- A million low-caste
Hindus to convert to Buddhism
- David Orr
- (Thursday, November 1, 2001)
In what is being billed as the largest mass
conversion in history, up to one million lower-caste Hindus or dalits are expected to
convert to Buddhism in India next Sunday.
Leaders of the dalits, formerly known as
"untouchables", say the change of religion will free them from the scourge of
the discriminatory caste system and the abuses they suffer on a daily basis.
The proposed mass conversion has received the
approval of the Dalai Lama, the head of Tibetan Buddhism, as well as of leading Christian
organisations. The ceremony is due to be held in New Delhi.
"Caste is our main problem", says a
dalit leader, Mr Ram Raj, who will be among those converted. "It pervades all aspects
of life in India, though it is not always visible. This is our way of escaping the misery
of living on the margins of society."
Next Sunday's ceremony was originally due to
have been held some weeks ago, on the 45th anniversary of the first mass conversion of
Hindus. On that occasion, more than 300,000 lower-caste Hindus embraced Buddhism. They
were led by B.R. Ambedkar, the man who framed the Indian constitution.
"He is our messiah, a godly figure for
the dalits," says Mr Ram Raj. "In converting to Buddhism, we will be emulating
him. Our choice of religion is also dictated by the fact that in olden times, much of
India was Buddhist. This deeksha (conversion) will be like returning to an old house and
it will liberate us from bondage."
Some 200 million people - a fifth of India's
one billion population - belong to the lowest part of the caste system.
Officially grouped under the term
"scheduled castes", the dalits or "broken people" are so low in the
Hindu hierarchy they exist outside the framework of caste.
"Christian groups, as well as Muslims and
Sikhs, plan to attend the ceremony," says the Rev John Dayal of the All Indian
Christian Council which represents non-episcopal churches in India.
"We want to show solidarity with the
dalits. If any of them want to come over to Christianity - and I pray they do - then we
will welcome them. With us they will find
open doors and open hearts."
The Dalai Lama has said the move to Buddhism
will be a step towards equality in Indian society for the dalits. Their decision to
convert should not cause resentment among other religions or castes, as Buddhism and
Hinduism were, as he put it, like twins.