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T. Vijayendra


This article questions the normal understanding that Buddhism died in India around the 8th century and was brought back to India from Sri Lanka in the 20th century. The fact is that a major trend of Buddhism, the Mahayana, got absorbed in India in the Nirguna Sampradaya of the medieval saints tradition. This tradition was mainly taken up by the artisan castes in India. Ambedkar’s revival of ancient Buddhism has not helped the Dalits as a whole. It only helped some middle-class Dalits, as it helped the middle class in Sri Lanka. This was similar to Hindu revivalism, harking back to Vedas, which ultimately only helped the Hindu middle class to inherit power from the British as well as creating the Hindu-Muslim divide with tragic consequences.

The point of choosing from a tradition is not between rationalism and irrationalism, theism and atheism or materialism and idealism. The real choice is between authoritarian and anti-authoritarian traditions. And that is what people tend to choose. As a thumb rule any tradition that is sectarian or ignores the multicultural/multi-religious composite identity of present India is likely to be harmful. More specifically, any tradition that ignores the medieval period, ignores Islam, the Saint tradition of this period including the Islamic tradition of Sufism, the Sikh tradition and Lingayat tradition of the South, and harking back to ancient India, is likely to be of no use or even injurious to the people. Finally, it is the anti-authoritarian tradition that leads to secular themes in literature and philosophy and to co-operative people’s organizations.


Why do statues of Ambedkar have his index finger pointing outward? Because he restarted Buddhism’s Wheel of Dharma (with his finger in its spokes) which had stopped in India for centuries! …So the story goes. The mythology of resurgence of Buddhism in modern India is charming and romantic.

It begins with a boy working in a field in Konkan (Goa) who reads the life of Buddha in a torn Marathi newspaper. He is so charged by it that he travels to Nepal (via Pune and Banaras, studying Sanskrit and Pali) the birthplace of Buddha in search of Buddhism, only to find that he has to go to Ceylon (Sri Lanka today) to look for it. Undaunted, he travels to Ceylon and Burma and becomes Buddhist and a scholar. Back in India, he teaches Pali at Calcutta University, goes to Baroda, meets James Wood of Harvard University and ends up editing and translating a Buddhist tome at Harvard, published as one of the volumes in the Harvard Oriental Series. Returning again to India he teaches at Gujarat University then joins the Salt Satyagraha, spending six years in jail and moving on to Banaras Hindu University. Towards the end he decides to exit from his life in the Jain way only to be persuaded by Gandhi to come to live in Sevagram, where he breathes his last. Acharya Dharmanand Kosambi (1876-1947) remains one of the greatest scholars of Buddhism and Jainism that India has produced. He was also father of an equally illustrious son, Damodar Dharmanand Kosambi!

Buddhism in Sri Lanka

What did Kosambi find in Sri Lanka? How come Buddhism was flourishing there? There lies another romance. On May 18, 1880, two colourful persons arrived in Sri Lanka – one a New England puritan, Col. Henry Steele Olcott (1832-1907), and the other an occultist, Mme. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891). They identified themselves as Buddhists but not with ‘the sorry state of the Buddhist community’ that they found there. They created an ‘esoteric’ variety of Buddhism that was in essence the same as Vedanta, since they had already founded the Theosophical Society in New York in 1875. In fact within a month, on June 17 1880, they created the Buddhist Theosophical Society.

Olcott had a missionary zeal for education. He had already created agriculture education in the USA. Here he campaigned for the access of Buddhist children to English medium education, a privilege enjoyed by Christians only. In 1881 he wrote the Buddhist Catechism and also created the Buddhist Educational Association. He founded the Ananda College at Colombo (1886), Mahinda College at Galle (1892) and Dharmaraja College at Kandy (1887). In 1889 he went to Japan and brought together 12 Buddhist sects together and organised a convention of Southern Buddhists of Burma, Siam and Ceylon.

This was the Buddhism that young Kosambi found flourishing in Sri Lanka. The modern Sinhala bourgeoisie / middle class is largely a product of this English medium education. In 1880 a young Sinhala boy came under the influence of Olcott. Son of a furniture merchant, the youth was impressed by the simplicity of Buddhist monks. Olcott took him to Adyar in 1884 and brought him back in 1886 to collect funds for the Buddhist Educational Association. The young Bhikku Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933) was moved by the plight of rural people. He became a great Buddhist scholar and propagandist who brought Buddhism to India, pioneering the revival movement at enormous personal sacrifice.

