Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Conversion To Buddhism: Rejection Of Hinduism Was Ambedkar’s Choice, Nothing Less But Much More

Conversion To Buddhism: Rejection Of Hinduism Was Ambedkar’s Choice, Nothing Less But Much More

When some Buddhist organisations wrote to the President of India seeking legal action against former Delhi minister Rajendra Pal Gautam for his presence in a conversion bid to Buddhism, question comes, what was Bhim Rao Ambedkar’s take on conversion?

Dr BR Ambedkar
Dr BR Ambedkar Instagram

Since the video of former Delhi minister Rajendra Pal Gautam’s presence during a conversion event of 10,000 people to Buddhism took the social media by storm, leading to his apology and subsequent resignation as a minister, several questions over the intention of the conversions have been raised.  

Though Gautam simply reproduced the action of Bhim Rao Ambedkar, who presided over possibly the largest mass conversion to Buddhism in October 1956, it did not turn out well for him. Not just the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and other right-wing groups, several Buddhist organisations also registered their objections and wrote to President Droupadi Murmu seeking legal action against him.  

In a letter to Murmu, the Buddhist functionaries noted, “Buddhism does not teach spewing venom against any other faith. Buddhism does not espouse 'rejecting' or disrespecting other Gods and Goddesses. The teachings of Lord Buddha epitomise the spirit of 'enlightened yourself' and respect for all religions. For centuries, Buddhists and Hindus have coexisted peacefully and there has been rich interfaith dialogue between us. Mahatma Gandhi was deeply influenced by the thoughts of Lord Buddha and also spoke of them very frequently.”  

However, this idea of Buddhism was perhaps the last thing that Ambedkar sought. It was the ‘rejection’ of Hinduism—both politically and spiritually— that drove him towards that end.  

While a section of Buddhist organisations in case of Gautam brought in the notion of long-term bonhomie between Hindus and Buddhists, there have been other instances in recent times that have challenged the state and its imposition through the assertive religious conversions.  

After a Dalit woman was raped, murdered, and then cremated away from her family in Uttar Pradesh’s Hathras, Buddhist Society of India in Ghaziabad organised a mass conversion of 300 Dalits. As per the reports, this act of conversion was a literal protest against the caste-based crime.  

When the Uttar Pradesh government passed the Unlawful Religious Conversion Ordinance, 2020 and tried to criminalise mass conversions, Rajratna Ambedkar, the President of Buddhist Society of India (BSI), said, “This is an attempt to intimidate Dalits, particularly the Valmiki community, to ensure they don't take part in any resistance programmes despite incidents such as Hathras. They don't want to give us an option to leave the Hindu fold.”  

One finds some ambivalence in these references, if read along with the recent stance of some Buddhist organisations in Gautam’s case. To tread through these conceptual terrains, it is better to look back at the parent of Constitution of India, who himself throughout his life wrote ample articles and books to clarify his position. There were transitions but hardly any ambiguity. From the very beginning of his political and academic career, Ambedkar was convinced that he would reject Hinduism. 

Prof. Sanjeev Kumar in his research paper Ambedkar’s Journey of Conversion to Buddhism reflected upon the stages Ambedkar passed through to ultimately take up the decision of converting to Buddhism. In the context of Gautam’s controversy, it is high time to look back at how Ambedkar used Buddhism as means of political emancipation.  

An effort to reform Hinduism or assertive rejection?  

In the very first phase of his career during 1916-27, Ambedkar tried to find space within the possibilities of reforms in Hinduism. His efforts in seeking the right to enter temples for Dalits could be read as his desire to be accommodated within the broader folds of Hinduism. But few statements in the second decade of the century give testimony to the contrary.  

Presenting the ‘Evidence before South Borough Committee’ in 1918, Ambedkar said, “…there was a real difference and consequent conflict between the like-mindedness of the touchable and the untouchable. Untouchability was the strongest ban on the endosmosis between them. Their complete isolation accounted for the acuteness of the difference of like-mindedness... The real social divisions of India then were: (1) Touchable Hindus. (2) Untouchable Hindus. (3) Mohammedans. (4) Christians. (5) Parsees. (6) Jews.”  

Ambedkar’s statement was though directed at the political benefits of achieving separate electorate for the depressed classes, his conceptual notions where he considered Dalits as different from Hindus reflected his believe in inherent separateness of Dalits from the caste Hindus.  

On October 23, 1928, when Ambedkar made his submission on behalf of Bahishkrit Hitkarni Sabha and the Depressed Indian Association of Bombay to the Simon Commission, he further clarified his stance. On being asked by the chairperson whether he would identify the depressed classes as Hindu, he said, “I do not care for the nomenclature. It does not matter whether I call myself a Hindu or a non-Hindu, so long as I am outside the pale of the Hindu community.”

