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CONVERSION: “I Was Born Hindu But Will Not Die As A Hindu”- Dr. B. R. Ambedkar

October 14, 1956 – Dr. B.R. Ambedkar – Conversion to Buddhism

 

By Zile Singh

 

The Dalit Buddhist Movement also known as Neo-Buddhist Movement is a socio-political movement started by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar.  It is a new school of Buddhism called Navayana (new vehicle).   The movement was launched on October 14, 1956, when nearly half a million Dalits – formerly Untouchables – joined him in the conversion ceremony at Nagpur in Maharashtra.  Ambedkar was born a Dalit, in  Mahar caste. He saw the Buddha as a radical social and religious reformer who created an outlet from the rigid Hindu ritualistic and caste system.  Ambedkar  rejected not only the Hinduism and its caste system but also differed from the traditional Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism.  His  “The Buddha and His Dhamma” is the holy book of Navayana  Buddhists. Unfortunately, just seven weeks after his conversion he died on December 6, 1956.  Some excerpts from his speech on the occasion of his conversion  are reproduced below.

 

“Conversion is not a children’s game. It is not a subject of entertainment. It deals with how to make man’s life successful. Just as a boatman has to make all necessary preparation before he starts on a voyage, so also we have to make such preparation. Without preparation, it will be impossible to reach the other shore.

 

There are two aspects of conversion: social as well as religious, material as well as spiritual. Whatever may be the aspect or line of thinking, it is necessary to understand at the beginning the nature of Untouchability and how it is practiced. Without this understanding, you will not be able to realize the real meaning underlying my declaration of Conversion. In order to have a clear understanding of the problem of Untouchability and its practice in real life, I would want you to recall the stories of atrocities perpetrated against you.

 

If whatever I have described above is correct, then you will have to agree with the conclusion that follows. The conclusion is: if you depend upon your own strength, you will never be able to face the tyranny of the Hindus. I have no doubt that you are oppressed because you have no strength. It is not that you alone are in a minority. The Muslims are equally small in number. Like Mahar-Mangs, they too have few houses in the village. But no one dares to trouble the Muslims, while you are always a victim of tyranny. Why is this so? Though there are two houses of Muslims in the village, nobody dares to harm them, while the whole village practices tyranny against you though you have about ten houses. Why does this happen? This is a very pertinent question, and you will have to find a suitable answer to this.

In my opinion, there is only one answer to this question. The Hindus realize that the strength of the whole of the Muslim population in India stands behind those two houses of Muslims living in the village; and therefore they do not dare to touch them. These two houses also enjoy a free and fearless life because they are aware that if any Hindu commits aggression against them, the whole Muslim community from Punjab to Madras will rush down to protect them at any cost.”

Today,  Dalits make up nearly 20 percent of the Indian population—and many of them are angry as well as hungry because of the  ongoing discrimination and mistreatment meted to them.  In a country of over 1.3 billion people, the number of registered Indian Buddhists remains tiny at about 8.4 million. About 87 percent of them are Neo-Buddhists or call them Ambedkarite Buddhists.  According to the National Crime Record Bureau, between 2007 and 2017, the crime against  Dalits increased by 66 percent and the rape of Dalit women doubled.  Lately, Dalit anger, assertion and  exertion—which manifest in regular protests, strikes, and social media furor—stand to make a major impact on the national and the international levels.  Therefore, the so-called    low-caste Indians are continuing to find an appeal in Ambedkar’s message.   Converting from Hinduism to Islam or Christianity is now illegal in several states.  Therefore, they find a solace in Buddhism.

 

 

In its focus on caste-based inequality, Ambedkarite Buddhism shares concerns of the historical Buddha, the prince whose groundbreaking rejection of Hindu castes, the Vedas, and Vedic rituals spurred his philosophical journey. But Ambedkarite Navayana  diverges from the mainstream Buddhist schools, like Theravada and Mahayana, which have developed over the past two millennia. Ambedkar summarily dismissed everything from the Four Noble Truths to meditation to the doctrine of rebirth, deeming them non-canonical interpretations that arose after the Buddha’s lifetime.  The Buddha was more concerned with people’s suffering, not things like chanting and meditation, which are mostly useless.  It’s not an emancipatory path for individuals. It doesn’t make sense to become Buddhist alone when your society is downtrodden. This contrasts with Buddhism’s popular concept in the West, which is often oriented around an  individual’s personal fulfillment and peace of mind.

 

Conversion is even becoming a political weapon today.  A famous Dalit politician and a former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh and a Member of Parliament, Ms.  Mayawati,  threatened in  the Parliament to convert to Buddhism with her many followers if BJP members “don’t change their disrespectful, casteist, and communal behaviour towards the Dalits.”

Mr. Zile Singh is much respected Link Columnist, writer, a Vipassana Meditator and has a Post-Graduate Diploma in Human Rights.  He can be reached at zsnirwal@yahoo.ca

 

 

 

 

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