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.

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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.”

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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/


Covering Religion: Still Moments and Moving Memories

The following presentation is a combination of photographs taken by Sylvia Kang and Ana Singh. The descriptions are taken from the daily dispatches compiled by the students during the eleven-day trip. 

Many scholars and believers argue that religion as a term and concept in India is a British construct. In some sense that disconnect persists today. Of the thousands of Indian universities, only a handful have religion departments.

This information would seem to suggest that religion is somehow absent from India or perhaps all-pervasive. We found that our western conception of religion could be found everywhere – from the Sikh symbols woven into the fabrics of cloths at the 1469 shop at Connaught Place to the remains of murti idols submerged in the waters of the Ganges. In India, religion could be felt in all domains of life.

Not only was religion embedded in all aspects of public life, but many religious sites had multiple layers of religious identity. While we read about unfolding religious conflict at the Ram temple in Ayodhya, we witnessed signs of peaceful syncretism at the Nizamuddin Dargah in New Delhi where Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, and atheists tied threads of wishes on the outer walls of the Sufi tombs.

As photographers, we attempted to capture how religion often served as silent yet visible guide in the daily lives of the people we were fortunate to meet with on this once in a life time trip.

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On route to Nizamuddin Auliya

Photo by Sangsuk Sylvia Kang

DAY 1: NEW DELHI After settling into our rooms and grabbing a quick dinner, we started our religious exploration with a visit to one of India’s holiest Sufi shrines, Nizamuddin Auliya for an evening of sacred song, known as the qawwali. If we expected a narrow look at Islamic practice, we were surprised by how diverse the crowd and the ritual turned out to be. - Roda Griffin, M.S. '17

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We were joined by 29-year old Syed Bilal Nizami (center), a caretaker of the Sufi shrine. When we asked him how the qawwali has changed over the years, he said it has become more and more popular with people of all faiths. “When people pray here, their prayers are answered,” he said with confidence. - Roda Griffin, M.S. '17. PHOTO CAPTION Syed Bilal Nizami (center) at Nizamuddin Auliya.

Photo by Sangsuk Sylvia Kang

DAY 2: Our second day in Delhi was a day for the senses. We met Imams at the Jama Masjid, washed our feet at the entrance of a Sikh temple, rang a hanging bell in Jain mandir, heard a song about a lonesome bride, sampled Indian fragrances in the main bazaar and ate Punjabi food at a market stall that has been in the same family for six generations. -Ellen Ioanes, MS'18.

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Jama Masjid.

Photo by Ana Singh

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LEADERSHIP OVER THE GENERATIONS: The leadership of the Jama Masjid has been in this family for over 300 years. According to Sayid Taariq Bukhari, the brother of the mosque’s Grand Imam, it’s become particularly important since Partition, when many Indian Muslims moved to the newly created state of Pakistan, and his family was left responsible for the political and religious leadership of India’s Sunni Muslims. -Ellen Ioanes, MS'18. Photo Caption -
Sayid Taariq Bukhari, the brother of the mosque’s Grand Imam, photographed with his nephew, the next Grand Iman.

Photo by Sylvia Kang

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Young boys wait on a elevated platform at Jama Masjid for a midday prayer to begin.

Photo by Ana Singh

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SIS GANGJ GURUDWARA: The Gurudwara sits on what Sikhs believe is the execution site of the sixth Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur, who was beheaded by the emperor Aurangzeb. The Gurudwara contains a shrine to the guru, where adherents stop to pray, as well as a bedchamber of sorts, where the Adi Granth, or Sikh holy book, is put to bed each night. The book is considered the living Guru and is revered as such by practitioners. -Ellen Ioanes, MS'18.

Photo by Sylvia Kang

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CAREER ADVICE: Geshe Dorji Damdul (photographed above), the director of the Tibet House, who works closely with His Holiness the Dalai Lama spoke to us about the nature of happiness and suffering, and how one must find peace within oneself to limit the influence of external factors on one’s state of being. And he had the following advice for being better journalists: “First be yourself happy,”

Photo by Sylvia Kang

DAY 3: After two days of being shepherded around Delhi by Professor Trivedi and friends, today we were turned loose to report on our own. Alone or in twos, we left our hotel early this morning to navigate a city most of us had never been to with the challenge of reporting in a language we don’t know, within a culture that we’ve only read about in textbooks. Delhi is an absolutely vibrant city, fast paced and full of unexpected moments on every turn. -Elizabeth VanMetre, MS'17

