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Wednesday, 9 March, 2011

Why Ambedkar chose Buddhism


Both his followers and adversaries usually wonder as to why BR Ambedkar chose to convert to Buddhism rather than any other religion, especially Christianity or Islam — the two prominent religions in India.

For Ambedkar, preference for Buddhism was not an impulsive decision. He said that it was after 35 years of comparative study of different religions that he concluded that “Buddha’s dhamma is the best” and that it is the “most scientific religion”. He did not like Lord Rama because of “Rama’s conduct in the Shurpanakha episode, in the Bali-Sugriva episode, and his ‘beastly’ behaviour towards Sita”. He disliked Bhishma, Drona and Krishna because “Bhishma and Drona were hypocrites. They said one thing and did quite the opposite. Krishna believed in fraud. His life is nothing but a series of frauds”.

What impressed Ambedkar about Buddha was his personality, his leadership qualities, his humanism, his compassion for all, including the adversaries and enemies, his tolerance of the intolerant and his sense of equality and equal treatment for all. Buddha preached what he practised. “Whatever rules the Blessed Lord had made for the members of the sangha were voluntarily and willingly accepted by him to be binding on him also.”

In the hymns of the Rig Veda, as Ambedkar put it, “we see man’s thoughts turned outwards, away from himself, to the world of the gods”. Buddhism “directed man’s search inwards to the potentiality hidden within himself”. Whereas the Vedas are full of “prayer, praise and worship” of the gods, Buddhism aims at “training of the mind to make it act righteously”.

Ambedkar was drawn to Buddhism as compared to Christianity. Unlike Christ who praised a life of poverty, Buddha “did not comfort the poor by praising their poverty nor did he sublimate poverty as a happy state for man to live in”. On the contrary, he advocated acquiring wealth by a householder “by work and zeal, gathered by the strength of the arm, earned by the sweat of the brow; justly obtained in a lawful way”. With the riches so earned, a prosperous person makes himself and his surroundings happy. A rich man alone can satisfactorily perform his obligations in the world. Finally, according to Buddha, wealthy householder can lead a “life of blamelessness”.

Founders of all religions claim divinity for themselves. Christ claimed to be the son of God, and upheld the view that “there was no salvation for a person unless he accepted that Christ was the son of God”, thus “making the salvation of the Christian depend upon his acceptance of Christ as the Prophet and Son of God”. Likewise, “Mohammed, the Prophet of Islam, claimed that he was a Prophet sent by God”. Salvation in Islam depends upon the acceptance that “Mohammed is the Prophet of God”, and further acknowledgement “that he is the last Prophet”.

Buddha made no such claim. He claimed himself to be “one of the many human beings — an ordinary person. He claimed no divine origins either for himself or for his teachings; nor did he claim that his teachings were infallible. All his teachings, he stated in unambiguous terms, could be questioned and must be tested on the touchstone of reason and experience of an individual. His teachings should at the most, he taught, be treated as hypothesis. These hypothesis have to be verified in the light of one’s own observations and lived life experiences.

Buddha had preached the scientific temper some 2,500 years ago when he, a few months before he passed away, said to his disciples that they should accept something not because he or their preceptor had said it, not because it is a tradition, not because it is given from the scriptures and so on, but only if they themselves had understood that it to be so meritorious and blameless. He has given his followers the right to use their own good reason to decide what is beneficial for the good and happiness of all, and then to accept it.

Salvation in the Semitic religions depends on faith and not on knowledge. That is why knowledge has never been a part of the Christian ideal man. On the contrary, Buddhism treats knowledge as essential for salvation, and ignorance as one of the two main causes of failure to attain it (craving or attachment being the other). As stated above, faith has no place in Buddha’s teachings. Its place is taken by rational understanding.

On the aesthetic front too, Ambedkar was impressed by Buddha’s teaching, “Be in the company of the lovely”. Buddha said, “Monks, I know not of any other single thing of such power to cause the arising of good states if not yet arisen, or the waning of evil states already arisen, as friendship with the lovely”. Buddha upheld that the whole of this holy life lies “in friendship, in association, in intimacy with what is lovely”. Because of his fondness for the beautiful, Ambedkar said “Buddha might well bear an alias and be called Buddha, the Lover of the Beautiful”.

Above all, Ambedkar was impressed by the scientific support for Buddha’s doctrine of anicca (transitoriness). “Modern Science”, according to him, “echoes the Buddhist doctrines of transitoriness (anicca) and egolessness (anatta)”.

Finally, Ambedkar preferred Buddhism to other religions because it alone has the glory of having rightly judged the intrinsic greatness of man’s capacity to work out his salvation without extraneous aid. It lays stress on knowledge and self-rule as a prerequisite of salvation.

Buddhism is the earliest ethical system where man is called upon to have himself governed by himself. Buddha did not lay emphasis on any external authority for ethical, religious or moral development and growth. On the contrary, he commanded his followers to be a lamp, a beacon unto themselves — appa dipo bhava.

The writer is professor at Department of Philosophy, University of Delhi

Thankful Reference:


  1. Thanks for the excellent explanation! I fully agree with Dr. Ambedkar's clear and incisive reasoning. Sadly, the light of reason that once shone brightly across India thanks to the Buddha has become diminished over the last few centuries. I hope more Indians would think along these lines and create a new renaissance in India! :)

  2. Very clear and precise explanation.Thank you

  3. Thank you for such clear explanation

  4. Dear Professor, I appreciate your article and profecy to narrate so nicely. I think the following statement may be amended suitably as it deviates the wordly meaning.
    " As stated above, faith has no place in Buddha’s teachings. Its place is taken by rational understanding"
    Faith is very important in any region and so also in Buddhism .
    Fundamentally two pillars of Buddhism are logic and faith stand together.


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