Recently, mother and brother of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula, who committed suicide at Hyderabad Central University in January sparking strong protests across the country, embraced Buddhism on the occasion of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s 125th birth anniversary. Rohith’s mother Radhika and Brother Naga Chaitanya Vemula, also known as Raja Vemula, were given ‘deeksha’. Since Rohit Vemula issue is grabbing headlines therefore media is giving wide coverage to his mother’s conversion report. But there are many Dalits and people from oppressed communities who had adopted Buddhism.
The caste system is a social evil which is taking our country backward. It is acting as a powerful social and political divisive force in our country at a time when it is absolutely essential for us to be united if we wish to face our nation’s challenges. It is a curse on our country which must be speedily eradicated if we wish to progress. Even, our politics is largely governed by caste vote banks. When the time comes for selecting candidates for the elections a study is made of the numerical caste distribution in a constituency, because voters in most areas vote on caste basis.
Many castes are declared as O.B.C.s or Scheduled Castes, to get the benefits of reservation. Even some O.B.C.s strives to be declared as M.B.C.s (most backward castes) or Scheduled Castes. Fake caste certificates have become rampant, to get jobs or admissions in educational institutions. Caste has become curse on human lives. Some take advantage of it and some remain deprived. Even Muslims, Christians and Sikhs often have castes, although their religion preaches equality.
The nature of Buddhism, which is viewed as a rational religion without much emphasis on giving centrality to God and the other world, which is organized more as a community rather than a hierarchy attracts Dalits. Other religions like Christianity in India have succumbed to the caste system and allow caste practices among those converted. There are churches with separate seating section for Dalits, and till very recently they could not become priests. Buddhism arose as a challenge to Hinduism, which opposed the principle of ritual purity and pollution and the stratification of society based on it.
At the Yeola conference in 1935, B. R. Ambedkar declared that he would not die a Hindu, saying that it perpetuates caste injustices. Ambedkar was approached by various leaders of different denominations and faiths. Meetings were held to discuss the question of Dalits and the pros and cons of conversion. Buddhist monk Lokanatha visited Ambedkar’s residence at Dadar on 10 June 1936 and tried to persuade him to embrace Buddhism. Later in an interview to the press, Lokanatha said that Ambedkar was impressed with Buddhism and that his own ambition was to convert all Dalits to Buddhism. In 1937, Lokanatha published a pamphlet “Buddhism Will Make You Free, dedicated to the “Depressed Classes” of India from his press in Ceylon.
After publishing a series of books and articles arguing that Buddhism was the only way for the Untouchables to gain equality, Ambedkar publicly converted on 14 October 1956, at Deekshabhoomi, Nagpur. He took the three refuges and Five Precepts from a Buddhist monk, Bhadant U Chandramani, in the traditional manner, and in his turn administered them to the 600,000 of his followers who were present. Ambedkar asked Dalits not to get entangled in the existing branches of Buddhism, and called his version Navayana or ‘Neo-Buddhism’. Ambedkar would die less than two months later, just after finishing his definitive work on Buddhism. Many Dalits employ the term “Ambedkar(ite) Buddhism” to designate the Buddhist movement, which started with Ambedkar’s conversion. Many converted people call themselves “-Bauddha” i.e. Buddhists. Since then the Dalits of India, to protest against the caste system in Hinduism embrace Buddhism which does not have such an oppressive system of castes.
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