Thursday, October 19, 2006
Wednesday, October 18, 2006
My guests are Lalida and Perimar who I met at the conference in Nagpur that I attended at the start of my trip here. They are a dynamic, impressive couple who run a networking a organisation called ADECOM devoted top improving the lot of dalits by developing things at the grassroots. They offer training and support for a cooperatives and projects in dalit villages and communities across the state. They broker shared funding requests to western ngos such as the Karuna Trust and offer monitoring in return. At first sight it seems as impressive a set-upo as I have seen in this area. They are dedicated to staying small, devolving responisbility to the village groups wherever possible and training local people to take it on.
Top of Lalida's shopping list of issues are women's rights and land rights. The British passed statuesd promising land dredistribuition to the dalits, and 59 years after Independence the dalits here are waiting to see the benefits. Perumal is an actor and singer, and his focus is developing cultural activities. In Nagpur he and his troupe shocked the audience with drumming that was performed explosive, passionate and raw, followed a superbly staged piece of agitprop street-theatre. They use their performances to campaign on issues from AIDS awareness to demands for economic justice, and increasingly, the importance of DR Ambedkar and his Budhist message
This afternoon I attended a meeting in a dalit village in Pondicherry. Most of the dwellings are thatched wooden huts - dark interiors, rough floors, and often overflowing with children. The tracks between the houses are shared by buffaloes, goats and stray dogs and children dressed in scraps of clothing. Vill;agers gather to met us in a building that in most places would be considered a derelict wreck, but here is the community centre. It is hurriedly swept clean of the piles of litter including discarded cigarrette butts and playing cards - because the men gather here to gamble. They haven't come to the meeting: it is filled by women, their arms filled with children - the older ones of whom stare at me with unabashed curiousity. Their parents join them when Perumal tells that that I am a BBC reporter who will tell the world about their difficulties. I start to think, 'How did this happen... ?'
We have been travelling today with several of the girls from Peruma's company, and Vijaya starts the meeting with a soulful, vibrant song. I hear the word 'Ambedkar' repeated in it, though Perumal tells me that in fact Dr Ambedkar is little known here. 'They know he is the Dalit leader who did much to help dalits. That's all.'They have probably never heard of Buddhism, let alone considered adopting it. He whispers that Vijaya's song si about the need to be united in the struggle for justice.
In turn the women introduce themselves to me: each represents a co-operative, a self-help group, or a savings group. Although they earn just 30-50 rupees a day in the fields, and often can find no work at all, they manage to sav 100 rupees a month, which they put by to start a business. Perumal and his team have been training some of them to make cards and small sculptures constructed from coconuts,a s well as embroidery work. But they don't know how they will sell the work. Perumal says his friends will help with taking it to the market as well as continuing their training.
He tells them they have a good chance to learn tailoring at the government training centre. 'But it's too far away, it costs 10 rupees to get there. Can't you build a centre here?' they ask. 'If you get training and make a start you will get help, otherwise you won't he replies.
Then a litany of complaints and problems pours out, and Perumal mutters explanations beteeen taking on the vehement protestations. This woman's husband has a good education, but he couldn't get a government job and lost his job in the rpivate sector. They don't have the confidence to send their children to school. This woman works on the land, but it is not the season for work now, and anyway there is less land since the large school was built.
My respect grows for Perumal and hjis team. The needss are huge, but they are insist that what they can do is to help the women to help themselves. They have no money to hand out, but they can help them to organise, to improve their own l;ives and to campaign for help from the government. I sit back watching the growing intensity of the discussion in Tamil, and before I leave I offer some encouraging and, I hope, appropriate words about the need for unity and collective effort. I feel like an old-time socialist - and here the need for collective action is so plain.
In the jeep driving away I ask Perumal what they were saying in the heated conversation towards the end. 'They were asking what I would do to bring relief and help them with their problems. They were saying that they need help right now. I told them you are a jopurnalist, but they said, he is a forieigner, how will he help us?' He paused. ' Maybe I shouldn't take foreigners to villages.' I am subdued on the drive back, and we stop for chai on the outskirts of Pondycherry. We drink from plastic cups. 'See the others,' says Perumal, pointing to the metal cups served at a separate counter. 'Two tumbler system. We have to use separate cups.'
Caste practice is alive and well in Tamil Nadu. Staying with Lalida and Perumal I think of civil rights movements in the US and liberation struggles in Latinn America. This is the experience from which the Ambedkarite Buddhist liberation movement is growing.
Sunday, October 15, 2006
The first major coverage came in The Guardian - I spoke to their International Newsdesk a few days previously and they forwarded the story to their Delhi correspondent. He was here in Hyderabad on the evening of 13th and filed his copy in advance. The BBC World Service people I have been working with are also in Hyderabad making a documentary, and in the afternoon Dan Isaacs, the reporter working on the documentary, started to get calls following their morning editorial meeting: having read the Guardian piece, they decided to carry it themselves. He was filing reports all day and my friend and companion here, Manidhamma (a dalit Buddhist from Nagpur, currently living in the UK) was interviewed for the news programe Newshour - which has an audience in the tens of milions.
The report also appeared on the bbbc.co.uk website and even now it is ranking as the fourth most read story. Along with guardian unlimited this is one of the most read English language news channels. Then it apeared on Reuters, and a flood of international coverage has followed. There's not much US coverage yet, that I can see: that may change.
Dalits change religion in caste system protestABC Online, Australia - 2 hours ago
Thousands of people have attended a ceremony in India at which hundreds of low-caste Hindus, known as Dalits, have converted to Buddhism and Christianity. ...
Dalits embrace Buddhism, ChristianityHindu, India - 7 hours agoNagpur: Hundreds of Dalits on Saturday embraced Buddhism and Christianity at a programme here, where copies of the Gujarat Government's anti-conversion Bill ...
Dalits' mass conversion held in NagpurNDTV.com, India - 11 hours agoHundreds of Dalits on Saturday embraced Buddhism and Christianity at a mass conversion programme in Nagpur, in which copies of Gujarat government's anti ...
Mass conversion to Buddhism in IndiaBangkok Post, Thailand - 15 hours agoNew Delhi (dpa) - The western Indian town of Nagpur was tense Saturday as hundreds of lower caste Hindus or Dalits attended a rally to protest new laws making ...
Low-caste Hindus adopt new faithBBC Bulgaria, Bulgaria - 15 hours agoThousands of people have been attending mass ceremonies in India at which hundreds of low-caste Hindus converted to Buddhism and Christianity. ...
Hindus set to convert to BuddhismBBC News, UK - 20 hours agoTens of thousands of people are due to attend a mass conversion ceremony in India at which large numbers of low-caste Hindus will become Buddhists. ...
