Buddhism lives in modern era

Buddhism lives in modern era

Chetan Ahimsa

Buddha or ‘Enlightened One’ exists as a present-day symbol of truth, wisdom, and contentment.  

From social media memes to Ted Talk speeches, Buddha’s wide-ranging quotations— some his own, others credited to him -- on navigating life’s turbulences inundate our collective consciousness. 

This begs the question: what form of Buddhism is necessary to assuage today’s socio-religious-economic turmoil and help engender an ideal state.

I hold—after considerable research—that Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar’s modern, relevant ‘Neo-Buddhism’ (coined by Ambedkar himself) or ‘Navayana’ fulfils that role.

Just as Siddartha Gautama searches for the roots of suffering 2.500 years back, Ambedkar attempts to provide a blueprint to resolve 20th century injustice. The prince journeys from Kapilavastu, Nepal, to Bodhgaya, Bihar, in search of enlightenment; Bhimrao travels the globe from India to London and NYC in search of knowledge.  

Both Buddha and Babasaheb challenge the scriptural authority of several religious texts in favour of an egalitarian structure that equally benefits those of all castes, classes, and genders. 

Ambedkar, although not personally religious, realises that overcoming thousands of years of subjugation faced by those on the bottom of the Brahminical, graded hierarchical totem pole, i.e., Dalits, would ironically require an alternative spiritual structure instead of the negation of such. 

A half century later, the doctor’s quest culminates. Ambedkar, who receives his first book on Buddhism at 16 years of age, converts to Buddhism at 65. 

Before zeroing in on Neo-Buddhism as a religious panacea for Dalits leaving the Hindu fold, Ambedkar investigates the dynamics & semiotics of several major Indian religions including Islam, Christianity, Jainism, and Sikhism.

Many prominent Muslim leaders in the first half of the 20th century
coax Ambedkar to join Islam with the Nizam of Hyderabad, regarded by many as the ‘Richest Man in the World’, offering Rs 5 crores to Babasaheb for the potential conversion.

For Ambedkar, ethics and ideology transcend personal economic growth, so he promptly refuses the Nizam’s proposal.  

Although the doctor observes many noble ideas in Islam, he feels the religion does not provide women with deserved dignity due to its emphasis on purdah and polygamy.

Ambedkar senses that present-day Christianity practitioners are far cries from the ideal Jesus Christ, a man who Babasaheb admires.  Ambedkar also fears a mass conversion of Dalits to Christianity would strengthen the British hand in the subcontinent, revealing that the doctor believes just as vehemently in national unity as Dalit liberation.

Although Jainism appears too extreme to demand of his followers, Sikhism has a special draw via monotheism and equality.

To further investigate the religion’s pros and cons, Ambedkar sends his son and nephew to a gurudwara in Amritsar, Punjab.  

Although impressed ideologically, Ambedkar steers clear of Sikhism for political reasons concerned that Dalit political mobilisation would be relegated to Punjab only if Sikhism were embraced.

Buddhism’s inherent flexibility and tenants of compassion, equality, and rationality entice Ambedkar. What puts the cherry on top as a ‘natural’ religion for Dalits is the history of Buddhists challenging caste domination and their being dehumanized as ‘untouchables’ anywhere from 1000 to 1500 years back.

In 1956, Ambedkar, with 22 new vows and an emphasis on contributing 1/20th of earnings to charity, leads a mass conversion of 4 lakh Dalits to ‘Navayana.’ Babasaheb initiates conversion proceedings himself without any clerical figures, confirming that intermediaries are unnecessary in his Buddhism.  Within 2 months, Ambedkar passes away but not before sanctioning ‘Buddha and His Dhamma’ as the scriptural basis for Neo-Buddhism.

Finally, I reiterate that Babasaheb’s ‘Navayana’ offers substantive solutions to ameliorate modern socio-political tensions and enable a more inclusive idea of India.