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January 7, 2005 8:07 AM   Subscribe

Members of India's lowest caste, the untouchables, are now finding that they're unaidable, as well.
posted by mr_crash_davis (110 comments total)

 
Another sign that in tsunami-land, the all-for-one-and-one-for-all honeymoon is over. The little bits of good news these folks could point to are, finally, washing away.

The first time I heard about some sickos gathering up tsunami orphans for the child sex trade, I was shocked. Even in the depths of disaster, it can get worse.
posted by LondonYank at 8:18 AM on January 7, 2005


That is completely disgusting and absurd. I understand the cultural and religious aspects of the caste system, but I would think that when a massive disaster literally levels your society, that it would sort of merge into the background.
posted by mrs.pants at 8:19 AM on January 7, 2005


I hate to say this to a rich beautiful culture full of intelligent people, but--

Please grow up, already!


Although, hunger is hunger....
posted by sourwookie at 8:21 AM on January 7, 2005


Sorry about the comma abuse.
posted by sourwookie at 8:22 AM on January 7, 2005


I would like to believe this a case of the supply of aid still being worked out and encountering a few hiccups, but it seems unlikely. The caste system is disgusting on a number of levels, but to see it be used in this situation to further hurt people already suffering is vile. If only the karma the upper caste believe in was true, and would condemn them to a painful, screaming death.
posted by Vaska at 8:27 AM on January 7, 2005


That's...really unpleasant.
posted by unreason at 8:28 AM on January 7, 2005


Yikes, this sucks! But I don't understand how a faith actually classes it's believers in the first place. Is this their god's command?

/ignorance
posted by LouReedsSon at 8:34 AM on January 7, 2005


Lou, as I understand (and I'm not an expert), your caste is determined by the family you are born to. The family you are born to is in turn determined by your karma from past lives. So untouchables are said to be born into a low caste because they have done bad things in a previous life.
posted by unreason at 8:38 AM on January 7, 2005


Americans like to think that faith is the cause of these problems, but it's economics son--Israel, Sri Lanka, Indonesia--the rich tend to shit on the poor, always, and we fat and happy few cover it over by saying, "Jeez, these religious fanatics are just nuts!"

/on preview: Marx still makes a lot of sense.
posted by bardic at 8:39 AM on January 7, 2005


LouReedsSon:

Not really. It's because of the belief in karma, that the better you are, the better your reincarnation will be, and the worse you are, the worse off you'll be. As such, the children of the rich obviously led good past lives, otherwise karma would not reward them with riches and comfort, and the children of criminals and the poor must have led bad lives, or karma would not have cursed them with poverty. Same goes for serious diseases, etc. The gods don't really enter into the equation.
posted by Bugbread at 8:41 AM on January 7, 2005


Shoulda closed "lazy..."

Just went deeper into that Wikipedia link. I'll never get over how people manipulate anything including their faiths to make it suit/benefit them.

Second sourwookie's "grow up already."
posted by LouReedsSon at 8:41 AM on January 7, 2005


The gods don't really enter into the equation.

But bugbread, I'm confused. If the gods don't enter into it, then who decides whether you've been good or bad, and rates your karma appropriately?
posted by unreason at 8:42 AM on January 7, 2005


From what I gather, nobody. It's a natural process, the same way that nobody decides that gravity pulls instead of pushes, or that the sun is hot instead of cold.

That may not apply in all cases, though, because there are an amazing number of schools of thought/religion, and lots have opposing doctrines. But from what I understand, generally it's taken as a natural process.
posted by Bugbread at 8:45 AM on January 7, 2005


So, it's sort of like hot air rising to the top of a building? Good karma causes people to rise in birth?
posted by unreason at 8:47 AM on January 7, 2005


I thought "untouchables" were outside of the caste system (and properly outlawed long ago). But it's been awhile since my comparative religion class...
posted by schustafa at 8:48 AM on January 7, 2005


Maybe this is obvious, but how can you tell who is an Untouchable? If there are thousands of misplaced persons, how can people in the camps tell what caste strangers belong to? Are there differences in appearance?
posted by Bella Sebastian at 8:48 AM on January 7, 2005


I don't think they do, unreason. Sounds to me like nothing more than centuries old bigotry.

sigh.
posted by LouReedsSon at 8:49 AM on January 7, 2005


AFAIK, the caste system is a corruption of varnashrama dharma. The problem of individual differences - many people that would be happier in a high energy physics job would find a food service job hellish, and vice versa - is reconciled by a class system based on intellectuals, warriors, farmers, and artisan/workers. The inevitable ordering of high to low caste is supposed to be counterbalanced by the fact that they worship the same God and with reincarnation going on a soul can get a chance at a higher/different caste in the next life. The emphasis is on one's role in society.

The intellectuals are considered the highest and are supposed to be respected by the lower castes but this is counterbalanced by a responsibility to the lower classes. same with kings and leaders, who are below the intellectuals caste-wise but rule them governmentally. a sudra (artisan/worker class) may have to pay respect, and taxes, and whatnot, to the higher classes, but this is in theory counterbalanced by having less in the way of responsibility to others, and they are supposed to be cared for and their interests guarded by the warriors farmers and intellectuals.

The problem comes when your caste is fully determined by birth, and the corruption of dharma in kali yuga.

All in all, an interesting approach to the people are different but need to be treated equally conundrum that is just as corrupted as all the others.
posted by 31d1 at 8:50 AM on January 7, 2005


What bugbread said. The untouchables are something like the spiritual lepers of Hinduism (and by the way, all of us who aren't Hindus are untouchables too). This won't make the actions of the higher caste assholes mentioned in the article seem much better, but spiritual pollution is a big deal in Hinduism, and a person and a place can get polluted in a number of ways. The untouchables are a big source of pollution and if one was say, let into one's kitchen, it'd take a lot of purifying to sanitise the place. No doubt the behaviour we're reading about partly stems from outright cruelty and scorn, but also from spiritual self-preservation.

Someone can correct me if I'm wrong on this. I've never been over there, it's just what I've been taught.
posted by picea at 8:50 AM on January 7, 2005


So, it's sort of like hot air rising to the top of a building? Good karma causes people to rise in birth?

Unreason: From what I gather, pretty much.

I don't think they do, unreason. Sounds to me like nothing more than centuries old bigotry.

LouReedsSon: Oh, come on now, you know what Unreason meant. "Within the context of Hinduism, it's sort of like hot air rising to the top of a building? Good karma causes people to rise in birth?"

This particular situation involves Hinduism, so this is a bit off-topic, but: Therevada Buddhism doesn't even posit the existence of gods (doesn't deny them either, but they are implicitly denied), but takes the existence of karma for granted (and, in fact, pretty much a central pillar of teachings, though its results are far, far different from the caste system. The opposite, almost.)

Wiki, however, has set me right: "Karma in Hinduism, differs from Buddhism and Jainism as it involves the role of God."
posted by Bugbread at 9:02 AM on January 7, 2005


Wiki -> Wikipedia, sorry.
posted by Bugbread at 9:03 AM on January 7, 2005


As such, the children of the rich obviously led good past lives, otherwise karma would not reward them with riches and comfort...

Funny how that works, a system set up to ensure that the rich and powerful stay that way forever and ever, and never have to think twice about it, because they were so damn virtuous in their past lives.
posted by The Card Cheat at 9:06 AM on January 7, 2005


Maybe this is obvious, but how can you tell who is an Untouchable? If there are thousands of misplaced persons, how can people in the camps tell what caste strangers belong to? Are there differences in appearance?

My East-Indian friend told me it was based on name. Their last names are indiciative of what caste they're in. I could have this wrong though.
posted by LunaticFringe at 9:07 AM on January 7, 2005


Being born pre-pissed-on-from-a-great-height makes the doctrine of original sin seem quite sane by comparison.
posted by scruss at 9:07 AM on January 7, 2005


Bella Sebastian: In a small enough community, most people would know who belonged to what caste by their occupation and where they lived. Even more obvious is that you can generally tell what caste someone is from by their family surname. In the chaos, my guess is that discrimination is based on a previous recoginition or by virtue of having the wrong name. On preview, what Lunatic Fringe said.
posted by ch3ch2oh at 9:09 AM on January 7, 2005


It's becoming apparent that Buddhism is, as far as organized religions go, where it's at. You never hear about Buddhists shooting abortionists, or blowing up buses, or denying aid to others due to superstitious beliefs, or starting wars...

