Choosing Their Religion: Dalits Conversion to Buddhism


Dalits Conversion to Buddhism

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.

“I never formally converted to Buddhism. Conversion anyway is a misnomer as Hindus never saw us as Hindus, but outcasts.”—Namdeo Dhasal, founder, Dalit Panthers

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.

“Conversion is an ongoing process, that’s why in the beginning it will seem incomplete. Tangible benefits accrue over time.”—Gopal Guru, Delhi University professor

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.

“Even if you convert, caste remains a reality.”—P. Ambedkar, Babasaheb’s grandson

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

My Association with Dr.Ambedkar: Venerable Dr .H. Saddhatissa


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!!

Crtsy: bhimpatrika

Why Was Nagpur Chosen?


From: Prabuddh Bharat, 27 October 1956, pp. 5-12, 18. Translated from the Marathi by Rekha Damle and Eleanor Zelliot, August-September 1964. This previously unpublished translation was provided by Eleanor Zelliot for this website. She wants readers to be aware that Dr. Ambedkar was very ill at the time he made this speech, and was to die within two months.

Edited by Frances W. Pritchett. Editing has generally been limited to adding section numbers and correcting minor typographical errors. Annotations within square brackets are those of Damle and Zelliot. Italicized remarks in parentheses are descriptive phrases inserted by the Marathi newspaper account. The translation of the Pali passage in Section 37 was provided by Prof. Indira Peterson.

Why Was Nagpur Chosen?

In Nagpur, after leaving the Hindu rerligion and accepting Buddhism on 14th October 1956, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, on the morning of 15th October, 1956, made an explanatory, spirited, inspirational, and historic speech, which is given below in its entirety.

*1== All Buddhists and guests:* — *2 == Why was Nagpur chosen?* — *3 == The Nag People’s “Nag”-pur* — *4 == The opponents’ useless cry* — *5 == The propaganda at that time inKesari* — *6 ==  The profits of dead animals’ hide, horns, hooves* — *7 == “You remove the dead cattle and take the profit!”* — *8 == “Become Mahars and get reserved seats!”* — *9 == Honor is dear, profit is not dear* — *10 == Leave aside childishness; be mature* — *11 == We will certainly get our rights again* — *12 == Delivered from hell* — *13 == Karl Marx’s sect and we* — *14 == Buffalo, bull, and man* — *15 == The origin of energy [utsah] is a cultured mind* — *16 == I put on a langoti and got my education* — *17 == Hindu, Mussalman, and we* — *18 == Men sitting on the pinnacle of the palace* — *19 == A thousand years of hopeless conditions* — *20 == Chaturvarna, Gandhi, and bad religion* — *21 == If we were allowed to use arms…* — *22 == Progress will come only through the Buddhist religion* — *23 == Buddha’s message on equality* — *24 == Mine is a great responsibility* — *25 ==As Mahar Buddhists, don’t defame us* — *26 == Religion is necessary for the poor* — *27 == What does the history of the Christian religion tell?* — *28 == The world respects only the Buddha* — *29 == Our way is the way of the Buddha* — *30 == Milinda and Nagasena* — *31 == Three reasons for religious decline* — *32 == The only generous religion* — *33 == The work of Buddhism is to lessen the suffering of the poor* — *34 == My brothers’ work* — *35 == The burden on your head* — *36 == Regenerate yourself and the world* — *37 == Make a decision to give a twentieth part of your earnings*

1 == All Buddhists and guests:
Thoughtful people perhaps may find it difficult to accept the order [literally place: stan] of the Buddhist conversion ceremony taken and given on this spot yesterday and this morning. In their opinion, and in mine also, yesterday’s program should have been today, and today’s yesterday. It is necessary to inquire: why have we taken this work on ourselves? What is the necessity? What will come from it? Only if we gain understanding will the foundation of our work be strong. We should have gained this understanding before the act itself. But some things simply happen spontaneously. This ceremony, it is true, has happened as we desired. Therefore changing the day doesn’t really spoil anything.

2 == Why was Nagpur chosen?
Many people ask me why Nagpur was decided upon for this work. Why didn’t the conversion take place in some other city? Some people say that because the great batallion of the R.S.S. was here in Nagpur, we took the meeting to this city in order to lay them flat. This is completely untrue. This program was not brought here to Nagpur because of that. Our work is so great that even one minute in a lifetime cannot be wasted. I don’t have enough time to make an ill omen for others by scratching my nose!

3 == The Nag People’s “Nag”-pur
The reason for choosing this city is different. Those who read Buddhist history will come to know that in India, if anyone spread Buddhism, it was the Nag people. The Nag people were fearful enemies of the Aryans. A Fierce and fighting war went on between the Aryans and non-Aryans. Examples of the harassment of the Nags by the Aryan people are found in the Puranas. Agasti Muni helped only one Nag man to escape from that. We spring from that man. Those Nag people who endured so much suffering wanted some great man to raise them up. They met that great man in Gautam Buddha. The Nag people spread the teaching of Buagwan Buddha all over India. Thus we are like Nag people.It seems that the Nag people lived chiefly in Nagpur and the surrounding country. So they call this city Nagpur, meaning city of Nags. About 27 miles from here the Nag Nadi river flows. Of course the name of the river comes from the people living here. In the middle of the Nag habitation runs the Nag Nadi. This is the main reason for choosing this place. Nagpur was chosen because of this. In this matter, there is no question of a lie to provoke someone. This is not such a mental twist. The reason of the R.S.S. did not even come into my mind, and no one should take that explanation as true.

4 == The opponents’ useless cry
Perhaps one could oppose [this choice] for other reasons. I have not chosen this place just out of opposition, I tell you. This work that I began was criticized by various people and newspapers. The criticism of some people is hard. In their opinion, I was leading my poor helpless Untouchable people astray. They say, “Today those who are Untouchables will remain Untouchables, and those rights gained for the Untouchables will be destroyed,” and some people among us are bewildered. To the unlearned people among us, they say, “Go by the traditional path” [pagdandi(Hindi), “footpath,” suggests that the Mahars should use an inferior path]. On some of the old and young among us, they may be influential. If doubt has been created in the minds of people because of this, it is our duty to remove that doubt; and to turn back that doubt is to strengthen the foundation of our movement.

5 == The propaganda at that time in Kesari
Earlier we people had had a movement against eating meat. The touchables thought a bolt of lightning had hit them. They should drink living buffalo’s milk; but, when that buffalo died, we should carry that dead cow on our shoulders. Wasn’t this a strange practice? We tell them, if your old woman died, then why not give her to us? If you ought to give us your dead cow, then you ought to give us your old woman also, shouldn’t you? At that time, some man wrote in Kesari that in certain villages every year fifty cattle die, so that five hundred rupees can be earned from their hide, horns, hooves, meat, bones, and tail. Leaving aside the matter of meat, these people will be deprived of all that profit, so the letter appeared in Kesari. Really speaking, what was the necessity of giving an answer to his propaganda? But our people used to feel that if our lord [Babasaheb] does not give an answer to this thing, then what does the lord do at all?

6 ==  The profits of dead animals’ hide, horns, hooves
Once I went to a meeting at Sangamner. An arrangement for eating in the evening after the meeting had been made. At that time a note was sent me by a Kesari reporter, and he asked me, “Say, you tell your people not to remove dead cattle [from the village]! Look at their poverty. No sari and blouse for their wives, no food for them, no fields for them. When their circumstances are so difficult, why do you say, throw away the 500-rupee profit every year from hide, hoof, and meat? Is this not a loss for your people?”

7 == “You remove the dead cattle and take the profit!”
I said: We will answer you. Shall I answer here on the veranda, or in a meeting? It is good if this critical question comes before people. I asked the gentleman, “Is this all you have to say, or is there more?” The gentleman said, “Whatever I have asked you, answer that much.” I asked that man, “How many children and dependents do you have”? He said, “I have five sons and my brother has five or six children children also.” I said, “Then your family is large. You and your relations should certainly remove the dead cattle from the village and get that 500-rupee profit. Besides that, every year I myself will give you 500 rupees on top of that. Whatever will become of my people, whether they will get food and clothing or not, this is my affair and I will look after it. But are you putting aside such a successful thing? Why do you not take it on? If we do the work and get the profit, won’t there be a profit if you do it? Why don’t you remove the dead cattle?”

8 == “Become Mahars and get reserved seats!”
Yesterday a Brahmin boy came to me and asked, “In Parliament and the Assemblies, your people have been given reserved places. Why are you giving those up?” I said to him, “You become a Mahar and fill that place in Parliament and the Assemblies. If there is a service vacant, then that place fills in no time. How many applications from Brahmins and others come for that place! As places in service are filled in that way, why don’t you Brahmin people, as Mahars, fill those reserved seats?”

9 == Honor is dear, profit is not dear
If we have suffered a loss, why do you weep? This is my question to them.Truly it means honor is dear to mankind; profit is not dear. A woman of good qualities and good behavior knows that there is profit in prostitution. There is a locality of prostitutes in our Bombay. When those women get up at eight in the morning, they order breakfast from a nearby hotel and say (Dr. Ambedkar at this time, giving an imitiation in a different voice, said): “Suleman, you bring a pound of bread and a plate of  minced meat.” That Suleman brings it. Besides, he brings tea, bread, cake, and other things. But my depressed-class sisters do not even get ordinary chutney-bhakri. However, they live with dignity. They live piously.

10 == Leave aside childishness; be mature
We are fighting for honor. We are getting ready to lead mankind to perfection. For this, we are ready to do any sacrifice necessary. These newspaper people (turning toward them) have pestered me for the last forty years.How much criticism have they given me, even up to this day! I say to them, however: Think! Today, leave aside immature speech; use mature speech.

11 == We will certainly get our rights again
If we accept Buddhism, even then I will get political rights. I am absolutely sure of this (Cries of “Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar” and loud clapping). I cannot say what will happen on my death. Much important work must be done for this movement. What will happen because we have accepted Buddhism? If difficulties come, then how can they be removed? What strategy, what preparations should be made? –To all this I have given much thought. My bag of tricks is full of all kinds of things. How it got to be full, I know very well. I myself got those rights for my people. The one who got those rights in the first place will be able to get them again. I myself am the giver of those rights and concessions, and I will get those concessions again, I am sure. At least for the present, you should continue to have faith in me. I will prove that there is no truth in the opposing propaganda.

12 == Delivered from hell
I am surprised at only one thing. Much discussion has been going on everywhere. But not even one man has asked me, “Why did you accept Buddhism?” Putting aside all other religions, why was this religion accepted? In any movement to change religion, this is the main question. When one makes a change of religion, one has to test: which religion [should we take]? Why should we take it? The movement to leave the Hindu religion was taken in hand by us in 1955, when a resolution was made in Yeola. “Even though I was born in the Hindu religion, I will not die in the Hindu religion” –this oath I made earlier; yesterday I proved it true. I am happy; I am ecstatic! I have left hell –this is how I feel. I do not want any blind followers. Those who come into the Buddhist religion should come with understanding; they should consciously accept that religion.

13 == Karl Marx’s sect and we
Religion is a very necessary thing for the progress of mankind. I know that a sect has appeared because of the writings of Karl Marx. According to their creed, religion means nothing at all. Religion is not important to them. They get a breakfast in the morning of bread, cream, butter, chicken legs, etc.; they get undisturbed sleep; they get to see movies; and that’s all there is. This is their philosophy. I am not of that opinion. My father was poor, and therefore we did not get comforts of that kind. No one has ever lived a life as hard as mine! How hard a man’s life can be without happiness and comforts, that I know. I agree that an economic elevation movement is necessary. I am not against that movement. Man must progress economically.

14 == Buffalo, bull, and man
But I note an important difference in this matter. There is a difference between buffalo, bull, and man. Buffalo and bull must have fodder daily. Man also must have food. But between the two the difference is this: the buffalo and bull have no mind; man has, along with his body, a mind. Both have to be cared for. The mind should be developed. The mind should become cultured, and that culture has to be developed. I want no sort of relationships with people from a country where it is said that there is no connection between man and his cultured mind except for his body. I do not need any such relationship. Just as a man’s body should be healthy, the mind also should be cultured.

15 == The origin of energy [utsah] is a cultured mind
Why is there illness in man’s body or mind? The reasons are, either there is bodily pain, or there is no energy in the mind. If there is no energy in the mind, then there will be no progress! Why is there no energy there? The first reason is this: man is kept down in such a fashion that he does not get an opportunity to come up, or he has no hope of climbing. At that time, can he be ambitious? He is a diseased person. A man who gets the fruit of his own work will be energetic. Otherwise, in school, if the teacher begins to say, “Hey, who is this? Is this a Mahar? And will this wretched Mahar pass with a first class? Why does he want first class? Stay in your fourth class! To get into first class is Brahmins’ work!” –in these circumstances, how can that child be ambitious? What will be his progress? The place of creation of energy is the mind. The person whose body and mind are healthy, who is courageous, who feels that he will overcome all circumstances, in that kind of person energy will be created, and that kind of person alone excels. In the Hindu religion, such an extraordinary philosophy is found in the writings that one can’t get any sense of possible achievement at all. If a man is left for a thousand years in poor circumstances, discarded, made hopeless, then at the most they will have no more ambition than to fill their stomachs with a minor job. What else can happen? There must be a big clerk to secure the protection of these little clerks.

16 == I put on a langoti and got my education
Man’s spirit is created in the mind. You know the owner of the mill. He appoints a manager over the mill, and through the manager the work in the mill gets done. These mill owners have a few bad habits. The culture of their minds has not been developed. We had to think actively with our minds, so we started a movement. At that time education was started. I put on a langoti [the scantiest possible Indian garment] and began my education. In school I did not even get drinking water. How many days dragged by without water! Also in Bombay, even at Elphinstone College, conditions were the same. If the atmosphere is like this, how will different conditions be created? Only clerks will be created.

17 == Hindu, Mussalman, and we
When I was on the Executive Council at Delhi, Lord Linlithgow was Viceroy. I told him, “You spend the normal budget, and in addition you pay three lakhs of rupees for Aligarh University for education for the Moslems.” Then Linlithgow said, “Write out a memo about that and bring it in.” Accordingly, I wrote a memorandum. That memorandum is still with me. European people were very sympathetic. They accepted what I said. But the hitch was that they didn’t know what to spend the money on. They thought, our girls are not educated: education should be given to them, their boarding should be arranged, and the money should be spent on that. But if our girls were to be educated and taught to cook different foods, where at home was the material to make those same dishes? What was the end result of their education? The government spent the proper amounts on other things, but the amount for education was not spent.

18 == Men sitting on the pinnacle of the palace
So I went one day to Linlithgow and said, concerning the expense of education, “If you will not get angry, I want to ask a question. I am equal to fifty [high school] graduates, am I not?” He had to agree to that. Then I asked, “What is the reason?” He said, “I don’t know the reason.” I said, “My learning is so great that I could sit on the pinnacle of the palace. I want such men. Because– from the top, one can survey everything. If our people are to be protected, then such sharp-eyed, able men should be created. What can a mere clerk do?” Immediately my words convinced Linlithgow, and that year sixteen students were sent to England for higher education. If those sixteen, some came out raw and some mature, just as some water jugs are half-baked and some are finished… leave aside the consequences. Later Rajagopalacarya cancelled this plan for higher education.

19 == A thousand years of hopeless conditions
In this country, the situation is such that we can be kept in a hopeless state for a thousand years. As long as such conditions prevail, it is not possible to begin to produce ambition to progress. We have not been able to do anything about it by staying in the Hindu religion. The Chaturvarna is found in Manusmriti. The hierarchy of the Chaturvarna is very dangerous for the progress of mankind. It is written in the Manusmriti that Shudras should do only menial services. Why should they have education? The Brahmin should get education, the Kshatriya should take up arms, the Vaishya should do business, the Shudra should serve– who can disrupt this precise arrangement? There is profit in it for the people of the Brahmin, Kshatriya, and Vaishya castes. What of the Shudra? Can any ambition develop in the lower castes? The Chaturvarna system was not created haphazardly. It is not just a popular custom. It is religion.

20 == Chaturvarna, Gandhi, and bad religion
There is no equality in the Hindu religion. One time when I went to see Gandhi, he said, “I respect Chaturvarna.” I said, “Mahatmas like you respect the Chaturvarna, but just what is this Chaturvarna? (Dr. Ambedkar stretched out his hand horizontally, and then turned it over, so the four fingers were in vertical order.) Is this Chaturvarna up or down? Who created the Chaturvarna, and who will end it?” Gandhi did not answer the question. And what could he say? Those people who destroyed us will also be destroyed because of this religion. I do not accuse this Hindu religion without reason. Because of the Hindu religion, no one can progress. That religion is only a destructive religion.

21 == If we were allowed to use arms…
Why did our country go under the domination of another? In Europe, there were wars until 1945. Whenever a soldier was killed, a recruit took his place. No one said, “We have won the war” [before it was won]. In our country, everything is different. If Kshatriyas are killed, we are doomed. If we had been allowed to bear arms, this country would not have gone into slavery. No one would have been able to conquer this country.

