On April 14th, a groundbreaking event at Gujarat's capital Gandhinagar, is set to change the lives of thousands of individuals in powerful and transformative ways. Their identities, personalities and even daily lifestyles will be forever altered by their decision to embrace Buddhism. Geeta Jhala, will adopt the name Sugati Shakya, while Amit Chawda will become Siddharth Maurya, Ashwin Jadav would be known as Dhammdhar Bauddh and Laxman Parmar will become Lohaans Bauddh. Meanwhile, Jaisukh Makwana, Geeta Sarsava, and her husband Ramesh will choose to go by the names Swayam Sankalp, Maitri Samrat, and Rajyavardhan Samrat, respectively.
Families would remove calendars featuring Hindu gods or goddesses from their walls. They will stop going to temples on birthdays; refrain from performing mundan or shraddh to honor departed souls. Additionally, they will strictly abstain from alcohol and other addictive substances.
This transition from one faith to another would not be easy for them, but they view embracing Buddhism as a necessary step towards overcoming the systemic oppression and discrimination they had encountered as members of India's deeply ingrained caste system. Despite the challenges that lie ahead, they remain determined to seek solace and refuge within the sanctuary of Buddhist teachings and spiritual practices, driven by their courage and unwavering commitment to their cause.
Sixty-seven years ago, Dr. BR Ambedkar, the first untouchable to hold a prominent government position in India, renounced Hinduism due to its caste-based discrimination and converted, along with over 100,000 of his supporters, to Buddhism. Now, almost five times that number is expected to attend a mass Buddha Dhamma Diksha Samaroh in Gujarat's capital, Gandhi Nagar city, on Ambedkar Jayanti.
Over 50 thousand Mool Nivasis ( original inhabitants) are expected to renounce Hinduism and embrace Buddhism. Swayam Sainik Dal (SSD), the group involved in organizing the event, claims that 50,000 is just the minimum expected and that the real number of people giving up the Sanatan Dharma would be much higher. SSD volunteers have been working tirelessly for months to make arrangements for the big day.
The upcoming conversion ceremony will see tens of thousands of people embrace Buddhism and take the same 22 oaths that Baba Saheb did, promising to abstain from worshipping Hindu deities, avoiding Brahmins at religious festivals, refraining from alcohol etc. Bauddh bhikshu Pragya Ratna from the Great Ashoka Buddh Vihar in Porbandar will preside over the ceremony and administer the deeksha to the participants.
Buddhist monks called Bhante ji from far and wide will attend the event, while Moolnivasis - as they prefer to be referred to - from Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Punjab, and Jharkhand will flock to the event in huge numbers.
The event is expected to begin by 9.30 AM. People from different cities and towns of Gujarat and other states would assemble at the Butterfly Circle , Adalaj. As per the program , the congregation would move towards the Ambedkar Statue at Vidhan Sabha where a grand Maha Salaami would be given to the Messiah of the Down Trodden . The gathering would then march towards the Ramakatha ground where the Deeksha ceremony would be conducted.
For the past three days, SSD volunteers have been tirelessly working to prepare the Sabha site for the upcoming ceremony. Over 200 dedicated volunteers have camped out at the location to erect the mandap and make other necessary arrangements, eschewing outside assistance in favor of self-sufficiency. Even the dias and seating arrangements have been specially designed to promote equality, with all attendees seated comfortably on the ground.
Considering the sweltering temperatures, the organizers have taken care to provide ample drinking water through both tankers and packaged bottles. Volunteers from within the community have also come forward to offer mild snacks, including lemonade, to make the day more refreshing for all. Some have dedicated ambulances while some have offered services of loading vehicles. Additionally, the SSD's medical teams is standing by, with trained medical officers and nurses ready to handle any emergencies that may arise. All in all, no detail has been overlooked in order to ensure a memorable and successful event.
The Ramakatha Ground, where the ceremony will take place, has an impressive capacity of 3 to 4 lakh people. However, given the overwhelmingly positive and enthusiastic response from potential attendees, the SSD estimates that around 5 lakh individuals will participate.
Thankfully, after some initial hesitation and delays on the part of local authorities, the police administration has granted the necessary permissions for the congregation to proceed. "We can now proceed confidently with our carefully planned arrangements, knowing that we will have the mandatory permission and cooperation of all relevant authorities," says Shailesh Bhai, one of the volunteers.
