Theravada Buddhism and modernization: Anagarika Dhammapala and B.R. Ambedkar (leaders of Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka and India)

by Balkrishna Givind Gokhale

Journal of Asian and African Studies

Vol.34 No.1(Feb 1999)

pp.33-

COPYRIGHT 1999 E.J. Brill (The Netherlands)


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            The Twentieth century saw a revival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and 
            India. In both countries Theravada became an instrument for 
            modernization though it played different roles in social 
            transformation and political action in the two countries. The 
            Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka, led by Anagarika Dhammapala 
            (1864-1933), began as a "spin-off" from the organizational impetus 
            provided by the Theosophical movement. In India Dr. B.R. Ambedkar 
            (1928-1956) turned to Buddhism in his search for an alternative 
            cultural identity for millions of his followers (particularly the 
            Mahar caste) in his rebellion against Hinduism, its caste system and 
            its concomitant, the institution of Untouchablity. Though Buddhism 
            provided an institutional/cultural reference for both Dhammapala and 
            Ambedkar, the two found inspiration and significance from it toward 
            different ends. 
            The search for modernization and a reaffirmation of religious 
            identity were two powerful forces in the making of Twentieth century 
            South Asia. The impetus for modernization came from the Western 
            impact ushered by British role. British role imposed on the 
            sub-continent an imperial unity through a sub-continental 
            centralized administration, a quasi-modern education system which 
            created an English-speaking middle class espousing liberal values, a 
            unified judicial system based on ideas from Anglo-Saxon 
            jurisprudence (especially equality under law and evidential 
            procedure), a modern transportation and communication system leading 
            to varying degrees of spatial and social mobility and a modern 
            military apparatus under-pinning the imperial superstructure. The 
            idea of nationalism and aspirations for social and economic 
            transformation were two of the more powerful aspects of the 
            modernizing process in the two countries. 
            We may briefly discuss the concept of modernization and its 
            relevance in the South Asian context. Modernization and 
            Westernization have often been as interrelated, if not 
            inter-changeable terms in their effects though it is also assumed 
            that modernization need not always mean Westernization (the case of 
            Japan being the most obvious). The modern Western ethos was based on 
            the legacy of Greece and Rome, the Judeo-Christian tradition, the 
            Enlightenment ideas of natural rights of man and representative (if 
            not necessarily responsible) government and technological advances 
            ushered by the Industrial revolution. Of these the first two had 
            little relevance for most non-Western societies. The last two, 
            however, were accepted as signs of progress. Increasingly, 
            therefore, modernization became an acceptable working concept for 
            the struggle against Western economic and political domination. When 
            precisely the modernization process began in the West is a matter of 
            argument. Many would assign the beginning of the modern age in 
            Europe with the fall of the Ancien Regime and the beginning of the 
            French Revolution in 1789. Others would extend it back to the 
            Renaissance and the Reformation and the enlightenment of the pre 
            French Revolution period (Bacon, Rousseau, Voltaire, the 
            Encyclopaediasts et al.). In general it is suggested that the Modern 
            Age has a background of at least 300 years, if not more, and leading 
            European nations, France, England and Germany, as also the United 
            States, had completed their modernizing process by the 1880's. In 
            contrast countries of Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia 
            belonged to the pre-modern phase of human history. These roughly 
            correspond to the modern developed and developing or underdeveloped 
            regions of the world. 
            This difference, implicit in the terms referred to above, is 
            reflected in a variety of meanings associated with modernity or 
            modernization. Economists, sociologists/anthropologists, political 
            scientists and intellectual historians stress one or other aspects 
            in the context of their special disciplines. For economists 
            modernization means capitalist industrialization and a society's 
            ability/capacity to apply scientific technologies to channel and 
            optimize material resources. Sociologists stress urbanization, 
            emergence of class structures able to assume new functions and 
            "modernize" stratified traditional social structures to undertake 
            new roles. For the political scientist it means adoption of ideas of 
            the rights of man and forms of representative government. For the 
            intellectual historian modernity is synonymous with the acceptance 
            of the primacy of human reason, a secularized social milieu within a 
            secular state, natural rights of man and checks and balances in 
            governmental systems, in effect a transformed assemblage of values 
            and institutions emboding these ideas.(1) 
            The need for modernization was a response to European political and 
            economic domination seen as a result of modern technologies. The 
            major sentiment was of a desire for a sovereign native government 
            free of foreign economic and political control. There was also a 
            perception of challenges to the sanctity and authority of indigenous 
            religious, social and cultural values posed by the Christian 
            Missionary activities and the new "rationalistic/humanistic" liberal 
            ideas. These particularly affected the established 
            religious/social/cultural hierarchies in non-Christian lands. The 
            emerging nationalism in India and Sri-Lanka sought to reaffirm the 
            validity of traditional religious/cultural world-views even while 
            accepting the need for changes in processes of learning and 
            knowledge based on "modern" scientific knowledge and technical 
            know-how for ensuring industrial and economic progress and 
            "sovereignty". 
