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Reflections On Contemporary Navayana Buddhism - Context, Debates and Theories

 

The Shared Mirror 

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Reflections on Contemporary

Navayāna Buddhism

Context, Debates and Theories

   

Shaileshkumar Darokar

Subodh Wasnik

bodhi s.r

Published by

shared mirror

 

Dedicated

to all members of the

Navayāna Buddhist Sangha


The Shared Mirror Publishing House

The Shared Mirror Publishing House shall endeavour to promote Dalit Bahujan literature and writers. It takes inspiration from the publishing efforts of anti-caste visionaries like Phule, Iyothee Thass, Babasaheb Ambedkar, Periyar and others.

It aims to further the anti-caste discourse, following the course set by Round Table India, the Dalit Bahujan information portal, through publishing poetry, fiction and non-fiction. It is driven by a sincere desire to radically expand the horizons of Indian writing in English and other languages by providing a platform to a wide range of marginalized voices across the sub-continent.

For more: www.thesharedmirror.org                

Bok edition 2021: ISBN 978-81-929930-5-8    

Published in India by The Shared Mirror Publishing House, Hyderabad

Copyright © 2021, The Shared Mirror and the Authors

Cover Artwork: Malvika Raj

 

AUTHORS

Shaileshkumar Darokar (Ph.D, JNU) is Associate Professor in the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

Subodh Wasnik (Minto) is the Co-convener of the Navayāna Buddhist Sangha and has a Masters Degree in Media and Cultural Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

bodhi s.r (Ph.D, TISS) is Assistant Professor and Chairperson, Centre for Social Justice and Governance, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai and also the National Convener of the Tribal Intellectual Collective India.

COVER PAGE ART WORK

Malvika Raj is an Ambedkarite Buddhist Artist who completed her Fashion Designing from Northern India Institute of Fashion Technology, Mohali Chandigarh. Her paintings are inspired by Madhubani Art which is an ancient art form practiced in North Bihar. Her paintings stems from her noetic style where the focal theme is the buddha, his life and teachings and the impact of his insights on the post Buddha period.

 

 

CONTENTS

Preface

   

Foreword by Santosh Raut

 

PART ONE: CONTEXT

Chapter I

Reasons and Context that led Babasaheb Ambedkar to Embrace Buddhism

 

Chapter II

Babasaheb Ambedkar and the Contextualization of Buddhism

 

Chapter III

Problematising Buddhism: Views of Practitioners 60 years in Retrospect

 

PART TWO: BASICS IN BUDDHISM

Chapter IV

Reflections on the Paticcā Samuppāda

 

Chapter V

What are the Khandhas

 

Chapter VI

Revisiting the Four Noble Truths

 

Chapter VII

The Noble Eightfold Path

 

Chapter VIII

Rethinking the Concept of Bhikkhu and Bhikkhuni

 

Chapter IX

The Buddhist Way of Life

 

PART THREE: REFLECTIONS

Chapter X

What Entails Taking Refuge in the Tiratana

 

Chapter XI

Tisarana and Epistemological Reconstruction

 

Preface

This is not a book for those who are already informed, but for those who seek to know more about some of the debates concerning the revival of Buddhism in India through a unique path – the Navayāna path, posited by Dr.Ambedkar in 1956. In writing this book we had two possible readers in mind. The first is the general reader who hears from afar of exciting controversies about Ambedkar and Navayāna Buddhism, and who seeks to know what the controversy is all about. The second reader is the follower of Babasaheb, who values his embracing the Buddha-Dhamma and wants to know what fellow Ambedkarite Buddhists are reading, thinking and intellectualizing about, in relation to his ideas, vision and mission. With these readers in mind, this book is offered as a window into the subject. It touches empirical and theoretical domains that encapsulate historical debates, theoretical frameworks, the complexities of practices and varied experiences and perceptions of practitioners.

October 14, 1956, the day Babasaheb embraced the Buddha-Dhamma, is marked by many progressive humane beings as one of the most significant historical events in the history of world revolutions. Babasaheb embraced the Buddha-Dhamma and attempted to cleanse a 2500 years old framework propounded by Sakyamuni from historical distortions, reworking the basics of the Buddha-Dhamma under a simple but methodologically reflective nomenclature - Navayāna or the New-Vehicle.

The Buddha-Dhamma, the most profound insight ever attained by a human being, rendered invisible by waves of counter revolutions and brute physical annihilation in its birth place, was on October 14 revived and brought back to life. Having cleansed it from 2200 years of theoretico-historical distortions, Babasaheb gave it back to peoples in ways it was originally intended: a rational, processual, self-respecting, compassionate, loving, beautiful, anti-scriptural, non-ritualistic, contextual and humane path to historio-social transformation, arrived at by awakening the ‘self’ to the true nature of reality, through persistent self-effort and a relentless pursuit of the ‘freedom of mind’.