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PERFORMANCE: The gopis began to toss flower petals over Krishna and Radha, ceremonially binding their love with flowers. The couple sat in a growing pile of gold, yellow and red petals as baskets of petals were poured over their shoulders. Then, in a startling move, Krishna and Radha jumped up from the flower pile-Thea Piltzecker, MS'17

Photo by Sylvia Kang

DAY 4: VRINDAVAN- Soon enough, strains of music issued from the ashram’s main hall. We were right on time for the Holi play. The Rasdeva theatrical performance commemorates the original Holi; it recreates the story of Krishna’s playful interactions with the gopis (milkmaids) and his favorite gopi and consort Radha. An all-male troupe dressed in elaborate gold saris danced onstage; these were the gopis, enjoying their work in the village of Barsana. Krishna and his friends arrived next, decked out in gold pantaloons and bristling mustaches. The two groups engaged in a tit-for-tat exchange, drawing laughter from the large audience. After a tug-of-war and whirling musical numbers, Radha won their game. -Thea Piltzecker, MS'17

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A young child plays in the leftover flower petals of the play

Photo by Ana Singh

DAY 5: In atmosphere, Vrindavan feels like a village. It’s mud streets and tiny alleyways cloak a population of approximately 57,000 people, and yet, in the history of Hinduism, its importance is profound. Krishna, the eighth incarnation of the Lord Vishnu, was born here. Radha, his supreme wife was born in a neighboring village. To celebrate their love and, in turn, love in general, Indians of all faiths spend a good part of the day pitching pigment at each other. Those of us who ventured out of the confines of the ashram came back splattered from head to toe in all the colors of the rainbow.-Gudrun Wilcocks, MS'17

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UNDERSTANDING HOLI: In the multi-colors of love, all the shades of skin are gone,” said Shrivasta Goswami Maharaj in his explanation of Holi. Maharaj is the head of the ashram known as Caitanya Prem Sansthan and photographed with Professor Yogi Trivedi (Left) and Ari Goldman (right).

Photo by Ana Singh

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In the aftermath of Holi

Photo by Ana Singh

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Holi celebrated in the Caitanya Prem Sansthan ashram

Photo by Sylvia Kang

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Playing Holi outside the ashram

Photo by Ana Singh

DAY 6: RISHIKESH – The River Ganges sets the pace for life in this city at the foothills of the Himalayas, just as it set the pace for our day of markets and aartis, puja and performance.Even though we arrived in Rishikesh after midnight, a few early-risers took to the river with the break of day. Along the banks, local volunteers filled buckets with water to wash out the last brightly colored dregs of Holi from gats along the river. One man sat in the Lotus position and meditated. Two women in pink and turquoise saris cupped their hands around an aarti’s flame and sent it out across the water. As the sun rose higher, we sat on the hotel balcony with chai, watching the light catch on the swells.-Natasha Frost, MS'17

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Two women participate in an intimate aarti ceremony on the banks of the Ganges in Rishikesh

Photo by Ana Singh

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ON THE BANKS OF THE GANGES: Haridwar seemed like part water park and part temple. We watched as hundreds of devotees, many of them with families in tow, bathed playfully in the river, the men in their underwear and the women in their saris. This bathing is one part of the washing away of sins – one step along the path to moksha. -Natasha Frost, MS'17

Photo by Sylvia Kang

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A Believer at the Parmarth Niketan Ashram

Photo by Sylvia Kang

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An aarti ceremony at the Parmarth Niketan Ashram

Photo by Sylvia Kang

DAY 7: Rishikesh is a hard place to leave. The city offers an interesting contradiction in Indian culture. A beautiful town on the foot of the Himalayas, it is surrounded by natural beauty. The turquoise hues of the River Ganges flow below colorful bridges and alongside scattered buildings and shops. This morning, a few of us leisurely explored that world for a couple of hours. We wandered, we shopped and we questioned this enigma of a place — a place of countless yoga practices, ashrams, Ayurvedic cafes selling vegan foods and scones to people who have come here from across the world, clad in baggy pants and with yoga mats under their arms, to embrace their spirituality in India.-Nicole Einbender, MS'17

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Shiva representation in Rishikesh

Photo by Ana Singh

DAY 8: Ninety-one small, carved elephants appeared to hold up each side of the Sun Temple, totaling 364 mini-elephants: the same number as the days in the solar calendar. The structure was carved out of sandstone from a nearby quarry, a material that absorbs heat. When our group stepped inside the temple, everyone gasped. The details which were eroded by the wind and rain on the outside were preserved in sharp images inside and told the story of the Ramayan. - Andrea Januta, MS'17

