Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Why Go For Conversion?

Why Go For Conversion?
By Dr. B.R. Ambedkar
In 1935 at Nasik district, Maharashtra, Dr.Babasaheb Ambedkar had declared his firm resolve to change his religion. He had declared that he was born as a Hindu but will not die as Hindu. About a year later, a massive Mahar conference was held on May 30 and 31, 1936, in Mumbai, to access the impact of that declaration on Mahar masses. In his address to the conference, Dr.Ambedkar expressed his views on conversion in an elaborate, well- prepared and written speech in Marathi. Here is an English translation of that speech by Mr.Vasant Moon, OSD to the committee of Govt. of Maharashtra for publication of Writings & speeches of Dr.B.R.Ambedkar
Class Struggle
There are two aspects of conversion; social as well as religious; material as well as spiritual. Whatever may be the aspect, or line of thinking, it is necessary to understand the beginning, the nature of Untouchability and how it is practiced. Without this understanding, you will not be able to realize the real meaning underlying my declaration of conversion. In order to have a clear understanding of untouchability and its practice in real life, I want you to recall the stories of the atrocities perpetrated against you. But very few of you might have realized as to why all this happens! What is at the root cause of their tyranny? To me it is very necessary, that we understand it.
This is not a feud between rival men. The problem of untouchability is a matter of class struggle. It is the struggle between caste Hindus and the Untouchables. That is not a matter of doing injustice against one man. This is a matter of injustice being done by one class against another. This "class struggle" has a relation with the social status. This struggle indicates, how one class should keep its relation with another class. This struggle starts as soon as you start claiming equal treatment with others...
Conversion not for slaves
The reason for their anger is very simple. Your behaving on par with them insults them. The untouchability is not a short or temporary feature; it is a permanent one .To put it straight, it can be said that the struggle between the Hindus and the Untouchables is a permanent phenomena. It is eternal, because the religion which has placed you at the lowest level of the society is itself eternal, according to the belief of the Hindu caste people. No change, according to time and circumstances is possible. You are at the lowest rung of the ladder today. You shall remain lowest forever. This means the struggle between Hindus and Untouchables shall continue forever. How will you survive through this struggle is the main question. And unless you think over it, there is no way out. Those who desire to live in obedience to the dictates of the Hindus, those who wish to remain their slaves, they do not need to think over this problem. But those who wish to live a life of self-respect, and equality, will have to think over this. How should we survive through this struggle? For me, it is not difficult to answer this question. Those who have assembled here will have to agree that in any struggle one who holds strength becomes the victor. One, who has no strength, need not expect success. This has been proved by experience, and I do not need to cite illustration to prove it.
Three types of Strength
The question that follows, which you must now consider, is whether you have enough strength to survive through this struggle? Three types of strength are known to man: (i) Manpower, (ii) Finance and (iii) Mental Strength. Which of these, you think that you possess? So far as manpower is concerned, it is clear, that you are in a minority. In Mumbai Presidency, the untouchables are only one-eighth of the total population. That too unorganized. The castes within themselves do not allow them to organize. They are not even compact. They are scattered through the villages. Under these circumstances, this small population is of no use as a fighting force to the untouchables at their critical moments. Financial strength is also just the same. It is an undisputed fact that you at least have a little bit of manpower, but finances you have none. You have no trade, no business, no service, no land. The piece of bread thrown out by the higher castes, are your means of livelihood. You have no food, no clothes. What financial strength can you have? You have no capacity to get redress from the law courts. Thousands of untouchables tolerate insult, tyranny and oppression at the hands of Hindus without a sigh of complaint, because they have no capacity to bear the expenses of the courts. As regards mental strength, the condition is still worst. The tolerance of insults and tyranny without grudge and complaint has killed the sense of retort and revolt. Confidence, vigour and ambition have been completely vanished from you. All of you have been become helpless, unenergetic and pale. Everywhere, there is an atmosphere of defeatism and pessimism. Even the slight idea, that you can do something does not enter your mind.
Muslim Example
If, whatever I have described above is correct then you will have to agree with the conclusion that follows. The conclusion is, if you depend only upon your own strength, you will never be able to face the tyranny of the Hindus. I have no doubt that you are oppressed because you have no strength. It is not that you alone are in minority. The Muslims are equally small in number. Like Mahar- Mangs, they too have few houses in the village. But no one dares to trouble the Muslims while you are always a victim of tyranny. Why is this so? Though there may be two houses of Muslims in the village, nobody dares to harm them, while the whole village practices tyranny against you though you have ten houses. Why does this happen? This is a very pertinent question and you will have to find out a suitable answer to this. In my opinion, there is only one answer to this question. The Hindus realize that the strength of the whole of the Muslim population in India stands behind those two houses of Muslims living in a village and, therefore, they do not dare to touch them. Those two houses also enjoy free and fearless life because they are aware that if any Hindu commits aggression against them, the whole Muslim community from Punjab to Madras will rush to their protection at any cost. On the other hand, the Hindus are sure that none will come to your rescue, nobody will help you, no financial help will reach you. Tahsildar and police belong to caste Hindus and in case of disputes between Hindus and Untouchables, they are more faithful to their caste than to their duty. The Hindus practice injustice and tyranny against you only because you are helpless.
Outside Support
From the above discussion, two facts are very clear. Firstly, you can not face tyranny without strength. And secondly, you do not possess enough strength to face the tyranny. With these two conclusions, a third one automatically follows. That is, the strength required to face this tyranny needs to be secured from outside. How are you to gain this strength is really an important question? And you will have to think over this with an unbiased mind.
From this, you will realize one thing, that unless you establish close relations with some other society, unless you join some other religion, you cannot get the strength from outside. It clearly means, you must leave your present religion and assimilate yourselves with some other society. Without that, you cannot gain the strength of that society. So long as you do not have strength, you and your future generations will have to lead your lives in the same pitiable condition.
Spiritual Aspect of Conversion
Uptil now, we have discussed why conversion is necessary for material gains. Now, I propose to put forth my thoughts as to why conversion is as much necessary for spiritual wellbeing. What is Religion? Why is it necessary? ... 'That which govern people is religion'. That is the true definition of Religion. There is no place for an individual in Hindu society. The Hindu religion is constituted on a class-concept. Hindu religion does not teach how an individual should behave with another individual. A religion, which does not recognize the individual, is not personally acceptable to me.
Three factors are required for the uplift of an individual. They are: Sympathy, Equality and Liberty. Can you say by experience that any of these factors exist for you in Hinduism?
No Equality in Hinduism
Such a living example of inequality is not to be found anywhere in the world. Not at anytime in the history of mankind can we find such inequality, which is more intense than untouchability... I think, you have been thrust into this condition because you have continued to be Hindus. Those of you who have become Muslims, are treated by the Hindus neither as Untouchables nor as unequals. The same can be said of those who have become Christians...
That God is all pervading is a principle of science and not of religion, because religion has a direct relation with the behaviour of man. Hindus can be ranked among those cruel people whose utterances and acts are two poles apart. They have this Ram on their tongues and a knife under their armpits. They speak like saints but act like butchers...
Thus we are not low in the eyes of the Hindus alone, but we are the lowest in the whole of India, because of the treatment given to us by the Hindus.