Babasaheb, after years of deep reflections, was convinced that the path unraveled and framed by Sakyamuni was the only path to freedom. This stemmed from his belief that the core constitutive elements of the buddha-dhamma-sangha also called Ti-ratana, cannot be harmed even by the most violent iconoclast; first, simply because it was a ‘truth’ that can stand any test, and second, because it has historically withstood waves of near complete erasure.

Dr.Ambedkar grounded his firm belief and understanding about the depth and resilience of the Buddha-Dhamma on Sakyamuni’s response to the plea by his followers to appoint a successor. Ambedkar notes that twice or thrice Sakyamuni was requested by his followers to appoint a successor. Every time Sakyamuni refused. His answer, as noted by Babasaheb Ambedkar in ‘The Buddha and his Dhamma’, was “The Dhamma must be its own successor. Principle must live by itself, and not by the authority of man. If principle needs the authority of man it is no principle. If every time it becomes necessary to invoke the name of the founder to enforce the authority of Dhamma, then it is no Dhamma.”(Book 3, Part 1, 1957)

For Babasaheb Ambedkar, Buddhism is in accord with science, is fundamentally grounded in the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity, and does not sanctify and ennoble poverty. He held a firm conviction that the buddha-dhamma-sangha will guide, firstly his own historically oppressed peoples, and secondly all civil beings at large to a Buddhist way of life, a life of self respect and dignity in which individual freedom, public morality and social mobility will be embodied, realized and practiced.

From Babasaheb’s point-of-view, the Buddha was unique because he taught not only ahimsa as part of his religion, but also social freedom, economic freedom and political freedom. He stressed on equality; equality not only between man and man, but between man and woman. Such a teacher Sakyamuni was, that it would be difficult to find a religious teacher to compare with the Buddha whose teachings embraced so many aspects of the social life of a peoples. Also his teachings are so modern and fresh, rooted fundamentally in the concern for the salvation of humans in this life on earth. It is these and many more teachings of the Buddha that Babasaheb not only took an intellectual liking but a historical refuge.

With deep insights into the nature of the Indian reality and the dominant social order he was trapped in, and with great clarity about what path will lead his people to freedom, he plunged into Buddhism, kick-starting the process with the politically and philosophically sophisticated twenty two vows. These historically grounded twenty two (22): nine political vows, one vow of renunciation, two methodological vows, eight affirmative vows, one vow of hope and one solemn oath, declaring that ‘I solemnly declare and affirm that I shall hereafter lead my life according to the principles and teachings of the Buddha and his Dhamma’, he administered to his most ardent and sincere followers on October 14, 1956. It is these rational, emancipatory and strategic vows that he himself and his followers committed to, that constitute the epistemological foundations of the Navayāna Buddhist paradigm. These 22 contextualised propositions permeate domains of the socio-cultural, psycho-philosophical, politico-economic, the ecological, the discursive-historical, the methodological, the arts, science, ethics and aesthetics. They were an attempt by Babasaheb Ambedkar to close one door and open another for his people who have suffered centuries of ostracisation and dehumanisation.

This epistemological foundation centered around the twenty two vows had twin objectives: to root the historical struggle on firm moral grounds and two, envisaged as the only means to ‘Free the Mind’ from psychological subjugation, social humiliation, epistemological genocide. Before embracing Buddhism, Babasaheb had arrived at a clear understanding of the criticality of the epistemological battle. For him, ‘epistemological defiance’ became the only recourse to survival, ‘epistemological rejection’ became a historical necessity, ‘epistemological assertion’ became an existential imperative and ‘epistemological emancipation’ became the ultimate goal.

Babasaheb Ambedkar passed away on December 6, 1956, leaving behind a political, religious and theoretical legacy that became the ontological epistemological premise of future social movements for the fundamental transformation of India.

Much later in the early 1970s, this premise he framed, as explicated above, was radicalized by a movement spearheaded by his followers- the Dalit Panthers. The Panthers, through their direct action embedded a revolutionary element- ‘Dalit’, into Babasaheb’s epistemology, drawn from Babasaheb’s own theory about the genesis of untouchability around the ‘Broken’ Men theory. This category, as posited by the Panthers, not only raised people’s awareness about their concrete social conditions, but also radicalized their consciousness, turning the concept itself into a discursive category that unpacked 2300 years of brutal suppression and dehumanisation of varied indigenous entities inhabiting the Indian context. Such was the power and energy unleashed by the category ‘Dalit’, that over a period of a few years it spread rapidly across oppressed communities within the Indian subcontinent, so much so, that a whole conglomeration of disparate communities, those who had experienced untouchability and even those who were framed as impure, came to be identified with it. The category brought about in the theoretico-practice domain, the demystification of the root cause of untouchability and uncovered the fundamental contradiction in Indian society.