Buddhism Comes Back to India

Before Anagarika Dharmapala established the Maha Bodhi Society in 1891, Buddhism in India was in a chaotic condition. Holy places connected with the life of the Buddha were neglected and dilapidated, and the shrines were considered as show pieces under the control of non-Buddhists. Dharmapala's heart broke when he saw the lamentable condition of Bodhagaya Temple, then in the possession of a Hindu Mahant. He resolved to recover the Bodhagaya Temple and other places of Buddhism and spread the dharma in the land of its birth, and so with this determination he founded the Maha Bodhi Society.

The Buddhist revival movement initiated by Dharmapala spread in many parts of India. Branches of the Society were established in Sarnath, Bodh Gaya, Calcutta, Madras and Sanchi. He influenced many scholars, among them Maha Pandit Rahula Sankrityayana, Bhadant Anand Kausalayayan, Jagdish Kasyap and Dharmarakshita, all trained in Sri Lanka and who propagated Buddhism in India by translating the Buddhist religious books lost in India for centuries.

Dharmapala established Upasana centres, libraries, schools, colleges, orphanages and hospitals in India and Sri Lanka for the general public. He was a great patriot and unflinching advocate of independence both in India and Sri Lanka. He helped India to rediscover Buddha and take pride in Buddhism and Buddhist culture. The present flourishing condition of Bodhagaya, Sarnath, Kushinagar and Sanchi and many other sacred places of Buddhism in India are the direct result of Dharmapala's untiring and selfless efforts.

He died on 29th April 1933 at Sarnath. His last words were: "Let me die soon. Let me be reborn. I can no longer prolong my agony, I would like to be born again 25 times to spread the Buddha dhamma."

Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956)

Ever since the 1935 Depressed Classes Conference, when he had shocked Hindu India with the declaration that though he had been born a Hindu he did not intend to die one, Ambedkar had been giving earnest consideration to the question of conversion. Further consideration made him increasingly convinced that there was no future for the Untouchables within Hinduism, that they would have to adopt another religion, and that the best religion for them to adopt was Buddhism. Some scholars think that John Dewey, the American philosopher who was his teacher, influenced him.

In 1950 he visited Sri Lanka at the invitation of the Young Men's Buddhist Association, Colombo, where he addressed a meeting of the World Fellowship of Buddhists in Kandy and appealed to the Untouchables of Sri Lanka to embrace Buddhism. In 1951, he wrote an article defending the Buddha against the charge that he had been responsible for the decrease in women's status in ancient India. The same year, he compiled the Bauddha Upasana Patha, a small collection of Buddhist devotional texts.

In 1955, he founded the Bharatiya Bauddha Maha­sabha or Buddhist Society of India. Addressing the thousands of Untouchables who had assembled for the occasion, he declared that henceforth he would devote himself to the propagation of Buddhism in India. He also announced that he was writing a book, ‘The Buddha and His Dhamma', explaining the tenets of Buddhism in simple language for the benefit of the common man. It was published after his death in November 1957 and is described as his magnum opus.

On 14 October 1956, Ambedkar took the Three Refuges and Five Precepts from a Buddhist monk in the traditional manner and then, in turn, administered them to the 3,80,000 men, women, and children who had come to Nagpur in response to his call. Ambedkar died on 6 December 1956.

Although Ambedkar had been a Buddhist for only seven weeks, during that period he probably did more for the promotion of Buddhism than any other Indian since Ashoka. At the time of his death three quarters of a million Untouchables had become Buddhists, and in the months that followed hundreds of thousands more took the same step-despite the uncertainty and confusion that had been created by the sudden loss of their leader.

Why did revival of Buddhism fail to help the Dalits?

Ambedkar’s contribution to the cause of Dalits has undoubtedly been the most significant event in 20th century India. His conversion to Buddhism shook India and gave an enormous sense of pride to the Dalits. It also strengthened the liberals among caste Hindus who were uncomfortable/ashamed of the practice of untouchability in India and oppressions of the Dalits. The socialist and the communist trends in India were also strengthened. It should also be remembered that Ambedkar played a big role in drafting the Indian Constitutions with affirmative justice (reservation) clauses in it.

While Ambedkar is still a very important name in Dalit’s struggle, Buddhism has not played any significant role in it. Certainly not the kind of role it played for the Sinhala middle classes. Among the lower- income, rural neo- Buddhists there is practically no change in the worldview. Their village Buddhism tends to make new gods out of Buddha and Ambedkar and fit them into Hindu pantheon. Even the ideas of purity and pollution directed at castes ‘lower’ than themselves remain widespread. The fault is not entirely theirs. Buddhists Viharas in poor Dalit areas are neglected and priest/Buddhist Bhikkus never comes there. Dalits have repeatedly demanded that they be taught at least some Buddhist prayers. But no one comes. It is only the more educated, politically mobilised minority among the neo-Buddhists who take the scientific temper of the Buddhist teaching into their lives. In simpler words it means it helped them acquire middle-class status.

