July 16, 2017
A Buddhist shrine with Ambedkar's portrait. Source: Akuppa John Wigwam/Flickr

Neo-Buddhists enjoy better literacy rates and greater urban presence but many also carry their caste along

IN THE  meditation hall of Thai Monastery at Sarnath, a big statue of Buddha adorns the centre stage with framed individual photographs of two monks. Along with them stands a photograph of Dr B R Ambedkar, India’s first law minister and principal architect of its Constitution.

Ambedkar is more famous, however, as the icon of movement against caste-based discrimination which culminated with him embracing Buddhism in 1956 along with 6 lakh of his followers. Buddhism, he had contended, is the only way for the untouchables to attain equality. 

The Dalits in modern India continue to use initiation into Buddhism as a symbolic protest. On May 19, 2017, around 180 families immersed the idols of Hindu deities and took to Buddhism after a violent clash with members of upper caste in Saharanpur district of Uttar Pradesh. Last year, over 300 Dalits took deeksha in Gujarat after seven Dalits were flogged for skinning a dead cow.

Besides these spurts, Dalits shun their caste identity collectively every year on special occasions like Budh Purnima, birth and death anniversaries of Ambedkar, but most importantly on  Vijaydashmi, the day Ambedkar embraced Buddhism in 1956. Despite being a Hindu festival, Vijaydashmi is important because King Ashoka, the biggest patron of Buddhism, took deeksha on the same day in 263 BCE.

The Dalits in modern India continue to use initiation into Buddhism as a symbolic protest 

In modern India, however, Ambedkar turned deeksha into a gesture to checkmate the caste bias. The Hindu right groups, on the other hand, don’t see Buddhism as a challenge claiming it to be an off-shoot of Hinduism and Buddha as avatar (reincarnation) of Vishnu, one of the Hindu trinity.

The repercussions are bigger than those acknowledged. One of the main contention of the Dalits in Saharanpur has been that Hindu outfits treated them as their own until the Assembly elections which saw BJP coming to power in Uttar Pradesh. 

“BJP, RSS and Bajrang Dal are always seeking support based on Hindu identity. When people reject Hinduism by embracing Buddhism, they also refuse to be part of their socio-political ambitions,” says Nawar Satpal Tanwar, a leader of Bhim Army, the activists’ group UP Police blamed for violence in Saharanpur. 

BJP also acknowledges the risk which is why it sponsored a six-month state-wide ‘yatra’ by 40 monks to woo the neo-Buddhists before the Assembly elections.

On the contrary, BSP chief Mayawati delayed embracing Buddhism to remain politically relevant for non-Dalits. Bhim Army may strengthen its place in this political landscape as it is mulling a large scale conversion campaign. 

Ambedkar’s dhamma journey 

Ambedkar’s interest in Buddhism began in 1908, when he first received a book on the Buddha’s life and reached its zenith in 1935 when he declared, ‘Although I have been born a Hindu, I will not die a Hindu.’

Soon came his explosive essay, ‘The Annihilation of Caste’, in which he said, the greatest barrier to the advance of the untouchables was Hinduism itself. 

 Dr B R Ambedkar addressing the World Buddhist Conference at Rangoon Myanmar) in December 1954. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Ambedkar also looked at Buddhism and Sikhism as two home-grown religions that defied Brahmanism in a thorough-going way.

“You must take the stand which Guru Nanak took. You must not only discard the Shastras, you must deny their authority, as did Buddha and Nanak. You must have courage to tell the Hindus that what is wrong with them is their religion – the religion which has produced in them this notion of the sacredness of Caste,” he wrote.

This was seen as a response to Gandhi who saw removal of untouchability as the issue, not the caste system as such.

He instead stressed on need for repentance by upper caste Hindus. Gandhi had also opposed separate electorate for the ‘untouchables’ saying the move would be divisive for Hinduism

The essay also showed Ambedkar’s inclination shifting from Christianity and Islam towards Buddhism and Sikhism.

He had earlier opined that converting to Buddhism would not impact bullying of so-called upper castes and Dalits should win the support of a powerful community to erase the mark of untouchability. That he ultimately took to Buddhism and wrote extensively about its spiritual significance continues to inspire many. 

Ambedkar ultimately took to Buddhism and wrote extensively about its spiritual significance which continues to inspire many 

Those who convert

There’s a small Shiva temple on top of a hill that overlooks Dhank village in Rajkot district of Gujarat. Around 25 residents of the village, however, don’t enter this temple. They also refuse to attend any religious festivals here.

Bharat bhai embraced Buddhism after reading Gujarati translation of Ambedkar’s ‘The Buddha and his Dhamma’ and also initiated eight other families of the village into the religion five years back. “I realised that Buddhism is the only religion that truly stresses on humanity. It does not differentiate between people. Taking deeksha thus came naturally and also as response to those who don’t consider us their equals,” Bharabhai says.

But does this action achieves its goal of social equality? “If neighbours continue to treat us according to our caste, it’s their ignorance. We cease to be a Hindu and that act is a redemption enough for us,” says Sandeep Upre, the president of Satyashodhak OBC Parishad, an organisation that conducts deeksha programmes for other backward castes (OBCs) in Maharashtra, the home state of Ambedkar. 

