Dalits in India are converting to Buddhism. Here’s why

April 11, 2018

A woman participates in a conversion ceremony in India. Photo: Courtesy The Atlantic

Dressed in symbolic white saris and kurtas, over 500 low-caste Hindus renounced their faith as a form of protest and embraced Buddhism instead.

“I shall hereafter lead my life according to the principles and teachings of the Buddha,” they said at their gathering in a Maharashtra village. Instantly, there were 500 new Buddhists in India, reported The Atlantic.

The converts had been Dalits, those from India’s lowest Hindu castes, formerly known as “untouchables.” They joined Ambedkarite Buddhism, which is a movement founded a half-century ago by Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. Ambedkar, born a Dalit, was a Columbia University-educated lawyer who drafted India’s constitution. He saw the Buddha as a radical social reformer who created an outlet from the rigid Hindu caste system.

Dalits make up nearly 20 percent of the Indian population. Today, low-caste Indian Hindus are responding to the appeal of Ambedkar’s message as inter-caste tensions rise under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose party is affiliated with right-wing Hindu nationalists.

In a country of over 1.2 billion people, the number of registered Indian Buddhists is about 8.4 million. About 87% 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. 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.

This article originally appeared here