It is important to note that what fundamentally charaterised those who identified themselves as ‘Dalit’ was an ideological position and a commitment to political action that asserts a denouncement of untouchability as a normative practice and a denunciation of its historical affirmation by dominant caste groups. In addition to the above, the identity Dalit also began to refer to a number of other behaviourial attributes of individuals and communities, such as, (i) those who had the courage to openly denounce untouchability as immoral and inhuman in the public domain without fear of repercussion; (ii) those who rejected the exonym ‘Harijan’, seeing the same as a paternalistic identity construct imposed by the oppressor on the oppressed to resolve oppressor’s historical angst; (iii) those who attempted to reclaim the right over one’s body and property; (iv) those who have or are in the process of reclaiming one’s right over the mind and the right to think freely for self; (v) those who have moved from being a mere ‘recipient of knowledge’ to a ‘producer of knowledge’, reclaiming in the process the right to write and produce knowledge for self and society; (vi) those who resisted the consumption of knowledge produced by the dominant and defied the reproduction of dominant savarna reality through oneself; (vii) those who set their own rules for knowledge production and asserted the right to use language in their own terms; (viii) those who dissented and fearlessly ruptured the dominant’s conception of beauty without fear of consequence, producing in its stead a new liberatory conception of ‘the beautiful’- a new aesthetics; (ix) those who publicly asserted the right to human freedom and social liberty; (x) those who discarded and rubbished any notion of the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent ‘God’; (xi) those who attempted to regain self-worth, self-respect and dignity, and above all else (xii) those who sought fundamental structural change and not merely social reform. These were what the category ‘Dalit’ signified in the context it was born from.

From within the framework of the Dalit movement, the late 1980s produced another category- ‘Bahujan’. The Bahujan category as an extension of the revolutionary category- Dalit, translated this radicalism into an electoral political process through the accommodation and collectivisation of Babasaheb’s epistemology, by incorporating many other communities from the middle caste groups into the ‘Freedom of Mind’ project. It was argued that freedom of mind was not possible without electoral political power. Mere unravelling of the fundamental contradiction and rejection of both symbols of oppression and practices of exclusion, as attempted by the category Dalit, was not enough to free the mind, something more fundamental, a space in which the mind itself is a construct of, i.e., power, is needed to fundamentally transform the Indian reality.

By late 1990s the Bahujan category was further contextualised and historicised to produce a new theory of Indian history represented by the category Mulnivasi. It was argued by proponents of this theory, whose roots can be traced back to the ‘Adi’ movements of the 1920s, that in order to gain political power, mere accommodation and collectivisation of myriad communities with minimal shared social experience of exclusion caused by rigid historical and social boundaries was not enough. What was needed was a totally new theory of history that connects and explains the historical roots of shared experiences between these myriad communities and castes.

All these processes together are now beginning to culminate into a totally new ethical-aesthetical theory about ‘being’ itself, in which the ‘Freedom of Mind’ is conceived as possible to attain not through a theoy of history as represented by the category Mulnivasi, but by a new ‘Methodology of Life and Living’ grounded around an alternative conception of axiology (ethics-aesthetics). This methodology was located by Babasaheb himself around a historical framework conceived around the Buddha-Dhamma-Sangha as propounded by the Sakyamuni. Keeping steadfast to the original framework of the Buddha- the enlightened one, Babasaheb contextualized and refined this framework to suit the Indian conditions around a methodology he called ‘New-Vehicle’ or the ‘Nava-Yāna’. This Nava- Yāna was not for or against any ‘Yāna’ in Buddhism, but instead it was rooted to a particular context that sought a comprehensive solution to problems of ostracisation, dehumanisation and subjugation. In search of a path of total emancipation, where people are liberated and are free from humiliation, the ontological epistemological foundations laid by Babasaheb on October 14, 1956 have now finally reached their theoretico-historical destination.  

It is however important to point out that it took Babasaheb 32 odd years of rigorous disentangling, demystifying and deassembling of historical text, including the Buddhist tipitika, to arrive at the understanding that the history of India, which was full of missing links, was nothing but a mortal battle between two highly refined, but contradictory knowledge frameworks- Brahminism and Buddhism. Having got this insight from historical deconstruction of the text-context, he single-handedly, in the year 1956, turned this mortal battle into a moral battle, articulated succinctly through his twenty two vows. Having achieved this historical task, he went a step further and raised this debate to an even higher realm of philosophical discourse, turning this historical contestation into a methodological battle between Brahminism and Buddhism.