...I'm onto something here....

/off-topic
posted by The Card Cheat at 9:12 AM on January 7, 2005


Another reason why Buddhism is so rad is because it came about as a reaction against he urban, static social hierarchy of Vedism. Siddhartha basically thought it was shit, so he said that a person should be valued based on who they are and how far they can understand themselves, as opposed to the social group they were supposedly born into.
posted by bardic at 9:13 AM on January 7, 2005


"They pull a knife, you pull a gun. They send one of yours to the hospital, you send one of theirs to the morgue. That's the Chicago way!"

Oh, wait. Different Untouchables.
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 9:14 AM on January 7, 2005


That's a pretty good summation of the Bush Doctrine, Fuzz.
posted by The Card Cheat at 9:18 AM on January 7, 2005


LouReedsSon: Oh, come on now, you know what Unreason meant.

I was referring to his previous post about gods entering into, yadda... Shoulda previewed!

But I still read that the caste system started more or less to exclude, which equals bigotry to me.
posted by LouReedsSon at 9:23 AM on January 7, 2005


Some people see Buddha as not so much reacting against the Vedas as coming to stop increasingly corrupt readings of the Vedas. For example - eating meat was generally prohibited, but there were provisions for animal sacrifice on certain occasions, in which the sacrificial animal would then be eaten. This led to a cottage industry of quick and dirty "animal sacrifices" mumbled over by a priest, so a family could have a legal goat for dinner. So Buddhas purpose (according to this reading) was to get people out of that lawyerish rut and back to the basic precepts - from which perhaps a more honest reading of the Vedas could be then reintroduced.

The Hindu pantheon in this regard is pretty far out - as God is always coming to Earth for one reason or another, and each avatar has followers, and followers of other avatars will offer up an explanation such as above for why they follow another set of principles.

The faith in which i was raised accepts Caitanya Mahaprabhu (bengal c.500 yrs ago) as the latest avatar, superseding all before him, bringing the dharma for todays modern yuga. And BTW, he was known - and censured for - treating untouchables just as well as anyone else.
posted by 31d1 at 9:31 AM on January 7, 2005


Buddhism is so rad is because it came about as a reaction

Yes, but bear in mind that's true of most religions at their inception. If people actually heard what Jesus said and really thought about that, I bet things would be different. From what 31d1 said, same deal with the caste system.

Same deal everywhere - someone wakes up a bit and says "hey! look around! be conscious! Try to be engaged and not be a jerk! Try to figure yourself out!" ...Two centuries later the world is full of "HeyLookAroundians" telling you how to Figure Yourself Out, imposing doctrinaire rules on How To Be Engaged in the World. And coming up with justifications for being evil to poor or different people, as we see here.

Having said that, I do find Buddhism a little less offensive than most organized religion. But still rife (rife I say!) with BS - all the best buddhist writing always leaves me thinking: "Well hmm. If I really believe this, the best thing to do is put the book down, go outside and have some fun - and stop thinking about buddhism..."
posted by freebird at 9:31 AM on January 7, 2005


Funny how that works, a system set up to ensure that the rich and powerful stay that way forever and ever, and never have to think twice about it, because they were so damn virtuous in their past lives.

Not quite. It ensures that a rich person stays rich and powerful until they die. That's it. If they were an asshole, they will be reborn as Untouchable. And if an asshole is really good, he will be reborn as a rich person. The newborn child of a rich person is just as likely to have been a good, honest, loving 80 year old untouchable dying of cancer last month as it is to have been a good, honest, loving 80 year old rich person.

And they do have to think twice, three times, four times about it, because the ladder goes up and down. They got to be rich because of their good past deeds, but if they decide that they can now use their power to deny, for example, food and shelter to people affected by a tsunami, then when they die they're going to get what they deserve.

I'm not trying to justify the caste system, but to explain how approaching it from the Western concept of ruling and rich classes (i.e. focussing on bloodlines and classes rather than individuals) doesn't work too well with karma, because we think of the children of the rich being essentially the same as the rich, and the children of the poor as being essentially the same as the poor, without mixing. With karma, the children of the rich may be the formerly poor, and the children of the poor may be the formerly rich.
posted by Bugbread at 9:42 AM on January 7, 2005


sickos gathering up tsunami orphans for the child sex trade
Is there a proven case here. Because the reports I've heard have no proof.
posted by thomcatspike at 9:43 AM on January 7, 2005


That's a pretty good summation of the Bush Doctrine, Fuzz.

Damnit, Card Cheat-- the man reached deep into his personal stash of $13,000,000 and was able to cough up $10,000 for the tsunami victims. That's good Karma, baby!
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 9:46 AM on January 7, 2005


The caste system is an abomination, as if anybody needed to point that out. But where is the outrage from the "civilized" West? We're too concerned about offending anybody to take a stance against the misogynist Muslims or the classist Hindus, because that would be racist.

Cultural imperialism is not always a bad thing. We should have the refinement to say on one hand, colonialism/racism was historically a bad thing, but on the other hand to say that these practices (by the "oppressed") are primitive and barbaric and have no reason to exist in today's world, fuck whatever your religion/culture says about it.

Being oppressed does not justify moral righteousness. Yes, the European colonialists did many horrible things. But the people they oppressed cannot claim any moral superiority on that basis alone.

Too bad the British couldn't civilize the Indians completely, at least on this point.
posted by aerify at 9:48 AM on January 7, 2005


It's becoming apparent that Buddhism is, as far as organized religions go, where it's at. You never hear about Buddhists shooting abortionists, or blowing up buses, or denying aid to others due to superstitious beliefs, or starting wars...

You do hear about them releasing poisonous gas in the subways, burning down catholic churches, and killing off political enemies (check any history of Tibet). And in Japanese history, there's plenty of war to tide you over as well.

Freebird is right on the money. Most of the religions are fine at their incept, and then get pretty warped.

Ah, and Freebird:

all the best buddhist writing always leaves me thinking: "Well hmm. If I really believe this, the best thing to do is put the book down, go outside and have some fun - and stop thinking about buddhism..."

I take it that you've mostly studied Chinese/Japanese Buddhism (Chan/Zen), then. If you study the older stuff (Pali writings), there's a hell of a lot less of that "enjoy nature, forget the Buddha, realize your Buddha nature" stuff, and a lot more discipline and concentration. Unlike Chan/Zen, it's really really easy to understand, and hard to implement.
posted by Bugbread at 9:50 AM on January 7, 2005


31d1 and freebird: Very well said. I get paid to teach this stuff (albeit in the watered down context of "World Civilizations,") so I appreciate the thoughtfulness!
posted by bardic at 9:56 AM on January 7, 2005


You never hear about Buddhists shooting abortionists, or blowing up buses, or denying aid to others due to superstitious beliefs, or starting wars...

Some of that is just not hearing about it, or forgetting who are, or claim to some degree to be, Buddhist. The record of the Buddhist lamas' rule of Tibet is far from sunny, not that the PRC has done well either, and the ongoing dispute in Sri Lanka pits the majority Buddhist Sinhalese against the Hindu Tamils. If you went back to the 1930s and 40s, you'd also find a large number of at least part-believer or part-practitioners of (Zen) Buddhism doing some ugly things in the Co-Prosperity Sphere.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:56 AM on January 7, 2005


Too bad the British couldn't civilize the Indians completely, at least on this point.

Lord knows there's no caste system in England.
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 9:58 AM on January 7, 2005


Lord knows there's no caste system in England.

A systematic social structure that blatantly discriminates against and oppresses an entire class of people who have nowhere to turn to? God no. Britain has a legal and social system that protects people from discrimination of all sorts.

The fact that you can even begin to THINK of comparing racism/sexism in Britain to the problem in India - they are just so different in magnitude and scope that the very idea is just offensive.
posted by aerify at 10:07 AM on January 7, 2005


You never hear about Buddhists shooting abortionists, or blowing up buses, or denying aid to others due to superstitious beliefs, or starting wars...

