The Dalit Buddhist movement (Pāli नवयान navayāna as dubbed by certain Ambedkerites) in India began with support of Sri Lankan Buddhist monks. It received an impetus with B. R. Ambedkar’s call for conversion of Dalits to Buddhism in order to escape the Hindu caste system, in which the Dalits were treated very badly.
Buddhism was once dominant through much of India, it had however begun to decline by the 12th century (see Decline of Buddhism in India). The Buddhist revival began in India in 1891, when theSri Lankan Buddhist leader Anagarika Dharmapala founded the Maha Bodhi Society. The Maha Bodhi Society mainly attracted upper-caste people.
In 1890, Pandit C. Ayodhya Dasa (1845-1914), better known as Iyothee Thass founded the Sakya Buddhist Society (also known as Indian Buddhist Association). The first president of the Indian Buddhist Association was the German born American Paul Carus, the author of The Gospel of Buddha (1894).
Thass, a Tamil Siddha physician, was the pioneer of the Tamil Dalit movement. He argued that Tamil Dalits were originally Buddhists. He led a delegation of prominent Dalits to Henry Steel Olcott and asked for his help in the reestablishment of “Tamil Buddhism.” Olcott helped Thass to visit Sri Lanka, where he received diksha from Bhikkhu Sumangala Nayake. After returning to India, Thass established the Sakya Buddhist Society in Madras with branches in many places including Karnataka. Thass established a weekly magazine called Oru Paisa Tamizhan (“One Paisa Tamilian”) in Chennai in 1907, which served as a newsletter linking all the new branches of the Sakya Buddhist Society. The magazine discussed traditions and practices of Tamil Buddhism, new developments in the Buddhist world, and the Indian subcontinent’s history from the Buddhist point of view.
Brahmananda Reddy, a Dalit leader of Andhra Pradesh, was also fascinated by Buddhism.
In the early 20th century, the Barua Buddhists of Bengal under the leadership of Kripasaran Mahasthavir (1865-1926), founder of the Bengal Buddhist Association, Calcutta (1892) establishedviharas in cities such as Lucknow, Hyderabad, Shillong and Jamshedpur.
In Lucknow, Bodhanand Mahastavir (1874-1952) advocated Buddhism for Dalits. Born Mukund Prakash in a Bengali Brahmin family, he was orphaned at a young age, and was then raised inBenaras by an aunt. He was initially attracted to Christianity, but became a Buddhist after a meeting with Buddhists monks from Ceylon at a Theosophical Conference in Benares. He later lived in Lucknow where he came in contact with Barua Buddhists, many of whom were employed as cooks by the British. In 1914, Prakash was ordained Bodhanand Mahastavir in Calcutta in the presence of Kripasaran Mahasthvir. He began preaching Buddhism in Lucknow. He founded theBharatiye Buddh Samiti in 1916, and set up a vihara in 1928. In his book Mula Bharatavasi Aur Arya (“Original Inhabitants and Aryans”), Mahastavir stated that the shudras were the original inhabitants of India, who were enslaved by the Aryans.
Bodhanand Mahastavir wrote another book on Buddhist rituals called Baudha Dvicharya. His associate, Chandrika Prasad Jigyasu, founded the Bahujan Kalyan Prakashan. The two co-authored a book on the life and teaching of the Buddha.
Acharya Ishvardatt Medharthi (1900-1971) of Kanpur also supported the cause of the Dalits. He had studied Pali at Gurukul Kangri and Buddhist scripture was well known to him. He was initiated into Buddhism by Gyan Keto and the Lokanatha in 1937. Gyan Keto (1906-1984), born Peter Schoenfeldt was a German who arrived to Ceylon in 1936 and became a Buddhist. Although Medharthi heavily criticized the Indian caste system, he didn’t criticize Hinduism. He claimed that the Dalits (“Adi Hindus”) were the ancient rulers of India and had been trapped into slavery by the Aryan invaders. He also claimed that the sanatana dharma was the religion of “Adi Hindus”, and tried to reconcile Buddhism with the Sant Mat.