            Reform and reaffirmation, thus, became parts of a symbiotic process 
            of renewal. The challenge of Christian missionary activity mainly 
            concerned forms of articulation of traditional religious concepts 
            and their ritual co-relates. The Christian missionary critique of 
            traditional Hindu and Buddhist religious ideas and their validating 
            rituals touched the core of the two Weltanchauungen. Science and 
            technology and the role of reason in social arrangements were felt 
            as expedient and essential for modernization. The Christian 
            challenge, it was felt, had to be met through reform and revival. 
            The reform movement led by Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833) was both a 
            movement for reform and reaffirmation of Hinduism. The Theosophical 
            movement (in its eclectic outreach) helped this reaffirmation. 
            The alliance of Theosophy and Hinduism in India and Theravada 
            Buddhism in Sri Lanka and its role in the emergent phases of Indian 
            nationalism (Msr. Annie Beasant - 1847-1933 - and her Indian 
            followers in India and Anagarika Dhammapala in Sri Lanka) is a case 
            in point. For theosophy, association with religious movements led by 
            leaders such as Swami Dayananda Saraswati (1824-1883) and his Arya 
            Samaj, and with traditionalist Hindu nationalists - Pandit Madan 
            Mohan Malaviya (1861-1946) for instance - became a convenient means 
            for its acceptance by the elites in India. It is interesting to 
            mention here that both Motilal Nehru (1861-1931) and his illustrious 
            son Jawaharlal (1889-1964) were very close to the leaders of the 
            Theosophical movement in India in its early formative years. In Sri 
            Lanka the public recitation of the tisarana (the threefold refuge in 
            the Buddha, Dhamma and Samgha) and the pancahsila (five precepts for 
            Buddhist lay men and women) by Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky 
            (1831-1891) and the American Colonel H.S. Olcott (1832-1907) on May 
            21, 1880 inspired the Buddhist revival. 
            Reform and revival which lay at the bases of emerging nationalism in 
            South Asia played a significant role in the social and political 
            history of the times. The Theosophical movement, the Arya Samaj and 
            the Aligarh Muslim movement began in the same year (1875), 
            indicating the resurgence of a new religious awareness in the last 
            quarter of the Nineteenth century. Both the Arya Samay and the 
            Aligarh movement reflected a powerful urge among the Hindu and 
            Muslim elites to reform and reaffirm traditional religious paradigms 
            in their quest for modernization. Such was also the case with the 
            Sri Lankan elites in the Theravada fold. For Ambedkar revolt against 
            traditional Hinduism and a quest for a new religious-cultural 
            identity as a part of the "modernization" of the submerged masses of 
            "untouchables", Buddhism became the leitmotiv six decades later. An 
            exploration in the role of Theravada in the process of reform and 
            reaffirmation in the careers of Anagarika Dhammapala in Sri Lanka 
            and B.R. Ambedkar in India is the purpose of the present paper.(2) 
            By the 1860's Buddhism in Sri Lanka had lost a good deal of its 
            sheen and elan in Sri Lanka. The Lankan monastic order functioned 
            more as a matter of traditional form than a vigorous and inspiring 
            conviction and energy of its former days. The old scholarly 
            tradition lived only in its former shadow, and the generality of the 
            monks, it was felt, was "intellectually and spiritually moribund; 
            monastic discipline was lax, the practice of mediation had been 
            neglected and then forgotten; and even to those who truly loved the 
            Buddha, the Dhamma and the Samgha, it must sometimes have seemed 
            that, after reigning for more than twenty glorious centuries over 
            the hearts and minds of the Simhala race, they were doomed to be 
            cast as rubbish to the void".(3) Centuries of foreign rule, first 
            Portuguese, then Dutch and finally British, had seemed to smother 
            the Simhalese spirit for everywhere the West was triumphant. 
            Simhalese Buddhist children bore Christian names and went to 
            Christian missionary schools. It looked as if the West would finally 
            overwhelm Buddhism and it Simhalese culture. 
