The Bhagavad Gita ("Song of the Lord") is the most beloved of Hinduism's many scriptures. This poetic conversation between the warrior Arjuna and his charioteer, the god Krishna, begins with Krishna telling Arjuna not to worry about the prospect of killing relatives in battle. "Arjuna, you grieve over those who should not be grieved for," Krishna says, for "wise men do not grieve over the dead or the living." The reason not to be sad is that souls never die, but transmigrate from one body to another and eventually become part of the cosmic whole. For that reason we should fear neither death nor war.
Journalists who want to go deeper when writing about a religion need to study its sacred writings and work at the theological knots until some understanding is reached. To grasp Islam, it is vital to understand what jihad means within the religion, and to do that takes some work. To grasp Buddhism, the nonattachment principle must be studied. To grasp Hinduism, journalists must be willing to delve into the implications of believing in karma and the transmigration of souls-and that's a deep subject which journalists who think religion unimportant are unlikely to plumb.
Some academics and editors claim that a theologically liberal or atheistic reporter is best equipped to cover religion-related news, because he will not favor one strong set of beliefs over another. Such journalists are not neutral, though: They have taken a stand in opposition to theological conservatives. Nor are they likely to provide thoughtful coverage of something they believe contributes to delusion among hundreds of millions of pitiful believers. Those who understand the power of belief are best equipped to write about the power of faiths not their own.
Let's conclude by touching on what is likely to be a great civil-rights conflict throughout the coming decade and perhaps the entire 21st century: the battle in India of 240 million Dalits ("untouchables") to break out of 2,000 years of subservience. Some reporters might think the battle is about economics, but they underestimate the continuing influence of Hindu belief in transmigration. As one Dalit, Udit Ray, said at a congressional human-rights hearing, "the untouchables have been convinced to live this dehumanized life because they are said to be condemned to it by the desire of the gods. Accordingly, it is considered good if they suffer because their present suffering will liberate them in the next life."
U.S. newspapers that condemn racism at home have given surprisingly little coverage to the plight of the Dalits. The Associated Press transmitted on Sept. 6, 2001, a detailed story that only the Memphis Commercial Appeal, among major newspapers, ran. Under a headline, "As India debates whether caste is racism, little changes for 'untouchables,'" the story began evocatively: "At the end of a network of dusty lanes in Trilokpuri, a suburb on the outskirts of the Indian capital, a scavenger lugs home a plastic bucket of water for her family. It is dusk, and Birum and her two daughters have spent the day collecting used plastic bags from rotting waste in city dumps. The mother and daughters are filthy and hungry-yet they cannot bathe or cook with water from a tap near their home."
The article continued, "'That's the tap for the upper castes. We are not allowed there,' the 33-year-old Birum says as she sits on the dirt floor making bread on a coal-burning stove. Although water is supplied by municipal authorities, the few public taps in this shantytown of nearly 10,000 people are divided along caste lines. Taps for the lower castes are nearly a half-mile away, and the water barely trickles. Birum is a Dalit, the lowest rank [within the caste system that] was described in Hinduism's ancient sacred text, the Rig Veda, as a social order intended to maintain harmony in society."
The AP story noted that discrimination based on caste is now outlawed in India, yet "the practice pervades society" to such an extent that only 3 percent of the Dalits have benefited from legal changes. Many say the caste system is similar to racism, but Hindu religious leaders who criticized racism in the United States support India's caste system as theologically correct. The article ended with a note that, despite having the law on their side, "Dalits rarely file complaints with the police. 'Who can we complain to? And what will happen when we return to the village? I tell my sons, just keep quiet. This is a curse on our lives,' said 71-year-old Kishan Chand." Karma rules.
That good article received little pickup, perhaps because five days after it was circulated newspapers turned to coverage of the 9/11 disaster. A year later, though, coverage was still slight despite the growing movement among Dalits toward conversion to Buddhism, Christianity, or Islam, where they could be accepted by other adherents as brothers rather than inferiors. Hindu leaders intent on closing the escape hatch last year passed a law in one state that forbids conversion when any economic advantage comes with it. Since Dalits in India generally can work only in the lowliest occupations, converts of course have the opportunity to do better, and Christian missionaries can readily be accused of coercing "conversion" by offering opportunity.
Sadly, an Oct. 7, 2002, AP story reporting the new law framed it positively as a way of bringing peace to a "multi-faith society where violence among the followers of rival beliefs is all too common." The AP article briefly quoted a Christian critic and a Muslim opponent of the new law, but ended with more spin: One of Indian Hinduism's senior holy men, Jayendra Saraswathi, said a ban on conversions should be enacted nationally. "'It is a pity that even after 50 years of independence, conversions are taking place in the name of God,' he said." AP also sympathetically quoted "a former Supreme Court judge, V. Ramaswamy, [who] said the law did not violate religious freedoms. 'On the contrary, it only goes to strengthen that right by ensuring that the individual is not forced or lured into practicing some other religion instead of his own.'"
American journalists need to do better than that, and can. A college student last fall shamed the pros. Jessica Spradling of The Dartmouth, reporting on a talk by Indian writer M.C. Raj at the New Hampshire school, "outlined many of the daily atrocities" that Dalits suffer: "limited access to water, forced and uncompensated labor, murder, and rape. 'Though we are called the untouchables, often our women are the most touchable in India,' Raj said of the Dalit women who are sold into prostitution by their families in some parts of India." Reporter Spradling noted that "India's caste system-intimately connected with the Hindu conception of reincarnation-is important in shaping the opportunities available to and the limitations placed on Hindus."
I've run across only one major U.S. newspaper article on the way religion holds back the untouchables. Ellis Cose, author of the book Color-Blind: Seeing Beyond Race in a Race-Obsessed World, wrote on the editorial pages of USA Today that "intractable as prejudice sometimes seems in America, at least here it isn't rooted in religion; at least in taking on bigotry, we are not taking on God. Indeed, it is just the opposite." But he noted that "Dalits are relegated in Hinduism to an almost sub-human niche beneath the formal caste system." Although Indian leaders talk of how that has changed in the half-century since Indian independence, Mr. Cose wrote that his interviewees "swore that, particularly in rural areas, Dalits continue to be treated like dirt."
Mr. Cose wrote that even when disasters leave many dead or homeless, "villages have created segregated tent camps." He told of one Dalit who "had been literally beaten to death for questioning an order from his higher-caste boss. I heard similar stories elsewhere, as well as repeated complaints Dalits were not allowed to go into the community temple or draw water from the village well." But those similar stories went unreported; the Lexis-Nexis service reports only two U.S. stories in 2001 or 2002 that included the words Hinduism and untouchable. One, in The New York Times, touched on the untouchables only in passing, in a story headlined, "Holy Cow a Myth? An Indian Finds the Kick Is Real."
We need better coverage of non-Christian religions to protect ourselves in a violent world, but we also need better information so we can learn how to help others. We can help the Dalits if we learn about them and their oppressors, and that means learning about the weaknesses of Hinduism. We can help the oppressed in the Middle East if we learn more about Islam, and we can help Americans not to slouch into Buddhist trendiness if we show them its limitations before they get in too deep.
Besides, as technology and transportation make the world smaller, these and other religions are now next door to us. Both non-Christians and Christians need to understand the motivations of new neighbors. Christians need to understand points of contact for purposes of evangelism. Shallow press coverage should not be an option.