Time flies, but memories remain, especially those which have been very painful, as they make us grow into the persons we are. Painful memories teach us lessons, but also give us realizations and experiences that mould our lives. I have turned 48 and here in my life story, I want to focus on my experiences that led me towards Buddhism.
I come from a Dalit family in Uttar Pradesh. My parents hail from a small village near Aligarh town, famous for its university and door locks. I do have a few memories of my childhood when I used to go with my parents during my vacations to my parents’ village. My father was the only sibling in the entire family of three brothers and two sisters, who had studied and got educated. After doing his BA, my father became a Geologist and got his first job in Survey of India, New Delhi. Later on, he did MA and got a job in Oil and Natural Gas Commission (ONGC) and moved to Dehradun, a city now in Uttarakhand. My father married twice as my first mother passed away at a young age leaving behind my older brother. My father’s second wife is my mother, who gave birth to me and two more siblings, older sister and younger brother. My mother was almost seventeen years younger than my father. I was born when my mom was seventeen years old.
When I was in my mother’s womb, my father got transferred to Vadodara in Gujarat. That was 1969, when communal violence occurred between Hindus and Muslims during September–October 1969, in Gujarat. As per Wikipedia, this communal violence was Gujarat’s first major riot that involved massacre, arson, and looting on a large scale. It was the most deadly Hindu-Muslim violence since the 1947 partition of India and remained such until the 1989 Bhagalpur violence. According to the official figures, 660 people were killed, 1074 people were injured and over 48,000 lost their property. Unofficial reports claim as high as 2000 deaths. The Muslim community suffered the majority of the losses. Out of the 512 deaths reported in the police complaints, 430 were Muslims. Property worth 42 million rupees was destroyed during the riots, with Muslims losing INR 32 million worth of property. Why I want to mention this is because I was in my mother’s womb and was born on 6th October 1969 and this did impact my mother and me as well.
My first understanding of social issues was when I visited Surat to see the devastations of Muslim properties by the Hindu fundamentalists on 6th December 1992, the year when I joined a Dalit rights Organization, Navsarjan. The communal riots happened on the day of the death anniversary of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar when Babri Masjid was demolished by the Karsevaks in Ayodhya. My own identity of being a Hindu had been pinching me since I started understanding what it means to be a woman in a Hindu family. The first experience of gender discrimination happened when I attained puberty. I was told to not to go close to the Hindu idols, not to visit temples and be away from religious practices. I was on one side struggling with my Dalit identity and on the other side with my gender identity. I had lots and lots of questions but without any answers. Nobody talked about the life and work of Dr. Ambedkar, Jotiba Phule, Savitribai Phule in my family and in my neighborhood, which was totally Hindu and dominated by upper castes, except two Dalit families of which one was ours. I never read books written by these eminent reformers, but I used to read newspapers a lot since my childhood. I became much aware of the political aspects of the country, whether it was the assassination of Indira Gandhi or later on the Sikh riots in 1984 when I was just fifteen years old. It did mark a strong impression on my life. My anger towards Hinduism started growing along with my growth as a young person. I did love doing garba (folk dance) during the nine days of navratri festival, but for me, it was an expression of liberation as a young woman to dance in the night. I was quite good in music, vocal, and dance, but never got an opportunity to learn and excel in that field.
While I was doing my Masters in Social Work from 1990 to 1992, I realized that even the educational institutions do not teach Ambedkar’s philosophy and I could not see any writings of him in our college library at the Faculty of Social Work, which was part of the Maharaja Sayaji Rao University, Vadodara. I was one of the few students from Dalit communities who was pursuing social work degrees. The two years course gave me a lot of experiences and learnings, especially during our field placements. My life totally changed after I joined Navsarjan, that later became one of the foremost organisations in the country. I could understand the intricacies of the caste system and its implications on the Dalits. Being a Dalit woman, I could also realize the painful realities of Dalit women and girls, who were struggling to exist amongst all the challenges. But the core question of having been born in a Hindu family did pose a challenge to me. I started asking myself, about why do I need to call myself Hindu, when I and my community face untouchability and discrimination. What is there to be proud of being a Hindu? While reading Dr. Ambedkar’s volumes on the caste system and its manifestations, I could see the ugliness of the Hindu religion especially in the volume “Riddles in Hinduism”.
