On 13th October 1935, Ambedkar went to attend the Depressed Classes Conference in Yeola (Bombay Presidency). There were almost 10,000 people there. Ambedkar declared that he will be converting soon. “I was born a Hindu … I will not die a Hindu”, roared Ambedkar. This realisation came from his continued struggle against high caste Hindus to accept Dalits as fellow human beings. Whether it was water satyagraha, or temple entry movements, or any kind of demand for equality, upper caste Hindus were firmly refusing to abolish the practice of untouchability. Ambedkar gradually realised that the caste system and untouchability were not merely cultural or historical practices, but religious ones. This can be seen in the empirical research where we find that among all religions, Hindus follow untouchability in the highest number. Though Brahmins are on top of the list, Hindu OBCs are the second highest practitioners of untouchability; an indicator of how much resistance Dalits face even from middle order castes.
I have met many people who told me that the conversion was Ambedkar’s personal decision not an ideological one. In progressive circles, this argument has been given to me by Hindu high caste Left-liberals and Hindu OBCs. A Dalits’ idea of religion is not like the colonial understanding of ‘religion’. Dalits, tribes, and religious minorities like Muslims, Christians, and Sikhs are closest to one another. Hinduism was never a lived experience for a Dalit and the blanket religion of Hinduism was painted over India mainly during the late colonial rule. Dalits have had and will continue to have their own distinct culture which is antithetical to the ‘Hindu’ culture. Multiple research works conducted both in the past and the present reiterate this. For a long time now, Dalits have been converting to various religions. The Lalbegis community of Uttar Pradesh are much closer to Islam than to their Hindu counter-parts. Even today, the Ravi Dasis of Punjab, Bihar, and UP have a worldview which is almost opposite to that of the Hindu social values. Dalits in Mahmudabad, a place 55 km from Lucknow, actively participate in Muharram rituals. The Jatavs of Agra left Hinduism for Buddhism even before Ambedkar’s conversion. This was also the case with the Kabir Panthis, who are spread across north and central India. Many Muslims in Maharashtra might be Mahar converts, hints Eleanor Zelliot, an American Professor who extensively studied the caste structure in India. Similarly, many Dalits converted into Islam during the Nizam’s rule in Hyderabad. Tribes from central India and Dalits from south India converted to Christianity during the colonial rule. One of the earliest conversions to Buddhism happened with Iyothee Thass of Tamil Nadu. Thass believed that the Tamilian Paraiyars were actually Buddhists. Thus the overall social context was conducive for Ambedkar’s religious conversion in 1956.
Nevertheless, Ambedkar’s conversion was met with resistance. For Ambedkar, Hinduism was the root cause of the caste system, untouchability, and Brahmanical patriarchy. However, for others like the Congress Party and Gandhi, Hinduism was reform friendly. Ambedkar felt that anti-caste saints such as Tukaram, Dnyaneswar, Ramdas, and Cokhamela were reformists but not revolutionary. All their efforts were appropriated by Hinduism. “You must have courage to tell the Hindus that what is wrong with them is their religion – the religion which has produced in them this notion of the sacredness of Caste”, Ambedkar wrote in his book, Annihilation of Caste in 1979. Even today we see various ‘low’ castes firmly defending their caste supremacy against even ‘lower’ castes. Describing Ambedkar’s Buddhism, Gail Omvedt, in her book, Ambedkar: Towards an Enlightened India, writes, “Ambedkar’s arguments for Buddhism as an appropriate religion centred on its morality and rationality. It was the morality represented by Buddhism rather than socialism that Ambedkar was looking for, as a solution. He wanted, in other words, a religion that was clearly not world rejecting, but was this-worldly in the sense of providing a morality that could have the potential of ‘reconstructing the world’ on a basis of liberty, equality, and fraternity. This control over the fire of passions and emotions is the basis for collective human control over social life, and it is depicted as the basic factor in the Buddha’s Enlightenment. It is this that he sets out to preach, and just to underline its this-worldly approach.”
This Buddhism is called navayana, which means a new vehicle. Ambedkar endorsed Buddhism after knowing Marxism, liberalism (the Congress variant), and Hinduism. He had a vast knowledge and a lived experience of these three forces. Buddhism’s dhamma is caste free, while Hinduism’s dharma is caste centric. Buddhism believes in gender equality while Hinduism believes in Brahmanical patriarchy (caste endogamy). Analysing Ambedkar’s book titled, Buddha and his Dhamma, originally published 1957, Eleanor Zelliot says that Ambedkar’s Buddhist practices had a core of ethics, rationality, and humanity.
I have personally experienced how friendly the Buddhists of Maharashtra, UP, and Orissa, are and how they treat a person from a religious minority. It was there that I found out that (neo) Buddhists are fighting for a multi-religious society that is supported by both Christians and Sikhs along with a number of non Brahmanical sects and denominations. Individuals like Sukhadeo Thorat, economist and UGC ex-chairman, have successfully started scholarships for research students belonging to social and religious minorities. Critical thinking, love, compassion, and kindness are at the core of navayana Buddhism, explains historian and social activist Bhagwan Das, in his book How To Be a Good Buddhist.
In his book, Revolution and Counter Revolution, Ambedkar draws heavily on the understanding of history as ideological conflict between Brahmanism and Buddhism. Buddhism was a revolution backed by Mauryan empire but the Aryans almost demolished it through genocide, and established Brahmans. The Buddhists who were captured during the war, were turned into slaves and labelled as untouchables. For a long time, they practiced a superior culture of equality between sexes and groups as they were Buddhists. In his book, Ambedkar writes, “The French Revolution was welcomed because of its slogan. It failed to produce equality. We welcome the Russian Revolution because it aims to produce equality. But it cannot be credited with producing equality, society cannot afford to sacrifice fraternity or liberty … It seems that the three can co-exist only if one follows the way of the Buddha”. Ambedkar’s Buddhism is not at all like the image of Buddhism which the RSS (the organisation that the BJP ideologically aligns itself with) propagates. Buddhism is not a sub-branch of Hinduism and today we can see how the Hinduisation of SCs leads to a loss of self-worth at a psychological level. Despite their best efforts, neither Dalits nor tribes are accepted as Hindus. There is no space for untouchability, casteism, caste system, Brahmin supremacy, sexual subjugation of women, and hatred for religious minorities in Buddhism. One can see how vehemently Ambedkar fought for all these ideals across his career: welfare state for the poor, Hindu Code Bill for the women, separate electorates for SCs, STs, and religious minorities like Muslims, Christians and Sikhs, and a foundation for a modern Independent India. One wonders whether Ambedkar was a Buddhist from the very beginning?
Zeeshan Husain has done BSc (AMU, Aligarh), MSW (TISS, Mumbai) and MPhil (CSSSC, Kolkata). He is now a doctorate student in JNU, Delhi.