Pseudoscience & Religion

A Comment on Religion and India’s Poor

NREGS In the last week of 2009 I happened to visit a site where NREGS activities were being carried out, and I happened to talk to the workers employed there about the economic, social, and religious issues that impact them.  While my purpose of the chat with the workers was mainly economic, a few issues relating to religion emerged, which I purpose to bring to light here. 

For the unacquainted, ‘NREGS’ stands for ‘National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme’, and it promises to provide work for the rural unemployed workers in India for 100 days a year, and pay them up to Rs 100 a day, subject to completion of work. The workers who seek jobs under this scheme are usually the poorest who have no other alternatives.

Pali, Rajasthan I was in the Pali District of Rajasthan when on my way to a farm in an oasis in the dry state, I ran into public works of the NREGS, where about a 100 workers were working on a road. A quick scan showed that about 80% of the workers were women. It was about 4-5 PM and their work day was coming to an end. I interacted with them for about 30 minutes.

I was fortunate that they were willing to chat with me and my father, a retiree, although I was apprehensive that they might not appreciate the nosy questions we were about to ask. But I was wrong, and they were more than willing to talk about their problems.

About 90% of the women workers claimed to be illiterate (the question asked was, “how many of you can write your name?”). The only literate ones were below 20 years of age. However, all of them claimed that all their children (yes, girls included), were in school, or had completed education.

After a long chat about their economic constraints, we moved to the issues of caste, religion, and the politics of religion. Most claimed to be of lower castes, and claimed that they were often denied jobs where existing workers were of higher castes, for the fear that the existing staff would refuse to work with them. One young man claimed to have a first class graduate degree, but said that he applied in several private sector companies, and he was refused posts at the officer level and was only offered work as a labourer, and he claimed that most of these prospective employers explicitly stated that his caste was an issue (he was an SC). NREGS 1

It is rather sad that caste plays such a role in Hindu society even today. The radical Hindu right wing organisations cry foul when these lower castes attempt to convert should look at the issue beyond the narrow-minded approach that they are only forced to convert. Here, I would like to explicitly state that I am against all religion and that I don’t believe this problem will end by conversion. I target all religions for their regressive practices and here it happens to be that of the Hindu majority in rural India. I would like to see irrational and regressive religion to be comprehensively replaced by humanist and rational individual beliefs.

Moving on, when asked if they celebrated Diwali, none replied in the positive. This came as a surprise to us. They claimed that they didn’t even make a special meal for the day, or lit any lamps (which is something even the poorest can afford to do, economically speaking). One pointed out that she earned about Rs. 40,000 a year, of which she spent half of it on her health care alone. She said that Diwali was relatively inconsequential, and the only religious practices that their community follows in the village nearby was what we would term animistic, although they did ‘believe’ in ‘Lord Ram’ etc.

NREGS 2I then moved on to the issue of the Ram Mandir/Babri Masjid. I asked if they were aware of the issue. Going by the response to the Diwali question, I was doubtful they would be. But a few were. The ones who were, when asked if the issue mattered to them, said that their only priority is food and shelter, and anything else didn’t matter. They claimed that politicians came about asking of votes on several issues, and they didn’t care about it. All they wanted was food and shelter. When I asked them if they would ever join a political march (a ‘yatra’) to build a Ram Mandir, one woman retorted, “they should have a yatra to make houses for us”. On being asked about the Ram Setu/Palk Strait issue, they all claimed that they had never heard of the issue.

They were indeed bitter about their state of affairs and even blamed the higher castes, the ruling classes of the villages, who they claimed were the cause of their backwardness.

Also interesting to note is that they all barely knew about the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai by Pakistan based jihadists. They said something had happened, but didn’t know exactly what, who did it, or that the lone captured terrorist named Kasab is alive and being tried. Surely, if Hindu-Muslim riots had followed the attacks, as they have in the past, people such as them would have been victims of an issue that they understand not.

There also happened to be two women among this group who were Muslim (they claimed they were ‘Mohammaden’). They both knew of the Babri Masjid destruction, but didn’t seem to know much else about the issue. When asked why some Muslims choose extremist jihad, they claimed that there are bad apples in every group. While this is factually true, as is the case of casteism (see below), I view extremism in the name of religion as an outcome of the very nature of organised religion itself.

It is a fact that 75.6 % of India’s population lives on less than $2 a day (UPDATE: the study linked has been called into question for using non-robust techniques. The poverty rate has been shown to be much lower in other studies). The workers I talked to surely form a small unscientific sample of this majority. If right wing Hindu political parties (and right wing Muslim parties) claim that concerns of religion are primary, they are sadly deluded. Of course, liberal parties in India pander to religion too. But the scale and degree of the same is minuscule when compared to the right wing parties. 

I have heard many Hindu apologists claim how the caste system wasn’t intended to be hierarchical and how it was made for the smooth functioning of the ancient society. They tend to pick and choose any text that confirms with their beliefs, and reject any that doesn’t. This of course, is something they do with scientific studies too.  I once even heard a professor with a double PhD claim that “casteism is the will of God”, citing Krishna’s words in the Gita. We all see how blatantly the caste system comes out in full colour every Sunday with the Matrimonial sections of our newspapers.

