Dr. B.R Ambedkar converted to Buddhism on 14 October 1956 at a public function at Deekshabhoomi in Nagpur, Maharashtra. There are two distinct phases in his life: one, distancing himself from the Vedic Hindu religion of the Varna system, and two, embracing egalitarian Buddhism.
His journey to Buddhism was an arduous search for the philosophical meaning of the world's major religions as well as the personalities around whom the religious systems are woven. When finally he chose to renounce Hinduism in favor of Buddhism, he found neither Islam nor Christianity nor Sikhism was suitable to build a just and egalitarian society.
According to historian Eleanor Zelliot, Dr. Ambedkar was searching for a religion not only for Dalits of India but also for the depressed classes from all over the world. His goal was to find a path for the individual as well as collective emancipation from non-national thought and unjust social differences.
The search for an alternative to the Hindu religion began very early in his life. Researchers trace the origins of this long march to Buddhism to 1908 when K.A Keluskar, one of his school teachers, gifted him a Marathi book 'Buddha Charita-Life of Buddha'. The book sowed the seed of Buddhism in his mind, which germinated and grew into a massive tree by 1956.
In fact, his choice of religion generated a great deal of debate across the world. He had to debunk several myths and misconceptions to defend Buddhism as the future religion of the masses. He learned Sanskirt from Bonn University (Indian Pundits declined to teach him the language) so that he could read the original Hindu texts.
He gleaned information from many sources on Buddhism. While on the hunt for answers to many philosophical questions, he stumbled upon an old book on Buddhism entitled 'The Essence of Buddhism' published in 1907. It had already created waves across the Buddhist world.
Dr. Ambedkar studied the book and was thoroughly impressed by the insights it presented on Buddhism. Finding that the book was out of print, Dr. Ambedkar took pains to republish the book with his own foreword.
Describing the book as the "best book on Buddhism", Dr. Ambedkar prescribed it for all those who wanted to understand what Buddhism really means. He praised the author as the prodigy of the 19th century. Incidentally, the author, who had such a great influence on a philosopher like Dr. Ambedkar, was a Telugu man by the name Prof. Pokala Lakshmi Narasu Naidu, who was popular as Prof. Narasu.
Prof. Narasu hails from a Kapu family which migrated to Madras from Guntur. His father, Pokala Chellum Narayanguru, was an eminent lawyer at the High Court. Before converting to Buddhism, Prof. Narasu was a physics professor at Pachaiahppa's College in Madras. He graduated from the Madras Christian College with a BA in Physics. Later, he joined as a lecturer in Pachaiappa's College and rose to become a professor, fighting the caste system in the society and European arrogance in the college.
Prof. Narasu was considered a pioneer in the modern Buddhist movement in colonial south India. He was a public-spirited man and one of the most visible personalities of colonial Madras. He was secretary of the Social Reform Association, honorary secretary of Madras Mahajana Sabha, secretary of the National Fund and Industrial Association, a Fellow of Madras University, and the founder member of Mahabodhi Society. He was an active member of the anti-caste movements of southern India.
Prof. Narasu identifies caste as a system that kills and diminishes any sense of cooperation and fraternity. It is this realization that drove him to Buddhism. He sought to interpret Indian history through Buddhism. He retired from formal teaching in 1925 and devoted his life to fighting the evils of the caste system and spreading the message of Buddhist teachings. He passed away in 1934 due to heart problems.
He visited Ceylon (Sri Lanka now) and converted to Buddhism. Upon his return, he along with friends, launched a Buddhist society and conducted classes on the essence of Buddhism to new converts to help them understand the Buddhist tenets. He had convened a number of Buddhist conferences to propagate Buddhism among lower castes of the society. During the 1930s, Prof. Narasu had associated himself with Periyar E.V Ramaswamy's Rationalist Movement, as well.
Though he had not met Prof. Narasu, Dr. Amdedkar had enormous reverence for the professor. Since Prof. Narasu was a Telugu man, Dr. Ambedkar thought Dr. Pattabhi Sitaramayya of the Congress party would be the right person to gather information about the author of 'The Essence of Buddhism'. All the information he gave about Lakshmi Narasu in his foreword to the third edition of the book was courtesy of Dr. Pattabhi.
"In recent times many people from different parts of India have been asking me to recommend a good book on Buddhism. In responding to their wishes, I felt no hesitation in suggesting Prof. Narasu's book. For, I think that it is the best book on Buddhism that has appeared so far. Unfortunately, the book has been out of print for a long time. I, therefore, decided to reprint it so that the desire of those who have an interest in the teachings of Buddhism may have in their hand a textbook which is complete in its treatment and lucid in its exposition," Dr. Ambedkar wrote in the foreword.
According to worldcat.org between 1907 and 2019, 'The Essence of Buddhism' saw 53 editions in English and Japanese and was held by 248 libraries across the world.
Prof. Narasu's book on the caste system, 'A Study of Caste', is equally popular and saw more than a dozen editions. His other books – 'What is Buddhism' (1916) and 'Religion of Modern Buddhists' (2001) - are considered valuable contributions to the vast body of Buddhist literature.