Indian low-caste Hindus plan mass conversionsReuters AlertNet, UK - 21 hours agoBy Krittivas Mukherjee. NAGPUR, India, Oct 14 (Reuters) - Thousands of low-caste Hindus in India plan to covert to Buddhism and Christianity ...
Dalits to embrace Buddhism, ChristianityHindu, India - 13 Oct 2006Nagpur: The All-India Conference of SC/ST Organisations, Lord Buddha Club and the All-India Christian Council will organise mass conversions here on Saturday ...
Untouchables embrace Buddha to escape oppressionGuardian Unlimited, UK - 13 Oct 2006In the small one-room house on the edge of the rice bowl of India, Narasimha Cherlaguda explains why he is preparing to be reborn again as a Buddhist. ...
100,000 outcasts to change their faithUnison.ie, Ireland - 12 Oct 2006ABOUT 100,000 outcast Hindus are expected to attend a mass conversion ceremony in central India tomorrow to be freed from the social injustices of the caste ...
India's Untouchables turn to Buddhism in protest at discrimination ...Independent, UK - 12 Oct 2006By Justin Huggler in Delhi. Across India this month, thousands of Hindus from the former Untouchable castes are converting to Buddhism ...
Outcasts switch faith to gain freedomTimes Online, UK - 12 Oct 2006By Ashling O’Connor. ABOUT 100,000 outcast Hindus are expected to attend a mass conversion ceremony in central India tomorrow to ...
Dalits en masse change religion protesting casteIndian Catholic, India - 1 hour agoThe mass conversion ceremony in Ngapur was part of the programs to commemorate the 50th anniversary of neo-Buddhist movement, which began when B. R Ambedkar ...
Lower castes convert en massePeninsula On-line, Qatar - 3 hours agoNAGPUR • Thousands of low-caste Hindus converted to Buddhism and Christianity yesterday in protest against new laws in several states that make such changes ...
Hindus’ religious protestSunday Herald, UK - 6 hours agoThousands of low-caste Hindus converted to Buddhism and Christianity yesterday in protest against new laws in several Indian states that make such changes of ...
Low Caste Hindus Convert In Protestnewswire.co.nz, New Zealand - 8 hours agoThousands of people have attended a ceremony in central India at which hundreds of low caste Hindus converted to Buddhism and Christianity. ...
India's Dalits hold protest conversionsWashington Times, DC - 10 hours agoHundreds of Dalits, the group on the bottom of the Hindu caste structure, converted to Buddhism and Christianity on Saturday in India, the BBC reported. ...
Thousands Of India Dalits Abandon HinduismBosNewsLife (subscription), Hungary - 11 hours agoBy BosNewsLife News Center. The 'World Religious Freedom Day' took place in Nagpur, the largest city in central India in the western ...
Indian Hindus to Convert to BuddhismShortNews.com, Germany - 11 hours agoIn protest against the injustice of the Indian caste system, thousands of people will attend a mass conversion ceremony in the central city of Nagpur (India ...
Dalits' embrace Buddhism at a mass conversion programme :konkaniworld, United Arab Emirates - 12 hours agoHundreds of Dalits today embraced Buddhism and Christianity at a mass conversion programme here, in which copies of Gujarat government's anti-conversion bill ...
India Supreme Court Postpones Landmark Dalits HearingBosNewsLife (subscription), Hungary - 12 Oct 2006By BosNewsLife News Center. The government already deferred five previous scheduled hearings of the case related to the rights of ...
Low-caste Hindus adopt new faith
BBC News, UK - 2 hours agoThousands of people have been attending mass ceremonies in India at which hundreds of low-caste Hindus (Dalits) converted to Buddhism and Christianity. ...
Indian low-caste Hindus convert en masseSydney Morning Herald, Australia - 2 hours agoThousands of low-caste Hindus converted to Buddhism and Christianity in protest against new laws in several Indian states that make such changes of religion ...
Indian low-caste Hindus convert en masseNinemsn, Australia - 2 hours agoThousands of low-caste Hindus converted to Buddhism and Christianity in protest against new laws in several Indian states that make such changes of religion ...
Indian low-caste Hindus convert en masseThe Age, Australia - 2 hours agoThousands of low-caste Hindus converted to Buddhism and Christianity in protest against new laws in several Indian states that make such changes of religion ...
Indian low-caste Hindus convert en masseReuters.uk, UK - 14 hours agoBy Krittivas Mukherjee. NAGPUR, India (Reuters) - Thousands of low-caste Hindus converted to Buddhism and Christianity on Saturday ...
Indian low-caste Hindus convert en masseScotsman, United Kingdom - 14 hours agoBy Krittivas Mukherjee. NAGPUR, India (Reuters) - Thousands of low-caste Hindus converted to Buddhism and Christianity on Saturday ...
Low-caste Hindus convert en masseReuters India, India - 14 hours agoBy Krittivas Mukherjee. NAGPUR, India (Reuters) - Thousands of low-caste Hindus converted to Buddhism and Christianity on Saturday ...
Indian low-caste Hindus plan mass conversionsKhaleej Times, United Arab Emirates - 20 hours agoNAGPUR, India - Thousands of low-caste Hindus in India plan to covert to Buddhism and Christianity on Saturday to protest new laws in several states that make ...
Low-caste Hindus plan mass conversionsReuters India, India - 21 hours agoBy Krittivas Mukherjee. NAGPUR, India (Reuters) - Thousands of low-caste Hindus in India plan to covert to Buddhism and Christianity ...
Saturday, October 14, 2006
As it became clear that the numbers would be low and that the event would start several hours late patience started to fray, and the Taiwanese nuns and monks who had flown over with the Ven Hsing Yun were mumrmuring about the organnisation and being there on flase pretences. Hsing Yun is a major figure in Taiwan and TV crews followed his every step - but the event hardly lived up to his stature.
The siumple, moving diksa ceremony went off smoothly, and a series of speeches started. Just as I came to the microphone to make my own the organisers announced that their time was up, and the police had told them they needed to reopen the road.
It is so hard to tell the reality of what is happening here from the rhetoric and the posturing. Various theories are circulating about the small size of the sucess, but a key issue seems to be that the organisers focused on getting high-profile guests to attend rather than mobilising ordinary people from the vilages.
