- Ambebkar's Conversion to Buddhism:
- Factors and after Effect
- Dr. Arun Kumar Sinha
- Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, Sarnath, Varanasi
Dr. Bhimrao, Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956) was one of the leading
personalities of our modern India. A great social reformer, undisputed champion of the
untouchables and their cause, a great constitutionalist, a keen thinker and a versatile
orator, Ambedkar symbolized a unique phenomenon in the political and social arena of
modern India. He is chiefly known for his twin works-the unrelentless struggle for the
dignity and upliftment of the untouchables of India against the strongly entrenched
hierarchial Hindu caste system and as an architect of our Indian constitution. Born in the
Mahar caste, an untouchable community of Maharastra, he received the highest education
undreamt of by any untouchable caste person of his age. His life, works and Ideas were
shaped by personalities like Kabir, Jyotiba Phooley and the Buddha, his ascribed status as
an untouchable and lastly the Liberal-Democratic ideas, ideologies and institutions of the
west. The cause dearest to his heart, which
consumed his whole life was the upliftment of the untouchables and depressed classes of
India. His vision of uplifting their position was not limited only to their social respect
and material aspect alone but aspired to make them a perfect human being in every sense.
Ambedkar for this, laid more stress on social democracy than political democracy and in
this debate between him and the congress leaders he gave priority to the former whereas
congress thought the opposite. For Ambedkar social democracy was a prerequiste for a
stable political system. Ambedkar was critical of Gandhi and Congress leaders soft
approach towards the upliftment of untouchables which just labelled them as 'Harijan'
within the Hindu fold and argued that political democracy and consciousness would
automatically Improve condition of Harijans in Indian society. Being, himself the
conscious and educated member of the untouchable community he was more aware of their
plight and hence his straight forward approach at times smacked of aggressiveness and
casteism. Ambedkar's works and approach to uplift the condition of untouchables in India
and especially the Mahars of Maharastra and ultimately their conversion to Buddhism can be
seen in four phases.
The first phase of Ambedkar's struggle (1919-1929) was to create an
opening for the untouchables within the Hindu fold by trying to smash the bastion of caste
and Its religion by trying to gain access to public places and utilities where the
untouchables were discriminated. The second phase (1929-35) was of soul searching and
mentally preparing to leave the Hindu fold and convert to some other religion. Although he
gave such indication in May 1929 at Jalgaon yet at the conference of Depressed Classes on
13th Oct. 1935 he made a positive statement with the historic declaration that
circumstances beyond his control had placed him in the untouchable community but he would
certainly not die as a Hindu for sure. The
third phase (1935-50) was of securing political rights and advocating the cause of
untouchables at various political forms and commissions. He was deeply involved in
securing political, social and economic rights for the scheduled castes which finally led
to various provisions In the drafting of the Indian constitution. The conversion question
remained suspended and education as means of upliftment was given preference. On the whole
it was a phase when forces of modemizaton and securing rights gained prime place. The
Fourth phase (1950-56) saw the reawakening of the conversion issue and finally conversion
to Buddhism which he along with a large number of untouchables did on the 14th Oct. 1956
about two months before his death on the 6th Dec. 1956.
A lot has been written and published on the historic event of Dr.
Ambedkar and his followers conversion to Buddhsm and its impact.
This year (1991) being his Birth Centenary Year such exercise has
proliferated and gained importance. This article is about why Ambedkar took so long time
to decide to convert, the various inherent factors involved in it and its after effects.
