Finding Light in Dark Places - My Visit to the Bodhicitta Foundation In India

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

This past winter I spent two months in India, traveling from Bangalore deep in the south to Telangana, Bodhgaya, Sarnath, Mysore, southwest Karnataka, and finally the city of Nagpur in the state of Maharashtra. I spent my last week at Nagpur, where I stayed at Nagaloka, a thriving Buddhist training center run under the direction of Dharmachari Lokamitra, an expatriate British Buddhist, and his team of Indian colleagues. Maharashtra has been the epicenter of the mass conversion movement to Buddhism initiated by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar in 1956, a movement that pulled into the fold of Buddhism the people known as Dalits, those considered “outcasts” and “untouchables” under the Hindu caste system.

Ambedkar was born in 1891 into a poor Dalit family, the last of 14 children. Though faced with hardship and discrimination, by his sheer diligence and natural brilliance he excelled in his studies and eventually won scholarships to study abroad, receiving doctorates in economics from Columbia University and the London School of Economics. After India gained independence from Great Britain, he became its first minister of law and played a major role in writing India’s constitution.


Staunchly opposed to the Hindu-sanctioned caste system, Ambedkar decided early in his professional career that he would reject his Hindu heritage and adopt another religion. After an extended study of the world’s major faiths, he finally decided that the religion that was best suited to the modern age and most in harmony with the aspirations of his people was Buddhism. At a grand ceremony held in Nagpur in 1956, at a site now called the Deekshabhoomi (“the ground of conversion”), Ambedkar renounced Hinduism, formally embraced Buddhism himself, and then led 100,000 fellow Dalits in crossing over to the Dharma. Other conversion ceremonies followed over the years, involving millions of people and sparking a jubilant revival of Buddhism in its country of origin.

 

Garlanding the Statue of Dr. Ambedkar at Nagaloka

At the time of his conversion, Ambedkar’s health was fragile, and just six weeks after the conversion ceremony he died of heart failure at the age of 65. His premature death left the new Buddhists stranded, without a spiritual leader—a void that was filled by politicians eager to exploit the Dalit Buddhists for their personal gain. However, the seed of faith planted by Ambedkar left millions of new Buddhists with a staunch devotion to the Dharma and a keen thirst to learn more about the religion they had adopted.

For the Ambedkarite Buddhists (an expression I use with reservations), the Dharma is not primarily a path of inner transformation, as it is for many Westerners, but a means to recover their sense of human dignity and a peaceful weapon to wield in the struggle against poverty, violence, and social degradation. As Lokamitra explained to me, the new Indian Buddhists do not regard the Dharma merely as a way to find peace and happiness for themselves; they see it also as a means to achieve social and economic justice for their communities. While more affluent Buddhists occasionally dismiss this orientation to the Dharma as economic opportunism, such an approach by the Dalit Buddhists is quite justifiable in the light of their circumstances. For people whose very humanity is often trampled upon by their social superiors and who may be beaten and even killed for flouting arcane caste rules, the adoption of Buddhism affirms their intrinsic value and their capacity for moral and spiritual achievement.

One of the very few Westerners to establish a home in the midst of the Dalit community is the Australian-born bhikshuni, Ven. Ayya Yeshe, the founder of the Bodhicitta Foundation. BGR has had a long-time partnership with Bodhicitta going back to 2010. I met Ayya Yeshe twice in the New York area, when she was visiting the U.S., but this year, on my first trip to India since 2001, was the first time I could visit her at her own center.

Ayya became a novice nun in 2001 at the age of 23. She belongs to the Sakya order of Tibetan Buddhism, but received her bhikshuni ordination with the Plum Village Sangha under Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh in 2006. She studied Tibetan language and Buddhist philosophy in India, but after two and a half years began to feel dissatisfied with the abstract intellectualism of her philosophical studies. Instead there welled up in her a deep calling to put compassion into action through a more engaged approach to the Dharma.

