Covert to Buddhism in India
NEW DELHI, India: Defying police
restrictions, thousands of low-caste Hindus on Sunday converted to Buddhism, shaking off
centuries-old social shackles that condemn them to lives marked by discrimination.
Facing a bronze idol of Buddha flanked by
monks in saffron-colored robes, new converts chanted religious hymns and lighted candles
during a simple ceremony held in an open field in the Indian capital.
``We will no longer pray to Hindu gods and
goddesses,'' they chanted.
``The message of Buddhism is that all
human beings are equal,'' said Harish Khare, a 36-year-old government employee who
traveled from the western state of Maharashtra to participate in the ceremony.
Nearly one-fourth of India's more than one
billion people are low-caste Hindus or ``dalits.'' Also known as untouchables, they occupy
the lowest rank in the caste system that is dominated by the once-priestly class of
India's constitution outlaws
discrimination on the basis of caste. But age-old practices persist in rural areas, where
untouchables often are barred from sharing public facilities or temples with upper-caste
Hindus. Many low-caste Hindus have chosen to convert to other religions to protest
continued exploitation by upper-caste Hindus.
Hindu activists closely allied to
governing nationalists in the Bharatiya Janata Party have often opposed such conversions.
About 1 million Hindus from across India
were expected to convert to Buddhism on Sunday, organizers said. But police on Saturday
asked them to scale down the event or move it from the sprawling Ram Lila grounds in the
heart of the city as a precaution against religious clashes.
An estimated 20,000 people converted on
Sunday, but organizers said police prevented many more from participating by blocking
roads leading to the venue.
``Police blocked more than 80 percent of
one million people expected in New Delhi by stopping their buses in neighboring states,''
said Ram Raj, the chief organizer who was among those converted.
Raj heads the All India Scheduled Castes
and Scheduled Tribes Organizations, which aims to help low-caste Hindus and untouchable.
He shaved his head for the conversion, which he described as his rebirth.