“I stayed up at night thinking about it for weeks. I wondered what I could have done in a past life that was so bad that I would be convicted as filthy and unclean in this one. Was I a murderer, a rapist, or a thief? And now that we were in America, would the conditions of my current life still be a punishment? Or had I escaped? What did escape mean? I remember lying in bed and asking God: What did I do wrong? I really want to apologize. If I hurt somebody, I want to know. I don’t think I’m untouchable. I don’t feel it, but you know, if I deserve it, I want to know . . .”
These are the late-night ruminations of a 10-year-old Thenmozhi Soundararajan, recounting how she learned she was a Dalit, or the pejorative so-called “untouchable” caste.
Soundararajan, an artist, Dalit activist, cofounder of civil rights organization Equality Labs, and Ambedkarite Buddhist, is the author of The Trauma of Caste: A Dalit Feminist Meditation on Survivorship, Healing, and Abolition. Through personal stories and research, the book demonstrates all the ways caste continues to separate and discriminate, both in Southeast Asia and far beyond.
The numbers are truly shocking—in India, 37 percent of Dalits live below the poverty level, 54 percent of Dalit children are malnourished, and 38 percent of Dalit children eat separately from the rest of their classmates in government-run schools. More than 67 percent of Dalit women have experienced sexual violence, and Dalits make up 53 percent of India’s prison population. Soundararajan also cites these horrific numbers from the Indian National Human Rights Commission Report on the Prevention of Atrocities against Scheduled Castes: “every hour two Dalits are assaulted; every day three Dalit women are raped, two Dalits are murdered, and two Dalit homes are torched. A crime against a Dalit happens every 18 minutes.” And current political efforts, including the Citizenship Amendment Act, are working to revoke citizenships of “caste, gender, and religious minorities.”
India’s caste system has existed for 3,000 years and is an exclusionary social hierarchy system outlined in the Hindu religious texts. Caste can broadly be broken down into four groups: Brahmins, or the priestly caste; warriors and soldiers; merchants and businesspeople; and unskilled laborers. At the very bottom is a fifth group of the Dalits and indigenous tribes. Dalit can be translated as “broken,” and is Soundararajan’s preferred term. Others may use the government-official “Scheduled Caste.”
In The Trauma of Caste, Soundararajan discusses the violence displayed toward Dalits in religious texts. Dalits were barred from hearing, speaking, or reading Sanskrit, the language that Hindu religious texts were written in, including the rules for different castes. She quotes the Manusmriti, which decrees that if an outcaste person hears a Vedic teaching, their ears should be filled with lead; if they repeat it, their tongue cut off; if they learn it, their body ripped apart.
While originally a distinction for Hindus, the caste system has evolved to include most religions in Southeast Asia. Caste statuses are hereditary and passed down through families, and caste often dictates access to education and the types of jobs one performs (historically, lower-caste people have assumed jobs like cleaning sewers). British rule reinforced the caste system, and after India gained independence in 1948, caste discrimination was banned in the constitution.
For Soundararajan, her caste identity manifested as her parents’ “mysterious” social mannerisms with other South Asian families they knew—Soundararajan writes that her father introduced himself by a shortened version of his name, which she realized later was an effort to conceal where he was from and his caste status. Soundararajan’s mother—whose first reaction to Soundararajan’s question about their caste was “caste is a terrible lie”—kept her Christian altar in a closet, as she was accustomed to hiding her faith in India, where most Christians are Dalits.
Not long after Soundararajan learned her family were Dalits, but before she realized this wasn’t a topic for open discussion, she mentioned that she was “untouchable” to a classmate, whose family was Brahmin. The girl’s mother was within earshot, preparing a snack for them:
Her mother looked deeply uncomfortable and immediately switched plates on me—the act obvious, not hidden in any way, it disturbed. It was a line she drew quickly, and I felt its sharp sting. When I told my mom, she tried to contain her anger. Shaking, she told me not to go to that house ever again. That family was Brahmin. Their caste dictates that you don’t serve Dalits—untouchables—on the same plate you use. If Dalits so much as touch it, you have to clean it afterward, or throw it away, because of our polluted nature.
