Post 1956 growth of Buddhism
A reflection on Dr. Ambedkar and Deeksha Bhoomi Stupa:
In the study of Buddhism in India, the history of Buddhist writings
plagiarising the historians is not so relevant; the present situation of
Buddhism in India, the native land of the Buddha and Buddhism is more
relevant. The history of Buddhism is a well researched by those at the
Archaeological Survey of India and Indian academics. This is an attempt
to showcase the present situation of Buddhism in India.
You must have travelled widely in India many times and also should
have an Indian mind. I am a descendant of Malava (Madhya Pradesh near
Ujjain and Sanchi) of Vaisyasettis, (merchant class), whose surname
Jayetilleke still exists in Malava, of bankers such as Jaitilak and
Jaiswal. Thus this maternal and paternal Indian connection gives me the
right insights into the mindset of Indians.
Buddha Jayanthi glamour
The Buddha Jayanthi year 1956 marked a milestone in the chequered
history of Buddhism in India. The historic event of 2500 years, which
started with the Maha Parinirvana of the Buddha in 544 BC at Kusinara (Kushonsgar
or Kasi (in Uttar Pradesh of modern times), was celebrated throughout
The Government of India and the state governments drew ambitious
programs to celebrate this event. While laying the foundation stone of
the Buddha Jayanthi Memorial Park on the New Delhi Ridge on 23 May 1956,
India’s Prime Minister Shri Jawaharlal Nehru said, “The 2500th Buddha
Jayanthi Celebrations signify the homecoming of the Buddha.”
The speechmaking event of 1956 Maha Buddha Jayanthi celebrations took
place at Nagpur (Maharashtra State) on October 14, 1956, when Dr. B. R.
Ambedkar (a lawyer as well as an outstanding professional economist with
Doctorate from Columbia University USA and DSc from the London School of
Economics, and the chairman of the independent India constitution
Drafting Committee Chairman in 1947) embraced Buddhism along with half a
million followers of his Mahar caste at an impressive and historic
ceremony at Nagpur and giving a clarion call to his people to take
permanent refuge in the Buddha Dhamma.
Though 83.6 percent of the total population of India are followers of
Hinduism, Hindus consider Gautama Buddha of the 6th century BC as the
ninth incarnation of God Vishnu and the tenth incarnation the future
Maitriya Buddha. Hindus in India, therefore, joined in the celebrations
most enthusiastically too.
Dr. Ambedkar addressing the gathering in an emotional voice: “I
started the movement of renouncing the Hindu religion in 1935, and since
then I have been continuing the struggle. This conversion has given me
enormous satisfaction and pleasure unimaginable. I feel I have been
liberated from hell.” This hell means caste marginalization of his
people. At the Yeola Conference in 1935 in Nashim District of
Maharashtra Dr. Ambedkar commented: “Though I was born a Hindu, I would
not die a Hindu.” ‘Ambedkar Era of Indian Buddhism’ was thus born in
Demise of a great philosopher
Unfortunately, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar passed away just 52 days after
the Great Buddha Jayanthi Celebrations at Nagpur, on October 14, 1956.
This was an irreplaceable loss to his people and they felt orphaned.
However they, as Buddhists, faced the tragedy with great courage and
strength of mind. They not only marched forward without their revered
leader, but they also thought of raising a fitting memorial at this site
of this great ceremony of conversion.
On a request made by Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Smarak Samiti, Nagpur,
the Government of Maharashtra graciously gave the entire 14-acre land,
where the Deeksha ceremony was held, free of charge. The land was
formally handed over to the Smarak Samiti by Yashwantrao B. Chavan, the
Chief Minister of Maharashtra, on May 30, 1961.
The grand Memorial Stupa, which had been under construction for more
than 30 years, is now completed. It is the greatest landmark in the
architectural heritage of Nagpur. Unlike the ancient Stupas of Sanchi of
the 2nd century BC (Madhya Pradesh of India) the Deeksha Bhoomi Stupa is
a stupa-shaped auditorium for mass community gatherings. Its basement
contains living space for the Bhikkhus and smaller meeting rooms. At the
centre of the structure at basement level, a small stupa marks the place
where Dr. Ambedkar stood at the time of embracing Buddhism.
The first floor of Memorial Stupa is a large hall which could
accommodate more than five thousand people at a time. This is the
largest hall of this type in entire India.
The frontal appearance of the Deeksha Bhoomi Stupa is like that of
Sanchi Stupa with a diametre of 120 feet, and the height of the Dome is
also 120 feet. The Deeksha Bhoomi also has a Buddha Vihara, Bhikkhu
Niwas and a flourishing Bodhi Tree.
