Tipitaka - DO GOOD BE MINDFUL is the Essence of the Words of the Awakened One with Awareness
Paṭisambhidā Jāla-Abaddha Paripanti Tipiṭaka nīti Anvesanā ca
Voice of All Awakened Aboriginal Societies (VoAAAS)
Dr. Ambedkar International Mission, USA (AIM), Begumpura Cultural Society of New York & Sri Guru Ravidas Sabha of New York is organizing a lecture by Rajratna Ambedkar on “Dr. Ambedkar’s Revival of Socially-engaged Buddhism” moderated by Dr. Jayashree Kamble.
Event Address: Mathematics Building, Room# 312, Columbia University, 116th street, Broadway, NY - 10027
Date & Time - Sunday May 5 , 2019 @ 6-8 pm EST, ***REGISTRATION AT 5 PM***
ENGAGED BUDDHISM . Engaged Buddhism, or “socially engaged
Buddhism,” denotes the rise of political activism and social service by
Buddhist communities and organizations in Asia and the West since the
1950s. Paralleling a global increase of political involvement by
religious groups within the Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu
traditions, engaged Buddhists have supported campaigns for conflict
resolution, human rights,
economic development, national self-determination, and environmental
protection. They have undertaken medical and pastoral care, educational
programs, and community building among economically marginalized and
low-caste communities, women and children, persons with HIV/AIDS, and
prison inmates. They have insisted that Buddhist mindfulness, morality,
and social action be integrated into all facets of daily life in both
ordained and lay communities. Engaged Buddhists share the belief that
mindful social action is consistent with traditional notions of Buddhist
practice and its goal, the universal relief of suffering, and the
awakening of human potential.
The term engaged Buddhism was coined by the Vietnamese Thiền
(Zen) monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh (b. 1926), who founded
peace-oriented educational and religious institutions during the Vietnam War,
led antiwar protests, rebuilt villages, resettled refugees, lobbied
internationally for peace talks, and published articles and books on the
crisis facing his country and the Buddhist tradition. The governments
of Saigon, Hanoi, and Washington opposed these actions, and thousands of
Nhat Hanh’s followers were killed or jailed. In 1963 photographs of a
burning monk on a Saigon street appeared in the international media,
illustrating the determination of the newly engaged Buddhists. After the
war, Thich Nhat Hanh, exiled from his country, spread the practice and
teachings of engaged Buddhism in more than eighty-five books of
commentary, poetry, and meditation, through mindfulness retreats at Plum
Village in southern France, and in public gatherings throughout the
world (King, 1996; Hunt-Perry and Fine, 2000).
Since the 1960s Buddhist movements for nonviolent social change and human rights
have proliferated in Asia and the West. In addition to the Vietnam
peace movement, these include the Buddhist conversion and anticaste
movement launched in 1956 by B. R. Ambedkar (1891–1956) among the dalit
(”oppressed” or ex-untouchable) peoples of India; the Sarvodaya
Shramadana (Universal Awakening through Cooperative Work) village
development and peace movement of Sri Lanka,
founded in 1958 by A. T. Ariyaratne; the struggle of the Tibetan
people, both inside Tibet and in exile, led by the fourteenth Dalai Lama,
Tenzin Gyatso, to reclaim the lands and culture devastated since the
Chinese takeover of the country in 1959; the Pan-Asian movement to
restore the Buddhist order of ordained women, or bhikkhunī saṃgha, in countries in which such ordination is opposed by male hierarchies; the three Nichiren-inspired “new religions” that took root in Japan after World War II and that have gained international followers for their peace and cultural renewal campaigns—Sōka Gakkai International (12 million members in 187 countries and territories), Risshō Kōseikai (6 million members worldwide), and Nipponzan Myōhōji
(1,500 ordained and lay members worldwide); the Tzu-Chi Foundation
(Fuojiao Tzu-chi Gongde Hui or Buddhist Compassionate-Relief Merit
Society) founded in Taiwan in the 1960s by the nun Cheng-yen to defray
medical expenses of the poor by collecting the equivalent of 25 cents
per month from lay followers, which now claims 5 million members in 28
countries, runs 2 modern 900-bed hospitals, a university, a high school,
and a TV channel in Taiwan, and directs $600 million in donations to
medical relief projects in more than 30 countries around the world; in South Korea,
the Buddhist Coalition for Economic Justice, the Jung To Society
(environmental activism), Buddhist Solidarity for Reform (representing
40 civil organizations), and the Indra Net Life Community (representing
23 temples and Buddhist nongovernmental organizations); and the
Thailand-based International Network of Engaged Buddhists, founded in
1989 by the Thai Buddhist writer and reformer Sulak Sivaraksa to provide
a forum for the bourgeoning organizations and movements that share a
socially engaged Buddhist perspective. (For surveys of engaged Buddhist
movements in Asia, see Queen and King, 1996; and Queen, Prebish, and
In North America, Europe, Australia, and South Africa,
Buddhist organizations dedicated to social activism and service have
also appeared with growing frequency. The California-based Buddhist
Peace Fellowship, founded in 1977 by the Zen teacher Robert Aitken,
coordinates programs for community development, prison reform, and
international relief through chapters in the United States and its quarterly Turning Wheel: The Journal of Socially Engaged Buddhism.
Peacemaker Circle International, headquartered in Massachusetts and
founded in 1996 by Bernie Glassman, a former aeronautical engineer and
lineage holder in the Japanese Sōtō
Zen tradition, sponsors “bearing witness retreats” in centers of
suffering and violence, such as the streets of lower Manhattan, the
death-camp sites at Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland, and Jewish and
Palestinian communities in the Middle East. The International Campaign for Tibet, based in New York
and Washington, D.C., coordinates public support for the refugee and
exile communities of the Tibetan diaspora and organizes international
pressure on the Chinese government to respect the human rights and
cultural traditions of the Tibetan people, whom it has subjugated since
1959. Two engaged Buddhists have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace, Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet (1989), and Aung San Suu Kyi,
the opposition leader in Myanmar (1991), and three others, Thich Nhat
Hanh of Vietnam, Maha Ghosananda of Cambodia, and Sulak Sivaraksa of
Thailand, have been nominated for the prize.
The canonical and extracanonical writings of Buddhist Asia, while
focusing on monastic order, personal morality, spiritual practice, and
philosophical analysis, also include teachings on service to others and
social policies that promote general welfare. The Pali Jātaka and Sanskrit Jātakamālā,
for example, illustrate the virtues of generosity and compassion
through fables in which the future Buddha, born as a deer, a monkey, a
parrot, or an elephant, risks or sacrifices his life to save others from
harm. Didactic texts setting forth social ethics for laypersons include
the Cakkavattisihanada-sutta and the Kutadanta-sutta of the Dīgha-nikāya,
which argue that crimes of property and violence are often related to
poverty, and that government (i.e., the righteous king) should intervene
to provide farmers with grain, merchants with investment capital, and
workers with fair wages in order to promote harmonious society. Indeed,
instructions to the ideal monarch (Pali, cakkavatti or dhammarāja ), such as the Dhammapadāṭṭhakathā (Buddha’s advice to rulers), the “Ten Duties of the King” (dasa-rājadhamma, contained in the Jātaka ), and later Mahāyāna texts such as the Indian philosopher Nāgārjuna’s Jewel Garland of Royal Counsels (second century ce) and Japanese Prince Shōtuku’s Fourteen Article Constitution (sixth to seventh century ce), find early expression in the rock-hewn edicts of the Buddhist king, Aśoka Maurya (reigned in northern India c. 270 to 230 bce), promoting universal tolerance and social welfare and suggesting the pervasiveness of Buddhist ideal conceptions of a just and humane society (Harvey, 2000). The saṃgha (monastic order) founded by Siddhārtha
Gautama, the historical Buddha, in the sixth to fifth century bce,
would appear to embody certain progressive values and social options
associated with modernity in the West: equality of access to men and
women of all classes and castes, a meritocracy based on personal
attainment rather than birth or wealth, and a program of
self-cultivation and community development based on rational analysis
and practical training rather than esoteric knowledge and ritual.
Furthermore, the career of the bodhisattva or Buddhist savior that marked the rise of Mahāyāna Buddhism in the centuries following Aśoka is based on a vow to save all sentient beings from suffering and calamity.
