Buddhists in South Asia

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Buddhists in South Asia

LOCATION: Sri Lanka; India; Nepal; Bhutan; Myanmar; all other countries of South Asia; East Asia
POPULATION: 30 million
LANGUAGE: Language of community or region in which they reside
RELIGION: Various sects include Theravāda (Hīnayāna), Mahāyāna, Tantric; also Tibetan Buddhism (Lāmāism)
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 4: People of India


Buddhists are believers in the teachings of Gautama Buddha, who was born in the 6th century BC in what is now Nepal. Although his views represented a system of morality or ethics more than a religion, the Buddha founded what was to become one of the world's great religions. Today, there are an estimated 325 million Buddhists in the world. Buddhism is the dominant religion in the countries of mainland Southeast Asia and has a strong presence in East Asia. In South Asia, however, although it is of considerable historical importance, Buddhism has relatively few followers.

The birthplace of Buddhism lies on the Ganges plains in the modern Indian state of Bihar and adjacent areas of Nepal. This is where Buddha lived and died, leaving behind the Sangha ("Order") to continue his work. Buddhism remained a minor sect until the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka was converted in the 3rd century BC. This marked the beginnings of Buddhism as a world religion. Ashoka sent missionaries to the island of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and converted the entire island to Buddhism. The southern form of Buddhism (Theravada or Hinayana) eventually spread from Ceylon to mainland Southeast Asia and Indonesia. Buddhism also spread northward into Central Asia and from there to China and Japan.

By AD 700, Buddhism had entered a period of decline in much of India, mostly as a result of the revival of Hinduism. The arrival of the Muslims after the 12th century was the death knell for Buddhism in India. Monasteries were destroyed, Buddhist monks were slaughtered, and the survivors fled to safety outside the country. It is one of the great ironies of South Asian history that Buddhism is virtually absent from the land of its birth.

Buddhism in India saw a revival in the late 19th century, with an increased interest in the religion on the part of both Western and Indian scholarship. Buddhists from outside India have campaigned to restore Buddhist sites in India, and post-1947 Indian governments have participated in efforts to preserve that part of the country's cultural heritage. The conversion to Buddhism of "untouchables" seeking to escape the inequalities of the Hindu caste system has swelled the ranks of Buddhists in India in recent years.


Buddhists in South Asia number approximately 30 million people. They are present in all countries in the region, although their greatest concentration is in Sri Lanka. Buddhism is the religion of the Sinhalese people and accounts for 69% (c.14 million people) of the island nation's population. They are distributed throughout the country except in the north, where Hindu Tamils are in the majority.

There are some 11 and a half million Buddhists in India, amounting to a mere 1.1% of the population (Census of India, 2001). Found mainly in central India, many are recent converts to the religion and have been named "neo-Buddhists." Buddhists are also present in the northern mountains that fringe the Indian subcontinent. These are mostly followers of the Tibetan form of the religion, which is also known as Lamaism. Nearly 10% (about 4 million people) of Nepal's population are Buddhists, living mainly in the Kathmandu Valley and the northern mountain areas. Some 75% of the mountain kingdom of Bhutan's over 800,000 people are Buddhists. Buddhists are found in the Indian state of Sikkim and among the Bhutia population of eastern Kashmir. Small Buddhist communities are also found in Bangladesh and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.


There is no language specifically identified with Buddhists. Buddha himself used the language of the common people, and the sacred literature of southern Buddhism is written in Pali, a literary language closely related to the language of Buddha's homeland. The scriptures of Mahayana Buddhism, however, use Sanskrit, the classical language of northern India.

Buddhists today use the language of their community or region. Sri Lankan Buddhists speak Sinhala, the language of the Sinhalese people. This is an Aryan language of the Indo-European language family and is closely related to the languages of northern India. Buddhists in Maharashtra speak various Marathi dialects. In the northern mountain belt, however, Buddhists speak languages of the Tibeto-Burmese branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family. They include Lepcha and dialects of Bhutia such as Dukpa in the eastern Himalayas and Ladakhi in Kashmir.


