Babasaheb Bhim Rao Ambedkar’s religious conversion is often a topic of curiosity and debate among people, who wonder why he chose Buddhism — or didn’t choose Islam, Christianity or Sikhism — when he renounced Hinduism. There are several myths or misconceptions associated with his choice.
Ambedkar has answered this in an essay titled ‘Buddha and Future of His Religion’, which was published in 1950 in the monthly magazine of Kolkata’s Mahabodhi Society. In the essay, compares the personalities of founders of four religions, which “have not only moved the world in the past, but are still having a sway over the vast masses of people”. The four are Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed and Krishna
Buddha is human, not a self-declared God
Ambedkar starts by stating that what separates Buddha from the rest of the other is his self-abnegation. “All throughout the Bible, Jesus insist(s) that he is the Son of God and that those who wish to enter the kingdom of God will fail, if they do not recognise him as the Son of God. Mohammed went a step further. Like Jesus he also claimed that he was the messenger of God. But he further insisted that he was the last messenger. Krishna went a step beyond both Jesus and Mohammed. He refused to be satisfied with merely being the Son of the God or being the messenger of God; he was not content even with being the last messenger of God. He was not even satisfied with calling himself a God. He claimed that he was ‘Parameswhar‘ or as his followers describe him ”Devadhideva,” God of Gods,” Ambedkar writes about them.
But Buddha, he wrote, “never arrogated to himself any such status. He was born as a son of man and was content to remain a common man and preached his gospel as a common man. He never claimed any supernatural origin or supernatural powers nor did he perform miracles to prove his supernatural powers. The Buddha made a clear distinction between a Margadata and a Mokshadata. Jesus, Mahommed and Krishna claimed for themselves the Mokshadata. The Buddha was satisfied with playing the role of a Margadata.”
Reason and experience, not blind faith
Ambedkar compares the four religious teachers to find another distinction between Buddha and the rest. He says that both Jesus and Mohammed claimed that what they taught was the word of God and (thus) was beyond question. Krishna was, according to his own assumption, a God of Gods and therefore the question of infallibility did not even arise. The Buddha claimed no such infallibility for what he taught. In the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, he told Ananda that his followers should not accept his teaching as correct and binding merely because they emanated from Him. Being based on reason and experience, the followers were free to modify or even to abandon any of his teachings if it was found that at a given time and in given circumstances they do not apply.
“Buddha wanted his religion to remain evergreen and serviceable at all times. That is why he gave liberty to his followers to chip and chop as the necessities of the case required. No other religious teacher has shown such courage. They were afraid of permitting repair, because the liberty to repair may be used to demolish the structure they had reared. Buddha had no such fear. He was sure of his foundation. He knew that even the most violent iconoclast will not be able to destroy the core of His religion.”
Morality, not rituals
Comparing Buddhism with Hinduism, Ambedkar writes, “Hinduism is a religion which is not founded on morality. Morality is a separate force which is sustained by social necessities and not by injunction of Hindu religion. The religion of Buddha is morality. It is imbedded in religion. It is true that in Buddhism there is no God. In place of God there is morality. What God is to other religions, morality is to Buddhism.”
Ambedkar then differentiates between ‘Dharma’ (Hinduism) and ‘Dhamma’ (Buddhism). “The Vedic meaning of the word ”Dharma” did not connote morality in any sense of the word. The Dharma as enunciated by the Brahmins meant nothing more than the performances of certain karmas or observances, i.e. Yagans, Yagas and sacrifices to Gods. The word Dhamma, as used by the Buddha, had nothing to do with ritual or observances. In place of Karma, Buddha substituted morality as the essence of Dhamma.”
Gospel of Hinduism is inequality
Taking his comparison of Hinduism and Buddhism further, Ambedkar writes about the second point of difference thus: “The second point of contrast lies in the fact that the official gospel of Hinduism is inequality. On the other hand, Buddha stood for equality. He was the greatest opponent of Chaturvarna, which is the parent of the caste system — apparently a perpetual loss of life. He not only preached against it, fought against it, but did everything to uproot it. According to Hinduism neither a Shudra nor a woman could become a teacher of religion nor could they take Sannyasa and reach God. Buddha on the other hand admitted Shudras to the Bhikkhu Sangha He also admitted women to become Bhikkhunis.”
Ambedkar says that as result of Buddha’s attack on the gospel of inequality, “Hinduism had to make many changes in its doctrines. It gave up Himsa. It was prepared to give up the doctrine of the infallibility of the Vedas. On the point of the Chaturvarna, neither side was prepared to yield. Buddha was not prepared to give up his opposition to the doctrine of Chaturvarna. That is the reason why Brahmanism has so much more hatred and antagonism against Buddhism than it has against Jainism.”
By asking one central question that Ambedkar believed “every religion must answer”, he gives out the reason why Hindus might turn to Buddhism. He asks what mental and moral relief does a religion bring to the suppressed and the downtrodden? “Does Hinduism give any mental and moral relief to the millions of Backward Classes and the Scheduled Castes? It does not. Do Hindus expect these Backward Classes and the Scheduled Castes to live under Hinduism which gives them no promise of mental and moral relief? Such an expectation would be an utter futility.
“Hinduism is floating on a volcano. Today it appears to be extinct. But it is not. It will become active once these mighty millions have become conscious of their degradation and know that it is largely due to the social philosophy of the Hindu religion. One is reminded of the overthrow of Paganism by Christianity in the Roman Empire. When the masses realised that Paganism could give them no mental and moral relief, they gave it up and adopted Christianity. What happened in Rome is sure to happen in India. The Hindu masses when they are enlightened are sure to turn to Buddhism.”
Ambedkar had declared his decision to renounce Hinduism in 1936, in his ‘Annihilation of Caste’ speech. But he converted to Buddhism only in 1956. Ambedkar spent these two decades to study other prominent religions and chose one he found to be the best among all. His quest for a morally sound religion that looked at the welfare of every human being took him to Buddhism. And that is how he and his followers converted to Buddhism.
The author is a PhD in Hindi and currently works as Hindi Editor of Forward Press. This article has been translated from Hindi.
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.