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Buddha and the Future of His Religion by Dr Ambedkar - Questions and Answers

by Sangharakshita

QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS on 'Buddha and the Future of his Religion' by Dr B.R.

Ambedkar
(Article originally in Maha Bodhi Journal, April/May 1950, reprinted in India, 1981 as a
pamphlet.)
PRESENT: Sangharakshita, Vessantara, Uttara, Sudhana, Sumana, Cittapala, Jayamati,
Sanghapala, Chakkhupala, Dharmamati, Ratnaprabha, Padmapani, Douglas Ponton, Duncan
Steen, Peter Nicholson, Paul Tozer, Alan Pendock, Ben Murphy, Ong Sin Choon, Alan
Turner, Kevin Donovan, Derek Goodman, Colin Lavender, Thomas McGeary, Gerd Baak.
6 September 1986Vessantara: So today, Bhante, we started studying Buddha and the Future of his Religion. I
think most of the groups have been partly finding their bearings in the Indian world, because
a lot of the questions that we've got are really requests for more information and explanation
to help us get into the text as it were. We'll start with Sin Choon.
Ong Sin Choon: As a matter of interest, [I would like to] know whether this article was
written before Dr Ambedkar's conversion to Buddhism.
S: No, it was written in 1950 and it was published in the Wesak issue of the Maha Bodhi
Journal for that year. The mass conversion happened in 1956, so it was written more than five
years before that.
Peter Nicholson: Do you know at whom the article was aimed, who it was written for? And
do you know what language it was originally written in? Do you know whether it was a
translation?
S: No, it was written in English. It was written for the Maha Bodhi Journal, as I have just
mentioned, and the Maha Bodhi Journal was and still is the official organ of the Maha Bodhi
Society of India, so presumably Dr Ambedkar wanted to reach the readership of that
magazine. It was read by those sympathetic to Buddhism in India as well as by
English-speaking Buddhists in South-east Asia and even in the West. Inasmuch as it was the
organ of the Maha Bodhi Society, and inasmuch as the Maha Bodhi Society had its Buddhist
roots in Sri Lanka in Ceylon probably Dr Ambedkar was addressing mainly a South-east
Asian English-knowing Buddhist audience, one could say. He hadn't at that time actually said
in so many words that he was going to become a Buddhist, and he seems to have been sort of
feeling his way and also voicing some of his ideas about Buddhism, also suggesting some
criticisms of contemporary Buddhist practice. So that's briefly the background. It will all be
described in much greater detail in my forthcoming little book Ambedkar and Buddhism.
Vessantara: Did this article elicit much response, do you know?
S: To the best of my knowledge, it elicited very little response, and that is perhaps in itself
significant that the Buddhist world, especially the Buddhist world of South-east Asia, should
not really have taken much notice of it, if in fact any notice. I myself took some notice of it,
and I wrote to [2] Ambedkar after reading it and we had a brief correspondence, and of course
I met him a couple of years later.
Sumana: Do you know whether he was commissioned to write this, or did he just submit it to
the Journal?
S: I wasn't editing the Maha Bodhi Journal then, so I can't speak from personal experience. It
is quite possible that he was invited to write or submit an article, because, as I mentioned, it
was published in the Wesak issue of the Maha Bodhi Journal and that was an especially thick
number; and the usual practice was to write around to all sorts of Buddhist scholars and
prominent people, asking them to contribute articles to the Wesak issue. It may well be that
he had been approached in that way. Or again, he may have just sent it, because he was
beginning at that time to express his views about Buddhism and about the necessity of
Buddhism in India, quite strongly from various public platforms.
Vessantara: Peter has a question about Dr Ambedkar and the spiritual life.
Peter Nicholson: To what extent do you feel that Dr Ambedkar was himself leading a
spiritual life? Do you know if he meditated regularly?
S: This, of course, does raise the question of what one means by a spiritual life. He didn't
meditate, to the best of my knowledge, in any formal sense; but despite his intellectuality he
seems to have been he was a very emotional man to begin with, and he seems to have had
very strong devotional feelings towards the Buddha. Those feelings seem to have been very
strong indeed, particularly strong at the end of his life. There is no doubt he led a spiritual life
in the sense that throughout the whole of his career he was concerned with the needs of
others; there is no doubt about that. In India, politics can be a very dirty game and there is a
