Chapter: 10. Poverty and Caste

What Can We Learn from Hinduism : Recovering the Mystical
by Marcus Braybrooke

Chapter: 10. Poverty and Caste

‘How do you cope with the poverty?’ was a question that Mark Tully, who was for several years the BBC correspondent in Delhi, was often asked by his visitors. ‘Ask the rickshaw wallahs’, was his reply.

It is, of course, the destitute who suffer the affliction of hunger and disease, but the poverty and the beggars are bound to have an impact on any visitor from the affluent West. In South India, meals are sometimes served on the leaves of a plantain or banana tree. After the meal, these are collected and thrown on the rubbish dump. I recall my shock, soon after first arriving in India, at seeing some hungry young children picking over these leaves looking for a few grains of rice. Yet, in fact, confrontation with the poverty in parts of India only underlines the injustice of our world of which we have no excuse for being ignorant.

Westerners are usually advised not to give to beggars, who can be persistent and aggressive. It is suggested that some children are deliberately maimed to make them more pitiable. On the other hand, by refusing we may harden our heart and cut off the bonds of human sympathy. When one does give, it seems to me important to look into the eye of the beggar -- if he or she is not blind -- and to see there a fellow human being.

A litany used at Calcutta Cathedral helps to convey what life is like for a beggar:

Poverty is

a knee-level view from your bit of pavement;

a battered, upturned cooking pot and countable ribs,

coughing from your steel-banded lungs, alone, with your face to the wall;

shrunken breasts and a three year old who cannot stand;

the ringed fingers, the eyes averted and a five-paise piece in your palm;

smoking the babus’ cigarette butts to quieten the fiend in your belly;

a husband without a job, without a square meal a day, without energy, without hope;

being at the mercy of everyone further up the ladder because you are a threat to their self-respect;

a hut of tins and rags and plastic bags, in a warren of huts you cannot stand up in, where your neighbors live at one arm’s length across the lane;

a man who cries out in silence;

nobody listening, for everyone’s talking;

the prayer withheld,

the heart withheld,

the hand withheld; yours and mine

Lord teach us to hate our poverty of spirit.

City of Joy, the title of a well known book about Calcutta, is a reminder of the generosity of many who are very poor and Mary and I have known the wonderful welcome and hospitality of those whose homes are very simple. Poverty of spirit may be as deadly as physical poverty and the affluence of the West brings its own problems. But these considerations are no reason to allow so many children to die young or for the lives of those children who survive to be stunted by malnutrition.

A concern for the poor has throughout been part of my ministry, especially when we were in the Medway Towns. There I took an active part in work for Christian Aid and in the beginnings of what has become the World Development Movement -- for poverty requires structural change to our economic and political systems as well as generous giving. Exposure to the poverty of India and other parts of the world have made many people aware of the deep economic injustices of the world and uneasy with lavish displays of luxury.

Yet the real motive for compassion should not be guilt but thanksgiving. I recall in one parish suggesting at Christmas time that an extra place should be laid at the festive table to remind us of the hungry and that the equivalent of the cost of one person’s meal should be donated to Christian Aid. One parishioner commented. ‘You are not going to spoil Christmas as well as Harvest Festival, are you, by making us feeling guilty?’ Compassion should flow from thanksgiving. If we are aware of the wonder and beauty and richness of life and recognize that all is a gift of God then we shall want all people to share in God’s bounty. There is a Jewish saying that we shall be judged for every legitimate pleasure that we did not enjoy. I believe God wants us to enjoy the good things of life. If we recognize that these are God’s gifts then we shall not claim possession of them nor be reluctant to share them.

In serving the poor we also serve the Lord. To quote the prayer of the workers at Mother Teresa’s orphanage at Caluctta, ‘Dearest Lord, may I see you, today and everyday, in the person of your sick, and whilst nursing them, minister unto you. Though you hide yourself behind the unattractive guise of the irritable, the exacting, the unreasonable, may I still recognise you, and say, "Jesus my patient, how sweet it is to serve you."’ In the parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus, who has been called ‘the man for others’ said, ‘What you do to the least of my brothers and sisters you do to me.’

To recognize the Lord in the marginalized and disadvantaged is to question the priorities of many religious institutions and to be uneasy with religious triumphalism. As Rabindranath Tagore wrote,

Leave this chanting and singing and telling of beads!

Whom dost thou worship in this lonely dark corner of a temple with doors all shut?

Open thine eyes and see thy God is not before thee!

He is where the tiller is tilling the hard ground and where the path maker is breaking stones . . . Put off thy holy mantle and even like him come down on the dusty soil!

