February 22, 2020
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Refuge In Buddhism

I was born a Hindu, but I will not die a Hindu. A 'vow' taken by Dr B.R. Ambedkar in 1935.

Refuge In Buddhism

HE did not. On October 14, 1956, Ambedkar converted to Buddhism. He died two months later, on December 6. At Nagpur, where the conversion took place, a deeply moved Ambedkar declared: "I renounce Hinduism". But this happened after some prevarication. At the first Depressed Classes Congress in August 1930, Ambedkar told his audience that he would not abjure the Hindu religion whatever the hardships inflicted upon him by caste Hindus. By 1933, however, with pressure mounting from within the Dalit community for "all depressed classes to convert to any religion other than Hinduism" ( Dr Ambedkar, A critical Study , by W.N. Kuber), there were rumours that he intended to embrace Islam. But Ambedkar clarified in letters to associates from London that he was inclined towards Buddhism  Born a Mahar in 1891, the reasons for Ambedkar's conversion were borne out of a conviction that an end to Dalit miseries was not possible if they remained Hindus. Personal experiences were probably crucial in reaching this decision. Being an "untouchable", he was made to sit apart in school, not allowed to learn Sanskrit and teachers did not ask him questions for fear of being "polluted". In 1917, after a stint at Columbia University on a scholarship by the Maharaja of Baroda, he was appointed military secretary to the Maharaja. This post did not prevent peons from throwing files at him because they did not want to be "contaminated". Though he converted to Buddhism late in life, Ambedkar's possible conversion was hotly debated from the '30s onwards. Experts agree that by his conversion and that of the Dalits, Ambedkar visualised a separate community outside the Hindu fold. But the political leadership of the national movement and social reformers tried to convince him otherwise. "Religion is not a barter," said Mahatma Gandhi, in 1935. "Change of faith will not serve the cause." "In retrospect, Ambedkar's conversion, as far as it was an attempt to jettison the caste system once and for all, was a failure. Caste is an intrinsic part of the Indian social structure and not limited to the Hindu religion," says Purshottam Aggarwal, commentator on Dalit politics and associate professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University. The demand for caste-based reservation from Dalit Christians, Muslims, Sikhs and even neo-Buddhists in recent times seems to bear this out. But Professor Nandu Ram, author of the acclaimed book Beyond Ambedkar , believes that, "it (conversion) was Ambedkar's revolt against a religion which had brought untold misery upon crores of Indians and inflicted insufferable disabilities upon them. It gave the untouchables a choice. A hope of things to come."  So, it came about that the man described by Nehru as a "symbol of revolt against the oppressive features of Hindu society" walked out of the Hindu fold and embraced Buddhism which he found "Indian, cleansed of inequality and hereditary priesthood."

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