Sunday, 23 March 2008

New Buddhism for
New Aspirations
Navayana Buddhism of Ambedkar and
His Followers
 Virginia Hancock
Ambedkar wrote The Buddha
and His Dhamma with the
intent of creating a single
text for new Buddhists to read
and follow. His introduction outlines
four ways in which previous
understandings of Buddhist doctrine
are lacking:
 The Buddha could not have had
his first great realization simply
because he encountered an old
man, a sick man, and a dying man.
It is unreasonable and therefore
false to assume that the Buddha
did not have previous knowledge
of something so common.
 The Four Noble truths “make the
gospel of the Buddha a gospel of
pessimism.” If life is composed
entirely of suffering then there is
no incentive for change.
 The doctrines of no-soul, karma,
and rebirth are incongruous. It is
illogical to believe that there can be
karma and rebirth without a soul.
 The monk’s purpose has not
been presented clearly. Is he
supposed to be a “perfect man”
or a “social servant”?
As these rather sweeping
critiques of Buddhism suggest,
Ambedkar was comfortable in the
role of consciously restructuring his
chosen religion to meet the needs of
the Dalit community he spoke for.1
Several scholars have remarked
upon and analyzed this aspect of
This article begins with an overview of Navayana Buddhism from two perspectives, that of
Ambedkar himself, based on his “Buddhist gospel” The Buddha and His Dhamma, and that of
practioners in Maharashtra, based available academic scholarship. In the case of Ambedkar’s
understanding of Buddhism, I will focus mostly on the changes he made to more traditional
presentations of Buddhism.
In the case of Maharashtran practitioners, I will attempt to draw some broad conclusions
about their relationship to this relatively new religion. The centrality of the figure of Ambedkar
in Navayana Buddhism, as well as Navayana Buddhist’s lack of conformity with Ambedkar’s
understanding of Buddhist principles as articulated in The Buddha and His Dhamma, will
guide me in my conclusions about the ways outside observers might want to move forward
in the study of this relatively new religion.
No.145 18
N a v a y a n a
Buddhism. For
example, Adele
Fiske and
C h r i s t o p h
E m m r i c h
undertook a
detailed analysis
of Ambedkar’s use of the traditional
Buddhists texts in Pali in writing The
Buddha and His Dhamma.2 Fiske
and Emmrich examined Ambedkar’s
references in the original version of
The Buddha and His Dhamma and
describe patterns of alteration from
the presentation of Buddhism in the
Pali canon that they characterize as
omission, change in emphasis and
changed meaning through
interpolation or interpretation.3
Following are examples of the
type of changes Ambedkar made to
traditional presentations of the
Buddha’s teachings and the way in
which these changes might support
Dalit activism.
Ambedkar’s first major
reinterpretation involves the
Buddha’s reununciation of worldly
life. Whereas traditional biographies
of the Buddha emphasize the
empathy the young prince felt when
he first encountered human
sufferring, Ambedkar highlights the
strength of the Buddha’s social
conscience during a conflict over
water rights. According to
Ambedkar, the Buddha advocated a
rational and peaceful resolution of
an inter-tribe water conflict but was
unable to gain the necessary political
leverage because he lacked majority
vote. He then went into exile and
became a renunciant because it was
the only way to prevent his tribe
from going to war with their
neighbors. Ambedkar omits any
mention of old age, sickness, and
death (the forms of suffering the
Buddha is usually understood to
have encountered). In this way the
Buddha’s renunciation is motivated
more by political exigencies rather
than a desire to find the ultimate truth,
and he becomes a figure not unlike a
minority politician in contemporary
India. The discussion of water rights
was also a familiar topic after the
Mahad Satyagraha. These changes,
though unorthodox, create a
character for the Buddha that might
be easily understood by oppressed
communities, specifically Dalits.
The Four Noble Truths
Ambedkar interprets the Four
Noble truths similarly. His
description of the first sermon at Deer
Park follows:
“The centre of his Dhamma is
man and the relation of man to man
in his life on earth. This [the Buddha]
said was his first postulate. His
second postulate was that men are
living in sorrow, in misery and
poverty. The world is full of suffering
and how to remove this suffering
from the world is the only purpose
of Dhamma. Nothing else is Dhamma.