Yet it would be wrong to conclude that the social goals of engaged
Buddhists in the early twenty-first century evolved directly from
Buddhist teachings in the past. As the historian Bardwell Smith has
The primary goal of [traditional] Buddhism is not a stable order or a
just society but the discovery of genuine freedom (or awakening) by
each person. It has never been asserted that the conditions of society
are unimportant or unrelated to this more important goal, but it is
critical to stress the distinction between what is primary and what is
not…. Even the vocation of the bodhisattva is not as social reformer but as the catalyst to personal transformation within society. (Smith, 1972, p. 106)
Since the time of the Buddha and Aśoka,
many of the social and political ideals inscribed in the early
literature and monuments of Buddhism have faded. Buddhist kings, such as
the second-century bce Sinhalese Duṭṭhagāmiṇī, have been as prone to wage holy war
against the infidel, as were their non-Buddhist neighbors, while
“Chinese and Japanese military forces have used Buddhist symbols,
banners, mudrās, and mantras
to empower their actions and intimidate opponents” (Harvey, 2000, p.
263). In medieval Japan, the largest monasteries supported standing
armies as fearsome as those of the emperor, and as late as the twentieth
century “imperial-way Buddhism” (kōdō Bukkyō ), embraced by all schools, supported the nation’s major wars: from those against China (1894–1895) and Russia (1904–1905) to World War II,
when Zen temples sponsored meditation training camps for the armed
forces, raised money to purchase new aircraft, and recruited and trained
school boys for kamikaze missions for “love of Emperor and in service
to Buddha” (Victoria, 1997, pp. 128–129).
The nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw a general decline of
Buddhist institutions throughout Asia. As Ian Harris has observed: “It
is difficult to point to any part of the contemporary Buddhist world
that has not been massively transformed by at least one aspect of
modernity, be it colonialism, industrialization, telecommunications,
consumerism, ultra-individualism, or totalitarianism of the left or
right. In this radically new situation Buddhists have been forced to
adapt or risk the possibility of substantial decline” (Harris, 2001, p.
19). In country after country—notably China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Tibet, and Myanmar (Burma)—Buddhist
leaders and institutions have been marginalized or assaulted by hostile
regimes or changing social conditions. Even in nations in which the
tradition was interrupted by colonialism, revolution, civil war, and
invasion—such as Thailand, Sri Lanka, Japan, and Korea—the Buddhist saṃgha has not often been aligned with progressive politics, human rights, or social services.
Against this backdrop, progressive, nonviolent Buddhist activism has
nevertheless appeared with growing frequency. “There is plenty of
evidence of significant Buddhist involvement in anticolonial movements,
particularly since the Second World War. Similarly, new or revamped
Buddhist organizations with strongly nationalist, reformist,
social-activist, therapeutic or reactionary-fundamentalist character are
much in evidence throughout the 20th century,” according to Harris
(2001, p. 19). These spontaneous, often charismatic movements represent a
marked departure from state-supported Buddhist establishments of the
past. Engaged Buddhist movements of the twentieth century “direct their
energies toward social conditions over which the state has legal
authority, if not control; but their objective is to influence the
exercise of temporal power, not to wield it” (Queen, 1996, p. 19). As
Sulak Sivaraksa, Thailand’s leading Buddhist intellectual and founder of
the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, has written: “Buddhism,
as practiced in most Asian countries today, serves mainly to legitimize
dictatorial regimes and multinational corporations. If we Buddhists
want to redirect our energies towards enlightenment and universal love,
we should begin by spelling Buddhism with a small ‘b’”—in contrast to the “capital-B Buddhism” that shares influence and favors with the power elite (Sivaraksa, 1993, p. 68).
Engaged Buddhism in Asia is thus an emerging grassroots movement that may be traced across national and sectarian boundaries—not
a series of reforms instituted by local governments or religious
hierarchies. Even when Buddhist movements and leaders have ties to
temporal power, such as the Dalai Lama’s dual role as spiritual and
temporal head of Tibet, the Sōka Gakkai’s affiliation with the Kōmeitō political party in Japan, and the “friendly relations” (jie-yuan) between the Taiwanese government and the Tzu Chi Compassionate Relief Foundation and the Foguang Shan sect of Pure Land Buddhism,
each of these movements is both independent of state power (it is worth
recalling that the Dalai Lama is the exiled leader of Tibet) and
increasingly globalized in its relations with Tibetan, Japanese, and
Taiwanese ethnic diasporas and with their nonnative members and
supporters around the world. The transnational, transsectarian or
nonsectarian character of engaged Buddhism often derives from the life
experience of its leaders, charismatic personalities whose education and
careers linked or blended Asian and Western influences. Ambedkar chose Columbia University in New York and the University of London
for his graduate training; Thich Nhat Hanh studied and lectured at
Princeton and Columbia, traveled to nineteen countries in Europe and North America in his quest for peace in Vietnam, and associated closely with the American religious leaders Thomas Merton and Martin Luther
King Jr.; and the young Taiwanese Venerable Cheng-yen, founder of the
Tzu Chi Foundation, rejected conversion to Christianity by convincing
three Catholic missionary nuns of the universal compassion of the Buddha
while at the same time acknowledging that Buddhists must emulate
Christians in serving the poor by building hospitals and schools.
The cultural hybridity of the new Buddhism—as well as its activism and social service—may
be traced to the interaction of Buddhists and Christians in the late
Victorian era. Representative figures include the founders of the Theosophical Society, Henry Steel Olcott and Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, who publicly converted to Buddhism in Colombo in 1880, and their associate, the Sinhalese Buddhist activist Anagārika Dharmapāla (Don David Hewavitarne), who, with the Japanese Zen master Shaku Sōen
and the Hindu swami Vivekananda, electrified crowds at the World’s
Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893 with their evangelical fervor
for the wisdom of the East. By this time, Sir Edwin Arnold’s romantic
verse narrative of the life of the Buddha, The Light of Asia, had
become a best-seller in the English-speaking world. Thomas Tweed
remarked on the growing consensus among Buddhists and their admirers in
the West regarding the social impact of religious faith: “With few
exceptions, Buddhist apologists stood united with American critics,
travelers, and scholars in implicitly or explicitly affirming the role
of religion in stimulating effective economic, political, and social
activity. Almost all participants in Victorian culture and contributors
to the public discourse about Buddhism agreed: whatever else true
religion was, it was optimistic and activistic” (Tweed, 1992, p. 155).
Traditional teachings of the Buddhist dharma often find new
meaning and application in the practice of engaged Buddhism. Familiar
doctrines such as nonviolence, interdependence, selflessness,
mindfulness, and compassion are interpreted in ways that address social
and institutional dimensions of suffering in the world. Likewise,
ethical guidelines such as right speech, right livelihood, and skillful
means are understood in ways that acknowledge structural shifts in the
economic life, geopolitics, and information technology of the early
Sulak Sivaraksa interprets the traditional five precepts (pancha shila)
to encompass institutional and transnational realities as well as
interpersonal morality, for example. Non-harming is conceived in a
Hunger is caused only by unequal economic and power structures that
do not allow food to end up where it is needed, even when those in need
are the food producers. And we must look at the sales of arms and
challenge these structures, which are responsible for murder. Killing
permeates our modern way of life—wars, racial conflicts, breeding animals to serve human markets, and using harmful insecticides. (Sivaraksa, 1993, p. 74)
Likewise, non-stealing is treated in terms of economic justice
(”right livelihood”) and voluntary simplicity. Sexual misconduct
concerns the global exploitation of women by male hierarchies, as well
as the global traffic in pornography and prostitution. Avoiding false
speech entails the responsible use of the mass media, education, and
political discourse in order to rescue truth from propaganda and
trivialization and to confront power elites with the effects of their
policies. The fifth precept, against intoxicants, offers Sivaraksa the
occasion to consider the economic addiction of Third World
farmers to the production of heroin, coco, coffee, and tobacco as well
as the use of related products that cloud the mind, for “in Buddhism, a
clear mind is a precious gem” (Sivaraksa, 1993, pp. 75–79).
The twin virtues of wisdom and compassion are understood in similar
ways by the Vietnamese Thich Nhat Hanh and the American Bernie Glassman,
two influential voices of engaged Buddhism. In his “Tiep Hien Order
Precepts,” Nhat Hanh warns: “Do not think that the knowledge you
presently possess is changeless, absolute truth. Avoid being
narrow-minded and bound to present views….
Find ways to be with those who are suffering by all means, including
personal contact and visits, images, sound. By such means awaken
yourself and others to the reality of suffering in the world” (Nhat
Hanh, 1987, pp. 90–91).
Glassman Roshi invites his followers to follow the “Zen Peacemaker
Order Tenets” (1998): “I commit myself to not-knowing, the source of all
I commit myself to bearing witness fully by allowing myself to be
touched by the joy and pain of the universe. I invite all hungry spirits
into the mandala of my being and commit my energy and love to my own
healing, the healing of the earth, humanity and all creations”
(Glassman, 1998, pp. 68–89).
