An excerpt from “The New-Epoch Builders: Buddhist Identities and the Reclamation of Personhood in the Ambedkar Conversion Movement.”
Contextualizing article: I am submitting an excerpt (or chapter) from my senior thesis to be published in Round Table India. The full thesis is entitled, “The New-Epoch Builders: Buddhist Identities and the Reclamation of Personhood in the Ambedkar Conversion Movement.” My thesis is the culmination of two years of research on caste and the Ambedkar movement in India. For this thesis I conducted ethnographic research in Maharashtra, India this past summer. Throughout my interviews and fieldwork, I talked to contemporary Ambedkarite Buddhists about what they believe to be the impacts of the mass conversion to Buddhism in 1956, their Buddhist identity in relation to the dominant “national” religious tradition in India (Hinduism), Ambedkarite Buddhist origin stories, and contemporary manifestations of caste-based discrimination.
It is my hope that my thesis is not just significant or impactful in academia, but more so, that it highlights and exposes the current inequities that still take place in Maharashtra because of caste. Additionally, I hope it highlights the profound resistance in the Dalit movement—and demonstrates to academics and non-academics alike the profound impact that a name change (from “Untouchable” to “Dalit” or “Buddhist”) and a change in religion can have.
This paper explores the personal experiences and perspectives of a small sample of Dalit Buddhists in the Ambedkar Movement in Maharashtra, India. I begin by surveying the history leading up to the conversion, which paves the way for an ethnographic account of some themes and diversities in the movement—primarily as they relate to varied conceptions of Buddhist identity and contemporary Ambedkarite Buddhists’ respective relationships with Hinduism and Hindu rituals and symbols. I will argue that despite diversity and contradictions in the movement, the conversion has been unifying and efficacious in that it has provided many Ambedkarite Buddhists with a reoriented self-perception—one largely defined by a greater sense of self-respect, a belief in the value of critical thinking and a more profound consciousness of personhood—or in Marathi, manuski.
I first learned about Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar in a religion course I took in my sophomore year of college. The course was entitled “Modern India,” taught by one of the foremost scholars of The Ramayana. In the course, we learned about various religious reform movements in modern India. We learned about the Arya Samaj, the Ad-Dharm movement, Periyar E.V. Ramasamy, the Brahmo Samaj, Swami Vivekananda, Ram Mohan Roy, various interpretations of The Ramayana, Gandhi, and last of all, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar. Though Dr. Ambedkar and his Buddhist conversion movement was hardly the focal point of the course, I was taken with Dr. Ambedkar’s his philosophy – his belief that religion was a potential arbiter of respect, ie. (“If you want to gain self-respect, change your religion.”). I was moved by his story—of having grown up in the so-called “Untouchable” community but have excelled despite caste discrimination. I admired his fight for justice and self-respect for the oppressed—the way in which he so meticulously chose or reclaimed Buddhism for his community. Finally, through learning about Dr. Ambedkar, I began to find a deeper, or more personal meaning to my religion major. I saw that Buddhism could be engaged—that religion could in fact, be responsive to the ordinary, or “mundane” needs of communities. By the time I took the Modern India course, I already had a developed interest in Buddhism, but I was most fascinated by Ambedkar’s interpretation or rather, distillation. I found myself wanting to know more. For this reason, the following semester, I completed a Buddhist studies program in a Burmese monastery in Bodh Gaya, India. In Bodh Gaya, I gained a foundation in Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, which equipped me to delve deeper into the particularities of Dr. Ambedkar’s reading of Buddhism.
Upon returning from this Buddhism program, I received a grant to work on an arts program in a government school in Chiplun, Maharashtra, India. While working on the arts program, I partnered with local performing artists (most of whom were themselves, Ambedkarite Buddhists.) While working on the arts program in Chiplun, I completed interviews for my senior thesis on the legacy of Dr. Ambedkar and the impacts of the mass conversion of 1956. It was not easy getting my college to approve this thesis topic. At Oberlin, though there are academics who specialize in South Asian religions and history, no one specializes in the Ambedkar movement. I faced resistance to completing this work at Oberlin, since, as in most South Asian religion departments at various schools, upper-caste narratives are prioritized, and Gandhi more of a subject of discussion than Dr. Ambedkar.
