(This article was originally published in 2019 and has been republished from The Quint’s archive on the occasion of Ambedkar Jayanti.)
On 14 October 1956, in Nagpur, Dr BR Ambedkar converted to Buddhism.
He wasn't alone – close to 3.6 lakh of his followers converted with him in Nagpur.
But why did Ambedkar choose to convert to Buddhism, why did he decide to convert in Nagpur and why did he alter not just his own path but 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. Convert so that your domestic life should be happy.”
He went on to add:
“Why do you remain in a religion which does not treat you as human beings? Why do you remain in a religion which prohibits you from entering temples? Why do you remain in a religion which prohibits you from securing drinking water from the public well? Why do you remain in a religion which comes in your way for getting a job? Why do you remain in a religion which insults you at every step?”
“A religion in which man’s human behaviour with man is prohibited, is not religion, but a display of force. A religion which does not recognise a man as man, is not a religion but a disease. A religion in which the touch of animals is permitted, but the touch of human beings is prohibited, is not a religion but a mockery. A religion which precludes some classes from education, forbids them to accumulate wealth and to bear arms, is not a religion but a mockery of human beings. A religion that compels the ignorant to be ignorant, and the poor to be poor, is not a religion but a punishment.”
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