On this day 60 years ago, Dr BR Ambedkar, polymath – scholar, the principal architect of India's Constitution, and Independent India's first law minister – converted to Buddhism, having declared in 1935 that it was his misfortune to be a born an "Untouchable Hindu" but he will not die as one. This was the beginning of a social revolution – on the same day, 5,00,000 of his followers became Buddhists and in the decades to come, many Dalits have chosen conversion as a means of emancipation. The place in Nagpur where this historic mass conversion took place was named the Deeksha Bhoomi and a stupa that stands here today has become a pilgrimage site.

To mark the 60th anniversary of Ambedkar's conversion, Christopher Queen of Harvard University, who has extensively studied and written on Ambedkarite Buddhism and has followed the Dalit movement since the 1980s, looks at the parallels between the civil rights movements in the US and India. This is an edited version of the keynote address he delivered at Ambedkar International Mission’s International Conference on the 60th Dhamma Deeksha Kranti Day on October 8 in Nagpur.

On October 14th, 1956 – 60 years ago today – Dr BR Ambedkar launched the largest mass Buddhist conversion in history, identifying the ancient teaching of Dhamma with the struggle for human rights and the abolition of caste in India.

During the same year, the American civil rights leader, Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, won his first victory in the US Supreme Court, ending the Montgomery Bus Boycott and establishing the principle of equality for African Americans in public transportation.

In the six decades that have passed since, the followers of Ambedkar and King have won many victories for social justice and human rights. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, and Ambedkar was awarded the Bharat Ratna in 1990, India’s highest civilian award, 34 years after his death.

We know that these great achievements have not guaranteed equality for tens of millions of Dalits, OBCs and tribal citizens of India, who still suffer the world’s highest rates of violence and poverty – or for African Americans in the United States, who are also subject to violence in the streets, discrimination in the workplace, and the highest rates of incarceration of any group in our prisons.

Also disturbing to us, as we gather here to celebrate the great Dhamma-Kranti of 1956, is the fact that BR Ambedkar, one of the most brilliant founding fathers of the Indian Republic, remains virtually unknown to the outside world. People know that Mahatma Gandhi led the fight for Independence and that his non-violent marches inspired Martin Luther King and the American civil rights movement. And most educated men and women have heard of Nehru and Tagore and a few other leaders of modern India.

But few people in the outside world have heard of Babasaheb Ambedkar, the first Untouchable to attend college in India, the first to earn doctoral degrees at Columbia University in New York and the London School of Economics and to pass the bar at Grays Inn in Britain; the first to launch movements for access to clean drinking water and Hindu temple entry in the 1920s; the first appointed law minister of Independent India and the principal author of its Constitution; and the only modern politician to identify religious conversion with the values of liberty, equality, and fraternity, and with policies of education, agitation, and organisation in the public sphere.

Conversion for reform

I say the only modern politician to identify religious conversion as a means to social advancement because, as you know, India long ago provided the greatest example of a head of state whose conversion to a new religious faith resulted in social and political reforms that still resonate today.This was Ashoka Maurya, who governed most of the Indian subcontinent from 269-232 BCE and who insisted on the rule of righteousness – Dharma Vijaya – as a basis for specific policies of government.These included respect for citizens in all walks of life, all religious sects, and compassion for the elderly, for pilgrims and the homeless, for animals and the natural environment.

In his Rock Edict XI, Ashoka described Dharma as proper treatment of slaves and servants, obedience to mother and father, liberality to friends, acquaintances, relatives, priests and ascetics, and abstention from the slaughter of animals...If one acts in this way, one achieves by the gift of Dharma happiness in this world and infinite merit in the world to come. (The Edicts of Asoka, edited by NA Nikam and Richard McKeon, Midway, Phoenix, University of Chicago Press, 1959, p 45)

Like Ashoka, Ambedkar came to see the notion of Dharma as a key to social reform and human rights. Sixty years ago, here in Nagpur, Ambedkar set in motion a Fourth Turning of the Wheel of Dharma, by publicly proclaiming Buddhism his personal faith. Hundreds of thousands of Dalits joined him in launching this great conversion movement, and in the years that have elapsed, millions more have taken the refuges, precepts, and vows that Babasaheb and his followers uttered in 1956.

The new vehicle

You may be asking: is Ambedkar’s Dhamma different from Ashoka’s Dharma?

On the eve of the conversion ceremony in 1956, reporters asked the ailing leader this question. Ambedkar replied that the Buddhism he embraced could be called a Navayana – a new vehicle.

