A Movement in the Dark

 A Movement in the Dark

By Barry Rodriguez

The food is intriguing, the languages are ancient and the culture is just about as foreign as you can get. After living in India for three months back in 2008, I still had no idea what was going on half of the time.

I suppose it’s no coincidence that the idea for World Next Door was born in this rich and historic place.

But there is more going on in India than simply the excitement of a new environment. When I am there, 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.

A busy side street in New Delhi

A busy side street in New Delhi

For example, the U.S. has 300 million inhabitants. India has 1.2 billion. When living in New Delhi, there is literally 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 more than 30. New Delhi, with 16 million inhabitants, is so big that I’ve seen veteran taxi drivers ask for directions to neighborhoods they’ve never even heard of.

Even the history of India leaves me speechless. The United States is 237 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 in India makes me feel tiny in comparison.

Jaw-Dropping

But there is a dark side to the enormous scale of everything there. 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.

If your family is in the scavenger caste, you must pick through garbage to survive.

If your family is in the scavenger caste, you must pick through garbage to survive.

Consider this: 30% of India falls below the international poverty line. With a population so massive, that leads to a shocking and uncomfortable fact: one fourth of the world’s poorest people live right here in this country.

Only 62% of India’s population is literate. Think about that. That means that 456 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. Hundreds of thousands of children 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.

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

Okay, so what is the caste system?

Well, 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.

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!).

Sunil teaching at a village footwashing event.

Sunil teaching at a village footwashing event.

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.

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.

Sunil teaching at a village footwashing event.

Sunil teaching at a village footwashing event.

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.

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.

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!