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Why was Bhadant Bodhanand so dear to Ambedkar?

Special on Bhikhu Bodhanand (1874-11 May 1952)

The Triratni movement

Among the personalities to whom the great scholar Rahul Sankrityayan has expressed his gratitude in his book Jinka Main Kritagya is Bhadant Bodhanand. He writes, “I had heard the name of Buddha earlier too, but the person who opened the doors of knowledge about Buddhism to me was Sthivir Bodhanand.” During his visit to Uttar Pradesh in October-November 1916, one of the several places Rahul Sankrityayan stayed at was the Arya Samaj Bhavan in Lucknow. Someone there told him about Bodhanand and off he went to a small vihara on Latouche Road to meet him. Their next meeting took place 15 years later – in 1931. “Now, he had become a real Mahasthivir,” he writes. “He was the first person to relight the lamp of Buddhism in India.”

A Brahmin by birth, Mukund Prakash was born into a Varendra Bengali family in Chunar town of Mirzapur district, of Uttar Pradesh in 1874. Orphaned at a young age, his aunt brought him up in the holy city of Banaras. As he grew older, he began to lose interest in the religion of his birth and felt suffocated in a society informed by the inhuman varna system and inequality. While in Banaras, he came in touch with many ascetics and eventually became one himself. He dropped his birth name and became known as Swami Bodhanand. Donning the robe of a sadhu, he visited many parts of the country and for about 12 years, stayed in Sindh in the Punjab.

During this period, he did a comparative study of different religions and societies. This helped him understand the true meaning of religion. His intellectual journey saw him move from Brahmo Samaj to Arya Samaj to Theosophical Society and then to Christianity. In the year 1896, as Banaras underwent a famine, he saw Christian missionaries serve the victims. This had a deep impact on him. The compassion inspired by Jesus Christ touched him so deeply that he decided to embrace Christianity. Meanwhile, he met some Sri Lankan Buddhist Bhikshus at Sarnath in Banaras – where Buddha delivered his first sermon. The Bhikshus, who were also associated with the Theosophical Society, told him that he need not become a Christian, reasoning that Buddha – the compassionate one – was born in his own country. “Commit yourself to Buddha”, they told him and also gave him a copy of Vasalsutt to read. On reading the text, he was overwhelmed with joy because he had found in Buddha what he was looking for: Buddha offered the negation of the varna system and casteist discrimination, and advocated compassion for humanity. He then studied Buddhism in depth for 18 years before formally adopting Buddhism in Calcutta in 1914. Bhadant Kripasharan Mahasthivir gave “Diksha” to him and Sri Lanka’s Anagrik Dharmapal became a witness to the ceremony.

On returning to Lucknow, he began to be addressed as Bhikshu Bodhanand and started living at the Buddha Vihar on Latouche Road (now known as Gautam Buddha Marg). He founded the Bharatiya Bauddha Samiti, where he taught the principles of Buddhism. In 1925, he purchased a plot of land at Risaldar Colony with the help of his friends and disciples and constructed a grand Buddha Vihar on it. The place soon became a centre of social activities. According to Rahul Santrityayan, Bodhanand had three yearnings, 1) reviving Buddhism in the country of its birth, 2) banishing the caste system from India and 3) reading books. His teachings found resonance with the educated lower-middle class and the backward castes, who heartily offered him charity and welcomed him home. Bodhanand was a voracious reader. His library of thousands of books in Bangla, Hindi, Pali and English left many surprised and in awe. The library was a testimony to his commitment and his scholarship.

Bodhanand’s in-depth knowledge of Buddhism left a lasting impression on Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar. In fact, it was after meeting the sage that Ambedkar expressed his desire to embrace Buddhism. The next time Ambedkar visited Bodhanand in Lucknow, he had remarried. Bodhanand told Ambedkar, “You were to turn a Buddhist. But you have got married instead.” Ambedkar replied, “Marriage won’t change my decision. She [Savita] will also convert to Buddhism along with me.” When Ambedkar decided to embrace Buddhism, he wanted to take Diksha from Bhadant Bodhanand but by then, the sage was no more.

