Major: English and Cultural Studies
Hometown: East Bend, North Carolina
Study Abroad Program: SIT India
To begin with a necessary cliché, my time in India was without a doubt the most transformative and meaningful period of my life so far. In living with a homestay family, studying Hindi, and traveling through the north of the subcontinent, I was thoroughly fascinated and enamored, leaving me no doubt that my future will be deeply involved with India. However, through these experiences, I learned enough about the vast and wonderful cultures of India to realize that I know very little. In a country with such amazing diversity and plurality, I think it’s important to be as specific as possible when describing one’s experiences, so as not to generalize with statements like, “India is…” For this reason, I will describe my month-long independent research period in the most holy Buddhist pilgrimage place in the world.
The ceremony begins around 10 am and already the temperature is in the low 90s with a stifling humidity making my kurta stick against my back. A monk approaches the podium and delivers a rousing speech in Hindi, periodically interrupted by a chorus of voices chanting “Jai Buddha! Jai Ambedkar! Jai Baba Saheb!” I’m surrounded by dozens of monks in yellow, saffron and scarlet robes, a cross-section of the international Buddhist monastics who call Bodh Gaya home. There are also another 150 laypeople, low-caste women, men and children most of whom are life-long Bihari residents. Of the couple hundred people in the crowd, I’m the only Westerner, trying to make sense of who was this Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and why so many have gathered to celebrate his life here in Bodh Gaya, the place where the Siddhartha Gautama became the Buddha.
I went to India with a vague knowledge of Indian Buddhism and an even fogger understanding of the caste system and the practice of untouchability. Though I had been living in India for upwards of 2 and a half months when I traveled to Bodh Gaya, everyone I asked defined the caste system differently. Most Indians I spoke with said it was simply a way of ordering society, originally derived from Hindu scripture but later extending to all parts of Indian culture; it’s no coincidence those I spoke with were from high-castes. It was only when I began to explore the caste system from the perspective of oppressed that I learned about Dr. Ambedkar and his struggle to empower the depressed castes of India through conversion to Buddhism.
In 1956, almost ten years after Indian independence, Dr. Ambedkar officially rejected Hinduism and Hindu philosophy in favor of Buddhism. The author of the Indian constitution and Dalit (depressed caste) leader described his conversion as a deliverance from hell, and no doubt the 3.5 million Dalits who converted over the next ten years felt similarly. By rejecting the divisions of the caste system and asserting that any person can attain enlightenment, the Buddha radically changed the social and political landscape of India. These teachings are now used as a central means of social liberation for depressed castes. Dalit conversions from 1956 to the present account for the greatest Buddhist revival India has seen in hundreds of years and Dalits currently compose the largest Buddhist population in India. I wanted to understand the motivation for these conversions, as well as how the lives of these formerly untouchable Hindus had changed.
The first convert I interviewed was Rajesh Boudh, who converted from Hinduism to Buddhism sixteen years ago. When I asked him about the significance of his conversion, he paused for a moment and told me, “The most important change was my change of consciousness; I no longer think the way that I used to.” I asked if he would elaborate on what he meant by “change of consciousness” and he responded, “Well, when I became a Buddhist, I realized that I was human. When I still believed in Hinduism, I didn’t know I was human. I thought I was polluted, untouchable.”
I tried to conceal my shock, but my jaw dropped as I struggled to find a response. He went on to explain that throughout his life, his entire society reiterated that he wasn’t the same as everyone else; that he wasn’t even of the same species as a Brahmin or Kshatriya. Rajesh told me that he didn’t begin to overcome this crippling inferiority complex until his conversion to Buddhism. Now, regardless of what discrimination he may face on account of his caste, he believes himself to be inherently no better or worse than any other person. “I am now no longer bothered by others’ judgments because I know that I am equal to all people. Buddhism has provided me this inner-strength.”
Following his conversion, Rajesh established the Dharma Chakra Mission, a nationally registered NGO which seeks to better the lives of Dalits in Bodh Gaya through Buddhist and secular education programs. DCM offers lectures and workshops about Buddhism, twice-daily English classes, and operates a primary school for youth in Bodh Gaya. All of these services are directed toward low-caste locals and are offered free of charge. Throughout the month I spent with the DCM, I learned that this commitment to social engagement is of principle importance to Dalit Buddhists. Their religious practice is dominated by Samyak Kamma, or the idea that helping to one’s fellow being is the most important teaching of the Buddha. By providing these services, they believe they are fulfilling Lord Buddha’s mission of showing compassion and respect, even to those most rejected by society. They hope to share the teachings that helped them develop an unprecedented sense of dignity and self-esteem.
Though the DCM receives no national or international aid and operates on a thin budget, members ceaselessly strive to better the lives of the oppressed in Bodh Gaya. Along with adamantly rejecting the caste system and the idea of untouchability, these Dalit converts also promote gender equality in a deeply patriarchal society. Usha Kumari Boudh, a local Dalit woman and member of the DCM, explained to me, “Before becoming Buddhist, I thought that women were inferior to men. I thought it was my bad karma for being born a woman; that I must have done something wrong in my past lives. Buddhism has taught me this is not true, that no one is superior or inferior to anyone else based on birth. By birth, men aren’t better than women and Brahmins aren’t better than untouchables; we can only judge others by their actions.”
In a country where religion is too often a source of divisiveness, I was overwhelmed to see Buddhism bringing together and empowering those most oppressed by Indian society. Through their belief in Buddhist dharma, my Dalit friends not only rejected the hierarchies of caste, but also those of gender, and strove to treat all sentient beings as having Buddha-nature. For them, Buddhism was not an abstract philosophy but rather a living belief system that asserts their claim to dignity and respect.