A distinctive form of Buddhism is taking shape in India as a new wave of dalit or untouchables are embracing the religion, often en masse. The Buddhist magazine Tricycle (Spring) notes that since 1957, untouchables have been converting to Buddhism, representing a symbolic break from the caste system as much as devotion to their new religion.
Many followed dalit political activist Bhimrao Ambedkar, who taught a rational, social Buddhism shorn of much of its rituals and mysticism. Today the dalit Buddhist converts are spreading well beyond their traditional heartland in the state of Maharashtra as well as taking on more traditional trappings of the faith.
Dalit leaders are seeking to dispel the often well-justified suspicion that the move to Buddhism is often a route to social advancement and a way to publicly oppose Hinduism. Many are now taking up formal dharma practice, such as meditation. The number of new converts in recent years is unknown, though said to be near the “hundreds of thousands.”
But what may be more significant is the spread of “Ambedkarite Buddhism” to remote states and villages whose residents have never heard of Ambedkar. Many of the new converts are also leaders in their own dalit communities and therefore can spread the religion further. In the remote central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, converts have replaced the verses from the Hindu classic the Ramayana with their own epic: it uses the same form but this “Buddhayana” recounts the life of the Buddha.
(Tricycle, 92 Nandam St., New York, NY 10013)