Bodhanand authored three books, but he had to dictate them to Chandrika Prasad Jigyasu due to a life-long injury to his palm. Advocate Raisaheb Ramcharan sponsored his first book, which came out in 1930. Jigyasu’s Bahujan Kalyan Prakashan published the second book, Bhagwan Gautam Buddha: Jeevni Aur Sandesh. The sixth edition of the book was published in 1965. With the help of Devpriya Balisingh, Bodhanand published his third book Baudhha Charya Paddhati in 1947.

Besides propagating Buddhism in the country, Bodhanand also devoted his life to uplift Dalits and the Backwards. He was a key figure of the “Bahujan Revolution”. In 1928, he formed the Navratna Committee in Lucknow. The members of the committee were firebrand social workers: Swami Achhotanand, Raisaheb Ramsahai Pasi, Raisaheb Ramcharan Mallah, Advocate Shivdayal Singh Chaurasia, Chandrika Prasad Jigyasu, Mahadev Prasad Dhanuk, Vaidhyaratna Badluram Rasik and Advocate Gauri Shankar Pal. Social activists like Ramcharan Bhurji, Kudrutullah Dhunia, Changalal Bahelia, Raisaheb Shyamlal Baretha and Gayaprasad Kureel were also among Bodhanand’s associates.

Later, Bodhanand turned this Navratna Committee into the Hindu Backward Classes League. Jigyasu became the convener, Advocate Raisaheb Ramcharan its president, Shivdayal Singh Chaurasia the general secretary and Gaurishankar Pal the secretary. It was the first organization in Uttar Pradesh to raise a strong voice in support of the Constitutional rights of the Bahujans. But as we all know, counter-revolution is always more powerful than the revolution and this revolution too was devoured by the counter-revolution of the Congress. When Gandhiji visited Lucknow, a delegation of the Hindu Backward Classes League met him and submitted a memorandum that sought to remind him of their human rights and list their demands. Taken aback on reading the demands, Gandhiji told the delegation, “In my view, you should suspend this movement for the moment. If it gathers stream, there is a danger of the country becoming divided and that will hurt the Freedom Movement. All of you should join the Freedom Movement for now. Once the country is free, our first goal would be to bring the oppressed and the backward castes on a par with other sections of society.”

The real intent behind Gandhiji’s assurance was not to promote the cause of the league but to dismantle it. The league’s leaders though took Gandhiji’s word for it and decided to join hands with the Congress in the Independence movement. After Independence, neither Gandhiji nor the Congress spared a glance at the problems of the Backwards. The league leaders had become Congressmen and the movement fizzled out.

Jigyasu wrote, “The Hindus addressed Mahasthivir Bodhanand as ‘Swamiji’ and we, his disciples, also did the same, instead of calling him ‘Bhante’, as the Buddhist tradition demanded. And left with no choice, Swamiji affectionately accepted this honorific.”

Later, Bodhanand launched another movement – called Triratni. At the time, Kabirpanth was a rage among the Dalits. The Kabirpanthis wore a choker around their necks with a piece of sandalwood for the pendant. But they were not free from dogmatism, They were not able to shed their brahmanical notions either. Triratni looked to free Kabirpanthis from the brahmanical stranglehold. Disciples of the movement wore three beads – symbolic of Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha – in five threads, representing the Panchsheel. When he taught them about the Panchsheel, Bodhanand also reminded them of the teachings of Kabir. Thus, he helped them break free from the slavery of tradition.

A true reformer, Bodhanand devoted his life’s work for the advancement of the Dalit and backward castes. The Buddhist Vihar that he founded became the centre of Bahujan activities.

By the early 1950s, the constant struggle and rigorous study had taken a toll on his body and he was diagnosed with cancer. He was taken to Calcutta’s Chitaranjan Hospital for treatment and later moved to the Howrah Hospital. But the cancer had spread and on 11 May 1952, aged 78, he breathed his last.

Translated by Amrish Herdenia


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