At the age of 33, Ragesh, a cereal wholesaler, cannot curb his enthusiasm. Having been following Buddhism for over a decade, he perceives official conversion as nothing but a mere formal procedure to alter his documentation. Ragesh, along with his wife Usha and their six-month-old daughter Sinhal, will seek sanctuary in Buddhism. "Being a Buddhist implies inhabiting a realm that transcends discrimination. We stand apart yet at par with the upper castes. Our lives will be devoid of any rituals or superstitions, and we would only give credence to ideas that have empirical evidence and hence are rational," Ragesh explains to The Mooknayak. Several of his family friends too would be embracing Buddhism on the same day.
"This would mean that we would no longer associate with any discriminatory practices as propagated in Hinduism. There would be no Griha Pravesh ceremony to celebrate a new house or Mundan Sanskar to mourn a relative's death. No Ganga Jal or Tulsi leaf would be given to the deceased. It means that the rites would be held simply, sans rituals," says Urvashi, a 23-year-old law graduate from Ahmedabad who seeks to relinquish her Hindu identity by converting to Buddhism alongside her family.
Urvashi, who is also a volunteer of the Jhalkari Brigade, the sister wing of SSD, says she had experienced discrimination first-hand since her school days as a member of a lower caste and sees Buddhism as a way to escape the systemic oppression and inequality that still exist in Hindu society. Urvashi has noticed significant changes in her family since her parents embraced Buddhism. "My mother treats my siblings and me equally now, whereas before my brother received better education and facilities than I did," Urvashi attests.
Mukesh, who will acquire the new name KarunaNidhi, says that everyone embracing Buddhism will give up their original names if they are rooted in Hindu mythology. "My name, Mukesh, refers to a name of Shiva, who is also known as the God of the Dumb. Giving up the name that has been attached to you soon after your birth is indeed difficult, but for a greater cause, enduring a bit of inconvenience doesn't matter at all," he says.
So that means, there would be no one with names like Vishnu, Mahesh, Mohan, Kishan or Ram. Women too, embracing Buddhism would give up their names like Lakshmi, Parvati, Sarasvati , Durga etc.
A brother duo Jagdish and Arvind Parmar have chosen to be known as Chandra Surya and Chandra Gupta after receiving the Deeksha. Mool Nivasis believe in nature worship, and hence, they prefer adopting names typical to nature like Varsha, Suraj, Chandra, Nisha, Pushpa, Arun, etc.
Additionally, some attendees have chosen to take on somewhat unconventional names, such as those of villainous characters slain by Hindu deities. For example, some individuals have chosen to adopt names like Mahishasur and Ravana. While these names may seem unusual to outsiders, they hold a deep significance to those who have chosen them, serving as powerful symbols of resistance against the injustices and discrimination they have long faced. " Ragesh explains that the Santhal tribes in West Bengal and Jharkhand do not worship Goddess Durga because they mourn Mahishasur, who was their demon king. In their culture, Mahishasur was considered kind and was unjustly oppressed and killed by a Goddess who represented the upper caste.
Embracing Buddhism can bring numerous positive changes in personal and social life. For the Dalit community, it can break free from the oppressive caste system and provide equal economic opportunities. By promoting education, eradication of superstitions, and narrow beliefs, Buddhism allows individuals and families to overcome fear and insecurity for greater emotional and mental well-being.
The number of individuals identifying as Buddhists in India has increased significantly since 1951. In that year, only 180,823 people identified as Buddhists in the country. However, this number rose to 3,256,036 in 1961 and continued to increase, reaching 3,812,325 in 1971 and 4,719,796 in 1981 - a 22.52 percent increase. In the 2001 Census of India, the Buddhist population was recorded at 8 million or 0.8% of the total population, indicating the growth of Buddhism over the decades. In the 2011 census, the Buddhist population was recorded at 0.84 crores.
The Hindu right has grown increasingly concerned about Buddhist conversions, viewing the religion's message of equality as a threat to the caste system. As such, the central government's Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) in Gujarat is known to have controversially revised an anti-conversion law to classify Buddhism and Jainism as branches of Hinduism, preventing them from receiving recognition as distinct religions.