In Search of the Historical Buddha: An Overview of Ambedkar's “The Buddha and His Dhamma”

Soham Chakraborty

The book “Buddha and His Dhamma” by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar was published posthumously in 1957 by Siddhartha College Publications, Mumbai. On 15 July 2011, a critical edition by Aakash Singh Rathore and Ajay Verma was published by Oxford Publications with the same name. This writing also found its place in the Volume XI of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches by Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment Government of India first published in 1979 with a list of sources and an index.

In the introduction, Ambedkar sheds light on some aspects of Buddhism. Ambedkar states that there has been a noticeable growth in the number of Indians taking up the teachings of Buddha and argues that depending on the Nikayas, it becomes an onus to present a clear and vivid statement on the life and teachings of Buddha to someone who is a non-Buddhist. He then goes on to discuss the problems of Buddhism. The first problem is related to the main event in the Buddha’s life, which is Parivraja. Ambedkar claims that it was unbearable for Buddha to see those three sights for the first time in his life, the sights which made him take Parivraja at the age of 29. Ambedkar also says that it is not reasonable for one to believe in such a claim that Buddha took Parivraja only because of those three sights. There must be some other factors too which might have been crucial to make up his mind to take Parivraja.

(Image Courtesy: Oxford University Press)

The second problem of Buddhism is caused by the Four Aryan Truths. Ambedkar questions whether the Four Aryan Truths were originally a part of Buddha’s teachings as they make the gospel of Buddhism, a gospel of pessimism; the Four Aryan Truths implies that there is no escape from sorrow whatsoever. Ambedkar doubts that the Four Aryan Truths might be a “later accretion by the monks.”

The third problem is a contextual one, related to soul and Karma. The Buddha denied the existence of the soul but on the other hand, he also affirmed the doctrine of Karma and rebirth. Ambedkar raises the question that how can there be rebirth if there be no soul in the first place. This point is contradictory in itself and should be addressed and thrown light on.

The fourth one is related to the objective of Buddha to create a Bhikku. Ambedkar questions whether the object of the Buddha behind the creation of Bhikku was to create a perfect man or to create a social servant. If a Bhikku is a perfect man, then he is of no use to the propagation of Buddhism as he is a selfish man whatsoever. The future of Buddhism depends on this question and must be addressed. Ambedkar also talks about the mundane and insipid nature of the Journal of the Mahabodhi society. Ambedkar says, “the dullness is due to the fact that it seems to fall upon a passive set of readers”. The journal is not interactive and thus a normal reader would probably have a hard time reading from it.

The volume Buddha and His Dhamma is divided into 8 books. The Book I discusses the journey of the Buddha, the remarkable journey of Bodhisattva becoming the Buddha. The first book gives a clear, vivid, and detailed account of the early life of the Buddha. Siddhartha Gautama was born to Suddhodhana and Mahamaya in Lumbini in modern-day Nepal. At the age of eight, the Buddha started his education. He mastered all the prevailing philosophic systems in his day under the guidance of Sabbamita. Apart from this, the Buddha learned the science of concentration and meditation from a Bharadwaj, who had his ashram at Kapilavatsu. At the age of sixteen, Siddhartha got married to Yashodhara and had a son named Rahula, after a long term in married life.

The first part of the book tells intriguing tales of the life of Siddhartha- from the myth of sage Asit who heard the Gods over the space of the sky in Himalayas shout the word “Buddha” to prophecies of Asita and the contest of archery to win the hands of Yeshodhara for marriage and the account of his initiation into the Sakya Sangh and Parivraja. From the second to the sixth part of the book I, Ambedkar provides a clear description of Siddharth’s life after Parivraja, starting from his rediscovery of meditation to his discovery of a New Dhamma. It also depicts how Gautama became a Buddha after the Sambodhi. The seventh part of the book is a crucial one as it offers an elaborate survey by Ambedkar on what the Buddha accepted, modified, and rejected in his religion.

The first part of the second book (which has 8 parts) opens with a vivid account of the Buddha’s scheme of conversion. In the Buddha’s scheme of things, conversion has two meanings- Conversion to the order of Bhikkus called Sangh, which involves a ceremony called Upasameda, and conversion of a householder which involves no ceremony. The second part of the book tells a vivid account of his life after Parivraja, starting from his arrival at Sarnath to his historical First Sermon. The second part also accounts for the response of the five Parivrajaks. Buddha admitted the five parivrajaks by uttering the mantra “Ethi Bhikkave” (come in Bhikkus). They came to be known as Panchavargiya Bhikkus. The rest of the parts provides descriptions of conversions of various hierarchical orders of the society – High and Highly, Low and Lowly, Women and Fallen, and Criminals.

