It’s been a little over two years since I’ve walked the streets of New Delhi.  The place brings back a lot of wonderful memories for me.  For one, it was the place where the idea for World Next Door was born.

But there is more going on here than simply warm recollections of the past.  When I am here, I feel like I am swept up into something much bigger than myself.  The kingdom of God is stirring in ways that are hard to imagine back home.

Let me see if I can explain to you just why India moves me the way it does…

Scale

First of all, the sheer scale of things in India never ceases to amaze me.

For example, the U.S. has 300 million inhabitants.  India has 1.2 billion.  Since arriving a few days ago, there has literally been another human being within 300 feet of me at all times.

Or how about this?  The U.S. has nine cities with more than a million people.  India has twenty seven.  New Delhi, with 14 million inhabitants, is so big that I’ve seen veteran taxi drivers ask for directions to neighborhoods they’ve never even heard of.

It’s hard to even imagine what 1.2 billion people looks like.

Even the history of India leaves me speechless.  The United States is 234 years old.  The Indian subcontinent has been home to various civilizations for five thousand years.  I can’t even go for an afternoon jog without stumbling across a 400 year old mosque or something.

Ok.  You get it.  The scale of things here makes me feel tiny in comparison.

Jaw-Dropping Scale

But there is a dark side to the enormous scale of everything here.  In a country set to become one of the world’s leading economies in the next ten years, vast injustices still plague the population.  And with a population so huge, those injustices inevitably take on a jaw-dropping scale all their own.

Consider this: 42% of India falls below the international poverty line.  With a population so massive, that leads to a shocking and uncomfortable fact: one third of the world’s poorest people live right here in this country.

One of the traffic-clogged streets outside of New Delhi.

Only 72% of India’s population is literate.  Think about that.  That means that 336 million Indians cannot read or write… more than the entire population of the United States.

Two thirds of India’s population does not have access to adequate sanitation.  2.1 million children under age five die every year in this country simply because they don’t have access to clean drinking water.

On top of everything else, there is the caste system.

The caste system is one of the world’s oldest systems of injustice.  It is an evil and manipulative system designed for one purpose: to keep the weak and marginalized permanently under the thumb of the powerful.

But you have to keep one thing in mind… the caste system is shrouded in ideas of religion and holiness.  Most Westerners have absolutely no idea that such widespread discrimination even exists.

Two lower caste men at a rally for equal rights.

In fact, the Indian constitution expressly forbids discrimination on the basis of caste. So for many on the outside, it looks like the caste system is old news… a footnote in our history books.

But caste is not old news.  It is very much still alive…

A System of Power

Ok, so what is the caste system?

Well, I’ll be writing quite a bit more about the details of the caste system in future articles, so for now I’ll simply give an overview.

About 3000 years ago, a large population of Aryans from the Middle East began settling in North India.  Knowing that priests, not kings, would have true power over the people, they began slowly setting themselves up as religious leaders for the native Dravidians.

To maintain their power and status over multiple generations, the Aryans developed an ingenious religious model called the caste system.

A clay cup at a chai stand. Disposable so that upper and lower caste people never accidentally share the same cup.

Essentially, the caste system revolves around the idea of reincarnation.  According to Hindu scriptures, every person is born into a specific social class, or “caste,” based on their deeds in a previous life.  If you lived a holy life last time, you’re born into a higher caste this time.

Shudras (also known as “Other Backward Castes” or OBCs) are at the bottom of the caste ladder.  They have a long way to go before becoming as holy as Brahmins, the high priestly caste (Some believe that Brahmins have already been reincarnated millions of times to get to where they are!).

Dalits, or Untouchables, are not even on the ladder.  They are outcastes, considered so impure that even their shadow passing over a Brahmin will make him or her ritually unclean.  Many roadside chai stands serve their tea in clay cups, promptly smashing them after the customer is through to avoid caste cross-contamination.

To move up the ladder in their next life, a lower-caste person must live perfectly within the social status of their birth.  If your father is a potter, you must also become a potter.  If your parents are farmers, you must also be a farmer.  If your family is in the scavenger caste, you must pick through garbage to survive.

You can see how this idea can be used as a tool for manipulation.  Upper caste people, who have had power, wealth and education in their families for generations, are well within their rights to deprive a subordinate of pay.  They are actually helping a Dalit by forcing him or her to do disgusting, unsanitary work.

A lower-caste man selling patties made from molasses. Like many, he barely makes enough money to survive.

By tying social class into religious holiness, the descendants of the Aryans – the Brahmins – created for themselves a self-perpetuating system of power which exists to this very day.

A Movement

I don’t know about you, but when I tie the caste system in with the mind-numbing statistics about India’s poverty, I can’t help but feel a little overwhelmed.  It all feels so huge and hopeless.

Thankfully, not everyone feels that way.

Meet Sunil Sardar.  He is the director of Truthseekers International, a social and spiritual reform movement dedicated to bringing an end to the caste system.

