A Case Study of Social Transformation through Buddhism in India

 

Bhante Sugato (Deepak Dhammadarshi)

bhante deepakIn this short autobiographical essay, I will attempt to give an honest depiction of my life as an Untouchable. The first half of this essay will be an account of my life growing up as an Untouchable. The later half of the essay shall focus on the impact Buddhism had on me after coming to Nagaloka. I will try to give a glimpse of my life in Nagaloka and how it helped me to transform myself from having an inferiority complex of being born as an untouchable, to the life of dignity and self-respect. Although this essay is autobiographical in nature, it will not be confined to myself alone. I will also examine briefly, the impact of Nagaloka's Buddhist activities in transforming the lives of many individuals throughout India. My intention in writing this essay is to illustrate the point that Buddhism has great potential to transform the society peacefully without violence.

Before I proceed with the actual story of my life. It is necessary to clarify a few terms such as: Harijan, Scheduled caste communities and Dalits, which are interchangeably used for the so-called Untouchable communities in contemporary India. I shall also examine the general socio-economic conditions of Dalits in India, as well as the nature of untouchability to give an idea of why higher caste Hindus behave in an inhuman way with so-called untouchable communities.

The term Harijan is mostly used in Gujarat, it literally means the children of God. Mahatma Gandhi originally coined this term for untouchable communities in Gujarat. However, the term Harijan is taken as derogatory and most people associate it with untouchability. [1] Harijan forms 7% of the Gujarat Population, a small minority compared to other states. Dalits in India form 16% of the population. There are over 167 million Dalits living in India. The Indian population is divided into several categories, [2] for the sake of simplicity; we shall use two classes. Firstly, there are so called higher caste Hindus or Savarnas. Secondly, there are so-called Untouchables or Avarnas largely known as Dalits, or scheduled caste (SC), in contemporary India.

Over half the population of Dalits in India lives under the poverty line and 80% of Dalits in Gujarat are landless labor working in the field of higher caste Hindus. Therefore, their average annual income never exceeds more than $300 according to a survey done in 1998. They also suffer many forms of discrimination, as they have to work under the upper caste Hindus for their survival. Over 60% Dalits cannot afford education and are illiterate, which leads to their perpetual poor condition. Less than 10% of the Dalit population can afford safe drinking water, electricity and toilets. [3]
According to one research done on "Untouchability in Rural India" more than 50% of the villagers denied Dalits entry into non-Dalit houses and prohibited food sharing. In 50% villages Dalits are denied access to water and public facilities such as barbershops and laundry services. Over 30% villages deny entry into grocery shops, police stations, etc. The list of various forms of discrimination goes on [4]. According to another survey done in Gujarat, there are over 98 types of discrimination based on caste, which are still in practice. They cover all areas of life, such as 1) water for drinking, 2) food and beverage, 3) religious practices 4) touch item and places, 5) access to public facilities and institutions, 6) caste-based occupations, etc. Above-mentioned types of caste discrimination are experiences from everyday life for Dalits. I have experienced many of these discriminations while growing up as untouchable. [5]

The above passage is only to give you some idea of the social and economic conditions of Dalits. They also suffer caste-based violence. According to an atrocity report on Dalits, there are over 13 murders, 5 Dalit houses burnt, 6 Dalits kidnapped, and 21 Dalit women raped every week. These are just the reported cases, the numbers of unreported cases are over 10-times higher. A Lot of violence against Dalits goes without police inquiry or report, as people in the police and judiciary are from upper caste Hindu and, therefore, unwilling to give justice. Only 10% of the cases gets justice, 90% of the case are pending in the Courts and not brought to justice. [6]

In order to give you some idea of untouchability in practice, let me describe my experience growing up as untouchable. It is one of the worst social oppression in the world, as it psychologically undermines you as a human being. People do not look at you simply on the basis of who you are, they judge you and treat you as an untouchable with feelings of disgust and contempt. I hope that the story of my life will give some idea of how over 160 million Dalits of India live under such terrible conditions created by the caste system.

At the time of my birth, my family shared a small one-bedroom house with my grandparents. My father worked as an unskilled farm worker to support all six members of the family. My grandparents were too old to earn a living. There was never more than $20 in house for monthly income. The work was unsteady and earned only $1 per day, it meant that we had to live on a very plain diet, which consisted of Indian bread, chili paste and fried onions. A few years after my birth western India suffered from a drought and there was no work. My family lived on the verge of starvation during those years.

