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Hindu Outcasts Embrace Buddhism in India

Sugita Katyal


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 enthusiasm.

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 ago.

``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 vows.

``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 robes.

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.


November 2001

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