Tag Archives: Hinduism

Prophet’s Tooth and Sarasvati’s Lute: Chasing Calendar Icons

I visit mosques of the world and unearth relics of Mohammed; I collect a pantheon of cartoon gods and choose a winning goddess.

In between my encounters with fruits, flowers, and primal colours that make even Disney look tame (see previous post here), I found a vendor of Muslim devotional items.  When I asked if he had calendars, he strode off.  I almost lost him around a maze of corners, before reaching the Naaz Book Depot.  It had racks of calendars, many designed by the owner on his PC.  He bemoaned the decline in Arabic calligraphy.  Few people have the patience to spend hours or months doing by hand what computers can print in minutes.  When I said I was teaching English, he asked whether I taught calligraphy: he’d be my student.  I admitted my ignorance of the art – Dad once compared my writing to a drunken spider staggering across the page – and asked which of his calendars sold the best.

muslim-calendar-2012-meccaI bought two, both arranged by Western dates with the Muslim lunar days in small letters.  My birthday this year was Rabi-ul-Awwal 30.  Hindu, Christian and Muslim festivals are marked in Hindi, English and Urdu scripts.  One calendar shows mosques on each page.  January has an aerial night-time photo of Mecca.  The concentric white rings of praying figures reminded me of raked sand in a Zen garden.  Other months show an old khaki façade in East Turkistan, a bland concrete box in Canada, a mosque in Jakarta with blue batik patterns, and the “floating” mosque in Borneo.  December gleamed with the Crystal Masjid in Malaysia, a fantasy of metallic domes and spires.  The collection of shots gave me a sense of the worldwide community of Islam.  On the rear of each page are the five daily prayer times in Mumbai, Hyderabad and Bangalore.

The second calendar has quarterly pages and is less orthodox.  Instead of mosques it has pictures of relics: a rough-edged parchment letter written by Muhammad, the Holy Mantle of the Prophet Mohammed, the “protective case of the leather sandal of the Prophet Hazrat Mohammed”, and, in a lump of black granite, the footprint of Mohammed.  The sword of Mohammed lies alongside its jewel encrusted sheath; jewelled reliquaries contain the tooth of Mohammed and soil from Mohammed’s grave.  Something like black wool in a glass cylinder with golden caps is labelled hair from the beard of Mohammed.  (Will anyone care to save my whiskers?)   By way of variety, one page had a box and blouse from Fatima, daughter of Mohammed, with two items of clothing from the Shiite martyr Imam Hussain.

muslim-calendar-muhammad-relicsEach page has a saying of Mohammed from the Hadith.  “One should be scared of death, so stand up when you notice a funeral”.  “That nation will never be benefited which is owned and governed by a woman”.  I didn’t ask my new acquaintance what he thought of Prime Minister Indira or Sonia Gandhi.  But I shouldn’t mock, for “Backbiters will not enter Paradise”, and “those who do not show Mercy to others, Allah will never be Merciful to them.”

The centre of each page is a circular swirl of colour and calligraphy.  I suspect one page is the 99 names of God; page 4 resembled a Tibetan Buddhist Mandela.  I was intrigued by the promises appended to Arabic invocations, which struck me as more superstitious than Islamic.  “Whoever recites this Darood 80 times after Asar prayer on Friday his 80 years of sins are forgiven by the grace of Allah.”  Christ said he could call on 12 legions of angels (Matthew 26:53) or 72,000 in Roman military terms.  With a few repetitions you too can engage a similar count of heavenly aides.  “Reciting this Darood Shareef prompts seventy thousand angels to register virtues for the person who recites it up to one thousand day.”

7-secrets-from-hindu-calendar-artEquipped with Muslim calendars, I went in search of the Hindu equivalent. I’d seen garish calendars of gods hanging in shops, offices, hotels, and houses and had just bought a book that explains their meanings: Seven Secrets from Hindu Calendar Art.  I drew a blank on calendars, but around another corner two men were mounting pictures of gods in gold-painted frames.  Larger reproductions were embossed with glitter.  I asked to buy one of each smaller, non-sparkling print, which gave me 18 vivid icons of the most common gods, as bright as Walt Disney cartoons and spunkier than American superheroes.

hanuman-posterMonkey-god Hanuman, green as the Incredible Hulk, strides across a mountain meadow.  One hand wields a golden mace studded with rubies and emeralds; the other holds a forested hill aloft like a waiter carrying a plate.  (He had been dispatched to get a certain healing herb that grows on this sacred hill.  His botanical knowledge falls short of his strength so he brings the whole mountain instead.)

