India is the scene of an extraordinary social movement. Inspired by one of the 20th Century’s most extraordinary reformers, millions of people from the lowest sections of society have converted to Buddhism and are leaving behind the stigma and oppression of the Caste system.
The Caste system is the oldest and most entrenched system of social oppression in the world today. Indian society is divided into thousands of communities according to a hierarchical system of ‘graded inequality’ that stigmatizes people for life based on their birth.
Between 160 and 200 million people in India belong to the Dalit community, the lowest social group also known as the “Untouchables.” According to the Caste system these people are deemed to be impure – less than human. They are forced to do the worst kinds of menial labor such as cleaning human waste, and they are subject to profound economic exploitation, poverty, discrimination and violence.
According to Human Rights Watch, “India’s Untouchables are relegated to the lowest jobs, and live in constant fear of being publicly humiliated, paraded naked, beaten, and raped with impunity by upper-caste Hindus seeking to keep them in their place. Merely walking through an upper-caste neighborhood is a life-threatening offense.“
Dr. Ambedkar and Buddhism
Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, the great leader of the Dalits, was determined to liberate people from poverty, injustice and caste oppression. Between 1923 and 1956 he worked tirelessly in the Indian political system as an advocate for human rights, and rose to become the first Law Minister of the new Indian nation and the chief author of its Constitution. The new Constitution made untouchability illegal, but Dr. Ambedkar came to believe that true social change could only come by leaving behind the cultural and religious beliefs that justified the caste system. In 1956, shortly before his death, he initiated a wave of mass conversions to Buddhism – a spiritual tradition free of prejudice.
A Dhamma Revolution
Today the peaceful Buddhist revolution is spreading throughout India. With few resources, and facing formidable obstacles from the established social system, people from the Dalit community are working to improve their living conditions, realize the civil rights promised by the Indian Constitution, and live with dignity free of caste oppression. They are establishing social and health programs, educational programs, hostels and community centers all over India.
Dr. Ambedkar believed that the teachings and values of the Buddhist tradition are the essential foundation for a successful, non-violent transformation of Indian society. Today his followers are working to put the Buddha’s teachings into practice as a living spiritual tradition that balances personal development with positive social engagement.