22 == Progress will come only through the Buddhist religion
Remaining in the Hindu religion will bring no kind of progress to anyone. For some, the hierarchy of the Hindu religion brings profits; this is true for the superior classes and castes. But what of the others? If a Brahmin woman delivers a child, from then on her vision is on any high court judge’s place which might fall vacant. If one of our sweeper women is brought to bed, her vision turns toward the place of a sweeper. Such strange arrangements the Hindu religious class system has made. What improvements can come from this system? Progress can come only in the Buddhist religion.

23 == Buddha’s message on equality
In the Buddhist religion, 75% of the Bhikkhus were Brahmin; 25% were Shudra and others. But Bhagvan said, “O Bhikkhus, you have come from different countries and castes. Rivers flow separately in their own countries, but do not remain distinct when they meet in the sea. They become one and the same. The Buddhist brotherhood of monks is like the sea. In this Sangha all are equal. It is impossible to know Ganga water from Mahandi water after both have merged in the sea. In that way, after coming into the Buddhist Sangha, your caste goes, and all people are equal. Only one great man spoke of equality, and that great man is Bhagvan Buddha.

24 == Mine is a great responsibility
Some people say, “Why did you take so much time to get converted? What have you been doing all these days?” This question is important. The task of teaching religious understanding is not easy. It is not the work of one man. An understanding of the task will come to any man who thinks about religion. No man in the world has as much responsibility as I. If I get a long enough life, I will finish my appointed task. (Cries of “Long live Dr. Babasaheb!”)

25 ==As Mahar Buddhists, don’t defame us
“If the Mahars become Buddhists, then what will happen?” Some people will speak this way. They should not, I tell them. It will bring calamity upon them. The superior and wealthy class will not feel the necessity of religion. Among them, those having offices have a bungalow to live in, servants to do all the work; they have money and wealth and respect. Men of that sort have no reason to give thought to religion, or to be anxious about it.

26 == Religion is necessary for the poor
For the poor, religion is a necessity. Religion is necessary for people in distress. The poor man lives on hope. ‘Hope!’ [in English]. The source of life is hope. If this hope is destroyed, then how will life go on? Religion makes one hopeful, and to those in pain, to the poor, it gives a message: “Don’t be afraid; life will be hopeful, it will be.” So poor and distressed mankind clings to religion.

27 == What does the history of the Christian religion tell?
At the time the Christian religion entered Europe, the condition of Rome and the neighboring countries was one of utter distress. People didn’t get enough to eat. A simple dish of rice and pulao was distributed to poor people [to keep them alive]. At that time, who became the followers of Christ? Poor, miserable people only. In Europe, all poor and inferior people became Christians. This Christian religion is for beggars, Gibbon has written. How this Christian religion became the religion of all Europe, Gibbon is not alive today to tell us. If he were alive today, he would be required to answer that question.

28 == The world respects only the Buddha
Some people will say, “This Buddhist religion is a religion for Mahars and Mangs.” Brahmins used to say, “Hey, you!” [Bho Gautam] to Bhagvan. Brahmins thus spoke slightingly of the Buddha. But if they take their images to a foreign country to sell them, they will find not many images of Ram, Krishna, Shankar will be sold. But if they take images of the Buddha, not a single image would be left. (Loud clapping.) There has been enough talk by the Brahmins about India. They should show their worth outside! Only one name is proclaimed throughout the world, and that name is “Buddha.” How can the Buddhist religion be stopped from spreading?

29 == Our way is the way of the Buddha
We will go by our path; others should go by their path. We have found a new way. This is a day of hope. This is a way of success, of prosperity. This way is not something new. This path was not brought here from somewhere else. This path is from here, it is purely Indian. The Buddhist religion has been in India for two thousand years. Truly speaking, we regret that we did not become Buddhists before this. The principles spoken by Bhagvan Buddha are immortal. But the Buddha did not make a claim for this, however. There is an opportunity of making changes according to the times. Such open-mindedness is not found in any other religion.

30 == Milinda and Nagasena
The chief reason for the destruction of Buddhism is the Moslem invasion. The Moslems in their onslaught broke and destroyed images. They at first encroached on the Buddhist religion in this way. Fearing the invasion, the Buddhist Bhikkhus disappeared. Some went to Tibet, some went to China, some went wherever they could go. For the protection of religion, laymen are required. In the Northwest Frontier state there was a Greek Raja. His name was Milinda. This king used to hold discussions regularly. Great delight was taken in these discussions. He used to say to the Hindus, whoever is an expert at debate should come to these forums. Many were at a loss for an answer [when they participated]. One time he thought he should have a discussion with Buddhist people; and he said, any Buddhist expert at debate should be brought to him. Therefore Buddhist people asked Nagasena to go: “You should take up the cause of the Buddhists.” Nagasena was learned. He was a Brahmin. The discussion that took place between Nagasena and Milinda is famous throughout the world as a book. That book’s name is Milinda Punha. Milinda asked this question: “Why does religion languish?” Nagasena gave three reasons in his answer.

31 == Three reasons for religious decline
(1) The first reason is that some religion is immature. In that religion, the basic principles have no depth. That makes for a temporal religion, and the religion will hold fast only if it suits the times.
(2) The second reason is that there may be no learned men to spread the religion. If there are none, the religion languishes. Learned men should preach religious wisdom. If the propagandists of a religion are not ready to hold discussion with opponents, the religion will die.
(3) The third reason is this: [if] religion and religious philosophy are only for the learned [, the religion will not survive]. For common ordinary people, there are temples and shrines. They go there and worship supernatural power. [If this is the case, the religion languishes.]

32 == The only generous religion
We should remember these reasons as we take the conversion to Buddhism. No one can say that Buddhist principles are temporal. Even today, two thousand five hundred hears afterwards, all the world respects the principles of Buddhism. In America there are two thousand Buddhist institutions. In England, at an expense of 300,000 rupees a Buddhist temple has been build. Even in Germany there are three or four thousand Buddhist institutions. Buddhist principles are immortal. Nevertheless the buddha did not make the claim that this religion is from God. The Buddha said, “My father was a common man, my mother was a common woman. If you want a religion, then you should take this religion. If this religion suits your mind, then accept it.” Such generosity is not found in any other religion.

33 == The work of Buddhism is to lessen the suffering of the poor
What is the original foundation of Buddhism? Other religions and the Buddhist religion are very different. In other religions, change will not occur, because those religioins tell of a relationship between man and God. Other religions say that god created the world. God created the sky, wind, moon, everything. God did not leave anything left over for us to do. So we should worship God. According to the Christian religion, there is, after death, a Day of Judgment, and all depends on that judgment. There is no place for God and soul in the Buddhist religion. Bhagvan Buddha said there is suffering everywhere in the world. Ninety percent of mankind is distressed by sorrow. Suffering mankind should be freed from sorrow– this is the basic work of Buddhism. What did Karl Marx say that was different from the buddha’s sayings? [However,] what Bhagvan said, he did not say via a crazy, crooked path.

34 == My brothers’ work
Brothers, what I have had to say, I have said. This religion is fully formed in every way. There is no stain on it anywhere. The principles of Hinduism are so peculiarly arranged that it is impossible to create happiness from them. From thousands of years ago until just the other day, not even one man from our society could be a graduate or a learned man. I do not hesitate to tell you that in my school was a sweeper woman. She was Marathi. She would not touch me. My mother used to tell me, “Call a grown-up man ‘Mama’.” I would call the Postman, “Mama.” (Laughter.) In childhood, in school, once I was thirsty. I told the master. The master, for my protection, called a chaprasi and told him to take me to the tap. We went to the tap. The chaprasi then started the tap and I drank water. Usually all during the week at school I did not get to drink water. Later I was given some service as a District Judge. But I did not get stuck with that sort of binding job. Who will do the work of my brothers? This was the problem before me, so I did not get stuck in that bondage.

35 == The burden on your head
Nothing is impossible for me as an individual in this country. The burden [a word meaning a graduated series of pots carried on the head] on your head– the burden of Vaishya, Kshatriya, Brahmin– how that burden will be tumbled down is the true question. It is my duty to give you in all ways knowledge of this religion. By writing a book, I will remove all doubts and suspicions and will try to lead you to a stage of full knowledge. Today at least you should place faith in me.

36 == Regenerate yourself and the world
Your responsibility, however, is great. Your actions should be such that other people will honor and respect you. Do not believe that this religion means we have got stuck with an albatross [a word meaning the burden of a corpse] around our neck. The Indian earth today is of no account, as far as Buddhism is concerned. We should be determined to observe the Buddhist religion in the best way. It should not happen that the Mahar people would bring Buddhism to a low stage. We should make a firm decision. If we accomplish this, then we save ourselves, we save our country– and not only that, but the world also. Why? Because the Buddhist religion will be the savior of the world. As long as the world does not achieve justice, there will be no peace in the world.

37 == Make a decision to give a twentieth part of your earnings
This new way is one of responsibility. We have made some resolutions, have expressed some desires. The young should remember this. They should not become only petty officers for the sake of their stomach. We should make this decision: “I will give at least one-twentieth of my earnings to this work.” I want to take all of you with me. In the first instance, the Tathagat gave initiation to some individuals, and gave them this advice: “Spread this religion.” In that way, Yesha and his forty friends were converted to Buddhism. Yesha was from a wealthy family. Bhagvan said to him, “What is this religion like? It is [in Pali:] ‘for the welfare of many people, for the friendship of many people, for compassion for the world; dhamma is welfare in the beginning, welfare in the middle, conducive to welfare in the end‘.” In the conditions of that age, in that way, the Tathagat made ready the way for the spreading of his religion. Now we also must make ready the way [a word meaning mechanism]. After this function, each one should give initiation to each one. Every Buddhist man has the authority to give initiation, this I proclaim. (Applause. In this way Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar finished his two-hour speech.)

Indian Buddhist Movement


The Dalit Buddhist movement (Pāli नवयान navayāna as dubbed by certain Ambedkerites)[1] in India began with support of Sri Lankan Buddhist monks. It received an impetus with B. R. Ambedkar’s call for conversion of Dalits to Buddhism in order to escape the Hindu caste system, in which the Dalits were treated very badly.


  • 1 Origins
    • 1.1 South India
    • 1.2 Uttar Pradesh
  • 2 B. R. Ambedkar
    • 2.1 Ambedkar’s conversion
    • 2.2 22 Vows of Ambedkar
  • 3 Dalit Buddhism movement after Ambedkar’s death
    • 3.1 Uttar Pradesh
    • 3.2 Maharashtra
    • 3.3 Organized mass conversions
    • 3.4 Criticism of conversions
  • 4 Distinctive interpretation
  • 5 See also
  • 6 References
  • 7 External links


Buddhism was once dominant through much of India, it had however begun to decline by the 12th century (see Decline of Buddhism in India). The Buddhist revival began in India in 1891, when theSri Lankan Buddhist leader Anagarika Dharmapala founded the Maha Bodhi Society.[2] The Maha Bodhi Society mainly attracted upper-caste people.[3]

South India

In 1890, Pandit C. Ayodhya Dasa (1845-1914), better known as Iyothee Thass founded the Sakya Buddhist Society (also known as Indian Buddhist Association). The first president of the Indian Buddhist Association was the German born American Paul Carus, the author of The Gospel of Buddha (1894).

Thass, a Tamil Siddha physician, was the pioneer of the Tamil Dalit movement. He argued that Tamil Dalits were originally Buddhists. He led a delegation of prominent Dalits to Henry Steel Olcott and asked for his help in the reestablishment of “Tamil Buddhism.” Olcott helped Thass to visit Sri Lanka, where he received diksha from Bhikkhu Sumangala Nayake. After returning to India, Thass established the Sakya Buddhist Society in Madras with branches in many places including Karnataka.[4] Thass established a weekly magazine called Oru Paisa Tamizhan (“One Paisa Tamilian”) in Chennai in 1907, which served as a newsletter linking all the new branches of the Sakya Buddhist Society. The magazine discussed traditions and practices of Tamil Buddhism, new developments in the Buddhist world, and the Indian subcontinent’s history from the Buddhist point of view.

Brahmananda Reddy, a Dalit leader of Andhra Pradesh, was also fascinated by Buddhism.

Uttar Pradesh

In the early 20th century, the Barua Buddhists of Bengal under the leadership of Kripasaran Mahasthavir (1865-1926), founder of the Bengal Buddhist Association, Calcutta (1892) establishedviharas in cities such as Lucknow, Hyderabad, Shillong and Jamshedpur.[3]

In Lucknow, Bodhanand Mahastavir (1874-1952) advocated Buddhism for Dalits. Born Mukund Prakash in a Bengali Brahmin family, he was orphaned at a young age, and was then raised inBenaras by an aunt. He was initially attracted to Christianity, but became a Buddhist after a meeting with Buddhists monks from Ceylon at a Theosophical Conference in Benares. He later lived in Lucknow where he came in contact with Barua Buddhists, many of whom were employed as cooks by the British. In 1914, Prakash was ordained Bodhanand Mahastavir in Calcutta in the presence of Kripasaran Mahasthvir. He began preaching Buddhism in Lucknow. He founded theBharatiye Buddh Samiti in 1916, and set up a vihara in 1928. In his book Mula Bharatavasi Aur Arya (“Original Inhabitants and Aryans”), Mahastavir stated that the shudras were the original inhabitants of India, who were enslaved by the Aryans.[5]

Bodhanand Mahastavir wrote another book on Buddhist rituals called Baudha Dvicharya. His associate, Chandrika Prasad Jigyasu, founded the Bahujan Kalyan Prakashan. The two co-authored a book on the life and teaching of the Buddha.

Acharya Ishvardatt Medharthi (1900-1971) of Kanpur also supported the cause of the Dalits. He had studied Pali at Gurukul Kangri and Buddhist scripture was well known to him. He was initiated into Buddhism by Gyan Keto and the Lokanatha in 1937. Gyan Keto (1906-1984), born Peter Schoenfeldt was a German who arrived to Ceylon in 1936 and became a Buddhist. Although Medharthi heavily criticized the Indian caste system, he didn’t criticize Hinduism. He claimed that the Dalits (“Adi Hindus”) were the ancient rulers of India and had been trapped into slavery by the Aryan invaders. He also claimed that the sanatana dharma was the religion of “Adi Hindus”, and tried to reconcile Buddhism with the Sant Mat.[5]

Another Bhikkhu of Kanpur, Bhikshu Uttam, was a strong supporter of the Arya Samaj and the Jat Pat Todak Mandal, the anti-caste wing of the Arya Samaj.[5]

B. R. Ambedkar

At the Yeola conference in 1935, prominent Dalit leader B. R. Ambedkar declared that he would not die a Hindu, saying that it perpetuates caste injustices. Ambedkar was approached by various leaders of different denominations and faiths. Meetings were held to discuss the question of Dalit religion and the pros and cons of conversion[5]. On May 22, 1936, an “All Religious Conference” was held at Lucknow. It was attended by prominent Dalit leaders including Jagjivan Ram, though Ambedkar could not attend it. At the conference, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, and Buddhist representatives presented the tenets of their respective religions in an effort to win over Dalits[5].

Buddhist monk Lokanatha visited Ambedkar’s residence at Dadar on June 10, 1936 and tried to persuade him to embrace Buddhism. Later in an interview to the Press, Lokanatha said that Ambedkar was impressed with Buddhism and that his own ambition was to convert all Dalits to Buddhism[6]. In 1937, Lokanatha published a pamphlet Buddhism Will Make You Free, dedicated to the Depressed Classes of India from his press in Ceylon.

In early 1940s, Ambedkar visited Acharya Ishvardatt Medharthi’s Buddhpuri school in Kanpur. Medharthi had earlier been initiated into Buddhism by Lokanatha, and by the mid-1940s, he had close contacts with Ambedkar. For a short while, Ambedkar also took Pali classes from Medharthi in Delhi[5].

Bodhananda Mahastvir and B. R. Ambedkar first met in 1926, at the “Indian Non-Brahmin Conference” convened by Shahu IV of Kolhapur. They met on two more occasions and for a short while in the 1940s, where they discussed dhamma. Mahastavir was objected to Dr Ambedkar’s second marriage because his wife was a Brahmin.[5] Later, his followers actively participated in Ambedkar’s Republican Party of India.

Ambedkar’s conversion

After publishing a series of books and articles arguing that Buddhism was the only way for the Untouchables to gain equality, Ambedkar publicly converted on October 14, 1956 in Nagpur. He took the three refuges and the Five Precepts from a Buddhist monk, Bhadant U Chandramani, in the traditional manner and then in his turn administered them to the 380,000 of his followers that were present. The conversion ceremony was attended by Medharthi, his main disciple Bhoj Dev Mudit, and Mahastvir Bodhanand’s Sri Lankan successor, Bhante Pragyanand[5]. Ambedkar would die less than two months later, just after finishing his definitive work on Buddhism.