If neighbours continue to treat us according to our caste, it’s their ignorance. We cease to be a Hindu and that act is redemption enough for us

Bharat Bhai (extreme left) converted to Buddhism with his family.


Tanwar feels this redemption is also the reason why neo-Buddhists attain better education.

“Most of the Dalits at senior levels of the administration are Buddhists. This is because Buddhism lends them self confidence as compared to the caste system which tends to rationalise their low social status through vague concepts like bad karma of past life and other superstitions,” he says. 

Around 87 per cent of Buddhists in India are neo-Buddhists while rest belong to traditionally Buddhist communities in north east and the Himalayan regions.

The 2011 Census data shows that Buddhists have a literacy rate of 81.29 per cent as compared to all India average of 72.98 per cent. Literacy rate among Hindus is 65.1 per cent.

It is only in the traditional communities of the northeast, especially in Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh, that the Buddhists have lower literacy than the all religion average. 

The female literacy among Buddhists is also considerably higher (61.7 per cent) than the national average (53.7 per cent).

But can it be safely said that neo-Buddhists are more inclined towards education than Dalits? Or is there a greater possibility that Dalits turn to Buddhism after attaining education? Around 43 per cent of Buddhists stay in urban areas as compared to all religion average of 31 per cent which increases their chances of being educated.

But the reality is not as simple as that. Around 80 per cent Buddhists are from Maharashtra, which has better literary and urban ratio than the national average.

So, the comparison is effectively between Maharashtra and rest of India. Within Maharashtra, the literacy rate, urbanisation levels and child ratio among Buddhists is slightly better than other groups.

Among those living in rural areas, most of the Buddhists tend to be agricultural labourers. The share of agricultural labourers among working Buddhist is 38.42 per cent, while the all India average is 29.95 per cent.

This can again be traced to Maharashtra where it’s the Mahar community which showed maximum interest in Buddhism as Ambedkar was also a Mahar.

The had little agricultural land and no fixed traditional occupation in a village society. This flexibility of profession ensured that Mahars were more mobile than others.

Many of them, including Ambedkar’s father, joined the British Army. Even before Ambedkar joined Buddhism, he asked the Dalits to take to education. 

“Lack of farm land or traditional occupation made it easy for Mahars to take to education as the means for gainful employment. So, they had a head start as compared to other communities in attaining education and moving to cities,” says Dr Nitin Tagade who studied economic situation of neo-Buddhists in Maharashtra. 

For many, caste status persists even after conversion. This might be because the Dalit Buddhist movement is, at its root, a political movement

The mysterious decline

The Census data shows that number of Buddhists grew by 6.13 per cent in 2001-10 as compared to 16.76 per cent growth rate of Hindus. The growth rate in the previous decade was higher (24.53 per cent) than Hindus (20.35 per cent).

It remains to be seen how the recent spurt in incidents of conversion add up to the growth rate.

Maharashtra, which has over 90 per cent of the neo-Buddhists, saw their numbers grow by 11.85 per cent, from 58.39 lakh in 2001 to 65.31 lakh in 2011. “Consistent influence of social reformers, including Jyotiba Phule to Dr Ambedkar, has ensured that people here are more aware and secure enough to leave their Hindu identity,” says Upre. 

The state of Karnataka, on the other hand, registered a decline of 75 per cent in number of Buddhists 2001-11. This was a sharp reversal from the upsurge of 439 per cent the state saw in 1991-2001. This ‘u-turn’ also underscores the complexities associated with conversion to Buddhism.

Karnataka saw a rapid decline in Buddhists which underscores the complexities linked to poltiical conversions

The earlier growth was in response to a strong political movement in 1990s which saw BSP winning its first assembly seat in south India. “The sway of BSP has dissipated over the years which explains the decline to some extent.

Another reason is denial of caste certificates to neo-Buddhists by the state government. This excludes them from reservations in education and jobs,” says Mavalli Shankar, the state secretary of Dalit Sangharsh Samiti, an activist organisation based in Bangalore. 

In 1990, an amendment was made in the Government of India (Scheduled Castes) Order of 1936 bringing neo-Buddhists into the category of Scheduled Castes. However, Karnataka has not issued an official order reflecting the change.

“It was all fine till the certificates were issued manually as issuing authority could make the changes by hand. But with introduction of computer-generated certificates, it’s not possible to alter the options programmed into the system,” says Devendra Hegde of Dalit Sanghatana Vedika, another activist organisation based in Karnataka. Thus, some still maintain their Hindu caste certificate while practising Buddhism and report themselves as Hindus in government surveys. 

For many, caste status persists even after change of religion. Meena Srinivasan, a practising Buddhist and school teacher, wonders at such contradictions. In this write up, she says: “This might be because the Dalit Buddhist movement is, at its root, a political movement.

This explains why many still follow Hindu rituals.  However, there is a strong interest in learning more about the spiritual and religious aspects of Buddhism.” For people like Bharatbhai, works of Ambedkar bring that knowledge. For others, sermons of religious leaders may gradually lead them out of the caste and they can become more assertive about their Buddhist identity. 

Though neo-Buddhist movement remains relevant even 60 years after Ambedkar took deeksha, its spiritual aspects are yet to gain prominence over the political benefits. 

Manu Moudgil is an independent journalist. He is on Twitter at @manumoudgil

A longer version of this write up first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data journalism website. Second part of the series