This methodology within Buddhism, crafted by Babasaheb was contained in his last book The Buddha and His Dhamma. Of all the novel and invaluable insights that he explicated in the book, there are eight overarching strategic interventions he attempted within Buddhism. These are, (1) as a religion, he reiterated and placed morality at its center in place of God and Soul, reminding adherents that Buddhism was a religion without a God and a Soul, (2) as a belief system, he asserted that Nibbāna and not Dukkha was central to the teachings of the Buddha, (3) as a practice, he noted Sammāditthi, Breaking Down Social Barriers, Maitri and Bahujan Hitay Bahujan Sukhay as critical to the path shown by the Buddha, (4) as a history, he noted the need to be cautious while consuming traditional narratives without putting such narratives to the test of reason and ‘welfare for all’, (5) as a social theory, he brought back the ‘social’ into a Buddhism which had become extremely individualistic as it travelled away from the land of its birth to other geographies, (6) as a political theory, he produced the concept of Prabuddha Bharat; an enlightened India for all and not just for a few, (7) as a knowledge system, he argued for a Historical Deconstruction-Rational Reconstruction of social episteme, and (8) as a philosophy, he rewired and repositioned Buddhism as a processual, contextual, experiential and rational philosophical tradition.

Navayāna, we opine is not a separate religion, but a methodology of total emancipation within Buddhism, and like many other methodology/ies in Buddhism, it is both a mode of ontological epistemological enquiry and a scientific path to awakening the self through relentless effort, engaged observation and insight gained of the true nature of reality. Emanating from a most brutal historical context that witnessed an axiocide (ontological-epistemological-axiological genocide) of over 2200 odd years, it is a method that is in search of a new axiology; the good, the beautiful, healing, happiness, liberty, equality, fraternity. As a collective endeavor, it is also a methodology for the cessation of personal and social suffering, gained through the freedom of mind, both at the level of the individual and the social.

It is important to note that all these processual struggles that came one after the other, as we have expounded above, seeking in their own ways to ‘free the mind’ from historical subjugation, are sourced from the teachings of Babasaheb. Collectively all these movements are identified as the ‘Ambedkarite Movement’.

This book concerns itself with the above processes and the theoretico-philosophical implications of the surrounding historical events giving rise to the theory and practice of Navayāna within Buddhism. The approach to writing this book is historio-political and methodological, and its aim is to analyze critical aspects of history, unravel insidious structures of marginalization, identify locations of oppression, extract fundamental ideas of emancipation, re-contextualise the revolutionary Ti-ratana and articulate the theory and practice of the Navayāna path to freedom.

This text engages with some very fundamental questions, such as: What is the nature of Indian reality and the structures and system that defines it? The importance of religion in one's life? What are the practitioner’s views and experience of Buddhism post Babasaheb? How does one conceive the Buddhism revived and re-embraced by Dr B.R, Ambedkar? How does the Buddha-Dhamma deal with the question of inequality in Indian society? What is unique about the Buddhist path in the Navayāna Methodology? How does one see and experience oneself after embracing the Buddha-Dhamma? Has this new ‘Navayāna’ culture brought any changes in the domain of thinking, seeing and experiencing reality? How relevant is the Dhamma in today’s globalised world? What are the challenges before Buddhism in the Indian context? and, How do we pursue ‘freedom of mind’ that is conditioned by the Indian context?

We have textualised the book into three sections. The first section engages with the Indian Context and the rise of the Navayāna framework. The second attempts to expound on key theoretical aspects of Navayāna Buddhism sourced from Dhamma talks delivered in the gatherings of our Sangha; the Navayāna Buddhist Sangha. The third engages with critical reflections on what entails walking the Navayāna path.

We have no great confidence that anything that we say is the correct interpretation of any of Babasaheb Ambedkar’s profound ideas in the absolute sense. We ourselves are seekers of the path shown by him. We ourselves are attempting to know more and deepen our own understanding of the path. We ourselves are hoping to realise in our own ways, and in this very lifetime, the freedom of mind as Babasaheb attained. Yet, though this book is limited in historical scope and conceptual depth, we hope its theoretical propositions are just, and the ideas we have judged most worthy to engage with are found to resonate with our audience. We will be more than satisfied to know that our readers did get an intellectual taste of the simple, unique, sublime and emancipatory ideas of the Buddhist movement drawn from Babasaheb Ambedkar’s legacy, and even happier still, if the readers are moved to deepen their understanding of the Buddha-Dhamma, and put energetic action and conscious effort to keep the wheel of dhamma moving through their daily struggles in this single lifetime.

There are many who have contributed to this book directly and indirectly. Some chapters are formulated from varied responses of practitioners which include activists and academics. Other chapters are dhamma dialogues and collective sangha reflections within the Navayāna Buddhist Sangha. We thank all those who have contributed to this effort. As authors we have only consolidated all the reflections in writing. However the credit for this book, if any, goes to each of the followers of Sakyamuni and Babasaheb, our revolutionary pioneers who showed us in their single lifetime that it is possible to not only dream of freedom but to attain and taste it in our very own lives.

Shaileshkumar Darokar

Subodh Wasnik

bodhi s.r

 

 

Foreword

This book is a critical intervention in Buddhist Studies both nationally and internationally. The authors have touched upon the very complex philosophical, historical, and social issues that concern an idea whose time has come. The idea coined by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar is known as Navayāna (the New Vehicle). Beginning with the explication of the framework and context, a very sophisticated theoretical exposition has been made about the new approach in Buddha-Dhamma by three socially engaged scholars.

