Bhimrao Ambedkar born in a Mahar (of the untouchable caste) converted to Buddhism at Nagpur in Maharashtra in 1956. Buddhism was for him the only religion which could solve the problems of social inequality and caste. Thousands of untouchables in the State followed his example against their social exclusion. Today the majority of the Mahars (more than 5 million) consider themselves Buddhists.
The objective of this book is to analyse the discourses, representations, ritual practices and institutions of this community. Two aspects of the conversion are to be distinguished : one, the attempt of the Mahar community to achieve social ascension and emancipation; and the other, a project of reform which addresses the Indian society in its totality.
The traditional hierarchical and unequal social Hindu order is opposed by a Buddhist alternative of a society based on equality, justice and progress. Analysing discursive situations and interactions of Buddhists with other social groups, the author argues that Buddhism should be viewed more as an open camp of discursive practices than a fixed system of religious beliefs or dogmas. The paradoxes and the singularity of this type of Buddhism seems to challenge the very category of Buddhism itself.
About the Author:
After having pursued studies in Protestant theology in Halle, Strasbourg and Paris, Johannes Beltz specialized in Indian studies and the science of religions at the Universities of Lausanne and Paris. During the course of his long sojourns in Maharashtra, he studied the emancipation of the untouchable castes and their conversion to Buddhism. He presented his doctoral thesis in 1999. From 2000 to 2004 Johannes Beltz joined the Orissa Research Project and effectuated several months of fieldwork in rural Western Orissa. The research project was entitled "Text and context of Mahima Dharma" and focused on the study of historic reports, archive material, oral literature and rituals among Mahima Dharmees (www.mahimadharma.de). Currently, he is the Assistant Curator of Indian Art at the Museum Rietberg Zurich.