Many Dalits employ the term “Ambedkar(ite) Buddhism” to designate the Buddhist movement, which started with Ambedkar’s conversion[5].

22 Vows of Ambedkar

After receiving ordination, Ambedkar gave dhamma diksha to his followers. The ceremony included 22 vows given to all new converts after Three Jewels and Five Precepts. On 16 October 1956, Ambedkar performed another mass religious conversion ceremony atChanda. He prescribed 22 vows to his followers:

  1. I shall have no faith in Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwara nor shall I worship them.
  2. I shall have no faith in Rama and Krishna who are believed to be incarnation of God nor shall I worship them.
  3. I shall have no faith in Gauri, Ganapati and other gods and goddesses of Hindus nor shall I worship them.
  4. I do not believe in the incarnation of God.
  5. I do not and shall not believe that Lord Buddha was the incarnation of Vishnu. I believe this to be sheer madness and false propaganda.
  6. I shall not perform Shraddha nor shall I give pind-dan.
  7. I shall not act in a manner violating the principles and teachings of the Buddha.
  8. I shall not allow any ceremonies to be performed by Brahmins.
  9. I shall believe in the equality of man.
  10. I shall endeavor to establish equality.
  11. I shall follow the noble eightfold path of the Buddha.
  12. I shall follow the ten paramitas prescribed by the Buddha.
  13. I shall have compassion and loving kindness for all living beings and protect them.
  14. I shall not steal.
  15. I shall not tell lies.
  16. I shall not commit carnal sins.
  17. I shall not take intoxicants like liquor, drugs etc.
  18. I shall endeavor to follow the noble eightfold path and practice compassion and loving kindness in every day life.
  19. I renounce Hinduism, which is harmful for humanity and impedes the advancement and development of humanity because it is based on inequality, and adopt Buddhism as my religion.
  20. I firmly believe the Dhamma of the Buddha is the only true religion.
  21. I believe that I am having a re-birth.
  22. I solemnly declare and affirm that I shall hereafter lead my life according to the principles and teachings of the Buddha and hisDhamma.

Dalit Buddhism movement after Ambedkar’s death

The Buddhist movement was somewhat hindered by Dr. Ambedkar’s death so shortly after his conversion. It did not receive the immediate mass support from the Untouchable population that Ambedkar had hoped for. Division and lack of direction among the leaders of the Ambedkarite movement have been an additional impediment. According to the 2001 census, there are currently 7.95 million Buddhists in India, at least 5.83 million of whom are Buddhists in Maharashtra[7]. This makes Buddhism the fifth-largestreligion in India and 6% of the population of Maharashtra, but less than 1% of the overall population of India.

The Buddhist revival remains concentrated in two states: Ambedkar’s native Maharashtra, and Uttar Pradesh — the land of Bodhanand Mahastavir, Acharya Medharthi and their associates.

Uttar Pradesh

Acharya Medharthi retired from his Buddhapuri school in 1960, and shifted to an ashram in Haridwar. He turned to the Arya Samajand conducted vedic yajnas all over India. After his death, he was cremated according to Arya Samaj rites[5]. His Buddhpuri school became embroiled in property disputes. His follower, Bhoj Dev Mudit, converted to Buddhism in 1968 and set up a school of his own.

Rajendranath Aherwar appeared as an important Dalit leader in Kanpur. He joined the Republican Party of India and converted to Buddhism along with his whole family in 1961. In 1967, he founded the Kanpur branch of “Bharatiya Buddh Mahasabha”. He held regular meetings where he preached Buddhism, officiated at Buddhist weddings and life cycle ceremonies, and organized festivals on Dr. Ambedkar’s Jayanti (birth day), Buddha Jayanti, Diksha Divas (the day Ambedkar converted), and Dr Ambedkar Paranirvan Divas (the day Ambedkar died)[5].

The Dalit Buddhist movement in Kanpur gained impetus with the arrival of Dipankar, a Chamar bhikkhu, in 1980. Dipankar had come to Kanpur on a Buddhist mission and his first public appearance was scheduled at a mass conversion drive in 1981. The event was organized by Rahulan Ambawadekar, an RPI Dalit leader. In April 1981, Ambawadekar founded the Dalit Panthers (U.P. Branch) inspired by the Maharashtrian Dalit Panthers. The event met with severe criticism and opposition from Vishwa Hindu Parishad and was banned[5].

In 2002, Kanshi Ram, a popular out-caste political leader from a Sikh religious background, announced his intention to convert to Buddhism on October 14, 2006, the fiftieth anniversary of Ambedkar’s conversion. He intended for 20,000,000 of his supporters to convert at the same time. Part of the significance of this plan was that Ram’s followers include not only Untouchables, but persons from a variety of castes, who could significantly broaden Buddhism’s support. However, he passed away October 9, 2006[8] after a lengthy illness; he was cremated as per Buddhist rituals[9].

Another popular Dalit leader, Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati, has said that she and her followers will embrace Buddhism after the BSP gains control of the government.[10]


Japanese-born Bhadant Nagarjun Surai Sasai is an important Buddhist leader in India. Susai came to India in 1966 and met Nichidatsu Fuji, whom he helped with the Peace Pagoda at Rajgir. He fell out with Fuji, however, and started home, but, by his own account, was stopped by a dream in which a figure resembling Nagarjuna appeared and said, “Go to Nagpur”. In Nagpur, he met Wamanrao Godbole, the person who had organized the conversion ceremony for Dr. Ambedkar in 1956. Sasai claims that when he saw a photograph of Dr. Ambedkar at Godbole’s home, he realized that it was Ambedkar who had appeared in his dream. At first, Nagpur folk considered Surai Sasai very strange. Then he began to greet them with “Jai Bhim” (victory to Ambedkar) and to build viharas. In 1987 a court case to deport him on the grounds that he had overstayed his visa was dismissed, and he was granted Indian citizenship. Sasai is one of the main leaders of the campaign to free the Mahabodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya from Hindu control.

Organized mass conversions

Since Ambedkar’s conversion, several thousand people from different castes have converted to Buddhism in ceremonies including the twenty-two vows. The Tamil Nadu and Gujarat governments passed new laws in 2003 to ban “forced” religious conversions. These laws were later withdrawn due to heavy opposition[citation needed].


In 1957, Mahastvir Bodhanand’s Sri Lankan successor, Bhante Pragyanand, held a mass conversion drive for 15,000 people in Lucknow[5].


A prominent Indian Dalit Buddhist leader and political activist, Udit Raj, organized a large mass conversion on November 4, 2001where he gave the 22 vows, but the event met with active opposition from the government.[11]

2006, Hyderabad

A report from the UK daily The Guardian said that some Hindus have converted to Buddhism. Buddhist monks from the UK and the U.S. attended the conversion ceremonies in India. In response, Hindu nationalists asserted that Dalits should concentrate on illiteracy and poverty rather than looking for new religions[12].

2006, Gulbarga

On October 14, 2006 hundreds of people converted from Hinduism to Buddhism in Gulburga (Karnataka)[13].


A Buddhist source claimed that “300,000 Dalits are estimated” to have converted to Buddhism as part of 50th year celebrations of Ambedkar’s deeksha in 2006.[14] Non-Partisan sources put the number of attendees (not converts) at 30,000[15].The move was criticized by Hindu groups as “unhelpful” and has been criticized as a “political stunt.”[15]

2007, Mumbai

On May 27, 2007 tens of thousands of Dalits from Maharashtra gathered at the Mahalakshmi racecourse in Mumbai to mark the 50th anniversary of the conversion of Ambedkar. The number of people who actually converted, however, versus the number of people in attendance was not clear [16]. The event was organized by the Republican Party of India leader Ramdas Athvale[17].

Criticism of conversions

Hindu critics have argued that efforts to convert Hindus to Ambedkarite Buddhism are political stunts rather than sincere commitments to social reform[18]. In addition, several Dalit leaders have stated that they are not against the upper castes per se. Leaders of the Dalit Bahujan Samaj Party have said that their being branded as “anti-Hindu” because of the publicity associated with the conversions is largely the work of partisan and politically motivated groups within the Dalit movement and that they are only interested in peaceful dialogue with the Brahmins[19].

Distinctive interpretation

According to controversial academic Gail Omvedt:

Ambedkar’s Buddhism seemingly differs from that of those who accepted by faith, who ‘go for refuge’ and accept the canon. This much is clear from its basis: it does not accept in totality the scriptures of the Theravada, the Mahayana, or the Vajrayana. The question that is then clearly put forth: is a fourth yana, a Navayana, a kind of modernistic Enlightenment version of the Dhamma really possible within the framework of Buddhism?[1]

Most Dalit Indian Buddhists espouse an eclectic version of Buddhism, primarily based on Theravada, but with additional influences from Mahayana and Vajrayana. On many subjects, they give Buddhism a distinctive interpretation. Of particular note is their emphasis on Shakyamuni Buddha as a political and social reformer, rather than merely as a spiritual leader. They point out that the Buddha required his monastic followers to ignore caste distinctions, and that he was critical of the social inequality that existed in his own time. Ambedkar’s followers do not believe that a person’s unfortunate conditions at birth are the result of previous karma[citation needed].

They also point out that Ormvedt’s idea of an ‘Enlightenment version of the dharma’ opposed to a traditional ‘acceptance by faith’ is a misapplication of Western categories, since the Buddha encouraged people to put all teachings – including his own – to critical test and not to accept anything on the basis of tradition.

See also

  • Buddhism in India
  • Buddhism in Tibet
  • Buddhism in Nepal
  • Humanistic Buddhism


  1. a b Omvedt, Gail. Buddhism in India : Challenging Brahmanism and Caste. 3rd ed. London/New Delhi/Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2003. pages: 2, 3-7, 8, 14-15, 19, 240, 266, 271
  2. ^ Ahir, D.C. (1991). Buddhism in Modern India. Satguru. ISBN 81-7030-254-4.
  3. a b Das, Bhagwan (1998), Revival of Buddhism in India. Role of Dr Baba Sahib B.R.Ambedkar, Lucknow: Dalit Today Prakashan,ISBN 81-7030-254-4
  4. ^ Geetha, V. (2001). Towards a Non Brahmin Millennium – From Iyothee Thass to Periyar. Bhatkal & Sen,India. ISBN 81-8560-437-1.
  5. a b c d e f g h i j k l m Bellwinkel-Schempp, Maren (2004), “Roots of Ambedkar Buddhism in Kanpur”, in Jondhale, Surendra & Beltz, Johannes, Reconstructing the World: B.R. Ambedkar and Buddhism in India, New Delhi: OUP, pp. 221-244
  6. ^ Keer, Dhananjay (1990). Dr Ambedkar Life and Mission. Popular Prakashan, Bombay. ISBN 81-8560-437-1.
  7. ^
  8. ^ Indian Dalit leader passes away
  9. ^ Kanshi Ram cremated as per Buddhist rituals
  10. ^ Kanshi Ram cremated as per Buddhist rituals. The Hindu(October 10, 2006). Retrieved on 2007-08-30.
  11. ^ 50,000 Dalits embrace Buddhism. Buddhism Today. Retrieved on 2007-08-30.
  12. ^ Untouchables embrace Buddha to escape oppression
  13. ^ Hundreds embrace Buddhism in Gulbarga-Bangalore
  14. ^ Prominent Indian female politician to embrace Buddhism. The Buddhist Channel (October 17, 2006). Retrieved on2007-08-30.
  15. a b Prerna Singh Bindra .Heads, I win…. The Week Magazine. November 18, 2001.
  16. ^ Mass Dalit conversions in Mumbai
  17. ^ Nithin Belle. Thousands of Dalits in ‘mass conversion’. Khaleej Times. May 28 2007
  18. ^ Conversion: Ram Raj’s rally was probably just an exercise in self-promotion
  19. ^ BSP showcases its `Brahmin might’,The Hindu

External links

  • The Buddha and His Dhamma, text of the book by B. R. Ambedkar
  • Are neo-Buddhists- Hindus? Article on India’s Buddhism by Koenraad Elst.
  • 2590 Years Of Buddhism
  • Omvedt, Gail. Buddhism in India : Challenging Brahmanism and Caste. 3rd ed. London/New Delhi/Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2003.
  • Buddhism Navayana: Buddhist links and Navayana Buddhism

Global organizations

  • Ambedkar Center for Justice and Peace
  • Dr. Ambedkar International Mission
  • Trailokya Bauddha Mahasangha Sahayaka Gana
  • Karuna Trust
  • The Jambudvipa Trust

50 Years after Ambedkar’s Conversion


Courtsy: 2006 @

ambedkarpics.jpgFifty years ago, on October 14, 1956 — and a mere two months before his death — Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, the scholar and political leader who was principally responsible for the drafting of India’s Constitution, converted to Buddhism in a public ceremony in Nagpur. Somewhere between 100,000 and 500,000 of his Dalit followers — the accounts vary — embraced Buddhism in the immediate wake of his conversion. For Dr. Ambedkar, nothing in his long, distinguished career could convince him that the socio-cultural dynamics of Hinduism would ever offer Dalits a way out of “untouchability,” disenfranchisement, poverty and social stigma.

Each year on October 14, conversion ceremonies take place at which Dalits embrace Buddhism or Christianity. This year they have extra poignance, not only because it is the 50th anniversary of Ambedkar’s act, but also because several states ruled by the BJP have recently adopted or strengthened laws limiting conversion. On top of all this, a principal follower of Ambedkar, Kanshi Ram, who founded the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) which is the main political vehicle for the Dalit movement now, passed away earlier this month.

From accounts in the press so far, there were major conversion ceremonies today in Nagpur and also in Gulbarga in Karnataka:

Hundreds of Dalits on Saturday embraced Buddhism and Christianity at a mass conversion programme in Nagpur, in which copies of Gujarat government’s anti-conversion bill were also put to fire.

The mass conversion, organised by the All India Conference of SC/ST Organisations and the All India Christian Council on the occasion of World Religious Freedom Day, was attended by Dalits from Orissa, Karnataka and Gujarat states, organisers said.

The conversion of Dalits to Buddhism was performed by priests, while a group of Christian pastors from the Council led by President Dr Joseph D’Souza baptised the Dalits. [Link]

GULBARGA (Karnataka): More than 3,000 Dalits on Saturday embraced Buddhism at an impressive ceremony here on Saturday, synchronising with the golden jubilee of Dr B R Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism.

Marking the change of faith, the Dalits were administered the oath by Bante Bodhi Dhama, a Buddhist monk from Japan.

Preceding the ceremony, “Buddha Dharma Deeksha Pratigne”, a huge procession led by more than 500 monks, was taken out through the city streets. [Link]

There are some very interesting present-day political angles here, not least the controversy over the anti-conversion laws, and the fact that the leader of the BSP, Mayawati, the former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, has said she will not convert to Buddhism yet. She said this at today’s Nagpur rally, while announcing that Kanshi Ram’s funeral rites were performed in the Buddhist tradition, even though he had not converted; and while expressing her hope that Buddhism would spread further among Dalits. The mixed message clearly reflects the political complexity of the Dalit leadership’s position.

In the larger historical frame, perusing the day’s news and doing a little background research reminds me how shamefully little I know about Dr. Ambedkar’s story, let alone more obscure yet significant figures like Kanshi Ram. I hope that comments and debate on this post will help me, and surely others, remedy this lacuna.

ambedkar.jpgOne question I realized I had about Ambedkar was, how was he able to get his education in the first place? The answer, per the rather extensive Wikipedia entry, blends several classic ingredients that are common to stories of escape from deep-seated social injustice the world over. Ambedkar benefited from the advocacy of a determined parent, himself empowered by his military career; from a family move to the big city; from the kindness of a benevolent aristocratic patron; and of course, from his own hard work and academic excellence:

Ramji Sakpal encouraged his children to read the Hindu classics, especially the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. He used his position in the army to lobby for his children to study at the government school, as they faced resistance owing to their caste. Although able to attend school, Ambedkar and other Untouchable children were segregated and given no attention or assistance from the teachers. Ramji Sakpal retired in 1894 and the family moved to Satara two years later. Shortly after their move, Ambedkar’s mother died. The children were cared for by their paternal aunt, and lived in difficult circumstances. Only three sons — Balaram, Anandrao and Bhimrao — and two daughters — Manjula and Tulasa — of the Ambedkars would go on to survive them. Of his brothers and sisters, only Ambedkar succeeded in passing his examinations and graduate to a bigger school. His native village name was “Ambavade” in Ratnagiri District so he changed his name from “Sakpal” to “Ambedkar” with the recommendation and faith of a Brahmin teacher that believed in Bhimrao.

Ramji Sakpal remarried in 1898, and the family moved to Mumbai (then Bombay), where Ambedkar became the first untouchable student at the Government High School near Elphinstone Road. Although excelling in his studies, Ambedkar was increasingly disturbed by his segregation and discrimination. In 1907, he passed his matriculation examination and entered the University of Mumbai, becoming one of the first persons of untouchable origin to enter college in India. This success provoked celebrations amongst his community, and after a public ceremony, he was given a biography of the Buddha by his teacher Krishnaji Arjun Keluskar also known as Dada Keluskar a Maratha caste scholar. Ambedkar’s marriage had been arranged the previous year as per Hindu custom, to Ramabai, a nine-year old girl from Dapoli. In 1908, he entered the Elphinstone College and obtained a scholarship of Rs. 25 a month from the Gaekwad ruler of Baroda, Sahyaji Rao III for higher studies in USA.

