Paintings of Ambedkar on sale
Paintings on sale at Shivaji Park near Chaitya Bhoomi, Dadar, in Mumbai a day ahead of Ambedkar's 55th death anniversary | Kalpak Pathak/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
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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.”


Also read: Can you be a true democracy & let go of caste, Ambedkar asked Indians. We are yet to reply


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.” 


Also read: There are 2.9 million atheists in India and it’s been around in Asia for centuries


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.”

Renouncing Hinduism

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.


Also read: Would Ambedkar, Tagore and Buddha have been declared anti-national today?


“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.

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17 Comments Share Your Views

17 COMMENTS

  1. According to swami Vivekananda Buddhism is the fulfilment of Hinduism and not against it so Buddhism can be called as a refined form of Hinduism the article is correct but Hinduism isn’t just about Krishna it is much more much deeper what ambedkar has missed out is the South Indian shaivite and vaishnavism part of Hinduism the problem with Hinduism it is misinterpreted and then criticized but the things mentioned about Buddhism is true and actually many a times these two things have been the same and must remain like this

  2. His interpretation that Hinduism is more conservative than others is false, as Muslims and Christians also take Quran and Bible to be work of God. Besides, Bhagwat Gita was written down by Ganesha and Vyasa after hearing it from Krishna and it was passed down for 5000 years, interpolations are always possible so no reason to consider these scriptures infalliable.

    Even history proves that Hindus were less conservative. People like Galileo were executed in Europe , while Aryabhatta and Brahmagupta both discovered things contrary to Hindu scriptures of that time.

    Christians tried to erase Greek knowledge and science when they became dominant in Europe. Thanks to Arab and India knowledge of Greeks was preserved.

  3. First time tell about Love , Compassion, Equality, Peace by only Buddha…..and spread this ideas , principles by Ashoka and Budhhist monks all over the world …..by written way or by many other ways ……Jesus has been already told that he learn from Buddhist monk……..and M. Paigamber found Buddhist principle written metal sheet ……..and both they spread this ideas principles by their own way and telling as God messenger ……..this is Bitter truth ….

  4. I won’t se any deficiency when muhmmad said that we was the messenger of god. Because he meant that he was a man who’s a messenger and he’s here to portray message of his god for further guidance to the mankind . Muhmmad never claimed himself as god, he . Never he lived luxurious life , he himself said that everyone is equal , he said ” God hates those who thinks that he’s superior than other person ” .

  5. What about the role of colonial interpretations about Indic traditions ? Also highlights how his framework on knowledge had shades of colonial veneer.

    If Hinduism & Buddhism were so distinct why then the Historians like Romila Thapar keep mentioning about lack of these identities & fuzzy identities in ancient India ? These Identities become political in the modern discourse & the role of colonization in making every micro to macro identity political can & should not be overlooked.

    Lastly what about Hindu texts that mandated equality even before Buddhists & what about Buddhist monasteries {Nikayas in SL} which have practices & hierarchy similar to Hinduism ?
    For e.g. –
    People keep mentioning “Manusmriti” but what about “Vajrasuchi Upanishad” that question all forms of social division Or “Apastambha Dharmasutra” that puts even the Vedas below the community preferred practices.

    Hinduism was a state-craft system that tried to maintain relationship among various communities {as it emerged out of tribalistic small kingdoms, note the tribes in major old Hindu Texts instead of large empires} instead of trying to reform them whereas Buddhism was a form of local religious community exercise which was mostly focused on reforms but with their focus on reforms about regions beliefs & practices this led to mixed Hindu Buddhist beliefs with local beliefs & practices which led to formation of beliefs like Mahayana & other Tantra based practices & beliefs which are common to both religions.

    • Thank you,, you opened my eyes …. I recently brought Upanishads by servepalli radhakrishan…. I’m a dalit…. Vajrasucika Upanishads commentry is clearly written…. This is the problem with hinduism it’s so much to get start with

  6. In philosophical sense, Budhist philosophy is a part of Hindu philosophy. The basic problem of Hindu society has been its societal organisation wherein so called lower castes remained discriminated against for ever. Despite reformist movement over many years, the caste system is deeply ingrained. Now it has acquired a huge political dimension and is further entrenched for ever due to caste based reservations, caste based vote banks etc. Hopefully, those who now own Budha also know the rigour, dryness and beauty of his philosophy and not simply limit Budhism to a tool for political and social upliftment.

