Dalits allowed inside temples in Bhilwara and Jagannath Temple in Orissa is a welcome development. Places of worship should be open to all communities and religions. Nobody has a right to bar people from entering the house of God. Unless the savarnas and the Dalits effect a reconciliation, society will suffer from cycles of revenge and counter-revenge.
Moving away from Hinduism and converting to other religions has not helped the Dalits in their war against the oppressive caste system. They have to assert their rights and move up from within the system.
Though banned by law, there have been countless incidents of violence and oppression against the Dalits, many of which have gone unreported. Laws have failed to change the attitude of people, and contemporary religious leaders have done precious little to remove the prejudices and bring about reconciliation.
In the past, Maharishi Dayanand, Sri Basavanna in Karnataka and Ramanujacharya in the South have taken up the cause of the oppressed. Ramanujacharya put tripund/tilak and gave janeu (sacred thread) to thousands of Dalits and made them Brahmins. Basavanna vigorously fought against the caste system and brought together people of all castes into the path of bhakti. Maharishi Dayanand dented the caste system through his brilliant and eloquent dialogues and speeches. He fought against prevalent superstitions. Thanks to him, thousands of Dalits could access the knowledge of the Vedas and the yagyas. He also created many purohits from among the Dalit community.
My own teacher, Sudhakar Chaturvedi, though born in an orthodox Brahmin family, remained a bachelor to care for his eight adopted Harijan boys. He taught them the Vedas, gave them the best education and enabled them to become IAS/IPS officers.
Though Maharishi Dayanand had no political backing, his movement gained considerable social and intellectual strength. On the other hand, BR Ambedkar brought about social reforms through a political movement, which over time acquired an identity of its own. Unlike other religions, Hinduism is inherently anarchic. In the absence of a single command at the top, reforms in Hinduism cannot come from the top. It has to start at the bottom, as a people’s movement.
Historically, many of the revered rishis were Dalits. Dalit contribution to sanatan literature is commendable. For instance, the narrator of the Puranas, Soot Maharishi, was a Dalit. Shaabara Rishi, born into an ‘atishudra’ family, was highly revered as a rishi. His seminal commentary on the Vedas is a highly regarded reference book for the most learned of Vedic scholars. The current generation of upper castes are not exposed to this information and that is the reason why, in the villages, people continue to indulge in inhuman practices.
Every morning, the first puja of the day in the Tirupati temple is offered by the scheduled caste Banjara community. It would be good to start this practice in other temples where there is discrimination. The oppressors need to be taught that what they claim to be their own has major contributions from the Dalits. As Maharishi Dayanand, Sri Aurobindo and many others have rightly pointed out, religious practices have drifted away from their philosophy.
It is unfortunate that people without proper knowledge of the scriptures simply quote from the Manu Smriti, which is only a code of conduct given by a king and has nothing to do with the Shrutis, Vedas or the Upanishads. It is time to honour the philosophy and discard the unscrupulous practices. Instead, people have discarded the philosophy and allowed the unscrupulous practices to continue.
The greatest of the epics — the Ramayana — was written by a Dalit. How can Dalits drop the precious lore and allow a few orthodox narrow-minded people to dominate? It’s not only Dalits who are fighting for their rights; many upper caste people are working and fighting for their cause. Let us not forget that the name Ambedkar was given to Bhimrao saheb by his mentor who was a Brahmin. Not all upper caste people are oppressors and religion certainly is not.
How can a religion that says “all this is Brahman and the universe itself is Upadaana Kaarana (the divine is material cause of the universe)” sanction discrimination by birth?
The vicious cycle of hatred and revenge is being promoted for political gains. There have also been atrocities against the upper castes. In Tamil Nadu, upper castes have been forced to migrate many times. While I was in Chennai recently, miscreants came into a ‘Pandit Sabha’ and assaulted several of the pandits over the issue of desecration of a statue of social reformer ‘Periyar’ EV Ramasamy. Many of the pandits were seriously injured and one of the pandits had his hand mutilated.
I appreciate the Dalits who enter temples and build temples — they are really the brave ones who claim their rights, instead of giving up their heritage. I hope the new wave will continue and the Dalits will assert their social and philosophical rights rather than turn their back on them. Past wrongs cannot be undone through anger and rage.
Ambedkar tried his level best before he took to conversion as the final resort. But with the changing times and education, the strategies need to change. Both Dalit and upper caste Hindus have to change. We need to fight for our heritage in the same way we fight for rights to our property. You fight for your property because you value it. When you don’t value your heritage and culture, you simply discard it.
For justice and progress, there has to be reconciliation.
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar is founder, Art of Living, Bangalore