(This story was originally published on 14 April 2022 to mark the day Dr BR Ambedkar converted to Buddhism. This is being republished from the archives to mark his birth anniversary)
On 14 October 1956, Dalit icon and architect of India's constitution, Dr BR Ambedkar, converted to Buddhism along with lakhs of Dalit followers in Nagpur. He had openly declared his intent to quit Hinduism in 1935. Here's why:
Decoding Babasaheb Ambedkar's Conversion to Buddhism
The Dalit-Buddhist Movement
Done with the caste-system and atrocities against Dalits and other oppressed castes, Babasaheb finally converted to Buddhism, with lakhs of followers – Dalits as well as upper-caste Hindus. Maharashtra's Mahar community, to which Ambedkar was born, formed the majority among the Dalit converts in Nagpur.
After he publicly declared his decision to quit Hinduism in 1935, in an all-religion conference in Lucknow on 22 May 1936, Muslim, Sikh, Christian and Buddhist speakers tried to woo Dalits. He considered all religions, held meetings with his followers, took their opinion into account, and finally chose Buddhism, for primarily two reasons:
Buddhism met with his core values of rationality, equality, justice.
He saw Buddhism as a modern and rational religion
However, Ambedkar found the core doctrines of Buddhism flawed. So, he modified some basic tenets and re-modelled Buddhism to best suit interests of the oppressed castes. This re-interpretation was popularly called the Dalit Buddhist movement or Navayana (Neo) Buddhism.
Babasaheb, did not live long to practice Buddhism and died just a few weeks after the public conversion in Nagpur. But he helped Dalits escape clutches of caste-based oppression and re-kindled Buddhism in India.