            At this point there was a sudden stirring, a new awakening which, by 
            the end of the century, would burgeon into a powerful Buddhist 
            revival and, with it, Simhalese culture. Its leader was Anagarika 
            Dhammapala. 
            Dhammapala's life falls into three well-marked phases. During the 
            first phase (1864-1884) he divided his time between his involvement 
            in the Theosophical movement and the emerging Buddhist revival. The 
            second phase (1885-1926) saw his emergence as a powerful spokesman 
            and the leader of the new Buddhist movement. The last (1927-1933) 
            meant years of ceaseless effort and fulfilment in the Buddhist 
            cause, his failing health and ordination into the order of Buddhist 
            monks. These three phases paralleled developments in Simhalese 
            nationalism in an almost consanguinous and symbiotic relationship. 
            II 
            Dhammapala (David) was born on September 17, 1864, in the Pettah 
            area of the capital city of Colombo. He was the son of Don Carolis 
            and Mallika Hewavitarane. Don Carolis belonged to the Goyigama caste 
            which had claims to a "past lordly status in Ceylon".(4) The first 
            noteworthy member of the family was Hewavitarane Dingiry Appuhamy. 
            Of his two sons the older became a Buddhist monk whose tutor was 
            fourth in pupilary succession of Samgharaja Saranakara, a renowned 
            name in eighteenth century Simhalese Buddhism. The other son, Don 
            Carolis, was successful businessman in Colombo. Don Carolis was an 
            ardent Buddhist as was his wife Mallika, daughter on another 
            prosperous Sri Lankan businessman whose connection with Buddhism was 
            even more illustrious. He had donated a piece of land whereupon rose 
            the later celebrated Vidyodaya Pirivena led by Hikkuduwa Siri 
            Sumangala Maha Nayaka Thera, one of the monastic leaders of the new 
            militant Buddhism of the 1870's and 1880's. This Buddhist heritage 
            had a decisive influence on Dhammapala's choice of a career and his 
            dedication to it once the choice was made. Two events presaged the 
            emergence of a new Buddhist spirit of which Dhammapala became an 
            inspirational spokesman. The first was the Pannadura debates between 
            Christian missionaries and two Buddhist leaders, Hikkuduwe Siri 
            Sumangala and Hugetuwatte Gunanada. Gunanada was the incumbent at 
            the Kotahena temple which Dhammapala often visited. The learning and 
            oratorical skills of Gunanada revived Buddhist confidence. The 
            second was the arrival of the Theosophical movement in Sri Lanka and 
            the recitation of the Buddhist tisarana and panchasila by Blavatsky 
            on May 21, 1880, as mentioned earlier. The Theosophical movement, 
            which Dhammapala joined so enthusiastically, gave him organizational 
            experience so essential for the structuring of the new Buddhist 
            movement. 
            Between 1864 and 1880 young Dhammapala went to a number of schools, 
            Catholic or Anglican. The overly sectarian Christian instruction in 
            these schools troubled Dhammapala's Buddhist convictions and led to 
            a prolonged and often polemical encounter between the new Buddhism 
            and Christian missions. After his formal schooling Dhammapala found 
            employment in government service until 1886 when he gave up his job 
            to participate in the activities of the Theosophical movement which, 
            along with his loyalty to Buddhism, moulded his later career. 
            In 1886 Dhammapala became the General Secretary of the Buddhist 
            Theosophical Society and the manager of the Sandaresa periodical. 
            During 1886-1890 he was deeply involved in a variety of Buddhist 
            activities. In 1891 he visited Sarnath (where the Buddha preached 
            his first sermon and Buddhism was born). He also visited Bodhagaya 
            (where the Buddha was Enlightened). At both places he saw the plight 
            of two of the holy places of Buddhist pilgrimage which led him to 
            spend the rest of his life in restoration of the sites. During 1891 
            he also visited Burma. In May 1891 he started the Mahabodhi Society 
            which was to become a powerful instrument in his mission for the 
            revival of Buddhism in India and Sri Lanka. In January 1892 he 
            started the Mahabodhi journal. In 1893 he attended the Chicago 
            Parliament of Religions as a representative of Theravada Buddhism: 
            it was at this meeting that Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) emerged as 
            a spokesman for the new Hinduism. Thereafter Dhammapala visited 
            Japan, China and Thailand. These international appearances 
            established his leadership in the Buddhist revival movement. 
            The periodicals Sandaresa and the Buddhist (started in 1888) 
            preached economic progress and the revival of the Buddhist ethos. 