If Michael Parenti is to be believed, Buddhists aren't all the happy, peaceful people they claim to be.
posted by cmonkey at 10:08 AM on January 7, 2005


I hate to break it to you, but the Buddhists in Sri Lanka have killed plenty of Tamils in communal rioting.
posted by chunking express at 10:08 AM on January 7, 2005


Tell me, if you are of a lower class in Britain, and you try to assert your rights as a citizen, would others come and rape your family, beat you up, and burn down your house? No?

And should that happen, would you have no legal recourse, because the authorities do not care about your plight?

Give me a fucking break.
posted by aerify at 10:09 AM on January 7, 2005


Yes. Buddists suck. Hindus suck. Muslims suck. Christians suck.

I don't think we should be playing the "this religion is better than that one" game. All religions are equally despicable when you start analyzing what their adherents do in the name of that religion. If you're a pragmatist, that is, and judge a religion by what the believers do, instead of trying to separate the reality from some "ideal" that can never be tarnished.
posted by aerify at 10:15 AM on January 7, 2005


Too bad the British couldn't civilize the Indians completely, at least on this point.

Give me a fucking break. God knows the British are civilized. They did a good enough job butchering Indians to show it.
posted by chunking express at 10:18 AM on January 7, 2005


I really disagree aerify--obviously, some nutjob can commit horrible acts in the name of any god or creed, but there are quantifiable differences between the doctrines. For example, I consider Christianity to be one of the more morally reprehensible doctrines ever, because it's by definition exclusionary, i.e., if you don't accept Jesus, you go to hell. Judaism and Islam, at least as written down, sort of scoff at non-Jews and non-Muslims, but they don't say that these people are doomed to eternal suffering. Buddhism is even better, because it's really about finding your own place and not judging others.

Simplistic of me? Certainly a bit, but I don't agree that we should just throw up our hands and say all religions suck the same. Indeed, some suck much worse than others.
posted by bardic at 10:21 AM on January 7, 2005


1. God blesses the rich cause they were good in previous lives.

2. Get everyone to believe that the above statement is true.

3. Profit!

Religion has been fucking things up since it was invented.
posted by MotherTucker at 10:25 AM on January 7, 2005


chunking express: Give me a fucking break. God knows the British are civilized. They did a good enough job butchering Indians to show it.

Did you read my post at all? I said that we should have the foresight to say on the one hand, colonialism was evil/bad, but that doesn't mean we can sit back and ignore the evil/bad things done on the other side. Being oppressed does not give you a free pass to oppress your own.
posted by aerify at 10:25 AM on January 7, 2005


Too bad the British couldn't civilize the Indians completely, at least on this point.
posted by aerify at 11:48 AM CST on January 7

I don't think we should be playing the "this religion is better than that one" game.
posted by aerify at 12:15 PM CST on January 7


Then why are you playing the "this culture is better than that one" game, asshole?
posted by goethean at 10:27 AM on January 7, 2005


(Long. Sorry!)

It's my understanding that the caste system was originally instituted by the Aryans to limit interbreeding with the "dravidian" dark-skinned people native to the sub-continent. Vedic Hinduism, Sanskrit, even the idea that the cow is sacred are all Aryan in origin, I believe. Of course, the religions and philosophies of India that Westerners know simply as "Hinduism" have evolved over thousands of years. Many of the old Vedic gods are no longer worshipped, but interestingly/unfortunately the caste system is still alive and well.

It's true that untouchables aren't even part of the caste system. They aren't the lowest rung on the ladder. They're not even on the fucking ladder. And it's true that Westerners not born into the caste system are untouchable, too, but Westerners in India aren't treated like dalits, of course, because we have money and a special prestige. This was probably not the case before the British colonized India.

I've always had mixed feelings about the caste system. On one hand, if you accept that all societies will organize themselves hierarchically, that there will always be people on the top, in the middle and on the bottom, the caste system really simplifies and streamlines things. There's no need for class struggle or warfare. It must be very socially stabilizing in that way. You're born knowing your station in life and what your role will be, and because of the notion of karma, it is just as it should be. You can live your life being the best high priest or best rag picker you can be, confident that you are fulfilling your destiny in a just and ordered universe. When one considers that there's definitely a class system in the US (albeit an informal one)and that statistically, you're likely to die in the class you were born in, the caste system seems a little less repugnant--or highlights just how repugnant the class system in the US is.

That said, the treatment of people of lower castes and (especially) dalits is truly despicable. A member of a high caste is supposed to have certain responsibilities to people of lower castes. And while a person's "bad" karma may be the ultimate cause of that person's suffering, that doesn't give me license throw up my hands and say, "well, they get what they deserve, I'm not helping!"--unless I want to accumulate bad karma myself.

Anyway, as to the topic at hand, yes, this is horrible and very sad. I suppose it would be too much to ask for there to be a relief fund specifically for the dalits that I could donate to. It's clearly too much to ask that human beings stop trying to dominate and fuck each other over...
posted by apis mellifera at 10:27 AM on January 7, 2005


The fact that you can even begin to THINK of comparing racism/sexism in Britain to the problem in India

Actually, I was comparing classism in England to classism in India. My point being that both societies have pretty stratified social systems. No need to get your knickers in a twist.

*strokes aerify's hair, makes soothing ocean noises*
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 10:31 AM on January 7, 2005


aerify, are you for real?

I'm not defending anything or anyone. I'm just not stupid enough to think the British are in anyway morally superior to most anyone. They spent a good part of the last several hundred years fucking the world. They are in no position to impose the 'civility' on India.

The caste system is bad. Discrimination based on the Caste system is banned in India. I think this has been the case since Ghandi won the country Independence. Just like it took many years for racism to 'disappear' in the west, it will take many years for things to change in India. And much like how much of rural Britain is probably still racist as fuck, in India you will find rural Indians clinging to old doctrines.

If you want to pick up the White man's burden go right ahead.

But please, stop talking out of your ass.
posted by chunking express at 10:34 AM on January 7, 2005


Oh, and while they were butchering the Indians, at least they were able to stop some of their more barbaric practices like sati.

Why must be have a black-and-white picture of morality?

goethean: Then why are you playing the "this culture is better than that one" game, asshole?

I'm not. Where did I say that? My reference to the British "civilizing" Indians did not imply a moral superiority on their part, although I could have phrased it better. The British were able to eliminate other native practices we call "barbaric" - I was simply bringing attention to that point. By no means was I saying the British were right, or their culture is superior, for what they did in India.
posted by aerify at 10:39 AM on January 7, 2005


Damn...I go away for lunch and come back to find my cherished (mis)conceptions about the one organized religion I didn't find reprehensible trashed. Consider my ill-informed ass corrected.

And they do have to think twice, three times, four times about it, because the ladder goes up and down.

Point taken, but I'm guessing that anyone who would deny aid to members of a lower caste isn't thinking hard enough about their karma and its effect on their next life.
posted by The Card Cheat at 10:40 AM on January 7, 2005


Discrimination based on the Caste system is banned in India. I think this has been the case since Ghandi won the country Independence.

It's Gandhi.

Yes, and there are strong affirmative action-like programs, which mandate quotas of dalits into educational programs, and which are resented by even the most progressive of Indians.
posted by goethean at 10:42 AM on January 7, 2005


bugbread: And they do have to think twice, three times, four times about it, because the ladder goes up and down. They got to be rich because of their good past deeds, but if they decide that they can now use their power to deny, for example, food and shelter to people affected by a tsunami, then when they die they're going to get what they deserve.

However, virtue in this ideology is defined as living your life according to the ritual obligations of your caste or dharma. There is a passage in the Mahabharata where one of the heros is angsting over the coming battle, and a god says something to the effect of, "your dharma is to be a warrior, not fighting would be a crime." A lot of that is bound up into caste-based taboos. Since the untouchables work at professions that are unclean, they become unclean by association.

So while I think that you are right in that it is misleading to think about caste as equivalent to european class due to karma, I also think that it is misleading to ignore that dharma puts a bit of a different spin on what is defined as good and bad.

