Para-religious Narratives: Antidotes to Caste Narratives
By Sacaria Joseph
Introduction: caste, the monster that crosses your path
The caste system, the oldest surviving scheme of social hierarchy, enjoying robust religious endorsement, has been the cause of unspeakable discrimination in Indian society. On account of this inequitable system’s strict notions of social inclusion and exclusion, over 160 million of the nation’s population that do not fall under its equations, and hence regarded as untouchables, continue to suffer various forms of discrimination even today despite all the progress that the nation has made in varied grounds. “Caste is the natural outcome of certain religious beliefs which have the sanction of the shastras, which are believed to contain the command of divinely inspired sages who were endowed with a supernatural wisdom and whose commands, therefore, cannot be disobeyed without committing a sin” (Ambedkar 125). This is where the problem of social discrimination in Indian society becomes extremely difficult to get rid of. Social discrimination automatically ushers in various forms of deprivation.
To address the problem, the Constitution of independent India banned discrimination based on caste and guaranteed “a system of reservations for what the Constitution termed the ‘Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and Other Backward Classes,’ which sought to redress the imbalances caused by historical inequalities in the Hindu social system” (Keane 138). Unfortunately, this well-intended system of reservation has ushered in caste and identity-based political, social and economic dynamics in the country. Though it is unfortunate that today we “have to use terms like ‘Untouchable,’ ‘Scheduled Caste,’ ‘Backward Class’ and ‘Other Backward Classes’ to describe fellow human beings,” and though the scenario makes one feel “like living in a chamber of horrors” (Roy 14), it is rather difficult to escape the situation because “turn in any direction you like, caste is the monster that crosses your path” (Ambedkar 108).
Stardust reduced to a number: the Rohith Vemula narrative
When the twenty-seven-year-old Rohith Vemula, a Ph.D. scholar at the Hyderabad Central University, committed suicide in the university hostel in 2016, alleging caste-based discrimination and harassment by the university and his fellow students, Dr. Ambedkar’s words proved prophetic. More importantly, it underscored Arundhati Roy’s claim that for persons belonging to the Scheduled Castes in India, life, in fact, is a ‘chamber of horrors.’ A closer look at Rohith’s family history unveils an intriguing and unfortunate caste-based narrative in action: how his mother Radhika belonging to the ‘Mala’ community (a Scheduled Caste), was informally ‘adopted’ by Anjani Devi, a prosperous and educated woman of the ‘Vaddera’ community (belonging to ‘Other Backward Castes’), while the former was still a baby; how Anjani Devi treated Radhika as nothing more than a household servant and married her off at the tender age of fourteen to Mani Kumar, a man of her own ‘Vaddera’ community, without revealing Radhika’s ‘untouchable’ roots; how Radhika was subjected to violent physical abuse by her husband after he came to know about her ‘Mala’ origins; how her husband began to look upon himself as a cursed man for having tricked into a marriage with an untouchable woman which led to his throwing Radhika out of his house along with their three children; and how Radhika and her children were compelled to live with her adoptive ‘mother,’ who treated them like household servants; and how deeply affected and ashamed Rohith was of himself and his family, disowned and deserted by his father, mistreated by his adoptive ‘grandmother’ and her family, and dealt a bad deal by society all his life.
When his life at the University campus which should ideally have been a liberating experience turned out to be no less oppressive than his life in the larger society, it was more than Rohith could take. He ended his life by hanging himself. Weeks before his death, Rohith and his friends had accused the university administration of discriminating against its Dalit students. His involvement in the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA), his suspension from the university hostel along with four other students owing to a complaint lodged by the members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) who had alleged being physically assaulted by Rohith and his Dalit friends, the subsequent suspension of Rohith’s scholarship, and his consequent suicide are all mired in the caste and identity dynamics of the country. In his searing suicide note, Rohith inscribed his pain of being treated as an untouchable and an outcaste by his family, relations and society – the pain of not just an individual, but of an entire community for generations:
The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of star dust. In every field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living … My birth is my fatal accident. I can never recover from my childhood loneliness. The unappreciated child from my past. (My Birth is My Fatal Accident: Rohith Vemula’s Searing Letter is an Indictment of Social Prejudices).
After his death, as the politics of caste and identity took the centre stage, the question as to whether Rohith was a Dalit gained prominence. Based on its investigation, the government of Andhra Pradesh concluded that he was not a Dalit, but a member of the Other Backward Classes (OBC). However, the fact is that all along his life, Rohith was looked down upon as well as treated as an untouchable by a society obsessed with caste and politics of identity. Owing to these atrocious dynamics, our nation has lost countless lives like that of Rohith over the ages; and it will continue to do so for a long time to come.