The recognition of the existence of
suffering and to show the way to
remove suffering is the foundation
and basis of his Dhamma…A
religion which fails to recognise this
is no religion at all…The Buddha
then told them that according to his
Dhamma if every person followed (1)
the Path of Purity; (2) the Path of
Righteousness; and (3) the Path of
virtue, it would bring about the end
of all suffering.”4
Ambedkar makes several
obvious changes to early Buddhist
doctrine. The first Noble Truth that
life is suffering becomes the “second
postulate,” and the most important
characteristic of Buddhism becomes
its concern for human relationships.
The second Noble Truth, that
suffering arises from mental craving,
is also described in social terms as
“sorrow, misery and poverty.” In
turn he refers to the third Noble Truth
regarding the cessation of suffering
as the “removal of suffering.”
Christopher Queen’s detailed
analysis of Ambedkar’s presentation
of the Four Noble Truths reveals still
more ways in which they have been
altered to create a message of social
activism. Queen notes that as the
Buddha’s teachings continue it
becomes clear that the Path of Purity
is the Five Precepts, the Path of
Righteousness is the Eightfold Path,
and the Path of Virture is the Ten
Paramitas, or perfections.5 Yet
Ambedkar does not present any of
these concepts in their traditional
format. The goal of the Eightfold
Path, for example, is “to remove
injustice and inhumanity that man
does to man,” rather than nirvana.6
Nirvana itself is then described as:
(1) a fundamental understanding
(In Ambedkar’s view)
Buddha’s renunciation
is motivated more by
political exigencies rather
than a desire find the
ultimate truth and he
becomes a figure
not unlike a minority
politician in
contemporary India.
(Ambedkar’s) Eightfold
Path, for example, is
to remove injustice and
inhumanity that man
does to man...there
is a distinct element
of anti-Brahmanism
in Ambedkar’s
rendering of the
Four Noble Truths.
No.145 19
“that there was
suffering in the
world, and (2) a
p r o a c t i v e
knowledge of
“how to remove
this suffering
and make
m a n k i n d
Buddhism and the Caste
These changes speak specifically
to Dalits in a number of ways. First,
there is a distinct element of anti-
Brahmanism in Ambedkar’s rendering
of the Four Noble Truths. “Nothing
else is Dhamma,” he states, and “a
religion which fails to recognize this
is no religion at all.” Although
Ambedkar does not criticize other
religions in this section—as he does
in other chapters of the book—this
and other statements bear close
resemblance to his earlier attack on
Hinduism. Here, Ambedkar again
legitimizes the use of Buddhism to
oppose traditions that are
unsatisfactory. Second, as Queen
notes, Ambedkar seems to believe
that the traditional presentation of
suffering—which places the “blame”
on the cravings of each individual—
would alienate Buddhism from the
socially and politically oppressed.8
Thus suffering is described in
transitory, but more graphic, terms
as “sorrow”, “misery”, and
“poverty.” These largely social
conditions are remedied quite
differently from the traditional
Buddhist understanding of suffering
as an intricate network of mental
cravings. This change also speaks
of the fact that the traditional focus
on craving might have lent itself to
manipulation by people in power,
who could advocate renunciation
instead of response to the materially
based claims of the dispossessed.
Third, by placing the Four Noble
Truths, the Eightfold Path, and the
Ten Perfections in a social context
he provides religious justification for
peoples’ social movements. Lastly,
and perhaps most importantly, his
definition of nirvana is not only
easily understandable but also
theoretically attainable within a
single lifetime.
Concept of Rebirth and the
Role of the Monk
Ambedkar’s explanation of
karma and rebirth further legitimizes
both the source and the goal of social
action. He defends the concept of
rebirth but changes the concept of
the soul. Each time a person is reborn
his or her soul is divided and
recombined with parts of many other
peoples’ souls. There is thus no
single soul that is reborn over and
over again.9 In this way Ambedkar
establishes that there is no
inheritance of traits from one lifetime
to the next—a direct rebuttal to the
widespread views of caste. This in
turn negates the idea that current
social injustices are a result of past
misdeeds and assures Dalit converts
that their new framework does not
contain the possibility for religiously
sanctioned hierarchy. He also
explains that karma works only
within one lifetime and cannot affect
future lives.10 A this-worldly
emphasis on karma gives added
significance to societal changes, as
each life is now a unique and
unrepeatable opportunity for change
and growth. Whereas traditional
conceptions of karma and rebirth
render material changes insignificant
on a cosmological scale, Ambedkar’s
reinterpretation implies that such
changes actually have ultimate
importance. In this way oppressed
peoples are vindicated in their sense
of social outrage and are informed
once again of the importance of
political or social struggle.
