Photographer: Rana Chakraborty
The teachings of Buddha are eternal, but even Buddha did not proclaim them to be infallible… What is the basis of Buddhism? If you study carefully, you will see that Buddhism is based on reason…”
Six years before his conversion, and death soon after, Babasaheb Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, declared on September 29, 1950 at the Japanese Buddhist Temple at Worli, that he would devote the rest of his life to the revival and spread of Buddhism in India. Sankar’s Weekly at Delhi, a periodical famous for its cartoons, followed this declaration with a caption labelling the leader Bhikkhu Bhimrao.
A family of four walks up the temple steps as it readies itself for evening prayers. Built of solid stone, the structure attracts attention from afar with a conical stupa towering atop it. Inside, amongst rock cut octagonal pillars, is a large outer chamber and an inner room which holds a marble statue of the Buddha at focal point. One of the workers starts beating the huge ornately carved Japanese style drum; it’s a two-hour evening ritual everyday. He starts with a basic beat of onetwo… one-two-three… .
Two blocks away from the temple stands a giant concrete leaf, held up by four miniature gold coloured laughing Buddhas. It reads: “Jay Bhim”. Below that is engraved: “Jag Mein Buddh Ka Naam Hai, Yahi Bharat Ki Shaan Hai.” Still below: “Siddharth Nagar Ambedkarvaadi Yuvak Sangh.” The largest slum in Worli, Siddharth Nagar comprises approximately 3000 hutments over 240 hectares of land. “Eighty per cent of Siddharth Nagar’s residents are Buddhists,” says Ravi Pawar, the ‘adhyaksh’ or head of the Sangh. As per the 2001 census, 58,38,710 is the number of Buddhists in Maharashtra, larger by far than that in any state. On asking Ravi what caste he hailed from originally, he answered simply, “Since I’m a Buddhist, I can’t belong to any ‘caste’.” Ravi and his friends visit the temple once everyday and for a long span on Buddh Poornima, when it’s crowded till midnight.
“We believe in the Buddha, but we’re not Buddhists,” says Dinesh Jhaade, gardener at the temple for two years. Bholanath, a worker incharge of cleaning the temple, refuses to talk about such issues in the absence of the head monk — Mr Morita — who’s out of the country on tour now. Instead, he prostrates before the drum and then takes his turn at beating it. The exterior of the temple, though Japanese in design, is dotted with swastikas on its terrace. Inside, oriental Buddhist paintings and photographs vie for space with Indian styles. On the two walls adjacent to the altar, lie large photographs of Ambedkar and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, facing each other. While the numerous brass statues of the Buddha, seated and standing, in the inner room represent him with the long etched eyes characteristic of the far-east, the principal marble statue is carved in Indian features. A sign dedicates the temple to the Japan Buddh Vihara Temple Trust. Another reads that it was created and run by Seth Raja Baldeo Das Birla’s family. There are pictures of the same family as well. Yet another sign near the entrance of the temple welcomes all Hindus in, with “including Harijans” written in brackets, as an engraved extract from the Dhammapada prescribes the correct conduct for a Brahmin. This Japanese edifice was built, and thrives on the altering subtext of Indian multiculturalism.
“The Yuvak Sangh is not political. It was begun 15 years ago to bring about a sense of social unity within Siddharth Nagar,” stresses Ravi. Their activities since then have encompassed providing free stationery and books to school-going children (though they’ve managed to do so for only 40 students so far), organising health camps and AIDS awareness programmes every six months, and an ‘andhya shuddha’ or anti-superstition drive. Ravi, who’s doing his LLM now, was the first person in Siddharth Nagar to clear his LLB two years ago. He says, “After me, three other boys did so. And we have four more studying.” His next move is to organise a legal aid camp in the area. “While using Babasaheb’s teachings as inspiration, we have no restriction on caste or religion. Both upper caste Marathas and Muslims are active members of our Sangh. We have to work together to survive.” Ambedkar’s book The Annihilation Of Caste attracted much controversy when first released. Much later, he settled on conversion to Buddhism as a means of such. Siddharth Nagar today, appropriately so named, experiences a far more potent caste annihilator: collective poverty. Which brings to mind another Babasaheb’s line: “There can be no finality in re-thinking.”
This article appeared originally in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India: http://alturl.com/n586