Dr. Ambedkar decided to leave the Hindu fold and convert to some other
religion in 1935 but actually did it in 1956 which seems as a long drawn process stretched
over two decades. The resolution made it clear that he was adamant to leave the Hindu fold
but to which religion was undecided. Various factors and their impact were evaluated by
him. The options open for religious conversion to Ambedkar were Islam, Christianity,
Sikhism, Buddhism or a new sect of his own. The conversion to any religion had to have a
mass base and suited to the present and future needs of the untouchables, and especially
his own caste, the Mahars. The bases of evaluation of the prospective religion were:
"absolute equality, rationalism and Intellectual creativity, the possibility of
converts continuing their newly won special privileges from the government as Depressed
Classes, a connection with a militant group which could offer protection but allow them
to. retain their own leadership and direction, a birth place In India and position of
respect there." Ambedkar's resolution made
various religious leaders to woo him and his followers towards their own religion, but no
current religion met all his demands. Religious conversion to Christianity and Islam
involved greater risk to his caste unity and would have made the whole exercise less
successful. Although preaching equality, love, fraternity and humanity In principle, Islam
till then had showed undue militancy on national scene and also somewhat heirarchial
discrimination in their community life. Christianity also showed class and rank strife and
case of discrimination like the Hindu fold. Further, being a nationalist to the core of
his heart conversion to Islam and Christianity for Ambedkar, would have meant
denationalization of the scheduled caste people and contrary to national interest. It would have thrown them on the wrong side of the
national politics with more risk to face and less gan to be achieved. Ambedkar considered
converting to Sikhism for a time being because it met most of his demands but at the same
time he felt a certain amount of responsibility for the fate of Hindus whom he was
deserting. But this involved the risk of
forgoing the privileges accorded to untouchables in reserved Parliamentary seats and
special concessions granted by the British government.
Ambedkar was much inclined towards Buddhism to which he was exposed since 1920's but
had to face the same risk of losing the political concessions. At the same time despite
its revival on intellectual plane it was not considered as a vital established religion
compared to other religions.
After the announcement to desert the Hindu religion in
1935, Ambedkar forbade his followers to worship Hindu deities and observe their ceremonies
and festivals. It is difficult to document the effect of the conversion announcement on
the religious life of the Mahars. But after the period of 1935 to 1956 there was no group
effort to demand religious rights of any sort and seek social mobility through
Sanskritisaton. At some places Ambedkar's followers threw away Hindu deities and stopped
observing rituals and ceremonies, but in the rural areas more or less they carried on
their religious practices. It was not a period of religious suspension for Ambedkar's
followers. Being aware that the religion would suddenly not change their socio-economic
position of the schedule castes it served two purposes. On one hand it was a threat to the
dominant Hindu fold to reform and recognize the Depressed Classes by making radical
structural and psychological changes. On the other hand it consolidated the caste unity
through cornmoness of cause. The newly awakened class unity as depressed section of Indian
society and related consciousness, prepared them for a search of new identity. Ambedkar in
the period between 19351950 laid more stress on forces of modernization as a means of
social mobility. Securing more and more political rights and concessions for the Depressed
Classes by vigorously representing their cause to various political forums was adopted. He
stressed the fact to the British government that Depressed classes were separate entity
from the Hindu fold and to the recalcitrant Congress party dominated by upper caste Hindu
leaders to take concrete steps in uplifting the Depressed Classes as equals. On his own
caste front he asked his followers to abandon the demeaning traditional jobs, organise and
educate themselves and move to urban centres. He also asked them to change their way of
life and attitude. Ambedkar's all efforts of social mobility of the Depressed Classes were
directed to political and legal changes as well as education. Anyone with a little
knowledge of this turbulent phase of modem Indian politics would appreciate Ambedkar's
foresightedness. Brushing aside the approach of Congress and Gandhi towards the Depressed
Classes being mild and nominal, his forthright approach put the depressed classes as a
living entity on the political map of India and a force to reckon with. Ambedkar formed a
number of political, social and educational institutions for the upliftment of the
Depressed Classes. At the same time he wrote
extensively on Hindu caste system, the untouchables and approach of his contemporaries
towards their problems and on national issues Congress party by projecting Jagjiwan Ram as
the leader of the untouchables tried to counter his Influence in the northern part with
success but could not check the spreading consciousness of the Depressed Classes for a
better place in Indian society. Drafting and adoption of the various provisions in the
Indian constitution for safeguarding the interest of the Depressed Classes was his
crowning glory and the concrete manifestation of his whole life's struggle. The other major victory in this area was 'The
untouchability (Offences) Act 195X, though his one important effort to restructure the
Indian society 'The Hindu Code Bills" in 1951 was mauled and he resigned from
Parliament in protest.
