Ambedkar on Buddhism and Religion in the Indian Past

(in multiple parts)

Part III of “Ambedkar, Religion, and Islam”

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A popular print of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, chief architect of the Indian Constitution, and founder of Navayana Buddhism.

In his writings on Buddhism, Ambedkar drew overwhelmingly upon his understanding of the Indian past and the place of religion in it.  It is the historical specificity of Buddhism in India to which he was drawn when Ambedkar would make his final case for Buddhism and its attractiveness to Dalits.  There are a number of arguments that Ambedkar advances which it will suffice to mention.  First, his own research led him to the conclusion, which finds its most elaborate exposition in a book entitled The Untouchables: Who Were They and Why They Became Untouchables? (1948), that the Untouchables were ur-Buddhists or none other than the original Buddhists of India.  Secondly, and consequently, in converting to Buddhism, the Dalits would only be returning to their home.  We, in India, have heard in recent years of ghar wapsi, or the attempt to steer Muslims and Christians back to the Hindu fold from where they were allegedly enticed by clever proselytizers, but Ambedkar had something quite different in mind when he would counsel the Dalits to convert.  This was going to be a different form of ghar wapsi, the return, in myriad ways, to the warmth, security, and nourishment of the womb.  Thirdly, the very fact that the Hindu caste order had reduced the ur-Buddhists to the status of Untouchables pointed to the twin facts that Buddhism alone had offered resistance to Brahminism and had not succumbed to the hideous system of caste.  On Ambedkar’s reading, the “Four Noble Truths” that the Buddha had discovered, even as they constituted a set of precepts for humankind in general, held a specific and historically conditioned meaning for Dalits.  Too much has sometimes been made of Ambedkar’s embrace of Buddhism as a religion that came out of the soil of India, but there can be no doubt that in his mind Buddhism’s very constitutive being had been shaped by the experience of the lower castes.  Thus Buddhism alone could become a spiritual and political home for Dalits.

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