It is commonly held that converting to a religion for reasons other than personal spiritual conviction or awakening is unethical and unseemly. Reading about Christian missions to societies in Southeast Asia and Africa offering shelter, books, and food to whoever is willing to be baptized (some Christians call this a “soul harvest”) often leaves a bitter aftertaste. Few would take seriously the deathbed conversion of someone who has engaged in harmful livelihood for most of their life, such as human trafficking or arms dealing. In these cases and others, almost everyone’s sense of decency is offended when someone converts in bad faith.
However, when one considers the conversion to Buddhism by Indians from “untouchable” castes (many within these diverse castes have given themselves the political label “Dalits”), it becomes clear that conversion is an issue not only of spiritual conviction, but also one of social justice: a concern that many consider to be critical for religious traditions. In other words, “impure” motivations for converting to Buddhism can, in certain contexts, provoke intellectual rejuvenation and vigor.
The Dalit Buddhist movement famously began with Dr. B. R. Ambedkar (1891–1956), the architect of India’s first constitution. As a member of the Mahar caste, which was considered “untouchable,” his experience of discrimination was personal and raw. In several writings and speeches, particularly his posthumously published book The Buddha and his Dhamma (1957, Siddhartha College Publications), Ambedkar was clear that his allegiance to the Buddhist tradition was based on its rationality and universal message of liberation. He believed that Buddhism’s universality suited the Dalits’ drive for equal treatment.
By 1927, Ambedkar had become a tireless advocate for the rights of untouchables and believed that Buddhism’s disregard for caste meant that it was a logical choice for Dalits seeking to “opt out” of India’s varna social structure that placed them at the very bottom. Since 1956, the year of his taking refuge and death, Ambedkar has been credited with the conversion to Buddhism of an estimated 40–50 million Dalits.
Significant political concessions were granted to the Dalits after 1950. Several high-level ministerial positions have been held by Dalits across the country, particularly since the 1990s, and in 1997 India elected K. R. Narayanan as its first Dalit president. The majority of Dalits are also in employment, although according to a 2012 survey by Mangalore University, 94 per cent of Dalit families still live below the poverty line, and discrimination has yet to be eradicated. (The Times of India)
Nevertheless, Ambedkar succeeded in associating Buddhism with modern notions of equality and justice. Thanks to this eminent figure, the Buddhist tradition came to be seen in India as a force for progress that struck at the heart of the caste system, which is not legal in the constitution but remains culturally pervasive. His intellectual legacy has contributed to the vitality of Buddhism in India and has fueled academic and spiritual interest in the tradition. As recently as this month, there was a large-scale conference in India dedicated to Ambedkar’s political thought. It is partly thanks to his mix of spiritual and political motivations that modern Indian politicians are keen to associate themselves with “Ambedkarism” (look no further than the current prime minister, Narendra Modi) and that larger numbers of Indians are taking the Buddhist tradition seriously.
It is therefore difficult to argue that his contribution to the Dharma was not positive, even though his motivations for supporting the tradition were distinctly political, based on the explicit reasoning that Buddhism could help facilitate economic and social equality for Dalits. Today, many mass-conversions to Buddhism by Dalits, while undoubtedly rooted in spiritual conviction, consciously follow Ambedkar’s tradition of protesting and renouncing Hindu social restrictions.
Nevertheless, there are concerns in India that Buddhism’s association with the liberation of untouchables might lead to a misunderstanding of the nature of Buddhism. One detects this concern from the growing numbers of India’s educated middle class who are interested in Buddhism, or who have already taken refuge. Members of this small but influential minority, who live surrounded by Hindu family and friends (hence their self-classification as “culturally Hindu but spiritually Buddhist”) do not agree that Buddhism should be a political force, and view this vision of Buddhism with suspicion. Some of them fear that Buddhism interpreted purely through the lens of political struggle risks becoming a divisive, partisan movement that can be subordinated to the interests of powerful Dalits.
Both understandings of Buddhism—as a force for social justice as well as a tradition that stands above politics—carry intellectual weight. The perennial debate within Buddhism, in many societies around the world, is how politically involved it should become. While there can be no conclusive answer, the fact that this debate is happening at all within the Three Vehicles is helpful in itself. In India, it took Ambedkar’s desire for social and economic justice to kick-start the conversation. That can only have been a good thing.
The Buddha and his Dhamma (electronic copy) (Columbia University)
93% dalit families still live below poverty line, says survey (The Times of India)
India Hosts Global Conference on Social Engagement and Liberation (Buddhistdoor Global)
India and Sri Lanka Commemorate the Life and Work of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar (Buddhistdoor Global)
Indian State of Maharashtra Mulls Separate Law for Buddhist Marriages (Buddhistdoor Global)
Remembering a Hero of Buddhist Politics: The B.R. Ambedkar University of Lucknow Hosts Seminar on Ambedkar’s Thought (Buddhistdoor Global)