A (re)turn to Navayana

Nagpur turned into a sea of white as a new day dawned in the wee hours of 14 October 1956. Hundreds of thousands of people from all over the country gathered in the city, answering a call sent out by Babasaheb Ambedkar. They gathered on a fourteen-acre ground of the Vaccine Institute on South Ambazari Road, what is now called Deekshabhoomi. From the stage, an ailing yet determined Babasaheb addressed a gathering of nearly 400,000 clad in white, mostly Dalits, with these unprecedented words.

Now I am going to give you all deeksha into Buddhism. Those who want to renounce the Hindu religion and embrace Buddhism may please stand and repeat after me.

For someone like Ambedkar who was widely recognized as a thinker in the thick of politics, far removed from contemplating matters like the ultimate truth, how did the choice of Buddhism come about? How did it fit in with his ideas and work as a public figure? And how was it related to the mass conversion to Buddhism he led in Nagpur?  In A Part Apart, hailed as the most complete telling of Babasaheb’s life and thought, Ashok Gopal looks for answers to such questions.

Contrary to the popular assumption that Ambedkar’s turn to Buddhism only began in the 1950s, his writings and speeches in Marathi show that this choice had already been made by 1942, signs of which appeared even earlier in his works. Having immersed himself in Buddhist texts in the wake of the Poona Pact and the futile attempts at reforming Caste Hindus, Babasaheb deemed the religion of the Buddha as necessary to establish an ethical democracy in India. At the Deeksha ceremony in Nagpur, he administered twenty-two oaths drafted by him in Marathi. Together, these oaths represented his idea of the Buddha’s dhamma, or what came to be known as a new vehicle of Buddhism—Navayana.

On the other side of the same hand, we have the poet a/nil confronting the courage and trepidation of this gesture of self-willed change. A nil fills the void left by history by weaving a tapestry with the Other’s color. His verses may seem impenetrable at first glance, but that does not stop the Enlightened One from preaching his dhamma in his words—at the heart of a Nil’s poetry is the desperate search for a dialogue with Babasaheb and his politics, and how this speaks to the wider world of ideas across mathematics, physics, philosophy, music, herstory and poetry. After all, like the poet Sharmistha Mohanty says, Nil is ‘A voice which has read everyone, but imitates no one’.

A nil is willing to ask us questions never asked before in poetic discourse, and more than willing to present his cryptic answers.

Let us buy some banyan trees and plant them here
The CM says they give oxygen in abundance
Let it be so because he knows things
Buddha was enlightened under the same tree
Let us get slightly enlightened

A-nil engages with themes of change without immobilizing the sense—a similarity he shares with the Buddha and Ambedkar. Reading The Absent Color changes everything with nothing changed. Like the conversion in Nagpur, it repeats the unrepeatable.

Babasaheb wanted to complete his last project, The Buddha and His Dhamma, a singular book which was to bear the Buddha’s message, in time for the initiation ceremony at Deekshabhoomi. Unfortunately, the book could be published only posthumously; he did not have the resources. But he left us with a major resource—the immortal gesture of refusing acquiescence. Of becoming the masters of our own collective and individual destinies. This was accomplished decades before the ceremony in 1956. We find this declaration towards the end of Annihilation of Caste: ‘I have decided to change.’ We find it in his oft-misquoted speech from 1935: ‘I will not die as a person who calls himself a Hindu’.

Today is the day the world remembers his deeksha—his vows—which remains unfulfilled until each and every one of us has accepted it as their emancipation. In a/nil’s incandescent words:

Everything changes
With nothing changed

To be or not to be
That is not the question

It solves the future in the present

The question is

What is the shape of the question that is past?

(The featured image is courtesy of Vijay Surwade. In it, the Burmese monk Bhikkhu Chandramani (far left) is initiating Ambedkar and his wife Savita into Buddhism during the ceremony at Deekshabhoomi on 14 October 1956. Devapriya Valisinha, the secretary of the Maha Bodhi Society, Kolkata, is next to Chandramani.)