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This ?bhikshu? initiated Babasaheb

CIRCA 1956, Nagpur. Pragyanand was twenty-eight years old and already a ?bhikshu?. A towering political personality stood before Pragyanand and monks Chandramuni Mahasthvair of Kushinagar, Pragyasthir of Sanchi, Sanghratna of Sarnath and Shraddha Mahasthvair of Sarnath. The man had written the most sacred testimony of Independent India and was there to rewrite his faith. He was taking ?diksha? (initiation) to become a Buddhist. He was Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar.

india Updated: May 14, 2006 01:22 IST

CIRCA 1956, Nagpur. Pragyanand was twenty-eight years old and already a ‘bhikshu’. A towering political personality stood before Pragyanand and monks Chandramuni Mahasthvair of Kushinagar, Pragyasthir of Sanchi, Sanghratna of Sarnath and Shraddha Mahasthvair of Sarnath. The man had written the most sacred testimony of Independent India and was there to rewrite his faith. He was taking ‘diksha’ (initiation) to become a Buddhist. He was Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar.

‘Bhikshu’ Pragyanand still remembers the day vividly and what Babasaheb had said on becoming a Buddhist. “Rather than focusing on the three jewels and eight-fold path of Buddha, free the society from superstition and social evil,” Ambedkar had told young Pragyanand.

The other four monks have died, but Pragyanand is alive to tell the story of that day and thereafter.

“Whenever Ambedkar visited Lucknow he never forgot to visit Buddha Vihara to meet its head Bhante Bodhanand Mahasthvair,” he said. Impressed with his devotion and diligence, Bhante Bodhanand had selected Pragyanand as his successor and introduced him to Ambedkar.

“It was April 1948, Ambedkar had come to Lucknow to attend a meeting of the All India Scheduled Caste Federation organised in Victoria Park. After the meeting was over he visited the vihara. A furious Bodhanand told Ambedkar that he had promised to adopt Buddhism.  The monk was angry as Ambedkar had married and wondered how he would work for the cause of Buddhism. Ambedkar assured Bodhanand that he and his wife would adopt Buddhism,” Pragyanand recalled.

Bodhanand died in 1952, but Ambedkar did not forget the promise he had made to the monk.

In 1956 he invited Pragyanand and four monks to give him ‘diksha’.
Though age has taken its toll but Pragyanand’s eyes sparkle while talking about the event. “Earlier there were very few Buddhists in the country, but lakhs gathered on the call of Ambedkar to adopt Buddhism. After a gap of thousand years, Buddhism started to gain ground in the country of its origin,” he said.

“To widen its base a religion requires political support,” the saffron- clad octogenarian ‘bhikshu’ spoke even as he was busy blessing and motivating devotees at the Buddha Vihara near Lucknow’s Risaldar Park.

“With the support of King Ashoka it spread in the Indian subcontinent and East Asia. When Dr Ambedkar adopted Buddhism the number of Buddhists swelled here. Now our hope is BSP supremo Mayawati,” Pragyanand said. “Though she has not adopted Buddhism but ensures that Buddhist monks are present in all her party programmes. She even named several districts after Buddha. The message to the masses is clear that the BSP government has leaned towards Buddhism, even when she is wooing political support of the Brahmins.”   

Unmindful of the internecine battle between LTTE guerillas and the Sri Lankan army in his native country, this no-ordinary monk is busy spreading the message of Buddha in a foreign land. He still continues with his mission which began at the age of thirteen in 1941. Then Pragyanand had left his native village Galagodar near Kandy in Sri Lanka, sailed across the Palk Strait and landed in India to work as a missionary.

That his work for Buddhism is on the right path was evident as hundreds of devotees jostled for a ‘darshan’ of the ‘bhikshu’ at a programme organised to mark the 2550 ‘mahaparinirvana’ of Buddha on Saturday.