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Group Photo at the Sun Temple

Photo by Sylvia Kang

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PRACTICING COMPASSION: “Any being can reach enlightenment. An insect can reach enlightenment, ” said Maiti Jratha Suriji, a Jain nun (photographed with her sister). The two sisters practice a strict interpretation of the concept of ahimsa or compassion, doing everything they can to minimize their footprint on the world and protect life, from the biggest elephant to the smallest micro-organisms.-David Klein, MS '17

Photo by Ana Singh

DAY 9: AHMEDABAD- Our day started at 8:30 when we set out for a walking tour of Ahmedabad’s old city. There, in the twisting alleys and secluded courtyards, we had the opportunity to see a few different threads in India’s religious tapestry. Though we stepped into a mosque and a Hindu mandir, we also had the opportunity to sit down and interview two Jain nuns about their lifestyle and experiences. They practice a strict interpretation of the concept of ahimsa or compassion, doing everything they can to minimize their footprint on the world and protect life, from the biggest elephant to the smallest micro- organisms. -David Klein, MS '17

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Jama Masjid Mosque in Ahmedabad

Photo by Sylvia Kang

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AN UNCERTAIN FATE: The Zoroastrian community arrived in Gujarat nearly 1,000 years ago, fleeing persecution in what had become Muslim Iran. Today they face a harsh demographic reality. There are only about 1,400 Parsis in Ahmedabad and the death rate has far outpaced the birthrate in the community, explained J. P Anklesaria , a retired brigadier and leader among Ahmedabad’s Parsis (Photographed above). Though hopeful that things will change, Anklesaria feared that if the trend continues in 25 or 50 years there will be no more Parsis in Ahmedabad -David Klein, MS '17.

Photo by Ana Singh

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A man practices puja in Ahmedabad

Photo by Ana Singh

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An Intimate Dinner with a Jain Family

Photo by Sylvia Kang

DAY 10: Saturday was our last full day in India. After a morning panel with Indian journalists, newspaper editors and media entrepreneurs at our hotel in Ahmedabad, we went our different ways to finish our reporting projects before meeting in the evening for our formal farewell dinner, held at a restaurant called the House of MG. Then it hit us: None of us will ever be the same after this trip. We’ll look at the world through a lens crafted by our experiences in this incredible nation full of religious diversity. We gained the skills necessary to cover religion with an open mind and an empathetic heart.- Cole Pennington, MS'18

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Indian Journalists discuss how they cover religion in their reporting

Photo by Ana Singh

DAY 11: We attended two Christian services: the high Anglican Dalit Church and the Mar Thoma Syrian Orthodox church, both in the Christian district of Ahmedabad called Behrampura. The Anglican church service was packed, housed in a sanctuary with dusty pink walls. A wooden cross hung high on the wall behind the preacher but the decorations were simple. Most of the color in the room came from the saris of the women in the congregation, with white lace scarves over their hair. On their laps, under folded hands, lay personal bibles in Gujarati.- Pia Peterson, M'S 17

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Believers raise their bible at the high Anglican Dalit Church

Photo by Ana Singh


Daily Dispatch 2: A Day for the Senses

NEW DELHI – Our second day in Delhi was a day for the senses. We washed our feet at the entrance of a Sikh temple, rang a hanging bell in Jain mandir, heard a song about a lonesome bride, sampled Indian fragrances in the main bazaar and ate Punjabi food at a market stall that has been in the same family for six generations.

We did all this while navigating the narrow alleyways of Delhi where we dodged cars, motorbikes, cycle rickshaws, dogs, cows and even a monkey or two.

Professor Trivedi had warned us that it would be the most demanding and in many ways the most memorable day of the trip. He assembled a great cast of characters to make it all come alive. These included Dalai Lama’s personal interpreter, Prime Minister Modi’s minister of Information, the leader of Delhi’s main mosque and a celebrity author, William Dalrymple, the author of The Last Mughal.

We started the day at Delhi’s Jama Masjid, the religious epicenter for most of the city’s Sunni Muslim population since the 17th century. The pink sandstone mosque waited solidly and silently for the thousands of Muslims who would come to for the Friday jummah, or noon prayer. Dalrymple and several of his colleagues walked us through the mosque before we headed to the old city’s religious landscape.