While it is rooted in the Buddha’s ancient vow to end suffering for all beings, it is refocused today on the social, economic and political institutions that cause suffering for millions, especially the practices of caste and untouchability in India. Historically, Buddhism evolved into three branches or types of practice, called Yanas: the Hinayana or elite vehicle of Theravada monks and their lay supporters in South Asia; the Mayahana or great vehicle of bodhisattvas, missionaries and Zen masters in China and East Asia; and the Vajrayana or diamond vehicle of Tibetan lamas and their lay followers in the snowy lands of the Himalayas.

These traditional forms of Buddhism emphasise discipline, virtue, altruism, and ritual – attributes that are still valuable in overcoming the poisons of hatred, greed and delusion.But, while partaking of the benefits of these ancient yanas, the new vehicle launched by Babasaheb Ambedkar has its own distinctive contribution to make.

Like the other great Engaged Buddhist leaders throughout Asia in the latter half of the 20th Century, Dr Ambedkar harnessed the power of Buddhism to fight for human rights, civil rights and social justice in the classrooms, government offices, corporate boardrooms – and on the streets – of modern society.

Like Thich Nhat Hanh’s struggle against the War in Vietnam in the 1960s, the Dalai Lama’s struggle to free Tibet from Chinese domination over the past 60 years, and Dr AT Ariyaratne’s Sarvodaya Shramadana movement for economic development in 11,000 poor villages of Sri Lanka, also founded in the late 1950s, Ambedkar’s Buddhism invites us all to “Educate, Agitate, and Organise” for social equality and dignity, and to struggle non-violently for the democratic and institutional changes that are necessary to insure survival and prosperity for India’s poorest of the poor.

Another landmark

Dr Ambedkar and the Engaged Buddhists of his time were not alone in demanding social justice in the name of religious truth and morality. 

As we have seen, the year 1956 marked a landmark in another struggle for civil rights and social justice halfway around the world. For it was in 1956 that Martin Luther King, Jr, the 27-year-old spokesman for the Montgomery Bus Boycott, witnessed the victory of a movement that started when Mrs Rosa Parks was arrested by police for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man. A year later, on November 13, 1956, the United States Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation on buses is unconstitutional, and that American citizens of all races must have equal access to public transportation – and that they can sit in any seat they please!

Martin King was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1929, the son of a Baptist minister. After achieving academic distinction at Morehouse College and Crozer Theological Seminary, he was ordained a Baptist minister at the age of 19. Still hungry for higher education, King went on to earn his doctorate in philosophy and systematic theology at Boston University.

Like Dr Ambedkar, King quickly directed his education to the service of his people, who suffered systematic discrimination after centuries of slavery and nearly a 100 years of struggle following the American Civil War. In 1957, he founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and addressed a crowd of 15,000 in Washington DC. The following year Congress passed the first Civil Rights Act, and King published his first book, Stride Toward Freedom.

As the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum, King took part in many non-violent protests and sit-ins to integrate restaurants, public schools, interstate buses, and colleges.King was stabbed, beaten by police, jailed, and spied on by the FBI.

Nevertheless, in June, 1963 he led 1,25,000 marchers on a Freedom Walk through the northern city of Detroit, followed by the August 28 demonstration of 2,50,000 in the nation’s capital, where he delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech. Compare this to the over 5,00,000 who took refuge in the Buddha in 1956 along with Ambedkar in Nagpur.

Dr King was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1964. Four years later, after seeing the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and mounting a major campaign to end economic discrimination against people of color and the poor, King was fatally shot on April 4, 1968, while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.The anguish of the nation was marked by violent street demonstrations and by a re-commitment to King’s principles of racial, social, economic, and political equality.

Common strains

There are many parallels between the anti-caste movement in India and civil rights movement in the United States. Although caste and race are very different – one an entirely artificial ranking of human worth, based on social and ritual restrictions, and the other based on superficial characteristics of appearance – the struggle against prejudice, privilege, and power have taken very similar forms in the two democracies.

Ambedkar and King both experienced discrimination while growing up. Ambedkar’s childhood stories of humiliation and abuse are well known to many. But King’s childhood story is not as well known.

As a boy King, or ML as he was known, was best friends with a white boy from across the street. But one day, his friend’s parents announced that ML was no longer welcome to play with their son. “We are white and you are coloured,” they told him.

Devastated, young King told his story to his parents at the dinner table. His mother tried to soothe his wounded feelings by saying, “You must never feel that you are less than anybody else. You must always feel that you are somebody.” She told him of the many tragedies that had befallen the African Americans since the days of slave ships and forced labour, and how they had always bounced back to survive. King remembers being “greatly shocked, and from that moment on I was determined to hate every white person.”

