(This story was first published on 13 October 2018 and is being reposted from The Quint’s archives on the occasion of Ambedkar Jayanti. You can read our other stories on Dr BR Ambedkar here.)
On 14 October 1956, Dr BR Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian Constitution, took a life-altering decision. The Dalit leader decided to quit Hinduism and take up Buddhism, along with close to 3,65,000 of his followers, in Nagpur.
Six decades later, we look at the reasons behind Ambedkar’s decision to alter not just his own path but also the lives of a largely marginalised Dalit community.
Ambedkar had long decided to change his religion to escape what he considered a “threat to freedom” – the varna or caste system, propagated by Hinduism. Frustrated by what he believed was an inherent part of the Hindu religion, Ambedkar opined that conversion was the only method for Dalits to denounce the caste system.
Almost 20 years before he actually converted, Ambedkar addressed the Mahars – a section of the community considered untouchable – in Mumbai, apprising them of his decision to convert. In a lengthy yet heavily influential speech, Ambedkar urged:
“… religion is for man and not man for religion. For getting human treatment, convert yourselves. Convert for getting organised. Convert for becoming strong. Convert for securing equality. Convert for getting liberty.”
Having said this, Ambedkar then contemplated for almost two decades, before he chose to convert to Buddhism over other religions. According to Gauri Vishwanathan, a professor of English at Columbia University, the reason behind his choice was in fact, the “foreignness” associated with Islam and Christianity.
Apart from a deep-rooted disdain for the caste system inherent in Hinduism, another possible reason that could have driven Ambedkar’s choice was that Buddhism met his core values of rationality, morality and justice. According to religion studies specialist Christopher Queen, Buddhism helped Ambedkar realise his requirements – "the exercise of individual choice based on reason and historical consciousness.”
Further, Queen also suggests that Amebedkar modified the religion’s basic tenets to fit his idea of Buddhism – particularly by including the values of equality, fraternity and liberty from the French revolution.
Ambedkar’s re-interpretation was called the Dalit Buddhist movement, or Navayana, or Neo-Buddhism. This “new sect” of the religion now rejected the “four noble truths” of traditional Buddhism, and was instead remodeled in terms of class struggle and social justice.
Ambedkar decided to convert with his followers in Nagpur, a move that was criticised by many – since the city was also considered the birthplace of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
However, Ambedkar clarified his decision a day after he converted – on 15 October 1956. He said that he had chosen the city not for the RSS, but for the ‘Nag’ people, who according to history, spearheaded the movement against the Aryan people and also propagated Buddhism.
Likening Dalits to the Nag people, Ambedkar reportedly said:
“The Nag people spread the teaching of Buagwan Buddha all over India. Thus we are like Nag people. It seems that the Nag people lived chiefly in Nagpur and the surrounding country. So they call this city Nagpur, meaning city of Nags… Nagpur was chosen because of this.”
And although Ambedkar did not live long enough to practice a religion he so-well espoused – dying only two months after his official conversion – he led several thousands to adopt his re-interpretation of the religion.
In fact, Deekshabhoomi in Nagpur, the site where Ambedkar led the 1956 mass conversion, remains a sacred shrine for Navayana Buddhism, and is of special significance to millions.