Numerous legends are told about the birth and life of Buddha. Before his birth, Buddha's mother Maya dreamed that four kings raised her to the Himalayas where their wives bathed her and dressed her in heavenly robes. Buddha appeared in the form of a white elephant carrying a silver lotus in his trunk. He circled the queen's bed three times, struck her right side, and entered her womb. Tradition has it that at the birth of the Buddha, the udambara tree (Ficus glomerata), which is said to blossom only when a Buddha is born, burst into flower.

Another story tells how the Buddha came to renounce his normal life and begin his search for the truth. Born into a noble family, the Buddha was kept protected from the outside world. However, one day while driving in his chariot, the young prince saw an old man bent with age stumbling down the road. He was struck with sorrow that all things must grow old. At another time, he saw a sick man and felt sad at the thought of the suffering brought on by disease. On a third occasion, he saw a corpse. On a fourth journey, Buddha saw an ascetic, totally at peace with himself, setting out with a begging bowl in search for wisdom. After pondering these signs, the prince left his family, newborn son, home, and possessions to pursue his search for enlightenment.

Over the centuries, the relatively simple mythology surrounding the life of Buddha became much more complex. Buddha came to be seen as the seventh in a series of Buddhas, and a popular mythology soon developed around his previous lives. These stories were later gathered in the Jātakas, a collection of 550 tales, riddles, and legends about his acts and teachings in past incarnations. In each tale, Buddha appears as a king, or a peasant, an animal, a bird; each story has a moral that elaborates on some Buddhist virtue. Westerners may be indirectly familiar with these stories through Aesop's Fables, which appear to incorporate some of the Buddhist tales.


Buddha was born Siddhartha, son of a king and member of the Gautama clan of the Sakya tribe, around 563 BC. His birth place was Lumbini, close to Nepal's border with India. The young prince led a pampered and secluded life, but in his 29th year he left his home to seek enlightenment. He became the student of a number of renowned teachers before rejecting asceticism as the path to salvation. He ultimately found Enlightenment (Bodhi) under a pipal tree (Ficus religiosa) at Bodh Gaya at the age of 35. From that time, he was honored as the "Buddha" (the Enlightened One). He preached his first sermon in the Deer Park at Sarnath, near Varanasi (Banaras). Buddha died at Kusinagar in Bihar at the age of 80.

There is little evidence to suggest Buddha set out to reform Hinduism, but many of his teachings were in direct contrast to the practices and customs of the Hindus. He rejected the authority of the Vedas (the sacred books of the Hindus), the superiority of the Brahmans, and the whole idea of the caste system. He was strongly opposed to ritual, the worship of idols, and particularly the sacrifice of animals. Nonetheless, Buddha's teachings embraced many of the philosophical concepts current in the religions of the time. Although they may be interpreted differently, concepts such as dharma, samsārara, karma, and ahimsā are common to Hinduism and Jainism as well as to Buddhism. In Buddhism, dharma has come to mean the Law, i.e., the teachings of Buddha. Samsara is the cycle of birth–death–rebirth in which we are all caught. Karma relates to the effect of good or bad deeds in life determining the nature of one's rebirths. Ahimsa is the doctrine of noninjury to living things that underlies much of Buddhist behavior.

Buddha taught that people are bound to the Wheel of Existence, an endless cycle of rebirths full of suffering and misery. The only way to obtain total release (nirvāna) from this cycle of existence is through the teachings of Buddha. In order to fully appreciate these teachings, certain basic truths have to be understood. These are the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism: 1) life is full of suffering; 2) the cause of suffering, which leads to endless rebirths, is desire; 3) release from suffering can only be achieved by abandoning desire; and 4) the way to stop suffering includes right views and right conduct—honesty, noninjury to living creatures (ahimsa), and forgiveness of enemies. A set of rules known as the Eightfold Path guides the pilgrim on the road to Nirvana, which is the ultimate goal of the Buddhist.

