It was November 3, 2001, the day before the long-awaited mass conversion. Ram Raj had been expecting one million to attend. Agitated, he appeared at my hotel soon after I arrived in Delhi: “Quickly, we have little time,” he shouted, and six of us crammed into a car. Raj barked into his cell phone as we weaved through the crazy Delhi traffic. This was a crisis.

“I’m underground. This morning the government banned the conversion, and they want to arrest me,” Raj explained. “They say so many people converting will threaten public order. So they’ve barricaded the venue and are turning people back.” The car arrived at Raj’s headquarters where he gave an impromptu press conference. “This affronts freedom of religion. The Hindus are afraid. Their time is ending!” Welcome to Buddhism, North Indian style.

© AP Photo/Amit Bhargava
© AP Photo/Amit Bhargava

Raj is a dalit, one of 150 million considered “untouchable” under the Hindu caste system. For millennia dalits have been the lowest of India’s low. Untouchability was abolished in 1950 under India’s constitution, but the dalit’s position is like that of American blacks following the abolition of slavery. Prejudice, even atrocities, are common, and, in the case of the caste system, such behavior has a religious sanction. Though the world has ignored it, some consider caste an iniquity worse than apartheid, and one affecting far more people. Hinduism offers dalits nothing, and thus many of them are turning to Buddhism.

The key figure behind these events is Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, the statesman and dalit leader who still dominates the community’s consciousness forty-five years after his death. He represented dalits in independence negotiations and framed India’s constitution, which outlawed untouchability. Ambedkar knew that legislation was not enough and that a religious solution was required. For years he worked to reform Hinduism. Gandhi proposed that the caste system should remain, but that Hindus should act better toward the lower castes. Ambedkar, however, concluded that caste and Hinduism were inseparable and that the dalits must help themselves. In 1956, at a vast public ceremony in Nagpur, Ambedkar took the Refuges and precepts, and then initiated 500,000 others into Buddhism. Millions more followed them in the subsequent months.

Ambedkar was far more than a politician. In the hutments and shantytowns of his native Maharashtra, his picture sits on a million shrines alongside the Buddha, representing dalit dignity, hope, and freedom. Ambedkar told his followers that Buddhism offered a new birth, but they must practice its teaching to fulfill its promise. So alongside social aspirations, many of that first generation of converts wanted deeply to understand their new faith. But Ambedkar died a several weeks after converting, and only a few individuals (notably the English Buddhist Sangharakshita) kept the flame alive. Although Ambedkar’s movement has been riven by factionalism, some few have found ways to practice Buddhism effectively.

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