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Dr Ambedkar and Engaged Buddhism

Dr Ambedkar and Engaged Buddhism

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Dr. Bhalchandra Mungekar


It must be mentioned in the beginning that, though Dr Ambedkar took oath in Yeola (in District Nasik of Maharashtra) in 1935 that, though ‘he was born a Hindu, he would not die a Hindu’, and he fulfilled his mission after nearly 21 years, by formally embracing Buddhism on 14th October, 1956 on the occasion of his historic conversion in the city of Nagpur, he was attracted towards the Tathagata since his childhood. The incident was of his passing of the Matriculation, when Shri Keluskar, his esteemed and learned teacher, gave him a complimentary copy of the Tathagata’s biography written by the teacher himself. A brilliant and inquisitive student that the young Bhimrao was, got attracted towards the Buddha’s message and came under its influence since then and remained so throughout his life.

Champion of Social and Economic Democracy

Dr. Ambedkar was a democrat to the core. But for him, democracy was not merely a form of government, but a way of life. He was not satisfied merely with formal or technical democracy in the form of one man-one vote; he wanted political democracy to be accompanied by social and economic democracy resulting into one man-one value. He maintained, and rightly so, that democracy was new to the Indian soil, and only transplanted from above. In the broader sense, India’s accepting democracy was some sort of a political revolution. According to him, the socio-economic and political conditions prevailing in India were not conducive to the successful working of democracy. He was painfully convinced that the all kinds of age-old hierarchies and inequalities in India, particularly based on the of caste and gender, and all other traditional-structural deformities were inimical to the egalitarian spirit and ethos of democracy, and, as a result, they would make it a meaningless exercise.

Conversion to Buddhism: A Cultural Revolution

Dr. Ambedkar also put forth a thesis in ‘Annihilation of Caste’, his magnum opus, that a political revolution was always preceded by a cultural revolution. After quoting examples from the world history, he gave some illustrations from India. He, thus, maintained that ‘the political revolution led by Chandragupta was preceded by the religious and social revolution of Buddha. The political revolution led by Shivaji was preceded by the religious and social reform brought about by the saints of Maharashtra. The political revolution of the Sikhs was preceded by the religious and social revolution led by Guru Nanak. … These (illustrations) will show that the emancipation of the mind and the soul is a necessary preliminary for the political expansion of the people’ (Government of Maharashtra, 1979, p. 44).

Viewed in this perspective, I intend to argue that by embracing Buddhism and bringing back to its place of origin, Dr Ambedkar sought to carry out in India a social and cultural revolution, and make it the foundation of India’s new democratic social order as enshrined in the Constitution (Mungekar, 2009).

What is Engaged Buddhism?

But there is one more dimension to Dr Ambedkar’s interpretation of Buddhism.

It is well-acknowledged that Dr Ambedkar interpreted Buddhism in the context of challenges facing the contemporary world (Government of India, 1992; Mungekar, 2007). His interpretation of Buddhism is so unconventional and non-traditional that some scholars described it as ‘Ambedkar Buddhism’.

Buddha and His Dhamma, his magnum opus and a Gospel of Modern Buddhism is a testimony to this.

A day before conversion, while speaking to the press people, he explained that he did not subscribe either to Hinayana or Mahayana. He described his concept of Buddhism as New Buddhism and called it Navayana ( Queen, 2007, p.25 ).

In terms of its essence that I shall be narrating in the following pages, I would prefer to interpret the Navayana as “Engaged Buddhism”.

The term engaged Buddhism ‘was coined in the 1960s by a Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, to describe the struggle of his fellow-activist monks during the Vietnam war,’ and ‘offers a new interpretation of the ancient concept of ‘liberation’ (Moksha). Thus, the emphasis of engaged Buddhism is no longer on personal goals associated with nirvana (meaning, ‘inner peace and freedom’) and bodhi (‘enlightened mind”), but on the collective idea of laukodaya (‘worldly awakening’) that includes individuals, communities, villages, and nations— not in future life or heavenly western paradise, but in this lifetime, in this world, on the ground’ ( Queen, Ibid, pp. 13-14).

