Revival of Buddhism
1. Promoting Buddhism - So in the last phase of his life, BRA made a great resolve to raise the banner of Buddhism & bring back to his motherland the Buddha who had suffered an exile of 1200 years. He unfurled the banner, and his people marched. In December 1954 BRA went to Rangoon to attend the third Buddhist World Conference. He caste a spell on the Conference with his thought provoking views on the mission & propagation of Buddhism. He said that Ceylon & Burma were in the forefront of Buddhist countries. To his mind, Grandeur had no place on Buddhism. Buddhism had far-reaching effects on Hinduism, and cow protection was a victory of the Buddhist principle of non-violence he added. BRA also declared that he would propagate Buddhism in India. He had already achieved several things to that end, the provision for the study of Pali made in the Constitution, the inscription of a Buddhist aphorism on the frontage of the Rashtrapati Bhavan in Delhi & acceptance of the Asoka Chakra by Bharat as her symbol / declaration of Buddha Jayanti a holiday mainly through his efforts.
Soon after BRA unveiled an image of Buddha at Dehu road near Pune. BRA also told his audience that the image of the god at Pandharpur was in reality the image of the Buddha. The name of the god Pandurang, he observed, was derived from Pundalik meaning lotus and a lotus was called Pandurang in Pali. So Pandurang was none other than Buddha.
1955 opened with the news that BRA was going to embrace Buddhism. Since then he received invitations from several Buddhist institutions to address them. BRA wrote to D. Valinsinha that he had prepared a formula of certain rites called ‘Dhamma Diksha Ceremony’ which everyone embracing Buddhism would be required to undergo. BRA received an invite from Dr Felix Valyi Japan to take part in a Round Table Conference on the origin of Indian thought with special reference to Buddhism & Jainism. BRA did exchange notes/thoughts with the Japanese Consul-General in Bombay on ways of promoting Buddhism in India.
Since May 1955 BRA’s health deteriorated further, he needed to be put on oxygen often, twice a week but except for a few none knew about his worsening health. The Working Committee of the SC Federation under its president of BRA expressed by a resolution dated 27/8/1955 in favor of abolition of reservation of seats for SC in the Central & State legislatures & District Local Boards, as it is believed that the time had come for its abolition, there was no need for such a provision.
2. On Buddhism - In early 1956 the great book on Buddha & Buddhism was almost completed. He also wrote Riddle of Hinduism. Busy he was his writings simultaneously the political hammer was banging in the Council of States as well. BRA made a fighting speech over the linguistic problem on 1/5/1956. He said that Bombay belonged to Maharashtra, its original inhabitants were the Kolis, it belonged to Dowager Lakshmi Bai from whom the Portuguese took it on lease and later took it over. He was against a United Maharashtra but wanted two Maharashtras divided by the lines of the Sahyadris.
In a broadcast in May 1956 on BBC on ‘Why I like Buddhism and how it is useful to the world in its present circumstances’ he said, I prefer Buddhism because it gives three principles that no other religion gives, one it teaches prajna (understanding as against superstition & supernationalism), karuna (love), and samata (equality). This is what man wants for a good & happy life. Marxism & Communism have shaken the religious system of all countries. Buddhist countries that have gone into communism do not understand what communism is’.
BRA was soon going to start a new party called the Republican Party. Due to his ill health he was keen on publishing the book ‘The Buddha & his Dhamma’. On 24/5/1956 at a talk in Nare Park, Bombay he declared that he would embrace Buddhism in October 1956. In his speech he attacked Savarkar who had written a series of articles on the non-violence preached by Buddhism. To him Buddhism differed from Hinduism. Hinduism believed in God & soul the former did not. Hinduism believed in Chaturvarnya and caste system the former did not. During his speech BRA compared himself with Moses who had led his people from Egypt to Palestine, the land of freedom.
3. Approaching Conversion - After June 1956 his health worsened, his eyesight was fast failing. He was lame, crippled & sad at heart as he thought that he could not fulfill his mission, he sadly & bitterly wept. He wanted to make his people a governing class in his lifetime. The thought of being helpless to complete his books he had planned depressed him terribly. So prostrate was BRA that eminent politicians who saw him said that death was hovering over his face. They wondered at his will power.