In these teachings, wisdom is associated with a radical agnosticism in a
world of violently competing ideologies in the hope that a mindful
openness to the experience of others will result in a deeper
identification and commitment to help. Likewise, both teachings
illustrate a special concern for suffering beings (echoing the
“preferential option for the poor” of the liberation theology
of Latin American Catholicism), whereby the Buddhist vow of universal
compassion is enacted in concrete programs of service and activism
Buddhist environmentalism is a striking example of the adaptation of
the traditional Buddhist worldview to contemporary modes of thought,
specifically the findings of modern science. While the Buddhist
teachings of the “wheel of life” and “dependent co-origination” were not
based on modern theories of evolutionary biology, for example, their
metaphorical expression in the ancient literature has resonated strongly
for ecological activists in the early twenty-first century.
Illustrating how the language of awakening and liberation may be
projected from individual to ecosystem, Joanna Macy invokes the general
systems theory of Ludwig von Bertalanffy and Ervin Laszlo to make the
Far from the nihilism and escapism that is often imputed to the
Buddhist path, this liberation, this awakening puts one into the world
with a livelier, more caring sense of social engagement. The sense of
interconnectedness that can then arise, is imaged—in one of the most beautiful images of the Mahayana—as
the jeweled net of Indra. It is a vision of reality structured very
much like the holographic view of the universe, so that each being is at
each node of the net, each jewel reflects all the others, reflecting
back and catching the reflection, just as systems theory sees that the
part contains the whole. (Macy, 1990, p. 61)
In practical terms, engaged Buddhist monks in Thailand have
faced arrest for “ordaining” trees in the rainforests to protect them
from clear-cutting by international timber cartels (Darlington, 2003),
while members of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship have participated in
nonviolent civil disobedience to prevent nuclear testing at the U.S. government test site in Nevada (Kaza, 2000).
Perhaps the most significant shift, or enlargement, of meaning in the
practice of engaged Buddhism involves the central doctrine of suffering
(Pali, dukkha ). The Buddha is credited with saying, “In the past, bhikkhus, as well as now, I teach only dukkha and the utter quenching of dukkha ” (Alagaddupama-sutta, Majjhima-nikāya
[M.i.140], cited in Santikaro Bhikkhu, 1996, p. 156). As elaborated in
the four noble truths, suffering is universal, it is rooted in
psychological craving born of ignorance, it is “quenchable” in the peace
(freedom from craving and other mental defilements), and it is subject
to the benefits of the eightfold path: efficacious view, aspiration,
action, speech, livelihood, exertion, mindfulness, and concentration.
Yet the logic underlying this and other early teachings is that dukkha
is both the experience and the responsibility of the sufferer. There
can be no victims; every sufferer is held accountable for his or her own
misery. Here the cure depends on the effort of the sufferer to tread
the eightfold path or, in the case of the Pure Land tradition popular in
central and East Asia, to entreat Amitābha Buddha to intervene on one’s behalf. In the case of the Mahāyāna bodhisattva
who vows to save all sentient beings, the mechanism remains a change of
heart and behavior on the part of each being, never a group
dispensation for all who are fortunate enough to hear the dharma and enact its injunctions or to receive the mercy of a buddha or bodhisattva.
The hallmark of engaged Buddhism, on the other hand, is its collectivist application of the teaching of interdependence (Pali, paṭiccasamuppāda
) to the experience of suffering in the world. For if it is possible to
suffer as a result of social conditions or natural circumstances that
transcend one’s psychological (or karmic) states of being—such as poverty, injustice, tyranny, or natural disaster—then dukkha
must be addressed in a collective way to remove these conditions for
all members of the affected group. Thus in Sivaraksa’s interpretation of
the five precepts is an abiding concern with all who are hungry and
injured by wars, racial conflicts, environmental pollution, and economic
conditions that favor the farming, manufacture, and marketing of deadly
drugs. For Ambedkar and the 380,000 dalits who embraced Buddhism
on October 14, 1956, the ceremony offered hope to millions oppressed by
the Hindu caste system, while the college students, monks, and
villagers who dig wells and build schools in more than 11,000 villages
in Sri Lanka believe they embody the name of their sponsoring
organization, Sarvodaya Shramadana (Universal Awakening through
This evolution of Buddhist ethics from one of individual
discipline, virtue, and altruism to one of collective suffering,
struggle, and liberation illustrates the cultural interaction and mutual
sharing with religious and political ideas of the West, such as the
notions of covenant community, social justice, and prophetic witness of
the biblical Hebrews and Christians, and the secular conceptions of
human rights, judicial due process, and democracy associated with Greek
humanism, Roman and Anglo-Saxon law, the scientific and social
Enlightenment of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe, and the
pragmatism and progressivism of nineteenth- and twentieth-century
America. In this regard, Ambedkar stands as an exemplar of the synthesis
of the ancient and modern, intellectual and activist, and personal and
institutional dimensions of engaged Buddhism. As one of the first
untouchables to attend college in India, Ambedkar emulated the
ecumenical tolerance of the Muslim-Hindu poet-saint Kabīr (c. 1440–1580), the anticaste activism of the Maharashtrian educator Mahatma Phule (1827–1890), and the social and spiritual reformism he found in the life and teachings of the Buddha. As a graduate student at Columbia University in New York from 1913 to 1916, Ambedkar absorbed the pragmatic philosophy of his mentor John Dewey (1859–1952) as well as the Social Gospel of Protestant theologians like Walter Rauschenbusch (1861–1918),
who wrote that religion is “not a matter of saving human atoms, but of
saving the social organism. It is not a matter of getting individuals to
heaven, but of transforming life on earth into the harmony of heaven”
(Rauschenbusch, 1964/1909, p. 65). And, as an activist for untouchable
rights in the decades leading up to Indian independence and as law
minister and chairman of the constitution drafting committee in Jawaharlal Nehru’s
first government, Ambedkar added to his emerging worldview the slogans
of Western progressivism, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” and “Educate,
Agitate, Organize,” and the theories of law and government he
encountered at the University of London
and Gray’s Inn. All of these influences were woven seamlessly into the
traditional rendering of the Buddha’s life and teachings in Ambedkar’s
final work, The Buddha and His Dhamma (1957)—a
manifesto of engaged Buddhism that remains the bible for tens of
millions of Ambedkar’s Buddhists followers in the early twenty-first
When Ambedkar was asked by reporters what kind of Buddhism he would
embrace at the mass Buddhist conversion in 1956, he replied: “Our
Buddhism will follow the tenets of the faith preached by Lord Buddha
himself, without stirring up the old divisions of Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna. Our Buddhism will be a Neo-Buddhism—a Navayana ” (paraphrased from Keer, 1971, p. 498). Many teachings and practices of engaged Buddhism transcend the ancient yanas or sectarian “vehicles”—the Hīnayāna or “elite vehicle,” the Mahāyāna or “universal vehicle,” and the Vajrayāna or “diamond vehicle”—by
drawing teachings and practices from them all and by adapting these in
keeping with modern notions of suffering, human rights, social reform,
and environmental sustainability. Accordingly, some observers have
proposed that Ambedkar’s Navayana (”new vehicle”), prefiguring
the beliefs and practices of engaged Buddhism as a global movement
today, represents the emergence of a “fourth yana ” in the
history of Buddhism; others argue that the patterns of thought and
action of the “engaged” Buddhists fall comfortably within the purview of
traditional Buddhism (Queen, 2000, pp. 22–26).
Whichever interpretation meets the tests of history, the sharp rise of
Buddhist social engagement and activism in the twentieth century and the
pervasiveness of its influence on Buddhist institutions and ideology is
not in dispute.
Aitken, Robert. The Mind of Clover: Essays in Zen Buddhist Ethics. San Francisco, 1984. Essays by a founder of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship.
Ambedkar, B. R. The Buddha and His Dhamma. 3d ed. Bombay, 2001. Has achieved canonical status for ex-untouchable Buddhist converts in India.
Chappell, David, ed. Buddhist Peacework: Creating Cultures of Peace. Boston, 2000. Brief essays by engaged Buddhist thinkers and movement leaders in Asia and the West.
Dalai Lama. Policy of Kindness: An Anthology of Writings by and about the Dalai Lama. Ithaca, N.Y., 1990. The Nobel Peace laureate reflects with others on Buddhism and history.
Darlington, Susan M. “Buddhism and Development: The Ecology Monks of Thailand.” In Action Dharma: New Studies in Engaged Buddhism, edited by Christopher S. Queen, Charles Prebish, and Damien Keown, pp. 96–109. London, 2003.