Queen, a noted scholar on engaged Buddhism has mentioned about the concept and made it quite clear. Thus, ‘the most striking difference between this newly revitalized Buddhism (i.e. engaged Buddhism) and its traditional form lies in their philosophical stands, in which the new groups have adopted a hands-off approach in reaching out to society through charitable works and social causes. These new Buddhist troops are involved in social welfare and medical services, education, publications, and environmentalism, and their worldly approach has dramatically changed the (way) religion (has been practiced in Taiwan for centuries)’ ( Queen, Ibid, 2007, p.14).

Queen has made mention of similar transformations in the Theravada countries of South and Southeast Asia (Sri Lanka, Thailand, Combodia, and Burma); the Mahayana countries of Southeast and East Asia (Vietnam, Japan,Taiwan and Korea); and the Vajrayana states of the Himalayan region (Tibet, Ladakh, Sikkim and Bhutan). According to Queen, the Liberation Movement in India led by the newly converted Buddhists is a glorious illustration of engaged Buddhism (Queen, Ibid, pp.14-15) .

In view of the above, engaged Buddhism would mean any academic, constructive or charitable activity or programme undertaken by the Buddhist individual, or a group of Buddhist individuals or organization-–economic, social, cultural or political– with a view to securing or furthering the welfare of the society. These would include activities in the areas of education, health and other civic amenities; economic programmes such employment generation; strengthening cooperation; preservation of secular and democratic values and principles; fight against poverty, unemployment, and socio-economic inequalities; fight against communalism and terrorism; fight against violence and wars; and undertaking all such activities that seek to strengthen in the society the virtues of compassion, tolerance, peace, friendship and unity.

Dr Ambedkar: A Practiioner of Engaged Buddhism

I have mentioned in the beginning that Dr Ambedkar made announcement of leaving the Hindu fold in 1935 and formally embraced Buddhism in 1956. However, he became a Buddhist by conviction since the early part of his life. His total commitment to the principles of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity was rooted in the philosophy of the Tathagat Buddha, which he explicitly mentioned at some later date in the following words:

‘Positively, my social philosophy may be said to be enshrined in three words: Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. Let no one, however say that I have borrowed my philosophy from thr French Revolution. I have not. My philosophy has roots in religion and not in political science. I have derived them from the teachings of my Master, the Buddha. In his philosophy, liberty and equality had a place; but he added that unlimited liberty destroyed equality, and absolute equality left no room for liberty. In his philosophy, law had a place only as a safeguard against the breaches of liberty and equality; but he did not believe law can be a guarantee for breaches of liberty or he gave the highest place to fraternity as the only safeguard against the denial of liberty or equality or fraternity which was another name for brotherhood or humanity, which was again another name for religion’ (Government of Maharashtra, 1991, p. 503).

It would be evident that when a society is not based on the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity, and the Hindu society was certainly not the one, it is not only imperative but becomes obligatory for the believers in those principles to make sustained efforts to translate them in reality.

Dr Ambedkar was one such warrior of the highest order whose entire life symbolized a struggle for establishing a just social order. He remained engaged, since 1920s and then throughout his life, in diverse activities, all giving a constructive and positive dimension to the philosophy of Buddha and, ultimately leading to the establishment of an egalitarian, humane and moral society. When viewed all these activities undertaken by him, in totality, it would reveal that his entire life symbolizes a glorious illustration of the tallest practitioner of Engaged Buddhism.

Let me explain, though briefly.

Struggle for Basic Human Rights of the Untouchables

Dr Ambedkar formed the Bahishkrit Hitakarini Sabha (the Outcastes Welfare Association) in 1924. Obviously, its objective was to undertake various activities for the welfare of the untouchables.

