Buddhism is one of the oldest religious and spiritual streams of India with a history of more than 2500 years. Due to several reasons, Buddhism declined and almost became extinct in India by the advent of the 19th century. But its high-priest and master, Gautama Buddha, remained a permanent hallmark on the spiritual psyche of India. The Buddha and his Dhamma, somehow, remained as a living legacy in the Hindu ethos and philosophy as an integral part of Indian tradition. It will remain so. Buddhism is evergreen and all-time relevant in these days of religious bigotry and hatred which is increasing every passing day.
The incidental provocation to write on the subject of Buddhist
Renaissance in India
is the Diksha Day, October 14, the day Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the architect of the
Indian constitution and one of the greatest social reformers of India, embraced
Buddhism at Diksha Bhoomi at Nagpur in 1956. It was an epoch-making event in
the social and spiritual life of India when along with their leader Babasaheb
Ambedkar almost a million people renounced Hinduism and embraced Buddhism. It
was a big decision with far reaching implications for the society and polity of
India. Babasaheb Ambedkar took this decision to leave Hinduism after
considering all aspects of the issue including the much needed dignity and
respect of his fellow brethren of dalit communities.
It took almost 20 years to come to this stage on October, 1956 after Babasaheb took the vow to leave Hinduism in October, 1935 after he utterly failed to reform and transform Hinduism to make it a religion of human dignity and equality. Babasheb declared that he was born a Hindu but will not die a Hindu. The mould was cast. The leadership of Muslims, Christians and even Sikhs (who has its origins in Hinduism) considered it an opportunity to invite and entice Dr. Ambedkar and his followers to join their respective faiths. But Babasaheb was not an ordinary human being and was visionary with a gifted foresight. The Maha Bodhi Society of India and one of the known Buddhist monks Ven. Lokanathan approached Babasaheb and tried to persuade him to embrace Buddhism. Knowing the mindset of Babasaheb and his love for and inclination towards the teachings and philosophy of Lord Buddha, they remained in touch with him. But Babasaheb’s priorities were different. He purposely decided to go slow. His first priority was to liberate the poor masses from the “socio-economic thralldom” as stated by a renowned author D.C. Ahir in his book the Legacy of Dr. Ambedkar. He did his best to help the suffering masses as a Member of the Viceroy’s Executive from 1942-46 and later undertaking the first onerous work after India’s independence in 1947, framing and writing of the Constitution of India. The imprint of the Buddhist thought and philosophy of which Dr. Ambedkar was a constant but silent follower, may be seen clearly in the Preamble of the Constitution itself. The very essence of Buddhism i.e. Equality, Liberty and Fraternity is the soul of the Indian Constitution. The slow but steady journey towards Buddhism had already started and was getting visible. By 1950, it was almost clear that Dr. Ambedkar had decided in his mind to embrace Buddhism, a true Indian religious and spiritual stream which will liberate him and his followers from the dogmas of Hinduism, a religion of graded inequality. He asked his followers to celebrate Buddha Jayanti and himself participated in the celebrations in Delhi. He wrote an article in the Maha Bodhi, a monthly journal of the Maha Bodhi Society of India under the caption “Buddha and the future of his Religion” In this article, he compared Buddha with the masters of other three big religions namely Jesus of Christians, Mohammed of Muslims and Krishna of Hindus. Jesus was the son of God. Mohammed was the messenger of God. Krishna was God himself. Buddha never claimed any such status for himself. In this elaborative article, Babasaheb concluded that three steps need to be taken if Buddhism is to be spread in India – i) to produce a Buddhist Bible ii) to make changes in the organization i.e. aims and objectives of the Buddhist Sangha and iii) to set up a World Buddhist Mission. He said that Buddhism was the only religion which suits the world at large because of its rationality, morality, liberty and fraternity. In May, 1950, Babasaheb went to Kandy (Sri Lanka) to participate in the First Conference of World Fellowship of Buddhists. Kandy is a picturesque hill station where the ‘Tooth Relic of Buddha’ is kept at a Buddhist Temple called Dalda Maligawa. While speaking at the conference, he said, “I am an interested observer, not a delegate. I came here with some very specific purpose. You probably know that there are people in India who thought the time had come when an effort might be made to revive Buddhism in India. I am one of them.” Babasaheb further said that he was interested in knowing and studying the Buddhist ceremonies, whether Buddhism is observed in its purity as stipulated by Lord Buddha or superstitions and hollow rituals have crept in negating the Buddhist philosophy and to find out to what extent the Sangha work in the service of community as established by the Master. The intentions of Dr. Ambedkar were becoming clear by every passing day. He spoke at the Japanese Buddhist Temple in Bombay on September 29, 1950 and declared that he would devote the rest of his life to the revival and spread of Buddhism in India. Again in May, 1951, Buddha Jayanti was celebrated with gusto under the leadership of Babasaheb. Addressing the congregation at Ambedkar Bhawan in New Delhi, he said, “change of religion from Hinduism to Buddhism was a sure cure for India’s numerous ills, social and economic.” as quoted by D.C. Ahir in his book. Dr. Ambedkar made it clear and said, “If rest of the Hindu Society does not cooperate, then we, the members of the Schedule Castes, will go on our own and try once again to bring back Buddhism to its former glory and prestige in this country.” It may be observed from these uttering’s of Babasaheb that he did not plan or want only dalits to convert to Buddhism but the whole Hindu society to transform the entire Indian