While at Bodhgaya she was dismayed by the terrible poverty she witnessed among the local Indians. While wondering what she could do to help alleviate their plight, she met a follower of Ambedkar’s teaching who directed her to Nagpur, the base of the neo-Buddhist movement. Here she set up the Bodhicitta Foundation as “a grassroots Buddhist charity empowering some of the poorest and most oppressed communities in the world to break the cycle of poverty and oppression.”

The aim of Bodhicitta is to empower women and girls so they can make decisions about their own lives, enjoy greater equality, earn more to support themselves and their families, have fewer children, and be less likely to end up in abusive marriages. Over the years, BGR has partnered with Bodhicitta on projects that focus on girls’ education and right livelihood training for women. These correspond well with BGR’s own mission, for one of the deepest roots of chronic hunger and malnutrition is the subordinate status of girls and women in many traditional cultures. One of the most potent antidotes to chronic hunger therefore is improving the status of girls and women.

Bodhicitta’s programs, as I saw them, are spread out over several facilities, currently all rented. These include the girls’ hostel and separate rooms elsewhere for classes in sewing, cosmetics care, and computer training. The girls’ hostel is home for thirty girls from the poorest strata of Indian society, coming from different regions in India; almost all are in their late teens and early twenties. The girls stay at the Bodhicitta hostel for a three-year period while they study outside at facilities that match their interests. The subjects they are learning include nursing, social work, teaching, science, and medicine. In entering the program, they vow to return to their villages after they complete the course and offer six months of community service for women and poor children. The women’s training program offers more mature women the chance to learn such skills as sewing, beauty work, computer use, and small business management.

Both facets of this partnership do more than impart knowledge. They include classes in meditation, personality development, and psychological counseling, essential in helping girls and women who have often been traumatized in earlier years the chance to acquire greater self-confidence in their dealings with others and to navigate the social systems in which their lives are enmeshed. 

I arrived at the Bodhicitta Vihara, Ayya Yeshe’s own home in a slum of Nagpur, on the morning of February 25. I was accompanied by the New Zealand bhikkhuni, Ayya Adhimutti, who was also staying at Nagaloka and took photos of my visit. In typical Indian fashion we were greeted outside the vihara with garlands and then ushered into the shrine room for the mid-day meal. 

Arriving at Bodhicitta Vihara

After the meal, Ayya’s team of workers came to the vihara and spoke in turn about their backgrounds, how they came to work for Bodhicitta, and their insights into the status of women in India’s underclass. Ayya’s male student, Mahendra, served as translator. The women’s statements painted a grim picture of the plight of Indian women among the Dalits and other lower castes. While girls in the Ambedkarite community generally marry in their early 20s, in other poor communities teenage marriage is not uncommon. Domestic violence is rife, directed against both wives and daughters. Many husbands in lower class families, they reported, are alcoholics and use a substantial portion of their earnings to support their drinking habit. The early death of husbands and fathers, often from illnesses connected with alcoholism, is also common, leaving the wife and children behind in a bitter struggle just to survive. 

 

Discussion in the Shrine Room

After this discussion, Ayya led us on a tour of the Bodhicitta facilities. We visited in turn the sewing center, the beauty center, and several homes of girls whose families are cared for by the Bodhicitta Foundation. It is hard for a Westerner—particularly one coming from a middle-class home where every child has his or her own room—to imagine the living conditions of these children. A girl named Shasi, aged 12, who followed us wherever we went, lives in a shed of two rooms with seven people--her grandparents, her parents, and two other children. Yet despite such a stressful living arrangement, she constantly radiated a smile as bright and beautiful as a sunbeam. 

Ayya Yeshe Leading the Tour

A girl named Payal, 18, whom Ayya considers her “foster daughter,” lives in a one-room shed with her brother and mother, a widow. Payal aspires to become a medical doctor and is currently studying for her exam to enter medical school. She also excels at classical Indian dance and performed for us in the evening program.