If you have to get rid of this same shameful condition, if you have to cleanse this filth and make use of this precious life; there is only one way and that is to throw off the shackles of Hindu religion and the Hindu society in which you are bound.
The taste of a thing can be changed. But the poison cannot be made amrit. To talk of annihilating castes is like talking of changing the poison into amrit. In short, so long as we remain in a religion, which teaches a man to treat another man like a leper, the sense of discrimination on account of caste, which is deeply rooted in our minds, can not go. For annihilating caste and untouchables, change of religion is the only antidote.Untouchables are not Hindus
What is there in conversion, which can be called novel? Really speaking what sort of social relations have you with the caste Hindus at present? You are as separate from the Hindus as Muslims and Christians are. So is their relation with you. Your society and that of the Hindus are two distinct groups. By conversion, nobody can say or feel that one society has been split up. You will remain as separate from the Hindus as you are today. Nothing new will happen on account of this conversion. If this is true, then why should people be afraid of conversion? At least, I do not find any reason for such a fear...
Revolution - Not Reform
Changing a religion is like changing a name. Change of religion followed by the change of name will be more beneficial to you. To call oneself a Muslim, a Christian, a Buddhist or a Sikh is not merely a change of religion but also a change of name.. Since the beginning of this movement of conversion, various people have raised various objections to it. Let us now examine the truth, if any, in such objections...
A congenital idiot alone will say that one has to adhere to one's religion because it is that of our ancestors. No sane man will accept such a proposition. Those who advocate such an argument, seem not to have read the history at all. The ancient Aryan religion was called Vedic religion. It has three distinct characteristic (features). Beef-eating, drinking and merry-making was part of the religion of the day. Thousands of people followed it in India and even now some people dream of going back to it. If the ancient religion alone is to be adhered to why did the people of India leave Hinduism and accept Buddhism? Why did they divorce themselves from the Vedic religion?... Thus this Hindu religion is not the religion of our ancestors, but it was a slavery forced upon them...
To reform the Hindu society is neither our aim nor our field of action. Our aim is to gain freedom. We have nothing to do with anything else.
If we can gain freedom by conversion, why should we shoulder the responsibility of reforming the Hindu religion? And why should we sacrifice our strength and property for that? None should misunderstand the object of our movement as being Hindu social reform. The object of our movement is to achieve social freedom for the untouchables. It is equally true that this freedom cannot be secured without conversion.
Caste can't be destroyed
I do accept that the untouchables need equality as well. And to secure equality is also one of our objectives. But nobody can say that this equality can be achieved only by remaining as Hindu and not otherwise. There are two ways of achieving equality. One by remaining in the Hindu fold and another by leaving it by conversion. If equality is to be achieved by remaining in the Hindu fold, mere removal of the sense of being a touchable or an untouchable will not serve the purpose. Equality can be achieved only when inter-caste dinners and marriages take place. This means that the Chaturvarnya must be abolished and the Brahminic religion must be uprooted. Is it possible? And if not, will it be wise to expect equality of treatment by remaining in the Hindu religion? And can you be successful in your efforts to bring equality? Of course not. The path of conversion is far simpler than this. The Hindu society does not give equality of treatment, but the same is easily achieved by conversion. If this is true, then why should you not adopt this simple path of conversion?Conversion is a simplest path
According to me, this conversion of religion will bring happiness to both the Untouchables as well as the Hindus. So long as you remain Hindus, you will have to struggle for social intercourse, for food and water, and for inter-caste marriages. And so long as this quarrel continues, relations between you and the Hindus will be of perpetual enemies. By conversion, the roots of all the quarrels will vanish... thus by conversion, if equality of treatment can be achieved and the affinity between the Hindus and the Untouchables can be brought about then why should the Untouchables not adopt the simple and happy path of securing equality? Looking at this problem through this angle, it will be seen that this path of conversion is the only right path of freedom, which ultimately leads to equality. It is neither cowardice nor escapism.
Sanctified Racism
Although the castes exist in Muslims and the Christians alike, it will be meanness to liken it to that of the Hindus. There is a great distinction between the caste-system of the Hindus and that of the Muslims and Christians. Firstly, it must be noted that though the castes exist amongst the Christians and the Muslims, it is not the chief characteristic of their body social.
There is one more difference between the caste system of the Hindus and that of the Muslims and Christians. The caste system in the Hindus has the foundation of religion. The castes in other religions have no sanction in their religion ...Hindus cannot destroy their castes without destroying their religion. Muslims and Christians need not destroy their religions for eradication of their castes. Rather their religion will support such movements to a great extent.
Conversion alone liberates us
I am simply surprised by the question, which some Hindus ask us as to what can be achieved by conversion alone? Most of the present day Sikhs, Muslims and Christians were formerly Hindus, majority of them being from the Shudras and Untouchables. Do these critics mean to say that those, who left the Hindu fold and embraced Sikhism or Christianity, have made no progress at all? And if this is not true, and if it is admitted that the conversion has brought a distinct improvement in their condition, then to say that the untouchables will not be benefited by conversion, carries no meaning...
After giving deep thought to the problem, everybody will have to admit that conversion is necessary to the Untouchables as self-government is to India. The ultimate object of both is the same. There is not the slightest difference in their ultimate goal. This ultimate aim is to attain freedom. And if the freedom is necessary for the life of mankind, conversion of Untouchables which brings them complete freedom cannot be called worthless by any stretch of imagination...
Economic Progress or Social Changes?
I think it necessary here to discuss the question as to what should be initiated first, whether economic progress or conversion? I do not agree with the view that economic progress should precede...
Untouchability is a permanent handicap on your path of progress. And unless you remove it, your path cannot be safe. Without conversion, this hurdle cannot be removed...
So, if you sincerely desire that your qualifications should be valued, your education should be of some use to you, you must throw away the shackles of untouchability, which means that you must change your religion... However, for those who need this Mahar Watan, I can assure them that their Mahar Watan will not be jeopardized by their conversion. In this regard, the Act of 1850 can be referred. Under the provisions of this Act, no rights of person or his successors with respect to his property are affected by virtue of his conversion...
Poona Pact
A second doubt is about political rights. Some people express fear as to what will happen to our political safeguards if we convert...
But I feel, it is not proper to depend solely on political rights. These political safeguards are not granted on the condition that they shall be ever lasting. They are bound to cease sometime. According to the communal Award of the British Government, our political safeguards were limited for 20 years. Although no such limitation has been fixed by the Poona Pact, nobody can say that they are everlasting. Those, who depend upon the political safeguards, must think as to what will happen after these safeguards are withdrawn on the day on which our rights cease to exist. We will have to depend on our social strength. I have already told you that this social strength is wanting in us. So also I have proved in the beginning that this strength cannot be achieved without conversion...Political Rights
Under these circumstances, one must think of what is permanently beneficial.
In my opinion, conversion is the only way to eternal bliss. Nobody should hesitate even if the political rights are required to be sacrificed for this purpose. Conversion brings no harm to the political safeguards. I do not understand why the political safeguards should at all be jeopardized by conversion. Wherever you may go, your political rights and safeguards will accompany you. I have no doubt about it.
If you become Muslims, you will get the political rights as Muslims. If you become Christians, you will get the political rights as Christians, if you become Sikhs, you will have your political rights as Sikhs. In short, our political rights will accompany us.