society in the spirit of “Bahujan Hitai; Bahujan Sukhai”. Speaking on All India Radio in October, 1954, he said, “Every man should have a philosophy of life for everyone must have a standard by which to measure ones conduct.” In the broadcast he negated Hinduism and said that the Hindu philosophy had made the caste system and the system of graded inequality the law of Hindu social life. Referring to Buddhism, he said, “My social philosophy may be said to be enshrined in three words: liberty, equality and fraternity. My philosophy has roots in religion and not in political science. I have derived them from the teachings of my Master, the Buddha.” Babasaheb went to Rangoon (Myanmar) in December, 1954 to participate in the Third Conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists. Addressing the conference, he said, “I have to say this with great anguish that in the land where the great Buddha was born, His religion has declined. How such a thing happened is beyond anyone’s comprehension” and gave details of his plans to revive Buddhism in India. Babasaheb met and stayed with Dr. R.L. Soni a great Buddhist scholar and founder of World Institute of Buddhist Culture. D.C. Ahir has written in his book “The Legacy of Dr. Ambedkar” that “The historic decision to come to Buddhism in 1956 was taken by Dr. Ambedkar at Mandalay after prolonged discussions with Dr. Soni on the merits of coming formally to Buddhism.” It is a small co-incident that recently I reviewed a speech of Dr. R.L. Soni, published in the format of a booklet “Buddhism and the World Today” in my blog. Meanwhile, Dr. Ambedkar made all related arrangements for his conversion to Buddhism. He fixed October 14, 1956 for the big and historical event which would become the day of the Buddhist Renaissance in India. This day has a special significance in Buddhist history – The day of Dhamma Vijay, the day on which Ashoka the Great embraced Buddhism in 262 B.C. Dr. Ambedkar gave final touches to his much awaited book “The Buddha and his Dhamma” – The Buddhist Bible which he considered as one of the three important requirements for the spread of Buddhism in India. On the Buddha Jayanti Day on May 24, 1956, he announced at a public meeting in Bombay that he would embrace Buddhism in October at Nagpur. Explaining why he chose Nagpur for embracing Buddhism, he said, “It was the Nagas who spread the religion of Buddha throughout the world. These people were predominantly living in and around the ‘Nag’ river of Nagpur. This was mainly the reason for selecting Nagpur for the great occasion. For this historic ceremony a vacant plot, near Vaccine Institute at Shardhanand Peth, was selected which later became “Diksha Bhoomi”. Venerable U. Chandramani Maha Thera administered to Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and his wife Savita the Tisarana (Triple Refuses/Jewels) – Buddham Saranam Gacchami, Dhammam Saranam Gacchami, Sangham Saranam Gacchami and Pachsila (Five Percepts). With this the conversion ceremony was over. The vow he took 21 years ago that he will not die a Hindu was fulfilled. Addressing a mammoth gathering as a Buddhist, Dr. Ambedkar said, “I started the movement of renouncing the Hindu religion in 1935 and since then I have been continuing the struggle. This conversion has given me enormous satisfaction and pleasure unimaginable. I feel as if I have been liberated from hell.” After that the first step to revive and propagate the gospel of Lord Buddha in India started in right earnestness. The vast sea of humanity gathered at the ceremony became Buddhists at one go after taking the Tisarana and Panchsila after Dr. Ambedkar. In addition, Dr. Ambedkar administered to them the 22 vows which he had specially prepared to renew and transform Buddhism to meet the needs of common people. On the next day, yet another conversion ceremony was conducted with lakhs of people embracing Buddhism. Dr. Ambedkar made a long and elaborative speech, as summed up by D.C. Ahir, ‘tracing the history of the suffering of down-trodden people through the ages, his life log struggle to mitigate their sufferings and as to why he had chosen Buddhism of all the religions.’
Dr. Ambedkar was fully committed to propagate and spread of Buddhism as the true religion of India. Immediately after becoming a Buddhist himself, he went to Kathmandu (Nepal) in November, 1956 to participate in the Fourth Conference of World Buddhist Fellowship. The world Buddhist community was eager to listen to Dr. Ambedkar after the historical events of conversion at Nagpur in October, 1956. Sensing the mood of the delegates at the conference, Dr. Ambedkar spoke on the theme “Buddhism and Marxism or Communism” with insight and thought provoking presentation. Concluding the speech, he said, “I am quite confident that, if we will become one-tenth as enlightened as the Buddha was, we can bring about good results by the methods of love, of justice and of goodwill.” In spite of his not so good health, on his way back from Nepal, he visited holy Buddhist shrines in Bodh Gaya and Sarnath, Kushinagar and addressed many meetings with a view to spread the message of Buddha.
His message to follow the Buddha was well taken by the people of India. But his untimely death on December 6, 1956 changed the pace and course of the journey. Dr. Ambedkar, as I understand, was not a traditional Buddhist. He was a liberated Buddhist and desired to make his followers and the suffering masses such liberated Buddhists. He wrote the Buddhist Bible in form of “The Buddha and His Dhamma” in a simple and an educative style for the benefit of all. He added 22 vows to the already existing Three Refuges and Five Percepts to meet the challenges and needs Buddhists of the contemporary times. Dr. Ambedkar desired to make Buddhism functional and dynamic and asked his followers not to get entangled in the existing branches of Buddhism i.e. Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayana etc. and called his views as “Navayana” or “Neo-Buddhism”.
The Buddhist Renaissance in India brought about by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar is a fact which will be recorded in the annals of history with much appreciation and gratitude.