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Neo-Buddhism is a modern Buddhist revivalist movement in India. As a popular movement, Neo-Buddhism began on October 14, 1956 when B. R. Ambedkar, the 20th century's most prominent Untouchable converted to Buddhism along with nearly 400,000 of his followers.



At the beginning of the 20th century, Buddhism was all but dead in India, the land of its origin. Certain tribal groups in Bengal continued to follow Buddhism, as did peoples in Ladakh and Sikkim where Tibetan culture was influential, but these groups were on the margins of Indian society. Historical research and increased contact with the rest of the Buddhist world, however, led to renewed interest in Buddhism. Thinkers such as Iyothee Thass, Brahmananda Reddy, and Dharmananda Kosambi began to discuss it in very favourable terms.

During the 1930's, Ambedkar, who declared in 1935 his intention to leave Hinduism because he believed it perpetuated caste injustices, became interested in Buddhism as an alternative. After publishing a series of books and articles arguing that Buddhism was the only way for the Untouchables to gain equality, Ambedkar publicly converted on October 14, 1956 in Nagpur. He took the three refuges and five precepts from a Buddhist monk in the traditional manner and then in his turn administered them to the 380,000 of his followers that were present. Ambedkar would die less than two months later, just after finishing his definitive work on Buddhism, The Buddha and his Dhamma (

Distinctive interpretation

Ambedkarite Buddhists espouse an eclectic version of Buddhism, primarily based on Theravada, but with additional influences from Mahayana and Vajrayana. On many subjects, they give Buddhism a distinctive interpretation. Of particular note is their emphasis on Shakyamuni Buddha as a political and social reformer, rather than merely as a spiritual leader. They point out that the Buddha required his monastic followers to ignore caste distinctions, and that he lambasted racialist justifications for social inequality that existed in his own time. Ambedkar's followers do not believe that a person's unfortunate conditions at birth are the result of previous karma. In this respect, the Ambedkarites have some support from doctrinal sources. The Buddhist scriptures themselves do not teach that birth into a high social position is a sign of merit, and the Ambedkarite interpretation has been defended by reference to the various Suttas in which the Buddha teaches that some are born into high social position "Only for their own destruction, as a hollow tree grows high only to crumble down", etc. Conversely, many orthodox Buddhists are profoundly uncomfortable with some of the liberties Ambedkar took in "Quoting" the Buddha --such as re-fashioning the four noble truths to have a direct social message.

See rebirth (Buddhist).

Buddhism in India after Ambedkar

The Buddhist movement was somewhat hindered by Ambedkar's death so shortly after his conversion. It did not receive the immediate mass support from the Untouchable population that Ambedkar had hoped for. Division and lack of direction among the leaders of the Ambedkarite movement have been an additional impediment. The Buddhist revival remains concentrated in two provinces: Ambedkar's native Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh. According to the 1991 census, there are currently 6.4 million Buddhists in India, at least 5 million of whom are Buddhists in Maharashtra. This makes Buddhism the fifth-largest religion in India and 5% of the population of Maharashtra, but less than 1% of the overall population of India. Neo-Buddhist leaders, however, claim that these numbers are inaccurate because of irregularities in the census and because many private Buddhists refrain from publicly converted for fear of sanctions. These leaders argue that the actual numbers are considerably higher.

One of the more prominent Neo-Buddhist leaders in recent years has been Udit Raj (formerly Ram Raj), who is frequently at odds with the older Ambedkarite establishment. Raj, also a political activist, organized a large mass conversion on November 4, 2001, but the event met with active opposition from the government. The right wing Tamil Nadu and Gujarat Governments passed new laws in 2003 to ban religious conversions which was later withdrawn due to heavy opposition

S. N. Goenka

S. N. Goenka, an Indian meditation teacher trained in Burma, also has an active following in modern India.

Recent developments

In 2002 Kanshi Ram, a popular low-caste political leader, announced his intention to convert to Buddhism on October 14, 2006, the fiftieth anniversary of Ambedkar's conversion. He intends for 20,000,000 of his supporters to convert at the same time. Part of the significance of this plan is that Ram's followers include not only Untouchables, but persons from a variety of oppressed castes, who could significantly broaden Neo-Buddhism's support. However, it remains to be seen whether this move will be able to successfully reinvigorate the Neo-Buddhist movement.

See also

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