From Yeola in 1935, when Dr. Ambedkar announced that he would not die a Hindu, to Nagpur in 1956 when he converted to Buddhism, is a considerable distance in time. But, there was in him a need to make a public announcement in 1935 about moving away from Hinduism. It was a testament to the depth of his feelings of the futility of remaining in Hinduism. This impulse to come out from Hinduism was a long time in the making, and had begun even before Yeola, as Ambedkar scholars Dhananjay Keer and Eleanor Zelliot have shown.
This germ of an idea, to leave the Hindu fold and take refuge elsewhere, in some other religious denomination, was mulled over long and hard by Ambedkar and many of his well-wishers and associates. Soon after the Yeola announcement in 1935, a Mahar conference was arranged in Mumbai in 1936. Delivering a speech in Marathi titled Mukti Kon Pathe? – translated by Vasant Moon later as What Path to Salvation? – Ambedkar stated that “the struggle between Hindus and Untouchables will continue forever.” As to the way out he felt that, “there is only one way–and that is to throw away the shackles of the Hindu religion and the Hindu society in which you are groaning.” This touched a raw nerve among many Hindus, including Mohandas Gandhi.
It was in 1936 that Ambedkar was invited to Lahore for a speech by the Jat-Pat-Todak Mandal, only to have the invitation rescinded later. He then published his undelivered speech as a booklet under the title, Annihilation of Caste, in which he reiterated his decision “not to die a Hindu,” and also advocated a thorough restructuring of Hinduism from ground up.
In the wake of the opposition and queries he faced regarding his intended move away from Hinduism, he wrote a piece titled “Away from the Hindus” in which he provided his take on four principal objections. Therein he stated that, “Socially, the Untouchables will gain absolutely and immensely because by conversion the Untouchables will be members of a community whose religion has universalized and equalized all values of life. Such a blessing is unthinkable for them while they are in the Hindu fold.”
Which religion to convert to was still then not fixed. There is a well-recorded account of his struggle with choosing a place to land, so to say, after having exited Hinduism. It would take him nearly 20 years to develop the conviction that it was in the Buddhist faith that he and the people who trusted in him would find a new home. According to Zelliot, however, suggestions of a conversion to Buddhism had been made earlier: “In 1930 at a meeting held at the Koregaon memorial near Poona, D. Patel of Nagpur ‘thought that it would be advisable that the Depressed Classes should embrace Buddhism.'”
In Ambedkar’s mind there was never any doubt about leaving the Hindu fold completely and irrevocably. In fact, right after he had taken the Buddhist vows from senior monk U Chandramani in Nagpur on Oct 14 1956, he administered the now well-known 22-vows to all in the audience who wished to convert to Buddhism. A good number of these vows expressly forbid the person undergoing the conversion from worshipping Hindu gods. As academic Michael Stausberg writes, “Ambedkar apparently wanted to make sure that Hindu strategies of inclusivism would not be applied to re-domesticate the new Buddhism as a form of Hinduism.”
But something of that nature happened right from the get-go. Biographer Keer notes in his book on Ambedkar that V.D. Savarkar “declared that the Buddhist Ambedkar was a Hindu Ambedkar.” It has always been the contention of a section of the Hindus that Buddhism is nothing more than an offshoot of Hinduism.
In recent times, the scholar of religions Arvind Sharma has expressed his surprise at Ambedkar’s decisive break with Hinduism, which he feels is at odds with the history of the two faiths. In a piece titled Modernity in Light of Hindutva, he notes that, “[T]he two communities in India which belong to the Indic religious tradition and are the least enthusiastic about inclusive religious identities are Ambedkarite Buddhists and Sikhs. Ambedkarite Buddhism departs from traditional Buddhism in insisting that at the time of conversion to Buddhism, its followers not only accept the Buddhist confession of faith (by embracing the Buddha, his Teaching and his Order), but also renounce Hinduism.”
Sharma is of the view that the two faiths existed side-by-side, more or less, without any significant mutual exclusiveness. But as Lal Mani Joshi has noted in his book, Discerning the Buddha, “There is evidence of Brahmanical Hinduism intolerance and hostility towards Buddhism….” Ambedkar himself postulated in his work Revolution and Counter-Revolution that, “everyone who was able to understand the history of India must know that it is nothing but the history of the struggle for supremacy between Brahmanism and Buddhism.”
None of this deters or discourages the efforts of a section of Hindus from constantly trying to subsume Buddhism within the fold of Hinduism. In September 2021, several organizations in the US, mostly with Hindu-right inclinations like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHPA), Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS) and others announced the month of October as Hindu Heritage Month. Their press release stated that “Dharma-based organizations including those of Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist and Jain traditions from around the world, are pleased to announce the addition of another major festival, indeed an entire month of festivals,in October as the Hindu Heritage Month.”
As is their wont, they had unproblematically included the Sikh, Buddhist and Jain traditions under the rubric of “Dharma-based organizations,” and labeled them all Hindu, who were apparently working to organize a Hindu Heritage Month, no less. It is quite another matter altogether that almost no organization other than Hindu ones are listed as their partners, giving a lie to their attempt to appropriate the other traditions under the term Dharma-based or Hindu.
But Ambedkar had made a conscious choice of leaving the Hindu-fold behind and adopting Buddha Dhamma. In the preface to his book, Buddha and his Dhamma, he wrote: “I regard the Buddha’s Dhamma to be the best. No religion can be compared to it.”
In his speech at Nagpur on October 15 1956 a day after the conversion, as reproduced by his associate Nanak Chand Rattu, he ended with a Pali-language quote from the Buddhist texts: “Charath bhikkave charikam bahujana hitaya bahujana sukhaya lokanukampaya… Desetha bhikkave dhammam adi kalyanam majjhe kalyanam pariyosane kalyanam (Go ye, O bhikkus and wander forth for the gain of the many, for the welfare of the many, in compassion for the world…preach ye the Dhamma which is beneficial in the beginning, beneficial in the middle and beneficial in the end)…So, brothers and sisters, this is my religion.”
Ambedkar was well aware of the powers of majoritarianism and the hostility of a vast majority of Hindus to the act of conversion. He had been constantly assailed by questions about the benefits of conversion for the so-called Untouchables. He was also well aware of the historical animus that many Brahmins bore towards the Buddhists. It was to shield the new converts from the all-round derision and doubt that he sought by means of his 22-vows to ensure that the conversion was a conscious conversion from (Hinduism) while at the same time a conversion to (Buddhism). He never harbored any illusions about Buddhism belonging to a benign family of faiths within Hinduism. He had decisively chosen the Buddhist Dhamma over Hindu Dharma.
Aviral Anand is a writer based in Delhi NCR