In response to the resolution passed by the Bombay Legislative Assembly in 1923 that the depressed classes must be allowed in places maintained by the Government when he called for the historic Mahad Satyagraha in 1927 and went to Chawdar tank to drink water, Ambedkar said it was turn for the upper caste Hindus to reform their mindset. It was for him the moment to decide whether Hindus at all regard the dignity of human. However, the caste Hindus proved him right filing a case against him for fetching the water.  

So when Ambedkar organised Kalaram Temple Satyagraha in the early 1930s, we found a new Ambedkar who treaded his path far beyond the reforms. Rejecting Dr. Subharayn’s temple entry bill that was traded by Gandhi against the absolving of separate electorate proposal, Ambedkar said, “…to open or not to open your temples is a question for you to consider and not for me to agitate. If you think, it is bad manners not to respect the sacredness of human personality, open your temple and be a gentleman. If you rather be a Hindu than a gentleman, then shut the doors and damn yourself for I don’t care to come.”  

By 1935, Ambedkar was convinced that the conversion was the only way for the depressed classes. In the meeting of the Yeola, he said, “I advise you to severe your connection with Hinduism and to embrace any other religion. But, in doing so, be careful in choosing the new faith and see that equality of treatment, status and opportunities will be guaranteed to you unreservedly...Unfortunately for me, I was born a Hindu Untouchable. It was beyond my power to prevent that, but I declare that it is within my power to refuse to live under ignoble and humiliating conditions. I solemnly assure you that I will not die a Hindu.”  

If this is not a case of direct rejection of a faith, then what is it? The Buddhist organisations who questioned Gautam perhaps forgot how Ambedkar played a monumental role in spreading Buddhism. The next section will look into how and why Ambedkar chose Buddhism and with what caveats.  

Embracing Buddhism: A route toward dignified egalitarianism  

During 1936-56, Ambedkar contemplated the possibilities in different religions before embracing Buddhism. That he moved far away from the idea of Hindu reformism is reflected in his comment on May 31, 1936. Addressing a meeting of the Mahar caste, he asked, “If we can gain freedom by conversion, why should we shoulder the responsibility of the reform of Hindu religion?”  

In this context, as political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot in his book Dr. Ambedkar and Untouchability: Analysing and fighting caste showed, Ambedkar moved more towards socio-economic and socio-political justice than the spiritual quest.  

Promoting the rejection of Hindu deities, Ambedkar fumed, “Conversion is only a means by which Mahars may achieve freedom and equality. Mahars are ready to convert en masse. As a first step towards conversion, Mahars will refrain from worshiping Hindu deities, observing Hindu holidays, and visiting Hindu sacred sites.”  

However, Ambedkar’s choice of Buddhism was much to do with his predecessors’ closeness to this religion. Pandit Iyothee Thass of Tamil Nadu, who organised mass conversion to Buddhism and gave it a popular face in the southern state among the downtrodden, played a huge role behind Ambedkar’s selection of the religion.  

Ambedkar found his foundational ideals rooted in the idea of Buddhism. On October 3, 1954 through a broadcast in All India Radio, Ambedkar said, “Positively, my social philosophy may be said to be enshrined in three words: liberty, equality and fraternity. Let no one however say that I browed my philosophy from the French Revolution. I have not. My philosophy has roots in religion and not in political science. I have derived them from the teachings of my master, the Buddha...My philosophy has a mission. I have to do the work of conversion to Buddhism.”  

These references make it clear that the ideals of equality of Buddhism brought Ambedkar close to it. He though primarily gave a thought about Sikhism, but later he discarded it. The strongest statement of Ambedkar against Hinduism that we find in his address during the mass conversion on October 14, 1956 would perhaps provoke charges of sedition today.

If anyone is interested to follow the ideals of Ambedkar as several political parties, including the right-wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-BJP have been trying to apparently show, one must remember he was the last person to tolerate ancient glory of inequality and oppression.

Standing for the ideals of dhamma that he considered as a moral path to emancipation, he said, “By discarding my ancient religion which stood for inequality and oppression today, I am reborn. I have no faith in the philosophy of incarnation; and it is wrong and mischievous to say that Buddha was an incarnation of Vishnu. I am no more a devotee of any Hindu God or Goddess. I will not perform shraddha [a Hindu rite]. I will strictly follow the eight-fold path of Buddha. Buddhism is a true religion and I will strictly follow the eight-fold path of Buddha. Buddhism is a true religion and I will lead a life guided by the three principles of knowledge, right path, and compassion.”