Sangharakshita's India 3

The Rainbow Road

Meeting Ambedkar in Delhi

Coming to know that Ambedkar was in Delhi, whither he had returned from Nagpur a few days after the conversion ceremony, I decided to go to see him and personally congratulate him on his great and historic achievement. Most of the Eminent Buddhists from the Border Areas were still in the city, waiting to receive the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama when they arrived at the end of the month, and I was able to persuade them to accompany me, even though many of them had not heard of Ambedkar before and did not know that he had been responsible for the conversion of hundreds of thousands of people to Buddhism.

Thus it was with representatives of several different Buddhist traditions that I descended, one fine morning in the second week of November, on Dr Ambedkar's modest residence in Alipore Road. As there was no room big enough for him to receive us all in, chairs were set out in the compound, and there, in a semi-circle, we sat facing our host in the hot sunshine. The Scheduled Castes leader - now a Buddhist leader - sat behind a small table, his wife at his side. I saw at once that he was far from well, and that the brown, pear-shaped face beneath the pith helmet looked tired and haggard. So tired and haggard did it look, and so full of suffering the dark eyes, that I apologized for disturbing him, saying that we had come simply to pay our respects and to congratulate him on his conversion to Buddhism. It had been my intention that we should stay no more than fifteen minutes, but in the event we stayed two hours. Ambedkar was unwilling to let us go. Or rather, he was unwilling to let me go, for it was solely to me that he addressed himself throughout the meeting, to the exclusion of Dhardo Rimpoche, Sonam Topgay, and the rest of the Eminent Buddhists. He was a deeply worried man. The movement of mass conversion had been successfully inaugurated, but what of the future? There was still so much to be done.... From the way he spoke, sitting there with arms resting on the table and lowered head, it was clear that the weight of his responsibilities had become almost too much for him to bear and that he wanted to transfer some of that weight to younger shoulders. Indeed, I had the distinct impression that the shoulders to which he wanted to transfer some of it were my own. Be that as it may, the meeting was undoubtedly tiring him. The broken sentences came from his lips with increasing difficulty, and at ever longer intervals. Eventually, when his head was already resting on his outstretched arms, his eyes closed in utter weariness. Whereupon, to his doctor wife's evident relief, we all quietly left.

In the Sign of the Golden Wheel

I had arrived in Nagpur at one o'clock. Less than an hour later, when I was still settling into my new quarters, there was a sudden commotion in the yard outside and a few seconds later three or four members of the Indian Buddhist Society burst into the little outhouse. `Baba Saheb' was dead. He had died in Delhi the previous night. The bearers of these dire tidings were not only in a state of deep shock but utterly demoralized. They were barely able to tell me that the Society's downtown office was being besieged by thousands of grief-stricken people who, knowing of my presence in Nagpur, were demanding that I should come and speak to them. Obviously it would be impossible for me to address so many people without a microphone and loudspeakers. I therefore told my visitors to organize a proper condolence meeting. They should organize it for seven o'clock that evening. I would address the meeting and console people for the loss of their great leader as best I could. There being no time to lose, my visitors departed without further ado, taking with them others who had arrived after them, and I was left to consider my own reactions to the news of Ambedkar's death. Though shocked, I was not surprised. At the time of our last meeting he was evidently a very sick man, and I had been astonished to learn, before my departure from Delhi, that he had flown to Kathmandu in order to attend the Fourth Conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists. There, as I afterwards heard, he was given a standing ovation by the assembled delegates and addressed them, by popular demand, on `Buddha and Karl Marx'. Returning to Delhi on 1 December, he visited the exhibition of Buddhist art, attended a meeting in honour of the Dalai Lama, and passed some time in the Rajya Sabha or Council of States, of which he was a member. The evening of 5 December was spent receiving a deputation of Jain leaders, listening to a record of his favourite Buddhist devotional song and, apparently, working on the preface to his book The Buddha and His Dhamma. At 6.30 the following morning, when I was on my way to Nagpur, his wife had entered his bedroom to find him dead.

