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Young Bhim Ambedkar met the Buddha for the first time at a party in Bombay. As the only untouchable student at Elphinstone High School, Ambedkar caused a stir when he passed his matriculation exam in 1907. A graduation party was organised by Krishna Arjun ‘Dada’ Keluskar, author, activist and principal of nearby Wilson High School. Keluskar had seen Ambedkar reading alone in the Churni Road Garden and finally asked him who he was. The boy, born of Mahar parents in an army camp, explained that upper-caste students at Elphinstone bullied him and that he retreated to the park with a book. The teacher recognised the boy’s promise and began helping him with his studies.
At the party, Keluskar gave him a copy of his Life of the Buddha, written in Marathi for the Baroda Sayajirao Oriental Series. Sayajirao provided Ambedkar financial aid, employment and finally full support to attend Columbia University, where Ambedkar earned his first doctorate and discovered that a society could be organised around the notions of liberty, equality and fraternity.
More than the influence of early mentors and institutions, it was the life and teachings of the Buddha, first presented in Keluskar’s slim volume, that made the most impact. After the party, he recalled years later, “I...was greatly impressed and moved by it.” In the following decades, as he launched the untouchable civil rights movement, represented his community in the negotiations with the British and the Congress, served as the first law minister and principal draftsman of the Constitution, Ambedkar never forgot the vision of personal striving and social transformation he first encountered in the person of the Buddha.
Who was the Buddha that impressed Ambedkar so much? Ambedkar reflected deeply on this, and declared in 1950 that Buddhism was the only religion that could meet the requirements of the modern world—wisdom, compassion, and social justice. And we know that in the last, illness-ridden five years of his life, he devoted his remaining energy to the study of Buddhism.
The fruit of Ambedkar’s final labours is The Buddha and His Dhamma, a daring interpretation of traditional teachings. Venerated by ex-untouchables and millions practising ‘Navayana’ Buddhism, it tells the story of the earthly Buddha and summarises his teachings. This manifesto brings out the social teachings that Ambedkar believed were suppressed by misunderstanding and distortion. Gautama’s welcoming all to his new religious community is there. But so is Ambedkar’s critique of four famous items in the traditional presentation of Buddhism.
Ambedkar doubted that a 29-year-old prince would have abandoned his duties after seeing a sick person, an old person, a corpse and a sadhu. The Four Noble Truths “are a great stumbling block”, attributing all human suffering to desire and craving. Are the poor to be blamed for craving food? Traditional notions of karma and rebirth clearly pose a contradiction of the core teaching of no-self (anatta) and another justification for the caste system, in which low-birth results from bad behaviour in a past life—again blaming victims of social exploitation. Finally, should not the clergy serve society, or should they only study and meditate? These questions “must be decided not so much in the interest of doctrinal consistency but in the interest of the future of Buddhism”.
Ambedkar’s Buddha is based on meticulous study of the Pali record as well as scores of modern commentaries he collected. And this Buddha is a path-giver (marga-data), not a rescuer (moksha-data); he is all-compassionate (maha-karunika); and he is opposed to superstition and speculation. He is awakened by definition—rational, practical, and rooted in present realities. But he is also engaged—committed to social change and justice, and, if necessary, non-violent social revolution. This is the Buddha that has inspired a new generation of socially engaged Buddhists across the world.
Was this the Buddha young Bhim met at his graduation party? Or has the Buddha of old found new voices in a dangerous new world?
(Christopher Queen teaches Buddhism and Social Change and World Religions at Harvard University.)