He, naturally, began his movement with the battle for establishing the basic human rights of the untouchables. Like many other denials and indignities, the untouchables had no access to drinking water even from the public wells and ponds, that were open to animals, let alone the privately-owned wells. Dr. Ambedkar, therefore, led his historic satyagriha to the Chavadar tank in the town of Mahad in Raigad (then Kolaba) district of the state of Maharashtra on March 25, 1927, that was joined by thousands of his followers. He was greeted by angry upper-caste reactionaries with bricks and sticks, and stoutly protested and foiled his attempt in the first instance. He made yet another attempt within a few days and succeeded in accessing the water of tank. This time, he also burnt the Manusmriti, the infamous Hindu scripture that sanctified the inhuman sufferings of the untouchables and the Shudras in general.

The Chavadar tank satyagriha of Mahad became the turning point and milestone in the Ambedkarian Movement of social emancipation of the untouchables. Since then, thousands of Dr. Ambedkar’s followers throng to Mahad, every year, and pay their respectful homage to their emancipator.

After the satyagriha of Mahad, Dr Ambedkar turned to the temple entry. The Kalaram (temple having the black idol of a Hindu deity Rama) at Nasik was considered very pious in that region and, therefore, an entry into that temple was very important. Dr. Ambedkar decided to enter the temple with thousands of his followers. Shri Bhaurao (later came to be affectionately called Karmaveer Dadasaheb) Gaikwad, his most trusted follower was the main organizer of the satyagriha. However, on the day of Satyagriha, the reactionary Hindus, like on the occasion in Mahad, vehemently protested and foiled Dr. Ambedkar’s attempt of the temple entry.

Dr Ambedkar later organized the Parvati temple satyagriha in Pune.

In this context, what needs to be emphasized is that, unlike the Chavadar tank satyagriha of Mahad, Dr. Ambedkar was least interested in the temple entry for the religious purpose. He just wanted to establish the temple entry as a basic human right of the untouchables. He was provoking the Hindus and appealing to their conscience. His question was: If the untouchables constituted an integral part of the Hindu society, then why did or should they not have the same human-civic rights on par with the rest of the Hindus? Not only did he attack the reactionary Hindus, but he also exposed the progressive Hindus who were the silent spectators towards his lone battle for establishing the basic human rights of the untouchables.

Intellectual Awakening among the Untouchables

Dr. Ambedlkar, during this time, started thought-provoking periodicals. These included the Bahishkrit Bharat (Outcaste India), Mooknayak (the Leader of the Dumb), and the Janata (The People). The very names of these periodicals themselves were so revealing that their content could easily reach to the hearts of the readers. The purpose of these periodicals, obviously was to communicate to the untouchables (and incidently, to all Hindus in general) the conditions under which they lived and to arouse in their minds strong feelings of hatred against the practice of the untouchability and, to appeal and provoke them to organize and fight it with all might at their command. He had tremendous faith in the people, and was sure that once they realise what agony of the untouchability was, they would rebel against it. And precisely it happened during his lifetime under his legendary leadership; and also has been happening after his Mahaparinirvana under his ever-inspiring legacy.

Political Power: An Instrument of Social Change

Since beginning, Dr Ambedkar looked upon political power as a powerful instrument of social change. From such perspective, he argued in his famous thesis in ‘Mr. Gandhi and the Emancipation of the Untouchables’ that the problems of the untouchables were essentially political problems, and, therefore, he was convinced that they must share political power (Government of Maharashtra, 1990).

Dr Ambedkar, therefore, formed the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in 1936 and fought the first provincial elections in 1937 in the state of Maharashtra. The manifesto of the ILP was fully devoted the problems and welfare of the industrial workers, peasants, women, untouchables and all down-trodden sections of the society. The programmes of the ILP were, therefore, based on issues such as wages, housing, civic amenities, health and education. The ILP’s success in the election was stupendous, inasmuch as it won 14 seats, and what was even more striking, of 14 of its successful candidates, three belonged to the upper castes.

Dr Ambedkar had to wind up the ILP due to certain political compulsions. He formed the All India Scheduled Castes Federation, another political party, in 1946, though it did not register any success.

