Buddhism arose in India but it virtually vanished in the place of its origin around the 12th century. At the beginning of the 20th century, Buddhism was all but dead in India. Certain tribal groups in Bengal continued to follow Buddhism, as did peoples in Ladakh and Sikkim where Tibetan culture was influential, but these groups were on the minorities of Indian society.
In modern times, Buddhism started to revive in India after the mass conversion led by B. R. Ambedkar who was an Dalit himself and the leader of the Dalit in India. His lifework was the emancipation of the Dalit from the distinction and oppression originated from caste system and conversion was his final solution was to abandon Hinduism which was perpetuated caste injustice and to convert to a new religion for the Dalit.
After a long quest for a new religion, he finally embraced Buddhism for the alternative religion for the Dalit. Based on his long research on Buddhism, he produced the new and unique interpretation of Buddhism which was rather different from the traditional Buddhism. And his interpretation of Buddhism became the basis of Neo-Buddhism in India and it is no exaggeration to say that he is a founder of new religion, named Neo-Buddhism.
In this point, his interpretation of Buddhism deserves grave research. To see his view on Buddhism, it is important to examine his view on the Buddha. Also, his conversion was prompted by caste system and its cruelty, his view on the Buddha's attitude toward caste system should be examined.
As mentioned earlier, Ambedkar had studied Buddhism for a long time and his book, The Buddha and His Dhamma, is the product of his long and deep research on Buddhism. Thus, the observation on his view on the Buddha and Buddha’s attitude toward caste system will be done based on this book.
2. His View on the Buddha
Ambedkar devotes the first part of the book to explain the life of the Buddha and posits the Buddha’s life as the frame for the teaching of the dhamma throughout the volume. As he already did earlier, in his article, The Buddha and the Future of His religion, he again compared the Buddha with other religious leaders and brought out the human aspects of the Buddha in The Buddha and His Dhamma. He says,
Christ claimed to be the Prophet of Christianity. He further claimed that he was the Son of God… Mohammad, the Prophet of Islam, claimed that he was a Prophet sent by God…
He[the Buddha] claimed that he was no more than natural son of Suddhodana and Mahamaya… The Buddha never claimed that he was a prophet or a messenger of God. He repudiated any such description...
All prophets have promised salvation. The Buddha is the one teacher who did not make such promise. He made a sharp distinction between a moksha data and a marga data, one who gives salvation and one who only shows the way. He was only a marga data. ..
He[the Buddha] claimed that he was one of the many human beings and his message to the people was the message of man to man. He never claimed infallibility for his message….He said that it was open to anyone to question it, test it and find what truth is contained.
In The Buddha and His Dhamma, Ambedkar reconstructed the life of the Buddha from the Suttapiṭaka, the Buddhacarita and the works of Paul Carus, Lakshmi Narasu and Edward Thomas. Here, he maintains the strong rational position on the Buddha. This position caused even some modification of the Buddha’s life. The most striking example is that of his renunciation. It is generally known that the Buddha saw a dead person, a sick person, and an old person while he was living as a prince and was deeply disturbed with the experiences. And then he met a dignified hermit and decided to take renunciation and become an ascetic. For Ambedkar this reason for renouncing the world is absurd. And he proposed his own explanation for the Buddha’s Parivraja.
According to The Buddha and His Dhamma, the Sakyas, the clan of the Buddha, had their Sangh that every Sakya youth above twenty had to become the member and the Buddha was also initiated into the Sangh when he became twenty. After eight year from his enrollment, there was a dispute between the Sakyas and the neighbor clan, the Koliyas due to the use of water of the Rohini. The Sangh resolved to declare a war on the Koliyas. The Buddha strong apposed the resolution and this led to serious discord with the Sangh. Thus he decided to become a Parivrajaka as an exile.