So nobody should be afraid of it. On the other hand, if we remain Hindus and do not convert, will our rights be safe? You must think carefully on this. Suppose the Hindus pass a law whereby the untouchability is prohibited and its practice is made punishable, then they may ask you, 'We have abolished untouchability by law and you are no longer untouchables...
Looking through this perspective, conversion becomes a path for strengthening the political safeguards rather than becoming a hindrance. If you remain Hindus, you are sure to lose your political safeguards. If you want to save them, leave this religion. The political safeguards will be permanent only by conversion.
The Hindu religion does not appeal to my conscience. It does not appeal to my self-respect. However, your conversion will be for material as well as for spiritual gains. Some persons mock and laugh at the idea of conversion for material gains. I do not feel hesitant in calling such persons as stupid.
Conversion brings Happiness
I tell you all very specifically, religion is for man and not man for religion. To get human treatment, convert yourselves.
CONVERT -For getting organized.
CONVERT -For becoming strong.
CONVERT -For securing equality.
CONVERT -For getting liberty.
CONVERT -For that your domestic life may be happy.
I consider him as leader who without fear or favour tells the people what is good and what is bad for them. It is my duty to tell you, what is good for you, even if you don't like it, I must do my duty. And now I have done it.
It is now for you to decide and discharge your responsibility.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Grappling with untouchability
Paramita Ghosh, Hindustan Times
September 12, 2008

Two people do not crowd a small flat. But when there are three? “Dr Ambedkar is god,” says Dr Rahul with a laugh, “So certainly you’ll see him everywhere in this house.” Rahul shares a room with his 81-year-old father, Bhagwan Das.
Ambedkar busts and wall art outnumber images of that other Dalit icon, Buddha, here. This morning, space is tight. Publisher S Anand is also here to film Das, the last surviving research assistant of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, and author of 23 books on the Dalit struggle.
“Are you a PhD?” Ambedkar had asked his then young research assistant one day. Bhagwan, a 28-year-old radio operator who had just quit the Royal Air Force to join him, replied: “Never been to college, Sir. But I read.” The exchange on the subject became a private joke between the two men, recalls Bhagwan, who would buy books from the People’s Education Society set up by Ambedkar. “One day he caught me carrying a book on progressive thinking and Marxism, but I didn’t want to show it to him. He had a weakness for books. And I knew I wouldn’t get it back. Suddenly, he asked me again: ‘Are you a PhD?’”
, Bhagwan’s career was not in imitation of his boss, but built through reflection. His views on Gandhi, an ideological counterpoint to Dalit intellectuals, flow from the same source. “If Gandhi was Bapu, the father of a society in which he tried to inject quality while maintaining the Hindu framework, Ambedkar was Baba to his people and the great liberator from that framework,” he quotes from sociologist Gail Omvedt’s book. Das’s own four-volume Thus Spoke Ambedkar (New York’s Museum Library keeps a copy) was the most important reference book for 20 years on Ambedkar after his death in the 50s.
As the camera rolls, the Gandhi connection crops up again. Homer Jack of the Gandhi Peace Foundation, Delhi, had introduced Das to the Social Welfare Ministry and recommended that he present a paper at the UN in the 80s.“I was the first Dalit to speak at the UN. It was Dr Ambedkar’s dream... I presented a paper on the plight of untouchables all over the subcontinent. When I came out, they told me that they had thought that Gandhi had abolished untouchability.”
Independence, stresses Das, wasn’t liberation for everybody. “We don’t call it Independence. We call it a transfer of power between upper castes. On August 15, we were afraid. We had no constituti-onal safeguards.”
Das is also no admirer of Mayawati. As a teacher at a Karol Bagh school, she would attend meetings at the Ambedkar Bhawan where Das would lecture. After joining politics she kept away. “The BSP does not want intellectuals. It wants crowds,” Das explains. “Kanshi Ram thought political power was everything.” Political organisations like the Republican Party of India started by Ambedkar were anyway divided. Its leaders lacked unity and stength. Mayawati took advantage of the vacuum. Her party had no agenda of social emancipation. Chamars — her base — put their numbers behind her and voted her into power, Das says.
Untouchability in Asia, Das believes, is his last task. He pores over the census of 1891 as the camera zooms in and talks of how the Lal Begis (untouchables) have, over the years, started calling themselves Balmikis. “When the lower castes started embracing Christianity, the Hindu Mahasabha tried to check their conversion and introduced the myth of Balmiki as the author of the Ramayana to uphold the caste structure.” he says. “The trouble with caste is that if you try to throw it out from the front door, it creeps back again through the window or the back door.”
The ‘set’ is Das’s study. The period is 61 years after Independence. Nothing has changed.

Monday, 1 September 2008

From Bhakti to Buddhism: Ravidas and Ambedkar
Email: maren.bellwinkel@schempp.info

Kanpur holds special importance for the dalit movement since it was the cradle of the Adi Hindu movement in Uttar Pradesh. This movement had a strong impact on dalits, especially in the years following Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism. This article examines how Ravidas became the most popular saint among the dalits in Kanpur and how the dalits accepted Buddhism in the 1980s. It also explains the emergence of Navayana Buddhism, which was conceptualised as the total rejection of Hinduism and was institutionalised with a temple and a Buddhist monk, a governing body of lay persons and a canon of public and private rites.
Every year in January/February ‘jhankis’ (floats) are carried through the streets of many towns of Uttar Pradesh in honour of Sant Ravidas, a Bhakti saint of the 15th century. Not only that, special trains full of pilgrims start from Jalandhar in Punjab and go to Varanasi to celebrate the Ravidas ‘jayanti’ (birth anniversary) there at the temple in Seer Goberdhan with prayers, speeches, music and communal meals for which all the
poor and needy of Varanasi are invited. Sant Ravidas, the humble chamar shoemaker of the 15th century, has become the most popular saint in northern India. He was so pious and god-loving that even mother Ganga herself came to his aid. Born in the city of Varanasi and pursuing a polluting occupation he had such a great spiritual acumen that he became the guru of princess Mirabai of Chittorgarh.1 Repeatedly he came in conflict with the brahmins but withstood all ploys and pursued his trade and his teachings.
In anticipation of the 50th anniversary of Bhimrao Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism, a vivid discussion began in one internet forum on Ravidas identity in relationship to Buddhism.2 It was argued that Ravidas was against the caste system and preached equality, and projected the same principles as Buddha did. Some discussants considered Ravidas to be a god who had even constituted a religion, others just held him to be a guru. The crucial point was to what extent the conversion to Navayana Buddhism, as formulated by Ambedkar, would mean to give up the veneration for Ravidas. Can Ambedkarites be Buddhists and Ravidasis simultaneously as some suggested, or is it incompatible with each other?
I will take this discussion as a starting point and show why Ravidas became the most popular saint among the dalits in Kanpur, and why the veneration for the two other Bhakti saints – Kabir (1398-1448) debatably a Muslim, and Shiv Narayan (1716-1790), a kshatriya from Ballia district, receded into the background. And finally, I will show how Kanpur’s dalits followed a trajectory from Bhakti to Buddhism, or more specifically, from the teachings of Sant Ravidas to Navayana Buddhism. Bhakti is not only a devotional mode of veneration, but a broad religious movement which began in northern India in the 14th century. So-called poet saints or ‘sants’, emerged, who preached in the vernacular [Schomer 1987: 3]. They accepted women, low castes,
untouchables and Muslims into their congregations. Their teaching was based on an unqualified monism, seeking deliverance – ‘samadhi’ – in one’s lifetime through the union of the individual soul with the transcendental. Many of these sants were from low castes or untouchables themselves.

