Buddhism as a religion owes its origin to present day UP as ‘Buddha after attaining knowledge’ , he gave his first sermon at Sarnath, near Banaras. He and his pupils travelled widely in and around UP and Bihar, and propagated his ideas and philosophy before finally attaining Mahaparinirvan (death) at Kushinara (current Kushi Nagar, UP) in c483 BCE. Since then, Buddhism travelled far and wide in India and across different parts of the world and especially in the areas of South and East Asia, and developed very firm grounds where it assimilated within its fold local cults and popular traditions and manifested in the emergence of different sects of Buddhism like Mahayana and Vajrayana. Interestingly, just a few centuries after its inception, Buddhism ceased to exist as a mainstream religion or even mediocre religious force in the lands where it originated, although it dominated the religious lives in the neighboring areas like Sri Lanka, China, Japan, Cambodia and especially in parts of Burma, where it has retained its purest form till now. Historians and scholars have given explanations for the emergence, expansion and extinction of Buddhism from Indian lands in terms of various causative factors which I will not deal with, as it does not fall under the purview of this essay. The subject matter of this article, on the other hand,tries to develop insights into the process of re-emergence of Buddhism in the west and northern parts of India in the twentieth century under and after the Ambedkarite movement.

In post-independence India,large conversions of Dalits into Buddhism in Maharashtra and UP had taken place through decades. This phenomenon finds its origin in the message of Ambedkar when he asked the Dalits to leave the exploitative Hindu religion. He declared in Yeola conference (Nasik) in 1935 that he was born as a Hindu, but, he would not die as a Hindu. So he, together with his followers, converted to Buddhism in 1956 at Nagpur. This process of conversion has to be seen in the context of politics through which the Dalits were seeking assertion. The conversion drive in Maharashtra was led by the leaders of the Republican party of India after the death of Ambedkar but soon it faced a setback with the emergence of the Dalit Panthers movement, who propounded the alternative idea of independent Dalit culture.But, such was not the case in UP where initially the RPI leaders propagated Buddhism among Dalits, but later with the emergence of identity politics in the state, Kanshiram and BSP leaders used Buddhism as a part of the symbols of political identity against the savarna domination. Thus, with the development of the Bahujan Movement, Buddhism for the Dalits has mostly remained part of the political strategy of assertion within the atmosphere of politically charged intensities. On the contrary, in the socio-religious sphere, Buddhism has remained very less influential among the Dalits and their religious practices are very much blend of the Hindu, Buddhist and local traditions.

The case of UP is very interesting because specific circumstances were there to nourish the Dalit-Buddhist adjustment. Right from the medieval period, lower castes in this area has been looking for alternatives in religious sphere so as to leave the exploitative Hindu fold and achieve social equality in the caste based social hierarchy. One such was provided by theKabirPanth sect, where Kabir was criticizing orthodox and irrational things in Hinduism and Islam, Dalits saw it as a channel through which inequality based Hinduism could be left behind, and most of the members of the sect were Dalits. Later on after 1980s, many of the KabirPanthis converted to Buddhism and the santbecamebhikkhus. The sects of Gorakhnathand JaharveerGoggaPir too have large followings among Dalits in UP till today.In 1920s, Swami Achyutanand started the Adi-Dharm movement as an alternative before the Dalits against the social exclusion of Hinduism. When Ambedkar shifted his base in 1942 to Delhi, neighboring UP came under his influence, and with Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism, message of Buddha reached to the masses of UP. From then onwards, the Dalit population in the state has constantly come closer to Buddhism.

UP has nearly 21% SCs in the total state population, and among the SCs only single Jatav caste forms 57%. Out of total Buddhist population of the state only the Jatav are nearly 90%. The census data shows that 2517 Buddhist people were recorded in the census year 1951, which reached to 302031 in the year 2001. Though this is only the official number of people who deliberately recorded themselves under Buddhism, the actual number of people claiming and practicing (though in a modified way) the religion may be too high as nearly all the Jatav would accept Ambedkar as their cultural hero and Buddhism as their emancipatory religion. After Ambedkar, the task of propagation of Buddhism was taken by the organizations established by him. The Buddhist Society of India (BSI) and The Republican Party of India. Initially, the Jatavs of many districts of western Uttar Pradesh (Agra, Aligarh, Meerut and Pilibhit) started claiming themselves as Buddhists, and organized many conversation ceremonies. The BSI was quite active all over UP and Agra, and was the main center of its activities. Two prominent leaders of RPI, Buddha PriyaMaurya (earlier Bhagwati Prasad Maurya) of Aligarh and SanghPriyaGautam (earlier Khan Chandra Gautam) of Bulandsheher were very important in developing the sense of political implications of embracing Buddhism among the Jatavs of the area.

