The story so far: On October 5, Mission Jai Bhim and The Buddhist Society of India organised a public meeting in Delhi to commemorate Buddhist Conversion Day. Every year Dussehra is also celebrated as Ashoka Vijaya Dashami to commemorate Buddhist Conversion Day. On October 14, 1956, B. R. Ambedkar along with more than half a million followers embraced Buddhism in Nagpur, Maharashtra. This year, a Minister in the Aam Aadmi government in Delhi, Rajendra Pal Gautam, participated in the event in his personal capacity. Along with the thousands of people assembled, he recited the 22 vows, which is part of the ritual. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) objected to Mr. Gautam’s presence at the event and his recitation of the vows. He was accused of spreading anti-Hindu sentiments. The BJP sought the resignation of Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and following the uproar, Mr. Gautam resigned on October 9.
Are the 22 vows controversial?
Modern history has admired Ambedkar as a revolutionary social reformer. His writings on social questions offer deep intellectual and critical inquiry about the problems of an exploitative Hindu caste order. He wanted to end the inhuman practice of untouchability. His academic work is well-known for the scrutiny of Hindu philosophical texts. Though several nationalist leaders, including Gandhi, disagreed with Ambedkar, they accepted him as a committed leader who wanted to liberate socially marginalised communities from the stranglehold of caste.
Ambedkar opted for Buddhism for its rational and progressive values that challenge some of the fundamental beliefs of Hinduism. The 22 vows he delivered during the conversion ceremony initiated a radical escape for the convert from Hindu caste and cultural folds. The vows are divided into three major sections. In the first part, it pledges to refuse to worship the Hindu pantheon or to follow Hindu religious dogmas (vows no. 1, 2, 3, 5 and 21). Second, it challenges the authority of the Brahmin priest (vows no. 4, 6, 8 and 19). The rest promises to follow Buddhist principles.
What is Navayana Buddhism?
On October 13, 1935, Ambedkar, as president of the ‘Yeola Conversion Conference’ near Nasik, announced his decision to renounce Hinduism, as a path to contest the Hindu caste order. He asked the assembled members from the depressed castes to abandon struggles such as the temple-entry agitations and advised them to leave Hinduism entirely and embrace another religion. However, the decision to adopt Buddhism was not announced then. For the next two decades, Ambedkar was engaged in social and political deliberation to draft policies and find avenues for the emancipation of socially marginalised communities. The decision to embrace Buddhism arrived after a detailed contemplation of various religions to understand the suitability of each to liberate socially marginalised communities. He reached the conclusion that Buddhism is an appropriate choice as it had challenged the Brahmanical caste-based social hierarchies in the past; it focused on modern ethical values and a scientific temperament and preached peace and compassion for social coexistence. Ambedkar embraced Buddhism in a grand ceremony at Nagpur’s Deekshabhoomi, where more than five lakh followers had assembled to follow his decision. Under the presence of monk Chandramani, Ambedkar and his wife took the Buddhist vows. He then recited the three jewels (Trisharan), and five precepts (Panchsheel), pronounced the self-crafted 22 vows for the assembled people and renounced Hinduism. The event is marked as the renaissance of Buddhism in India. In the post-event deliberation, Ambedkar called his version of Buddhism Navayana (followers are called neo-Buddhists), differentiating it from the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions of Buddhism. Every year in October, lakhs of people assemble at Nagpur’s Deekshabhoomi to pay homage to Ambedkar and to celebrate the historic day.
What is the demographic status of neo-Buddhists in India today?
The Buddhist population is a mere 0.70%, of which 87% are neo-Buddhists. Further, a large majority of it (around 80%) reside in Maharashtra (5.8% of the total population). The rest are traditional Buddhists and are scattered mainly in north-eastern States like Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Tripura, etc. There has been a decline in the growth rate of Buddhists in India in recent years.
Also read: Re-evaluating the neo-Buddhist movement
The neo-Buddhists of Maharashtra have established numerous viharas and meditation centres, started social and educational institutions, initiated civil and cultural movements and also organised popular public festivals to make Buddhism a visible phenomenon in the State’s public sphere. However, it should be noted that it is mainly the Mahar caste that primarily converted to Buddhism. Some other communities, mainly the Matang castes and recently smaller sections within the Maratha castes, have also embraced Buddhism.
Harish S. Wankhede teaches at the Center for Political Studies, JNU
- On October 5, Mission Jai Bhim and The Buddhist Society of India organised a public meeting in Delhi to commemorate Buddhist Conversion Day. Every year Dussehra is also celebrated as Ashoka Vijaya Dashami to commemorate Buddhist Conversion Day
- Modern history has admired Ambedkar as a revolutionary social reformer. His writings on social questions offer deep intellectual and critical inquiry about the problems of an exploitative Hindu caste order
- On October 13, 1935, Ambedkar, as president of the ‘Yeola Conversion Conference’ near Nasik, announced his decision to renounce Hinduism, as a path to contest the Hindu caste order