Buddhism and the Romani

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]

8 comments on “Buddhism and the Romani

    • Dear Mr Jack Daw, Jaibhim. Jai Bhim is associated with Bhimrao, first name of Dr Babasaheb [ respected father ] Ambedkar.
      he converted to Buddhism along with his half a million followers on 14 Oct 1956 just two months of his ‘Mahaparinirvan’ [ demise].
      Ambedkar Buddhism is a simple way of life and a pure moral code of conduct free from any ‘Rites, rituals’, blind faith. Buddha although denied any incarnation, rebirth, heaven, hell, spirits, past life etc, the selfish people have induced all of these things in the Buddhism. Ambedkar negated everything and incorporated the ‘panchsheel’ in his 22 Pratidnyas [Vows].

  1. Pingback: Buddhism and the Romani | Religiology News - Buddhism

  2. At least in Finland, I’m pretty sure that would be trouble. The two biggest Roma civil rights movements are Christian (Romano Missio, which is Lutheran, and Finland’s Free Roma Mission, which is Pentecostal), and Christian identity has become very much a part of Roma culture here.

    If a Buddhist group moved in on those waters, they would be perceived as a threat and would encounter extreme hostility. Converts would very likely be shunned, there would be strong social pressure not to participate in any activities they organize, and so on and so forth.

  3. Thanks for this, Marnie. My old advisor/prof Alan Sponberg, aka Dharmachari Saramati, has been involved in the Romani issue for a couple years now and even helped form the first Buddhist college (or was it a University?) in Hungary. Unfortunately the economic crisis has hit them heavily – probably more so than richer nations – so they can use our assistance more now than ever.

  4. Hi Marnie,

    Nice post. The thing that definitively links the Roma to India is their language. Despite many loan words it is clearly Indic in origin and related to Hindi. Indeed the loan words are a way of discerning the path of their migration, and how long they dwelt in each place. The Roma migration was documented in images and music in a film called Latcho Drom which is very moving and entertaining. It begins in Rajasthan and ends in Spain.

    “Gypsy” isn’t necessarily derogatory but reflects a widespread belief, common to the Roma as I understand it, that they came from Egypt. It is now thought that Egypt was only one of many places along the route of Roma migration. However there is a lot of prejudice directed towards them.

    I think the New Buddhists in India have been delighted to find others inspired by Dr Ambedkar whether it is affluent Westerners or poor Hungarian Roma. The call him “Bodhisattva”. When I heard that some Hungarians were attending one of our retreats in India I was amazed, but the connection is now well established with members of our Order regularly travelling out to Hungary either for direct contact with the Roma or to participate in the Buddhist University in Budapest.

    There have been a few stories on FWBO news about this – a news blog I started but have now handed on to a colleague to run. Another link to look a would be this one:

    Best Wishes

    • Replying to Jayarava’s comment:

      The Roma people’s origins and Romani language are in fact from India. They left in several waves of migration, the largest one occurred during the Ghaznavid empire. The “Egyptian” or ” false gyptian” was a misnomer from the medieval Europe. You may refer to Dr Ian Hancock’s “We are the Romani people.” You may also refer to “Origins and Divergence of the Roma” a genetic study by Gresham. Good day to you! :)

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