I watched the film Slumdog Millionaire a few days ago. A slumdog is a homeless child of the mean streets of Mumbay and the other urban centers of India (though I imagine they are not that different from the eight million abandoned kids of Brazil). In a world that considers them sub-human, these children have been abandoned to fend for themselves. They become easy pickings for unscrupulous opportunist adults who see them as commodities to exploit in divers ways. Physical mutilation, forced prostitution, slavery. This film is basically a story of coming-of-age and of redemption against incalculable odds.
It will likely win a bunch of awards. A very dark but well-made film, I recommend it to anyone with the stomach to see what some people are capable of doing to those in society that are weaker, when there is no clear rule of law, no oversight, to stop them from doing it.
Without going into the details of the film, let me say that it has started me meditating on the system of thought that allows for such barbarity to take place.
The caste system in India is no superficial social phenomenon. It is deeply rooted in the Hindu philosophies. In the Rig Veda, one of the oldest Hindu scriptures, there is an account of the dividing up of one cosmic person (Purusha) into sections, each section representing a different social "caste." These scriptures can be called on to reinforce a system which is seen as a human reflection of the fundamental structure of the universe, a structure in which there are inherent differences between the castes in terms of function and implied value.
- Is equality unnatural? Is the Hindu recognition of fundamental differences within society the logical conclusion from an objective assessment of the natural order?
- Or is this aspect of Hindu thought simply a later rationalization and justification of what happens when invaders (Aryan) impose their views on a subservient native people (Dravidian)?
Obviously, I think the latter case is the true one. It's not that hard to see once we realize that the word for caste, "varna," means "color." This is racism, pure and simple. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to recognize it.
But how does one combat a racism that is mandated from above? --sanctioned by sacred texts?
This is the kind of thing that makes me sympathetic to the arguments made by Sam Harris and others regarding the evil that religions themselves are capable of engendering. And mind you, Hinduism is not alone in promoting what John Shelby Spong calls the "sins of scripture"; religious texts from around the world are replete with these peculiar embarrassing blunders.
Anyway, those are basically some of my thoughts after watching the film.
Just one more point, though. . .
One particular scene in the film haunts me. It involves Salim, the "lost soul"/"prodigal son" character of the three childhood friends that the story centers around, who has grown up into a hired assassin and mobster. In this scene that I refer to, he is engaging in one of his daily Muslim prayers, on a rug, facing east. He is heard to say, "Forgive me God, for I am a sinner." All the while, the movie audient knows that Salim will probably go out and kill some people as soon as his prayers are done. The irony here is deep. One would think that forgiveness of sins could only come after genuine repentance and a resignation to "sin no more" have been demonstrated. What is it that blinds wishful zealots to this simple truth? In light of recent terrorist activity throughout the world, I find this kind of thing very unnerving.
The film is very thought-provoking and it reveals a side of our world that we seldom get to see from our position of comfort and safety.