Elephant-headed Ganesh sits on a yellow lotus, belly bulging beneath his trunk.  His right tusk is broken off.  He was the scribe of the epic Mahabharata and his nib broke as he was writing it down.  Dictation continued so fast he had to grab this tusk for a pen.  His mouse crouches at his feet and nibbles on a sweet.  Ganesh is the son of blue-skinned Shiva, who sits on a Himalayan glacier with a trident, a cobra coiled around his neck and the river Ganges cascading from his knotted hair (see my post on Shiva here).  The god Vishnu reclines on the multi-hooded cosmic serpent, or poses in his incarnation with a lion’s head (see my post on Vishnu’s avatars here).

Vishnu’s consort Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, sits in the lotus position on a pink lotus and pours out a shower of gold coins – businessmen love her.  My set lacked the gory gals who are favourites with feminists: Durga riding a tiger with abundant arms waving fearsome weapons, or black-skinned Kali with a necklace of skulls, tearing out a man’s intestines.

ganesh-lakshmi-postersOf all the female deities, whether sexy or scary, my babe would have to be Saraswati.  She’s the goddess of learning and the arts and I did get a picture of her.  She wears a red blouse and modest white sari.  One hand holds a book, a second fingers meditation beads, while her other two arms play the stringed veena, a sort of long bulbous lute.  For a portrait of Saraswati that’s less garish and Mickey Mouse, I bought a card at a Bangalore art gallery.  Ravi Varma was influenced by European painting, and he seats Saraswati in an impressionist scene of lotus blossoms on a pastel lake (1896).ravi-varma-1896-Saraswati


Myths and Mayhem: Monkeying with Rama in Ayodya

I recount an epic of kings, monkeys and 10-headed demons that hijacks ships and kills thousands today; I condemn riotous Lego, compare rival faiths, note interest rates in a religious bank and sample the Ramayana.

7 km from the Leprosy Mission center in Faizabad (see my previous post) is Ayodya, a small town that I had read a lot about.  Much as the Greeks had the Iliad and the Odyssey, India has two great epics that tell of battles and adventures between gods and men, interspersed with religious teaching and philosophical reflections: the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.

ramayana-comicThe latter is set in Ayodya.  Here is the tale in brief.  The divine Lord Ram (or Rama), rightful heir to the throne of Ayodya, is banished through the machinations of an envious royal wife to wander in the forest for 14 years.  His faithful wife Sita accompanies him.  While Ram is away hunting one day, the demon king Ravana, disguised as a wandering sage, kidnaps Sita and whisks her away to his kingdom of Sri Lanka.  Ram of course pursues.  A monkey army led by monkey god Hanuman tracks the fugitives and builds a bridge to the island so Ram can cross over.  He storms Ravana’s fortress, rapid-fires countless arrows to take out Ravana’s 10 heads, and rescues the virtuous Sita.  A popular cartoon series shows the final battle:

ramayana-comic-final-battleIt’s better than American superhero comics, nearly 2000 years older, and unlike Homer still shapes the lives of one billion people today.  In 1987 the Ramayana was broadcast in 78 weekly episodes, becoming the most popular programme ever on Indian TV.  One year later, the Mahabharata epic was watched by 75-95% of the population for two hours on TV every Sunday morning.  Streets were deserted, theft flourished as guards were glued to the box, and even government meetings were postponed.

At the time of my first trip to India in 2007, newspapers were full of Ramayana controversy.  The Indian government planned to deepen the strait between India and Sri Lanka so shipping could safely pass through, shortening the more dangerous trip further south.  Fundamentalist Hindus were outraged.  That underwater ridge, visible in satellite images, was the ancient bridge built by holy Hanuman.  The Archaeological Survey of India announced there was no evidence that said ridge was made by man or even monkey.  They received death threats.  You might as well suggest razing St Peter’s to build a motorway in Rome.

ramayana-comic-monkey-bridgeMany educated Hindus found this silly.  The factual accuracy of the epic is less important than its spiritual symbolism of good triumphing over evil.  But for literalists Ram was a real divine person, at an actual geographical location, at a specific historical time.  Cutting through his bridge was another echo of the great atrocity in 1528, when the Moghul invaders constructed the Babri Masjid mosque on top of – fundy Hindus maintain – a Hindu temple at the site of Ram’s birthplace in Ayodya.