The condolence meeting was held in the Kasturchand Park, which was little more than a large open space part of which was occupied by a small pavilion. Roads apparently debouched into it from a number of directions, for on my arrival there at seven o'clock, by which time night had fallen, it was the dark centre of a gigantic wheel the golden spokes of which were formed by the lighted candles carried by the long columns of mourners who were converging on the place from all over the city. As the columns entered the park I saw that the men, women, and children carrying the candles were all clad in white - the same white that only seven weeks ago they had worn for the conversion ceremony. Whether on account of their demoralized state, or because there was not enough time, the organizers of the meeting had done little more than rig up a microphone and loudspeakers. There was no stage and, apart from a petromax or two, no illumination other than that provided by the thousands of candles. By the time I rose to speak - standing on the seat of a rickshaw and with someone holding the microphone up in front of me - about 100,000 people had assembled. Under normal circumstances I would have been the last speaker, but on this occasion I was the first. In fact as things turned out I was the only speaker. Though some five or six of Ambedkar's most prominent local supporters one by one attempted to pay tribute to their departed leader, they were so overcome by emotion that, after uttering only a few words, they burst into tears and had to sit down. Their example was contagious. When I started to speak the whole vast gathering was weeping, and sobs and groans filled the air. In the cold blue light of the petromax I could see grey-haired men rolling in agonies of grief at my feet.

Though deeply moved by the sight of so much anguish and despair, I realized that for me, at least, this was no time to indulge in emotion. Ambedkar's followers had received a terrible shock. They had been Buddhists for only seven weeks, and now their leader, in whom their trust was total, and on whose guidance in the difficult days ahead they had been relying, had been snatched away. Poor and illiterate as the vast majority of them were, and faced by the unrelenting hostility of the Caste Hindus, they did not know which way to turn and there was a possibility that the whole movement of conversion to Buddhism would come to a halt or even collapse. I therefore delivered a vigorous and stirring speech in which, after extolling the greatness of Ambedkar's achievement, I exhorted my audience to continue the work he had so gloriously begun and bring it to a successful conclusion. `Baba Saheb' was not dead but alive. To the extent that they were faithful to the ideals for which he stood and for which he had, quite literally, sacrificed himself, he lived on in them. This speech, which lasted for an hour or more, was not without effect. Ambedkar's stricken followers began to realize that it was not the end of the world, that there was a future for them even after their beloved Baba Saheb's death, and that the future was not altogether devoid of hope.

While I was speaking I had an extraordinary experience. Above the crowd there hung an enormous Presence. Whether the Presence was Ambedkar's departed consciousness hovering over the heads of his followers, or whether it was the collective product of their thoughts at that time of trial and crisis, I do not know, but it was as real to me as the people I was addressing.

In the course of the next four days I visited practically all the ex-Untouchable `localities' of Nagpur, of which there must have been several dozen, and addressed nearly thirty mass meetings, besides initiating about 30,000 people into Buddhism and delivering lectures at Nagpur University and the Ramakrishna Mission. My locality speeches were rendered simultaneously into Marathi by Kulkarni, who despite being nearly twice my age not only kept pace with me but did full justice to the energy and passion with which I spoke. As he had done on the occasion of my previous visit, he maintained a detailed record of my engagements which he afterwards wrote up in article form. When the time came for me to be again on my way I had addressed altogether 200,000 people and forged, incidentally, a very special link with the Buddhists of Nagpur, indeed with all Ambedkar's followers. As I wrote to Dinoo from Calcutta a few weeks later:

... I think I can say without vanity that I created a tremendous impression. Dr Ambedkar's followers told me that they felt my being there at that critical juncture was a miracle and that I had saved Nagpur for Buddhism. Had I not been there, there is no knowing what would have happened. At first people felt that the end of the world had come. But after listening to my speeches - which were very strong indeed - they felt full of hope and courage and determined to work for the spread of Buddhism. On the last day of my visit I gave no less than eleven lectures. The last meeting was held at 1.30 in the morning, when fifteen thousand people were converted to Buddhism.

Nor was that all. The events of the last four or five days had had their effect on me as well as on my auditors. My letter to Dinoo continued:

My own spiritual experience during this period was most peculiar. I felt that I was not a person but an impersonal force. At one stage I was working quite literally without any thought, just as one is in samadhi. Also, I felt hardly any tiredness - certainly not at all what one would have expected from such a tremendous strain. When I left Nagpur I felt quite fresh and rested. Now let us see about the rest of the programme.

By the rest of the programme I presumably meant the work that had been awaiting me at the Maha Bodhi Society's headquarters, where I spent six or seven weeks seeing the December 1956 and January 1957 issues of the Maha Bodhi Journal through the press, as well as bringing out my dialogue `Is Buddhism for Monks Only?' and essay `Buddhism and Art' in booklet form with funds provided by Dinoo.

