This special award was voted on by an international round table of more than 200 religious leaders from every part of the spiritual spectrum. It was fascinating to note that many religious leaders voted for Buddhism rather than their own religion although Buddhists actually make up a tiny minority of ICARUS membership. Here are the comments by four voting members:
Jonna Hult, Director of Research for ICARUS said It wasn’t a surprise to me that Buddhism won Best Religion in the World, because we could find literally not one single instance of a war fought in the name of Buddhism, in contrast to every other religion that seems to keep a gun in the closet just in case God makes a mistake. We were hard pressed to even find a Buddhist that had ever been in an army. These people practice what they preach to an extent we simply could not document with any other spiritual tradition.
A Catholic Priest, Father Ted O’Shaughnessy said fromBelfast , As much as I love the Catholic Church, it has always bothered me to no end that we preach love in our scripture yet then claim to know God’s will when it comes to killing other humans. For that reason, I did have to cast my vote for the Buddhists.
A Muslim Cleric Tal Bin Wassad agreed from Pakistanvia his translator. While I am a devout Muslim, I can see how much anger and bloodshed is channeled into religious expression rather than dealt with on a personal level. The Buddhists have that figured out. Bin Wassad, the ICARUS voting member for Pakistan ‘s Muslim community continued, In fact, some of my best friends are Buddhist.
And Rabbi Shmuel Wasserstein said from Jerusalem, Of course, I love Judaism, and I think it’s the greatest religion in the world. But to be honest, I’ve been practicing Vipassana meditation every day before minyan (daily Jewish prayer) since 1993. So I get it.
However, there was one snag – ICARUS couldn’t find anyone to give the award to. All the Buddhists they called kept saying they didn’t want the award.
When asked why the Burmese Buddhist community refused the award, Buddhist monk Bhante Ghurata Hanta said from Burma , We are grateful for the acknowledgement, but we give this award to all humanity, for Buddha nature lies within each of us. Groehlichen went on to say We’re going to keep calling around until we find a Buddhist who will accept it. We’ll let you know when we do.
Rebelling against their baggage of birth, Dalits across India are converting from Hinduism to better their lives. Do they achieve their dreams? The answer is not simple.
About 30 kilometres from Jhajjar and exactly 20 days after five Dalits there were killed for “supposedly skinning a live cow”, a dark Diwali noon this week saw seething Dalit anger burn its bonds with Hinduism. Under a leafless tree in Haryana’s Meham district, 90-odd men, women and children took angry vows never to worship Hindu gods, perform Hindu rituals, celebrate Hindu festivals.
They were converting to Buddhism, they said, in the hope that they will better their lives. “You value cows more than us, make us rake your latrines, never forget we are lower-caste even if we become president,” fulminated Ajit Dhaiya, a fortysomething irrigation department worker who had come from Bhiwani to attend the conversion ceremony. “You can keep your religion and your cows, we are off.”
The vigorous shaving of heads, lighting of incense sticks, and parroted chants—”We shall never worship Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwar; we shall never think of the Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu”—before a dull brass idol of a new god seemed less a pledge to be Buddhist and more a rejection of Hinduism. Till, Meham labourer-painter Satbir Budh, 38, spoke of his seven years of being a Buddhist convert: “From being known as a Chamaar, I am now called a Buddh. From being barred entry in the village temple, I am an annual pilgrim at Buddh Vihar at Nagpur’s Dikshabhumi; I was an outcast all my life, I belong now.”
To belong, to connect, not to be persecuted (or even killed) for being born “untouchable”, all of it is possible in this lifetime. But possible, a growing number amongst Dalits are saying, only by discarding Hinduism, the faith that weighs them weak with the baggage of birth. This rejection of their inherited faith occurs sometimes in quiet private ceremonies, at other times as loud political protests. Like the mass Dalit conversions that happened in Gurgaon in Haryana 14 days after the Jhajjar lynchings on October 15.
Or like the spurt of conversions Dalit outfits foresee occurring in protest against the new bill in Tamil Nadu that proposes to prohibit “conversion from one (religion) to another by use of force or allurement or fraudulent means”. But beyond the drama of such conversion politics, of religious propaganda and protest, are stories of people who have changed their faith to change their fate. To salvage self-respect and grab upward mobility outside the Hindu hierarchy. How have they fared on their chosen new paths?