Eppsteiner, Fred, ed. The Path of Compassion: Writings on Socially Engaged Buddhism.
2d ed. Berkeley, Calif., 1988. A widely influential collection
featuring the most prominent actors and commentators in the late 1980s.
Glassman, Bernard. Bearing Witness: A Zen Master’s Lessons in Making Peace. New York, 1998. Sequel to Instructions to the Cook (1996), detailing a Zen Roshi’s innovative experiments in social engagement.
Gross, Rita. Buddhism after Patriarchy: A Feminist History, Analysis, and Reconstruction of Buddhism. Albany, N.Y., 1993. Historical analysis and manifesto by an activist-scholar; a touchstone of Buddhist feminism.
Harris, Ian, ed. Buddhism and Politics in Twentieth-Century Asia. London, 2001.
Harvey, Peter. An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics: Foundations, Values, and Issues. London, 2000. A useful survey of the classical foundations of engaged Buddhism.
Hunt-Perry, Patricia, and Lyn Fine. “All Buddhism Is Engaged: Thich Nhat Hanh and the Order of Interbeing.” In Engaged Buddhism in the West, edited by Christopher S. Queen, pp. 35–65. Boston, 2000.
Kaza, Stephanie. “To Save All Beings: Buddhist Environmental Activism.” In Engaged Buddhism in the West, edited by Christopher Queen, pp. 159–217. Boston, 2000.
Keer, Dhananjay. Dr. Ambedkar: Life and Mission. 3d ed. Bombay, 1971.
King, Sallie B. “Thich Nhat Hanh and the Unified Buddhist Church: Nondualism in Action.” In Engaged Buddhism: Buddhist Liberation Movements in Asia, edited by Christopher S. Queen and Sallie B. King, pp. 321–363. Albany, N.Y., 1996.
Kraft, Kenneth, ed. Inner Peace, World Peace: Essays on Buddhism and Nonviolence. Albany, N.Y., 1992. Critical essays by scholars and practitioners of engaged Buddhism.
Leyland, Winston, ed. Queer Dharma: Voices of Gay Buddhists. 2 vols. San Francisco, 1998. Pathbreaking essays on Buddhism, gender, and sexual preference.
Ling, Trevor. Buddhism, Imperialism, and War: Burma and Thailand in Modern History. London, 1979.
Macy, Joanna. “The Greening of the Self.” In Dharma Gaia: A Harvest of Essays in Buddhism and Ecology, edited by Allan Hunt Badiner. Berkeley, Calif., 1990.
Macy, Joanna. Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory: The Dharma of Natural Systems. Albany, N.Y., 1991. Offers a full exposition of a systems theory of Buddhist ethics.
Nhat Hanh, Thich. Being Peace. Berkeley, Calif., 1987. See pages 90–91. The most influential collection of teachings by the Vietnamese Zen teacher and activist.
Queen, Christopher S. “Introduction: The Shapes and Sources of Engaged Buddhism.” In Engaged Buddhism: Buddhist Liberation Movements in Asia, edited by Christopher S. Queen and Sallie B. King, p. 19. Albany, 1996.
Queen, Christopher S. “The Peace Wheel: Nonviolent Activism in the Buddhist Tradition.” In Subverting Hatred: The Challenge of Nonviolence in Religious Traditions, edited by Daniel L. Smith-Christopher, pp. 25–48. Cambridge, Mass., 1998.
Queen, Christopher S. “Engaged Buddhism: Agnosticism, Interdependence, Globalization.” In Westward Dharma: Buddhism beyond Asia, edited by Charles S. Prebish and Martin Baumann, pp. 324–347. Berkeley, Calif., 2002.
Queen, Christopher S., ed. Engaged Buddhism in the West. Boston, 2000. Comprehensive treatment of eighteen movements in North America, Europe, Australia, and South Africa.
Queen, Christopher S., and Sallie B. King, eds. Engaged Buddhism: Buddhist Liberation Movements in Asia. Albany, N.Y., 1996. The first scholarly treatment of engaged Buddhism, surveying nine movements.
Queen, Christopher S., Charles Prebish, and Damien Keown, eds. Action Dharma: New Studies in Engaged Buddhism. London, 2003. Historical, ethnographic, and methodological essays from the Journal of Buddhist Ethics online conference.
Rauschenbusch, Walter. Christianity and the Social Crisis (1909). New York, 1964.
Rothberg, Donald. “Resources on Socially Engaged Buddhism.” Turning Wheel: The Journal of Socially Engaged Buddhism (Spring 2004): 30–37. A comprehensive bibliography of books, articles, and online references.
Santikaro Bikkhu. “Buddhadasa Bhikkhu: Life and Society through the Natural Eyes of Voidness.” In Engaged Buddhism: Buddhist Liberation Movements in Asia, edited by Christopher S. Queen and Sallie B. King. Albany, N.Y., 1996.
Sivaraksa, Sulak. Seeds of Peace: A Buddhist Vision for Renewing Society. Berkeley, Calif., 1993. Selected essays by the Thai Budhhist activist.
Smith, Bardwell L. “Sinhalese Buddhism and the Dilemmas of Reinterpretation.” In The Two Wheels of Dhamma: Essays on the Theravada Tradition in India and Ceylon, edited by Bardwell L. Smith, Frank Reynolds, and Gananath Obeyesekere. Chambersberg, Pa., 1972.
Tucker, Mary Evelyn, and Duncan Williams, eds. Buddhism and Ecology: The Interconnection of Dharma and Deeds. Cambridge, Mass., 1998. Scholarly papers on Buddhist environmentalism presented at a Harvard University conference.
Tweed, Thomas A. The American Encounter with Buddhism: 1844–1912, Victorian Culture and the Limits of Dissent. Bloomington, Ind., 1992.
Victoria, Brian. Zen at War. New York, 1997. Pathbreaking work on Budhhism and violence.
Yarnell, Thomas Freeman. “Engaged Buddhism: New and Improved? Made in the USA of Asian Materials.” In Action Dharma: New Studies in Engaged Buddhism, edited by Christopher S. Queen, Charles Prebish, and Damien Keown, eds., pp. 286–344. London, 2003.
With justice on our side, I do not see how we can lose
our battle. The battle to me is a matter of joy… For ours is a battle
not for wealth or for power. It is a battle for freedom. It is a battle
for the reclamation of the human personality.
— Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, All-India Depressed Classes Conference, 1942
Hidden in plain sight, a modern Buddhist
revolution is gaining ground in the homeland of Shakyamuni. It’s being
led by Indian Buddhists from the untouchable castes, the poorest of the
poor, who go by various names: neo-Buddhists, Dalit Buddhists,
Navayanists, Ambedkarites. But like so much in their lives, these names
carry a subtle odor of condescension that suggests their kind of
Buddhism is something less than the real thing.
India’s untouchables are relegated to the lowest
jobs, and live in constant fear of being publicly humiliated, paraded
naked, beaten, and raped with impunity by upper-caste Hindus seeking to
keep them in their place. Merely walking through an upper-caste
neighborhood is a life-threatening offence.
Human rights abuses against these people,
known as Awakened Aboriginal SC/STs, are legion. A random sampling of headlines in
mainstream Indian newspapers tells their story: “Dalit boy beaten to
death for plucking flowers;” “SC/ST tortured by cops for three days;”
“SC/ST ‘witch’ paraded naked in Bihar;” “SC/ST killed in lock-up at
Kurnool;” “7 SC/STs burnt alive in caste clash;” “5 SC/STs lynched in
Haryana;” “Dalit woman gang-raped, paraded naked;” “Police egged on mob
to lynch SC/STs.”
The death of Ambedkar, or Babasaheb, as his
devotees call him, left the nascent SC/ST spiritual and political
movement without unified leadership. It was not surprising to see the
rapid rise of factionalism, given the entrenched system of graded
inequality. No one else on the scene had the intellect and strength of
character with which to unify the many outcast communities.
In 1991, when I came to work at Buddhist Peace
Fellowship in Berkeley, engaged Buddhism was outside the mainstream.
Twenty years later, countless centers and groups are involved in prison
work, chaplaincy, feeding the poor, and organizing against war. We have
come to see this as a responsibility that flows from the bodhisattva vow
to save all beings. But from the start, Ambedkar’s Buddhism
incorporated a vision of a compassionate society and social liberation,
far beyond the introspective caricature that some have of Buddhism. So
it is natural that an Indian Buddhist movement, rooted in the
most-oppressed segment of society, would see the oneness of personal
development and social transformation.
