Thứ năm - 09/05/2019 12:11
by Mahesh A. Deokar


by Mahesh A. Deokar

I still remember those days when I was pursuing my masters degree in Pali literature in the then Pune University in the years 1994–1996. At that time I was the only Indian student studying Pali, a classical language of Buddhist scriptures of the Theravada school. My own inspiration for studying Pali was more linguistic and philosophical rather than religious. Before getting introduced to Pali during the course of my first masters’ degree in Sanskrit I had studied Sanskrit for about eight years. Owing to the close affinity between Sanskrit and Pali, soon I became familiar with the linguistic peculiarities of the latter, and was deeply touched by the simplicity and powerful philosophical appeal of Pali.

Till the turn of the new millennium the situation of the study of this ancient classical language and its literature remained more or less unchanged. Since I started teaching Pali in the Pune University in 1996, barring a few foreign students from the Buddhist countries of East and South East Asia we had only one or two Indian students. They too opted for this subject not because of their genuine interest in the language but merely for seeking a university enrollment for trifle benefits. On the other hand, the courses in other classical languages such as Sanskrit and Ardhamagadhi were attracting a fair number of students. Motivations of such students were primarily cultural or religious. A majority of students studying Sanskrit came from an upper class Hindu background whereas those studying Ardhamagadhi were from the Jain community. In those days I always

wondered that in spite of having a large Ambedkarite Buddhist community in Pune there were hardly any Buddhists who enrolled themselves for the courses in Pali. The only students who were studying Pali as one of their optional papers were the students of Sanskrit, who in spite of doing well in exams had a little emotional bonding with Pali. Thus, Pali remained a neglected subject on the University campus till the end of the last millennium.

The new millennium brought with it a ray of hope for the revival of the study of Pali in Pune. In 2002, I got my first Indian students of Pali who were genuinely interested in studying the language and its literature. Interestingly these students were Maharashtrian Ambedkarite Buddhists who by some sheer chance came to know that Pali, the language of their religion, is being taught in the Pune University. The reason for saying by some sheer chanceis that the name of the University department where Pali was taught was the Department of Sanskrit and Prakrit Languages which left people clueless about the existence of any courses of Pali language in this department. My new batch of a certificate course in Pali consisted of three elderly students, of whom two were in their 40s and one, a retired man above 60. The students were highly motivated but had many responsibilities in their work-places, at homes, and in the community. Their main motivation behind studying Pali was religious. They had strong faith in the Buddha and Dr. Ambedkar. They were studying to know the teachings of the Buddha in what they believed to be the original language in which the Buddha taught more than 2500 years ago. They were not only studying to learn the Buddhas teachings for themselves but also to spread it among their fellow-men. They were studying Pali not as a pastime, but for a purpose.

In the subsequent years, the department witnessed a steady and healthy growth in the number of Indian students. In these initial years of the new millennium I came in contact with some Buddhist meditators who were assistant teachers of Vipassana (insight meditation’) in the tradition of a vipassana master S. N. Goenka. This tradition had its roots in the Burmese Theravada tradition. As a part of his efforts to popularize the Vipassana meditation among Indian masses, besides setting up meditation centres Goenka established

the Vipassana Research Institute (VRI) in 1985 in Igatpuri, Maharashtra. Under the auspices of VRI, Goenka published the Pali Buddhist Canon along with its commentarial literature in the commonly known Nagari script in 140 volumes. Although Goenka did not give much importance to the academic study of the Pali scriptures he acknowledged the importance of the Pali discourses as a source of inspiration and guidance for the Vipassana meditators. In his meditation retreats, every morning a prerecorded chanting of the verses from the Pali canon is played in Goenkas voice. This chanting invoked great curiosity and a sense of reverence about Pali among the Vipassana practitioners. It inspired a number of them to take up a serious study of Pali as an aid to their spiritual journey. Such aspiring students of Pali included among them a small but notable number of Ambedkarite Buddhists who had strong faith in S. N. Goenka as a teacher and his Vipassana meditation as a true and pure form of Buddhist practice. Such students turned to the department for learning Pali with utmost sincerity.