In 1990 the aged president of the nationalist Hindu BJP rode across India in a Toyota “chariot”, brandishing a bow and arrow like Ram and collecting bricks to rebuild his temple.  In 1992, police stood by as Hindus tore the Babri Masjid mosque down stone by stone, assaulted journalists and destroyed their cameras.  (See a BBC correspondent’s eyewitness report here.)  The incident sparked riots across the country, killing around 2000 people, mostly Muslim.  It’s as if the Trojan War still sparked street battles today.  UN worker Shashi Tharoor, a Hindu himself, is outraged at such behaviour:

Hindu fundamentalism is a contradiction in terms, since Hinduism is a religion without fundamentals; there is no such thing as a Hindu heresy.  How dare a bunch of goondas shrink the soaring majesty of the Vedas and the Upanishads to the petty bigotry of their brand of identity politics?

One of the staff at the Leprosy Mission was from Ayodya and drove me there.  Blocks away from the disputed site of the temple-mosque, motor vehicles were stopped by barriers.  A large woman on a cycle rickshaw struggled to bend low enough to pas underneath.  In 2005, five terrorists attacked with explosives and were shot down.  Now security was tighter than at an airport.  The entrance sign listed even pens as prohibited.  Closing times had changed so I missed the chance to enter, but apparently there’s only a small tent with one statue inside on bare ground, so I didn’t miss much.  Policemen were walking home, carrying bulletproof vests.

ayodya-columnsMy guide knew some interesting spots.  I saw a site of building materials with piles of stone slabs, octagonal drums for stacking into columns, carved capitals.  It was like a huge set of Lego awaiting assembly.  Two artisans were crouched on slabs, chiselling out lotus flowers.  I learnt it was all for a new Ram temple – was this India’s next mass slaughter brewing?  It seemed suspiciously like a Hindu equivalent of the 12th-century “Triumph of Islam” mosque in Delhi (I described it here), provocatively built on the foundations of a Hindu temple.  One Hindu fundamentalist has written a book to prove that a better-known Muslim monument was also blasphemously built on top of a Hindu worship site: the Taj Mahal should be demolished.

ayodya-carvingOne big difference between these rival faiths is in their art.  Mosques are covered in geometric and floral patterns, with Koranic quotations curling around like vines.  On the walls hang clocks and tables listing the daily prayer times and calendars with photos of Mecca.  Islam is a religion of the book.  Niches contain stacked Korans and there are low reading stands for them on the floor.  Nowhere are there depictions of animals or humans, let alone of God.

Hindu temples have little to read but gods or idols are everywhere: sooty black, marble white, or garish as a Walt Disney cartoon.  They are often bathed and dressed in shining garments by the priests every day.  Popular deities suffocate under garlands of marigolds.  Instead of the rhythmic hum as Muslim men prostrate in prayer, you hear the sharp clang of bells before the altar and the raucous wailing of oboe-like instruments during offerings.  The bare-chested priest smears sandalwood paste on the forehead of devotees as they drop money on a tray of smouldering incense sticks, or present offerings of fruit or rice or sweets.

The contrast continues outside places of worship, where cluttered stalls sell devotional trinkets like paperweights and wall hangings.  Outside mosques you find framed Koranic calligraphy; outside Hindu temples are mythological scenes of the gods.  Churches have key rings with Bible verses and paintings like da Vinci’s Last Supper or Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World­.  Catholics buy figurines of Mary or Jesus, instead of Hindu gods.

ayodya-ramayana-templeIn India, however, every stereotype has a counter-example, and one Hindu temple in Ayodya was more textual than any mosque.  In a rectangular two-storey hall, with shining marble floor and floral-painted ceiling, almost every inch of the walls was covered in columns of script: the complete text of the Ramayana.