Buddhism originated in ancient India and grew after Ashoka
adopted it. By the 2nd century CE, Buddhism was widespread in India and
had expanded outside of India into Central Asia, East Asia and parts of
Southeast Asia. During the Middle Ages, Buddhism slowly declined in India, while it vanished from Persia and Central Asia as Islam became the state religion.
Achhutanand was born in an untouchable family, joined the Arya Samaj suddhi
reform movement, worked there for about eight years (1905-1912), felt
untouchability was being practiced in Arya Samaj in subtle ways, left it
and launched Bharitiya Achhut Mahasabha as a socio-political movement. Achhutanand began spreading his ideas by publishing the Adi-Hindu
magazine, and called SC/STs to a return to Adi-Dharma as the original
religion of Indians. Achhutanand formulated his philosophy on the basis
of a shared cultural and ethnic identity, presenting it to an audience
beyond the SC/STs and including tribal societies as well. He opposed the
non-cooperation movement of Mahatma Gandhi, his fasts and Indian National Congress, stating that the Chitpavan brahmins were Paradesis of Bene Israel”as foreign to India as were the British”, according to Anand Teltumbde.
Babu Mangu Ram was also born in an untouchable family of Punjab
with a flourishing leather trade. Mangu Ram arrived in the United States
in 1909, at age 23 and worked in California. There he joined the Ghadar Party, smuggling weapons from California to India to oppose the British rule.
In 1925, he shifted his focus to Awakened Aboriginal SC/ST freedom, for which he launched
the “Ad Dharm” movement as well as Adi-Danka weekly newspaper to spread
his ideas. His religious movement failed to accomplish much, states
Teltumbde, and Mangu Ram later joined the Ambedkar movement.
In 1914, Prakash was ordained Bodhanand Mahastavir in Calcutta, and began preaching Buddhism in Lucknow. He founded the Bharatiye Buddh Samiti in 1916, and set up a vihara in 1928.
In 1898, Pandit Iyothee Thass founded the Sakya Buddhist Society, also known as Indian Buddhist Association, in Tamil Nadu. He presented Buddhism as a religious alternative for the Awakened Aboriginal SC/STs. Thass’
efforts created a broad movement amongst Tamil SC/STs in South India
till the 1950s. The first president of the Indian Buddhist Association was Paul Carus. The Indian Buddhist Association, unlike the SC/ST movement led by Ambedkar, adopted the Theravada Buddhism tradition found in Sri Lanka, where Thass had received his training and initiation in Buddhism.
Ambedkar was an Indian leader, influential during the colonial era and post-independence period of India. He belonged to a Awakened Aboriginal Scheduled caste
community, traditionally the most oppressed and marginalized group in
Indian society. He was the fourteenth child in an impoverished
Maharashtra Scheduled Caste family, who studied abroad, returned to India in the
1920s and joined the political movement. His focus was social and
political rights of the SC/STs.
During 1931–32, the Mahatma Gandhi led Indian independence movement held discussions with the British government over the Round Table Conferences. They sought constitutional reforms as a preparation to the end of colonial British rule, and begin the self-rule by Indians.
The British side sought reforms that would keep the Indian subcontinent
as a colony. The British negotiators proposed constitutional reforms on
a British Dominion model that established separate electorates based on
religious and social divisions. They invited Indian religious leaders, such as Muslims and Sikhs, to press their demands along religious lines, as well as B. R. Ambedkar as the representative leader of the untouchables. Gandhi vehemently opposed a constitution that enshrined rights or
representations based on communal divisions, because he feared that it
would not bring people together but divide them, perpetuate their status
and divert the attention from India’s struggle to end the colonial
After Gandhi returned from Second Round Table conference, he started a new satyagraha. He was immediately arrested and imprisoned at the Yerwada Jail,
Pune. While he was in prison, the British government enacted a new law
that granted untouchables a separate electorate. It came to be known as
the Communal Award. In protest, Gandhi started fast-unto-death, while he was held in prison.
The resulting public outcry forced the government, in consultations
with Ambedkar, to replace the Communal Award with a compromise Poona Pact.
Ambedkar accepted the Poona Pact under public pressure, but
disagreed with Gandhi and his political methods. He dismissed Gandhi’s
ideas as loved by “blind Hindu devotees”, primitive, influenced by
spurious brew of Tolstoy and Ruskin, and “there is always some simpleton
to preach them”.
Ambedkar concluded that SC/STs must leave Hinduism and convert to
another religion, and announced his intent to leave Hinduism in 1935.
He considered Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism and Buddhism. Ambedkar was approached by various leaders of different denominations
and faiths. On 22 May 1936, an “All Religious Conference” was held at Lucknow. It was attended by prominent SC/ST 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 SC/STs. Ambedkar rejected the other religions and chose Buddhism. However, Ambedkar, studied then
re-interpreted Buddhism, and adopted Neo-Buddhism or Navayana few weeks
before his death.
According to Ambedkar, several of the core beliefs and doctrines of traditional Buddhist traditions such as Four Noble Truths and Anatta
were flawed and pessimistic, and may have been inserted into the
Buddhist scriptures by wrong headed Buddhist monks of a later era. These
should not be considered as Buddha’s teachings in Ambedkar’s view. Other foundational concepts of Buddhism such as Karma and Rebirth were considered by Ambedkar as superstitions.
Navayana as formulated by Ambedkar and at the root of SC/ST
Buddhist movement abandons mainstream traditional Buddhist practices and
precepts such as the institution of monk after renunciation, ideas such
as karma, rebirth in afterlife, samsara, meditation, nirvana and Four
Noble Truths. Ambedkar’s new sect of Buddhism rejected these ideas and re-interpreted the Buddha’s religion in terms of class struggle and social equality.
Ambedkar called his version of Buddhism Navayana or Neo-Buddhism. His book, The Buddha and His Dhamma is the holy book of Navayana and SC/ST Buddhists. According to Junghare, for the followers of Navyana, Ambedkar has become a deity and he is worshipped in its practice.
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,
over 20 years after he declared his intent to convert. He converted
approximately half a million SC/ST / Bahujan people to his Neo-Buddhism
The conversion ceremony was attended by Medharathi, his main
disciple Bhoj Dev Mudit, and Mahastvir Bodhanand’s Sri Lankan successor,
Ambedkar asked SC/STs not to get entangled in the existing branches of
Buddhism (Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana), 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 SC/STs 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.
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
He prescribed 22 vows to his followers:
Buddhist movement was somewhat hindered by 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.
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 Scheduled Caste 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 Ambedkar’s Jayanti (birth
day), Sambuddhatva jayanthi, Diksha Divas (the day Ambedkar converted), and Ambedkar Paranirvan Divas (the day Ambedkar died).
The SC/ST 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 Scheduled Caste
leader. In April 1981, Ambawadekar founded the SC/ST Panthers (U.P.
Branch) inspired by the Maharashtrian SC/ST 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 Sarvajan samaj 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 Fujii, 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 Ambedkar in
1956. Sasai claims that when he saw a photograph of 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 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.
Since Ambedkar’s conversion, several thousand people from different
castes have converted to Buddhism in ceremonies including the twenty-two
have argued that efforts to convert Hindus to Ambedkarite Buddhism are
political stunts rather than sincere commitments to social reform. On May 2011, Vishwesha Teertha, stated that conversion doesn’t add any benefit to status of SC/STs.
On 17 June 2013, the converted SC/STs asked for the Buddhist certificates, that has been delayed.
According to 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?
According to Omvedt, Ambedkar and his Buddhist movement deny many of the core doctrines of Buddhism. All the elements of religious modernism, state Christopher Queen and Sallie King, may be found in Ambedkar Buddhism where his The Buddha and His Dhamma
abandons the traditional precepts and practices, then adopts science,
activism and social reforms as a form of Engaged Buddhism.
Ambedkar’s formulation of Buddhism is different from Western modernism,
states Skaria, given his synthesis of the ideas of modern Karl Marx into the structure of ideas by the ancient Buddha.
In the short time allotted to me, I am asked to answer two questions.
First is ‘why I like Buddhism ’ and the second is ‘How useful it is to
the world in its present circumstances.’
I prefer Buddhism because it gives three principles in combination
which no other religion does. All other religions are bothering
themselves with God and Soul and life after death. Buddhism teaches
Prajna (understanding as against superstition and supernaturalism). It
teaches Karuna (love). It teaches Samata (equality). This is what man
wants for a good and happy life on earth. These three principles of
Buddhism make their appeal to me. These three principles should also
make an appeal to the world. Neither God nor Soul can serve Society.
