Why this family’s conversion from Hinduism to Buddhism matters

Rohith Vemula was never able to escape the trappings of his "low birth." He was a "Dalit" -- a term that roughly translates to "broken" -- a grouping of lower castes once referred to as "untouchables." Entries in his diary and interviews with his friends revealed a story filled with the hardships of growing up poor, and interactions with a society that, to him, seemed to be against his progress as a student. The final straw came when his hard-won scholarship at Hyderabad Central University was revoked after another group of students, mostly upper caste, reported him for engaging in "anti-national" activities -- in this case, protesting the execution of an accused terrorist he believed was falsely convicted.

Since he was found hanging in his dormitory this January, the story of Rohith Vemula's life has reinvigorated a conversation around the caste system and caste-based discrimination in India, particularly on university campuses. Before Jan. 17, when Vemula committed suicide at age 26, that conversation could often seem dormant in India's multitudinous media, despite widespread instances of killings, denial of services and jobs, bonded labor, and the continuation of practices such as "manual scavenging," in which those belonging to the lowest rungs of the caste ladder must collect and dispose of everyone else's bodily waste. Casteism is on the wane, but its imprints pervade much of Indian society, across religions.

Those forms of discrimination were outlawed in India's constitution, which was crafted primarily by the country's foremost Dalit leader, Bhimrao Ambedkar, a "founding father" whose 125th birth anniversary is Thursday, April 14. Ambedkar was scathing in his criticism and rejection of the caste system and, by extension, many of Hinduism's foundational texts. After deliberating for decades on how he might leave the caste system, he decided to convert to Buddhism. He did so with more than half a million followers on Oct. 14, 1956.

And on Thursday, Vemula's mother and brother chose to do the same, in the presence of Ambedkar's grandson, Prakash. Rohith's elder sister, who is married to a man from a higher caste, did not convert.

"From today, my mother and I will be truly free," said Raja Vemula, Rohith's brother, at the conversion ceremony. "Free from shame. Free from daily humiliation. Free from the guilt of praying to the same God in whose name our people have been tortured for centuries."

Rohith admired Ambedkar, as well as the Buddha, but he never converted. In a suicide note, he portrayed himself as a man swayed mostly by scientific arguments and tormented by society's inability to see him as "a mind" rather than through the lens of his caste.

"The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility," he wrote. "My birth is my fatal accident."

In editorials published in the 1930s, Ambedkar wrote of caste as a multistoried tower with no staircase and no exits, in which people had to die on the story on which they were born. In a 1935 speech, he explained his rejection of Hinduism.

"Because we have the misfortune of calling ourselves Hindus, we are treated thus," he said. "If we were members of another faith none would treat us so. Choose any religion which gives you equality of status and treatment. We shall repair our mistake now. I had the misfortune of being born with the stigma of an Untouchable. However, it is not my fault; but I will not die a Hindu, for this is in my power."