There are plenty of musicians around the world who have been spotted on a meditation retreat or sporting prayer beads around their wrists, leaving us wondering—are they or aren’t they?
But the Buddhist connection is loud and clear with rock band Dhamma Wings, founded in 2011 by Shardaputra Kabeer Shakya. The four core band members, who hail from Mumbai, come from families who converted to Buddhism with Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. Ambedkar, a politician and drafter of India’s constitution, was a reformer who converted hundreds of thousands of lower-caste Indians, known as Dalits, to Buddhism as a way to escape societal restrictions for those considered to be “untouchables.”
Tricycle recently spoke with Shakya about the band, which just played at the Second International Dhamma Conference in Gujarat, India, about how he sees music as a tool for breaking the cycle of inequality.
Are all of the Dhamma Wings band members Buddhist?
Yes, all of the [main] band members are Buddhist: Most of us are music teachers, and our grandfathers converted to Buddhism with Dr. BR Ambedkar. Recently, a few non-Buddhist musicians also joined our group, and we perform Indian folk music on the same stage.
Can you tell me a little bit about your background in Buddhism and music? When did you decide to combine the two?
It started when I was in what is known in India as “pre university” [the final year of high school before going off to college], and I took my first 10-day Vipassana meditation course. Then, after three years, I decided to practice as a monk. I went to Bodhgaya [the place where the Buddha attained enlightenment] to a Thai teacher named Sirichai T., and I spent three months there. Those three months completely changed my mind. I had so many beautiful experiences that I decided to spread what I had learned and the message of the Buddha to India’s youth.
In college I was an active member of a cultural group, and I used to play guitar in youth festivals. So I found that my guitar was the best way to spread the message of peace and harmony. I composed my first song when I was at Bodhgaya. After coming back, I started singing my songs in the local vihara [temple], in slums, and any possible place where I had a chance to sing and perform.
On my journey, I met the other band members [drummer Swapnil More, bass guitarist Rahul Kamble, and lead guitarist Rohan Zodge], and we officially launched the band Dhamma Wings in May 2011.
Why is it important to spread the message of the Buddha and Ambedkar in your songs?
I belong to a Buddhist family, so I’ve known about Dr. Ambedkar since childhood. I am full of gratitude toward him, because he is the person who converted my grandfather to Buddhism and made me able to practice it.
People say we are moving toward a third world war. I feel that discrimination is the biggest reason for humans hating each other, and Lord Buddha and Dr. Ambedkar stand against any kind of discrimination among human beings. And the Buddha himself suffered when he started accepting people from any caste or color into the monastic sangha. We know that the Buddha says hatred comes from within, and peace does, too.
How is spreading this message through music different than being a politician or social activist?
Music doesn’t have boundaries—it’s a universal language that can help us to speak even the people who dislike us.
In today’s world we have a wide range of technology and social media available to get our creative stuff in front of people. You can also do the same work as a politician or a social activist. After all, it’s your choice! We think all those people who make such efforts are precious to society.
What message do you think a non-Buddhist audience will take from your songs?
We get a really great response from non-Buddhist people as well—they appreciate the music and the lyrics. In India there are more than 20 official languages, so we are singing in all possible languages to break down barriers and bring the teachings of the Buddha and Ambedkar to the people.
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