lot of corruption in politics, but so far as one knows Ambedkar was completely free from
anything of that sort. He certainly had a very strong moral sense and very strong ethical
principles, and he based his life very much on those. You will get, I think, a fuller picture
when this book of mine comes out. I don't want to refer to it too much, because the fact of it
coming in hopefully three months' time doesn't help you very much now!
Vessantara: There is a quotation towards the end of the pamphlet which seems to imply that
Ambedkar didn't have a very high opinion of meditation. About bhikshus, he says: 'Of these,
a very large majority are merely sadhus and sannyasis spending their time in meditation or
idleness.'
S: That phrase is ambiguous: 'in meditation or idleness'. It is not clear whether he regards
meditation and idleness as the same thing or whether he regards them as two different things.
Do you see what I mean?
Vessantara: Yes, I do see that. He also says that they are 'merely' sadhus and sannyasis, which
suggests that he does not have a very high opinion of that way of life.
S: Yes, perhaps one must see here the Indian and the Hindu background. I get the impression
he doesn't state in so many words that he regarded meditation, in the light of his Indian and
Hindu experience, as consisting in a sort of rather selfish self-absorption in, possibly, inner
blissful states, [3] regardless of what was happening in the world, especially regardless of the
sufferings of other beings. So he was looking at meditation in a way much as a Mahayanist
might look at the arhant ideal. These were the associations that meditation had for him, in
view of his Indian and Hindu background. He saw it simply in terms of self-absorbed, selfish
mysticism of a sort. And, of course, one must remember that sannyasins in India well, until
very recently traditionally have no conception of any concern for society at large. They are
definitely doing their own thing and don't consider that they have any sort of responsibility
towards society or towards other living beings, so their attitude could be regarded as a
complete negation of the Bodhisattva ideal. Ambedkar, one could say, saw Buddhism very
much in terms of the Bodhisattva ideal, and though he doesn't speak of the ideal bhikkhu as
being a sort of Bodhisattva, that does seem to represent his way of thinking. Sometimes, of
course, he did admit that he tends to see the bhikkhu rather too much in terms of the social
worker that can't be denied which is, of course, in a sense the other extreme. But at his best,
one might say, he sees the ideal monks, or the spiritual life itself, in traditional Buddhist
terms in terms of the Bodhisattva ideal rather than the arhant ideal. In view of the background
from which he came, one can hardly be surprised at that. I refer to the background from which
he came I mean the fact that he came from an Untouchable family and the fact that the
Untouchables had such a degraded position in Hindu society at that time and still have.
Vessantara: When you say that 'up until recently' those who take sannyas had nothing to do
with the world, are you thinking about Rajneesh people claiming to ?
S: No, I was thinking of the Ramakrishna Mission, to which he refers towards the end of this
article. The founder of the Ramakrishna Mission, Swami Vivekananda, was of course
strongly influenced by the example of the Christian missionaries and also by what he had read
about Buddhism and the ancient Buddhist monastic orders.
Dharmamati: In this article, Dr Ambedkar compares Buddhism with three other religions. By
him, Krishna is treated as a historical person. Could you say something about how Krishna is
seen by Indians?
S: Hindus, of course, do see Krishna as a historical character, but in the form in which they
see him he can't be regarded as fully historical. The figure of Krishna seems to be a composite
one. There's a Vedic rishi who is called Krishna and who is referred to by the Buddha in the
Pali Canon as Kanha. Kanha is the Pali equivalent of Krishna. There is also the Krishna of the
Mahabharata, who is represented as the teacher of the Bhagavad Gita. Then, of course, there
is the Krishna of the Srimabhagavatan(?), a quite late Hindu scripture, a Purana, which
presents a quite different Krishna, not the warrior, not the teacher of Arjuna on the battlefield
of Kurukshetra, but the playmate of the gopis, the milkmaids of Brindaban(?). So traditional
Hinduism tends to fuse these three quite distinct figures, none of which may in fact be
historical, certainly not fully historical. Hinduism, of course, regards Krishna as one of the
incarnations of Vishnu, and of course he is a very prominent figure, one of the two or three
most prominent figures in the whole ...

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