Buddhist Audio Books

In the Sign of the Golden Wheel
Indian Memoirs of an English Buddhist
By Sangharakshita
ISBN: 1899579141
Read by Subhadra

The miracle of the talking calf, rumours of black magic and lamas with ‘supernormal’ powers: Sangharakshita’s third volume of memories is full of curious episodes that could only happen in India.

In the Sign of the Golden Wheel recounts the unique experiences of an English Buddhist monk working in the mid-1950s to revive Buddhism in the land of its birth. From his hermitage in the foothills of the Himalayas, Sangharakshita travels across India to the movie world of Bombay and on to a moving and dramatic climax - addressing hundreds of thousands of ex-Untouchables in thirty mass meetings in just four days, to console and encourage them following the sudden death of their hero, the remarkable Dr Ambedkar, only weeks after their mass conversion to Buddhism. Brimming with life and colour, this book is a notable addition to the world of travel literature as we follow the spiritual adventures of an unorthodox and extraordinary Englishman.

An Extract from: In the Sign of the Golden Wheel
From chapter 19: The Presence in the Corner

I had met Dr B.R. Ambedkar, the leading personality of the Federation, in 1952, after having been in correspondence with him two years earlier. On that occasion we had met at Rajgir, his residence in Dadar, in the heart of industrial Bombay, and I had asked him, probably with his recent article `The Buddha and the Future of His Religion' in mind, whether he thought Buddhism had a future in India. His reply was an indirect one. He had no future in India, he declared bitterly (he was at that time in the political wilderness), as if his own future in India and that of Buddhism were inextricably interconnected. But his attitude, or at least his mood, had since changed. Having realised, after a lifetime of unsuccessful campaigning, that the Caste Hindus were not going to give up their traditional inhuman treatment of the Untouchables, as the Scheduled Castes and Depressed Class people were popularly known, he had come to the conclusion that he and his followers would have to change their religion. They would have to become Buddhists, Buddhism being a religion that was of Indian origin, that was rational, and that treated men (and women) according to their worth, not their birth, i.e. not according to their (hereditary) caste. Within the last few months he had twice visited Buddhist Burma, and only days before our second meeting, which took place on 25 December, he had installed an image of the Buddha in the temple that had been built by members of the Scheduled Castes community at Dehu Road, near Poona.

We met not in Dadar but in the Fort area of Bombay, in Dr Ambedkar's office on the top floor of Buddha Bhavan, one of the buildings of the Siddharth College of Arts and Science. In appearance he was greatly altered. At the time of our first meeting his demeanour had been belligerent, and his expression grim and lowering, and though inclining to corpulence he had seemed in good health. Now, three years later, he was quieter and more subdued, and so crippled by arthritis that, as he explained when apologizing for receiving me sitting down, he could stand only with difficulty. But though quieter and more subdued he had, as it seemed, made up his mind that he and his followers should become Buddhists, and was even now drawing up plans for the revival of Buddhism in India. These plans he explained to me at some length, adding, with evident emotion, that he intended to devote the rest of his life to Buddhism. Mrs Ambedkar, who stood beside him as he sat behind his desk, appeared to support his plans, and from time to time intervened to reinforce a point he had made, especially when his energy flagged. For my part I explained, in response to Dr Ambedkar's enquiries, that formal conversion to Buddhism consisted in `going for Refuge' to the Three Jewels, i.e. the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, and in undertaking to observe the five basic principles of ethical behaviour. One could `take' the Refuges and Precepts from any monk or other senior Buddhist. All the same, he and his followers would be well advised to take them from someone like U Chandramani of Kusinara, probably the seniormost monk in India, rather than from a junior monk like myself (Ambedkar had asked me if I would be willing to perform the conversion ceremony for them), as the Buddhist world would probably then take their conversion to Buddhism more seriously. Before we parted the Scheduled Castes leader asked me to write to him recapitulating what I had said about conversion. He also asked me to explain to his followers what conversion to Buddhism really meant. On my acceding to both these requests, he promised to see that a talk was organized for me by his lieutenants in the city.

Dr Ambedkar was as good as his word, with the result that on New Year's Day I addressed a gathering of some 3,000 people on `What it Means to Become a Buddhist'. It was not the first time I had spoken to members of the Scheduled Castes community on this burning topic, as it was fast becoming for all of them. Only days before my meeting with Dr Ambedkar I had addressed the residents of the so-called Harijan Colony at Khar, and had afterwards explained to its elders the implications of conversion to Buddhism. Compared with the meeting now organized for me by Dr Ambedkar's local henchmen this had been a very small affair, and it was clear that there would be no conversion to Buddhism, at least not on a mass scale, unless the Scheduled Castes leader himself took the first step. The meeting took place at Worli, on a piece of waste ground overlooked by a row of chawls or tenement blocks, and since many of Ambedkar's followers were factory workers who did not get home much before eight o'clock it did not begin until quite late. By that time there was a cold wind blowing, so that when I at last rose to speak I was shivering in my thin cotton robes. With the President of the Bombay Branch of the Scheduled Castes Federation of Bombay giving a running translation into Marathi, I addressed the gathering for more than an hour, speaking as simply as I could and confining myself to fundamentals. Becoming a Buddhist meant going for Refuge to the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, I explained, just as I had to Dr Ambedkar, as well as undertaking to observe the Five Precepts, but one could not truly go for Refuge unless one understood what it was to which one went for Refuge. The greater part of my talk was therefore devoted to explaining that the Buddha was a human being who had gained Enlightenment by his personal efforts, not an avatar of the god Vishnu; that the Dharma or Teaching of the Buddha was the principial Way to Enlightenment, especially as represented by the three `trainings' of Morality, Meditation, and Wisdom, and by the Noble Eightfold Path; and that the Sangha was the spiritual community of the Buddha's disciples - past and present, monk and lay.

In speaking about the Dharma Refuge I was at pains to emphasize that in Buddhism the word `dharma' possessed a meaning quite different from that which it bore in Hinduism. In the latter it meant one's duty as determined by the (hereditary) caste to which one belonged. If one had been born as a brahmin, one's duty was to study the Vedas and receive offerings; if as a shudra, to serve the members of the three higher castes. If one had been born as an untouchable then, of course, one's duty was to remove night soil and animal carcasses and to avoid polluting Caste Hindus by coming into contact with them. According to Hinduism one could no more change one's dharma than one could change one's caste. It would be a sin even to try to change it. In Buddhism, however, the Dharma, in the sense of the Way to Enlightenment, was the same for all human beings, regardless of caste, which in any case was not recognized by Buddhism. Becoming a Buddhist and practising the Dharma meant, among other things, breaking free from the caste system, and from untouchability, and following a path of ethical and spiritual development that was for the benefit of oneself and others.

Sitting there on the bare ground, my poorly clad and mostly illiterate audience followed my talk with the closest attention and in a silence that was broken only by the applause that greeted any remark of which they particularly approved. Not surprisingly, the greatest applause was reserved for my comments on caste and untouchability. From the warmth with which the organizers congratulated me on my talk after the meeting, I left Worli that night with the impression that provided Dr Ambedkar lived long enough Buddhism did have a future in India.




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