Another Bhikkhu of Kanpur, Bhikshu Uttam, was a strong supporter of the Arya Samaj and the Jat Pat Todak Mandal, the anti-caste wing of the Arya Samaj.
B. R. Ambedkar
At the Yeola conference in 1935, prominent Dalit leader B. R. Ambedkar declared that he would not die a Hindu, saying that it perpetuates caste injustices. Ambedkar was approached by various leaders of different denominations and faiths. Meetings were held to discuss the question of Dalit religion and the pros and cons of conversion. On May 22, 1936, an “All Religious Conference” was held at Lucknow. It was attended by prominent Dalit leaders including Jagjivan Ram, though Ambedkar could not attend it. At the conference, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, and Buddhist representatives presented the tenets of their respective religions in an effort to win over Dalits.
Buddhist monk Lokanatha visited Ambedkar’s residence at Dadar on June 10, 1936 and tried to persuade him to embrace Buddhism. Later in an interview to the Press, Lokanatha said that Ambedkar was impressed with Buddhism and that his own ambition was to convert all Dalits to Buddhism. In 1937, Lokanatha published a pamphlet Buddhism Will Make You Free, dedicated to the Depressed Classes of India from his press in Ceylon.
In early 1940s, Ambedkar visited Acharya Ishvardatt Medharthi’s Buddhpuri school in Kanpur. Medharthi had earlier been initiated into Buddhism by Lokanatha, and by the mid-1940s, he had close contacts with Ambedkar. For a short while, Ambedkar also took Pali classes from Medharthi in Delhi.
Bodhananda Mahastvir and B. R. Ambedkar first met in 1926, at the “Indian Non-Brahmin Conference” convened by Shahu IV of Kolhapur. They met on two more occasions and for a short while in the 1940s, where they discussed dhamma. Mahastavir was objected to Dr Ambedkar’s second marriage because his wife was a Brahmin. Later, his followers actively participated in Ambedkar’s Republican Party of India.
After publishing a series of books and articles arguing that Buddhism was the only way for the Untouchables to gain equality, Ambedkar publicly converted on October 14, 1956 in Nagpur. He took the three refuges and the Five Precepts from a Buddhist monk, Bhadant U Chandramani, in the traditional manner and then in his turn administered them to the 380,000 of his followers that were present. The conversion ceremony was attended by Medharthi, his main disciple Bhoj Dev Mudit, and Mahastvir Bodhanand’s Sri Lankan successor, Bhante Pragyanand. Ambedkar would die less than two months later, just after finishing his definitive work on Buddhism.
Many Dalits employ the term “Ambedkar(ite) Buddhism” to designate the Buddhist movement, which started with Ambedkar’s conversion.
22 Vows of Ambedkar
After receiving ordination, Ambedkar gave dhamma diksha to his followers. The ceremony included 22 vows given to all new converts after Three Jewels and Five Precepts. On 16 October 1956, Ambedkar performed another mass religious conversion ceremony atChanda. He prescribed 22 vows to his followers:
- 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.
- 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 hisDhamma.
Dalit Buddhism movement after Ambedkar’s death
The Buddhist movement was somewhat hindered by Dr. Ambedkar’s death so shortly after his conversion. It did not receive the immediate mass support from the Untouchable population that Ambedkar had hoped for. Division and lack of direction among the leaders of the Ambedkarite movement have been an additional impediment. According to the 2001 census, there are currently 7.95 million Buddhists in India, at least 5.83 million of whom are Buddhists in Maharashtra. This makes Buddhism the fifth-largestreligion in India and 6% of the population of Maharashtra, but less than 1% of the overall population of India.
The Buddhist revival remains concentrated in two states: Ambedkar’s native Maharashtra, and Uttar Pradesh — the land of Bodhanand Mahastavir, Acharya Medharthi and their associates.
