Shorapur, Karnataka: For the large number of Dalits who gathered at Karnataka’s Shorapur to adopt Buddhism Friday, the conversion is an attempt to shed the tag of ‘untouchable’ that they still carry, especially in rural parts of the state.
“By choosing Buddhism, we’re not just rejecting Hinduism which promotes the caste system and inequality but we’re also walking in the path of our guru Dr. B.R. Ambedkar,” said Dalit leader Devendra Hegde to ThePrint.
He said that “Baba Saheb” chose Buddhism not just to fight against casteism but also after understanding the principles of Buddhism and how it benefits the human race.
“Also, what has Hinduism given us other than insults,” Hegde said.
The event, organised by Golden Cave Buddha Vihar Trust, was held on the eve of 66th Dhammachakra Pravartan Din, when Ambedkar adopted Buddhism in 1956. Rahul Hullimani, secretary of the Trust said that 457 Dalits embraced Buddhism by taking the 22 vows as prescribed by Ambedkar.
Ambedkar’s granddaughter Rama Teltumbde Ambedkar was the chief guest at the event.
“It’s 2022 and we are still being called untouchables. Why should we be in Hinduism anymore,” asked Venkatesh Hosmani, member of the trust, speaking to ThePrint.
Earlier last week, Venkatesh, along with a few others, threw photos of Hindu gods in a river, calling it “respectful visarjan“, before converting to Buddhism. The video of the same went viral on social media.
Experts say that while being closely associated with Ambedkar’s teachings, conversion to Buddhism does not result in structural changes. Speaking to ThePrint, political activist and author, Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, said denouncing Hinduism does not change the perception of Dalits unless there is a cultural transformation.
“As of now, it is just a protest and challenge to Hindutva practices and deep-rooted untouchability practices,” he said.
Persisting casteist practices
Shorapur Assembly Constituency is a Scheduled Tribe reserved constituency. According to the police, caste discrimination is a lot more prevalent in rural parts of the taluk.
Just a few months ago, a Dalit family was not allowed into a temple because of their caste until the police intervened. The incident took place in Amalihala village, 30 kilometres from the town area.
In another incident, a Dalit family was fined Rs 60,000, in the state’s Kolar district, after their son touched a pole attached to an idol of a Hindu deity. These incidents have left a mark on the town which is in Karnataka’s Yadgir district.
Describing an odd practice, Shorapur Police Inspector Sunil V.M told the ThePrint that many of the hotels, shops run by mostly upper caste individuals in the Taluk’s Kirdhalli village are shut after a member of a Dalit family dies.
Several Dalit community members allege that it is because Dalits from other villages who visit the family might go to these establishments and the upper caste owners do not like it.
“The villagers say this a decades-old tradition but they don’t know why exactly this is being done. It only happens when a Dalit person dies,” said Sunil.
“There are students in my class who do not sit next to me because I am a Dalit. They say stuff like move away from us, you belong to the lower caste. But, from now on I will identify myself as a Buddhist and I hope it will change their perspective,” Maya B., 14-year-old daughter of one of the organisers told ThePrint. She is a student at a local school.
“There are still villages in Raichur where drinking water for Dalits is from a different source, upper caste people drink from a different well. I was stopped from going to a temple a couple of years ago,” said Radha M, one of the 20 women from Raichur at the event, speaking to ThePrint.
“If Hinduism does not give us equality, if that religion places us at the lowest level and does not want us, why should we obey it,” asked Amaralamma, another convert from Raichur speaking to ThePrint.
She said that they will go the “Baba Saheb way and live an equal life”, adding, “staying in Hinduism is an insult to our Baba Saheb.”
Sunil added that Shorapur’s literacy rate is hardly 50 per cent. That coupled with extreme backwardness and poverty is a reason for this discrimination, he claimed.
Renowned political activist, author, Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd pointed out how adopting Buddhism might be a sign of “protest” against Hinduism but does not add any cultural transformation to their social status.
“Their occupation remains the same, their village remains the same, their names also remain the same. So, this does not really change the perception of others on them, until there is a cultural transformation,” he said.
He added that protest does not automatically create an equal space for them, perhaps not as much as other religion converts such as Islam or Christianity.
“One reason why the RSS or the BJP have no issue with Dalits embracing Buddhism is that they see it as part of Hinduism. Had they been taking up other religion like Islam or Christianity, there would have been much noise about it,” he said.
“For instance, in Andhra Pradesh’s Piduguralla area, a significant number of Yadav community members converted to Christianity and the other half did not. The converts saw cultural transformation — their women attended night schools, children went to Sunday schools and women dressed up for Sunday Church and that gave some sort of empowerment to the community eventually, compared to those who did not. Buddhism is not doing anything similar here,” he explained.
Ambedkar’s school of Buddhism
Dalit community members have been converting to Buddhism ever since Ambedkar did. On October 14th 1956, along with over 3.5 lakh followers, he left Hinduism, as he considered it a threat to freedom because it propagated the caste system.
His re-interpretation, often referred to as the Dalit Buddhist movement, Navayana, or Neo-Buddhism — rejected the “four noble truths” of traditional Buddhism, and was instead remodeled with a focus on class struggle and social justice.
But broadly, Ambedkar preferred Buddhism over other religions as he found the practice more suitable to liberate the marginalised sections of society.
The conversion rate, especially among Dalits for whom conversion is a political tool and a protest against Hinduism, is declining, points out Shepherd.
“Ambedkar made some structural changes to Buddhism when he adopted it but there is not much clarity on how the religion would have been fully used for social justice. Had he lived longer after he embraced it, we could have seen it perhaps,” he said.
He explained that the initial idea was to combat the caste system in Hinduism. “How can one annihilate caste without making some structural changes,” he asked.
For the many Dalits converting to Buddhism, the idea is to walk on the path of Ambedkar. Shepherd points out that the younger converts could benefit from the move as their growth would be closely associated with Ambedkar’s teachings.
(Edited by Theres Sudeep)