English Section

      Buddhism Today 

Vietnamese Section


...... ... .  . .  .  .
Ambebkar's Conversion to Buddhism:
Factors and after Effect
Dr. Arun Kumar Sinha
Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, Sarnath, Varanasi

Dr. Bhimrao, Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956) was one of the leading personalities of our modern India. A great social reformer, undisputed champion of the untouchables and their cause, a great constitutionalist, a keen thinker and a versatile orator, Ambedkar symbolized a unique phenomenon in the political and social arena of modern India. He is chiefly known for his twin works-the unrelentless struggle for the dignity and upliftment of the untouchables of India against the strongly entrenched hierarchial Hindu caste system and as an architect of our Indian constitution. Born in the Mahar caste, an untouchable community of Maharastra, he received the highest education undreamt of by any untouchable caste person of his age. His life, works and Ideas were shaped by personalities like Kabir, Jyotiba Phooley and the Buddha, his ascribed status as an untouchable and lastly the Liberal-Democratic ideas, ideologies and institutions of the west.[1] The cause dearest to his heart, which consumed his whole life was the upliftment of the untouchables and depressed classes of India. His vision of uplifting their position was not limited only to their social respect and material aspect alone but aspired to make them a perfect human being in every sense. Ambedkar for this, laid more stress on social democracy than political democracy and in this debate between him and the congress leaders he gave priority to the former whereas congress thought the opposite. For Ambedkar social democracy was a prerequiste for a stable political system. Ambedkar was critical of Gandhi and Congress leaders soft approach towards the upliftment of untouchables which just labelled them as 'Harijan' within the Hindu fold and argued that political democracy and consciousness would automatically Improve condition of Harijans in Indian society. Being, himself the conscious and educated member of the untouchable community he was more aware of their plight and hence his straight forward approach at times smacked of aggressiveness and casteism. Ambedkar's works and approach to uplift the condition of untouchables in India and especially the Mahars of Maharastra and ultimately their conversion to Buddhism can be seen in four phases.

The first phase of Ambedkar's struggle (1919-1929) was to create an opening for the untouchables within the Hindu fold by trying to smash the bastion of caste and Its religion by trying to gain access to public places and utilities where the untouchables were discriminated. The second phase (1929-35) was of soul searching and mentally preparing to leave the Hindu fold and convert to some other religion. Although he gave such indication in May 1929 at Jalgaon yet at the conference of Depressed Classes on 13th Oct. 1935 he made a positive statement with the historic declaration that circumstances beyond his control had placed him in the untouchable community but he would certainly not die as a Hindu for sure.[3] The third phase (1935-50) was of securing political rights and advocating the cause of untouchables at various political forms and commissions. He was deeply involved in securing political, social and economic rights for the scheduled castes which finally led to various provisions In the drafting of the Indian constitution. The conversion question remained suspended and education as means of upliftment was given preference. On the whole it was a phase when forces of modemizaton and securing rights gained prime place. The Fourth phase (1950-56) saw the reawakening of the conversion issue and finally conversion to Buddhism which he along with a large number of untouchables did on the 14th Oct. 1956 about two months before his death on the 6th Dec. 1956.

A lot has been written and published on the historic event of Dr. Ambedkar and his followers conversion to Buddhsm and its impact.[4] This year (1991) being his Birth Centenary Year such exercise has proliferated and gained importance. This article is about why Ambedkar took so long time to decide to convert, the various inherent factors involved in it and its after effects.

