Born as an “untouchable” in India (literally considered so polluted that a caste Hindu would have to purify him or herself after making physical contact) Bhimrao Ambedkar publicly converted to Buddhism on 14 October 1956, in Nagpur, India.
The significance of this is that, despite having been banned from sitting in a schoolroom with other (caste Hindu) children, Ambedkar had managed to gain an education, study abroad, and had become India’s first law minister—and the architect of the newly independent country’s constitution.
Ambedkar realized that most ex-untouchables were chained to the idea that they are inferior and that it was by changing themselves—through the practice of the Buddha Dhamma changing those deep-seated ideas—that they could become truly free.
Ambedkar’s conversion was a symbolic rejection of Hinduism and its brutal caste-based apartheid system. He proceeded to convert half a million of his supporters who were gathered around him. Unfortunately he died soon afterward, leaving his conversion movement adrift.
A number of Buddhists stepped into the breech and continued to provide support and inspiration for these new Buddhists. Among those was Urgyen Sangharakshita, who was later to found the Triratna Buddhist Community (formerly the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order).
These “Dalits” (meaning “the oppressed ones), are largely the poorest in a country in which poverty is endemic. Members of the Triratna Buddhist community have continued working with these new Buddhists, providing much-needed healthcare, educational resources, and opportunities to practice Buddhism.
This November a major retreat is being held at the Urgyen Sangharakshita Meditation Centre, in Maharashtra, India, over the Diwali vacation. I’ve contributed money to supporting this event, and I invite you to do the same.
Of the millions of Dalits who have converted to Buddhism since 14th October 1956, only a small proportion have been able to ‘hear’ the Dhamma. They have much devotion but little knowledge.
These retreats have been held over the last 4 years with between 500 and 600 people attending from some of India’s poorest communities.
These retreats take advantage of the Diwali holiday, when people are more free to attend, to give Dalits the opportunity to hear the Dharma they thirst for. Most are very poor, and to allow them to come, these retreats are offered free. It is a great opportunity for them to not only hear the Dharma, but to experience Sangha. Triratna is undertaking to raise the money for approximately 550 people to go on retreat.
Hearing the Dharma in the context of a retreat can, in India, have remarkable results. Triratna Order member Vipulakirti, who co-leads these events, said, “I met a woman on one retreat who told me that her husband had been on the retreat the previous year and had been completely transformed. Previously he had been a drinker, beaten her regularly and taken no responsibility for the children. Now he didn’t drink, treated her with kindness and helped with childcare. He had discovered what being a Buddhist meant in practice, to the benefit of himself and his family.”
If you want to help these desperately poor new Buddhists to deepen their practice, turn their lives around, and continue with the work of transforming and humanizing Indian religious culture, donate via ‘MyDonate‘. MyDonate take no commission. Your entire donation goes towards spreading the Dharma in India and transforming the lives of hundreds of people.