            They were widely supported by the mercantilist elements. The 
            alliance of the business community and traditional elites, 
            incorporating ideas of economic and political modernization in the 
            new Buddhism, made it the vanguard of Simhalese nationalism. It 
            reaffirmed the essentials of Theravada ideas but also suggested the 
            need for the reformulation of aspects of religious practice to 
            address concerns of modernity.(5) 
            Dhammapala also sponsored the opening of Buddhist schools to counter 
            Christian missionary propaganda and instil in the younger generation 
            a sense of pride in Buddhism and Simhalese culture. In his numerous 
            speeches he dwelt on the grand theme of the necessity for reviving 
            Buddhism which was now increasingly identified with Simhalese 
            nationalism. 
            His activities in the cause of the restoration of Sarnath and 
            Bodhagaya and other Buddhist holy places won him international 
            attention and support. He visited England four times (1893, 1897, 
            1904 and 1925-1926), the U.S. six times (1893, 1896, 1897, 
            1902-1904, 1913-1915 and 1925), China, Japan and Thailand 
            (1893-1894) and France and Italy en route on his journeys to England 
            and America. During his visits to England and America he secured 
            valuable financial support and established a Buddhist centre in 
            London in 1926. 
            In India Dhammapala's efforts to restore Buddhist places of 
            pilgrimage continued in spite of frustrations and it was not until 
            1930 that he was able to complete the major part of his mission. In 
            between his stints in India Dhammapala spent his time in Sri Lanka 
            where in 1922 he travelled across the country in the cause of 
            national revival. His activities drew adverse British attention in 
            India and Sri Lanka as his activities were suspected of sedition. In 
            1916, in the aftermath of the Buddhist-Muslim riots of 1915, he was 
            confined to Calcutta and barred from visiting Sri Lanka, the order 
            being rescinded in December 1919. His ceaseless travels, speeches 
            and literary and religious work soon began to affect his health. 
            Even during his travels in the West he suffered from fever and 
            complained of ill-health. He reports in the Journal that he often 
            had restless nights and disturbing dreams. He visited Sri Lanka for 
            the last time in 1931 and on his return to India received his final 
            ordination followed by his upasampada (confirmation as a monk) on 
            January 16, 1933. He lived another three months and passed away on 
            April 29, 1933 at Sarnath. His last words were: "Let me be reborn . 
            . . I would like to be born again twenty-five times to spread Lord 
            Buddha's Dhamma".(6) 
            Dhammapala has become a legend in the history of Simhalese 
            nationalism. A passage in the St. Louis Observer of September 21, 
            1893 describes him thus: "with black curly locks thrown from the 
            broad brow, his clean, clear eyes fixed upon the audience, his long 
            brown fingers emphasizing the utterance of his vibrant voice, he 
            looked the very image of a propagandist, and one trembled to know 
            that such a figure stood at the head of a movement to consolidate 
            all the disciplines of the Buddha and to spread the light of Asia 
            throughout the civilized world".(7) Dressed in white garments, his 
            lean and lanky figure, intense look and restless hands, projected an 
            impressive personality wherever he went. He spoke directly and often 
            bluntly, his passion tempered by his humility and spiritual 
            presence. Unwavering in his faith and tireless in his work 
            Dhammapala became a powerful spokesman for the new Buddhism breaking 
            through its decades of isolation, poised to transform the Simhalese 
            mind. 
            Dhammapala's central concern for nearly half a century (1986-1933) 
            was Buddhism. There were three aspects in this concern. One was that 
            of a Simhalese patriot and modernizer. The other was his concern for 
            the condition of the places of Buddhist pilgrimage in India. The 
            third related to his being the spokesperson for Buddhism in the West 
            and Asian countries. These roles complemented each other and formed 
            his vision for a revived Buddhism as the major instrument for a new 
            Sri Lanka. His work in India and the West had largely a contemporary 
            significance. His role as a Buddhist spokesperson melded 
            felicitously into the growing interest in Orientalism. His impact on 
            Sri Lanka was much more powerful and enduring. He made Buddhism 
            self-confident as an instrument for the reaffirmation of the 
            Simhalese cultural identity for elites as well as masses. He worked 
            for a Buddhism that had to be different from the old reclusive creed 
            innured in the cloistered recesses of monasteries. It had to be bold 
            in its reinterpretations of social, economic and political agendas 
            though loyal to the demands of the Vinaya, Sutta and Abhidhamma 
            heritage. His Buddhism was to be a new "Protestant" creed, as called 
            by some modern scholars but, as Dhammapala insisted, pristine in the 
            integrity of its message for a modern Sri Lanka. 