Which brings us to another fascinating item. Unlike many academically successful Indians of his generation, Ambedkar didn’t go to England to study. He came to America, specifically to Columbia University in New York, where he obtained a doctorate in political science. It may well be that here in the U.S., he was more able to escape the social prejudices that might have followed him to England. The fact that he took up rooms with a Parsi could be used to argue the point either way:

Arriving in New York City, Ambedkar was admitted for graduate studies at the political science department. After a brief stay at the dormitory, he moved to a housing club run by Indian students and took up rooms with a Parsi friend, Naval Bhathena. In 1916, he was awarded a Ph.D. for a thesis which he eventually published in book form as The Evolution of Provincial Finance in British India. His first published work, however, was a paper on Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development. Winning his degree and doctorate, he travelled to London and enrolled at Gray’s Inn and the London School of Economics, studying law and preparing a doctoral thesis in economics. The expiration of his scholarship the following year forced him to temporarily abandon his studies and return to India amidst World War I.

Columbia’s page on Ambedkar suggests that his time here was transformative indeed:

At Columbia, Ambedkar studied under John Dewey, who inspired many of his ideas about equality and social justice. Ambedkar later recounted that at Columbia he experienced social equality for the first time. “The best friends I have had in my life,” he told the New York Times in 1930, “were some of my classmates at Columbia and my great professors, John Dewey, James Shotwell, Edwin Seligman, and James Harvey Robinson.”

In Ambedkar’s American sojourn I feel a foreshadowing of the experience of African nationalist leaders like Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, or Nnamdi Azikiwe of Nigeria, who also came to the U.S. rather than Britain, and absorbed a very different political — and racial — environment.

The later part of Ambedkar’s career is better known. Although a nationalist, he was also fiercely opposed to the Gandhian faction in the Indian National Congress; Ambedkar wanted a separate electorate for “untouchables,” which Gandhi felt was a bad idea. When the British supported Ambedkar’s idea, it could well have been classic colonial divide-and-conquer rather than any great sympathy for the Dalits. Ambedkar also opposed Gandhi’s naming of untouchables “Harijans,” or children of God. Perhaps he felt it was a hypocritical term; that the Dalit condition simply could not be reconciled with the social structures of Hinduism. However, despite these differences, Ambedkar was invited to become the first law minister of independent India, and chairman of the committee that drafted the constitution. If India’s constitution was remarkably liberal and democratic for its context and time, we have at least in part Dr. Ambedkar to thank. I don’t think it’s a stretch either to say that some of the similarities in spirit and substance between the Indian and American constitutions may have been his contribution as well.

In a sense, Ambedkar was a separatist figure: he had long given up on achieving Dalit equality within the Hindu framework, and his conversion to Buddhism at the end of his life only confirmed this. He also wanted to use the tools of the secular state to limit the power of Hindu institutions: when he resigned from the government in 1951, it was over a Hindu Code bill that would have established gender equality in many areas; he and Nehru supported the bill, but it did not make it past opposition in parliament. He also contested the treatment of women in Islam. It is not surprising that he remains a controversial figure fifty years after his death.

Kanshi Ram, who founded the BSP in 1984, embraced a somewhat different approach, perhaps indicative of changed times as much as anything else. From a valedictory article by S. Anand in Outlook:

Kanshi Ram, unarguably the biggest leader to emerge from among Dalits in the post-Ambedkar period, and someone who succeeded in the realm of parliamentary democracy in which Ambedkar repeatedly failed, drew heavily from Ambedkar’s political resources. However, he decided to deploy a different strategy at the ground level. …

Kanshi Ram realized that if the Dalits had to wrest their share in political power on their own terms, they needed allies. In this sense, he was more a follower of Jotiba Phule (1827–1890). At the heart of Kanshi Ram’s politics was the concept of the ‘bahujan’—the oppressed majority, a quintessential Phule formulation that believed in the organic unity of the Sudras (BCs and BCS) and Atisudras (Dalits and Adivasis); (something with which Ambedkar differed since he saw the Sudras as essentially erstwhile khsatriyas and the untouchables as fallen Buddhists). Following Phule, Kanshi Ram believed that the Sudras and Atisudras needed to join hands with Muslims and other minorities to combat the Brahmin-Baniya-Rajput combine. The logic that drove this postulation was that if democracy was the rule of the majoritarian voice, then why was it that in Indian democracy only the voice of the dwija castes was heard? In the early phase of his political career, Kanshi Ram believed that the Dalits and their immediate tormentors in the rural landscape—OBCs—could join hands.

Later, as the BSP gained clout and for a time political control in Uttar Pradesh under Mayawati — a Dalit female Chief Minister — its leadership found itself making political deals that one would think would have been anathema to Ambedkar. Or, as Anand argues, maybe not:

How and why did Kanshi Ram ally alternately with BJP and SP and even the Congress—in other words, with BCs and OBCs, as well the Brahmin-Baniya-Thakurs? Here, we need to invoke Ambedkar on the place of minorities in the midst of communal and political majorities. He argues in his neglected, late work Thoughts on Linguistic States:

People who rely upon majority rule forget the fact that majorities are of two sorts: (1) Communal majority and (2) Political majority. A political majority is changeable in its class composition. A political majority grows. A communal majority is born. The admission to a political majority is open. The door to a communal majority is closed. The politics of a political majority are free to all to make and unmake. The politics of a communal majority are made by its own members born in it. How can a communal majority run away with the title deeds given to a political majority to rule? … This tyranny of the communal majority is not an idle dream. It is an experience of many minorities.

Kanshi Ram understood that what was being played out in Indian democracy was the rule of communal majority in the name of the rule of the political majority. For a communal minority like Dalits , the only way to democracy was by kneading its way into the forces that constituted political majority in electoral politics. Dalits could not join the communal majority constituted by Baniyas, Thakurs and Brahmins, for, as Ambedkar says, the door to communal majority is closed. But they sure could join the political majority, since the class and caste composition of the political majority could change. This was manageable through alliances. Under Kanshi Ram’s stewardship, the BSP practically demonstrated what Ambedkar had theoretically formulated. In this sense, Kanshi Ram redefined and expanded the scope of parliamentary democracy in India.

Anand concludes:

Kanshi Ram painfully realised that Phule’s bahujan concept would not work under Dalit leadership. Kanshi Ram therefore successfully wedded Phule’s advocacy of the bahujan with the Ambedkarite idea of negotiating space for a communal minority in a political majority. With this premise, within a decade he managed to build a national party that became the sole challenge to the supremacy of the Congress and the BJP in the Hindi heartland.

An appraisal of Kanshi Ram’s legacy by Shivam Vij in Tehelka is slightly less detailed but makes similar points. As with much else in Indian politics, where this leaves anyone is ambiguous. It’s hard to see how the Mandal II mess over expanding the OBC reservations can have advanced the Dalit cause, whatever the outcome. And the daily reality of discrimination and denigration carries on for many millions of people. Hence the continued power of conversion, as Ramdeep Ramesh writes in the Guardian:

In the small one-room house on the edge of the rice bowl of India, Narasimha Cherlaguda explains why he is preparing to be reborn again as a Buddhist.

As an untouchable, the 25-year-old is at the bottom of Hinduism’s hereditary hierarchy. “The [local] priest tells me if I was a good dalit in this life, then in my next life I can be born into a better part of society. [I say] why wait?”

Like tens of thousands of other untouchables – or dalits – across India today, Mr Cherlaguda will be ritually converted to Buddhism to escape his low-caste status. The landless labourer points to a picture of Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god, on his wall and says it will soon be gone and replaced by an image of the Buddha.

He will not be alone. More than 70 people from the village of Kumarriguda, 40 miles outside Hyderabad, the capital of southern India’s Andhra Pradesh state, will leave the Hindu religion. There are plans for a Buddhist temple and money set aside to hire a Buddhist priest – probably the first in the area for 1,500 years – to conduct prayers as well as marriage and death rites. …

In Hyderabad the first person to convert will be KRS Murthy, 70, who was the first dalit recruited into the state’s civil service in 1959.

Not being in India, I’ll leave it to others to gauge the grievances and assess the different strategies available to Dalits to address them. But here, still from the Ramesh article, is a fairly concise statement of the problem, and of the counter-arguments currently at work:

Many dalit thinkers say that what is happening in India is a “religious rebellion” against a hierarchy that condemns them to a life of suffering. “Look we make up 150m people of India.

“Yet where are the Dalit news anchors, the entrepreneurs, the professors? We are neither seen nor heard. Changing religion makes us visible,” says Chanrabhan Prasad, a dalit writer.

The Hindu right has become increasingly wary of Buddhist conversions, seeing its call for equality as exerting a powerful pull on the lowest castes. The Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) government in the western state of Gujarat controversially amended an anti-conversion law to classify Buddhism and Jainism as branches of the Hindu religion, denying them status as unique religions.

“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,” says Lalit Kumar, who works for a Hindu nationalist welfare association in Andhra Pradesh.

One last thing: I appreciate that this post raises some unresolved questions in Indian politics and society that are the subject of very strongly felt disagreements. I am also no expert, nor are my sources in any way final: I am sharing what I learned today. I hope those with facts and opinions to share will do so freely, but graciously and in the spirit of pedagogy



1 · Beige Siege on October 14, 2006 9:52 PM · Direct link

Amazing post Siddhartha. I think I will add a couple of footnotes to this otherwise comprehensive summary.

Ambedkar was a truly great leader and played an indispensible role in the birth of the Indian nation. However he was not a person of the masses like other leaders of the independence movement. This along with the fact that he was percieved to be not very anti-british(he was a member of pre 1947, quasi independent governments, which Congress stayed out of demanding complete independence instead) gives some of his critics ammunition against him.

Regarding the anti-conversion bill, the attempt to classify Buddism and Jainism as sub sets of Hinduism is not born purely out of an attempt to repress the lower castes. Its a widely held opinion among Hindus as evidenced by the extent to which Buddha is worshipped among the pantheon of Gods.

I think these are conversions are very important because it provides an opportunity for debate and speedens the process of eliminating the role of caste that is taking place in India right now.

There is a lot more I want to say, but its time to go out drinking 🙂 Be back tomorrow.

2 · Kritic on October 14, 2006 9:55 PM · Direct link

Thanks for this post. One of the greatest Indians, indeed.

btw, Columbia Uinversity’s School of International and Public Affairs has only one persons bust on it’s premises…Ambedkar’s.

3 · razib_the_atheist on October 14, 2006 9:58 PM · Direct link

ambedkar’s story is inspiring because of his social background (though his family was not, from what i can gather, the poorest of the poor as many dalits are). one thing about the buddhist or christian angle: i think that conversion of communities like the chamars and mahars to a religion with large non-indian following is important in that it does allow them to have allies internationally in their fight for a higher status. japan is after all one of the wealthiest nations in the world, and it has a large buddhist population.

4 · Al beruni on October 14, 2006 10:25 PM · Direct link

Ambedkar, Gandhi and Tagore are the three key figures in understanding the nature, form and challenges of indian modernization. Each one has left an enormous corpus of work, from which one can learn an enormous amount. How each faced the various challenges of their lives is also quite significant.

5 · Janeofalltrades on October 14, 2006 10:29 PM · Direct link

Siddhartha I’m really happy to see this post. Dr Ambedkar’s teachings and philosophy had a huge presence in my maternal home when I was growing up. In fact my grand parents were at one time very close to him and took part in many demonstrations with him. They also converted to Buddhism symbolically though for the most part have always lived as atheists. My grandfather passed away some years ago and I am lucky to have heard a lot of stories about Dr Ambedkar from him. I wish in hindsight I had recorded some of them. My grandmother still has a picture of him in her home with his arm around my grandfather. I recently found out that my parents were married in a Buddhist ceremony presided by a picture of Dr Ambedkar. This post is better than Wikipedia. Thank you for posting it.

6 · chick pea on October 14, 2006 10:44 PM · Direct link

siddhartha–with your name, how could you not post about this 😉

thanks for the most comprehensive summary and great writing..

i learned a lot..

7 · tash on October 14, 2006 11:05 PM · Direct link

Thanks for the post, Siddhartha.

It was really eye-opening, informative, comprehensive…and it reminded me how important it is to remember the continuing discrimination that exists in India through social vehicles such as the caste system.

Changing religion makes us visible

This quote really got to me…

I think as migrants it’s easier to believe that such feelings only exist for South Asians in western countries we’ve moved to…but to feel invisible in your own homeland must be so demoralising I can’t even imagine it, and knowing that it still exists in India to this day is a sobering truth…although I’m studying the similar institutionally discriminatory treatment of indigenous people in New Zealand at the moment and this post gave me my own way into trying to empathise and gauge what that particular invisibility must feel like, although I guess I’ll never understand.

Big ups for connecting Ambedkar’s story with those of African nationalists, that’s a brave thing to do on a site where some commenters see no hypocrisy in denouncing anti-South Asian sentiments while hating on other cultures, particularly people of African descent, in the same paragraph.

8 · ashvin on October 14, 2006 11:06 PM · Direct link

Great post Siddhartha. What an inspiring man !

If any of you need reminding of the reality of caste in India today (and it’s easy to forget… for some of us, at least), here’s a little video from Shivam Vij’s site :

Thanks also for your comment JOAT. Very interesting.

9 · Archana on October 14, 2006 11:13 PM · Direct link

I just read about this today on BBC – thanks for the post. I want to know more about the laws that restrict conversion – does it have to do with the religion-specific family codes? Isn’t it unconstitutional to limit this?

10 · SkepMod on October 14, 2006 11:31 PM · Direct link

Ashvin, thanks for the link. That was one of the most moving pieces I have seen in a long long time. Times are a changing, but unfortunately, a little too slowly.

11 · razib_the_atheist on October 14, 2006 11:54 PM · Direct link

that was an incredible link. everyone watch it.

12 · Quizman on October 15, 2006 12:27 AM · Direct link

For a contradictory view of Ambedkar, read ‘Worshipping False Gods’ by Arun Shourie. Check out an excerpt here.

13 · risible on October 15, 2006 12:33 AM · Direct link

Couple of quick points:

In a sense, Ambedkar was a separatist figure: he had long given up on achieving Dalit equality within the Hindu framework, and his conversion to Buddhism at the end of his life only confirmed this.

Yes. But, he was an Indian Nationalist as much as a Dalit leader.

1) He advocated the partition of India, because he did not think Hindus could not live with Muslims.

2) He rejected both Christianity and Islam as a solution to the Dalit problem, becasue he felt that a large scale conversion to the Abrahamic faiths would be existentially disruptive for India.

3) Which makes the appropriation of Ambedkar by Christian groups like the Dalit Freedom Network kind of amusing. But then, times have changed, and new coalitions form all of the time.

4) Ambedkarite Buddhism owes little to Indian Buddhism or the extant Buddhisms in Asia; its more Deweyan rationalism dressed up in Buddhist symbology, confirmed by twenty-two tough oaths which leave no doubt that he wanted Dalits to have nothing to do with Hindu practices.

5) However, sociological studies demonstrate over and over that Dalit Buddhists retain many of their pre-conversion practices. They might be called Buddhists in name only. The Indian Nationalist definition of Hinduism includes Buddhism as one of its branches. This offends many people, but strangely, it reflects the way Buddhism exists in India today. That, however, makes for very bad protest politics, hence, I think, the uproar.

6) Mayavati is wooing Brahmins right now, which is why she has toned down the anti-Hindu rheoric. The elctoral calculus in UP shows the upper caste vote is up for grabs and that it will be crucial if she is to win back power from the Samajwadi Party, so her sloganeering is suddenly pro-Brahmin.
7) I am all for the Dalits wresting themselves free from the oppressive Brahmanic ideology. I agree with Ambedkar’s reasoning, and prefer Buddhism over Christianity or Islam.

8) Ambedkar did not popularize the term Dalit. That was the work of the Dalit panthers, an Indian political party modelled on the Black panthers. Another seminal event in the popularization of the term was a literary supplement on Dalit literature published in the Times of India in the 70s. While Dalit is the preferred term used in western discourse and among intellectuals, the former untouchable castes tend to refer to themselves by their caste names, like Valmiki or Jatav, or in South india, adi-dravidas, or adi-andhras, adi meaning “first,” because they believe that they were the indigineous subjugated peoples of those regions.

14 · Quizman on October 15, 2006 12:40 AM · Direct link

..and incidentally, Mayawati is no heroine. She has been one of the most corrupt politicians in India, along with that other “paragon of ‘social justice'” Laloo Yadav. I loved the parody on her in ‘Bunty and Babli’ (the ‘Taj for sale’ scene).