It seems a little strange that after successfully experimenting and
accepting modernization as the most potent vehicle of social mobility for the Schedule
Castes along with legal measures and political concessions, Ambedkar sought conversion
after two decades to Buddhism which he had postponed earlier. We can enumerate some of the
factors responsible for this phenomenon. Firstly, Ambedkar himself was a religious person
to the core of his heart. He considered morality as the new god, the binding and moving
force of society and human beings. His vision of human beings and society comprised of
religions and morality minus It's ritualism and superstition. Secondly, "he knew that
the untouchables were deeply religious people whose spritual hunger had to be satisfied
only by offering them an alternate system of religious precepts, values and rituals if
they were not to be transformed into a rootless mass."
Thirdly, his vision of progress of human beings and especially the untouchables was
not just calculated In terms of economic advancement, social equality or political bargain
but a complete development of heart and mind to the fullest possible extent. Fourthly, he
desired a separate identity for the Depressed
Classes in modem Indian society so that with the passage of time they would not relapse
into the same hierarchial Hindu fold and bear its scaffold. This would negate the
achievements in socio-economic terms and again pushed them back in the social order.
Ambedkaes motive behind the conversion was to put the final seal of approval of a separate
identity for the untouchables, encircled by Hindu society. Fifthly, conversion was not to
sever but to realign the untouchable community with the changing social equation and the
mainstream of Indian culture and national life. Sixthly, besides socio-economic
advancement it was a step to remove the centuries old inferiority complex embeded in the
untouchables and a great psychological boost. Seventhly, with the socioeconomic
advancement Ambedkar did not want his followers to be lost in the maze of materialism and
its leading ideologies like marxism which were gaining ground and he despised those Ideas.
Eightly, conversion was a move to mitigate and to remove the sub-caste barriers of the
untouchable community and bind them in a single large homogenous and endogamous group to
make them strong.
Since 1950 Ambedkar revived his efforts for conversion
with a new vigour and converted to Buddhism along with his followers on 15th Oct. 1956. In
the changed scenario Buddhism met most of the criteria needed for religious conversion as
noted above. Ambedkar's own preparation for
conversion to Buddhism had begun in the 1920's or even before that.
In early 1930's naming his new home as Rajgriha reflects his early
inclination towards Buddhism. Study of Pali and Buddhism at Fergusson College, Poona,
Bombay and places in and around Maharastra by leading scholars and social workers before
independence possibly drew Ambedkar increasingly towards Buddhism.
At the same time rediscovery of glorious history of Buddhism in Maharastra
and ifs Buddhist sites became more popular. The Ambedkar like the Buddha opposed the
Brahamanism and the caste-system and provided some rationale to his struggle in the
current age. "By turning to Buddhism the untouchables could exchange their nameless
and sorrowful past for a golden age of the Buddhist history which could strengthen their
pride in themselves as Buddhists and create for them a new sense of identity and new
destiny." That's why Ambedkar exploited
the myth that untouchables were the descendants of the erstwhile Nagas who were Buddhists
in the past. Buddhism being within the
mainstream of Indian cultural tradition had come to acquire the greatest importance among
the Indian intellectuals. This made conversion moment less prone to the risk of a split.
