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PostApartheid by Birth: India's Caste System (Massoud Malek, USA, 12/17/13 5:18 am)
We have been celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela, who was inspired by a man in India called Gandhi. Forced to share a cell with black people in South Africa, Gandhi wrote: "Many of the native prisoners are only one degree removed from the animal."
Plato believed that this world is an imitation of the "real" one; our souls existed before they entered our bodies and that they are eternal. According to Al-Farabi, a human soul may survive death only if it has attained perfection. The afterlife is not the personal experience commonly conceived by religious traditions such as Islam and Christianity.
In a dream, everything seems real; we enjoy and agonize over different situations. Only when we wake up do we realize that it was just a dream. Hinduism states that our present life is a Maya (illusion) or a dream. We are constantly jumping from one dream to another in a never-ending cycle. We will wake up from these dreams only when we have self-realization or we die in Varanasi (Benares), the holiest of the seven holy cities in India.
After studying Plato, Al-Farabi, and Hinduism, and comparing these three views of life and soul, I decided to visit India in order to learn more about the dream. So I took a year of sabbatical (2002-2003) and traveled to Asia and stayed in India for four months. I wanted to visit Varanasi before any other city in India. After visiting the birthplace of Buddha in Lumbini, Nepal, I crossed the border and took a bus to Varanasi and stayed in a hotel overlooking one of the two burning ghats. Next to the major burning ghat, there is a yellow building, where Hindus who want to wake up from their dreams and reach the real world spend the last few days of their lives. I witnessed several awakenings during my visit to that house.
"The caste system is scientific and an arithmetic principle. You cannot condemn it by argument. It controls the society socially and ethnically. There is nothing to be hated in this system." Gandhi, Harijan, l932.
The caste system in India originated around AD 7. Caste is determined by birth, not race; it is based upon the Hindu belief that a person's position in life is based upon the good deeds and sins of their past life. There are four major castes, and hundreds of minor castes. Each caste has specific duties and privileges. The high caste, Brahmins, originally the priests and intellectuals; Kshatriyas, soldiers; Vaishyas, traders; and Sudras, who perform menial tasks.
"If the lower caste people leave their ancestral professions and adopt another profession, their expectations will rise and they will lose their mental balance and ultimately their family's peace will be destroyed." Gandhi, Hindi Swaraj.
A fifth group (Dalits) was created to perform tasks considered too menial or degrading to be performed by caste members. Dalits are the manual scavengers, the removers of human waste and dead animals, leather workers, and street sweepers. The mere touch of a Dalit was considered "polluting" to a caste member. Thus, the concept of "untouchability" was born.
"A Shudra can't be called a Brahmin even if he possesses all the qualities of a Brahmin by inheritance. He should never claim his right other than the Varna in which he was born. This is an evidence of his being humble." Gandhi, Young India.
Caste determines Indians' spouses, friends, occupations and residence. Personal ads are divided by castes in every single Indian newspaper. All Brahmins wear a consecrated thread called "Janeu" (men around their necks). While doing impure tasks in a bathroom, the holy thread must be raised and its upper part ought to be put behind the ear. Many Brahmin priests use a paste made out of cannabis plant called bhang, for daily consumption.
"I believe in caste division on the basis of birth because the roots of the caste system start from birth." Gandhi, Verana Vayavstha, p. 77.
In February, I was in Calcutta, so I decided to visit the Mother Teresa Center and give them my winter clothes that I wore at the Mount Everest Base camp. To show my compassion, instead of taking a taxi, I hired an old rickshaw man (a man pulling a rickshaw). I told him I would rather walk with him, and that he should just carry the bag in his rickshaw. He refused and showed me his Janeu and said, "I was born a Brahmin; I will never tolerate pity." The center rejected my clothes and asked me to give them money instead.
"I will oppose the separation of the Untouchables from the caste Hindus even at the cost of my life. The problems of the Untouchables have no relevance or important before it." Gandhi, Round Table, London, l932.