Ambedkar’s reinterpretation of
the role of the monk provides a final
illustration that Buddhism takes a
proactive stance towards radical
change. Monks should not be
content merely to serve society—
they are instead the active
participants and creators of history.
He writes that the bhikkhu’s duties
are to proselytize for Buddhism and
serve the laity. The bhikkhu is
commanded specifically to “fight to
spread Dhamma.”11 “We wage war,
O disciples, therefore we are called
warriors.” Ambedkar’s Buddha tells
his disciples, “Where virtue is in
danger do not avoid fighting, do not
be mealy-mouthed.”12 Monks are not
hermetic ascetics who are focused
on the attainment of otherworldly
states. Rather they constitute the
driving force behind a revolution in
mind and body.
Ambedkar establishes
that there is no
inheritance of traits
from one lifetime to the
next—a direct rebuttal
to the Gandhian view
of caste. This in turn
negates the idea that
current social injustices
are a result
of past misdeeds.
Ambedkar’s Buddha tells
his disciples, “Where
virtue is in danger do not
avoid fighting, do not be
mealy-mouthed.” Monks
are not hermetic ascetics
who are focused on
the attainment of
otherworldly states.
No.145 20
Ambedkar’s Buddhism in
The Buddhism
one finds in daily
life and practice
can differ
significantly from
the principles
described in The
Buddha and his
Dhamma.13 These
differences vary according to
location andsocioeconomicsituation
and range from minute
reinterpretations to fundamental
contradictions. Polarizing concepts
include karma, rebirth, dharma,
meditation, spirituality, materialism,
politics, individuality and social
action. Varying social categories
include the urban, rural, educated,
uneducated, and in many cases, old
and young. Thus, on the one hand
forms of Navayana Buddhist practice
can differ from each other quite
significantly in terms of both form and
content. This will be illustrated
through a simple comparison
between certain studies of rural
Buddhists and members of the
TBMSG. On the other hand, the
figure of Ambedkar provides a clear
and unifying link between different
Buddhist practitioners.
Buddhism in Two Rural
Two studies of rural villages in
Maharashtra show that differences
between Navayana Buddhism and
Ambedkar’s understanding of
Buddhism can stem more from the
inevitable overlap of religion and
culture than from the type of
conscious religious reconstruction
that Ambedkar engaged in. One must
not extrapolate their conclusions onto
the rest of the Navayana Buddhist
community; however the picture
presented is useful in gaining a sense
she documents the persistence of
traditional Hindu concepts of karma,
dharma, and the transmigration of the
Burra characterizes the religious
practice of rural Mahars as
fundamentally Hindu with a Buddhist
exterior. For example, she describes
how the premarriage activities of the
Mahars are still Hindu (one example
is matching horoscopes), yet the
marriage ceremony itself consists of
placing garlands over the bride and
groom as they stand in front of
pictures of Ambedkar and the
Buddha.19 This dichotomy between
private Hindu practice and public
Buddhist practice marks other rituals
as well.
At the same time, Burra notes that
Navayana Buddhists now participate
with great enthusiasm in Hindu
festivals and ceremonies that were
previously forbidden to them.20 This
and other positive changes leave her
with the conclusion that the Dalit
Buddhist movement is a “symbol of
identity transformation” rather than
a true religious conversion.21 “The
Buddhist identity is important mainly
for the outside world,” she writes,
“There is an attempt to emphasize
one’s distinctiveness and this is
achieved by different methods. The
inner core may remain Hindu but this
in no way reflects a betrayal of the
cause.”22 Thus rural Dalit Buddhist
practice is distinguished from other
forms of Buddhism primarily by its
continued reliance on Hindu themes
and rituals.23
This seems to suggest that the
many radical departures from
Ambedkar’s message are caused by
a blurred distinction between Hindu
culture and Indian culture. Even the
beginning of Ambedkar’s political
career was marked by ambivalence
about what constitutes Hinduism
of the range of Navayana Buddhist
For example, Timothy Fitzgerald
concludes that although rural
Mahars have begun to refuse to
perform traditional duties such as
scavenging and have given up the
practice of eating beef, their
recognition and practice of sub-caste
hierarchy and untouchability, lack of
intercaste marriage, and worship of
Hindu gods and goddesses is
evidence that they practice “the kind
of Buddhism which has not really
changed anybody or anything very
Neera Burra’s study of village life
provides different detail. She notes
that although 70 out of the 102
respondents to her research
questionnaire classified themselves
as Buddhist, none of them had taken
Ambedkar’s 22 vows.15 She argues
that this reflects both a lack of
knowledge about the vows and a
general hesitancy to take oaths that
characterizes rural society.16
Additionally, there were statues of
Hindu gods and goddesses—
alongside pictures of Ambedkar and
the Buddha—in every household she
visited.17 Over half of the people she
interviewed said that they prayed to
all gods, including Hindu deities, and
Dalit Buddhist movement
is a “symbol of identity
transformation” rather
than a true
religious conversion.