            This revived and reaffirmed Buddhism was based on the innate 
            "rationality" of the original message, "scientific" in its 
            orientation and humanistic in its morality concerned with the 
            demands of the "here and now" (dittheva dhamme). It had faith in man 
            as an architect of his own destiny. It may be centuries old in its 
            chronological age but was perennially modern in its acceptance of 
            the scientific spirit and demands of technological change. This 
            Buddhism, Dhammapala felt, could be the vehicle for its new 
            pilgrimage into a modern world of economic progress and political 
            independence.(8) 
            III 
            Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1928-1956) traversed a different path in his 
            discovery of Buddhism. The circumstances in the lives of Dhammapala 
            and Ambedkar were so different and each arrived at his own 
            interpretation of Buddhism in strikingly different forms. For 
            Dhammapala Buddhism was a "given", a self-evident reality and way 
            whose restatement and reaffirmation were parts of a Sri Lankan 
            nationalism. For Ambedkar nationalism had already come to fruition 
            in 1947, and he was an architect of the new nation's constitution. 
            Political independence fo Ambedkar, however, did not mean social 
            liberation from the schakles of the inequities of the caste system 
            and the tyranny of untouchability which condemned millions to 
            lifelong submergence and servitude. Though the Constitution had 
            outlawed the practice of untouchability, its reality in a myriad of 
            villages continued to sear the lives of its victims. The 
            untouchables had been granted concessions but their human dignity 
            had yet to be redeemed. 
            Ambedkar did not come to Buddhism until late in his life. His career 
            and actions have an unusual significance in Indian social history. 
            In the past a number of Bhakti - poets of Maharashtra (among whom 
            Chokha Mela, a Mahar, to which caste Ambedkar belonged) had stood 
            outside the portals of temples to beseech the Deity for succor 
            against the indignities and oppression inflict on them by the upper 
            castes led by their priests. Chokha Mela was honoured as a saint but 
            his Mahars continued to suffer caste depredation and tyranny. 
            Ambedkar refused to be a supplicant at the temple gates. These 
            temples and their deities had little use for him for they had 
            diminished, if not destroyed, the untouchables' human dignity. In 
            this he became the first successful untouchable leader to demand 
            justice, dignity and human rights for millions. Turning his back on 
            the darkened recesses of the temple Ambedkar led millions of his 
            followers into a new dawn with conversion to Buddhism. 
            Ambedkar was born on April 14, 1891, in Mhow in Madhya Pradeh, in 
            the Mahar caste. He was the son of Ramji Sakpal and his wife 
            Bhimabai (nee Murbadkar). The Sakpals and Mubadkars had served in 
            the Indian Army, then an avenue for upward mobility for the Mahars. 
            Bhimrao received his early education in Dapoli and Satara and 
            graduated from the Elphinstone High School in Bombay in 1907. His 
            name was now Ambedkar variously explained as either meaning "from" 
            Ambavade (his native village) or "gifted" to him by a Brahman school 
            teacher. Prior to his high school graduation Bhimrao was married to 
            Ramabai, daughter of a Mr. Walangrar who worked as a porter at 
            Dapoli. With the help of a scholarship from the Maharaja of Baroda, 
            Ambedkar went to Elphistone College and received his B.A. degree 
            from the University of Bombay in 1912. Then, again with financial 
            assistance from Baroda, Ambedkar went to Columbia University in New 
            York in 1913 where he received his M.A. in 1915 and his Ph.D. a year 
            later. In 1916 he was in London to become a Barrister-at-Law but as 
            his money ran out, he had to return to India in 1917. After a brief 
            spell in the Baroda State administration he went to Bombay to teach 
            law and business at the Sydenham College and the Government Law 
            School to augment his meagre earnings from his law practice. He went 
            back to London in 1920, this time with a scholarship from the 
            Maharaja of Kolhapur, where he completed his work for 
            Barrister-at-Law and D.Sc. in Economics and returned to India in 
            1923.(9) 
            From Mhow, Dapoli and Bombay Ambedkar had travelled for and wide 
            both spatially and intellectually. He scored some outstanding firsts 
            for a member of a Hindu untouchable caste, in high school 
            graduation, colleges and university degrees in Bombay, London and 
            Columbia, achievements considered impossible for a member of an 
            oppressed caste. He began his law practice in Bombay but was 
            increasingly involved in social and political movements mobilizing 
            the lower and untouchable castes. Between 1924 and 1949 Ambedkar 
            played the role of a stormy petrel in Indian politics confronting 
            great icons such as Gandhi and Nehru. He felt that Gandhi had pushed 
            the problem of the untouchables under a capacious rug called 
            "Harijans" (children of God). He demanded a fundamental 
            transformation in the social philosophy and structure of Hindu 
            society, stating that wherever there was caste there were bound to 
            be outcasts. He had secured political gains for the untouchables 
            through negotiations with the rulers and Gandhi (Poona Pact of 
            September 1932). But he realized that a few and halting political 
            concessions did nothing to change the social and economic conditions 
            of the untouchables as a whole. Ambedkar, in spite of his 
            illustrious academic career, his knowledge and understanding of law 
            and his political efforts had known personal humiliation as a Mahar. 