October 14 the date of his conversion to Buddhism was fast approaching. He would prefer to hold the ceremony at Bombay, Nagpur or Sarnath pref Nagpur where the Buddhist Nagas flourished in ancient times. On September 23 BRA issued a press note announcing that his conversion to Buddhism would take place at Nagpur on Dassara day on 14/10/1956 between 9 & 11 a.m. BRA wrote to D Valisinha expressing desire that Mahabodhi Society of India should participitate in the function. He informed him that he had no idea what the rituals were although he had framed an important formula of a series of vows to be administered at the time of Dhamma Diksha Ceremony.
4. BRA Converts, a Must Read - For a week prior to the event thousands of DC esp. the Mahars from the Marathi speaking areas of Central Provinces, Berar & Bombay reached Nagpur. Nagpur sanctified in the olden times by the residence of Nagarjun, the great scholar-leader of Buddhism was now transformed into a holy place of great significance, historical, cultural & religious. An expansive open ground of 14 acres near the Vaccine Institute at Shradhanand Peth was turned into an enclosure, there was a replica of the Sanchi stupa with Buddhist flags consisting of blue, red & green stripes fluttered everywhere.
BRA said that his Buddhism would be a sort of neo-Buddhism or Navayana. He declared that he had once told Gandhi that he though he differed from him on the issue of untouchability, when the time came, ‘I will choose only the least harmful way for the country. And that is the greatest benefit I am conferring on the country by embracing Buddhism, for Buddhism is a part & parcel of Bharatiya culture. I have taken care that my conversion will not harm the tradition of the culture & history of this land’. He predicted that in the next 10-15 years India would become a Buddhist country. He extended his wholehearted support to the Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti which was fighting for a united Maharashtra.
The conversion ceremony commenced with a Marathi song sung by a lady in praise of BRA. The vast humanity of over 3 lakhs people watched the ceremony eagerly as the 83 year old Mahathaveer Chandramani of Kushinara & his four saffron robbed Bhikkus administered in Pali to BRA & his wife, who were both bowing before the image of Buddha, the three Sarans under Buddha, Dhamma & Sangha and Pancheel of the five precepts of abstention from killing, stealing, telling lies, wrongful sex life & drink. They ten bowed down thrice with clasped hands before the Buddha statuette & made offerings of white lotuses before it. With his BRA had become a Buddhist. BRA declared, ‘By discarding my ancient religion which stood for inequality & oppression today I am reborn. I have no faith in the philosophy of incarnation, and it is wrong & mischievous to say that Buddha was an incarnation of Vishnu. I am no more a devotee of any Hindu god or goddess. I will not perform Shraddha. I wil strictly follow the eightfold path of Buddha. I will lead a life guided by the three principles of knowledge, right path & compassion’.
It may be noted here that a leaflet issued on this occasion by Mahasthavir Chandramani & other Bhikkus (the men who performed BRA’s conversion ceremony) on this occasion said that Hinduism & Buddhism were branches of the same tree.
Now he called those who wanted to embrace Buddhism to stand up, the entire gathering rose up and he administered the three refuges & five precepts & different pledges to the vast gathering. Nearly three lakhs of his followers embraced Buddhism. Among those who embraced Buddhism with BRA were Dr M B Niyogi, former Chief Justice of the Nagpur High Court who said denunciation of Hinduism as done by BRA while embracing Buddhism had no place in the original Buddhist rituals. There were messages from Burma, Colombo but none from any great Indian leader like Nehru, Dr Radhakrishnan (believed that Buddha had attempted to achieve a purer Hinduism) or Veer Savarkar (described the conversion of BRA as a sure jump into the fold of Hinduism & declared that a Buddhist BRA was a Hindu BRA. He embraced a non-Vedic faith but Indian religious system within the orbit of Hindutva, and according to him it was a not change of faith). The next day he initiated another vast crowd of followers into Hinduism.
He then seriously warned people that a great responsibility had fallen on their shoulders in connection with the upholding of Buddhism, if they did not follow rigidly & nobly the principles of Buddhism it would mean the Mahars be reduced to a miserable state. He said that his partymen were more interested in politics than in religion but he was more interested in religion than in politics. He told his followers that they should try to work with the leaders of other communities since people did not vote for SC candidates just as they voted for SC candidates.
By this act he said the tone for the revival of Buddhism in India.