Asia: Japanese Buddhist reaches out to India's 'untouchables'
BY YUKIFUMI TAKEUCHI, THE ASAHI SHIMBUN
NAGPUR, India--As the votive candles flicker, 70-year-old Buddhist priest Shurei Sasai's voice resounds through the temple: "I believe that all men are equal."
Fittingly, Sasai's work converting "untouchables" to Buddhism here at the Nagpur temple is the same spot where Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956), India's first justice minister after the nation's 1947 independence from Britain, implemented the historic "mass conversion." Shortly before his death in 1956, Ambedkar led a ceremony that converted more than 500,000 Hindus in discriminated castes to Buddhism.
Ambedkar himself was also born an untouchable. His remarkable rise to become one of the authors of the Indian Constitution was the exception that proved the rule: All Hindus born untouchable inherited the lowest rung on the social ladder.
That meant discrimination in employment, education, even being forced to use segregated public drinking fountains. Ambedkar dedicated his whole life to eliminating such discrimination through mass conversion to Buddhism, a religion which advocates the equality of all men.
By the time Sasai arrived, though, more than 10 years after Ambedkar's death, the religion was once again losing steam. Sasai saw Buddhists being bullied by majority Hindus, and one day someone threw stones at him. The country's caste system discrimination, he noted, remained deeply rooted.
Official estimates say there are about 8 million Buddhists in India, a small minority of the country's 1.1 billion total population. Sasai says the number of Buddhists is undercounted.
"Many people continue to identify themselves as Hindus even after they converted to Buddhism. That is because they want to make use of the current affirmative action plan for people of the discriminated castes in employment and other opportunities," he explained.Asahi