The Great Escape

Vishvapani travels across India to witness thousands of the nation’s underclass take refuge in a new form of Buddhism and break free from the oppressive caste system.


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Above: One million dalit Buddhists gather at Dikshabhumi in Maharashtra, India on October 2, 2006.

LALIDA IS A slightly-built woman, but she has the determined bearing of a revolutionary. On October 2, 2006, with two hundred other activists from Tamil Nadu in Southern India, she has come to Nagaloka, a Buddhist training center in the city of Nagpur--in the central Indian state of Maharashtra--to take a step they believe will spur radical social change: conversion to Buddhism. Reciting the ancient vows of commitment to the ideals and precepts of Buddhism, they stumble over unfamiliar Pali words: “I go for refuge to the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha.” Then come words in their native Tamil, and suddenly the group is reciting an additional twenty-two vows with intense conviction. Some vows enjoin commitment to Buddhism, while others fiercely reject the faith into which they were born: “I renounce Hinduism, which is harmful for humanity and impedes the advancement and development of humanity because it is based on inequality, and adopt Buddhism as my religion.” The vows culminate in a passionate expression of commitment: “I believe that I am having a rebirth.”

The Tamils’ fervor and their repudiation of Hinduism seem far from the equanimity that is generally associated with Buddhism, but members of Lalida’s community have a distinct perspective. They call themselves dalits, or “the oppressed,” but under the Hindu caste system they are “untouchables,” and their very presence is considered ritually polluting. For centuries their only work has been in “unclean” occupations like digging latrines and graves, and even though overt caste discrimination was outlawed after Indian independence in 1947, discrimination and violence continue and dalits remain much poorer and less educated than caste Hindus. Casteism is reminiscent of racism, but it goes deeper. Caste springs from religion, and that is why Lalida, following a path already taken by twenty million dalits, is seeking a religious solution in Buddhism.

Since 1956 dalits have been embracing Buddhism in these mass conversion ceremonies, and the Buddhist movement has become well established in Maharashtra. Now, the fiftieth anniversary of the first conversions has prompted a new wave that is taking Buddhism to dalits and similar communities well beyond Maharashtra, and this phenomenon raises many compelling questions for Buddhists. How meaningful can it be to adopt Buddhism en masse, rather than as an individual decision? Is conversion merely a political expedient, or does it have some relation to the path to enlightenment? And conversely, does the message of social change hold lessons for other Buddhists?

Ambedkar photo on shrineON THE DAY OF Lalida’s conversion (she chose to drop her surname upon conversion), I joined a crowd of a million dalit Buddhists at a large piece of land in central Nagpur called Dikshabhumi—the place of diksha, or conversion—where the movement started. Although little-known even in India, this annual gathering is one of the world’s great pilgrimages: all day a great stream of people flooded into the grounds, many of whom had walked for days or traveled across India. Dikshabhumi is dominated by a huge stupa--a Buddhist ritual structure--and I joined the procession passing through the temple in its base. The pilgrims’ faces became intent, serious, and filled with devotion as we entered the temple and passed the urn containing the ashes of the movement’s iconic leader, Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar.

Dr. Ambedkar led the first mass conversion at Dikshabhumi, adopting Buddhism alongside 380,000 followers on October 14, 1956. He was born an untouchable, but his education was sponsored by reform-minded patrons, and--surviving the hostility of high-caste classmates—Ambedkar won scholarships to Columbia University, where he became the first dalit to gain a Ph.D., and the London School of Economics. Returning to India, he became the undisputed leader of the dalits, whom he represented in the run-up to independence. As India’s first law minister, he was the chief architect of the constitution that has underpinned the country’s survival as a billion-strong secular democracy, guaranteeing equal rights, setting affirmative-action reservations for outcaste communities in education, parliament, and government employment, and outlawing many caste practices. These achievements established Dr. Ambedkar as the dalits’ revered hero--they call him Babasaheb (“beloved father”), Bodhisattva Ambedkar, and even “our savior.”

Ambedkar is a problematic figure for Westerners who look to Asia for an alternative to our rational, materialist culture, because he himself looked to Western modernity as a refuge from the traditional Hindu worldview that perpetuated the caste system. His business-suited image could not be further from that of his contemporary and sometime foe, Mahatma Gandhi--a high-caste lawyer with a Western education who used traditional dress to dramatize his association with classic Indian values. Gandhi claimed these values to be superior, but Ambedkar identified them with superstition and inequality and wore Western clothes to dramatize a rejection of traditional India.

To understand Ambedkar’s rejection of Hinduism and his espousal of Buddhism, one must appreciate the depth of caste consciousness in India. The worst effect, Ambedkar believed, was the dalits’ internalization of the belief that they were impure; his radical insight—which broke with an ancient worldview—was that they could turn that notion on its head by rejecting the Hindu account of their position and choosing their own identity. In 1936, Ambedkar declared: “Although I was born a Hindu, I will not die a Hindu.” He also believed that religion was essential to human well-being, and--having rejected Marxism for its violence and materialism--he embarked on a study of the world faiths, seeking one that was in accordance with science, one that recognized the fundamental values of liberty, equality, and fraternity, and that did not sanctify poverty. He rejected the “foreign” traditions of Christianity and Islam for their theism and supernaturalism, and turned instead to Buddhism, which was born in India but had died out there centuries before despite its proliferation throughout the rest of Asia.

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