A Few years later, when I was in High School, my family bought a house for about $200. It was one room with kitchen inside it, no toilet, or bathrooms, (people in India, still practice open defecation in villages). There was no electricity for several years. I can still recall, till I got into senior high school my parents had to buy second-hand clothes for us from the Sunday market, as they could not afford to buy new clothes for us. I usually brought second-hand books for my studies, as new books cost more. I never got more than $1 for my monthly pocket money. Although, my family was poor, yet my father took a keen interest in my education, and never allowed me to stop my education. Due to my father's unstable nature of work, for most of my life, I lived away from parents under harsh conditions in boarding schools. I did not get enough love and care that I needed while growing up as a child.

I suffered from many forms of discrimination besides poverty. It was a psychologically depressing experience. I began to develop an inferiority complex due to the caste discrimination. I was being ex-communicated from the rest of the society due to my low birth. While I was in high school, I had no friends, except of course, one or two other children, who happened to be from the same untouchable community. I could not fetch the water from the local tap in school unlike the rest of the children. Teachers used to treat me differently; they would say, "Why do you bother to get an education? Why bother wasting our time? You better go back home and help your parents in the labor work". They would ask untouchable children to clean up the toilets in school, which upper caste children would not do, as it is regarded the duty of lower castes. My experience of discrimination was not confined to the school alone, I had to face discrimination in every walk of life such as: at work on the farm, while living in the village, at school, at the grocery shop, while buying the necessities of everyday life, at water pump to get drinking water, in the barber shop, etc.

I had to work alongside my parents in farms during vacations due to poverty. I still remember, once I was thirsty during work. That afternoon, as it was a very hot day, I wanted to drink some water; I asked the higher caste lady, the owner of the farm to give me some water. I did not bring the glass to drink from, and she would not let me drink from her glass as it can cause pollution. Therefore, she had to pour water from far above onto my hands. I felt deeply humiliated. I ran straight to my mother, and I told her that I am going home, I don't want to work in a place where, I can not even get a water like humans. There were many cattle grazing on the farm as well as dogs and other animals roaming freely around, and had no polluting effect on the upper caste people, whereas me, although human, in need of water, was treated with such an inhuman act, simply due to my being born in untouchable family.

It was the same experience when I go to local water pump, I had to wait and stay far away, until the upper caste people would finish drawing water from the water pump, making sure I don't touch or come close to their utensils to pollute. When I go to the grocery store for shopping, I would see every other person would be able to enter the shop but because I was born as untouchable, I had to stand outside the grocery shop. I could not get entry into village temple either. Not that I wanted to worship the God, the concept of God has become irrelevant to my mind since I became a Buddhist.

My first contact with Buddhism

Before my arrival in Nagaloka, I came in contact with Buddhism in different ways. I had seen the image of the Buddha at my uncle's home, when I was seven. There was something very majestic about it. The image looked strangely familiar to me. I could still recall looking at that calm and serene face, with a long cloth wrapped around his body, which I later came to know was a robe or "chivara" in Pāli. The Buddha was seated peacefully in the lotus posture. My second encounter with Buddhism was seeing a Buddhist monk, I probably learned to chant refuges and precepts before eating meals from him, while I was living in a hostel.

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My third encounter was a book about the life and work of Dr. Ambedkar whose conversion to Buddhism changed the whole course of history of Dalits in contemporary India. It was because of his efforts that millions of Dalits turned to Buddhism. He was able to guide millions of people who lived in dire poverty and experienced discrimination and violence in all walks of life to Buddhism. I was one of those people who came to Buddhism under his influence. I might say that my first two encounters really did not make such a lasting impression on me compared to the reading of the life and work of Dr. Ambedkar.

My Experience in Nagaloka

My first life changing experience took place in my village during a meeting with an order member of the Triratna Buddhist community. He held a small evening meeting; I can't remember much of the meeting, but next day, I went to see him, and he told me about a Buddhist centre in Nagpur city, where I could go to learn Buddhism and about Dr. Ambedkar. I was already inspired by Dr. Ambedkar, and wanted to know the reasons behind his conversion to Buddhism. I decided to go against the wishes of my weeping parents, they were worried because we lived in the state of Gujarat, and the city of Nagpur was situated some 1000 miles away in the state of Maharashtra. I had no idea that my decision to go to Nagaloka will forever change the whole course of my life.