  7. I dont know why this author has not published Ambedkars strong view on Islam..Oh I forgot this is Print as biased as Wire.Caravan etc of Presstitute fame

  8. Gospel of Hinduism is inequality.

    First of all, the concept of Hinduism baffles me so much. From which authentic Source the we may trace the begining of Hinduism?

    The western idiots have imposed the word Hinduism on the ignorant minds. The civilisation existing across Indus river valley came to be called India and later the inhabitants of these areas were given the name Indians or Indies or Indus which further got distorted to the word Hindus and finally the way of life practised by these people came to be known as Hinduism. However, till date I have not come across any standard scripture or authentic set of rules defining Hinduism.

    And to add Brahminism to the concept of Hinduism appears to be height of absolute nonsense?

    Does it mean we can distort this ism to bring terms such as Shudraism or Vashyaism or Kshatriaism to existence in Chaturvarna philosophy due our own whims and fancies?

    If so, then perhapse Sunnism and Shiaism in Muslims – and Catholicism and Protestism in Christianity will also require same identity and recognition.

    Brahminism has been brought into existence by those who failed to understand Chaturvarna Philosophy of Sanatan Dharma or Vedas.

    The concept of Equality deserves deeper understanding and investigation.

    How can two human beings ever claim to be equal in their bearing and traits even when their finger prints are not the same or equal in any sense except that they may have equal number of fingers in their hands or equal number of eyes, ears, nose, tongue or hands and feet.

    Can a child having same number of limbs and senses ever be equal to a grown up Man or Woman in skills or understanding or wisdom?

    Could Mr Ambedkar have ever claimed that every person of his own cast is equal in wisdom, education and understanding to his own self?

    No doubt, certain vested interests following Chaturvarna philosophy misinterpreted it and brought in distortions such as untouchability into it.

    Untouchability appears to be impossible in Chaturvarna philosophy when investigated minutely. Famous sage Sootji – being borne in a Shudra family himself, imparted knowledge and wisdom to a large number of Rishis and Munis as described in famous Puranas such as Shri Madbhagvat Maha Puran,

    For example further, a cobbler (Shudra) who made shoes for the masses can never be declared untouchable if a brahmin, or Kshatriya or Vaishya wears the shoes made by that cobblers hands , because every time they wore those shoes they became impure if a Shudra is to be considered impure and untouchable, etc.

    A Nation devises its own laws and rules to be followed by the citizens of various religions of that Nation to meet certain objectives. Those set of Laws, Rules and Regulations, may even be called a way of life for the citizens of that Nation. Can those laws, rules and regulation be called a religion?

    Vedic Philosophy describes different ways of life that may be practised by individuals to meet the objectives as preferred by that or those individuals or a community. That is the reason the Indian Continent has so many different religions or Sampradayas practising their own ways of lives barring Christians, Muslims, Parasis and Chinese who follow their own ways of life or religion set of principles. Vedic philosophy never anywhere, preaches conversions unlike Muslims and Christians.

    Vedic philosophy emphasises mainly on eradication of ignorance and motivates or advises principly towards attaining true knowledge to meet the supreme objective of every human being as he may decide for himself after knowing the truth of life or existence.

    Nothing emphasises this more than the calling given in Vedas, that is –

    ” UTTISHTHAT JAGRIT PRAPYABARAN NIBODHAT”

    TRANSLATED AS FOLLOWS :

    Arise from the deep sleep of ignorance, get enlightened or attain enlightenment from whom who knows (deserving knower of the Vedas).

    • Brother i’m deeply impressed by your knowledge, kindly guide me as to what sources and books should i refer to in order to gain knowledge on sanatan dharma & the actual essence of being a Hindu. Thanking in anticipation.

  9. You can never take Buddhism out of Hinduism or Hinduism out of Buddhism. It’s plain and simple. Hinduism made Buddha as one of it’s own and regards him as a reformists. Ambedkar also was son of this soil which has given birth to so many notable personalities and religions such as Sikhism, Jainism, Buddhism and Hinduism. The essence again in all these is Hinduism. Do your homework.

  10. A PhD and yet so ignorant. A Hindu sees Lord Buddha as yet another incarnation….and I have seen hundreds of Hindus praying before a statue/ picture of the Buddha wherever they come across.

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