Dr. Ambedkar decided to leave the Hindu fold and convert to some other religion in 1935 but actually did it in 1956 which seems as a long drawn process stretched over two decades. The resolution made it clear that he was adamant to leave the Hindu fold but to which religion was undecided. Various factors and their impact were evaluated by him. The options open for religious conversion to Ambedkar were Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism or a new sect of his own. The conversion to any religion had to have a mass base and suited to the present and future needs of the untouchables, and especially his own caste, the Mahars. The bases of evaluation of the prospective religion were: "absolute equality, rationalism and Intellectual creativity, the possibility of converts continuing their newly won special privileges from the government as Depressed Classes, a connection with a militant group which could offer protection but allow them to. retain their own leadership and direction, a birth place In India and position of respect there."[5] Ambedkar's resolution made various religious leaders to woo him and his followers towards their own religion, but no current religion met all his demands. Religious conversion to Christianity and Islam involved greater risk to his caste unity and would have made the whole exercise less successful. Although preaching equality, love, fraternity and humanity In principle, Islam till then had showed undue militancy on national scene and also somewhat heirarchial discrimination in their community life. Christianity also showed class and rank strife and case of discrimination like the Hindu fold. Further, being a nationalist to the core of his heart conversion to Islam and Christianity for Ambedkar, would have meant denationalization of the scheduled caste people and contrary to national interest.[6] It would have thrown them on the wrong side of the national politics with more risk to face and less gan to be achieved. Ambedkar considered converting to Sikhism for a time being because it met most of his demands but at the same time he felt a certain amount of responsibility for the fate of Hindus whom he was deserting.[7] But this involved the risk of forgoing the privileges accorded to untouchables in reserved Parliamentary seats and special concessions granted by the British government.[8] Ambedkar was much inclined towards Buddhism to which he was exposed since 1920's but had to face the same risk of losing the political concessions. At the same time despite its revival on intellectual plane it was not considered as a vital established religion compared to other religions.[9]

After the announcement to desert the Hindu religion in 1935, Ambedkar forbade his followers to worship Hindu deities and observe their ceremonies and festivals. It is difficult to document the effect of the conversion announcement on the religious life of the Mahars. But after the period of 1935 to 1956 there was no group effort to demand religious rights of any sort and seek social mobility through Sanskritisaton. At some places Ambedkar's followers threw away Hindu deities and stopped observing rituals and ceremonies, but in the rural areas more or less they carried on their religious practices. It was not a period of religious suspension for Ambedkar's followers. Being aware that the religion would suddenly not change their socio-economic position of the schedule castes it served two purposes. On one hand it was a threat to the dominant Hindu fold to reform and recognize the Depressed Classes by making radical structural and psychological changes. On the other hand it consolidated the caste unity through cornmoness of cause. The newly awakened class unity as depressed section of Indian society and related consciousness, prepared them for a search of new identity. Ambedkar in the period between 19351950 laid more stress on forces of modernization as a means of social mobility. Securing more and more political rights and concessions for the Depressed Classes by vigorously representing their cause to various political forums was adopted. He stressed the fact to the British government that Depressed classes were separate entity from the Hindu fold and to the recalcitrant Congress party dominated by upper caste Hindu leaders to take concrete steps in uplifting the Depressed Classes as equals. On his own caste front he asked his followers to abandon the demeaning traditional jobs, organise and educate themselves and move to urban centres. He also asked them to change their way of life and attitude. Ambedkar's all efforts of social mobility of the Depressed Classes were directed to political and legal changes as well as education. Anyone with a little knowledge of this turbulent phase of modem Indian politics would appreciate Ambedkar's foresightedness. Brushing aside the approach of Congress and Gandhi towards the Depressed Classes being mild and nominal, his forthright approach put the depressed classes as a living entity on the political map of India and a force to reckon with. Ambedkar formed a number of political, social and educational institutions for the upliftment of the Depressed Classes.[10] At the same time he wrote extensively on Hindu caste system, the untouchables and approach of his contemporaries towards their problems and on national issues Congress party by projecting Jagjiwan Ram as the leader of the untouchables tried to counter his Influence in the northern part with success but could not check the spreading consciousness of the Depressed Classes for a better place in Indian society. Drafting and adoption of the various provisions in the Indian constitution for safeguarding the interest of the Depressed Classes was his crowning glory and the concrete manifestation of his whole life's struggle.[11] The other major victory in this area was 'The untouchability (Offences) Act 195X, though his one important effort to restructure the Indian society 'The Hindu Code Bills" in 1951 was mauled and he resigned from Parliament in protest.