15 · Asha’s dad on October 15, 2006 12:52 AM · Direct link

Solid post. I don’t think I could put together something like this if given an entire semester. Well done, sir, well done.

16 · siddhartha on October 15, 2006 12:56 AM · Direct link

Risible (or anyone else who can speak to this point),

Lots of interesting additional points there; thank you. A quick reaction to the first one. You said:

1) He advocated the partition of India, because he did not think Hindus could not live with Muslims.

But in the Wiki article it says this:

Between 1941 and 1945, he published a large number of highly controversial books and pamphlets, including Thoughts on Pakistan, in which he criticized the Muslim League’s demand for a separate Muslims state of Pakistan.

Is that not an accurate characterization? Did his thinking on Partition evolve from one view to the other?

17 · Manju on October 15, 2006 1:39 AM · Direct link


I have nothing to add. I just came home, put on some Ali Farka Toure, poured a glass or Jim Beam neat, and thouroghly enjoyed your writing. I see I’m not the only one.

Thanks for the nightcap.

18 · BrooklynBrown on October 15, 2006 2:21 AM · Direct link

I found myself writing about Ambedkar tonight, too, in anniversary of the mass conversions that took place on the 14th. My interest was mainly with the city of Nagpur, where my parents come from, where all of my relatives still live, and the site where Ambedkar and thousands of his followers converted to Buddhism (as you mention). Nagpur is also whereK. B. Hedgewar formed the RSS, 31 years before Ambedkar’s conversion, and where Gandhi’s murderer Nathuram Bodse, an RSS member, traveled to frequently (He sometimes stayed with my grandparents). I found it interesting that the city could both birth and sustain modern Hindu fundamentalism (the BJP came from the RSS) while being the location for the liberation of Dalits from the Hindu hierarchy.

I concur that the Wikipedia entry is quite extensive, and I also concur with others who enjoyed your post, Siddhartha. Thanks.

19 · Shruti on October 15, 2006 2:34 AM · Direct link

Wow, this is the quality of work I aimed at doing when I decided it was a good idea to stay in and study. My idea was a total waste of a Saturday night, but to quote the now infamous Red Snapper line, “Sepia Mutiny does not waste your time.”
Solid thoughtful post, Siddhartha. And thanks to risible for #13.

On this point,

5) However, sociological studies demonstrate over and over that Dalit Buddhists retain many of their pre-conversion practices. They might be called Buddhists in name only. The Indian Nationalist definition of Hinduism includes Buddhism as one of its branches. This offends many people, but strangely, it reflects the way Buddhism exists in India today. That, however, makes for very bad protest politics, hence, I think, the uproar.

I always wonder what exactly conversion does for Dalits. One day they’re destitute Hindus and the next day they’re Buddhists moving on up? Your point indicates that it’s not so much a cultural change for them as it is a political one, but how does it even help them politically? If for all practical purposes, the society around them still recognizes them as the lowest rung, can it really help the common Dalit who has little to no economic agency? Is it more of a demonstration in solidarity?

20 · Dev on October 15, 2006 2:59 AM · Direct link

Here are some interesting links:

India’s Untouchables turn to Buddhism in protest at discrimination by Hindus

21 · Dev on October 15, 2006 3:03 AM · Direct link

“Across India this month, thousands of Hindus from the former Untouchable castes are converting to Buddhism in protest at the continuing discrimination they face. Mass conversion ceremonies are being held throughout the month, from Delhi in the north, to Hyderabad in the south. Organisers are claiming that more than 100,000 people have already converted.”

A hundred thousand Dalits gather in Maharashtra to burn anti-conversion laws

100,000 to Become Buddhists in Hydrabad on 14th October

An Overview of India’s Buddhist Movement

And Finally…. the blog of Ambedkar 2006

22 · Dev on October 15, 2006 3:07 AM · Direct link

^ Damn, just realized the links don’t work 🙂

Just go to – they have a whole focus on the issue at the moment.

23 · shiva on October 15, 2006 3:24 AM · Direct link


I am surprised that you choose to discuss a wikipedia discussion on Ambedkar and Pakistan rather than read the document here One of the unfortunate consequences of Ambedkar idolisation (a post 80s practice) is that people have stopped reading him – critically or otherwise – and have simply taken his statements for the value as polemic.

As Ambedkar says in this paper,

The second thing he will find is that there is no partisanship. The aim is to expound the scheme of Pakistan in all its aspects and not to advocate it. The aim is to explain and not to convert. It would, however, be a pretence to say that I have no views on Pakistan. Views I have. Some of them are expressed, others may have to be gathered. Two things, however, may well be said about my views. In the first place, wherever they are expressed, they have been reasoned out. Secondly, whatever the views, they have certainly not the fixity of a popular prejudice. They are really thoughts and not views. In other words, I have an open mind, though not an empty mind. A person with an open mind is always the subject of congratulations. While this may be so, it must, at the same time, be realized that an open mind may also be an empty mind and that such an open mind, if it is a happy condition, is also a very dangerous condition for a man to be in. A disaster may easily overtake a man with an empty mind. Such a person is like a ship without ballast and without a rudder. It can have no direction. It may float but may also suffer a shipwreck against a rock for want of direction. While aiming to help the reader by placing before him all the material, relevant and important, the reader will find that I have not sought to impose my views on him. I have placed before him both sides of the question and have left him to form his own opinion.

The paper was published in 1945 about 9 years before he died. Shortly after this paper came the Constituent Assembly and thanks to the efforts of Gandhi, Ambedkar found a place in it as the chair of its drafting committee. Ambedkar’s views on the Constitution of India have not been studied with care. And given the Indian “scholar’s” fondness for combing texts for quotes and trotting them out as the points of view of the person in question, almost all that is written on this subject is worthless. A lot of anecdotal evidence might be already lost. In between 1945 and 1956 came the Kashmir problem and then the fall of Tibet, both of which worried Ambedkar greatly. Interestingly when Ambedkar invited another famous activist of his time (he was not a dalit) to join him in embracing Buddhism, the latter tartly responded that unlike Ambedkar he wasn’t ready to give up on Hinduism and even if he did not believe in its tenets would rather die a Hindu. Another (again not a dalit) commented that Ambedkar was simply achieving a high jump rather than a long jump.

Considering that Ambedkar thought that caste has no biological basis it is surprising that he thought these to be unchanging categories. Varna and to a lesser extent jati are both constantly changing categories. There are a few powerful communities within the Hindu fold today that were untouchable in Phule and even Ambedkar’s time. Social mobility rather than unchangeable classes is the feature that stands out. Which is why communal configurations have tended to break up.

24 · Res on October 15, 2006 3:34 AM · Direct link

Well if “varna” and “jati” are “constantly changing” does that mean “untouchables” should just wile away their time hoping it would change so that they would (finally) be able lead a life with dignity? I can’t help but notice that some Hindus are annoyed by this conversion out of Hinduism and into Buddhism. But it wouldn’t be happening if Hindu society wasn’t so repressive of the so-called “untouchables.”

25 · shiva on October 15, 2006 4:38 AM · Direct link


…does that mean “untouchables” should just wile away their time hoping it would change so that they would (finally) be able lead a life with dignity?

Well said. And there is something phoney about being accorded ‘dignity’ after demand. These are not mere civil rights but are at the core of a person’s identity. Ambedkar says that Hinduism is beyond reform as it is inherently unequal and unjust. Even then Hindu reformers continued to invite Ambedkar to speak at their conferences through the 30s. Ambedkar of course was far from being clannish or even striedent. He was married to a Brahmin (his 2nd marriage IIANM) and had friends from all communities.

Here’s the link to Thoughts on Pakistan. The one in the earlier post doesn’t work. Please do at least browse through the document, although it is meant for a more serious read. From the preface

I cannot close this preface without thanking Prof. Manohar B. Chitnis of the Khalsa College, Bombay, and Mr. K. V. Chitre for their untiring labours to remove all printer’s and clerical errors that had crept into the first edition, and to see that this edition is free from all such blemishes. I am also very grateful to Prof. Chitnis for the preparation of the Index, which has undoubtedly enhanced the utility of the book.

and the

26 · Al_Mujahid_for_debauchery on October 15, 2006 7:53 AM · Direct link

Great post Siddhartha. The video from ashvin was extremely depressing. It sure sucks to be a Dalit (maybe the understatement of the year)

27 · Red Snapper on October 15, 2006 9:10 AM · Direct link

but to quote the now infamous Red Snapper

I’m infamous now??

Great post Siddhartha

I always wonder what exactly conversion does for Dalits. One day they’re destitute Hindus and the next day they’re Buddhists moving on up?

I think it is empowering. Generations of oppression being rejected in a symbolic act. The arrogant classifying of Buddhism as ‘just another branch’ or Hinduism in Gujarat must be especially obnoxious to them.

28 · chick pea on October 15, 2006 9:36 AM · Direct link

red snapper.. you have always been infamous 🙂

just like the chick pea 😉

29 · Mr Kobayashi on October 15, 2006 9:59 AM · Direct link

Siddhartha, rock-star post.

30 · sidg on October 15, 2006 10:01 AM · Direct link

This is a great post.

This conversion doesn’t do anything to help them. This is just a false hope given to them for getting more votes and more people in their religion(Christianity). Changing religions is not going to help them go up in life. If the OBCs,BCs,SCs,STs make up 70-80% of the population then i still don’t get it why they are called minorities. They have to voice their opinion when someone puts them down or treats them bad(This will not happen just by changing religions, but becoming a strong person). The laws and enforcement of laws should be more strict and swift.

The most annoying thing about this is how 70% of the media and other important positions are held by people from not lower castes. Mainly because nobody cares to EDUCATEthe lower castes. They just do this sort of stupid mass conversions which helps them get votes. Unless the government strictly enforce education of lower castes all over India by either free mid day meals and as such, the lower castes are not going to hold positions in media or wherever they want to. Because no private company is going to look at castes, they are just going to look at your education, if you have no skills you are still going to be holding a janitorial or unskilled labor where you will not be making decisions. So education is the main tool to “EMPOWER” people not religious ceremonies and conversions. It might give a dose of euphoria to those people and make them vote but heck they are still going to be where they are for another 50 years unless educated.

31 · Sriram on October 15, 2006 10:05 AM · Direct link

Thanks for this great post. This is an individual I know very little about and your article gives me a great starting point.

32 · senaX on October 15, 2006 10:09 AM · Direct link

I am all for the Dalits wresting themselves free from the oppressive Brahmanic ideology. I agree with Ambedkar’s reasoning, and prefer Buddhism over Christianity or Islam

yup – let them convert to buddhism all they want

only thing is though, this is not what actually happens, if you read about the conversions that recently happened, although most converted to buddhism, there were a significant amount who converted to christianity

33 · tamasha on October 15, 2006 10:13 AM · Direct link

Yes, I would have to echo this rock-star business, Siddhartha. I have learned so much this morning!

I have nothing to add except that I’m pleased to see a higher level of maturity in the comments of this post than one might expect, given the intense nature of the subject. Thank you everyone for sharing personal information and links, etc. It’s making for a rich (no pun intended) lesson.

34 · sidg on October 15, 2006 10:14 AM · Direct link

Is there any link on what Dr.Ambedkar advocated on education for lower castes.
He was given the post of writing the constitution mainly because of the education he got not because of his caste. I am really surprised he did not do more for education of the oppressed.
Yes there might still be some educated racists but it would be like the US then. US has its fair share of racists but they dont stop anyone on their tracks to become successful.
In this age no education means no success, no matter what caste or religion.

35 · voiceinthehead on October 15, 2006 10:31 AM · Direct link

Regarding the anti-conversion bill, the attempt to classify Buddism and Jainism as sub sets of Hinduism is not born purely out of an attempt to repress the lower castes. Its a widely held opinion among Hindus as evidenced by the extent to which Buddha is worshipped among the pantheon of Gods

1. Gautama, the buddha is NOT the ninth avataar of vishnu. See for a consise description of the controversy. 2. Translation of Bhagavatam Google around for views of Vivekananada, Arabindo, and other reformers on this controversy.

36 · Janeofalltrades on October 15, 2006 10:43 AM · Direct link

I always wonder what exactly conversion does for Dalits. One day they’re destitute Hindus and the next day they’re Buddhists moving on up? Your point indicates that it’s not so much a cultural change for them as it is a political one, but how does it even help them politically? If for all practical purposes, the society around them still recognizes them as the lowest rung, can it really help the common Dalit who has little to no economic agency? Is it more of a demonstration in solidarity?

In conversations with my grandpa…the symbolic act was more of a rejection of Hindu laws that separated people and kept the Dalits down. It was more of an empowerment act of not being a dalit any more and less about actually being Buddhist though he did follow Buddhist philosophies and encouraged the converts to follow them as well. However because culture is so strongly bound to religion in India many converts continued to practice Hinduism in some form of the other.

My grandfathers household was a perfect example. They practiced Buddhism in daily life and it permeated into a lot of things my grandfather did and how he lived. But his children all ended up devout Hindus and my grandparents did not prevent them from being so. The temple in his house contained a statue of Buddha, a conch & Ganesha & a picture of Ambedkar. He was a moderate man and practiced the middle way a philosophy that was the core of what Gautam Buddha taught, it meant being non extreme and tolerant of everyone and for the the era when Ambedkar was a renegade it appealed to the Gandhi believers. If you compare Gandhi’s teachings to his they have much in common.

So it was more of a symbolic act of defiance however remember it also meant not identifying yourself by caste in so many aspects and forms in your daily life. It meant not being a dalit when you applied for employment or education etc etc. It was also psychologically allowing the dalits to believe they were better than before and they could aspire to be better. Also Buddhists were persecuted all thru South Asia for centuries by several Zorastrians, Persians and Muslim rulers so the religion had a ‘perseverence’ label attached to it.

37 · risible on October 15, 2006 11:09 AM · Direct link


yeah, I was writing quickly, I agree with Shiva that things are more nuanced than bullet points allow, that views change over time (as with gandhi’s views) and like all things debatable. But to quote from the book which you referenced and he found a link to:

“What is the unity the Hindu sees between Pakistan and Hindustan? If it is geographical unity, then that is no unity. Geographical unity is unity intended by nature. In building up a nationality on geographical unity, it must be remembered that it is a case where Nature proposes and Man disposes. If it is unity in external things, such as ways and habits of life, that is no unity. Such unity is the result of exposure to a common environment. If it is administrative unity, that again is no unity. The instance of Burma is in point. Arakan and Tenasserim were annexed in 1826 by the treaty of Yendabu. Pegu and Martaban were annexed in 1852. Upper Burma was annexed in 1886. The administrative unity between India and Burma was forged in 1826. For over 110 years that administrative unity continued to exist. In 1937, the knot that tied the two together was cut asunder and nobody shed a tear over it. The unity between India and Burma was not less fundamental. If unity is to be of an abiding character, it must be founded on a sense of kinship, in the feeling of being kindred. In short, it must be spiritual. Judged in the light of these considerations, the unity between Pakistan and Hindustan is a myth. Indeed, there is more spiritual unity between Hindustan and Burma than there is between Pakistan and Hindustan. And if the Hindus did not object to the severance of Burma from India, it is difficult to understand how the Hindus can object to the severance of an area like Pakistan, which, to repeat, is politically detachable from, socially hostile and spiritually alien to, the rest of India.


Keep in mind that the Hindu Mahasanha (the precursors of todays Hindu parties) were largely against partition. They wanted “akhand bharat.” undivided India.

38 · risble on October 15, 2006 11:29 AM · Direct link

I always wonder what exactly conversion does for Dalits. One day they’re destitute Hindus and the next day they’re Buddhists moving on up? Your point indicates that it’s not so much a cultural change for them as it is a political one, but how does it even help them politically?


In Maharastra, “baudh” has become synonomyous with Mahar, so the discriminators still know who the Dalits are. The same goes with Christian dalits and Sikh Dalits and Muslim dalits. The Dalit Buddhists I know tell me its psychological liberation, like having a burden removed. Besides retaining Hindu practices, many have taken up meditation, SN Goenka’s vipassana meditation is very popular among them, though he is a Burma raised Marwari, not a Dalit, and some Dalits are wary of that. Quite a bit of literature has emerged in Marathi especially, but also other languuages.

In Mumbai, a popular dance is the “Jai Bhim” dance, where they lift one hand up and gyrate, probably after a famous picture of Ambedkar. “Jai Bhim” is the greeting Dalits use with one another (Bhim being Ambedkar). Dalit arts are entering popular culture as well, in Tamil, there is usually a track in every film that has the ‘Pariayar’ drum beat, and there was a CD put out called Dalit Drums.

There is an annual book festival for navayana books (a Dalit Buddhist imprint), and thousands of dalits turn up.
Politically, Kanshi ram, Mayavati, the whole BSP ideology, is struck from Ambedkar, though his own political party was unsuccessful.

Keep in mind that a few thousand conversions in India is not an earth shaking event. Many popular Hindu festivals are dominated by Dalits as well…

My perpective, as you can probably guess, is unabashedly Indian nationalist, though I don’t agree with alot of what passes for nationalism today.

