Cover Story

How to go deeper

Issue: "Press coverage uncovered," March 8, 2003

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.

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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.

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