Golden Days of Kanpur’s Dalits

Contrary to Nandini Gooptu’s claim, that “bhakti re-emerged in the twentieth century essentially as a religious practice of the untouchables” [Gooptu 1993: 284], two Bhakti ‘sampradayas’ (sects) established themselves already around 1870. These were the “golden days” for Kanpur’s dalits [Washbrook 1993: 77]. The British had not only decided to reconstruct Kanpur as a civic station after the devastation through the “first Indian war of
independence”, but were also expanding on industrial lines. Kanpur was going to become India’s first industrial town, the so-called “Manchester of the East” [Froystad 2005: 43]. The nascent industrial town needed workers of all kinds. This opened up unequalled opportunities for dalits.
Kanpur was famous for its raw hide market, which mainly supplied Europe with hides. Europe had a nearly insatiable demand for hides and leather and India was the biggest supplier [Roy 1999: 157]. Hides and leather was considered to be polluted and therefore they were exclusively handled by Muslims and chamars [Deliège 1999: 84]. From all over Uttar Pradesh the chamars migrated to Kanpur, the kuril from the adjacent districts,
the ahirvar from Bundelkhand, the dhusiya and the jaisvara from eastern Uttar Pradesh. They were bearing different names according to the regions and there was neither connubium nor commensality among them. In Kanpur town they became “tanners” – as the British translated their name chamar – what most of them
had never been in the village [Briggs 1920: 57]. In the 19th century, hide and leather trade was far more important than any industry and it made some chamar comfortably wealthy [Crooke 1896: 191].
The Shiv Narayan ‘panth’ (path or religious congregation) was the first to present themselves in public with the construction of a beautiful temple in Kanpur. It was built in 1870 by Bihari Lal, a rich khatik building contractor. The Shiv Narayan panth had its followers among khatiks, dhusiyas and jaisvaras. All three castes were untouchables. Khatiks were vegetable vendors, bristle manufacturers and building contractors but only the building contractor subcaste were followers of the Shiv Narayan panth. Dhusiyas were cobblers and the jaisvaras worked in textile industry. Nowadays, the temple is even mentioned on Kanpur’s road-map as a ‘gurdwara’ (Sikh congregational hall). The gurdwara became the ‘samaj ghar’ (community centre) of the early dalit movement, where the caudhuries (headmen) of the different dalit There are many similarities between Sikhism and the Shiv Narayan panth. Both are ‘nirguna’ sants, following a spiritual conception of god. The holy book as an iconic representation of god is the centre of devotion. The Shiv Narayanis even call
it Guru Granth Sahib, as the Sikhs do, or Guru Anyas [Bellwinkel-Schempp 2006: 18]. It is placed on the ‘gaddi’ (seat or throne) in their respective temples. However, the teaching is different. Shiv Narayan accepts the Vedas and the Vaishnava conception of rebirth whereas Guru Nanak does not. Sikhism explicitly refutes caste whereas Shiv Narayan does not. His teaching is fullof Tantric images and employs the Upanishadic conceptions of world denial and renunciation. Besides, the Shiv Narayanis do not have a dress code or any sectarian marks.
The Kabir Panth had its adherents among the kurils and koris.Kurils are a chamar subcaste and in Kanpur they were associated with leather manufacturing, industry or trade. Koris were Hindu weavers and untouchables as well. The rise of Hulasi Das (1858-1929) from labourer to ‘mahant’ (priest) in the Kabir Panth is an illustration of an exceptional career, which was possible in those initial years of modern industry. The British were not benevolent masters. They enforced strict labour discipline [Joshi 2003: 144] while acknowledging excellence and expertise even among the dalits. That put them very much apart from the Hindu social order and its caste norms, which acknowledged only the value of the spiritual pursuits of the ‘savarna’ (caste Hindus) [Thorat 2004: 10].
Hulasi Das was a kuril and left his native village at the age of 10 to work as a coolie in Kanpur town. He entered the boot factory Cooper Allan right from its start in 1881. After nine yearshe became a ‘mistry’ (labour contractor, supervisor/foreman), which enabled him to build 18 houses, which he rented out tohis labourers. In 1903, he resigned from his job, because he took his ‘panja’ (letter of authority) as ‘mahant’ of the Kabir Panth.
His house became the most prestigious Kabir ‘mandir’ (temple) in Kanpur. According to the saying of Kabir, god neither resides in a mosque nor in the images of Hinduism [Hawley 1988]. God is ‘nirguna’ (beyond form and image), and salvation can only be gained through devotion. Therefore, the house of a Kabir Panthi was considered to be the temple of Satguru Kabir [Bellwinkel-Schempp 2002: 221].
In those days, the Kabir Panth was so popular, that it even caught the attention of an Anglican missionary, George Herbert Westcott, who wrote the first comprehensive book on Kabir and the Kabir Panth in 1907. The Kabir Panthis followed strict rules of purity and pollution. Commensality and endogamy within the panth were preferred. The commandments of honesty, faithfulness, cleanliness, education and a self-reliant income were of great importance. They were vegetarians, forbade the intake of any intoxicants and followed the doctrine of ‘ahimsa’ (nonkilling). According to M N Srinivas, this can be interpreted as an element of Sanskritisation [Srinivas 1996: iv].
Kanpur’s Kabir Panthis were followers of the Dhamakhera branch in Chhattisgarh who believed that Kabir was an ‘avatara’ (incarnation) of the supreme being [Thukral 1995]. Kabir is eternal and equal to Satyapurush, the primordial man or ineffable divine essence. With him is the Svayamveda “the self existent Veda” out of which all four Vedas emanated. This belief was enacted in their religious function, the ‘cauka’ (quadrangle, square) which was held on all major lifecycle rites, and at least once a year. It was a private religious function, which demanded an elaborate ritualism.


Around 1900, Ravidas became increasingly more popular [Briggs 1920: 210]. A number of chamars began to call themselves Raidasis. To call oneself Raidasis was a means to escape the denigrating name chamar and to show the veneration for Ravidas openly. In Kanpur, the kurils established a caste association and called it after Ravidas. In 1925, Swami Achutanand (1879-1933) arrived and made his home in Kanpur. He was a jatav chamar who grew up in the cantonment in western Uttar Pradesh and joined the Arya Samaj. Disgruntled with its discrimination against untouchables, he left and deliberately chose the nom de plume of ‘a-chut’ (meaning not polluted), “the one who was in a state of purity” [Khare 1984: 84]. He built up the Adi Hindu movement in Uttar Pradesh, reversed the so-called “Aryan theory of race” [Bayly 1999: 127], and claimed that the untouchables were the highly civilised and peaceful original inhabitants of India who used to rule the country. They were subjugated and enslaved through the Aryan conquest. That theory was nothing new or original. The Adi Andhra, Adi Karnataka and Adi Dravida movements in south India [Omvedt 1994] and the Ad Dharm movement in Punjab [Juergensmeyer 1982: 46] developed similar theories.