My life started changing in a drastic manner and I started to reject the norms, traditions, and practices of Hindu religion. This was difficult as my mother who is a staunch follower of Hinduism, could not digest this and she started confronting me and alleging that as one of the founders of Navsarjan is Christian, hence I had changed my way of life and there is a possibility that I will also become a Christian. But the process that was happening in my mind, was telling me to try to understand the society through the lens of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, who also wrote “Annihilation of Caste”, one of his several works. I also started reading about the life and work of Jotiba Phule and Savitribai Phule. On the other side, majority of the Dalits with whom I was working in Gujarat identified themselves as Hindus. Despite being discriminated, being ostracized, they want to remain as Hindu. Although many of the aware Dalits know about Dr. Ambedkar’s conversion to a Buddhist, and the reason to do so, but do they really follow his footsteps, that’s something to think about. While working on the issues of discrimination, atrocities, and violence against Dalits, Adivasis, and women across communities, I realized that we very much follow the practices and traditions of Hindus without understanding the consequences about the same. Rituals like putting vermillion on the forehead during the yatras and foot marches is seen as part of Dalit culture, and not as Hindu culture. I can also see that the majority of Dalits and Adivasis have internalized Hindu culture as this can prove that they are part of the mainstream community. But it also shows their insecurity and the need to survive in a volatile situation imposed due to the caste system which is based on the Hindu religion.
My personal life was impacted a lot as I hardly practiced Hinduism. I rarely went to Hindu temples, never fasted, nor practiced rituals, which was most shocking for my mother. My entire family visits the famous Vaishno Devi temple, up in the Himalayas. My mom says that I am not worthy to go there as I do not respect Hindu Gods and Goddesses. I tell her that “For me, you are my God and I believe and practice humanity. I respect you and that’s the most important space, which is for you and shall remain so forever”.
From 1995, while organizing bonded and agricultural workers, specifically women from Dalit and other poor communities, I could see the fear of these people mainly of the landlords, who were forcing them to do hard labour without any proper wages. It was a bit challenging task, but I started conducting training programs for them, generating awareness and they started demanding proper wages as per the government rules. I formed a Labour Union and also a cooperative society of women to not only demand wages, but also learn other skills and liberate themselves from forced labour. This created tension amongst the landlords, who had strong affiliations with Right Wing groups like Vishwa Hindu Parishad. In June 1997, a rally was taken out in Padra town, which brought a lot of impact in the area; wages were raised in almost 60 villages of Padra block. But my struggle became more intense. I was not only challenged by men associated with right-wing groups, but also by the administrative authorities.
I wanted to continue my struggle, hence with great difficulty, I got a place for an office which was not in a Dalit neighbourhood. I started running tailoring classes for the young women and also providing legal aid to the survivors of violence and discrimination. In early 1999, there were attacks on Christian missionary institutions by right-wing groups in Gujarat and my office in Padra was also attacked by a mob of 200 people. They pelted stones on the young women, who had come to learn tailoring. They pulled these women by hair and kicked a few of them in their bellies. The local police did not do anything, instead booked a case against these women. With great difficulty, we were able to register a case against the attackers. They wanted to uproot us and wanted that we stop the work that we were doing with the bonded labourers and agricultural labourers. But I kept doing the work, organized protests to condemn the attack on our women, which was attended by more than 8000 people from Gujarat. The State C.I.D. came to my parent’s house to investigate about the religion I and my family members practice. My parents got nervous and also afraid and that made me realize that I need to move out from my parents’ place and should not take away their peace. So in 2001, I moved to Ahmedabad and since then I am living by myself.
2002 shook me from inside and I still cannot forget what happened during the communal genocide in Gujarat. In the name of religion, the politics which was played by the right-wing Hindutva forces was so much obvious, that it was difficult to gulp down. Thousands of Muslims were killed, Muslim women were gang-raped and killed. Their houses, mosques, dargahs were demolished. I felt totally helpless and it was difficult to swallow down my anger. I was invited by an organisation to address the Muslim community on the International Women’s day in a relief camp, inside a mosque. When I went there, I could see so many Muslim people with serious injuries. Some of them were attacked with sharp weapons and many with chemicals which caused burn injuries over their bodies. I went to help the survivors in one of the relief camps in Ahmedabad. The Muslim people could not believe that someone who is not from their religion can come to provide help to them. They said to me “Aap Apnewale Ho” I realized that the religious identity given to me by my parents is coming in my way to support the most marginalized communities and Muslims are the most marginalized religious communities in India. After the communal genocide, the environment totally changed in Gujarat. One of the visible examples that I could narrate is while commuting in the buses and trains, the commuters wanted to know what the religious background of their co-passengers is. I used to put a Bindi on my forehead sometimes, and I decided to stop putting it forever. I didn’t want to be identified with my religious identity as for me to exist as a human being is far more important than with which religion I am identified.
During the end of the year in 2004, I was elected as the Director of Navsarjan Trust, which itself was a challenge: handling one of the largest grassroots organizations focusing on the rights of Dalits and other marginalized communities. I think the twelve years that I spent heading this Organization, helped me to develop various skills, sharpened my competencies and gave me a new outlook towards the rights-based work.
But my health condition became bad in 2009 as I was diagnosed with fibroid in my uterus. The entire notion of purity and impurity with menstruation is related to Hinduism. I had a really difficult time between 2009 to end of 2012. My father also passed away on 1st May 2012. I knew that my health was not good and I was constantly bleeding. But I went to the funeral of my father. This was something very rare as most of the times, the Hindu women are not allowed to attend the funeral ceremony. Many women who were my colleagues and my oldest niece also came to the funeral.
