The Great Escape

Vishvapani travels across India to witness thousands of the nation’s underclass take refuge in a new form of Buddhism and break free from the oppressive caste system.


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Ambedkar NagarAmbedkar was attracted not by the Buddhism that existed in other Asian countries, but by the life and teachings of the Buddha himself. He saw the Buddha as “a common man” who offered guidance “to man in his life on earth” rather than offering himself as a gateway to salvation or promising it in the next life. For Ambedkar, the Buddha’s teachings stripped religion down to an essence that was in accordance with reason, experience, and a scientific outlook. Buddhist teachings affirmed human dignity, regardless of birth, and offered a rationale for individual moral effort that would benefit society at large. Indeed, Ambedkar thought he discerned a neglected dimension of the Buddha’s life, as a social reformer at war with India’s brahminical traditions and caste practices.

None of the existing Buddhist traditions quite fit Ambedkar’s approach, so he formulated--on no greater authority than his own understanding--what he considered to be the original teachings of the founder. In the last years of his life, Ambedkar compiled The Buddha and His Dhamma--part anthology, part biography of the Buddha, and part exposition of Ambedkar’s interpretations. Concerned that religion should benefit society, his Buddhism minimized or excluded the tradition’s ritual, psychological, and mystical dimensions, and saw morality as its essence. This may seem a narrow interpretation, but in Ambedkar’s view, Buddhist morality emphasizes the individual’s capacity to exercise responsibility, make ethical choices, and develop virtues. Not only does such a morality offer a foundation for a healthy society, he argued, but it also implies an open-ended path of practice and development.

Ambedkar’s rational, social Buddhism sometimes seems to mistake the enlightenment of the Buddha for that of eighteenth-century Europe. But by reconceiving Western ideas in the light of the Buddha’s teachings, he lends them depth. Liberty meant for him not just freedom from undue constraint, but also the opportunity to develop one’s faculties; equality meant solidarity with other human beings; and fraternity was the attitude of respect for others that is essential to a democracy.

Although Ambedkar interpreted Buddhism for his followers, he did not regard his version as definitive. The Buddha and His Dhamma is an unfinished sketch rather than a complete religious philosophy. Ambedkar urged his followers to study and practice the tradition for themselves and said he was opening a doorway to Buddhism. He urged his followers to engage with that path sincerely and effectively, and he added the twenty-two vows to the traditional conversion ceremony to ensure that their conversions made a lasting difference. The last vow states, “I shall hereafter lead my life according to the principles and teachings of the Buddha and his Dhamma.”

Ambedkar died in December 1956, just six weeks after the first mass conversions and before he could undertake the huge ceremonies he had planned across India. For many years the Ambedkarite Buddhist movement was hampered by factionalism, the absence of experienced Buddhist teachers, and the fact that Buddhist converts were long ineligible for the jobs and educational places that were reserved for other dalits. Nonetheless, it survived and gradually took hold, and today, the relative prosperity, educational achievements, and collective confidence of Maharashtra’s Buddhists is remarkable among dalit communities.

Shortly after my first visit to Dikshabhumi, I returned there to meet Professor Saddhananda Fulzele, who worked with Ambedkar and organized the 1956 ceremonies. We met at Dr. Ambedkar College, which adjoins the Dikshabhumi site and was founded by Fulzele in 1963. He told me, “I decided to start the College as the most fitting memorial to Dr. Ambedkar, whose constant message was,'Educate!'” It has developed into a top-ranking institution, schooling generations of dalit professionals, and its success exemplifies the strides made by Ambedkarite Buddhists. Meanwhile, Ambedkar’s reputation has spread as his writings have been translated into India’s vernacular languages, and even among Ambedkar’s followers his reputation has been burnished by decades of disillusionment with corrupt politicians. As Fulzele commented, “Dr. Ambedkar dead is more powerful than he was alive.”

LALIDA EXEMPLIFIES THE dalit leaders who are now turning to Buddhism. Her family benefited from dalit reservations in government service, and she grew up comfortably, but still she could not escape caste. “I was ignored by my teachers, so I had little interest in study, but I loved working with ordinary people, and I saw how life is for dalit villagers.” As a response, she has built a network of activists who run programs offering education, opposing child labor, fighting for land rights, and supporting women’s empowerment in hundreds of villages. She is deeply committed to her community and, remarkably for an Indian woman, has decided not to have children so she can focus on social work. After years of effort, she sees signs of change, especially among women. “Dalit women are becoming stronger--running savings schemes, educating themselves, standing in elections, opposing domestic violence. I believe the whole dalit movement is rising, and for the first time we are united.”

Tamil dalits knew little about Ambedkar in his lifetime, but their recent discovery of his ideas and those of Buddhism has focused and deepened this new unity. Lalida explains, “I heard about Dr. Ambedkar in 1996, after his works were translated into Tamil. He said that our problems spring from Hinduism, that we needed to believe in ourselves and that the path was by becoming Buddhists.” The link to Nagaloka (which is connected to my own sangha, the Western Buddhist Order) came through its training course for young dalits in Buddhism and social work. Lalida told me, “One of our friends was studying at Nagaloka, so three years ago we visited Maharashtra. What we saw here was wonderful: the numbers at Dikshabhumi, the harmony between people, the welcome we received. We thought, 'We want a movement like this in our own state.'” Having adopted Buddhism, she is now applying the same commitment she has shown in her social work to more traditional Buddhist practices. “At first some people laughed at the idea of meditation. They said, 'Why do you sit around doing nothing?' But we watched and learned, and now we are ready to take it on. Buddhism shows us what we can become, but we must learn how to practice it: how to live ethically and develop our minds.”

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