The tales behind the conversion of women are interesting ones. Although Buddha was initially reluctant of admitting women into the Sangh, it was under the persuasion and request of the Venerable Ananda that agreed to admit women into the Sangh. Mahaprajapati Gautami was given the task to enforce the Eight Chief Rules which initiated her life as a Bhikkuni. The second tale tells the story of Prakrati, a Chandalika, and how she was enlightened by the Buddha and later admitted into the Bhikkuni Sangh.

The third book offers a thorough and detailed image of the teachings of the Buddha. Buddha, unlike any other religious promulgator, did not claim a place for himself in his own Dhamma. Christ claimed he was the Son of God, Mohammad said he was a Prophet sent by God and Krishna claimed to be the God himself and that Gita was his word. But no such claim was made by the Buddha. While most religions are described as revelation, Buddhism stood out as an exception. As Ambedkar puts it, “A revealed religion is so-called because it is a message of God to His creatures to worship their maker (i.e., God) and to save their souls.” Buddha repudiated such descriptions of Prophet or Messenger of God. He was no ‘Messiah’ to offer the humankind Salvation. The Buddha called himself ‘Marga Data’, the one who shows the way to salvation. Instead, according to the Buddha, salvation must be attained by one’s efforts.

In the third and the fourth part of the third book, Ambedkar thoroughly elucidates what is Dhamma and what is not Dhamma according to The Buddha. The Buddha said

a) To maintain purity is Dhamma

b) To reach Perfection in life is Dhamma

c) To live in Nirvana is Dhamma

d) To give up Craving is Dhamma

e) To believe that all compound things are impermanent is Dhamma

f) To accept that Karma is the instrument of Moral Order is Dhamma

Buddha also laid down what is not Dhamma-

a) Belief in the supernatural is Not Dhamma

b) Belief in Ishwara (God) is not essentially part of Dhamma

c) Dhamma based on Union with Bramha is a false Dhamma

d) Belief in Soul is not Dhamma

e) Belief in sacrifices is not Dhamma

f) Reading books about Dhamma is not Dhamma

g) Belief in the infallibility of Books of Dhamma is not Dhamma

The fourth book offers an elaborate treatise on how Dhamma differs from Religion, the purposes of religion, and Dhamma, the place of morality in them. The fourth book is probably the most important of all in my opinion because it draws the line between religion and Dhamma. Ambedkar skillfully draws these important contradistinctions. As someone who has never been exposed to the ideas and teachings of the Buddha, it is natural to question the difference between religion and Dhamma. And the book succeeds in answering probably all of the possible queries that arise in the mind of the reader while grasping the ideas.

The fifth book lays down important guidelines for the Sangh, the duties of the Bhikkus, and the Buddha’s conception of the Bhikkhu.

The sixth book discusses about Buddha’s contemporaries - his benefactors, his enemies, his critics, and his friends and admirers. The book provides an interesting account of how Buddha was charged with conversion of glamour and charged with being a parasite by some. He was also falsely charged with murder by the Jains. And not to mention, Buddha faced a perpetual resistance from Brahmins too. The third part of the sixth book contains some criticism of Buddhism. It talks about critics who opposed open admission to the Sangh, rules of vows, Ahimsa, and preaching virtue. It also sheds light on the much-debated topic of pessimism in Buddhism.

The seventh book gives an account of the last days of Buddha. Buddha died in Kushinagar of Malla Republic at around the age of 80. There was a quarrel over his ashes, which was later settled peacefully and amicably. The eighth and the last book talks about Buddha- his physical appearance, his capacity to lead, his likes and dislikes, his humanity, and also, testimonies of eye-witnesses. Ambedkar concludes the book with a tribute to Buddha’s quoting eminent personalities across the globe. The epilogue also has two prayers namely ‘A vow to spread His Dhamma’ and ‘A Prayer for His Return to His Native Land’.

Ambedkar’s The Buddha and His Dhamma is no doubt an indispensable guide to anyone who wants to educate themselves on the life and teachings of Buddha. Ambedkar’s works on Buddhism gave impetus to the modern Buddhist Renaissance in India. His works have led thousands of Dalits to take up Buddhism for their own social and personal betterment. His works have paved the way for the formation of ‘Dalit Panthers’ and other such groups in the 1970s. The Buddha and his Dhamma offers an active and interesting account and perspective on Buddha’s life and teachings and establishes the fact that religion should unite people, ameliorate the pain of the distressed, and liberate them from their sufferings. It brings together the life and teachings of the Buddha in a single consistent work. Although the Dhamma is envisaged to be an explication of the teachings of Buddha, it is Ambedkar's political vocalization that imbues the text and establishes its historical importance.

Works Cited

Ambedkar, B. R. "Buddha and His Dhamma." Ambedkar, B. R. Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches. Ed. Vasant Moon. Vol. XI. Delhi: Dr. Ambedkar Foundation, 1979. Print.

Author Information

Soham Chakraborty studies English Literature at Presidency University. His special interests include Indian Writing in English, Folktales, and contemporary dystopian fiction.

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