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A central axiom of the religious history of South Asia is that Buddhism, which arose there in the sixth century b.c. and spread to become a world faith of inestimable influence, virtually died out in India, the land of its birth, many centuries ago. Buddhism is still one of the major religions of China, Japan, and Southeast Asia, and it is dealt with at length in later volumes of this encyclopedia. Yet on the South Asian subcontinent it has only been in the "fringe areas" of Sri Lanka in the far south, the mountain zones of Nepal, Sikkim, and Bhutan in the far north, and some tribal portions of northeastern India that are close to Tibet or Myanmar (Burma) where a tradition of Buddhist worship has been kept alive down to the present. So although vast tracts of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, even Kashmir and Afghanistan, were once Buddhist, they are now predominantly Hindu or Muslim.

Quite unexpectedly, from the middle of the present century, large numbers of Untouchable Hindus, mostly Mahars and Jatavs (or Chamars), started converting to Buddhism. Their numbers grew rapidly; for example, in the decade 1951 1961 Indian Buddhists increased by 1,670.71 percent. By 1991 India had about six million Buddhists, the great majority of these being Neo-Buddhists living in or near Maharashtra. In that state Neo-Buddhists are now more numerous than Muslims or Christian converts.

The conversion of Untouchables to Buddhism was largely the work of one reformer, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar (1891-1956), who was himself a Mahar. He saw this as an avenue to greater respectability, beyond the pale of Hinduism. He also viewed Buddhism as a more desirable pathway to an egalitarian society than communism. Thus far, however, the move to Neo-Buddhism has certainly improved the self-esteem of Jatavs and Mahars, but it has done little to attract other Untouchable castes into the Neo-Buddhist ranks or to improve the status of this group in the eyes of higher-ranking Hindus.

See also Jatav; Mahar


Fiske, Adele M. (1977). "Caste among the Buddhists." In Caste among Non-Hindus in India, edited by Harjinder Singh, 91-106. Delhi: National Publishing House.

Zelliot, Eleanor (1966). "Buddhism and Politics in Maharashtra." In South Asian Politics and Religion, edited by Donald E. Smith, 191-212. Princeton: Princeton University Press.