“The Buddhist identity
is important mainly for
the outside world,”...The
inner core may remain
Hindu but this in no
way reflects a betrayal
of the cause.”
No.145 21
and what
c o n s t i t u t e s
I n d i a n
culture.24 For
example he
a l b e i t
marginally, in a
temple entry
campaign—even as he denounced
Brahmans and traditional Hindu
religiosity in writings such as
Annihilation of Caste. It should
therefore come as no surprise that
some rural Buddhists have used their
newfound self-confidence to engage
in traditionally Hindu forms of
worship, as many societal roles that
are available for reclamation are also
related to Hinduism in some way.
International Linkages
The TBMSG is the Indian branch
of the international Buddhist
organization named the Friends of
the Western Buddhist Order
(FWBO), founded in London by
Sangharakshita in 1967. The FWBO
describes its purpose as “return[ing]
to the basic principles of Buddhism
and find[ing] ways of living them out
in the context of the modern
West.”25 The FWBO became
involved in the Indian Buddhist
movement, particularly in
Maharashtra, when several members
of its order came to India to teach
Buddhism in the late 1970’s. The
TBMSG now has twenty centres
located throughout India and runs a
network of social services
Fitzgerald goes so far as to assert
that Buddhists who are associated
with the TBMSG represent the more
“spiritual” side of Navayana
Buddhism.26 Their interpretation of
Buddhism is compatible with
Ambedkar’s because it emphasizes
rationality, moral action, and social
reform. However, the TBMSG strives
for total political nonpartisanship
and many of its members view
nirvana not in materialist terms but
as a transcendent state of awareness.
Johannes Beltz’ study of the
TBMSG in Maharashtra provides
more information on the type of
Buddhism that Fitzgerald seems to
be describing. He interviewed
several members of the TBMSG at a
retreat center outside Pune, many of
who described a Buddhist message
of increased spirituality. For example,
one practitioner explained:
“I was born Buddhist. But in
reality, no one can be Buddhist
without practicing the dhamma. To
be Buddhist from birth is not
possible…I took refuge in the
Buddha, the dhamma, and the
sangha. I think that I am on the path
of the Buddha. I want to become a
dhammamitra (a lay leader in the
TBMSG). A Buddhist is more than a
physical man. He is spiritual…I
would like to become 100%
Another told him:
“I consider myself Buddhist
because I believe not in God but in
humanity. I practice Buddhism. I
want to positively develop my
personality and help
others…Through meditation, we
augment our state of consciousness
to become better men.”28
These statements embody the
spirituality and humanism of
Buddhism as envisioned by
Sangharakshita, the founder of the
FWBO. Meditation lies at the center
of individual practice, and only
through knowing oneself does one
enter a state where he or she truly
begins to help others. In addition,
these practitioners negate a
materialistic understanding of the
world. “A Buddhist is more than a
physical man,” one states, “He is
spiritual.” This explains why “no one
can be Buddhist without practicing
the dhamma”: meditation and action
are two aspects of the same teaching,
and to engage in one without the
other is, according to the TBMSG,
to ignore the meaning of Buddhism.
Several of the individuals Beltz
interviewed also made a distinction
between “Dalit Buddhists” who do
not practice and “real Buddhists”
who do. “The Dalit movement
results in bad social conditions for
untouchables,” one dhammachari
asserts, “It is for politics. The Dalit
movement does not have a positive
approach to Buddhism…My
personal experience is different. I
have developed my personality. I do
not call myself Dalit. I consider
myself Buddhist.”29 An employee at
the University of Pune went so far
as to state, “The leaders of the Dalit
movement are selfish and corrupt.
