Peaceful Buddhist Revolution in Maharashtra

The main objective of this article is to demonstrate the nature of the peaceful October Buddhist Revolution led by the Supreme Leader, Dr. Bhimravo Ambedkar in Maharashtra Pradesh in India. The astonishing fact here is that more than one million people have willingly given up their traditional religion and embraced Buddhism. This Great Buddhist Revolution was taking place in Maharashtra Pradesh in October, 1956 with the proper social and religious guidance given by the late Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, a socio-political leader of Maharashtra Pradesh. The major reason for this drastic change was the societal depression and misery of the down-trodden people in the Maharashtra State. This can be considered to be the largest religious conversion in the world that occurred during a very short period.

Dr. Bhimravo Ramji Ambedkar was an economist, a free-thinker, a famous philosopher, an anthropologist, an Indian Jurist, a historian, and a renowned social reformer. As an Indian Buddhist revivalist, he made a tremendous change and non-violent revolution in the Maharashtra State. He is an outstanding political reformer who was the chief architect of the Indian Constitution. Modern democratic India is the outcome of his exceptional Constitution. He was born on April 14, 1891 in Madhya Pradesh into an underprivileged Mahar family. Millions of Mahar people were in utter down-heartedness from immemorial time in the history of the Indian sub-continent. Bhimravo Ambedkar obtained his first degree in Economics and Political Science from Bombay University in 1912. In 1915, he obtained his Master Degree in Economics. In 1917, Columbia University conferred him the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy. He was respectfully conferred upon India’s highest civilian award, ‘Bharat Ratna’ in 1990. Among the thousands of Indian scholars, he was a magnificent figure. He peacefully passed away in his sleep at his home in New Delhi on December 6, 1956.

Social discrimination

The caste-feudalism was the most despotic, oppressive and tyrannical system ever invented by man for the enslavement of human dignity. Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar was born into this prejudiced society, and he had to undergo many horrible experiences of that ferocious circle of society. Ambedkar and other untouchable children were openly segregated in schools and given zero attention even by their teachers. Even under such an unreasonable environment, he had only his sturdy will power and firm determination to pursue studies and serve the worldwide mankind.

He, as a brilliant social reformer, fully dedicated his whole life to fighting against the social discrimination shaped by the system of traditional religious caste structure. Ambedkar’s philosophy paved the way for the emergence of a new mighty social force at his time against untouchability in India. This heroic fighter was against prejudices and caste injustices, and opened his booming voice for the well-being of oppressed people of India. He believed in communal harmony, equality, fraternity, socio-political freedom and common happiness of man. He properly understood that these concepts were related to moral teachings of the Buddha.

Poverty and Liberty

It is true that millions of Indians were under the poverty line, and the Mahar people were driven off from their democratic liberty for centuries, and they had never experienced a peaceful human life. Extract from the Speech delivered by Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar on November 25, 1949 in an Assembly on democracy, points out his own notion thus:

‘What we must do is, not to be content with mere political democracy. We must make our political democracy a social democracy as well. Political democracy cannot last unless there lies at the base of it, a social democracy. What does social democracy mean? It means a way of life which recognizes liberty, equality and fraternity as the principles of life.

……. Liberty cannot be divorced from equality; equality cannot be divorced from liberty. Nor can liberty and equality be divorced from fraternity. With equality, liberty would produce the supremacy of the few over the many. Equality without liberty would kill individual initiative. Without fraternity, liberty and equality could not become a natural course of things. It would require a constable to enforce them. We must begin by acknowledging the fact that there is a complete absence of two things in Indian society. One of these is equality’.

The ‘Graded inequality’ was a distasteful and disagreeable concept for him. It is really the same for all normal people. His voice regarding the real nature of Indian society with highly emotive words socked and trembled the whole Indian society with strong feelings:

‘On the social plane, we have in India a society based on the principle of graded inequality, which means elevation for some and degradation for others. On the economic plane, we have a society in which there are some who have immense wealth as against many who live in abject poverty’.

Always he was on the side of down-trodden, poor people, their voice and welfare. His heart trembled at the deplorable situation of poor and scheduled caste people. He tried to materialize many Buddhist ethical concepts for the welfare of poor ones.

Ambedkar and Indian Politics

On July 20, 1924, he made a considerable change by founding the ‘Bahiskrit-Hitkarini-Sabha’ for the improvement of the depressed classes. In September, 1927 he established ‘Samaj-Samata-Sangh’ and in 1936, was the year of speedy change of his political movement for he established the Independent Labor Party which won 15 seats in the 1937 election to the Central Legislative Assembly, and it was the major turning-point of Ambedkar’s reformist movement. In a way, it was a sort of triumph of his long-term ambition.

