Dr. Ambedkar, Great Indian Visionary
Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar was a great visionary who lived in India in the 20th century. Architect of the Indian Constitution, his work liberated millions of people and he is venerated within the Dalit (ex-untouchable) caste of people. But his vision is relevant to all communities of people all over the world.
Unfortunately, he is not as well known in the West as Gandhi. Dr. Ambedkar has long been a spiritual hero of mine, and proved that one person can make an enormous difference to millions of people's lives.
The Hell of Caste
The Effects of the Indian Caste System
Growing up in India, Dr. Ambedkar's early life was dominated by caste. According to the caste system, the so-called "Untouchables", or Dalits, are not allowed to ask for anything.
Their touch is considered to be polluting to caste Hindus. In some cases, they are considered to be so polluting that even their shadows can pollute caste Hindus. If a Dalit is walking along and sees a caste Hindu, the Dalit may be compelled to throw him/herself into a ditch to avoid his/her shadow falling on the caste Hindu.
Dalits have no rights under Hinduism. They are only allowed to do the dirtiest jobs, such as removing animal carcasses and cleaning toilets. They are prohibited from having any education. Their duty is to serve the higher castes, and they have to rely on members of the higher castes for favours. If Dalits please higher caste members, they may be given food or shelter.
Dalits are not allowed to live in the villages. They have to live outside the village, near the sewer. Even today, many lower-caste Indians living in rural areas have no means of earning money.
According to Hindu tradition, the caste system was set out by the gods, who determined what are the duties of each caste, and the restrictions imposed on them.
The Buddha spoke against the caste system 2,500 years ago. The Buddha taught that all human beings have the potential for full and perfect Enlightenment. Thus, a system that dictates that you must remain in a particular caste or classs, rather than fulfilling your potential, is antithetical to the Buddha's teaching.
13 Dalits are murdered every week. In addition, many are subject to brutal attacks and having their homes burnt due to caste prejudice. For more information, see the video below on "Dalits in India, a Disturbing Fact". These are not just statistics, these are real people.
Dr. Ambedkar's work liberated millions of people from the hell of caste.
Comparison with Racism and Segregation
Similarities between Racism and Caste Oppression
There are many similarities between caste oppression and racist oppression.
For example, under Hinduism, Dalits are not allowed to drink from the same wells as caste Hindus. Similarly, during segregation, African Americans were not allowed to drink from the same water fountains or use the same toilets as white people. Similar restrictions were applied in apartheid South Africa.
The Bible has been used to justify slavery and other forms of racist oppression. In the United States today, there are still whites-only churches. And the Church of England owned enslaved African people.
Dalits are confined to the lowest jobs, as African Americans have been for many generations. There have been Black professionals for many years, but the majority of Black people were confined to menial jobs. Today, racial discrimination is more subtle, but it still exists in the United States. In South Africa today, many African people are accessing education and opportunity, but many more are still living and working in appalling conditions in the mines.
Dalits are not allowed to marry outside their caste. There still exist laws on the statute books in some states forbidding interracial marriages.
Dalits are not allowed to live within the villages. In the cities, they are confined to the slums. In the United States, the majority of African American people are confined to ghettoes in inner-city area. Some of the ghettoes are very affluent, but African American people still find it difficult to move outside of them. Similarly, in South Africa, under the apartheid system, Black people were sent to live in "homelands" or Bantustans and restricted from living or travelling outside of them.
To read more about life under apartheid, see News and Views: ANC Welcomes Ruling.
During segregation, when African American people travelled to visit their families in the South, they had to carry their meals with them and sleep in the car. Why? Because there were no hotels where they could stay once they crossed the Mason-Dixon line. This echoes Dr. Ambedkar's own experience when he returned to India. Nor were they allowed to sit and eat in restaurants. And the trains were segregated, so they would have had to ride in the "Jim Crow" railway cars.
When Black people have moved into previously white areas, the remaining white people have moved out. This is a very common experience in the U.S., known as "white flight".
