Babasaheb Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar is regarded as one of the most outstanding personalities of the Twentieth Century India. He was the father of the Indian Constitution, a great freedom fighter, philosopher, economist, writer, social reformer and a messiah of untouchables. He was posthumously given Bharat Ratna on his birthday on April 14, 1990.
Disgusted with the caste system in the Hindu society and the deep-rooted hatred of upper caste Hindus towards lower caste Hindus who are termed as untouchables, he pleaded with political leaders, freedom fighters, social reformers, men of letters, administrators to end the system. He launched many agitations against social evils and casteist atrocities.
Ambedkar considered Mahatma Jyotirao Phule as his philosophical mentor. He pleaded to ban Hindu scriptures like Manusmruti which helped fanning hatred towards lower castes. He was aghast to observe that in the verses of the Ramayana of Santh Tulasi Das it has been mentioned “Dhol, ganwar, shudra, pashu, naari - Ye sab tadan ke adhikari.” Jawaharlal Nehru once said, “Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar was a symbol of revolt against all oppressive features of the Hindu society.” Ambedkar tried his best to change the attitude of the upper caste Hindus towards the untouchables but did not succeed. Therefore, from 1924 he sought to do what best can be done for the untouchables to lead a life with dignity.
Ambedkar desired to reform the Hindu society by eliminating superstition, but the upper caste Hindus despised his efforts. He realised that by remaining within the fold of Hinduism he could not bring any reforms. So, he thought the best course open: to change his religion. He said three things, kindness, equality and independence, were required for development of any individual but these things were unknown to upper caste Hindus. At the depressed classes Conference at Yeola in Nasik district in 1935, he declared, “Though I have been born a Hindu, I will not die a Hindu.” His declaration had far-reaching effects. Public meetings were held throughout the country by various organisations and individuals. Kl Gauba, a Muslim leader, telegraphed Ambedkar saying Muslims of India were ready to honour him and the untouchables and promising full political, socio-economic and religious rights. The Nizam of Hyderabad, the richest man in the world, offered Ambedkar fifty million rupees if he would undertake to convert the whole untouchable community to Islam. The Christians who had converted hundreds of thousands of untouchables to their own faith since the beginning of nineteenth century were of opinion that change of heart of millions of untouchables can result in their conversion to Christianity. On behalf of Sikhs, Sardar DS Doabia, vice-president of the Golden Temple Managing Committee, telegraphed Ambedkar saying the Sikhism met the requirements of the depressed classes with regard to conversion.
Representatives of the Buddhists of Burma, Thailand, Tibet and China welcomed Ambedkar’s decision and invited him to join the Buddhist community. The Mahabodhi Society, Sarnath, secretary sent a telegram saying, “You with your community are most cordially welcome to embrace Buddhism which is professed by the greater part of Asia.”
Prominent among the opponents of conversion, even to Sikhism, were Mahatma Gandhi and other caste Hindu leaders of the Congress party. In a statement, the Mahatma said, “The speech attributed to Dr Ambedkar seems unbelievable. If however he has made such a speech and the conference has adopted a resolution of a complete severance of connection with Hinduism and acceptance of any faith that should guarantee equality, I regard both as unfortunate events. …. I would urge Dr Ambedkar to assuage his wrath and to reconsider the position and examine his ancestral religion on its own merits.”
At a conference of the Mahar community at Dadar in 1936, Ambedkar explained the reason for his conversion saying that remaining in the fold of Hinduism Dalits (Mahar) could not attain a status higher than that of a slave.
Ambedkar was, in fact, attracted towards Buddhism from his younger days after reading life of Buddha in Marathi presented to him by Krishnaji Arjun Keluskar. A casteless society and all men are equal attracted him most. Another incident: He along with some friends visited a place in the neighbourhood of Mahad to see the excavations of some ruins believed to date from the time of the Buddha. Deeply moved by the sight of the sculptures, he described to the members of his entourage how the Buddha’s disciples had lived lives of poverty and chastity and selflessly devoted themselves to the service of the community.
Ambedkar authored a book The Buddha and His Dhamma. In May 1950, he spoke at Buddha Vihar, New Delhi and the Press took that speech as a call to India’s 70,000,000 ‘Harijans’ to embrace Buddhism. He went to Colombo with his wife to attend a meeting of World Fellowship of Buddhist at the temple of the Tooth at Kandy. He addressed a meeting of Young Man’s Buddhist Association of Colombo on “The Rise and Fall of Buddhism in India”. He visited Burma and Japan where he attended the meetings of intellectuals, students and talked to them about the teachings of the Buddha.
In December 1955, he installed a Buddha image in a temple built by members of the Scheduled Caste community at Dehu Road near Pune. There, for the first time, he declared he would embrace Buddhism. The question of how one can become a Buddhist was also, apparently, the subject of correspondence between Ambedkar and Devapriya Valisinha, general secretary of the Mahabodhi Society. In 1956, a talk by Ambedkar on “Why I like Buddhism” was broadcast by the BBC, london. On September 23, 1956, he announced that his conversion to Buddhism would take place on October 14 in Nagpur. Mahasthabira U Chandramani of Kusinara was invited to initiate him into the religion. Ambedkar wrote to Devapriya Valisinha expressing his desire that the Mahabodhi Society should participate in the function.
On October 13, 1956 he told a Press conference that his Buddhism would be a sort of neo-Buddhism or Navayana, not Hinayana or Mahayana. Next day, Ambedkar and his wife were initiated to Buddhism by Chandramani and four other monks. After him, his three lakh followers also embraced Buddhism. Within a month, two lakh more Dalits were converted to Buddhism. His conversion brought a renaissance of Buddhism in India auguring a social revolution of major significance. Ambedkar was born on April 14, 1891 and passed away on December 6, 1956.
(Dr Mohanty is a former Vice-Chancellor, Utkal University of Culture Mobile-9238300265)