These were all established by Punjabi monk Bhadant Anand Kausalyayan,
who stayed at Deeksha Bhoomi from 1969-1982, making Deeksha Bhoomi a
living Buddhist shrine.
Deity-concept in Buddhism
No one can challenge deities. Certain Pirith
chanting in Buddhism are also centred round deities. Ratana Sutta is one
such example. When the city of Visala suffered from a famine, the Buddha
visited the place and chanted the Ratana Sutta! He then offered a bowl
of Pirith Pan to Ven. Ananda Thera and asked him to sprinkle the water
throughout the city to ward off the danger. Deity Maha Brahma then
expressed his elation by taking refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha.
Buddhism and its relationship with the concept of deities has been a
topic of discussion and debate since antiquity. Many newspaper articles
have been written on the subject. But no one can rule out the concept of
deities. It is truly a living thing.
Buddha Dhamma refers to deities and the relationship among deities in
An example is the Maha Sammata Sutta, delivered to deities. The
Buddha, in this Sutta, refers to a deity named Subbramanya. The deity
Subbramanya had visited the Buddha many times in his life. The Buddha
once suggested that Subbramanya should visit a village called Kacharan,
which was then a part of Jambuddeepa.
Kacharan is the present-day Kataragama. The late Ven. Balangoda
Ananda Maitreya Mahanayake Thera once told me that life could be
exchanged. He said “Meetiyagoda! Now I am 94 years old. If I want I can
live for another 94 years. But I have to toil for two years to do that”.
Encounter with a great monk
Once I attended a Sanghika dana at the residence of the late Deputy
Defence Minister Gen. Ranjan Wijeratne with the late Ven. Ananda
Maitreya Mahanayake Thera.
On our way back, the Mahanayke Thera suggested they should visit Ven.
Wathuregama Somalankara Nayaka Thera, then popularly known as Kolonnawe
Hamuduruwo. Seeing the Mahanayake Thera, Ven. Somalankara offered him a
seat and asked him: “Aren’t you suffering from a knee ailment?” The
Mahanayake Thera answered in the affirmative.
Ven. Ananda Maitreya Mahanayake Thera then said “I know two veteran
astrologers. One of them is Kolonnawe Hamuduruwo and the other
Kasthuriratna of Bandarawela.
I know personally that both Ven. Ananda Maitreya Mahanayake Thera and
Ven. Wathuregama Somalankara Thera had the blessings of deities.
No one can challenge deities. Certain Pirith chanting in Buddhism are
also centred round deities. Ratana Sutta is one such example. When the
city of Visala suffered from a famine, the Buddha visited the place and
chanted the Ratana Sutta! He then offered a bowl of Pirith Pan to Ven.
Ananda Thera and asked him to sprinkle the water throughout the city to
ward off the danger. Deity Maha Brahma then expressed his elation by
taking refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha.
A blessed country
Our country has the blessings of deities. They protect our country,
nation and religion. We also have special places which receive the
blessings of deities. Kelaniya and Kithsiri Mevan Kelaniya are the
Maha Mangala Sutta was first chanted at the request of deities. A
powerful deity had arrived at the Jethavanaramaya spreading a strong
beam when the Buddha was up at midnight.
Many religions are centred round deities. Buddhism and Hinduism have
special references to deities. Buddhists talk of ‘Nibbana’. Christians
talk of ‘heaven’. Both these, I think, are the same.
Recently I met a Sri Lankan domiciled in England at a certain
Devalaya. He had come to conduct a thanksgiving pooja to deities for
helping him obtain a visa to visit Sri Lanka to attend his daughter’s
When he first went to the Immigration and Emigration office in
London, to obtain permission to visit Sri Lanka, his application was
turned down on grounds of lacking proper documents. He then spoke to his
daughter in Sri Lanka and asked her to visit this devalaya and offer a
pooja on his behalf seeking the intervention of deities to gain the
necessary permission to visit Sri Lanka. The very next time he visited
the Immigration office he miraculously found all the necessary documents
there and received clearance to visit Sri Lanka. I even saw Christians
and people of other faiths conducting poojas at Devalayas.
Belief in deities and seeking their blessings in time of difficulties
have been a tradition among our people for generations.
We have also heard of powerful deities such as Minneri, Senkada,
Galebandara and Suniyam. Apart from this, people believe that there are
Gambhara deities in charge of each and every village. Villagers conduct
poojas for the ‘Gambhara’ deity before starting cultivation activities.
Therefore no one can easily dismiss people’s belief in deities. May
the blessings of the Triple Gem and deities be with all.
