It was a Dhanteras without the worship of Goddess Lakhsmi. A Diwali without the lighting of diyas or bursting of firecrackers. And an equally quiet Gujarati New Year.
In the last one week of back-to-back Hindu festivals, theirs was the only home in Baldev Nagar, an upper middle-class Dalit neighbourhood in Ahmedabad, that wore a sombre look. For, Abhilash Delwadia and his family are no longer Hindus, having converted to Buddhism over three weeks ago.
In fact, the Delwadias renounced Hinduism on the day of a major Hindu festival, Dussehra — a “coincidence”, they say. At a ceremony organised by the Gujarat Buddhist Academy in Dholka town of Ahmedabad district on October 22, 90 Dalits, including 60-year-old Abhilash, his wife Hiraben, 51, sons Kunal, 31, Rahul, 26, and daughter-in-law Bhamini, 27, embraced Buddhism, citing “discrimination within Hinduism” and “inspiration from Dr B R Ambedkar” as reasons for their conversion.
Since then, the family, has been slowly doing away with all the vestiges of their previous faith. For example, the miniature wooden temple of Bahuchar Mata — a Hindu deity revered by the family till now — has been wrapped in a newspaper and kept in a corner of a store room, its face turned towards the wall.
“On October 23, a day after the conversion, we removed all Hindu symbols from our house such as religious calendars and gifted away Ganesha idols,” says Abhilash, a banker-turned stock trader who “stopped following Hinduism a long time ago” but whose family still stuck to the faith.
His wife, Hiraben, even now, can’t bring herself to “throw away” the temple. “I neither worship nor have feelings for the deity any more. But I am not sure what to do with it. You don’t dump these things just like that,” she says.
Meanwhile, her son Kunal, an MBA from IIM-Kashipur who lived in Australia before landing a public sector job in Gandhinagar, is reading up The Buddha and his Dhamma, written by Dr B R Ambedkar, in order to understand his new faith.
“Unlike the rest of the family, I was not sure of the decision to convert as I did not know what Buddhism was really about,” he says. But Kunal eventually consented to converting “as it was a collective decision of our family”.
“So what if he did not know about our new faith? Our old faith discriminated against us on the basis of caste,” butts in Abhilash, as he sits next to a statue of Buddha, which they bought a week before they converted to their new faith.
Though the Delwadias don’t specify instances of caste-based discrimination they may have directly faced, they add “we have heard and read such accounts from across the country”.
Kunal, for example, remembers “being bullied in school for being a Dalit”.
Unlike the rest of the family, Abhilash does not feel the conversion was “a big event”. “I never believed in Hinduism, an unscientific religion. How can one worship gods and goddesses one has not seen? I am a science graduate and I believe in Buddhism as it has no concept of god and is based on the law of nature,” he says.
Hiraben nods in agreement, and cites a recent instance when Kunal, who had just returned from Australia and was wearing shorts, was “barred from entering a temple dedicated to Bahuchar Mata as he was told he was inappropriately dressed”.
Abhilash had got in touch with the Gujarat Buddhist Academy a few months ago for conversion. “I had learnt they were organising a mass conversion ceremony. I told them to count us in,” he says.
According to the 2011 Census, Gujarat has 30,483 Buddhists, but PG Jyotikar, chairman of the Buddhist Society of India, pegs the number at 80,000-90,000. “Census officers identify Buddhists as Hindus in their records, and thus under-report the actual numbers,” he says.
This year, four mass conversion ceremonies were held in Gujarat — one in Ahmedabad, two in Kalol and one in Dholka — taking the total number of new Buddhists, excluding those who may have converted privately, to about 130.
Last year, one mass conversion event was held in the state, at Junagadh, in which 5,000 Dalits had converted to Buddhism. Similar mass conversions were organised in 2010 in Ahmedabad, and in 2008 in Kalol.
Conversions to Buddhism gained momentum after anti-Dalit riots between 1981 and 1985, says Jyotikar, who is a retired history professor and is currently doing a PhD in ‘Ambedkar movement in Gujarat’. He attributes the current spate of conversions, which began a decade ago, to “higher levels of education among Dalits and thus increased awareness of Dr B R Ambedkar’s role in nation-building”.
Ambedkar has become a symbol of pride for Gujarat’s Dalits, adds Jyotikar. In the last 10 years, it has become common for Dalit Buddhists to chant bhajans dedicated to Ambedkar and the slogan “Namo Bhimaaya”at public places — the hymn is also scribbled on wedding cards.
Back at the Delwadia household, the family discusses the next big question — should they look only for a Buddhist bride for their son Rahul, a businessman? As of now, the issue has been left to the groom-to-be. “I do not mind marrying a girl from another religion. The resolve to only marry a Buddhist girl would be an extremist thing to do. I have not imposed any such barrier on myself,” he says.