B. R. Ambedkar and His Wonderful Vision for a New Buddhism

Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar was born on this day in 1891. He is better known as B. R. Ambedkar, sometimes Dr Ambedkar, and to the many whom he served throughout his life, as Babasheb. Dr Ambedkar is one of the singular figures of the Indian revolution. And, significantly, in the years that followed, as a religious reformer.

I wrote an appreciation of Babasheb last year. He is someone who should be known better than he is, and recalled by those of us who do know him. I slightly expand that reflection here, correcting a couple of small things, adding some more details, and introducing a couple of pointers.

While an untouchable (the term in general use has shifted to “dalit,” largely led by Ambedkar himself) his father, like his grandfather before, served in the British Army, and because of that he had access to an education. Nonetheless, the indignities he suffered ranging from not being allowed to sit inside the classroom, to having to sit on a gunny sack he brought with him to and from school so as not to contaminate the ground, to only having access to water at school if a paid servant was there to pour the water that the boy would otherwise not be allowed to touch again because his touch would contaminate it for everyone else, marked his understanding of many things.

The boy was brilliant. He graduated from Bombay University, and then won a scholarship to Columbia, where he earned his first doctorate. From there he went on to earn a law degree and a second doctorate at the London School of Economics before turning his attention to what would become his life work. In 1924 he established the Bahishkrit Hitkaraini Sabha, the Outcastes Welfare Association. Three years later he led a mass march at the Chowder Tank in Colaba, outside Bombay, demanding that untouchables have the right to draw water.

As civil rights leaders Dr Ambedkar and Mohandas Gandhi worked in an uneasy alliance. While Ambedkar was committed to independence, he had little trust of the dominant culture, and continued to press hard on behalf of the Dalit communities. When Gandhi and others introduced the term “harijans,” meaning “people of God,” for the untouchables, rather than their own preferred term “dalit,” Ambedkar opposed having the term foisted upon them as one more example of being marginalized. He did quip that if his people were the children of God, then the upper casts would all be the children of monsters.

When India achieved independence, Dr Ambedkar was appointed India’s first law minister, basically India’s first attorney general. But, facing endless frustrations at his attempts to advance civil rights on behalf of all marginalized people, as a last straw, when his attempt to enshrine gender equality in laws concerning marriage and inheritance were frustrated, he resigned his office.

Instead Dr Ambedkar turned his attention to a new project. For decades, feeling there was no place for him or the Dalit community within Hinduism, he had been on a spiritual quest. He explored the Sikh faith in depth, but eventually settled on Buddhism as the best way for himself and his people. He embarked on serious study and out of that wrote several books outlining what he thought was the great contribution of Buddhism both to modernity, and for oppressed peoples. In 1956 Dr Ambedkar formally converted to Buddhism at a public ceremony, and immediately after his formal conversion, he led half a million Dalits present at that ceremony in their conversions.

The movement was based in twenty-two vows, giving the emergent tradition its distinctive flavor. It also, I feel, reveals the historic frame of the moment his movement began, and, probably implies why it succeeded where it did, and at the same time why it has not spread as a movement beyond India’s borders.

I shall have no faith in Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwara nor shall I worship them.
I shall have no faith in Rama and Krishna who are believed to be incarnation of God nor shall I worship them.
I shall have no faith in Gauri, Ganapati and other gods and goddesses of Hindus nor shall I worship them.
I do not believe in the incarnation of God.
I do not and shall not believe that Lord Buddha was the incarnation of Vishnu. I believe this to be sheer madness and false propaganda.
I shall not perform Shraddha nor shall I give pind-dan.
I shall not act in a manner violating the principles and teachings of the Buddha.
I shall not allow any ceremonies to be performed by Brahmins.
I shall believe in the equality of man.
I shall endeavor to establish equality.
I shall follow the noble eightfold path of the Buddha.
I shall follow the ten paramitas prescribed by the Buddha.
I shall have compassion and loving-kindness for all living beings and protect them.
I shall not steal.
I shall not tell lies.
I shall not commit carnal sins.
I shall not take intoxicants like liquor, drugs etc.
(The previous four proscriptive vows [#14-17] are from the Five Precepts.)
I shall endeavor to follow the noble eightfold path and practice compassion and loving-kindness in every day life.
I renounce Hinduism, which is harmful for humanity and impedes the advancement and development of humanity because it is based on inequality, and adopt Buddhism as my religion.
I firmly believe the Dhamma of the Buddha is the only true religion.
I believe that I am having a re-birth.
I solemnly declare and affirm that I shall hereafter lead my life according to the principles and teachings of the Buddha and his Dhamma.

