Mathura, 2016.08.01 (VT): Mathura was a thriving Buddhist center for more than 500 years two millennia ago, but Buddhism had almost completely disappeared from the Indian subcontinent until fairly recently.
Due to the efforts of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the champion of India’s excluded masses, who we now refer to as Dalits (“the downtrodden”), large numbers of people have turned to Buddhism since the first mass conversion in Nagpur in 1956.
The friction between “untouchables” and caste Hindus has an ongoing political dimension, particularly in Uttar Pradesh where the Bahujana Samaj Party (BSP) is unabashedly advocating for the uplift of the Dalits.
Former Chief Minister Sushri Mayawati (2007-2012) not only channeled an increased amount of state funds to improve the lot of these downtrodden classes, who form almost 50% of the state’s population, but also aimed at following in Ambedkar’s footsteps by promoting Buddhism.
The last few weeks have seen an increase in tensions between caste Hindus and the Dalits. As caste Hindus ramp up anxieties about cow slaughter, the Dalits, many of whom are engaged in leather work and dealing with dead animals, have become the object of attacks under suspicion of willfully killing the sacred animal. They have taken protest action in some parts of the country by refusing to remove the carcasses of dead animals.
In the face of upcoming elections in Uttar Pradesh, the Bhartiya Janata Party had the idea of bringing a group of Buddhist monks to promote a favorable relationship between the two religions and thereby to defuse the tensions that have been rising. A cavalcade of a dozen vehicles carrying twenty or more Buddhist monks called the Dhamma Chetana Yatra (“Buddhism awareness tour”) has been crossing the state. The last three days it was in Mathura before continuing on to Agra, where a 50,000 person grand assembly was to take place.
Needless to say, in most places, the Buddhist monks were greeted with protests from the Dalits, whose anger has been inflamed not only by the Hindu cow protection vigilante violence but by recent insults made by a BJP leader of Mayawati, referring to her as worse than a prostitute.
On their arrival in Mathura, the monks crossed the Yamuna to the Ambedkar Park and garlanded the statue of the Dalit hero. Holding black flags, Dalit protesters accused the Buddhist monks of serving an anti-Buddhist agenda.
Led by monks of the All India Bhikshu Sangh, the six-month-long yatra left Sarnath (the deer park where Gautama Buddha first taught the Dharma, and where the Buddhist Sangha came into existence) near Varanasi on Ambedkar’s 125th birthday on April 14 and is to conclude with a mass rally inn Lucknow on Oct. 14, to be attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself. The intention is to visit all 403 constituencies of Uttar Pradesh, spreading the message of Buddha and Ambedkar among Dalits.
Leader of the Buddhist monks is Bhadanta Dhamma Viriyo Mahathera, an 87-year-old who holds the distinction of having initiated Kashiram, the founder of the BSP, into Buddhism. But he now says that Modi a “good man” in whose hands the future of Dalits is secure and criticized BSP leader, Mayawati, for not doing enough for the community.
He further said that the Buddha came into the world to establish harmony and friendly relations between all human beings, not to create conflict and tension.
There has been much push back from both activists from the BSP and other Buddhists in India, who have cast aspersions on Mahathera’s reputation and motivations.
The yatra also briefly passed through Vrindavan.
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