Para-religious narratives: antidotes to caste-narratives
Holding the privileged perpetrators of the caste-based discrimination in society responsible for their actions and expecting them to change their attitude towards their less-privileged fellow humans will not solve the problem. The fact is that “the acts of the people are merely the results of their beliefs inculcated in their minds by the shastras, and that people will not change their conduct until they cease to believe in the sanctity of the shastras on which their conduct is founded” (Ambedkar 124). Questioning the sanctity and authority of religious texts is the last thing that any society is willing to do. Therefore, alongside every existing flawed and disreputable religious narrative, we need alternative narratives, especially, para-religious narratives – secular narratives with sound religious underpinning – that can function as antidotes to the existing religion-induced ailments of our society.
The Buddhist story of the encounter between a thirsty Ananda, a disciple of the Buddha, and Prakriti, a Chandala girl (who is from a low-caste, therefore, an impure and untouchable girl) at a village well, found in the Shardulakarna Avadana, is such a para-religious narrative. A thirsty Ananda asks Prakriti for water, and the bewildered woman obliges him as all her inhibitions of being born an untouchable are dismissed by Ananda, who reassures her that all human beings are equal. Soon after Anand’s departure, she begins to feel his absence, for she has fallen head over heels in love with the hermit who treated her with respect, dignity and humanity that she had never known in life. Prakriti’s mother brings Ananda back by means of her magical powers so that her daughter can marry him. As the bewitched Ananda returns to Prakriti, he prays for the divine intervention of Lord Buddha, who eventually breaks the charm and helps him return to his hermitage. When a disheartened but determined Prakriti pursues Ananda, Lord Buddha asks Prakriti to take up the life of an ascetic if she is determined to get Ananda for herself. She readily agrees to do so. Thereupon, she shaves her head, dons the ascetic’s clothes, relinquishes her desire to marry him, receives absolution for her past sins through the mantra called sarvadurgati-sodhana-dharani (‘the destroyer of all evils’), and becomes a ‘Bhikshuni,’ a mendicant ascetic.
Characteristic of Avadana literature, Shardulakarna Avadana examines both the past and the present lives of individuals to explicate the operation of the law of karma. As the narrative of Ananda and Prakriti continues to unfold, it takes an ironic twist revealing that in her previous birth, Prakriti was the daughter of a Brahmin named Pushkarasari, who had arrogantly refused to give his daughter in marriage to the accomplished Sardulakarna, the son of a learned and wise Chandal called Trishanku. After conceding defeat in a debate with Trishanku on matters of birth, rebirth, caste, cosmology, astrology and so on, the Brahmin finally gave his daughter away in marriage to Sardulakarna despite the objections from his fellow Brahmins. Trishanku was none other than Buddha and Ananda none other than the Brahman Pushkarasari in their previous births (Mitra 223-27). Mindful of the unfair caste hierarchy, “in the Assaldyana Sutta of the Majjhima (II 154), the Buddha maintains that all castes are of equal purity” (Krishan 75). Hence, the story of Ananda and Prakriti deflates the concept of one’s supposed superiority as well as inferiority based on caste. While Ambedkar is right in arguing that “It is not possible to break Caste without annihilating the religious notions on which it, the Caste system, is founded” (Ambedkar 90), this Buddhist para-religious narrative in Shardulakarna Avadana tries to strike at the foundation of the caste system.
Based on this Buddhist tale, in his Malayalam poem, Chandalabhikshuki (1923), Kumaran Asan depicts how a Buddhist monk Anandan’s encounter with Matangi (a Chandala woman) sets her on a path of self-discovery by means of an altered perception of herself, culminating in her joining a Buddhist monastery as an acetic. A Chandala girl joining a Buddhist monastery to become an ascetic is against the prevailing customs. However, the monastery accepts her against all objections not only from the people belonging to the higher castes of the Hindu society, but also from the King himself. Asan’s para-religious narrative in the poem strikes at the roots of the caste narrative and its evils with his memorable lines such as “Is caste present in the blood / Or in the bone or the marrow” (Asan)?
Drawing on the same Buddhist tale, in 1938, Tagore wrote his dance drama, Chandalika, which could be regarded as another timeless para-religious narrative. In the words of Tagore’s Prakriti, her encounter with Ananda, “a man the very dust of whose feet I would never have dared to touch,” becomes “a tale of my new birth” (Tagore Act I). Of her encounter with Ananda, Prakriti tells her mother, “My heart has been dancing ever since, and night and day I hear those solemn tones — ‘Give me water, give me water” (Tagore Act I). Her tale could not be otherwise after Ananda gave her an incredibly new and liberative perspective about her identity in relation to that of others saying, “As I am a human being, so also are you” (Tagore Act I), while her own mother embodying the voice of society has been telling her that “The filth into which an evil fate has cast you is a wall of mud that no spade in the world can break through. You are unclean; beware of tainting the outside world with your unclean presence” (Tagore Act I).
