by Wayne Ren-Cheng, Shi
If you want to gain self-respect, change your religion.
If you want to create a cooperative society, change your religion.
If you want power, change your religion.
If you want equality, change your religion.
B. R. Ambedkar
The core goal of a bodhisattva is to lead others toward liberation through examples of how to live a Noble Life. B. R. Ambedkar, while never thinking of himself as a bodhisattva, certainly set the kinds of examples one would expect from a spiritual leader. His every word and action were directed toward understanding that with the realities of the not-self, dependent arising, and a commitment to the Noble Path that it mattered none what caste or social level one came from; it mattered what a person did with their life that was important.
B. R. Ambedkar is one of the people credited with promoting the modern resurgence of Buddhism in India. Born in 1891 to the Mahar family of the Dalit, or untouchable, caste he went on to be posthumously given India’s coveted humanitarian award in 1990, thirty four years after his death in 1956. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar was the first individual of the Dalit caste to graduate from college in India. He went on to earn doctorates in law, political science and economics from Columbia University and the London School of Economics. As India’s first minister of law he oversaw the drafting of the Constitution of India, and he campaigned for social and political freedom for his countries untouchable classes. A campaign that connected him with millions of followers and ultimately to “being” a Buddhist.
In 1935 he renounced Hinduism for its inability and reticence to change the caste system. Ambedkar declared his intention to convert to Buddhism, a religion that rejected the caste system in favor of equanimity for all people. During the dedication of a new Buddhist monastery in the early 1950s he announced his intention to take Buddhist lay vows once his work on a book about Indian Buddhism was completed. He underwent initiation in October 1956, at Nagpur at the head of a throng of a half-million supporters, mostly of the Dalit caste. Two months later Ambedkar died, his book, “The Buddha and His Dhamma” was published posthumously.
Ambedkar was a religious man whose religious beliefs were at the core of his worldview. During his twenty-one year transition from Hindu practices to Buddhist philosophy he might have set-aside religion but he remained a strongly spiritual man. His thoughts and actions had such a dramatic effect on the social structure in India that some Indian Buddhists view Ambedkar as a bodhisattva; a claim Ambedkar never made for himself. To Ambedkar religion was his worldview, and he offered to others that by changing how they practiced their religion, or by changing religious practices there was the opportunity for positive personal and social development. With the altering of one word in Ambedkar’s quote it retains its original intent while gaining more value in Buddhist philosophy and contemporary practice.
If you want to gain self-respect, change your worldview.
If you want to create a cooperative society, change your worldview.
If you want power, change your worldview.
If you want equality, change your worldview.
Change in worldview is what it takes to engage the transformations necessary to live a Noble Life. It begins with how you view yourself. Self-respect is gained through rigorous self-honesty that reveals the positive character traits that can help to discard negative dispositions and habits. The ability to be honest with one’s self is self-respect in action. To become part of a cooperative society one must accept that what they do matters in this causal world. Changing worldview from one of ‘nothing I can do will matter’ to ‘everything I do matters’ is an important step in being the example of an effective social self to others. Some people feel powerless over their own lives and turn to religion to find the power they want. Between a worldview of faith in the ephemeral or faith in personal action it is acceptance of responsibility coupled with the power of individual commitment and effort that translates into social commitment and effort. Ambedkar rallied against the inequity of the caste system, and was the boldest example of getting past the delusion that the caste system was solely responsible for all limitations. Through his own effort, that surely arose with a change in his worldview, Ambedkar “broke” the limits of his caste and became an example of living the Noble Life. He did, in thought and action, live as a bodhisattva.