“Becoming Buddhist made me realise that like others with good health and intellect, I too could achieve my potential,” says Keshav Tanaji Meshram, 65, one among the six lakh Dalits who turned Buddhist in the historic 1956 conversion rally held by Babasaheb Ambedkar. “Dalits were in intellectual bondage, believing we should be happy with whatever we received. But conversions have made no difference in the way upper-caste Hindus look at us.” A retired professor and acting head of the Marathi department in Mumbai University for two years, Meshram claims a Brahmin vice-chancellor held back his promotion despite the fact that he had authored 32 books: “I was told I didn’t have a doctorate but so
didn’t many other department heads. My caste was the main reason.” Adds Om Prakash Singhmar, 49, a junior engineer with the Delhi Development Authority who converted to Buddhism two years ago, “Most continue to look down on me as a Dalit, even though I have converted.” But the changes are internal, he insists: “I feel less frustration now, more equal.
I am convinced that my children, who have started identifying themselves as Buddhists in all school forms, will reap the benefits of my conversion.”
Academic insight corroborates Singhmar’s belief. Says Gopal Guru, professor of political science at Delhi University, “Conversion is an ongoing process, that’s why in the beginning it will seem incomplete.Tangible benefits and changes accrue over time.” Activist fervour takes the point further. Says Udit Raj, India’s new “conversion messiah” and chairperson of the All India Confederation of SC/ST Organisations, “Dalits convert because they know its benefits. And even if there weren’t any benefits, they should anyway reject a religion that has people killing Dalits to protect a cow.”
All conversions, though, are not knee-jerk reactions to the latest caste atrocity nor the result of cynical manipulation by politicians. The Dalits of Meenakshipuram in Tamil Nadu discussed conversion for seven years before quitting Hinduism to free themselves from the practices of untouchability and police harassment. In 1981, 150 Dalit families in this sleepy hamlet in Tirunelveli district embraced Islam. Meenakshipuram was now Rahmat Nagar. Murugesan, now 45, was rechristened Amir Ali, little knowing that his name connoted wealth. He says he counts his blessings and monetary gains: “Caste Hindus stopped calling us dirty caste names. They had to call me Amir bhai. The wealth too came. I’ve been to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia three times, worked in the harbour there. All Muslims there ate from the same plate. I was no longer untouchable. Had I remained a Pallan (a Dalit sub-community), I’d have continued to drink tea from separate glasses kept for untouchables.” Ahmed Khan, two years old when the mass conversion happened, is a role model for the village youth today. At 23, he has already done a three-year stint in Dubai: “In the last 15 years, every Muslim family here has had two-three members working in the Gulf.”
Thousands of miles away, Delhi-based Trilok Singh, 30, loves to hear of Meenakshipuram’s affluence. It reaffirms his belief in the decision he took to convert to Christianity five years ago. A Jatav, Trilok lived in a Delhi slum cluster till a leap of faith taught him lessons in upward mobility. “I have learned manners after my conversion,” says he. “We always had a TV, vcr and fridge. But being treated as an equal in society has taught me how to put them in the right place in my house, so they look beautiful.” The first thing Trilok did after he converted was to move out of the slum and invest in a small flat in Vasundhara in Ghaziabad. He then married Anita Silas, a parishioner in the church he went to every Sunday. The couple now have two daughters, the eldest going to a neighbouring playschool. “My decision not to remain a Dalit has changed my life,” says Trilok.
But this tale has more twists than many others. Caste wheedles its way into most religions in India. Categories like Dalit Christians, Reddy Christians, Nadar Christians continue to matter. Syrian Christians are known to call themselves “originally Brahmin”. Moreover, there is discrimination even within the church: in Tamil Nadu’s Tiruchirapalli and Palayamkottai districts, there are separate pews and burial grounds for Dalit Christians. The nine-judge Supreme Court ruling in the Mandal case in 1993 recognised caste in Christianity. And Islam too has its hierarchies, like the Ashrafi Muslims and the Ajlafi (literally servile) Muslims.
“There are inequalities in other religions but not even near as stark as in Hinduism,” says Delhi-based advocate Rashid Saleem Adil, 57, who was Ram Singh Vidyarthi two decades ago. How else could a high-brow Syed family agree to give its daughter to him in marriage despite the fact that he never hid being a Dalit convert? They were certainly more tolerant than his first wife’s Hindu relatives, who, he claims, “schemed, plotted and poisoned” him when he converted. “I can only say this to Hindutva devotees,” he says, “if you think it’s hard being a Muslim convert, try living life as a born Dalit.”