There is a third consideration which should make an appeal to the
world and particularly the South East Asian part of it. The world has
been faced with the onslaught of Karl Marx and the Communism of which he
is made the father. The challenge is very serious one – That Marxism
and Communism relate to secular affairs. They have shaken the foundation
of the religious system of all the countries. This is quite natural for
the religious system although today is unrelated to the secular system,
yet is the foundation on which everything secular rests when the
secular system cannot last very long unless it has got the sanction of
the religion however remote it may be.
I am greatly surprised at the turn of mind of the Buddhist countries
in South East Asia, towards communism. It means that they don’t
understand what Buddhism is. I claim that Buddhism is a complete answer
to Marx and his Communism. Communism of the Russian type aims to bring
it about by a bloody revolution. Those who are eager to embrace
communism may note that the Sangh is a Communist organization. There is
no private property. There has not been brought about by violence. It is
the result of a change of mind and yet it has stood for 2500 years. It
may have deteriorated but ideals are still binding. The Russian
Communism must answer this question. They must also answer two other
questions. One is that why communistic system is necessary for all
times. They have done the work which, it may be admitted the Russians
could never have been able to do, but when the work is done why the
people should not have freedom accompanied by love as the Buddha
preached. The South East Asian countries must, therefore, be aware of
jumping into Russian net. They will never be able to get out of it. All
that is necessary to them is to study the Buddha
and what he taught, a right and to give political form to his
teachings. Poverty there is and there will always be. Even in Russia
there is poverty, but poverty cannot be an excuse for sacrificing human
the Buddha’s teachings have not been properly interpreted and
understood. That his gospel was a collection of doctrines and social
reforms have been completely understood. Once it is realized that
Buddhism is a social gospel, the revival of it would be everlasting
event, for the world will realize why Buddhism makes such a great appeal
B. R. Ambedkar
26, Alipur Road,
12th May 1956.
role as a prominent constitution maker of India is quite well known.
However, his views on religion, particularly his reasons for renouncing
Hinduism, the religion of his birth, are not as widely known. Ambedkar
who was born in an “untouchable” family carried on a relentless battle against untouchability throughout
his adult life. In the last part of his life, he renounced Hinduism and
became a Buddhist. What were his reasons for doing so?
A detailed answer to this question can be obtained by studying his The Buddha and His Dhamma, Annihilation of Caste, Philosophy of Hinduism, Riddles in Hinduism
etc. Nonetheless, some of his articles, speeches and interviews before
and after his conversion to Buddhism throw some light on this question.
Ambedkar’s statement in 1935 at Yeola Conference
is quite instructive in this regard. Ambedkar believed that the
untouchables occupied a “weak and lowly status” only because they were a
part of the Hindu society. When attempts to gain equal status and
“ordinary rights as human beings” within the Hindu society started
failing, Ambedkar thought
it was essential to embrace a religion which will give “equal status,
equal rights and fair treatment” to untouchables. He clearly said to his
supporters “select only that religion in which you will get equal
status, equal opportunity and equal treatment…”
Evidently, after a
comparative study of different religions, Ambedkar concluded that
Buddhism was the best religion from this point of view.
1. The society must have either the sanction of law or the sanction of morality to hold it
together. Without either,
the society is sure to go to pieces. 2. Religion, if it is to survive,
it must be in consonance with reason, which is another name for science.
3. It is not enough for
religion to consist of moral code, but its moral code must recognize the
fundamental tenets of liberty, equality and fraternity.
4. Religion must not sanctify or make a virtue out of poverty.
According to Ambedkar, Buddhism fulfilled
these requirements and so among the existing religions it was the only
suitable religion for the world. He felt that the propagation of
Buddhism needed a Bible. Apparently, Ambedkar wrote The Buddha and his
Dhamma to fulfill this need.
In the same article, Ambedkar has enumerated the evils of Hinduism in the following manner:
1. It has deprived moral life of freedom.
2. It has only emphasized conformity to commands.
3. The laws are unjust because they are not the same for one class as of another. Besides, the code is treated as final.
According to Ambedkar, “what is called religion by Hindus is nothing but a multitude of commands and prohibitions.”
In the same year,
Ambedkar delivered a speech on Buddha Jayanti day in Delhi, in which he
attacked Hindu gods and goddess and praised Buddhism because it was a
religion based on moral principles. Besides, he pointed out, unlike the
founders of other religions who considered themselves emissaries of god;
the Buddha regarded himself only as a guide and gave a revolutionary
meaning to the concept of religion. He said that Hinduism stood for
inequality, whereas Buddhism stood for equality.
In May 1956, a talk by
Ambedkar titled “Why I like Buddhism and how it is useful to the world
in its present circumstances” was broadcast from the British
Broadcasting Corporation, London. In his talk Ambedkar said:
I prefer Buddhism because
it gives three principles in combination, which no other religion does.
Buddhism teaches prajna (understanding as against superstition and
supernaturalism), karuna (love), and samata (equality). This is what man
wants for a good and happy life. Neither god nor soul can save society.
In his last speech delivered in Bombay in May 24 1956, in which he declared his resolve to embrace Buddhism, Ambedkar observed:
Hinduism believes in God.
Buddhism has no God. Hinduism believes in soul. According to Buddhism,
there is no soul. Hinduism believes in Chaturvarnya and the caste
system. Buddhism has no place for the caste system and Chaturvarnya.
It is obvious that
Ambedkar regarded Buddhism as a much more rational religion compared to
Hinduism, rather the most rational religion. His main objection to
Hinduism was that it sanctified inequality and untouchability through
its doctrine of Chaturvarnya. Buddhism, on the other hand, rejected
Chaturvarnya and supported equality. He commends Buddhism for rejecting
god and soul and for emphasizing morality. According to him, prajna
(understanding as against superstition and supernaturalism), karuna
(love), and samata (equality), which Buddhism alone teaches, is all that
human beings need for a “good and happy life”.
religious act was to embrace Buddhism. His work The Buddha and his
Dhamma contains his own understanding and interpretation of Buddhism. We
may say that Buddhism as expounded in this book is what Ambedkar
embraced and recommended. In this book Ambedkar has tried to interpret
Buddhism in a rationalistic manner. Ambedkar did not believe in the
existence of god and soul. This is obvious from the reasons he has given
for embracing Buddhism as well as from his interpretation of Buddhism
in Buddha and His Dhamma. In Buddhism, as interpreted by Ambedkar, there
is no place for god and soul. Further, according to Ambedkar, Buddha
did not believe in rebirth, karma and moksha as traditionally conceived.
Besides, Buddha rejected the varna vyavastha.
It is widely recognized
by scholars of Buddhism that Buddha did not believe in god and soul and
also that he rejected varna-vyavastha. However, according to the
traditional interpretation of Buddhism, Buddha did believe in rebirth
and the related doctrine of “bondage” and liberation (nirvana).
Ambedkar’s interpretation of Buddhism differs from the traditional
interpretation on this point. But regrettably Ambedkar has not
documented his book Buddha and his Dhamma. Therefore it is not possible
to say how he arrived at his alternative interpretation of Buddhism.
From a rationalist and humanist point of view, one may say that Buddhism
is a better religion than Hinduism and that it is closer to
rationalism-humanism compared to any other religion. Still, it cannot be
denied that Buddhism is a religion and certain elements like faith,
worship and other-worldliness or supernaturalism, which are common to
all religions, are also found in Buddhism. Therefore the best thing is
to give up all religions and adopt rational humanism as a philosophy of
Reader, Department of Philosophy
Patna College, Patna University
Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar was a very learned social crusader. Widely
read in history, culture, religion, economy, law and jurisprudence;
realised very early in his career that distortion of religion and
misinterpretation of history and culture did more harm to Indian Social
life than foreign invasions and domination for centuries.
The revolution and counter-revolution have been the continuous
process in India. The distortion of history and misinterpretations of
facts has not been restricted to ancient and Medieval History where only
conjectural evidence are available, but efforts on part of
quack-historian are on to deprecate the modern Indian History, where
contrary tangible evidence are still available. Stated in words of Dr.
Ambedkar- History has been made mythology to amuse women and
children. Babasaheb Ambedkar himself is a victim of this sullen and
A recent book, ‘India after Independence’ written by Bipin Chandra
and published by Penguin has many such stories. The facts regarding the
social movements, especially those attacking the Bramhanical social
(dis) order have been ignored, distorted or tailored with any
impunity. Scope of this article is however limited to the reproach of
Dr. Ambedkar by the author.
