Dalit Buddhist movement

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Template:Use British English Template:Use dmy dates Template:Buddhism The Dalit Buddhist movement (also known as Neo-Buddhist movement[1]) is a socio-political movement by Dalits in India started by B. R. Ambedkar. It radically re-interpreted Buddhism and created a new school of Buddhism called Navayana. The movement has sought to be a socially and politically engaged form of Buddhism.[2][3]

The movement was launched in 1956 by Ambedkar when nearly half a million Dalits – formerly untouchables – joined him and converted to his Navayana Buddhism.[4] It rejected Hinduism, challenged caste system and promoted the rights of the Dalit community.[5][4] The movement also rejected the teachings of traditional Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana sects of Buddhism, and took an oath to pursue a new form of engaged Buddhism as taught by Ambedkar.[6][7][5]


Buddhism originated in ancient India and grew after Ashoka adopted it. By the 2nd century CE, Buddhism was widespread in India and had expanded outside of India into Central Asia, East Asia and parts of Southeast Asia.[8][9] During the Middle Ages, Buddhism slowly declined in India,[10] while it vanished from Persia and Central Asia as Islam became the state religion.[11][12]

According to Randall Collins, Buddhism was already declining in India by the 12th century, but with the pillage by Muslim invaders it nearly became extinct in India.[13] In the 13th century, states Craig Lockard, Buddhist monks in India escaped to Tibet to escape Islamic persecution;[14] while the monks in western India, states Peter Harvey, escaped persecution by moving to south Indian Hindu kingdoms that were able to resist the Muslim power.[15]

Efforts to revive Buddhism in India began in the 19th-century, such as with the efforts of Sri Lankan Buddhist leader Anagarika Dharmapala who founded the Maha Bodhi Society.[16] The Maha Bodhi Society, according to Bhagwan Das, was not a Dalit movement however, because it mainly attracted upper-caste Hindus to Buddhism.[17]

Northern India

Two early Dalit movements that rejected Hinduism were launched by Swami Achhutanand Harihar in Uttar Pradesh and Babu Mangu Ram in Punjab. These were called Adi Dharma movements.[18]

Achhutanand was born in an untouchable family, joined the Arya Samaj suddhi reform movement, worked there for about eight years (1905-1912), felt untouchability was being practiced in Arya Samaj in subtle ways, left it and launched Bharitiya Achhut Mahasabha as a socio-political movement.[18] Achhutanand began spreading his ideas by publishing the Adi-Hindu magazine, and called Dalits to a return to Adi-Dharma as the original religion of Indians. Achhutanand formulated his philosophy on the basis of a shared cultural and ethnic identity, presenting it to an audience beyond the Dalits and including tribal societies as well. He opposed the non-cooperation movement of Mahatma Gandhi, his fasts and Indian National Congress, stating that the Brahmins were "as foreign to India as were the British", according to Anand Teltumbde.[18]

Babu Mangu Ram was also born in an untouchable family of Punjab with a flourishing leather trade. Mangu Ram arrived in the United States in 1909, at age 23 and worked in California. There he joined the Ghadar Party, smuggling weapons from California to India to oppose the British rule.[18] In 1925, he shifted his focus to Dalit freedom, for which he launched the "Ad Dharm" movement as well as Adi-Danka weekly newspaper to spread his ideas. His religious movement failed to accomplish much, states Teltumbde, and Mangu Ram later joined the Ambedkar movement.[18]

In 1914, Prakash was ordained Bodhanand Mahastavir in Calcutta, and began preaching Buddhism in Lucknow. He founded the Bharatiye Buddh Samiti in 1916, and set up a vihara in 1928.[19]

Southern India

In 1898, Pandit Iyothee Thass founded the Sakya Buddhist Society, also known as Indian Buddhist Association, in Tamil Nadu.[20] He presented Buddhism as a religious alternative for the Dalits. Thass' efforts created a broad movement amongst Tamil Dalits in South India till the 1950s.[19] The first president of the Indian Buddhist Association was Paul Carus.[19] The Indian Buddhist Association, unlike the Dalit movement led by Ambedkar, adopted the Theravada Buddhism tradition found in Sri Lanka, where Thass had received his training and initiation in Buddhism.[20]

B. R. Ambedkar

File:Ambedkar speech at Yeola.png
Ambedkar delivering a speech to a rally at Yeola, Nashik, on 13 October 1935

Ambedkar was a Dalit leader, influential during the colonial era and post-independence period of India. He was the fourteenth child in an impoverished Maharashtra Dalit family, who studied abroad, returned to India in the 1920s and joined the political movement. His focus was social and political rights of the Dalits.[21]

