Hindu Outcasts Embrace Buddhism in India
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Thousands of Hindu
untouchables packed a huge park in the Indian capital Sunday to convert to Buddhism in a
ceremony shunning centuries of caste discrimination.
Police said the turnout of about 8,000
Hindu Dalits was much lower than the one million expected at what was billed as the
largest mass conversion in the country's history, but that did not dampen the crowd's
The crush of Dalits -- some with their
heads freshly tonsured and multi-colored Buddhist flags in their hands -- chanted hymns in
the ancient language of Pali before a brass Buddha statue and photograph of B.R. Ambedkar,
India's most renowned low-caste leader who conducted a similar conversion half a century
``This is a historic moment as we've been
freed from the centuries-old Brahminical system,'' Ram Raj, head of the All India
Confederation of Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe Organizations, said after he took his
``We are not against any particular
community. We just want to destroy the caste system,'' said the tonsured Raj, who changed
his name to Udit Raj after the ceremony led by a Buddhist priest in traditional maroon
Hindu scriptures separate people into
Brahmin priests, warriors, farmers and laborers, while the rest are beyond definition --
literally outcasts or untouchables.
India's 160 million Dalits -- referred to
as outcasts, untouchables, Harijans (God's People) and Scheduled Castes -- sit at the
bottom of India's 3,000-year-old caste system.
Though caste discrimination is outlawed
and there are reservations for Dalits in parliament and state legislatures, government
jobs and educational institutions, the community still faces social discrimination in many
parts of the country.
They still run the risk of being beaten or
killed if they use a well or worship at a temple reserved for upper castes.
``I've converted for social equality and
to escape Hinduism's caste system,'' Ram Shankar, a social worker from the northern state
of Uttar Pradesh, told Reuters.
Rahul Dev Bodhi, the Buddhist priest who
conducted the ceremony, said they planned to launch a full-fledged campaign to convert
many more Dalits to Buddhism.
``We plan to hold a similar conversion
every month till April next year. On April 14, we will have a conversion that is about 10
times this size near Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh,'' he said.
Critics said the conversion ceremony,
which was forced to shift from its planned venue after police denied it permission, was a
political rally organized with an eye on elections in the politically crucial state of
Uttar Pradesh due by next March.
But D.R. Rahul, a lawyer from central
Madhya Pradesh state who converted to Buddhism in 1967 after upper castes did not allow
him to enter a Hindu temple, dismissed the suggestion.
``It's not a political move. If it had been, why would people from
all over the country have come for this ceremony?'' he asked.