I've also heard interpretations of the gospels that suggest that this kind of caste system enforced by ritual taboos is the key to understanding the good Samaritan and the woman at the well.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:44 AM on January 7, 2005


Being oppressed does not justify moral righteousness. Yes, the European colonialists did many horrible things. But the people they oppressed cannot claim any moral superiority on that basis alone.

Too bad the British couldn't civilize the Indians completely, at least on this point.


Actually, being oppressed does make you morally superior to those who have oppressed you. It all comes down to choice, you don't have a choice in being oppressed and someone else chose to oppress you. Much greater moral culpability for a bad situation would go to the person with choice. It doesn't mean that the oppressed get a free pass or are automatically saints, but to assume that oppressors and oppressed are on the same moral plane is nonsensical.

Also, part of the problem with the caste system is that in Indian, prior to the arrival of the British, the caste system was much more fluid as different groups would jockey and vie for power. There are examples of Brahmins working for lower-caste merchants, or tribal "outcasts" that were able to seize military power and make themselves into Rajputs, high caste warriors. When the British arrived and made their census, they relied on their scribes, the Brahmins, from whom they got a very biased interpretation of the social order. Also, the census served to calcify the existing order much more so than it had ever been before. To say that the caste system is something that the British should have rooted out is wrong, the caste system is something that the British transformed and re-enforced. Divide and conquer and all that.

The caste system as it exists is despicable and I am hopeful that it will continue to erode away as India joins the world.

As to the point about the failure of the British to civilize India - that's pure flame-bait.
posted by rks404 at 10:45 AM on January 7, 2005


I dunno--I know many of the American Buddhists I have met have been just as petty and unattractive in their actions and beliefs as many of the Christian folk they deride. There's nothing like hearing a Buddhist convert ridiculing the "stupid Catholics" who believe in the virgin birth...or "stupid rednecks" who believe in Christ's ressurection, when as Buddists they believe that the Dali Lama is reincarnated over and over in the form of a six year old boy, and that one could be reincarnated as a bug in the next life. It's kind of like, "My fairy tale beliefs make me hip, and your fairy tale beliefs make you an idiot!"
posted by availablelight at 10:45 AM on January 7, 2005


freebird, Let me be the first to sign up as a Heylookaroundian - where would you like the temple?
posted by OneOliveShort at 10:49 AM on January 7, 2005


rks404: As to the point about the failure of the British to civilize India - that's pure flame-bait.

It was badly phrased and I could have said what I meant in different words. I take it back and apologize if anybody was offended.
posted by aerify at 10:51 AM on January 7, 2005


aerify - good form, old chap!
posted by rks404 at 10:56 AM on January 7, 2005


I sort of expected this would go badly . . .

First off, picea, "all of us" are not untouchables in the sense the Dalit are. We are "out-caste" - literally without caste. A very different thing. Your average Westerner is seen by your average devout Hindu as a curiosity, a person with the wealth and power of a Brahmin but none of the inborn social status. The British wouldn't have been able to rule India for a couple of centuries (and earn aerify's deeply misguided admiration) if they'd been seen socially as equivalent to the Dalit.

As for how God plays into this, that question - right down to the issue of which god - varies wildly from Hindu to Hindu. Most of the people at a Hindu religious ceremony can't even understand the Sanskrit the Brahmin is saying, but might at the same time attribute a turn of good fortune to Shiva or the devestation of the tsunami to an angry local diety. More generally, karma is seen by many I think as a religious thing but also deeper than religion, as automatic and unchangeable as the weather, which brings us to the real problem in this thread . . .

So - with the qualifier that I'm trying to explain why the Dalit are treated as they are and why this is not particularly barbaric by Indian standards, not justify it - here's the thing about the caste system: it is not just religious kookiness. It's way deeper. It is the social/cultural/political/economic structure that keeps a huge nation with all manner of massively corrupt and incompetent governments functioning. For the vast majority of Indians, it is about as easy to put aside in times of crisis as the forces of nature that cause the disasters.

This is very, very difficult for a Westerner without direct experience of it to understand, and very, very easy for a smug Westerner to feel self-righteous about. About the best analogue - not equivalent, but in the same vein - would be, say, private property. Did New Yorkers give away the deeds to their property in the aftermath of 9/11? Of course not. Unthinkable. You help your neighbours as best you can, but your property is your property, forever and ever amen. Same, for many Indians, with the caste system. The very idea of putting it aside is beyond the pale.

Anyway, there's my two cents, based on a year of living in one part of India and traveling in others. I've no doubt the system functions differently in certain parts of the tsunami-stricken coast than it does in others, and no doubt also that the complexities of it are beyond the ken of almost any non-Indian (as so much of Indian society ultimately is).

Apologies for the longwindedness. Just wanted to slow down the self-righteousness train before aerify led it any further into the grim land of xenophobia.

And on preview: apology accepted for that particular choice of words, aerify. But still waiting for you to somehow explain how you could believe that Britain cured India of its "barbarity" without also believing that the British were morally/culturally superior to the Indians.
posted by gompa at 10:57 AM on January 7, 2005


apis, the aryan invasion thing is a myth. I believe it even has some roots in "work" done by Gustav Kossinna, but that's just conjecture off the top of my head. This myth has regularly been used by, for example, white power groups and others to take a crap on India. In this instance, perhaps some Indians deserve to be crapped upon, but not because they "stole" their culture from Aryans (because they didn't).

Others - I believe aerify was referring to the Indian practice of suttee (tossing the still-living wife on the funeral pyre of her dead husband), which the brits put a stop to.
posted by kavasa at 10:58 AM on January 7, 2005


availablelight-- I think yr confusing your Indian religions. Buddhism was a reaction against the Vedic concept of reincarnation. The whole point of Siddhartha's teaching was that life is _not_ an unending cycle of different lives and therefore different pains, and that you got "out" of the cycle by achieving nirvana.

Then again, there are various types of Buddhism, but I'm pretty certain the above is a solid point.

And chalk me up as someone who considers the "virgin birth" to be stupid. Cuz virgins don't give birth. Just a fact. Christianity is a disastrous fraud? That's my opinion.

/On preview: How is self-understanding a "fairy tale"? Again, Christians, when confronted by the ridiculousness of their beliefs, tend to play the "all religions are just as potentially sucky and mythological as all others" card. But no, Christianity really is a worse fairy-tale than others--it states, explicitly, that if you don't accept Christ you burn in hell. What other organized religion states that, doctrinally?
posted by bardic at 11:00 AM on January 7, 2005


gompa: But still waiting for you to somehow explain how you could believe that Britain cured India of its "barbarity" without also believing that the British were morally/culturally superior to the Indians.

Not "cured". I'm just saying, they did have some positive influence regarding social progress. Obviously it pales in comparison to the damage they did there, but like I said, I clearly wanted to avoid the black-and-white view. It's not all bad or all good. I'm not a historian or anything so I can't say anything quantitative on this point.

kavasa, I thought it was spelled "suttee" but Wikipedia told me "sati".
posted by aerify at 11:05 AM on January 7, 2005


If you want to pick up the White man's burden go right ahead.

Haha. I'm not white, by the way. I am one of the "oppressed" races...
posted by aerify at 11:07 AM on January 7, 2005


aerify: Agreed. The British did some good work in India. Built a fine rail system too.

If this is what you mean, you'd communicate it more clearly if you avoid terms like "civilize" and "barbarity" and "primitive." Also "suck," and "fuck," and "give me a fucking break." Really makes you seem more intolerant that you apparently wanted to seem.
posted by gompa at 11:10 AM on January 7, 2005


Judaism and Islam, at least as written down, sort of scoff at non-Jews and non-Muslims, but they don't say that these people are doomed to eternal suffering. Buddhism is even better, because it's really about finding your own place and not judging others.

True, but that's just because Buddhism has an out, in the concept of rebirth, and a second out, in the concept that we are already suffering. So in Buddhism we're already currently fucked, but we have all eternity to get out.

That said, the treatment of people of lower castes and (especially) dalits is truly despicable. A member of a high caste is supposed to have certain responsibilities to people of lower castes. And while a person's "bad" karma may be the ultimate cause of that person's suffering, that doesn't give me license throw up my hands and say, "well, they get what they deserve, I'm not helping!"--unless I want to accumulate bad karma myself.

