a Hindu. Mansukh Bhai, who adopted Buddhism in 2013 and initiated the conversion in the village, spoke to 'The Mooknayak': "I have seen a lot of casteism since my childhood, although it has subsided a bit now. The upper castes of the village don't even allow us to enter the temple or attend social functions."
A 75-year-old Narayan Vaghela told 'The Mooknayak' that barbers don't cut our hair, as that would discourage other people from getting haircuts in their shops. The oppression of Dalits in the state often makes news. In 2016, five Dalit youths were beaten for skinning live cows, a claim which was later found to be false. This event triggered massive protests and was seen as a watershed moment in the history of Dalit awakening in Gujarat. These conversions are also believed to be an offshoot of that incident. Clearly, social problems in the state of Gujarat are pushing people towards Buddhism.
However, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, where the social and political movement has been quite successful – with the Bahujan Samaj Party, an Ambedkarite party led by a Dalit, forming the government four times in the state – Buddhism has not seen significant growth. The success of the national party at the state level is testimony to the spread of Ambedkarite ideology in the state. During its reign, the Bahujan Samaj Party did tremendous work in spreading Ambedkarite ideology and building grand monuments in the name of Bahujan leaders like Ambedkar, Phule, and Shahuji Maharaj. The party also made sure that Buddhist sites were developed.
Uttar Pradesh has a lot of Buddhist sites to offer, and it is here that Buddha spent a substantial part of his life. At Sarnath, Buddha delivered his first sermon after attaining enlightenment, and it was in Kushinagar that he attained his Parinirvana (died). The Ramabhar Stupa, also known as the cremation site of Lord Buddha, was developed by the government during its reign between 2007-12. The place also has an international airport. Despite the presence of these Buddhist landmarks and a successful Ambedkarite movement in the form of the Bahujan Samaj Party, Buddhism in Uttar Pradesh has failed to see significant growth. According to the 2011 census, just 0.7% of the population was Buddhist, substantially less than in Maharashtra, where, as mentioned before, 6% of the population is Buddhist.
'The Mooknayak' spoke to several people working in the direction of propagating the Buddhist movement in Uttar Pradesh.
Hemant Kumar Baudh, a young emerging Buddhist artist who propagates Buddhist ideology through his songs, explains the slow growth of Buddhism in Uttar Pradesh. He notes that Kanshiram Ji initiated the movement through the Ambedkarite ideology, but Buddhism was not significantly involved. As a result, people in villages lack knowledge about Buddha and are primarily acquainted with figures like Babasaheb, Ravidas, and Kabirdas.
Baudh mentions that in recent years, some Buddha Katha Vachaks have emerged, actively promoting the religion in villages. He also highlights initiatives like the Dhamma Learning Centre in Varanasi, started by Bhante Chandima, a highly revered monk, which he believes is making a positive impact in eastern Uttar Pradesh.
Baudh acknowledges that the youth are increasingly influenced by reels and videos on social media, and, at present, some of them are gravitating towards Hinduism. Buddhism, he suggests, has yet to adapt effectively to these new mediums. Baudh's team organizes musical programs on Dhamma throughout Uttar Pradesh and utilizes social media to a significant extent. However, due to resource constraints, they have been unable to achieve the required scale.
Another factor hindering the propagation and growth of Buddhism is the use of Pali, an esoteric language, in Buddhist literature. To address this, Baudh mentions that he has enrolled in a Master's degree course at Central Sanskrit University, Lucknow, to contribute to the spread of Buddhist language and culture."
R.G. Kureel, a retired bureaucrat from the Indian Postal Service, is associated with Saman Sangh, an organization engaged in the cultural propagation of Buddhism. He expresses to 'The Mooknayak': 'During the rule of the Bahujan Samaj Party, Mayawati renamed some districts and universities in the name of Bahujan and Buddhist figures. It is also said that all her work commences with Buddha Vandana. However, the progress of Buddhism in Uttar Pradesh has not advanced significantly.' Kureel mentions that Saman Sangh conducts online meetings with participants from all districts of Uttar Pradesh. He asserts that the work carried out by the Sangh in propagating Buddhism will become evident in the upcoming census."
Arvind Sontakke, a retired bureaucrat hailing from Maharashtra with experience in Gujarat and extensive travel in Uttar Pradesh, was posed a crucial question by The Mooknayak. He was asked why, in contrast to Maharashtra and Gujarat, the number of Buddhists in Uttar Pradesh does not increase in proportion to the SC/Dalit population. Sontakke identified several key factors contributing to this anomaly.
First, he noted that Buddhists in the state do not actively promote Buddhism. Second, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar's directive, which encouraged every Buddhist to initiate others into Buddhism, was not widely followed or publicized. The 22 Pratigya campaign also suffered from limited promotion and understanding.
Additionally, the "Ghar Ghar Buddha Jayanti – Ghar Ghar Buddha Kranti" initiative was not widely embraced, failing to promote Buddha Jayanti celebrations in every household. Sontakke highlighted the absence of a mission or campaign against superstition as a crucial issue, calling for an activation of efforts in this direction. Lastly, he expressed disappointment that the employee and officer class did not step forward to propagate Buddha-Dhamma as expected.