Tuesday, May 29, 2007


When thousands took to Buddha's path

Vipin Vijayan in Mumbai | May 27, 2007 | 21:49 IST

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of an unspiritual situation. It is the opium of the people.
- Karl Marx.

The oppressed finally broke�their shackles at the Mahalaxmi Race Course in Mumbai on Sunday. Dressed in white outfits and dark blue scarves, Dalits from across Maharashtra turned up in thousands to renounce Hinduism and walk the path of Buddhism.

Failing to find an identity in the caste-dominated Indian society even 60 years after independence, about 50,000 Dalits converted at the function, which also commemorated the 50th anniversary of Dr B R Ambedkar's conversion to Buddhism.

However, the Dalai Lama, who was supposed to preside over the ceremony,�was conspicuous by his absence.

The new converts come from far-flung areas of Maharashtra like Nashik and Solapur. They have been ostracised and have faced the brunt of the caste-equations. Each of them has tales of atrocities, committed mostly by the upper caste and those in power, as reasons for converting to Buddhism.

"Hindus are committing atrocities on Hindus. No other religion treats its followers the way Hinduism does. We have no ration cards and no identity. By joining Buddhism, I feel we can change all this," says Nandakumar Pawar, a member of the Pardhi community, who came from Barsi village in Solapur. A majority of the converts belonged to this community.

"Then there is the issue of the police-politician nexus. Politicians eliminate their rivals and�blame members of our community. We are helpless," he claims.

Sivaji Bhonsle, hailing from Baramati taluk in Songaon district, agrees with Pawar and alleges, "Boys who are aged between 15 and 18 years are picked up from the village for crimes they never committed. Whatever those with money and muscle-power say is gospel. Nobody listens to us."

"After joining Buddhism, things will change. We have been hearing about how our brethren have leading a normal life ever since they joined Buddhism. They are no longer ostracised. Jainism was another option before us but its rigid norms are difficult to follow," he said.

Others said the Buddhist principles of Samta (equality), Karuna (compassion) and Ahimsa (non-violence) was what drew them to Buddhism.

"Upper-caste Hindus created obstacles for us like not letting us attain education and did not give us the respect that a person deserves. In Buddhism, the individual is given more importance. Its principles are more unifying than the divisive ones of Hinduism," observes Yeshwant Sadashiv Mahate from Nashik.

"Dhamma (teachings of Buddha) is�a thought that will help us in our upliftment and help us gain an identity. And obviously, it will save us from social stigma," he adds.

By Sunday afternoon, the race course was teeming with people, even as Buddhist monks made their way on to the stage.

During the prolonged wait for the ceremony to begin, chants of Jai Bhim rent the air. Speeches, recitations and folk dances built the momentum for the evening.

One by one, leaders like�Republican Party of India president and parliamentarian Ramdas Athavale and tribal leader Laxman Mane made their way to the stage amid tumultuous applause. Soon, the head priest initiated the conversion ceremony, called upon the mammoth gathering to join him in prayer. The ceremony lasted about 15 minutes.

Once again the air around the famous Race Course reverberated with chants praising Lord Buddha, Ambedkar and the leaders who showed them the way to emancipation from Hinduism.

Welcoming the new recruits, Athavale said, "We are here to strengthen India. We are not challenging Hinduism. For many years, we have been part of Huinduism. But all these years, our heart has pained. Art of Living or Yoga alone cannot ease this pain, Buddhism can."

Athavale went to the extent of even taking a dig at US President George Bush.

"We have to tell the United States and George Bush that to fight terror, you don't have to bomb cities. Buddhist ideals are a one-off solution to combating terrorism," he said.

Also present on the occasion was Vipassana acharya S N Goenka, who later gave a discourse on Buddhist ideals to the gathering.

Interestingly, all through the proceedings of the evening, the person whose absence was not missed was state Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh. The chief minister was scheduled to inaugurate the proceedings, but had not turned up till the filing of this report.

Nevertheless, it was a historic day that saw thousands taking to the simple way of living, that preached by Lord Buddha. The converts stood tall, confident that this evening would change their lives forever.

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