            He was humiliated in the elections of 1952 when the Congress Party 
            contrived his defeat at the hands of a non-entity from one of the 
            "scheduled" castes. The upper caste Hindus in the Congress had 
            frustrated him but Ambedkar was not the one to meekly accept defeat 
            and ask for forgiveness and accommodation.(10) 
            Since the 1930's Ambedkar was deeply exercised with the subject of 
            interrelationships between Hinduism and current politics. The three 
            major influences in his family life and early childhood were a) the 
            religious ambience in his family; b) the humiliations he suffered at 
            the hands of the upper caste Hindus as a student and a professional 
            person and c) his six-plus years spent in the West. Each of these 
            shaped his thinking and defined the nature of his responses to 
            religion and politics in India. 
            His familial religious affiliation was with the Kabir Panth named 
            after Kabir who lived during the last quarter of the Fifteenth and 
            the opening decades of the Sixteenth centuries (tradition asserts 
            that Kabir died in AD 1518). Kabir was a disciple of Ramananda, the 
            founder of the Bhakti movement. Kabir was a rebel who attacked the 
            caste system and religious divisions and preached a doctrine of 
            loving devotion to the One and Loving God. The influence of the 
            Ramananda-Kabir Bhakti marga (path) continued through much of 
            Ambedkar's life. 
            If Bhakti attracted Ambedkar, so did the Sanskrit language. But 
            Brahmanical arrogance prevented him from learning the language then 
            regarded as the sole preserve of the Brahmans. All of this created 
            in him an uncompromising hostility to Hinduism. In 1948 he called 
            Hindu civilization an "infamy". For him what was defining in the 
            Hindu tradition was not the lofty metaphysics of the Vedanta which 
            identified the individual being with the Supreme but its social 
            doctrines enshrined in law codes such as the Manu Smriti which he 
            ceremonially torched in 1927.(11) Ambedkar had lost his patience 
            with faith in Hinduism for he doubted its ability to change its 
            social thinking and accord human dignity to millions who so 
            pathetically hovered at the fringes of Hindu society. 
            By the 1930's Ambedkar had begun to turn his back on Hinduism with 
            its chaturvarna (four "orders" which Gandhi accepted implicitly) as 
            a determinant in a system of division of social labour turning 
            millions of the panchamas (outcastes) into "invisible" humans. 
            Hinduism had not known genuine Reformation and its Renaissance was 
            much like a rediscovery of a long lost Brahmanical past. The ruling 
            caste hierarchies of the Brahman and intermediate castes (such as 
            the Maratha castes in Maharashtra and Yadavs in northern India) had 
            a vested economic and social interest in keeping the untouchables in 
            their "place". His Western experience had given him a taste for the 
            thrust and parry of rational thought and the power of ideas in 
            bringing about far-reaching social change. Hindu leaders, he felt, 
            were more interested in preserving their political and economic 
            power than in bringing about much-needed change in social thinking 
            and behaviour.(12) 
            The failure of the Hindu hierarchy in meaningfully helping the 
            submerged masses climb out of their state of degredation and despair 
            made Ambedkar pessimistic about the future of the untouchables in 
            Hindu society. At a conference at Yeola (Nasik distinct in 
            Maharashtra) he declared, more in sorrow that anger: "It is an 
            unfortunate fact that I have been born a Hindu; it was not in my 
            hands or change that. But I can say this with utmost gravity and 
            sincerity: I will not die a Hindu".(13) With this he put the Hindus 
            on notice that he was not a pity-mongering supplication of a Choka 
            Mela but a revolt against a faith and its social system that denied 
            human dignity to millions. He had begun a search for a faith that 
            would empower the untouchables to be human beings in their own 
            right. 