Meanwhile some international media coverage is starting. See the Times online at: http://business.timesonline.co.uk/section/0,,8214,00.html and the Guardian at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/india/story/0,,1922410,00.html
This afternoon, along with thousands of his supporters - on foot, on scooters and in buses – I walked behind a hearse bearing the body of Kanshi Ram to the funeral ghat. The procession wound for miles through the wide tree-lined avenues of New Delhi, past diplomatic residences and embassies. The hearse was an open-topped truck, bedecked with flowers – when I got close there was the beautiful scent of frangipani. Standing beside the body in its open-topped casket was Mayawati, Kanshi Ram’s chosen successor, and ex-Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, with someone holding a black umbrella to keep the sun off her. Alongside her were two yellow-clad Theravadin monks, politicians – and two lean black-clad security guards with rifles.
The crowd, jostling to get close to his body, was sombre. They walked tightly packed, with periodic raised arms punching the sky, and shouts of ‘as long as the sun and moon remain, your name, Kanshi Ram, will stay’; and ‘the second name of Dr Ambedkar was Kanshi Ram’. I notice there are hardly any women at all in the crowd for all that Mayawati is a woman and presumably an inspiration for female empowerment.
Kanshi Ram was president and inspiration for the Bahujan Samaj Party (for the good of the all). He formed the BSP in 1984 as a breakaway from the RPI, the party set up by Dr Ambedkar that was riven by internal disputes following his death. The BSP gained power three times in the vastly populous northern state of Uttar Pradesh, with Mayawati as Chief Minister.
Kanshi Ram’s death may have great significance. The lower-caste political and social movements have been constantly riven by discord, and like Dr Ambedkar in the last century, Kanshi Ram was the one leader who had a following and respect across India and across the multifarious lower castes. He declared in 2003 as Dr Ambedkar had in 1935 that ‘Although I was born a Hindu, I will not die a Hindu. He planned, again like Dr Ambedkar, to convert to Buddhism this month, along with many, potentially millions of his followers. However his health, which had been bad for some months, failed him before he could do so. His anointed successor, Mayawati, does not command the same support and there are fears about what will happen to the impetus behind the Buddhist conversions – at a time when state after state are drafting anti-conversion bills.
I fall in with a Punjabi – Harinder – whilst we walk. I’m sporting a camera and he asks me if I’m press – it turns out he’s a reporter on a Punjab newspaper, and also a strong supporter of Kanshi Ram, so he’d come down to Delhi as soon as he’d heard last night of Kanshi Ram’s death. As far as I could work out – given his non-existent English and my fractured Hindi – he is a member of a Punjabi party affiliated to the BSP – the Bahujan Samaj Morcha – BSM. He has great respect for Kanitram, but is quite derogatory about Mayawati. He says that Kanshi Ram was a simple man, who stayed connected with the poor that he cared about, and lived in a very upstanding way - apparently he didn’t have properties gained by ill-gotten means scattered around India as is the wont of the political class here. Mayawati, on the other hand, he says, once in power quickly gained a reputation for corruption.
We reach Nigambodh Ghat, the funeral place, which is swarming with people. They’ve climbed up on the roofs of the buildings there, and even up the trees. I sneak my way through the crowds till I can get a view of the podium. Harinder says ‘there’s Sonia Gandhi going up the podium’ but I can’t make her out. Then the speaker system comes on and someone – I assume one of the monks – is reciting the Buddhist refuges, though I seem to hear Kanshi Ram’s name mixed in with them…are they saying ‘Kanshi Ram saranam gachami’ - I go for refuge to Kanshi Ram’? I can’t be sure. Then there are the precepts in Pali. I notice some of the people around me mouthing along with them. So Buddhism seems to have a place within the BSP, but is it lip-service – mere political Buddhism? Who now will lead, when Kanshi Ram is dead?
This is a contribution from Dryan Kitchener of the Karuna Trust. Thanks very much to Jarrod for this: more contributions are very welcome. Thanks also to those of you who have sent emails about this blog. Because of the pressure on my time and the difficulties of communication here I may not be able to respond for a while, but I’ll try to get back to everyone when I can.
I am now in Hyderabad in Andra Pradesh State, several hundred miles sout of Nagpur, for the large meeting and diksa tomorrow – 14th October. A report will follow shortly …
Friday, October 13, 2006
We’ve just pulled up in a large field and water hole with buffalo lying neck-deep in the water with a statue of Dr Ambedkar in a lush, green field. Then we drive a kilometer to the village – roughly built huts, the walls mostly made of mud, the more solid buildings of brick, beside a tranquil lake, and the sun shining down a sweltering heat. The entire village is there to meet us: two hundred people clustered in a gathering pace by the lake.
The men are dressed in simple shirts and slacks, many of the faces deeply weathered; the women are dressed in dramatic green and red saris, many with dramatic pink and red nose studs in both nostrils; the children are here as well, from the smallest to teens in smart blue and white school uniforms. You see the incredulity is in the faces: amazement that people should come from so far away to their village – in fact, that anyone at all would come here. They warm to the speakers as each in turn expresses their admiration for Dr Ambedkar and the warmth of the reception. It’s true: their faces shine as with joy – though mixed with surprise and perplexity. One man towards the back stares at me as if to say ‘What’s that?’
Most of these people are Satnamis – followers of ‘the true name’: a sect founded by a local teacher called Garsidas in the late 18th century. It is an anti-caste bhakti movement (i.e. devotionally based – because social differences disappear in the face of Truth) numbering three or four million people in this region. They are nominally Hindu, but they have rejected so many Hindu beliefs and practices that they see themselves more as an independent tradition. Followers these days think that Garsidas’ teaching has much in common with Buddhism: indeed, some scholars trace a line from the last of the Buddhist siddhas to the first of the Hindu bhaktas, culminating in figures like Garsidas.
The great link is Dr Ambedkar, and the fact that he advocated conversion to Buddhism is now impacting on these people. They knew nothing of him in his lifetime: illiterate and far from external communications they knew of little beyond their own community. That changed in the 1980s when Kanshi Ram, the founder of the BSP, a political party representing the poorest people, visited the area, bringing news of Dr Ambedkar’s achievements and legacy. A dalit who became the country’s first law minister and framed laws against caste discrimination (though of course you can’t outlaw the attitudes that go along with it). Several people here tell me that for them Dr Ambedkar is a Messiah, a saviour who embodies all their aspirations and showed them a way forward.
Kanshi Ram was largely responsible for spreading awareness of Dr Ambedkar beyond Maharashtra, to many groups like the Chhatishgari Satnami’s, and for taking his work forward in the political sphere. In a country whose rulers are still overwhelmingly Brahmins, the BSP actually joined the government. But we have just heard that he died – the day before we arrived on 8th October. It is a shock to these people, but not a surprise, as he had been ill for two years, and at every meeting we hold a two minute silence.