It was Dharmanand Kosambi who first insisted this opinion and Ambedkar seems to borrow the idea from Kosambi. And his play ‘Bodhisattwa’ in Marathi has many scenes similar to this whole story of his discord with the Sangh, the dispute on the Rohini River, and his decision to take the denouncement as an exile.
And some thought this drew on in the Kuṇala Jataka. This Jataka mentioned the dispute on water but it happened after the Buddha renounced and attained the nirvana. Thus the description about the renunciation of the Buddha in The Buddha and His Dhammais is not based on any traditional Buddhist literatures.
As Ambedkar says, the story of Four Encounters could be absurd and unreasonable. When he took the renunciation he was 29 years old. It is irrational to suppose that a man of 29 would not have been exposed earlier to the presence of sickness and death though he remained in the palaces only. He could feel the misery of death, aging and sickness through his family as his own mother passed away just after his birth. Thus Ambedkar felt that the explanation was not plausible and did not appeal to reason.
It is not important, however, the story of Four Encounters is a historical fact. It means that the Buddha, then Prince Siddharth, felt the vanity of life through the birth, aging, illness, and death and sought the solution of this fundamental problem. And the fourth meet with a hermit signifies the means to overcome the inexorable nature of life and to attain the fundamental happiness. Thus, the story of Four Encounters can be elucidated the reflex of his thought on the birth, old age, sickness and death not some events which actually happened in his life. The four sights are metaphors for human transience and suffering.
In Sukhamala Sutta, the Buddha mentions that despite of his refined life such as having three palaces before his renunciation, he was obsessed with the thought about aging, illness and death. He says human beings are subject to aging, illness and death and it is wrong to be horrified, humiliated and disgusted on seeing another person who is aged, ill, and dead. And as he noticed this, his intoxication with youth, health, and life entirely dropped away. It shows that the Buddha had thought deeply about the unavoidable problem of life since he was young and healthy.
Later, the Buddha said he took the renunciation to seek the noble end of the yoke extinction without birth, decaying, illness, and death. The Buddha also explained to his disciples that the aim for Bhikshus life is to overcome birth, decay, death, grief, lament, unpleasantness, displeasure and distress and to achieve the complete ending of unpleasantness. He also told to his last disciple, Subhadda, that he renounced the world to seek the Good.
Thus the story of Four Encounters must be embellished by the editor of Buddhist literatures to describe the great renunciation of the Buddha more dramatically. They intended to emphasize the aim of the Buddha’s renunciation, i.e., the extrication from the circle of birth, aging, decay, and death.
However, Ambedkar who refused to accept the story of Four Encounters tried to find the reason of the renunciation of the Buddha from the social and political background. It reflects his view on religion which is social. For Ambedkar, the Buddha was not a person who was unconcerned with politics and social problems. He was the person who never tolerated social wrongfulness and injustice. Thus, Ambedkar may have correlated the Buddha’s renunciation with the political issue. According to him, the Buddha’s renunciation is motivated more by political exigencies rather than a desire to find the ultimate truth.
In The Buddha and His Dhamma, after Prince Siddharth left his home, he heard that the dispute on the Rohini was settled and a war did not happened. Since the dispute which caused him took the renunciation was over, he thought whether he came back to home or continued his Parivraja. He thought that ‘the problem of war is essentially a problem of conflict. It is only a part of a larger problem.’ And conflicts are constantly and perpetually going on between all relationships and it is the conflict which is the root of all sorrow and suffering. Thus he decided to find a solution for this problem of social conflict.
