It is a good start for a major change, said Bishop Sebastian Vadakkel of Ujjain
Indian Hindu women perform religious rites during the ritual bathing in the at the Kumbh Mela festival in Ujjain in this file photo. This year women from the former untouchable castes took part in the festival, defying tradition. (Photo by AFP)
Former untouchables taking part alongside higher caste Hindus during a special religious festival shows signs that Indian society is on the verge of changing for the better, says a Catholic bishop.
“It is a good start for a major change,” said Bishop Sebastian Vadakkel of Ujjain.
His diocese covers the area where the month-long Kumbh Mela, the holy bathing festival and one of Hinduism’s biggest religious festivals is held every 12 years.
The festival began April 22 with the royal bath of Hindu ascetics on the banks of the Kshipra River in Ujjain, a temple town in Madhya Pradesh state, in central India. It ended with a similar royal bath on May 21.
Pooja Changra, a former untouchable, who belongs to a caste once prohibited from entering temples, religious gatherings or events said, “I feel so blessed, I cannot explain how happy I am.”
Changra was among 200 women from the former untouchable caste who defied existing traditions and took a bath in the river.
Hindus believe that anyone who takes a holy dip in the river at Ujjain during the festival will be blessed as it will help cleanse their sins and help them attain salvation.
Changra said that as a child she saw many people from her neighborhood going to the Kumbh Mela, but when she expressed her desire to join, “my parents rebuked me saying it was not allowed for people like us.”
It is the biggest sign of changing attitudes about our outdated caste system and should be viewed as a bold and successful step toward the egalitarian inclusion of the downtrodden in the religious-social world of the Hindus,” said Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of Sulabh International, an organization fighting against social discrimination.
Acharya Rajendra Prasad Shastri, a Hindu religious leader present at the ceremony, welcomed and even shared a meal with the women. “The liberation of the untouchables marked a landmark day,” Shastri said.
The four-tier caste system in India comprises Brahmins (priests, teachers), Kshatriyas (kings, warriors), Vaishyas (merchants, artisans), while the Sudras (laborers, peasants) make up the lowest caste.
Those not born into these four castes were the outcasts (formerly untouchables) who are now called Dalits, a Sanskrit term meaning “trampled upon.”
They are often the target of disempowerment, oppression and persecution despite the Indian constitution abolishing caste discrimination and laws making untouchability a punishable offence.
Dalits are the majority in the Christian community, making up 70 percent of India’s Christian population.
Huge numbers of Dalits have converted to Christianity and Islam over the decades, though the religions offer limited protection from societal prejudice.
“When people are aware of their rights, they begin to change and now these women are the torch bearers of society who will help others like them to join the mainstream breaking the wall of untouchablity,” Bishop Vadakkel said.