The mass conversions to Buddhism, led by Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar on 14th October 1956 were the most significant event for the so-called Untouchable communities in India in the 20th Century, in their quest for liberation from extreme structural oppression. This year, 2016, marked the 60th anniversary of that historic event.
To celebrate the occasion Nagaloka together with International Network of Socially Engaged Buddhists(INEB)
organised an International Conference on “Social Engagement and Liberation”.
The conference was inaugurated on the morning of the 60th anniversary according to the lunar calendar, 11th
October. Dr. Ambedkar chose this day because it supposed to be the day when Ashok converted to Buddhism
after the Kalinga War, and is known today as Ashoka Vijaya Dashmi (the day of the victory of Ashoka).
Before the inauguration a conversion ceremony for about 120 Dalits mostly from Gujarat, but also from Orissa,
Rajasthan, and Bihar, took place. The last year has witnessed many horrific atrocities on Dalits all over India.
Instead of seeking revenge many Dalits follow Dr. Ambedkar’s advice and convert to Buddhism. The conversion
ceremony was led by local Dhammacharis and Dhammacharinis and witnessed by Buddhists from many different
Converting to Buddhism
The chief guest of the inauguration was Professor Sukhdev Thorat, one of the most distinguished academic/activists in the Ambedkarite community. He recounted his experience of coming in contact with Buddhism early in his life and the inspiration he received from his parents as a child following the footsteps of Dr.Ambedkar. His talk was followed by talks from Harsh Navaratne, the Chairman of INEB, Dhammachari Subhuti (UK), Venerable Chao-hwei (Taiwan), Hozen Alan Senauke, (USA), Dr. Hsien-Chou Yo (Taiwan), and Manjulaben, a leading Ambedkarite activist from Gujarat, who led the group of convertees from Gujarat. As part of the programme a book published by the Jambudvipa Trust, “Babasaheb Dr. Ambedkar on Buddhism” was released. This brings together some of his most important articles on Buddhism. It was inaugurated by Ven Tenzin Palmo (a British bhikshuni in the Tibetan tradition), Ven Khemacaro (Korea), and Ven Maio Hai (China).
The programme was presided over by Dhammachari Lokamitra, the chairman of Nagaloka and the coordinator
of the conference organising committee. Between 4,000 and 5,000 people attended the opening ceremony. They seemed to very much appreciate the rare opportunity of being able to listen to leading Buddhist and activists not only from India but from different parts of the Buddhist world, and representing many different Buddhist schools such as Theravada, Tibetan, Chinese and Zen traditions; they all, in their different ways, expressed their deep appreciation of Dr. Ambedkar and his conversion to Buddhism. We were joined by Radhika Vermula, the mother of Rohit, an exceptionally bright post graduate student who tragically committed suicide due to caste discrimination at his university in Hyderabad earlier in the year. His mother, Radhika, converted to Buddhism after that. Although she did not speak, she was a strong presence on the stage.
Photos of the Inauguration:
In the afternoon we were treated to an introduction about Chinese Buddhist art and culture by the Senior Master Ven Ren Da and Ven Miao Hai. Master Ren Da is known for his grand Chinese Tea Ceremony Opera which we hope he will perform in Nagpur very soon. In the evening all the participants visited Diksha Bhumi where Dr. Ambedkar had converted to Buddhism 60 years earlier, to pay their respects at the stupa in which his ashes are interred. The conference itself took place on following three days, 12th, 13th and 14th October, and was attended by about 250 people from India and many other parts of the Buddhist world. The aim of the conference was to bring Dr. Ambedkar’s compelling approach to Buddhism to the attention of the wider Buddhist world, and provide opportunities for his Indian followers to interact with Buddhists from outside India. As such engaged Buddhists with a strong practice, from traditional and western backgrounds, were asked to look at aspects of Buddhism central to Dr. Ambedkar’s vision from the point of view of their own understanding of Buddhism – Dhamma as empowerment, breaking down barriers between people through the Dhamma, and the implications of Dhamma for governance. The talks are being put on the Nagaloka website, as well as links to the videos. The lectures on 12th October, looking at Dhamma as Empowerment, were chaired by Dr. Hsien Chou Yo, who has been part of the vision and growth of Nagaloka since its inception. The speakers were Ven Sugata-vamsa (India), Vidyabushan Rawat (India), Kurt Krammer, (Austria), Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, of Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery, Himachal Pradesh, Dhammacharini Amitamati (India), Anchalee Kurutach (USA). In the afternoons the participants divided into groups. These were the most important part of the conference as that is when everyone had a chance to engage with the themes on the basis of their own experience. Group work was followed by a panel discussion, in which questions arising out of the groups were put to the morning speakers. This was chaired by Professor Mahesh Deokar (Pune University). In the evening an exhibition of work by the famous Ambedkarite Buddhist artist Savi Sawarkar, was inaugurated, the theme being exhibition the same as the conference. Savi’s paintings vividly express the oppression of caste and the suffering it gives rise to, and liberation through Buddhism.
The theme of the second day was Breaking Down Barriers Between People through the Dhamma. The morning
lectures were chaired by Professor Devidas Maiske, who is at present the Principle of Nagarjuna Training Institute (which is recognised as a college of Nagpur University for a BA degree in Buddhism and Dr. Ambedkar Studies) at Nagaloka. The speakers were Ven Chao-hwei, Hozan Alan Senauke, Dhammachari Maitriveer Nagarjuna (India), Prashant Varma (India), Ven. Namgyel Lhamo (Bhutan). The evening panel discussion was chaired by Professor Vimal Thorat. In the evening conference participants were entranced by a concert given by violinist, Pandit Prabhakar Dhakde Guruji, perhaps the most famous classical musician from the Dalit and Buddhist community .
The theme of the last day was Dhamma and Governance. The speakers were Dhammachari Subhuti (UK),
Mangesh Dahiwale (India), Sai Sam Kham (Burma), Ven Manjushri (Sri Lanka), Data Ang Choo Hong
(Malaysia), and Ven Pomnyun Sunim (Korea), and the session was chaired by Jill Jameson. The evening panel
discussion was chaired by Prof Chris Queen (USA).
The concluding ceremony of the conference took place on the evening of 14th October in front of the magnificent Walking Buddha. After a puja, three participants talked about their experiences of the conference, Naphawan Sittisak (Thailand), Shu Yin (Singapore) and Dhammachari Amoghasiddhi (Nagpur). Ajahn Sulak Sivaraksa, the founder of INEB, was the chief speaker, and Dhammachari Lokamitra concluded the four days thanking all those who had contributed, along with some reflections of his own. Afterwards all participants circumambulated the Walking Buddha in silent devotion, and then climbed the steps to make offerings. This concluded a thoroughly engaging and deeply satisfying conference, that opened up a new dimension in relations between Buddhists from the east and west, and Indian Buddhists inspired by Dr. Ambedkar, and a deeper appreciation by foreign Buddhists not only of the significance of Dr. Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism, but also his approach to it.
Closing Ceremony Ajahn Sulak Sivaraksa and Dhammacahri Lokamitra after worshipping the Buddha.