The Dalit Buddhist movement (dubbed as Navayana by certain Ambedkarites) is a 20th and 21st-century Buddhist revival movement in India. It received its most substantial impetus from B. R. Ambedkar's call for the conversion of Dalits to Buddhism, in 1956, to escape a caste-based society that considered them to be the lowest in the hierarchy. Ambedkar saw Buddhism as a means to end the Indian caste system.
Re-emergence of Buddhism in India
Buddhism was once dominant through much of India; it had, however, declined in India due to a number of reasons. The Buddhist revival began in India in 1891, when the Sri Lankan Buddhist leader Anagarika Dharmapala founded the Maha Bodhi Society. The Maha Bodhi Society mainly attracted upper-caste people.
In the early 20th century, the Barua Buddhists of Bengal under the leadership of Kripasaran Mahasthavir (1865–1926), founder of the Bengal Buddhist Association in Calcutta (1892), established viharas in cities such as Lucknow, Hyderabad, Shillong and Jamshedpur. The number of Buddhists in the Lucknow district was 73 in 1951. These Buddhists were mainly Barua families who came to Lucknow from Chittagong after the partition of Bengal in 1905.
In Lucknow, Bodhanand Mahastavir (1874–1952) advocated Buddhism for Dalits. Born Mukund Prakash in a Bengali Brahmi family, he was orphaned at a young age, and was raised in Varanasi by an aunt. He was initially attracted to Christianity, but became a Buddhist after a meeting with Buddhists monks from Ceylon at a Theosophical Conference in Varanasi. He later lived in Lucknow where he came in contact with the Barua, many of whom were employed as cooks by the British.
In 1914, Prakash was ordained Bodhanand Mahastavir in Calcutta in the presence of Kripasaran Mahasthvir. He began preaching Buddhism in Lucknow. He founded the Bharatiye Buddh Samiti in 1916, and set up a vihara in 1928. In his book Mula Bharatavasi Aur Arya ("Original Inhabitants and Aryans"), Mahastavir stated that the shudras were the original inhabitants of India who were enslaved by the Indo-Aryan peoples.
Bodhanand Mahastavir wrote another book on Buddhist rituals called Baudha Dvicharya. His associate, Chandrika Prasad Jigyasu, founded the Bahujan Kalyan Prakashan. The two co-authored a book on the life and teaching of the Buddha.
Acharya Ishvardatt Medharthi (1900–1971) of Kanpur also supported the cause of the Dalits. He studied Pali at Gurukul Kangri and Buddhist texts were well known to him. He was initiated into Buddhism by Gyan Keto and the Lokanatha in 1937. Gyan Keto (1906–1984), born Peter Schoenfeldt, was a German who arrived in Ceylon in 1936 and became a Buddhist. Medharthi strongly criticised the caste system in India. He claimed that the Dalits ("Adi Hindus") were the ancient rulers of India and had been trapped into slavery by Aryan invaders.
In 1890, Iyothee Thass founded the Sakya Buddhist Society (also known as the Indian Buddhist Association). The first president of the Indian Buddhist Association was the German-born American Paul Carus, the author of The Gospel of Buddha (1894).
Thass, a Tamil Siddha physician, was the pioneer of the Tamil Dalit movement. He argued that Tamil Dalits were originally Buddhists. He led a delegation of prominent Dalits to Henry Steel Olcott and asked for his help in the reestablishment of Tamil Buddhism. Olcott helped Thass to visit Sri Lanka, where he received diksha from Bhikkhu Sumangala Nayake. After returning to India, Thass established the Sakya Buddhist Society in Chennai with branches in many places, including Karnataka. Thass established a weekly magazine called Oru Paisa Tamilan ("One Paisa Tamilian") in Chennai in 1907, which served as a newsletter linking all the new branches of the Sakya Buddhist Society. The magazine discussed traditions and practices of Tamil Buddhism, new developments in the Buddhist world, and the Indian subcontinent's history from the Buddhist point of view.
Bhagya Reddy Varma, a Dalit leader of Telangana, was also fascinated by Buddhism and promoted its adoption among the Dalits.
