NRI group battles Hinduism's "inequalities"

by Arun Venugopal

When Tukaram, a 19-year-old Dalit fresh from his exams, prayed at a Hanuman temple in Andhra Pradesh earlier this month, he probably never anticipated the outrage it would cause.

Upper caste villagers issued an injunction against his entire community, before scrubbing down the entire temple with cow dung and urine in a symbolic act of purification.

Ths situation might have remained another footnote to the ongoing story of India's caste divisions, but for the efforts of a group of reformist NRIs. The group, Navya Shastra, publicly condemned the actions of the upper caste villagers and announced a Rs 10,000 (about $200) scholarship for Tukaram.

This is just the latest in a series of actions the group has taken to address what it feels are inequities in the religion. Unlike secular groups that rail against caste and gender discrimination, however, Navya Shastra comprises devout, temple-going Hindus.

These include a leading priest from Houston and a number of academics, as well as converts to the religion. Among the advisers is Arun Gandhi, founder of the MK Gandhi Center for Nonviolence, and O P Gupta, India's ambassador to Finland.

According to Jaishree Gopal, the molecular biologist in Michigan who founded Navya Shastra with New Jersey resident Vikram Masson, the group formed after discussions on an online Hindu bulletin board two years ago.

"There are lots of apologists writing on the Net these days." said Gopal. "We saw some articles posted that there is no caste discrimination in Hinduism (but we know) that Dalits are discriminated against."

Its this inequality, the group contends on its website, which has lead to an "epochal tide of conversions to religions thats supposedly preach egalitarian values. There is compelling evidence that the number of actual conversions in India is vastly understated by both missionary organizations and the government."

Aside from access to temples for members of all castes, the group promotes the right for anyone--man or woman--to receive the sacred thread and/or become a priest.

While the Indian government has encouraged such reforms to an extent, the organization insists that Hindus themselves should take up the cause while avoiding factionalism. At the same time, the group has been critical of Dalits for highlighting caste discrimination without actively working with Hindu leaders to resolve the problem.

According to Gopal, it is not a coincidence that Navya Shastra is based outside of India.

"As NRIs, we become more aware of our religious identity when you are young, as opposed to India, where it just permeates the atmoshere", she said. "We are used to answering questions about caste over here. And we can't always justify the discriminatory aspects."

Another member, Sri Rajarathina Bhattar, agreed with this assessment and cited the grip of "superstitous beliefs" on many Hindus in India.

The priest emeritus at Houston's Sri Meenakshi Temple, Bhattar has been conducting a letter writing campaign to newspapers and orthodox leaders in India, stressing the need for reform.

So far, he said, there continue to be a number of priests who insist on maintaining the status quo.

"But priests who are well educated seem to agree with me." he said. "The main reason most of them disagree is due to the fear that they may lose certain rights as a priest."

This article appeared in June 18, 2004 issue of India Abroad