At his death, Buddha left behind the Sangha, the community of monks (bhikku or bhikshu), nuns, and laity who had accepted his teachings. The Order grew rapidly in numbers, but Buddhism remained a minor religion until the conversion of Ashoka, the third Mauryan Emperor, around 260 BC. Under his patronage, Buddhism spread throughout the Mauryan Empire, which included nearly the entire Indian subcontinent. Ashoka's newfound beliefs can be seen in the inscriptions he had carved on rocks and pillars throughout his empire. These Edicts of Ashoka were in effect statements of public policy. Their pronouncements included strong support for ahimsa and banned animal sacrifice, regulated the slaughter of animals for food, and even encouraged the creation of hospitals for animals. Ashoka was also responsible for sending Buddhist missionaries to Egypt, Greece, Syria, Malaya, and other countries outside of India. His own son and daughter went to Ceylon, where they converted the island's ruler to the Buddhist faith.

Following Buddha's death, Buddhism soon splintered into numerous sects. A major division is that between Theravada and Mahāyāna Buddhism. Theravada Buddhism, defined by the Thera (Elders) at the First Buddhist Council held c. 483 BC, remains true to the original teachings of Buddha. According to its teachings, there is no God, Buddha was an ordinary mortal who should be revered but not worshipped, and everyone is responsible for working out his or her own salvation. This form of Buddhism, sometimes called "southern" Buddhism, was introduced into Ceylon, and from there spread into Southeast Asia. It is also called Hīnayāna Buddhism, the "Lesser Vehicle." Mahayana Buddhism, on the other hand, is derived from a sect that broke away from orthodox Buddhism at the beginning of the 4th century BC. Mahayana, literally the "Greater Vehicle" because it holds that salvation is open to greater numbers, made Buddha divine, surrounded him with angels and spiritual beings, and developed elaborate rituals for worship. Mahayana Buddhism also contains the central concept of the bodhisattva, the "Savior Buddha," who appears on earth at intervals to guide people on the path to salvation. It was Mahayana Buddhism that was carried northwards over the mountains and along the trade routes of Central Asia to China and Japan.

Two other forms of Buddhism have a presence in South Asia. Tantrism is of unknown origins, but it came to influence certain Buddhist (and Hindu) sects, especially in the east of the region. Tantrism is generally associated with occultism, black magic, and perverse sexuality. Tantric Buddhism gives tantric interpretations to Mahayana concepts. Thus "Buddhas" are demoniacal figures, each with their consorts, and forever involved in acts of sexual debauchery with female beings. Elements of Tantric Buddhism have been absorbed into the religion as practiced by the Buddhist peoples of the eastern hills of the Indian subcontinent.

It was a Tantric master that gave form to Buddhism in Tibet, the country located immediately to the north of India and Nepal. Buddhism had reached Tibet in the mid-7th century AD, most likely from Central Asia and China. Towards the end of the 8th century, however, a celebrated Indian Tantric monk was invited to Tibet. He was reputed to have miraculous powers and is credited with subduing the demons and spirits associated with Bon, the indigenous religion of the area. Despite the existing influence of Chinese Buddhism, a council decided that the Indian form of Buddhism should prevail. Tibetan Buddhism represents an intermingling of the sexual-magical Tantric Buddhist cult with Tibetan shamanism. Abandoning the traditional nonviolence of the Buddha, it holds that evil gods and spirits are to be overcome by the superior force of benign powers. The most important rituals are religious dances in which the performers, wearing fearsome and grotesque masks, impersonate the gods and demons. The masks of the gods are intended to strike fear into the hearts of the evil spirits. These so-called "devil dances" form part of all festivals of the Tibetan Buddhists. Tibetan Buddhism is also called Lamaism because of the important of the lāmās or spiritual leaders in the religion. It is the form of Buddhism prevalent among groups such as the Lepchas, Bhutia, Sherpas, Tamangs, and other peoples of the Himalayan region.

Although Buddhism spread around the world from its place of origin in South Asia, it did not fare so well in its homeland. At times, under imperial patronage, Buddhism flourished throughout the subcontinent. But by the beginning of the 8th century, Buddhism in India was coming under increasing pressure from a revitalized Hinduism. Although it survived and flourished in northeastern India under the Pala kings, the death-blow came with the Islamic conquest of India following the 12th century. Muslims killed Buddhist monks, burnt their books, and destroyed their monasteries and centers of learning. Although Buddhism survived in Ceylon and in the mountain periphery, it was virtually annihilated in the heartland of the Indian subcontinent.

