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India Talk

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von Sangharakshita

... that state so let's say these Mahars form about one tenth, so there's about nearly four million of them in the State of Maharashtra.

So these Mahar people, these ex-Untouchable Mahars, they produced a great leader called Doctor Ambedkar. His full name was Bhimrao Ambedkar, and he was born towards the end of the last century.

He was a quite remarkable man. He managed to get education. He had a sort of military background. His father had a sort of military background. His father had been with the British Army, had got a little of education, so his son managed to get an education in India, although that was very very difficult and eventually pursued higher studies in England - London School of Economics actually - Germany and in America; and he returned to India, returned to Bombay, in the early thirties determined to do something for his community. So to cut a very long story short he did quite a lot. He started all sorts of institutions, started a great propaganda, all calculated to raise the standard of living of his people in every way, and to induce or persuade other Hindus, caste Hindus, to treat them more as human beings. So he wrote, he fought law cases, he became quite an expert on law, education, sociology, politics. He entered politics of course eventually, stood for Parliament and so on. At the end of his career he was a minister in the Central Government of Independent India. He became eventually law minister. So this great figure, Doctor Ambedkar, was trying as hard as he could to alleviate the condition of the Mahar people, but again and again he came up against one obstacle, and that was orthodox Hinduism. Orthodox Hinduism would simply not admit that these ex-Untouchable people, who of course in a way were still untouchable in their eyes - they were only ex-Untouchable in law, in a law which was not enforced. He found that the Hindus, the caste Hindus, the Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, even the lowly Shudras, were not prepared to treat the Mahars on a footing of equality, in fact resisted so doing very very strongly.

So at first Ambedkar had the idea of trying to win over the Hindus, trying to reform Hinduism, trying to persuade the Hindus to treat the ex-Untouchables better, but after two decades of effort he declared himself quite - well quite frustrated - in his attempts, and he came to the conclusion that orthodox Hinduism cannot be reformed, and he decided that a change of religion was needed and he made a famous declaration which everyone of his followers knows, that which was that `I may have been born a Hindu but I do not intend dying one'. And after that he was searching around for some other religion to follow, some other faith. He looked at Christianity, he looked at Islam, he looked at Sikhism, he looked at Marxism, but in the end he decided to become a Buddhist and to advise his people also to become Buddhists. He felt that if they got out of the Hindu fold altogether, if they adopted another religion, that would give them self-respect and they would be able to say that they are, in this case, Buddhists, that they're not Hindus, they're not Untouchables - they're just like anybody else, they're just human beings following the path of the Buddha. So he thought that the best thing that they could do was to get out of the Hindu fold, get away from Hindu society completely, change their faith. And for one reason or another - I'm not going to go into that this evening; this would take us too far afield - he decided to become Buddhist himself and to advise his followers to become Buddhists. So in 1956 there was a great ceremony in Nagpur and he and about half a million of his followers they became Buddhists, and after that the movement spread, but he died unfortunately six weeks after this great mass conversion.

Now I myself had some personal contact with Doctor Ambedkar, starting from 1950 and continuing through the early fifties, right up to 1956. I'm not going to go into the details of my contact with him - perhaps they aren't really strictly relevant this evening - but I had a fair amount of contact with him, and at the time of his death I happened to find myself in Nagpur where the great mass conversion ceremony had originally taken place only six weeks earlier. So at that time all his followers, they just came to me and they were terribly distressed having lost their leader, and they had become very disheartened, wondering what was going to happen next, now that he was no longer there to guide them. Anyway I spent some days in Nagpur. I gave in the course of four days some thirty five lectures in different parts of the area, sort of rallying them and telling them that all was not lost etc., etc. So in that way they started developing quite a lot of confidence in me, and thereafter I used to go down to the plains from Kalimpong practically every winter and tour among these people, tour sometimes from village to village, town to town, trying to spread Buddhism amongst them. Rather I should say not trying to spread Buddhism - in a sense it was already spread because they considered themselves as Buddhists - but since they considered themselves as Buddhists, trying to clarify for them what that meant. For instance explaining things like the Three Refuges, the Five Precepts, the Eightfold Path, Four Noble Truths; things that they hadn't as yet heard about in most cases. The situation was, in a sense, as bad as that. But anyway in the course of years and traveling all around Maharashtra among these people, I did become quite well known to them and they developed quite a lot of confidence in me. However, in 1964 I came back to England, stayed for two years, then decided to stay on, decided to start a new Buddhist movement, decided to start FWBO/WBO. So while I was doing all that of course I was, perforce, having to neglect my work in India. This was a conscious decision because I felt I'd done as much in India as I could for the time being. There were various difficulties - again which I won't go into now, but I felt I couldn't do much more, I had to leave it - so I took up the work in England. But India was never really out of my mind, and I kept up my contact with my friends there, and I used to insist on the `Newsletter' being sent there. Some people used to wonder in the early days of the `Newsletter', well why is Bhante so keen on sending it to these people in India that we've never heard of? Some of them used to think it was almost a waste of a good `Newsletter' to send it off to India where we didn't have any activities, but anyway it was of the nature of an investment as we afterwards discovered.

So I had these people in mind all the time. I never forgot them, and of course as you all know, four of five years ago - yes just under five years ago - Lokamitra had a visit for yogic purposes; he met some of my friends and he came back, and then I put it to him that he should go and start up FWBO activities. So he did. That was four years ago. He's been there now for four years and he has no thought of coming back.

He has no feeling to come back. I suppose he will come on visits and all that, but he feels himself very much at home there, and has pledged himself to stay there as long as is really necessary, and he's happy there. Anyway the FWBO having been started in India, and more especially in Pune, I went out there, or rather I paid them a couple of visits some three years ago on my way to New Zealand and on my way back from New Zealand. And on each occasion I stayed only for a few weeks, though long enough to ordain a few people. At that time I think a dozen people were ordained on the recommendation of Lokamitra mainly and Padmavajra. Two of them were people who I'd known very very well, had very close friendship with years and years earlier - that is to say Dharmarakshita and Dharmalochana. So I had just that very little contact then, and of course just recently I've had this three month long visit to see what has been happening, how they've all been getting on, and what stage the FWBO, or as we call it in India Trailokya Bauddha Mahasangha Sahayak Gana, has reached. I'm afraid you'll have to get used to this expression if I use it again in the course of the talk, just to give you a little practice in hearing it.

So yes I was away three months. I've been back now over a month, so this is a bit late really for giving a talk - I ought to have given it the day after I returned. But never mind. Better late than never. In the course of the month or so I've been back I've been meeting various people, and of course they've known that I have been away in India for some three months, so quite a number of them were asking me, `Well did you enjoy your trip to India?' So I had really to think about this. Did I enjoy my trip to India? I thought well I'd better give an honest answer, so did I enjoy my trip to India? Well I can't say just like that, `Oh yes I enjoyed my trip to India' - it isn't really so simple, that is to say if I'm honest. I suppose officially I am supposed to have enjoyed every minute of it! Most people rather like the idea of Bhante enjoying every minute of his three months in India, but I have to confess that I didn't always enjoy every minute of my visit to India. I have to admit that there were, yes, some - in fact very many - very pleasant, very delightful moments, but there were other moments, and even hours, which were quite painful in one way or another.

So I'd better be quite honest, so to speak, to begin with and admit that - that it wasn't an unmitigatedly blissful experience always being in India.

So let me talk a bit about these experiences, both pleasant and painful. In my mind, in my recollection the painful experiences are associated largely with travel. I was very glad to be in India, I was very glad to meet people, I was very glad to give lectures, I was very glad to go - well I won't say I was ...

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