Converting to Buddhism as a Form of Political Protest

Low-caste Indians are leaving Hinduism en masse—partly to stick it to their prime minister.

A conversion ceremony in Shirasgaon, India, in 2018 (Krithika Varagur)

SHIRASGAON, India—More than 500 low-caste Hindus filled the Veera Maidan, an open field at the edge of a dusty Maharashtra village, on a recent Sunday night. Neighbors openly gawked from porches as the throngs of people filed in, many dressed in symbolic white saris and kurtas. Under floodlights, they chanted: “I shall have no faith in Rama and Krishna who are believed to be incarnations of God nor shall I worship them. … I do not and shall not believe that Lord Buddha was the incarnation of Vishnu. … I shall hereafter lead my life according to the principles and teachings of the Buddha.” Instantly, there were 500 new Buddhists in India.

The converts had been Dalits, those from India’s lowest Hindu castes, formerly known as “untouchables.” They joined Ambedkarite Buddhism, a movement founded a half-century ago by Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, a Columbia University-educated lawyer who drafted India’s constitution. Ambedkar was born a Dalit, and he saw the Buddha as a radical social reformer who created an outlet from the rigid Hindu caste system. Today, as inter-caste tensions rise under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose party is affiliated with right-wing Hindu nationalists, low-caste Indians are continuing to find the appeal in Ambedkar’s message.

Dalits make up nearly 20 percent of the Indian population—and many of them are angry at Modi’s government. Last week, hundreds of thousands of them flooded the streets nationwide, protesting ongoing discrimination against them. But their mistreatment within society was rampant even before Modi’s BJP took power in 2014. Between 2007 and 2017, crime against Dalits increased by 66 percent and the rape of Dalit women doubled, according to the National Crime Record Bureau. And now Dalit anger—which manifests in regular protests, strikes, and social media furor—stands to make a major impact on India’s national elections next year.

Perhaps that’s why Modi is trying to win them over—not only as voters, but also as potential party members. The prime minister has been sending Buddhist monks out on the campaign trail and has even attracted some Buddhist politicians to his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). He’s also been publicly praising Ambedkar.

In 1954, Ambedkar wrote a “blueprint” for the spread of Indian Buddhism in which he recommended printing a compact “Buddhist Gospel” like the Bible and “a ceremony like Baptism” for converts. In 1955, he founded the Buddhist Society of India. In 1956, he publicly converted to Buddhism alongside half a million others. Six weeks later, however, he died.

One of his descendants, Rajratna Ambedkar, became the Society’s president three years ago. In response to growing demand, he has vigorously rebooted its program of mass conversions. “Almost every day now, mass Buddhist conversions are taking place across India,” he told me. After helping convert 500 people in Shirasgaon last month, for instance, he woke up early the next morning to drive to the city of Surat, where he converted another 500 people that night.

Still, in a country of over 1.2 billion people, the number of registered Indian Buddhists remains tiny at about 8.4 million. About 87 percent of them are Ambedkarites or converts, and the rest are ethnic Buddhists in the Himalayan provinces or Tibetan refugees who followed the Dalai Lama to India. But accurate statistics on Buddhist converts are hard to find because many are not registered as such on the census.

“Often the [census] surveyor doesn’t even ask about religion once he hears a Hindu-sounding name,” said Shiv Shankar Das, a former researcher at Jawaharlal Nehru University who has studied the neo-Buddhist movement. Modern Ambedkarites hope to change this: “We are trying to convince the Indian government that we are not Dalits anymore, not part and parcel of Hinduism,” said Rajratna Ambedkar.

Ambedkarite Buddhism is an increasingly popular option for dissatisfied Dalits because converting from Hinduism to Islam or Christianity is now illegal in several states.  Buddhism is considered a “sub-sect” of Hinduism in Article 25 of the Indian Constitution, which is a useful loophole for conversion—and a hindrance, because it’s a major reason why the Hindu establishment doesn’t fully recognize Buddhist identity today. Over the course of Indian history, Buddhism has been uneasily absorbed into the Hindu fold, with some arguing that Buddha was really an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu. This is a fiercely contested notion, one that converts to Ambedkarite Buddhism specifically pledge to reject.

A woman participates in a conversion ceremony in India (Krithika Varagur)

In its focus on caste-based inequality, Ambedkarite Buddhism shares concerns of the historical Buddha, the prince whose groundbreaking rejection of Hindu castes, the Vedas, and Vedic rituals spurred his philosophical journey. But Ambedkaritism diverges from the mainstream Buddhist schools, like Theravada and Mahayana, which have developed over the past two millennia. Ambedkar summarily dismissed everything from the Four Noble Truths to meditation to the doctrine of rebirth, deeming them non-canonical interpretations that arose after the Buddha’s lifetime. Contemporary Ambedkarite institutions, like the Nagaloka Center in Nagpur, focus instead on training social activists.