B. R. Ambedkar
The leader of the untouchables movement from the 1920s until his death in 1956 was B. R. Ambedkar; one of the great men of modern world history, though one would rarely find his name mentioned in religious studies books. It is notable that in books published within the religion genre one rarely, if ever, finds an analysis on the rituals of untouchability or bonded labour. At the Yeola conference in 1935, prominent Indian leader and first law minister B. R. Ambedkar declared that he would not die a Hindu, saying that it perpetuates caste injustices. Ambedkar was approached by various leaders of different denominations and faiths. Meetings were held to discuss the question of Dalits and the pros and cons of conversion. On 22 May 1936, an "All Religious Conference" was held at Lucknow. It was attended by prominent Dalit leaders including Jagjivan Ram, though Ambedkar could not attend it. At the conference, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, and Buddhist representatives presented the tenets of their respective religions in an effort to win over Dalits.
Buddhist monk Lokanatha visited Ambedkar's residence at Dadar on 10 June 1936 and tried to persuade him to embrace Buddhism. Later in an interview to the press, Lokanatha said that Ambedkar was impressed with Buddhism and that his own ambition was to convert all Dalits to Buddhism. In 1937, Lokanatha published a pamphlet Buddhism Will Make You Free, dedicated to the "Depressed Classes" of India from his press in Ceylon.
In early 1940s, Ambedkar visited Acharya Ishvardatt Medharthi's Buddhpuri school in Kanpur. Medharthi had earlier been initiated into Buddhism by Lokanatha, and by the mid-1940s, he had close contacts with Ambedkar. For a short while, Ambedkar also took Pali classes from Medharthi in Delhi.
Bodhananda Mahastvir and Ambedkar first met in 1926 at the "Indian Non-Brahmin Conference" convened by Shahaji II. They met on two more occasions and for a short while in the 1940s, where they discussed dhamma. Mahastavir objected to Dr Ambedkar's second marriage because his bride was a Brahmin. Later, his followers actively participated in Ambedkar's Republican Party of India.
The center of Ambedkar's life was his devotion to the liberation of the backward classes and he struggled to find a satisfactory ideological expression for that liberation. He talked a great deal about religion but went beyond that concept. Ambedkar believed that in the modern world the priority must be institutional liberation. The struggle for liberation, traditionally symbolized by the solitary renouncer in the forest, or by Gautama Buddha sitting alone beneath the bodhi tree, had to be transformed into a struggle against institutionalized bondage.For Ambedkar, those were not only those karmic hindrances that conditioned the individual's consciousness from one lifetime to another. They were also institutionalized realities that required a political solution.
After publishing a series of books and articles arguing that Buddhism was the only way for the Untouchables to gain equality, Ambedkar publicly converted on 14 October 1956, at Deekshabhoomi, Nagpur. He took the three refuges and Five Precepts from a Buddhist monk, Bhadant U Chandramani, in the traditional manner, and in his turn administered them to the 600,000 of his followers who were present. The conversion ceremony was attended by Medharathi, his main disciple Bhoj Dev Mudit, and Mahastvir Bodhanand's Sri Lankan successor, Bhante Pragyanand. Ambedkar asked Dalits not to get entangled in the existing branches of Buddhism, and called his version Navayana or 'Neo-Buddhism'. Ambedkar would die less than two months later, just after finishing his definitive work on Buddhism.
Many Dalits employ the term "Ambedkar(ite) Buddhism" to designate the Buddhist movement, which started with Ambedkar's conversion. Many converted people call themselves "-Bauddha" i.e. Buddhists.
Twenty-two vows of Ambedkar
After receiving ordination, Ambedkar gave dhamma diksha to his followers. The ceremony included 22 vows given to all new converts after Three Jewels and Five Precepts. On 14 October 1956 at Nagpur, Ambedkar performed another mass religious conversion ceremony at Chandrapur.
He prescribed 22 vows to his followers:
- I shall have no faith in Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwara, nor shall I worship them.
- I shall have no faith in Rama and Krishna, who are believed to be incarnation of God, nor shall I worship them.
- I shall have no faith in Gauri, Ganapati and other gods and goddesses of Hindus, nor shall I worship them.
- I do not believe in the incarnation of God.
- I do not and shall not believe that Lord Buddha was the incarnation of Vishnu. I believe this to be sheer madness and false propaganda.
- I shall not perform Shraddha nor shall I give pind.