Navayāna Buddhism in my opinion is the new life that brings the very special view (ditti) about knowing the nature of reality as it is. What the Buddha called is the sammā-ditti which opened up the new horizons and true nature of reality which were buried under the debris of conditions because of religious and cultural dogmatism; in other words, wrong views (mitthyā-ditti). The great act of Buddhist conversion led by Dr.Ambedkar sprouted a new life (nav-jivan) in the millions of so-called lower caste Indians with the new and true perspective to understand a potential that each individual carries and to impetus the positive energy for the transformation of the world around an individual on the basis of right view. In this sense, the new vehicle fuelled a fresh energy with Navayāna perspective to entwine the thought of the Buddha for the transformation of self and the world on the basis of Dhamma. It is true that the revival of the Buddhism – the Dhamma Revolution – Dr. Ambedkar launched gave a new life to millions of his followers who were so called untouchables. But one needs to understand that it also opened up a new window for non-untouchables and for non-Buddhists to critically and deeply introspect the Indian past on the very nature of self and religious culture that had been conditioned by the old ritualistic dogmatism that was based on hierarchy in every sphere of life. This dogmatic religious hierarchy became the barrier to bring about a true harmonious society for the development and emancipation of an individual. This is indeed the case across all castes and religions because of the view they carried and cultivated in their mind based on what world view the respective religion taught them. Dr Ambedkar was deeply aware that religion, social status and property are all sources of power and authority, which one human has, to control the liberty of another. He explicitly expressed in 1936, in his noted essay called Annihilation of Caste:

can we really have an economic reform without first bringing about a reform of the social order? Men will not join in a revolution for the equalisation of property unless they know that after the revolution is achieved they will be treated equally and there will be no discrimination of caste and creed.1

But what caste infuses in an individual and in a group is the feeling that is essentially anti-social in nature. What caste-based mind is concerned with is nothing but serving one’s own “caste-interest” against those who do not belong to the same caste. Therefore what such a system produces is nothing but a “selfish ideal” based on ātmanvāda.

This is where Dr Ambedkar departs from the selfish ideal to selfless-ideal based on anātmanvāda taught by the Buddha. The Buddha’s anātmanvāda is nothing but the new insight that helped the world to understand the true nature of things. One may call his sammā-ditti as a nava-ditti in the context of Navayāna perspective. This is what Dr Ambedkar’s project in modern time was trying to get at, to understand an individual and the world. This spirit not only alters the socio-cultural structure but his vision of Navayāna invites us to dismantle the wrong view (mithyā-ditti) and exhibits the model of ideal society on the basis of a right view (sammā-ditti) for the emancipation of humanity. It is on the basis of Buddha’s right view Dr Ambedkar turns to the constructive side of the problem. In his view an ideal society must not be based on anātmanvāda which delivers a fixed notion of the self and the society where the possibility of evolution of being is impossible. Dr Ambedkar exhibits his insights with a new perspective saying:

…very few realize that it is on account of Shunyatā that everything becomes possible; without it nothing in the world would be possible. It is on the impermanence of the nature of all things that the possibility of all other things depends. If things were not subject to continual change but were permanent and unchangeable, the evolution of all of life from one kind to the other and the development of living things would come to a dead stop. If human beings died or changed but had continued always in the same state what would the result have been? The progress of the human race would have come to a dead halt.2   

An ideal society should be evolving in a right direction in accordance with the true law of nature. But what ātmanavāda has done to the Indian society is: it created an individual and society on the basis on jāti-ātman (caste-self) which cannot ever move from one stage to another for its growth. It is because the self is eternally trapped in a notion of caste approved by divine power and sacred texts. This inhibits the growth of an individual and society as the pseudo-sacred notion of religion delivers a fixed view of self and reality. The classical example of this is none other but caste. This is a wrong view. As he expressed: “if you ask me, my ideal would be a society based on Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity… there should be varied and free points of contact with other modes of association … in other words there must be social-endosmosis.”3  In this sense, the revival of Buddhism sprouted the nav-ditti in our times that helped Buddhism itself to breathe and sustain.

Indian history is witness to the fact that the evil practices of untouchability and caste system have resulted in the painful degradation of human existence, which is still prevalent and alive in the contemporary society. The lower caste identity is highly degraded within the parameters of the hierarchical caste system. They are ‘named’ and identified with different degraded meanings, by giving vague references to the Hindu ‘spiritual’ texts. Let us once again look at the language to understand this process of degradation. The word Dalit is common usage in the most of the Modern Indian languages (Marathi, Hindi, Gujarati, Tamil, etc.), and represents the struggling poor people against caste oppression. On the other hand, the untouchable nomenclatures, like Acchut and Harijan, are meant to identify a group of individuals in the Upper castes way of understanding their social position as a result of past Karmas. Human is thus ‘labelled’, identified in orthodox caste system by his/her location in caste hierarchy. The Gandhian category named them as Harijans; legally constituted terms used for them is the SCs (Scheduled Castes), STs (Scheduled Tribes) or Depressed Classes; some other names like Asprishya, Paddalit; or politically constructed category of Bahujan, and so on.