The attitude can veer into outright dismissal of the mainstream schools. “Buddhism in places like [the Himalayan regions of] Dharamsala and Ladakh is superstitious Buddhism, not real Buddhism,” said Prashik Anand, a small-business owner and Ambedkarite in Nagpur. “The Buddha was more concerned with people’s suffering, not things like painting and meditation, which are mostly useless.” (It’s worth noting that the mainstream Mahayana school also emphasizes alleviating the suffering of others.)

“There is a social aspect to Ambedkarite Buddhism,” said Mangesh Dahiwale, a veteran Dalit rights activist in Pune. “It’s not just an emancipatory path for individuals. We think it doesn’t make sense for you to become Buddhist alone when your society is downtrodden,” he said. This contrasts with Buddhism’s popular consumption in the West, which is often oriented around individualist concepts like personal fulfillment and peace of mind.

The activist spirit is central to the Ambedkarite revival. Consider two recent alarming incidents of caste violence: In Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh, at least 25 Dalit houses were burned and one person was killed when communal tensions boiled over in May 2017. And in Una, Gujarat, four Dalits were publicly flogged for skinning a dead cow in 2016.  Both communities used Buddhism as a tool of protest. In a striking gesture, Saharanpur Dalits drowned their Hindu idols in a canal after the incident, and 180 families converted to Buddhism. All four of the Una victims plan to convert to Buddhism on April 14.

Conversion is even becoming a political weapon. A famous Dalit politician and member of parliament known simply as Mayawati has threatened to convert to Buddhism with her many followers if BJP members “don’t change their disrespectful, casteist, and communal behavior towards the Dalits.”

The strength of the movement may have spooked Modi’s BJP, which has pushed back by courting the Dalit Buddhist vote in sundry ways. In 2016, the party deployed Buddhist monks to rally votes in regional elections, although that effort was met with scorn and protests in at least some districts. The prominent Dalit politician Udit Raj, who converted in 2001, is now a BJP member of parliament. So is Swami Prasad Maurya in Uttar Pradesh.

The BJP faces a catch-22, said Dahiwale, because the strongly Hindu party doesn’t want to acknowledge that the religion is losing any followers. “Buddhism has become a force in itself, but the government can’t oppose it directly, because Buddhism is one of India’s greatest cultural exports,” he said.

It’s unclear whether the BJP’s Buddhist politicians feel any special affinity for the party. Raj told me frankly that he decided to join the BJP in 2014 because its fortunes seemed to be rising. “I floated for 12 years as an independent, and then I thought I should reach out to a larger party. After Modiji was elected I thought a Modi ‘wave’ was coming, and I felt his party could help me win a slot in parliament to serve my people,” said Raj. In 2014, Raj said, he attended a meeting in Nagpur run by 22 state leaders and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a controversial Hindu nationalist paramilitary volunteer group that birthed the BJP. They collectively agreed that he would join the party.

Both the RSS and the Ambedkarite Buddhist movement arose from, and are still based in, Nagpur. Nowadays in that city, RSS members in their signature black, boat-shaped “Gandhi caps” share the streets with robed Ambedkarite monks. The RSS includes a dedicated group for outreach to Dalit Buddhists. The group’s president claimed last year that it has no political agenda, but mainstream Ambedkarites say that it actually pushes the controversial notion that Buddhism is a sect of Hinduism in a bid to win Dalit Buddhist votes for the BJP.

“The RSS has monks—fake monks,” said Santosh Raut, an Ambedkarite university professor in Hyderabad. “A few months ago I went to Bodhgaya [the holy city where the Buddha attained enlightenment] and met a few monks, clearly from the RSS, who were saying how Buddha was the ninth avatar [or reincarnation] of Vishnu,” he said. “It was not very convincing.”

Even though Ambedkarite Buddhism is undergoing a major resurgence, the national influence of RSS remains in full force through the ruling BJP. As the 2019 presidential election approaches, neither is likely to lose any momentum, which suggests more strained interactions to come.

“To co-opt Buddhist votes or Dalit votes, the RSS will definitely ramp it up next year,” said Raut. “But, ironically, it is their actions that are driving so many people to Buddhism in the first place.”

Reporting for this piece was supported by a grant from the International Reporting Project.