Aa an untouchable boy in village India at the turn of the century, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956) was forced to sit silently on a piece of burlap at the back of his classroom; his notebooks could not be handled by the teacher, and drinking water was poured into his mouth to avoid physical contact. Like the other boys from the Mahar community of untouchables, he was beaten if he accidentally touched a caste Hindu.

Numbering a fifth of India’s population, the untouchables were believed to be ritually impure as a result of misdeeds committed in previous lives. Falling below the traditional four-caste system of Brahmins, rulers, merchants, and laborers, the untouchables, or outcastes, historically performed the lowest jobs: removing corpses and garbage, scavenging, and sweeping. Only by submitting to their superiors and to an intricate code of social restrictions could they hope for a better rebirth in the future. Although they were considered Hindus, the untouchables were banned from Hindu temples, public facilities, and community gatherings.

Despite these disabilities and his rank as the fourteenth child of an outcaste family, young Bhimrao was not entirely unlucky. His father was a career officer and schoolteacher in the British colonial army, the only equal opportunity employer in India.

At home, Bhim, as he was called, learned Marathi and English grammar, arithmetic, and long passages from the Hindu epics. His parents were devotees of the fifteenth-century poet-saint Kabir, known for his rejection of the caste system and his vision of universal brotherhood. Bhim’s father was also a friend and follower of Mahatma Phule (1827-1890), the Maharashtrian social reformer and founder of the first Indian school for untouchables.

Ambedkar came to regard Kabir and Phule as great influences on his life, but his greatest hero was Gautama Buddha. Upon graduation from high school—he was only the second untouchable to reach this level by 1907—he was given a biography of Buddha by the author K. A. Keluskar, another well-known social reformer. Inspired by the Buddha’s compassion and his special efforts on behalf of the downtrodden of his day, the untouchable boy redoubled his quest for education.

Related: Who is the Buddha? 

Bhimrao entered Elphinstone College in Bombay, where, thanks to Keluskar’s entreaties, his tuition was paid by the liberal Hindu Maharaja of Baroda. With the continued financial support of the maharaja, Ambedkar became one of the most highly educated men in India, earning graduate degrees from Columbia University in New York and the University of London. At Columbia he studied under the American pragmatist philosopher and social thinker John Dewey, and wrote his doctoral dissertation on provincial finance in British India. He was admitted to the bar in London and pursued postdoctoral studies at the University of Bonn.

In spite of these monumental achievements and his successful entry into professional life in India in the following years—as government worker, newspaper editor, college professor, law school dean, and elected official—Dr. Ambedkar was still treated as an untouchable by Hindus and faced new incidents of caste abuse: sudden eviction from housing, beatings, and death threats. These experiences convinced him that neither the patronage of liberal Hindus and British colonialists nor the heroic efforts of isolated untouchables could make a lasting difference; only a social revolution with broad support of the masses would end the prejudice and violence.

In an early speech at one of the many political gatherings of untouchables, Ambedkar revealed the moral intensity that became his trademark:

My heart breaks to see the pitiable sight of your faces and to hear your sad voices. . . . Why do you worsen and sadden the picture of the sorrows, poverty, slavery, and burdens of the world with your deplorable, despicable, and detestable miserable life? . . . If you believe in living a respectable life, [then you must] believe in self-help, which is the best help!

The challenge to swaraj, self-help or independence, was a pervasive theme in India during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. For Mahatma Gandhi and the Congress Party, this meant the epic struggle against the British Raj by means of satyagraha, or nonviolent protest, along with endless rounds of political negotiation at home and abroad. But for Dr. Ambedkar, the fiery spokesman for the Depressed Classes, it was the caste system that crippled India, not the British. And while Ambedkar fully supported the movement for national independence, he took strong exception to the reformist liberalism of Gandhi and the Congress leaders, who believed that the caste system—albeit purged of untouchability—should remain the social backbone of India.

For twelve years, Ambedkar led sit-ins and demonstrations for equal access to temples and public facilities, negotiated with Hindu leaders, and pressed the case for untouchable rights in the courts. In 1927, on the failure of a massive demonstration for access to the water supply at Chowdar (which the caste Hindus claimed they had to “repurify” with cow dung and urine after protesters took token sips from the tank), Ambedkar declared that Hinduism itself had become the fighting issue. Before a gathering of fifteen thousand he burned a copy of the Manusmriti, the ancient law book that calls for molten lead to be poured into the ears of low castes who accidentally hear the chanting of Brahmin scriptures.

