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The Multiple Faces of India

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In many temples non-Hindus are not allowed into the temple proper. But what is common for everybody is that whenever you are inside a temple you must not wear your shoes. You just leave them at the entrance before crossing the gateway to the first open-air temple court. Being barefoot is to ensure that nothing is in the way of your communication with the earth, or you can also say so as not to soil the sacredness of the temple. But you can get your feet fairly sore from walking on hot stone or burning hot sand, going from one section of the temple to another.

Without this close communion between the people and their sacred symbols, it seems that the lives of the Hindus would be empty of much of the essential values that make them such trusting and fulfilled beings. The outstanding feature of Hinduism is the message of living in peace and harmony with all people and with nature. There is no hate message, only acceptance of the Other.

Of course there is a mixture of religions in India and you very often see Muslims in the streets and there are mosques as well as Hindu temples and sacred shrines in the towns and villages. Many men are now dressed in Western garb, but practically all women are dressed in saris or salwar kameez (tunic, pajama and long scarf), if Hindus, and long black robes if Muslims, burkas or not burkas. Children wear western dress, but school children normally wear uniforms: for girls dresses and often scarves around their necks, tied in the back; for boys shirts and long pants.

Happy students in the Sarva Seva High School, financed by PARTAGE, France

What is remarkable about the mixture of religions is that, contrary to the impression we get through the media, there doesn't seem to be any tension between the members of the different religions, certainly not in the places where we have been and where religions were always mixed. Beside the Hindus and the Muslims, there are Sikhs (offshoot of Hindus) and Buddhists (another offshoot of the Hindus, particularly in the north). In Tamil Nadu, in the south-east, where we went for our latest visit to India, there is also a fair number of Christians and we saw several big churches. In India as a whole, Christians are a small minority however.

One of our guides remarked judiciously that there is no problem between people of the different religions. It's the governments that create the problems. There is certainly a lot of truth to that.

Kapalishvara Temple, dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva in Chennai (Madras)

Schools in India

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All children are, according to the law, supposed to attend school, but in many poverty-stricken families the parents don't have the money to buy school material and uniforms. For the many charity organizations that particularly aim at getting children to go to school, the first problem is getting the parents who depend on the income of their children from begging or working to accept sending their children to school, even though it is paid for. Charity organizations set up schools where there aren't any and manage against high odds to give a very large number of children an education, literacy first of all, that they wouldn't have received without the organization helping out. Sometimes the children go back to being street children because the family needs the money they make to put food on the table. In cases of such great poverty, solutions are not easy to find.

Indian ecological farming

The caste system

The definite down side of Hinduism is of course the cruel caste system. It was declared illegal in 1949, but nevertheless continues to shape people's lives. The Dalits (or Harijans), the untouchables, the outcastes, are still banned from many temples and their children often don't attend schools, for multiple reasons, the lack of schools in the neighborhood being one major reason. They are also still considered unclean by the people of caste. As an example, there was a hunger strike in one boarding school recently because the food was cooked and served by a Dalit woman. A casteless person must not touch a person of a caste, or vice versa. Therefore the expression the British colonials coined of untouchables. The law says that all people have equal right to education, health care, etc. but the reality says otherwise. [2]

However, some progress is being made and inter-caste as well as inter-religious marriages are on an increase. The parents are outraged, but the young usually win. Also there are Dalits who manage to get an education and who fight for the abolishment of castes, in practice, and for social and legal equality. [3]

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When I talk about eager and smiling Indians, I must exclude the hard working Dalits who live their lives without hope for any improvement of their lot. I have seen the dead eyes of road working Dalit women, carrying heavy burdens on their heads, supervised by men who took it very easy, sitting or lying around on the ground, watching the women do the work. I wouldn't know if those men were also Dalits. They might have been Sudras, the lowest caste of lowly working people and servants.

"A new 113-report from Human Rights Watch[4] flays the Indian government for how it deals with Dalits. The report is titled 'Hidden Apartheid: Caste Discrimination against India's Untouchables.' The word 'apartheid' is a running theme of the report, intending to drive home the idea that the Indian government actively helps, as co-author Smita Narula says, 'in maintaining a system of entrenched social and economic segregation.'

Narula notes the recent words of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, when he compared untouchability to apartheid, but she challenges him to start protecting Dalits by providing them with equal access to education, health, housing, property and freedom of religion. Another issue is equal treatment before the law: of the many crimes committed against Dalits, most go unreported, and the ones that go to trial almost always end in acquittals." (HUMAN RIGHTS: HRW says India has failed to uplift Dalits)

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Siv O'Neall was born and raised in Sweden where she graduated from Lund University. She has lived in Paris, France and New Rochelle, N.Y. and traveled extensively throughout the U.S, Europe, and other continents, including several trips to India. (more...)

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