Ambedkar (1891-1956), leader of India's Untouchables, first encountered Buddhism through the Dravidian Buddhist Society founded by that time President of the Theosophical Society and author of “People from the other World,” Henry Olcott. During its inaugural meeting in 1898 in Madras Olcott stated:
Buddhism will make every man, woman and child among you free of all the oppression of caste; free to work; free to look your fellowmen bravely in the face; free to rise to any position within the reach of your talents, your intelligence and your perseverence; free to meet men, whether Asiatics, Europeans or Americans on terms of friendly equality and competition; free to follow out the religious path traced to the Lord Buddha without any priest having the right to block your way; free to become teachers and models of character to mankind. (Published in the Journal of the Maha Bodhi Society 7.4, August 1898)
Although this hardly can be said to count for Ambedkar, Colonel Olcott himself, was a lifelong believer in an ‘astral plane’ and believed to be receiving messages from Madame Blavatsky’s “Mahatmas.” Particularly two “Aryans” said to have survived the floods of Atlantis Master Morya and his deputy, Master Koot Hoomi, communicated with her regularly from their alleged abode on top of the Himalayas by ‘materializing’ letters which sometimes dropped from ceilings, but most often where delivered via a common spiritualist trap door. And Olcott noted in his diaries that "Our Buddhism was that of the Master-Adept Gautama Buddha, which was identically the Wisdom Religion of the Aryan Upanishads, and the soul of all the ancient world-faiths" (S. Prothero, The White Buddhist: The Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott, 1996, p. 96.)
At a time when many in the West were suffering a crisis of faith in the wake of the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species (1859) and his later Descent of Man (1871), Madame H.P.Blavatsky began to attract a circle of devotees in America, despite repeated scandals and accusations of fraud. Spiritualism was very much in vogue, and 'forbidden' Tibet was coming to be seen by the romantically minded as a spiritual paradise untainted by the outside world. Colonel Olcott was an early admirer of Madame Blavatsky, and when the Theosophical Society was formed in New York in November 1875 he became its first President - with Madame Blavatsky as, appropriately enough, its Corresponding Secretary. At first the Theosophical Society's aims were ill-defined and the Masters' messages were taken up with the Great Mother and Ancient Egyptian occultism, as explained by Serapis of the Luxor Brotherhood.
After moving to Bombay however, these soon gave way to the loftier goal of a 'Universal Brotherhood of Humanity'. Its creed drew upon the ancient truths of the mahatmas that underpinned all the religions of the world - and pre-eminent among these was Buddhism: “incomparably higher, more noble, more philosophical and more scientific than the teaching of any other church or religion”. (Charles Allen, The Buddha and the Sahibs, 2003, p.245.)
Case Study1: Seek Mason, Will Travel
In May 1880 the unlikely couple - one bearded like an ancient prophet, ashen-grey of complexion, austere in appearance and demeanour, the other many times larger than life in both her figure and personality- moved on to Ceylon. The Sinhalese population received them with open arms, for their reputation as the first sahibs to have publicly expressed their high regard for of the old religions reintroduced, from Thailand in 1753. They underscored this by becoming, on 25 May, the first Russian and the first American to become lay Buddhists. On landing at the quay at Bombay, Colonel Olcott had knelt down and kissed the ground; here in Ceylon he abandoned his western attire for a dhoti, shawl and sandals.
The contrasting attitudes of these two “chums”, as they called themselves, can be seen in their very different responses to the Relic of the Tooth at Kandy when it was brought from its golden case for their personal inspection: Madame Blavatsky blurted out that it was as large as an alligator's tooth while Olcott, rather more tactfully, expressed a belief that it obviously dated from one of the Buddha's earlier incarnations. (Allen, 2003, p. 246.)
Olcott proceeded to write a Buddhist Catechism, made up of questions and answers to be learned by heart, and the role it played in the revival of Buddhism in Ceylon, and its reform, was immense. But what is truly extraordinary about this document is that even though it carried the imprimatur of the most respected Sinhalese monk on the island, the Venerable Sri Hikkadowe Sumangala, 'High Priest of Sri Pada and the Western Province and Principal of the Vidyodaya Pirivena', and was approved by him for use in Buddhist schools, the Buddhist Catechism reflected Henry Olcott's rationalist views - views that in many instances ran contrary to the Buddhist practices then prevailing on the island.
