A religious group that didn’t exist until 66 years ago is today 87% of the Buddhist population in India. It is remarkable what Ambedkarite Buddhism has grown into if you consider that it is as yet undefined and evolving.

Ambedkars Buddha and his Dhamma in 2022 Undefined and evolvingMass conversion at Deekshabhoomi in Nagpur.
Delve Religion Monday, October 31, 2022 - 16:59

A neo-Buddhist group from Tamil Nadu called The Buddhist Fraternity Movement is on a mission to unite Ambedkarite Buddhists in India under one umbrella organisation. Like Protestant Christians who are administered by the Church of North India (CNI) and Church of South India (CSI), they are trying to create a new administrative network: Buddhist Viharas of North India and Buddhist Viharas of South India. It is still an idea, and the name will be finalised if and when.

Bharathi Prabhu, the leader of the Buddhist Fraternity Movement, has spent several years leading the Revolutionary Students Front (RSF). It’s the students wing of Thol Thirumavalavan’s Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) which is in alliance with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government in Tamil Nadu. At the peak of the Rohith Vemula agitations in 2016, Bharathi was part of an unsuccessful attempt by leaders of various Ambedkarite students organisations to form a national federation. Although he is still the general secretary of the RSF on paper, the once powerful organisation has mostly disappeared from campuses even as its parent body shed radicalism for statecraft.

The rough and tumble of nearly two decades of agitations and Dalit activism, Bharathi said, has taught him that the Ambedkarite Buddhist movement is the only way forward in the anti-caste struggle. “The time has come to take Ambedkar’s Buddhism to the next level. For this, there has to be coordination between the north and the south,” he said when we met at Nanded in May this year on the sidelines of the historic conference between the Black Panthers of America and the Dalit Panthers of India.

Read: The Panthers growl again: A short memoir of a historic Dalit-Black conference

The Nanded conference was Bharathi’s first visit to Maharashtra and he was instantly struck by the power of the Ambedkarite Buddhist movement there. By the time we met again in Chennai in August, he had made two more visits during which he had managed to organise a national-level Ambedkarite artists workshop at Aurangabad by bringing together talent from across Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu.

(Bharathi Prabhu the head of the Buddhist Fraternity Movement discussing the path forward with Bhante Dhammasarathi the head of the Dr Ambedkar Buddhist Seminary in Nagpur. Picture by arrangement.)

(The Buddhist Fraternity Movement organised a national level Ambedkarite artists' workshop in Aurangabad on August 20 where a majority of the participants were from Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. Picture by arrangement.)

He said that, at Nanded, he also reconnected with Prashanth Ingole and Rahul Sonpimple, the student leaders with whom he tried to build a national federation. Ingole was part of the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA) batch that won the student body elections at the Gujarat Central University during the height of the nationwide student agitations in 2016. Sonpimple grabbed national attention the same year for the electric campaign he led in the Jawaharlal Nehru University(JNU) elections as part of Birsa Ambedkar Students Association (BAPSA), the first ever Ambedkarite organisation to do so in the Left-dominated campus. Ingole and Sonpimple, Bharathi said, were helping with networking in Maharashtra.

He couldn’t stop talking about Maharashtra and its Buddhist movement. “The Buddhist art in the Ajanta caves, the People’s Education Society in Aurangabad, Milind College. The institutions, the thousands of viharas, the anti-caste movement…and the headquarters, Nagpur!”

Bharathi was convinced that the path to uniting the north and south passed through the centre of India, Nagpur. “We have decided to felicitate 100 Ambedkarite graduates at a ceremony on October 16 at Deekshabhoomi in Nagpur. Education is the basic pillar of our national Ambedkarite Buddhist project,” he announced a few weeks after our Chennai meeting, “We will be collaborating with Buddhist groups in Nagpur.”

He said the groups in Nagpur that the student leaders had connected him to had responded enthusiastically to the idea of North-South chapters of Ambedkarite Buddhism: “A large crowd is expected. Tamil Ambedkarites meet Maharashtrian Ambedkarites. It will be historic!”

