B.R. Ambedkar’s first acquaintance with Buddha’s life, teachings and philosophy was through Dada Keluskar’s book on the life of the Buddha. Dada Keluskar, a leading litterateur of his time, had presented the book to Ambedkar at a public meeting held to felicitate Ambedkar on his passing the English fourth standard examination. Ambedkar was the first in his community to do so.
Like most Indians, Ambedkar was well versed with the Ramayana and the Mahabharata before reading the book on the Buddha. He was not satisfied with the narratives contained in these scriptures which highlighted "the greatness of the Brahmins and Kshatriyas and repeated the stories of the degradation of Shudras and the Untouchables". The characters of Rama, Krishna, Bhishma and others seemed "faulty" to him, and their conduct far from ideals to be emulated in life.
After a "close study of all religions" for 35 years, Ambedkar was convinced that the novelty of teachings, leadership qualities, scientific temper, logical arguments make "Religion of the Buddha", the ideal religion for the "modern man who knows science". He was convinced that "Buddhism was the only religion" which could save society "awakened by science" and "without which the society would perish".
One of the reasons for the "slow advance of Buddhism", according to Ambedkar, is its vast literature, and the other hurdle in its growth is that "it has no such thing as a Bible, as the Christians have". It was to fill this gap that he undertook the task of writing The Buddha and His Dhamma in a lucid and clear way. He based his book on Ashvaghosha’s Buddhavitta (Buddhacharita). The manuscript was completed just three days before his death.
Though in all humility, Ambedkar does not claim any originality and says that his book is a product of "compilation and assembly plant", his treatment of the issues relating to Buddhism is quite novel, logical and clear. He does not brush aside the vexing questions relating to Buddhism but takes them head on. For example, he rejects the popular theory that Buddha became a recluse after seeing a sick, an old and a dead body and advocates a more authentic version of it. He also refutes the commonly held view that Buddhism is a pessimistic religion, and shows how the Buddha is able to reconcile between his doctrine of Anatamvada — no soul theory, and the doctrine of Karma. Finally, he also dwells on the need, necessity and role of Bhikkus — monks in Buddhism.
He not only explains the expressions used by the Buddha but also uses current terminology to give it a constructive, critical and modern interpretation. For instance, while explaining the notion of conversion, he makes a distinction between the "conversion to the order of Bhikkus called Sangha" and "conversion of a householder as an Upaska or lay follower of the Buddha’s Dhamma". The norms for the two are different. While Bhikkus can be punished for violation of the norms, for the Upaska they are just precepts. Pokka (Upeksha), one of the virtues taught by Buddha, is interpreted by Ambedkar not as indifference as is usually done but as detachment. This interpretation gives a new dimension to the virtue Upeksha.
Ambedkar wrote the book for the laity in the form of serially numbered aphorisms and, therefore, he did not much care to mention the references and sources on which he based his interpretation. Due to his untimely death, he could not complete the Preface and even polish the language before its publication. He was criticised for not including the citations and was accused of fabricating "sources in support of his ideology".
Even after 55 years of its
publication, no attempt was made either to improve the language or to
append the references and citations despite the fact that a large number
of scholars for political and social reasons have taken a deep interest
in Ambedkar studies. The editors have made stylistic changes, corrected
the language to improve the flow, and provided more than 860 citations
and references which make the text scholastic. It is a must read for all
those who are interested in serious study of Buddhism and Ambedkar. The
book is priced on the higher side. A paperback edition, perhaps, would
bring it within the reach of the laity for whom it is meant.