The world is incompatible, just never forget it: gaga. Ghosts, Nazis,
saints, all alive at the same time; in one spot blissful happiness, while
down the road, the inferno. You can’t ask for a wilder place.
The Satanic Verses (Thanks to Dan Barth)
And here comes a short version of my misunderstanding of Indian culture and philosophy. It’s all so much more complex and exciting than this, but let’s start with a story.
Bali was a good king with a peaceful kingdom full of happy people. Vishnu saw this and appeared at his door as a guest, a dwarf, and was taken in as custom demanded. He proved an entertaining fellow, and Vishnu/dwarf and Bali had a good visit. When it came time to leave, Bali, as custom demanded, offered a boon. Vishnu said he’d like some land. How much? All I can cover in three strides. Bali argued that wasn’t enough, but the dwarf insisted, so Bali relented.
In an instant, Vishnu revealed himself as a god and became enormous. So enormous that he covered the entire earth in two strides. Now it was time for the third step, but there was no place for Vishnu to rest his foot, so Bali offered his head as a stepping stone. Which he should have known better because in Indian battles if your opponent steps on your head, you’re toast. Thus Bali became an underworld demon with only an island to his name.
Lessons? Why would Vishnu do this to a good king with a happy kingdom? Answer. The kingdom was too happy, too stable. The Hindu pantheon needs a balance of order and chaos. Perfect order is death. Bali’s kingdom was too happy, so had to be disrupted. Ordinarily one might expect that this would be a job for Shiva the destroyer, but these guys cross over into each other’s boundaries all the time. You never can tell which god will be after you or will help you. Keep praying.
THE CASTE SYSTEM
Why castes? This is what Martin Noval, our tour leader, says. Hinduism without castes would be like a body without a heart. All stemming from ancient sacrificial rituals. The Brahmins performed the rites, but had nothing to do with preparing the sacrifice, which meant someone had to kill the beast, someone else had to collect the blood, and so on, right down to the people who cleaned up the offal when all was done. No person at any step in the procedure was allowed to trespass on anyone’s territory above them, nor to violate that of anyone below. Thus when we got down to the carrion, that became a job for the untouchables, who were charged with taking care of that which no one else was allowed to touch.
This hierarchy eventually transferred to all other parts of society, so even today when the caste system is outlawed, people still observe it. Roommates and marriage mates and transact business transactions are done only within their own caste. The Sikhs (the guys with the turbans) came into being in the 12th-13th centuries and have managed to almost eliminate it within their own group, but they’re a small part of the population. Interestingly enough, you can’t confuse caste and class. An untouchable can become rich, but will always be of his caste.
I guess there’s a certain amount of security in knowing your own place, especially when it keeps you in good standing with your gods. Ganesh, the happy elephant, is my guy. Luxury, comfort, health and prosperity to us all.