Bingo.

Point taken, but I'm guessing that anyone who would deny aid to members of a lower caste isn't thinking hard enough about their karma and its effect on their next life.

I agree so hardcore that I'm bothered by your use of the word "but". I'll just imagine you said, "Point taken. So I'm guessing...."

So while I think that you are right in that it is misleading to think about caste as equivalent to european class due to karma, I also think that it is misleading to ignore that dharma puts a bit of a different spin on what is defined as good and bad.

Good call. The only caveat is that, while it is the dharma of a shoe shiner to shine shoes, and not start up a shoe shining company and become rich (unfortunately), it is also the dharma of a rich person to help others up the karmic ladder, and not be a big ole bucket of cocks.

And, while I disagree with aerify, I think a lot of people are missing what he/she was trying to say, which is that it's a shame that the Brits decided to put the end to customs like Sati and then turn around and be total assholes in other ways, instead of putting an end to Sati and getting rid of the caste system. RKS404 understood, though, and put forth a good counterargument.

when as Buddhists they believe that the Dalai Lama is reincarnated over and over in the form of a six year old boy

Well, as an agnostic who thereby doesn't have much of a belief system to be attacked, I have the safe snarking position to say: They're into Tibetan Buddhism? Haha!! Suckers!
posted by Bugbread at 11:16 AM on January 7, 2005


aerify - yeah, I didn't look it up or anything, just guessed.

bardic - depending on flavor of buddhism, it has hells available. Quite a lot of them, actually. I think they come in three varieties: blood, fire, and ice. I think aborted/miscarried fetuses are often imagined as going to one or another as well, unless the saint/boddhisatva Jizo can save them and tuck them in his robes. Also, nonbelievers going to hell is something alot of christians have also been uncomfortable with, which they have addressed in varying ways. It's one of the sources of conflict that drove the creation of so many sects. In other words, trying to claim that there is One Christian Philosophy is, uh, wrong is the word, I think.

And, hehe, the rail system they built was built in large part on ancient bricks from a site called Harappa. The building of those rails destroyed a huge quantity of archeological information.
posted by kavasa at 11:20 AM on January 7, 2005


I very well understand the difference--I have also been told by many Buddhists that not many people achieve Nirvana/perfect enlightment the first time around, making it very likely that one will be (or has been) reincarnated as something/someone else. And I think that's silly.

Virgin birth? Stupid. Thinking a 6 year old boy is a reincarnation of a Dali Lama? Just as stupid. Except Catholics who believe in the immaculate conception don't confuse that belief with "self-understanding." Self understanding, by the way, isn't stupid. But you can also get there with Thomas Merton, Kant, the Jewish mystics, or John Bradshaw. Claiming that the mythology of "reincarnation" or dressing up little boys like prophets is any more reasonable than (much less superior to) other mythologies that the less-hip religions have invented in the past is the kind of one-upsmanship that seems, well, just as low-minded and pedantic as the very traditions American Buddhists claim to repudate.
posted by availablelight at 11:23 AM on January 7, 2005


kavasa, I certainly wouldn't suggest that there's any reality to the Nazi idea that Aryans were a european, superior race that came to dominate the people who were already living on the sub-continent. They were in all probability from the part of the world that is now Iran, right? It may be that my understanding of the history of the area is, indeed wrong. I was always taught that a lot of Vedic culture was largely Aryan culture. If this is true (and I allow for the possibility that it may not be true) it doesn't come close to proving the innate superiority of the Aryans, whoever they were. It's just interesting to me.
posted by apis mellifera at 11:23 AM on January 7, 2005


But still waiting for you to somehow explain how you could believe that Britain cured India of its "barbarity" without also believing that the British were morally/culturally superior to the Indians.

Let me try to field that, while not necessarily agreeing:

Society A is morally/culturally on the same level as Society B. They are not identical, but their average is equal. There are certain barbarous elements in Society A, and certain barbarous elements in Society B. If those don't match up, and Society A takes over Society B, they can cure Society B of its barbarity without being superior. Society B could also take over Society A and cure its barbarity as well.

That's simplified and abstracted, and may not be the case here, but it is "how" that can happen.

The whole point of Siddhartha's teaching was that life is _not_ an unending cycle of different lives and therefore different pains, and that you got "out" of the cycle by achieving nirvana.

Um...As I understand it, it is that life is a cycle of different pains, just that it's not unending. After all, Siddharta's first teaching is, succinctly, "Life is suffering".

On preview: Kavasa, good call on the Buddhist hell thing. I can't believe it slipped my mind, but I've grown accustomed to not considering Japanese Buddhism to be "real" Buddhism. Bad habit, I guess, but I still define religions by the teachings of the religious leader, to the extent that I know them, so I don't really consider most Christians to be practicing Christianity, most Muslims to be practicing Islam, etc. That's my bad habit, though, and you're entirely right.

Also, it's important for people without backgrounds in other religions to understand that there can be a mighty huge gulf between the initial teachings of a religion and its later incarnations. Buddhism happens to have one of the most drastic splits between initial teachings and later beliefs, even wider than the "Christ says turn the other cheek. I'm Christian. I'm going to kill y'all" split.
posted by Bugbread at 11:28 AM on January 7, 2005


Question: Maybe this is obvious, but how can you tell who is an Untouchable?

Answer: It's my understanding that the caste system was originally instituted by the Aryans to limit interbreeding with the "dravidian" dark-skinned people native to the sub-continent

Dark skinned ones are inferior. That's the easiest way to spot the ones God hates. The mud people of God. Now where have I heard that before? William Buckley perhaps?

The caste system is racism then?
posted by nofundy at 11:33 AM on January 7, 2005


Availablelight: Keep in mind that Buddhism got progressively whackier the further it got out from India to the north. If you want to find out stuff that's more "authentic", talk to Thais. Once you go to Nepal, China, Korea, or Japan, the Buddhism you're discussing is as far off from the original teachings as those "Jesus was a space alien ambassador, and I am channeling the spirit of the Emperor of the starsystem Glaktor" religions are to the teachings of Christ.

After having typed that, I'm debating with myself whether that's a fair comparison or if I'm overdoing it, but I'm having a hard time deciding. Take that as you will.
posted by Bugbread at 11:33 AM on January 7, 2005


Re: spelling. My understanding is they are both correct in their way.

sutee would be the English spelling, sati would be the (Hindi?) spelling but should have diacritical marks to be absolutely accurate.

Like for example my name is Srirupa but it should have a line over the i and the u and a dot under the S. Alternatively, I could use Shreeroopa (the English system goes by pronunciation) but I've never liked the looks of it.

So Hindu = Hindoo and etcetera.

Oh yeah and by the way the Aryan invasion theory is becoming increasingly discredited. I don't think many actual scholars believe it much anymore.
posted by 31d1 at 11:33 AM on January 7, 2005


Key word: doctrinally

Christianity: You either accept Jesus as the Messiah or you don't. Those who don't burn in hell.

Are there Xtians who do great things? Of course--but it's a shame they have to trust in a sky-god in order to validate their actions. As an atheist, I've never been arrested, killed someone, or commited rape. But according to Xtians, I'm lower than say a bigot like Jerry Falwell. That's fucked.

As for Buddhism, I'll admit it's something I've always wanted to study more. When I referred to it earlier, I should have stated that the type I admire is the original form as taught by Siddhartha himself (Theravana I believe?). Too often people confuse it with Hinduism, which is much different.

/on preview: "dressing up little boys." I agree. That's stupid. Siddhartha never said anything about it, but late-comers do tend to screw things up with their desire to institutionalize simply, morally edifying truths e.g. know yourself, be kind, avoid suffering.

