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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Dalit Buddhists

Such sincerity can be set against the natural suspicion of many outside observers that Ambedkarite Buddhism is a proxy for dalit social advancement and hatred of Hinduism. By no means are all Ambedkarite Buddhists as serious as Lalida. In Hyderabad, in the southeastern state of Andhra Pradesh, I attended a farcical rally that was billed as a gathering of three hundred thousand, including one hundred thousand new converts. It started badly when the stage collapsed beneath the assembled dignitaries, and it quickly became clear that the numbers attending would be closer to a thousand. The meeting had been hijacked by a local politician who inflated the anticipated numbers and alienated local Buddhists by involving right-wing Hindu politicians. This fractious, chaotic, hyperbolic side of Ambedkarism is rife in Maharashtra, too, and has led to some skepticism among outsiders.

My roommate at Nagaloka was Christopher Queen, an ebullient man who teaches religion and engaged Buddhism at Harvard and seems to know everyone in the Ambedkarite world. After the Nagaloka diksha ceremony he articulated another concern: “What do they mean, 'All India will become Buddhist'? The new converts will continue to live in a land of Hindus, Muslims, and all the rest. Ambedkar refocused Buddhist teachings to empower dalits. But he also persuaded the Hindu majority to adopt a constitution that outlawed untouchability.” Queen added that he believes Ambedkarites should drop the extra vows that forbid Hindu beliefs and practices. “They need to say what they are for - the traditional refuges and precepts - and leave Hinduism out of it. Why incite the Hindu nationalists all over again?”

When I put this to Ambedkarites, they answered that they do oppose Hinduism and caste practice but that they do not hate Hindus personally, and the vows ensure that the meaning of becoming a Buddhist is clear. A BBC journalist I met in Hyderabad was incredulous that a mass conversion ceremony could change centuries-old customs. My dalit friends insisted that however incredible it may seem, this really does happen. The vows ensure clarity; a more fundamental reason, however, is that the new converts were never wholly part of Hinduism, which barred them from its temples--dalit village gods are often protector spirits rather than Hindu deities. Their real faith--often quite amazing in its intensity--is in Dr. Ambedkar, and for most, engagement with Buddhism is an extension of that devotion.

LalidaAS AN INTELLECTUAL AND POLITICIAN, Ambedkar is far from the image of Indian religious teachers favored by Westerners, but perhaps he is better seen as a prophet than a saint, fired by moral outrage and social vision. Ambedkar’s Buddhism challenges the view that Buddhism teaches an inner personal development that remains apart from the world’s struggles. His thought combines the social and individual realms through the conviction that lasting change can only spring from individual moral development and peaceful collective action. Conversely, Ambedkar believed that a meaningful human life requires not withdrawal but fuller engagement with others. This vision of spiritual life as a struggle to change oneself and the world is a bracing alternative to the quietist, introspective approach more popular in the West.

If one considers the community’s poverty and lack of education, the movement’s politicization and lack of spiritual depth is hardly surprising. But as Professor Fulzele commented, “Fifty years is a short time in the history of any religious movement,” and Ambedkarite Buddhism may only now be starting to fulfill its potential. Dalit Buddhists have made considerable material progress, and many have taken up formal dharma practice. The current wave of conversions marks a considerable expansion in the movement’s scope. It is hard to estimate how many will adopt Buddhism in this current wave of conversions, but the number is certainly in the tens of thousands and will probably reach hundreds of thousands. Many of the new convertees are leaders in their own dalit communities and they plan to spread the word of Ambedkar’s Buddhism in villages and slums across India, where little is known about Ambedkar or the movement he spawned.

To witness how Buddhism is affecting India’s rural heartlands, I left the world of Buddhist activists, politics, and movements, and traveled to the remote central Indian state of Chhattisgarh to join a dharma teaching tour of dalit villages led by Subhuti, an English member of the Western Buddhist Order. In contrast to the modernizing India that I saw in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu, Chhattisgarh is barely out of the Middle Ages. One afternoon we stopped our jeep beside a water hole, where buffalo lay neck-deep in the water, to garland a statue of Ambedkar that stood incongruously in a lush green field. Then we drove to a village of roughly built mud-walled huts. The entire village was there to meet us: 150 people clustered together by a lake filled with lotuses. Their faces expressed pleasure, mixed with incredulity that anyone should trouble to speak with them.

Most of the audience were Satnamis, a community of four million followers of the “true name” sect, an anticaste devotional movement teaching that social differences disappear in the face of Truth. Its eighteenth-century founder, Guru Ghasidas, rejected so many Hindu beliefs that his followers regard their tradition as independent and increasingly connect it with Buddhism. As a schoolteacher from the village told me, “Both teach equality and oppose caste. We love Guru Ghasidas, but the Satnami way has not helped our people out of suffering. Babasaheb Ambedkar has helped, so we have faith in him. Buddhism shows how to live a good life, so now we have faith in the Buddha.”

Throughout my trip I heard such simple, heartfelt professions of faith, strongly connected with an agenda of social change. When Saddhananda Fulzele described the 1956 conversion, he told me, “I cannot describe what I felt that day--I do not have the words in English--but it was as if our lives started anew. After so many centuries, people who had been treated as slaves and outcasts came to know that we are no less than anyone else. That was a great change, and what we gained was confidence in ourselves.”

In Chhattisgarh, the crowds chanted Ghasidas’s words “All humans are equal,” a simple slogan that challenges millennia of discrimination. A Chhattisghari singer accompanied our tour, transforming the dharma talks into poetry, which he recited in an emphatic, strongly-rhymed verse like Jamaican dub, and then he sang them in a vibrant, modulated harmony, swaying as the audience nodded with pleasure. Traditionally preachers here would recite verses from the Hindu classic the Ramayana, but many have turned against the text’s caste teachings. They have composed new works--their own epics--using the same forms: a Buddhayana, recounting the life of the Buddha, and a Bhimayana, telling the life of “Bhim” Ambedkar. Such cultural transformations demonstrate that for the new converts, Buddhism is far more than a new label. They are creating a new religious tradition, a new form of Buddha-dharma that grows from new myths and addresses their deepest needs and aspirations.

Vishvapani is a freelance writer living in Cardiff, UK. His latest book is Challenging Times: Stories of Buddhist Practice When Things Get Tough (Windhorse Publications).

Photographs by Milind Shakya

Images: Top to bottom: photo of Dr. Ambedkar in the shrine at the Nagaloka Buddhist training center in Nagpur, Maharashtra; Ambedkar statue at Nagaloka; dalit Buddhists attend a retreat outside Nagpur in October 2006; Lalida, a dalit activist and recent Buddhist convert

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