However, dilemmas do plague decisions to convert.Dalits who turn to Islam or Christianity today risk losing the many privileges of reservations. Hence the appeal of Buddhism, since V.P. Singh ensured in 1990 that neo-Buddhists would not lose out on reservations. So why should a Dalit who has converted to another religion that doesn’t believe in caste still enjoy caste-based reservations? Says Prakash Ambedkar, grandson of Babasaheb and an MP since 1990 from Akola, “Because they hail from backward castes and are economically poor. Also, no matter what religion you adopt, your caste remains a reality.” Spokespersons of the Hindu establishment would call this a case of having your cake and eating it too, while the converts would call this their inalienable economic right.
There was a time, though, when there were no reservations, and when such quantifiable risk factors didn’t hold back those who wanted to renounce Hinduism to escape caste. From being an almost entirely marginalised community of toddy-tappers and coir-weavers who were not allowed into caste-Hindu temples and whose women were not supposed to cover their breasts, the Nadars of Tamil Nadu gained immense social and economic mobility by embracing Christianity in hordes. It began in the 1780s, when the Nadars had everything to gain and nothing to lose, certainly not reservations. There was repression though; houses of neo-converts were often set afire by the upper castes. “But missionary education and self-respect was something we gained,” says David Packiamuthu, a retired English professor and a Nadar Christian, And two centuries later, the community has thrown up achievers like former Tamil Nadu chief minister K. Kamaraj, super-cop Walter Thevaram, tennis icon Vijay Amritraj and Shiv Nadar, founder of the hcl group of companies. Significantly, all successful Nadars (like Kamaraj and Shiv) are not Christians. The mass conversions helped the upward mobility of even the non-converts. In other words, the threat of conversion itself is a powerful social accelerator.
But that’s in the long run. In the present, observe many critically, neo-converts seem to be grasping for meaning in their new belief systems. The late-fortyish Durgawati of Kaji-Newada village on the Jaunpur-Lucknow highway in Uttar Pradesh converted to Christianity three years ago. “They said it would change my life, but I was still treated as an outcast for being a Christian,” she says. Then came a monk, and she converted to Buddhism. But other than the belief that her chronic ailments have been cured by the Buddha, Durgawati isn’t sure what else has changed in her life.
Namdeo Dhasal, 53, founder of the Dalit Panthers, ironically pens a weekly column in the Shiv Sena mouthpiece Saamna now. His house brims with festive decorations and traditional food on Diwali. But these, he says, are only manifestations of the “cultural influences” of his Hindu neighbourhood. Because he is actually a Buddhist, “though I never formally converted to Buddhism, and in any case conversion is a misnomer as Hindus never saw us as Hindus but outcasts”. Though many Dalits are converting, adding to the contradictions is the fact that Article 25 of the Constitution lists Buddhists as Hindus. Neo-Buddhists also have few religious or cultural occasions to celebrate and feel a sense of community. Shanta Devi Wagh, a shopkeeper in Delhi’s Bhim Nagar slum, isn’t quite sure what she is supposed to do as a Buddhist convert: “We have to celebrate three days: April 14, December 6 and October 14 (Ambedkar’s birth, death and conversion days).” But she is certain of what not being a Dalit any more means to her: “My soul feels peace.”
Not all neo-converts, though, are too bothered by the burden of a new identity. In Rahmat Nagar, most neo-Muslims do not wear a fez cap, not one woman is burqa-clad, and for the men it certainly does not mean multiple marriages.”Even namaz is something they read only on Fridays,” says Dameem-ul-Ansari, hazrat at the mosque. But the Dalit-Muslims here have had no difficulty marrying among and socialising with ‘traditional’ Muslims from other villages.
And for those who still feel that Dalits like Durgawati convert to just about any religion that lures them with sham spiritualism, affected adoration and material motives, Professor Meshram recites a Hindi film golden oldie: “Pal bhar ke liye koi humein pyar kar le, jhoota hi sahi.” Roughly translated: “Let someone love me for just a moment, even if it’s a pretence…” There is surely a message here for all belonging to a faith which insists that God resides in every object, whether living or inanimate.