I had a difficult and challenging relationship with my father and so I decided to heal myself internally after his death. One of my friends had shared about Vipassana and its healing effect on mind and body. So I found more about it on the internet and applied for the 10-day meditation retreat at Igatpuri in Maharashtra. Those ten days were the most important days of my life as I started to heal myself from all the pain and unhappiness that I have gathered in my mind affecting my life. After finishing my retreat, I went to Chaityabhoomi in Mumbai, where Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s last rites were performed. I gave my wishes and then bought a Buddha’s face as a gift to be placed in my office in Gujarat. I kept doing Vipassana and also took out time to go to other retreat centers like Dharamshala, Bodhgaya, etc. I got a new meaning in life. My mother could also see the changes that happened in me as a person. I became calmer, gained more patience and my interpersonal relationships improved. During this time, I also read “The Buddha and his Dhamma” the last book written by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. Wherever I went I used to get idols of Buddha. I got one from Nepal, another one from Cambodia. My mornings start with meditation and reflection.
In 2013, I went through two surgeries in one month and Vipassana helped me a lot to face this difficult situation. I also got a sitting Buddha statue made by a 19-year-old Dalit girl named Reena at my Ahmedabad office. Whenever I used to feel tired and restless, I used to look at the statue of Buddha, watch my breath and start working. In 2014, I launched a campaign in Gujarat on ending violence against women covering more than 300 villages. During the campaign, I went through painful experiences and took a sabbatical leave from Navsarjan to heal my pain. I kept doing 10-day retreats and healed myself. I started reading more and more books on Buddhism and its way of life. Later on, I rejoined the organisation and continued doing my work.
2016 became an interesting and challenging year for me. In mid-2016, four Dalit youth were flogged by more than 30 men from a cow vigilante group in Una block, Gujarat. I and my colleagues in Navsarjan tried to help the four youth and their family members. I was quite angry at the way Hindutva was spreading its terror in Gujarat. It was also the 60th anniversary of Dr. Ambedkar embracing Buddhism in Nagpur. I thought that this is the appropriate time and moment to convert as Buddhist. It was also 126th birth anniversary year of Dr. Ambedkar. I decided to convert in Nagpur and on Dhammachakra Pravartan Day. I did share this with my mother, who was not much pleased with me becoming a Buddhist.
On 11th October 2016, I took diksha at Nagaloka, Nagpur with around 200 people. There were a few of my colleagues from Navsarjan, who also took diksha. That day has become one of the most memorable days in my life. In the evening, I called my mom from Nagaloka. She was a bit upset and said: “now I am not your mother and you are not my daughter, coz we are practicing two different religions”. I told my mom, “Mother the umbilical cord with which I was attached to you can never be separated, so you will remain my mother and I your daughter”. Life changed for me after conversion. Gujarat government tried to obstruct the work of Navsarjan, by cancelling the FCRA renewal. All the members of Navsarjan were laid off. It was quite a difficult time for all of us. Emotionally, I was torn part because this was the organisation where I gave my entire youth and 25 years of my life. But vipassana and also the support that I received from my family members helped me a lot.
The doors of dhamma got opened to me through Manuski at Pune in April 2017. I was offered work there and it became a turning point in my life. I got a new place, friendly environment, with a lot of care and love. I came closer to the Buddhist way of life and also started focusing on metta bhavna, the core essence of being a Buddhist.
My family also accepted the change in my life and my Mom is happy that I am relieved from unnecessary stress and challenges. Being the only Buddhist in a Hindu family does create a bit of tension, but I have adjusted to it. There is only one Hindu festival that remains a bit of challenge, and that is the Rakshabandhan festival. In the past, I saw it as a bonding between a brother and a sister. But soon realized that the religious connotations that it gives emphasize patriarchy and marks the female as a weaker gender. But for my two brothers, it means a lot. For them, it’s a gesture of love and care between brothers and sisters. On the day of Rakshabandhan festival this year, I sent a text message to my two loving and caring brothers, “I know you must be missing me today. For me, the relationship with you is such that I don’t need to tie a thread to prove our bonding and care for each other”.
Manuski and Nagaloka have become two pillars of change in my life. The wonderful and impressive work done by these two organisations apart from many more started by Dhammachari Lokamitraji are aligned with the footsteps of Dhamma and the Ambedkarite movement. I have started to understand and learn the exemplary work and contribution of Urgen Shangharakshita and the Triratna Baudh Mahasangha which is spread not only in India, but in 28 countries of the world.
Being an Ambedkarite Buddhist, I believe that Buddhism, has to become a way of one’s life and the 22 vows given by Dr. Ambedkar during the Diksha ceremony are integral for those who believe in creating Prabudhha Bharat.
Manjula Pradeep is the former Director of Navsarjan Trust, Gujarat. She has been in the field of Dalit human rights and women rights for more than two and half decades.