During 1931-32, Mahatma Gandhi led Indian independence movement held discussions with the British government over the Round Table Conferences. They sought constitutional reforms as a preparation to the end of colonial British rule, and begin the self-rule by Indians.[22] The British side sought reforms that would keep Indian subcontinent as a colony. The British negotiators proposed constitutional reforms on a British Dominion model that established separate electorates based on religious and social divisions.[23] They invited Indian religious leaders, such as Muslims and Sikhs, to press their demands along religious lines, as well as B. R. Ambedkar as the representative leader of the untouchables.[22] Gandhi vehemently opposed a constitution that enshrined rights or representations based on communal divisions, because he feared that it would not bring people together but divide them, perpetuate their status and divert the attention from India's struggle to end the colonial rule.[24][25]

After Gandhi returned from Second Round Table conference, he started a new satyagraha. He was immediately arrested and imprisoned at the Yerwada Jail, Pune. While he was in prison, the British government enacted a new law that granted untouchables a separate electorate. It came to be known as the Communal Award.[26] In protest, Gandhi started fast-unto-death, while he was held in prison.[27] The resulting public outcry forced the government, in consultations with Ambedkar, to replace the Communal Award with a compromise Poona Pact.[28][29]

Ambedkar accepted the Poona Pact under public pressure, but disagreed with Gandhi and his political methods. He dismissed Gandhi's ideas as loved by "blind Hindu devotees", primitive, influenced by spurious brew of Tolstoy and Ruskin, and "there is always some simpleton to preach them".[30][31]

Ambedkar concluded that Dalits must leave Hinduism and convert to another religion, and announced his intent to leave Hinduism in 1935. He considered Islam, Christianity, Sikhism and Buddhism.[21][32] Ambedkar was approached by various leaders of different denominations and faiths. On 22 May 1936, an "All Religious Conference" was held at Lucknow. It was attended by prominent Dalit leaders including Jagjivan Ram, though Ambedkar could not attend it. At the conference, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, and Buddhist representatives presented the tenets of their respective religions in an effort to win over Dalits.[19] Ambedkar rejected the other religions and chose Buddhism.[21] However, Ambedkar remained a Hindu for next 20 years, studied then re-interpreted Buddhism, and adopted Neo-Buddhism or Navayana few weeks before his death.[7][21]

The Italian Buddhist monk Lokanatha visited Ambedkar's residence at Dadar on 10 June 1936. Later in an interview to the press, Lokanatha said that Ambedkar was impressed with Buddhism.[33]

Navayana Buddhism

According to Ambedkar, several of the core beliefs and doctrines of traditional Buddhist traditions such as Four Noble Truths and Anatta were flawed and pessimistic, may have been inserted into the Buddhist scriptures by wrong headed Buddhist monks of a later era. These should not be considered as Buddha's teachings in Ambedkar's view.[32][34] Other foundational concepts of Buddhism such as Karma and Rebirth were considered by Ambedkar as superstitions.[32]

Navayana as formulated by Ambedkar and at the root of Dalit Buddhist movement abandons mainstream traditional Buddhist practices and precepts such as the institution of monk after renunciation, ideas such as karma, rebirth in afterlife, samsara, meditation, nirvana and Four Noble Truths.[35] Ambedkar's new sect of Buddhism rejected these ideas and re-interpreted the Buddha's religion in terms of class struggle and social equality.[34][32][36]

Ambedkar called his version of Buddhism Navayana or Neo-Buddhism.[37] His book, The Buddha and His Dhamma is the holy book of Navayana and Dalit Buddhists.[38] According to Junghare, for the followers of Navyana, Ambedkar has become a deity and he is worshipped in its practice.[39]

Ambedkar's conversion

After publishing a series of books and articles arguing that Buddhism was the only way for the Untouchables to gain equality, Ambedkar publicly converted on 14 October 1956, at Deekshabhoomi, Nagpur, over 20 years after he declared his intent to convert and a few weeks before his death. Ambedkar adopted Navayana Buddhism, and converted between 380,000 and 500,000 Dalits to his Neo-Buddhism movement.[7][21]

The conversion ceremony was attended by Medharathi, his main disciple Bhoj Dev Mudit, and Mahastvir Bodhanand's Sri Lankan successor, Bhante Pragyanand.[19] Ambedkar asked Dalits not to get entangled in the existing branches of Buddhism (Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana), and called his version Navayana or 'Neo-Buddhism'. Ambedkar would die less than two months later, just after finishing his definitive work on Buddhism.

Many Dalits employ the term "Ambedkar(ite) Buddhism" to designate the Buddhist movement, which started with Ambedkar's conversion.[19] Many converted people call themselves "-Bauddha" i.e. Buddhists.