I encountered many surprises when going into the field to complete interviews—not the least of which was the complexities inherent in a name. In the Modern India course, we had talked about Dr. Ambedkar’s community as the Mahars. We learned that the Mahars converted to Buddhism. Siting in a classroom in rural Ohio, halfway across the world from India, (and fifty-nine years since the mass conversion to Buddhism in Nagpur), it was perhaps easy to overlook the weight of the name Mahar—the stories, trauma, and history behind it. Needles to say, then, it took me a fair amount of practice to get my footing in the realm of interviewing once I was in Chiplun. Only after having conversations with Buddhists themselves did I realize the complex connotations behind the words “Mahar,” “Buddhist” and “Dalit.” I found that this weighted distinction presented serious complications when it came to conversing and interviewing. Ultimately, because of the complexity and variation of people’s reactions to the words “Dalit” and “Mahar,” I ended up relying on the word “Buddhist” in my interviews.
In the coming pages, I will share with you just a small excerpt of the interviews I completed and the research that went into my thesis— particularly as they relate to the concept of naming within the Ambedkarite Buddhist community.
As scholar Beltz articulates, “[the words Mahar, Buddhist, and Dalit] are markedly different from each other because each word has a history and represents specific experiences and identities.” As I mentioned previously,I encountered the least complications with the term Buddhist, as virtually all informants verbally identified themselves as Buddhist and spoke of having pride in their Buddhist identity.
A common sentiment is that of Swati Kamble*, forty-year-old Ambedkarite Buddhist from Kalambaste village, who told me, “I feel very proud to be a Buddhist . . . For me, the words Dalit and Mahar have been erased.” She went on to explain, “North Indians use the word Dalit but we do not use it in the Konkan region because here, mainly all Dalits are Buddhist.”I appreciated Swati’s attachment to the word Buddhist, but I was baffled because throughout my time on the Konkan coast, I encountered some Dalit Hindus—members of what used to be known as the “Chambhar” or “Matang” communities. Similar to Swati’s strong identification with the term Buddhist is Nilesh Pawar’s* attachment to it. Nilesh is a Buddhist actor, folk-singer and social activist from Mumbai. Nilesh speaks disapprovingly about the few famous Buddhist actors who opt to change their surname and renounce their Buddhist identity for the sake of fame and simplicity.
Similar to the positive uniformity I witnessed in reactions to the word Buddhist, I observed uniformly negative responses to the word, “Mahar.” Whereas some of the more educated and activism-oriented informants such as Sameer and Mangesh had no issue using the term when talking about pre-Ambedkar India and the history of their community, most other informants avoided the term entirely, even when talking about the history of their community before conversion. I observed that most Buddhists I spoke to view the term as a derogatory word of the past—a name projected onto their community because of their ritual profession. “We are Buddhist now . . . . We are no longer Mahars,” Ambedkrite Buddhist Anoushka Pawar* once said, and I saw her cringe at the word. Similarly, Rina Gamre*, Ambedkarite Buddhist from Kalambaste village, said, “After the conversion, there is no Mahar. Those who have converted are now Buddhist. We dislike the other words.”In a similar vein to Rina’s opinion is that of Vikrant Pawar*. During an interview, Vikrant said, “There is no such thing as a Buddhist Mahar.” It appears, then, that for many of these Buddhists, their historical caste name and their newfound Buddhist identity are wholly incompatible. With the conversion, these Buddhist have shed internal perceptions of caste and the name “Buddhist” has superseded the name “Mahar”.