He took us back to the 17th century and described for us a shining city on the beautiful Yamuna River, the second holiest river after the Ganges. The Delhi of the 1600s had the largest economy in the world, based on its famed textiles. The masjid, built by emperor Shah Jahan, sits at the top of a hill and was once surrounded by lush gardens and elegant mansions.

Now, one can still feel the cool breeze that made Shah Jahan choose the location in the first place, and imagine what the mosque must have been like in its heyday. Dalrymple and his friend Bruce Warnell helped us imagine the courtyard as it once was: shaded in royal gold and scarlet covers with cooling fountains and pools, making it an ideal place for gathering with friends.

We followed Dalrymple through the side streets of Old Delhi, through the courtesan’s bazaar and the bridal bazaar, where one can purchase bright, festive decorations, saris and perfumes.

Sis Ganj Gurudwara. By Sangsuk Sylvia Kang
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Dalrymple was at home in the Old City. We stopped at a small family-owned perfume shop, where he described India’s rich ittar, or scent, tradition, which goes back to the first millennium. Of course, Indian plants like holy basil, tuberose and jasmine are some of the most sought-after scents in the world, but the perfume tradition has diminished over the centuries. Luckily, we were able to take a bit of the history home with us. The favorite? Oud rose, a deep, moody floral scent.

Next on our walk was the Jain Shwetambara temple, its splendor unassuming behind a plain lavender exterior. We removed our shoes and headed inside to the lower level, where there were devotees ringing silver bells that were hanging overhead. I walked under and clanged the bell as loudly as I could, then headed upstairs to the third floor. There, we sat among murals of the life of Mahavira, the man who revealed Jainism to the world, and other Jain saints. Jains believe in reincarnation, which the murals depict, and which Dalrymple described as “the conveyor belt of life.”

At our next stop, the Sikh Gurudwara, a lovely older gentleman brought us sweet limes as we stood in line to remove our shoes. I accepted the fruit and said, “Shukria,” or “thank you” in Hindi, to which he replied, “Good girl!” After washing our feet, we headed inside, where devotees were listening to three musicians--a singer, and a tabla and harmonium player--performed a song about a lonesome bride, perhaps an allegory for the soul. The Gurudwara sits on what Sikhs believe is the execution site of the sixth Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur, who was beheaded by the emperor Aurangzeb. The Gurudwara contains a shrine to the guru, where adherents stop to pray, as well as a bedchamber of sorts, where the Adi Granth, or Sikh holy book, is put to bed each night. The book is considered the living Guru and is revered as such by practitioners.

We rushed to reach the Jama Masjid; we were late for an interview with Sayid Taariq Bukhari, the brother of the mosque’s Grand Imam. The leadership of the masjid has been in his family for over 300 years. It’s become particularly important since Partition, when many Indian Muslims moved to the newly created state of Pakistan, and his family was left responsible for the political and religious leadership of India’s Sunni Muslims. But, he said, “I’m Indian by choice not by chance,” affirming his commitment to his community.

Bukhari answered our questions about politics, practice, and the history of the masjid, and gave us valuable insight about how others in the world see American politics and policies under Trump. He struck most of us as rather moderate until Emily asked him about the Islamic State. “ISIS is a creation of Israel to defame Islam,” he answered.

After a brief pit stop for lunch (paneer paratha and sweet lassi at a stall six generations old), we headed to the Tibet House for the only Buddhist experience we will have on the trip. There, we met Geshe Dorji Damdul, the director of the Tibet House, who works closely with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Geshe Damdul is the Dalai Lama’s official translator and granted us an interview. He spoke to us about the nature of happiness and suffering, and how one must find peace within oneself to limit the influence of external factors on one’s state of being. And he had the following advice for being better journalists: “First be yourself happy,” he said.

Our trip took a sharp turn, from a community in exile to the seat of government power, where we met Col. Rajyavardhan Rathore, the Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting. Several cameras and videographers were present to capture the moment, briefly making us the subjects instead of the observers.

A retired Army colonel and former Olympic athlete, Rathore greeted us with a curious question given that he is an official of the BJP: “I thought religion was a private affair; why write about it so much?” Despite having no background in journalism or media, Rathore has certainly developed a strong idea of what he considers newsworthy. He spoke to us about the decline in the quality of journalism, stating that journalists need better training and to keep emotions out of their reporting—”less views and more news,” he said.