The Catechism asks: 'Did the Buddha hold with idol-worship?' Answer: 'He did not; he opposed it. The worship of gods, demons, trees, etc. was condemned by the Buddha.' And the summary of Buddhism that the American colonel set down in answer to the question 'What striking contrasts are there between Buddhism and what may be called "religion"?' is a startlingly reformist, almost Presbyterian, interpretation of Theravada Buddhism:
Answer: Among others, these: It teaches the highest goodness without a creating God; a continuity of life without adhering to the superstitious and selfish doctrine of an eternal, metaphysical soul-substance that goes out of the body; a happiness without an objective heaven; a method of salvation without a vicarious Saviour; redemption by oneself as the Redeemer, 3fld without rites, prayers, penances, priests or intercessory saints; and a summum bonum, i.e., Nirvana, attainable in this life and in this world by leading a pure, unselfish life of wisdom and of compassion to all beings.
One of those who attended Colonel Olcott's first public lecture in Ceylon was Don David Hevavitherana, aged sixteen, son of Anglicised Sinhalese parents, who had been educated at an Anglican church school in Colombo.
His grandfather became the Buddhist Theosophical Society's first President, and in 1884, at the age of twenty, David himself was initiated as a member of the Society, and later took the name Anagarika Dharmapala.
In Olcott’s hands his movement for Buddhist unity was anti-Christian in inspiration, Ambedkar in contrast opposed the caste system. But this of course creates a contradiction, for where Ambedkar imagined the Buddhist community to be a purely ethical community, the Buddhist community itself is based on caste lines.
Following Olcott's dead Annie Besant became the
President of the Theosophical Society seen here at the All-India Buddhist
Literary Conference, Calcutta, December 27-29th 1928.
But we have to recall that Buddhist discourse responds and reacts to other discourses: the Hindu Nationalist discourse promotes quite different ideals and heroes.
In fact the term "Hindu" is a Persian adaptation of the Sanskrit sindhu, referring to the region of the Indus River Valley. In the late eighteenth century, British authors began using "Hindu" to refer to the religions of the non-Muslim peoples of India.
The development in ideas about the nature of religion had large implications for traditional forms of authority. Many of the new leaders insisted that the distinction between religious specialists Brahmins or monks-and lay people had to be abandoned or toned down. Everybody should take part in the cultural heritage of the community. Everybody should have access to the high scriptural tradition. Everybody should essentially be a Brahmin or a monk. Religious identity in traditional Brahminical religion was ascribed by birth and exclusive to certain members of society, whereas religious membership in the order of monks, both Buddhist and Jain, was achieved through initiation only.
There was a difference of degree between the Hindu Vivekananda, the Buddhist Dharmapala, and the Jain Vijaya Dharma Sfiri regarding their internalization and espousal of new versus traditional world views. Dharmapala was undoubtedly the most anglicized of these religious leaders and his break with the Buddhist past was radical, although he would have denied this himself. He was probably also the leader who made the most profound and lasting impact on his own society.
Gombrich and Obeyesekere (1988) have looked at the legacy of Dharmapala in the late twentieth century; their conclusion is that Buddhism has been transformed by the new ideas of religious authority and by the new and unprecedented religious roles of monks and lay people.
Like Dharmapala, Vivekinanda was also thoroughly influenced by English culture through his education, and his idea of the Indian past was conveyed through European books on history and religion. It also marked as clear a disjunction in the religious outlook of Jains as it did for Hindus and Buddhists, and their arguments also were thoroughly influenced by the historicist ideology of Western research and by the objectifying stance of the British census.
In more general terms, the new role of religion generated in the nineteenth century had important implications for political life in South Asia in the twentieth century. For instance, a large number of scholarly works have shown how political monks played a pivotal part in the legitimation of violent communal conflicts in both India and Sri Lanka during the last decades. The Indian sub-continent is where nationalism and religion have found their most complex field of interaction, I agree with P. Van der Veer that religious discourse and practice must be treated as constitutive of changing social identities rather than ideological smoke screens. To be more specific, there is no doubt that religious nationalist ideology has been a cause of political turmoil in South Asia.
these movements religion was a matter of choice and personal striving. Religious
identity was about belonging to a group of like-minded people whose religious
duties and privileges all accrued from their personal choices and abilities and
not from their social position. And Religion became a matter of choice.