In 1935, Ambedkar made the most daring speech of his career, announcing that, because of the intransigence of the Hindus and the failure of a decade of nonviolent protests, he had resolved to abandon Hinduism and to seek another faith. He urged the leaders at the Yeola Depressed Classes conference to consider their religious identity a choice, not a fact of destiny. In a voice rising with emotion, he enumerated the benefits of heresy:

If you want to gain self-respect, change your religion.
If you want to create a cooperating society, change your religion. If you want power, change your religion.
If you want equality, change your religion.
If you want independence, change your religion.
If you want to make the world in which you live happy, change your religion.

Ambedkar’s declaration at Yeola sparked years of intense debate within the untouchable communities and throughout India, not only on the suitability of Hinduism vis-á-vis other faiths—Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Jainism, and Buddhism—but also on the very claim that one may choose a religious identity. Upon hearing of Ambedkar’s speech, Gandhi himself remarked that “religion is not like a house or a cloak, which can be changed at will. It is a more integral part of one’s self than one’s body.”

For years Ambedkar deliberated on the most fitting religion for his people. Considering Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, and Buddhism in turn, he amassed thousands of volumes on religion and philosophy and published numerous papers and book-length studies on religion and politics in India. Clergy of the great religions expressed avid interest in his decision, anticipating the potential for millions of outcaste conversions. The political consequences of mass conversion for India’s future as an independent nation were considered with respect to each religious tradition: would conversion to Christianity promote upward class mobility and the abandonment of the poor?

Gradually the alternatives to Buddhism were eliminated. Hints of Ambedkar’s selection appeared with increasing frequency. In 1940 he proposed the theory that untouchability was the Brahmins’ revenge against those who clung to Buddhism in ancient times (a theory he developed in his book The Untouchables in 1948); in other words, outcastes are descendents of the original Buddhists. In a 1944 speech before the Madras Rationalist Society he argued that Buddhist philosophy, like contemporary science, is based on experience and reason, unlike the scriptural fundamentalism of the Brahmins. The following year he named his new college for outcaste youths in Bombay Siddharth College, after the historical Buddha.

With Indian independence in 1947 came Ambedkar’s appointment as the first Law Minister in Nehru’s cabinet and then as chairman of the drafting committee for the Indian constitution. In these positions he proposed placing the ancient Buddhist image of roaring lions, symbolizing the conquest of Law, on the Indian currency; the traditional Buddhist dharma wheel, representing interdependence and liberation, was added to the Indian national flag at Dr. Ambedkar’s suggestion.

In 1950, Ambedkar wrote in the leading Indian Buddhist journal, the Maha Bodhi, that Buddhism alone among the world’s religions is compatible with the ethical and rational demands of contemporary life. At the first meeting of the World Fellowship of Buddhists in Ceylon he said that the time might be auspicious for the revival of Buddhism in India, and that he wished to discover the vitality or decadence of the tradition in an avowedly Buddhist country.

Finally Ambedkar announced that, upon the completion of his longawaited book on the Buddha the following year, 1956 (during the world celebration of the Buddha Jayanti, the twenty-five hundredth anniversary of the Buddha’s Nirvana), he planned to celebrate publicly his conversion to Buddhism.

The Great Conversion at Nagpur, October 14, 1956

The great conversion, or Dharma Diksha, took place on October 14, the date associated with Emperor Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism (he reigned from 272 to 236 B.C.E.), in the central Indian city of Nagpur, also associated with Buddhist folklore and history. Approximately 380,000 untouchables journeyed, many on foot, from all parts of India to take part in the outdoor ceremony. As the great throng looked on, Dr. Ambedkar and his wife, Sharada, took refuge in the Three Jewels, pledged to observe the Five Precepts, and, in a portion of the service written by Ambedkar, vowed to avoid the beliefs and practices of the Hindu religion. The refuges and vows were first administered to the Ambedkars by U Chand ram ani Maha Thera, the oldest Buddhist monk in India, and then by Dr. Ambedkar to his jubilant followers. A repetition of the ceremony the next day for 100,000 latecomers brought the number of people who had embraced the Buddhist faith in a thirty-six hour period to nearly half a million.

Six weeks after the Dharma Diksha, Dr. Ambedkar, a longtime sufferer from diabetes and heart disease, died at his desk in Delhi.

In the thirty-six years since the great conversion, perhaps as many as twenty million former outcastes—census figures are incomplete—have taken refuge in Buddhism. Now called ex-untouchables in recognition of the fact that Ambedkar’s Indian Constitution formally outlawed untouchability, most new Buddhists live in the west-central state of Maharashtra, but their numbers are growing throughout India.