Only five percent of the Satnami community have actually become Buddhists so far, but this includes some very active and determined people, including a singer who has accompanied us on two of our programmes. He recites the words first in a rolling, emphatic, strongly rhymed poetry, sounding like Jamaican dub. I can pick out a few key words: ‘Bhagawan Buddha’, ‘Babasaheb Ambedkar’. Then he sings the same words, in a vibrant, modulated harmony, adding to them improvised lines and repetitions. He sways and the audience nod with pleasure.
There’s a rich culture here, for all the absence of education and the community’s isolation, but it is being transformed as these people move towards Buddhism. Traditionally religious teachers would sing verses from the Ramayan followed by commentaries on the meaning. But in recent years many people have turned against the ancient text because of its caste connotations, and new epics have been composed: the Bhimayana, which tells the life of Bhimrao Ambedkar (‘Bhim’ for short) and the Buddhayana, recounting the life of the Buddha.
I ask a schoolteacher if they see conflict between the Satnami tradition and Buddhism. ‘Both teach equality and both were against caste,’ he replies. ‘We love our teacher, Guruji, but the Satnami way has done nothing to help our people out of their suffering. Babasaheb Ambedkar has helped, so we have great faith in him. Buddhism shows how to live a good life and it has always opposed caste, so now we have faith in the Buddha.’
Another man joins the conversation, who is dressed in flowing yellow and red robes and has mantras tattooed across his forehead. He tells me that he is a former Ramnami, a breakaway from the Satnami movement devoted to reciting the name of Ram. ‘I still bear the marks of a Ramnami, but I am a follower of Bhagawan Buddha, and I have traveled to every state in India to see how the followers of Dr Ambedkar’s movement are working to spread Dhamma.’ I compliment him on his magnificent white beard and he tells me, ‘When I travel in the train I tell them I am a Buddhist holy man and point to my beard. They say ‘Buddhists shouldn’t steal – buy a ticket!’ But I say, I am not stealing, I am just traveling, and usually they let me stay on the train.’
I worry several times during the tour if that this seems too much like a missionary tour, but there is little sense here that something is being imposed from outside. I have used the word ‘conversion’ throughout this blog, but in fact they tell me they are not Hindus. Some say they have no religion; others follow teachers who they now consider to be in sympathy with Dr Ambedkar and the Buddha.
There is much more I could write about my three-day trip to Chattisgarh, but communications have been so difficult that I will only be able to manage this single report. But I am pleased to have gone. Not far south is a heartland of the Naxalite insurgency: a Maoist guerrilla insurgency that spreads across India and uses bandit tactics to oppose caste and social inequality. Whole districts not far away are in Naxalite hands, and the scale of the revolt is gradually being appreciated by Indians and outsiders. The poverty is to intense and the injustice of caste so palpable, that this is no surprise. It throws Dr Ambedkar’s importance and his espousal of non-violence into sharper relief still. The villages and towns that are turning to Buddhism are the heart of India, and a change is taking place there: a teaching of equality, dignity, and helping the community, all embodied in the bespectacled figure of the most unlikely-looking messiah: Dr Ambedkar.
“I have known about Dr Ambedkar as long as I have known about the world. When I was growing up my family kept his picture as one of their few possessions and worshipped him as if he was a God. My father was a landlord and we got news of the wider world, even in our remote village. I first saw him in 1942, when I was just 14 years old: he had left mainstream politics to form his own party, the Scheduled Caste Federation, and when he came to Nagpur for a conference, I saw him on the dais.
I saw him again in 1946, when he was Labour Minister and he came to Nagpur for another meeting. He arrived in a large saloon car, and his face was shining – radiant – and his whole bearing was very impressive. All of his followers respected him as if he was a higher being. What he had achieved was so immense for someone from our background, and he carried our hopes for a better future.
By 1956, when Babasaheb declared that he was to convert to Buddhism, I had been a member of the Municipal Council, and he called several of us to Delhi to tell us the date and discuss arrangements. He was very concerned that everything should be done properly, so I was sent to meet him personally. I sat on the verandah of his house and he came in supported by a stick in one hand, with his other arm propped up by his assistant. He asked about the arrangements and told me to find a suitable piece of land.
The plot I found was where we are sitting now – Diksabhumi – though at that time it was agricultural land outside the town. Nagpur has grown so much since then that now it seems close to the centre. I had to work hard to get the land from the government, but eventually all the arrangements were made, while my colleague arranged the ceremony itself. I was 28 years old.
On October 14th, as soon as Babasaheb stood on the dais everyone was cheerful. There were so many people – now they say around half-a-million – all of us dressed in the white clothes of Buddhist lay-people. People had traveled great distances to be there, as well as coming from the local region, so members of many castes and communities were present.
Babasaheb stood on the dais and rested his head before the Buddha for two or three minutes without moving. He was so moved, so emotional, and the whole crowd was calm and quiet. Then he took diksa from the presiding monk, and after that he repeated the verses for all of us, including the 22 vows. So we took diksa from Babasaheb.
I cannot describe what I felt that day. I do not have the words in English, but I can say that for all of us it was as if our lives started anew. It was as if we had stepped out of the darkness and into the light, or we had been released from prison. For so many thousands of years our people had been treated as animals, but now we were human beings. We could hold our heads high, and I never lost that feeling.
I heard the news of Dr Ambedkar’s death on the radio. Everyone was crying, and yet we could not believe it was true. I rushed to get to Bombay, for the funeral in Dada, and all along the route of the funeral there were many people, all filled with intense emotion.
We made an application to the central government to have a memorial on the site of the diksa, and eventually it was granted. I became Secretary of the trust controlling the land in 1965 and I decided to start the Dr Ambedkar College as the most fitting memorial: his constant message was, ‘Educate!’ Others wanted a memorial building, and we started efforts to build one in 1972, but we were held back by lack of funds. In 1981 we celebrated the Silver Jubilee of the ceremony and the Maharashtran Chief Minster contributed money for the construction. Work continued over many years and we finished quite recently. The outer appearance is modeled on the Great Stupa at Sanchi, but ours is unique because it has a temple inside the base, and some of Dr Ambedkar’s ashes are there. It’s the biggest hollow stupa in the world, and every year a million people come to pay homage to their revered teacher.
Fifty years is a very short time in the history of a religious movement, and I think that over this period the conversion movement has had a good response. Now many communities that had no connection to Dr Ambedkar are coming to be his followers – people like Lakshman Mane. The Other Backward Castes (the OBC’s or sudras) who hated Dr Ambedkar in his lifetime now see that they will only make progress by following the path he proposed. There are movements now in many states, including Tamil Nadu, where the leaders include many intellectuals and educated people.
