(Picture source: flickr.com)
No man [or woman] is noble by birth.
No man is ignoble by birth.
Man is noble by his own deeds [after birth].
Man is by ignoble his own deeds.
- The Buddha
Social equality should be everyone's birth right, its a ironic that the very words of wisdom left by the past sages to guide us towards true freedom are transformed by the ruling elites into traditions that systematically enslave the people in physically and mentally.
Despite much respect that I hold for Hinduism as a beautiful and profound religion in many ways, I feel that many social reforms such as those of the caste system discriminations which had been strongly voiced against by Buddha more than 2500 years ago - is really very much overdue. I admire India's respect to spiritual cultivation and the people involved in it - this is rare in this materialist world we live in now. Hope one fine day, the Indian society will evolve out of the caste system, and India would be a much better and prosperous place to live in.
(Picture source: flickr.com)
Dharmachari Kumarjeev and millions of other Indian untouchables convert to Buddhism to escape India's caste system
Monday, February 12, 2007
Former Hindu Dharmachari Kumarjeev is in the United State...
David Ian Miller
Finding My Religion
(Source: San Francisco Chronicle)
Can I have a glass of water?" asked the reserved but friendly Indian man who showed up at my office last week with a Buddhist monk in tow. It seemed like a simple question, but after only a few minutes of interviewing Dharmachari Kumarjeev I understood the true significance of his request. And I was glad the cup I handed him didn't happen to be chipped.
Kumarjeev, 37, grew up in a rural area of Maharashtra state as a member of India's untouchables caste, a group comprising roughly 30 percent of the population. They are shunned because they are born into the caste that historically did work considered to be unhealthy or unclean, such as rubbish removal, laundering and fishing. India's caste system is often linked to Hinduism, but the system is also adhered to by Christians and Muslims living in the subcontinent. Whether it's a religious or societal construct, untouchables are believed to pollute anyone who comes into contact with them, even if that contact is simply drinking water from the same village well.
The caste system was officially outlawed in 1947, but it continues to define social relations in the country, particularly outside of the cities. Some untouchables, who often refer to themselves as ex-untouchables or Dalits -- "the oppressed" -- feel that converting from Hinduism to Buddhism is an important step in reclaiming their self-worth. Kumarjeev, a member of the Western Buddhist order, is one of the leaders in this movement.
(Picture source: flickr.com)
He is also the founder of Dhammakranti, an organization working toward a more equitable society in India. He stopped in the Bay Area as part of a month-long trip to the United States to meet with Buddhists about the work he's doing to assist ex-untouchables and abolish the caste system.
How do people in India know that someone is an untouchable?
They immediately know that when you tell them your name. The family name identifies what caste you're in.
At what point did you learn you were an untouchable? Did your parents explain it to you?
Well, they didn't have to tell me. It's the society, the community, that tells you -- that teaches you.
How so? Can you give me an example of the discrimination you experienced while growing up?
In my hometown, it was customary to offer food to the friends and relations of the villagers where a wedding was taking place. My community [of untouchables] was made to wait until everyone else had eaten. It could be 10 or 11 o'clock at night before we were invited. And we had to bring our own cups and disposable plates so that we didn't pollute anybody else's.
That was really humiliating for me, and at first I didn't understand why this was happening. Later, I realized what was going on: that we were considered different from everyone else.
One time, I visited a family that was quite well off, and they gave me a cup of tea in a chipped cup, and they had plenty of good cups in their house. When I told a friend about this, an elder in my community, he was very angry. I asked him, "Why does this happen?" And he told me: "They are treating us as untouchables. Those cheap cups are kept especially for us."
When an untouchable converts to Buddhism, how is his or her life changed?
You are no longer part of a system that teaches you that you are low. Leaving that system behind gives you dignity.
Why would being a Buddhist make a difference? The caste system is based on other people's attitudes as much as yours. Even if you change your religion, other people are still living that way.
Buddha teaches that every person can reach the highest perfection of humankind. That gives you confidence that you have human qualities that can change your situation for the better, and you don't need to rely on anybody's approval to make that change.
When and how did you decide that you wouldn't be ruled by the caste system anymore? What were the circumstances?