In November 1937, he well-organised the ‘Municipal Workers Union’ in Bombay City for the betterment of all the workers. In 1938, The Congress Party introduced a special Bill making a radical change of the name of Untouchables, i.e. they would properly be called Harijans which means ‘Sons of God’. Then, Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar severely criticized the Bill, and he was of the opinion that mere change of name would make no actual transformation in their pitiful socio-economic conditions. Therefore, he protested against the use of the term Harijans in legal matters.

Scheduled Castes Federation

Speaking on the ‘Industrial Disputes Bill’ in the Bombay Assembly, he extremely opposed it for its effort to exclude the right of working-class people to strike. It was considered a powerful force and right of the working class people. He categorically explained: “If congressmen believe that Swaraj is their birth-right, then the right to strike is the birth-right of innocent workers.” In April 1942, Dr. Ambedkar founded All India Scheduled Castes Federation in the City of Nagpur. In 1947, Ambedkar had a chance to join Jawaharlal Nehru’s Cabinet and became the first Law Minister of Independent India. In a way, it was a grand victory of the poor and down-trodden people of India.

Constitution of India

India gained her Independence on August 15, 1947 and Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar was elected to the Constitutional Assembly by the Bombay Legislature Congress Party. He was appointed Chairman of the ‘Constitution Drafting Committee’. It was really a blessing and a lucky thing for the scheduled caste people of India. For drafting India’s new Constitution, he used the early Buddhist ethical doctrines and ecclesiastical practices that prevailed among the early Buddhist Sangha society.

The spirit of India’s Constitution is purely Indian and Dr. Ambedkar applied Western models to give the Constitution a proper and methodical shape. The Constitution was accepted on November 26, 1949 by the Constituent Assembly. By his text, Bhimrao Ambedkar provided constitutional protections and assurances for civil liberties of individual citizens. The first primacy was given to the abolition of untouchability, freedom of religion, and the abolishment of all forms of discrimination, and granted wide-ranging socio-economic rights for women. Indian women, as a class of the victims of oppression, badly needed a righteous and considerable change from certain cultural bondages and traditional misinterpretations. Indian women realized their long-term aspirations were realized through the sincere efforts of Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar.

Dr. Ambedkar, in order to give a message of world peace and goodwill, carefully chose a replica of the lion of Sarnath pillar as the national emblem. The lion capital was established by the Emperor Dharmashoka to mark the sacred place where the Buddha first announced his doctrine of Four Noble Truths to the four quarters of the universe. He designed the Indian national flag to give the idea of freedom and peaceful existence. The Dhamma-chakka or the Ashokan wheel in the centre of the white band is the wheel of law of Dhamma (or Righteousness). The wheel has 24 spokes which gives a philosophical meaning pertaining to the first sermon of the Buddha. The wheel (Cyclical process) also denotes the motion or change of the universe and universal systems. It says that India should no more resist change, it must transfer and go forward. Therefore, the wheel of the Dhamma represents the dynamism of a peaceful change.

Problem of child marriages

According to Dr. Ambedkar, although Hindus and Muslims belong to two nations, they can live together under one state. Since he admired ethnic synchronization, he earnestly asked them to live harmoniously. He strongly criticized the Muslim League’s demand for a separate state of Pakistan. He believed that one day it would pave the way for severe ethnic troubles and border fighting. Today, we are experiencing what was forecast by Dr. Ambedkar and his far-sighted vision.

He was also critical of the practice of child marriage in India, mostly among the Muslim people, and maltreatment of women in Muslim society. He made critical comments of the subjugation of women in Muslim society through the purdah system. Therefore, Dr. Ambedkar can easily be considered to be the saviour of all the victims of his time in India.

Unique Religious Revolution

The unique socio-religious movement of South and South-east Asia was the Great October Religious and Social Revolution of Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar. On October 14, 1956, at a mass rally in Nagpur City, Dr. Ambedkar and 200,000 people embraced Buddhist Doctrine in a day in search of human dignity, happiness and freedom. During the first week, 600,000 Dalits people embraced Buddhism. It can be considered to be the largest religious conversion in the world. It was the freedom from miserable poverty and slavery. It was running from darkness to light. Having taken 22 promises, they all have abandoned their traditional Hindu religion. This was a historical moment of his non-violent rallies organised with the aim of awakening the down-trodden people to their human rights. After this Great October Religious Revolution, thousands and thousands of down-trodden masses cheerfully followed the example of Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar by giving an unprecedented change to Indian culture. He decided to embrace Buddhism because it was a religion of universal reality, freedom and happiness.