King’s hatred faded over the years, as he met many whites who shared his outrage at racism and stepped forward to join the civil rights movement. One such person was Kivi Kaplan, a rich shoe manufacturer from Boston, who was elected for a brief time as president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP. Kivi was Jewish. After his wedding, years before, he had flown to Florida with his bride for a honeymoon in the sun.

But in the taxi from the airport, he was shocked to see signs in front of the best hotels that said “Coloureds Not Welcome.” His black cabdriver said, “Don’t worry, Sir. There’s nothing we can do about it.” When Kivi returned to Boston, he called the NAACP and offered to help. In the years that followed, Kivi Kaplan become one of the biggest fundraisers for the civil rights movement, finding support from sympathetic white people all over the country.His motto was “Freedom is not free. So please make a donation!”

Babasaheb Ambedkar also enjoyed the support of powerful and wealthy caste Hindus at key times in his life. Sayajirao Gaekwad, the Maharajah of Baroda, is rightly praised for recognising a young Untouchable’s brilliance and paying his tuitions at Elphinstone College, Columbia University, and the London School of Economics. And Ambedkar’s appointment as India’s first law minister and his masterful drafting and guiding of India’s Constitution to ratification could not have occurred without the support of powerful Hindus like Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Nehru, and many others who recognised Babasaheb’s legal and political genius.

In seeking and valuing the support of caste Hindus, powerful politicians and business interests throughout his career, Dr Ambedkar illustrated his understanding of the Buddha’s teaching regarding “the conversion of the high and holy.” Indeed, this was his title for a chapter in The Buddha and His Dhamma that describes the Buddha’s conversion and ordination of many high-caste youths in the early Sangha.

These included his first convert, Yashas, son of a wealthy Brahmin family in Benares, and his four best friends; the Kassyapa brothers, also Benares Brahmins; Sariputta and Moggallana, young Brahmins of Rajagaha who become top leaders in the sangha; King Bimbisara of Rajagaha “and 12 myriads of Magadha Brahmins and householders”; Anathapindika, the merchant of Shravasti who made numerous donations of money and land to the Buddha’s growing order; King Pasenadi of Kosala; and many high-born women who saw in the new faith a chance to pursue a spiritual freedom not available in the Vedic religion.

In fact, the Buddha’s aunt and wife were the first members of the Bhikkhuni Sangha, the world’s first order of religious women or nuns. Of course, the Buddha also welcomed low-caste people into the order – sweepers, barders and untouchables – as Ambedkar documents in The Buddha and His Dhamma (1956).

Today, the pressing issues before the leaders of India’s struggle for Dalit rights and America’s continuing struggle for racial and social justice are in many ways the same as they were in the times of the Buddha and Ashoka, and of Ambedkar and King. How can we create societies of liberty, equality, and brotherhood? How can we reach out over barriers of class, caste, race, and ideology to forge alliances for peace and justice? And how do we overcome the hatred, greed, and ignorance that hold us all back in the quest for a better world?

These questions are compounded today by developments that have made the twenty-first century even more dangerous and complicated than the times in which Ambedkar and King lived. 

Challenges today

Consider our loss of safety and privacy in the fight against global terrorism; the vast and growing income inequality that afflicts both rich and poor countries, resulting from global banking and trade systems manipulated by one percent of the world’s population; the reality of global warming and climate change that threaten the very life-supports we depend upon to breathe, drink and eat and find shelter; and the global reach of information technology that has the power to addict young and old to their smart phones and to spread propaganda and deception to vast populations – or “markets”, as people are now called.

Remember, according to the US Supreme Court, corporations are considered people, and money is considered speech, all protected by the Constitution. In coming here to Nagpur on the 60th anniversary of the great Dhamma Diksha, I feel joyful at the revival of Lord Buddha’s ancient teachings and the practices that he recommended: mindfulness and meditation in our spiritual lives, morality and integrity in our relationships with others, and social service and engagement, including a commitment to education, agitation, and organisation throughout society.

But we are also sadly aware of the terrible suffering and violence that still oppresses Dalit families throughout India, whether they have converted to Buddhism or not.Particularly, on this occasion, we remember the Bhotmange family – Surekha, the mother, Priyanka, the daughter, and Sudhir and Roshan, the sons – who were brutally raped and murdered ten years ago, as their father, Bhaiyalal watched in horror. This Buddhist family, proud followers of Babasaheb Ambedkar, were murdered by their own neighbors in the town of Khairlanji, not far from the Diksha Bhoomi, as more than a million of us celebrated the Dhamma Diksha’s Golden Jubilee, unaware of what was happening nearby.