They are demagogues and want to
suppress other currents of Buddhist
thought. They waste a lot of energy,
time, and money…The TBMSG
serenely runs the Buddhist
movement and continues the
work of Dr. Ambedkar with
respect….There is no love between
the activists.”30
Victory over Caste
The disparate practices of some
Maharashtran Buddhists offer a
cautionary statement for those who
may be eager to equate Ambedkar’s
thinking about Buddhism directly
with that of Dalit communities.
Ambedkar, Ambedkar’s Buddhism,
and Buddhist communities are
merely the loci for numerous personal
and communal interactions that
comprise the forms of Navayana
Buddhism. In theory, The Buddha
and His Dhamma would serve as the
philosophical, ideological, and
religious template for Buddhists, and
my own experiences with Navayana
No.145 22
Buddhists in
New Delhi
would suggest
that this is
i n d e e d
possible. As D.
C. Ahir states,
“The Buddha
and His
Dhamma is a true guide for all the
Buddhists. It is the best basis for
propagating the Dhamma, at least in
India”.31 There are plausible models
that would explain how a narrative
text such as The Buddha and His
Dhamma could become the “just
governance” for society that
Ambedkar holds a good religion
should be.32 However, the above
review of scholarship suggests that
The Buddha and His Dhamma does
not occupy a central place in all
Navayana Buddhists’ lives.
Given the differences in
Navayana Buddhist practice, how
are we to understand the religion as
a whole? The element of Navayana
Buddhism that seeks to separate
itself from Hinduism provides one
link between an uninformed
adoption of Buddhism and an
almost instantaneous increase in
self-esteem and perception of selfworth.
Even if converts do not
remember each of Ambedkar’s
twenty-two vows, for example, they
are bound to remember the central
theme of rejection of Hinduism.
Thus many Dalit Buddhists
understand what Buddhism is not
before they focus on what it is. The
conversion experience can be
powerful because the ideological
victory over caste is expressed in
concrete actions on the part of the
At the same time, however, the
shift away from the Hindu caste
system is highly nuanced. As
Burra’s study shows, the Mahar
rejection of caste does not always
entail rejection of Hindusim. When
the rural Buddhist she studied align
themselves with Buddhism they
An Exemplary Prophet
Lynch’s interest lies in
investigating why and how
Ambedkar, a Mahar, was so fully
accepted and integrated into Jatav
culture. To this end, he provides
several comparisons between Jatav
myths of origin and a new “myth of
origin” that was presented by
Ambedkar. He views Ambedkar as a
Weberian “exemplary prophet” who
has now become the “chief hero” of
the myth that he himself created.33
Lynch seems to imply that the entire
“Neo-Buddhist myth” is
encapsulated by Ambedkar’s
explanation of the origins of the
caste system and the way in which
Dalits ended up at its bottom. This
would not hold true for other
Buddhist communities such as the
TBMSG, however.
Alternatively, what if the figure
of Ambedkar is the defining element
of Navayana Buddhism? Even such
differing communities as the rural
Buddhists examined and the TBMSG
share their veneration for him. A
public debate between Gopal Guru,
a Buddhist and professor at the
University of Pune, and
Dhammacari Lokamitra, a member of
the TBMSG, supports this
hypothesis. Though these men
articulated very different opinions
about the relative weight of the
“spiritual” versus the “political”
aspects of Buddhism, they both
returned to Ambedkar for
justification of their arguments.
Lokamitra wrote, “I am afraid the
project Gopal Guru is talking about
is not that of Ambedkar but of those
who have attempted to use
Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism
to serve their own political ends”.34
Guru offered the following rejoinder:
“Lokamitra and his TBMSG are free
to sell their package of spiritual
Buddhism and synthesise it with
adopt a new social and
psychological paradigm that can
often be characterized foremost by
the victory of equality over caste;
only secondary is the victory of
Buddhist practice over Hindu
As another possibility, Owen
Lynch has applied an academic
understanding of myth to the
development of Navayana
Buddhism. He uses it to explain the
way that Ambedkar became a cultural
hero and icon of Buddhism for the
Jatavs in Agra, a group that has
significant linguistic and cultural
differences from the Mahars. He
suggests that there is a “Neo-
Buddhist” myth that provides
motivation and strategy for the
community it serves.