It is unlikely that Buddhism will ever again achieve its position of former prominence in India. However, two separate events have stimulated the expansion of Buddhism in the country since the mid-20th century. Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, author of the Indian Constitution and himself a member of an untouchable Hindu caste, announced his conversion to Buddhism in 1956. He recommended this as a means for the entire community of "untouchables" in India to escape the social and economic inferiority imposed on the lower castes by the Hindu caste system. Mass conversions occurred largely among two low-caste groups, the Mahars of eastern Maharashtra, and the Jadavs of Uttar Pradesh.

The second event that contributed to the modern Buddhist revival in India occurred in Tibet. From the mid-17th century, Tibet had been a theocracy, that is, its political ruler was also its religious leader. This figure was the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan Buddhists. For centuries, Tibet was in effect an independent country. In 1950, however, China invaded Tibet in support of its historical claim to the region. Resentment at Chinese attempts to undermine Buddhism led to an unsuccessful uprising by the Tibetan people. This was suppressed with considerable brutality by the Chinese Army, and in 1959 the Dalai Lama and some 100,000 of his followers fled to India. The Dalai Lama remains in exile in India. His presence, along with the Tibetans who have settled at Dharmsala, Kalimpong, Delhi, and other locations, has given added impetus to Buddhism in northern India.

The "Tibetan" issue has continued to fester since 1959. In 1995, for instance, the Dalai Lama in exile in India, with the help of Chatrel Rimpoche, the abbot of Tashilhumpo monastery (Xigaze, Tibet), named Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, aged six, as the new Panchen Lama. The Panchen Lama is the second highest ranking Lama after the Dalai Lama in the Gelugpa sect (also known as the Yellow Hat sect) of Tibetan Buddhism (the sect that controlled Tibet from the 16th century until the Seventeen Point Agreement established Chinese hegemony over Tibet in 1951). The successive Panchen Lamas form a tulku (reincarnation lineage) and are said to be incarnations of Amitabha Buddha. The name, Panchen Lama, meaning "great scholar," is a Tibetan contraction of the Sanskrit pandita (scholar) and the Tibetan chenpo (great). In November of the same year, the Religious Affairs Office of China, in a bid to weaken the authority of the Dalai Lama, chose another six-year-old boy, Gyaincain Norbu, citing special ritual reasons. After this recognition, the little Gedhun Choekyi Nyima was apparently kidnapped by police and disappeared and has not been seen since. The Chinese authorities say "he is well, living with his family and does not want to be disturbed." In March 2008, prior to the Olympic Games in Beijing, and coinciding with the 49th anniversary of the 1959 uprising in Tibet against China, violence erupted again in Tibet. Activists claimed over 100 protestors, mainly Buddhist monks, were killed and 1,000 arrested by the Chinese authorities. They sought to use the occasion of the Olympics to protest China's "occupation" of Tibet. Protests and violence marred the carrying of the Olympic torch through the streets of London, Paris, and San Francisco, as supporters of Tibet rioted, and calls were made for world political leaders to boycott the Opening Ceremonies of the Games in Beijing in August 2008. In April 2008, however, the Dalai Lama announced his envoys would be willing to meet with the Chinese authorities to discuss Chinese-Tibetan relations and the meetings commenced at the beginning of May. Popular forms of worship reflect differing Buddhist traditions as well as regional cultures, but there are two practices common to Buddhism wherever it is found. The first is veneration of the Buddha, or Buddha-like figures such as the bodhisattvas. The second is the support of monks by the lay Buddhist community. Other than this, Buddhists in different areas of South Asia have their own forms of religious practice. Tibetan Buddhism, with its distinctive monasteries, use of prayer wheels and prayer flags, mantras, and colorful festivals has quite a different feel from the more austere Theravada Buddhism of Sri Lanka, and both differ from the Buddhism of the hill tribes of eastern India or the neo-Buddhists of central India.

If religious customs vary among lay Buddhists in South Asia, the life of the monk is much more structured. The rules and responsibilities of life in the monastery are clearly defined. Initiation ceremonies for novices, the rites for ordination of monks, the custom of retreat during the rainy season, and other monastic practices are all set down in the Buddhist texts.