. . . Meet him and stand by him in toil and in sweat of thy brow.

There is a similar emphasis in the Sikh religion. From the beginning, Sikh Gurus rejected the caste system and affirmed that every person is precious to God The common kitchen or langar is open to everyone regardless of caste, creed, color or sex. There are no special seats. Rich and poor sit side-by-side on the ground without distinction. Sometimes it is the men who serve the food to women. For in the teaching of the Gurus, as in the teaching of Jesus, women are of equal dignity in the eyes of God. If there has been discrimination, it has been cultural and not religiously sanctioned. The Gurus also did not look down on manual work.

Guru Har Rai, the seventh Guru, not only taught Sikhs to feed anyone who came to their door, but

to do service in such a way that the poor guest may not feel he is partaking of some charity but as if he had come to the Guru’s house which belonged to all in equal measure. He who has more should consider it as God’s trust and share it in the same spirit. Man is only an instrument of service: the giver of goods is God, the Guru of us all.

On our first visit to the Baha’i temple in Delhi we were amazed by its beauty, but on leaving the taxi drove through some of the worst slum shanty towns that we have ever seen. This is not a criticism of the Baha’is, but a question about the financial priorities of most religious groups and as a parish priest one of my responsibilities has been to raise money to help preserve some of England’s historic village churches. Indeed awareness of the poor puts a question to all our priorities. Especially in my interfaith work, I have tried to keep in mind Gandhi’s ‘Talisman’.

I will give you a Talisman.

Whenever you are in doubt,

or when the self becomes too much with you,

apply the following test:

‘Recall the face of the poorest

and weakest man whom you may have seen

and ask yourself if the step you contemplate

is going to be of any use to him.’

Will he gain anything by it?

Will it restore him to a control

over his own life and destiny?

In other words, will it lead to Swaraj

for the hungry and spiritually starving millions?

Then you will find your doubts

and your self melting away.

International interfaith conferences may seem a long way from the burdens of the poor, but I have hoped that the coming together of religions in understanding and co-operation would help to reduce violence, which is a cause of so much suffering and poverty, and unite religions in active work to help the most needy.

This hope was born in me one very hot day as I went for the first time with other students from Madras Christian College to help at a Leprosy Clinic. One of the other students was a Roman Catholic from Sri Lanka and another was a Muslim from Hyderabad. The doctor, who gave his services, was dressed in a traditional dhoti and as, a devotee of the god Siva, had ash on his forehead. Despite our differences, we were together in the service of the afflicted. Even so, I had to wrestle with myself to overcome some of the inherited prejudices about leprosy. Would I catch it by touching the children who had it?


At times religious teaching has been used to reinforce the fear of leprosy and many Westerners have a justifiable anger at the caste system and practice of untouchability. The caste system is very complex and is by no means the only cause of widespread poverty which some Indians would see primarily as a legacy of imperialism.

Defenders of caste speak of it as a system of mutual responsibility. ‘The underlying principle’ of caste, wrote T M P Mahadevan, ‘is the division of labor. Originally the castes were professional and subsequently became hereditary.’ Similarly, Swami Harshananda told Dr. Pöhlmann that caste ‘has a social function because a person’s caste gives protection, security and an identity, so that one knows where one belongs.’ The stylized system of the scriptures speaks of Brahmins, who are priests, satriya or warriors, Vaisya or merchants and of Sudras or manual laborers, although the reality is far more complex.

The origins of caste, which is a Portuguese term, are lost in obscurity. In part it was a result of various waves of conquest, but it also reflects concerns for purity and the fear of pollution. To enter the presence of God, as in Biblical times, a person had to be ritually pure. Pollution is inevitably involved in bodily functions: eating, excretion, perspiration, menstruation, birth, death. Some temples have notices forbidding a woman during her monthly period from entering its precincts. Pollution, in some traditions, can be removed by bathing and looking at the sun. The priests, because of their role, were careful to avoid pollution, but by so doing cut themselves off from other castes and would not eat with or marry someone of a lower caste. Often religious sanctions were used to reinforce their caste privileges.

There are also those known traditionally as outcastes, sometimes called Harijans or Dalits, with whom members of the higher castes avoided all physical contact. Gandhi, who defended the theory of caste, said, ‘I consider untouchability to be a heinous crime against humanity. . . I know of no argument for its retention and I have no hesitation in rejecting scriptural authority of a doubtful character in order to support a sinful institution.’ After Indian Independence, untouchability and caste discrimination were abolished by law. Pandit Nehru and his colleagues wanted to create a social democracy in India. Long inherited attitudes and customs, however, cannot be abolished by legislation and in much of Indian society, especially the villages, casteism is still endemic. In some villages the casteless are refused the use of the village well and not allowed entry to the temple.

