Class and Culture in India

Contributing to the work of organizations in a foreign culture necessitates a sensitivity toward the social philosophies particular to that environment. During the first days in India our group has wrestled with the unique and often contradictory systems of thought which have slowly moulded the national culture. During our lectures from Deepti on the concept of ‘Integral Yoga’ and the unity at the heart of Auroville’s founding ideologies, I wondered how these perspectives could coexist with the systems of oppression which have also played a prominent role in Indian history.

Our introductory tour of local organizations began with a day in the city of Pondicherry which neighbors Auroville. Through these initial presentations we began to develop a sense of the social, religious and colonial histories which have come to shape the complex social structure within which organizations are operating.Perhaps the most prominent and difficult to understand from a Western perspective is the caste system.

A preliminary discussion on the caste system was facilitated by members of the organization PEDs, who described their project as an attempt to work within the lowest caste, or dalit, communities to raise awareness of the prejudices they face and their ability to improve their situation. The caste systems relies on the more familiar concepts of rebirth and karma which ensure that the actions taken throughout the course of a lifetime will be reflected in the caste of future lives. According to the leaders of PEDs, the fixed nature of caste designations fosters a general acceptance of inhuman treatment and strict segregation of the dalits. While caste-based segregation has been outlawed by the Indian government, deeply ingrained ideas of purity and pollution persevere in the villages. The so-called “untouchables” are given jobs, such as sewage management, rejected by higher castes and forbidden from physical and social interaction.   

The ordeal of the dalits was hard to conceptualize without an extensive discussion on the history and contemporary role of the caste system. Students struggled to envision a social hierarchy which prescribed a rank based not on wealth, religion or race but rather inherited at birth and fixed throughout this lifetime. It was equally difficult to understand how an organization could attempt to address the problems of an excluded population without condemning the system as a whole. As Tanya explained to us, even Ghandi worked toward a reform of human rights without rejecting the classifications that had lead to tension and stratification between different castes.

While two NGOs we visited dealt directly with the segregation of the lowest caste, the dalits or “untouchables”, the restrictive inter-caste dynamics affect many of the village based organizations we have visited throughout the week. Groups who address women’s empowerment, youth education, public health and even cultural preservation all indirectly work against caste discrimination. However, the enduring adherence to this social system often hinders work in environmental and health sectors by associating uncleanliness or pollution with specific populations. Acknowledging the power of this social structure and learning to work within it will be an essential challenge for most of the group as we begin our internships.

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