Since I'm reading, and enjoying, Isabel Wilkerson's great book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, I was especially interested to read a recent newspaper story about Seattle becoming the first city in the United States to ban caste discrimination.
Caste, in Wilkerson's view, is at the heart of American racism, Nazi Germany's horrors against Jews, and naturally India's longstanding caste divisions.
I noted in a previous post how Wilkerson discovered that even currently among Indian scholars studying caste, she was able to tell who was upper caste and who was lower caste by the way they carried themselves and how they acted toward other Indians.
That surprised me. But I guess it shouldn't have.
After all, while discrimination against African-Americans is illegal in my county, there's still plenty of discrimination happening. Same applies to caste discrimination in India.
And in Seattle also, according to a BBC story, "Seattle: Why US city's ban on caste discrimination is historic for South Asian Americans."
On Tuesday, Seattle became the first US city to ban caste-based discrimination after a vote by the local council. Ahead of the vote, several South Asians stood in line for hours to share their stories with council members.
Academic Prem Pariyar was one of them. He says he fled to the US from Nepal in 2015 after his family was brutally attacked by a group of upper caste people for speaking up against atrocities.
But that didn't stop the discrimination he faced because of his caste. Once, he says, he was invited to lunch at a friend's house in the San Francisco Bay Area in California.
"I was hesitant [to go] as caste dictates where you sit and eat, but I thought it will be different here as people are educated, in a country where human rights are valued," Mr Pariyar says.
But just as he was about to serve food for himself, he was asked not to touch anything. Instead, someone else handed him a plate of food.
...Mr Pariyar says the incident at his friend's house reminded him of something from his childhood in Nepal: his teacher spat out the water he gave her after finding out he belonged to a lower caste.
In her "Purity versus Pollution" chapter that I read today, Wilkerson describes similar examples of how caste discrimination has functioned in India and the United States. The chapter starts with these paragraphs.
The fourth pillar of caste rests upon the fundamental belief in the purity of the dominant caste and the fear of pollution from the castes deemed beneath it. Over the centuries, the dominant caste has taken extreme measures to protect its sanctity from the perceived taint of the lower castes.
Both India and the United States at the zenith of their respective caste systems, and the short-lived but heinous regime of the Nazis, raised the obsession with purity to a high, if absurdist, art.
In some parts of India, the lowest-caste people were to remain a certain number of paces from any dominant-caste person while walking out in public -- somewhere between twelve and ninety-six steps away, depending on the castes in question. They had to wear bells to alert those deemed above them so as not to pollute them with their presence.
A person in the lowest subcastes in the Maratha region had to "drag a thorny branch with him to wipe out his footprints" and prostrate himself on the ground if a Brahmin passed, so that his "foul shadow might not defile the holy Brahmin."
Likewise, Wilkerson describes how well into the twentieth-century, African-Americans couldn't use white beaches, lakes, and swimming pools because the dominant caste -- Whites -- were afraid of being polluted by the subordinate caste, Blacks.
This is bizarre. Fear of pollution isn't solely a religious preoccupation, but it requires a religious mindset, even if not expressed explicitly as a religious dogma.
For example, I recall with present-day amusement how frantic my fellow devotees of Radha Soami Satsang Beas (RSSB), an India-based religious group that I belonged to for 35 years, would become in a restaurant after the RSSB guru decreed that animal rennet couldn't be eaten.
Rennet is used to make cheese. So if a group of us RSSB disciples wanted to order a pizza at a restaurant, the most fanatic (which excluded me) would quiz the poor waiter if the cheese was made with animal rennet or vegetable rennet.
He or she wouldn't know, not surprisingly. "Please go in the kitchen and check," someone would say.
I'd be embarrassed, since even though I've been a vegetarian for more than fifty years, I realized that the minuscule amount of animal rennet in a cheese pizza was meaningless to anyone but the people most obsessed with absolute vegetarian/karmic purity.
What's going on here, I'm pretty sure, is the doctrine of essences that I've read about in numerous books. This is the notion that things, or people, can possess an unseen essence that has certain magical powers even though there is no evidence for such.
So if someone is shown a sweater and asked whether they'd like to have it to wear, they typically say "yes." But if they're told that the sweater was worn by a murderer when he killed someone, they'll say "no," since now the sweater is viewed as possessing the essence of a murderer.
As the middle castes pressed for admittance to the rungs above them, what was consistent was the absolute exclusion of the "polluting" lowest caste. African-Americans were not just not citizens, they were, like their Dalit counterparts in India, forced outside the social contract.
They and the Dalits bore the daily brunt of the taint ascribed to their very beings. The Dalits were not permitted to drink from the same cups as the dominant castes in India, live in the villages of the upper-caste people, walk through the front doors of upper-caste homes, and neither were African-Americans in much of the United States for most of its history.
...Their exclusion was used to justify their exclusion. Their degraded station justified their degradation. They were consigned to the lowliest, dirtiest jobs and thus were seen as lowly and dirty, and everyone in the caste system absorbed the message of their degradation.