Essentially, I'm at a point in my life where its clear that religin does a lot more harm than good on every level: personal, global, political, etc. Then again, Augustine was about my age when he stole the fruit and converted, so maybe I'll change. But Bertrand Russell makes a lot more sense to me right now.
posted by bardic at 11:36 AM on January 7, 2005


The problem with all religions is that they were created by humans. stupid, selfish, fucked-up, fallible humans. Political and philosophical systems of all kinds are plagued by the same problems that plague religion. This doesn't mean that religion is valueless.
posted by apis mellifera at 11:40 AM on January 7, 2005


apis mellifera, some people believe that the Aryans entered and conquered the people that were already there, the Dravidians. This camp believes that the Aryans brought Vedic culture with them. Apparently this theory is not held to be true anymore, or its validity is more doubtful now. I think the more common belief now is that the Aryans were always a in the India. When I studied Hinduism in university we were thought both theories, though to be honest I can't recall off hand the reasons one should believe one over the other.

And nofundy, the caste system can be thought of as racist. It is generally true that the darker skinned south indians are usually part of the lower castes.
posted by chunking express at 11:40 AM on January 7, 2005


Dark skinned ones are inferior. That's the easiest way to spot the ones God hates. The mud people of God. Now where have I heard that before? William Buckley perhaps?

You really never stop, do you?
posted by trharlan at 11:45 AM on January 7, 2005


"Jesus was a space alien ambassador, and I am channeling the spirit of the Emperor of the starsystem Glaktor"

I knew it! Finally, I See The Light!

*starts humming and handing out white robes*
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 11:46 AM on January 7, 2005


apis mellifera: The problem with all religions is that they were created by humans. stupid, selfish, fucked-up, fallible humans. Political and philosophical systems of all kinds are plagued by the same problems that plague religion. This doesn't mean that religion is valueless.

What you said is completely meaningless. ALL systems of thought are created by humans. They have no meaning except in the human mind (or minds). It's not a "problem" - you've described what it IS. If the problem with religion is, as you say, that it was created by humans, then all philosophies are worthless. I don't think that's a legitimate argument.

Religion has "value" - in a social sense, as in it serves some function. Whether that function is necessary or even good - that's another argument altogether.

Political and philosophical systems are not plagued with the same problems as religion. Not at all. Philosophy is based on reason and logical thought. Religion is based on faith and specifically REJECTS evidence and logical thought as a basis for its claims. So anything goes. Scientology is non-falsifiable, as is Christianity and Bob the Rain God-ology.
posted by aerify at 12:00 PM on January 7, 2005


Dark skinned ones are inferior. That's the easiest way to spot the ones God hates. The mud people of God. Now where have I heard that before? William Buckley perhaps? --nofundy

Yes, it's ironic that a group of people would embrace a system that was originally meant to keep them OUT.

If you go to India, you'll notice that the skin color does seems to get darker the further south you go. But of course there are Brahmins in southern India. It's not a skin color thing that determines caste anymore (if it ever was--see kasava's comment). Though a few Indian girls I have known regularly use lightening creams to make themselves whiter. Lighter skin is seen as desirable, but I doubt this has anything to do with perceived caste differences. Anyway, it's too bad and I just don't get it. I'm the poster child for the Aryan Nation (blond hair, blue eyes) and I much rather look like someone from south India or Sri Lanka.
posted by apis mellifera at 12:04 PM on January 7, 2005


Political and philosophical systems are not plagued with the same problems as religion. Not at all. Philosophy is based on reason and logical thought. Religion is based on faith and specifically REJECTS evidence and logical thought as a basis for its claims.

Hmm...I can't quite get into that, in that Buddhism was initially a philosophy, and look what it's become. North Korea's twin pillars of communism and juche are philosophical, and look where it got them.

I would say that philosophical systems are less likely to be plagued with the same problems.

Also note that different religions and philophies reject evidence or base themselves on logic to different degrees. There's a buttload of logic in some of the old Vedic schools, and there's a buttload of ignoring evidence in some philosophical schools (what comes to mind most vividly is the ancient Greek idea that projectiles, when fired at an angle, go straight forward until they run out of momentum, and then fall straight down, and the parabolic arcing shape was an optical illusion. They came to that conclusion by basing their conclusions on reason and logical thought, and not objective reality)
posted by Bugbread at 12:18 PM on January 7, 2005


If the problem with religion is, as you say, that it was created by humans, then all philosophies are worthless. I don't think that's a legitimate argument.

Right. My point is that people often have ideas about how to improve things for themselves--better ways to live. Buddhism, Marxism, democracy, utilitarianism, whatever. And these aren't bad ideas, but they are corruptible because people are. I'm certainly sympathetic to the point of view that we must simply do away with religion and live by reason alone, but I don't think it's going to happen. I'm all for the self-correcting sanity of science, but religion is so pervasive and important to people that it will always be around. Yes, it causes suffering, but it also eases suffering.
posted by apis mellifera at 12:27 PM on January 7, 2005


I'm certainly sympathetic to the point of view that we must simply do away with religion and live by reason alone, but I don't think it's going to happen.

And I don't think it can happen, because whenever someone comes up with a good idea, people will glom to that good idea, and start perverting that idea. It happens with everything, not just religion.
posted by Bugbread at 12:44 PM on January 7, 2005


Oh--and Chunking Express--thank you for the clarification on the Aryan thing. I missed your comment before. I'm trying to actually work and simultaneously keep up with the discussion here and I seem to be failing at both! I want to read more on this topic--just who the hell the Aryans were and how much they had to do with Indian culture. If anyone can suggest any books...
posted by apis mellifera at 12:51 PM on January 7, 2005


I'm confused, let's say I'm born onto a high rung on the ladder and then commit some crime such as murder, I am then reborn lower on the ladder or as an untouchable. I understand that.
Does that also mean that in the former life are my offspring and there offspring knocked down the ladder also?
posted by Justin Case at 1:14 PM on January 7, 2005


(I assume you mean "In my latter life, are my offspring and there offspring knocked down the ladder also"?)

Nope. The whole strong focus on family sharing afterlife fates, so prevalent in pop Christianity (when you die, you get to meet grandma in Heaven) isn't nearly as strong. If your kid is good, he goes up, even if you're bad and you go down.

I think you're forgetting that your offspring are not being freshly made, but are other people being reincarnated. So while you may think, in a Western context, "Fine, I get punished, but why do my kids get punished?", in a karmic context, it's "Fine, I get punished, and then I have a kid at the same level as me, who may have been a bad rich person, an average Untouchable, or a really good horse or monkey or something".

Remember that the spectrum does not go from Emperor to Untouchable. It goes from...uh...I don't know what the upper bound is, down to...I dunno here either...worm? Fungus? Not sure. So people being born Untouchable are not necessarily (AFAIK, please correct me if I'm wrong) people who've done bad in a previous life, but people who either moved up to Untouchable from a lower position, down to Untouchable from a higher position, or stayed Untouchable from being pretty neutral in their previous life.
posted by Bugbread at 1:32 PM on January 7, 2005


The Immaculate Conception is not the same as the Virgin Birth (meaning the birth of Jesus). The Immaculate Conception is that of Mary, mother of Jesus. She was conceived without the taint of original sin so as to be a perfect vessel for the birth of the son of God.

I had the catechism beat into me by a lot of angry nuns, so I have a hard time letting that go without comment. I know I'm nitpicking and I apologise.

Both ideas are a bit silly in my opinion.

posted by Elsbet at 1:40 PM on January 7, 2005


Justin - if you commit a crime such as murder - you may have to be reborn in order to be murdered by your murderee. This goes for good deeds as well - I remember reading a (somewhat tongue in cheek) article about how the worst thing you can do is do some sort of favor for a Hindu - because then they are indebted to you for life or more and you will become inextricably involved with them, their family, and their ancestors. do something nice and all the sudden they have to be born again to return the favor in the next life - and they may even secretly resent that. For those trying to avoid karma entirely in order to get to Nirvana, or Vaikuntha, or wherever, it gets exceeding complicated.
posted by 31d1 at 1:43 PM on January 7, 2005


Thanks, another question. So I guess that at some point in the shady past a person's family was either sufficiently poor or rich which determined what level they were in the caste system. This family stays at that level permantly? Can a family lose so much money or have so many bad things happy to it that it loses it's place in the system or v-v?
posted by Justin Case at 1:59 PM on January 7, 2005


I believe Nirvana is primarily Buddhist, in which case you don't try to avoid karma entirely, just bad karma. In Jainism, you try to avoid karma completely.

