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Thousands Covert to Buddhism in India

Ashok Sharma


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 Brahmins.


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.  


November 2001

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