39 · Abi on October 15, 2006 1:04 PM · Direct link

Thank you, Siddhartha, for this excellent post. I’m not knowledgeable enough to add to the factual content here. But I do recommend the site, which has a pretty extensive section on the great man himself.

Bhupinder Singh has a nice post on Ambedkar and Sikhism.

Thanks again.

40 · voiceinthehead on October 15, 2006 1:32 PM · Direct link

Is the background song on ashvins’ video Gaddars song

41 · louiecypher on October 15, 2006 1:38 PM · Direct link

I’m very sympathetic to the Dalit cause and have a high regard for Buddhism. However, as I have observed in my ancestral corner of Tamil Nadu, the biggest agent of change will be increased competition for Dalit labor. It wasn’t until the textile mills & machining plants opened up that the local Dalits (i.e. Chakkliars) had an alternative to their hereditary role as agricultural serfs and started asserting themselves. I would also hope that the non-elected segments of the central government (e.g. IPS) would show some balls and aggressively prosecute some of the more atavistic elements of the feudal landowning community, but I won’t hold my breath.

While I don’t care for the BJP/VHP (they are co-opting the intolerance that is central to certain faiths that I will not identify in this post), I agree that the Hindu/Buddhist divide is bogus. All you have to do is travel to “Buddhist” Thailand where people still pray to Ganesh & Shiva. They understand that “Hindu” is a catch-all that does not make sense outside of the Indian context and use the term Brahminism in museum placards/literature to identify that particular belief system that holds the Vedas as central and the Manu smrti as the basis for society. Anyone who knows anything about Hinduism beyond what they teach in Ivy League Comp Religion 101 knows that by equating Hinduism with Brahminism you put 80% of South Indian Hindus outside the fold. My point is that Vedic Hinduism, is just one of many “Hinduisms” along with Jainism/Buddhism/Tamil Muruga worship etc. It just happens to be the sect with the most political power, something that needs to change if we are to be a more equitable society. I’m all for the adoption of Buddhism, it’s a rejection of the Manu smrti not “Hinduism” as a whole.

42 · senaX on October 15, 2006 1:46 PM · Direct link

I always wonder what exactly conversion does for Dalits. One day they’re destitute Hindus and the next day they’re Buddhists moving on up? Your point indicates that it’s not so much a cultural change for them as it is a political one, but how does it even help them politically?

it does nothing – the only true way for progress, as many have already pointed out, is through education

43 · Shivam Vij on October 15, 2006 2:12 PM · Direct link


Thank you for this post – particularly the much-needed last sentence. Some comments:

The mixed message clearly reflects the political complexity of the Dalit leadership’s position.

Actually, Kanshi Ram and Mayawati’s ambiguity over Buddhism is for me a cause for cheer: I don’t know about Kanshi Ram but Mayawati in her speeches has left no doubt about her atheism. For a movement against religion-sanctioned caste, atheism is the most progressive way forward, in my view, notwithstanding the appealing reasons Ambedkar gave for choosing Buddhism. He linked Buddhism and Dalits historically; be that as it may, any harking back to the past for me compromises a movement’s forward, progressive direction. Having said that, I fully understand Buddhism’s appeal, as it stands completely in contrast with Hinduism and against caste. (I do become a little unsure about my views as an atheist when I see a Dalit wish another ‘Happy Dhamma Dushera’ on Orkut!) Mayaywati and Kanshi Ram were concerned with solely the pursuit of power, and may have seen Buddhism as an unnecessary distraction. It could also have come in their way for creating a pan-opprssed movement, as they sought to create a movement that united disparate Dalit communities with disparate OBCs and Muslims – the prjoect of unity between the three has met with little success but is still worth the try, despite the anti-OBC venom that the megalomaniac Chandrabhan Prasad spews:

In the larger historical frame, perusing the day’s news and doing a little background research reminds me how shamefully little I know about Dr. Ambedkar’s story.

That’s true for most Indians including me, and has to do with the shameful neglect of Ambedkar in school books in India, which makes me wonder… The state recognises Ambedkar as an architect of the Constitution in a mai-baap way, wherein the fact that the Constitution’s architect was a great Dalit becomes nithing but lip-sympathy for Dalits; Ambedkar’s views on Hiduism are to be ignored because Gandhi has to be put on a pedestal.

Ambedkar also opposed Gandhi’s naming of untouchables “Harijans,” or children of God. Perhaps he felt it was a hypocritical term; that the Dalit condition simply could not be reconciled with the social structures of Hinduism.

This point needs to be made more strongly. I once wrote a rant about this:

Gandhi’s ‘Harijan’ talk was condescending not just in its content but also for the fact that it was like an upper caste person giving alms: Ambedkarites argue that Dalits have to be led by their own leader, their own ideology. Gandhi was too much in the Hindu mould, as you rightly say.

As with much else in Indian politics, where this leaves anyone is ambiguous. It’s hard to see how the Mandal II mess over expanding the OBC reservations can have advanced the Dalit cause, whatever the outcome.

Mandal II helps bring Dalits and OBCs a little closer; many of those arguing for OBC reservations were Dalit leaders this summer. This is despite the fact that Dalits and OBCs are in violent conflict on the ground all over India because OBCs own small pieces of land where they ill-treat Dalits who work as landless labouers, even as the Indian state continues to live the lie of land reforms. I recently interviewed Dalit intellectual Gopal Guru (the article will be published later) who said that most farmers committing suicide are OBCs, and that their increasing alienation from the state could bring them closer to Dalits, given some hard political mobilisation.

That hard political mobilisation may well happen because of new Dalit parties coming up in UP and elsewhere:

What the BSP needs is some free market competition; this could help Dalits and OBCs with the trickle down process in the development game.

44 · Quizman on October 15, 2006 2:30 PM · Direct link

risible wrote: “7) I am all for the Dalits wresting themselves free from the oppressive Brahmanic ideology. I agree with Ambedkar’s reasoning, and prefer Buddhism over Christianity or Islam.”

The reality on the ground is that there is no powerful brahmanic ideology anymore. In fact, brahmins were never ever in positions of economic or military power; those were in the hands of kshatriyas and vaishyas. [Yes, there was/is a strong brahmanic presence and discrimination in places of religious worship.].

Even now, the largest number of atrocities are committed by the so-called lower castes against other lower castes. Open any newspaper and note the atrocities committed by Yadavs/Rajputs against Dalits in Bihar, or the Gounder atrocities in TN, the Kamma/Reddy discrimination in Andhra. Do note that all these economically powerful (with muscle power) are classified as backward classes.

The less said about the conditions about the adivasis, the better. They are not even in the same league as the other oppressed classes, but they are not a vote bank, and hence, very few care about them.

45 · Quizman on October 15, 2006 2:40 PM · Direct link

Incidentally, the most militant Hindu organizations are headed by non-brahmins (specifically by those classified as Vaishyas and OBCs). There was an article in The Week or Outlook India about this curious phenomenon some years back. VHP and Bajranj Dal were two prominent orgs. I can’t seem to find the article through google since I may not have the correct keywords. Anybody else have luck with that?

46 · razib_the_atheist on October 15, 2006 2:43 PM · Direct link

Keep in mind that the Hindu Mahasanha (the precursors of todays Hindu parties) were largely against partition.

there were fundamentalist muslims who opposed partition as well, they viewed separation of muslims and hindus as an impediment to their conversionary mission.

47 · razib_the_atheist on October 15, 2006 2:46 PM · Direct link

In fact, brahmins were never ever in positions of economic or military power; those were in the hands of kshatriyas and vaishyas.

isn’t this simplistic? the peshwas and senas are not exceptional brahminical ruling dynasties from what i gather. i think it is correct to state that elite status is not a brahmin monopoly, but certainly brahmin preeminence has extended beyond their clerical vocation quite a bit.

48 · risible on October 15, 2006 2:52 PM · Direct link

Even now, the largest number of atrocities are committed by the so-called lower castes against other lower castes.

That is true, but there are mutts in India that will not admit a Shudra, let alone a Dalit initiate to study the Vedas. Plus, the attitude that the panchamas are dirty, drink too much, are licentious, etc., is very common still, I’m sorry to say. Upper caste leaders have not been innocent in all of this. I would prefer reformed Hinduism over Buddhism, but understand the motivation to convert.

BTW the Congress is barely winning the adivasi vote anymore. The Sangh, for all its silliness, has done a lot of good humanitarian work among them.

Here is an account of the event from a “right of center” blog:

The day’s events in Nagpur turned out rather unexpectedly for the organizers. To begin with the event was essentially localized a motley group of individuals and its observance essentially localized to Nagpur despite its organizers attempt to give it an international spin calling it world freedom of religion day. While tall claims were made of converting 100s of thousands, in the end it was just a few hundred that showed up. It is anybody’s guess how many of these few couple of 100 were genuinely motivated and were legitimate conversions. The biggest dampener to the event was the Dalit’s loudest mascot and Bahujan Samaj Party President Mayawati who stormed out of the event and held her own parallel press conference. In a slap in the face to the other dalit messiahs Mayawati dodged questions on why she herself had not converted out of hinduism. Seeking to strike a political balance with an eye on the upcoming Uttar Pradesh polls, Mayawati took refuge in a rather flimsy vow that she will not convert till she became the Prime Minister of India.

49 · Quizman on October 15, 2006 5:01 PM · Direct link

razib: the peshwas and senas are not exceptional brahminical ruling dynasties from what i gather. i think it is correct to state that elite status is not a brahmin monopoly, but certainly brahmin preeminence has extended beyond their clerical vocation quite a bit.

Fair enough. But the reformation came about by Brahmins themselves. In fact, Ram Shastri launched a strong protest against the then Peshwa & his wife. My point was that using terms like “brahminic ideology” is not helpful. Ambedkar himself, as Siddharta has recognized, was helped by a Brahmin. Using vehicles like reservations are discriminatory since they do not oppose specific discriminators but label entire communities as evil. My ancestors, though Brahmins, were never prvileged. They were, in fact, singularly lower middle class. My father had to struggle to do his engineering, by working hard and getting scholarships. Even during those days, there were wealthy classmates of his, who were beneficiers of “positive discrimination”. It is similar to dismiss all white as slave owners whilst there was a strong anti-slavery movement launched by some whites, who literally died for the cause.

risible: The Sangh, for all its silliness, has done a lot of good humanitarian work among them.

Very true. Most people fail to realise that even during the pre-independence days, the RSS made it a point to involve Hindus of all castes within their fold. They also had specific lunches where members of all communities would sit together and eat. Now during the 1940s this was a big deal.

My point is that, as with all political discourse, there are nuances which need to be discussed. Unfortunately, the politicians have reduced it to a simple black and white vote bank issue. Increasingly, it is a class or a sub-caste issue rather than a upper caste vs lower caste issue. Tamil Nadu is a prime example of this phenomenon, where the people who wield economic and political power are the so-called lower castes, but haven’t done much to the lower classes. More importantly, the atrocities that take place over there are almost always done by lower castes with financial/political clout on other lower castes who do not possess it. Bihar/UP are other examples.

50 · Ponniyin Selvan on October 15, 2006 5:27 PM · Direct link


Thanks for the link ‘thoughts on pakistan’.. I was planning to read it for a long time but could not get it in the bookshops I looked at.

More power for the Dalits to convert to Buddhism. I’d have liked the Dalits to convert to ‘atheism/religion of rational thinking’.. But Buddhism is the closest.. In the process, if they get money from the wealthy Christian missionaries that’s a bonus too.. Christian missionary NGOs get billions of dollars in foreign aid.. 🙂

51 · RC on October 15, 2006 5:39 PM · Direct link

Thanks to Shivam Vij for that article and that disturbing video link. My god!!!!

Even now, the largest number of atrocities are committed by the so-called lower castes against other lower castes.

I think the above statement is what ends up being used to discriminate against the Dalits. The above statement says .. “look at those savages …” well, thats the first step !!!

52 · Ponniyin Selvan on October 15, 2006 6:08 PM · Direct link

Thanks to Shivam Vij for that article and that disturbing video link. My god!!!!

Yeah disturbing.. But how much of it is just propaganda and good editing.. who knows.. Especially the segment that I can understand relating to the Tamil devar landlord talking about rapes looks like cleverly edited to me.. (after the 3.00 minute mark.. the 30-40 second segment) He speaks in the third person and what he says doesn’t gel with translation which says ‘we used to rape a lot’ ..

I’m not saying that Dalit discrimination does not take place.. Ofcourse it is but be watchful of propaganda videos..

53 · RC on October 15, 2006 6:14 PM · Direct link

Since I dont speak the language spoken by the landlord, I cant say one way or the other. You might be correct. It could be done for increasing the shock value. But what was more shocking to me was the little girl’s account about discrimination at the school. That was extremely shocking to me. I have no way of telling whether what she was making up the allegations or not, but if its true than … my god !!!

54 · risible on October 15, 2006 6:17 PM · Direct link

My point is that, as with all political discourse, there are nuances which need to be discussed. Unfortunately, the politicians have reduced it to a simple black and white vote bank issue.

I agree. In contrast to the Sangh, which is thought to be upper caste when thats simply not true any more, the Communist Party, allegedly the people’s party, started out and continues in many ways to be an upper caste bastion. On one occasion, the Communist leader of Kerala, EMS Namboodiridad dismissed depressed caste uplift as a “burgeoise concern” subordinate to the revolution! Ambedkar referred to the Communists as a “Brahmin Boy’s Club” 🙂 On the other hand, he had very cordial relations with the Sangh.

I alluded to the fact that Ambedkar considered and rejected both Islam and Christianity, both on Indian nationalist grounds. He also considered Sikhism. Veer Savarkar of the Hindu mahasabha was very much behind a Dalit conversion to Sikhism, but 1) Ambedkar spoke with lower caste Sikhs who told them their situation was not pretty, 2) the Jat dominated Sikh institutions did not want a massive Dalit influx. So he dropped the idea.

With reference to Christianity, it is well known that the Syrian Christian Church was also also against a Dalit influx.

He also, according to Eleanor Zelliot, thought of Christianity as a “foreign religion.”

Now for some books:

1) The best short biography of Ambedkar is “Dr. Ambedkar and Untouchability” written by Christophe Jaffrelot, published by Columbia University Press. Jaffrelot is a French scholar.

2) The best collection of essays on the Dalit movement (which includes an extensive analysis of the origin of the term ‘Dalit’, a history of the Dalit panthers, etc.,) is Elanor Zelliot’s “From Untouchable to Dalit.” Zelliot is an American scholar.

3) For an account of the retention of Hindu practices among Buddhist Dalit converts, check Caste: Its Twentieth Century Avatar, by M.N. Srinivas, who is universally acknoweledeged as the preeminent authority on Sanskritization. Check Neera Burras survey of mahar villages in particular.

4) For the claim that Ambedkarite Buddhism is really a Deweyan rationalism, check the chapter on Ambedkar in “Prophets Facing Backwards” by Meera Nanda.

5) For a polemical reconstruction of Buddhist history in India, with an account of the Tamil adi-dravida Buddhist movement of Iyothee Thass that preceded Ambedkarite Buddhism, check Gail Omvedt “Buddhism in India.” Omvedt is an American scholar married to an Indian who lives in India.
The nationalists are ambivalent about Ambedkar at the moment. Politically those that make good with Buddhism strike me as being on the right path–and there are several. Shourie’s approach, imo, is a huge mistake.

55 · Quizman on October 15, 2006 6:31 PM · Direct link


Nonsense. What I was pointing out was that there are many nuances to this discourse and it is not a simple case of higher caste vs lower caste (although that discrimination exists). By making simplistic statements like you have done above, the discourse leads nowhere. In addition to talking about higher caste vs lower caste discrimination, it is imperative that we not lose sight of the fact that there are many layers underneath. [Akin to talking about black-on-black violence in the US.]It is a vital topic that needs to be aired out. There are other issues (economic, cultural, political, regional) even within the same subset of castes that are at play here. Policy makers should not concentrate on caste as the sole variable.

And converting is a simplistic solution, and possibly the least viable solution. Pick up any desi newspaper and check out the matrimonial ads; one can notice subtle discrimination within Christian, Muslim and Sikh communities as well. And if one is convinced about Buddhism’s lack of discrimination, all they ought to do is read about the Rape of Nanking (Buddhist vs Buddhist, wasn’t it?). Maybe the IPU is a better choice?

56 · Roy on October 15, 2006 7:25 PM · Direct link

Good to see Buddhism make a come back in the land of its birth!

57 · Hari on October 15, 2006 8:24 PM · Direct link

For those interested in this, I couldn’t recommend more Jabbar Patel’s biopic Ambedkar. Not easy to get in the U.S., but not impossible either. The lead actor Mamooty plays a fine Ambedkar, albeit in a Mallu accent throughout.