It seems a little strange that after successfully experimenting and accepting modernization as the most potent vehicle of social mobility for the Schedule Castes along with legal measures and political concessions, Ambedkar sought conversion after two decades to Buddhism which he had postponed earlier. We can enumerate some of the factors responsible for this phenomenon. Firstly, Ambedkar himself was a religious person to the core of his heart. He considered morality as the new god, the binding and moving force of society and human beings. His vision of human beings and society comprised of religions and morality minus It's ritualism and superstition. Secondly, "he knew that the untouchables were deeply religious people whose spritual hunger had to be satisfied only by offering them an alternate system of religious precepts, values and rituals if they were not to be transformed into a rootless mass."[12] Thirdly, his vision of progress of human beings and especially the untouchables was not just calculated In terms of economic advancement, social equality or political bargain but a complete development of heart and mind to the fullest possible extent. Fourthly, he desired a separate identity[13] for the Depressed Classes in modem Indian society so that with the passage of time they would not relapse into the same hierarchial Hindu fold and bear its scaffold. This would negate the achievements in socio-economic terms and again pushed them back in the social order. Ambedkaes motive behind the conversion was to put the final seal of approval of a separate identity for the untouchables, encircled by Hindu society. Fifthly, conversion was not to sever but to realign the untouchable community with the changing social equation and the mainstream of Indian culture and national life. Sixthly, besides socio-economic advancement it was a step to remove the centuries old inferiority complex embeded in the untouchables and a great psychological boost. Seventhly, with the socioeconomic advancement Ambedkar did not want his followers to be lost in the maze of materialism and its leading ideologies like marxism which were gaining ground and he despised those Ideas. Eightly, conversion was a move to mitigate and to remove the sub-caste barriers of the untouchable community and bind them in a single large homogenous and endogamous group to make them strong.[14]

Since 1950 Ambedkar revived his efforts for conversion with a new vigour and converted to Buddhism along with his followers on 15th Oct. 1956. In the changed scenario Buddhism met most of the criteria needed for religious conversion as noted above.[15] Ambedkar's own preparation for conversion to Buddhism had begun in the 1920's or even before that.[16] In early 1930's naming his new home as Rajgriha reflects his early inclination towards Buddhism. Study of Pali and Buddhism at Fergusson College, Poona, Bombay and places in and around Maharastra by leading scholars and social workers before independence possibly drew Ambedkar increasingly towards Buddhism.[17] At the same time rediscovery of glorious history of Buddhism in Maharastra and ifs Buddhist sites became more popular. The Ambedkar like the Buddha opposed the Brahamanism and the caste-system and provided some rationale to his struggle in the current age. "By turning to Buddhism the untouchables could exchange their nameless and sorrowful past for a golden age of the Buddhist history which could strengthen their pride in themselves as Buddhists and create for them a new sense of identity and new destiny."[18] That's why Ambedkar exploited the myth that untouchables were the descendants of the erstwhile Nagas who were Buddhists in the past.[19] Buddhism being within the mainstream of Indian cultural tradition had come to acquire the greatest importance among the Indian intellectuals. This made conversion moment less prone to the risk of a split. Buddha and his basic philosophy would not have been too foreign to his followers. And Ambedkar and his followers made conversion to Buddhism making it simply an act of reclaiming their own past. The social message of an egalitarian society based on liberty, equality, rationality, love for humanity and the strong moral teachings of Buddhism appealed Ambedkar. Also it did not Inhibit the spirit and forces of modernization and urbanism. In fact, "Buddhism became another means of modernization for the lowliest of the low in India."[20] Independent India became more aware of her Buddhist neighbours Ceylon, Burma and Thailand, and started reclaiming Buddhism for mutual unity and friendship. After securing political and legal rights for Schedule Castes in independent India a religion with its root at home as well as branches in other countries suited more to Ambedkar and his followers rather than a strong protective religion which by that time had become an irrelevant factor.[21] Ambedkar drawn towards Buddhism visited the Buddhist countries, attended conference and meetings on Buddhism. Later he declared Buddhism to be the future religion of mankind.[22] Buddhism was the meeting point of his social Humanism, Democratic ideals, modemization and religious yearning.

