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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Buddhist Converts in India.

For the last 5-10 years I have watched in marvel at the mass conversions in India from Hinduism to Buddhism. It was explained to me that many of the converts are Dalits, (the "untouchables") or members of the lowest caste. I can see why someone who is treated as less-than simply for being born into a certain caste would seek the freedom from caste through Buddhism. Buddhism tells us that we are all equal and interconnected, thus, how can we treat any other being as less than us when they are apart of us? That would be like treating ourselves in the same manner and who wants to see themselves as inferior to others? Another conversion recently took place, which saw 11,000 Hindus and Christians convert to Buddhism:

Express News Service, Jan 25, 2010

Ahmedabad, India -- Cose to 11,000 people, including those from the Koli and Kshatriya communities as well as Christian families, embraced Buddhism at a function in Saijpur Bogha here on Sunday. Buddhist monks from Bhante Pragnyasheel administered the pledges to the new converts. The Ahmedabad district collector, however, said no conversion could be effective unless an official permission was granted.


James: I have read from other conversions that the Hindu dominated government often refuses to acknowledge these conversions away from Hinduism. One Dalit spoke of the demeaning caste system and said, "I have hidden my roots. But often on trains people ask about my background, what my father did, where I am from. When I tell them my caste they stop asking questions. In fact they stop talking to me. Buddhism means I can simply say I am not a Hindu. I do not have a caste." It is a sad irony that the country, which gave birth to Buddhism so often now resists the practice of it today by some of its citizens. However, the trend toward an Indian neo-Buddhism doesn't seem to be slowing down. Seeing how both religions believe in karma, you'd think that the Hindus who behave this way would think twice before speaking ill of those converting to Buddhism and treating them as inferior.


Let me be clear, however, that I am not condemning the religion of Hinduism. I find it to be a very vibrant, peaceful, enlightening and beneficial religion. I incorporate some Hindu mystical teachings into my Buddhist practice. However, I can not condone the caste system that is still adhered to by many despite it being technically illegal. Nor can I condone the government not recognizing people having the right to convert to Buddhism. In one region of India, Gujarat, the BJP government there amended a law to state that Buddhism and Jainism are simply extensions of Hinduism. Yes, there are many similarities, but also important differences and I find it unsettling that such a huge democracy as India would take such a rigid stance on religious freedom. As well as that so many Hindus resisting such conversions when Hinduism is said to be a religion of religious tolerance and openness.


I have done a fair bit of research into this subject and it seems that in many cases the resistance to Dalits and others converting to Buddhism is because of political views rather than true religious objections. It is my hope that the majority of the Hindus in India are much more tolerant and secular than those who object to Buddhist conversions. Especially when there are so many different expressions within Hinduism. Why tolerate all those variations but not a fellow, Indian born religion of Buddhism? You'd think it would be a more tolerated religion because of its Indian roots, if nothing else.


~Peace to all beings~

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14 comments:

Jayarava said...

Hi James,

I have several friends both here and in India who identify themselves as Dalit, and who are Buddhist converts. It is often very moving to hear the stories they tell of the prejudice and even violence they have suffered both before and after converting.

Caste per se is not illegal in India, thanks to Mr Gandhi! What is illegal is the practice of 'untouchability': the idea that the mere touch of someone is ritually polluting and requires elaborate purification rituals (usually involving cow shit!). However if you read Indian newspapers you will find that there are almost daily occurrences of victimisation of people who would formerly be called untouchable. They themselves are very touchy about being referred to as 'untouchable', or even 'former untouchables' - especially as most of the people I know were born after the law outlawing untouchability: they have never been untouchable!

It seems to me that you are mostly right to think of it in political terms. It is part of a mad scramble for power in a very crowded country - where the gap between rich and poor is orders of magnitude greater than the West.

Another group who have been converting are the so-called 'tribals' who have never been Hindus and not part of the caste system in a formal way at any time in history.

Dr Ambekar's theory was that the untouchables were originally Buddhists who ate beef (clearly people did eat beef as it is mentioned in the Pāli canon) and with the waning of Buddhism in India and the ascendency of Hinduism those people were forced to the margins of society. It maybe that something like this happened.

The big mass conversions where are less common now, partly because they attracted violent attention from Hindu fundamentalists. Hindu religion and Indian identity are tied together in some minds (as in many other countries) and they don't like anyone to try to leave Hinduism for whatever reason.

David said...

It is somewhat of an interesting note that Siddhartha Gautama as the Buddha is believed to be one of the avatars of God, and an incarnation of Vishnu. Clearly this sort of deification isn't in line with Buddhism, but it does show the sort of respect they give to him and recognize that he was very much from the Hindu tradition, even if he rebelled against much of that tradition as he spiritually developed.