I was 14 or 15 when I said, "No. I don't want this." I was very angry. I wanted to be treated as a human being and as an equal.
How did you become a Buddhist?
When I was 16, I went to this teacher's talk after seeing an advertisement. I was really fascinated by him, and I kept going for meditation class. Eventually, I decided I wanted to become Buddhist. So they made a little ceremony for me.
You were a Buddhist monk for a while, right?
Not really a monk. I took a vow of celibacy for three years and lived in a monastery.
And what did you learn from that period?
One thing I learned is it's very hard to be celibate in this era of Bollywood and Hollywood and all the advertisements around us. There are many temptations. Another thing I learned is that my spiritual practice is not just about closing my eyes and sitting in a monastery. I realized that I wanted to work in the community for the good of the society. Buddhism isn't just something for me. It's for transforming the world.
You grew up in a small town. What is it like to live as an untouchable in an Indian village now?
It can be very scary. Some villagers have improved their economic conditions. They own land that they can cultivate and live on. But some are very poor, and they are always vulnerable.
And it's hell if you are very poor in an untouchable family. Just recently, in the month of October, there was a massacre in a village and a whole family was killed. The women were paraded naked before they were murdered. So were two boys in the family. They were all killed by high-class people in the village.
Why did they do that?
The local government had given the family some land because it has a policy of helping to support untouchables earn a living. This angered high-caste people in the village. So they killed them.
That's horrible. Is it better for untouchable people who are living in the cities?
It is a bit better. You can buy a house anywhere you want if you have the money, and you can give your children a better education. But you still experience discrimination.
Didn't India outlaw the caste system after independence?
People who live by the caste system find it comforting in some ways -- they want to stay close to their caste. Anything that threatens the structure of the system makes them feel unsafe.
You mean people in the higher castes?
Every caste is a higher caste in some sense -- every caste except those at the very bottom. When someone doesn't comply with the system, the caste above him often becomes violent because their remaining low is a foundation of the other one being high.
Many untouchables have converted to Buddhism. In some media reports, the conversions have been described as protests against the caste system. Is that accurate, or would you say that they are sincere religious conversions?
It's one response. You want to disown the religion that you associate with being treated as less than a human being. So where do you go? Buddhism is a religion where the basic teaching is equality. So that's a very easy approach to take. You say no to Hinduism and no to being in a low caste.
The fact is there's a shortage of Buddhist teachers. So some people who convert don't know how to practice Buddhism. All they know are the Five Precepts.
I've read that several Indian states have passed laws making it harder to convert. People have to obtain government permission first. Why is that?
It's not that people have to obtain government permission. According to the Indian Constitution, no one can be stopped from accepting any religion. They do have to sign a declaration that they are doing it willingly and without any pressure from the religious institution.
Does becoming a Buddhist change how Hindus respond to an untouchable?
I would say that around 10 or 15 percent are broad-minded Hindus who do not believe in the caste system and are supportive of people who converted to Buddhism.
Another group is really confused. They don't really understand why they are doing it [living under the caste system] or what to do about it.
A third group is quite fundamentalist. Their attitude is "If you are born Hindu, you must stay that way; if you do not, then you are defaming the religion."
Can someone be a Hindu and decide to ignore or work against the caste system?
Yes, though it could be very hard. There are Hindus who are trying to work against the caste system, but they get a lot of resistance from their own communities.
How has being a Buddhist changed you? What has it brought to your life?
When I experience discrimination -- people hear my name and they may think of me as an untouchable even though I'm a Buddhist -- that can make me angry. I don't want to be hitting people because I'm angry, you know? I needed to find a way a creative way to deal with the situation.
I also wanted to help people understand how the caste system can be painful for others, how it does not meet human values. Now I can, with great patience and compassion, expose that and with very great confidence enter into dialogue with any kind of high-class Hindu. I got that confidence and that sort of compassionate heart from learning Buddhism and becoming Buddhist.
What is it about Buddhism that allows you to feel compassion? Is it the practice of meditation? Is it something else?
Dr. Ambedakar, who was born in 1891 as an untouchable and went on to become a scholar who wrote India's Constitution, converted to Buddhism after studying many religions. When he converted, he was asked which form of Buddhism he's accepting. He said, "I'm following Buddha -- not any particular sect or tradition." So that gave me a sort of openness to learn from all traditions.