Even if converts did not
remember...many Dalit
Buddhists understand
what Buddhism is not
before they focus on
what it is.
Mahar rejection of
caste does not always
entail rejection of
Hindusim... they adopt
a new social and
psychological paradigm
that is characterized
foremost by the victory of
equality over caste; only
secondary is the victory of
Buddhist practice over
Hindu practice.
No.145 23
anything but
not with
Ambedkar ’s
B u d d h i s m .
Because it does
not allow such
Both judged the
o t h e r ’ s
reasoning as flawed specifically on
the grounds that it represents a
misinterpretation of Ambedkar’s
message. As Guru acknowledged, he
was bothered not so much by the
TBMSG’s false Buddhist doctrine as
he is by the fact that it has been
associated with Ambedkar.
Ambedkar’s figure fills in the
gaps that are left by the explanations
of origin and anti-Brahmanism. He is
the inspiration, motivation, and
justification for the Dalit Buddhist
movement. His life illustrates the
possibilities of the future, and since
his death those possibilities have
become the center of much of
contemporary Navayana Buddhism.
Ambedkar is in this view both
founder and standard-bearer of
contemporary Navayana Buddhism.
Evaluation and Conclusions
In 1956 Dr. B. R. Ambedkar led
over 50,000 Dalits in a mass
conversion to Buddhism. This act
was the first of many mass
conversions of low cast Hindus to
Buddhism. Today estimates range
from between three million and ten
million Buddhists in India, most of
whom are Dalit.36
For years there was little
scholarly material on Buddhism and
the Ambedkarite movement, save a
few examples such as the pioneering
work of the American historian
Eleanor Zelliot.37 Contrast this with
a recent conference on Indic
Religions in New Delhi held by the
International Association of the
History of Religions, where there
were two entire panels composed of
academics prepared to speak of their
research on the subject “Dalits and
Buddhism.” “Navayana”, “Dalit”,
or “Ambedkarite” Buddhism
(depending on who is speaking) is
also actively discussed by the
worldwide “engaged Buddhist”
community. The intellectual
discourse surrounding Ambedkar’s
understanding of Buddhism and
those who follow in his footsteps
has now grown to the point where it
is able to have a fruitful dialogue
even within itself.38
In turn, at this point it may be
useful for outside observers of
Navayana Buddhism to begin to
consider not only what Navayana
Buddhism is but also how and why
we should examine it.
First, a discussion of Navayana
Buddhist texts or canon must include
all of Ambedkar’s writing, not just
The Buddha and His Dhamma, as a
starting point. As the above
examples highlight, Ambedkar’s life
is usually viewed as the embodiment,
rather than the vehicle, of the
Buddha’s teachings. In theory,
Ambedkar’s significance leads to the
logical conclusion that, just as most
Buddhists’ veneration of Ambedkar
is not limited to the events
surrounding his conversion, so too
the texts which are understood as
contributing to Navayana Buddhism
should not be limited to The Buddha
and His Dhamma. In practice, many
Buddhists already impart religious
significance to Ambedkar’s other
political and sociological works. This
is readily apparent in D.C. Ahir’s
commentary on the Round Table
Conference, for example, which views
Ambedkar’s comments as the
embodiments of the principle of
Right Speech.39
Clearly this inclusive approach
may have its limits. Are we to view
Ambedkar’s doctoral dissertation at
Columbia as religious texts? Likely
not. Nor do I propose to delineate
here between those texts that should
be included in a Navayana Buddhist
canon and those that should not.
Rather this should be understood as
an idea to generate discussion and a
helpful approach to the study of
Ambedkar’s Navayana Buddhism. I
believe, however, that Buddhist
practitioners will ultimately be the
final arbiters in this matter.
