Friday, January 21, 2011

[ZESTCaste] From Dalits to Divinity: A Hindu Solution

From Dalits to Divinity: A Hindu Solution

Padma KuppaBy Padma Kuppa

As I reflect on the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., by
participating in the MLK Day of Service, I thought of these words from
his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail": "Injustice anywhere is a threat
to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of
mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one
directly, affects all indirectly."

Recently, the Hindu American Foundation, an advocacy group concerned
about issues impacting Hindus in America and around the world,
published a report, "Hinduism: Not Cast in Caste—Seeking an End to
Caste-based Discrimination." HAF (of which I am an Executive Council
member) is a prominent Hindu American organization, and it articulated
its views about caste in this report, so it can be used in
interactions with media, interfaith fora, policymakers,
non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the American public at
large. HAF's report took five years of dedicated research, interaction
with and support from a broad spectrum of scholars and spiritual
leaders from various sampradayas (traditions), and a willingness to
focus inward.

Caste-based discrimination is a problem throughout South Asia today,
and the organization's stand against caste-based discrimination and
birth-based hierarchy outlines how Hinduism can be the solution to the
problem. It also explains how caste is not intrinsic to Hinduism, and
speaks to the complexity of caste in the Indian context, where
political and economic factors are of major impact to the issue. The
report also describes how conversions to Christianity (and other
religions) have not led to an improvement in the situation of
converts, who continue to suffer discrimination at the hands of "upper
caste" Christians, even while missionaries are using caste as a reason
to vilify Hinduism. Supporting documents include a statement from a
Hindu SC community leader in Chattisgarh affirming his pride in
Hinduism, and an article on the plight of Christian Dalits by a
well-known Christian interfaith activist. HAF follows the tradition of
many Hindus and non-Hindus who have worked on social reform to bring
about justice and equality: we are all one human family, "Vasudaiva
kutumbakam"; what affects one of us, affects all of us.

For the foundation for my understanding of caste, I take you to a
comic book of sorts: an Amar Chitra Katha. As a young girl growing up
in America, I loved these picture books; among my favorites (still) is
one titled Adi Shankara. I was young enough to have memories that
seared into my consciousness concepts of social justice, the role of
women, and the importance of family life. The image from the cover of
this Amar Chitra Katha was also etched in my mind: the debate between
Mandana Mishra and Shankara. Mandana Misra's scholarly wife, Ubhaya
Bharati, agreed to serve as the moderator, and one can see these three
primary characters seated on low stools surrounded by an audience,
with two snow-white flower garlands adorning the debaters. These would
be used to determine the winner—the garland of the one whose arguments
didn't hold up would wither away. The book laid out Shankara's advaita
Vedanta—the nondualistic philosophical approach to God found within
Hinduism—as it chronicled some other key points in his life story.

The book also illustrated how Shankara composed Manisha Panchakam. A
man who did the work of cremation (a chandala, an outcaste) approached
this great 8th-century Hindu saint, who had bathed and was on his way
to the temple in Varanasi. When Shankara's disciples demand that he
move out of the way, per the practices of those days, the outcaste
asks, "What should I move, my Self (the divine consciousness in each
person) or my self, represented by one's body and flesh?" From this
simple story, I understood that there is divinity within each one of
us, regardless of who we are born to, and what job we do.

So when I moved to India at the end of tenth grade, I believed that
your actions and your words are what determine where you fit into
society, and then I learned that it wasn't that easy, that people
still practice birth-based caste, the practice is not confined to
Hindus, and caste in India is complicated by factors too complex to
cover in a thousand-word essay.

Fast forward a few decades, and I have become an active member of the
community where I live, volunteering and working in various ways to
improve the quality of life of those around me. I have become an
ambassador of sorts for my faith, serving as the Hindu voice at
interfaith events, participating in service and social justice events,
giving lectures and presentations on Hindu beliefs and practices, all
while promoting pluralism and promoting understanding of "the other."
I usually let people know it's okay to ask me about anything, and in
the top five I usually end up with questions on caste, on arranged
marriages, and the bindi (the dot on my forehead). So how thankful I
am that I am able to provide not only my Amar Chitra Katha and
Shankara's Manisha Panchakam (taught to me by the Temple's senior
priest), but now a professional research report from HAF, along the
lines of our annual "Hindus in South Asia and the Diaspora: A Survey
of Human Rights."

In his letter from the Birmingham jail, MLK exhorted his fellow
Christian ministers to uphold the legacy of the gospel of Jesus
Christ, and pointed out that "there is a type of constructive,
nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth." The HAF position,
highlighting a gap between countless Hindu scriptures and teachings,
which recognize and respect the divinity in all beings, and the
practice of caste in the treatment of many fellow Hindus, has created
tension. Sometimes intra-faith conversations are harder than the
inter-faith ones.

Quoting HAF's Associate Director Jay Kansara, "just as Dr. King
believed that Christian principles and this nation's founding ideals
of democracy and freedom proved segregation and racism to be wrong, we
believe by proper interpretation and adherence to Hindu scriptures and
ideals, Hindu society can overcome this tragedy. I am confident that
if Dr. King were alive today, he would have read the report and would
give HAF his unequivocal endorsement of it."

Let us hope that the tension created by HAF's report helps Hindu
Americans grow, and that we are able to help our Hindu brothers and
sisters around the world, and promote justice and equality.

Padma Kuppa is a writer, IT professional, community activist, wife,
and mother working to build a more pluralistic society within a Hindu
and interfaith framework. You can also read her blog A Balancing Act,
at The views represented in this column are
not a reflection of the views of any organization of which she is a

Kuppa's column, "Seeking Shanti," is published on alternate Thursdays
on the Hindu portal:


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