Pilgrimage is an important part of Buddhist religious life in South Asia. A pilgrimage may be undertaken for any number of reasons ranging from a desire for spiritual fulfillment to redeeming a pledge made at a time of sickness or misfortune. Lumbini, Bodh Gaya, the Deer Park at Sarnath, and Kusinagar—the places where the four great events in the Buddha's life occurred—are the most sacred pilgrimage centers. Buddhists from around the world make the journey to visit these sites. Many Buddhist groups from outside South Asia have built temples and established educational centers at these locations. There are many Buddhist holy places in Sri Lanka, the most important being Kandy, where the Tooth Relic of the Buddha is kept, and Anuradhapura, where an offshoot of the original bo tree under which Buddha found Enlightenment still grows.


For Buddhists, Buddha Purnima (the full moon day that falls in the month of Vaisakha [May]) is a thrice sacred day. It is celebrated as the anniversary of Gautama Buddha's birth; it is on this day that Buddha received Enlightenment under the pipal tree at Bodh Gaya; and it is also the day on which Buddha attained Nirvana. The festival is described by the Chinese traveler Fa-hsien, who visited India in the 5th century AD, and it has changed little from ancient times. It is marked by continuous recitation from the Buddhist scriptures and the worship of the statue of Buddha, with offerings of incense, candles, flowers, and fruits. Fruits and clothes are distributed to the sick. The Bodhi tree, the tree under which Buddha attained Enlightenment, is also worshipped and its branches decorated with garlands and colored flags. Oil lamps are placed around the tree, and milk and scented water are sprinkled on its roots. Large numbers of pilgrims gather at the four sites where the great events of Buddha's life occurred to participate in the celebrations.

Other festivals commemorate Buddha's sermon in the Deer Park (Wheel of Law Day), the end of the Bhikshu Vassa (the three-month period during the rainy season when monks are confined to their monasteries), and Magha Purnima, the full moon day in February when Buddha announced the time of his impending death. Madhu Purnima is observed by offering honey (madhu) to Buddha and to monks in the monasteries. This celebrates the occasion when, according to the Buddhist scriptures, Buddha was presented with honey by a monkey while staying in a forest.

Every June a major festival is held at Hemis Gompa (monastery) near Leh, the capital of Ladakh in India, to honor the birthday of the monk who founded Lamaism in the 8th century AD.


Buddhists follow the practices of local cultures in their birth rituals. It is customary among some Buddhist groups for boys to enter a monastery for a short time on reaching puberty. They shave their heads, don the saffron robes, and lead the life of a novice before returning to normal life.

Buddhists in South Asia follow the basic customs of the region in their death rites, with bodies being cremated on a funeral pyre. The Buddhist scriptures tell how the Buddha's ashes were dispersed and entombed in stűpas across the land. In the northern mountains, however, where wood is scarce, it is the custom to expose bodies to be consumed by vultures and wild animals. Important figures in Lamaistic Buddhism, such as the Dalai and Panchen Lamas, are entombed in stupas in attitudes of meditation. In Tibetan monasteries, a sacred text known as The Tibetan Book of the Dead is sometimes read to dying monks. It is believed that the last thoughts in one's mind before death are of significance.


Buddhists follow local forms of greetings and visiting customs.


The living conditions of lay Buddhists reflect those of the culture and society to which they belong. Monks and nuns reside in monastic communities known as vihāras in India or gompas in Tibetan Buddhism.


Buddhist society reflects the kin system, family structure, and marriage customs of specific ethnic communities or of the dominant regional culture.


Buddhist monks and nuns shave their heads and dress in simple saffron (yellow) robes when they join the monastic order. Tibetan Buddhist monks wear a coarse red outer robe, and on ceremonial occasions they wear elaborate headdresses. In lay society, Buddhists adopt local forms of dress.


Food habits of Buddhists in South Asia reflect regional dietary patterns, subject to the specific restrictions imposed by their religion. However, Buddhist dietary laws and practices lack unity and show considerable variation from place to place. Many Buddhists are strict vegetarians out of respect for the ahimsa principle and reluctance to take animal life. But even Buddha himself taught that fish and meat could be eaten if the animal were not killed specifically for one's consumption (Buddha is thought to have died after eating tainted pork). Thus in Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese Buddhists object to the slaughter of animals or the raising of livestock for food, yet many eat beef. By contrast, tribes in the eastern hills of India, though nominally Buddhist, make offerings of chickens, goats, and even pigs to deities and local spirits and eat the flesh of the sacrificed animals. Similarly, Buddhists in the western Himalayas avoid fish and even view fishing as sinful, while Buddhists elsewhere have no prejudices against eating fish.


