NOTES FROM THE FIELD 

EXPLORING NARRATIVES AT AN AMBEDKARITE UNIVERSITY

Mallory Hennigar

PhD Candidate in Religion

Thanks to the generous support of an American Institute of Indian Studies (AIIS) Junior Fellowship, this past September I landed in Nagpur, Maharashtra to begin my dissertation fieldwork. I have spent the beginning of my fieldwork getting to know young Ambedkarite Buddhists who are living and learning at Summer 2018 - Notes from the FieldNagaloka Center, a Buddhist community and training center. I became interested in Ambedkarite Buddhism because it seemed to me that there was only one side of the story being told in academic literature – that Ambedkar’s Buddhist movement has failed. I optimistically hoped that when I arrived in Nagpur, I would find some evidence that would contradict this negative narrative.

While of course on the ground things are never so black and white, I have found that many within the movement are tired of narratives of failure and are ready to celebrate progress within the movement. The passion that drives many of the students at Nagaloka has been inspiring not only as a topic of research, but also as I consider what kind of teacher I want to be when I return to the university. One of Ambedkar’s greatest legacies is his emphasis on the necessity of education. Among the Ambedkarite youth I have met – whether they come from SC, ST, or OBC backgrounds – there is a thirst for new, revolutionary perspectives. It is inspiring to be reminded of the power of education. As researchers and educators, I think there is perhaps nothing more exciting than learning new stories and perspectives. The drive that the Ambedkarite community has to produce and consume new narratives inspires me to share the excitement of uncovering new perspectives with my students.

Students come from across India to live and learn at Nagaloka. The administrators hope that in this environment they can build a united pan-Indian Ambedkarite Buddhist identity that transcends caste, com- munity and region. For many students, this is the first time that they are learning in Hindi and not in their local language, which creates stress for them. Based on the often cited “language problem” alone, Nagaloka’s mission to build an Ambedkarite Buddhist network is ambitious. India’s great diversity, which has always seemed such a beautiful thing to me, has its own disadvantages. I struggle with my inclinations to feel that local traditions are worth preserving as I observe people’s desire to overcome “tradition” itself to create social change through a universalist Buddhist vision. Despite this mission to universalize, as with any opportunity for cultural exchange, most of the students benefit from interacting with people from other communities. One alumna from Tamil Nadu learned 7 languages in addition to her mother tongue, only by speaking to different people at Nagaloka. I plan to visit recent graduates of the program in their home villages later in my fieldwork.

No matter how many times my professors told me that my views would be challenged in unexpected ways by my fieldwork, it didn’t take away from the thrill of experiencing it. I want to thank not only AIIS, but also the South Asia Center for their sup- port and programming which has prepared me for this research in so many invaluable ways, especially with language training and pre-dissertation research funding.