Hindus, caste in another mould

Published: Nov 12, 2019, 07:58 IST | C Y Gopinath | Mumbai

Imagine a country where India’s lowest caste sits on top of the social order — and everyone is happy. It exists

The first things you notice in Bali are the flowers and the shrines. Garlands and bouquets are everywhere
The first things you notice in Bali are the flowers and the shrines. Garlands and bouquets are everywhere

CY GopinathMy name reveals very little about me. Except perhaps that I was probably born to Hindu parents. Gopinath, meaning 'master of the milkmaids' is one of the other names of Krishna. During Hindu rituals, especially where, as the eldest of the siblings, I am expected to do the honours, I am asked my gotra, which I now understand means clan. I am from the Srivatsa clan, the priest told me after my mother told him.

In conversations, specially with elders, casual questions about surname, gotra and lagna (the astrological sign on the horizon at the time of birth) are like codes that swiftly reveal your position in the Hindu pecking order. The Brahmin, of course, is top of the pack, and the Shudra, the nearly untouchable servant class, sits at the bottom.

Can you imagine what life might be like if the order were reversed and the Shudras ruled society? Turns out there is an island where Shudras rule and a handful of respected Brahmins may be seen here and there.

It's called Bali and it's the only Hindu province in one of the world's largest Muslim nations, Indonesia. Of course, you already knew about its beaches.

I only discovered Bali's Hinduism on my second visit there. Denpasar, the capital, full of bloated tourists, belches and beer cans on the beach, is definitely not Bali, so we found a place in Ubud, an hour or so inland and famous for its more Balinese, peaceful and artistic environment. We took a room at a hotel called Bunga Permai, run by a Dutch couple from Suriname.

The first things you notice in Bali are the flowers and the shrines. Garlands and bouquets are everywhere. From early morning, women, freshly bathed and bedecked with their bling and blossoms, carry flowers to temples. On the way, they leave flowers and offerings at roadside shrines and holy trees. Pretty much any spot in Bali, it seems, is holy in some way, and could be 'flowered' without prejudice.

Flowers, temples, prayers. Felt like familiar Hinduism. Except that it wasn't.

Wanting to understanding Bali better, I'd bought two erudite books on the island's cultural roots. Casually mentioned within was the fact that almost 93% of Bali's Hindus were from caste regarded as Shudras, the servant class. The almost-untouchables.

My guide Toya was one.
So were the Kecak dancers who performed every evening showing Rama's victory over Ravana.
And the fire walkers.
And the flower sellers.
Only the priests were Brahmins.

I saw my first Brahmin while being driven across Bali with our hell-for-leather, Stirling-Moss-channeling driver, Nyoman. We stopped at the sight of a crowd around a house and stumbled into a marriage. Three priests sat around a havan mumbling shlokas. Everyone else waited reverently.
I caused visible consternation when I whipped out my video camera and began to film this live anthropological event. Later Nyoman gently explained to me that it was considered bad form to tower over a Brahmin. If the priests were seated, I could not be standing taller.

Brahmins do not rule in Bali; Shudras do. And the result is the gentlest of all possible societies, with kindness, caring and thoughtfulness at every turn. The Dutch couple had been trying with no luck to start an orphanage — except that in Bali, orphans are immediately sucked into warm and loving homes.

Scholars say that Bali's caste system reflects lineage more than professional divisions. "A person can change his caste if he wants," Nyoman told me. "A Shudra could decide to be a Brahmin priest and become one by studying hard. No one would stop him. No caste looks down — or up — on any other caste."

Bali sounded like the India that India might have been, if it had been truer to Hinduism, instead of the politicised, bloodthirsty, divisive religion we are surrounded by today.

What caught my eye at the wedding were the displays in front of the bride and the groom. On a cloth before him were a jumble of things: a pack of cigarettes, a whisky bottle, Ray Ban glasses, a necktie, a pen, condoms, books. Before her: lipstick, family pictures, jewellery, needle and thread, romantic novels.

"We believe that everyone and everything has a light side and a dark side," said Nyoman. "When two people marry, they must accept each other's best and worst, and that is what is on the cloth before them."

The Balinese pray to everything around them because to them everything is sacred. Nyoman said, "If the dark side becomes too much, it is not good. But it is equally unfortunate if the good side becomes excessive. We pray to everything in the universe to make sure that the bad and the good stay in balance."

They call it sekala and niskala — and it pervades Bali. Whether it's an old tree or a Toyota Corolla, it has its light side and shadow side, and must be propitiated.

Suddenly all those flowers every day made sense.

Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at cygopi@gmail.com

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