Why B.R. Ambedkar, a Dalit himself, ultimately embraced Buddhism as the faith best for him and his community.
Last month marked the 67th anniversary of India’s most famous Dalit’s conversion to Buddhism.
“Though I was born a Hindu untouchable, I shall not die as a Hindu,” wrote Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, who devoted his life to abolishing the caste system and who embraced his new faith just two months before his death in 1956.
The Dalit community cherished the activist and politician so much that half a million of his followers followed him to Buddhism. But Ambedkar was not always certain he would leave Hinduism for this other Eastern faith and he spent years engaging with the Bible and Christian leaders. A friend who served as a Methodist bishop later said that Ambedkar had twice asked to be baptized, and when in Delhi, he attended an Anglican church and was friends with its vicar.
“I have had a great impact on my mind of two great personalities, Buddha and Christ,” he said at a Christian gathering in 1938. “I want a religion which could teach us to practice equality, fraternity, and liberty.” But though he admired Jesus, Ambedkar was disappointed by the blind spots church leaders appeared to have toward his community and ultimately found numerous tenants of Buddhism that spoke to the Dalit condition.
Today, while many Dalits have rejected Hinduism for Christianity, millions more have converted to Buddhism. On April 14 of this year, 50,000 Dalits and individuals belonging to tribal communities participated in a Buddhist mass conversion ceremony on Ambedkar’s 132nd birthday.
Christians seeking to reach those in this community today would do well to remember Ambedkar’s praise of Buddhism—and his critiques of the church. Many of these feel sadly still true today.