In my parents' generation, in the 1920s and '30s, Black people could not go into a shop and try on shoes - they had to buy them. They could not try on a hat - they had to buy it. Winnie Mandela experienced similar treatment in South Africa under apartheid. Recently, billionaire Oprah Winfrey commented that when she approaches certain shops, they put a sign in the window saying "By Appointment Only". These shops turn away business from a billionaire rather than have a Black woman enter. This is clearly a form of "untouchability".
To read more about Winnie Mandela's experience, see News and Views: ANC Welcomes Ruling.
African American children are still subject to a racist education system which does not portray our people and culture in a positive light. We see similar problems in the UK.
Probably the most vicious aspect of racism and caste oppression is the effect on the mind. For more about this, see "The Effect on the Mind" below.
Ambedkar's Early Life
Ambedkar was born on 14th April 1891. At that time, the British Army employed Dalits, and in fact established a Dalit regiment. The children of Dalits who were members of the Army were given an education, and as Ambedkar's father was in the Army, the son was fortunate to benefit from this.
One day, the young boy was travelling home from school with his cousin. Unlike most people of their caste, they were well-dressed, wearing their school uniforms. At a railway station, a man offered to let him ride in his rickshaw, and they accepted his invitation. As they approached the village, he became aware that they were Dalits, at which point he insisted that they leave his rickshaw - he considered that they were polluting it by their presence.
India is a hot country, and the boys were not allowed to drink from the local well. Eventually, they had to drink from a puddle. This incident had a profound effect on Ambedkar.
At an early age, Ambedkar was recognised as being highly intelligent and academically gifted. Because of this, he was chosen to be given the opportunity of receiving higher education, paid for by his sponsor, a local king or Raja. He studied at two prestigious universities, Columbia in New York and the London School of Economics. Having qualified in law, he returned to his home in India.
Return to India
Dr. Ambedkar's Work for the Dalit Community
On his return to India, Dr. Ambedkar could not find a place to live. Because of his caste status, no one would rent a home to him. Even his patron, the king, could not find him accommodation. In the end, he pretended to be a Parsee and took a room in a Parsee boarding house.
He was well-educated, and had spent many years outside of India, free from caste restrictions. But when he returned home, he returned to his humiliating status.
Dr. Ambedkar urged his followers to pursue education as a means of escaping from poverty. He also encouraged them to move to the cities, as they experience fewer caste restrictions there.
Ambedkar spent many years working for the benefit of his community. He worked to secure education and employment for Dalits, but he made little progress because of caste restrictions. One day, he vowed, "I was born a Hindu, but I will not die a Hindu".
This was a political statement and caused a great deal of disruption. Indian society rests on the caste system and any change in the social order is seen to be going against nature and against the wishes of the Hindu gods.
Dr. Ambedkar explored many different religions before choosing Buddhism.
Why Did Dr. Ambedkar Convert to Buddhism?
Dr. Ambedkar chose Buddhism for many reasons.
The Buddha's teaching leads to complete liberation. Dr. Ambedkar was committed to applying the Buddha's Dhamma to practical matters in order to improve life for Indian people, starting with the hundreds of millions of Dalits.
The Buddha was born and lived his life in India, and his teachings can be considered part of Indian culture and history, and the legacy of Indian people.
The Buddha's message of "liberty, equality and fraternity", which pre-dated the French revolution by more than two thousand years, inspired Dr. Ambedkar. He believed that the Dalit people would never achieve liberation, or even basic human rights, within Hinduism.
Buddhism emphasises the development of the individual and the need for each of us to take responsibility for our development. It teaches us that we can all connect with each other from the heart, as individuals. My teacher, the venerable Sangharakshita, has stated that "anybody can be friends with anybody", and this is literally true. To read more about this, see: Two Books about Friendship.
Through the Buddha's teaching, we can begin to see that caste, as well as other differences such as race and gender, are products of the mind. Through changing our minds, we can transform our lives.
Dr. Ambedkar stated that he was converting to Buddhism, not to improve his own material status, but for his personal and spiritual development.