It was the firm belief of Babasaheb Ambedkar that the social
revolution in India is possible only by the annihilation of caste and
discarding the social disorder based on mythical Brahmanical
superiority. He believed that the caste system based on graded social
hierarchy is the backbone of Hinduism. He therefore wanted to denounce
the Hinduism. He made an in-depth study of different religions before
making a decision to embrace the Buddhism. What could be a reason to
choose Buddhism? As per Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar he had chosen Buddhism
because it was Indian in origin and had flourished here. According to
him Buddhism teaches Prajna (understanding as against superstition and
supernaturalism) Karuna (pity) and Samata (equality). Besides,
conversion to Buddhism has given the followers a sense of self-respect,
self-reliance and dignity, which is in a way a great boon to society.
This historical transformation has been dubbed as a political stunt
by Bramahanical Historians in past. Bipin Chandra has moved a step
ahead. He discovers a new, hitherto unknown fact, “…by 1936, he
(Babasaheb Ambedkar) argued that conversion to another religion was
necessary and even chose Sikhism. But the conversion was deferred since
the British Government would not promise that the benefits of
reservation would be continued in the case of conversion.”(Page
445). Bipin Chandra further synthesizes a new fiction “In 1956, he
reverted to his position of conversion being necessary and, with himself
at the head, led half a million people (some say 6 million), mainly
Mahars to become Buddhist. He could probably do this because
reservations were not denied to Buddhist coverts as they were to SCs who
converted to Christianity and Islam.” (Page 446). The basis of this
eclectic story is best known to Bipin Chandra! The fact remains that
the reservation facility was not available to Buddhist converts till the
V. P. Singh government extended this facility vide ‘The Constitution
(Scheduled Castes) Order (Amendment) Act 1990’. Perhaps Bipin Chandra
is not aware that the reservation facility is available to Scheduled
Tribes irrespective of their religion. Was it not easy for Dr.
Babasaheb Ambedkar to get the reservation facilities extended to Dalits,
from the incumbent British Government, after getting converted to
On May 30, 1935, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar had convened a two-day
conference at Yevla (Nasik) to ponder over the declaration of
conversion, which he had made. In his Speech he had stated, “Wherever
you may go, your political rights and safeguards will accompany you. I
have no doubt about it. If you become Muslims, you will get the
political rights as Muslims. If you become Christians, you will get your
political rights as Christians, if you become Sikhs, you will have your
political safeguards as Sikhs, Political rights are based on
population. The political safeguards of any society will increase with
the increase of its population.” He even went to extent of advising his
brethren that it was not proper to depend solely on political
rights. Similarly in the concluding part of that speech he hinted his
followers for embracing the Buddhism. Therefore Bipin Chandra’s claim
that he chose Sikhism is based on wild speculations.
Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar after the conversion had remarked, “Buddhism
is a part and parcel of Bhartiya Culture. I have taken care that my
conversion will not harm the tradition of the culture and history of
this land.” Referring to offers from two other religions he said if he
had been converted to that faith, “I am sure crores of rupees would have
been showered at our feet, and I would have ruined this country within
five years. But I do not desire that I may be recorded in History as an
Despite these facts, it is not known from where Bipin Chandra has
gathered material to deliberately deprecate Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar. The
queasiness by the author does not stop here. He further observes,
“Buddhist converts in the villages have not given up their old Hindu
gods and goddesses, but have only added photographs of Ambedkar and
Buddha, in that order, to the pantheon…. we find that Dalits feel
equality with caste Hindus only when they are able to practice that same
religious rites and customs which the upper castes had denied to
them. Gandhiji’s understanding and strategy of struggle against the
Dalit problem, which emphasized gaining temple entry, stand validated.
The fate of converts to Christianity, who continue to have separate
Dalit churches, or of promotions within Church hierarchy, denial of the
right to perform ceremonies, refusal by priests to accept water from
their hands, etc., also proves that conversion has only transformed the
problem of caste-based discrimination from Hinduism to Christianity. The
same is true of Muslims, ..” (page 447)
fantastic logic indeed! It is true that the reason should be logical
but the logic itself cannot be a reason. Bipin Chandra is trying his
best to defend the Brahmanism by making such observations against other
religions. Further, he fails to understand the difference between the
cosmetic methods of Gandhiji and radical surgery recommended by
Ambedkar. Gandhiji showed a merciful attitude towards Dalits. He wanted
to retain the caste system with caste-based occupations. On the other
hand, Babasaheb Ambedkar stood for the annihilation of caste itself by
inter-caste marriages. What Gandhi wanted to achieve by asking the
untouchables to bow before Brahminical Gods and Brahmin priests? His
temple entry for the untouchables was too a matter of benevolence upon
Dalits and not a matter of right.
It is true that the caste system has penetrated into other religions
too. However, it is the Hinduism and high caste Hindus which are
responsible for spreading that poison, and not the Christianity or
Islam. Unlike Hinduism, equality is the basic tenet of Christianity or
Islam. The caste system is not the Chief characteristic of their body
social. The Indian Christians and Muslims have begun to seriously
examine the influence of caste in the Church and Mosque. The All India
Christian Council (AICC) is making appeals to Churches to promote Dalits
in all spheres of spiritual life. Any such appeal from any Hindu
organisation; for let apart making an untouchable priest of the small
temple (let apart Shankaracharya) would go against the basic tenets of
the Brahmanic religion. Instead of making polemic arguments why Bipin
Chandra doesn’t admit that the conversion has brought a distinct
improvement in the life of converts?
The worship of Hindu Gods by neo-Buddhist is a partial truth. Bipin
Chandra conveniently forgets that not even 50 years have elapsed since
the conversion. The impact of Hinduism will diminish in due
course. The religious conversions to Islam and Christianity are quite
old, even then the ruminants of Hindu and Tribal practices continue in
the converts despite the best efforts made by religious functionaries to
eradicate those. Let apart the Muslims, Christians or Buddhist, the
photos of Laxmi are seen in the Jewellery shop run by many Jains. On
the contrary the process of, what Anthropologists call,
‘De-sanskritisation’ has accelerated in the neo-Buddhist. They are not
only giving up the Hindu way of life but the new generation is keen that
the names of children, dwellings, organizations etc. should be distinct
from Hinduism. A silent revolution is going on. It shall be pertinent
to mention few lines from the speech made by Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar next
day after the conversion, “When Christianity entered Europe, the
situation around Rome and adjoining countries was deplorable. People
were not even getting two square meals. That time hotchpotch used to be
distributed amongst the poor. who became the followers of Christ then?
Poor and sufferers. Entire poor and lower strata of people in Europe
have become Christian. ‘This Christian religion belongs to beggars’ so
said Gibbon. Gibbon is not alive today to answer, how Christianity in
Europe became the religion of all.” Alas, Bipin Chandra won’t be alive
to see the day when truly Buddhistised people destroy the shackles of
It appears that Bipin Chandra is scared about the future of
Brahmanism. His book is full of manipulation of facts to denounce the
anti-Brahmin movements and leaders. For instance, to malign the image
of Dr. Ambedkar he makes a false observation- ‘His loyalty won him the
seat in Viceroy’s Council.’ (page 445) Does Bipin Chandra wants to
suggest that all the 14 (out of 19) Indian Members of Viceroy’s Council
were appointed due to their loyalty, or would he like to say that all
the elections which Congress fought during pre-Independence period were
due to their loyalty to British Crown? Would Bipin Chandra like to call
the some of late ninetieth century moderates traitors, as they had
expressed symbolic loyalty to British Crown?
Writing history is not predicting the future like an astrologer; it
should be based upon the unbiased study of available facts. Bipin
Chandra defiantly knows this. Even then he has tried to remould the
past. Is it with purpose, intent and motive to uphold the Brahmanism?
Author – Satish Kumar Gajbhiye
This article aims at refuting certain observations against Dr. B. R.
Babasaheb Ambedkar made by Bipin Chandra in his book, ‘India after
The sources of this article:
1. India after Independence by Bipin Chandra, Penguin Publications.
2. Lokrajya, Dr. Ambedkar special issue by Govt. of Maharashtra.
3. Dr. Ambedkar Writings and Speeches, published by Gov. of Maharashtra.
4. History of Conversion by W. Godbole.
5. Modern Indian Thought by D. R. Bali- Sterling Publications.
6. Clippings from ‘The Hindu’.
19th July 1954 in Awakened Aboriginal SC/ST History: Dr.
Ambedkar made a proposal for a campaign for spreading the Buddhism in
India at Buddhist Sasana Council of Burma (present Myanmar)
In his July trip to Burma in 1954, Dr.
Ambedkar made a proposal for sponsoring a campaign for Buddhist
conversion in India. Speaking to the Buddhist Sasana Council of Burma,
he argued that the ground was fertile in India and presented a
memorandum to the Council.