But what is important was his emphasis on sharing political power as an instrument of social change. It was this political dimension of his movement in claiming that the untouchables constituted a separate element in India’s national life, and therefore, they must have separate political representation that brought him in direct conflict with Gandhi.

A Pioneer of Labour Welfare Programmes

Dr Ambedkar was a Member in the British Viceroy’s Executive Council during the period from 1942 to 1946. He was assigned the portfolio of Labour. During his tenure, he implemented such welfare programmes for the working classes and initiated such policies and legislations that practically covered all sectors of the economy and all aspects of labour. It would, therefore, be no exaggeration to say that Dr. Ambedkar laid the foundation of free India’s labour policy (Government of Maharashtra, 1991).

Emancipation of Women

Like untouchables, his concern towards the emancipation of women is well-known. His definition of a cultured society was based on status of women in the society. Women, too, occupied a low position in all socio-economic and cultural spheres of the Hindu society. As the Minister of Law of free India, he prepared the famous Hindu Code Bill seeking to give the Hindu women all rights on par with men, the right to inheritance of parental property being the most important amongst them. He was convinced that the right would end the economic bondage of women and give them a sense of independent identity. He was so much exercised and committed to the cause of the womenfolk and their empowerment that, when the government turned cold feet and was unable to see the legislation through, he unhesitatingly resigned from the Nehru Cabinet.

People’s Education Society: Empowering Poor with Higher Education

One of the greatest and all-time revolutionary contributions of Dr Ambedkar to the cause of the upliftment of the downtrodden sections was his decision to form the People’s Education Society (PES) in 1945. Following Jotirao Phule, his mentor along with the Buddha and Kabir, he knew the importance of education as an instrument of personal empowerment and social liberation. He himself was its glorious illustration.

Dr Ambedkar, thus, started in 1946 the Siddharth College of Arts and Science. Since he knew that the students from the poor, socio-economically backward communities would not be able to pursue full-time higher education and they would have to earn and learn, he located the college in the business and commercial heart of the city of Mumbai. The Siddharth College, thus, became the first morning college in India that enabled thousands of working students, both belonging to the depressed sections- including the present author- and of the upper castes, to pursue higher education; otherwise, the doors of higher education to them would have permanently been closed. The PES then started many colleges in Mumbai, and other parts of Maharshtra, particularly the educationally backward Marathwada region and made a historic contribution to spreading higher education to the poor and disadvantaged sections of the society.

In conclusion, along with an intellectual dimension of Buddhism leading the individual to the state of enlightenment, Dr. Ambedkar, throughout his life, gave Buddhism, a positive, social and constructive dimension in the form all sorts of programmes, actions and services that helped empower the downtrodden and took society to the stage of higher social welfare. This is the essence of Engaged Buddhism. This is what the Buddha meant by Bahujan Hitay, Bahujan Sukhay. Therefore, it would be imperative for the Buddhists, and particularly for the followers of Dr. Ambedkar to undertake all such charitable and constructive activities that would enhance the welfare of their fellow brothers and sisters. To accomplish this goal, they must organize and unite. They must get rid of the shallow and sectarian considerations, and also overcome egoism. They must honestly and genuinely embrace the philosophy of Buddha and surrender to the historic, legendary and epoch-making legacy of Dr. Ambedkar.



Government of Maharashtra,.1979. Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, Vol.1, Education Department

__,1990. Vol. 9

__,1991. Vol.10

__,1992. Vol.11

Mungekar, B.L. and Akash Singh Rathore.2007.(ed); Buddhism and the Contemporary World: An Ambedkarian Perspective, Dr. Ambedkar Institute of Social and Economic Change

Mungekar, B. L. 2009.(ed ) Buddhism and the 21st Century, the Commemoration Volume of the 255th Anniverasary of the Mahanirvana of Lord Buddha, Nava Nalanda Mahavihara.

Queen, Christopher, 2007. Buddhism and World Order: A Turning Point for Humanity in Mungekar and Rathore, 2007.

[Courtesy: Dr. Bhalchandra Mungekar’s website]