Nagaloka is a Buddhist Centre spread over 14-acre land located on the outskirts of the city of Nagpur in central India. It is a part of the Triratna Buddhist community. It was originally envisioned by Bhante Sangharakshita, the founder of the Triratna Buddhist community. He wanted to have a Centre in Nagpur, as it was the place where Dr. Ambedkar converted to Buddhism in 1956 with half a million untouchables. He wanted to create a Buddhist Centre that would act as a place of training and inspiration to take forward Dr. Ambedkar's dream of a Buddhist India. Unfortunately, after Dr. Ambedkar's death, there are very few people who took up the initiative to teach Buddhism to these newly converted masses that practically came from all over India. There is a huge interest in Buddhism since Dr. Ambedkar's conversion. There are very few qualified teachers to explain Buddhism. Nagaloka took up that challenge of training young men and women in basic Buddhist teaching and practices to create an Ideal Dhamma sevak [8] or servant of the dhamma, as Dr. Ambedkar envisioned.

The heart of the Nagaloka is the Nāgārjuna Training Institute. We named the institute after the great Indian teacher Acarya Nāgārjuna [9] who, according to some sources spent many years meditating in a cave not far from Nagaloka. Although today there are over 20 million people who are Buddhist following the example of Dr. Ambedkar, and there are over 160 million more people who are influenced by Dr. Ambedkar's work, there are very few qualified Buddhist teachers. Therefore, the aim of the Institute is to train young people in Buddhist teachings and practices, and inspire them to transform their lives and the lives of masses through Buddhist teaching and practices.

The vision of Nagaloka is to create a new society based on the principles of equality and loving kindness. Equality is important to transcend the barrier of caste that divides Indian society. Dr. Ambedkar also had high regards for the quality of loving kindness or metta of which he speaks as the highest virtue of mankind in his magnum opus "Buddha and his Dhamma". Dalits in India had suffered from caste for centuries, they had seen suffering of all kinds. Dr. Ambedkar believed that the truest path to liberation from the suffering of mankind is found in Buddhism. Dr. Ambedkar realized that the Buddhist value of metta and equality and liberation from suffering could become the basis of an ideal society based on Buddhism [10]. I would relate my experience of above-mentioned qualities while living in Nagaloka. Doing so, I hope, will make abundantly clear the importance of Nagaloka in transforming my life and creating a harmonious society.

nloka 2

First of all, I would relate how I felt liberation from suffering after coming to Nagaloka. The greatest change I experienced after my arrival in Nagaloka is that people no longer looked at me as an untouchable. No one has prohibited me from doing anything on the basis of my caste. I never realized how big a difference it made for me. I suffered from an unconscious inferiority complex due to the constant reminding of my low caste status. I was always treated as lower than animals. I had unconsciously internalized that caste consciousness never realizing that it is only a notion of mind as Dr. Ambedkar puts it. [11] Everyone treated me as one of his or her own fellow men. I felt a sense of liberation from the shadow of my past, which always haunted me unconsciously telling me, that I am not a worthy person. I got my dignity back, I felt confidence in myself. Now I no longer associate myself with being from a lowborn caste or an untouchable. This psychology of caste in most part is internalized in people's minds and it is not easy to overcome it. I got the new identity as Buddhist that made me feel like a normal human being.

Ever since I came to Nagaloka my confidence is raised to a level where I am capable of doing anything I set my mind upon. To give you an example, let me relate it to my education. I spent twelve years in school, which only made me literate. I practically learned nothing from schools. First time in my life I developed an interest in knowledge. I began to read extensively on the topic of Buddhism; in the course of three years, I read over a hundred books, listened to over 500 talks. I also learned to speak and write well in English and Hindi. My skill in communication, public speaking and computer literacy is completely derived from Nagaloka. My time in Nagaloka served as the foundation for my higher education. My experience in learning at Nagaloka was entirely different. It was not simply the topic of teaching that had changed but coming to Nagaloka meant learning Buddhism. Buddhism made a very deep impression on my mind. It gave meaning and purpose in life.