Education is important in Buddhism, and monasteries have always been centers of learning and religious education. In lay society, Buddhists mirror the educational standards of their specific communities. Thus, literacy rates vary from among the highest in South Asia (over 90% in Sri Lanka) to the lowest (15%) among the Chakmas of Bangladesh and other hill tribes of eastern India.


Buddhists have a rich heritage of literature and art in South Asia. The Pali canon, the sacred literature of Theravada Buddhism, was set down between 350–90 BC. In addition to discussions of philosophy, it covers subjects ranging from the rules of monastic discipline to the ethical teachings of the Jataka stories. The best known of this collection of texts is the Dhammapada, the "Law-Path." The Dîpavamsa and the Mahāvamsa are later Pali works chronicling the history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Mahayana scriptures are presented as a series of dialogues and sermons (sűtras) delivered by Buddha himself. There are many hundred su¯ tras, most originally written in Sanskrit and translated into Tibetan, Chinese, and other Asian languages.

Buddhist architecture flourished centuries before the oldest known Hindu temples were built. The first Buddhist monuments were stupas–massive, hemispherical funeral mounds built to hold the relics of the Buddha. Stupas, though of a later date, are found today at Sarnath, Sanchi, and other Buddhist sites. The Buddhist sculptures at Bharhut, Sanchi, and Bodh Gaya (all dated c.185–80 BC) are among the earliest in South Asian art. Buddhist frescoes at the Ajanta caves, along with the rock art at Sigiriya in Sri Lanka, are regarded as outstanding examples of early South Asian painting. The unique sculptures of Gandharan art represent a blending of Western influences with Buddhist traditions. In Sri Lanka, a Buddhist heritage extending unbroken for over two millennia is seen in the island's numerous monasteries, temples, and sculptures. The huge statue of the reclining Buddha (14 m or 46 ft long) at Polonnaruwa is one of the highest achievements of Sri Lankan art.

Buddhism has influenced many other aspects of life in the region. Buddhists kept the first systematic historical records in India. Three of India's greatest rulers (Ashoka, Kanishka, and Harsha) were Buddhist, and many early political and administrative systems have their origins in Buddhist democratic assemblies. The Buddhist universities at Nalanda and Taxila were ancient centers of learning in India. Buddhism has also had a profound influence on Hinduism, which adopted Buddhist practices in a struggle for the allegiance of the common people. Concepts such as nonviolence (ahimsa) and prohibitions against meat-eating and drinking liquor are Buddhist rather than Hindu in origin. Although Buddhism is virtually absent from South Asia today, South Asian civilization cannot be fully understood without an appreciation of the contributions of Buddhism and the Buddhists.


Belief in ahimsa, though not carried to the same extreme as in Jainism, prohibits Buddhists from occupations related to the killing of animals for food. Thus Buddhists do not become butchers, and some even object to the raising of livestock for slaughter. Beyond this, and some restrictions relating to anti-fishing sentiments among some groups, Buddhist laity are free to engage in the full range of activities offered by the economies of South Asia.


There are no sports unique to Buddhists.


There are no forms of entertainment or recreation associated specifically with the Buddhist community.


While there are no folk arts that can be termed "Buddhist," there are Buddhist (and non-Buddhist) artisans who produce items having religious symbolism for sale. These include the thankas (painted scrolls) and prayer wheels of Tibetan Buddhism, masks used for "devil-dancing," and metal and stone statues of the Buddha.