Besides, Bhadant Bodhanand Mahasthvir (1874-1952) in Lucknow propounded the same theory [Sathi 1999]. He was of the view that the ‘mulnivasis’ were the original inhabitants of India, comprising of untouchables and backward classes [Kshirsagar 1994: 403]. His manuscript ‘Mul Bharatvasi aur Arya’ (‘The Original Inhabitants of India and the Aryans’) got never published, but his theory influenced his disciples and followers and the coinage of the term ‘mulnivasis’ had a lasting impact [Kumar 2006: 66]. Excavations at Mohenjo Daro and Harappa, which began in 1921 and were in full swing in 1926-27, were appropriated and used to legitimate Adi Hindu theories.
Achutanand made Ravidas the flagstaff of his movement as the Ad Dharm had done in Punjab at about the same time. Kanpur had a number of different chamar subcastes with different regional traditions, which lacked a common identity. But his effort to forge an identity was meant to include all untouchable castes. Achutanand brought the ‘caudhuries’ of the untouchable castes together and through ‘canda’ (collection) a small temple was built in Harbans ‘mohalla’ (ward) in 1924. This ward was predominantly inhabited by kurils. Not only that, Ravidas temples were also built in Etawah, Lucknow, Allahabad and Ayodhya.
Achutanand also introduced the Ravidas ‘julus’ (procession) inhonour of Ravidas’ jayanti (birthday) in January/February. This procession was the first “public arena activity” of the dalits in Kanpur [Freitag 1989: 241]. It went through the whole of old Kanpur and was a blend of political demonstration and temple ritual. It
led them out of the confines of their wards into the realms of civil society. Caste Hindus considered their procession provocative because it went through their neighbourhoods, it was accompanied by drum beating and singing, and it was a considerable impediment to traffic. They thought it cumbersome, noisy, and impertinent.
Achutanand projected the theory that Bhakti was the original religion of the Adi Hindus [Jigyasu 1960: 113]. Achutanand, however, remained rather vague about it, simultaneously identifying Shiva as the original godhead of the Adi Hindus and the egalitarian religions Buddhism and Jainism on the same level as Sant dharm (religion of the saints). Time frames and historical sequences were not defined and a similarity or even likeness between Sant dharm and Buddhism was suggested. It shows the labile character of these religious theories, historical projections and political constructions. The theory of the Swayamveda, that Kanpur’s Kabir Panthis propounded, might have suggested such a construction.
Achutanand founded the Adi Hindu Mahasabha (‘Association of the Original Hindus’) in 1925 as a political wing of his movement [Gooptu 2001: 173]. His closest followers were the elders and educated among the dalits, predominantly those who were in remunerative professions like contractors, shoe manufacturers, hide merchants and bristle manufacturers. Many of those Adi Hindus called themselves ‘bhagat’, which showed their devotion to Ravidas. Besides, bhagat became a title as well designating the members of the Adi Hindu Sabha.
When Achutanand died in 1933, one of the most colourful figures of the early dalit movement, Acharya Ishvardatt Medharthi (1900-1971), returned to Kanpur. Medharthi belonged to a backward caste. He got educated at Gurukul Gangri, the Arya Samaj vernacular reform school. Medharthi married out of his caste, studied Ayurveda and joined the national movement. When he finally came back to Kanpur, he was a Buddhist. He set up a school for the depressed and backward class children at the outskirts of Kanpur and modelled it after Gurukul Kangri. Caste was not observed, all children had to do manual work, wash their cloths and clean their rooms. Medharthi took a universalistic approach towards religious education and drew from all religious denominations and sects of those times, but predominantly from Sant dharm, namely, Kabir.
In 1939, Medharthi wrote a booklet Bharat ke Adimvasi Purvajan aur Sant Dharm (‘The Original Inhabitants and Ancestors of India and the Sant Religion’), in which he reworked the Adi Hindu notions. He considered the vedic religion as the unjust and oppressive religion of the Aryan invaders. Depressed and backward classes were the ‘purvajanas’ (men born before, or men of pre-historic age). Achutanand’s Adi Hindus and Bodhanand’s ‘mulnivasis’ were purvajanas for him. They were the ancient rulers of the country.
In his opinion, the Sant religion was the original religion of the purvajanas, actually the ‘sanatana dharma’ in the understanding of ancient. The Sant dharm spread the message of equality, morality and communism. Then he juxtaposed Buddhism with Sant dharm. He argued that Lord Buddha had recognised all Sants as ‘buddha’ (learned). Through this etymology, the Bhakti saints became equated with Buddha. Buddha was actually a follower of Sant dharm because whatever he preached was orally transmitted and was written down by his disciples hundreds of years after his death. This is why Medharthi closed his argument with the plea that the followers of the Sant dharm should pay special attention to the messages and preachings of Buddha [Medharthi 1939: 11].
Medharthi’s school was also visited by Ambedkar in the 1940s [Bellwinkel-Schempp 2004: 235]. Medharthi became Ambedkar’s Pali teacher and used to go to Delhi regularly over the weekends. At that time Ambedkar was labour minister in the viceroy’s council. Ambedkar’s visit to Buddhpuri is hardly known amongst the dalit community, because there was a much more prominent event. It was the second meeting of the Scheduled Caste Federation, which took place in Kanpur on January 29, 1944.
The praise goes to Ram Lal Sonkar, a khatik bristle dealer, who called Ambedkar to Kanpur under this condition: that he should organise a communal meal to overcome casteism. Ambedkar held one of his most radical speeches on this occasion, projecting that in “Free India, we will be the Ruling Race” [Das 1969: 77]. This was a reference to the Adi Hindu theory, that the dalits were the original rulers of India. Politically, the meeting was a success, all the prominent dalit leaders attended and it was a “mammoth gathering” [Keer 1990: 362]. But socially it
was a failure. The communal meal took place but subsequently many of those who attended got ostracised by their respective castes.
An important element in the formation of a dalit identity was Ram Charan Kuril’s (1882-1956) book on Ravidas, called Bhagvan Ravidas ki Satya Katha (‘The True Story of God Ravidas’). Ram Charan modelled Ravidas dharm on the Judeo-Christian tradition. The book was written in 1941 and is the “first modern Indian study of Ravidas” [Callewaert/Friedlaender 1992: 27]. He proposed that the Ravidas Katha was meant to replace the Satyanarayan Katha of brahmanical Hinduism.
Kuril’s hagiography used the common motif that Ravidas was born in a family of poor chamar who lived in Benaras. Kuril painted Ravidas as a cobbler, who is god-loving and generous. There is no mention of a previous birth as a brahmin. Ravidas was well versed in the Vedas, Shastras and Upanishads and won every contest against the brahmins, because his learning and his devotion was greater than theirs. He was a contemporary of Kabir and he became the guru of princess Mirabai of Chittorgarh. In Kuril’s hagiography Ravidas was depicted as a contemporary of Kabir and Ramananda. Ramananda was painted as a brahmin who was disgusted with caste pride, inequality and empty ritualism. When he met Ravidas, he felt happy to have found somebody so selfless, pious and truthful with whom he could reform society. These two were depicted like colleges of different status, the one Ramananda a brahmin, and Ravidas, an untouchable.
