A lot of people who know that occidental religions, with their emphasis on “faith,” can be detrimental, see eastern religions as being superior and not vulnerable to the same abuses. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Hinduism, the dharmic religion that dominates India, has a caste system, which until the middle of the 20th century was strongly observed (and still is, in most places). Indian society is made up of a number of castes, the bottom two of which, known together as the Dalit or untouchables, were once so reviled that they could be punished merely for allowing their shadow to fall on someone of a higher caste. Over the last three millennia or more of Hindu dominance over India, the dalit have been subjected to harassed, ostracized, beaten, and even killed. Given India’s high population and the long history of caste-based abuse, it’s quite likely that much more human misery has been inflicted on humanity via this, than by all the abuses of occidental religion (e.g. the Inquisitions, the Crusades, etc.) combined.

The reason for the emergence of a caste system in India — and the reason that many cling to it still, in spite of civil-rights laws which have been in place since India’s independence — is that Hinduism has reincarnation at its core. People are born into social strata, and thus assigned their lifetime’s dharma, according to their past actions or karma. This actually leads some Hindus (though certainly not all!) to believe that the Dalit actually deserve to be treated like animals (or worse than animals) … because of the fact that they were born Dalit! Had their karma been better they would not have been born so low on the social ladder. What’s more, it is actually necessary to treat them poorly, since if they are not, their dharma will not be fulfilled and they will not ascend higher in their next lifetimes.

Reforms in India meant to improve the lot of Dalit have been met with resistance by large swaths of Indian society; despite their civil rights, the Dalit are still widely harassed.

A recent honor killing brings this point home (WebCite cached article):

Five armed men burst into the small room and courtyard at dawn, just as 21-year-old, 22-week pregnant, Sunita was drying her face on a towel.They punched and kicked her stomach as she called out for her sleeping boyfriend “Jassa,” 22-year-old Jasbir Singh, witnesses said. When he woke, both were dragged into waiting cars, driven away and strangled.

Their bodies, half-stripped, were laid out on the dirt outside Sunita’s father’s house for all to see, a sign that the family’s “honor” had been restored by her cold-blooded murder.

A week later, the village of Balla, just a couple of hours drive from India’s capital New Delhi, stands united behind the act, proud, defiant almost to a man.

Among the Jat caste of the conservative northern state of Haryana, it is taboo for a man and woman of the same village to marry. Although the couple were not related, they were seen in this deeply traditional society as brother and sister.

“From society’s point of view, this is a very good thing,” said 62-year-old farmer Balwan Arya, sitting smoking a hookah in the shade of a tree in a square with other elders from the village council or panchayat. “We have removed the blot.”

If that doesn’t make your blood run cold, I don’t know what will!

Those of us in the western world should not operate under the illusion that the evils of religion and its attendant intolerance are limited only to extreme Christianity or Islam. There is brutal intolerance elsewhere, too, even in the eastern religions that so many in the western world think of as peaceful. Yes, India was the home of famously non-violent Mahatma Gandhi, but he is the exception it seems, not the rule.

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