My learning capacity enhanced far more rapidly than ever before. I never had a reading habit beyond finishing my homework in my school days. I was encouraged to read for the sake of knowledge in Nagaloka. Learning not with an end of earning money and getting a job in mind, which is what most students of my age had in mind once their education is finished. Nagaloka felt like more than a home, a place where I had really enjoyed my life for the first time with its freedom and possibility of growing up as a real individual.

Now I would like to turn my attention to how I experience metta or sense of friendship and community. Before my arrival in Nagaloka, I was very skeptical about meeting a person who genuinely dedicated himself to some higher ideals in life. I had seen people caring only for the things of this world. Coming to Nagaloka was an eye-opening experience for me. For the first time in my life, I saw people genuinely dedicating themselves for something higher than themselves. Growing up as a child, I was very fond of watching Bollywood movies. I had seen many Bollywood stars (actors). Seeing the Order member of Triratna community, I was seeing the real heroic personality for the first time in my life. I came to know genuine stars that led a genuinely moral life and dedicated themselves to the highest ideals of Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha. Moreover, they were not singular in number. They were a group of people working together for the sake of what is really good for themselves and others. They were Sangha or spiritual community in the real sense of the term. They indeed represented the principle of fraternity.

The closest relationship I had before coming to Nagaloka was always confined to people within my family. For the first time in my life I formed genuine friendship with people from all over India living together as one united community without any sense of discrimination or sign of their caste in Nagaloka. Back home, if I met someone new they often asked my caste, sometimes they did so even before they asked my name. Knowing the caste determines the basis of conduct and relationship in Indian society. Coming to Nagaloka I was so relieved I was not asked which caste I belonged to. Stating my caste often made me feel humiliated and I felt unconsciously inferior. I saw that people coming from over 40 distinct castes overcame those differences as Buddhists. This indeed is the power of Dhamma to create solidarity and friendship that overcame caste distinctions. This reminds me of the simile that the Buddha gave for the Sangha. He said although people come to my Sangha from many castes they lose their old identities and become a part of the greater Sangha as when rivers meet in the ocean they become indistinguishable and lose their old identities. [12]

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I enjoyed the genuine friendship in Nagaloka. There are some friends and teachers from Nagaloka with whom I have enjoyed real friendship for over ten years now. Nagaloka is part of the Triratna Buddhist community, which has Order members from all over the globe. Triratna members from Europe and America often came to visit and teach in Nagaloka. This gave me a sense of the strong bond with Buddhists from other parts of the world. This is especially significant, as Buddhists in India do not often meet with other Buddhists from abroad. Nagaloka also strives to build up relationship with other traditional Asian Buddhist countries such as Taiwan, Thailand, Sri Lanka and so forth. Nagaloka organizes international conferences to promote the bonds of friendship between Indian Buddhists and Buddhists from traditional and western countries. I took part in several of those conferences. It gave me sense of belonging to a much larger Buddhist community that came from all over the world. It helped me realize that I was part of the larger Buddhist world.

Now I wish to describe how Nagaloka is fulfilling its vision of transforming society. One of the aims of Nagaloka is to create trained Dhamma workers and social activists to transform society. Keeping this aim in mind Nagaloka took an initiative to help the alumni activities to help those ex-trainees who are engaged in Dhamma work or community projects. Nagaloka has been running the training for over twelve years now. Close to 1000 youth from over 24 states of India have benefited from the training. The teaching of the Buddha, and the work of Dr. Ambedkar inspire many of them to work for society. Once they finish their training, they want to share the knowledge and benefits of the practice of Dharma with their family and the community they live in.

They engage themselves with Dhamma activities such as arranging Dhamma retreats, running weekly Dhamma class, Dhamma talks, performing Buddhist ceremonies to promote Buddhist culture, etc. Some of them choose to work for the benefits of the community running educational projects such as schools and hostels, orphanages, Kindergartens, relief work projects etc. Some again run youth empowerment and skill development projects such as teaching English, computer skills to help youth with their career development. This network of alumni forms the core of the vision of Nagaloka to create a new society, which is dedicated to taking forward Dr. Ambedkar's vision of a new India based on Buddhist values.