Ambedkar converted to Buddhism on October 14, 1956. He had designed his Buddhism with a holy book, a conversion ritual with 22 “Buddhist Oaths” and a dress code [Zelliot 1992: 215]. While swearing these oaths, the convert should reject Hindu deities as well as rituals and fight for an equal and just society.Ambedkar meant his Navayana Buddhism – as it is nowadays called [Jondhale/Beltz 2004] – to be a total rejection of Hinduism. To abjure Hinduism was for him the only solution to escape the caste system and establish equality.
Agra’s dalits responded to Ambedkar’s mass conversion drive in 1957 and subsequently removed the Hindu deities from 22 temples and converted them into Buddhist temples [Lynch 1969:149]. In Lucknow, the successor of Bodhanand, Bhante Pragyanand, organised conversion ceremonies to Buddhism in 1957 [Bellwinkel
2004: 237]. Nothing of that kind happened in Kanpur.
The 1950s and 1960s were a time of optimism, industrial expansion and intellectual fermentation in Kanpur. For the second generation of educated dalits, there were new openings in government service, education and politics through reservation. Many of those who had been members and supporters of the Adi Hindu Sabha first joined the Scheduled Caste Federation and became members of the Republican Party later, which was designed by Ambedkar, but only got established after his death in 1957. Politically, they became Ambedkarites but socially they still follow the Adi Hindu notions.
However, these fermenting years after independence saw an explosion of Ravidas veneration in Kanpur. Small community temples as well as private temples sprang up, noteworthy in Idgah, where Adi Nagar, as the name suggests, had been a stronghold of the Adi Hindu movement. These temples were built by members of the new dalit “middle class” as Nandu Ram called it [Ram 1988: 117]. This Ravidas veneration went side by side with the veneration of the ‘devi’. Contrary to kuril’s intentions, Ravidas did not replace mainstream Hinduism, and Ravidas temples were just added to Kali temples.
A striking example of that kind is the temple built in the courtyard of the house of Girdhari Lal in 1961. He was a rich leather merchant, and a close follower and patron of Achutanand. The temple has the form of a triptych and is made out of concrete. In the centre is a Kali statue, to her right a representation of Hanuman and to the left a small cell with the statues of Buddha, Ambedkar and Ravidas. The cell has three walls, a roof and an open front. The left wall bears an image of Buddha, placed midway in an elevated position. At the back wall of the cell
Ambedkar is depicted sitting on a chair. To his left Ravidas sits cross legged on the floor. His right arm is raised and in front of him is a pair of sandals on which he works. He seems to be teaching and working simultaneously. Ambedkar and Ravidas are put centre stage, the modern and the medieval are depicted in their very specific cultural mode. Ravidas succumbs to Ambedkar to the same extent as tradition gives way to modernity. Buddha is present in an elevated position, but on the side.
At the same time, Chandrika Prasad Jigyasu (1885-1974) reworked, systematised and streamlined the Sant dharm theory and popularised it in many publications. He was a close follower of Bodhanand and founded a printing press, the Bahujan Kalyan Prakashan (Publishing House for the Welfare of the Multitude). Its low priced (two anas) booklets had a wide circulation and were eagerly read by the dalits. He reworked the notions and projections of the early dalit movement and linked them up with Ambedkar. He himself had converted to Buddhism through Bodhanand.
In 1956, he published his booklet Sant Pravar Ravidas Saheb (‘The Most Excellent Saint Ravidas’). He praised Ravidas as a role model of a spiritual leader who had risen from among the chamar. Under the impression of Ambedkar’s conversion, he urged the dalits to abandon Hinduism and to embrace Buddhism. He moulded Ravidas’ life after Buddhist legends and traditions. However, he repeated that Buddhism and Jainism sprang from Sant dharm for which “there is absolutely no evidence” [Lochtefeld 2005: 212]. In his biography of Achutanand, written in 1960, he was more cautious and suggested a similarity in principle between Buddha and the Bhakti saints. Buddhism and Bhakti were both preaching human equality, they were adverse to the caste system (‘varna’ and ‘jati’), they did not rely on any book of revelation and they were against violence. Both were spiritual religions and an equation between the ‘sunyavada’ doctrine of Buddhism with the ‘nirguna’ conception of Sant dharm was suggested [Khare 1984: 31]. He held that Buddhism and Bhakti were the ‘sanatana’ religions of the dalits. Therefore, conversion was not necessary. “The preaching of Panchsheel by Lord Buddha (to give up theft, lie, intoxicants, adultery and violence) are the foundations of the Adi Hindu principles and the original human culture of India” [Narayan and Misra 2004:121].
The Ravidas julus in those days was the main religious and social manifestation of dalit unity. Ward committees were formed, which decorated the floats with the statue of Sant Ravidas or produced “living images” [Niehoff 1959: 53]. The Samta Sainik Dal (Fighters for Equality), the youth organisation founded by Ambedkar, marched up. Gates were erected in the name of Ambedkar, Achutanand, Ravidas, Kabir, Balmiki and Supa. This was the creation of a dalit pantheon to abridge caste divisions prevailing between chamars, koris, balmikis, dhanuk and dom. It linked the pan Indian political dalit movement as represented by Ambedkar with Bhakti saints and modern myths of the legendary founders of the sweeper castes [Prashad 2000]. The respective ward committees put up these gates and there were halting points for the procession, which was welcomed by the elders with tobacco, pan and cigarettes.3 The procession started from the Ravidas temple in Harbans ‘mohalla’ and took a six-hour route through the small streets of the interior of town to immerse the statue at Bhagwat Das Ghat with a final meeting in Phulbag.
The Shiv Narayanis responded with a procession on Shiv Narayan’s jayanti, which was shorter. It stopped in 1961 when, due to the Indo-Pakistan war, all processions were forbidden, and it was not resumed afterwards. For an inwardly oriented religiosity without any specific social message, it was difficult to prosper in independent India when issues of political empowerment of dalits were at stake. However, Beni Madhav Sonkar, a khatik primary school teacher, undertook the enormous task to publish the 15 books of Shiv Narayan with a Hindi commentary in the 1960s.
The Kabir Panthis felt the need to withstand in independent India. Most of the erstwhile rich Kabir Panthis, the leather merchants and traders, had folded up their business. Lacking rich patrons, the public recognition of the panth fell. The eminent Kabir mahant Prem Das, Hulasi Das’ son, felt the need to lead the Kabir Panth into the modern world. He initiated three All India Kabir Conferences in 1969, 1971 and 1973 to achieve a unification in ritual and to increase the popularity of the panth Upon his death in 1974, this endeavour stopped. Kanpur’s Kabir
Panthis lost their leading figure, and the panth most of its members.
In 1967, Rajendranath Ahirvar (born in 1929) established the Bharatiya Bauddh Mahasabha (Indian Buddhist Association), which linked the Republican Party politics with Ambedkar’s teachings. Ahirvar was a government employee and a dalit activist. His father had been a close follower of Achutanand and he grew up with the early dalit movement. He became a fervent admirer and follower of Ambedkar. He joined the Republican Party right after its inception and converted to Buddhism in 1961. A brilliant orator, he held regular meetings in different mohallas, usually on Sundays, spreading Buddha’s and Ambedkar’s teachings.
