Some 1,500 Dalits embraced Buddhism in a mass conversion ceremony in the Indian state of Gujarat on 27 October. The ceremony was held at the Sardar Vallabhahai Patel National Memorial in Ahmedabad in the southwest of the state. The city is approximately 300 kilometers north of Mumbai in Maharashtra, a major center for the ongoing Ambedkarite movement and other Dalits seeking social advancement through conversion to Buddhism.
The mass conversion was organized by the Buddha’s Light International Association (BLIA), an international Buddhist organization founded by Ven. Hsing Yun in 1992. The BLIA is associated with Fo Guang Shan, the largest Buddhist organization in Taiwan, also founded by Ven. Hsing Yun. The event was presided over by Ven. Hsin Bau, the religious head of BLIA, who was visiting from Taiwan. As part of the ceremony, several Buddhist monks from India and abroad were in attendance as the new Buddhists registered with the BLIA and pledged to follow the religion in their daily lives.
Discussing her reasons for embracing Buddhism, Manjula Makwana, a resident of the nearby city of Surendranagar, who converted along with her husband and three children at the event, said: “Equality is the only reason for us to embrace Buddhism. As Hindus we did not find equality. . . . We are witnessing a lot of discrimination and atrocities against people of Scheduled Castes [Dalits]. Surendranagar is notorious for it.” (The Indian Express)
Discrimination and violence against Dalits in India is woven into the history of the country. Although the term “dalit” was first used by the British in the 1930s, it represents ethnic groups in India and Nepal that have historically been excluded from the fourfold varna system of class and caste in the region, dating back to and preceding the life of the historical Buddha. The term was popularized by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, an economist and reformer and the chairman of India’s Constitution Drafting Committee in 1947. Ambedkar famously led a mass conversion to Buddhism of some 500,000 of his supporters in 1956.
Nisarg Parmar, an engineer studying for a degree in business administration, also converted, along with around 25 extended family members. Parmar said of the choice to convert: “We used to follow Hinduism. But we do not like the discrimination and caste hierarchy in it. Buddhism is preaching equality. So today we have taken the pledge to follow Buddhism. . . . I want India to be the best in the world. But I think one of the biggest hurdles in its progress is this caste system that discriminates people and treats them unequally.” (The Indian Express)
Recent violence against Dalits, especially crimes against women, has been on the rise since 2014 as Hindu-nationalists have grown increasingly vocal and active in India. Dalit conversions to Buddhism, and occasionally other religions such as Christianity, are often done as much out of political protest as they are acts of religious devotion. In 2018, hundreds of thousands of Dalits took to the streets in protest of ongoing discrimination.
Today there are approximately 8.4 million Buddhists in India, less than 1 per cent of the over 1.2 billion people living there. However, as Shiv Shankar Das, a former researcher at Jawaharlal Nehru University focusing on the neo-Buddhist movement, said last year: “Often the [census] surveyor doesn’t even ask about religion once he hears a Hindu-sounding name.” (The Atlantic)
Suggesting caution, Badri Narayan, a professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University School of Social Sciences, said: “This is the beginning of a Quit Hinduism movement, and if upper-caste Hindus continue to chase Dalits away, the count of Hindus would come down significantly.” Narayan suggested that Hindus in India should take note and seek ways to avoid further large-scale conversions. (Sabrang India)
1,500 Dalits from across Gujarat embrace Buddhism ‘for equality’ (The Indian Express)
1,500 Dalits embrace Buddhism for ‘equality’: Gujarat (Sabrang India)
Converting to Buddhism as a Form of Political Protest (The Atlantic)