Buddhism Reaches Oberlin

By Ian VanderMeulen, Oberlin, May 5, 2007

Oberlin, Ohio (USA) -- Over 50 years ago, a highly educated, low-caste Indian named B. R. Ambedkar converted to Buddhism, triggering a mass movement that would spread across the country from the western region of Maharashtra. Yesterday, the movement finally found its way to Oberlin.

Mangesh Dahiwale and Maitreyanath Dhammakirti, both leaders of Jambudvipa, a Pune-based Buddhist organization, directed an introductory meditation course and a subsequent lecture on Thursday afternoon.

The events, jointly sponsored by the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life and Oberlin Shansi, were well attended by students, faculty and townspeople alike.

Dhammakirti led a noon meditation session, which featured a form of meditation that focused on breath as a way to train the mind to focus on the present.

In a lecture titled “Embracing Buddhism, Rejecting Caste: How Dr. Ambedkar Transformed the Untouchables of India,” Dahiwale provided an explanation of Ambedkar’s views on the caste system before showing photographs documenting the movement’s development.

During his discussion of caste, Dahiwale described a system of discrimination put in place thousands of years ago and “made sacred” by the Vedas, the earliest Hindu texts. According to Dahiwale, the caste system was challenged repeatedly over the centuries, but “the caste system had such a control over the Indian mind that it did not vanish.”

Dahiwale then shifted his attention to Ambedkar’s views on caste: “Lower castes imitate upper castes.” Ambedkar felt the entire system needed to be destroyed or rejected.

“What he was looking for was a structural change, not a positional change within the order.”

Ambedkar’s atheist and secularist spin on Buddhism was evident in Dahiwale’s lecture and the subsequent question-and-answer session, when at one point he commented, “Buddhism is not really a ‘religion’ because there is no God, no soul.”

In general, however, both the meditation session and the lecture dealt little with Ambedkar’s own views on Buddhism and opted instead to emphasize the effects of caste oppression and the need to deal with discrimination in all its forms.

“We want to communicate the message, but we also want to communicate the situation,” Dahiwale said. “The movement needs international support.”