Buddhist Conversions

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. )

# · Jonah

I am with you Will in not quite knowing what to think about this.

I have always felt that Buddhism in general and Western Buddhism in particular is coy about promoting itself. If it is for the benefit of all beings, then it should be more openly available so that more people are given the opportunity of exploring what it has to offer. But, I would not want Buddhists knocking doors with leaflets!

Maybe the mass conversion raises the profile of Buddhism. But, it could do the opposite – like most TV programmes that fail to articulate what Buddhism is about.

It would be interesting to speak to a convert to find out how it affects their life.

# · Will

Hi, Jonah, Thanks for the comments. Generally, I think the psychological benefits of such conversions have been immense, which is no surprise. There’s a fair amount of work on this by Eleanor Zelliot and others.
Best wishes,

# · Sundar

I am one of your silent readers(!) and from India. Even though I come from south most part of India from a state called Tamil Nadu, it kind of hit close to home. So I thought I could chime in here.

I think, people come to Buddhism predominately in two ways:

One, when their symmetric internal world collides with this asymmetrical external world, it sets in motion an inquisitiveness for the truth, which Buddhism satisfies with it’s simple causality explanation — things just don’t happen; there is cause for everything. Sometimes we cannot understand it why things happen, but cause does exist somewhere and you were/are/will be part of it. This is the hardest way. It is a top-down approach. You have a strategy, now take it to the tactical level. Until you tactically implement it, the strategy does not have any meaning. You haven’t had to hear or know anything about Buddhism, you can just follow your own heart in its simplest form and you will arrive at the answers. This, of course, needs lots of free time, critical thinking and real hard work in search for answers.

Second, you were born into it or you got converted to it (by your best friend or your family member or in this case by group of people or ….), you just start practicing it and you slowly understand why you do some things and why you don’t do some things. It starts of as tactical implementation and it grows into you. You become, what you do!

So going back to mass conversion, my take is – it’s great!! You are talking about the population, which does hard manual menial work and does not have any free time at all. Even if they do, they don’t have access to any resources and 60% – 80% cannot even read. My only hope after this mass conversion is that they actually start practicing Buddhism, rather than just replacing their Krishna statues with new Buddha statues.


# · Will

Hi, Sundar,

Thanks for the comment, and it’s great to know I have silent readers in Tamil Nadu…

W :-)

# · Jiryu

I agree with you in your ambivalence about the conversions.

It has always seemed to me that, in order to derive the most benefits of dharma practice, one needs (a) a desire to change from the inside out and (b) a sangha — or at least a teacher — with some skillfulness at dharma. Solitary Buddhists may no doubt attain enlightenment, but just as with recovering addicts (another path that I have walked) it is, I believe, far more likely to occur with some guidance.

That said, Buddhism is for the benefit of all, and if the conversions improve the quality of life for those people, one can hardly say that doesn’t involve reduction of dukkha as well — at least in some cases.

On balance, on the Middle Path, I believe it is probably a very good thing.

# · jinjinpinti

Interesting post. I had heard or, perhaps, read another description of mindfulness in that it is not simply focussing and being aware of the activity of the moment, as in Gestalt therapy, but more of a watching the mind “as one would watch a lizard climbing up the wall” without judgement about what movement is occuring in the thought process…simple observation of the flow of thoughts and the experience of each moment sensoriously and physically again without judgement. Oop, wrong thread.

# · Vishvapani

Hi Will,
I’m back from India now and generally catching up. The concerns you raise are understandable – I think most Buddhists outside India are rather wary of the Ambedkarite movement, fearing that it is concerned mainly with some kind of political change rather than with Dharma as a path to Enlightenment.
Having seen the Ambedkarite movement firsthand I feel differently. In general I am deeply impressed by what is happening. My response is two-fold. Firstly, India is a society where identity is not a matter of personal choice: people are defined in terms of caste whether they like it or not. You can’t really not have a religious identity there.
Secondly, and most important, there is Dr Ambedkar. Without him and his depth of thinking the movement would be fairly meaningless, and I think any assessment of its significance needs to get to grips with what he had to say on the subject. He saw that freedom for his followers lay in their adopting an identity which would free them, at least in their own minds, from the societal tendency to bracket people according to their community. If you like, he saw Buddhism as a skillful means aimed at freeing people from constricting views – which is pretty Buddhist. For Ambedkar, the cutting edge of practice was overcoming the legacy of caste, and seeing the situation for the dalits, who can disagree.
I think this is a challenge for westerners to comprehend because it is so different from our own engagement with Buddhism.
A final point. My impression is that most of those becoming Buddhists do not really see the act as ‘conversion’. Their underlying faith is not Hindu – that tradition treats them as dirt – but in Dr Ambedkar himself. The switch is from being an Ambedkarite to being an Ambedkarite Buddhist.

# · Will

Thanks for the comment, Vishvapani. Glad you are back in one piece (what with collapsing stages etc. etc.), and thanks for your thoughtful comments. Your final point in particular is interesting, and very relevant.

I probably am a little bit wary of the Ambedkarite movement – although I’m a huge admirer of Ambedkar – but I am also wary of my own wariness, as I know that this itself is conditioned by very particular views of Buddhism.

In terms of the question of identity, I am sure that the politics of identity do matter. The report from Human Rights Watch makes this abundantly clear. Breaking with the imposed identity, and all the practises that go along with it, must certainly be a first step for any kind of human freedom. But as I said at the end of my post, the human movement towards emancipation cannot remain forever within the politics of identity_… which is not to say that it may not, in some cases, need to start there.

All the best, Will

# · vijay

it will happen in few years india became buddhist country,and hindu brahmin outsiders

# · shelley

hello, while i agree that maybe converting to buddhism is more political than religious, i think many or at least a few of those dalit buddhsits WILL become full-fledged, devout Buddhists if they sincerely concentrate on it. Moreover, i cannot blame them going into buddhism. Why stay in a religion that doens’t accept you? I’m an american girl of east indian ancestry, but I follow buddhism myself. May india once again becoem the land of the buddha dharma :)

ps I love your site.

# · sandy

hello, first off, great site. also, good for them for convertign. besides, buddhism is a native religion to india, so why not choose it? Ambedkar did the rigth thing, and so did the dalits. I think the Buyddha himself would be proud of all these people today. May his dharma never die.

# · neal

Sweetness personified aka Dhamma.

# · santo

Hello every body, one Buddhist organization wish to make your participation through the Buddhist engagement in Korea in Oct 2007. They will cover financial support as much possible. Please reply fast.
Santosh Gupta
Ph.D candidate
South Korea

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