Dr Ambedkar dead is more powerful than he was alive. Many of his followers have thrived: after centuries of deprivation there are now many doctors, senior government officers and people who are successful overseas from our community. They have been uplifted by Dr Ambedkar’s movement, which has brought a very good change in Indian society.”
Saturday, October 07, 2006
For the first time, the movement of conversion to Buddhism among the poorest and most oppressed people in India is moving out from its heartland in Maharashtra to include people across the country. In many ceremonies across India, tens, and in some cases hundreds of thousands of people will become Buddhists over the next few weeks. This started in Nagpur on Monday in ceremonies that included 1-2 million people (most already Buddhists and some new converts). The movement is now expanding dramatically to include other communities in Maharashtra, notably the Matungs – a second group of ex-‘untouchables’ – and the ‘criminal and nomadic tribes’.
Buddhism is also being adopted by groups in many other Indian states. On October 14th I will be in Hyderabad in Andra Pradesh, where up to 400,000 will meet and 100,000 will become Buddhists. On the same day and on other significant dates in the next two months there will be large ceremonies in Delhi, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Punjab, and many other states, in which I think it is reasonable to say that millions of people will become Buddhists for the first time.
These events are so far unreported in the West and the mainstream Indian media. I have started this blog at to offer reliable news, information, personal observations and interviews with major players in this movement. Earlier in the blog are accounts of the Nagpur rally, and a meeting with the leader of the half-million members of criminal and nomadic tribes, who will be converting soon, an overview of Buddhism in India and the Ambedkarite movement, and much more.
In the next two weeks I will be joining a Dharma teaching tour around remote 'Untouchable' villages, attending a conversion for 3-400,000 in Hydrabad, visiting Tamil Nadu, where a large conversion movement is under way, and meeting Dalit Buddhist leaders in Nagpur, Pune and Bombay.
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I traveled into the center of Nagpur with an American writer called Leona, Milind– who was there to take photographs - and Christopher Queen, who is a lecturer on religion at Harvard University and the leading writer on both engaged Buddhism and Dr Ambedkar’s movement. We were rooming together at Nagaloka, a Buddhist center on the outskirts of town where were both attending a conference that brought Buddhists from around the world together with Indian followers of Dr Ambedkar.
Chris is a large, ebullient man brimming with ideas and anecdotes who seems to know everyone in the Ambedkarite world. ‘What do they mean: “All India will become Buddhist”?’ he said in the taxi – as we discussed the conversion ceremony that had taken place at Nagaloka that morning. ‘These people need to live in a world with Moslems and Hindus and all the rest. Dr Ambedkar was a wanted to reconstruct the Buddhist tradition so it met the needs of his time. But can the Ambedkarites do the same with Ambedkar’s own ideas? Nagaloka should be teaching comparative religion and they really need to drop the 22 vows.’ There are additional commitments made by Ambedkarites when they convert that enjoin renunciation of Hindu practices. ‘They need to say what they are for, and leave aside what they are against.’
On the route into town I was more alert than before to the signs of Buddhism and Dr Ambedkar all around me. His face stared down from hoardings alongside a changing selection of religious figures and smiling politicians: articulating political semiotics far beyond my comprehension. Some of three-wheelers that belched fumes and criss-crossed the traffic also flew above them the multi-coloured Buddhist flag. It’s unknown in most Buddhist countries, but Dr Ambedkar sympathized with the approach of Col. Olcott, the American Theosophist who a century ago tried to convince Asia’s disparate Buddhists that they were indeed members of the same faith and should agree on common symbols – like the flag – and shared basic tenets.
Dr Ambedkar shared Olcott’s modernizing agenda. He was a rationalist who looked to the European Enlightenment for an alternative to the traditional thinking that underpins caste. Having studied and discarded Marxism he also realized that a purely rational philosophy could not touch the depths of the issues facing his followers. That’s where the Buddha came in. They needed a new identity that was free from the stigma of untouchability, and which offered dignity and self-confidence to a community that had imbibed the view that they were less than human. He found that teaching in the Buddha, but he sought a modern Buddhism stripped of notions of karma, rebirth and the emphasis on suffering expressed in traditional formulations of the Four Noble Truths, which he thought reaffirmed social hierarchies and caste-thinking.
Central Nagpur was surprisingly quiet – no sign of the vast throng we were anticipating. Then we passed a police barrier as we approached Diksabhumi and and it was clear that we were part of a stream of people who were heading the same way. But even here, the hotel where we were to meet Chris’ friend, Rahul Deepankar, an American-based dalit who was a successful doctor and the President of one of the main US dalit organisations, seemed untouched by the event. A sign in the lobby read: ‘Congratulations on Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday.’ For the caste Hindus who made up the majority of the hotel’s residents Ambedkar was invisible to them, his memory still eclipsed – as he is in the West - by his great, traditionalist, Brahmin rival.
We set off on foot for the conversion ground with Rahul and another man – a stocky dark-skinned fellow dressed in white, who I had initially assumed was part of the hotel staff. Turning a corner we were into Ambedkarite territory: a two-way street in which a solid crowd of people thronged towards Diksabhumi in one direction and another crowd, including those who had completed their visit, flooded the other way. Along the road were stalls promoting the many political interests that cluster around the Ambedkarite movement, while for others – selling rosettes and food and trinkets - this was another chance to make a few rupees.
Arriving at Diksabhumi itself we were confronted suddenly by a great, white, gleaming stupa adorned, at least for this day, with flickering lamps. Its familiar shape – a cube topped by a dome topped by a spire - rose hundreds of feet above us. ‘Keep together!’ Rahul called, as we looked, baffled, at the great sea of people before us. But then whistles started to blow around us and several figures wearing crisp shirts, military-style fatigues and little blue caps bustled around us crying, ‘You come, you come.’ We turned right, into a compound at the side of the main field and suddenly there were more whistles and a flurry of blue-capped bodies. As we westerners stood uneasily, camera-laden and sweating, the several dozen men and women in the formed ranks, saluted and cried out in unison, ‘Babasaheb Ambedkar, kai jai!’ I fumbled in my bags for the BBC recording equipment I was carrying for a contact in the World Service who is making a documentary about the conversions but couldn’t make it in time for the 2nd and had asked me to make some recordings of key events before she got there. I have quite shamelessly used this connection to make contacts and open doors: the letters BBC still carry weight in India.
Looking up, I saw our white-shirted companion now clasping a microphone and shouting passionately into it, his face puffed with intensity. After every few words he paused and the sergeant major marshalling the ranked blue-caps bellowed a cry that was echoed by the ranks. Rahul murmered. ‘This is the Ambedkarite youth movement, “Samata Sanak Daal”, who marshal the activities, and he is the all-India General Secretary.’ Far from being swamped in the crowd it seemed we were celebrity visitors, and far from being in danger of getting lost, we had our own cadre of security. Teaming up with Chris was the best thing I had done – he is very well connected in the Ambedkarite community.
