May 29, 2007

More Dalit Mass Conversions

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

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Khawatein Voice's picture

Read about the plight of Muslim women in India and elsewhere... a comprehensive blog on Muslim women - the true dalits denied human rights... visit "Khawatein Voice" by Haseena Khatun, a Muslim woman married to a Hindu, http://www.khawatein.blogspot.com

Zakir Sheriff's picture

Islam would have been a better choice for Ambedkar as it suits the objectives of the dalit movement. However there was one thing which made Ambedkar choose against the well established Christian and Muslim faiths and made him choose Buddhism. Had Ambedkar embraced islam we would not even have known his name. His identity would have been lost in the ulema as in Islam the all is submissve to Allah. It was a clever ploy by Ambedkar to choose Buddhism. Since it was born out of Ambedkar's self aggrandizement, this move of Ambedkar cost a lot to the Dalits. Dalits can never be empowered by Buddhism because buddhism is just an ethical system and not a religion at all and is in a lot many ways similar to hinduism and Jainism. It is only Islam that can provide the framework for the struggle of the dalits against oppression. Had Ambedkar converted to Islam, Dalits would have been empowered long ago.

Vagbhatta's picture

Ambedkar's buddhism is the very anti-thesis of the actual Buddhism taught by Gautama the Buddha and his enlightened followers in the different traditions.

The unequivocal first premise of Buddhism that can be explicitly deciphered from the tripitaka pali canons and the later scriptures in the theravada and mahayana traditions is that hatred can never be conquered by hatred and the end do not justify means. This is the unique message of the Buddha. Ambedkar buddhism is highly steeped in hatred, revenge and victim conciousness. Ambedkar's buddhism is much closer to marxist interpretation of relgion with the substitution of class with caste than with Buddhism. Ambedkar literature is rife with hate speech, machiavellian politiking and sectarian propoganda to garner power than with genuine concern and compassion for the weak and suffering.

The next myth perpetuated by Ambedkar and his followers is that the Buddha never beleived in the Law of Karma. The law of karma is the cornerstone of Buddhism as can be evidenced from the traditional buddhist literature and also through the current living traditional teaachings in the different schools of buddhism in china, thailand, Sri lanka, tibet, japan, korea and many others.

The third myth perpetuated by Ambedkar and his followers is that Buddhism was a social movement against Brahmins. Indeed Buddha condemned the rituals, practices of discrimination in any form and the caste system. However majority of the buddha's disciples were from the Brahmin Clergy as they were more exposed to the theological discourses of the times and were the first people to accept and follow the Buddha. Also among the later Buddhist masters we find many Brahmins like Nagarjuna, Naropa, Saraha, TIlopa and many others. Esentially Brahmin was a caste of the clergy and the theologicians and Buddhists were the Monks and Nuns. The people who were drawn into the fold were brahmins, kshatryias and many other castes. Read also the 'Canto of the brahmin' from the Dhammapada, wherin the buddha extols the ideals of a Brahmin and also condems the false practices of purported Brahminism. Infact the lifestyle and rituals of so called Brahminical yogis, vedantis, Jains and some other sects have an overbearing similarity with the buddhist asceticism. Note also the respect, awe and reverence that Buddha is held in the ancient and modern yogic, vedantic and tantric traditions of Hinduism.

The fourth myth is that 'hinduism' or the culture of indians at that time which worshipped such gods as indra, brahma, shiva were antithetical to the Buddha's teachings. Infact the Buddhist worldview and cosmology is quite similar to the popular traditions of vedas, yoga, sankya except for finer technical details which can be no subject for political discourse but rather belongs to the realm of ontology. This can be evidened in places where buddhism was exported from India like in Thailand, Burma, Sri Lanka, China and Japan. They have a host of 'hindu' gods, myths, stories which is also part of the buddhist package.

The essence of buddhism is social transformation through individual transformation by trancending the conditioning imposed by soceity like caste, class, creed, nationality, ethnic identities and so on. Ambedkar's Buddhism just reinforces conditionings to a far greater extent and can be no means of liberation to either the followers or the ones who are targetted by them. In a nutshell the Buddhism of Ambedkar is a sham.

upliftthem's picture

To Mr.Evan Sholle and All the World's Buddhists,

This article "more mass dalit conversion" was written by the editorial assistant of the tricyle magazine is very timely but unintentional conceptualization errors are many that would have been avoided.

First, no buddhist or a buddhist organization will refer a group of humans as Low caste or higher caste, I wish you will correct this error. Dalits in India do not believe in the varna or caste system, which teaches all men are not equal. So, the dilapidated caste system put them outside the remianing social system as outcastes. We dalits do not believe the hindu gods, nor we believe in myths and unscientific practices, this is where dalits come close to Buddhas way of looking at the world and Budda's way of life. So, they are the original Buddhists, who were tortured and sabbotaged by invaders of India and the Hindu's, it happened three thousand years ago and it is happeing right now in this 21st century.

Let us stop using the world low caste, either refer them as dalits, or Ambedkarites or ecomomically weaker section of India. They are converting to buddhism to relieve the agony, mental torture, the mythical life and the meaningless varna practicies and to live the middle way of life. Why should it bring any new issues or disturbances to Sangha, it rather makes the Sangha and Buddhist organization more stronger with more dalits coming home back. They are not seeking any new religion, stop saying this, an hindu can say such thing, not a buddhist or a editorial assistant who work for tricyle. It is rather painful to read some of your phrases.

Who is Lalit Kumar anyways, and what is his contribution to uplif this society must be seriously questioned?, such people are part of the hindu society to sabbotage the progress and peaceful lives of dalits.

For those people like Lalit Kumar who rise slogans like "dalits should concentrate on this and that" they lack insights, they will never understand the inner truth and power of conversion, and we have obligation to explain them as a neighbor or a fellow citizen would do. Those who make such pompous statements never do any help to dalits, they never got involved in any social upliftment, then how and why does it matter to listen to them.

While the very human rights and individual rights are perturbed in Indian society throughout the existence of one’s life, the mental torture can take them to grave yard sooner than their normal expectancy, in such circumstances, getting out of such a barbaric system can supremely help them to clean up the mind, reorganize their thoughts, rejuvenate their lives better by following the truthful and acceptable way of life that is Buddhism, so dalits follow their master and savior Dr.B.R.Ambedkar who embraced and lived life by following the way of the master of life Lord Buddha.

Everything comes next, if you loose your inner peace, tranquility and passion to live, no food or education will do any good to you.

First mental stability then everything else, this is where converting to Buddhism makes a lifetime meaning to an individual or a group or a section of the society. Hindu's have no ability to understand this and never will be, as their wisdom is shut up in ignorance of Rama, Krishna and Varna.

hope the editorial assitant will show some concern in using right way of describing people and their conversion events. The Sangha must wellcome the dalits with both hands, it is Dr.B.R.Ambedkar who revied the Buddhism in this century, it started during 1950s and it will continue until all the dalits to convert to Buddhism.

jaiBheem,
Dr.Muni

Conversion at Blogbharti's picture

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