Second, where are the studies of
urban, often professional, Navayana
Buddhists and the corresponding
surge in online Navayana Buddhist
communities? In New Delhi, for
example, I came to know several
Buddhists whose meditation
practice and highly informed
understanding of Ambedkar and
Buddhism bears little resemblance to
the conversions described in some
studies of rural Buddhists. There is
a need for scholarship of these
thriving Navayana Buddhist
communities among those who do
research in Marathi and Hindi. There
are also online forums for Navayana
Buddhists and websites on Dalit
rights that would provide valuable
material for those doing work in
Third, an attempt to describe
Navayana Buddhism through appeal
to the “essential” elements of
Buddhism that may exist in early texts
must be considered carefully. Surely
there are continuities between
traditional understandings of
Buddhism and Ambedkar’s
reinterpretation, but whether or not
these constitute some “essential”
Buddhism to be passed down from
movement to movement is unclear.
Furthermore, stressing this aspect of
Ambedkar’s writing when analyzing
it in the context of other Buddhist
traditions may be overly limiting. This
No.145 24
is not to deny
the importance
of showing that
Ambedkar ’s
is, in many
w a y s ,
legitimate from
the standpoint
of the Buddha’s teachings. Such a
project is a necessary part of
religious dialogue and
reinterpretation. However, one must
not lose sight of the “essential”
Navayana when determining its
relationship to “essential”
Buddhism. In this sense it would be
a shame if we fail to capitalize on its
most salient characteristic: a
confident and rational departure
from inherited patterns of thought.
Finally,the study of Navayana
Buddhism needs to be as
interdisciplinary as possible. Why
limit the study of Navayana
Buddhism to certain disciplines
when Ambedkar himself was
unencumbered by the traditional
boundaries between political,
personal, and spiritual
empowerment? The modern
Buddhist movement in India may be
as fundamentally related to
economics and development as it is
to politics and religion. Take, for
example, Amartya Sen’s well-known
Development as Freedom. Seen in
this light, Ambedkar’s project might
be understood as a project of human
development through religious
Focusing for a moment on the
subject of religion and development,
two additional suggestions can be
made. First, those who wish to study
development in India might take the
impact of Navayana Buddhism into
account. Has conversion had a
significant material impact on
practitioners’ lives and if so, how?
Given the fact that Ambedkar’s view
of religious conversion is integrally
tied to his goals of social
identity as Dalit and the past and
present connotations that are
associated with this. Although thus
far the body of writing that examines
Ambedkar and Navayana Buddhism
has been a positive development
with respect to Navayana Buddhism,
perhaps now is a good time to
remind ourselves that we must be
careful not to intellectualize
Navayana Buddhism to the extent
that we lose sight of the fact that it is
fundamentally a religion by and for
the politically and socially
This paper was presented at the First
Conference on Religions in the Indic
Civilisation organised in Delhi by
CSDS and IAHR from December
18-21, 2003
1 See Christopher Queen, “Dr.
Ambedkar and the Hermeneutics of
Buddhist Liberation,” in Engaged
Buddhism: Buddhist Liberation
Movements in Asia, Ed. Christopher
S. Queen and Sallie B. (State
University of New York Press 1996),
45 for a useful analysis of Ambedkar
as a modern or postmodern man.
2 See Adele Fiske and Christoph
Emmrich, “The use of Buddhist
Scriptures in B. R. Ambedkar’s The
Buddha and His Dhamma”, in
Surendra Jondhale and Johannes Beltz,
eds., Reconstructing the World: B. R.
Ambedkar and Buddhism in India
(Oxford University Press 2004). See
also Queen 48, and Richard Taylor,
“The Ambedkarite Buddhists,” in
Ambedkar and the Neo-Buddhist
Movement, Ed. T.S. Wilkinson and M.
M. Thomas (Christian Literature
Society 1972), 148.
3 Fiske and Emmrich, 10.
4 B. R. Ambedkar, “The Buddha and His
Dhamma,” in Dr. Babasaheb
Ambedkar Writings and Speeches, Vol.
XXI, Comp. Vasant Moon (Education
Department of Maharashtra 1992),
at 121-122.
5 Queen, 56.
6 See Queen, at 57.
7 Ibid.
We must be careful not
to intellectualize
Navayana Buddhism to
the extent that we lose
sight of the fact that is
fundamentally a religion
by and for the politically
and socially oppressed.
One must not lose sight
of the “essential”
Navayana when
determining its relationship
to “essential” Buddhism.
Its most salient
characteristic is a
confident and rational
departure from inherited
patterns of thought.
empowerment for Dalits, it seems like
a missed opportunity not to consider
this religious movement within the
greater scheme of Indian
development. This may be true
despite the oft-prevailing view of
religion as an anathema to
progressive societal transformation.
