It was a dusty, chilly morning as my plane made a smooth descent into Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar International Airport in Nagpur, which is in the state of Maharashtra, in central India. I quietly flipped through my written notes one last time, mentally preparing for the task at hand. It was a rare honor for me, an American, to be asked to speak at an event in India, but considering the recent historic visit of Obama, the relationship between the two countries is especially significant and my visit seemed timely.

The occasion to be held was an international gathering of over fifty thousand “Ambedkar Buddhists” in rural Maharashtra. Babasaheb Ambedkar was instrumental in writing the Indian constitution and eradicating the caste system from political policies. In the 1950s, he himself converted to Buddhism and wrote his own twenty-two vows, which included ideals such as refusing to worship Hindu gods, not consuming alcohol, and practicing compassion.

In Maharashtra, the landscape of religion has been shifting for the better part of four decades, as throngs of low-caste communities convert out of Hinduism with the desperate longing to shed the labels that bind them. As they do, their hope is to pave the way for a better future, not only for themselves, but also for generations to come. This organized event on their behalf has continued to grow in recent years as Indian citizens have found Buddhism as a way to escape the nefarious clutches of Hinduism.

Thousands in attendance at the Buddhist Convention

Thousands in attendance at the Buddhist Convention

On the day of this event, I was introduced to a YWAM team who would be joining me in speaking – they themselves an international group – coming from Norway, Denmark, Canada, and New Zealand. As we pulled into the grounds, we were met by thousands of people – some sitting, some standing, some laying down – the mood of the place buzzing with excitement, the brown grass teeming with followers of this Ambedkar Buddhism. It was kind of crazy, actually, as we were swarmed by literally hundreds of people on all sides. The event organizers had to form a protective circle around us and we had cameras pressed in our faces, as if we were some sort of celebrity entourage.

As the conference began, the outdoor tents, though packed with people (I estimate about ten thousand in attendance), suddenly became quiet. One of the YWAM team members, a young woman from Denmark, began her speech by proclaiming a message of reconciliation between the East and the West, and her supreme desire to break through the chains of the caste system – hand in hand – together. This was met with an eruption of cheers and applause from the audience, a clear indicator of their own longing to loose the chains of injustice that have bound them for centuries.

In an event organized to honor Ambedkar and his Buddhist religion, as well as simply encourage tens of thousands of its followers, the overarching message was clear: Love, forgiveness, and compassion are the ideals that will shape this anti-caste movement more than anything else possibly could. And above all, continuing to seek absolute truth is what has the power take this movement and turn it into a revolution.

Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar

Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar

As I had the opportunity to speak as well, I was able to share about the inherent dignity of all people. I talked about the love of the Father for everyone, no matter where they come from, their family of origin, their job, or their background. And I expressed the need to seek Truth as if your life depended on it. I’ve never spoken to a group so large (I think the biggest has been maybe thirty) and it was thrilling to have a platform in which to share my heart for lost people.

It was interesting, as a Christian, to speak to thousands of Buddhists, who don’t necessarily share my beliefs. As opposed to such an engagement in the West, however, many of the attendees had never even heard of Christianity or Jesus. Their conversion to Buddhism was merely a step forward, a step up, and a step out.

Some in Maharashtra have seen the teachings of Ambedkar to be a gateway of sorts, not only a way out of the Hindu caste-system, which oppresses millions, but a stepping stone on which to shift the paradigm completely.

As I stood on the stage of this International Buddhist Convention, which both honored and uplifted the teachings of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, there was no doubt that people were there searching for truth. Leaving the bonds of Hinduism and the caste system behind are the first step, yes, but where does that leave the majority? For some, there is refuge in the freedom Ambedkar taught – a freedom to simply live a moral life.

Ambedkar Memorial in Nagpur

Ambedkar Memorial in Nagpur

Others are left with a spiritual void, not able to fill it with this kind of Buddhism that Ambedkar taught, and are indeed turning to other religions such as Christianity to find what they feel is still missing. For former low-caste communities, searching for truth in this wilderness is merely one point in an ongoing spiritual journey.

These are the very people Truthseekers are reaching out to, encouraging, and leading. They realize that many people are hungry for truth, but see Christianity as the religion of the West, with no place for it in India. They don’t see how one could reconcile that God with what they know to be true of their own Eastern religious experience. And it makes sense. Hinduism and the caste system have been ingrained in their minds for thousands of years and it takes time to break through that.

What Truthseekers is attempting to accomplish – breaking the bonds of the caste system’s slavery – is not something that will happen overnight. In fact, it will probably take a generation, if not more. But I have seen that things are stirring here and the country is on the cusp of significant cultural change. They are ready and desperate for freedom and Truthseekers is in the middle of it, ready to guide and lead the way.

 

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About the Author: Sarah is a journalism fellow with World Next Door. She has her undergraduate degree in Business Communication from Azusa Pacific University in Southern California and is currently working on her Masters degree in Organizational Leadership. Sarah recently finished a two and a half year assignment working for an anti-trafficking NGO in Kathmandu, Nepal, where she had the opportunity to mentor and lead college students in ministry abroad. She is mildly obsessed with Jeopardy, coffee, running, and the Atlanta Falcons.

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Comments

  1. Sean said... 

    Reply

    February 26th, 2015 at 3:33 am  

    You may not have had loaves of bread nor a surplus of fish, but you fed them what they needed. The Truth can quench thirsts!

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