By Carla Prater
This month our Chairperson, Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, and Executive Director, Kim Behan jointly received the prestigious Dr. Ambedkar Prabuddha Bharata Peace Award, granted by a Buddhist organization in India called the Nagarjuna Training Institute. The institute, based at Nagaloka in Nagpur, continues the heritage of Engaged Buddhism started by the Dalit leader, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar (1891-1956).
For those who do not know of him, Dr. Ambedkar was an Indian jurist, economist, and social reformer who rose up from poverty to become one of the foremost leaders of independent India. He was born into a poor family of the Dalit community, the people previously referred to by caste Hindus as “Untouchables”—those whose very shadow was considered inauspicious and whose touch was thought to pollute. In his youth, Ambedkar suffered the indignities inflicted upon Dalits by reason of their birth, but he was a bright and diligent student who overcame the obstacles he faced in pursuit of his education. He excelled in his studies and went on to earn two doctorate degrees, from Columbia Univerity and the London School of Economics. After independence, he became India’s first Minister of Law and Justice and the principal author of the Indian Constitution.
Dr. Ambedkar deeply opposed the Hindu caste system, with its degrading treatment of the Dalits, and he vowed that though he was born a Hindu, he would not die one. He embarked on a thorough study of the world’s major religions and in the end decided that Buddhism best met his aspirations. On October 15, 1956, at a large ceremony in Nagpur, he formally undertook the Three Refuges and Five Precepts, the twin gateway to the Dharma. Immediately afterward he led 500,000 Dalits in renouncing their Hindu heritage and adopting Buddhism.
Sadly, just two months after his conversion, Ambedkar died due to chronic poor health. But the revolution he started continued to roll on. In the years and decades following the initial mass conversion ceremony, millions of Dalits have followed Dr. Ambedkar in embracing Buddhism, and thus in India today there is a large Buddhist population drawn mainly from the Dalit community. Nagaloka in Nagpur is one of their primary religious and educational centers.
The Nagarjuna Training Institute (NTI) was established at Nagaloka to provide training in Buddhist teachings to young Buddhists from all over India. After completing the training program, the trainees return to their home communities to help in propagating Buddhism. Through its programs the institute strives to promote the ideal of Prabuddha Bharat—an Enlightened India—and to play a part in the global Buddhist family.
Every year the institute confers the Dr. Ambedkar Prabuddha Bharata Peace Award, which it presents on October 15, the anniversary of Dr. Ambedkar’s embrace of Buddhism. This date is also considered the anniversary of King Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism. The Peace Award is presented “to those who have made significant contributions to the development of Buddhism and the welfare of humanity, not only in India, but throughout the world.” This year the award committee saw fit to confer the award on Bhante and Kim Behan—to Bhante for his scholarship and contributions to human welfare through BGR and to Kim for her role as executive director of BGR.
The time that the celebration of the mass conversion ceremony took place in India was too late for Bhante to join online, so he recorded an acceptance speech, which was played at the ceremony. But Kim, in Colorado, participated online and submitted a short address, which will soon be published on the BGR blog. In accepting the award, Kim writes: “I would like to share the Dr. Ambedkar Peace Award with the entire team at Buddhist Global Relief in recognition of our work together in the Dharma.”
Carla Prater is Assistant Director of Buddhist Global Relief.