Monday, October 02, 2006

Monday 2nd October Celebration of the Anniversary and new conversions in Nagpur

Today in Nagpur Diksabhumi – the vast piece of land in the center of the city where Dr Ambedkar adopted Buddhism with millions of his followers in 1956 – was thronged with millions of dalit and other Buddhists as well as representatives of other communities involved in the new wave of conversions that is taking place across India over the next few weeks. I watched as a great incessant stream of people flooded into the ground all day long – while another stream headed in the other direction. When the numbers involved are so vast one can only guess at their true extent, but conservative estimates before the event were that a million people would attend, more likely two million, and there may well have been many more.

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

Dr Ambedkar and the Modern World

A talk by Subhuti at the Conference on Dr Ambedkar and the Modern World, Nagaloka

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’.