In the small one-room house on the edge of the rice bowl of India, Narasimha Cherlaguda explains why he is preparing to be reborn again as a Buddhist.
As an untouchable, the 25-year-old is at the bottom of Hinduism’s hereditary hierarchy. “The [local] priest tells me if I was a good dalit in this life, then in my next life I can be born into a better part of society. [I say] why wait?”
Like tens of thousands of other untouchables — or dalits — across India yesterday, Cherlaguda will be ritually converted to Buddhism to escape his low-caste status. The landless laborer points to a picture of Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god, on his wall and says it will soon be gone and replaced by an image of the Buddha.
He will not be alone. More than 70 people from the village of Kumarriguda, 64km outside Hyderabad, the capital of southern India’s Andhra Pradesh state, will leave the Hindu religion. There are plans for a Buddhist temple and money set aside to hire a Buddhist priest — probably the first in the area for 1,500 years — to conduct prayers as well as marriage and death rites.
“We want to be equal to upper castes. Being a dalit in Hindu society means this is not possible. Being Buddhist means we will be separate but equal,” said D. Anjaneyulu, a local dalit politician who says he first considering switching religion when he was physically stopped by local Brahmins from raising the Indian flag because of his caste.
“Untouchability” was abolished under India’s constitution in 1950 but the practice remains a degrading part of everyday life in Indian villages.
Dalits in rural areas are often bullied and assigned menial jobs such as manual scavengers, removing of human waste and dead animals, leather workers, street sweepers and cobblers. Reports surface in newspapers of untouchables being barred from temples.
The sometimes intense violence has led to a migration to the cities, where caste is easier to submerge. B. Veeraiah, a 42-year-old who fled his village 257km north of Hyderabad a year ago, was washing dishes on the streets. He ran away after being tied up with his mother and clubbed for a night by an upper caste neighbor for allowing his goat to wander. “My mother died of her injuries. I ran away to the city. Here I am safe.”
The mass conversion of dalits takes place on the anniversary of one of India’s most controversial religious events. Sixty years ago BR Ambedkar, the first untouchable to hold high office in India and the man who wrote India’s constitution, renounced Hinduism as a creed in the grip of casteism and converted — with more than 100,000 of his followers — to Buddhism.
Today almost double that figure will embrace a new religion and repeat the 22 oaths Ambedkar mouthed. They include never worshipping Hindu gods and goddesses, never inviting a Brahmin for rituals and never drinking alcohol. Attending the ceremonies are monks from the US, Britain and Taiwan.
In Hyderabad the first person to convert was KRS Murthy, 70, who was the first dalit recruited into the state’s civil service in 1959. Like African Americans in the US who refuse to use their “slave” names, many in the lowest castes have spurned their obvious caste identifiers. Murthy says he long ago dropped his caste name.
“I have hidden my roots. But often on trains people ask about my background, what my father did, where I am from. When I tell them my caste they stop asking questions. In fact they stop talking to me. Buddhism means I can simply say I am not a Hindu. I do not have a caste.”