- I shall not act in a manner violating the principles and teachings of the Buddha.
- I shall not allow any ceremonies to be performed by Brahmins.
- I shall believe in the equality of man.
- I shall endeavour to establish equality.
- I shall follow the Noble Eightfold Path of the Buddha.
- I shall follow the ten paramitas prescribed by the Buddha.
- I shall have compassion and loving-kindness for all living beings and protect them.
- I shall not steal.
- I shall not tell lies.
- I shall not commit carnal sins.
- I shall not take intoxicants like liquor, drugs, etc.
- I shall endeavour to follow the Noble Eightfold Path and practice compassion and loving-kindness in everyday life.
- I renounce Hinduism, which disfavors humanity and impedes the advancement and development of humanity because it is based on inequality, and adopt Buddhism as my religion.
- I firmly believe the Dhamma of the Buddha is the only true religion.
- I consider that I have taken a new birth.
- I solemnly declare and affirm that I shall hereafter lead my life according to the teachings of Buddha's Dhamma.
After Ambedkar's death
The Buddhist movement was somewhat hindered by Dr. Ambedkar's death so shortly after his conversion. It did not receive the immediate mass support from the Untouchable population that Ambedkar had hoped for. Division and lack of direction among the leaders of the Ambedkarite movement have been an additional impediment. According to the 2001 census, there are currently 7.95 million Buddhists in India, at least 5.83 million of whom are Buddhists in Maharashtra. This makes Buddhism the fifth-largest religion in India and 6% of the population of Maharashtra, but less than 1% of the overall population of India.
The Buddhist revival remains concentrated in two states: Ambedkar's native Maharashtra, and Uttar Pradesh — the land of Bodhanand Mahastavir, Acharya Medharthi and their associates.
Developments in Uttar Pradesh
Acharya Medharthi retired from his Buddhapuri school in 1960, and shifted to an ashram in Haridwar. He turned to the Arya Samaj and conducted Vedic yajnas all over India. After his death, he was cremated according to Arya Samaj rites. His Buddhpuri school became embroiled in property disputes. His follower, Bhoj Dev Mudit, converted to Buddhism in 1968 and set up a school of his own.
Rajendranath Aherwar appeared as an important Dalit leader in Kanpur. He joined the Republican Party of India and converted to Buddhism along with his whole family in 1961. In 1967, he founded the Kanpur branch of "Bharatiya Buddh Mahasabha". He held regular meetings where he preached Buddhism, officiated at Buddhist weddings and life cycle ceremonies, and organised festivals on Dr. Ambedkar's Jayanti (birth day), Sambuddhatva jayanthi, Diksha Divas (the day Ambedkar converted), and Dr Ambedkar Paranirvan Divas (the day Ambedkar died).
The Dalit Buddhist movement in Kanpur gained impetus with the arrival of Dipankar, a Chamar bhikkhu, in 1980. Dipankar had come to Kanpur on a Buddhist mission and his first public appearance was scheduled at a mass conversion drive in 1981. The event was organised by Rahulan Ambawadekar, an RPI Dalit leader. In April 1981, Ambawadekar founded the Dalit Panthers (U.P. Branch) inspired by the Maharashtrian Dalit Panthers. The event met with severe criticism and opposition from Vishva Hindu Parishad and was banned.
The number of Buddhists in the Lucknow district increased from 73 in 1951 to 4327 in 2001. According to the 2001 census, almost 70% of the Buddhist population in Uttar Pradesh is from the scheduled castes background.
In 2002, Kanshi Ram, a popular political leader from a Sikh religious background, announced his intention to convert to Buddhism on 14 October 2006, the fiftieth anniversary of Ambedkar's conversion. He intended for 20,000,000 of his supporters to convert at the same time. Part of the significance of this plan was that Ram's followers include not only Untouchables, but persons from a variety of castes, who could significantly broaden Buddhism's support. But, he died 9 October 2006 after a lengthy illness; he was cremated as per Buddhist tradition.
Another popular Dalit leader, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister and Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati, has said that she and her followers will embrace Buddhism after the BSP forms a government at the Centre.
