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Buddhism took another step towards reintroducing itself to its birthplace last Sunday when Dalit leader and writer Laxman Mane led one of India’s famed “mass conversions.” These controversial events, in which thousands or even hundreds of thousands of low-caste or Dalit Indians take refuge formally in the Dharma, have been drawing more and more attention as they gradually spread through the low-caste population of the subcontintent. Of course, this is India, so nothing is apolitical: immediately after taking refuge, the new converts take twenty-two additional vows, including one stating that the convert “renounce[s] Hinduism, which is harmful for humanity and impedes the advancement and development of humanity because it is based on inequality, and adopt[s] Buddhism as [his/her] religion.” While organizers predicted a turnout of approximately 100,000 new converts, uninvolved sources put the attendance at closer to 50,000, including those who had already converted.
The event was designed to roughly coincide with and invoke the 50th anniversary of Dalit leader Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s 1956 conversion to Buddhism, undertaken along with approximately 380,000 of his followers. While the attendance may not have met the swollen figures predicted by the movement’s organizers, there is no doubt that Buddhism is rapidly changing the face of the Dalit community in India, and that the reverse is also taking place, as established Buddhism is forced to deal with the influx of new converts, many of whom are influenced by Dr. Ambedkar’s unorthodox view of Buddhism as primarily a method of social liberation. For these Dalits, Buddhism is not just a metaphysical refuge from the pain of modern life in the West, as it is for many Buddhists of European origin, but rather a very real refuge from unbelievably discriminatory treatment that has persisted for hundreds of years. Embracing the Dharma allows these communities to break free of the cycle of suffering and mistreatment that they have endured: and yet, these new converts bring new ideas and new approaches that may make some within the pre-existing Buddhist community uneasy. Frequent shouts of “Jai Bhim!” (“Victory to Ambedkar!”) rang out at the conversion, which was organized by local Maharashtran Dalit leader Ramdas Athawale, lending a political tone to an already politically-charged event.
Some Indian states have passed laws against mass conversions, although they were forced to amend them to include Buddhism and Jainism as branches of Hinduism after group pressure came down on India’s nationalist party, the BJP, which is responsible for much of the anti-conversion sentiment in India. These Hindu nationalists hold that Dalit conversions have historically done little to change the real conditions of their lives, and that caste status carries over regardless of changes in religion. The real solution to the problem that they refer to as that of the “backwards castes” or, somewhat patronizingly, the “Harijans” (Children of Vishnu), is one of education and fund allocation, they would have it. As Lalit Kumar, spokeswoman for a Hindu nationalist welfare association in Andhara Pradesh, put it: “Dalits should concentrate on illiteracy and poverty rather than looking for new religions. In fact we think that there are very few differences between Buddhism and Hinduism.” One can only wonder what B. Veeraiah, who fled his Hyderabad-area village after being tied to his mother and beaten all night by a higher-caste neighbor for allowing his goat to wander, would say to this argument. His mother did not survive the beating, and in the morning, Veeraiah managed to free himself from his bonds and left his village for good, converting to Buddhism last year during the celebrations that occurred on the exact 50th anniversary of Ambedkar’s conversion, October 14th, 2006. While no one can say for sure what changes this influx of new converts will bring, the fact that Buddhism is reemerging in its homeland after a lull of almost 1500 years is sure to bring flux and uncertainty into the already decentralized and chaotic world Sangha.
-Evan Sholle, Editorial Assistant