FLORIDA, October 29, 2012 — Here in America, people tend to be very receptive toward human rights causes.
We hear a great deal about poverty in Latin America, religious persecution in the Middle East, and political suppression in certain parts of Eastern Asia. However, the Indian caste system rarely receives much media coverage.
For centuries on end, India has been subject to a caste system. While every country does have a class structure of some kind, the sort that has prevailed here is unique.
According to ancient tradition, those born into a certain caste are mandated to remain in it for life. This designation has nothing to do with race, ethnicity, or even religious differentiation. It is a social construct that has endured well into the modern day, preventing untold millions from looking up at the stars, let alone reaching for them.
Thankfully, more than a few people are working for change. At the forefront of this movement is the Ambedkar Centre for Justice and Peace. In a this first part of a detailed discussion, its president, Yogesh Varhade, explains about how the caste system came to be, why it is still a problem, and whether or not “Untouchables” can somehow find prosperity.
Joseph F. Cotto: The Indian caste system is not a concept with which many Americans are familiar. In a summary sense, how would you describe it?
Yogesh Varhade: The Indo-Aryan race from Middle Asia invaded India about 3500-4000 years ago (as per Indologists) by hook or by crook. Having destroyed the peaceful “Mahenjodaro and Harappa Civilisation”, they started to impose their rules of enslavement. They created a socio-religious system to rule forever. The caste system is a product of their invention.
Here it is and how it works.
They divided the society into four categories, and a fifth was added later. Consider a five story building with watertight compartments and no elevator to go from one story to another.
1) Top story are the Priest Caste (Brahmins) with direct connections to God and Supreme in power. They can murder or rape but they cannot be punished by the king as per Divine Rules.
2) Below them are the Ruling Caste (Kshatriya) whose job was to rule. They have a little less power than Priest Caste but rule the masses.
3) Below them are the Business Caste (Vaishya) who have less power than Rulers. Mahatma Gandhi was of this caste. Wealth accumulation is their game through business.
4 ) Fourth is the Menial Labour (Shudra Caste) who serve all the three masters. They are not supposed to own house or property but serve the three high caste masters.
5) Fifth Caste is the lowest of the low (Untouchables and Tribals) serving all four masters. Those who refused to give up the practice of Buddhism and beef eating were outcaste - the untouchable. Those who ran into the forest from slavery became Tribals. They are not even part of the four tier caste system as mentioned in the Hindu Vedas.
The power is in ascending order and contempt is in descending order. You are born in your caste, you live in that caste as per duties assigned by Brahmins, and you die in that caste. Brahmins also created a theory that “since you committed a sin in last birth, you are born as low caste, and one must do duties assigned to that caste. One will be elevated to higher caste, even Brahmins, in next birth by being obedient (slave).”
The top three castes (Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya) are known as high caste who wear religious thread (mainly men) called Janava, and their population is less than 15%. By keeping the low caste illiterate and starving, they could rule the system.
This theory they made divine by stating that Brahmins are created by the God from his mouth, Kshatriya created by God from his arm, Vaishas created from his stomach, and the Shudras created by him from his legs.
This they made this a part of the religious scriptures written by God.
Women, who are 50 percent of humanity, and 85 percent of Shudras (low caste), as well as Ati-Shudras (the Untouchables), were prohibited from acquiring knowledge. This continued for nearly 3000 years as Kings were rulers and Brahmins were their advisors.
Under British rule, some Christian missionary schools developed along with Indian Shudra reformers schools. By keeping the masses illiterate and dependent for bare survival, and enforcing the Hindu code of ethics (called the Manu code of conduct) through the ruling caste, they maintained the status quo.
Here are the punishments for those who break the laws stated in the Manu code.
1) If a low caste utters Hindu Religious Hymns, molten lead should be put in his ears, his tongue should be cut off.
2) Brahmin gets pain if he sees Shudra, the low caste in good clothes, or have property. So Shudra should wear torn clothes, eat in a earthen pot, and do his duties.
3) Brahmin can rape or kill or take wives of the low caste but king cannot punish him except to expel him.
2500 years back, Siddhartha Gautama appeared in India. He was a prince who left his kingdom in search of truth. After extensive meditation, he found the truth that there is no high or low by birth but we become by our deeds.
There is no God as such controlling our lives, but our deeds (Kamma) do. Good thoughts, good deeds, good results and bad thoughts, bad deeds, bad results. He was the first to liberate women and started a nun’s order along with an order of monks.
After about 250 years, Emperor Ashoka the Great ruled India through Buddhism. He was the most benevolent king who brought equality, fraternity, liberty of thought and compassion for all. This was the golden period of Indian history when art, culture, and happiness reached the peak.
Brahminism lost its base with the masses and this was a major setback for the caste system.
In 185 BC a Brahmin General by name Pushamitra Sunga killed Emperor Bruhadraya, the grandson of Ashoka. This started to turn the tides. Still, up to 1200 AD, Buddhism ruled through the hearts and minds of the Indian people to some extent. However, the slaughter of peaceful Buddhist monks started by the Brahmins in 800 AD, who were later aided by Muslim invaders, became the last nail in the coffin of Buddhism.
Dr. Ambedkar was the tallest intellectual giant of twentieth century India. A principal architect of the Indian constitution and emancipator of the marginalised, as well as an Untouchable himself, he brought Buddhism back home on 14th October 1956 by peacefully converting one million people in one day. This was the largest religious conversion in human history without bloodshed.
I was a witness to that event and became Buddhist. Now there are 10 million Buddhists, mainly converts from Hindu low castes, and growing.
Cotto: What, exactly, are the caste system’s contemporary socioeconomic ramifications?
Varhade: It created a psyche of Master Class and Slave Class. There are 6000 plus castes in India.
80 percent of the Indian population is Hindu and 20 percent divide into Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Jains, Buddhists, etc. India is governed by castes. There is a notion of pollution that anything Untouchables (20 percent of India’s population) touch pollutes hence no social intercourse.
70 percent of India lives in villages. In rural India the Untouchables are not allowed to fetch a bucket of water. They cannot enter a village cafe. They have to drink coffee-tea from a broken pot outside the cafe. They cannot enter Hindu temples because God gets polluted. Most of the filthy unhygienic jobs like cleaning latrines, carrying dead animals, cleaning streets, carrying dead bodies, collecting garbage, etc. are all done by Untouchables.
There are about 1.2 million scavengers in India even today to do filthy jobs. By keeping them illiterate and starving, they are forced to accept these jobs. Those in the high caste have good educations and control all top positions of wealth and power, even in a democracy.
Cotto: Can “Untouchables” advance themselves in Indian society with a decent education?
Varhade: Yes, by crossing a lot of hurdles and keeping the best example of their savior, Dr. Ambedkar.
In schools in villages, Hindu teachers discourage the Dalit (Unrouchable) kids and make them sit at the back of the class. Bright Dalit students are systematically failed by Brahmin professors and eventually pass, happening even today. In jobs they are not promoted but harassed mentally. We have been dealing with many of these cases right now but our boys and girls are fighting back through legal means.
In short, it is an uphill battle.
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