58 · Beige Siege on October 15, 2006 8:40 PM · Direct link

I agree. In contrast to the Sangh, which is thought to be upper caste when thats simply not true any more, the Communist Party, allegedly the people’s party, started out and continues in many ways to be an upper caste bastion. On one occasion, the Communist leader of Kerala, EMS Namboodiridad dismissed depressed caste uplift as a “burgeoise concern” subordinate to the revolution! Ambedkar referred to the Communists as a “Brahmin Boy’s Club” 🙂 On the other hand, he had very cordial relations with the Sangh.

Same thing with the communist party in Bengal as well. The irony is delicious, if it only it were not so sad.

59 · Jamesbond on October 15, 2006 10:33 PM · Direct link

Buddhists should be the 2nd largest religious minority in INDIA… not Muslims :-p

60 · blue mountain on October 16, 2006 7:47 AM · Direct link

The conversion of Dalits to Buddhism was performed by priests, while a group of Christian pastors from the Council led by President Dr Joseph D’Souza baptised the Dalits.{Link}

Someone please tell me what those “Christian pastors” were doing there. And when did they become an official authority for conversion to Buddhism ? This D’Souza guy seems interesting. A different account of the conversion here.

Anyhow political power will not come to Dalits unless education is widespread – no matter which religion they embrace. Mayabati seized power in UP but tragically tried to copy Congress and BJP with disastrous results.

Well something like Jharkhand is likely to happen. Here tribals say that a tribal is tribal first. His religious identity does not matter.

On a related topic,Yoginder Sikand writes about Muslim dalits here

Most Indian Muslims are descendants of ‘ untouchable and ‘low’ caste converts, with only a small minority tracing their origins to Arab, Iranian and Central Asian settlers and invaders. Although the Qur’an is fiercely egalitarian in its social ethics, Indian Muslim society is characterised by numerous caste-like features, consisting of several caste-like groups (jatis). Muslims who claim foreign descent claim a superior status for themselves as ashraf or ‘noble’. Descendants of indigenous converts are, on the other hand, commonly referred to contemptuously as ajlaf or ‘base’ or ‘lowly’. [Link]

The foremost priority for the AIBMM is to get recognition from the Indian state for the over 100 million ‘Dalit Muslims’ as Scheduled Castes so that they can avail of the same benefits that the Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist Scheduled castes enjoy, including reserved government jobs, reserved seats in state legislatures and in the Indian Parliament, special courts to try cases of atrocities against them as well as social and economic development programmes meant specially for them.

In articulating a separate Dalit Muslim identity it finds itself at odds with the traditional, largely ‘high’ caste Muslim leadership, which, in seeking to speak for all Muslims, sees the question of caste that the AIBMM so stridently stresses as divisive. Leading Muslim spokesmen have, not surprisingly, accused the AIBMM of seeking to create divisions within the Muslim community and of spreading ‘casteism’, and thus playing into the hands of militant Hindus.

Ali is bitterly critical of the traditional, largely ‘high’ caste, Muslim leadership, both `ulama as well as ‘lay’. Over the centuries of Muslim rule, he says, the ruling class among the Muslims displayed little concern for the plight of the Dalit Muslims, who remained tied down to their traditional occupations, mired in poverty and ignorance. The only concern of the ruling class Muslims, he writes, was to perpetuate their own rule, and for this they entered into alliances with ‘upper’ caste Hindus, keeping the Dalits, both Hindus as well as Muslims, cruelly suppressed under their firm control.This disdain for the Dalits, he writes, carried down right through the period of Muslim rule, and continues till this very day.

Ali calls for a ‘power shift’ from the ‘Arab-origin ashraf’ to the ‘oppressed Muslims’. Denying that his struggle is aimed against the `upper’ caste Muslims, he says that it is directed principally at the government, to force it to grant Scheduled Caste status to the Dalit Muslims.[link]

61 · Nanda Kishore on October 16, 2006 7:52 AM · Direct link

Until such times as religion plays a central role in human life, there will always be those who will misappropriate it to oppress others. I won’t toe the Richard Dawkins line and say religion is the root of all evil and I can understand why people want to reject a religion that has brought them nothing but misery, but to think that people can convert their way out of such misery is naive. May be I’m just a mubmling idiot, but those are my thoughts. I especially feel sorry for those that are being seduced by Christianity (again, I can fully understand), which has been used to cause untold misery to mankind.

62 · Risen on October 16, 2006 11:44 AM · Direct link

Dear Nanda, it’s because of Christian genius that this world runs. And it is Indians who are running to Christian countries, disowning their own “Hindustan.” I’m sure you have your own pre-conceived notions of Christianity but it is Christianity that formed the basis of the western legal system that India eagerly adopted. “Untold misery to mankind”?

Please give it a rest.

63 · Al Mujahid for debauchery on October 16, 2006 12:08 PM · Direct link

I dont think Indian Christians have the ability to bring untold misery to anyone.

64 · P.G. Wodehouse on October 16, 2006 12:29 PM · Direct link

but it is Christianity that formed the basis of the western legal system that India eagerly adopted

The western system is based on the following:
(*) Checks and balances.
(*) Separation of church from state—religion stays in your home, not in public affairs
That’s why India eagerly adopted it. Christianity gets no credit for the western legal system.

65 · Puliogre in da USA on October 16, 2006 12:58 PM · Direct link

And it is Indians who are running to Christian countries, disowning their own “Hindustan.”

My parents move to the USA. the USA is not a christian country. It is secular. India is also secular. They moved from 1 secular country to another. Christianity had nothing to do with it. get over the idea that god in government makes anything good happen.

66 · Al beruni on October 16, 2006 1:05 PM · Direct link

Nanda Kishore
whhoops, careful there !!

It is not acceptable to openly talk about the massive violence supported by christianity in the last 1000 years. You should understand that things like the Holocaust, violence against native peoples in the americans, massive expansion and extension of arab slavery model by european christians to americas are “cultural” issues or some sort of “aberration”. They definitely do not have ANYTHING to do with Christianity. In fact, as the Pope recently suggested at Auschwitz, many of these horrific episodes have to do with (gasp!) paganism….

On the other hand, science, medicine and modern goverment etc. are all definitely derived from Christianity. Plus all those who immigrate to the west are actually secretly harboring the desire to become christians, as they would be executed in their benighted former homelands..

Got it?

67 · electric_abacus on October 16, 2006 1:50 PM · Direct link


I especially feel sorry for those that are being seduced by Christianity (again, I can fully understand), which has been used to cause untold misery to mankind.

How is that not an intolerant, anti-secular comment?

Yes, there have been many ills perpetrated in the name of Christianity – but that stems from a faulty reading, not from the doctrine itself.

*rolls eyes, gets back on topic*

My impression of these conversions is that they’re mostly a symbolic rejection, like a wake-up call to the government that more needs to be done for the dalits – yes, no, maybe?

I don’t see any practical gain in it for them, since people would still recognize them as dalits, regardless of professed faith. Nevertheless, giving up one’s faith as a means of protest is a gesture of real, palpable desperation – and hopefully people are listening.

68 · Miguel Marcos on October 16, 2006 1:55 PM · Direct link

Regarding the comment about Ambedkar’s bust at Columbia, I found the following page with a snapshot:

I had never heard of Dr. Ambedkar before this post and am glad I know of him now. A figure to be admired.

69 · Puliogre in da USA on October 16, 2006 1:56 PM · Direct link

but that stems from a faulty reading, not from the doctrine itself.

the bible explicitly says some pretty horrible stuff. I could interpret it in a very uncreative way, and do some heinous stuff. people act like “if you have faith in the RIGHT thing in religion, and not the wrong interpretation you will be a good person”. but…the truth is, having faith in a thousands year old fairy tail full of barbaric laws and ideas and assuming its true without any evidence is fairly crazy.

70 · GujuDude on October 16, 2006 2:02 PM · Direct link

but it is Christianity that formed the basis of the western legal system that India eagerly adopted

The western system is based on the following: (*) Checks and balances. (*) Separation of church from state—religion stays in your home, not in public affairs That’s why India eagerly adopted it. Christianity gets no credit for the western legal system.

I thought the roots of western law and civil code stems from Babylonian law (Hammurabi’s code), which predates Christianity. It also has elements of Greek and Roman (pre/post christian) civic code. Christianity has played a significant role in the west, but Babylonian, Greek, and Roman civic code influences are far greater than Christianity.

However, seperation of church and state is far more subjective. Religion has played an important role in almost every society. How ‘seperate’ church and state has been, from what I know, has direct bearing on diversity, how science (and mathematics) has evolved, explaining many issues away from religion (and how educated people have become, how much the world has become dynamic.) Historically, in a religiously homogenous society, religious influence is a foregone conclusion. It does influence how people or rulers organize and enforce their civic code.

I may be talking out of my ass here, though. Would any lawywer/historians like to expand on this? Am I missing something or misinterpreting here?

71 · senaX on October 16, 2006 2:33 PM · Direct link

all you kannadigas … or if you understand kannada 🙂

here is a link about karnataka and conversions

aptly titled “inversion through conversion”… shows how manupilative conversions are

72 · senaX on October 16, 2006 2:36 PM · Direct link

thats “invasion through conversion”…

73 · Puliogre in da USA on October 16, 2006 2:37 PM · Direct link

“inversion through conversion”

krishna = 1/jesus

74 · shiva on October 16, 2006 2:44 PM · Direct link

Shivam is wrong. Ambedkar is not the architect of the Constitution of India. He chaired the Drafting Committee one of the many committees of that august body, the Constituent Assembly of India – whose 250 odd members are the founding parents of modern India – which included men and women of all communities. Since Ambedkar himself was never one given vanity or envy, it will not be out of place to suggest that he was only one of the many distinguished and learned men and women of the Assembly. Ambedkar almost missed being a part of the Constituent Assembly as by 1947 he had few friends. IIANM Ambedkar (as was Sir CP Ramaswami Aiyar and many other distinguished gentlemen of their time) were members of the Viceroy’s Executive Council during the Quit India movement. This does not mean that they went over to the other side (as Shourie suggests) for quite a few Congressmen too were against the Quit India movement. The commies of course were the collaborators of the Brits in India during WW2 and many leading lights of the commie movement (some alive today) were informants and stool pigeons for the Brits and shameless recepients of what in Malayalam is termed “kai-coolie” Gandhi, among others, helped Ambedkar get a ticket from the Congress and helped him get elected to the Assembly IIANM from Bengal. Even if this post is not about Gandhi, since he has been dragged in here by Shivam we must put things in perspective. Gandhi believed that untouchability and the consequent oppression is not a mere matter of laws. Unless we transform ourselves and believe within that we are all one discrimination and oppression is some form or the other will exist. And how true it is in the case of India. While our laws have achieved a little it is the transformative acts of people like Baba Amte and Bindeshwari Pathak who have helped us make a clean break with the past. Others such as Dr. Venkataswami (Arvind Eye Hospital) and S. Vidyakar (Udavum Karangal) are among those few enlightened folk who uphold ‘maitri’ (friendship and fraternity).

Now even if Shivam won’t tell you – the category Dalit – is an artificial one. Within the putative Dalit class there are tens of communities. Ambedkar himself wasn’t from a very oppressed group. He came from a fairly well established community – the Mahars – and there continues to be a Mahar Regiment in today’s Indian Army. The Congress is where the extremely marginalised dalits found their home. Babu Jagjivan Ram from Bihar, and Kakkan from Tamizh Naadu being among the most popular dalits of their time, and thereon to more recent times we have had Sitaram Kesri (who is known to have never once hosted a relation, even his children at his official residence in Delhi), Buta Singh (A former Valmiki who embraced Sikhism), or Giani Zail Singh who hailed from a non-dalit but marginalised group among the Sikhs. On the other hand the “Dravidian” movement in Tamizh Naadu (supposedly a ‘liberational’ one) sidelined truly popular leaders most notably Erattaimaal Srinivasan (a very good friend i may add of my granduncle). We forget that in the ferment that was India in the first half of the 20th century, Ambedkar was not the only activist. Kerala had just witnessed the movements of Sree Narayana Guru and Sahodaran Ayyappan, there was Shahu Maharaj in Kolhapur, and many others and others such as Mahatma Phule even earlier. And among the ideologues who condemned the untouchability and ritual have we forgotten Prabodhankar Thackeray, Bal Thackeray’s father? Shivam seems like he wants to create a new communal group, not a political group. While Ambedkar saw marginal communities banding together to form political groups, and Mayawati and Kanshi Ram before her have already transformed BSP into a broad coalition (probably because they haven’t achieved much outside UP?). Shivam isn’t trying anything new. Contrary to what some may think “caste” groups aren’t unchanging entities and have evolved many times over and gone far beyond their original boundaries.

And as for biographies, the best on Ambedkar is by Dhananjay Keer. Keer IIANM was himself a Dalit (and lower in the hierarchy than was Ambedkar) and wrote a number of biographies over about 3 decades from the 30s to the 60s. Keer in the way of the scholars of his time wrote not only in English but also in Indian langauges (Marathi and Hindi). Keer wrote biographies of Gandhi (simply the best), Savarkar, Phule, Tilak, and Gokhale. Keer was very close to Savarkar and Ambedkar. And his biographies capture the nuance of the times that these new glossy volumes, little better than coffee table publications, lack. And Gail Omvedt is an historian only in the sense that a turkey and T-Rex can be classified along the same bilogical clade.

Ambedkar was a giant in a time of giants. Even the the ones among them who had chosen to given up their studies to join the struggle for freedom were well read. Some like Jagjivan Ram found Ambedkar haughty and were touched by simplicity of Gandhi who once said (more or less) that Ambedkar’s rage is understandable. And if he chooses “not to break our heads” it is because he does not hate or harbor any malice.

75 · desitude on October 16, 2006 3:08 PM · Direct link

Kanshi Ram, the “Bahujan” architect, was not a Hindu, but a Dalit Sikh. I wonder whether the cremation controversy was over whether to follow Sikh or Buddhist rites. Dalit Sikhs are still routinely marginalized in Punjab villages. As an example, from a controversy in the Doab region:

Talhan offers special insights into the working of the caste system in Punjab as the issues there squarely address issues of political and social power. Jat Sikhs in Talhan have sought to legitimise their position by claiming that the Dalits religious practices place them outside the boundaries of Sikhism. Jat leader Bhupinder Singh says, “The reason we object to the Dalits taking charge of the gurdwara is that they cut their hair, smoke and drink.” He has the support of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), which has been working to bar Sehajdhari Sikhs, those who cut their hair, from voting in elections to the body.

Many of the Dalit Sikhs congregate under the Ravidas banner. Ravidas, a cobbler-saint, is honored by Hindus and Sikhs. A prominent Dalit activist in the US, KP Singh, is a Ravidasi Sikh.

At a recent meeting in Talhan, the head of the ultra-Right Damdami Taksal, Mokham Singh, even claimed that the Dalit protests in Talhan were a conspiracy to destroy the Sikh faith. The Taksal, once led by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, has been at the core of efforts by the religious Right to strangle alternative practices of the faith, such as those of the Ad-Dharam, Udasi, Ravidasiya and Ramdasiya sects, adhered to by most Dalit Sikhs. Although the Sikh faith expressly bars the practice of caste, most villages in Punjab have separate gurdwaras for different communities. [Link]

76 · Rorschach on October 16, 2006 4:52 PM · Direct link

Awesome Post, Sid.
Thanks a lot to Ashvin and Shivram Vij for uploading that video on YouTube.
I remember the time my Grandfather talked about his younger brother who was exiled from home, because he had married a Dalit woman.It took 20 years till the time relations were renewed,and this happened only after the death of my Great Grandfather,who was a staunch believer in the Caste System. It is going to take a long long time for a paradigm shift in perception when it comes to Caste is concerned,especially in India.I shudder to think as to how many girl-childs dreams of becoming a Doctor will be shattered by then, riven and smashed by these,our “Modern times”.


77 · dipendra on October 16, 2006 5:08 PM · Direct link

Excellent points shiva, Quizman and risible. For those who think that Buddhist majority countries are paragons of egalitarianisms Buddhism comfortably co-existed with caste.

In Sri Lanka, people of the lower castes in Sinhalese society were denied ordination into the Buddhist clergy. The argument given was “how could one expect women of the higher castes to fall at the feet of men of lower caste”. The lower castes had to travel to Burma for ordination.

There is a caste of untouchables in Sinhalese society called the Rodiya. The Durava were the caste of toddy tappers. The Wahumpura were the caste of jaggery makers also considered low since one had to climb the
palm tree to get the ingredients for jaggery. The Karave were the caste of fishermen. The lower castes frequently adopted Roman Catholicism to “escape caste discrimination entrenched in Buddhist society”.

All Sri Lankan leaders, except for one, belonged to the highest Goyigama caste. The Buddhist clergy remains largely Goyigama to date except for the two orders (Amarapura and Ramanya) that received ordination from Burma.

78 · shiva on October 16, 2006 5:59 PM · Direct link

The Buddhist bhikshu has a very different role from that of a Hindu purohit. Since the Buddha rejected ritual and had no use for the idea of a soul, bhikshus have nothing to do with rites of passage. I wonder what the bhikshu was doing when he performed a 7th day ritual for the late Kanshi Ram.