In Rajasthan, I hired a camel driver for a three-day trip in the desert. The second day, we arrived in a village, where the camel driver warned me about accepting any food or drink from the villagers. He told me that they are the lowest people in India, as they skin dead animals. Even undertaker Dalits don't associate with them.
"How is it possible that a low caste can enter into all the existing temples? Until the caste system is supreme in the Hindu religion, not every Hindu can enter into all Hindu temples." Gandhi, Shirao, ch. 11, p. 132.
Puri is one of the seven most holy places for Hindus in India. There are several temples in this small city. I tried to enter a Brahman temple against the advice of my guide book. Some pilgrims noticed me and called the police. A few minutes later, I ended up in a police station. I told the police that I recently became Hindu and before reaching Nirvana, I would like to heal my soul by uniting with Brahma. The fact that I was not part of Brahmins or Kshatriyas, I was forbidden to enter the temple. Even Gandhi, who was a Vaishyas, would not have been allowed to enter the temple. After twenty minutes of being lectured, I promised that from now on, I would never enter a holy place while wearing shoes and a belt made of dead animal skins. Two days later, I entered the same temple, wearing a piece of rope around my waist, a thread around my neck, a Nepalese hat on my head, and a pair of sandals, while repeating "OM." From that day, OM became my mantra.
Most Brahmin priests do not wear shirts. Southern India has several magnificent temples. I took a one-day tour to visit Kanyakumari at the tip of India. Our bus stopped in a village, where there was a very skinny shirtless Brahmin priest who had a large bucket of water in front of him with some floating sponges. He told us that when Shiva crossed the sea, his feet touched a few rocks and they became lighter than water, and this way he was able to walk on water and reached his destination. He was actually selling those holy rocks. After telling him that those are sponges not rocks, he called me stupid and ignorant. I was so furious that I took him by his neck and told him "with your holy thread, I am going to send you to Shiva; you can use these holy rocks to reach your destination." Travelers separated us and took me to the bus and told me, if the villagers find out about what you did to him, they would cut you to pieces.
Finally, a very funny story among many others. I spent a few days in the beautiful city of Jaisalmer in Rajasthan. I told someone in the old town that I could read fortunes; and I read his fortune. The same day I went downtown and I saw people coming to me showing their hands, asking me to tell them about their future. The next day, I left Jaisalmer for another place. While sitting in the bus waiting for the driver to start the bus, suddenly I saw the hand of a man in front of me telling me that yesterday, I didn't read his fortune. He wanted to know if he could finally have a child after almost five years of marriage. I saw the holy thread on his neck, so I said: "patience is the answer to every problem." I also told him to reduce his consumption of bhang, it could help him to reach his desired goal. Next, I saw, the driver's hand telling me if I don't read his fortune, he won't leave the town. My bus trip lasted 5 hours, including about two hours of palm reading.
PS: Dalit children are made to sit in the back of classrooms and endure verbal and physical harassment from teachers and other students. In 2007, an Indian government report found 77% of all Indians live on less than $0.50 a day and most of them were Dalits. An old lady told me that she lived on seven cents a day.
JE comments: Massoud Malek is known in WAISworld as one of our most adventurous and energetic travelers. He fearlessly strays off the beaten path in search of that authentic experience. Some of Massoud's actions in India sound quite dangerous, but they have yielded a wealth of anecdotes.
I'm no scholar on Gandhi, but didn't he reject the caste system later in life? The quotes Massoud cites above paint a troubling portrait of one of the twentieth century's greatest heroes.
on Flawed Heroes
(Eugenio Battaglia, Italy
12/19/13 3:42 AM)
I very much enjoyed Massoud Malek's post of 17 December. I am only a little bit concerned about JE's comment: "the quotes Massoud cites above paint a troubling portrait of one of the twentieth century's greatest heroes [Gandhi]," as I have some doubts about the so-called heroes of the twentieth century. How can we be sure that for many of them we see what we want to see and not what really was?
JE comments: Eugenio Battaglia has put his finger on what defines a hero: someone for whom we see what we want to see, and not necessarily what was.