Buddhism Resurgent: A Small Dalit Community is Finding a Way to Escape the Caste System

AHMEDABAD – Across the street from Ahmedabad’s New Cloth Market, a dosa vendor named Sunil Gagnath Sabkale watches over a fragile Buddhist temple that is sacred to the hundreds of Buddhists whose parents converted to the faith from Hinduism decades ago.

A thin bamboo fence separates it from the busy, dusty street and chaotic rush of rickshaws and eager shoppers.

The temple itself is a small courtyard with a flimsy bamboo shelter built around a painted statue of the Buddha. A flower garland is draped on a hanging canvas depiction of B.R. Ambedkar, a prominent activist and writer of the country’s constitution. Ambedkar, a victim of caste-based discrimination, is also known for converting from Hinduism, the country’s dominant faith, to Buddhism, a minority faith that represents less than 1 percent of the total population, according to the 2011 census.

His decision to convert and publicly denounce the caste system sparked a Neo-Buddhist revival in 1950s India that encouraged thousands of Dalits, like Sabkale’s family, to leave Hinduism behind in pursuit of a caste-free life.

Though carefully maintained, the temple exudes an air of temporality – of impermanence. Thin wire and plastic ties holds the bamboo together. The shelter around the Buddha statue is lopsided. This temple is only eight years old, and is thought of by the local Buddhists as a temporary replacement until the government fulfills its promise to replace it with a more sturdy structure.

The dosa hut stands outside of the New Cloth Market. Photo by Nicole Einbinder.

The last two decades have witnessed a resurgence of interest in Buddhism by the Dalit community, said Deepak Dhammadarshi, 31, the media and publicity officer of Manuski Trust, a human rights organization based on the teachings of Ambedkar. Dhammadarshi converted to Buddhism when he was 18. Mass conversion ceremonies occurred this past October, with over 300 conversions across the state of Gujarat — the direct response to a surge of caste-based violence.

“Our people who experienced atrocities are turning to Buddhism because they know the root of the problem is their identity,” Dhammadarshi said. “As long as they remain Dalits and untouchables, they are going to get this treatment of humiliation and discrimination and violence.”

This type of conversion carries legal ramifications. In 2003, the Gujarat government passed the Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act, which outlawed converting or attempts to convert. Under this act, those who are converted must receive prior permission from the District Magistrate. However, in 2006, an amendment was added to the bill that grouped Jains and Buddhists with Hindus. In this, legally, a Hindu converting to a Buddhist would be permitted – but would still be considered a faith under the Hindu umbrella, which individuals such as the Hindu Dalits are trying to escape.

Throughout India, Dalits have converted to other faiths, notably Christianity, to remove themselves from the caste system. Most Christian converts are from the states of Goa and Tamil Nadu. While many Buddhist converts and teaching centers are in the state of Maharashtra, the Gujarati Dalit movement has also gained strength in response to caste-based violence, according to Mangesh Dahiwale, 42, trustee of the Manuski Trust.

In July, upper-caste Hindu men attacked a Dalit family in the town of Una over allegations that they skinned a cow. And in Mumbai, a Dalit teenager was killed for flirting with a girl from the upper-caste. In the years 2013 and 2014, there was an almost 20 percent increase in crimes against Dalits, according to the 2015 report released by the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights. Dalit women are particularly targeted, with a nearly 50 percent increase of rape cases against them in the past decade.

“We don’t resort to violence but the non-violent means of the Buddha,” Dahiwale said. “When people were beaten up and accused of skinning that cow, our people came in large numbers in the streets. We weren’t carrying guns or any weapons, our only ammunition was the Buddhist flag.”

For Manjula Pradeep, 47, a human rights activist from Gujarat and former director of the Dalit activist organization Navsarjan Trust, her decision to formally convert to Buddhism last year with around 200 other converts occurred after years of struggling as an atheist in a Hindu family. She said that growing up, she often felt anger because of the restrictions placed upon her as a woman in Hindu culture. In 2001, her father forced her out of the family’s home.

A decade later, as he lay on his deathbed, Pradeep said she realized she couldn’t remain bitter toward her father. “When he passed away, the first thing I did was meditation and that totally changed my life,” she said. “Slowly, I started reading more about Buddha.”

Pradeep described her decision to embrace Buddhism in December as an emotional, but challenging, moment. That night, her mother called and proclaimed she was no longer her daughter because she wasn’t a Hindu.

Pradeep also faced hostility at her organization as a female leader and Buddhist convert. Shortly after converting, she was asked to leave her position. She is currently the consultant of Manuski Trust.

“I feel very privileged for becoming a Buddhist,” she said, despite the challenges. “The last thing I had to do in my life was get out of Hinduism. I don’t want to be labeled as a Hindu activist, but a Dalit activist.”

In Gujarat, the situation of conversion is especially precarious, given the state’s role with Hindutva, the right-wing Hindu nationalist movement often associated with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP party and the rise of an intolerant climate between the Hindu majority and minority faiths. In 2002, when Modi was Chief Minister of Gujarat, major riots broke out in the state, resulting in the deaths of around 1,000 people, mostly Muslim, and displacement of hundreds of thousands.

“Being a Dalit in Gujarat, you cannot challenge the religious connotations,” Pradeep said. “Fear among Dalits is a major issue and they are living with a level of insecurity. If they want to live in a fundamental Hindu society, they have to follow these norms and customs.”

Though this positivity emanates from members of the faith, there are still obvious hardships faced by these individuals. This is particularly seen in the 450 second-generation Buddhists, like Sabkale, originally from the state of Maharashtra, who work at or near Ahmedabad’s New Cloth Market across from their temporary temple set-up. They are employed as laborers, loading the trucks and preparing the material sold in the bustling bazaar.

The original temple, which was constructed in 1975 by a community of newly converted Marathi Buddhists, was destroyed in an infrastructure project by the municipal government to make way for housing projects. When the authorities came to demolish the temple, Buddhists stood in front of it to protect it, according to Sabkale. He said that the police came and beat them, including his sister-in-law, Anjana Samadham, and her cousin, both of whom where badly injured.

In the aftermath of the attack, the police told ambulances to not assist the beaten, Sabkale said.

The community was given $150,000 and a promise to rebuild the structure and replace the original idol, which was removed during the demolition. Though the Buddhists remain optimistic that this will happen, signs point to a grimmer reality. It is legitimate in India for the government to remove temples and shrines, even Hindu ones, for infrastructure projects, and, according to Giresh Gupta, an author and guide living in Ahmedabad, the replacement will never come.

In the words of Ratnakar Kosambi, 75, his decision to convert to Buddhism decades ago and teach his children and grandchildren the tenets of the faith was worth it. Now the regional chairman of the Triratna Buddhist Order in Ahmedabad, he says that despite the challenges of being a Gujarati Buddhist, Buddhism gives him peace of mind.

“I was searching for something higher. And when I came to Buddhism, I was immediately satisfied,” he said. “I am a free man.”

Ratnakar Kosambi in his home library. Photo by Nicole Einbinder.


This article was published on the Religion News Service here: http://religionnews.com/2017/05/11/a-dalit-community-looks-to-escape-the-caste-system-by-converting-to-buddhism/