Twenty-two vows of Ambedkar

After receiving ordination, Ambedkar gave dhamma diksha to his followers. The ceremony included 22 vows given to all new converts after Three Jewels and Five Precepts. On 14 October 1956 at Nagpur, Ambedkar performed another mass religious conversion ceremony at Chandrapur.[40][41]

He prescribed 22 vows to his followers:[42]

  1. I shall have no faith in Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwara, nor shall I worship them.
  2. I shall have no faith in Rama and Krishna, who are believed to be incarnation of God, nor shall I worship them.
  3. I shall have no faith in Gauri, Ganapati and other gods and goddesses of Hindus, nor shall I worship them.
  4. I do not believe in the incarnation of God.
  5. I do not and shall not believe that Lord Buddha was the incarnation of Vishnu. I believe this to be sheer madness and false propaganda.
  6. I shall not perform Shraddha nor shall I give pind.
  7. I shall not act in a manner violating the principles and teachings of the Buddha.
  8. I shall not allow any ceremonies to be performed by Brahmins.
  9. I shall believe in the equality of man.
  10. I shall endeavour to establish equality.
  11. I shall follow the Noble Eightfold Path of the Buddha.
  12. I shall follow the ten paramitas prescribed by the Buddha.
  13. I shall have compassion and loving-kindness for all living beings and protect them.
  14. I shall not steal.
  15. I shall not tell lies.
  16. I shall not commit carnal sins.
  17. I shall not take intoxicants like liquor, drugs, etc.
    (The previous four proscriptive vows [#14–17] are from the Five Precepts.)
  18. I shall endeavour to follow the Noble Eightfold Path and practice compassion and loving-kindness in everyday life.
  19. I renounce Hinduism, which disfavors humanity and impedes the advancement and development of humanity because it is based on inequality, and adopt Buddhism as my religion.
  20. I firmly believe the Dhamma of the Buddha is the only true religion.
  21. I consider that I have taken a new birth.
  22. I solemnly declare and affirm that I shall hereafter lead my life according to the teachings of Buddha's Dhamma.

Distinctive interpretation

Template:See also According to Gail Omvedt, an American-born and naturalised Indian sociologist and human rights activist :


According to Omvedt, Ambedkar and his Buddhist movement deny many of the core doctrines of Buddhism.[4] All the elements of religious modernism, state Christopher Queen and Sallie King, may be found in Ambedkar Buddhism where his The Buddha and His Dhamma abandons the traditional precepts and practices, then adopts science, activism and social reforms as a form of Engaged Buddhism.[43] Ambedkar's formulation of Buddhism is different from Western modernism, states Skaria, given his synthesis of the ideas of modern Karl Marx into the structure of ideas by the ancient Buddha.[44]

See also


  1. Template:Cite book
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  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Omvedt, Gail. Buddhism in India : Challenging Brahmanism and Caste. 3rd ed. London/New Delhi/Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2003. pages: 2–15, 210-213
  5. 5.0 5.1 Template:Cite journal, Quote: "Here [Navayana Buddhism] there is not only a criticism of religion (most of all, Hinduism, but also prior traditions of Buddhism), but also of secularism, and that criticism is articulated moreover as a religion."
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  13. Randall Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change. Harvard University Press, 2000, pages 184-185
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  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 18.3 18.4 Template:Cite book
  19. 19.0 19.1 19.2 19.3 19.4 19.5 Template:Cite book
  20. 20.0 20.1 Template:Cite book
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 21.3 21.4 Template:Cite book
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  32. 32.0 32.1 32.2 32.3 Template:Cite book
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  34. 34.0 34.1 Template:Cite book
  35. Template:Cite book, Quote: "(...)The Buddhism upon which he settled and about which he wrote in The Buddha and His Dhamma was, in many respects, unlike any form of Buddhism that had hitherto arisen within the tradition. Gone, for instance, were the doctrines of karma and rebirth, the traditional emphasis on renunciation of the world, the practice of meditation, and the experience of enlightenment. Gone too were any teachings that implied the existence of a trans-empirical realm (...). Most jarring, perhaps, especially among more traditional Buddhists, was the absence of the Four Noble Truths, which Ambedkar regarded as the invention of wrong-headed monks".
  36. Anne M. Blackburn (1993), Religion, Kinship and Buddhism: Ambedkar's Vision of a Moral Community, The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 16 (1), 1-22
  37. Template:Cite book
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  39. I.Y. Junghare (1988), Dr. Ambedkar: The Hero of the Mahars, Ex-Untouchables of India, Asian Folklore Studies, Vol. 47, No. 1, (1988), pp. 93-121, "(...) the new literature of the Mahars and their making of the Ambedkar deity for their new religion, Neo-Buddhism. (...) Song five is clearly representative of the Mahar community's respect and devotion for Ambedkar. He has become their God and they worship him as the singer sings: "We worship Bhima, too." (...) In the last song, Dr. Ambedkar is raised from a deity to a supreme deity. He is omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient."
  40. Template:Cite web
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  42. Template:Cite book
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  44. Template:Cite journal


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