The Nagpur October Religious Revolution provided a very peaceful and serene social condition for poor people. They cultivated a social liberty and dignity in their minds. That is the peculiarity of this drastic change. It was strong enough to stop the chauvinistic struggles or a war-like situation among people except minor local struggles. The untouchables were completely freed from the pitiless graded inequality. Certain unintelligent traditional religious duties have been abandoned. All the Mahar people were unfettered from inferior mentality and they used to cultivate a sense of human dignity.

In this way, the Mahar gained socio-economic, political and religious freedom, and the right of education. This revolution ensured the fundamental human rights for untouchables by application of Buddhist ethical principles, and they experienced a sense of Neo-religion, new self-determination, new societal conditions and new pacific co-existence. Therefore, it is understandable that the Great October Religious Revolution of Nagpur paved the way for complete transformation of socio-economic, political, educational and religious life of the Maharashtrian underprivileged people.

Later, Mahar people developed an international Buddhist Religious movement called ‘Ambedkaraism’ with practicing humanitarian principles and non-violence after the passing away of Bhimrao Ambedkar. In this way, Ambedkaraism became an international religious movement, especially in US, UK, and in some other European countries. They used to practice Buddhist rituals and meditation, and used to hold their social gatherings in Ambedkar temples. Those Ambedkarite temples were the divine oases for all the Indians in such countries.

Buddhism in Maharashtra

Although millions of Buddhists are there in Maharshtra, now they do not possess a systematic Buddhist organisation to strengthen their Buddhist education and religious guidance. Many Maharshtrians are not conscious of the fact that what they have to practice as faithful Buddhists. ‘How do we study Buddhist Philosophy?’, ‘We need to study Buddhism and Buddhist Culture’, ‘What are Buddhist Cultural events, rituals and traditions?’, and ‘What are the things that we should practice and cultivate?’ are the questions of the young generation. Nowhere in Maharashtra State, do we find proper Buddhist educational centres (like Pirivena centres in Sri Lanka) or an adequate number of Buddhist temples and Buddhist monks to guide the newly-transformed people. It is somewhat difficult for us to find Indian Buddhist monks who are graduated in Buddhist Philosophy or in Buddhist Culture except some Tibetan and foreign monks. Few Sri Lankan monks also are doing a sort of religious and social service in cities like Bombay, Ulhasnagar and Jalgaon.

Therefore, it is categorically to be said that Maharashtra is a great oasis for Buddhist culture, and millions are there to dedicate their life for Buddhism, but the contemporary burning question is the dearth of educated Buddhist monks. If the global Buddhist intelligentsia and organisations pay zero attention to the Maharashtrian Buddhist people, it would definitely continue to remain as ‘A Forgotten Buddhist Oasis in Asia’.

Progress of Maharashtra Buddhism

It is the greatest duty of world Buddhist organisations to pay substantial attention to the pathetic religious condition of Buddhist people in Maharashtra, and to take required steps to promote their religious and cultural background. There is a big vacuum there after the demise of Dr. Ambedkar. Some suggestions can be proposed here to be considered:

i. To give ordination to teenagers and young ones of Maharashtrian community,
ii. To establish primary Buddhist education centres (Piriven centres),

iii. To establish Buddhist libraries for understanding Buddhism,
iv. To start a scholarship scheme by Asian Buddhist countries for young ones to study Buddhism,

v. To establish a translation and publication centre for Buddhist Canon, and
vi. To organise Dhamma sermons in their own language, and

vii. To conduct traditional rituals (overnight Pirith- chanting) throughout the Maharastra State for the welfare and understanding of common people.

Although there are small scale programmes that are being conducted in the Maharashtra State, they are not sufficient enough to show basic Buddhist ethical and cultural life for the millions of Buddhists in Maharashtra State. Some scholars are of the opinion that Sri Lankan Mahabodhi Society and Indian Mahabodhi Society are capable of doing a considerable service here.

Ven. Prof. Beligalle Dhammajoti Thera
Department of Pali and Buddhist Studies, University of Ruhuna, Sri Lanka.

Email: [email protected]

– Daily News Sri Lanka

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