Mounting the stairs, I passed cubic bundles wrapped in cloth and stacked like colourful sandbags.  From the flat roof I surveyed the town, with temples old and new in every direction.  Here was the headquarters of the International Sree Seetarama Nama Bank.  A white-bearded guru behind a desk passed me a magnifying glass to read on a grain of rice, “Sita Ram”, the names of Lord Ram and his wife.  It’s a popular trick – tourists can likewise get their names on rice.

ayodya-nama-bankAnyone can join this remarkable bank for free.  The guru gave me its English flyer, which explained the bundles: stacks of exercise books filled with the handwritten names “Sita-Ram” – 38 rows by 9 columns make 342 cells on each side.  People post them in as a sort of spiritual deposit.  You can write in any language or script, with any pen, although “red is considered as symbolising devotion”.  The main thing while writing each name is to remain conscious that “the Lord shines in the lotus of my heart”.  The more you write the merrier.  125,000 copies, and you’ll be entered in the bank’s register.  Write 2.5 million, 5 million or 10 million names to receive a nickel, silver or gold medal respectively.  But the real target is 8.4 million repetitions of the sacred monikers, which guarantees you will be “freed from the cycle of birth and death.”  I’m not sure about that, but it puts writing lines at school in a new light.

I was thrilled to find a free performance of the Ramayana that evening.  I was looking forward to monkeys fighting ten-headed Ravana, then found it wasn’t a short tourist version but the real Ramlila deal: the entire epic recited for several hours per night, every night, over months.  When the red and pink curtains parted that night, I just got a sliver of the whole.  Various machinations between enthroned kings and turbaned courtiers, who visited a forest-dwelling holy man – with the sort of obviously false beard that makes you want to pull it off – sitting before a painted backdrop of trees, birds and monkeys.  The chanting was accompanied by live harmonium, tabla drums and cymbals.  People came up and touched the actors’ feet as if they were temple statues; one guy mounted the stage to prostrate himself before each character.  Religious performers take on the aura of divinity here, putting a new spin on actor “idols”.


Queuing for Krishna and Avatar Blues

First-class Krishna, dreaming Vishnu, and a zoo of incarnations: revamping Noah, avenging Macbeth, and the warrior on a white horse.

After attending church and visiting Bangalore palace, I took a rickshaw to the Sri Radha Krishna temple of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), the full name of the Hari Krishna movement.  Wearily sitting on a wall, I counted 70 sardines in one of 7 queues, on one of two entrance levels, yielding a guestimated 1000 souls in Purgatory.  I later learned that 20,000 visit per day in the weekend and only 7-10,000 on weekdays, so Sunday was a bad choice.  My mounting disinclination to bother was strengthened by signs warning against pickpockets.  I gave up and was on the way out, when I stumbled across a counter selling express tickets.

I paid 150 rupees (NZ$5), was rushered through sandal, bag and camera check-in, metal detection and pocket pat-down, and entered an exclusive lane (the “Krishna class” perhaps).  I like to think I’m more spiritually sincere than many a “mere tourist”, but I felt slightly guilty about buying the privilege.  I viewed the shrines at leisure and up close while real devotees streamed past behind me with only a distant glimpse.

The hilltop complex combines the white marble of temple towers with the blue-tinted glass of a high-rise office.  In the main hall, frescoes of Krishna’s life covered the ceiling and classical Indian musicians played in the centre.  Lamps, incense, food and money were offered to three pairs of richly clothed statues: Krishna and his consort Radha.  I kept a hand near my wallet when my luxury lane merged with the commoners’ crush.

My ticket included a clay pot of raison-nut-rice prasad, a banana-leaf plate of rice, and a complimentary book.  I chose the Nectar of Instruction that Hare Krishna acquaintances are studying back home, and some postcards to show them.   All in all, it was one of my most expensive days: four auto-rickshaw rides, two entry fees, two simple meals, two water bottles, half an hour Internet, 25 postcards and two slim books totalled 750 rupees or NZ $25.

Hare Krishnas are a type of Vaishnavite Hindu, following the way of bhakti or personal devotion to Vishnu as the supreme Lord.  Their foreheads are smeared with white paste in a pattern resembling a tuning fork or the Greek letter psi, which represents, I’m told, the foot of Vishnu.  Hare Krishnas worship Vishnu in his incarnation as Krishna, regarding all other gods as his manifestation in different forms.

Vishnu literally means the all-pervading, encompassing all space and time.  He sleeps on the serpent Ananta who floats on the cosmic ocean.  As Vishnu dreams, the long stalk of a lotus sprouts from his navel with the next Brahma sitting on the blossom.  Vishnu wakes, Brahma opens his eyes, and a new universe comes into being, supported on one of Ananta’s thousand hoods.  Millions of years pass until Vishnu’s day ends and he slumbers.  Universe and Brahma fade into nonexistence, the lotus withers.  Nothing exists through Vishnu’s long night, until he again wakes and the cycle repeats.  It reminds me of the verse that 1000 years in God’s sight are as a single day (Psalm 90:4).