Among my first foreign students there was a British student who was a member of Urgyen Sangharakshitas Western Buddhist Order. He introduced  me for  the  first time  to  the Buddhist  meditation practice, life and teaching of Urgyen Sangharakshita, and  the work and members of the Trailokya Buddhist Community which Sangharakshita established in 1979 to organize Indian Buddhists. Following this British student other members of the Trailokya Buddhist Community joined the department to  study  Pali. Sanskrit is generally perceived and portrayed as a language akin to Brahmanism. As a reaction to its so-called Brahmanic affiliation, the Ambedkarite Buddhists have some reluctance to study Sanskrit Buddhist texts in both its classical and the mixed form. Moreover, they have a general impression that the Buddhist scriptures in Pali are original and hence authentic as compared to Sanskrit  texts, which represent a corrupt or a Brahmanicised form of Buddhism. Owing to Sangharakshitas open approach towards the Theravada and the  Mahayanschools of  Buddhism  members  of this  order slowly became open to the study of Sanskrit Buddhist texts besides Pali. They became one of our first students of Sanskrit Buddhist literature. As the years passed by, the Ambedkarite Buddhist students  started  becoming  aware  of  the  importance  of  studying

Sanskrit Buddhist texts and their Tibetan translations from the historical and the philosophical point of view.

In 2006 the study of Pali and Sanskrit Buddhist literature received a big boost when the then Vice-chancellor of the Pune University, who himself was a Buddhist and a Vipassana practitioner, decided to establish an independent department of Pali. I was appointed as the first head of this new department. Together with my colleagues and students we started organizing regular awareness campaigns for sensitizing common people about Pali language and the rich literary heritage of Buddhism. Through these campaigns and positive mouth publicity many  Ambedkarite  Buddhists  joined the department in the following years. These students  usually come to the department with some preconceived notions about Buddhism. Some sincerely believe in rebirth and existence of other world, others do not. Some are strong adherents of the practice of meditation, and consider it to be the core of Buddhism, whereas others are staunch opponents of meditation and ritualism.  For them, the social message of the Buddha is the heart of Buddhas teachings. In spite of these differences in  ideology,  all  of  them have unshaken faith in the teachings of Dr. Ambedkar and his presentation of Buddhas teachings. Dr. Ambedkars own journey from being a leader of so-called Dalits (the oppressed classes) to the giver of a new path of Buddhism is exemplary for his followers.

As is well-known Dr. Ambedkar came into contact with Buddhism in early years of his life when his teacher Krishnaji Arjun Keluskar presented him Buddhas biography which he himself had written. (Zelliot, 1979, p. 391) After his announcement of leaving the Hindu religion in 1935 at Yeole he started exploring and examining various options to convert to. It is clear that around this time he was impressed by two great religious personalities: Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism and the Buddha, the father of Buddhism. (Ambedkar, 1945, p. 60) It has been recorded that soon after Dr. Ambedkars announcement of leaving the Hindu- fold a Buddhist monk named Lokanatha met him at his residence in Mumbai on 10th June 1936, and invited him along with his followers to join Buddhism. Later in an interview he reported that Dr. Ambedkar was impressed with Buddhism, and expressed his

ambition to convert all Dalits to Buddhism. (Ambedkar, 2016, p.
8) In 1937, Lokanatha published a pamphlet entitled Buddhism
Will Make You Free encouraging the oppressed classes of India to convert to Buddhism. At the end of his famous speech What way liberty delivered in Mumbai in the year 1936 Dr. Ambedkar quoted a passage from the Mahaparinibbanasutta in which the Buddha advised his chief disciple Ananda to be his own refuge. Addressing the audience, Dr. Ambedkar said that if you keep in mind this message of Lord Buddha at this juncture I am sure your decision will not be wrong.(Ambedkar, 2016, p. 5) This appears to be a clear indication of his inclination towards Buddhism as a strong candidate for conversion. Until he finally converted to Buddhism on 14th October 1956 Dr. Ambedkar was busy preparing himself and his people for this complete transformation. He took upon himself a task of studying Buddhism mostly through the secondary sources and translations available to him. He also started taking lessons in Pali under the tutelage of Ishwardatt (Bellwinkel-Schempp, 2004, p. 235) with great zeal and sincerity. (Deokar, 2012, p. 63) He did all the hard work for preparing the ideological, literary and institutional ground for the success and sustenance of the new Buddhist movement.