Whether from Bengal, Gujarat, or Sri Lanka-all shared in a particular perception of history. It was exported from Europe and gained currency among the anglicized elites.
Comparative religion provided much of the intellectual foundation for Dharmapala's thinking, as it did for Vivekananda's, and the theosophist movement was an important channel for the conveyance of these ideas to South Asia.
Max Mueller did much to open the eyes of the British to the treasures of Indian literature and religion. He was a key figure in the establishment of Sanskrit as a third classical language in Britain and he argued that the Christian world needed to study other religions and languages in order to understand their own properly. India has something to teach us, was the essence of his message to the British public. The ideas of race that flourished in the same intellectual milieu became important elements in Dharmapala's nationalist cosmology.
But a sense of betrayal was often present in Dharmapala's personal relationships, vis-a-vis his allies in the Theosophical Society, from whom he became alienated as the Society associated itself more closely with an exclusivistic Hindu nationalism.
Prothero (1995) was the first to asserts that the Protestant Buddhism of Olcott was indeed a rather a 'messy mix', which included important Western elements such as modernism, metropolitan gentility, and academic orientalism.
Dharmapala described in his diary for 9 Nov. 1897, and again on 12 April 1898, how “Theosophists rose into prominence by borrowing Buddhist expressions. Their literature is full of Buddhist terminology. Now they are kicking the ladder.”
In his diary of 12 January 1893, he wrote that Olcott pleaded guilty when he was confronted about his “treacherous action” of writing against the Maha Bodhi Society. Discord did in fact arise between Olcott and Dharmapala on a few occasions around the middle of the 1890’s in connection with their work in the organization.
Moreover, it is clear that in the years before the turn of the century, Olcott was increasingly torn between the cause of the Buddhists and the Maha Bodhi Society, and the cause of Hindu nationalism and theosophy. It will take a long time to efface the effects of Olcott's action, Dharmapala continued in his diary, resolving to show understanding and love “though he has proved treacherous to me”.
In a letter to one of his companions, Mr Gunasekera, of 20 February 1926, he related how the members of the Theosophical Society were against Buddhism but still exploited the religion to advance their own cause. “Leadbeater and Besant steal everything from Buddhism and palm it off as their own”, he said. (Return to Righteousness, p.775)
In Calcutta Norendranath Sen became an important supporter of the Buddhist. And through Neel Comul, Dharmapala also became acquainted with the prominent Tagore family. Neel Comul's wife had relatives among the Tagores and his brother had married the sister of the great writer Rabindranath Tagore, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
The Tagore family was important in the formation of the Brahmo Samaj, the religious society founded in 1828 by Rammohan Roy. Rabindranath's father, the conservative and contemplative Debendranath Tagore, took over the leadership of the Brahmo Samdj from his father, Dwarkanath Tagore, in 1843. After the social reformist Keshub Chandra Sen joined the Brahmo Samaj a split occurred in the organization. Keshub Sen, the leader of the new Brahmo Samaj of India from 1866, had a profound interest in Buddhism, and in the opinion of certain scholars Sen was the main influence on Dharmapal to start the Maha Bodhi Society. (David Kopf, The Brahmo Samaj, p. 252)
In Dharmapala's mind, Buddhist Sri Lanka was a periphery in relation to Hindu India, and to Bengal in particular. The Buddhists had a special historical relationship to Eastern India because this was where the Buddha reached enlightenment and founded his religion. It is in this perspective that Dharmapala's obsession with India can be understood. Dharmapala's life-project was the remapping of the religious geography of India. The Buddhists had a rightful place in that geography-both the symbolic and the physical-which had been denied them in earlier phases of the subcontinent's history, especially by the Muslims. In Dharmapala's mind the identity of the Buddhist Sinhalese nation had to be defined in relationship to the symbolic centre of their religion, which lay in the heart of India, at Bodh Gaya.
