- Over 30,000 lower-caste Hindus convert to Buddhism in
France-Presse (via ClariNet)
New Dehli (Sunday,
More than 30,000 lower-caste Hindus publicly converted to Buddhism on Sunday in
the Indian capital, declaring their freedom from ill-treatment at the hands of the upper
In an outdoor ceremony
denounced by Hindu hardliners, the low-caste Hindus, or Dalits, shaved their heads in
ceremonial fashion and chanted Buddhist mantras to signal their conversion.
Ram Raj, head of the All
India Confederation of Scheduled Castes and Tribes, a lobby group for downtrodden castes,
said the converts had "walked out" of India's 3,000-year-old caste system, under
which millions of Indians are relegated to lower social status.
"We have embraced a new
religion from today. It also symbolises the beginning of a new life for each and everyone
of us. Our stand has won support from people all over the world," said Raj, who took
the Buddhist vows himself.
Witnesses said about 30,000
Dalits took part in the ceremony, although Raj said the figure was higher. Organisers had
previously said that one million Dalits would convert to Buddhism on Sunday.
Buddhist leader Sudhir Kumar
said the faith was attractive to Dalits because it was also Indian-born but did not have a
"It is a religion for
the common people and not for God. It teaches humility and appreciation for mankind,"
Conversion and caste are
volatile issues in India, where hardline members of the Hindu majority have long denounced
Christian missionaries for alleged attempts to convert the population.
Tibetan spiritual leader the
Dalai Lama, who has lived in exile in India since China crushed an insurgency in Tibet in
1959, has distanced himself from the conversion event.
Members of the hardline
Hindu movement Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) have insisted they have no problem with the
Dalits' conversion in principle but charged that there was a "Christian design"
behind the ceremony Sunday and had urged that it be banned.
Christian groups have denied
involvement in the conversions but expressed their support for the Dalits.
"We support this
fundamental right of the Dalits to choose a religion of their choice, as guaranteed by the
constitution," said a statement by the Catholic Bishops Conference of India.
Raj said Hindu
fundamentalists in Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's government had tried to scuttle
the mass conversion ceremony because they did not want to see Dalits enjoy equality.
"We were put through a
lot of trouble in organising the event right from the start. Our venue for the Buddhist
oath-taking ceremony changed several times during the course of this week because of the
whims and fancies of the government," Raj charged.
"I do not know what the
political parties are trying to do by stopping us but the forces of change are here to
stay. I promise that," Raj said.
Leading VHP official Acharya
Giriraj Kishore has in turn charged that Raj was trying to build political influence
through the event.
The caste system was
described in Hinduism's ancient sacred text, the Rig Veda, as a social order intended to
maintain harmony in society. It divides people into four main castes.
The Dalits, the lowest rank
account for around 16 percent of India's overwhelmingly Hindu population.
Although the caste system is
supposed to have been abolished in India and discrimination on the grounds of caste is
illegal, it continues in thousands of Indian villages and small villages.
In some parts of India,
Brahmins, members of the top caste, have used private armies to terrorise peasants who
have risen up against the caste order.
Under the traditional Hindu
social system, so much as the shadow or touch of a lower caste Hindu was considered unholy