Hindu Revivalism in the Nineteenth Century

The revival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and later in India bears a marked resemblance to Hindu revivalism in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Like in Sri Lanka, they, the middle classes, faced the criticism and threat of Christianity. They faced two contrary pulls. On one hand they wanted the colonial jobs and to socialise with the colonial masters, on the other they did not want to become Christians as some of their more daring countrymen did. They way out was Hindu reform in the form of Brahmo Samaj and Arya Samaj. Undoubtedly these reforms also served the cause of anti-colonial struggles. A similar mix of reforms took place all over the country and most of them were aimed at educated middle classes though they did talk in the name of the country as a whole. The important fact is that they all harked back to ancient India, back to the authority of the Vedas, ignored the medieval period of saints and remained authoritarian and sectarian. They also implied that the plight of the Hindu society was due to Muslim invasion. This led to, even in the 19th century, Hindu-Muslim divide in Western U.P.

Both Gandhi and Tagore were aware of this problem. While Gandhi called himself a ‘sanatan Hindu’, Tolstoy and the anti-authoritarian Christian Quakers influenced him. He sought and found such traditions in Hinduism, using them effectively both in South Africa and later in India. Therefore he was able to work with and inspire a wider section of Indian society.

Tagore had Acharya Kshiti Mohan Sen with him at Shantiniketan, probably the greatest scholar of his time on medieval religious movements in India. His great work, ‘Madhyayuger Sadhana’ influenced Tagore. Tagore learnt a large range of Indian folk music ranging from boatmen’s song in Bengal to Panjabi Tappa. Most of it was from rebel, anti-authoritarian religious tradition of Indian society. The important thing to note is that it was relatively less sectarian and often cut across the Hindu-Muslim divide.

However, in as much as the leadership of the movement was largely middle class it remained culturally revivalist, authoritarian and sectarian. As independence began to loom over the horizon, particularly after the 1937 assembly election when only propertied classes voted, sectarianism was vigourously articulated, fighting to inherit to inherit the rule from the British, which led to the well-known tragic consequences.

Ambedkar found that his community was losing out and he was desperately looking for cultural rejuvenation of the community. For a variety of personal and historical reasons, some outlined above, he chose Buddhism. He died within months of conversion and all he could contribute was his book, ‘Buddha and his Dharma’. It remains marginal to the Dalit movement. Like the Hindu reform movement, Ambedkar also harked back to ancient India. Having been exposed to Western education, he too lacked respect for the culture of his people. Thus, addressing his people he scolded, ‘Tolerance of insults and tyranny... has killed the sense of retort and revolt. Vigour and ambition have completely vanished from you. All of you have become helpless, unenergetic and pale. Everywhere there is an atmosphere of defeatism and pessimism...’ His response to the medieval saints was that they did not oppose the caste system. In his complete neglect and disparagement of the cultural tradition of his own people, he was not unaware of it. His own father was follower of Kabir. Thus his Buddhism, again a product of the New England Puritanism of Olcott and Deweyan rationalism, could only help a Dalit middle class to rise but could not help the Dalit poor. Also, one must not forget, Buddhism too is an authoritarian religion!

What happened to Buddhism in India? The Cultural Traditions of the Working Poor

The Chinese traveler, Huen Tsang gives evidence, that in the 7th century, Buddhism, particularly its Mahayana sect was flourishing in North India. What happened to Buddhism after that? There is no clear picture about it, but it could not have vanished without a trace.

It is said that Buddhism left India due to Vedantic and Mimansak Acharyas like Shankaracharya, Kumaril and Udayan. While that is historically untrue, what it means is that the world of pundits and intellectuals lost faith in it, as the ordinary people were never interested in its theology. When Buddhism lost its patronage, many Bauddha Mathas got converted to Shaiva Mathas and even today millions of people worship there.

Buddhism itself turned to attract people through Tantra, magic etc. During 9th and 10th centuries in the Nepal terai region a mixture of Shaiva and Buddhist Sadhana gave rise to the Nath Panthi yogis. In Nepal even today Buddha and Shiva are respected equally. The founder of the Nath Panthis was Gorakhnath. There is a tradition that he met with Allamprabhu, the founder of the Lingayat tradition in the south at the Srishailam hill in present-day Andhra Pradesh. Thus, the wind of change was flowing across the land.