For Dr.Ambedkar the problem of identity for the untouchable is not merely socially, or culturally, or politically, or religiously, or textually constructed, but has deep roots in the ‘mind’ of the untouchable as well as the non- untouchable. It is in the nature of the way that religion has cultivated the consciousness-itself; which is essentially a caste-consciousness.

Ambedkar’s never ending quest for a new identity as a human, came to an end just two months before his death. On October 14, 1956 at Deekshabhoomi, Nagpur, he proclaimed and embraced Buddhism along with lakhs of his followers. He infused new confidence, rather nava-ditti and inspired his people to recognize themselves as human and not as untouchables. He left behind the old-caste-identity and declared his new Buddhist identity as ‘new-birth’. While delivering his speech at the ceremony he declared: I believe that today I am taking a new-birth.4 It was the freedom from the hell of caste. His was the result of a personal conviction as well as a conscious effort to lay down a path that his people could follow5 and live their lives with new human identity or recognize themselves as ‘Human-Self’. It is also notable that, in this project of transforming and contextualising identity, Ambedkar had found a religion of Indian origin, which could legitimize the claims of the untouchables. Ambedkar firmly admitted that Buddha was an Enlightened Being and not a God. The psychological impact of Buddhism, and the matter of changed ‘identity’, cannot be judged by any visible signs.6 Ambedkar thus restored untouchables to greatest heights of confidence to come up even from their degraded identity rooted in their minds. Dr. Ambedkar’s move was essentially psychological and moral; one might say from wrong view to the right view. This weapon is necessary for any group of people to identify them as human and not as Untouchables or any identity that degrades their entire humanity. It opened up a new way of investigating self and the world on the basis of Dhamma. This is what made all the difference with nav-ditti in the context of Navayāna.

On Navayāna

On the evening of October 13, 1956, Dr Ambedkar held a press conference and told news reporters that his Buddhism would follow the tenets of the faith as taught by the Buddha himself. It is essentially an act of taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha which is common to every Buddhist in the world across all sects and schools they belong to. He clearly declared to the reporters and made a statement that he would not involve his conversion into a new-sect and will not involve his people in a differences which had arisen on account in the history of Hinayana, Mahayana, or Vajrayana. His approach would be new and based on liberation from suffering that transcends an argument of falling into dialogues of sectarianism. Here he hinted that one might call it a Navayāna.

Although Dr. Ambedkar only used this word once, it has come to stand for his approach to Buddhism. This approach has its unique characteristic in the way he tries to bring out the Buddha’s teachings in a way that speak to the modern world.

But the approach of Navayāna implies more than this; it implies understanding (and practicing) not only the specific Dhamma teachings he recommended, but how the significance and centrality he gave to Buddhism arising out of his overall mission in life. Exploring Navayāna means seeing Buddhism as the fundamental core of a holistic approach to self and society, one that has been lost sight of in much of modern Buddhism.

Dr. Ambedkar is having an increasingly strong impact on the political, social and religious life of India. He will persist in influencing the lives of potentially more than 30% of India's population. If Buddhism is understood to be at the heart of Dr. Ambedkar's approach to peaceful, social revolution, it can bring about a revolution in the social psyche of the oppressed, but if it is not, in the end the old Caste conditioning is likely to prevail, and the Buddhist revolution he brought about will be of little help, perhaps only helping with the process of Sanskritisation, the close enemy of all that he stood for.

Navayāna provides the facilities to enable the exploration of Buddhism in the context of Dr. Ambedkar's wholesome approach to social change, and an exploration of the different aspects of this approach in Buddhism. It helps us to explore other aspects of Buddhism in the modern world, especially engaged Buddhism, and approaches to Buddhism that have social implications, such as those of Ven Tai-xu, Anagarika Dharmapala, and Ven Buddhadasa.

The notion of Navayāna is fundamentally grounded on the twenty two (22) vows administered by Dr Ambedkar to his followers on October 14, 1956. In the Indian context these vows/principles constitutes the new paradigm of fundamental transformation and resurgence of a new theory and practice of emancipation based on right view. Through these vows a new path has been cleared for people to begin walking again and free themselves both physically and mentally.

The rise of the Navayāna path in Buddhism can be conceived as a socio-philosophical revolution after the initial phase of the earlier Buddhist revolution started by Sakyamuni Siddhatta Gotama followed by the counter revolution by Pushyamitra Sangha framed by Babasaheb Ambedkar as Brahmanism. Dr. B.R. Amebdkar’s embracing Buddhism around the framework of Navayāna or the New Vehicle came from his belief that the core foundation of Dhamma will be unharmed even by the most violent iconoclast and that the Buddha Dhamma Sangha will be guiding his people to a new life, a life in which the guiding principles are liberty, equality and fraternity.