A mysterious source of power

The energy source that Bharathi is seeking has drawn generations of political leaders to Nagpur and Deekshabhoomi since Ambedkar chose it as the site to lead the first batch of six lakh former ‘untouchables’ into Buddhism on October 14, 1956. There have been many attempts over the decades to consolidate this energy, harness it into a single nationwide movement with a common charter. While none of them have succeeded, the movement has kept growing with each push.

The Buddhist revivalist movement started by Ambedkar at Nagpur, just two months before he passed away, has an almost mystical quality to it. Millions have been drawn to the new faith from different parts of India, over the last six decades without a star evangelist or head priest, without a central religious council, and without as much as a common gospel. "We are the descendants of Naga people who were Buddhist and who spread Buddhism throughout India. The Nagas were enemies of Aryans and they fought many wars against them," Ambedkar had declared at the event.

At no time is this mysterious power more apparent than in October every year when across the country a silent army suddenly rises, hundreds of thousands strong. They head to a Buddhist Stupa in the middle of a four-acre ground in the middle of India: Deekshabhoomi, Nagpur. Here, they take Ambedkar’s oath of 22 vows which are the foundation of the neo-Buddhist or Navayana Buddhist tradition started by him.

Of the 22 vows, eight openly denounce the Hindu religion and its deities. The conversion ceremony is held each year on the most auspicious day of the Hindu calendar, Vijayadashami. The site of this annual anti-Hindu event is just ten minutes away from the headquarters of the country’s most powerful Hindu nationalist organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Neither the RSS nor any other Hindutva outfit has ever dared to disrupt the annual conversion ceremony at Deekshabhoomi.

This year, a new record was set when 30 lakh people arrived at the Stupa on October 5 and 6 to take the 22 vows and commemorate the 66th anniversary of Ambedkar’s conversion. According to the Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Smarak Samiti, which maintains the Deekshabhoomi and conducts the conversion ceremony, the numbers are expected to more than double next year.

Debate, discussion and growth

Although some broad generalisations can be made to describe the people who turn up each year at Deekshabhoomi, they could not be more diverse. Is it a Dalit gathering? Mostly yes, but there are thousands of people from other marginalised communities too. Besides, you could offend a large population, particularly Maharashtrians, who do not like to be called Dalit and prefer to be known as Buddhist.

Most people would agree if you called the event ‘Dhamma Chakra Pravartan Din’ or conversion day. But many would be quick to add that it is also Ashoka Vijayadashami, which marks the day Mauryan emperor Ashoka is believed to have converted to Buddhism.

Is it a religious pilgrimage or a political gathering? It depends on who you ask and how you define religion and politics. So they are Ambedkarite Buddhists? Most would be OK with that term but some would be quick to correct it and say ‘Navayana Buddhists’ or neo-Buddhists. Then, there is a large section that also questions the term Navayana Buddhism.

(Navayana Buddhist ceremonies for Births, deaths, weddings and festivals are austere affairs without any fanfare. Here a couple gets married at the Indora Buddha Vihar in North Nagpur with only their immediate family in attendance. Picture by arrangement.) 

Suraj Kumar Bauddh, a Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) supporter and the founder of Mission Ambedkar from Uttar Pradesh, said that he is a staunch Buddhist as well as an Ambedkarite. The two are connected, according to him, but not the same. “What is Navayana? There is only Buddhism, which is an ancient eight-fold path shown by the Buddha made up of the four noble truths,” he said. He is among those Buddhists who feel that some people in Maharashtra place too much importance on the 22 vows of Ambedkar.

“We accept that Ambedkar was a Bodhisattva, which means he seeks enlightenment for the sake of all humanity. But he was not The Lord Buddha, he did not teach anything new. Many Maharashtrian Buddhists are not able to see this distinction. Ambedkar is important because he revived Buddhism in India but there is more to Buddhism than the 22 vows. The book The Buddha and his Dhamma by Ambedkar is just one of the many texts on Buddhism, it is not the only gospel. Deekshabhoomi is an important new addition to the Buddhist sites in India, it is the centre of the new wave. But the real spiritual centres for all Buddhists in the world are Lumbini, Gaya, Sarnath and Kushinagar,” he said.