Vishnu is mostly shown with blue skin, the colour of the endless sky or ocean.  At times he rides on the back of his Eagle Garuda, after which the Indonesian airline is named.  Vishnu has had 10 incarnations or avatars, appearing in physical form to protect the virtuous, overcome evil and restore righteousness at times of spiritual darkness.

Vishnu’s first came as a fish to rescue Manu, the first man and law giver, from a global deluge.  He carried the ship containing Manu’s family on his head – echoes of Noah’s Ark.  Subsequent incarnations as a tortoise and a boar ascend the evolutionary scale.

Long ages later, the demon Hiranyakashipa was growing in power and Brahma had awarded him a boon.  He would not die inside or outside his house, by day or by night, on the ground or in the sky.  He could be killed by no created being, no human or animal or demon.  No weapon could slay him, nor anything living or non-living.  Rather like Macbeth after the witches prophesied that he could not be killed by anyone born of woman, Hiranyakashipa thought himself immortal.  He claimed to be the supreme Lord without equal and resented his son Prahlada’s worship of Vishnu as supreme and omnipresent.

As he tried to kill Prahlada, Hiranyakashipa mocked, “Is your Vishnu here?  Is he there?  Where is he?  If he is everywhere, why is he not present before me in this pillar?”  Prahlada replied, “He was, he is, and he will be…  He is in pillars, and he is in the least thing.”  In a rage, Hiranyakashipa shattered the pillar with his mace.  Vishnu sprang forth in his fourth avatar as a man with a lion’s head and Hiranyakashipa discovered, as did Macbeth, that prophetic contracts can have loopholes.

As a god Vishnu is uncreated, neither human nor animal nor demon.  He seized Hiranyakashipa and dragged him to the threshold of his house (neither within nor without) and lifted him onto his lap (neither earth nor sky) to await dusk (neither day nor night), when he ripped Hiranyakashipa open with his nails (weapons that are neither living nor non-living) and sucked out the scoundrel’s blood.

Vishnu’s most beloved incarnations are less bloodthirsty and in human form.  His seventh and eighth avatars are Rama and Krishna.  Rama is a mighty prince and archer, mostly seen with a long bow, while Krishna stands playing a flute with crossed legs beneath a peacock feather, or frolics with enraptured maidens tending cows.

At the end of this current age of darkness, Vishnu will return in his tenth incarnation as the warrior Kalkin on a white horse, wielding a flaming sword to judge the wicked and reward the good.  The description is so similar to Christ’s return in the Apocalypse (Revelation 19:11-15), that some suspect Christian influence on the myth.

Shampooing Jesus: India’s New Businessmen-Gurus

Healthy breathing and Hindu rebranding with Ravi Shankar and Sai Baba.

For many young Indians traditional Hinduism seems out of touch.  How do rambling Sanskrit prayers in dirty dark temples relate to iPhones and Wall Street?  I did see an electrical drum-beating bell-ringing apparatus in one old temple, so some priests are embracing technology, or growing lazy.  Others have seen the need for a fresh paradigm.  A new breed of “businessmen-gurus… the Pat Robertsons and Billy Grahams of modern Hinduism” (Luce 2006 180) are repackaging ancient teaching as spunky self-help spirituality for busy executives.  Their message is booming around the world, much as charismatic churches with rock bands and PowerPoint are outstripping stained-glass parishes with pipe organs.

One of the most famous is Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, who spoke at the ECC campus on International Peace Day last year.  Peace is to be found within us, he said, not outside: “if you are at peace with yourself, then the entire universe is in peace”.  He planted a peace tree and released five white doves to spread serenity over all five continents.

Last Saturday we visited his “Art of Living” centre near Bangalore.  From the roof of the six-tiered, 1000-petalled lotus meditation building, perhaps a sort of Hindu Crystal Cathedral, we admired the countryside.  Inside, unlike many ancient temples, all was light and airy.  Clean marble floors, white walls with pastel pink and lemon pillars, a ceiling of plaster lotus petals.  Alongside the primal OM were the Star of David and other religious signs, and a central statue of Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, qualifying our guide’s insistence that it’s a nonreligious organisation.