79 · razib_the_atheist on October 16, 2006 6:04 PM · Direct link

The Buddhist bhikshu has a very different role from that of a Hindu purohit. Since the Buddha rejected ritual and had no use for the idea of a soul, bhikshus have nothing to do with rites of passage. I wonder what the bhikshu was doing when he performed a 7th day ritual for the late Kanshi Ram.

did it specify which buddhist tradition? in japan buddhist priests traditionally perform funeral rites.

80 · desitude on October 16, 2006 6:41 PM · Direct link

Sena X:

thats “invasion through conversion”…

Dude, there’s an English version of the conversion video.

81 · senaX on October 16, 2006 7:01 PM · Direct link

ah yes.. a simple search in google gives the english version 🙂

very well… now a lot more people will hopefully benefit from this

82 · shiva on October 16, 2006 8:59 PM · Direct link

It is true that Buddhist priests in Japan conduct funerals. However, some of the practices – that we need not discuss on here – are simply the same as the classical Hindu rituals. In fact the Antarabhava phase that some Buddhisms observe (especially the Tibetan) – a time when the essence (soul for Hindus) is transitioning between death and rebirth – is almost the same in Hindu ritual as well. In the latter the soul is said to be in limbo for about 2 weeks before going on its way.

You have written about how Buddhism in Sri Lanka has a popular form and an intellectual form. I wonder if Buddhism in India too works in the same way.

The Buddhist clergy has always been a powerful group in Sri Lanka. Dr.Mano Singham (an educationist at Case in Cleveland, Ohio) writes about the bizarre things that happened when the Buddhist clergy had their way in Sri Lanka

Perhaps the best example of the extent to which this kind of religious pandering led to absurd policies came in the way the calendar was changed. (You are going to find the following story hard to believe but it is true. I lived though this.) The Buddhist calendar is based on the lunar cycle. The full moon has always had religious significance for Buddhists because it is believed that the Buddha was born, attained enlightenment, and died on a full moon day. So one government, in its desire to pander to religious sentiment, decided that the weekly calendar that had the weekend on Saturday and Sunday was too Christian-centered and that what was needed was a Buddhist-centered calendar that was built around the lunar cycle. So the full moon, quarter moon, new moon and three-quarter moon days were made holidays (called ‘poya’ days) as were the days just preceding them (called the ‘pre-poya’ days). Thus the pre-poya and poya days were the new weekends, replacing Saturday and Sunday.

Since these days need not coincide with Saturday and Sunday, a new system had to be devised to keep track of weekdays. So the weekdays were called P1, P2, P3, P4, and P5, standing for the ‘first day after poya’, ‘second day after poya’, etc. The catch is that since the lunar cycle is around 29 days, every fourth week or so (there was no definite pattern), you would have an extra workday in the week, which was called P6. Keeping track of these things and scheduling future events became a nightmare. Every time the week with the extra day kicked in, authorities would have to decide which of the five weekday schedules would have to be followed on the extra day.

I am amused to see Shivam criticise Chandra Bhan. Maybe because he actually helps people?

83 · Nanda Kishore on October 16, 2006 10:08 PM · Direct link

Just to be clear, I don’t have much respect for ANY religion. Also, I think my statement was quite clear: I said Christianity has been used to cause untold misery. So have other religions. In any case, I view religions as man made constructs, not divine stuff handed down by so called gods.

If someone thinks he/she life will be much better off by converting to religion X, by all means they should do so, especially given that they’ve had nothing but rejection and oppression that is apparently sanctioned by the religion they were born into.

As for accusations of intolerance, I’m not the one preaching from rooftops about how x religion is better than y or inciting hatred. Peace.

84 · risible on October 16, 2006 10:22 PM · Direct link

Ambedkarite Buddhism, as I’ve said over and over, is very different from traditional forms of Buddhism. In fact, Ambedkar called his Buddhism “navayana” (the new vehicle) in contradistinction to mahayana and hinayana. One would have to read Ambedkar’s opus The Buddha and His Dhamma for elaboration. And he did not have the best of relations with many other Buddhists: he thought they got it all wrong.

Some well-meaning people here seem to have some hostility to Buddhism as an option. Well, would you have preferred anything else? There was a grand effort by the international ummah to affect a conversion to Islam, I should remind you. Pleas and offers originated from as far as Al-Azhar University in Cairo. Sikhism was a grand choice as well, but the Akalis, under the leadership of Master Tara Singh, totally blew it. Let me leave you with what Ambedkar said the day before his conversion:

“And that is the greatest benefit I am conferring on the country by embracing Buddhism; for Buddhism is part and parcel of Bharitya culture. I have taken care that my conversion will not harm the tradition and culture of this land.”

Some “progressives” consider Buddhism to have been a “pseudo-remedy,” which leads me to believe that one of the great Indians in modern history did all right after all.

Risible, over and out.

85 · Macacaroach on October 16, 2006 10:32 PM · Direct link

It is going to take a long long time for a paradigm shift in perception when it comes to Caste is concerned,especially in India

It will probably take some foreign force to bring about any real change in the deeply entrenched caste culture. Just as it took the Brits to ban Sati, Human Sacrifice, Child Bondage etc. Though free India shamefully refuses to enforce the laws against child bonded labor.

Ambedkar says that Hinduism is beyond reform as it is inherently unequal and unjust.

Cant blame him for thinking that.

I’m all for the adoption of Buddhism, it’s a rejection of the Manu smrti not “Hinduism” as a whole.

Its a rejection of brahminism, which like it or not has become equated with hinduism. Fortunately the dalits are not converting to Islam.

86 · Amitabh on October 17, 2006 12:00 AM · Direct link

However, some of the practices – that we need not discuss on here – are simply the same as the classical Hindu rituals. In fact the Antarabhava phase that some Buddhisms observe (especially the Tibetan) – a time when the essence (soul for Hindus) is transitioning between death and rebirth – is almost the same in Hindu ritual as well.

There was a period in Indian history when the majority of the population had actually become Buddhist..before Hinduism made a strong comeback (I think starting in the 8th-9th century). There is a school of thought which says that this resurgent Hinduism took on (or retained) a lot of Buddhist philosophies and rituals, which could explain some of the above quote. Of course it is possible that some of the Buddhist stuff itself harkened back to earlier Hindu phenomenon…or that Hinduism (which was never fully wiped out even during the peak of Buddhism in India) and Buddhism evolved side by side for a really long time, influencing each other.

87 · shiva on October 17, 2006 10:26 AM · Direct link


There was a period in Indian history when the majority of the population had actually become Buddhist..before Hinduism made a strong comeback (I think starting in the 8th-9th century).

That’s a meme with nothing to back it. Devotion in India has been strongly non-exclusive.


Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar and Ram Mohan Roy had to fight the colonial administration among other groups to bring about reform.

88 · Koi on October 17, 2006 1:56 PM · Direct link

Prominent Indian female politician to embrace Buddhism

New Delhi, India — Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati and her followers will embrace Buddhism after the BSP gains an absolute majority at the Centre.,3309,0,0,1,0

89 · ImportantNote on October 18, 2006 5:38 AM · Direct link

Note: Apparently, BJP has the most number of dalit/OBC ministers on its roster.

90 · Ponniyin Selvan on October 21, 2006 9:49 AM · Direct link

At Columbia, Ambedkar studied under John Dewey, who inspired many of his ideas about equality and social justice. Ambedkar later recounted that at Columbia he experienced social equality for the first time. “The best friends I have had in my life,” he told the New York Times in 1930, “were some of my classmates at Columbia and my great professors, John Dewey, James Shotwell, Edwin Seligman, and James Harvey Robinson.”

Was just listening to NPR on my way to morning coffee and they were talking about the ‘denial of colored people’ entry into restaurants/eateries in Wichita / Kansas and probably in a lot of regions in 1958.. Looks like Ambedkar didn’t drive south in his sojourn in America.. 🙂

91 · voiceinthehead on October 21, 2006 10:10 AM · Direct link

#89. Do you have a source for that ? Isn’t BJP perceived as an upper caste party. More Dalit/OBC membership is a routine slogan at chintan baitaks(strategy meetings).

92 · HMF on October 21, 2006 11:42 AM · Direct link

If any of you need reminding of the reality of caste in India today (and it’s easy to forget… for some of us, at least), here’s a little video from Shivam Vij’s site :

This sort of treatment is deplorable by any humanistic account. But here’s my question, how much of this discrimination is based on economic status? That is, what features/determining factors are used to categorize people? If one of these individuals was given nice clothes, nice car, and lots of money, would anyone be able to identify him as a dalit? Maybe this question isn’t practical, as social mobilit for these folks is near impossible.

Cornell West, a prominent professor of religion who’s held appointments at Harvard and Princeton, written numerous books, and even appeared in the Matrix Reloaded (His line: “Comprehension is not a prerequisite for compliance”, when talking with Commander Locke), still I contend, has as much trouble getting an NYC cab as tyrone biggums in the US.

Perhaps Dr. West has an incrementally easier time, but it’s nowhere linear. I’d say it’s a log scale, that is y = log(x) * u(x-1) where u = unit step function, x = “net worth” , and y = ability to hail a NYC cab.

93 · voiceinthehead on October 21, 2006 2:53 PM · Direct link

Siddharth hits it on the nail when he says, the issue is complex. There are socio-economic,educational,political, & religious dimensions to the issue of dalits. No single point solution will ever emerge.

See IG or IAS officer, Dalit is still an untouchable. Try google cache if the link doesn’t work.

94 · ravindranath on November 23, 2006 4:35 AM · Direct link

The Golden Jubilee of Buddhist Conversion programme held on 2nd October, 2006 at especially at Nagpur, Maharashtra, India and remaining parts of Indian States as well as all other parts of the world is the indicator, how Buddhism as rightly brought out practically in our life-style. The book entitled “Buddha & His Dhamma” written by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar is gaining support throughout the world. The way and manner people are coming forward for embrassing voluntarily the Buddhism without bribe, incite or force in the entire world, is the genesis. what is Buddhism and why for Buddhism. Why people of the globe are discarding their ancient age old religions and peacefully accepting the principles and philosophy of Buddhism.? Is there certainly a need for leaving their orthodoxy religions and changing their life-style by practising Buddhism? I do not think so easily to change our thoughts which we are inheriting from our ancestors especially about supernatural things, they believe to accept them. Either we should think that that era was of barbaric, savage or non-scientific or science was not so established that time, and our ancestors were simply believing on natural forces, which we now-a-days knows details critically about each of them, or we are not living in modern science days, and consequently old customs, traditions, practices should not be believed by us, as science has proved those old thoughts as untrue.

There is a democracy in India and the world awakened people knows that this is the largest Democracy in the world. Democratic principles and philosophy as enshrined in the Indian Constitution written by Dr.B.R. Ambedkar, who is aptly called as the Father of Indian Constitution have mostly taken from the Buddhism. How Dr. B.R. Ambedkar so believed on Buddha who was there existed 2500 years ago? Did the principles and philosophy of Buddhism as propogated are not rusted, not outdated, non-scientific, as they are as old as 2500 years age? But this is true or incorrect or unique as consequently we believe on this modern science age, on the customs, traditions, practices, rituals, superstition, miracles, of our savagary or barbaric human stage. Is all old /ancient percepts are untrue, both yes and no because certain ancient practices have been proved as untrue by science and some ancient philosophy especially as propounded by Gautam Buddha have been proved as totally science based, true as well as universal till existence of human being. We should respect the Modern Buddha i.e. awakened one or enlightened one who have proved democratic principles as true which have been enshrined in the Indian Constitution. The way and manner of which Dr. B.R. Ambedkar shown emincipation to the world through Indian Constitution is required to be accepted as he has shown path for salvation to the entire human being through Democratic Principles. Many castes in India including Brahmins as well as other religious population including Christian, Islam and Hindu people are joining themselves spontaneously to the Science-based religion which will ever last. May the world take cognisance of this change and join science? It is expected answer as yes, because we want welfare of all human beings.

95 · shelley on December 4, 2006 4:37 PM · Direct link

great post. i’m an american girl of east indian ancestry, and i follow buddhism, and i think ambedkar did the right thing by converting. may india again be a buddhsit country. also, siddhartha, by your name, are you the buddha? 🙂 people should read the book Siddhartha by herman hesse, for it’s lovely. 🙂

96 · Jayant on December 5, 2006 2:48 PM · Direct link

Siddharth:- and everyone supporting GAUTAM BUDDHA and B R Ambedkar’s acquired Buddhism(Principles).Thanks to you all.I have been in thoughts for years together,and was looking forward for a momentum on MULNIWASI Buddhism in India.end-of-day,to have great strong PILLARs (getting the best education,vision,mission to my depressed classes people)
I am novice,have’nt read anything (except “Buddha and His Dhamma”).Now at the age of 35(running),I want to take a plunge and do some good for my oppressed people.

97 · sariput on March 30, 2007 8:15 AM · Direct link

i want to have a manuscript of the buddha and his dhamma through online. use my id to forward it if any body has it
my id is

98 · santosh on May 26, 2007 9:35 AM · Direct link

After kashiram mayawati is doing lot of work
which the congress & shivsainik wont do that exactly
from previous we can see that every mahapurish life has come from struggle
as per the mayawati
and i am confidently says that after kashiram mayawati is doing better job as a CM

99 · santosh on May 26, 2007 9:43 AM · Direct link

as per i have seen the history of mulnivasi i thaught lot of thing s
but one & alone cannot do anything but if we are close & we are thinkers of babasaheb
according to babasaheb if you are a thinker then from nobody you can loose

100 · laxmi sankhla on September 21, 2007 3:52 AM · Direct link

hello sir,
i have applied in your aid society for the scholarship which u provide for the sc/st students.i want to know about your process for getting the scholarship as till date i didnt got any mails from your side.and i serached for your e-mail id but i didnt got any so please mail me your id on my account so that i can know about the details..

With regards,
laxmi sankhla.

101 · Amit choudhary on June 4, 2008 2:12 PM · Direct link

Hello sir i want some amount of money becuse i am a student right now but unable to complete my education due to poorness plz help me.

102 · Manik Prabhu on July 29, 2008 5:35 AM · Direct link

Harijans are converting in “parts” but they will never get FULL FREEDOM, respect and Equality, unless they convert to Islam en`masse without caring for lolli-pops (SC/ST Reservation). Please note that Reservations are a price, (a lolli-pop) to keep Harijans within the fold of Hinduism ! High Castes have thrown bread-crumbs at Harijans while enjoying the whole box of laddoos. Only Islam can stand up to idol worship and caste-system. Only Islam guarantees “equality” of man before One God irrespective of all distinctions (real or imaginary). Harijans will have to choose between freedom, respect and equality (Islam) vis-a-vis permanent bondage of slavery albeit with a lolli-pop. Equality or Reservation Lolli-Pop. The choice is for the Harijans to make., and they will make it sooner than later. Only Islam can stand up to Brahmanism. Otherwise they will make another “idol” ov Buddha., and add it to the 6000 idols already existing. Islam guarantees equality of mankind., so if harijans seek and desire equality, it is in the shade of Islam . For this they will have to throw away the bribe of the lolli-pop extended to them by the calculated Brahmin-Baniya.

103 · Siddarth on July 29, 2008 5:40 AM · Direct link

If Harijans convert to Islam enmasse, BJP, Congress and Shiv Sena would merge within 24 hours. It is only then that their real character would be exposed. All masks will fall off the faces.

104 · Das on August 13, 2008 6:58 AM · Direct link

An original thought:

Topic : Reservations in India.

I suggest that a 50 % Reservation for admission to professional courses / jobs (Central + state) / bank loans etc be made for the 3% Brahmin population, in India.

Presently 3% Brahmins hold 85% top jobs. This way, at least 35% could be made available to others, i.e. children of a lesser god.

Reviving Buddhism Where It Was Born: IPS News


courtesy: Inter Press Service (IPS) ( world’s leading news agency)

By Kalinga Seneviratne

Credit:Kalinga Seneviratne/IPS

Ambedkar's bust beside a figure of the Buddha at the stupa in Nagpur.

NAGPUR, Jan 14, 2009 (IPS) – 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 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 Oct. 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 IPS 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 South-east 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 km from here.

On Oct. 24, 2008 eight people were convicted for the massacre and six of them awarded 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 U.S. 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, spiritual director of the All Indian Bhikku Sangha.

“Mayawati is working for all the people. So now, Muslims and Brahmins, day by day, acept 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 two million people over 60 percent are believed to be Buddhists – though most live in squalid and crowded neighbourhoods.

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 one percent of one 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, which is a predominantly Buddhist community on the outskirts of Nagpur, though living in cramped conditions, 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, Sri Lanka or Thailand, where there follow centuries-old Buddhist traditions. We only converted 50 years ago”.

Viriyo Mahathera is critical of Buddhist countries and organisations that contribute money to build grand temples in Buddhist pilgrim sites across India such as Bodhgaya – the place of Buddha’s enlightenment – but do not contribute to the upliftment of the 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 percent 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 effect 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.