For the neo-Buddhist movement to grow, Suraj Bauddh feels, the community must strengthen its religious core, go deeper into matters of faith. “Debate is the essence of Buddhist practice. Ambedkarite Buddhists hardly have any presence in the international theological forums such as the World Fellowship of Buddhists, where principles and practices of the faith are debated. The 22 vows are part of a new-age initiation ceremony. The Buddha and his Dhamma is an abridged beginner’s guide. They cannot substitute the entire faith.”

All said, a religious group that didn’t exist until 66 years ago, is today 87% of the Buddhist population in India which was once composed entirely of Buddhists from the Himalayan region. It is remarkable what it has grown into if you consider that it is as yet undefined and evolving. What is undisputed is that Deekshabhoomi is the headquarters and Nagpur is the nerve-centre that powers this revivalist movement.

Ravi Keerthi, a BSP activist from Mandya in Karnataka, helped coordinate accommodation for nearly 50,000 people from the southern state during their visit to Deekshabhoomi this year. “I could accommodate all of them in the city’s Buddhist viharas or in the houses of Nagpur’s Ambedkarite Buddhists. Nobody stayed in a hotel,” Keerthi told TNM when we visited Nagpur a week after Ashoka Vijayadashami. He described Nagpur as a training centre for Ambedkarite Buddhism. “When families from Karnataka stay in viharas and in people’s houses, they get a first-hand demonstration of Navayana Buddhist culture and spiritual practices. They take this learning back and help spread the faith further, " he said.

Ravi Keerthi could accommodate the pilgrims from Karnataka through a network of 200 Buddha viharas in North Nagpur. “There are more than 3,000 Buddha viharas in and around Nagpur, each serving a small community of devout families. Imagine the potential of this city,” he said. But he seemed sceptical when he heard about the plans to build a national level body based in Nagpur to coordinate matters relating to the faith. “There are just too many groups which are just too different from each other and I don’t know if they can be brought on a common platform.”

Is this a turning point?

What the Buddhist Fraternity Movement and their associates from Nagpur are trying to achieve — a national governing body for Navayana Buddhism — was already attempted by Ambedkar during his lifetime. More than a year before he led the mass conversion in Deekshabhoomi, Ambedkar set up the Bharatiya Bauddh Mahasabha in Mumbai. The organisation still survives but its leadership is bitterly disputed between Ambedkar’s family members.

There are also other organisations based in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar which claim to be national level governing bodies of Ambedkarite Buddhism. A large number of Dalits in north India also converted under the Triratna Buddha Mahasangha during the 1980s and 1990s. The Triratna Mahasangh is more inclined towards religious matters and not necessarily Ambedkarite in their ideology, although many prominent Ambedkarites are part of Triratna.

In South Asia, apart from Navayana or Ambedkarite Buddhism, there are two major branches of the religion, Theeravada in Sri Lanka and Mahayana in the Himalayan region. In the Ambedkarite movement, there is more acceptance for Theeravada which doesn't believe in the divinity of the Buddha and is considered more rationalist in approach.  The Buddhism practised in the Himalayas is considered highly problematic in Ambedkarite circles for its inclusion of Hindu gods and goddesses as well as Sanskritised practices. Untouchability and caste discrimination are still widely practiced by Himalayan Buddhists.

As the date for the Tamil-Marathi conclave at Deekshabhoomi neared, neo-Buddhist conversions suddenly started becoming a point of nationwide conversation. The buzz started not in Nagpur but from Delhi where a police complaint was lodged against Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) minister Rajendra Pal Gautam for administering the 22 vows to about 10,000 Dalits at a Buddhist conversion ceremony. The AAP leader, who was immediately isolated by his party and forced to resign from his minister post following the Hindutva backlash, refused to apologise and said that he was only observing the well-established practices of Navayana Buddhism.

