The Romani, referred to colloquially and often derogatorily as gypsies, number somewhere between 8 to 12 million living principally in Europe, but also in some areas of the Middle East and Asia. Census data is inexact due to many of the people’s stateless status. They have no discernible homeland although genetically and by culture it is speculated that their origins were somewhere in South Asia (India). While most are legitimate citizens of the countries in which they live in Europe, many are often not afforded the same level of consideration in terms of education, health care, rights and other amenities as the majority of citizens.
There have been some efforts by some states to assist the Romani in ameliorating some of the disparities however most efforts have been by NGOs and some religious groups including the FWBO-Friends of the Western Buddhist Order. Here are a series of reports from that group on their efforts in Hungary.
The ties between the FWBO and the Ambedkar Buddhists in India are quite deep and mutually influential. Here is some information about the Ambedkar Buddhists in India.
Each year in India tens of thousands of Dalits (formerly called untouchables) convert to Buddhism and reject the caste system and its discrimination. There is a national holiday in India in the name of Dr. Ambedkar. Dr. Ambedkar’s approach is now being taken up by the Roma (gypsies) in Hungary in light of their ancestral connections to India and the pervasive discrimination they face in Europe. Here’s a little information about Dr. Ambedkar.
Dr. B. R. Ambedkar-Dr. Ambedkar was one of the first Dalits to obtain a college education…After meetings with the Sri Lankan Buddhist monk Hammalawa Saddhatissa, Ambedkar organized a formal public ceremony for himself and his supporters in Nagpur on October 14, 1956. Accepting the Three Refuges and Five Precepts from a Buddhist monk in the traditional manner, Ambedkar completed his own conversion. He then proceeded to convert an estimated 500,000 of his supporters who were gathered around him. (preceding from Wikipedia)
So via the FWBO, Ambedkar Buddhists in India and several scholars of Roma heritage in Hungary who have converted to Buddhism and have taken up Ambedkar’s approach to ameliorating the suffering of a whole group of people new initiatives are underway. There has been a new high school set up in Hungary that runs on Buddhist principles and numerous other projects are being planned.
This potentially new social movement is in it’s early stages. It will be interesting to see what comes of these efforts. There are many questions that arise from this interaction.
How will Ambedkar’s ideas translate into a European context?
How will these new Buddhist converts be viewed by the larger communities in which they live?
Will the current Buddhist convert establishment in Europe, or elsewhere embrace these new members?
Will these Roma Buddhist converts become outcasts within the larger Roma community due to their conversions?
Will conversion allow them increased access to services that have been denied to them previously?
How will conversion impact current lifestyles of both Roma and non-Roma?
Will people in other minority groups take up conversion also in an attempt to improve their relations with the larger cultures in which they live?
It remains to be seen what will come of this relatively new development. Below are some links to further information.
Ambedkar in Hungary- from The Hindu national newspaper in India (November 22, 2009)
Ambedkarite Buddhism is a blog kept by Ashwin Jangam, an Indian national, in which he has chronicled the Ambedkarite movement among the Romani in Hungary and his involvement there with non-profit non-governmental Buddhist agencies.
Dr. Ambedkar High School is a Buddhist oriented institute in Hungary where Roma children can further their education without discrimination. FWBO is one of their affiliates.
History of the Romani people from Wikipedia contains some of the scientific studies regarding linguistics and genetics that link the Romani with the Indian sub-continent
[This article by me also appears on the Buddha Channel]