            Ambedkar had won for the untouchables a few economic and political 
            concessions and a possibility of functioning as a "pressure group" 
            in the game of party politics. He differed fundamentally from Gandhi 
            in matters of economic and social thinking. Gandhi was skeptical of 
            the benefits of "modernization". He denounced industrialization as 
            heartless and exploitative. He preached a return to a romantically 
            idealized village society. Ambedkar had grown out of that society 
            and the reality of that society was far from idyllic. For him the 
            Indian village was dead, for decades if not centuries. What was left 
            of it was a corpse ready for incineration or burial. For him the 
            best course for the untouchables was two-fold, leave the village to 
            escape the social and economic tyranny imposed by the intermediate 
            castes and seek their destiny in the industrializing urban areas and 
            leave Hinduism to its own devices for a new identity through another 
            faith. 
            Marxism failed to attract him. His own deeply religious nature was 
            uncomfortable with Marxist materialism and historical determinism 
            and the Marxist reality of tyranny and suppression of dissent in the 
            Soviet Union. He had seen the intellectual subservience of the 
            Indian Marxists to their mentors in Russia and was wary of the 
            Indian left-wing intellectuals and their newly discovered 
            "secularism". He felt neither was capable of confronting the social 
            reality of the untouchables either in their dogmas or eagerness to 
            play "operational" politics in the Indian context. 
            His decision to leave the Hindu fold in 1935 led to a virtual 
            "conversion" stampede. Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and other sundry 
            religious votaries raced to his door with all kinds of promises. For 
            some of them it was a kind of a spiritual "auction" for the prize 
            was nothing less than the winning of millions of votaries and their 
            votes from among the ex-untouchables. He did not want his people to 
            be mere pawns on the chess board of political ambitions. Also he 
            knew that his followers were deeply affected by Bhakti and cherished 
            their "Indian-ness". Islam in India had a past of invasions and 
            fanatical suppression of non-Muslim challengers. Christianity was 
            tainted with its association with imperialist rule and was regarded 
            as much of "foreign" orgin as Islam. 
            What Ambedkar was seeking for his people was more than the removal 
            of the formal stigma of "untouchability" and consequent economic 
            deprivation and social degradation. He wanted for his people a new 
            faith, a new identity based on an ethical creed and a rationalistic 
            world-view. This, for obvious reasons, also had to be a part of the 
            "Indic" tradition. Buddhism, it seemed to him, was such a doctrine 
            and culture. 
            Buddhism, for Ambedkar was a religion of reason and compassion. The 
            Buddha had challenged Brahmanical priestly presumption with its 
            quasi-magical ritual and inequitous social hierarchy. Buddhism, for 
            Ambedkar, was a basically rational creed with faith in the ability 
            of man to be an architect of his own destiny. More than its monastic 
            ideals and emphasis on withdrawal from the world of everyday events, 
            Ambedkar saw in Buddhism a means for the untouchable to transcend 
            the limitations of caste and turn toward a "modern" rationalist 
            understanding of himself and his world. Buddhism had a glorious past 
            in philosophy and metaphysics, literature and art, social awareness 
            and meaningful effort in helping the individual find himself. He 
            wanted to get away from the Hindu mansion but not alienate himself 
            and his followers from their "Indian-ness". In a sense Ambedkar's 
            act in turning to Buddhism rather than Islam or Christianity was his 
            final gracious gesture toward the Hindus. He was saying that he was 
            leaving Hinduism but not abandoning the Indic tradition. As a 
            realist Ambedkar knew much that passed muster under the rubric of 
            Buddhism was not without blemishes and the insistence of monastic 
            Buddhism in its ascetic renunciation from the world was not 
            something he favoured. He had begunn to give his own interpretation 
            of what to him was the essential Buddhism committed to social 
            action, economic advancement and social "modernization". The new 
            Choka Mela had ceased imploring God to deliver him from humiliation 
            and deprivation but was ready and willing to march into an identity 
            of a new faith and its new distinctive culture. He had turned his 
            back on the old temple to find a new shrine promising revitalization 
            of the entire human being. Buddhism, thus, was not just another 
            religion but an opportune way of modernizing and energizing a 
            hitherto submerged and suppressed mass. 