It is noteworthy that the 14th October 1956, the day on which Dr. Ambedkar embraced Buddhism along with his millions of followers, is called the day of Setting the Wheel of the Dhamma Rolling (dhammacakrapravartana). This expression is commonly used to refer to the historic event of Buddhas first sermon to five ascetics when he began disseminating his teachings. In order to fulfil the need for a comprehensive and cohesive religious handbook containing the account of Buddhas life and teachings Dr. Ambedkar wrote his magnum opus The Buddha and His Dhamma. In this book, unlike the traditional expositions, he presented Buddhism in such a manner that would be relevant to the present-day society. He unearthed the social message of the Buddha and showed in clear terms how the modern social values of liberty, equality, fraternity and justice are inherent in Buddhas teachings. In the writing of The Buddha and His Dhamma, he made ample use of the Pali, Sanskrit, and Chinese Buddhist literature available to him in its translated form. Dr. Ambedkar established institutions such as the Siddhartha College

in Mumbai, Milind College in Aurangabad, a Buddhist social and religious organization called the Buddhist Society of India and a newspaper called Prabuddha Bharat (‘Enlightened India’). He also planned a Buddhist Seminary near Bangalore for imparting Buddhist education. Through all these efforts, he was trying to replace the Dalit identity of his fellow-men with a new Buddhist identity. In his speech given a day after the mass conversion, Dr. Ambedkar clearly pronounced the emergence of this new identity. He said ‘[a]s Mahar Buddhists don’t defame us… Our way is the way of the Buddha. We will go by our path. Others should go by their path. We have found a new way. This is the day of hope. This is a way of success, of prosperity.(Ambedkar 2016: 78–80) He inculcated in his followers a great sense of responsibility by urging them to observe the Buddhist religion in the best possible manner. He warned them saying “[i]t should not happen that the Mahar people would bring Buddhism to a low state. We should make a firm decision. If we accomplish this then we save ourselves, we save our country -- and not only that, but the world also.(Ambedkar, 2016, p. 83) He motivated the newly converts to spread Buddhism. He pledged to infuse in India the spirit of Buddhism.

The educated class of the Ambedkarite Buddhists have taken this advice seriously. They are keen on studying Pali in order to know for themselves the teachings of the Buddha. After learning the language at the university, their main aspiration is to teach the Buddhist doctrine to others through public talks, religious retreats or weekly meetings in Buddhist temples. The study of Pali is gradually becoming an icon of their cultural identity as Buddhists. Those who study this ancient literature are respected in their communities as well as in their families. Such educated adults inspire their family members, relatives and friends to study Buddhas words. In last fifteen odd years this has turned into a snowball effect. As a result, the number of Indian students studying Pali and Sanskrit Buddhist literature has gone up from a single digit up to four hundred in the present academic year. By studying the Buddhist literature the Ambedkarite Buddhists are getting the sense of accomplishing their mission. They feel that in this way by becoming better Buddhists themselves and by spreading Buddhism among their fellow-men they are fulfilling the dream of Dr. Ambedkar, and are becoming

the comrades of the silent revolution. These students come from different professional backgrounds, young and old, men and women. Some are factory workers, auto-drivers, teachers, doctors, administrative officers, social activists, as well as politicians. There are working women and housewives. Our youngest students are in their early twenties and the oldest in their late seventies and early eighties. There are many who have entered the university education after a long gap of more than twenty to thirty years. It is amazing to see their commitment and zeal for studying this ancient language. For most of them it is a journey; a journey to find their roots. While studying the words of the Buddha they seem to have found the purpose of their life.

I consider this to be a new era of awakening. However, from the academic point of view there is a long way to go. As the Buddha said, Faith is a driving force. It is a seed. However, it requires showers of hard work to thrive. It is only through perseverance and cultivation of wisdom that one can expect high standards in academics. It is a troubling fact that in spite of large number of students studying Pali or Sanskrit in India we are not being able to produce a good number of scholars in the field of Buddhist studies. However, I am not at all pessimist in this regard. I hope that from amongst the dedicated Ambedkarite Buddhist students we will find the future scholars of Pali and Sanskrit who like Dr. Ambedkar through their fresh outlook will find in this ancient literature wealth of thoughts and ideas which would have the power of transforming the present world into a better place for living.