While his several books outlined his hope for a new Buddhism, he died later in the same year of his formal conversion, and so the implementation fell to others. The most important of Babasheb’s works is The Buddha and His Dhamma, which was first published posthumously in 1957. You can read the full text here.

He called this vision for a reformed Buddhism Navayana, meaning simply enough the “new” vehicle. (Interestingly this term is sometimes applied to the emerging convert Buddhisms in the West.) Sometimes it is also called “Dalit Buddhism” for its solid base among the Dalit communities of India. And in fact the Wikipedia article on this emergent Buddhism calls it Dalit Buddhism. Me, I think his approach has applications well beyond that base, even with what I find to be the built in limitations of the twenty-two vows, and so I prefer using Navayana.

Dr Ambedkar’s Navayana has some distinctive features. As it says in that Wikipedia article, “Most Dalit Indian Buddhists espouse an eclectic version of Buddhism, primarily based on Theravada, but with additional influences from Mahayana and Vajrayana. On many subjects, they give Buddhism a distinctive interpretation. Of particular note is their emphasis on Shakyamuni Buddha as a political and social reformer, rather than simply a spiritual leader.”

The article drills into this point describing how Babasheb emphasized “the Buddha required his monastic followers to ignore caste distinctions, and that he criticized the social inequality that existed in his own time. According to Ambedkar, a person’s unfortunate conditions are not only the result of karma or ignorance and craving, but do also result from ‘social exploitation and material poverty – the cruelty of others.’”

The article then cites the scholar Gail Omvedt who summarized the unique perspective of Dr Ambedkar’s Dalit Buddhism, and how it “seemingly differs from that of those who accepted by faith, who ‘go for refuge’ and accept the canon. This much is clear from its basis: it does not accept in totality the scriptures of the Theravada, the Mahayana, or the Vajrayana.” Dr Omvedt then asks the question, “Is a fourth yana, a Navayana, a kind of modernistic Enlightenment version of the Dhamma really possible within the framework of Buddhism?”

Given the simple fact of the existence of the movement, not to mention the many other variations of modernist or rational Buddhisms in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, whether some other Buddhists might not like it, the answer obviously becomes yes. In fact one real question is why is it that this new Buddhism has not been as attractive to people beyond the Dalit communities of India? Daniel Clarkson Fisher offers a devastating analysis of this question, which I think is worth reading. Also, inspired by Daniel’s analysis, Justin Whitaker offers some reflections and very helpful pointers worth exploring.

Among other things Daniel points out and Justin underscores, that there appears to be some deeper issues that have limited Western interest in Dr Ambedkar’s project, not all of them issues we might want to look at. I do think there are built in problems as I’ve noted, found within the prescriptions of the twenty-two vows. But, I don’t think those vows are actually the problem. The fact that this is a people’s moment, and specifically a poor people’s movement is something that may indeed be part of why it has been largely ignored in the West. And, as Daniel points out, maybe now is the time to open our hearts a bit, to notice our own classist issues, and to see the wisdom that is being presented as something we need to hear.

One thing is true: Dr Ambedkar led a significant modern Buddhist movement. And maybe, just maybe it provides a touchstone for all of us touched by modernist and naturalistic interpretations of the Buddha way. In fact today the movement exists across India, although concentrated in Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh, and counts the majority of Indian Buddhists, totaling about five million people. It is definitely a people’s Buddhism, and it is a force we would be wise to engage. At least those of us who see something of genuine value in the Dharma while also sensing there are genuine needs for reformation in several areas. Dr Ambedkar addresses several of these in compelling ways.

So, today, Dr Ambedkar’s one hundred, and twenty-sixth birthday is a moment we might pause and consider him, his movement, and maybe how some variation of these reformed Buddhisms might prove a healing balm for a troubled world.

Many bows Babasheb!

Many bows!

Many bows…

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