Some Christians, indeed, reject any dialogue with Hinduism because it condones casteism and discrimination. This was brought home to me at a meeting in preparation for a great interfaith gathering, Sarva Dharma Sammelana, which was held at Bangalore in 1993. I had asked a well known Hindu from a very high caste to chair the event. This alienated some of the Christians who were committed to Dalit theology and who have adapted liberation theology to their situation. Not only do they reject any dialogue with Hinduism, because it condones the caste sytem and has been the cause of so much injustice in India, they also reject ‘classical Indian (Christian) theology’ of, for example Appasamy and P. Chenchiah, because, they say, it is completely shaped ‘by the Brahminic tradition of Hinduism.’

It is difficult for an outsider to comment on the situation. As Pöhlmann comments, ‘Aren’t there also class distinctions and castes in our Western society?’ Christian children used to be taught to sing,

The rich man in his castle,

The poor man at his gate

God made them high and lowly

And ordered their estate.

Further, some Christians in India retain some caste attitudes, for example in the choice of a husband or wife.

This is why the exchange of the peace, which I first encountered in the Church of South India liturgy, is so powerful a symbol. At the Communion service, everyone is asked to greet each other and wish them the peace of the Lord, regardless of caste or social status.

Some of the Hindus most active in interfaith dialogue, such as Swami Agnavesh, are very critical of casteism and discrimination. There is, however, always a danger of dialogue glossing over social abuse, although paradoxically, interfaith activity often does not help to unite religions, but rather it creates an alliance amongst people of different faiths who are committed to social justice and change.

Although many Hindus keep to traditional ways, the twentieth century saw vast changes in Indian life. Economic and sociological reasons may be primarily responsible for this as well as the emphasis on scientific ways of thinking, which concentrate on this world and how it works. Science has given to human thought an autonomy so that it does not rely upon the divine for explanations. Several thinkers have contributed to these changes. For example, the influential thinker Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950), when he retired to his ashram, claimed that he was not abandoning the political struggle but was seeking a spiritual basis for ‘efficient action’. Indeed, already in 1913 the missionary scholar J N Farquhar noted that ‘the life of India is dominated by the future, by the vision of the brilliant happy India that is to rise as a result of the united toil and self-sacrifice of her sons.’ In Buddhism too, which Albert Schweitzer spoke of as a world-negating religion, there is a growing movement of ‘Socially Concerned Buddhists.’

The change in Hinduism is not just in theory but in practice. Most large Hindu movements have extensive social, medical and educational work and could be said to have copied the methods of Christian missionaries. Swami Vivekandna, noting that his guru Sri Ramakrishna said that ‘An empty stomach is no use for religion’, encouraged the Ramakrishna Mission to develop educational, medical and relief work.

A striking example of Hindu social commitment is the Kashi ashram in Florida, founded by Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati. Ma grew up in poverty in a Jewish family in Brooklyn, New York. In 1972, her spiritual awareness was awakened by a vision of Christ, who told her, ‘Teach all ways, for all ways are mine.’ Her spiritual journey led her to the teaching of the Hindu saint Sri Nityananda of Ganeshpuri and to the Guru Neem Karoli Baba.

Ma has dedicated her life to work for world peace and the relief of human suffering. She has been outspoken in challenging the prejudice with which victims of Aids and HIV infection have often been treated. Many sufferers, including children, have been cared for at the ashram, whose members are dedicated to social service. Ma has also been outspoken in her support for the people of Tibet.

The growing emphasis on social service flows from a recognition that, in Rabindranath Tagore’s words, God is as likely to be met in the person of the poor as in a temple. Mahatma Gandhi said ‘The immediate service of all human beings, sarvodaya becomes necessary ... because the only way to find God is to see him in his creation and to be one with it.’ Simlarly, Swami Vivekananda, before he set out for the World’s Parliament of Religions, dedicated himself at Kanniyakumari, on what is now known as Vivekananda’s rock, to ‘My God, the afflicted; My God, the poor of all races.’

I was glad, therefore, that when in 1993 we went to India to celebrate the centenary of the first World Parliament of Religions, our very first visit was to Vivekananda’s rock. It was a reminder to me that the coming together of people of faith should be an offering of service to bring help and hope to the poorest people of our planet.