An Indian classic that attained its final form over 1,000 years ago, the Mahabharata, further spelled out the work of the lowest-caste Shudra: “to become the servant of the other three orders…. By such service of the other three a Shudra may obtain great happiness. He should wait upon the three other classes according to their order of seniority, writes Marvin Olasky, professor at the University of Texas and Chief Editor of the World Magazine.
The great civil-rights conflict throughout the coming decade and perhaps the entire 21st century is the battle in India of 240 million Dalits (“untouchables”) to break out of 2,000 years of subservience. India’s caste system is not just a social problem for the world’s second largest nation but a theological problem for the world’s third largest religion, since Hindu belief underlies the system and keeps most of those at the bottom from pushing for change.
The racial problems of Hinduism became real to me one Saturday evening this past summer in the thatched-hutvillage of Manapakkam in southeastern India. At a small cinderblock building with a stucco finish and a sign proclaiming Praise Evangelical Church, I saw and heard 300 children from the “untouchable” caste sitting in rows on the concrete floor and squealing in delight—for it was time for a Bible club jamboree. The children sat in rows on the cement floor facing a little stage on which they took turns reciting Bible memory verses, offering welcome dances and skits about the Good Samaritanand other Bible stories, and singing as loudly as they could into a novelty item, a microphone. They ate generous portions of rice with bits of meat placed on banana leaves in front off them. They also wanted to be touched. They crowded around American visitors who patted them on their heads. They wanted to shake hands, again and again. Part of it was fascination with odd-looking folks from the other side of the world.
But part of their interest, I learned, lay in being treated as fellow human beings, not sub-human inferiors. The next night came more of the same at Peniel Prayer House in another village, Mettukuppam. There many houses have illicit stills used to brew the alcohol that brings in some money and drowns many sorrows. Few men live beyond fifty. Two hundred children sat patiently on the cement floor of a25X50-foot structure and then laughed uproariously as kids in skits staggered around like drunks; they’ve obviously observed a lot of that. Again, the orderliness of the kids was impressive. No one ate until all were served rice with vegetables and a bit of meat, topped by a whole hardboiled egg, a rare treat.
Using their right hands only—left hands are reserved for in delicate tasks—they worked their rice into balls and scooped it into their mouths. Their good cheer in slums far poorer than any in theUnited States reflected a willingness not to dwell on the bad but to enjoy the good. The following night brought a visit to a Bible club in Kettackanappie, a village near the city of Bangalore. This three-month-old program has only a 12X12-foot rented cowshed into which 35 children crammed. Parents pushed against the door to hear their children reciting Genesis 1:1,“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” a key line in any culture—but especially for Hindus who claim there was no beginning. Theological roots of the caste system How had the caste system arisen within Hinduism, and why did it remain long after comparable instances of racism—like slavery in the U.S. and other countries—were no more? We could look at aspects of contemporary Indian culture, but Dalits themselves often speak of the importance of theology. Udit Raj at a congressional human-rights hearing offered a radical but apparently accurate appraisal: “the untouchables have been convinced to live this dehumanized life because they are said to be condemned to it by the desire of the gods. Accordingly, it is considered good if they suffer because their present suffering will liberate them in the next life.” In recent years some upper-caste Hindus have refused to defend untouchability and have argued that helping the poor improves the karma of the helper without reducing that of the person being helped—but that novel interpretation is up against many centuries of caste predestination.
The caste system probably originated with the subjugation by lighter-skinned Aryan invaders from the north and west ofIndia’s Shudra should never amass wealth, lest by his wealth he makes the numbers of the three superior classes obedient to him. By this he would incurs in…native, darker-skinned Dravidians. Aryans produced the Law of Manu, said to be over 2,000 years old but certainly over 1
,000, which proclaims the different tasks for the four main castes—Brahman, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Shudra. Brahmans were to be priests and teachers, Kshatriyas officials and soldiers, and Vaishyas merchants and farmers.An Indian classic that attained its final form over 1,000 years ago, the Mahabharata, further spelled out the work of the lowest-caste Shudra: “to become the servant of the other three orders…. By such service of the other three a Shudra may obtain great happiness.
He should wait upon the three other classes according to their order of seniority. A Shudra should never amass wealth, lest by his wealth he makes thenumbers of the three superior classes obedient to him. By this he would incur sin… Shudras should certainly be maintained by the other orders. Worn out umbrellas, tur-bans, beds and seats, shoes, and fans, should be given to the Shudra servants, [and also] torn clothes which are no longer fit for wear.” A Shudra was to give total loyalty to those who gave him torn clothes: He “should never abandon his master whatever the nature or degree of the distress into which the latter may fall. If the master loses his wealth, he should with excessive zeal be supported by the Shudra servant. A Shudra cannot have any wealth that is his own. Whatever he possesses belong lawfully to his master.”Shudras were also treated as spiritually inferior. Castes and sub-caste status passed from one generation to the next, with sons almost always following the occupations of their fathers. Over time a fifth caste developed from those who were stuck with doing “unclean” jobs, such as removing dead animals and tanning leather. These lowest caste members were said to be ritually unclean and “untouchable.”
Those on top felt they could be polluted by being near those at the bottom, eating food touched by them, or drinking from the same well as them. In some parts ofIndia even a contact with the shadow of an untouchable was considered polluting. India legally abolished the caste sys-tem in 1949, but custom is generally stronger than law and castes remain a significant force throughout India. Traditionally, each Indian Hindu also belongs to one of the thousands of Jats (communities), grouped into the four castes plus the fifth, “untouchable” group. A person’s Jat determines the range of jobs for which he is eligible and the spouses he might be able to marry. Customs still prohibit persons of different groups from eating or drinking with each other. Most Hindus invite only fellow caste-members to meals in homes. At wedding feast different castes all eat at the same time but in different rows. The continuing challenge It is now illegal in India to discriminate against a person because of caste, and change has come within large urban areas. In some rural areas, though, almost nothing has changed, as some press accounts have shown. For example, an evocative AP report in 2001 began, “At the end of a network of dusty lanes in Trilokpuri, a suburb on the outskirts of the Indian capital, a scavenger lugs home a plastic bucket of water for her family. It is dusk, and Birum and her two daughters have spent the day collecting used plastic bags from rotting waste in city dumps. The mother and daughters are filthy and hungry—yet they cannot bathe or cook with water from a tap near their home.
Many see the poor as suffering in accordance with their karma, paying the price for misdeeds of a past life. Many Dalits themselves believe that their karma for this life is already determined, and that submissiveness now will give them a better rebirth.