I am also convinced that Jainism is about the coolest religion in the world.
posted by Bugbread at 1:59 PM on January 7, 2005


I don't know why I would not use spell check before I hit post.
"Happy to it" that should read "happen to it"
posted by Justin Case at 2:01 PM on January 7, 2005


Justin: Yep, it pretty much stays at that position permanently, unless some type of god steps in by doing something like having their house catch on fire, or having them find a rich vein of gold in their back yard or something. And even then, since it's a by-birth thing, they'd just be rich untouchables or something along those lines. I don't know enough history to know if the class lines were that rigid before the Brits, though. I think, so far, RKS404 would be the most qualified to answer that.

But it would probably help to think of families more like this: The U.S. senate is a family, the state senate is a family, city council is a family, and the homeowners association is a family. The positions of those families will never change. The U.S. Senate will never be overruled by a homeowner's association. However, that's not seen as a rigid, unfair structure, because the members of each of those families are in constant flux. This year, you might be in city council, and if you're really good, next year, you'll be in the state senate. It's not that you brought up the level of city council to state senate, so much as you got promoted. If you're a lousy national senator, you might not get reelected, and you'd have to settle for state senate, but you don't bring down the level of congress, you just leave your position in the national senate and gain a position in the state senate.

Just in the Hindu case, promotions and demotions happen at death, and you don't remember your former rank.
posted by Bugbread at 2:08 PM on January 7, 2005


I am also convinced that Jainism is about the coolest religion in the world.

Agreed.
posted by apis mellifera at 2:35 PM on January 7, 2005


Elsbed--my bad, thanks for the reminder on I.C. versus V.B. (I quit CCD at 10, before we got to the sexy catechism stuff, apparently).

And bugbread, thanks for the info on the evolution (devolution?) of Buddhist practice.
posted by availablelight at 2:41 PM on January 7, 2005


Ah, random aside on Buddhism and pacifism (I'm now getting further away from the actual topic of the post, but it's too interesting to skip, and it'll be short). Remember all those movies where someone says "You have dishonored the Shaolin temple. Now you must pay" and kicks all kinds of kung fu ass? The Shaolin temple, where kung fu supposedly originated, is a Buddhist temple. True, it's for self defense, but original Buddhism doesn't have any exemption clauses for self defense.
posted by Bugbread at 2:51 PM on January 7, 2005


freebird, Let me be the first to sign up as a Heylookaroundian - where would you like the temple?

In the spirit and the wisdom of the teachings, hey, look around and see if you spot a nice place for it.
posted by davejay at 3:25 PM on January 7, 2005


Erm, I was under the impression that the whole "Ooh, you're poor 'cause you killed babies in your past life and so now God hates you so we can hate you too" was just another case of stupid people being stupid. The whole article is a good read.

Also, I thought Indians didn't usually have surnames the way Westerners did--their surname can be their caste, or their subcaste, or related to their location, or just their first name split into two . . . so you can learn something about someone's last name, but not necessarily their caste.

A lot of Christian-hatin' here! I mean, man, people have been using pretty good ideas to do despicable things for all of history. This business about "If you don't believe in Jesus, you're going to Hell" is a bit severe as well--sorta like saying all Muslims think jihad means running planes into buildings or strapping bombs to their chest and blowing up buses of schoolchildren. I guess Christianity is a pretty good target, given that that's the culture most people here have grown up in and that's the chosen religion Western powers use to perpetuate their atrocities--but that seems more like a cultural or historical thing to me. Yes, I won't disagree some religions are more easygoing than others, but if the inspiration for your church goes around saying "Love your neighbor as yourself", "Beat your swords into plowshares", "Convert through good works and love, not force", and "Hey, dudes, maybe we should think about poor people a little bit?" and that's turned into "BOMB THE NONBELIEVERS GRAARGH", well, I don't know if even a religion based on "Kitties are pretty and climbing trees is nice" couldn't be turned into "We could kill everyone!" one way or the other.

As for kung-fu, it and other Buddhist martial arts were initially created as meditation--it was to focus the mind and discipline the body. That's why so much emphasis is placed on meditation and oneness and all that jazz when it's traditionally taught.

Er, you're not going to be able to sweep in and start imposing secular rationalism in a culture where it has no roots. Especially in a culture that views such things as Western inventions and thus imperialist doctrine *cough cough* Middle East *cough cough*. If you really want social change, you need it to come from within--which means you need to understand how and why their culture is the way it is and go from there. Oh, just read Roxanne Euben's pretty excellent Enemy in the Mirror; she knows what she's talking about better than I do. It's about the Middle East, but the idea of "working from within" is the same.

P.S. Discriminating based on caste totally sucks.
posted by schroedinger at 10:58 PM on January 7, 2005


Exactly, where's the MeFi outrage on this? How can it be rationalized? Oh well, it's actually egalitarian you see, because as a wealthy person it's my duty to help poor people and it's their duty to be actually poor and stay that way, for life. Oh, and I better throw them a few bones because, god forbid, I might end up being one of them next time around.

160 Million Dalits. Who cares how they're identified and categorized? Whether by race, occupation, last name, or whatever, apparently they're a identifiable minority.

How is this system a whole lot better than American slavery? One of my more formative moments as a kid was seeing a picture of a dead black man, lynched, hanging from a tree. I hated what that represented more strongly than I can describe and I still do. I don't like the idea of an 'untouchable' group of people, no matter where they are or how they're identified, any better. Honestly, how could this concept be any more vile? For myself at least, there's no way I can rationalize this by saying it's just 'their' religion and how 'they' are over there. However schroedinger, I'm sure you're right and it's very deeply ingrained and something that huge incredible country will have to work out for itself.

Anyhow, just sayin', I don't get the lack of reaction to the basic concept under discussion. Most on this site are usually more supportive of the disadvantaged.
posted by scheptech at 11:17 PM on January 7, 2005


strong> apis mellifera : there's a fairly strong cultural tendency in India to see lighter skin as more desirable. You will see this in marriage ads, where 'wheat complexion' is often mentioned as a desired trait.

As someone mentioned, Westerners don't have caste. Nor do (e.g. Muslims). The caste system applies only to Hindus (which is one reason for the spread of Islam in India - lower-caste Hindus could convert in order to escape the caste system).

And as someone else said, India does have laws to protect dalits (and similar laws to protect ethnic minorities such as tribal people). Of course, the fact that they need such laws probably indicates that there are a lot of problems with racism/casteism in Indian society.

OT, finally: this is disgusting. But sadly unsurprising.
posted by Infinite Jest at 11:36 PM on January 7, 2005


Erm, I was under the impression that the whole "Ooh, you're poor 'cause you killed babies in your past life and so now God hates you so we can hate you too" was just another case of stupid people being stupid.

They're not mutually exclusive. A person believing that men are superior to women because "God created man" first can be a case of being extremely religious and sexist. In the same way, believing poverty is a punishment for being bad can be a religious belief and a case of people being stupid at the same time. But everybody knows about the existence of racism/classism in this world, so I'm not surprised that this conversation gravitates towards the more unusual (from a Western perspective) aspects. In the same way, if somebody wrote an article about a skinhead killing some minority member by creating a black hole that sucked them in and crushed them, there would be a lot more discussion about how some random guy can make a black hole in the first place than about how the reason he did it was racism. One part of the discussion is extremely true but extremely obvious, the other part is much less well known or understood.

I don't know if even a religion based on "Kitties are pretty and climbing trees is nice" couldn't be turned into "We could kill everyone!" one way or the other.

Heck, Buddhism, a philosophy where the main philosopher says, "What happens after death? Why do you care? You've got bigger things to worry about, being alive and all. Save thinking about the after life until you're dead", has been mutated to be almost entirely about the afterlife.

Exactly, where's the MeFi outrage on this?

Presumably bottled up inside people who aren't familiar with the amount of discrimination that exists in this area of the world. Outrage comes partly from surprise. Without surprise, there's generally just sadness and profound disappointment. Just because people aren't hopping up and down in a thread, don't assume that means they don't think it's a bad thing.

