Wednesday October 18, 2006
The BBC has recently reported on the mass conversions of thousands of Dalits – low-caste members – from Hinduism to Buddhism, after the example of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, who was the first law minster of independent India, and who converted to Buddhism with thousands of his low-caste followers in 1956, shortly before his death. This year marks the 50th anniversary of his conversion, and this anniversary has given the impetus for further conversions – not just to Buddhism, but also to Christianity. I may write about Ambedkar in a later post, a great big, belligerent and fiercely intelligent man who was the architect of the Indian constitution, and who put forward a robustly materialist view of Buddhism, but the subject of the present post is not so much Ambedkar himself as the questions raised by these mass conversions.
Ambedkar was from the Mahar caste, one of the many so-called “ex-untouchable” or dalit castes that fall outside of the caturvarna system of traditional Hinduism, the classification of society into four classes (literally “colours”) – the Brahmins, or the reciters of the texts, the Kshatriyas, or the warriors, the Viashyas or merchants, and the Sudras, or manual labourers. Certain castes ( jatis ), were seen to fall outside of this framework, and to be ritually polluting to members of higher ranked castes, to the extent that these “untouchables” were forbidden to drink from the same wells as higher-caste members, and not just physical contact but even contact with an untouchable’s shadow was considered ritually polluting.
Untouchability was outlawed in India at Independence; but at the same time caste-related practices and the belief in ritual pollution still persist in India. This report from Human Rights Watch shows the extent of the problem, and the sheer brutality of the continuing attacks on ex-untouchable caste members. No wonder that there are many who seek conversion. In response to these conversions, however, the states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Tamil Nadu have passed laws restricting conversions (see this article in The Hindu& newspaper), whilst in Gujarat Buddhism and Jainism have been reclassified as branches of Hinduism, which nullifies the force of these public conversions (You think you’ve converted? Well, sorry, but you haven’t!).
I have been thinking about posting upon this topic for some time now, but I have held back because I simply don’t know what I think about it. The phenomenon of mass-conversion is one that seems to make little sense in terms of the Buddhist tradition; but at the same time, it makes a great deal of sense in terms of the politics of identity and in terms of the very real problems faced by Dalits or ex-untouchables in India today. The Buddha himself mocked the idea that human beings could be ranked in terms of purity simply by virtue of being born into this or that caste. What matters, he contended, is not some metaphysical idea of ritual purity, but ethics, how we respond to each other as human beings.
Joseph D’Souza, the Christian president of the Dalit Freedom Network said to the BBC, said of these conversions “I think it’s important to understand that this is a cry for human dignity, it’s a cry for human worth”. This is no doubt true. And for those who have suffered for too long by being labelled “untouchable”, the rejection of the system that has placed this label upon them perhaps must be the first step towards this sense of dignity and worth.
Nevertheless, it seems to me that in the end Buddhism is not to do with identity but instead with practice. I wish those new converts to Buddhism and Christianity well, but at the same time I can’t help feeling that the human movement towards emancipation cannot remain forever within the politics of identity. Claims to identity, in the long run – with their tendency to lapse into an unfortunate tribalism – are perhaps as much a part of the problem as they are a part of the solution.
( There’s a much fuller account of what is going on in India from the FWBO’s Vishvapani, who is out in India at the moment, on his Ambedkar2006 blog, including a fairly comprehensive set of media links. )
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