Ambedkar and Gandhi
Dr. Ambedkar's Clashes with Gandhi
In building the new Indian Republic, different groups in society wanted to have a certain number of seats reserved for them in the Indian Parliament. Ambedkar wanted to have seats reserved for Dalits, but Gandhi objected to this. He argued that the Hindus should save, or rescue, the Dalits. This accorded with Hindu tradition. However, it went against the Buddha's teaching that individual people have to liberate ourselves.
Gandhi refused to concede, and threatened to starve himself to death to prevent the Dalits from having Parliamentary seats reserved for them. He went on a hunger strike.
In the end, Ambedkar gave in. Had he allowed Gandhi to starve to death, it is certain that many thousands, if not millions, of Dalits would have been attacked and killed.
Gandhi is revered throughout the world for his nonviolent stance, but he was willing to use manipulation and the threat of violence to deny the Dalits their basic human rights. The work of Dr. Ambedkar, on the other hand, is virtually unknown outside of the Dalit communities.
The Indian Republic following Independence from the British Empire
After gaining independence from the British Empire, Dr. Ambedkar became Law Minister under Gandhi and Nehru. Having a fine legal mind, he framed the Indian Constitution, which is known for being particularly well-written.
The Indian Constitution outlawed the caste system, although this system is enshrined in Indian custom and still affects every area of Indian life.
The Constitution guarantees the rights of every citizen to an education. It also reserves certain jobs for the Dalits and "tribal" people, whom it collectively refers to as the Scheduled Castes.
Hundreds of Thousands of Dalits Convert to Buddhism
On 14th October 1956, Dr. Ambedkar converted to Buddhism. Three hundred thousand of his followers also converted.
My teacher, the venerable Sangharakshita, was a personal friend of Dr. Ambedkar's and arrived shortly after Dr. Ambedkar's death.
The new converts were very enthusiastic, but had had little or no access to Buddhist teachings. Unfortunately, Dr. Ambedkar died within a few weeks following the conversions. His vision had been to spread the Buddha's Dhamma to Dalit communities all over India, and then to all communities, but this was not to be. It probably would have happened if Dr. Ambedkar had lived longer. Continuing with this work has been the ongoing work of the Triratna Buddhist Order and Community (formerly the FWBO/TBMSG).
On the day Dr. Ambedkar died, Sangharakshita arrived at the local railway station and was met by about 200 of Ambedkar's followers. At this time, the conversions had had no material effect on their lives. But when Sangharakshita asked them how they felt, they invariably replied, "I feel free!".
Ambedkar himself said that he felt he had escaped from hell.
The first thing the new converts did was to go home, smash up their statues of the Hindu gods, and throw them into the river. Thus they rid themselves of the gods whom they believed had condemned them to caste oppression.
Next, they made great sacrifices in order to provide an education for their children. Some of them starved themselves.
Sangharakshita worked with the new converts, giving many talks conveying to them the basics of the Buddha's teachings. In the 1970s, Dh. Lokamitra, a member of the Western Buddhist Order (now the Triratna Buddhist Order), went to India to continue Sangharakshita's work.
In addition to teaching the Dhamma, the Triratna charity Karuna (Compassion) runs health and education projects. Many people have received an education as a direct result of Karuna's work.
The Effect on the Mind
Freeing the Mind from Oppression and Self-Hatred
The effect of internalised oppression is very profound.
People who are treated as if they are worthless, or have no value other than to serve the dominant caste or race, can develop a very negative sense of self.
This conditioning goes very deep. When it is reinforced with violence and the threat of violence, people often become afraid to fight back.
The sense of helplessness causes the internalised oppression, i.e. self-hatred, to become even more deeply ingrained.
The use of religion to justify this oppression can cause people to believe that they deserve to be oppressed, exploited and excluded.
Lack of access to education further reduces people's opportunities to develop.
Dr. Ambedkar's conversion to Buddhism showed millions of people that they no longer had to live with the label of "untouchability". They could become truly free because their minds could become free, in accordance with the Buddha's teaching.
It taught them that caste is a creation of the mind, and enabled them to break free of the cycle of oppression.
Caste prejudice and racist attitudes are mental prisons - not just for the oppressed, but for the oppressors as well.