We each said a few words, and pretty soon the microphone was passed to me. In a rush of adrenaline I was saying, ‘In my country I have heard a phrase, which is close to my heart and I have heard again today: ‘Jai Bhim!,’ I cried. ‘Jai Bhim!’ they shouted back. ‘I know you are very proud of Dr Ambedkar, because he was one of your people and he is a very great man. You think he is your teacher, but I have to tell you that is not true.’ Silence. ‘He is also my teacher! And Buddhists from every country can learn from the words of Dr Ambedkar, and you are not alone in your faith!’ More cries from the ranks. Finally I held up the great, phallic, red-tipped BBC microphone. ‘People around the world will know about your celebrations, so please let me hear you cry again, ‘Jai Bhim!’ I doubt that cry will ever be broadcast, but at least I can write about it here.
Where had this sudden onset of oratory come from? Was I intoxicated by the excitement of the day and the exhilaration of finding myself a centre of attention? I was moved, and happy to have said what I had. The more I had learnt about Dr Ambedkar, the more impressed I had grown. But most of all I was moved by the intensity of the devotion still on display. That power of that chubby, bespectacled figure, who was born an ‘untouchable’ in village India, but had somehow won a PhD from Columbia and framed the Indian constitution, was all around me. For these people, and their two hundred million companions across India, he represented the hope that they might be able to take their place in society as human beings, having been regarded for millennia as animals or slaves. And beckoning within that aspiration to dignity and equality was the mysterious promise of the boundlessness of that humanity. The Ambedkarites and the rest of India’s banished classes are forgotten people in the wider world. My moment of melodrama expressed, at the very least, sympathy for their position and a wish to do what I could to help share their voice.
Friday, October 06, 2006
“We have 405 New-Buddhists in our village, 69 from the Matang community, they say there were only 105 of us in 1991 and in 2001 census, we are not there. This means we don't get any relief or benefit from government. We are supposed to get 20 per cent of the Panchayat budget of Rs. 3 lakh per year”.
-- Census wipes out dalits in Maharashtra , Mandar Phanse , CNN-IBN
These Buddhists include a number of groups. There are scattered survivors of the period when Buddhism flourished in India such as the Baruas of Assam, Chakmas of Bengal, the Saraks of Orissa and the Himalayan Buddhists of North-East India; there are also ethnic overlaps from Nepal, Thailand and Burma, such as Tamangs and Sherpas there are converts who have been influenced by theMaha Bodhi Society, the Dalai Lama and so on; and there are refugee Tibetan Buddhists in different settlements.
Finally there are the followers of Dr. Ambedkar, who constitute over 90% India’s Buddhists. Dr Ambedkar was the unquestioned leader of the dalits: people considered ‘untouchable’ under the Hindu caste system. He converted to Buddhism in 1956 with many of his followers, and the events of Autumn 2006 represent a development of his movement on the 50th anniversary of its inception.
One reason for the current interest in Buddhism is the success of those who became Buddhists in the past. 72.7% have a basic education compared with the national average of 52.21% and the community is increasingly confident, self reliant and free from negative social norms. The new Buddhists refuse to work within the ritually polluting and ritually duties traditionally associated with their caste, such as handling dead bodies: a strategy that works when people are able to find alternative employment outside the village. However, even if new Buddhists are successful in joining ritually more or less neutral professions, they are looked down.
It is hard to overstate the continuing importance of Dr Ambedkar - Babasaheb to his followers – within this community. He is seen as a ‘bodhisattva’ – a compassionate being on the path to Enlightenment and revered second only to the Buddha. Statues and pictures of Dr Ambedkar are seen everywhere in New Buddhist communities, where people greet one another with “Jai Bhim”, meaning, ‘Victory to Bhimrao Ambedkar’. Invocations of Dr Ambedkar are even added to traditional Buddhist chants and rituals.
Dr Ambedkar died only six weeks after his conversion in Nagpur and the Buddhist movement lost momentum at a crucial point in its history. Conversion ceremonies in other major Indian cities that were planned to follow the Nagpur event failed to take place. Following his death, the Ambedkarite movement was divisided and lacked direction, and there were few Buddhist teahcers to educate the millions of followers in the new faith.
Nonetheless, a substantial Buddhist movement has grown up. Its focus is the central Indian state of Maharashtra, and Nagpur is its heart. This is where Dr. Ambedkar took initiation on October 14 1956 along with his 380,000 followers. Other significant New Buddhist communities are found in Madya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Andra Pradesh. For details of the conversion ceremony in Hydrabad, AP, on 14th October see the previous post. Further large ceremonies are planned in Karnataka, Bihar, Kerala, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Gujarat, Orissa, and Rajasthan.
In Maharashtra, the conversion movement has been largely confined to the Mahar sub-caste, to which Dr Ambedkar himself belonged. Now it is spreading to other Maharashtrian communities. A confederation of 40 tribal communities, numbering at least hal-a-million are embracing Buddhism (see http://ambedkar2006.blogspot.com/2006_10_04_ambedkar2006_archive.html), and many members of the Matung sub-caste are doing the same.
Conversion ceremonies are regular occurrences, prompting anti-Buddhist measures by some state governments (see http://www.buddhistchannel.tv/index.php?id=42,3191,0,0,1,0 for details of such measures in Gujarat). But Dr Ambedkar’s movement is at last coming of age, as Saddhananda Fulzele, who organised the 1956 Nagpur ceremony and for many years has been the Chairman of Nagpur’s Dr Ambedkar College, told me this week, ‘Fifty years is not a long time in the history of a religious movement.’ Dr Ambedkar’s prestige continues to grow 50 years after his death, his works are being translated into regional languages, many young people are discovering his work for the first time, and there is increasing interaction with Buddhists from outside India. ‘Dr Ambedkar is more powerful dead than alive,’ Fulzele commented.
At a time of deep disillusionment with political solutions to India’s problems, the true contribution of Dr Ambedkar, who framed the country’s constitution, is becoming clearer. Through his political achievements and the foundation of the Buddhist conversion movement he offered a path for India’s lower classes that contains great depth that is deeply in sympathy with the teachings of Buddhism. Large sections of India’s 200 million ‘scheduled castes’ (i.e. those considered untouchable under Hinduism), and many members of the 500 million lower (or ‘depressed’ castes, are now looking seriously at Dr Ambedkar and considering following his example by adopting the Buddhist faith.