This is clearly expressed in his answers to the reporters on 13 October, 1956 at Nagpur. While answering the press he also declared that he had once told M. K. Gandhi that though he differed from him on the issue of untouchability, when the time came, “I will choose only the least harmful way for the country. And that is the greatest benefit I am conferring on the country by embracing Buddhism; for Buddhism is a part and parcel of Bhartiya culture. I have taken care that my conversion will not harm the tradition of the culture and history of this land.”7

A talk by Dr Ambedkar was broadcasted in May 1956 from the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), London, on Why I like Buddhism and how it is useful to the world in its present circumstances. He observed:

I prefer Buddhism because it does give three principles in combination which no other religion does. Buddhism teaches prajna (wisdom) understanding as against superstition and supernaturalism; karuna (compassion); and samata (equality). This is what man wants for a good life. Neither God nor soul can save society. Marxism and Communism have shaken the religious systems of all countries…Buddhistic countries that have gone over to communism do not understand what communism is. Communism of the Russian type aims at bringing it about by a bloody revolution. The Buddhist way of communism brings it about by a bloodless revolution. The South-East Asian should be aware of jumping into the Russian net. All that is necessary for them is to give political form to Buddha’s teaching. Poverty there is and there will always be. Even in Russia there is poverty. But poverty cannot be an excuse for sacrificing human freedom. Once it is realized that Buddhism is a social gospel, its revival would be an everlasting event.8 

Dr.Ambedkar had foreseen that for human growth, an opportunity to pursue one's own truth is essential. From this perspective, Navayāna marks the beginning by which a person pursues their own truth, a process that was violently denied by diabolical forces of inequality in the Indian sub-continent. Navayāna, in many ways also marks the beginning of the re-emergence of human values and beauty and the means to free historically subjugated Buddhist from the destruction perpetuated by caste supremacy and tyranny of dogmatic divinity.

I am of the view that no theoretical framework, other than the Buddha-Dhamma, this includes the other Euro-American philosophical schools, have any remedy to the problems of the Indian context. Dr. Ambedkar was not merely thus advocating against poverty, slavery, and oppression in India but he was warning, advising, and guiding even traditional Buddhist countries to save themselves from the communist bloody revolution and was reminding them the ancient Indian wisdom of the Buddha to bring changes on the basis of Dhamma – the silent non-violent revolution. He undoubtedly held an opinion that Buddhism has no place for caste-system and Chaturvarna. He had closed all the breaches in the organisation of Buddhism and would now consolidate it; so the tide of Buddhism would never recede in India. He was in a hurry to bring transformation though his health was failing him. His essential vision was of the right view and therefore set the Navayāna perspective for the liberation of humanity forever. In this sense he was critical of communists for their immediate goals at the cost of human lives. He firmly advised communists that they should study Buddhism, so that they might know how to remove the ills of humanity.9   

The Rise of Navayāna

The pervasive inequality in Indian society and the immoral subversion of mobility were results of conformation to Varnashrama and the order of Manu, which posited the downtrodden on the receiving side both physically and mentally, corrupting human minds in the process to create tremendous social disparity. Dr.Ambedkar in his essay Buddha and Future of his Religion, focuses on the importance of religion in social being – “That society must have either the sanction of law or the sanction of morality to hold it together. Without either, society is sure to go to pieces. In all societies, law plays a very small part. It is intended to keep the minority within the range of social discipline. The majority is left and has to be left to sustain its social life by the postulates and sanction of morality. Religion in the sense of morality, must therefore, remain the governing principle in every society.”

Sakyamuni Buddha regards morality as the centre of his Dhamma, “Real Religion lives in the heart of man and not in the Shastras. Man and morality must be the centre of Religion. If not, Religion is a cruel superstition. It is not enough for Morality to be the ideal of life. Since there is no God it must become the law of life.”  It was this purified form of Dhamma which Ambedkar proposed for the establishment of a new equalitarian society.

Babasaheb regarded the human mind as centre of the universe as he quotes the first two verses of Dhammapada in his master piece The Buddha and His Dhamma: the mind is the origin of all this is, the mind is the master, the mind is the cause… the mind is the origin of all that is; it is the mind that commands, it is the mind that contrives.10

If in the midst of the mind there are evil thoughts, then the words are evil, the deeds are evil, and the sorrow which results from sin follows that man, as the chariot wheel follows him (or it) who draws it. If in the mind there are good thoughts, then the words are good and the deeds good, and the happiness which results from such conduct follows that man, as the shadow accompanies the substance.11 It is this recognition of mind that Dr Ambedkar is so concerned and invested in, formulating his lifelong project as an attempt to free this mind, thus making the Navayāna Buddhist project as an attempt to pursue ‘Freedom of Mind. It is the cognitive shift in modern times leading any form of revolution that makes Dr Ambedkar different than rest of the other leaders in India and in the world.