According to Ambedkar, the Buddha not only left his home for political reason but continued his parivraja to solve the social problems. Thus, the pursuit of solution for social conflict was his aim for his parivraja. Ambedkar wants the Buddha to be a social reformer who fought for the reconstruction of the unjust world as Ambedkar himself had done in his whole life. Thus In The Buddha and His Dhamma, the reason that the Buddha decided to preach his teachings is also to carry out the social reforms. It says,
Knowing that there was so much unhappiness in the world the Buddha realized that it was wrong for him to sit as a sanyasi with folded arms and allow thins to remain as they were. Asceticism he found to be useless. It was vain to attempt to escape from the world. There is no escape from the world even for an ascetic. He realized that what is necessary is not escape from the world. What is necessary is to change the world and to make it better. He realized that he left the world because there was so much conflict resulting in misery and unhappiness and for which he knew no remedy. If he can banish misery and unhappiness from the world by the propagation of his doctrine, it was his duty to return to the world and serve it and not sit silent as the personification of inactive impassivity.
And the five parivrajakas who practiced austerities with the Buddha before his enlightenment also accepted the Buddha as a social reformer in The Buddha and His Dhamma.
They felt that in him they had found a social reformer, full of the most earnest moral purpose and trained in all the intellectual culture of his time, who had the originality and the courage to put forth… the doctrine of salvation to be found here, in this life…
It seems that Ambedkar tried to make the Buddha as a hero of the underprivileged that could be synonymous with untouchables in India. He says that “the purpose of Tathagata in coming into the world is to befriend those poor and helpless and unprotected, to nourish those in bodily affliction, whether they be Samansa or men of any other religion – to help the impoverished, the orphan and the aged, and to persuade others so to do”.
As mentioned above, however, the aim of Buddhists is to overcome birth, decay, death, grief, lament, unpleasantness, displeasure and distress and to achieve the complete ending of unpleasantness and this is applied to all human beings. The problem of birth, decay, illness and death is universal and not specific to certain stratum. In his attempt to make the Buddhism as the most adequate religion for the untouchables, Ambedkar made the Buddha as a leader o only for the untouchables not a universal leader.
In fact, there were several disciples of the Buddha who was the elites of a society. Buddhism appears to have been popular amongst royalty, business magnates and bureaucrats. The king of Magadha, Bimbisara was one of the greatest patrons of the Buddha and Anathapindika who donated Jeta Park to the Buddha having purchased it from Prince Jeta was extremely wealthy businessman in Sravasti.
Since the teachings of the Buddha had the universal validity, it attracted people from all sections at the time of the Buddha and it is so in all ages and places. If the Buddha came into the world to befriend those poor and helpless and unprotected, it can be the other form of discrimination against which Ambedkar had fought throughout his whole life.
The Buddha took the renunciation to seek the solution for the problem of birth, decay, illness and death. Thus his aim for the renunciation is personal rather than social. And his decision to preach the Dhamma was also to help mankind to attain Nirvana. The society can be changed by achieving the personal goal, attaining Nirvana, but the changing and reforming the society cannot be the Buddha’s primary reason for his decision to take the renunciation and continue the practice.
It seems that Ambedkar’s description of the Buddha is not based on serious philological or historical studies, but is instead a liberal reconstruction and a new interpretation. Ambedkar wants to construct the figure of an ideal social reformer, of a new Buddha.
3. The Buddha's Attitude toward Caste System
To explain the Buddha's attitude toward Caste system, Ambedkar cited Assalayana Sutta and Esukari Sutta of Majjhima Nikaya and Aggika-Bharadwaj sutta of Sutta Nipata. He cited the conversation between the Buddha and a Brahmin named Esukari from Esukari Sutta of Majjhima Nikaya.
As against pride of ancestry, the station into which a man happens to be born determines only his designation be it noble or Brahmin or middle-class or peasant. Even as a fire is called after the material out of which it is kindled, and may thus be called either a wood-fire, or a chip-fire, or a bracken-fire, or a cowdung fire, just in the same way the noble, tran-scendant doctrine, I aver, is the source of true wealth for every man, birth merely determining his designation in one of the four classes.
