Monday, May 18, 2015

When Casteism Hit Me

Before I begin, let me warn that some might find the post offending. If you don't want to read it, please close the window and move forward. But if you are a good Hindu and want the religion to grow, please read it with an open mind.

Let me also disclose that I was born into a Brahmin family. I am married to a wonderful lady who is not a Brahmin. I have grown to become an atheist though I do feel like a Hindu. I know it sounds strange and, probably, I would explain this sometime later in a different post.

My father passed away on March 4. Like any other important event, Hindu religion has several rituals that needs to be performed. And the son is at the center of these rituals. Even as my father was being cremated, my troubles started. Towards the end of the day even before I could receive my father's ashes, the Vathiyaar (the person who performs the rituals) informed that he will not be able to perform the procedures for the rest of the days. If you did not know, there are important procedures till the 13th day. And, then, of course, there are more.

His reason was that my wife is non-Brahmin. And as per "rules", he was not allowed to perform the procedures and my wife did not qualify to be part of these rituals. I dismissed it thinking probably he was an exception. I thought, rather foolishly, that with education and various reform movements things had changed and that differentiation based on caste was a thing of the past. At least in Chennai which is a metro. Of course, I am not naive to think that the tyrannical system is obsolete.

After speaking with quite a few Vathiyaars, it was clear that no one would perform the rituals if my wife was part of it. The options for me then were:
  1. Have a non-Brahmin perform them for me which was not going to be acceptable to my family which again proves the entrenchment of the caste system, or, 
  2. Not have my wife participate in the procedure.  
I chose the second option. As atheists these rituals were meaningless for both my wife and myself. We felt that she was better off focusing on her career than extend her holidays and fret over the ridiculous system. But a pall of gloom has descended upon the entire family. They felt bad that someone in the family who was so much involved during the last few difficult days of my dad was now being forced not to be part of the rituals. Of course, it is hypocrisy that I chose to perform the function with Vaathiyar instead of not doing any ritual at all. 

This incident is not an exception. I noticed this distinction (discrimination based on caste) in Thirukadaiyur about which I have written earlier.  

Of course, Brahmins are not the only ones who perpetuate this heinous system. It is practiced by everyone. Many Dalits still don't have the 'rights' to visit village temples. There are walls built creating a ghetto for them. And even today in many villages lower caste members are served tea in different glasses in shops. And the guys who discriminate are not necessarily Brahmins, these are what media refers to as 'Caste Hindus'. 

Someone can ask if this is true only for Hinduism. No, of course, not. In fact, differentiation is a common thread that runs among all religions. Roman Catholics and Protestants differ and have fought war. And that Shias and Sunnis are at a bloody war. Even Shvetambars and Digambars have different views in Jainism. No religion is left untouched.

So why am I focusing on Hinduism? It is because as I said though I am an atheist, I still believe that I am Hindu. I have been raised as a Hindu. I firmly believe that the principles and philosophy that it is based on is far more scientific. But importantly for me, I believe that the religion is more open to change. But the caste system that discriminates is the only negative element that doesn't seem to have gone away. 
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