I strongly believe that casteism is a result of the nature of organized religion itself. When 1., people are trained to have blind unquestioning “faith” in religious leaders, 2., when scientific inquiry is shunned, and 3., when dissent is opposed, perversions such as the caste system emerge from the nature of religion itself. (For those who will point out that the ancient Hindu practices encouraged scientific inquiry, there are two points to be made: one, ‘Hinduism’, as it is today, never existed then. The practices of scientific inquiry have now been absorbed in the fold of ‘Hinduism’ when it is in fact outside it. Two, try telling your neighbourhood sadhu that you will now test every claim he makes scientifically and wait for a response). Casteism can only be defeated when religion itself is made to take a back-seat, and when people adopt humanistic life philosophies to lead an ethical and fulfilling life.

How the right wing Hindu political parties and organizations are ensuring our society moves closer to regressive states of being is another matter. I once heard a sadhu say on national TV that matters of religion are prime, and that roads and water can take a back-seat. Even radical Islamic leaders put their regressive beliefs ahead of the liberal democratic system that we call India. Political parties exploit this irrationality of the religious beliefs people hold for their electoral benefits.

It is time we say no to unquestioning belief as promoted by organised religion, and adopt scientific and ethical lifestyles, and work together to make India, and indeed the world, a country of progressive people where organised religion doesn’t exploit the weak.

About the author

Gautam

16 Comments

  • This has been our normal experience. The poor are bothered neither about mandir nor masjid. Their issues are more of dal and roti. But, some how they get carried away sometimes by the rhetoric of communal-ism and commit atrocities. It is they who have to finally face the ‘long arm’ of the law and the wheels of justice. The instigators go scot free, manage to project themselves as leaders and enjoy power. I have seen the lives of many lower middle class boys totally ruined by getting involved in communal violence. There is no difference of caste, community or religion here all are equally culpable.

  • I think its good to point out that casteism is not a fringe movement in Hinduism. The intelligentsia may argue that it is, but these are folk who are far-removed from the actual reality on the ground for these people. Also, they have vested interests in pretending that Hinduism itself is good inherently, and ignoring the atrocities committed in the name of Hinduism. Same goes for Islamic leaders. India will not be free of such oppressive cultural practices as long as religion goes unquestioned.

  • Yes. And every other day I read news buried in the newspapers about dalits getting killed, raped, beaten up, or their houses destroyed for the most trivial of the issues. Such articles make for only small courtesy paragraph long sections.

    Deepak Chopra, on the other hand, gets a center page mention every Sunday.

    • Deepak Chopra only repeats what others say or have said. These so called preachers are all in it for their egos and money. The caste system arose from Hinduism and it is the worst form of racism ever practiced on earth and it take its ranks for being able to continue for centuries. Either the Hindus are generally not intelligent as a group or simply conditioned with organised hate and violence. A growing number of people now in the world are leaving foolish religions and are not affiliated with any religious organization and yet lead meaningful lives. Are religious organization really necessary, I think they are a disaster especially in India.

  • The point about Sunday classifieds really drives it home. Goes to show that Casteism resides in the minds of people and only temporarily takes a back seat during debates. Somehow even the educated lot conform to tradition mostly because they don’t want to be the first one to break it.

    • I used to hate the Sunday classifieds when I lived in India. I used to feel so disgusted reading them, the caste, sub-caste and skin color demands that people made so openly! These classifieds are the best evidence for the bigotry inherent in Indian society.

  • Once we get rid of religions (good riddance), I doubt caste would go away quietly. I suspect this is a (feudal?) sociological phenomenon that religion adopted, rather than the other way round. For example, Sri Lankan Buddhists, who were probably never Hindu are caste-bound. There’s practically no intermarriage among “high” and “low” Christians of Kerala. The self-styled “high” castes are unlikely to lose their smug sense of superiority even without religious sanction.

    Somehow, the practice of intra-caste marriage must be broken, but how?

    • There’s no doubt that the notion of caste is more indigenous to the region, and such feudal class distinctions existed in many cultures. Indian and Pakistani Muslims also practice such caste distinctions even though Islam explicitly prohibits it, and so does Christianity, BTW (of course, there are always contradictory passages you can quote). Of course, the West and Middle East also have their own forms of class discrimination even till this day, and religion is a good part of justifying this. Just look at (most) Arab societies or at the “wealth doctrine” practiced by some American Christian denominations to declare one economic or denominational class as superior to the other. Indian Christians also subscribe to castes. For example, the Christians of Goa retained their caste differences when they were converted, and simply changed the names of their castes. The Brahmins became one caste and the Kshatriyas another and so on. This can be found throughout India. It was the previously existing Hindu system that underlies the inheritance of this class breakdown.

