August 29, 2012

Dispatch Abroad: From Brahmins to Untouchables

This past week was Navratri (nine nights), in which nine different forms of Shiva are worshipped and no one is allowed to eat eggs. I’m not sure why this is yet, but I’ll let you know when I am. My home-stay doors are still decorated with flowers and the floors with intricate Hindu murals made from rangoli, a sticky powder-like substance. Songs sung in unison echo throughout our flat and into the city as families do puja for the last time.

Alas, now the holiday is over, and it’s go-time for our research projects.

Now since my research is on the Hindu caste system, and since the caste system is still a huge part of Indian society (even though it was ‘abolished’ 60 years ago), I think it would be good to attempt to explain roughly how it works. While infinitely more complex than this explanation, it is basically divided into four varnas, corresponding (as it was explained to me) with the parts of the body: Brahmins (intellectual and priestly caste; associated with the head/brain), Kshatriyas (warrior and kingly caste; associated with the chest/arms/upper body) Vaishyas (merchant caste; associated with the genitals and therefore materialistic desires) and the Shudras (service caste; associated with the legs and therefore toil and labor).

Below the Shudras and outside the cycle of reincarnation are the Untouchables, or the Ati-Shudras. These are associated with the feet, which in Indian culture are considered the vilest part of the body. In fact, if you accidentally touch another person with your foot, there’s a specific gesture you are expected to do in order to apologize in which you put your hand on your heart while looking down, extend your hand outwards and then bring it back towards your heart.

Many foreigners mistake caste as similar to class, when it is not really like it at all. With class, you have mobility. Caste, on the other hand, is something you’ve inherited from birth, and it is your duty, or dharma, to follow your caste’s regulations until you die. If you do not, you end up an outcast of society. This is, interestingly enough, how the Untouchable community was created. They are all descendants of those who greatly violated their dharma when they were in a higher caste, and were therefore rejected from the caste system altogether.

I’m doing research on Dalit feminist literature (songs and poetry) and the caste system in the state of Maharashtra. The term ‘Dalit’ literally means “the oppressed,” and it is the title now preferred by one of the groups in Indian society that were once known as Untouchables.

Caste was partly divided according to occupation, and the Untouchables traditionally were the “caste” that disposed of human feces, cleaned floors and swept streets and disposed of the dead. The Dalits are still suffering under incredibly inhumane treatment in rural areas.

In urban areas, if you ask most people on the street here that will understand your English about the caste system, they will say that it was abolished at independence and it’s no longer an issue today, while there are actually entire slums of Dalits living on the other side of the city where you will find virtually no upper-caste Brahmins. It is similar to the way in which many Americans talk about racism as if it were a problem existing only in pre-1960s America, while urban low-income areas tell a very different story.

The Dalit movement represents the attempt to abolish the caste system completely and liberate the Untouchable community, as well as to facilitate Dalit culture and expression.

So now you know a little bit more about the caste system. Like most religious practices and dogmas, it is an indubitably awe-inspiring, complex and absolutely horrifying human achievement that many people are trying to reform while still maintaining their religious culture. In the end, it seems the struggle is not all that much different than the one we all are having with the eminent approach of modernity.

Be well, Galesburg. Namaskaar.

Sam Brownson
Sam Brownson ’12 majored in philosophy and minored in anthropology and sociology. This is his second year copy editing for TKS; he is also currently a post-baccalaureate fellow in music and theater and will be composing the music for two productions as part of Knox’s Repertory Theatre Term. A self-described grammar Nazi, Sam worked as a TKS reporter and as a writer and editor for his high school newspaper before joining the TKS editorial staff. He also manages social media for Brownson Properties in Holland, Mich.

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