Acharya Medharthi retired from his Buddhapuri school in 1960, and shifted to an ashram in Haridwar. He turned to the Arya Samajand conducted vedic yajnas all over India. After his death, he was cremated according to Arya Samaj rites. His Buddhpuri school became embroiled in property disputes. His follower, Bhoj Dev Mudit, converted to Buddhism in 1968 and set up a school of his own.
Rajendranath Aherwar appeared as an important Dalit leader in Kanpur. He joined the Republican Party of India and converted to Buddhism along with his whole family in 1961. In 1967, he founded the Kanpur branch of “Bharatiya Buddh Mahasabha”. He held regular meetings where he preached Buddhism, officiated at Buddhist weddings and life cycle ceremonies, and organized festivals on Dr. Ambedkar’s Jayanti (birth day), Buddha Jayanti, Diksha Divas (the day Ambedkar converted), and Dr Ambedkar Paranirvan Divas (the day Ambedkar died).
The Dalit Buddhist movement in Kanpur gained impetus with the arrival of Dipankar, a Chamar bhikkhu, in 1980. Dipankar had come to Kanpur on a Buddhist mission and his first public appearance was scheduled at a mass conversion drive in 1981. The event was organized by Rahulan Ambawadekar, an RPI Dalit leader. In April 1981, Ambawadekar founded the Dalit Panthers (U.P. Branch) inspired by the Maharashtrian Dalit Panthers. The event met with severe criticism and opposition from Vishwa Hindu Parishad and was banned.
In 2002, Kanshi Ram, a popular out-caste political leader from a Sikh religious background, announced his intention to convert to Buddhism on October 14, 2006, the fiftieth anniversary of Ambedkar’s conversion. He intended for 20,000,000 of his supporters to convert at the same time. Part of the significance of this plan was that Ram’s followers include not only Untouchables, but persons from a variety of castes, who could significantly broaden Buddhism’s support. However, he passed away October 9, 2006 after a lengthy illness; he was cremated as per Buddhist rituals.
Another popular Dalit leader, Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati, has said that she and her followers will embrace Buddhism after the BSP gains control of the government.
Japanese-born Bhadant Nagarjun Surai Sasai is an important Buddhist leader in India. Susai came to India in 1966 and met Nichidatsu Fuji, whom he helped with the Peace Pagoda at Rajgir. He fell out with Fuji, however, and started home, but, by his own account, was stopped by a dream in which a figure resembling Nagarjuna appeared and said, “Go to Nagpur”. In Nagpur, he met Wamanrao Godbole, the person who had organized the conversion ceremony for Dr. Ambedkar in 1956. Sasai claims that when he saw a photograph of Dr. Ambedkar at Godbole’s home, he realized that it was Ambedkar who had appeared in his dream. At first, Nagpur folk considered Surai Sasai very strange. Then he began to greet them with “Jai Bhim” (victory to Ambedkar) and to build viharas. In 1987 a court case to deport him on the grounds that he had overstayed his visa was dismissed, and he was granted Indian citizenship. Sasai is one of the main leaders of the campaign to free the Mahabodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya from Hindu control.
Organized mass conversions
Since Ambedkar’s conversion, several thousand people from different castes have converted to Buddhism in ceremonies including the twenty-two vows. The Tamil Nadu and Gujarat governments passed new laws in 2003 to ban “forced” religious conversions. These laws were later withdrawn due to heavy opposition.
In 1957, Mahastvir Bodhanand’s Sri Lankan successor, Bhante Pragyanand, held a mass conversion drive for 15,000 people in Lucknow.
A prominent Indian Dalit Buddhist leader and political activist, Udit Raj, organized a large mass conversion on November 4, 2001where he gave the 22 vows, but the event met with active opposition from the government.
A report from the UK daily The Guardian said that some Hindus have converted to Buddhism. Buddhist monks from the UK and the U.S. attended the conversion ceremonies in India. In response, Hindu nationalists asserted that Dalits should concentrate on illiteracy and poverty rather than looking for new religions.