How can it be rationalized? Oh well, it's actually egalitarian you see, because as a wealthy person it's my duty to help poor people and it's their duty to be actually poor and stay that way, for life. Oh, and I better throw them a few bones because, god forbid, I might end up being one of them next time around.

Well, you pretty much answered your own question there. That's how it's usually rationalized. But I thought we'd already established that through the course of this thread. Why the recap?

160 Million Dalits. Who cares how they're identified and categorized?

The Dalits, their neighbors, the people oppressing them, people curious about history, people curious about religion, people curious about the culture...

How is this system a whole lot better than American slavery?

It isn't.

Honestly, how could this concept be any more vile?

I dunno, by teaching that the only way for them to be reborn is for you to torture them by giving them papercut and lemonjuice parties? By killing their firstborn child and forcefeeding it to them in punishment of walking on two legs? It seems like there are plenty of ways.

Anyhow, just sayin', I don't get the lack of reaction to the basic concept under discussion. Most on this site are usually more supportive of the disadvantaged.

Well, to reiterate, the lack of reaction probably comes from: 1) half the people in this thread already knowing about this type of thing, and 2) the other half, for whatever reason, being more interested in the particular and unusual background of the situation than the "People are racists, and do bad things. Film at 11." part. Just a guess.

You ask a lot of questions, but I can't help thinking most of them are rhetorical. Unfortunately, I can't decide what some of them are alluding to. For example, when you ask "How can it be rationalized?" are you implying that we are rationalizing it? Or is that an expression of shock that some Hindus rationalize it? If it's option 1, I disagree. I don't think anybody in this whole thread is rationalizing it. I think you're misreading an explanation about the system of karma as implying that said system is also a good thing. If it's option 2, then I agree that it's horrible and a Very Bad Thing, though I'm not shocked, in that I'm not surprised, in that I already knew about this type of situation.

So, in more direct terms, what are you saying?
posted by Bugbread at 3:46 AM on January 8, 2005


Thanks everyone for this great discussion - I learned a lot!
posted by homodigitalis at 6:17 AM on January 8, 2005


what are you saying?

Heh, well fair enough, my remarks score pretty high on the rhetorical meter, it was getting kinda late there. When I say for example 'who cares how they're identified...' I'm not really asking anything but saying I myself don't care how, what I care about is they are.

The Hindu caste system, whatever it's religious, cultural, historical, allegedly calcified-by-the-british reasons for being will be impossible for India to rid herself of in our lifetimes. It's been in place for three millenia.

As far as not reacting more strongly because we already know about it I can't agree simply because I don't think we already know about it. I think most are much more familiar with America's struggle with slavery, South Africa's apartheid, Germany's nazism.

I'll bet most folks here haven't looked into the plight of the untouchables much at all. How many can name leaders or recount significant events in their history? How many are aware of Hindu fundamentalism and recent attempts to in fact reinforce the caste system?

Here's an actual, not rhetorical, question. Can anyone offer a worse example of the systematic abuse of any people group in history keeping in mind the numbers involved. Currently alive are 160 to 260 million depending on whose numbers you believe, and the time span we're talking about is measured in thousands of years.
posted by scheptech at 9:32 AM on January 8, 2005


Can anyone offer a worse example of the systematic abuse of any people group in history keeping in mind the numbers involved.

Well, this kind of who's-a-bigger-victim? calculus is always trouble, but I'll say the enslavement of Africans, for one. The Indian caste system, though in certain places and at certain times in history has been perhaps as abusive as slavery, has never involved the wholesale removal of millions of people to foreign lands where their native culture(s) are almost completely extinguished.

The bigger point many people - including myself - were trying to make earlier in this thread, though, scheptech, is that the linked article does not provide enough context for you to begin to understand why the events it describes are happening, and seems geared to provoke a what's-wrong-with-these-people? flurry of self-righteousness. So we were trying to give a bit of the background that would make the events comprehensible.

From a rational Western rule-of-law point of view, it's almost impossible to justify the caste system, but 5,000 years of deeply entrenched order don't disappear because we in the West figured out a couple hundred years ago that in our tradition of moral philosophy they were wrong. You'll recall that it took the bloodiest war in American history and a legacy of fractured society that remains to this day for the US to begin to reconcile its slave-owning past.

In India, there is a slow, sporadic process, set in motion by Gandhi and still underway today, by which the lower castes are becoming more fully integrated into society, extended new rights, presented with new opportunities for social mobility, etc. The Dalit (which is the preferred nomenclature, by the way, so if you want to show your solidarity, you could start by ceasing from employing the pejorative term "untouchable") have formed activist organizations and political parties. They actually have a voice, albeit a small one - unthinkable even a half-century ago. One of the big stirring crowd-pleasing scenes in the hit film Lagaan involves the film's hero (megastar Amir Khan) pointedly embracing a Dalit.

These are small changes, I admit, but if India changed any more quickly, it'd likely involve a cataclysm that'd make the US Civil War look like a paintball match. Government at most levels in most parts of India barely functions at all, and one of the things it's best at is taking stuff away from regular folks. The caste system, for all its many faults and injustices, is one of the main forces - possibly the biggest - keeping a billion people from anarchy. Unfortunately, this means it has got to change slowly.

And finally, while I'd never defend the caste system, I will say that I doubt anyone who's spent any time seeing it first-hand would compare it so offhandedly to slavery or apartheid or nazism. It is an unjust system, but it is not in the same galaxy of abuse as those systems. I can't say exactly why. Partially it's that India's emerging democratic tradition is for the most part working against these injustices.

Also, though, I think maybe it's that no single minority is being told they can have nothing while a majority gets everything their hearts desire. There's a whole range from Dalit to Brahmin, a thousand increments between abject poverty and fantastic wealth, between total powerlessness and dictatorial control. No one in India - not Dalits, not lepers, not prepubescent beggars - is as terribly, brutally, soul-crushingly alone as the poor of the enlightened West are. Neither situation is enviable, but neither does either one look vastly more just than the other. For the record, I returned from a year in India much more skeptical of our claims to enlightenment than I'd ever been. Still am. There's a lot we could both learn from each other.

Sorry to run on for so long, but I found far too much to love about India during my time there to sit idly by while it's being lumped in with Hitler's Germany.
posted by gompa at 11:53 AM on January 8, 2005


gompa - Ok Nazi is inappropriate and I apologize (it usually is in almost any discussion and I should know better) but that was relatively short and gone and I was really just looking for things people would know about, this Dalit thing is both far less well recognized and phenomenally persistent and I am sure it will far outlive us all.

African slavery, calculations like this can be trouble sure, but with the caste system consider we're talking thousands, not hundreds of years.

The caste system stablizes a vast society at the expense of the individual. Yes, that is anti-western. But not just anti-western. Consider that Buddhism was a reaction in part to the caste system, and yet, even that incredible intellectual achievement, which emphasized the state of the individual and each persons sipritual development no matter who they were, utterly failed to change things in the face of entrenched interests. Amazing really.

And yes, obviously there is much to be appreciated about India but imho she has a deadly serious social problem which I am find I am unable to overlook personally when the subject of orthodox Hinduism comes up and anything related to the prejudice it necessarily perpetuates.
posted by scheptech at 12:53 PM on January 8, 2005


Don't say Buddhism didn't change anything, because that's simply not true. It has had a less pronounced effect than you desire, but that says nothing about anything except your desire. Like you say, with the caste system we're talking thousands of years. There's a lot of momentum built up. These broad changes take time, as gompa said.
posted by zerolucid at 6:37 PM on January 8, 2005


Wouldnt the rich people realize that these beliefs are a crock, and hence they could just pretend to believe in karma ect, to keep the poor people in line, and then just reap all the benifits, knowing nothing bad is going to happen to themselves?
posted by Iax at 12:21 AM on January 9, 2005


Wouldnt the rich people realize that these beliefs are a crock

I'm sure some would, just as I'm sure some US politicians don't believe in God but pretend to because they know it's good for reelection. And I'm sure some really believe it, just as some politicians really do believe in God.

That kind of thing goes for pretty much any question in the form of "Wouldn't X people realize their religion is a crock?"
posted by Bugbread at 1:03 AM on January 9, 2005


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