By Soma Wadhwa And S. Anand With Charubala Annuncio and Sutapa Mukerjee @ outlook magazine
|NOV 18, 2002|
Venerable Dr .H. Saddhatissa
I have always been proud of the small contribution that I have made to the revival of Buddhism in India pioneered by great leader like Anagarika Dharmapala and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. I first met Dr. Ambedkar the great Buddhist leader, the greatest emancipator of Untouchables eminent Indian leader
who rendered historic service to his motherland as an educator, as a scholar and as statesman, liberator of then down – trodden millions of Indians and reformers of Indian society. In 1940 when i was staying in New Delhi as head of the Buddha vihara. He called on me primarily to discuss the administration of sangha according to the vinayapitaka his intention was to draft the new Indian constitution along the lines set out in this discipline for the Buddhist monks. Out of this encounter, Dr. Ambedkar gradually displayed a deeper appreciation of the Buddha and his teaching. During out talks he revealed to me his desire to change his religion, and to encourage his followers to do likewise, in order to become free form the restrictions of the Hindu caste system. Dr. Ambedkar had, so he admitted, considered becoming a Muslim or Buddhism in view of its universal appeal. In the course of our discussion encouraged him in this last move pointing out to him the fact that not only was Buddhism native to India but that the so-called ‘untouchables’ were originally Buddhists who had been ostracized by later, ascendant Hindu rulers and Brahmin teachers. Years later, in 1950, with the assistance of the mahabodhi society of India, i organized a Buddhist procession on the full moon day of the month of Vesak (May) in New Delhi. Thousands, including the followers of Dr. Ambedkar, participated in what was the first such demonstration of popular religious fervour since the eclipse of Buddhism in India. This procession peacefully terminated at the Ambedkar bhavan premises where a packed gathering then took place in the presence of numerous admires of Buddhism and foreign ambassadors. Therefore, on the following day, a significant and historic meeting was held in New Delhi’s Buddha vihara at which no less than 101 Indian graduates formally embraced Buddhism by talking of the five precepts from me in the presence of Dr.Ambedkar. It was these pioneers who organized the famous mass conversion (diksa) at Nagpur on the 14th October 1956 where Dr. Ambedkar himself, together with half million of his followers, became Buddhist. At the instance of Dr. Ambedkar i then gave my historic speech to the vast assembly (vide the mahabodhi journal, Calcutta, November 1956, under the heading: a new chapter begins in the history of modern India). In 1950 the world fellowship of Buddhist was inaugurated in Colombo and i acted as a representative from India. Dr. Ambedkar also attended as an observer and expressed deep interest in seeing Buddhist practises in the island at first hand. To this end i arranged a tour which included a visit to Anuradhapura, an ancient city of Ceylon. Having said that he would like to hear a traditional sermon from a Buddhist monk, i asked the late venerable M siri silakkandha, head of abhayasinharama vihara, Colombo, to oblige. Dr. Ambedkar was highly pleased with sermon given at isurumuni vihara, Anuradhapura. We then visited most of the historical sites in Ceylon at the end of his Stay he became convinced of the wisdom of formally accepting the Buddha Dhamma as his guide for life Dr. Ambedkar ‘s determined crusade to transform his followers in to Buddhism was crowned with success.
Dr. Ambedkar will surely be most remembered for his untiring struggle to liberate his socially depressed community. He was a man who refused to succumb to the temptation of leading an easy life in high position .By his unceasing effort,courage and noble example. Dr Ambedkar has carved for himself a permanent place in the history of modem India. May his noble actions and shining examples long inspire the progressive development of Bharat!!
By Kalinga Seneviratne
NAGPUR – Over 50 years ago, the author of India‘s constitution, B R Ambedkar, set in motion a Buddhist socio-political movement which many believe is now ready to fructify through Mayawati, chief minister of northern Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state.
Both Ambedkar and Mayawati, who goes by one name, come from India’s so-called “untouchable” caste, better known as Dalits (the broken people).
It was in this central Indian city that Ambedkar converted to Buddhism, along with a million of his followers on October 14,
1956. Mayawati has not publicly disclosed her religious beliefs, but as a follower of Ambedkar, Buddhists expect her to make his dream come true – that of obtaining for Dalit Buddhists the right to be treated as equal citizens in the land of the Buddha.
Mayawati, who figures in the Forbes magazine’s list of 100 most powerful women in the world, has already declared her ambition of becoming India’s prime minister and is expected to make her bid in general elections due in the first half of this year.
“We were converted into Buddhists in 1956, but we still face a lot of discrimination, injustice and violence,” said Devidas Ghodeshwar, talking to Inter Press Service in front of the impressive Deekshabhoomi Stupa built here to mark the site of Ambedkar’s historic conversion, along with thousands of his followers.
The monument is built after the famous Sanchi stupa built in the third century by emperor Ashoka who renounced Hinduism to become a Buddhist. Thereafter, Buddhism flourished in India until the seventh century when it went into a slow but steady decline, mostly owing to a powerful Hindu revival.
Even as Buddhism spread to Tibet, the Far East and Southeast Asia, its followers in India suffered persecution.
However, Buddhism has continued to haunt India through the remains of impressive stupas and monasteries, sculptural art, and through its many philosophical concepts and teachings, such as non-violence. Other than Dalits (also called neo-Buddhists), sizeable communities of Buddhists continue to hold out in the Himalayan marches of the modern day states of Uttarakhand,Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh where they were pushed by advancing Hinduism.