Information from Jambudvipa Trust
The event will take place at Dr. Ambedkar Statue on the Tank Bund: the spiritual center for Hydrabad’s Ambedkarites. Every year a very large gathering marks the anniversary of Dr Ambedkar’s conversion on 14 October; this year Murthi expects 3-400,000 to attend with 100,000 converting for the first time. Many similar ceremonies will take place around India on the same date, but this will probably be the largest conversion ceremony. The wave of conversions will culminate in a much larger ceremony in Bombay on 16 December.
Presiding over the ceremony will be Ven. Hsing Yun President of the Buddha Light organization, which is based in Taiwan and has 120 centers around the world. The presence of a senior figure in Chinese Buddhism is a significant development for the conversion movement, which has mainly made connections with the Theravadin Buddhism of South East Asia and Sri Lanka. Ven.Hsing Yun will administer the Buddhist refuges in Chinese (the ceremony through which one becomes a Buddhist) and the Ven.Vinayarakkhitha will translate them into Telugu, the local language.
Murthy, who was born in a small village a day’s journey from Hydrabad but has become a prominent spokesman for his community will be becoming a Buddhist himself on that day. He has prepared by studying works on Buddhism including Dr Ambedkar’s book, ‘The Buddha and Dhamma and taking up meditation. He comments:
‘The dalits situation is still dismal. No political party is committed to making them equal partners in building modern India and though huge sums are said to devoted to their welfare, in reality the money is going down the drain. Untouchability continues to be practiced in the villages and even senior officers from our community encounter discrimination. ‘Though we feel that conversion can't eradicate all of these problems we do believe that it can lead us to a better future in the form of Buddhist practice. I feel my whole life started to change when I first leant vipassana meditation and now that is my path of service to humanity.’
Wednesday, October 04, 2006
In a special ceremony at Diksabhumi in Nagpur yesterday morning, Mane took the three Buddhist refuges along with 140 leaders of tribal communities from across Maharashtra. Following the ceremony they held a planning session in which they agreed to extend the conversion programme to the other members of their communities, who number at least 500,000. From 16 November to 16 December the leaders will hold a ‘rally’ – a grand procession across the state – that will culminate in a great ‘diksa’ or conversion meeting in Bombay. Dr Ambedkar had planned a second ceremony on this date in 1956, two months after the Nagpur event. Mane told me that he expects to see 500,000 people from this community becoming Buddhists at the Bombay event. They will be joined by many others, including those who are already Buddhists and new converts from other communities.
When I met him just before he left Nagpur, Mane - a short, solidly built man with an air of sturdy determination – told me of the inspiration he and his fellow converts had gained through the ceremony.
‘My companions left the ceremony different people from the ones who had started it. They were filled with a new inspiration and confidence. We held a planning meeting straight away, and the atmosphere was different from any we had experienced before, full of hope and determination. It was a sudden, dramatic shift. For myself, I felt a new sense of freedom.’
Like Europe’s gypsies, the nomadic and criminal groups follow a rootless life, constantly on the move, begging their food or foraging for scraps. The criminal castes survive by scavenging and stealing - that’s why the British outlawed them in 1871. But 135 years later their lifestyle continues: outside the law and on the edges of society. Many have been gathered together into compounds supported by the barest amenities. ‘These are like ghettos or concentration camps,’ Mane said.
Nomadic and criminal tribals fail to register in government statistics because they are homeless so, even though India is becoming more prosperous, they are many welfare programmes miss them out. For this reason, no one knows the numbers of criminal and nomadic tribals for sure, but a typical estimate is that in Maharashtra alone they number 8 million people, or around five percent of the population. Extrapolating that to India as a whole suggests a figure of around sixty million people living in this community.
Laksman Mane was born into the Kaikadi thieving caste: their assigned role in society is to steal, and this way of life is reinforced by pressure from other members of the community: if they don’t bring back stolen food or goods their families will beat them. Meanwhile, even those who do not steal are likely to be blamed whenever a robbery takes place, and the group regularly suffer beatings at the hands of the police. For many years Mane has urged his fellows to abandon ‘thievery.’
His family were also nomads, and he grew up traveling from place to place: an upbringing described in his celebrated autobiographical novel ‘Upra’. I asked Mane how he had gained an education and he told me: ‘I went to school - hundreds of schools. We moved on every few days, but wherever we went I was determined to get schooling. Some teachers accepted me into their class, others did not.’
Grabbing the chance to study when he could while working in numerous jobs, Mane eventually won a place at a College and gained a BA: an extraordinary achievement for a member of this community where only 0.6% can read or write. ‘Upra’ was published in 1981 and since then he has written sixteen further books, all concerned with the plight of his people.
The decision to embrace Buddhism was long pondered and was inspired by several factors. He insisted that he and his followers were not leaving Hinduism. ‘I was born into the tribal system, not the caste system or Hinduism. In our system there is no caste: we are not even ‘untouchables’. In our system we don’t believe in karma, punya (merit) or reincarnation, and we don’t worship the Hindu Gods.’ Worship in the tribal communities is directed towards ancestors.
Mane continued: ‘The tribal system is like the Buddhist system. We travel from place to place, like the monks, who the Buddha told not to stay in one place for more than three nights. Like them, we live between the village and the country.’ The tribals often dwell in squalid hutments on the edge of the villages, very different from the tree-root existence of wandering monks, who received food from the villagers. But the parallel is evocative and itextends to the attitude to property: ‘In our community we share everything. If one person gains food or money they share it with everyone else. All of us are equal: there is no social status among us and men and women are equal.’
Mane is deeply inspired by Dr Ambedkar. ‘Babasaheb [the name by which Ambedkar’s followers address their leader] gave us our rights. He is the father of the nation who framed the constitution that treats us as human beings. The problem is that those in power fail to enforce the constitution. In fact we are treated like animals.’ These tribal groups lack the most basic elements of citizenship because they are homeless, not registered with the authorities and sometimes cast as criminals. Because they do not vote, India’s politicians have been able to ignore them with impunity.
Mane was active in radical political groups such as the Dalit Panthers, but he discovered he Ambedkar’s work and became a follower in 1970. Since 1980 he has been an activist and organizer within the community. ‘I have started many social programmes, been elected to the State Assembly and mounted protests in the Assembly, but everyone ignored me.’
In adopting Buddhism, Mane has made common cause with other followers of Dr Ambedkar. ‘For many years I was a one-man army, but now that has changed. The dalit ‘untouchables’ are our elder brothers and I want to join with them. The country doesn’t accept these people, but I feel today that I have joined the mainstream. I want my people to have their just share in power, property and social standing. Dr Ambedkar said that these things should be redistributed, but peacefully - not using violence as the communists suggest.’
