The spiritual journey involves going beyond hope and fear, stepping into unknown territory, continually moving forward. The most important aspect of being on the spiritual path may be
to just keep moving. – Pema Chodron
Beyond Caste: Connecting with the Dalit Buddhist Community (Nov 2010)
Within minutes of my arrival to the Nagpur retreat site where more than 500 Dalit Buddhists had gathered, a beautiful, bright eyed, eleven year-old girl named Ruchika ran up to me and asked, “Hello Ma’am. What's your surname?”
“Kyon?” I inquired which means “why” in Hindi although I already knew that she was asking for my surname to determine my caste. Sure enough her next question was:
“What is your caste?”
I looked her straight in the eyes, found a smile within my heart, and answered, “I'm Buddhist. Like you, I have no caste.”
Approximately 860 miles from Mumbai, the city of Nagpur is home to the largest population of Indian Buddhists. Not only is this community bigger than any other Buddhist population in India, but these Buddhists are unlike any others. Previously lower caste Hindus, the Indian Buddhists in Nagpur converted under the political influence of Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar, author of India's constitution, to denounce caste oppression. They became Buddhist for political and spiritual reasons, and today, the implications of their actions continue to unfold.
In the fall of 2010, a leader in the Dalit Buddhist community invited me to Nagpur to share mindfulness practices with children. Spending time with this community was especially important for me because like the Dalit Buddhists I've experienced the evils of caste oppression. However, unlike the Dalit Buddhists who were born at the very “bottom” of caste hierarchy, my Brahmin birth placed me at the “top.”
I am American and Indian. My parents grew up in India and moved to the United States more than 40 years ago where they raised a family. Like many others in similar circumstances, I’m a product of extreme privilege and have a deep sense of gratitude for the opportunities I’ve been given. A few years after graduating from college, I had an unexplainable, heartfelt calling to live in India and I moved back to the land of my ancestors. During the past five years I’ve seen firsthand the divisiveness of caste. More than anything else, this experience fueled my embrace of Buddhism. In turn, my mindfulness practice brought me to Nagpur.
Buddhists in a Hindu Country
Although more than 10 million Dalit Buddhists reside in Nagpur, the magnitude of the community and their religious conversion doesn’t alter the fact that they still live in a Hindu dominated nation—one which fails to acknowledge them as equals. According to Prashita, a sharp, articulate, fourteen year-old girl who served as my Marathi translator, “In India people don’t usually ask your name, they ask you ‘What is your surname?’ and their intention is to know what caste you belong to.” Click here to continue reading
"Whether we know it or not, we transmit the presence of everyone we have ever known, as though by being in each other's presence we exchange our cells, pass on some life force and then we go on carrying that other person in our body, not unlike the springtime when certain plants in fields we walk through attach their seeds in the form of small burrs to our socks, our pants, our caps, as if to say, ‘Go on, take us with you, carry us to root in another place’…This is why it is important who we become, because we pass it on."
– Natalie Goldberg (Author & Student of Thich Nhat Hanh)