From 1975 till 1985, Ahirvar was the president of the central Ravidas Julus Committee in Kanpur. At that time the route of the procession got enlarged and took a new course. Many dalits had moved to south Kanpur. These were included in the julus and the Idgah colony became an important halting place. For Ahirvar, Bhakti and Buddhism had the same objective, they rejected the caste system, had an egalitarian message and preached truthfulness, honesty, non-violence and vegetarianism. But it became clear to him that Sant dharm only evolved after the Buddhist period. Studying Kabir, he resolved that Kabir had taken Buddha’s teachings through the times of resurrecting Hinduism a theory, which is also suggested by Linda Hess [Omvedt 2003: 213].
In those years, the veneration for Ambedkar became increasingly more important than the veneration for Ravidas. Ambedkar was seen as a saviour, who gave India a democratic and socialist constitution and institutionalised reservations for dalits in education, politics and government service. Although educated
dalits were the first beneficiaries of those reservations, the veneration for Ambedkar was unanimously supported by the dalit working class also. However, politically they complied with the trade unions, which made no mention of caste or Ambedkar.
Public representation of Ambedkar only began with the installation of an Ambedkar statue by Jagjivan Ram in 1973 in Nana Rao Park. From this date onwards, Ambedkar jayanti was celebrated with an ever-increasing splendour there. The statue was erected in Nana Rao Park, an historical and highly symbolic place. Nana Rao was the freedom fighter who led the “first war of Indian independence” in 1857. Only after independence he was rightly recognised as an heroic “freedom fighter” when the Memorial Gardens, which the British had set up to commemorate the victims of the so-called Massacres of Cawnpore, were transformed into a memorial of the freedom struggle. Ambedkar had symbolically moved at the centre stage of India’s heroic freedom fight.

Dalit Acceptance of Buddhism

The 1980s began with a mass conversion drive by the newly established Dalit Panthers. What is noteworthy in this respect is that the option was open for a conversion into Christianity, Islam, Sikhism and Buddhism. It was a radical move, which soon got banned by the police, hence gained even more popularity. Although the press stubbornly referred to them as “Harijans” through this move the self-referential name dalit became popular. The foundation of the Buddhist ‘vihara’ (temple) in Juhi was equally revolutionary. It began with a move of dalit activists to clear a piece of municipal land. They built a wall around and erected a shed with two rooms. One was a shrine with the statue of Buddha, the other a living room. Later, an assembly hall was also added. Besides, the whole construction got legalised and is nowadays run by a trust.
In 1984, the then president of the Bharatiya Buddh Mahasabha (Indian Buddhist Association), Kanpur branch, Durga Prasad, published on the occasion of Ravidas jayanti a little pamphlet under the title: ‘Bauddha dharm se Prerit Sant Ravidas’ (Sant Ravidas was inspired by Buddhism). Although Ravidas was born into a low caste of chamar, he was full of self respect – ‘svabhimani’ – and had no inferiority complex – ‘hin bhavana’. In spite of his social obligations, he criticised the ‘savarna’ for their arrogance, pretensions and haughtiness. …“Sant Ravidas was against the caste system. He neither believed in the vedas nor in gods like Vishnu or Mahesh. He only believed in the absolute ‘brahma’, which he called Ram in his impersonal form, not the son of Dasrath. Ram was unperceivable – ‘alakh’, faultless – ‘niranjan’, without form – ‘nirakar’ and without colour – ‘nirup’.” Ravidas was presented in the nirguna tradition [Callewaert/Friedlander 1992: 83] what the author considered to be akin to Buddhism.
In the mid-1980s, Kanpur’s Buddhists went for Vipassana retreats of 10 days, in Kanpur and in the surrounding cities. Igatpuri, where S N Goenka had opened his Vipassana centre in 1976 [Kantowsky 2003] was too far away and too costly. Besides, in Kanpur a Vipassana centre opened in 1986. Every Saturday morning, Vipassana meditation is offered and 10 to 15 men and women regularly attend. Most of them are dalits, usually educated men beyond 50. Some of them claim to be Buddhists while others deny it. Vipassana religious practice is very much contrary to Ambedkar’s teachings. He clearly refuted the notion that Buddhism has anything to do with samadhi or Vipassana, or esoterism. According to him, Buddha had this worldly understanding of salvation, free of superhuman agency [Ambedkar 1957: 225].
The 1990s were a time of radical social and political change in Kanpur. The mills closed and the working class resorted to vegetable vending and what they labelled “private labour”, meaning employment in the unorganised sector. The Shiv Narayan Panth lost its patrons as well as its followers. The so-called “post Ayodhya riots” of 1992 swept away the last remnants of the Adi Hindu ideology of the so-called peace-loving and non-violent original inhabitants of India. Perpetrator of that three-days nearly unrestrained murder of Muslims was a khatik swine herder and a BJP corporator [Brass 1997: 228]. This was particularly painful because a khatik had called Ambedkar to Kanpur in 1944. Dalit self-perception as well as unity was severely damaged by his incident.
Suddenly, the erstwhile independent and self reliant shoe manufacturers saw themselves as “broken people” – dalits, crushed and denigrated. Globalisation and the booming leather industry in Muslim hands made it obvious that they had missed the train to prosperity long time back. They refused to qualify in their traditional craft and rather moved into white collar jobs. Therefore, the qualified positions in leather industry, be it as technicians, supervisors, chemists and sales managers got filled by savarna for whom leather was no longer polluting. Besides, it became increasingly more difficult to get into white collar jobs even through reservation, as there were less openings, more competition and more corruption. They had to fall back on their traditional occupation as cobblers, edging out a precarious living, producing sandals for the Indian market.
According to the Census of 1991, Kanpur had 1,253 Buddhists. But there are many more who follow Ambedkar’s Navayana Buddhism. They belong mainly to Kanpur’s new dalit middle class who are bank employees, lecturers, employees in the telephone exchange, teachers and clerks with the municipal corporation
and doctors. Besides, quite a number of dalit IAS and IPS officers have also become fervent Navayana Buddhists, supporting the Navayana Buddhism with their donation and even establishing Buddhist centres themselves. The traditional elites – the sons of the elders, who were close followers of Achutanand – have also changed to Navayana Buddhism.
They hold that Navayana Buddhism has a rational and scientific approach to religion. The core teachings are the rejection of superstition, the rationality of insights and the internalisation of beliefs. The most frequently quoted line from Ambedkar is “In his (Buddhas) opinion, nothing was infallible and nothing could be final. Everything must be open to re-examination and reconsideration whenever grounds for re-examination and reconsideration arise” [Ambedkar op cit: 89). Believe only in those doctrines, which you have scrutinised and of which you are totally convinced. The followers of Navayana Buddhism have refuted Hinduism and the caste system, the concepts of karma – fate – and rebirth with the same zeal as Ambedkar. They are aware of the danger of appropriation through Hinduism. The political discourse instigated by the Sangh parivar – the Hindu fundamentalists – centred around the question of whether Buddhism is a part of Hinduism or not. They have vehemently rejected those insinuations. Any efforts to appropriate Navayana Buddhism stir up highly emotional discussions. Conversion to Buddhism means the total rejection of Hinduism and the caste system. Buddhists, they assert, have lost their caste-specific identity. Buddhists marry other Buddhists as well as other “Hindu” dalits. Buddhists are neither constituting a caste nor a sect, but are still open to both sides. As much as they refuted any effort of appropriation from the side of the savarna, they likewise treated with compassion their own less enlightened dalit brethren who followed a different religious path.

