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Buddhism in the News


Saturday, October 30, 2010

Dalits Bravely Embrace Buddhism.

Hundreds of Dalits belonging to Chettipulam, a village near Vedaranyam in Nagapattinam district are planning to embrace Buddhism on December 6, the death anniversary of B R Ambedkar. During September 2009, the CPI(M) had alleged that the Dalits were not being allowed entry into the temple by the villagers. The party organised temple entry agitations twice - on Sep 30,and Oct 14 of that year.

James: I have been watching with interest the continued phenomena of Dalits converting to Buddhism since the revered Dalit Dr. B R Ambedkar converted giving Dalits a way out of the cruel label of "untouchable." In the Hindu caste system Dalits or "untouchables" are considered the lowest of the level of human being. The castes system was officially abolished with the drafting of the Indian Constitution but the tradition is still stubbornly held to by all too many Indians and the discriminatory suffering continues.

Traditionally Dalits were forced into the "impure" professions of: trash collectors, butchering, animal carcass removal and waste clean-up. They are sometimes still banned from entering temples because of their "impure" status. This combined with the political rights movement by Ambedkar has been the fuel that has created and perpetuates the mass conversions of Dalits to Buddhism (to read more about the political and social reality of the caste system, click here). This is all a cursory description, of course, of the very complex nature of the Dalits place in Indian society.

Buddhism was revolutionary and a bit rebellious at the time of its birth in Indian society (and still somewhat today) as it challenges and denies the existence of the caste levels. Hinduism teaches a fatalistic approach to life, whereas, Buddhism approaches it from the aspect of choice. In other words, there is a way out in this life from our present circumstances. Buddha's famous declaration on the matter was, "Birth does not make one a priest or an outcast. Behavior makes one either a priest or an outcast." Buddha himself was born into the warrior caste in ancient India.

Indeed Buddha believed that one's past lives were but one aspect to what determined who we are as a person in this present life. However, unlike the Hindus he taught that we can change this through our actions in this life. We aren't segregated into a less equal status for life simply for being born into a certain family. The caste system doesn't allow for advancement or change in one's existence in this life, and seeing how there are virtuous and less virtuous people in all the castes points more toward Buddha's theory that our personalities are shaped more by our actions than by birth outcome.

In the face of all this I have wondered what tradition of Buddhism are these new Buddhists embracing. As it turns out, their own. Theirs is often an ecclectic form of the Dharma that is based upon the traditional Theravada tradition but borrows as well from Mahayana and Vajrayana. They are very socially engaged Buddhists stemming from their movements political campaign for greater rights in their homeland of India (SOURCE: Queen, Christopher S. and Sallie B. King: Engaged Buddhism: Buddhist liberation movements in Asia: NY 1996: 47ff. u.A.). The eclectic nature and socially engaged focus of these Buddhists is shared within the emerging western, Buddhist cultures, and is in part why I am so interested in its emergence in modern Indian society. May all Dalits find the way out of their suffering -- as may all of us.

~Peace to all beings~

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Anonymous said...

Many dalits are also converting to Islam...anything to get away from the caste system. But Indians now consider any buddhist Indians as former dalits and the moslems are treated poorly as anyway. It is so difficult...I lived there for the past five years and have just returned a few months ago to the states. Ani

BD said...

"It is not what others do and do not do that is my concern. It is what I do and do not do -- that is my concern."
This quote form the Buddha seems to apply I think. Good for them to get out and have a chance like the rest of us in the West.

Jayarava said...

Nice to see Ambedkar being celebrated in the west! Just a small point... dalit is literally 'oppressed'. My Dalit friends are understandably very touchy about being referred to as 'untouchable', or even 'ex-untouchable'. Most people alive today were born after the law banning the practice of untouchability, and have never been, nor considered themselves as untouchable.

Sadly some of the monks who run these conversion ceremonies seldom do much in the way of backup and often Dalit villagers know little or nothing about Buddhism, however devoted they are. Often Buddhist 'instruction' will consist of how lay people should bow to, and make offerings to, monks. There is no doctrine and no meditation and so some of the converts are hardly any better off for converting. There is a desperate lack of Dhamma teachers at every level in India, and a desperate lack of resources since most new Buddhists are from the poorest strata of Indian society. Anyone even slightly motivated should look into going to India to help out, eve if only for a short period - it is incredibly rewarding and they are far more receptive than most Westerners!

In terms of the Triratna Buddhist movement the India side of our organisation is growing rapidly and our Order will likely have a majority of Indians (mostly from Dalit backgrounds) within a few decades. Already in sheer numbers they outnumber of people involved us many to one.

Trevor said...

How does one go about the process of teaching the dharma in India?

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