Ambedkar reiterated that conversion was not sought for material gains but was exclusively a spiritual and religious quest. This seems partly true. In fact, it was the fear of loss of hard won political privileges from the government for the Depressed Classes which had earlier checked Ambedkar from embracing any other religion. During conversion to Buddhism in 1956 being aware of this trap Ambedkar took a calculated risk. He had emphatically assured his followers to trust him that privileges and concession lost due to conversion to Buddhism by the Scheduled Caste people would soon be regained.[23] He was now on surer ground and rather confident of the potential and strength of his movement. For him It was a matter of time rather than of strength. Although he did not live long to see the recovery of the lost grounds yet his home state Maharastra extended this privilege to the Buddhists after six years [24] and the Government of India after more than two decades in Sept, 1980.[25] Besides other factors fear of loss of privileges and concessions may be accounted as a inhibiting factor for schedule castes from other regions joining the conversion movement. It was dominated by the Mahar community and the Jata's of Agra were the second largest community. Ambedkar was apprehensive of this fact but even then the religious conversion became a historic event.

Even after three decades there is a conflict of opinion regarding the success and nature of Ambedkar's Buddhist conversion movement. But majority of the scholars agree that the "rationale for conversion was psychological and the benefits have been (largely) psychological."[26] The neo-Buddhists have shed their inferiority complex, acquire a new consciousness and cultural identity. But the socio-economic position of the majority of the neo-Buddhist remains more or less the same. For the Mahars of Maharastra residing in rural areas they simply seem to have exchanged one label for the another. They are now taken to be .1 untouchable Buddhist."[27] After Ambedkar's demise in 1956 the "new Buddhist community was left without leadership, intellectual as well as political, and soon the neo-Buddhist tended to become another untouchable caste especially in rural areas of Maharastra. Buddhism had come and gone like a mighty hurricane that swept thousands off their feet only to deposit them, in a manner of speakIng, a few yards away on the same level."[28] Buddhist revival movement in Maharastra has definitely lost vitality and vigour. The major problem affecting this is poverty, lack of leadership from the Bhikkhus as wen as lay community or lack of strong religious cadre with vision and missionary zeal, lack of books in vernacular language and political fragmentation.[29]

The other manifestation of conversion in Maharastra has been the recurrent violence eruptIng In anti-untouchable, anti-Buddhist between the neo-Buddhists and the dominant Marathas.[30] But the scenario of condition of Buddhists Is not all that bleak and signs of Buddhist life can be clearly perceived.[31] A lot is being done by the People's Education Society (1945), Republican Party (1956) and the Buddhist Society of India (1953), all the three founded by Ambedkar and the Aft India Buddhist Dhamma Summit Convention (1975).[32]

The current year is declared as the Birth Centenary year of Dr. Ambedkar by the Government. A number of programmes have been announced by the government and various voluntary Organisation have been limited to honoring him and his Ideals through Intellectual exercises. It would be better If a target oriented time bound socio-economic programme would have been launched to alleviate the status of masses and schedule castes. Besides overcoming other handicaps the only effective way of improving the lot of Schedule Castes and Depressed is through the process of modernization. This does not mean the deprivation of their religious identity but since poverty is their main problem, modernization seems to be the panacea. Making Ambedkar's dream of propagation and revival of Buddhism in India a concrete reality requires a great effort and lot of guts of the Buddhists.


[1] B. G. Gokhale, "Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambabker: Rebel against Hindu Tradition," B. L. Smith (ed.) Religion and Social Conflict in South Asia, E. J. Brill, Leiden, 197 6, p. 17. Dr. D. L. Ramteke, Revival of Buddhism in Modern India, New Delhi, 1983, p. 94.

