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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Nomads and Thieves turn to the Buddha

Lakshman ManeONE GROUP THAT can claim to fall below even the untouchables are the fifty million members of India’s “nomadic and criminal tribes.” Like Europe’s gypsies, they follow a rootless existence, on the edges of society, constantly traveling and begging food or foraging for scraps. The criminal castes survive by stealing.

Because they are homeless, these groups fail to register in government statistics, so they miss out on welfare programs and cannot vote--generations of politicians have ignored them with impunity. Many have been gathered into compounds supported by the barest amenities. “These are like ghettos or concentration camps,” their leader, the writer and activist Lakshman Mane, told me.

In a ceremony at Dikshabhumi on October 1, Mane became a Buddhist, along with 140 tribal leaders from the state of Maharashtra. When we met two days after his conversion, he told me, “We left the ceremony different people from the ones who had started it, filled with inspiration and confidence. It was a sudden, dramatic shift.” In a monthlong tour, these leaders will rally their community to a grand conversion meeting in Bombay, where at least five hundred thousand will become Buddhists. Mane, a short, solidly built man with an air of sturdy determination, was born into a thieving caste and grew up traveling from place to place, an upbringing described in his autobiographical novel Upara. I asked how he had gained an education. “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.” Mane eventually won a place at a college and gained a B.A.--an extraordinary achievement in a community with 0.6 percent literacy. Since publishing Upara in 1981, he has written sixteen other books highlighting his people’s plight.

Mane does not see becoming a Buddhist as conversion. “I was born into the tribal system, not Hinduism. We have no caste; we are not even untouchables. We don’t believe in karma or reincarnation, and don’t worship Hindu gods. The tribal system is like Buddhism. We travel from place to place, like Buddhist monks, and live between the village and the country. We share everything; if one person gains food or money, they share it with everyone else. There is no social status, and men and women are equal.”

Mane turned from revolutionary politics when he discovered Dr. Ambedkar. “Babasaheb gave us our rights when he framed the constitution that treats us as human beings. The problem is that those in power still treat us like animals.” In adopting Buddhism, Mane has made common cause with other Ambedkarites. “The dalits are our elder brothers, and I want to join with them. I want my people to have their just share in power, property, and social standing.

“My people need to move away from superstition and harmful livelihoods like stealing. But our main priorities are housing and education. Housing comes first, because without a stable base nothing else is possible. Now that we have organized ourselves and taken diksha, the government is paying attention in a way it has never done before. Buddhist teaching will follow, but for now we need help, and we look to our elder brothers in Maharashtra, to Buddhists around the world, and to foreign governments and NGOs. But today I am filled with new life and hope for the future.”

Image: Lakshman Mane © Milind Shakya

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