To visit the Buddhist neighborhoods of Nagpur and Pune, Aurangabad and Bombay, is to see the public signs of religious revival: large statues of Dr. Ambedkar at traffic intersections, homes marked with the dharma wheel and other ancient Buddhist symbols, and, on the birthdays of the Buddha and Ambedkar, solemn processions with candles, incense, and chanting of the Buddhist refuges and precepts. Inside the homes a visitor finds the ubiquitous poster or wall calendar of the bespectacled, Western dressed Ambedkar (affectionately called Babasaheb or Baba, “father,”), with slogans such as “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” and “Educate, Agitate, Organize” juxtaposed with the images of the teaching or meditating Buddha. One also inevitably finds a copy of Ambedkar’s final work, The Buddha and His Dhamma.

The Buddhism of The Buddha and His Dhamma, and of Ambedkar’s followers, is different from any Buddhism of the past. Missing is the emphasis on monastic life, meditation and enlightenment, magic and ritual, and divine intervention by buddhas and bodhisattvas from celestial Buddha-realms and paradises.

In turning the dharma wheel for his own time, Ambedkar offered a socially engaged Buddhism that focused on economic justice, political freedom, and moral striving. The Buddha and His Dhamma presents Prince Siddhartha as a leader attuned as much to the political forces of his time as to existential issues of old age, sickness, and death. Ambedkar questioned the traditional teachings of karma and rebirth, which are used in Hindu society to explain and justify untouchability—in effect, to blame the victims of social inequality. He also questioned the role of Buddhist monks who seek spiritual perfection while appearing to ignore the material sufferings of the masses around them.

Most controversially, Ambedkar questioned the authenticity of the Four Noble Truths. He knew that the traditional understanding of the Second Noble Truth—which locates the cause of suffering in attachment and desire—would be offensive and unacceptable to people whose suffering was experienced as the result of others’ cruelty. Which is worse, they would cry, the desire for water, food, shelter, health, and dignity—or the actual deprivation of these basic conditions? Are the resentments of the poor against those who oppress them merely “afflictive emotions” to be released in the interest of inner harmony and social peace? Or might such emotions lead to the determination to overcome personal and social disabilities?

Similarly, the truth of nirvana, when interpreted as the absence of passion, would baffle people whose only relief from social disability was an inner freedom, including the spontaneity of joy, anger, love, and grief. In this light, the voluntary poverty and emotional control of the traditional bhikkhu could never offer a viable ideal for communities locked in systemic poverty.

For Ambedkar, a formulation of the Noble Truths worthy of the Compassionate One would have to go beyond the traditional version of the Buddha’s first sermon. The Truth of Suffering must include the realities of economic and social hardship. The Truth of the Arising of the Suffering must be broad enough to include the dynamics of caste and class, of economic exploitation and political cruelty. The Truth of the Cessation of Suffering must include the social blessings of liberty, equality, and fraternity. And the Truth of the Path must be understood to encompass Ambedkar’s famous slogan, “Educate, Agitate, Organize,” that is, cultivate your mind, express your views, and contribute your talents for the good of others.

Critics have long questioned the validity of Ambedkar’s version of the dharma. The reviewer of the Maha Bodhi charged that Ambedkar’s denial of the Buddha’s infallibility, his rejection of karma, enlightenment, and the Four Noble Truths, and his reduction of the first sermon to “a merely social system” was “enough to shock a real Buddhist.” Another Buddhist journal attacked Ambedkar for failing to cite his sources and for allegedly fabricating scriptural support for his own secularist viewpoints.

In fact, Ambedkar had pored over the major scholarly works on the history and literature of Buddhism, including the complete Tripitaka, the compiled canon of oral teachings attributed to the Buddha. He knew that the problem of establishing the authenticity of the Buddha’s sayings ranked high in scholarly debate, and he believed that clear criteria were needed to distinguish the Buddha’s probable teachings from later accretions. He proposed three criteria: reasonableness, social benefit, and certainty; the Buddha would not have offered teachings that were irrational, harmful, or tentative.

“What are the teachings of the Buddha?” Ambedkar asked. Some say samadhi, some say vipassana, others, compassion, mysticism, enlightenment, or retreat from the world. But the key question for untouchables was, “Did the Buddha have a social message?” Did he teach justice, love, liberty, equality, and fraternity? Could the Buddha answer Karl Marx? “These questions are hardly ever raised in discussing the Buddha’s Dhamma,” Ambedkar observed. “My answer is that the Buddha has a social message. He answers all these questions. But they have been buried by modern authors.”

