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Religion and Dalits: Learning from Black Americans

Religion and Dalits: Learning from Black Americans



Chanchal Kumar

Before we come to the question of religion, we must first contend with the issue concerning our knowledge of history. History as a means to self-definition and a way to place ourselves in society and the larger world. Religion and history (by which we mean not just knowing our past but also to have a vision of the future- for our personal selves as well as for the community to which we belong). In our particular case, the two are interconnected. Unlike Blacks in America who claim Africa as their ancestral home and tribal religions symbolizing their true faith, Dalits have been so far removed from any coherent memory of a benevolent God on account of their forced assimilation to the Hindu religion, that not only they face spiritual bullying today but their very attempts to break through the invisible wall of Hindu ideology meet a psychological block. Even if Dalits hope to resist the onslaught of this cruel religion, being in a society that is culturally dominated by Hindus, they are engulfed by a feeling of extreme distress and self-doubt when they make a conscious effort to prioritize their own happiness and well-being. Buddhism as a religion and ideology offers a way out of this dilemma.

First, we will discuss the aspect of a shared past between Dalits and Buddhism. The great King Ashoka who ruled from 268 BCE to 232 BCE was Buddhist and he spread Buddhism throughout his vast kingdom. Dr Ambedkar embraced Buddhism and it was the final deathblow to Hinduism. “The history of India is nothing but a history of mortal conflict between Buddhism and Brahmanism”, he wrote in his work Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Ancient India. That there exist Navayana Buddhists (Dr Ambedkar’s Buddhism) across the country is solace and hope to Dalits everywhere. The ideas of self-respect and assertion is what separates Hindu Ati-Shudras from Navayana Buddhists. We can be of the highest class in society, financially secure and flourishing in all aspects of social life, but as long as we consider ourselves Hindu, we will remain house slaves. Manyawar Kanshiram gave us the courage to be rulers and showed us how it could be done. Both he and Mayawati stressed on the act of religious conversions as being of primary significance. Kanshiram was a man of the present moment. He broke conventions in political thought and emerged a victor. What gave him the will, courage and self-confidence, faith in a better tomorrow for his community and his people if not the Buddha and his teachings? Buddhist scholar, Johannes Bronkhorst in his study Buddhism in the shadow of Brahminism has written,

“The aim of the teaching of the Buddha is evidently not to discover the real self. In his teaching, the insight that the self does not play a part in the activities of body and mind does not help to attain liberation. On the contrary, the preoccupation with the true nature of the self has to be given up. Only then one is ready to follow the path shown by the Buddha. Seen from this practical point of view, the question as to the existence of the self is of minor importance. The main thing is that knowledge of the self plays no useful role on the Buddha’s path to liberation.” (Bronkhorst 8)

He further explains, “Buddhism did not preach the notion of an inactive self whose knowledge supposedly leads to freedom from karmic retribution, and therefore to freedom from rebirth.” (Bronkhorst 8) Thus, Buddhism teaches us self-reliance and gives us a distinct identity, while allowing us to lead a meaningful life. It does not have the trappings of Brahmanism which feeds us superstitions about the next birth. Embracing Buddhism saves us from crippling attacks of identity crises. We can prosper socially and culturally, while acknowledging the support of our families and communities which has made us who we are.

Blacks in America are comparatively fewer numerically, and yet they have achieved social, cultural and material advancements. The reason for this is that they remember their history and culture well. They are a well-knit community that has a unique perspective, a language (AAVE) that is different from White Americans and although most of them follow Christianity- the religion of their oppressors, they have seen to it that their Churches are managed by them and the Priests or Preachers in them are from their own race. Black children learn their history early and are fiercely political. Hindu Ati-Shudras on the other hand, shield their children from the realities of caste and by the time the latter realize the true state of Hindu society, it is already too late. One of the reasons we have students from the community dying by suicide is because young minds, when hit by Manu’s ancient (institutionalized) laws, they struggle to find an alternative religious ideology with which to counter the irrational hatred that Hinduism sows in Savarna consciousnesses. What we can learn from Blacks is providing an early understanding of the Hindu social realities to the young in our community. It becomes a coherent process when we have them adopt Buddhism as their primary religion. Young adults then not only know how to defend themselves but also to call out the medieval philosophy of Hinduism which places certain sections of human beings in a position that is inferior to animals. Only when children have this basic clarity growing up, they will not face a loss of faith when confronted with abhorrent casteism in their everyday existence. Human life is precious and our community has suffered for way too long. Our priority now should be to dump Hinduism. The rest will follow at its own pace.

Finally, to those ‘optimists’ among Ati-Shudras who believe they can carve their own niche in Hinduism and/or reform Hinduism, the only fact that they should remember is that the time of radical reformism of the Hindu religion is already over. It brought no real change to the basic structure of Hinduism. As far back as colonial India, religious reformist groups such as the Brahmo Samaj and the Arya Samaj went to the extent of trying to make Hinduism a monotheistic religion and rid it of the caste system. The result of this was the birth of Hindu cults such as Vaishnavism and Shaivism. The underlying argument here is that Hinduism is a business scheme which offers enormous material profits to Savarnas. It is a disease that swallows everything up and continues to remain toxic. Until we make a clean departure from anything even remotely concerned with Hinduism, our future will continue to remain uncertain.



Ambedkar, Dr B.R., Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Ancient India, 1987.

Bronkhorst, Johannes, Buddhism in the shadow of Brahminism, Brill Publishing, 1946.

Naik, M.K., A History of Indian English Literature, Sahitya Akademi, 1980.


Chanchal Kumar is from Jharkhand and currently lives in Delhi, India. His poems have previously appeared and awarded in The Sunflower Collective, Hamilton Stone Review, Welter Journal, Name and None, Young Poets Network, UK including others. Recently, his poems were translated to Bengali by Harakiri Journal. He is pursuing M.Phil at University of Delhi.