In the 1990s, small Buddha statues were erected in dalit mohallas. The popularisation of a dalit iconography began with Kanshi Ram (1934-2006), the founder of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in 1984 [Pai 2002: 93]. He popularised the heroes and social reformers of different dalit castes. Later on, when BSP came to power and Mayawati, a close associate of Kanshi Ram, became the first dalit woman chief minister of Uttar Pradesh in 1995, 1997 and 2002-03, she created Ambedkar villages, Buddha Parks and Ravidas ghats – (embankments), etc. The symbols and heroes of the dalit movement were put up at prominent crossroads. Dalitness had moved
out of the segregated ward into the open society at large.
The Ravidas julus was still a major annual festival and had a political and social message. In 2000 floats with living images showed the atrocities inflicted on dalits like rape and murder. The everyday impediments and obstacles, which burdened dalits’s lives like corruption, nepotism and the increasing rejection of applications for reserved positions in government positions were shown and enacted. A banner showed Guru Nanak, Ravidas, Ambedkar and Buddha side by side who were akin in the rejection of the caste system, notion in the equality and their teaching of love and compassion especially for the dalits.
The social message of Navayana Buddhism was fully implemented with a new institutionalisation, ritual and public representations. The vihara at Juhi with Bhadant Dipankar had become a community centre with regular prayer meetings, a governing body of lay persons who function as patrons and who donate liberally to the Buddhist course. The religion was merged with the political and social aspects. Mass conversions in 1995 and 2001 served political ends and were a clear signal against Hindu appropriation and a claim for justice, equality and brotherhood. Mass Buddhist weddings with usually 11 couples were meant for the poor and less enlightened. Rich patrons sponsored the household goods. Communal meals on each function fed the hungry.
Private and public Buddhist rituals streamline life and the yearly cycle. Of those the Ambedkar jayanti, the birthday celebration on April 14, the Buddh jayanti, end of April, the Diksha Divas (conversion day on October 14) and Paranirvan Divas (Ambedkar’s death anniversary on December 6) are the most important. The most spectacular is the Ambedkar jayanti with the central celebration in Nana Rao Park under the Ambedkar statue. It has become the most important “public arena activity” with a julus through the whole of Kanpur [Jaoul 2006: 182]. It is a blend of mela (fair), ‘satsangh’ (congregational meeting of believers) – and ‘langan’ communal meal).
In 1999, the Ambedkar jayanti began early in the morning with a prayer meeting at the Ambedkar statue. Monks and laymen alike chanted the prayers in Pali. Women were dressed in white saris to show their Buddhist laywomen status. After the chanting, Ambedkar’s statue was garlanded. Spectacular processions were
carried out through the whole city of Kanpur linking different dalit mohallas with the festivity in Nana Rao Park. The park was full of booths of different jatis, organisations and political parties. At mid-day there was a communal meal, meant to feed at least 10,000 people. The afternoon was meant for family recreation
and for festivity. And it went on till late at night.

Bhakti had its very distinct theology, social practice and membership among Kanpur’s dalits. Two different Bhakti sects, the Kabir panthis and the Shiv Narayanis established themselves around 1870. When Ravidas became popular through Swami Achutanand and Ram Charan Kuril, it was primarily as a “public arena activity”, which was also an expression of social protest and the beginning of dalit assertion. Although Ram Charan Kuril formulated a Ravidas religion, which was meant to replace Hinduism, it was not successful. Initially in the religious garb, the Ravidas Julus established a common identity among all dalit castes. From the 1950s onwards it broadened its pantheon and included many more cultural and political heroes of dalit castes. From the 1980s onwards, the Ravidas julus changed its course and floats from south Kanpur have been taking part. The representations of the floats got increasingly politicised and expressed the grievances and aspirations of
the dalits.
Kabir panthis and Shiv Narayanis had their specific theology, which was inwardly oriented and could not be transformed into a public arena activity. Their message remained confined to the religious realm. When the veneration for Ravidas became increasingly politicised, the teachings of Kabir and Shiv Narayan receded into the background. Besides, when the leather trade folded up and the mills closed, the Kabir panthis and the Shiv Narayanis lost their patrons as well as their members.
The notion that Sant dharm was the original religion of the Adi Hindus was formulated by Achutanand, systematised by Medharthi and popularised in the 1960s by Jigyasu. It had such a strong impact on Kanpur’s dalits that especially in those years after Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism the veneration for Ravidas flourished. “Why convert to Buddhism when Buddhism is an offshoot of Sant dharm?” was the underlying rationale. The Sant dharm ideological construction hampered the introduction of Buddhism. Contrary to Ambedkar’s conceptualisation of Buddhism as a total rejection of Hinduism, Kanpur’s dalits just added Buddhism to the prevalent veneration for Ravidas and the devi. Hinduism was not abjured, but amalgamated with Ravidas and what they thought to be Ambedkar’s Buddhism.
It took a long time until Navayana Buddhism got firmly established in Kanpur. This was only possible after time frames and teachings of Ravidas got revised. Eventually, Ravidas was considered to have transported Buddhist thoughts through the times of resurrecting Hinduism. Ravidas dharm, or the remnants of it, became reformulated and Ravidas was seen as a Bhakti saint, who had been inspired by Buddhism. This is also what today other dalit authors like Kanval Bharati and Mahesh Dahiwahe hold [Zelliot Mokashi-Punekar 2005: 255]. Although Buddhist public arena activities have become institutionalised, the Ravidasjulu s is still an annual event, uniting all dalits, especially those who are economically not so successful.
Only in the 1980s Navayana Buddhism became institutionalised with a Buddh vihara, specific public and private rituals and public arena activities. Finally, Navayana Buddhism was seen as a social protest and as the only alternative to subjugating and enslaving Hinduism. Kanpur’s practising dalit Buddhists on the other hand feel a need for meditation. Their Vipassana meditation, which Ambedkar rejected as esoteric and unnecessary religious practice, is for them an interior purification. They do it “to clean their mind” as they call it in the understanding of a famous line of Ravidas: ‘Man changa katauti men Ganga’ (“When your heart is clean, then god will come to you”). It is not any longer samadhi – (deliverance), the mystical union of ‘atma’ and ‘brahma’ as in Sant tradition. It is a method to set the mind at peace. This enables them to act in the world with compassion, detachment, righteousness and truthfulness.


1 Winand Caellewart and Peter Friedlander are cautious in this respect. They hold that Ravidas “initiated a high caste woman devotee from Chittorgarh” (1992: 78) and leave it open whether this was Mirabai or Queen Jhali. I am following the narrative of Kanpur’s chamars who hold that Mirabai was the disciple of Sant Ravidas [Bellwinkel 1980: 209].
2 See dalit conference@googlegroups.com Sent: Tuesday, July 18, 2006 7:58 P M Subject:: Ravidassia Identity – Let’s discuss and nail it down.
3 The description is taken from a short article ‘Tribute at Your Noble Feet’, which described the Ravidas julus in 1956.


Ambedkar, Bhimrao (1957): ‘The Buddha and His Dhamma’ in (ed), Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches, Vol 11, Education
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Courtesy: Economic and Political Weekly June 9, 2007 2177