Related: From Catholic to Chemist to Buddhist Missionary

In evaluating Ambedkar’s Buddhism, it is useful to remember that radical reinterpretations of the Buddha’s message have often been presented as its true or original teaching. Contemporary scholars have argued that Buddhist hermeneutics, the study of variant readings of the Buddha’s teaching and the discovery of new meanings and interpretations, has been going on ever since Shakyamuni held up a flower and smiled in silence.

Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar

To turn the wheel is to change the wheel; each rotation offers a new Buddhism. Considered in this light, Ambedkar’s assertion that human suffering is caused by class struggle can be considered a radical reading of, but hardly a radical break from, the Buddha-word. Buddhism’s early commitment to the inclusion of outcastes and women in the sangha— certainly a revolution in the ancient world—is well documented in The Buddha and His Dhamma. Based on the Pali sources, separate sections are devoted to the Buddha’s conversion of various social groups: parivrajakas (mendicants); the high and holy (kings and Brahmins); the low and the lowly, including Upali the barber and Sunita the sweeper (both outcaste occupations in Ambedkar’s day), Sopaka and Suppiya the untouchables (brought up by a cemetery guard), and Suprabuddha the leper; women, including Mahaprajapati Gotami and Yashodhara, Gautama’s aunt and wife, and Prakrti Chandalika—all members of the first women’s religious order in recorded history; and the fallen and criminals, including Angulimala the serial killer, and other vagabonds and misfits.

It may be argued that the Buddhism of Ambedkar’s late writings is a timely restatement of the spirit and, at many points, the letter of ancient Buddhism. The ancient Buddhist role models were the mindful monk and the compassionate bodhisattva. The emerging role models of revitalized Buddhism in South Asia—influenced not only by Ambedkar, but by the American Theosophist Henry Steel Olcott and the Sinhalese reformer Anagarika Dharmapala—combine the qualities of Theravada and Mahayana saints with the passions of the human rights activist and the skills of the modern manager. Higher education, legal and political savvy, and a gift for public communication are all characteristic of the new Buddhist leaders: A. T. Ariyaratne, the founder of Sarvodaya Shramadana in Sri Lanka; Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen master and peace worker; Sulak Sivaraksa, the Thai dissident and social reformer; and Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader and Nobel laureate.

Like these courageous Buddhist activists, Ambedkar was acutely aware of the struggles that must be waged on behalf of populations trapped in deprivation and hopelessness. The religious aspects of his conversion movement—especially the sense of new dignity and possibility in life—emboldened countless ex-untouchables to take advantage of the legal protections, scholarships, and employment opportunities mandated by the Indian Constitution. In this way, the spiritual, social, and political dimensions of Ambedkar’s Buddhism remain mutually reinforcing.

Over the course of the half century since Ambedkar’s time, world attention has increasingly focused on popular movements for liberation and human rights in the United States, Latin America, Africa, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, the former Soviet states, and now the Balkans. With the collapse of the cold war and the realignment of the superpowers, the demand for self-determination and the sophisticated methods that marked the fight for Indian independence have become universal standards for nonviolent social change.

In the footsteps of John Dewey, his mentor at Columbia University, Ambedkar based his campaigns for social justice on the European Enlightenment principles of reason and experience and the quest for universal education. He founded the People’s Education Society and its affiliated colleges, Siddharth College in Bombay and Milind College in Aurangabad, to provide educational opportunities for untouchable youths. For Ambedkar, freedom of thought was best exemplified by the historical Buddha, who rejected dogmatism in favor of free inquiry. The Buddha, Ambedkar wrote (using language borrowed from John Dewey), “wished his religion not to be encumbered with the dead wood of the past. He wanted that it should remain evergreen and serviceable at all times. This is why he gave liberty to his followers to chip and chop as the necessities of the case required. No other religious leader has shown such courage.” Perhaps more than his educational philosophy and his contribution to the political shape of modern India, Ambedkar’s most enduring contribution lies in reinventing the wheel of the Buddha-dharma for a new age. Addressing seventy thousand activists at the All-India Depressed Classes Conference in 1942, Ambedkar exemplified a new style of Buddhist activism when he declared:

My final word of advice to you is educate, agitate, and organize. Have faith in yourself. With justice on our side, I do not see how we can lose our battle. The battle to me is a matter of joy. The battle is in the fullest sense spiritual. There is nothing material or social in it. For ours is a battle not for wealth of for power. It is a battle for freedom. It is a battle for the reclamation of the human personality.

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