In 2013 Sian Podmore recovered from almost two decades of debilitating pain and illness, a recovery which she attributes in large part to meditation and other spiritual practices. She does not promise miracle cures, but understands the role of the power of the mind in creating, managing and, where possible, healing chronic illness. Inspired by a life changing visit to India in 2018 Sian now gives public talks and runs mindfulness workshops and courses in Sheffield with a particular purpose in mind...
It isn’t every day that one becomes involved in a spontaneous Bollywood style dance routine in an all girls school, but that is just what happened when I visited the Triratna Buddhist Community Project in Nagpur, India on pilgrimage with a group of UK Buddhists.
The practices which we term Mindfulness here in the West originated in India almost 3000 years ago and play a vital role in the spiritual practices which developed there. Despite being one of the world’s great religions, Buddhism was all but wiped out in its native country for over a 1000 years. It has only recently experienced a revival on the subcontinent thanks to 19th century colonial archeological studies and more recently by the work of Dr Bimrao Ambedkar. Ambedkar was born in 1891 into a large, untouchable (dalit) caste family in Madhya Pradesh. Among many other restrictions dalits cannot attend schools, must live in separate communities subsisting on the detritus from the higher castes and may only work at the most menial of tasks. Yet despite the strictures of his caste, Ambedkar was sponsored to receive an education and, proving himself highly gifted, trained as a lawyer in the US and Europe. When he returned to India his caste designation prevented him from working in any law firm so he turned to political activism. Eventually he became part of the Indian Parliament and was the architect of the Indian Constitution.
Understanding at first hand the oppression of the dalit community, Ambedkar sought a way to improve the lot of his people. Since caste is an ancient, religiously ordained hierarchy, he reasoned that only a change of religion would suffice to free the dalit mindset from its enslavement. On 14 October 1956, 400.000 of the poorest, most degraded people in India dressed in white and gathered in Deekshbhumi park in Nagpur. That night, in front of them all, Ambedkar formally converted to Buddhism, he then turned and led his audience in the vows that set them on a path that would change their lives forever. He died six weeks later.
The population of India today is 1.2bn people of which 200m are considered dalit, despite caste being illegal, with all the oppression and cruelty that designation implies.
However, there are now over 70m practising Buddhists throughout India, with a large concentration living in Nagpur. And that’s where I came to meet those delightful young women. They all came from families living in the red light district and appalling poverty. If they stayed they would be condemned to being sold into slavery or prostitution or deliberately crippled for begging. In the girl’s hostel project they are educated, taught English (essential for white collar work in India) and IT, have access to health care and most importantly given self-respect, dignity and the chance of a decent life. The night we visited over a hundred girls ranging in age from five to fifteen greeted us with songs and a dance display. We asked if they would teach us a few moves and before we knew it a Bollywood party exploded with everyone dancing wildly well into the night.
I left a large part of my heart with those girls and the wider ex-dalit community in Nagpur, and at their invitation, I will be returning to work with them. As well as creating connections between Western and Indian Buddhists as equals I would be supporting the development of their English and Speaking Confidence skills (they have a much harder time teaching me Marathi!).
Everything that I earn through speaking engagements and mindfulness workshops here in the UK, like the MoMM event in Sheffield May 11th will enable me to do that work.