As the controversy raged, reports started streaming in from different parts of the country of mass conversion ceremonies by Ambedkarite Buddhists —  Karnataka, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh. Some in the Ambedkarite movement wondered what the big deal was; these conversion ceremonies have been going on for decades. Others said they could sense something was different about the conversions this year.

Around the same time, another story broke from Nagpur that didn’t make national headlines but sent ripples in the Ambedkarite circles of the country. Waman Meshram, the president of BAMCEF (Backward and Minority Communities Employees Federation), had been arrested by the police to stop him from taking a protest rally of one lakh followers from Deekshabhoomi to the RSS headquarters during Vijayadashami. Waman, whose faction of the BAMCEF is one of the most well-funded and widely networked Ambedkarite organisations in the country since the 1970s, has never been known to take the Sangh Parivar head on.

Observers in Nagpur explained that Waman Meshram has been taking aggressive positions against Hindutva ever since he launched his political front, the Bharat Mukti Morcha, around five years ago. Given the spread and influence of the BAMCEF, which has thousands of government employees as members, Waman Meshram is going to be a person to watch out for in the coming days. Some expect him to follow in the footsteps of his mentor, Kanshi Ram, the founder of the BAMCEF and the BSP, who worked extensively in Maharashtra before expanding to Uttar Pradesh.

At the same time that the AAP leader was being attacked by Hindutva groups and Waman Meshram was being detained by the police, two of Maharashtra’s most prominent BJP leaders — Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis and Union Minister Nitin Gadkari —  were participating as chief guests at the Deekshabhoomi conversion ceremony. Fadnavis not only announced a grant of Rs 190 crore for the improvement of Deekshabhoomi but also hailed the 22 vows of Ambedkar in his speech. Gadkari too was effusive in his praise for Ambedkar and the Buddha.

 

It is not new for the Smarak Samiti that runs Deekshabhoomi to invite Hindutva leaders. Some observers take pride and say the presence of Hindutva leaders during the 22 vows indicates the Ambedkarite Buddhist movement’s power. There were those who said they enjoy the sight of Hindu leaders solemnly standing by when Dalits put up their biggest show of defiance. Others we spoke to felt that inviting Sangh leaders compromised the sanctity of the occasion. They saw it as a sign of the creeping influence of the Sangh on the Ambedkarite movement.

Sudhir Fulzele, the head of the Smarak Samiti, dismissed it as idle speculation and said, “Ashoka Vijayadashami is an official festival for the Ambedkarite Buddhist religion. The people’s representatives have to be invited and they have to turn-up as per their official commitment. Inviting them doesn't mean an endorsement of their political ideology. Don't BJP leaders attend Muslim festivals?”

It is actually strange that the Sangh has not targeted the Ambedkarite Buddhist movement more aggressively in all these years considering what Dhamma Chakra Pravartan Din actually stands for and the scale of the blasphemy that marks the day.

In search of a common minimum program

Two days before his big event, we tagged along as Bharathi Prabhu’s team held discussions with the man who is going to be key to his national designs — Ashok Saraswati Bouddh, the head of the Buddha Vihar Samanvay Samiti. Based in Nagpur, the Samanvay Samiti has been building a network of Ambedkarite Buddhist viharas in north India since 2014 and has members in 17 states. “Our part of the work has already started. You need to do a lot of work in the south,” Ashok told Bharathi.

Ashok explained to Bharathi's team that the Samanvay Samiti had succeeded in maintaining the network by evolving a common minimum program: “Our mission is to connect those who believe in Navayana Buddhism, subscribe to the 22 vows of Ambedkar and hold Ambedkar’s book The Buddha and his Dhamma to be the new testament of Buddhism that was written to remove the Brahminical influence that has corrupted the religion. In addition, we work to preserve the Pali language and teach it to children. The properties connected by our network are also used by travelling Buddhist monks.”