The memorandum is as follows:
Record of my talk to the Buddhist Sasana Council of Burma
An enlarged version
1. To spread Buddhism outside Burma
be one of the aims of the Sasana Council then India is the first
country they should make the centre of their effort. No other country;
will yield so much as India will.
2. The reason is obvious. India is a
birth-place of Buddhism. It flourished in India from 543 B.C to 1400
A.D i.e. for nearly 2000 years. Although the Buddhist Religion has
vanished the name of the Buddha is still held in great veneration and
the memory of His Religion is still green. In India Buddhism may be
withered plant. But no one can say that it is dead at the roots. He is
regarded by the Hindus as an Avtar of Vishnu. In India we don’t have to
restore veneration for a new prophet or (X) has to do for his Gods among
the Jews. All that we have to do is to bring back his religion. Such
easy condition for a (X) effort cannot be found in any other country. In
them there are well and long established religions and Buddhism would
be regarded as an intruder without a passport. So far as India is
concerned the Buddha needs no passport nor does he require any visa.
3. Thirdly there are sections among
the Hindus who are eager to leave Hinduism and go over to Buddhism.
Such are the Untouchables and the Backward Classes. They are against
Hinduism because its doctrine of Chaturvarna which is best described as
the doctrine of graded inequality. In the present stage of their
intellectual awakening these classes are up in arms against Hinduism.
Now is the time to take advantage of their discontent. They prefer
Buddhism to Christianity on three grounds.
(i) Buddhism is not a religion which is alien to Indians
(ii) The essential doctrine of Buddhism is social equality which they want;
(iii) Buddhism is a national religion in which there can be no room for superstition.
4. There should be hesitation in
launching the movement on the ground that the majority of the people
entering Buddhism in its early stages will be coming from lower classes.
The Sasana council must not make the mistake which the Christian
missionaries in India made. The Christian Missionaries began by
attempting to convert the Brahmins. Their strategy was that if the
Brahmans could be converted first the conversion of the rest of the
Hindus would not be difficult. For they argued that is the Brahmins
could be converted first they could go to the non-Brahmins and then
“When the Brahmins have accepted Christianity why don’t you. They are
the heads of your religion”. This strategy of the missionaries proved
fatal to the spread of Christianity in India. The Brahmins did not
become Christians. Why should they? They had all the advantages under
Hinduism. The Christian missionaries in India realized their mistake and
turned their attention to the Untouchables after wasting hundreds of
years in their effort to convert the Brahmins. By the time they turned
to the Untouchables the spirit of nationalism had grown up and
everything alien including Christianity was regarded as inimical to the
country. The result was that the Christian missionaries could convert
very few untouchables. The Christian population in India is surprisingly
small notwithstanding the missionary effort extending over 400 years.
They might have converted the whole of Untouchables and the backward
classes if they had begun with them first.
5. Attention may be drawn to the
entry of Christianity in Rome. For it is very instructive. From the
pages of Gibbon’s decline and fall of the Roman Empire, it is clear that
Christianity entered first among the lower classes or as Gibbon says
among the poor and despised section of the Roman population. The higher
classes came in later on. Gibbon ridicules Christianity as a religion of
the poor and the down-trodden. In holding his view Gibbon was
thoroughly mistaken. He failed to realize that it is the poor who need
religion,. For religion, if it is a right religion, gives hope of
betterment to the poor who having nothing else need as a soothing
action. The rich have everything. They need not live on hope. They live
on their possessions. Secondly Gibbon failed to realise that religion if
it is of the right type ennobles people and elevates them. People do
not degrade religion.
6. I will now turn to the
preliminary steps, which has to be taken for the revival of Buddhism in
India. I mention below those that occur to me:
(i) The preparation of a Buddhist Gospel
which could be a constant companion of the convert. The must of a small
gospel containing the teachings of the Buddha is a great handicap in
the propagation of Buddhism. The common man cannot be expected to read
the 73 volumes of the Pali Canon. Christianity has a great advantage
over Buddhism in having the message of Christ contained in a small
booklet, The Bible. This handicap in the way of the propagation of
Buddhism must be removed. In regard to the preparation of Buddha’ Gospel
care must be taken to emphasize the social and moral teachings of The
Buddha. I have to emphasize the point because I find that in
most Buddhist countries what is emphasized, is meditation, contemplation
and the Abidhamma. This way of presenting Buddhism to Indians would
be fatal to our cause;
(ii) The introduction of a ceremony like
Baptism in Christianity for the laity. There is really no ceremony of
conversion i.e. for becoming a lay disciple of the Buddha. Whatever
ceremony of conversion there is, is far becoming a Bhikku, for entering
into the sangha. Among the Christians there are two ceremonies; for
baptism showing acceptance of Christianity; and 2. For ordination i.e
becoming a priest. In Buddhism there is no ceremony like baptism. This
is the main reason why people after becoming Buddhist slip out of
Buddhism. We must now introduce a ceremony like the Christian baptism
which every lay person must undergo before he can be called a
‘Buddhist’. Merely uttering the panch shila is not enough. Many other
points must be added to make person feel that he is ceasing to be a
Hindu and becoming a new man;
(iii) The appointment of a number of
lay preachers who could go about and preach the Buddha’s Gospel among
the people and look after the new convert and see how far they are
following the Buddha Dhamma. The lay preachers must be paid. They may be
(iv) The establishment of a Buddhist
Religions seminary where persons who wish to become preachers could be
taught Buddhism and also comparative study of the other Religions
(v) The introduction of congregational worship in the Vihara every Sunday followed by a Sermon;
7. In addition to these preliminary
steps it is necessary to do some other things which require to be done
in a big way as aids to our propagation campaign. In this connection I
make the following proposals;
(i) Building of big Temples and Viharas in the four important towns; 1. Madras; 2.Bombay; 3. Calcutta and 4. Delhi
(ii) Establishment of high Schools and Colleges in the following towns 1. Madras; 2. Nagpur; 3. Calcutta and 4. Delhi
(iii) Inviting essays on Buddhist topics
and giving prizes to the first three sufficient in value so as to
attract people to make their best efforts to study Buddhist literature.
The essays should be open to all Hindus; Muslims and Christians; to men
as well as to women. This is the best way of making people interested in
the study of Buddhism.
8. Temples should be so big as to
create the impression that something big is really happening. High
schools and colleges are necessary adjuncts. They are intended to create
Buddhist atmosphere among younger men. Besides they will not only pave
their way but bring a surplus which could be used for other missionary
work. It should be remembered that most of the Christian missions find
funds for financing their activities from the surplus revenue which
is yielded by the schools and colleges they run.
9. I have set out above what
preliminary steps must be taken. I feel I must also set out what
precautions must be taken in launching the movement for the revival of
Buddhism in India if Buddhism is not to disappear again.
10. Buddhism has not disappeared from
India because its doctrines were found or proved to be false. The
reasons for disappearance of Buddhism from India are different. Buddhism
was in the first place overpowered and suppressed by the Brahmins. It
is now sufficiently known that the last Maurya emperor, descendant of
emperor Ashoka, was murdered by his Brahmin commander-in-chief, by name
Pushya Mitra who usurped the throne and established Brahmanism as the
State Religion. This led to the suppression of Buddhism in India which
is one of the cause of its decline. While the rise of Brahmins brought
about the suppression of Buddhism in India, the invasion of Islam
brought about its complete destruction, by the violence it practiced in
destroying Viharas and killing Bihkkus.
11. The danger to Buddhism from Islam
no longer exists. But the danger from Brahmins exists. It will be its
toughest opponent. A Brahmin will remain a Brahmin no matter what colour
he or what party he joins. That is because Brahmins want to maintain
the system of graded social inequality. For it is this graded
inequality, which has raised the Brahmins above all and to be on the top
of everybody. Buddhism believes in equality. Buddhism strikes at the
very root of their prestige and power. That is why the Brahmins hate it.
It is quite possible that if the Brahmins are allowed to lead the
movement of revival of Buddhism they may use their power to sabotage it
or misdirect it. The precautions to exclude them from position of power
at least in the early stages of our movement is therefore very
12. All these proposals raise question
of finance. This question, it must be frankly said, cannot be solved by
India. The only people who could help are the Buddhists in India, who in
the early stages must (are) very few. The burden must, therefore, be
borne by the Buddhist countries outside India which I feel they can
easily do by diverting their Dana to this purpose.
26 Alipore Road
Delhi, the 19th July, 1954.
But the Burmese were not willing to
sponsor this, and Dr. Ambedkar was ready to undertake it on his own. He
thus began writing a book intended as a simple, eloquent and
rationalistic Buddhist gospel – The Buddha and His Dhamma.