The man himself wasn’t home, so we watched a video of his relief and peacemaking work between Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government – he was nominated for the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize.  Journalist Edward Luce did meet him and was not impressed.  The answers he gave to his devotees’ mundane queries were “more like those of an agony aunt than a prophet”, although the audience was ecstatic.  He was dressed in white robes with flowing dark hair and beard, “as if Jesus were shooting a shampoo advertisement” (Luce 2006 177).

We were introduced to the Art of Living philosophy by Dinesh, a young graduate with excellent English from the Mumbai Indian Institute of Technology.  Fellow students mocked him when he first adopted the movement’s yoga-like practices, until they saw his life changing and became interested.  Different faiths have differing symbols and rituals, said Dinesh, but the same values, so we should accept all paths to God and not try to convert anyone.  We take food, clothing, technology from all cultures, so why not knowledge and wisdom?  Religion is the banana peel that can be forgotten, spirituality is the banana itself.  American Prof DeAne murmured in my ear, “but you can’t grow a banana without a peel”.

To show how hard it is to focus our disordered minds in the present, Dinesh instructed us to exactly mimic his hand clapping.  After a few repeated claps I would go into autopilot, my mind wandering, so I failed to follow when he skipped a beat or broke the rhythm.  Ravi Shankar has the cure: a “unique breathing technique, which brings enormous joy, a stress free mind, healthy body and blossomed life”.  Medical research has shown his breath system reduces blood lactate and bad cholesterol, increasing antioxidants and well-being hormones, says the flyer, and it has totally rejuvenated over 20 million people in over 150 countries – there are testimonials from a doctor, flautist, taxi driver and “a terrorist, now a reformed person”.  As Dinesh put it, “the solution to most problems is under our nose”.

We also popped into the super-luxurious Soukya International Holistic Health Centre (www.soukya.com).  They have a more comprehensive and costly approach to healing, combining Western medicine and seven different Asian systems: from mediaeval German homoeopathy to Tibetan astrology, Chinese acupuncture and auriculotherapy to Indian herbal Ayurveda.

Today we visited the Whitefield ashram of another guru who’s made it big in the West.  As Lonely Planet writes, “Everything about Sai Baba is big”, from his huge round afro haircut – looking like a shampoo disaster, to big palatial residence, big money charities and big sexual controversy.  Like Ravi Shankar, he wasn’t there to greet us, but we sat on the cool marble of the vast audience hall where large photos of Sai Baba flanked Hindu statues  A devotee assured us it’s a deeply spiritual experience to hear him.  When he met the guru, writer and United Nations Under-Secretary General Shashi Tharoor was impressed:

 I was not blinded by faith, but the encounter was indeed astonishing at several levels. In our private talk, Sai Baba uttered insights about my family and myself that he could not possibly have known…  He waved his hand in the air and opened his palm. In it nestled a gold ring with nine embedded stones, a navratan. He slipped it on my finger, remarking, “See how well it fits. Even a goldsmith would have needed to measure your finger.”

In the shop were framed photos of the guru’s face and feet.  Books in many European languages praised his teaching and miracles.  I read he briefly resurrected a devotee and blessed him, before he died again.  He’s supposedly the reincarnation of an earlier Sai Baba, who died in 1918, and is also widely depicted in India with a short white beard and red headscarf.  Sai Baba’s Afro may be greying, but like Elvis, we are assured, he will return again.  One book sketched his next incarnation.

Like Ravi Shankar, Sai Baba tries to embrace all faiths.  Over the ashram gateway hover two ugly angels with tattoo-like decorations on their arms that make them look like winged bikies.  They hold a floral wheel with five petals: the Hindu OM, Buddhist wheel of Dharma, Zoroastrian fire symbol, Islamic Star and Crescent, and Christian cross.  Inside the circle, a pillar represents yoga or union with God and is topped with an open blossom, the unfolding “lotus of the heart”.

Untouchable: Defiling the Racism of Caste

Of Hinduism and activism, hatred and hope.  Cobblers, cleaners and night soil sweepers meet Jesus, Gandhi and the flush.

