An On-line Media article that came out recently from Pandit Dina Bandhu Pokharel is a welcome and long overdue statement from a well-recognized personality among Hindu Pandits in Nepal. This bears importance particularly at this juncture of time, when there has been aggravated increase in reported incidents of caste-based discrimination and untouchability. These incidents include especially the various forms of atrocities, such as rejections of tenants for rental housing, rejection of brides or grooms in the families, public beatings at restaurants, banning entry to the temples, witchcraft allegations, rape and even killing of Dalits by so-called higher caste people in recent times across the country. Pandit Pokharel’s assertion that Hindu holy scriptures do not explicitly discriminate people by birth sounded genuine for the fact that the four Vedic Varna system is based on the behavioral traits of the individuals, not based on their clan, caste as erroneously divided by descent, and that the rulers and Brahmins had distorted Varna System in favor of their self-interest to divide and rule the masses over several centuries. His call for unity among people based on equality and co-existence knowing the truth from the Vedic scriptures sounded genuine, but the personalities of his stature need to do more standing ally in the struggle of Dalits for their cultural safety and dignity, dismantling the centuries-old hard-built and deep-rooted social evil structure remaining in the Nepalese society for far too long.
Ancient and historical background
Vedic scriptures were consolidated from oral history and transformed into the prints around 300 BCE during the time of Maurya Empire of India. In this process, the Manu Smriti was created, distorting the Vedic structure of Varnas originally based on the virtue of the individuals, turning them into the clan’s descent-based structure. In the case of Nepal, documented history of caste-based discrimination started by Jayasthiti Malla, a 14th century King of Nepal (Kathmandu Valley). In the modern history, all powerful autocratic Prime Minister Jung Bahadur Rana made the caste system more stringent through his promulgation of Muluki Ain (Civil Code) in 1853, making the state legal system full of unjust differential treatments of people based on caste hierarchy. This not only created a divided society in the long run, but also the people of all origins, including Indigenous tribes, came to caste-folds in which the so-called lowest caste categories became oppressed and discriminated even by all those Indigenous hill people who had traditionally nothing to do with the caste system. This historical development of caste system heavily marginalized the people of occupational castes to the lowest level, making them untouchables, and all that is now totally unacceptable to the oppressed, while the current democratic republic constitution of Nepal abolished caste discrimination by the statute and made it a punishable crime under the law, The Caste-based Discrimination and Untouchability (Offense and Punishment) Act. 2011.
On the part of people of traditional occupational castes, there was a missing link in the adoption of Hindu cultural rites. As they were not traditionally falling under the community of the sacred –thread bearing people who had direct access to Vedic mantras, they were to follow Hindu rites as told by a Brahmin priest. In doing so, there have been a lot of inconsistencies and variabilities in rituals practiced among them learning second-hand from the priest. Probably sensing his last unfinished business to attend, Lord Buddha more than 2500 years ago made a special visit to a silversmith called Chundra Karmaputra (Pãali: Cunda Kammãraputta) near Pava before arriving in Kushinara (now in Uttar Pradesh of India) for his final Parinirvana. The Enlightened One stayed at Karmaputra’s mango grove and had his last meal offered by him. During that time, the Enlightened One asked him specifically how he was approving (practicing) purification rites. Karmaputra – probably related to Vishwakarma clan- narrated rites he was practicing, affirming that he was approving the rites as told by the Brahmins from the western lands- probably from Takshashila for authenticity of Vedic rites.
The Enlighted One then gave him his teachings of 10 point purifications divided into three categories of Sutras– unskilled bodily action, verbal action and mental action as documented in “Cunda Kammaraputta Sutta”, emphasizing that these rites were quite different from Brahmin’s Vedic rites. Karmaputra accepted the teachings of the Enlightened One and thus became a Buddhist Upasaka. The Sutra protocol resolved the underlying issue how a lay follower like Karmaputra could follow Buddha’s teachings in an ordinary household life. Many people of Indigenous tribes and non-Vedic cultures took advantage of the Buddha’s teachings to become ordinary Buddhists in South Asia. In 1956, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, a Bodhisattva of modern times, wrote the book series, “The Buddha and His Dhamma”, explaining the Buddha’s teachings in simplified language to guide hundreds of thousands of Dalits who followed him to adopt Buddhism as their way of life. However, many other people left behind as Shudra under the Vedic Hindu Varna System have missed the opportunities to follow Buddha’s direct teachings to Karmaputra. The traditionally oppressed occupational caste people of Nepal, who are still clinging onto Vedic Hindu folds, holding only second-hand adoption of cultural rites within their domain, and now feel unconformable or even humiliated to stay oppressed as Shudra in the modern era of human freedom, still have the opportunity to follow Karmaputra’s way of adopting Buddhist rites and liberate themselves as Upasakas. They can be the lay household Buddhists in their own rights to keep reclaiming their cultural safety and dignity, with no need to grasp hard disciplinary deeds of a Bikkhu, the Buddhist monk.