I felt truly shocked while reading Soundararajan’s accounts of growing up in the United States. I also felt ashamed; I just had no idea caste continued to be an issue so far from India. During college, I spent a semester at a university in India and recall well the matchmaking newspaper advertisements that not so subtly hinted at caste status. I also felt angry that current Hindu nationalist efforts to eliminate those from caste-oppressed backgrounds aren’t a cause we hear very much about.
According to Soundararajan, this is also by design, as caste privilege has worked its way into the fabric of the United States. It arrived in the late 1800s with the first wave of Indian immigrants, primarily Punjabi Sikhs who settled in the western US and worked as laborers, Soundararajan writes. The US Naturalization Act of 1906 limited citizenship to white and African Americans; Soundararajan notes two court challenges from high-caste men, A. K. Mozumdar and Bhagat Singh Thind, respectively. “Neither of them challenged the racial stipulation itself but rather made the argument that they were essentially white, given their dominant-caste identity. A. K. Mozumdar asserted that as a high-caste Hindu, he belonged to the ‘Aryan’ race; therefore, he was a brown ‘white’ person, given the shared Aryan-racial histories of white Europeans and dominant-caste people in South Asia,” Soundararajan writes. (Both men ultimately lost their cases and had their citizenship revoked.) A similar sentiment can be found today, according to Soundararajan, among highly skilled workers and CEOs from dominant castes. According to a 2021 Carnegie Endowment survey, nearly half of all Hindu Indian Americans surveyed identified with a caste, with eight out of ten belonging to a higher or upper caste.
Soundararajan is a key player in the often contentious movement in the US to include caste as a protected category on college campuses and in workplaces. In December 2022, Brown University became the first Ivy League institution to officially ban caste discrimination. In April 2022, Soundararajan was scheduled to give a talk about caste to Google News employees for Dalit History Month. The Washington Post reported that her talk was canceled after “employees began spreading disinformation, calling her ‘Hindu-phobic’ and ‘anti-Hindu,’ ” with some employees arguing on an email chain for South Asian employees that caste doesn’t exist in the US and lower-caste people lack the ability to “properly interpret Hindu scripture around caste.” Those who invited Soundararajan to speak were reportedly doxxed, and Soundararajan’s family was temporarily moved to a safe house following threats of violence. The Post also reported that Equality Labs, the organization that Soundararajan founded, started receiving invites from tech companies to speak about caste following the death of George Floyd in 2020, and that she has spoken with employees at companies that include Microsoft, Airbnb, and Netflix.
Criticism of Soundararajan isn’t limited to the Google talk, and a quick search produces opinion pieces alleging Equality Labs fabricates surveys and has funding from nefarious sources. After Soundararajan appeared on the Conspirituality podcast and discussed her discomfort with mantras used in yoga classes, she was accused of going on an “anti-Brahmin” “tirade.”
Soundararajan, who was raised Hindu and Christian, converted to Buddhism as an adult in the tradition of Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891–1956), a Dalit who became the first to be awarded a PhD, India’s first law minister, and a drafter of India’s constitution. Ambedkar was born a Hindu and converted to Buddhism, embracing what he saw as the original teachings of the Buddha. In October 1956, six weeks before his death, Ambedkar presided over a mass conversion of an estimated half-million former Dalits. The conversions continue to this day.
For Soundararajan, who writes that “Dalit experience was what originally illuminated suffering for the Buddha,” Buddhism offered her a way to escape her painful heritage. Soundararajan writes that she embraced Buddhism when she felt she “could not shift any of the conditions of (her) life and struggled with tremendous amounts of suffering and anguish.”
Over the past few years, and especially in the wake of Floyd’s death, many American sanghas have been working to address their often overwhelming whiteness and make their communities a refuge for everyone. Soundararajan calls on us as Buddhists to consider caste in addition to racial inequity, and I wholeheartedly agree. The book’s appendix includes worksheets inspired by Ruth King’s Mindful of Race that can help examine our relationship to caste. Perhaps the most rewarding aspect, in addition to gaining knowledge of the Dalit struggle, is the appendix on “Caste Abolition Ancestors,” which gives short biographies on influential Dalits and Buddhists, including Ambedkar and Iyothee Thass. The Trauma of Caste should be required reading for Buddhists, so those of us privileged enough to live outside the confines of the caste system can understand what fellow Buddhists (and humans) have had to endure.