Whereas I observed uniformity in that most of my informants strongly identify with the term “Buddhist” and harbor distaste for the word “Mahar,” I saw diversity in my informants’ relationship to the term “Dalit.” As a pattern, most activists and highly educated Buddhists I interviewed do identify with the term Dalit, although there are exceptions to this pattern. Anoushka Pawar, for instance, who was educated up to the eleventh standard does not like the term Dalit because she believes it connotes a sense of caste or impurity. In a similar response, college educated IT Professional, Vikrant Pawar, said, “I don’t think we are Dalit. We are Buddhist. Even the word Dalit implies caste, but Buddhism is completely outside of caste.”
Sameer, on the other hand, a close friend and mentor of mine, and one of my Marathi to English translators, very much identifies with being a Dalit. “Dalits are all those who are oppressed,” he once said: “I like the word Dalit—broken people.” He went on to explain that the word is less confining than Buddhist—which is mainly linked to those who used to be Mahars in Maharashtra. “Without the word Dalit,” he ponders, “how will a Buddhist from Maharashtra connect with a lower caste person or Dalit from South India?” Sameer is knowledgeable enough of the writings and opinions of Dr. Ambedkar to know that Dr. Ambedkar advocated for unity amongst oppressed groups. In other words, Dr. Ambedkar wanted the Mahars, Matangs, Chambhars, Bhangis and all depressed classes to unite in a common effort to assert their basic human rights. For this reason, Sameer is not partial to those who used to be regarded as Mahars (and have now converted to Buddhism), but rather feels connected to all people who were previously considered “Untouchable” or lowly by the Hindu majority, including Adivasis. Sameer’s complex knowledge of and familiarity with Dr. Ambedkar’s essays and speeches informs his viewpoints. Sameer closed this conversation with, “I am proud of being a Dalit because behind the word ‘Dalit’ is my struggle against caste.” For Sameer, embracing the word Dalit is an act of self-assertion and resistance.
Overall, Sameer views the term Dalit as a weapon, because it acknowledges the existence of an oppressor. The translation of “downtrodden” implies that someone has pushed Dalits down and is responsible and accountable for their exploitation. He is proud of being a Dalit pursuing his PhD at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, a reputable research university in Mumbai, and of having excelled despite the structural discrimination and lack of resources faced by those in his community. Sameer is fiercely devoted to Dr. Ambedkar. He is an activist- social worker who has dedicated his life to improving the social and economic situation of his community through increasing the accessibility of education. In an interview, Sameer proudly noted that he is amongst basically the first generation of Dalits to go to college. “My dad only finished up to the tenth standard,” he said.
Sameer was not my only interview that sees import and value in taking ownership of the name Dalit. Similar to the way in which Sameer identifies with the term Dalit, Dalit feminist and author, Daya Kamble *has a positive relationship to the term”. In an interview, she said,
If I were writing my memoir in this day iand age, I might not include the word ‘Dalit’ in the title because as more progress is being made in the community, people are beginning to identify less with the term ‘Dalit.’ Some people think Dalit means those who are poor or downtrodden— beggars. They say, ‘Now we live in nice homes and we wear nice clothes, so why you call us Dalit? I believe though, that the words ‘Dalit’ or ‘Ambedkarite’ are all showing that though we are part of an oppressed community, we are able. The word is not degrading us. It’s showing strength. It’s showing the situation of society. No one is saying Dalit like it’s okay – oh we like Dalit—no, we are against that situation.
The term Dalit functions in a similar way for Daya as it does for Sameer—as a sort of weapon—an acknowledgement of the oppression historically faced by the Dalit community, but also as an expression of their capabilities and progress despite not having had a level playing field. For both Daya and Sameer, the word Dalit shows a fighting spirit, a lack of complacency and a profound act of resistance.
With justice on our side, I do not see how we can lose our battle. The battle to me is a matter of joy. . . . For ours is a battle not for wealth or for power. It is a battle for freedom. It is a battle for the reclamation of the human personality.
— Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, All-India Depressed Classes Conference, 1942
***asterisk indicates when a name has been changed to protect the anonymity of the interviewee.
Emma just graduated from Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio with high honors. There, she majored in religion and minored in philosophy.