The obsession with ancient history and archaeology that took off among Indian religious leaders in the nineteenth century was an expression of a completely new world view.
attempt to offer a new Buddhist identity consisted in negotiating symbolic
territory in the religious geography of India. As this symbolic geography
translated into real world geography as a piece of land owned by a Hindu
Mahant, it entailed real world negotiations in the law courts of Calcutta as
well as untiring polemic in the channels of public discourse, primarily the
Indian Mirror. Dharmapala's long struggle to gain control over Bodh Gaya
therefore was a struggle to define Buddhist identity for himself and for the
Sinhalese nation in relation to their symbolic centre in India.
But one of the most important traits of Dharmapala's Buddhism was the blurring of the traditional roles of monk and layman.
Also the form of Hinduism developed by Vivekananda might be called 'Protestant' in the limited sense that it stressed the universal right to access to religious truths and a rejection of the traditional authority of the priests. Of course, one may question the use of terms like 'Protestant Hinduism' and 'Protestant Buddhism'. The Protestant Buddhism of Sri Lanka was certainly not a simple amalgamation of traditional Theravada Buddhism and an ideal Weberian Protestantism.
traditional Indian type of religious identity, in fact was split into different
identities according to context. In Hinduism, the individual could have at
least three distinct types of religious identity: first, the social religious
identity defined by class and caste; secondly, the sectarian religious identity
defined by the family's affiliation to a devotional tradition centred on a
deity; and, thirdly, there was the option of a personal religion defined by
one's chosen guru.
Dharmapala's quest for Bodh Gayd was not a pilgrimage in any traditional Sinhalese Buddhist sense of a religious journey. His zealous attempts to appropriate the Maha Bodhi temple made a claim about the place of Buddhism in Indian history in the same way as the activities of Vijayendra Sfiri and Vijaya Dharma Sfiri made claims about Jainism as a historical religious tradition.
Anagdrika Dharmapala spoke incessantly about the history of Buddhism in relation to the history of other religions and civilizations, and he often used the work of Western scholars to corroborate his arguments. Jain leaders spoke of the history of Jainism, and scholars like Jacobi and Max Mueller were favourite points of reference in their discussions. Vivekananda read the history of Rome and Greece, of Egypt, of the French Revolution, of modern Europe, of classical India, of the Mughals, and of Buddhism. His views were often based on historical arguments, and, as T. Raychaudhuri writes, his statements on history drew upon a fantastic range of evidence from the records of many civilizations.
Although initially influenced the small Buddhist conversion movement among Tamil Untouchables, the Dravidian Buddhist Society, mentioned above Ambedkar (1891-1956), publicly became a Buddhist shortly before his dead when he led half a million of his followers into Buddhism. He gave many indications throughout his earlier life that he intended to convert but held off, no doubt so as to extract the maximum political concessions on behalf of the Untouchables, or Dalits as they are called today. He was surely also aware of the symbolism of converting in 1956, the two thousand five hundredth anniversary of the Buddha's enlightenment.
Case study 2: The Anti Aryan Myth
Ambedkar also spoke about his coming conversion during a major conference organized by the King of Nepal, in Katmandu. Below a newspaper clip showing the relics of two disciples of the Buddha carried through Katmandu, during the conference attended by delegates from 40 countries.
To date, nobody knows where ‘Buddha’ was born, for example some claim it was in Bodh Gaya/India, others that it was in Nepal and a third group of scholars claims he was altogether born 100 years later from the above two presumptions. (See Robin Coningham, The archaeology of Buddhism. In Archaeology' and World Religion, edited by T. Insol1, 2001).
Whatever it may be, the official re-establishment of Budhism in Nepal took some time for in 1926, the Rana government in Nepal still expelled six Nyingma-lineage initiated Vajracharya monks on the grounds, that one of them Mahapragya (fourth from left) , a Shrestha and therefore presumed to be a Hindu by birth, had converted to Buddhism. Following is a 1927 newspaper clip, showing the five Newar monks with their leader Tsering Norbu (third from left) originally from near Simla India-- who had studied in the monastery of the Shakyashri Lama—after their arrival in Bodh Gaya.