Monday, September 7, 2020

Babasaheb Ambedkar & Buddhism:

 Babasaheb Ambedkar's early fascination for the Buddha, Buddhist revival in India, and Buddhist internationalism

In one of the versions of preface of the Buddha and His Dhamma and in a few speeches, Babasaheb Ambedkar mentioned that his love goes back to 1907 when Dada Keluskar presented his biography of the Buddha to young Bhim. Dada wrote this biography in 1898. Dada was like a mentor to young Bhim and it was he who arranged scholarships from the Maharaja of Baroda on two occasions. Sayajirao was himself a strong supporter of the Non Brahmin movement and close friend of Dada. Maharaja's love for Buddha is evident in many incidences in his life. Even Shahu Maharaj was exposed to Buddhism during his travels to Sri Lanka.

The conclusion from these facts is that Buddhism and Buddha's teachings were available for people. P.L. Narasu's Essence of Buddhism was published in 1907. One of the Hindi biographers of Babasaheb Ambedkar mentions that Babasaheb Ambedkar was carrying books on Buddhism when he sailed to Columbia University in 1913. Babasaheb Ambedkar went to Baroda to serve Maharaj of Baroda twice. Maharaja of Baroda also founded Oriental institute which has a journal and prominent presence of texts on Buddhism. 

We can trace that Babasaheb Ambedkar's voracious reading even in Mumbai before going to USA might have included other Buddhist books as Dada was so close to young Bhim and often lend his books to him to read. 

In the Columbia University, Babasaheb read the Pali texts and other books coming out on Buddhism, which may include Paul Carus's book that was one of the influential books for Americans interested in Buddhism. Some of the new books that are published recently show how Buddhism was gaining ground in USA during that period. 

Babasaheb Ambedkar refers to Mahabodhi temple which was in the hands of Brahmin Mahants in his reply to Gandhi in the Annihilation of Caste and displays his deep love for the Buddha as the teacher of Noble love in the same writing in 1936.

We now know that Babasaheb Ambedkar had a significant number of books on Buddhism. The number of books Babasaheb Ambedkar had on Buddhism was 2000. This is vast number. Babasaheb Ambedkar devoted his time to learn Pali language in early 1940s and he has thoroughly mastered the Pali Language, so much so that he even tried to create modern text book for Pali language and a multilingual dictionary. 

Pali is an important language to understand the Basic Buddhism (fundamental Buddhism that comes close to the time of Shakyamuni). Buddhism afterwards evolved into many schools and interacted with many cultures creating many forms of Buddhism, but the roots can be traced to Majjhima Janapada where the Buddha mainly taught. The extanct Pali works were first time written down in Sri Lanka. The Buddhism in Sri Lanka remained protected and sustained due to geography of Sri Lanka and hence one can say that Buddhism in Sri Lanka remained as it was after Ashoka. The significant action took place in continental India where Buddhism was threatened by many philosophies and hostile schools of thoughts, mainly Brahminical ones. That's why we see in Indian Buddhists a strong fascination for grasping "essential Buddhism" which they thought is present in Pali texts and to understand "Buddhist historical Changes" in the Indian peninsula. 

These two strands were important for the people fascinated by the Buddha in the Indian subcontinent then: basic teachings of the Buddha and the evolution of Buddhist responses to the hostile schools. 

The thesis that Babasaheb Ambedkar advocated in the Revolution and Counterrevolution in Ancient India is the part of the second strand to understand what happened to Buddhism in the Indian subcontinent. While the Buddha and His Dhamma was a project to make available the fundamental and foundational teachings of the Buddha. In that attempt, Babasaheb Ambedkar wanted his people to go back to the teachings of Sakyamuni. Once the core is grasped, evolution of Buddhism in the context of other cultures is not difficult to understand. 

The third strand that Babasaheb Ambedkar evolved for Buddhism was to make it influence the contemporary world and the context in which he found the humanity of his day. The third strand is the Buddha or Marx addressed to Buddhists all over the world. The comparison is basically between the Buddha in Pali texts and Karl Marx. Babasaheb Ambedkar didn't compare existing schools of Buddhism with Marxism, he went back to Pali texts. 

Babasaheb Ambedkar was exposed to various schools of Buddhism through his vast reading. He was to meet D.T. Suzuki in Japan through one of their Hungarian contact, Felix Vylie. As we know now that Paul Carus invited DT Suzuki to edit Buddhist books (Chinese and Japanese) and opened a gate for Buddhism for many. DT Suzuki could also read Pali. Paul Carus and John Dewey were friends and both were present in Chicago Exposition of 1893 that included World Parliament of Religions. 

In 1950s, when Babasaheb Ambedkar became involved with World Fellowship of Buddhists (WFB), he was already knowing its founder G.P. Malalasekhera very well. GP Malalasekhera was an internationalist and moved in many Buddhist circles. He wrote an influential track on "Buddhism and Race question", where he discussed the Caste question as well and was published by UNESCO in 1958.

Buddhist internationalism was always in the mind of Babasaheb Ambedkar as he firmly believed in the World Buddhist Mission in 1950. This means that Babasaheb Ambedkar has seen a great value in Buddhist internationalism and he was open to relate with Buddhists all over the world. Thus, we can see fourth strand in Babasaheb Ambedkar's scheme: Buddhist internationalism (fellowship of the Buddhists all over the world).

To summarize: 

1. Babasaheb Ambedkar brought his followers as close as possible to the teachings of Sakyamuni and encouraged study of Pali language to understand Pali Texts directly and for themselves

2. He invited them to study and learn from historical interaction of Buddhism with other hostile schools in the Indian Subcontinent and keeping interaction open for Buddhist Schools throughout the world. 

3. He encouraged his followers to engage with contemporary social, economic, and political problems with the tools of Buddhism. 

4. He was a Buddhist internationalist who promoted fellowship between the Buddhists all over the world. 

These four tracks that Babasaheb Ambedkar worked on remain important for not only future of Buddhism in India, but throughout the world.

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