The Dalai Lama and others have spread the message that religions should no longer compete for “market share” and Buddhism is not generally thought of a missionary religion, but it’s still picking up converts. In Nagpur, India on October 14, the 50th anniversary of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism, more than 9000 untouchables or dalits—this according to Catholic News, though actual numbers seem to vary significantly in different accounts—followed his lead and converted as well.
Ambedkar, considered the chief architect of India’s constitution, was born into the Mahar caste, said to be descended from Dravidians who resisted the Aryan invasions and were therefore at the bottom of the caste system. He converted to Buddhism alongside more than 100,000 other untouchables in 1956. (Wikipedia says 380,000.) The incentive to convert and escape the caste system is powerful as the notion of “untouchability,” officially abolished, is still in force, particularly in rural areas. Untouchables work the lowest jobs and suffer routine discrimination, reportedly even being barred from temples on occasion.
Violence against dalits has caused many to relocate to the more egalitarian cities in search of better work and equal status. Conservatives in India are taking note of the conversions. The Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) government in Gujarat (Gandhi’s home state) classified Buddhism and Jainism as branches of Hinduism, essentially denying them equal rights as religions. A Hindu nationalist said, “Dalits should concentrate on illiteracy and poverty rather than looking for new religions.” Maybe so, or maybe the government should concentrate on illiteracy and poverty and not worry about religion.
Read Vishvapani’s blog for more on this. He’s got a media coverage wrap-up for the events of the 14th of October, and will be covering Ambedkar 2006 for Tricycle.