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Buddhadharma : Spring 2011
groups, who were well aware that Ambedkar’s conversion would bring along millions of untouchables and the promise of wide political power. In the late forties, he decided that Buddhism—which was indigenous to India and had been the defining religious tra- dition for nearly 1,500 years before being virtually eradi- cated—was the logical home for his people. “The teach- ings of Buddha are eternal, but even then Buddha did not proclaim them to be infallible,” Ambedkar wrote. “The religion of Buddha has the capacity to change according to times, a quality which no other religion can claim to have... Now what is the basis of Buddhism? If you study carefully, you will see that Buddhism is based on reason. There is an ele- ment of flexibility inherent in it, which is not found in any other religion.” Ambedkar’s plans for conversion were postponed while he served as India’s first law minister and leader of the constitu- tional drafting committee. Then, in the early fifties, setting aside his political career, he plunged into the study of Buddhism and its application to the shaping of a new Dalit identity. After long consideration and consultation, and in ill health, feeling the shadow of mortality, he converted in a public ceremony in Nagpur on October 14, 1956, taking the three refuges of the Buddha, dharma, and sangha, and receiving the pancasila, or five ethical precepts, from the most senior Buddhist monk in India, U Chandramani. He then did something unprecedented. Turning to the 400,000 of his followers who were present, he offered them the three refuges and his own twenty-two vows, which included the five precepts and the renunciation of specific articles of Hindu practice and belief. This signaled a momentous renewal of Buddhism in India. A number of mass conversions followed within weeks. Not quite two months later, Ambedkar was dead, felled by complications from diabetes and heart disease. The New Buddhist Movement and TBMSG The death of Ambedkar, or Babasaheb, as his devotees call him, left the nascent Dalit spiritual and political movement without unified leadership. It was not surprising to see the rapid rise of factionalism, given the entrenched system of graded inequality. No one else on the scene had the intellect and strength of character with which to unify the many out- cast communities. “People looked at Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar as a kind of guide or guru or philosopher who would lead them after conversion,” says Mangesh Dahiwale of the Manuski Center, an Ambedkarite hub in Pune. (Manuski is the Marathi word Ambedkar used for “humanity” or “humanness.”) Ambedkar’s book The Buddha and His Dhamma came out a year after his death. “It became a source to which people turned in order to understand Buddhism,” Dahiwale says. “It was published in English first, and soon translated into From the start, Ambedkar’s Buddhism incorporated a vision of a compassionate society and social liberation, far beyond the introspective caricature that some have of Buddhism. Mangesh Dahiwale, a young leader of the Manuski Project in Pune Dalit woman and son outside a shop in Pune buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly spRing 2 0 11 66