If you ask me, I’d say it’s a pretty audacious goal.  3000 year-old systems of injustice don’t tend to go down easy.

Sunil Sardar (middle) at a rally for OBCs at a local university.

But Sunil doesn’t seem discouraged by the odds.  He believes with all his heart that caste can be defeated through the power of the kingdom of God.   He believes that OBCs and Dalits are primed for a social and spiritual revival across the nation of India.

That is why he and his wife, Pam, started Truthseekers two decades ago.  Following in the footsteps of 19th century social reformer Mahatma Phule, Sunil’s ministry has taken a stand for the rights of the poor through activism, representation and prayer.

Sunil’s team regularly meets with (and influences) caste leaders, starts schools for lower-caste children, lobbies ministers of parliament, speaks at lower caste rallies and teaches a Christianity that is contextualized for those on the bottom rung of the caste system.

And that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

Several times a year, Truthseekers hosts ceremonies across India where upper caste Christ followers actually wash the feet of the Untouchables.  It isn’t hard to imagine just how powerful such events can be…

There is hope for India.

Join Me

Over the next couple of weeks I will be writing more in depth about the work of Truthseekers. I’ll be capturing stories of hope in a place so desperately in need of it, and I’ll actually be attending one of their incredible footwashing events.

I invite you to join me on this journey.

India may be a difficult place.  It may be wracked by countless hardships and injustices.  But Truthseekers is blazing forward into the light.  To them, nothing is impossible!

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About the Author: Barry is the founder and Executive Director of World Next Door. A storyteller, traveller and giant nerd, he lives to compel suburban Americans to get engaged with social justice and find their place in God's kingdom revolution. His ultimate dream is to adopt a pet monkey named Kevin.

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Comments

  1. Keith Carlson said... 

    Reply

    November 15th, 2010 at 8:42 am  

    Barry, thanks for the very clear and concise description of India and the caste system. I love your writing!

  2. Sunil Sardar said... 

    Reply

    November 15th, 2010 at 9:47 am  

    Keep on telling the truth ,that’s what sets people,culture,countries,and individuals FREE.

  3. kristina said... 

    Reply

    November 15th, 2010 at 10:27 am  

    Barry,

    Thank you for your vivid words and images in this article. When I saw the picture of the chai cup, it took me right back to my time in Kolkata this past May. Amidst the overwhelming darkness and oppression, we saw light and joy in the eyes of many. I cannot wait to continue reading as you learn and share more in depth about New Delhi and the Truthseekers.

  4. Rosita said... 

    Reply

    November 15th, 2010 at 3:58 pm  

    One other thing to mention about the caste system is that it was starting to die out on its own around the time of colonialism, and the British reinstitutionalized it to aid their purposes.

  5. Dave Rod said... 

    Reply

    November 15th, 2010 at 4:30 pm  

    Keep us informed Barry. Great insights! And please encourage Sunil, for us all, to stay strong in the fight!

  6. Pam Sardar said... 

    Reply

    November 15th, 2010 at 9:51 pm  

    You make me homesick!!!

  7. Catherine Bell said... 

    Reply

    November 15th, 2010 at 11:07 pm  

    Thanks, Barry, for taking us back to India. It pulses its way deep into one’s system. Don’t forget to write about the smells as well as the sounds …

  8. Jim M. said... 

    Reply

    November 15th, 2010 at 11:58 pm  

    How can this be?

  9. Denise said... 

    Reply

    November 16th, 2010 at 7:50 pm  

    There is nothing like seeing the faces of “OBCs” getting their feet washed. It is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever participated in! Talk about being on the front lines for Jesus – Sunil and Pam certainly are! Talk about lies, injustice and years of bondage being broken little by little!! WOW!!! May the Lord continue to bless the work of Truthseekers!!:)

  10. Jessica said... 

    Reply

    November 23rd, 2010 at 1:08 pm  

    The elder giving the sermon this week at my church is Indian. He shared that it is impossible for an older man to touch the foot of a younger man, even when custom requires it in asking for forgiveness…it’s too degrading. I can’t imagine how earth-shattering a foot-WASHING is. Listening and watching for what it to come…

  11. Breanna Sipple said... 

    Reply

    February 8th, 2011 at 3:43 pm  

    I learned about India and the Chaste system in one of my classes, but the numbers you shared about literacy and poverty levels were much larger than I thought. I’ve heard of Truthseekers as well, but I was touched to hear about how they host “ceremonies across India where upper caste Christ followers actually wash the feet of the Untouchables.” Thank you so much for sharing about this. This article was amazing. I know you’ve probably heard this a ton of times, but your writing is so gifted. Thanks for using that gift to glorify God and bless others!

  12. Jim.M said... 

    Reply

    February 13th, 2011 at 3:38 pm  

    “Sunil’s ministry has taken a stand for the rights of the poor through activism, representation and prayer.”

    Love in action, Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom here, now. I enjoyed re visiting this one.

  13. Manish Bhuradiya said... 

    Reply

    September 23rd, 2015 at 6:16 am  

    Great article………………

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