      Since class is universal and since religion, at a certain level of organization, is simply a set of cultural rules, there is bound to be overlap between the caste system found within a certain geographical region and the religions practiced in that geographical region. The main point to make is that there is little doubt that the evolution of the caste system in India was closely tied to the evolution of the religious patriarchy. The caste system is deeply entrenched in Hinduism, institutionalizing it, thus making it enormously more powerful than it could be in a less dogmatic context. The later arrivals, Islam and Christianity, simply assimilated the local Hindu caste system present at the time, with the people simply retaining the divisions that they were part of their culture even after they converted. This is quite natural to expect.

      So, I would still blame Hinduism explicitly for the origin, intensity and prevalence of the caste system in India, but I do agree that it is in general a more endemic problem to the human race, and particularly to our part of the world in tis present form. However, today we need to deal with all these religions and get rid of them all to make it easier to root out these associated evils such as caste and superstition.

      • I did not realize how simply everything happened, until I read your above well thought out and researched response! The people of India converted to other religions to get out of the shackles of caste etc. heaped on them by hinduism, but simply continued with the castes and all their shackles. Ofcourse they got better gods in bargain and could just dump the a mythical cowherd and other 33000 gods etc. And it happened so peacefully. Wonderful! Except that they SIMPLY continued with the caste system.

        The myth about Krishna being a cowherd, Ram a Kshatriya and Varaha an animal, was after all such a grand scale deception by these super cunning enemies of all future generations to come. Wonderful these guys were great. When they had no knowledge of any kind about 100 years (may be 1000 years) before CHRIST, they imagined themselves to be infinitely ancient. When Ashoka from Magadh became sad AFTER killing the oriyas in lakhs, they imagined Arjuna who became sad BEFORE killing his brothers from Hariyana. Wonderful schemers these enemies of rationalism! Let us just carbon date their deceitful speech (they didnot know how to write, and invited a boy called Ganesha to scribble down their mumbo jumbo, these skillful cheats)and throw in their face all their history and ask them to just shut up. Wonderful!

      • Of course Hinduism must bear the blame for the situation. There’s no getting away from that whatever spin people try to put on it. Let’s take that as given.

        My question is more practical, how do we eradicate the practice of caste-based endogamy, which seems to outlive even religious conversion? Would people give up this millenia-old practice merely because their faith wanes? They don’t seem to give it up when they convert to another faith which specifically tells them that caste is bullshit. So, even in a religion-free future, I fear the prospect of Brahmin atheists and Dalit atheists who do not intermarry.

        • I believe that the waning of faith by itself will not help. The question is, waning of faith into what? Only when people, that is Brahmins, Dalits and everyone in between, adopt secular humanistic practices, will casteism truly end. And the ‘end of faith’ is a necessary condition for people to accept secular humanism. Currently, higher caste Hindus know that many Christians or Buddhists are Dalit converts, and hence Christians and Buddhists in certain regions are still treated as they were. Only when the higher castes themselves adopt secular humanism will casteism truly end.

        • I want to react to that, saying that atheism is not a dogma containing any beliefs and so whatever reasons people may have to remain caste-ridden it cannot be atheism, but let me take a more positive approach.

          I have said in many of my articles that in the absence of the traditional means of creating agreement towards a cultural morality, we will have to create alternatives. I address this at length in my earlier article on whether Hinduism is a religion or a way or of life. The absence of religion does not mean that there is no belief to take its place. Atheism is only defined in terms of religion, and in the absence of religion an alternative cultural and philosophical system can be adopted. Secular humanism is one such alternative. For example, in Iceland everyone must undergo moral education until the college level, at which stage our brains are mature enough for us to be empathetic and humane. The future is in creating a humanistic society, not in existing in a cultural vacuum.

          • “Brahmin atheist” = “holding onto Brahmin identity in spite of being an atheist”. Atheist is a positive not pejorative label for me, so it need not be defended.

            Let me try to make the point I’ve been trying to make once more and I’ll shut up. If people hold onto their caste identities in spite of believing in egalitarian faiths like Christianity and Buddhism (whatever their other faults as religions may be), secular humanism is going to have a hard time shaking them off as well.

          • Atheist is a positive term for me as well. That is not the point here. Atheism is irrelevant in this context.
            Its useful to disassociate religion from god. Religion is a set of cultural rules that institutionalize moral behaviors, and they have certain identifiable aspects. You’ve read what they are in my other articles. To rid society of these rules (religions) there need to be replacements. You cannot replace something so powerful in society as religion with nothing.

            I understand that it will be difficult for any philosophy to root out something as endemic as class, but you cannot place secular humanism on the same level as religions in such matters. There is nothing “egalitarian” about Christianity or Buddhism. This is ignorance talking. There seems to be a general tendency towards a post-modernist false equivalence in such matters, and this is absolutely wrong. Secular Humanism differs from religions in some key aspects, in particular those aspects that codify the quest for all human rights based on evidence and empathy for the suffering. This is a sweeping statement, but its hard to squeeze a century of rationalist philosophy from the worlds great humanists into a few sentences.

Leave a Comment