Navayana Buddhism

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Navayana (Devanagari: नवयान, IAST: Navayāna) means “new vehicle” and refers to the re-interpretation of Buddhism by Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar; it is also called Neo-Buddhism and Ambedkarite Buddhism. Ambedkar was a polymath, theologian and scholar of Buddhism. He was born in a Dalit (untouchable) family during the colonial era of India, studied abroad, became a Dalit leader, and announced in 1935 his intent to convert from Hinduism to a different religion, and he has studied all the major religions of the world in depth, including Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, and Buddhism, for nearly 21 years. Thereafter Ambedkar studied texts of Buddhism, found several of its core beliefs and doctrines such as Four Noble Truths and “non-self” as flawed and pessimistic, then re-interpreted these into what he called “new vehicle” Buddhism, or Navayana. Ambedkar held a press conference on 13 October 1956, announcing his rejection of Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, as well as of Hinduism. Thereafter, he left Hinduism and adopted Navayana, about six weeks before his death. Its adherents see Navayana Buddhism not as a sect with radically different ideas, but rather as new movement founded on the principles of Buddhism.

In the Dalit Buddhist movement of India, Navayana is considered a new branch of Buddhism, different from the traditionally recognized branches of Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana– considered to be foundational in the Buddhist traditions. It partially but radically re-interprets what Buddhism is, revising parts of the original Buddha teaching to be more concerned with class struggle and social equality taking into account modern problems.

Almost 90% of Navayana live in Maharashtra. In the 2011 census, Marathi Buddhists were 6.5 million, constituting 5.8% of the population of Maharashtra and 77% of the Buddhist population of India.

Ambedkar called his version of Buddhism Navayana or “Neo-Buddhism”. His book, The Buddha and His Dhamma is the holy book of Navayana followers. Followers of Navayana Buddhism are generally called “Buddhists” (Baud’dha) as well as Ambedkarite Buddhists, Neo-Buddhists, and rarely Navayana Buddhists.

While the term Navayana is most commonly used in reference to the movement Ambedkar founded in India, it is also (more rarely) used in a different sense, to refer to Westernised forms of Buddhism.

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