Buddha and his basic philosophy would not have been too foreign to his followers. And
Ambedkar and his followers made conversion to Buddhism making it simply an act of
reclaiming their own past. The social message of an egalitarian society based on liberty,
equality, rationality, love for humanity and the strong moral teachings of Buddhism
appealed Ambedkar. Also it did not Inhibit the spirit and forces of modernization and
urbanism. In fact, "Buddhism became another means of modernization for the lowliest
of the low in India." Independent India
became more aware of her Buddhist neighbours Ceylon, Burma and Thailand, and started
reclaiming Buddhism for mutual unity and friendship. After securing political and legal
rights for Schedule Castes in independent India a religion with its root at home as well
as branches in other countries suited more to Ambedkar and his followers rather than a
strong protective religion which by that time had become an irrelevant factor. Ambedkar drawn towards Buddhism visited the
Buddhist countries, attended conference and meetings on Buddhism. Later he declared
Buddhism to be the future religion of mankind. Buddhism
was the meeting point of his social Humanism, Democratic ideals, modemization and
Ambedkar reiterated that conversion was not sought for material gains
but was exclusively a spiritual and religious quest. This seems partly true. In fact, it
was the fear of loss of hard won political privileges from the government for the
Depressed Classes which had earlier checked Ambedkar from embracing any other religion.
During conversion to Buddhism in 1956 being aware of this trap Ambedkar took a calculated
risk. He had emphatically assured his followers to trust him that privileges and
concession lost due to conversion to Buddhism by the Scheduled Caste people would soon be
regained. He was now on surer ground and
rather confident of the potential and strength of his movement. For him It was a matter of
time rather than of strength. Although he did not live long to see the recovery of the
lost grounds yet his home state Maharastra extended this privilege to the Buddhists after
six years  and the Government of India after
more than two decades in Sept, 1980. Besides
other factors fear of loss of privileges and concessions may be accounted as a inhibiting
factor for schedule castes from other regions joining the conversion movement. It was
dominated by the Mahar community and the Jata's of Agra were the second largest community.
Ambedkar was apprehensive of this fact but even then the religious conversion became a
Even after three decades there is a conflict of opinion regarding the
success and nature of Ambedkar's Buddhist conversion movement. But majority of the
scholars agree that the "rationale for conversion was psychological and the benefits
have been (largely) psychological." The
neo-Buddhists have shed their inferiority complex, acquire a new consciousness and
cultural identity. But the socio-economic position of the majority of the neo-Buddhist
remains more or less the same. For the Mahars of Maharastra residing in rural areas they
simply seem to have exchanged one label for the another. They are now taken to be .1
untouchable Buddhist." After Ambedkar's
demise in 1956 the "new Buddhist community was left without leadership, intellectual
as well as political, and soon the neo-Buddhist tended to become another untouchable caste
especially in rural areas of Maharastra. Buddhism had come and gone like a mighty
hurricane that swept thousands off their feet only to deposit them, in a manner of
speakIng, a few yards away on the same level." Buddhist
revival movement in Maharastra has definitely lost vitality and vigour. The major problem
affecting this is poverty, lack of leadership from the Bhikkhus as wen as lay community or
lack of strong religious cadre with vision and missionary zeal, lack of books in
vernacular language and political fragmentation.
The other manifestation of conversion in Maharastra has
been the recurrent violence eruptIng In anti-untouchable, anti-Buddhist between the
neo-Buddhists and the dominant Marathas. But
the scenario of condition of Buddhists Is not all that bleak and signs of Buddhist life
can be clearly perceived. A lot is being done
by the People's Education Society (1945), Republican Party (1956) and the Buddhist Society
of India (1953), all the three founded by Ambedkar and the Aft India Buddhist Dhamma
Summit Convention (1975).
The current year is declared as the Birth Centenary year
of Dr. Ambedkar by the Government. A number of programmes have been announced by the
government and various voluntary Organisation have been limited to honoring him and his
Ideals through Intellectual exercises. It would be better If a target oriented time bound
socio-economic programme would have been launched to alleviate the status of masses and
schedule castes. Besides overcoming other handicaps the only effective way of improving
the lot of Schedule Castes and Depressed is through the process of modernization. This
does not mean the deprivation of their religious identity but since poverty is their main
problem, modernization seems to be the panacea. Making Ambedkar's dream of propagation and
revival of Buddhism in India a concrete reality requires a great effort and lot of guts of
 B. G. Gokhale, "Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambabker: Rebel
against Hindu Tradition," B. L. Smith (ed.) Religion and Social Conflict in South
Asia, E. J. Brill, Leiden, 197 6, p. 17. Dr. D. L. Ramteke, Revival of Buddhism in
Modern India, New Delhi, 1983, p. 94.