This ennobling and redemptive philosophy of life that Ananda imparts to her, enables her to believe in herself as a woman worthy of the love of a man like Ananda. With her new-found confidence, identity and worldview, as Prakriti pursues the man of her heart, Tagore creates an intense dramatic conflict between the caste-based social inequality and our indispensable humanity. This conflict is intensified by Prakriti’s inner conflict between her selfish desire for Ananda and her remorse for the trauma that her desires cause him. Prakriti’s inner conflict culminates in her realisation that if you love a person, you must set the person free. As she begs for Ananda’s forgiveness for all the distress she has caused him, he not only forgives, but also blesses her before he returns to his acetic life, unblemished by the episode. Prakriti’s realisation is nothing short of a spiritual liberation that she attains because of her transformative encounter with Ananda. Her spiritual liberation was obviously preceded by her social liberation, of which she says, “Only once did he cup his hands, to take the water from mine. Such a little water, yet that water grew to a fathomless, boundless sea. In it flowed all the seven seas in one, and my caste was drowned, and my birth washed clean” (Tagore Act I).
The encounter between the Jewish religious and prophetic figure, Jesus, and the unnamed Samaritan woman in the Bible echoes the encounter between Ananda and Prakriti. The equation between the Jews and the Samaritans in the ancient Israel was based on the notions of purity and pollution. The Jews considered themselves as a pure and unmixed race while they considered the Samaritans as an impure race, and hence untouchable, on account of their being the progeny of the Jews who married Assyrians during the Assyrian captivity of the Jews. Jews and the Samaritans had always been very hostile towards each other; and this hostility, at the time of Jesus, was very conspicuous.
In the strongly patriarchal Jewish society where women, in general, were treated as second-class Jews with a status above that of the slaves, one could imagine the plight of a Samaritan woman. Besides this, the Samaritan woman stands before Jesus with an ignominious history. She has had four husbands and is currently living in sin with a man who is not her husband. Therefore, she is a social outcast even among the other Samaritan women. Since they would not allow her to draw water from the well in the town, she has come to draw water from the well in the field outside the town. Religion, society, and customs forbid a religious leader like Jesus from having any kind of association with a woman as this one who is not only an outcaste in society, but also an immoral woman in the public eye.
Jesus’s encounter with the Samaritan woman is his intentional “para-religious” narrative in action as an antidote to the evil of social discrimination plaguing his society and religion. Through this encounter, he shows that regardless of gender and race, all are the children of the same God, and as the Messiah, he intends to reconcile all men and women in God. Hence, deliberately, and contrary to all prevailing narratives, Jesus relates to this person despised by the entire society. While everyone saw in her an immoral outcaste and an absolute reject of society, Jesus saw in her a broken person precious in the eyes of God. With utmost empathy and respect for her, Jesus helps her to navigate from her brokenness, confusion, misunderstanding and ignorance to wholeness, clarity, understanding and enlightenment. By his very act of interaction with her, he invests her with a dignity that she has never known and transforms her into the most carefully and intensely catechized person in the Gospels.
The legend of Adi Sankara’s encounter with a Chandala while the former was on his way to bathe in the Ganges is another significant para-religious narrative. Since the presence of a Chandala would pollute a Brahmin, Sankara’s disciples who noticed the Chandala accompanied by his dogs coming towards them from the opposite direction shouted to the Chandala to give them way by moving away from their path. In no mood to give in, the Chandala asked Sankara whether his body should give way, or his soul should give way. He further asked how the advaita doctrine makes the distinction between a Chandala and a Brahmin. Deeply moved by the Chandala’s wisdom, Sankara answered him saying, “He who perceives all beings with an awareness of ‘sameness’ and acts with that perception of sameness in all, he indeed is my Guru. You Chandala are my Guru. I bow down at your holy feet a million times” (Sri Adi Sankaracharya’s Life Story). The legend has it that as the Chandala miraculously disappeared from their presence, Sankara realised that the Chandala was none other than Lord Siva who wanted to teach and enlighten him on certain eternal truths.
If the caste system, in spite all the deification it has received over the millennia, has not been able to usher in egalitarian, just and humane societies in the Indian subcontinent, Ambedkar is certainly right in saying, “You cannot build anything on the foundations of caste. You cannot build up a nation, you cannot build up a morality. Anything that you will build on the foundations of caste will crack and will never be a whole” (Ambedkar 123). Nonetheless, we must realise that the discriminatory and oppressive narrative of the caste system fashioned, justified, and sanctified by the scriptures is here to stay for a long time to come. However slow, an effective antidote to this unwarranted narrative, to my mind, is the constant creation of many para-religious narratives that can take on the caste narrative.
Photo: Sanchit Khanna/Hindustan Times
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Sacaria Joseph is an Assistant Professor of English, at St Xavier’s College, Kolkata. He did his graduation from St. Xavier’s, Kolkata, M.A. in English Literature from Pune University, M.Phil. from Jadavpur University, and Doctorate from Viswa-Bharati University, West Bengal. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.