Buddhist welcome to Ambedkar

al214In a brief critique of the Ambedkarite version of Buddhism, Sita Ram Goel draws attention to the fact that Dr. Ambedkar candidly admits that his own Buddhism has little to do with the Buddhist doctrine as laid down in the Pali Canon.When we turn to the indicated passage in Ambedkar’s book The Buddha and his Dhamma,

we do come across statements which are rather surprising under the pen of a convert to Buddhism. Nikayas (the core literary testimony about the Buddha) are unreliable, and that the story of Siddhartha Gautama leaving the world at 29 after seeing a dead, a sick and an old person for the first time, is “absurd”.  He rejects the “four Aryan Truths”, because they “deny hope to man.  The four Aryan Truths make the Gospel of the Buddha a gospel of pessimism.  Do they form part of the original gospel or are they a later accretion by monks?” He writes that the

Questioning the historicity of the founding narrative of a religion is certainly a permissible and even a commendable exercise, but it is hard to reconcile with being a propagator of that same religion.  Unless, of course, one chooses to redefine that religion completely, without reference to its founder’s original intentions.  While the Buddha (at least the only Buddha we know, the one attested in Buddhist Scripture) was quite unambiguous about the futility of worldly pursuits, Dr. Ambedkar would want Buddhism to focus on the pursuit of social reform:

“What was the object of the Buddha in creating the Bhikkhu?  Was the object to create a perfect man? (…) if the Bhikkhu is only a perfect man he is of no use to the propagation of Buddhism because though a perfect man he is a selfish man.  If, on the other hand, he is a social servant he may prove to be the hope of Buddhism.  This question must be decided not so much in the interest of doctrinal consistency but in the interest of the future of Buddhism.”

Ambedkar’s attempt to turn Buddhism into a philosophy of worldly social action necessarily implied a departure from the Buddha’s programme of non-worldly liberation.

Hindu Revivalists like to point out that Ambedkar was seriously criticized by authentic Buddhists for mixing Buddhism with what Ambedkar’s book describes as social reform, but what these Buddhists considered a message of hatred and separatism.  Dhananjay Keer, biographer and outspoken admirer of Ambedkar but also sympathetic to the Hindutva movement, reports:

“The Mahabodhi, a famous Buddhist journal in India, opined that The Buddha and his Dhamma is a dangerous book.  Ambedkar’s interpretation of the theory of karma, the theory of ahimsa and his theory that Buddhism was merely a social system, constituted not the correct interpretation of Buddhism but a new orientation.  Indeed the whole of the book, observed the reviewer, explained the hatred and aggressiveness the neo-Buddhists nourished and displayed.  ‘Ambedkar’s Buddhism’, added the reviewer, ‘is based on hatred, the Buddha’s on compassion’ (…) The title, pleaded the reviewer, should be changed from The Buddha and his Dhamma to that of Ambedkar and his Dhamma; for Ambedkar preached non-Dhamma as Dhamma for motives of political and social reform.”

Another paper, The Light of Dhamma (Rangoon), observed that “although this was a book by a great man, unfortunately it was not a great book”.  Dhananjay Keer explains: “The reviewer pointed out that the great Doctor tampered with the texts and whenever he found views in Buddhism inconvenient to his own, denounced them as later accretions made by monks.  The author was nevertheless a great and good man; the tragedy was that it was neither a great book nor a good book, concluded the reviewer.”

Buddhist monk Jivaka wrote: “In India the movement started by Ambedkar was not Buddhism but a campaign for social reform under the name Buddhism, and he has promulgated the idea that bhikkhus are for the purpose of social service.  But his book ‘The Buddha and His Dharma’ is misnamed for he preaches non-Dharma as Dharma, even sweeping away the four Aryan Truths as a later addition by scholar-monks, maintaining that the Buddha distinguished between killing for a good reason and purely want only, and saying that He did not ban the former; and to cap it all he writes that the Dharma is a social system and that a man quite alone would not need it (…) Hence the so-called New Buddhists or better named, Ambedkarists, surround bhikkhus aggressively and tell them what they should do and abuse them if they are not actively engaged in social work or preaching reform.  The result is seen in the acts of violence they have committed, the rioting that has taken place in Nagpur and Jabbulpur and other places.  For Ambedkar entered on his new religion with hate in his heart and his followers are still nourishing and fanning the flames of hate in the uneducated masses they lead.”

In a report to his Government in 1992, the Sri Lankan High Commissioner to India, Mr. Neville Kanakaratne, noted the “regrettable fact” that a great majority of Indian Buddhists were members of the Scheduled Castes who converted under Dr. Ambedkar’s leadership in order to assert their political rights “rather than through honest self-persuasion and conviction”.  By contrast, the effort by the Mahabodhi Society to spread Buddhism through proper information and teaching had achieved “very little”, according to the Sri Lankan High Commissioner.

If we accept the High Commissioner’s assessment of such purely political conversion, implying that there is little genuine enthusiasm for the Buddha’s spiritual message in these Ambedkarite conversions, we must notice at the same time that in the margin of the politically Buddhist community, centres of genuine spiritual Buddhism are evolving, to the dismay of purely political converts.  Thus, the Leftist commentator Gopal Guru complains that Ambedkarite Buddhists are starting to take an active interest in Theravada Buddhist meditation: “Some of the Buddhist organizations are busy spiritualising Ambedkar’s Buddhism with a view to supplanting the need to look at Ambedkar’s Buddhist conversion movement as an emancipatory, critical concern.”

For one, the London-based Trailokya Buddha Mahasangha “tries to disseminate the spiritual content of Buddhism” during “workshops of 3 to 7 days’ duration”, a classical format to introduce interested laymen to the basic practices of Buddhism. This Trailokya Buddha Mahasangha was founded by Dennis Lingwood (b. 1926), a British-born monk who took the name Sangharakshita at his initiation in 1949 (by the same monk who was to initiate Dr. Ambedkar in 1956).  Far from Ambedkar’s depreciation of Buddhism’s spiritual core in favour of social reform, Sangharakshita aims at creating “a new society where each individual’s spiritual development forms the centre of all activity”.

A Scheduled Caste convert explains: “The Dalit movement lacks the positive approach of Buddhism.  I no longer call myself a Dalit.  I consider myself a Buddhist.”By contrast, another one complains: “Sangharakshita came to turn us into good Buddhists.  But the problem is not becoming a good Buddhist, but a combative Buddhist. (…) How can one obtain mental peace if there is no peace in society?” To which the Buddha, who lived in an equally turbulent age, might have said that if you want to wait for peace in the outside world before starting to make peace inside, you will wait forever.

A less controversial but essentially similar Buddhist presence is the Vipassana association of the Burmese master Sayagyi U Ba Khin as represented by S.N. Goenka.  As I have been able to see for myself, this tradition of Buddhist meditation has struck firm roots in Ambedkar’s own Maharashtra, mainly through its Vipassana International Academy in Dhammagiri near Jalgaon where 10-day courses for laymen are offered.  This way, a process of rapprochement between traditional Buddhists and Ambedkarite neo-Buddhists is already visible, so that we are probably witnessing the genesis of a genuine new Indian Buddhism.