"Lineage does not enter into a man's being either good or bad: nor do good looks or wealth. For, you will find a man of noble birth who is a murderer, a thief, a fornicator, a liar, a slanderer, a man of bitter tongue, a tattler, a covetous person, a man of rancour or of wrong views, and therefore I assert that noble birth does not make a good man. Or again you will find a man of noble birth who is innocent of all these vices; and, therefore, I assert that it is not lineage which makes a man bad."
What is important is high ideals and not noble birth. "No caste; no inequality; no superiority; no inferiority; all are equal. This is what he stood for. Identify yourself with others. As they, so I. As I, so they."
And he cited the story of the Brahmin Aggika who called the Buddha as outcaste. The Buddha explained to him that an outcaste was a person whose nature was immoral and behavior was evil. And the Buddha concluded that "No one is an outcaste by birth － and no one is a Brahmin by birth".
Besides the three suttas which Ambedkar cited in his book, there are several teachings on caste system in suttas. In Aggañña Sutta, the Buddha said,
…anyone from the four castes who becomes a monk, an Arahant who has destroyed the corruptions, who has lived the life, done what had to be done, laid down the burden, reached the highest goal, destroyed the fetter of becoming, and become emancipated through super-knowledge － he is proclaimed supreme by virtue of Dhamma and not of non-Dhamma.
…all of you, though of different birth, name, clan and family, who have gone forth from the household life into homelessness, if you are asked who you are, should reply: "We are ascetics, followers of the Sakyan."
And there is the well-known verse about the caste in Sutta Nipata by the Buddha, saying "Not by birth does one become an outcaste, not by birth does one become a Brahman. By action one becomes an outcaste, by action one becomes a Brahman."
As mentioned above, the Buddha placed a higher value on morality and the equality of people instead of on which family or caste a person is born into. He pointed out that there existed malicious and cruel people as well as virtuous and kindhearted people in every caste. Any person who had committed a crime would be punished accordingly by his karma irrespective of caste he belonged to. He said a person may be considered to have come from a high or low caste according to his good and bad deeds. Therefore, according to the Buddha it is the good and bad actions of a person and not his birth that should determine his caste.
And after becoming of member of the Sangha, monks and nuns were treated impartially. If there was be different in grade, it went by time of joining of the Sangha. For example, Upali who was a barber in the Buddha's hometown before becoming monk was considered as a senior of noble youths of Sakyas who entered the Sangha after him. According to Vinaya texts, members of the four castes renounce their names and their lineage when they become Buddhist monks. His Sangha was open to all and there was no bar of caste, sex or status.
Thus Ambedkar describes the Buddha as "the strongest opponent of caste and the earliest and staunchest upholder of equality". And he adds that the Buddha confuted all argument supporting caste and inequality.
It is hard to say that, however, the Buddha specified anywhere the way the secular society should be organized. And he pointed out the wrongfulness and injustice of caste system which determines the status of a person by birth but never mentioned abolition of class distinctions in the society. Wijayaratna insists that the Buddha had no intention either of bringing about a social revolution nor of instigating the oppressed against their oppressors. And Bechert asserts that the Buddhist doctrine hardly states the necessity to transform the society or improve the social conditions.
Ambedkar points out that if inequality be approved as the rule of the competition in the struggle for existence the weakest will always fall behind. But the fittest cannot be the best. Thus he suggests that equality may help the best to survive although the best may not be the fittest and religion must sustain equality. In this reason, the Buddha argued that a religion which did not preach equality is not worth having.
As he said, the Buddha emphasized equality at the time when the discrimination of human being was natural. Though he did not strongly protested against caste in the secular society, his attitude of abrogation of caste in his Sangha was laudable enough in consideration of social aspect of his time.
Ambedkar was fascinated by the figure of the Buddha but he transformed him into a humanist and a kind of social reformer. For him, the Buddha was the strongest opponent of caste. His view on the Buddha in which he placed emphasis on the social aspects than spiritual aspects influenced his interpretation of Buddhism. Based on this viewpoint, he introduced a number of innovations in traditional Buddhism.