Given the nature of Buddhism in South Asia today, it makes more sense to talk about individual Buddhist communities rather than Buddhists in general. Each community exists in its own cultural setting and each has its own set of problems. For the most part, these are political and social in nature rather than stemming directly from religion. In Sri Lanka, for example, Buddhism is symbolic of the island's Sinhalese majority. It is fear and resentment of the cultural dominance of this group that has led to the Hindu Tamil uprising in the north of the island. The problems of the Chakmas of eastern Bangladesh exist not because they are Buddhists, but largely because they are a non-Muslim tribal minority that is fighting to retain its identity and some of its traditional freedoms. The Tibetan refugees in northern India fled what was a concerted attempt on the part of the Chinese to stamp out the authority of Buddhism in Tibet. Although accepted by India, they remain exiles in a foreign land.

Dr. Ambedkar, a member of the Mahar community (a Hindu Untouchable group), converted to Buddhism in 1946 and gave rise to what have been called "neo-Buddhists" i.e. low caste Hindus who converted to Buddhism to escape the strictures of the Hindu caste system. On the occasion of his conversion, Ambedkar repeated what he had been saying for years: that only conversion could really change the social status of the lowest castes. However, unlike many of his followers, Ambedkar did not convert to Buddhism merely because he found it socially useful. He had studied Buddhism and did believe that it was the most rational and humane religious tradition, the best for all human beings, untouchables and touchables alike. He consequently rejected "opportunistic" conversions to Islam and Christianity, not merely because he considered these religions a threat to India (on this point, he is supported by the Hindutva spokesmen), but because he considered these religions inferior to the humanism and rationalism of Buddhism. An additional reason for his choice of Buddhism was his highly unlikely belief that Buddhism, an elite religion thriving on patronage, had been the original religion of the Dalits. In Ambedkar's view, the Dalits should not seek a new religion but return to their original religion.

Today, there are about 10 million neo-Buddhists in India, most of them from Ambedkar's own Mahar caste and related Scheduled Castes. Occasionally, local mass conversions to Buddhism still occur in these communities. Buddhist sources claim that, in 2006, over 300,000 Dalits in central India converted to Buddhism on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Ambedker embracing the religion, though one suspects this number is exaggerated. Unlike the Dalai Lama, who emphasizes the close tied between Hinduism and Buddhism before his Indian hosts, the Ambedkarite tendency in Buddhism is overtly anti-Hindu and tries to maximize the separateness of the religion.

The problems of the neo-Buddhists are of a different nature than those of other Buddhists in India. With no local historical roots, and isolated from contact with the broader Buddhist community, they lack the traditional structures of Buddhist society. There is, for example, a scarcity of Buddhist monks to perform religious functions. As a result, it is common for leading members of the community to officiate at marriages and other ceremonies. One might reasonably expect neo-Buddhist society to develop along slightly different lines, with monks playing a less important role than in other Buddhist communities. This will only add to the diversity that characterizes Buddhism in South Asia today.


Theoretically, in Buddhism, women are treated as equal to men and so gender issues should be absent from Buddhist societies, as claimed by women's groups in Bhutan. There are, for example, Buddhist nuns, but in Sri Lanka there is strong opposition to the idea of full ordination for women from conservative monks. Indeed, after the schism of Buddhism between Māhāyāna and Hīnayāna Buddhism, discrimination against women became entrenched in the latter. For instance, in Hinayana Buddhism, a woman cannot attain full Buddhahood. Such attitudes originate essentially in the views of Hinduism towards women.

Thus, the place of Buddhist women in society varies considerably throughout South Asia and is determined largely by the individual group among which a woman lives. Women in Hinayana societies, such as that prevalent in Sri Lanka, are seen as somewhat inferior to men, whereas in the Mahayana Buddhism prevalent in the north, such discrimination is not so overt. Women in Buddhist societies in India, such as newly converted low-caste groups, are strongly affected by traditional Hindi attitudes towards women and tend to occupy the role of inferior citizens so typical of Hindu societies. Poverty and lack of education remains the key to the role of Buddhist women in society.

Several states governed by the Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have introduced laws to make conversions of low caste Hindus to Buddhism difficult. The states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu have all passed laws restricting conversions. Gujarat has reclassified Buddhism and Jainism as branches of the Hindu religion, in an attempt to prevent conversions away from Hinduism eroding the BJP's bedrock support. Officially, caste discrimination was outlawed when India gained independence in 1947, but many of the country's Dalits say that people's attitudes towards them remain the same.


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—by D. O. Lodrick.

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