In this book the authors have touched upon the historical event that led to Babasaheb proposing the word ‘Navayāna’. This incident is critical for the Buddhist movement in India. Dr.Ambedkar embraced Buddhism with his five hundred thousand followers on October 14, 1956. This was after exactly 21 years of his declaration for conversion in Yeola, October 1935, where he declared that he would not die as a Hindu and quoted himself in his speech on the occasion of Buddhist Conversion.

This book written collectively by three Buddhist intellectuals is probably the first of its kind on the subject. I foresee many more articulations coming in the near future with much innovative and fullest way of defining the complete vision of Dr Ambedkar’s project of liberation. Wherever I have travelled far and wide across the length and breadth of the country and even abroad, I have heard voices seeking a deeper understanding of the Buddha Dhamma. I have sat in many gatherings where people’s search for deeper truths has led to unpacking the details of the Ti-ratana and seeking new ways to find and make meaning with Buddhism in their lives. These searches are not merely individual-centric, to quenched one’s need for personal solace, but are indeed a social, political, economic and philosophical project, seeking the transformation of social reality at every possible levels of social life. This book is in many ways an attempt to touch and articulate on each of such processes while at the same time laying the framework for deeper reflections among those who see value, meaning and truth in the Navayāna Buddhist framework.

Lastly, I would like to conclude with the spirit and greetings that Dr Ambedkar himself received from various people and organisations in response to his great act of embracing the Buddha-Dhamma. There were many dignitaries and significant Buddhist at the time who sent messages to Dr Ambedkar. Messages welcoming the great leader and his followers to Buddhism were sent by U Ba Sway, Prime Minister of Burma, U Nu, former Burmese Premier, Dr. Arvind Barua, Calcutta, and H. W. Amarsurya from Colombo. As Dhananjay Keer points out: it is very important to note that no messages from any great Indian leader such as Nehru, Dr Radhakrishnan, C. Rajagopalachari, or Dr Rajendra Prasad was received on the occasion.12 This exhibits that the change at surface are not enough as the leaders of Modern India could not see the depth of the dhamma. It is not possible unless an individual changes the fundamental attitudes in the mind to being the society based on realizing true Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.

Any emancipatory enterprise, be it religious, social, or political, in a way tries to overcome the ‘givenness’ of the self and culture. These enterprises deny the self as being fixed or imprisoned in conditions. Every individual, culture, nation, community, and caste, has their own way to derive meaning and value for themselves. The problem of claiming ‘ourselves’ to be better than ‘themselves’ arises, because certain groups or classes or castes, want to define the meaning for others in their own pattern. In response to that domination, this dominated section struggles by countering the given values and ‘re-structure’ values for themselves. The idea of countering, therefore, is a struggle for an alternative reality vis-a-vis the givenness of the values. Our point of departure has been to bridge the gap between the ‘contested concepts’ and our felt experiences. We have considered the views of many philosophers who have interpreted the reality. But the point is, whether and to what extent, these interpretations relate to our praxis to establish the just society. There is a need to think beyond the problems and attempt to resolve it. Thus, we may study even the Navayāna perspective formally, but the task of Navayāna is also to understand practicality the matter in the backdrop of certain socio-cultural reality and transform it.

“Other Buddhists said that”, quotes Keer, “the Dhamma Chakra was set revolving by the intrepid leader; and it was the greatest religious revolution which India had witnessed in modern times.”13 In other words, this was the greatest perspective that Dr Ambedkar tried to bring through Navayāna to set liberation for each individual and society in our times by revolving the Dhamma Chakra to bring in nava-ditti – defining the New Vehicle.

Dr. Santosh Raut

(Maitriveer Nagarjuna)

Dept of Aesthetics and Philosophy,

The EFL University, Hyderabad, India

 


[1]  Ambedkar, B. R., Annihilation Caste, Samyak Prakashan, Delhi, p. 36.

[2]  Ambedkar, B. R. The Buddha and His Dhamma (See: What is Dhamma?), Dr. Ambedkar Writings and Speeches , Vol 11, 1992, p.241.

[3]  Ibid., p. 50.

[4]  Zelliot Eleanor, Ambedkar’s Conversion, Critical Quest, New Delhi, p. 25.

[5]  Zelliot Eleanor, From Untouchable to Dalit, Manohar Publication, New Delhi, 1992, p.136.

[6]  Ibid., p.218.

[7]  Keer Dhananjay, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Life and Mission, Popular Prakashan, Bombay, p. 498.

[8]  Ibid., p. 490.

[9]  Ibid., p. 493

[10] Ambedkar B. R., The Buddha and His Dhamma (See: What is Saddhamma?), Dr. Ambedkar Writings and Speeches Vol. 11, 1992, p.282.

[11] Ibid., p.282.

[12] Keer Dhananjay, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Life and Mission, Popular Prakashan, Bombay, p. 501

[13] Ibid., p.504

 

 

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