Dr. Ambedkar's (Babasheb's) Legacy
Millions of People Have Achieved Education, Better Health and Economic Progress
If you saw "Slumdog Millionaire", you have some awareness of the extreme poverty and deprivation in which millions of Indian people still live.
As a direct result of Dr. Ambedkar's conversion to Buddhism, millions of Indian people from the poorest communities have had access to education and been lifted out of poverty, filth and degradation.
Studies of comparable communities have shown that they have only made roughly half as much progress as those who have converted. The lives of the converts and their children and grandchildren have been improved by 85% in terms of educational achievement and economic progress. The lives of members of comparable communities have improved by 45%.
The converts and their descendants are profoundly grateful to Dr. Ambedkar, and they revere him. Within Dalit communities, he is affectionately referred to as Babasaheb. In April, there are month-long celebrations of the anniversary of Babasaheb's birth.
As stated above, the work of converting other Indian people to Buddhism continues. It is seen as a means of improving their lives in practical terms, thus conversion is still seen as a political statement. However, the Buddha's teachings are for all living beings.
If you are a Buddhist in India, it is assumed that you come from the lowest caste. That perception needs to be challenged and changed. The work of Dharmacharis Subhuti and Lokamitra, and others working with them, involves taking the Buddha's message across India and making it available to all.
It is vital that this work continues, to support such people in escaping from poverty and attaining liberation.
See the "Resources" section below for opportunities to donate to continue the work of the Indian Dhamma Trust and the Karuna Trust.
People Who Contributed Information to This Article
I would like to give many thanks to the following people for much of the information contained in this lens:
The Venerable Urgyen Sangharakshitam, Founder of the Triratna Buddhist Order (Formerly Western Buddhist Order)
Members of the Triratna Buddhist Order:
Resources - Links about Dr. Ambedkar, Buddhism and the Dalits
- Interview with Subhuti on Ambedkar
Dh. Subhuti on the legacy of Dr. Ambedkar and why it is crucial to continue to spread the Dharma.
- How Is Buddhism Relevant to African Americans?
Link to two videos by Lama Rangdrol about how Buddhism is relevant to African Americans.
- Anniversary of Ambedkar's Birthday
Blog on the celebration of the 120th anniversary of the birth of Ambedkar.
- Indian Dhamma Trust
Here is where you can donate money to help continue the work of spreading the Dhamma in India.
- Karuna Trust
Here is where you can donate to help support the work of our education and health projects in India.
- Contemporary Relevance of Baba Saheb Ambedkar
Article from the Sri Lanka Guardian.
- African Odysseys - Jai Bhim Comrade
Jai Bhim Comrade is showing at BFI London South Bank as part of the African Odysseys series.
YouTube vids - Videos about Buddhism in Africa and Asia
Videos about Buddhism. Many people in India have been liberated from oppression by Buddhism. The Dhamma is now spreading to Africa as well.
Zhana (author) on March 05, 2013:
@anonymous: Thanks very much for your comment.
Zhana (author) on March 05, 2013:
@anonymous: Thanks very much for your comment.
anonymous on December 21, 2012:
I learned a lot about the caste system here today.
anonymous on December 21, 2012:
@Zhana21: I live in Alabama in the U.S., one of the state's with a terrible history of racial discrimination. l am pleased to say that few white churches would turn away a black person today. You are correct that in the 70s it happened frequently.
Zhana (author) on May 09, 2012:
@MissionBoundCre: Thanks very much for your comments.
I understand that there are still churches that ban African American people in the United States. I recall this was the case during President Carter's Presidential campaigns in the 1970s and I believe it still is (I could be wrong, though).
MissionBoundCre on May 04, 2012:
I am working on a lens about the Hindu caste and plan to reference (back-link) this lens. I am a Christian and so my desire for the conversion of the Dalits, of course defers from yours. Yet we both desire freedom for all people. I do want to make note of the fact that there are no "White-Only" churches, only churches with a white majority congregation. Those two are not one and the same statements. One is imposed the other is by choice / culture preferences - like music or the preacher's / pastor's style of giving his message. I am an Afro-Hispanic and I'm allowed in any church of my own liking without the need for police or legal intervention.