 Gokhale. op. cit., p. 15.
 Dhananjay Keer, Dr. Ambedkar: Life
and Mission, Bombay, 1962, pp. 252-52.
 Dr. D. L Ramteke, op. cit., chapter
VI. Gokhale, op. cit. Prof. Sanghasen Singh (ed.) Ambedkar on Buddhist Conversion and
Its Imfact, Delhi. 1990. D. C. Ahir, Buddhism in Modern India, Nagpur, 1972, Buddhism
and Ambedkar, Delhi, 1968.
 Eleenor Zelliot. "The
Psychological Dimension of the Buddhist Movement in India," G. A. Oddie (ed.), Religion
in South Asia, New Delhi, 1977. p. 126.
 Ramteke, op. cit. p. 127.
 Zelliot, op. cit. p. 126.
 Ibid., p. 126, 132 In. 16.
 Ramteke, op. cit. chapter VIII.
 Ibid. pp. 154-55.
 Gokhale, op. cit., p. 2 1.
 Bradwell L. Smith, "Religion,
Social Change and the Problem of Identity in South Asia: An Interpretative
Introduction," same (ed.) Religion... op. cit.. p, 2, 4, 5, 12, Zelliot op. cit. p.
 Gokhake, op. cit., p. 2 1.
 Zelliot, op. cit. p. 129.
 Ibid. p. 132.
 Eleanor Zelliot, "The Indian
Rediscovery of Buddhism," 1855-1956, A. K. Narain (ed.), Studies in Pali and
Buddhism, New Delhi, 1979, pp. 396-98.
 Gokhale, op. cit., p. 2 1. (not
exploited but explained -E. B.)
 Zelliot, The Psychological.. ,
op. cit., p. 131.
 Gokhale op. cit., p. 22.
 Zelliot, The Psychological.
op. cit., p. 130.
 Ambedkar, Buddha and the Future of
His Religion, Mahabodhi, Vaishakha Purnima issue, 1950.
 Chandra Bhardi, Social and
Political Ideas of B. R. Ambedkar, Jaipur, 1977, pp. 254-55.
 Zelliot, The Psychological..
op. cit., p. 130.
 Times of India, 29th Sept.,
 Zelliot, op. cit., pp. 137-139. Arun
Sadhu, 'Neo-Buddhists in Maharastra Conversion has Helped", Times of India,
15th Nov., 1975. V. V. Date, Times of India, 1st Oct., 198 1.
 Eleanor Zelliot, "The Revival of
Buddhism in India", Aria : A Journal published by Asia Society (New York) No. 1
Winter, 1968, pp. 33-45, esp., p. 45 (may be in the eyes of the Hindus - E.B.)
 B. G. Gokhale, Buddhism in
Maharastra: A History, Bombay, 1976, p. 158.
 Zelliot, The Psychological..
op. cit., pp. 134-35. Rarnteke, op. cit., p. 219.
 Economic and Political weekly,
Vol. XIII, No. 8 (5 May, 1973), and also of 13th July, 1974. Eleanor Zelliot, An
Historical View of theMaharastrian Intellectual and Social Change, Y. K. Malik(ed.),
South Asian Intellectuals and Social Change, New Delhi, 1982, p. 88.
 Zelliot, The Psychological..
op. cit., pp., 135-37.
 Ibid, p, 143, fn. 35, Ramteke, op.
[Originally published in Maha Bodhi Society Centenary
Celebrations, Buddhagaya Centre, 1891-1991, Souvenir, Sambodhi No. 2,
vol. 2 (1991), pp. 73-79]
Sincere thanks to Phramaha Somnuek Saksree
for retyping this article.