Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar was born in 1891 into the ‘untouchables’, a segment of India’s population that was hitherto deprived, degraded, and often mistreated by the other castes. Yet despite his early deprivation, Dr. Ambedkar later rose in stature and prominence through hard work and fortitude to become the first Law Minister of independent India. He is also popularly regarded as the ‘principal architect of the Indian Constitution’ – a social contract that granted liberties, justice, and respectability to India’s dejected millions.
Dr. Ambedkar fought a long and hard political and social campaign to gain respect and dignity for the ‘untouchables’. In 1955, he founded the Buddhist Society of India. He traveled to Sri Lanka and Burma to attend meetings with Buddhist monks and leaders.
His work to unshackle the Indian caste-bondage culminated in the pivotal moment, when Dr. Ambedkar with nearly 500,000 of his followers gathered in Nagpur on 14 October 1956 to officially embrace Theravada Buddhism, reciting “Namo Tassa Bhagavato Arahato Samma Sambuddhassa”, the Three Refuges, and Five Precepts. It was perhaps the largest single conversion to Buddhism in Buddhist history! And at the same stroke, Dr. Ambedkar led a revival of Buddhism in its land of origin after 800 years of absence.
Unfortunately, Dr. Ambedkar passed away just weeks after that mass conversion to Buddha-Sasana due to ill-health. But the ‘Dalit Buddhist’ revival movement in India would survive him to this day. So did his seminal manuscript ‘The Buddha and His Dhamma’, an influential work which was published posthumously.
Due to Dr. Ambedkar’s pioneering work, there are an estimated 17 million Buddhists in India today, and their numbers are growing, as well as their facilities and social acceptance. But much more needs to be done in concert to help the movement gain greater momentum in many parts of India, especially where Buddhism used to be widely practised.
Today on 14 October, the anniversary of that greatest mass conversion in human history, let us remember the efforts of a man whose vision and conviction gave renewed faith and hope to the millions of downtrodden people. We salute the courage and service of Babasaheb Ambedkar who stands tall among the luminaries of our modern humanitarian and egalitarian age.