And we remember Rohith Vemula, the doctoral student at the University of Hyderabad who took his own life in January 17, 2016, when his scholarship and housing were withdrawn by the university.Like the Bhotmanges, Rohith Vemula was a proud Ambedkarite whose active membership in the Ambedkar Student Association was despised by his upper-caste classmates, faculty, and the university administration. Months of protests all over India followed Rohith’s death, just as they did following the Khairlanji murders in 2006.

So we must ask ourselves, has the revival of Buddhism in India led to an improvement of conditions for those who have embraced the Dhamma? Does taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha lead to a better life? According to government records, Buddhism is the fastest growing religion among the Scheduled Castes in India, growing at a rate of 38% from 2001 to 2011. Here in Maharashtra, the growth rate of Buddhism is closer to 60%. At the same time, the National Crime Records Bureau reports a 44% increase in violence against Dalits throughout India over the past six years alone.

Even two years after the Khairlanji deaths, as Anand Teltumbde writes in his book on the atrocity, The Persistence of Caste, the saga of atrocities –social boycotts, assaults, rapes, murders – continued unabated, notwithstanding the unprecedented Dalit protests. Meanwhile in King’s America, the killing of 200 unarmed African Americans on the streets by police triggered widespread outrage.

The good fight

If Babasaheb Ambedkar and Martin Luther King were alive today,we can be sure that both great leaders would be speaking out forcefully about the deterioration of civility and safety for Dalits and blacks in our two societies. We can be sure that they would remind us of the spiritual and ethical teachings grounded in the Buddha’s Dhamma, the Commandments of Moses, and the Gospel of Jesus. And they would remind us of the imperative to confront injustice and inequality wherever it exists, in the name of human decency and dignity, as well as the struggle for survival itself.

As Ambedkarites – and I consider myself a proud Ambedkarite, as we all should – we have an obligation to study the meaning of Babasaheb Ambedkar’s choice of Buddhism as a philosophy of life and a course of action. We have an obligation to read Ambedkar’s works on economic, politics and history, but especially his last book, The Buddha and His Dhamma, which is available in Marathi, Hindi, and English and other languages. (For English readers, I would recommend the recent annotated edition edited by Aakash Rathore and Ajay Verma.)

We have an obligation to consult the many profound studies of Ambedkar’s life and thought that have appeared over the past 60 years. One place to start is the first doctoral dissertation on Ambedkar and his movement, written in 1969 by Eleanor Zelliot, a pioneer of Ambedkar studies and a dear friend to many of us, who passed away on June 5 this year at the age of 89. She will be deeply missed. The reissue of her book is titled, Ambedkar’s World: The Making of Babasaheb and the Dalit Movement. And for those who wish to read more, I have contributed an article on Ambedkar’s Buddhism and related subjects to the online Oxford Bibliographies.

I would like to close with one of my favorite quotes from of Babasaheb Ambedkar. Addressing 70,000 of his followers here in Nagpur in 1942, and perhaps anticipating his embrace of Buddhism twelve years later, Ambedkar left us with his thoughts on the role of religion and the struggle for a social justice:

My final word of advice to you is educate, agitate and organise, have faith in yourself. With justice on our side, I do not see how we can lose our battle. The battle to me is a matter of joy. The battle is in the fullest sense spiritual. There is nothing material or social in it.For ours is a battle, not for wealth or for power. It is a battle for freedom.It is a battle for the reclamation of human personality.

When a leader uses the word battle six times in a single utterance – without inciting his audience to take up arms or cause harm to others – we may hear this as a profound expression of Engaged Buddhism. Ambedkar invited us to engage in a war of words and gestures,poetry and posters, visual arts, such as the statues of Babasaheb that decorate every village and city in India, book writing and book burning (Manusmriti), protest marches and demonstrations – all these are the rhetoric and ritual of political conscience.

These are examples of what the Buddha called “Right Speech,” uttered and acted out in the service of truth, justice, and social change.Buddhist faith and practice – the meditations on kindness and compassion, joy and equanimity, in the face of hardships and setbacks – this is the religion that Babasaheb embraced here at the Dhiksha Bhumi in 1956. And this is the religion and the struggle that we have come back, 60 years later, to honour and to celebrate.

May all beings find freedom from suffering. May all beings find dignity and equality. And may all beings find happiness and peace in the years to come.