Buddha's basic teaching is if society needs to be changed, then the mind of the individual needs to be changed. Buddhism focuses on change of mind. Compassion is a state of mind that you keep cultivating. Compassion for yourself as well as others.
It's common for religious people to feel as if God has abandoned them when tragedy strikes or they feel victimized in some way. Do some untouchables feel as if their gods have abandoned them? And is part of the appeal of Buddhism that for many Buddhists it's not about believing in a god?
Yeah. I think one reaction is that we have been untouchables for more than a thousand years. And we were always worshiping God so that we could be free of that condition. But none of our worshipping worked.
And Dr. Ambedakar supported or created conditions where we could help ourselves. We took that responsibility and got ourselves free from it. So it's time not to wait for God but to rely on yourself. That's the philosophy. That's the thinking the present ex-untouchable Buddhists have at this time.
How has the economic growth of India affected the caste system?
Well, to my understanding, it is not helping the Dalit community much. Those who already have wealth are getting wealthier, and the people who are hungry are still hungry.
What do you say to a person from a higher caste when they say to you, "Why should I care about the caste system? It doesn't affect me"?
If one segment of society does not feel safe, there is no safety for anybody, because if I am not safe, I will try to make you unsafe or I will attack you. Or if I see that you have a lot of bread and I am living next door and I am hungry, I might steal your things. The untouchable community is quite large. It is spread all over India.
Tell me about the social change groups you work with.
Karuna Trust is a charitable trust. When we started teaching Buddhism, we realized that these ex-Dalit communities had a lot of problems physically -- like sanitation, living conditions, education, health and so on. So if you want to teach dharma -- the right way of living -- you do need to respond to their suffering and do something.
So we do a lot of health work. Health volunteers visit the shantytowns and do medical service. And we run hostels so the children who live far away from schools can live in the hostels and get an education.
And the other groups?
Jambudvipa was started by the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order to find ways to help people support themselves -- job training, health education and those sorts of things.
Dhammakranti is a social change movement that I started with my friends six years ago. What we are trying to do is, we get all the different castes -- ex-Dalit Buddhists and Buddhists from higher castes -- and we bring them together in a retreat. We're trying to create a model of a casteless society. We live together for seven days. And we talk about caste. Because caste is always a subject no one talks about. And we declare that we are a casteless society based on compassion and friendship.
When people get together for that, do they have a hard time acting as if there is no caste?
It's not about acting as if there is no caste. We focus on communication, studying together and meditating. We encourage people to feel safe, to ask any person coming from any different caste to associate with and start friendships -- even get married.
Marrying outside the caste? That must be one of the most radical things you can do in India.
Yes. Amongst the untouchable communities, when it comes to marriage they are still quite traditional in India, and your parents will try to find a match for you. There are 12 different subcastes of untouchables, and your parents will look for a suitable partner from your own subcaste.
Things are changing, but so slowly. The most important thing I've learned from Buddhism is that the world keeps changing. But if you decide that you want to make a change for better, it's in your hands. You can create that change. You can be that change. And you can change yourself as well as society.
Technorati: Buddhism Buddha Buddhist Dharma Compassion Wisdom Religion Meditation Zen Philosophy Spirituality Inspiration Peace Insight
“Sariputra, if there are people who have already made the vow, who now make the vow, or who are about to make the vow, ‘I desire to be born in Amitabha’s country,’ these people, whether born in the past, now being born, or to be born in the future, all will irreversibly attain to anuttarasamyaksambodhi. Therefore, Sariputra, all good men and good women, if they are among those who have faith, should make the vow, ‘I will be born in that country.’”
~ Amitabha Sutra
When I obtain the Buddhahood, any being of the boundless and inconceivable Buddha-worlds of the ten quarters whose body if be touched by the rays of my splendour should not make his body and mind gentle and peaceful, in such a state that he is far more sublime than the gods and men, then may I not attain the enlightenment.
~ Amitabha Buddha's Thirty-Third Vow
Tuesday, February 13, 2007
(Picture source: flickr.com)
Posted by Colin at 2/13/2007 10:45:00 PM