In an excellent article at Political Animal Magazine, Daniel Clarkson Fisher calls for a renewed investigation into the Buddhist liberation theology of the Indian reformer, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. In the article, Fisher points out the rise in progressive social movements in recent years, from Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street to the recent boosts to organizations like the ACLU and the Democratic Socialists of America.
Given this, and the rising attention on the religious left, Fisher asks, “Will those who have dismissed the dharma of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar finally give it a fair shake?”
The dharma of Ambedkar, Fisher notes, is found in the posthumously published, The Buddha and His Dhamma, which Fisher calls “one of the most intellectually rigorous, stirring, and incendiary works of Buddhist theology ever written.” Ambedkar’s 1956 conversion alongside 500,000 fellow Indians was marked by a turn away from sectarianism and toward a new “socially and morally concerned” school of Buddhism that he termed the Navayāna (Pali: “new vehicle”).
I will accept and follow the teachings of Buddha. I will keep my people away from the different opinions of Hinayana and Mahayana, two religious orders. Our Buddhism is a new Buddhism, Navayāna.— Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, Press interview on 13 October 1956 at Sham Hotel, Nagpur
The birth of a new movement in Buddhism, starting with 500,000 converts (380,000 according to the Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism) certainly should deserve attention. However, as Fisher notes, scholars and practitioners in the West have given relatively little thought to Ambedkar and his movement. As an example, John Strong, a leading academic working on Buddhism, gives just a single mention of Ambedkar in his 450-page tomb: Buddhisms: An Introduction. Fisher writes of the even more problematic treatments of Ambedkar by other excellent scholars, Rita Gross and Donald Lopez.
Other texts in my collection offer more extensive and balanced treatment, thankfully, though Ambedkar is rarely the subject of an entire section, let alone a chapter. He is instead lost in a mass of developments in Buddhism in the 20th century. And, as his movement is limited mostly to India and to lower-class (/caste) Indians, it hasn’t piqued the interests of Western converts in the ways that the teachings of Shunryu Suzuki or Thich Nhat Hanh have.
Fisher points out what has been called “an elitist streak in American convert Buddhism” as a partial cause of this, tilting us as practitioners and scholars more toward topics such as mindfulness, which is more easily packaged for a society that is “individualistic,” “ethically-neutral,” and “consumer-oriented.”
I count myself lucky, given this, to have been taught in my undergraduate studies by Dr. Alan Sponberg, an ordained member of the Triratna Buddhist Order (then the Western Buddhist Order). The TBO has maintained consistent ties with Ambedkar’s Buddhists in India and I was exposed to –and later taught– Ambedkar alongside the other great thinkers in “modernized Buddhism” (a term we didn’t have at the time and is owed to Amod Lele). Read 60 Years of the Indian Buddhist Revival, published here last fall, for a discussion of Ambedkar’s movement by a contemporary member of the TBO, David Viradhamma Creighton. You might also be interested in African American Buddhism – a manual for an age of enlightenment by Lama Choyin Rangdrol, which favorably cites Ambedkar as an influence.
Harvard scholar Christopher S. Queen, for example, situates Ambedkar within a very long lineage of thinkers who “reframed and reinvented central elements of Buddhist teaching…for [their] time,” including such luminaries as Nāgārjuna, Asaṅga, Zhì Yǐ, Candrakīrti, and Fǎzàng. In addition, as scholar-practitioner Reginald A. Ray has rightly noted, “Historically, it has often been from…institutionally peripheral sources that the truly fresh and vigorous creativity of Buddhism has continued to unfold in the world.” To be sure, it’s doubtful Buddhism would be a modern phenomenon at all without interpreters like Ambedkar.
Queen spoke about Ambedkar at the 2011 Buddhist Ethics conference at Columbia University – you can read my mention of that here (with link to audio of the full panel).
Certainly, Ambedkar’s life and legacy loom large in recent Buddhist history. Millions in India over the years have improved their lives through following his radical message and countless others beyond have been inspired by his work. Nevertheless, his place in the understandings of many Western Buddhists is lacking, due in part to his treatment by some scholars, and in part to Western Buddhists’ bourgeois orientation.
However, as Fisher notes at the start of his essay, major movements on the left have demanded the attention of Buddhist scholars and teachers. As they -we- grapple with our practice, our ethics, our communities, and more, it will help tremendously to see and see again the work of great leaders such as B.R. Ambedkar who drew from Buddhism in ways that directly challenged harmful societal norms and institutions.