            His call for conversion to Buddhism in 1956 was heeded in massive 
            numbers. In 1951 there were 2,487 Buddhists in Maharashtra (0.1% of 
            the population). In 1961 they were 2,789,501 (7.5%) far exceeding 
            the numbers of Christians (1.42%) and close to that the Muslims 
            (7.6%), Ambedkar's conversion had projected a new (14) community 
            claiming its own distinct place under the Indian sun.(14) 
            The careers of Dhammapala and Ambedkar point to the inadequacies of 
            accepted notions concerning so-called world-affirming and 
            world-negating typology in the history of world religions. Theravada 
            Buddhism, as revealed in a scripture-focussed understanding, is a 
            religion of world-renunciation. But its political and social thrusts 
            are clearly revealed in historical evidence of dynastic chronicles 
            and a mass of inscriptional material scattered across India, Sri 
            Lanka, Burma and Thailand. Ever since its inception laymen and 
            laywomen formed an integral and active part of the Theravada 
            Buddhist society and the role of the men and women of the world has 
            been no less distinguished than that of the monastic communities in 
            the making of its world. Dhammapala espoused Buddhism as a basis for 
            the Simhalese cultural reaffirmation; Ambedkar found in it a means 
            for social liberation and cultural transcendence. 
            NOTES 
            1 For ideas on Modernity see Rudolph, L.I. & Rudolph, S.H., The 
            Modernity of Tradition, Chicago, 1967, pp. 12-14. 
            2 For religion and nationalism see Van der Veer, P., Religious 
            Nationalism, Berkeley, 1994, pp. 118-119; for Theosophy and Buddhism 
            see Agarwal, C.V., The Buddhism and the Theosophical Movements, 
            Sarnath, 1993, pp. 13 ff. 
            3 For an earlier version of Dharmapala and the Simhalese renaissance 
            see Gokhale, B.G., "Anagarika Dharmapala - Toward Modernity Through 
            Tradition" in Smith, B.L. (Ed), Contributions to Asian Studies, 
            Leiden, 1975, pp. 30-39 for Dharmapala's life see Bhikshu 
            Samgharakshita, Anagarika Dharmapala, A Biographical Sketch, Kabdy, 
            1964, p. 2. 
            4 For the Goyigama caste see Bryce, Ryan, Caste in Modern Ceylon, 
            New Brunswick, 1953, p. 96. 
            5 Details of Dharmapala's career are based on Samgharakshita, Op. 
            Cit., and Guruge, A., (Ed), Return to Rightiousness, Colombo, pp. 
            XXXIII if; also see Wickramaratne, "Religion, Nationalism and Social 
            Change in Ceylon, 1865-1885" in Journal of the Royal Asiatic 
            Society, No: 2, 1969, pp. 135 ff. 
            6 Guruge, Op. Cit., pp. LXI-LXXXIII. 
            7 Quoted in Samgharakshita, Op. Cit., p. 62. 
            8 For Dharmapala and "Protestant" Buddhism see Gombrich, R. & 
            Obeysekere, Buddhism Transformed, Princeton, 1988, pp. 13 ff, 
            221-227; 231-234 and passim. 
            9 For sources on Ambedkar's life and career see B.G. Gokhale, "Dr. 
            Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar: Rebel against Hindu Tradition" in Smith, 
            B.L. (Ed), Religion and Social Conflict in South Asia, Leiden, 1976, 
            pp. 14-16; for details see Gokhale, J., From Concessions to 
            Confrontation, Bombay, 1993, pp. 83 ff. 
            10 Gokhale, B.G., Op. Cit., pp. 16-20. 
            11 Gokhale, J., Op. Cit., pp. 94-95, 164-165. 
            12 Gokhale, B.G., Op. Cit., pp. 18-19. 
            13 Ibid., pp. 21-22. 
            14 Ibid., p. 22. 
            15 For royal support to Buddhism see Gokhale, B.G., Asoka Maurya 
            (New York, 1966), pp. 67 ff; and Buddhism in Maharashtra (Bombay, 
            1976), pp. 120 if; for inter-relations between the Samgha and the 
            laity see Gokhale, B.G., New Light on Early Buddhism (Bombay, 1994), 
            pp. 13-24. 
            16 For these views see Blackburn, A.M. "Religion, Kinship and 
            Buddhism: Ambedkar's Vision of a Moral Community" in Journal of the 
            International Association of Buddhist Studies, Vol. XVI, No: 1, pp. 
            1-23. 
            Professor Emeritus, Department of History and Asian Studies, Wake 
            University, Winston-Salem, NC 27106, U.S.A. 
            Balkrishna Govind Gokhale, Professor Emeritus of History and Asian 
            Studies, Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, NC, has taught for 
            48 years, fifteen in India and thirty three in the United States. 
            His interest in Pali and Theravada Buddhism goes back to 1935. Among 
            his seventeen books and 95 papers published in the U.S., Canada, 
            U.K., France, Italy, Israel, Thailand, Sri Lanka and India, four 
            books and some 36 papers deal with Pali literature and Buddhist 
            history.