Today we drove two hours north-west of Bangalore to the rural town of Tumkur (past the National Silkworm Seed Association, Central Silk Technological Research Institute and silk testing lab) to visit the Rural Education for Development Society.  REDS was founded by Raj and Jothi, a warm and articulate couple who are dalits.  The word “dalit” comes from the Indian Marathi language, meaning to crack, split, oppress, be scattered or trodden down.  It denotes the approximately 20% of India’s population who were previously called untouchables or outcastes.

mulk-raj-anand-UntouchableThe novel Untouchable (1935) by Mulk Raj Anand relates a day in the life of a young untouchable man named Bakha.  He lives with his family in a small one-room shack in a separate suburb, downwind and downstream of the main town and separated by a road, to avoid polluting upper castes.  Raj told us this is still typical in many villages.  Untouchables like Bakha may not use the common well, so they depend upon the sporadic mercy of higher castes to draw water for them.  Outcastes may not wear upper garments, and Bakha’s schoolteachers fear touching him or his books and paper.  He gets on better with the British troops who have less caste prejudice.

On this day his father is sick so Bakha must sweep the village streets.  He forgets to call out and warn others of his approach, lest his presence or shadow pollutes them, and he brushes against a passer-by.  The businessman is irate: he’ll have to return home and wash, missing his appointment.  An angry crowd surrounds Bakha, abusing him until he slips away in shame.  Later on, he peeks inside the temple where he sweeps the courtyard.  Priest and worshippers are alike incensed: the whole complex will need ceremonial purification.  Yet the same priest molests Bakha’s sister – dalit women have no defence.  Bakha is actually lucky.  In some places, untouchables who dared to hear or speak the holy language of Sanskrit had molten lead poured into their ears or mouth.

The novel depicts three possible solutions to untouchability.  Bakha meets a Salvation Army officer and is touched to hear that Jesus accepts everyone irrespective of caste, but he is bewildered by the Salvationist’s incomprehensible hymns and his less welcoming wife.  Then Mahatma Gandhi (who in real life read and approved of Anand’s novel before publication) comes to town.  Like the outcast tax collector Zacchaeus of the gospel, Bakha climbs a tree to see Gandhi over the crowds, whom he must not touch.  Gandhi castigates caste as a Satanic blemish on Hinduism, and says that Brahmins help sweep the toilet in his ashram.  Bakha is inspired, until he hears a worldly liberal pontificating that Gandhi’s idealism is ridiculously outdated.  The true saviour is technology: the flush toilet will abolish the need for untouchable latrine cleaners.

Today the Indian state reserves a high percentage of places in schools and government jobs for “scheduled castes”, but this often helps only the upper “creamy layer” of dalits, said Raj.  Untouchability was constitutionally abolished in 1950, but it frequently continues in practice, especially in rural areas.  In Rohinton Mistry’s historical novel A Fine Balance (1995), an untouchable tanner in the 1960s bravely trains his sons as tailors.  Upper castes resent this disruption of the time-honoured order.  When one son insists on casting his democratic vote, the family are burned alive and the police refuse to register any case.

Raj was born to illiterate parents in the “unseeable” subcaste and nicknamed “excrement” at school, sometimes even by teachers.  His dad converted to Christianity and he got a job in a leprosy hospital, where the missionaries helped him study.  Raj now reads authors from Indian philosopher Radhakrishnan to post-modern French thinker Foucault, but says he learned more from his own people than from university.

He told us a story from the ancient Rig Veda scripture.  It tells of the cosmic man whose body was split to form the four castes with their respective roles and stations in life:

Head – Brahmin – learning – priests
Shoulders – Kshatriya – fighting – warriors and leaders
Waist – Vaishya – producing – shopkeepers and merchants
Feet – Sudra – serving – farmers and artisans

“Out-castes” don’t even appear in this classification – untouchably excluded from the system.  One of the saddest things I learned in India was that untouchables are divided themselves.  There is an ascending hierarchy of acceptability from animal skinning to tanning to making shoe soles to crafting shoe uppers, as the degree of defiling animal contact decreases.  Mistry’s family of tanners despises removers of “night soil” or toilet waste, and bans them from entering their house.  Untouchables themselves reinforce the system you’d think they would abhor – echoes of Milton’s Satan, “Better to reign in Hell…”

Raj and Jothi are seeking to unite dalits to fight for their rights against the “racism of caste”.  A poster on their wall proclaims, “Dalit rights are human rights: let us cast out caste”.  Dalits relate deeply to the land but lack Western-style ownership, so they are now 90% landless.  Furthermore, village councils are dominated by upper castes, to whom, in the past, dalits provided “unclean” services – like cleaning, grave digging or funeral preparation – for no charge.  REDS has formed new dalit councils to resolve their own conflicts and represent dalit concerns.  They recently required payment for the customary free services.  At first they met hostility and even death threats, but are now more tolerated and even respected by politicians.