Observers will inevitably ask whether the conversion is genuine or if it is merely a political expedient. In India religion is a matter of identity as much – or even more - than a matter of belief, and in adopting an identity that asserts human dignity, these tribal peoples are plotting way forward that can open out from social change to spiritual change as well. I asked Mane if he wanted to see Buddhist teaching among his followers, so they understood the faith they were adopting. He replied:
‘My people need to move away from superstition and harmful livelihood such as stealing. But our main priorities are two: housing and education. Housing comes first because without a stable base nothing else is possible. Education can follow if we have houses, and I believe that in ten years we will achieve this. My programme is for 100,000 new houses: two for every village in Maharashtra; now that we have organized ourselves and taken diksa the government is paying attention in a way it has never done before. Buddhist teaching can follow – it will follow, but for now we need help, and we look to our elder brothers in Maharashtra, to Buddhists around the world, and to the foreign governments and NGOs. But today I am filled with new life and hope for the future.’
Monday, October 02, 2006
Standing in the huge crowd, looking down on it from a neighbouring building, and joining the throng that processed through the stupa – or huge temple – that dominates the site, I was deeply moved by the power of the occasion. Many of those attending had walked for days or traveled across India to be there; their faces as they entered the stupa were intent, serious and filled with devotion for their revered hero, Dr Ambedkar; and there was a palpable sense that history was being made. For the last fifty years since Dr Ambedkar converted himself the movement he started has been dominated by people born into the Maharashtra dalit sub-caste, the Mahars. Now the movement is being embraced by large numbers from other caste backgrounds and from across India. A number of conversion ceremonies took place today that included representatives of such communities: these were the first steps in a wave of conversions that will be taking place over the next few weeks.
This morning several hundred members of the tribal communities led by the writer, Lakshman Mane, embraced Buddhism in a ceremony at Dhiksabhumi. Mane’s followers number in the millions and in the coming weeks there will be at least half-a-million further conversions from this group, and up to five or six million. I will be meeting Laksman Mane tomorrow and will have more information as well as comment by him in tomorrow’s blog.
The tribals have a similar status under the Hindu caste system to those considered ‘untouchable’, now referred to as Dalits. Across India there are around 50 million tribals and this is the first large-scale mass conversion of tribals to Buddhism.
In a ceremony this morning at Nagaloka, the center on the Nagur outskirts where I have been staying, 200 men and women from Tamil-Nadu became Buddhists in a ceremony led by Dhammachari Vivekaratna. They had traveled across India to attend, and will return to initiate the conversions of tens of thousands of others in their native state. They are led by a remarkable woman called P. Lalida who I will be meeting in the next few days – I’ll post a report.
Also this morning, Dhammachari Subhuti conducted a ceremony in Nagpur for 50 representatives of the Matang sub-caste. This community accounts for many of the non-Mahar Dalits in Maharashtra. Over the next six weeks there will be conversion ceremonies for 50,000 Matangs across the central Indian state.
Conversion in Buddhism involves ‘Taking Refuge’ by reciting verses expressing commitment to the central ideals of Buddhism. These are symbolized by the Buddha – the historical teacher of Buddhism and the ideal of enlightenment which he represents; the Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha and the truth they describe; and the Sangha – the community of Buddhists, especially those who have gained realization of his teachings. This is followed by reciting verses expressing an undertaking to follow the five ethical precepts. These are abstention from taking life, from taking that which is not freely given; from sexual misconduct; from speaking untruthfully and from taking intoxicants. Dr Ambedkar also asked his followers to endorse the commitments expressed in his 22 vows. These can be found listed on http://www.ambedkar.org/.
For the few days before the big event in Nagpur, I have been attending a conference for Buddhists from around the world at Nagaloka, a large and well-equipped centre on the outskirts of Nagpur. 150 monks, activists, Ambedkarites and other Buddhists have gathered in advance of the diksa (conversion) on Monday. It is a little incongruous to be in such secluded surroundings while there is such ferment around us, but the event is a powerful convergence of ideas on the relevance of Buddhism to society in India, East Asia and the West. Attendees included Christopher Queen of Harvard University - the leading western scholar of the Ambedkarite movement.
The keynote talk was by Subhuti, a leading member of the Western Buddhist Order who argued that Dr Ambedkar, the great dalit politician activist and thinker who started the conversion movement 50 years ago, is an important figure for all Buddhists who has made a unique contribution to the tradition. He declared: ‘I now consider myself a follower of Dr Ambedkar.’
Dr Ambedkar’s unique contribution was to bring together a Buddhist perspective with his deep understanding of Indian society and his passionate opposition to oppression. Subhuti commented that Dr Ambedkar realized that ‘caste is a state of mind, and what the mind can create the mind can undo.’ Caste is still very much alive, especially in the Indian villages and those at the bottom of the caste system still suffer violence and persecution every day.
Dr Ambedkar decided at the end of his life to adopt Buddhism and to encourage his followers to do so as well for three reasons, Subhuti said. Firstly, conversion could help ‘uplift the oppressed’. Although Dr Ambedkar had drafted the Indian constitution, which made India a secular democracy, its implementation was dependent on people. ‘The constitution is a palace that is built for gods but occupied by devils.’ He believed that society rests on notions of human identity. The Dalits needed to step outside the system that defined their identity in oppressive terms, and Buddhism was the best alternative because it supports a view of the purpose of society is as the cultivation of the minds of individuals.
In Maharashtra, the central Indian state that was the main center of conversions in 1956. The Buddhists of the Mahar sub-caste have advanced socially much faster than those ‘ex-Untouchable’ communities who have not adopted Buddhism.
Secondly, Dr Ambedkar saw Buddhism as offering a basis for a just society. He believed that democracy requires an attitude of respect for one’s fellow citizens, and this requires that they have a moral sense. Theistic religion, he believed, subordinates man to God, while he saw Buddhism as training people in ethical responsibility and changes underlying attitudes. Buddhist ethics is based in an understanding of he mind and the teaching that actions have consequences.
Thirdly, Dr Ambedkar chose Buddhism for ‘reasons spiritual.’ He felt a lifelong spiritual yearning, realized that this was commonly shared, and discovered that Buddhism addressed his desire to find deeper fulfillment in his inner life.
Subhuti concluded his talk with a call for a response from the wider Buddhist world to Dr Ambedkar’s appeal for help in enabling the new converts to practice Buddhism effectively. ‘Buddhism is in decline around the world, but in India it is being embraced with a sense of passionate urgency.’ However, this requires that Asian Buddhists overcome exclusive identification with their own tradition and see themselves first and foremost as ‘just Buddhists’.