Let me give some explanation of the activities run by Nagaloka Alumni. On 26 December 2004, Tsunami hit the southern most coastal area of India, including Tamil Nadu, creating havoc in many villages; more than 16,000 people lost their lives and many more were displaced. The Indian government, independent NGO's and the international community tried to provide relief work, but as it often happens the untouchable communities are discriminated in the relief efforts.

Some of our NTI students from Tamil Nadu started thinking how can we help in the relief efforts for the most needy and affected communities. There were many people who lost their lives; it was especially hard on children who lost their parents. It was only right to do something substantial for these kids to support them in providing food and shelter as well as help them continue their education. With this aim in mind, they approached the Karuna Trust with the help of Nagaloka and were able to establish two hostels, one for boys and one for girls, accommodating over 50 orphans in Thiruvallur district, Tamil Nadu. They ran this hostel for last 10 years. Approximately 500 boys and girls have benefited from this project. Besides running this hostel, they have set up Vissudhaloka trust, which organizes various Dhamma and social activities. They regularly organize Dhamma retreats with the help of Nagaloka.

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Let me give you one more example. NTI alumni from Kerala are also very active in both social and Dhamma activates. Under the auspices of Abhayaloka trust, they have a small center and run many Dhamma activities. They run Sunday classes, Dhamma talks, annual Dhamma retreat, etc. Despite Buddhism being once the predominant religion in India it is completely forgotten now. There is a need to develop Buddhist culture. Therefore, our NTI friends often go to perform Buddhist ceremonies on invitation for marriage, birthday celebration, death ceremonies and so on. They also engage in translation of Buddhist texts and making DVDs of Pāli suttas chanting in local languages. They arrange activities for youth such as skill development workshops and English training for the career development to help Dalit students get employment. These two cases are representative examples of what Nagaloka trainees do once they finish their training. I could equally give examples of other alumni in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh and so on but these two cases makes abundantly clear the work of Nagaloka in creating a new society based on Ambedkar's vision of enlightened India.

Bibliography

[1] Jenkins, Laura Dudley "Another "People of India" Project: Colonial and National Anthropology". The Journal of Asian Studies (Association for Asian Studies) 2003. Pg. 64

[2] Who are Dalits? Taken from Navsarjan.org, (retrieved on August 4, 15)

[3] International Dalit solidarity Network, Cast an eye on the Dalits of India, retrieved from www.dalit.nl on 4th August 2015.

[4] Sukhadeo Thorat and others," Untouchability in Rural India" Journal of Development and Change Volume 38, Issue 4, pages 781–782, July 2007.

[5] Navsarjan Trust & Joseph Kanady Centre, report on Understanding Untouchability, 2011.

[6] Lenten Study on Dalit atrocities in India, the World Student Christian Federation And the World YWCA, 2010.

[7] Nagaloka literally means the land of Nags, it is said that Nagas were the tribes who were responsible for the spread of Buddhism in central India. It is one of the reasons why Dr. Ambedkar chose Nagpur for his mass conversion ceremony.

[8] Dr. Ambedkar, The Buddha and the future of his religion, Mahabodhi Journal, Mahabodhi society Publication.

[9] Acariya Nāgārjuna is generally recognized as the founder of Madhyamika School of early Mahayana Buddhism in India. He is also the founder of Prajñāpāramitā sutras, teachings related to the perfection of wisdom.

[10] Path to emancipation Speech delivered by Dr. Ambedkar to the Bombay Presidency Mahar Conference, 31st May 1936.

[11] Annihilation of caste, Undelivered speech prepared by Dr. Ambedkar for Jat-pat-tolak-Mandal, Lahore, Punjab.

[12] Bhikkhu Bodhi, (Translation) The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A Majjhima Nikāya. (Boston: Wisdom Publication), 2001.

~~~

 

Bhante Sugato (Deepak Dhammadarshi) is currently pursuing his masters program in Buddhist studies from MCU University, Thailand. After reading the short biography of Dr. Ambedkar in 2004, he formally converted to Buddhism. He was born in Gujarat and moved to Nagpur to study Buddhism. Since then he has worked with several organizations in India and abroad.

Pictures of Nagaloka courtesy: Kuffir.

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