With Ayya's Foster Daughter

After the general tour, in the late afternoon we headed for the girls’ hostel, expecting the girls to be returning from their various study programs. At the hostel I saw that the girls sleep in three upstairs rooms, ten girls per room. This arrangement leaves virtually no space for them to do anything there but lie down to sleep, yet such living conditions are quite typical for poor families in India.

Arriving at the Hostel

After the girls returned, we assembled in the main hall and Ayya asked a few of them to speak about their backgrounds and their aspirations for the future. While the girls came from different parts of India, their stories had much in common. A girl named Soma, whose younger sister also stays at the hostel, gave a deeply moving account of how her father beat her mother, even threatening to suffocate her. After he abandoned the family when she was three, her mother became a sex worker, contracted AIDS, and soon after died, leaving the two girls orphans. The girls were shuffled among family members, who treated them as slaves. Through a social worker she heard about Bodhicitta, applied for admission, and was accepted along with her sister. Here, she says, “for the first time since my mother died, I really feel I have a home. I feel loved and supported and not alone.”

Another girl, Mallika, aged 20, comes from a farming family with five other children. Her father is paralyzed and her mother works in the field. She aspires to become a lawyer, stating: “Because of the hard lives of the village people, I am determined to become educated and escape that life of early marriage and back-breaking work and to advocate for my Dalit community.”

Sumitra, a girl of 17, comes from a family in which the father is a cycle rickshaw driver who can no longer work because he has asthma; her mother supports the family by carrying bricks on her head. Sumitra writes poems about nature and social justice and aspires to become a gynecologist, “to give women in India safer and more dignified births.”

Following this conversation, we were ready for the evening’s program. Green matting had been laid out in the courtyard in front of the hostel, between the houses. Folding chairs were set up and a crowd assembled, including supporters of Bodhicitta, the staff, participants in the programs, and curious neighbors. Some visiting Indian nuns also joined the audience. The program featured an introduction by Ayya Yeshe about the Bodhicitta-BGR partnership, short speeches in English by several of the girls, dance performances in both classical Bharata and modern Bollywood styles, an exhibition of karate, and a talk by myself in which I stressed the value of the work of the Bodhicitta Foundation and spoke about the potential contributions that women can make toward a positive transformation of society.

Evening Program Outside the Hostel

Although by this time darkness had descended, my exposure to the range of Bodhicitta activities was not yet finished. On the way back to Nagaloka, Ayya led us to one of the tuition centers run by the foundation, where school children from one of the poorest slums in Nagpur receive extra tuition to help them with their studies. The government schools in Nagpur are over-crowded (one school we visited has 11,000 students, who attend in three shifts) and the level of education is far from adequate. Hence the need for tuition after school hours. We asked these children, the poorest of the poor, about their hopes for the future; again these have not been dimmed by their poverty. They aspire to become nurses, doctors, lawyers, airline hostesses (a popular choice), cooks, and airline pilots. Ayya next took us to a shanty colony in this slum, located alongside the polluted Pili River, which is now a sewer line polluted with human waste and infested by hordes of mosquitoes, some carrying malaria and elephantitis. Again, peeking into several homes, we found families living in squalor, under crowded conditions hard for Westerners to imagine. Finally we stopped off at the feeding center, where Bodhicitta serves over 6,000 meals a year to undernourished children to support their growth and development.

It was reassuring to see how the projects that BGR supports have been bearing such positive fruits. A brochure I received from Ayya Yeshe describes the aim of the Bodhicitta Foundation as “taking light into the dark places of the world.” While the places I visited in the slums of Nagpur were often dark in bare economic terms, I found the people I met on this visit—the women working for Bodhicitta, the beneficiaries of its programs, and those who support the programs—full of light and laughter. Contrary to what one might have expected, they displayed an inspiring sense of inner dignity, strength, and self-confidence that far surpassed the somber conditions under which they live. With Ayya Yeshe guiding them with her vast compassion, vision, and boundless energy, there is good reason to believe that, while darkness may hang heavy, in the end the light will prevail. 

 

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