Japanese-born Surai Sasai emerged as an important Buddhist leader in India. Sasai came to India in 1966 and met Nichidatsu Fuji, whom he helped with the Peace Pagoda at Rajgir. He fell out with Fuji, however, and started home, but, by his own account, was stopped by a dream in which a figure resembling Nagarjuna appeared and said, "Go to Nagpur". In Nagpur, he met Wamanrao Godbole, the person who had organised the conversion ceremony for Dr. Ambedkar in 1956. Sasai claims that when he saw a photograph of Dr. Ambedkar at Godbole's home, he realised that it was Ambedkar who had appeared in his dream. At first, Nagpur folk considered Surai Sasai very strange. Then he began to greet them with "Jai Bhim" (victory to Ambedkar) and to build viharas. In 1987 a court case to deport him on the grounds that he had overstayed his visa was dismissed, and he was granted Indian citizenship. Sasai and Bhante Anand Agra are two of main leaders of the campaign to free the Mahabodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya from Hindu control.
A movement originating in Maharashtra but also active in Uttar Pradesh, and spread out over quite a few other pockets where Neo Buddhists live, is Triratna Bauddha Mahāsaṅgha (formerly called TBMSG for Trailokya Bauddha Mahasangha Sahayaka Gana). It is the Indian wing of the UK-based Triratna Buddhist Community founded by Sangharakshita. Its roots lie in the scattered contacts that Sangharakshita had in the 1950s with Dr. Ambedkar. Sangharakshita, then still a bhikshu, participated in the conversion movement from 1956 until his departure to the UK in 1963.
When his new ecumenical movement had gained enough ground in the West, Sangharakshita worked with Ambedkarites in India and the UK to develop Indian Buddhism further. After visits in the late 1970s by Dharmachari Lokamitra from UK, supporters developed a two-pronged approach: social work through the Bahujan Hitaj (also spelled as Bahujan Hitay) trust, mainly sponsored from the general public by the British Buddhist-inspired Karuna Trust (UK), and direct Dharma work. Currently the movement has viharas and groups in at least 20 major areas, a couple of retreat centres, and hundreds of Indian Dharmacharis and Dharmacharinis.
Funding for movement's social and dharma work has come from foreign countries, including the Western countries and Taiwan. Some of the foreign-funded organisations include Trailokya Bauddha Mahasangha Sahayaka Gana and Triratna (Europe and India). Triratna has links with the 'Ambedkarite' Buddhist Romanis in Hungary.
Organized mass conversions
Since Ambedkar's conversion, several thousand people from different castes have converted to Buddhism in ceremonies including the twenty-two vows. The Tamil Nadu and Gujarat governments passed new laws in 2003 to ban "forced" religious conversions.
Criticism of conversions
Critics have argued that efforts to convert Hindus to Ambedkarite Buddhism are political stunts rather than sincere commitments to social reform. Leaders of the Dalit Bahujan Samaj Party have said that they are being branded as "anti-Hindu" because the publicity associated with the conversions is largely the work of "manuvadi vested interests, including political parties and sections of the media." They are interested in peaceful dialogue with the Brahmins. On May 2011, Vishwesha Teertha, stated that conversion doesn't add any benefit to status of dalits.
On 17 June 2013, the converted Dalits asked for the Buddhist certificates, that has been delayed.
According to Dr. Gail Omvedt, an American-born and naturalised Indian sociologist and human rights activist :
Ambedkar's Buddhism seemingly differs from that of those who accepted by faith, who 'go for refuge' and accept the canon. This much is clear from its basis: it does not accept in totality the scriptures of the Theravada, the Mahayana, or the Vajrayana. The question that is then clearly put forth: is a fourth yana, a Navayana, a kind of modernistic Enlightenment version of the Dhamma really possible within the framework of Buddhism?
Most Dalit Indian Buddhists espouse an eclectic version of Buddhism, primarily based on Theravada, but with additional influences from Mahayana and Vajrayana. On many subjects, they give Buddhism a distinctive interpretation. Of particular note is their emphasis on Shakyamuni Buddha as a political and social reformer, rather than simply a spiritual leader. They note that the Buddha required his monastic followers to ignore caste distinctions, and that he criticized the social inequality that existed in his own time. According to Ambedkar, a person's unfortunate conditions are not only the result of karma or ignorance and craving, but do also result from "social exploitation and material poverty – the cruelty of others."