Second, the context in which
Navayana Buddhist practice takes
place must not be forgotten by
outside observers. The picture of
human development for Dalits in
India is stark. Although I would
hesitate before projecting bleak
contours on the lives of all Navayana
Buddhist communities, it does seem
safe to assert that this is at least the
general context in which they live,
and that even if many Navayana
Buddhists who are Dalits have
gained upward social mobility they
are still aware of their distinct
No.145 25
8 Queen, 59.
9 Ambedkar, 333.
10 Ambedkar, 340.
11 Ambedkar, 447.
12 Ibid.
13 Note that the bulk of the research for
this paper was completed between May
2000 and May 2001. Although I think
the main conclusions still hold, there
may be scholarship that is not included
here and which would add additional
nuance to the picture portrayed.
14 Timothy Fitzgerald, “Buddhism in
Maharashtra: a Tri-Partite Analysis—
A Research Report,” in Dr. Ambedkar,
Buddhism, and Social Change, Ed.
A.K. Narain and D. C. Ahir (B. R.
Publishing Corporation 1994), 20.
15 Neera Burra, “Buddhism, Conversion
and Identity: A Case Study of Village
Mahars”, in Caste: Its 20th Century
Avatar, ed. M.N. Srinivas (Penguin
India 1997), 160.
16 Ibid.
17 Ibid., 161.
18 Ibid., 161-62.
19 Ibid., 165.
20 Ibid., 166.
21 Ibid., 168.
22 Ibid.
23 Fitzgerald, 20.
24 See Gauri Viswanathan, Outside the
Fold: Religion, Modernity and
Belief (Princeton University Press
1998), 235.
25 Friends of the Western Buddhist Order,
“The FWBO and the Buddhist
Tradition”, available at http://
26 Ibid., 23.
27 Johanez Beltz, “Spiritualiser le
Dhamma? L’implantation Contestee
du Trailokya Bauddha Mahasangha en
Inde,” Asiatische Studien Etudes
Asiatiques 4 (1997),1055-1072.
28 Ibid., 1063.
29 Ibid., 1065.
30 Ibid., 1066.
31 D. C. Ahir, Buddhism and Ambedkar,
(Dalit Sahitya Prakashan 1990), 110.
32 Charles Hallisey and Anne Hansen, for
example, provide a useful framework
for understanding the inner moral
transformation that result from
repeated exposure to the Jataka tales.
They hold that narrative has the
unique ability to “prefigure,”
“configure”, and eventually
“transfigure” moral life. See Charles
Hallisey and Anne Hansen,
“Narrative, Sub-Ethics, and the Moral
Life,” Journal of Religious Ethics 24.2
(Fall 1996), 323.
33 Owen Lynch, “Dr. B. R. Ambedkar—
Myth and Charisma,” The
Untouchables in Contemporary India,
Ed. J. Michael Mahar (The University
of Arizona Press 1972), 110.
34 Dhammachari Lokamitra,
“Ambedkar and Buddhism,” Economic
and Political Weekly May 18, 1991,
35 Gopal Guru, “Appropriating
Ambedkar”, Economic and Political
Weekly, July 6-13, 1991, 1699.
36 See Friends of the Western Buddhist
Order, “Reviving Buddhism in India”,
available at
37 See Eleanor Zelliot, From
Untouchable to Dalit: Essays on the
Ambedkar Movement, 3rd edition
2001, Manohar, New Delhi. I also
would like to thank Professor Zelliot
for her invaluable contributions to
this article, particularly through her
understanding of the weaknesses and
future strengths of scholarship on
Navayana Buddhism.
38 See, e.g., Surendra Jondhale and
Johannes Beltz, Reconstructing the
World: B.R. Ambedkar and Buddhism
in India, (Oxford University Press
2004) and Gail Omvedt, Buddhism in
India: Challenging Brahmanism and
Caste (Sage Publications 2004).
39 See D. C. Ahir, Buddhism and
Ambedkar (Dalit Sahitya Prakashan
40 An example of an online forum is The
Buddhist Circle, at Yahoo! Groups.
Websites include,, and I would also like to
thank Mangesh Dahiwale and the other
members of The Buddhist Circle who
were a tremendous help and inspiration
to me while I was living in New Delhi.