Our last stop was a visit to India TV, a 600-plus-person, 24-hour newsroom situated on three acres of land. There, we got to walk onto the set of one of India’s most popular programs, Aap Ki Adalat, or The People’s Court. On each episode, a celebrity or politician is grilled by host Rajat Sharma in front of a studio audience. Narendra Modi came on before he was elected Prime Minister, and recently a Digambara Jain monk was the guest. It was a challenge for the production team to facilitate the interview of the naked monk in an appropriate manner, but they pulled it off.

After our visit to the TV station, we headed back to the hotel--or so we thought. After a brief detour going the wrong way on a one-way street, we got stuck in that infamous Delhi traffic, for which every hour seems to be rush hour. Eager to send my dispatch out into the world, I joined our fixer, Paresh-ji, and three of my classmates in a mad dash through the streets and to the peace and quiet of the Holiday Inn.

 

Photo by Sangsuk Sylvia Kang


Tibetan Buddhist Meditation in the Upper West Side

Men in suits, ears glued to their phones, shuffle by the inconspicuous door at 410 Columbus Ave. on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Teenagers anxiously line up at the Shake Shack on a nearby corner while taxis blare their horns.

The neighborhood is humming with energy. It’s bustling, it’s hectic, it’s New York City.

At 410 Columbus Ave., the mood is different. Hidden in the basement, 18 steps below ground, seven people — six men and one woman — gather for a traditional Dharma practice and Buddhist meditation at the Kagyu Dzamling Kunchab center, which follows the Kagyu School of Tibetan Buddhism.

Kagyu, founded in 11th century Tibet, is known for its system of meditation, mysticism and speedy attainment of Enlightenment. Unlike other schools, celibacy or association with a monastery are not required.

The participants are casual dressed. Among them are a middle-aged man in faded jeans with a thick, black beard and a blue button-down shirt and a woman with short gray hair and a green scarf to protect from the chill outside.

They sit, barefoot, on a red rug with an illustration of a fierce dragon breathing flames. To the left of the room, the image of Chenrezi, the Bodhisattva of compassion, sits above a shrine with offerings for the Buddhas and deities: white orchids with a fleck of pink, sticks of incense in bowls of rice, three Oreos placed on a metal plate, seven bowls of water and two candles flickering below the colorful image in a gold-rimmed frame.

The leader of the service is Lama Karma Dechen Wangmo, 38, who is dressed in a red and orange Tibetan robe. She was trained at the Kagyu Thubten Choling Monastery in upstate New York under the guidance of Lama Norlha Rinpoche and has been a Lama for almost 10 years.

Before beginning, Wangmo explains the seven-point posture of meditation: straight back, right hand inside the left with the thumbs lightly touching, chin slightly tucked, tongue on the back of the mouth and eyes looking down four finger widths in front of the nose.

“A lot of people, including myself, find that feels too cross-eyed and makes me feel nauseous,” she adds with a laugh. “So just a little way in front of yourself and down. And the eyes are open in a relaxed way.”

She explains the purpose of meditation: to bring the mind to the present. The past is finished and the future hasn’t yet come. Wisdom comes from being aware of the now, without distraction. It’s a major contrast from the chaos just beyond the center’s door.

She rings a golden gong and the meditation practice begins.

The room is quiet. All eyes are on Wangmo, as the devotees slowly absorb her teachings. She discusses the four classes of objects of meditation taught by the Buddha, negative patterns that can arise from emotion and the power of habituation from past lives.

“In Buddhist teaching, our present life originates from a previous life,” she says. “During our present life, we can experience physical pain and mental suffering or we can experience happiness and bliss. So most of us have alternating experiences, both of those. Those experiences are from our actions in the previous life.”

She continues with an example: “Say in our former life we got angry a lot, that was kind of our habitual reaction to situations. Then in this life we already have that habit very engrained.”

Buddhist teaching, she adds, provides a solution. “Through the dharma, we may learn methods that cut through the hold of anger on us or the hold of desire that causes us to act in a mindless way,” she adds.  Likewise, it’s possible to remedy negative emotions caused by great attachments, anger, ignorance, jealousy and pride.

She asks the devotees to take a few minutes to experience this letting go. “This space extending out is full of sentient beings that are suffering and just want to be happy. And for a few moments, let’s just feel that. What does that feel like?”

Wangmo rings the gong as its piercing shriek echoes across the room, followed by complete silence. Within the quiet, everything is louder: the people walking above ground, the air conditioner hissing in the background, a man’s heavy breath as he meditates. The group meditates to earn positive karma, attain enlightenment and try to rid the world of confusion. In this windowless room under fluorescent lights, surrounded by tankas — images of the Buddha, nothing else matters beyond the breath.