[2] Gokhale. op. cit., p. 15.

[3] Dhananjay Keer, Dr. Ambedkar: Life and Mission, Bombay, 1962, pp. 252-52.

[4] Dr. D. L Ramteke, op. cit., chapter VI. Gokhale, op. cit. Prof. Sanghasen Singh (ed.) Ambedkar on Buddhist Conversion and Its Imfact, Delhi. 1990. D. C. Ahir, Buddhism in Modern India, Nagpur, 1972, Buddhism and Ambedkar, Delhi, 1968.

[5] Eleenor Zelliot. "The Psychological Dimension of the Buddhist Movement in India," G. A. Oddie (ed.), Religion in South Asia, New Delhi, 1977. p. 126.

[6] Ramteke, op. cit. p. 127.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Zelliot, op. cit. p. 126.

[9] Ibid., p. 126, 132 In. 16.

[10] Ramteke, op. cit. chapter VIII.

[11] Ibid. pp. 154-55.

[12] Gokhale, op. cit., p. 2 1.

[13] Bradwell L. Smith, "Religion, Social Change and the Problem of Identity in South Asia: An Interpretative Introduction," same (ed.) Religion... op. cit.. p, 2, 4, 5, 12, Zelliot op. cit. p. 131.

[14] Gokhake, op. cit., p. 2 1.

[15] Zelliot, op. cit. p. 129.

[16] Ibid. p. 132.

[17] Eleanor Zelliot, "The Indian Rediscovery of Buddhism," 1855-1956, A. K. Narain (ed.), Studies in Pali and Buddhism, New Delhi, 1979, pp. 396-98.

[18] Gokhale, op. cit., p. 2 1. (not exploited but explained -E. B.)

[19] Zelliot, The Psychological.. , op. cit., p. 131.

[20] Gokhale op. cit., p. 22.

[21] Zelliot, The Psychological. op. cit., p. 130.

[22] Ambedkar, Buddha and the Future of His Religion, Mahabodhi, Vaishakha Purnima issue, 1950.

[23] Chandra Bhardi, Social and Political Ideas of B. R. Ambedkar, Jaipur, 1977, pp. 254-55.

[24] Zelliot, The Psychological.. op. cit., p. 130.

[25] Times of India, 29th Sept., 1980

[26] Zelliot, op. cit., pp. 137-139. Arun Sadhu, 'Neo-Buddhists in Maharastra Conversion has Helped", Times of India, 15th Nov., 1975. V. V. Date, Times of India, 1st Oct., 198 1.

[27] Eleanor Zelliot, "The Revival of Buddhism in India", Aria : A Journal published by Asia Society (New York) No. 1 Winter, 1968, pp. 33-45, esp., p. 45 (may be in the eyes of the Hindus - E.B.)

[28] B. G. Gokhale, Buddhism in Maharastra: A History, Bombay, 1976, p. 158.

[29] Zelliot, The Psychological.. op. cit., pp. 134-35. Rarnteke, op. cit., p. 219.

[30] Economic and Political weekly, Vol. XIII, No. 8 (5 May, 1973), and also of 13th July, 1974. Eleanor Zelliot, An Historical View of theMaharastrian Intellectual and Social Change, Y. K. Malik(ed.), South Asian Intellectuals and Social Change, New Delhi, 1982, p. 88.

[31] Zelliot, The Psychological.. op. cit., pp., 135-37.

[32] Ibid, p, 143, fn. 35, Ramteke, op. cit., 212-227.


[Originally published in Maha Bodhi Society Centenary Celebrations, Buddhagaya Centre, 1891-1991, Souvenir, Sambodhi No. 2, vol. 2 (1991), pp. 73-79]


Sincere thanks to Phramaha Somnuek Saksree for retyping this article.


Updated: 3-5-2000

Return to "Buddhism around the World"

Top of Page