Bharathi agreed enthusiastically but said that organising in the south would be a very different challenge. “Pandit Iyothee Thass in Tamil Nadu was the first person to start a movement to convert ‘untouchables’ into Buddhism in the late 1800s. He said that Scheduled Castes were the original Dravidians and not Hindus. But Periyar’s rationalist movement and the Dravidian movement never allowed Buddhism to grow,” Bharathi said, to which Ashok immediately said, “No rationalists, no politics, this is a religious movement. No Periyar, no Dravidian ideology, only Ambedkar and Buddha.”

Ashok told Bharathi that Thol Thirumavalavan should do something like what Rajendra Pal Gautam did in Delhi. Bhararhi's explanation about the complications of anti-caste politics in Tamil Nadu was mostly lost in translation. Ashok would anyway have none of it. “Elected leaders from our community should show the way like Rajendra Pal. We are going to felicitate him tomorrow, he is coming to Nagpur,” he said, “You should all meet him.”

(AAP leader Rajendra Pal Gautham was mobbed every minute of his stay in Nagpur. Here is is being felicitated by cadres of the Samata Sainik Dal. Picture by arrangement.)

 

(Bharathi Prabhu managed to connect with AAP leader Rajendra Pal Gautham during his whirlwind tour of Nagpur. Picture by arrangement.)

Rajendra Pal’s Nagpur visit on October 15 was a dizzying affair. His act of resigning from his ministerial post, instead of apologising for participating in the conversion ceremony in Delhi, made him an instant hero in the Ambedkarite circles of Nagpur. He addressed multiple packed gatherings across the city and was mobbed every second of his stay.

“We did not take him very seriously when he first came here three months ago and said that he wants to convert 10 crore people to Buddhism by 2025 starting with a mass conversion in Delhi this year,” said Baban Chahande, a member of the Buddha Vihar Samanvay Samiti, “Today, he has become famous all over India as the face of the Ambedkarite Buddhist movement.”

Speaking to TNM, Rajendra Pal Gautam said, “People told me I am crazy for aiming to convert 10 crore people to Buddhism but look at what has happened. I wanted to start by converting only 10,000 people in Delhi, now nearly one lakh people have converted across the country as an act of defiance against the Hindutva forces that attacked me.” He said that the Buddha Vihar Samanvay Samiti headed by Ashok Bouddh is one of the many organisations  he is in touch with. “We are also coordinating with groups in the south to make this a truly national movement,” he said.

As he breezed through the Stupa at Deekshabhoomi, Ashok quickly introduced Rajendra Pal Gautam to Bharathi. “Oh Tamil Nadu, VCK?” Gautam said to him, “I met Thol Thirumavalavan in Delhi. He has offered our Buddhist movement a room in your party’s Delhi office. We will work together.” He was whisked away before Bharathi could explain his complicated relationship with the party which started as the Tamil chapter of the Dalit Panthers.

Living by the vows

There are sceptics of grand mass conversion programs who believe that rapid conversions dilute the precepts of the faith. “Our fight is against Hinduism, and Hindutva is just a small offshoot. The fact is that a majority of Dalits are still steeped in Hindu culture and practices. Taking the 22 vows is easier than living by them. The radical principles of Navayana are a culture shock for any new convert. The Buddhist value systems take time to sink in,” said Akash Moon, a lawyer practising in the Nagpur Bench of the Bombay High Court and the head of one of the city’s prominent factions of the Samata Sainik Dal (SSD).

The SSD or the Army of Soldiers for Equality, an organisation started by Ambedkar in 1924, is split into more than 20 factions in Maharashtra alone. Moon’s unit of the SSD conducts weekly Buddhist discourses along with parades and physical training for its cadre at Deekshabhoomi. “Our most difficult task is to find enough qualified Buddhist monks to hold discourses and conduct prayers, birth and death ceremonies. At least in Nagpur we have many viharas, in other states where mass conversions are happening, there are no common spaces for the community to congregate and practise the faith,” he said.