In contemporary India, while attacks by Hindu militant groups on the minority Muslim and Christian communities have drawn the attention of the Indian and international media, atrocities on Buddhists go unreported, mostly because they fall into the lowest rungs of the caste ladder.
In September 2006, a family of Buddhist Dalits – 45-year-old Surekha Bhotmange, her 18-year-old daughter Priyanka, sons Roshan and Sudhir – was lynched by an upper caste mob in Khairlanji about 30 kilometers from here.
On October 24, 2008, eight people were convicted for the massacre and six of them given the death sentence. But Ghodeshwar says that was a rare instance of justice catching up on such atrocities perpetrated by upper caste Hindu fanatics.
Over the past few years, however, Buddhists have been quietly building up a political base from which to fight caste-driven discrimination. Their hopes have been raised by the rising political fortunes of Mayawati and her Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) which claims support from the poor and deprived in every caste and religious community.
Many Buddhists believe that her political movement – which in many ways resembles US president-elect Barack Obama’s successful grassroots initiative – could propel her to the prime ministership of India this year, at the head of a grand coalition of the poor and deprived.
“There’s a good number of Buddhist members of parliament and in Uttar Pradesh and [western] Maharashtra states there’s a vibrant Buddhist movement,” says Dhamma Viriyo Mahathera, spiritualdirector of the All Indian Bhikku Sangha.
“Mayawati is working for all the people. So now, Muslims and Brahmins, day by day, accept that the Buddhists are the people of this country. They are good hearted and they can rule this country well,” added the monk, himself a former member of parliament.
In this central Indian city of over 2 million people over 60% are believed to be Buddhists – though most live in squalid and crowded neighborhoods.
One problem for the Buddhists is that the Hindu establishment does not accept the fact of their conversions or even that Buddhism is a separate faith system. Officially, less than 1% of 1 billion Indians are listed as Buddhist, but most people agree that the majority of the 200 million Dalits of India follow the Buddhist faith.
“We have converted but still the Hindus aren’t accepting that we have been converted and they don’t understand that we belong to a separate group now. They refer to the Buddha as the ninth incarnation of the Hindu deity Vishnu and do not see Buddhism as a separate religion,” said Ghodeshwar.
“We are seen as part and parcel of Hinduism and this is also linked to our oppression and discrimination as Dalits,”Ghodeshwar added.
Yet, there is a palpable air of confidence among Buddhists here. Though they talk with bitterness about their treatment at the hands of high caste Hindus, they are also hopeful that change is on the way.
In the suburb of Kamla, a predominantly Buddhist community on the outskirts of Nagpur, a community leader introduced to IPS many Dalits who are lawyers, teachers, engineers and accountants.
Sadanand Fulzele, secretary of the Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Smarak Samiti [founded to perpetuate the leader’s memory], agrees that Buddhist Dalits are now more confident than they were before. “I was myself converted to Buddhism along with Babasaheb Ambedkar,” he told IPS. “Prior to conversion, those who were known as untouchables had an inferiority complex. But now, they feel they are no less than anybody. That’s a great change.”
Yet, Buddhist communities, like the one in Kamla, rarely have a resident monk or a community temple. This is in contrast to most Buddhist countries where monks are housed and supported in monasteries or temples, because they are not allowed to earn a living.
“Buddhist communities here are still very poor,” explains Fulzele, “We can’t build huge monasteries like in Burma [Myanmar], SriLanka or Thailand, where they follow centuries-old Buddhist traditions. We only converted 50 years ago”.
Viriyo Mahathera is critical of Buddhist countries and organizations that contribute money to build grand temples in Buddhist pilgrimage sites across India such as Bodhgaya – the place of Buddha’s enlightenment – but do not contribute to the benefit of Buddhists in India.
The monk, who resides in Bodhgaya, eastern Bihar state, says that while the provincial government has drawn up a master plan to attract investments from rich Asian Buddhist countries to develop the area, it has not associated Indian Buddhists with the plan.
“There should be a Bodhgaya development board where 50% of members can be drawn from the (Indian) Buddhist community,” he argues. “Monks and Buddhist people can then take active part in the development of Bodhgaya and create a Buddhist environment there”.
Sulekhatai Kumbhare, a former minister in the state government of Maharashtra and a Buddhist leader here, argues that the number of Buddhists in India is not large enough to affect political changes. ”We need to get the support of other communities. But Hindus think that because we left their religion we cannot be friends,” she says.
(Inter Press Service)