Ambedkar and the ex-Untouchables
The History of my Going for Refuge

Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar was an Untouchable from Bombay state who, overcoming enormous obstacles, became an economist, a lawyer, an educationalist, a politician and, finally, free India's first Law Minister and the chief architect of her Constitution. Throughout his life he fought for the amelioration of the lot of India's tens of millions of Untouchables and for the removal of the age-old social, religious, economic, political, and educational disabilities imposed on them by the Caste Hindus - disabilities which reduced them to a state of virtual, even of actual, slavery.

However, his efforts met with little or no success, and after thirty years of struggle Ambedkar came to the conclusion that the Caste Hindus were not going to mend their ways, that there was no salvation for the Untouchables within Hinduism, and that they would have to change their religion. On 14 October 1956, when he had been out of office for six years, he therefore not only embraced Buddhism himself by publicly taking the Three Refuges and Five Precepts from U Chandramani Maha Thera, from whom I had received my sramanera ordination, but also inaugurated the historic movement of mass conversion to Buddhism by administering those same Refuges and Precepts, together with twenty-two vows of his own devising, to the 380,000 Untouchable men, women, and children who had assembled for the occasion. Six weeks later he died.

As related in Ambedkar and Buddhism, I had known Ambedkar since 1952, when we met after an earlier exchange of letters, and during the critical period immediately following his death I did whatever I could to ensure that the movement of mass conversion to Buddhism continued. This involved the making of a whole series of lecture tours in the course of which I visited cities, towns, and villages all over central and western India and came into contact with tens upon tens of thousands of ex-Untouchable Buddhists, some of whom I indeed received into Buddhism myself. But whether received into Buddhism by me, by a fellow monk, or by one of their own leaders, like their great emancipator they all became Buddhists simply by taking the Three Refuges and Five Precepts. Taking the Refuges and Precepts by reciting them after a monk or other leading Buddhist was, of course, a standard procedure among lay Buddhists, especially in south-east Asia. I had witnessed the ceremony at centres of the Maha Bodhi Society and elsewhere on numerous occasions and had myself conducted it scores of times. But never before had I seen the Three Refuges and Five Precepts taken with the sincerity, zeal, and fervour that I saw them taken by the largely illiterate and wretchedly poor ex-Untouchables, many of whom had travelled a hundred miles or more on foot for the purpose. For the `born Buddhists' of Ceylon and Burma, `taking Pansil', as the Sinhalese called it, was little more than a pious formality, the sort of thing that a good Buddhist did, and not so much an expression of commitment to the Three Jewels as an affirmation of one's cultural and ethic identity. In the case of the ex-Untouchables it was very different. For them taking the Refuges and Precepts, or becoming Buddhists, meant conversion in the true sense of the term. It meant not only the repudiation of Hinduism, not only deliverance from what Ambedkar called `the hell of caste', but also being spiritually reborn in the sense of becoming free to develop in every aspect of their lives, whether social, economic, cultural, or religious. Indeed, as I could see from the light in their eyes and the rapturous look on their faces, in repeating the words of the ancient Pali formula the ex-Untouchables, far from just `taking Pansil', were in fact giving expression to their heartfelt conviction that Buddhism was their only hope, their only salvation. They were Going for Refuge to the Three Jewels.

In the course of my tours I had many opportunities of seeing Ambedkar's followers take the Three Refuges and Five Precepts, sometimes in very large numbers, and the sight of their sincerity, zeal, and fervour never failed to move me deeply. Moreover, I felt that they were taking the Refuges and Precepts, and becoming Buddhists, out of feelings very similar to those which, in my own case, had found an outlet in the poem `Taking Refuge in the Buddha'. There was one big difference. Whereas I had written my poem after a single experience of disappointment and frustration, they had all Gone for Refuge as a result of a lifetime of systematic harassment and humiliation. But though the difference was a big one, it was quantitive rather than qualitative, so to speak, and in spite of it I felt very close to my ex-Untouchable brothers and sisters. It did not matter that I was English and they were Indian, or that I was a monk and they were laymen and laywomen. For them as for me there could be refuge only at the feet of the Buddha, even though their conception of that refuge was less meta=physical than mine. Thus as a result of my contact with the ex-Untouchable Buddhists I came closer to seeing that monasticism and the spiritual life were not identical, and that Going for Refuge was the principal unifying factor in Buddhism. I came closer to seeing that Going for Refuge was the central and definitive act of the Buddhist life.