India’s Dalits Embrace Buddhism on Vijaya Dasami
On 12 October, during the annual Hindu festival of Vijaya Dasami, nearly 300 people from the Dalit community in the state of Gujrat, western India, converted to Buddhism at three separate events organized by different Buddhist organizations.
Vijaya Dasami is a major Hindu festival that marks the victory of Vishnu’s avatar Rama over the demon Ravana. The day also marks the victory of the warrior goddess Durga over the bull demon Mahishasura. But it was also on this day in 1956 that Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, a social reformer and architect of India’s first constitution, inspired the Dalit Buddhist movement and took refuge in the Triple Gem alongside other Dalits in Nagpur, Maharashtra. Ever since that day, Dalits have embraced Buddhism each Vijaya Dasami, an act expressing not only historic commemoration but also poetic irony and defiance of Hindu convention.
Conversions are carried out by every year on Vijaya Dasami, but this year the numbers were higher because of the Una Dalit incident: on 11 July, a group of gau rakshaks (cow protectors) beat seven members of a Dalit family who had skinned a dead cow in the town of Una, in Gujrat’s Gir Somnath District. Following the incident, a large number of Dalits converted to Buddhism as a gesture of social and spiritual protest.
“Most Dalits prefer this day for conversion as Ambedkar himself converted to Buddhism on this day in 1956. The reaction to the Una Dalit atrocity incident [sic] was evident in the response we received from the converts,” said P. G. Jyotikar, a member of the Buddhist Society of India. (The Indian Express)
In one event, 70 people took refuge under the supervision of the Gujrat Buddhist Academy, with eight other religious outfits. The Dalits who converted said that they chose the new religion and relinquished their previous faith in the hopes of ending the spiritual and social discrimination against them. The national secretary of the All India Buddhist Organization (Akhil Bharatiya Baudh Mahasangh), Venerable Pragnaship Mahathera, led the conversion. Organizer Ramesh Banker had hoped to grant the conversion to 125 people to mark the 125th birth anniversary of Dr. Ambedkar. “This is 125th year of Babasaheb Ambedkar’s birth. Exactly 60 years ago, he led people to the path of the Buddha on the day of Ashoka Vijaya Dashmi,” he said (The Times of India)
Two more conversion ceremonies were held in the town of Kalol in Gujarat's Mehsana district. An MBA student, Maulik Chauhan, was the first of his family to convert to Buddhism. Chauhan said he had been impressed by the Buddha’s teachings from a young age and decided to convert for a “better life.” The Una incident pushed him to convert earlier than he had planned.
“The concept of equality appeals to me. I do not want to face discrimination anymore. I decided to convert eight months ago,” said 25-year-old Kamlesh Maheria, a marketing manager for a private compant, who embraced Buddhism at the event. (The Times of India)
“Well done,” commented netizen R. Indrajit, on The Times of India website. “It is shame that even today discrimination of people is done basis their cast. [sic] Well dalits have no option as they are pushed to the corner by the society.”
“A nation can only develop when there is equality,” said Prakash Yashwant Ambedkar, president of the Maharashtra-based political party Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh, and grandson of Dr. Ambedkar himself. “Until a firm belief to have equality in society is developed, the nation will not develop. That is where Buddhism gains importance. Ambedkar emphasised Buddhism because it shows the path of equality. In a way, Buddhism is part of the nation-building process. Whether one embraces it or not, everybody knows that it is a scientific and rational religion.” (The Times of India)
Dalits embrace Buddhism on Ashoka Vijaya Dashmi (The Times of India)
Ambedkar emphasised Buddhism because of its equality (The Times of India)
Over 300 Dalits convert to Buddhism in Gujarat (The Indian Express)
300 Dalits convert to Buddhism in Gujarat (The Hindu)