According to Amit Gadapayale, a prominent Buddhist leader in Nagpur and the head of the Indora Buddha Vihar in the north of the city, the RSS is allegedly working behind the scenes to infiltrate the Buddhist movement. He said there are mysterious groups of monks who have started visiting viharas in Nagpur and the larger Vidarbha region who refuse to say 'Jai Bhim', which is the most common greeting for people who follow the faith here. "They say Namo Buddhaya but don't say Jai Bhim. Most of them are from Bengal and nobody knows who is sending them here," he said. Many times in the last few years, fights have broken out in the viharas between these monks and Ambedkarite monks, he said. "The Bengali monks cook non-veg in the vihara, there have been fights over this too. Their customs are different," Gadapayale said, "More Hindu."

Early on October 16, Bharathi Prabhu and his team from Tamil Nadu looked tense as they put the final touches to the venue of their function at Deekshabhoomi. The turnout ended up being bigger than they had expected. Bharathi announced that the event would be held again the coming year with an even bigger delegation from the south. He said that the Buddhist Fraternity Movement will install a life-size statue of Ashoka at Deekshabhoomi during the next Graduates ceremony.

When all the guests had left, Bharathi Prabhu, Ashok Bouddh and their supporters sat around in a circle reflecting upon the day’s proceedings. Bharathi was already thinking about the next events and Ashok was more keen to discuss the common minimum program. "Yes, at the end of this month, we will have a national level meeting of Buddhist leaders in Bengaluru or Hyderabad. There we can discuss our common goals. Then in February we will have a mass event in Pune where we will unveil our charter," Bhararhi said even as a few people advised him to slow down a little.

(Ashok Saraswati Bouddh showed us photos from the last 40 years of his activism with his wife Pramila Chinchkhede, who is an Associate Professor of Chemistry. Picture by arrangement.)

As the discussion continued, somebody passed around one of the remaining copies of the book that had been gifted to all the graduates, The Buddha and his Dhamma. “Why is the cover blue? It should be the colour of the Buddhist robes, Kavi (ochre),” Ashok said. “Blue is the colour of Ambedkarites,” Bharathi said to which somebody from the Maharashtra group added, “The cover was blue when it was first printed by the Maharashtra government.” But Ashok was insistent. “Blue is political, Kavi is religious. Buddha and his Dhamma is a religious book,” he said, to which Bharathi said, "But Ambedkarite Buddhism is political." Deferring to his seniority, everybody piped down when Ashok said with an air of finality, "No, religion first."

Ashok Saraswati Bouddh is an elderly and well-known member of Nagpur’s Buddhist movement who has spent a tough 40-plus years in anti-caste activism. The story of the long and arduous journey that shaped him came through when we met him later at his home.

Ashok started as a full-timer with Kanshi Ram in the 1970s when he was still with the Republican Party of India and moved with him when he started the BSP. “I quit in 2003 when Mayawati showed support for Narendra Modi,” he said. After spending decades as a full-time activist, he didn’t know what to do with himself immediately after he quit the BSP until he found an outlet through singing keertans on the Buddha, Tukaram and Kabir. “I travelled all over the country doing keertans at Buddhist viharas and in people’s houses,” he said, “It brought my energy back."

The Khairlanji massacre in 2006 jolted him back to agitational politics and he joined one of the factions of the Republican Party of India. “The killing in Khairlanji and the response of the government needed a militant reaction. The RPI group I joined was slightly Left-oriented and believed in mobilising people from the grassroots for agitations,” he recalled, “I quit around 2013 when some Naxal sympathisers started joining the group.”

Ashok has been working on uniting Buddhists ever since. He feels that both the Left and the Hindu Right are trying to appropriate the Ambedkarite movement. “The problem of India is religion and communism or rationalism cannot solve this problem. Only religion can counter religion.”

Sudipto Mondal is the Executive Editor of The News Minute. He focuses on communalism, caste and corruption.