On October 14, 2006 hundreds of people converted from Hinduism to Buddhism in Gulburga (Karnataka).
A Buddhist source claimed that “300,000 Dalits are estimated” to have converted to Buddhism as part of 50th year celebrations of Ambedkar’s deeksha in 2006. Non-Partisan sources put the number of attendees (not converts) at 30,000.The move was criticized by Hindu groups as “unhelpful” and has been criticized as a “political stunt.”
On May 27, 2007 tens of thousands of Dalits from Maharashtra gathered at the Mahalakshmi racecourse in Mumbai to mark the 50th anniversary of the conversion of Ambedkar. The number of people who actually converted, however, versus the number of people in attendance was not clear . The event was organized by the Republican Party of India leader Ramdas Athvale.
Criticism of conversions
Hindu critics have argued that efforts to convert Hindus to Ambedkarite Buddhism are political stunts rather than sincere commitments to social reform. In addition, several Dalit leaders have stated that they are not against the upper castes per se. Leaders of the Dalit Bahujan Samaj Party have said that their being branded as “anti-Hindu” because of the publicity associated with the conversions is largely the work of partisan and politically motivated groups within the Dalit movement and that they are only interested in peaceful dialogue with the Brahmins.
According to controversial academic Gail Omvedt:
|“||Ambedkar’s Buddhism 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. The question that is then clearly put forth: is a fourth yana, a Navayana, a kind of modernistic Enlightenment version of the Dhamma really possible within the framework of Buddhism?||”|
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 merely as a spiritual leader. They point out that the Buddha required his monastic followers to ignore caste distinctions, and that he was critical of the social inequality that existed in his own time. Ambedkar’s followers do not believe that a person’s unfortunate conditions at birth are the result of previous karma.
They also point out that Ormvedt’s idea of an ‘Enlightenment version of the dharma’ opposed to a traditional ‘acceptance by faith’ is a misapplication of Western categories, since the Buddha encouraged people to put all teachings – including his own – to critical test and not to accept anything on the basis of tradition.
- Buddhism in India
- Buddhism in Tibet
- Buddhism in Nepal
- Humanistic Buddhism
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- ^ Keer, Dhananjay (1990). Dr Ambedkar Life and Mission. Popular Prakashan, Bombay. ISBN 81-8560-437-1.
- ^ Indian Dalit leader passes away
- ^ Kanshi Ram cremated as per Buddhist rituals
- ^ Kanshi Ram cremated as per Buddhist rituals. The Hindu(October 10, 2006). Retrieved on 2007-08-30.
- ^ 50,000 Dalits embrace Buddhism. Buddhism Today. Retrieved on 2007-08-30.
- ^ Untouchables embrace Buddha to escape oppression
- ^ Hundreds embrace Buddhism in Gulbarga-Bangalore
- ^ Prominent Indian female politician to embrace Buddhism. The Buddhist Channel (October 17, 2006). Retrieved on2007-08-30.
- ^ a b Prerna Singh Bindra .Heads, I win…. The Week Magazine. November 18, 2001.
- ^ Mass Dalit conversions in Mumbai
- ^ Nithin Belle. Thousands of Dalits in ‘mass conversion’. Khaleej Times. May 28 2007
- ^ Conversion: Ram Raj’s rally was probably just an exercise in self-promotion
- ^ BSP showcases its `Brahmin might’,The Hindu
- The Buddha and His Dhamma, text of the book by B. R. Ambedkar
- Are neo-Buddhists- Hindus? Article on India’s Buddhism by Koenraad Elst.
- 2590 Years Of Buddhism
- Omvedt, Gail. Buddhism in India : Challenging Brahmanism and Caste. 3rd ed. London/New Delhi/Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2003.
- Buddhism Navayana: Buddhist links and Navayana Buddhism
- Ambedkar Center for Justice and Peace
- Dr. Ambedkar International Mission
- Trailokya Bauddha Mahasangha Sahayaka Gana
- Karuna Trust
- The Jambudvipa Trust