The Context of 21st Century
Entering 21st Century, the world is transformed into a massive globalized village, which is inhabited by the people of diverse demographic groups (such as ethnic nationalities, color, nationalities, gender, age groups), socio-economic groups (such as faith, economic classes) and geographic groups (such as countries, urban, rural, high lands, low lands). However, they all must strive for living in harmony for their own existence sustainably recognizing their vast diversities, adopting common norms, and respecting each other’s existential rights. The United Nations, ever since its inception in 1945, taking a pivotal role in integrating all the diversities of the people around the world has been successful in putting in place several intergovernmental instruments to maintain international peace and security, developing friendly relations among nations, achieving international cooperation, harmonizing the actions of nations. Two of the most important of such instruments relevant to our context here are the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted as early as 1948 and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination adopted in 1965. In the 21st Century, both these instruments have become more relevant than even before for the simple reason that social justice among all peoples has been a paramount unnegotiable contract without undermining each other’s existential rights in equal terms at all levels of the nations, sub-nations, communities and individuals. In order to achieve social justice across the board, mere provisioning of equal opportunities is not good enough; but concerted efforts to ensure equities across nations, sub-nations, communities and individuals are essential.
There is now a universal voice that all the people around the world irrespective of their differences and diversities in resources should have access to COVID-19 vaccine equitably. Likewise, we must ensure that the people of all ethnic groups including traditionally oppressed occupational caste people of Nepal have the equal rights to self-determination in terms of access to governance, health care, education, social security and resource utilization proportionate to the size of their population. Fortunately, Nepal as a country has been proactive in this regard and has successfully put in place more egalitarian statutory rights for the people as enshrined in its current constitution. However, due to centuries of socio-cultural oppression of people so divided in nested hierarchical order, the marginalization of people based on various factors including gender, caste, ethnicity, religion and health inequalities is prevalent, deep rooted and distributed across the countries – see map showing current status of high, medium and low level of marginalization across the country. And, the implementation of the constitutional provisions in place aiming at equalizing the society has faced extreme challenges due to the heavily skewed representation of certain ethnic groups in the politics, power and enforcement bodies in the country against the odds of especially, the traditionally oppressed people who are referred to as “Dalit” in the present constitution. They are the ones mainly bearing the brunt of violation of their cultural safety and dignity leading to the marginalization prevalent in the country.
A GIS Map of marginalization in Nepal provided by the Global Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies, Kathmandu, Nepal.
Cultural Safety and Dignity
The 21st Century calls for the cultural safety and humility to reclaim the human dignity of all people in equal terms around the world. Everyone should feel culturally safe with the humility and dignity when interacting with each other in everyday life. Any form of discrimination or hate based on birth, clan or caste is unacceptable and is tantamount to crime against humanity, not only the crime against victimized individuals. In Nepal, despite many drastic politico-cultural and socio-economic changes happening over the past decades, the so-called higher caste people are still clinging on to the evil practice of caste discrimination and untouchability as their traditional cultural values based on superstitions without any remorse of injustices meted out to so called lower caste people, especially, Dalits. When Nepali superstitious cultural practice of Sati Pratha, a system of immolation of a wife on the funeral pyre of her deceased husband, was abolished, should not untouchability practices against the women in their menstrual period and against occupational caste people be abolished as well by the same logic? When the long-held farcical claim of Nepal’s King being the incarnation of Hindu Lord Vishnu is dismantled over a sweeping political change to democratize the country, how can the people still not realize that the Hindu superstitious practice of untouchability does not hold any reasonable ground in a civilized society, any longer?
Opinions expressed in this article are of the author himself and do not necessarily reflect the position of his past or present employers.
~ Dr. Rasali is an Adjunct Professor at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver Canada, and Fellow of American College of Epidemiology. Currently, he serves as the Director, Population Health Surveillance & Epidemiology at the Provincial Health Services Authority, British Columbia in Canada. He is interested in health equity and social justice and is the Founder and Moderator of NepalDalitInfo International Network. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.