Hinduism has typically been a very open religion, however even while Gandhi was preaching the importance of this sort of openness, it was becoming a trend under the British rule and in response to Christian and Muslim missionary work to identify Hinduism with India, and tie nationhood to it. This sort of fundamentalism led to continued discrimination of the dalits, even after Ambedkar made this illegal in the constitution he (as a British and American educated dalit) helped form.

The BJP is very much a pro-fundamentalist body that pushes this idea, and has unfortunately been gaining much support recently. Think of them as America's Christian right, both religiously and politically restrictive. They are part of the system formed in rejection to a secular government and plurality that some feel threatens their heritage. This, of course, extends to Buddhist conversion.

silentdebate said...

Curiously, does the caste system in Hinduism originate from the belief in atman?

It seems to me that any kind of fundamentalism finds their god in the details, or they miss the forest for the trees. Yet, and I'm not sure if this is the case in Hinduism, oftentimes Christian fundamentalists serve to highlight real problems within that particular faith system.

Em Jay said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
They call him James Ure said...

Em Jay:

Yes, I don't allow anonymous comments because too many people have abused it. They come on here and insult and pester people because they can hide behind an anonymous label.

I don't consider you to be insulting, rude or pestering so why don't you want your comment to say up? I think it was a good addition to the commentary.

They call him James Ure said...

Oops, I meant to say, "...so why don't you want your comment to stay up?"

Instead of what I typed, "...so why don't you want your comment to say up?"

Sorry for any confusion :)

Em Jay said...

Hi James: Religion + Politics = a deadly combination. Many of the events that you have cited here have regional political agendas, With the local Buddhist playing ball. Just thought you would like to know.

I once heard this very thought-provoking greeting by a Buddhist Monk to a group of Europeans that were visiting this monastery India with enough curiosity and possible intentions to turn to Buddhism. After the rituals, Monk said: "Welcome to Buddhism. Have a Nice Stay..."

Ironically, none from the group caught the subtlety of the remark: "Have a nice stay.." They were being addressed but as "guests" despite their "conversion". Monk's rational: Soon enough, they would start getting judgemental, get wound up into this Cast thing that they so love to hate, and finally loose it all.

If I were to speak from a Buddhist's perspective, I would rather concentrate on becoming a Buddha, if you know what I mean.

[I wanted to post this anonymously, but your blog disallows. So, here we go.. I would be happy if you could please delete this once you are done reading.]

Linhy said...

Nice blog! Question? I grew up being a Buddhist and as I got older I learned as much as I could. For some reason I feel more of a hindu. then a Buddhist. Can a buddhist convert to hindu.. I am sure you can but now and days Hindu's convert over to buddhist.

Handsome B. Wonderful said...

Linhy...you can decide on whatever belief system that you want!! Absolutely, you can convert from Buddhism to Hinduism. :)

Jeremiah Duomai said...

It's my first time to hear of Christians converting to Buddhism. I am a Christian, and we don't have caste system or untouchability within the group. But yes, I have witnessed so many people from Hindu background leaving their religion to join others, like, Islam/Christianity/Buddhism. Of course, normally Buddhism is preferred because once a person joins Islam or Christianity, they lose out the facilities that the Govt provide... because as of now reservation is not provided to a convert to Islam or Christianity.

Set Me Free said...

please if any body can tell me exact way of conversion from hinduism to buddhism . I belong to a brahmin family , want to convert into buddhist monk for whole life . plz suggest !!

Set Me Free said...

please if any body can tell me exact way of conversion from hinduism to buddhism . I belong to a brahmin family , want to convert into buddhist monk for whole life . plz suggest !!

They call him James Ure said...

@Set Me Free...I commend you for choosing the Buddha's path. It is an ancient and noble way that has set so many free.

I am not a monk, so I'm not 100% certain, but I became a Buddhist the day I took refuge, in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. (I define taking refuge as acknowledging to yourself that the Buddha, his teachings and the family of Buddhists, are what you want to dedicate your spiritual dedication to).

As well as believing that the four noble truths and the Eight-Fold path are key to understanding liberation from suffering. That's a very quick summation, but it's a start.

As for becoming a monk, first you should decide what tradition in Buddhism fits you best. For example, I am a Zen Buddhist. Then you could look online for Zen monasteries around the world.

bloodbath said...

Hi,

My name is Vaibhav. I have been observing the basic tenets of Buddhism as much as possible in my daily routine for around 8 years. I wanted to know how and where can I convert to Buddhism in Bangalore, India. I know there are monastories around Bangalore like Byllakuppe, which I frequent regularly. But, I have not actually been able to attend a ceremomy for better understanding, and now that I want to adopt, I would appreaciate if anyone can guide me to a temple or a prayer group in Bangalore.

Thanks :)

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