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Why Ambedkar Converted to Buddhism

Ambedkar publicly converted to Buddhism in 1956 over 20 years after he declared his intent to convert. In the meantime, he studied other prominent religions and scrutinized them well. Unfortunately, Ambedkar died almost two months after his public conversion on December 6, 1956. Yet the path he chose transformed the Dalit community.

Archival image of BR Ambedkar.
Archival image of BR Ambedkar.

B.R. Ambedkar’s undelivered speech, “The Annihilation of Caste”, is regarded as one of the most brutal takedowns of the varna (caste) system. It was written in April 1935 and included in a collection of self-published essays (1936). It was to overcome the caste system that Ambedkar had decided to adopt Buddhism, after scrutinizing all the prominent religions for over ten years, in 1956. Just two months after his official conversion, however, he died ‘due to illness.’ In one of his speeches, he had said: “Though I was born a Hindu untouchable, I shall not die as a Hindu.”

On 12 December 1935, Doctor Babasaheb Ambedkar received a letter from Mr. Sant Ram, the secretary of Lahore’s Jat-Pat Todak Mandal (forum to dismantle the caste system and a radical faction of the Arya Samaj), who invited him to address the annual conference in May 1936 and speak about the ill-effects of caste on Hindu society. However, Ambedkar declined their invitation when the Mandal approached him first. Ambedkar’s conception and attitude towards social reform were so different from the Mandal. Indeed, Ambedkar found “their company quite uncongenial to him” due to differences of opinion with them.
 
However, the Mandal did not take the refusal from him and sent one of its members to Bombay to hold Babasaheb to accept the invitation. In the end, he accepted the invitation to preside. Subsequently, when Ambedkar sent his speech, titled ‘Annihilation of Caste’, the Mandal found some of its contents so “controversial.” The Mandal asked Ambedkar to remove the following text from his address in their letter dated 22 April 1936:

“I would be glad to take a leading part in the destruction of the caste system if the Hindus are willing to work in earnest towards that end, even if they had to forsake their kith and kin and their religious notions.”

Eventually, they also asked Ambedkar to delete the offending paragraphs in which he attacked the morality and reasonableness of the Vedas and other Hindu religious books in his written speech, which was sent to the Mandal prior to the address. The Mandal, mired in Brahmanical patriarchy, was hurt by the last portion of the address. According to them, it dealt with the complete annihilation of the Hindu religion, doubted the morality of the sacred book of the Hindus as well as hinted at Ambedkar’s intention to leave the Hindu fold. The Mandal then wrote to Ambedkar that the reception committee would “prefer to postpone the conference sine die if Ambedkar insisted upon printing the address in toto.” In reply to the letter, Ambedkar wrote to them that he would “prefer to have the conference cancelled.” He wrote:

“You ought to have known that there was no hope of any alteration being made in the address. I told you when you were in Bombay that I would not alter a comma, that I would not allow any censorship over my address, and that you have to accept the address as it came from me.”
 
In their letter to Ambedkar on 14 April 1936, the Mandal’s committee wrote to get 1,000 copies of the address printed, for which they agreed to pay. Ambedkar got 1,000 copies printed before getting paid as they gave him the liberty to either accept or refuse the verbal changes which they had suggested. However, in the letter, they asked him to alter the text, which came as a surprise to Ambedkar. Eventually, the committee withdrew their invitation. Afterwards, Ambedkar self-published the essay which was already printed with his own money.
 
The portion the Mandal had objected to was not only relevant but also “most important” as stated by Bahasaheb in his reply to the Mandal’s letter. Ambedkar wrote: “One cannot have any respect or regard for men who take the position of the ‘reformer’ and then ‘refuse’ ‘even to see the logical consequences’ of that position, let alone following them out in action.”
 
In the ‘Annihilation of Caste,’ Ambedkar made a persuasive argument with details of the reality of “caste as a planned misfortune.” Today, caste is a social scale in which divisions of labourers are ‘graded’. The caste system is the social division of the same race. It has thousands of sub-castes, with deeply-rooted inequality. Also, if caste means race, then differences of sub-castes cannot make the difference of race as sub-division of caste by hypothesis becomes sub-division of one and the ‘same race.’ Moreover, race lacks any “cosmological basis for one black person to feel racially superior to another black.” For the same reason, “mobility at every level has been a part of the caste system.” Today, our behaviour is governed by castes. Our values and principles have become caste-bound. Caste has become a state of the mind. 
 
Additionally, the notion of caste not only originated from the Hindu religion but from Hindu shastras which permit them to believe in their sanctity. The destruction of the caste is all about a notional change that originates from Hindu shastras. The “real remedy for breaking the varna or caste system is neither ‘inter-dining, nor to abolish sub-castes' but it is ‘inter-caste marriage.’ In the 21st century, why do a large majority of Hindus not inter-dine and inter-marry? 
 
On 14 October 1956, Ambedkar converted to Buddhism, along with close to 3,65,000 of his followers in Nagpur. He took a life-altering decision as it was “the only method for Dalits to denounce the caste system and to gain equality.” It not only changed his path, but also the lives of a large number of marginalized people. The basis of the foundation of Hinduism is inequality. And Buddha struggled throughout his life to fight against inequality. 
 
Hinduism teaches inequality on the basis of caste and gender. Contrarily, Buddha was the greatest opponent of ‘chaturvarna’ (parent of the caste system). He not only preached and fought against it, but did everything to uproot it. Buddha said: “However many holy words you read, however many you speak, what good will they do you if you do not act upon them?” Thus, for Buddha, it was always about morality, not rituals.

On the day of his conversion, Ambedkar said: “… religion is for man and not man for religion. For getting human treatment, convert yourselves. Convert to getting organized. Convert to becoming strong. Convert for securing equality. Convert to getting liberty.” Ambedkar’s primary reason for converting to Buddhism was its values that run contrary to Hinduism: rationality, morality and justice. Buddhism helped Ambedkar realize his requirements: “the exercise of individual choice based on reason and historical consciousness.” It was the base on which he struggled throughout his life, specifically against Hinduism.
 
Ambedkar publicly converted to Buddhism in 1956 over 20 years after he declared his intent to convert. In the meantime, he studied other prominent religions and scrutinized them well. He chose Buddhism as the best path of all. His arduous search for morality, equality, justice (enshrined in the Preamble of the Indian Constitution), and the welfare of every human being and living being, took him to Buddhism. Unfortunately, Ambedkar was not able to practice it for a long time. He died almost two months after conversion on December 6, 1956. Yet the path he chose through his hard work and dedication transformed the Dalit community.

(Pragyanshu Gautam is studying law at Hidayatullah National Law University, Raipur) 

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