Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
“You awakened me to be myself; for that I thank you.” (B.R. Ambedkar).
What kind of Buddhism did Dr. B. R. Ambedkar practice? This is a question that has puzzled me ever since I turned on to Babasaheb back in 2015. I have read his life story, watched film biographies, read several of his books, and read The Buddha and His Dhamma, Bhimrao’s own take on the Buddha story and doctrine. But still, none of that seemed to answer the question, ‘exactly what did he practice?’
I have read some recent research on current practitioners of Ambedkar Buddhism to learn how they understand Buddhism and what practices they engage in. This did not yield much other than ‘a little bit of everything.’ Most current Ambedkarists seem to be satisfied with displaying devotions to Babasaheb and the Buddha.
I know that Ambedkar first received a book of the life of the Buddha when he graduated from high school. Although I don’t know the details, my understanding is that Ambedkar studied Buddhism all his adult life. But he did not ‘practice’ Buddhism in the usual sense as we do today. He did not go to Buddhist temples in India (if there were any) or go on retreats or meditate or take instruction from monks.
Ambedkar never called himself a Buddhist publicly until the end of his life. Although he worked on the book for many years, The Buddha and His Dhamma was not published until after his death. It was not until after a lifetime of scholarly achievement, community organizing, politics and publishing, government service and leadership in the Indian Parliament, and then after he retired from all this, that he turned to the intense study of religion. Finally, just months before he died, he announced that he would take vows as a lay Buddhist in a public ceremony. He took the vows in October 1956 and died in December. Becoming a Buddhist was the very last thing he did.
It wasn’t until I continued my own journey with Buddhism to the point of letting go of most conventional forms of Buddhist practice that I could understand how Ambedkar practiced Buddhism. In the last year or two I have gone through a process of ‘ditching the raft’, of letting go of most orthodox Buddhist dharma, scripture study, arduous meditation practice (other than the usual 20 minutes a day), shrine visiting and devotional practice. I stripped away everything until all that was left was an innate sense of my own ‘buddha nature’, that my own awakened consciousness was a greater source of enlightenment than any Buddhist teaching or practice. Ambedkar’s own life was an exemplar of this basic truth.
So where does that leave me? Doing what I’ve always done that is not conventionally understood to be Buddhist: social science scholarship, art and music, community organizing, climate justice, and reflecting on my own attitudes and behaviors to see where I can heal the psychic flaws or at least understand them. In other words, I did my life. I began to see that everything I did to awaken my own consciousness, to heal injustice and create a better world, was a form of dharma practice.
From this new perspective, I was able to understand how Ambedkar practiced Buddhism, and how he understood his Navayana or ‘new vehicle’. Ambedkar practiced Buddhism by devoting his entire life to overcoming ignorance and suffering, through education and scholarship, community service, political leadership and social justice. Except for his focused study of Buddhism, all of his scholarly, social and political work was secular in nature. Ambedkar did all of this work to improve the lives of millions of fellow Dalits, women, laborers, and citizens of India. His tireless and passionate efforts were done in the service of improving human society. That was how Ambedkar practiced Buddhism. If I had not let go of the conventional religious practices of Buddhism, I never would have understood this.
No great man really does his work by crippling his disciples by forcing on them his maxims or his conclusions. What a Great Man does is to awaken them to a vigorous and various exertion of their faculties. Again the pupil only takes his guidance from his master. He is not bound to accept his master’s conclusions. There is no ingratitude in the disciple not accepting the maxims or the conclusions of his master. For even when he rejects them he is bound to acknowledge to his master in deep reverence: “You awakened me to be myself; for that I thank you.” The master is not entitled to less. The disciple is not bound to give more.
BR Ambedkar (1943): Ranade, Gandhi and Jinnah, Address delivered on the 101st birth centenary of Mahadev Govind Ranade
What Ambedkar is saying here is that even though he was guided by Buddhism and learned much from Buddhist dharma, nevertheless he came to his own conclusions that differed widely from orthodox Buddhism. He felt free to experiment and innovate a Navayana, a ‘new vehicle’, with new dharmas. His mantra, “Educate, agitate, organize”, and his summation of the three jewels as “liberty, equality, fraternity” bear little resemblance to orthodox Buddhism of the scriptures or of conventional modern Buddhism. But that was the dharma to which he was guided by Buddhism and his own life.
Throughout his long and demanding public career, Ambedkar never called himself a Buddhist. Because he was not limited to acting in accordance with orthodox Buddhist dharma or practice, he was free to act in the most courageous and effective way possible. His practice was his life, a life devoted to the service of humanity. And that is the Navayana of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar.
The Navayana is the dominant form of Buddhism in India; 87% of Indian Buddhists practice Ambedkar’s Navayana.
[from Wikipedia: Navayana]
According to the 2011 Census of India there are 8.4 million Buddhists in India. Navayana Buddhists comprise about 87% (7.3 million) of Indian Buddhist community, and nearly 90% (6.5 million) of all Navayana Buddhists in India live in Maharashtra state. But Buddhist leaders claim there are more than 50 million neo-Buddhists in India.