Friday, January 8, 2016

Questioning Caste Logic and Questions Prompted by the Questioning

I've been learning a lot about Hinduism lately. That's because I'm taking a class on it. It's very interesting, and I have gained so much perspective about myself, my culture, and the way that other people live and worship and why.

A controversial part of Indian and Hindu culture* is the caste system, which divides the entire population into very specific sectors based on birth. If you are born a Brahmin (priest, philosopher, scholar) you will be that for the rest of your life, and if you want to diverge from that, you are asking for bad karma.

Okay, so talking about karma is entering into the strictly religious side of things... but really, Indian culture and Hinduism are so interwoven it is hard to distinguish between the two.

Suffice it to say that religiously, a lot of Indians don't think it is necessarily vital to maintain your caste position; but because that's how things have been for a long time, it's still frowned upon, and most people just don't consider caste mobility as an option.

So this brings an interesting question - is the caste system a good idea?

Most people in the Western world would view such an arrangement pretty negatively - after all, we hold our "freedoms" dear, which means we don't like anybody to tell us we have to do anything. That's looking at it politically.

Ethically, you could argue that the upper levels want to maintain the system, and they have the power to do so, so that the lower levels are being oppressed.

Religiously, it is very much contested whether the caste system is actually important to practice Hinduism or not.

But pragmatically... here's the interesting thing. When I watched the John Green talk about Hinduism and the caste system as a part of his Crash Course in History, I felt really really weird.

I felt really weird because he didn't say anything about injustice (Westerner treason!), but instead remarked that it's actually a really practical system because you'll always have someone to do every kind of job that possibly could need to be done.

I would think this is just him speaking from the ancient Hindu perspective... but he actually said that "we could stand to implement this system in America!"

..moving on.

Disregarding whether or not this is an ethical argument, or even whether trying to be ethical is important or not (that is the main question this issue brings up, really), I have been thinking about it lots.

I thought about it enough that I started talking about it while sitting with some friends. Of course it led me to talk about the "menial" jobs in our society, our own downtrodden social class who are effectively (although not necessarily socially or religiously as in India) trapped in lower-earning, lower-status jobs. I pointed out that "someone's got to do it." I recalled all of the places I've seen and the people I've met and the things that I've read about social injustice in America and inequality of job opportunity. As I've mentioned... or implied... more than once during this discussion, Westerners tend to think that addressing these kinds of issues is really important. That leveling the playing field as much as possible is good.

As a Christian, I actually subscribe to the viewpoint that you shouldn't force equality, because it doesn't exist in the way that we think it should. And nothing works unless everyone actually agrees to participate, anyway. That doesn't mean, though, that I don't recognize my own duty to accept the more menial tasks for myself. I believe we all need to accept these jobs in order to be servants to one another. Not that anybody should be trapped in them - and if we agree to all help out, then traps won't be needed. The evangelical culture in which I've grown into a Christian adult really emphasizes this idea of serving. At my institution they give us a symbolic towel, even, with a scripture about serving one another, and tell us that it should be for getting dirty in the service of others.

Yet something (else) really made me feel weird when I mentioned these things to my friends. That it might be necessary for me to take a less desirable job in order to signify my willingness to participate in the menial service of others. The reaction that I got was somewhere between confusion and disgust.

I do not mean to sound as if I think my friends are elitist - but this is an attitude that is completely inappropriate for Christians, from my perspective. It is our culture that has taught us this viewpoint - the culture that allows privileged people from middle class families to get jobs that appeal to our supposed "higher calling" and justify staying in those jobs our whole life so that we don't have to worry about the dirty work.

People forget that others exist who are consigned to a life of indirect slavery because they believe they are entitled to do the high-level jobs. I do not blame them. Amnesia is common in a sheltered environment, and I have lived in those all my life.

I refuse to perpetuate that. I am not better than those who haven't had my opportunity to benefit from higher education. I am not more intelligent. I am not more deserving of a higher-paying job or better qualifications or the bias that my ethnicity (if not my gender) imparts when employers look at me.

I do not believe in legislating job equality. I believe in living it.

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*for those of you who don't know - "Hinduism" basically refers to the religion of India - there is a distinction between the religion and the culture of the locality, but Hindu is an ancient religion historically confined mostly to the area, and so the social structure of India to this day is largely dictated by social ideas in some of the Hindu sacred texts.