(C N Annadurai, former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu , and who headed the first DMK ministry in the state, was one of the few political leaders in the country who welcomed Babasaheb Dr Ambedkar’s decision to convert to Buddhism. Here is what he wrote (in 1956) about that momentous event.
Annadurai’s birth anniversary was observed on September 15, and this note has been in circulation on that account. It is also a reminder to the Dravidian parties about where their founder stood, with regard to the caste question.)
Today Buddhism has taken on the compassionate task of drawing into its fold those who have tired of the Hindu religion, and seek to exit it. Never before in history has such an event taken place: on a single day and gathered in one place, over three hundred thousand men, women and children abandoned one religion for another, left Hinduism and embraced Buddhism. A reporter writing about it, remarks that nowhere in the world has such a thing happened, and marvels at this sea of people, gathered in a large ground outside the city, a site that extends ten lakh square feet.
Exiting Hinduism is a task of self-renovation, it did not transpire yesterday and can be traced back to a long history. Yet this event that witnessed three hundred thousand people, all at one go, and in one site leaving behind their faith and taking to Buddhism must have sent a shiver down the spine of the protectors of the Hindu religion. It would not be an exaggeration to claim that some of those who thus converted to another faith in the past were victims of the love of lucre and gold, of upgraded status and power. But this event of conversion to Buddhism, of such a large number of people, with Dr Ambedkar at their head is not to be thought of thus.
Dr Ambedkar is learned in the Hindu religion, and has studied it deeply. One can safely say that there is not a Hindu text, whether vedic or agamic, that he has not mastered. His knowledge of law is extensive and his legal acumen and training fitted him to the task of drawing up the Indian constitution. That such a learned man decided to lay by his Hindu faith and convert to Buddhism with three hundred thousand people makes for a unique choice, and one that is quite different from that exercised by others who convert, only because of their dislike of their religion.
On conversion, Dr Ambedkar has undertaken a set of vows: that henceforth he will not consider Hindu gods such as Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh, Kabali and Ganapathi as his own; will not believe in the avatara principle; or indeed in any sort of ritual. He has also made clear that he does not consider Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu and that he will not invite Brahmins to perform any ritual whatsoever; that all men are equal and that henceforth he will adopt the five noble Buddhist observances, that is, the so-called panchsheel virtues.
These vows illuminate the inner core of Hinduism as well as the principles that animate the Buddhist creed.
As always the news of this conversion has not induced reflection in the protectors of the Hindu religion. And as always, they have responded with irritation. The Congress ruling combine, as may be expected, has mocked it, and sought to come to terms with it by vilifying Dr Ambedkar who strides this conversion like the colossus he is. They have chosen to treat this momentous historical event as if it were an ordinary happening, and this is how they have sought to explain it to the people of India. Try as they might to trivialise the conversion, they are not likely to succeed and will be disappointed. But they will persist in their effort. And why won’t they? Because that is their nature. A leopard does not change its spots, after all.
But the people of the world are not likely to judge this event based on what they say. Dr Ambedkar’s conversion is bound to induce reflection across the world. Thinkers in different countries will certainly ask themselves this question: why did Dr Ambedkar dare to leave the Hindu religion, along with three hundred thousand people?
The answer cannot be sought in or furnished by the Indian Constitution which proclaims that untouchability has been abolished. Neither can this question be answered by claiming that foreigners have spent 9 crores of rupees towards conversion, as is being argued by the Shankaracharya of the Kanchi Mutt.
The people of the world will rightly construe that in Nehru’s India, his commitment to world peace notwithstanding, untouchability persists and this is the reason for this massive conversion. Nehru’s discourses on panchsheel, the sugared words of the Constitution or, for that matter, the abuse being hurled by the national dailies are not going to influence world opinion. The Congress ruling combine might not consider it necessary to ask about, or seek the root cause as to why people have sought to exit the Hindu faith in such large numbers. The combine might even think this is not its responsibility.
But the Kanchi Shankaracharya cannot be expected to adopt such a perspective. For he sits ensconced in his high status, a man who relies on the Hindu religion entirely for his profit and place in society. His response is as might be expected, that is, he has tried to shore up his declining status and equally declining income; and while his words are not likely to inspire people to willingly accept Hinduism, they are not even of the kind that would help render it sacred and convince people who have stuck on to the Hindu religion to stay with it.
The Shankaracharya laments that foreigners have spent 9 crores of rupees to convert people to their faith. Our question to him is this: till date what has he done to help the so-called depressed classes improve their lives? Leave alone crores, has he spent at least a few lakhs on them? If he has, would he be able to show us statistical proof of such spending?
Islam came to us from outside, but Muslims in India did not migrate from ‘there’ to here. Sometime in the past, they were all Hindus, and if at one time, they were in the mere hundreds, but today there are crores of them, the reasons for this expansion of the community must be sought in Hinduism. Likewise, with Christianity: how did it take root here? Those who seek to ridicule Dr Ambedkar’s conversion must think on this question.
It’s not just these three hundred thousand people who have exited along with Ambedkar, many more are likely to. Untouchability, unseeability, not letting people come close to you, insisting on birth-based notions of high and low… even if it were a palace wrought in gold, it is a building infested with the vilest of viruses and men like Dr Ambedkar cannot be expected to live in such a space. They will leave it one day or another.
Dr Ambedkar’s conversion deserves praise from all those who are possessed of good sense and intelligence.
C N Annadurai, Dravida Nadu, 21.10.1956
(Translated from the Tamil by V. Geetha)