After a period of respite, from 1980s, the consolidation of Buddhism with the idea of emancipation and assertion of Dalits reached new heights and the perception of Dalits about the emancipatory role of Buddhism was also changing. It was the time when the BSP was developing its agenda of making the Dalits the rulers of India, through the means of identity politics of course. Its founder Kanshiram used to say that the permanent problem of the Dalits in India is cultural, and the solution he brought forth was political. So according to him after attaining political power, Dalits can themselves create their independent and respectful culture. As the party claimed to be Ambedkarite, it was obvious that their program was to have relations with Buddhism. For example, many of the party leaders and activists converted to Buddhism with their families and followers, and many of them changed their names and some even became monks. After forming the government in the state, the very first thing that Mayawati did was to change the names of places in state with the Buddhist names. The government schemes were given to the Buddhist names. She even constructed large number of Parks and Public places having Buddhist icons and symbols. All this has actually brought the core supporter of the Party, the Jatavs very close to the Buddhist symbols but mostly for the political reasons. But things have turned so complex within this atmosphere of politically charged identities that even Buddha and Ambedkar could not have imagined. The sort of religion that Jatav practice is just an intermixture of Buddhism, Hinduism and local traditions. They believe in the teachings of Buddha and Ambedkar, they also worship the Hindu gods and local deities. Their marriage ceremonies are done both according the Hindu and Buddhist rituals. It can be said that this amalgamation of Buddhism with other local and popular traditions by the Dalits have to be seen within the context of politics of adjusting identities. By adjusting Identities, I mean unequal adjustment of various Identities to consolidate the process of assertion.

But this Dalit Buddhist adjustment, and the related identity politics of the BSP, has actually proved dangerous for the prospects of Dalit emancipation. This can be explained in terms of two factors. Firstly, the BSP by claiming to be working on the Ambedkars ideals and at the same time propagating caste identity based Buddhism, and in turn has distorted the Ambedkarite Buddhism and eventually has punctured the revolutionary changing potential of it. In Ambedkar’s own words, “Hinduism believes in God. Buddhism has no God. Hinduism believes in soul. According to Buddhism there is no soul. Hinduism believes in Chaturvarna and the caste system. Buddhism has no place for the Caste System and Chaturvarna.” So his struggle for annihilation of caste actually matched with the Buddhist ideals. For him, a successful political system of India will be dependent on Buddhist principles of associated-life and caste-less and class-less society rather than merely a functional government. He writes, “The roots of democracy lie not in the form of Government, Parliamentary or otherwise. A democracy is more than a Government. It is primarily a mode of associated living. The roots of Democracy are to be searched in the social relationship, in the terms of associated life between the people who form a society”. Thus, he saw democracy and Buddhism as complimentary to each other. The politics of the BSP on the other hand is based upon the consolidation of politically charged caste identities. The Bahujan was nothing but a majoritarian community based upon the alliance of different castes. There were no programmes at all towards Ambedkar’s ideal of annihilation of caste. On the contrary, their politics has actually contributed to the consolidation of caste.

Secondly, this specific politics has brought the Dalits of the state to such wretched level that it is very difficult for them to move towards the other alternative anymore, to the class based politics. The Dalits have been punched with the symbols of Ambedkar and Buddha on caste basis in such a manner that they cannot skip this specific politics. The Buddha who once was a social revolutionary for Ambedkar has become nothing but an empty repository of a symbol, looted of all the political transformative qualitiesfor the Dalits, by associating with whom they foresee their distorted emancipation. Alas! The chimera of political power that Kanshiram had created for the Dalits has not proved fruitful, and has certainly made the path more difficult for an Ambedkarite revolution.

Skand Priya is an independent researcher and currently assistant professor of history at the Shivaji college, delhi University

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One Comment

  1. K SHESHU BABU says:

    Major cause of decreasing budhism in its original location is the strong presence of brahminism which assimilated some ‘ opportunistic’ tenets of the preachings of Budha and continued its domination. As Ambedkar pointed out, the core idea of buddhism like no caste differentiation, no god, democratic freedom, etc were left out but other issues were appropriated. Brahminism began to dilute to include budhist trends and split budhist followers. That is why, many preachers migrated to other neighbouring countries.
    Something similar is happening these days. Ambedkar minus core ideology is being appropriated. So also, selective women problems ( like triple talaq) are being projected as emancipation of ( muslim) women while hindu manu code is not being opposed.
    Thus, beprahminism is being retained with a ‘ secular’ garb. The dalits and muslims ( and parties like BSP ) should realise the ‘ design’ of brahminism. The party supremo Mayawati should address this complex issue politically in order to make any impact and thwart brahminic hegemony