There was a continuous pressure for religions to turn towards people and people’s language. In the Apa­bhransh (pre-modern language) literature we find Buddhist songs and couplets. Later the same metaphors keep on reappearing in many saints’ writings. The culmination of this trend came with Kabir and the Nirguna tradition. Kabir and many of his successors like Dadu and Jayasi grew in an Islamic social atmosphere. Sufis had spread in many parts of India and most of these saints were familiar with their ideas. Later, in Guru Nanak’s travelogues, there are scores of encounters with Sufis. Sikhism also created the Granth Sahib, a collection of all the important saints’ songs and poems till then in the Nirgun tradition. This tradition did not accept the authority of the Vedas and the Gita, and the majority of the saints who followed it came from the artisan castes.

There was also the tradition of Krishna Kavya, written mainly in Braj, which also had an all-India spread. For instance, the Krishna Kavya in Braj was written in Kerala! Bengal and Orissa also had a strong Braj tradition. The Ram Bhakti tradition was equally widespread. These traditions accepted the authority of the vedas and the Gita, and many of the saints were Brahmins, like Surdas and Tulsidas.

Scholars often use the term Bhakti Movement for the movement of medieval saints, and Indian tradition tends to see the many trends in without differentiating. But it is possible to differentiate between those that have accepted the authority of the Vedas and the Gita and the other or ‘Ved Bahya’ traditions that have not. I believe that it is the latter, the anti-authoritarian traditions, that represents the continuation of Buddhism in India.

An important element in anti-authoritarian traditions is the use of secular themes. In the Sufi tradition love among different caste and communities was used to establish that all are equal in the kingdom of God and that one does not need intermediaries like Mulla or Pandit to reach God. Kabir repeatedly made fun of Brahmins and Mullas and of Sanskrit. These saints constantly used images from daily life of ordinary peasants and artisans. This attitude gets reflected in the expressions of relatively recent poets like Ghalib. I believe these traditions are the important precursors of secular literature, ideology and organisations.

Today we find that the working people, both rural and urban, particularly those from artisan castes have inherited these traditions. Most workers do not distinguish between different traditions. In general they respect all (in the style of the Hindu pantheon!). But many stick to the main tradition of their caste, and generally speaking the artisan castes belong to the Nirgun tradition. In any working-class district, groups of workers gather and sing these songs. Weekly market pavement bookshops often carry ‘chap’ literature of these saints. These traditions articulate themselves in various festivals and day-to-day cultural life of the ordinary people. These traditions are also found among the wives and parents of many ‘modern’ westernised middle-class persons who reject them while swearing by esoteric ancient India or atheistic / materialistic modernism.

Concluding Remarks

1. The Hindu revivalist movement of the last couple of centuries has harked back to ancient India because the middle classes, being exposed to English education and facing the criticism of Christianity, felt ashamed and contemptuous towards their ‘illiterate’ countrymen. They also blamed the Muslim invasion for the loss of Hindu power. Thus the nature of such revivalism was sectarian, on the one hand leading to the Hindu-Muslim divide while on the other looking down on the people’s multi-religious and composite cultural tradition.

2. Ambedkar also harked back to ancient India, yet it was to a tradition that was anti-Brahmin and opposed to the authority of the Vedas. But having been molded by Western education he failed to respect the culture of his people. In discounting the medieval saints for not opposing the caste system, he failed to recognise that the people were at that time (and are still) holding onto aspects of those anti-authoritarian traditions. His Buddhism, a product largely of Olcott’s New England Puritanism and Deweyan rationalism, could only enable a Dalit middle class to rise but could not help the Dalit poor. And all in all, Buddhism too is an authoritarian religion!

3. We can arrive at a thumb rule of what kind of tradition is useful for people. Any tradition that is sectarian, ignoring the multi-cultural and multi-religious composite identity of present India is likely to be harmful. More specifically, any tradition that ignores the medieval period, ignores Islam, the saint tradition of this period including the Islamic tradition of Sufism, the Sikh tradition and Lingayat tradition of the South and harks back to ‘ancient India’, is likely to be either of no use or even injurious to the common people. This includes the Hindu revivalism of the Arya Samaj, the Brahmo Samaj, and the Ramakrishna Mission as well as Buddhist revivalism.

4. The choice is not between rationalism and irrationalism, atheism and theism, or materialism and idealism. The real choice however is between authoritarian and anti-authoritarian traditions. And on their own what people tend to choose is the latter.

5. It is the anti-authoritarian tradition that leads to secular trends like socialism and anarchism and organisations like trade unions and people’s co-operatives.

15 May 2006

Email: vijayendrat@yahoo.com

Mobile: +91 94907 05634

Published in Frontier, Kolkata, Sep 24--Oct 21, 2006.