Monday, November 20, 2006

Dhamma Yatra reaches 100,000 in India

Reports are just coming in of the recent Dhamma Yatra across Maharastra, India conducted by the Dhammakranti team, as part of the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of Dr. Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism. These began in earnest in early October, and are scheduled to peak at the end of December, with the next major milestone being the anniversary of his death on December 6th.

By all accounts the Yatra was a remarkable event. Starting from the Diksha-Bhumi in Nagpur, in 10 days they gave over 100 dhamma talks, covered 1,200 kms, and made contact with some 100,000 people deep in rural India – mostly Ambedkarite Buddhists isolated in their villages, new Buddhists, or people thinking to become Buddhists. Eight small teams totaling 45 people traveled in convoy in 8 vehicles - meaning they were able to respond immediately to the many requests and invitations that flooded in, one or another team peeling off and catching up later. Alongside the Indians were six Western students from the Dhammakranti course in Birmingham, UK, many in India for the first time. Their purpose was especially to make contact with and celebrate the new Buddhists and welcome them to the Sangha, emphasizing at every opportunity that they had joined an international spiritual community that went beyond caste. It was not a conversion tour, these will come later at big rallies in Mumbai and Delhi in December.

Kumarajiv, the main organizer, says they brought a message of friendship, metta, love, and compassion wherever they went, repeating again and again that violence leads only to violence, that the only way to peace was to practice peace. This was vital, for the tour took place against a background of extreme inter-caste disturbance and threats of violence. Shortly before they set off Maharastra had been shocked by a brutal caste murder of a Dalit family, this had set off a wave of demonstrations, strikes, riots, curfews, and general strikes all across the state – some of which are still carrying on (see the Atrocity News blog for updates. Every day had to be approached afresh, according to the ever-changing situation, with many consultations with police and local leaders, but every day a way forwards was found, and in the end only one programme (in Solapur, still under curfew) had to be cancelled. Wider issues than this also affected the tour, with much of India incensed by new anti-conversion legislation in many states, making it illegal or very difficult to change religions. This is creeping onto the international agenda – see Saturday’s ‘Face to Faith’ in the UK’s Guardian newspaper for example According to Kumarajiv, conversions to Buddhism have not in fact become illegal, but a lot of fear and uncertainty has been generated, with Hindu leaders misrepresenting the legal position and many potential converts unsure what to do.

Next on the Dhammakranti/50th anniversary program comes a Dhamma tour of South India (their first), and a National Buddhist Youth conference at the end of December, marking the end of a hectic and exhilarating three months. After this the mass celebrations finish and a series of individual visits will commence following up the many contacts made.



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