Mahatma Gandhi is widely venerated as the “father of the nation” and was esteemed by many British (although Churchill dismissed him as a “half naked fakir”).  So I was surprised to learn that dalits like Raj often view Gandhi as another upper-caste oppressor, even a “Brahmin agent”.  Trying to elevate their status, Gandhi called untouchables “Harijans” or children of God.  Many dalits view this as an insult, as the term referred to the offspring of temple prostitutes.  On 29 October, the daily Times of India newspaper poll asked “Did Gandhi divide India on caste lines?”  49% of respondents said yes, 46% said no, 5% were unsure, and there were heated comments on both sides.  It seems Gandhi’s influence was more complex than I’d realised.

The real hero of India for dalits is Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar.  He studied law in New York, clashed with Gandhi over dalit electorates, and helped frame the Indian Constitution, which Raj believes is just, if only it were implemented without corruption.  I saw statues of Dr Ambedkar as we drove through rural towns, and his picture hanging in the booths of cobblers.  While Gandhi is mostly drawn as a skinny, bare-chested man with a white dhoti wrapped around his waist, Ambedkar is heavily built, with black hair and thick black-rimmed glasses, mostly shown wearing a light blue western suit jacket and (often red) tie.  Journalist Edward Luce sees Gandhi, Ambedkar and Nehru as the three most important figures of 20th-century India, whose influence exceeds “all of India’s gods, software executives and nuclear scientists combined.”

Dr Ambedkar described caste as “an ascending scale of hatred and a descending scale of contempt”.  A crucial question is whether Hinduism can exist without it.  The 19th-century Hindu reform movements saw caste as a surface accretion, to be rejected or less cruelly interpreted.  I’ve heard Hare Krishnas claim the original concept simply reflected different human temperaments.  Those of a studious nature, they explained, are naturally Brahmins, those gifted in leading are Kshatriyas, those preferring commerce are Vaishyas, while artisans are naturally Sudras.

It’s an appealing take, but for many Indians it wouldn’t wash.  Unlike Western class, caste divisions go far deeper as they are based on the law of karma.  It is logically both pointless and impossible to help those who suffer.  Outcastes are simply reaping what past lives have sown, as inexorably as Newtonian physics dictates that every act brings an equal and opposite reaction.  Many believe that there is no Hinduism without the caste system, and in the end, Dr Ambedkar agreed.  In 1956 he publicly led 500,000 dalits in converting to Buddhism, which he chose as a home-grown Indian religion that rejects caste.

Other dalits have converted to Christianity or Islam.  I heard one estimate that 70 to 80% of India’s Christians are descended from dalit or tribal backgrounds, and 90% of India’s Muslims.  Neither faith attains its egalitarian ideals.  Moslems stand shoulder to shoulder in the mosque and pilgrims to Mecca all wear plain white garb to show their equality before God, but many Muslim communities are also divided by caste.

St Paul wrote “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28) and Christ was despised for socialising with the unclean outcasts of the day.  And yet, in most Christian denominations the leadership is overwhelmingly upper caste.  As a friend said, we are supposedly all one in Christ, but some here are one plus and others one minus.  Some churches even have different communion cups, sitting areas and burial sites for dalits, and high caste purity rules prevent women entering church during menstruation or 40 days after giving birth.

There are some stories of hope.  I visited a Christian couple who were excited because their Hindu neighbour, an upper-caste priest’s widow who’d never touched or eaten with them, had recently hugged their daughter when she visited the old lady in hospital.  Another Indian friend told me their pastor often exhorts them to eat with their servants.  But they couldn’t – the psychological barrier was just too great.  To make things worse, dalits who convert to Christianity lose access to state aid, reserved education and jobs because they are no longer officially “scheduled castes” of the Hindu system, and they are often resented by co-dalits as “Rice Christians”.

Anand’s novel almost seems prophetic.  While the historical Jesus may appeal, Christians today have failed to follow his example.  Raj quoted Desmond Tutu (a personal friend): “When the white man first came here, he had the Bible and we had the land”, but after centuries of colonial rule, “we had the Bible and he had the land”.  Gandhi is rejected by many dalits, and revered more in theory than practice by most others.  Technological progress and western urbanisation may do the most to free dalits – American IT companies and global industries are money-driven meritocracies, indifferent to birth.