Swarnatilaka was late anyway. She did not want to miss Ven.
Nanaponika’s Dhamma talk either. Nanaponika became a monk at 27, so he
was well familiar with practical lay life. Both adults and young
thronged around him for advice.
The Dhamma discussion was supposed to start at seven, but
Swarnatilaka was off duty only by six. She worked mighty hard when her
mates just lazed around. Her pay was pretty peanuts - compared with her
workload - but she was more concerned about her own conscience. She
would owe nothing to the workplace when she packs her bags one day
either because of walking papers or on her own.
She was still in the work attire - it was in colour, white background
with a mixed touch of red, green and purple.
She knew she had to wear white - the symbol of purity - to temple.
But it takes an hour to get home. She would for sure miss the talk, if
she is to head home and get into white robes.
Swarnatilaka had to choose. She did so. She chose the straight route
to the temple, and thought the priest would understand her.
She got to the temple just in time: it was five past seven. She took
a vacant seat in the middle row.
Her lively wardrobe caused unease among her neighbours: Mrs.
Samaraweera and Kodituwakku in particular. Swarnatilaka’s mind was fixed
on the Dhamma talk serenely unaware of what comes off around her.
“This courtier lived during the Buddha’s time. He had a very
luxurious dress code, because he liked to wear good and proper. But
anyone hardly knew this man had attained Sotapanna stage.
No one noticed that because he was just like another courtier living
a luxurious life.”
Mrs. Samaraweera’s voice inched along.
“Look at this girl. How indecent she is. Wonder what her school has
taught her. What do you think she doesn’t know she should wear white to
Swarnatilaka could not just sponge off Mrs. Kodituwakku’s response
that moved across her mind.
“Her parents are so mean. She is working for a bank, no, that’s why.
Bet she has a crush on the monk, otherwise do you think this chit of a
girl is ever in for Dhamma talks?” One or two pious ladies butted in:
“Hm... I think she should be having a crush. ... may be to tempt the
monk. But don’t I know of our monk? ... he doesn’t care for this saucy
“Exactly. Know what, red is for lust. ... heard it tempts men.
Whatever you say, this monk is still young. Who in the world knows
what’s going on? We never know.”
“See, she looks at the monk like she is going to wolf down him.
Should tell my son to stay away from this slut. She is really up to
Whispers reached her in fragments, yet it was so hard on her. She
wanted to drift her mind back to the talk, though she knew it was the
toughest thing to do. Ven. Nanaponika went ahead, probably unaware of
what is going on.
“Strange enough this courtier was so composed. Buddha took this
opportunity to explain that the garment alone cannot decide a man.
Everybody was surprised when Buddha said the courtier had attained
Sotapanna. The courtier wore luxuriously because he was a professional
and above all, still a layman.”
Mrs Kodituwakku and company didn’t even know when the talk switched
to Q&A session. These two devotees usually steal the show in the
session; they snigger at others by showing off their ‘unmatched’
Swarnatilaka wanted to ask a question.
“Venerable, are you trying to say that the garment is not that
“No Swarnatilaka. Absolutely not. Dress is important, but ‘less’.
There are limits.
You cannot wear knee-length robes to the temple, it’s indecent. You
should avoid them. Take your case for example. You have come from work.
I know yours is colourful, not so good for the temple. But if you go
home, change and come back, you miss a good part of today’s Dhamma
“Why do you have a dress code for the temple then?”
“You should wear white out of respect to the temple. Temple is a
revered place. We should not wear any kind of dress we come by. But on
the other hand, there are people who wear white, but their minds are
While you listened to me, many white-outfit ladies had their own
things to sort out.”
Devotees sensed something had gone wrong. Mrs Samaraweera rose to
“How can you say that Venerable? We were talking about what you had
“Did I say it’s you, Mrs. Samaraweera? But you admitted it yourself.
Ok, tell me what’s the point of this Q&A session, if you have personal
talks among yourselves? You should share Dhamma with everyone.”
Then the monk wanted to wind up the session:
“You all are learned people. But most of you did not want to listen
to me, because Swarnatilaka’s dress bothered you. Don’t think I didn’t
observe you, most of you were glaring at this child. Listen, she did not
wear anything indecent.
She came here in what she wore to office. She listened to me all
throughout while you were busy gibbering nonsense of her outfit. You
adults should be happy that a young child like Swarnatilaka came here on
her own for this Dhamma talk. That’s what counts more than your attire.”
The audience then rose to reach home. Individual talks with the monk
did not follow as usual.
Swarnatilaka could see the pious ladies on the run, but she did not
stay in for another question or two; she feared more pointblank wrath
from the intellectual audience.