For turning our hope in to reality we are making some systematic efforts. At first place we identify good potential researchers and then try to impress upon them importance of modern research. Those who show good research potential are then groomed by means of research training, which is a part of our course work for M.Phil. and Ph.D. Promising students are given the first hand experience in research by involving them in different research projects. In order to give academic exposure to our students, top scholars from different areas of Buddhist studies are invited to the department under various schemes such as the Khyentse Foundation India Visiting Professorship Program. Under this program scholars of

international repute offer courses in the area of their specialization. Such courses expose our students to new trends in research and the related methodology. They also help students to develop broader perspective on Buddhist studies and widen the scope of their knowledge. These courses are proving to be good training ground for our students in rational and critical thinking. While designing our syllabus we have taken special care to include in it different areas of Buddhist Studies. We organize special programmes like study tours to various Buddhist archaeological sites, religious centres and academic institutions to develop among students a broader outlook on Buddhist Studies. These are helping students to overcome barriers of individual biases and prejudices, and to approach academic research with an open mind.

Our monastic students, though weak in English and the modern research methodology, often have strong base of traditional learning. This is an important asset for them while carrying out research in Buddhism. In this matter they often surpass students trained in the modern university education. If they are properly trained in English and research methodology, they can certainly make excellent use of the traditional learning in their research. Our students with a strong basis of meditative practice definitely have better understanding of topics related to mental cultivation than others. Their own developed mental faculties can prove helpful in closely and thoroughly pursuing any research topic that they wish to undertake. Our Ambedkarite students have a strong inclination for rational and critical analysis, which is inspired by Dr. Ambedkars own way of thinking. It can be further developed and properly directed to address any important research problem. Thus students belonging to all these groups have certain strengths, which can balance out their weaknesses. As an academic institute we try to complement their strengths by providing them training in those topics where they lag behind.

Our students belonging to these different groups have a strong commitment towards Buddhism. It is that commitment which brings them to university education even after a long gap. When majority of people spend their time in aimless activities, these students exert themselves to study Buddhism. What is needed in

their case is to balance their faculty of faith (saddhā) by the faculty of wisdom (pñā), that is to say, their commitment needs a touch of critical thinking. We ask our students to differentiate between their faith in a particular ideology and their academic studies in such a way that the former does not come in the way of the latter. We make use of examples from the life of the Buddha and Dr. Ambedkar to highlight the importance of critical thinking and questioning. Slowly but surely these efforts are paying off. Instead of becoming a hurdle in the academic research the faith of our students is steadily transforming itself in to a conviction to study Buddhism. I am sure that these students will be academic leaders of the future generation, and will provide new dimension to the study of Buddhism.




Ambedkar, B. R., 1945. Annihilation of Caste with A Reply to Mahatma Gandhi. Third ed. Amritsar: The Ambedkar School of Thoughts.
Ambedkar, B. R., 2016. Babasaheb Dr. B. R. Ambedkar on Buddhism.
First ed. Pune: Jambudvipa Trust.

Bellwinkel-Schempp, M., 2004. Roots of Ambedkar Buddhism in Nagpur. In: Jondhale, and Beltz, ed. Reconstructing the World:
B.R.  Ambedkar  and  Buddhism  in  India.  New  Delhi:  Oxford University Press, pp. 221-244.

Deokar, M. A., 2012. The State of Buddhism in India: Past, Present and Future. In: A. T. Oliver Abenayake, ed. 2600 Years of Sambuddhatva Global Journey of Awakening. Colombo: Ministry of Buddhasasana and Religious Affairs, pp. 47-84.
Zelliot, E., 1979. The Indian Rediscovery of Buddhism, 1855-1956.
In: A. K. Narain, ed. Studies in Pali and Buddhism A Memorial
Volume  in  Honor  of  Bhikkhu  Jagdish  Kashyap.  DelhiBR.
Publishing Corporation, pp. 389-406.

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