Untouchables who are protesting Hindu nationalism in India are on the verge of converting to Buddhism on a large scale, although Buddhist leaders are unsure of what to make of the phenomenon.
The Buddhist quarterly Tricycle (Spring) reports that a mass conversion of over one million Indian dalits (those of the untouchable caste) was due to take place in Delhi last November. The government swiftly moved in to prevent the mass conversions by turning back crowds from the scheduled venue, although many did take part in the ceremony.
Just as 500,000 dalit Hindus converted en masse to Buddhism under the leadership of B.R. Ambedkar in 1956, Ram Raj has emerged as a new leader of the dalit middle class. Tapping into the dalit fear that the Hindu nationalist government is removing the fragile gains they have made in India, Raj has stirred wide interest in Buddhist conversion and the right to define oneself religiously and politically. Raj believes that tens, perhaps hundreds of millions will become Buddhists, although many dalits have also expressed an interest in Christianity.
Many of the now established Ambedkarite Buddhists are wary of Raj, but realize he is charismatic and that the mass conversions “may sow seeds for a genuine encounter with Buddhism.”
(Tricycle, 92 Vandam St., New York, NY 10013)