December 9, 2012 by Louis Ritzinger
There is a well-known hymn in the Rigveda, the ancient collection of texts which form the foundation of Hinduism as it now understood, called the Purusha Sukta. For many students of religious studies, the Purusha Sukta is one of the first (if not the very first) Hindu text to which they are exposed. Its a creation story, but in this respect alone it can hardly be called unique. There are many more creation stories in the Rigveda, still others in the three later Hindu canonical texts and, indeed, countless more live on in the less formal oral traditions that have guided rural religious life for millennia.
The reason why the Purusha Sukta is so often specifically selected from this vast body of creation mythology is because of the insight the story offers into the way much of Indian society functions, even today. In the story, the Purusha (the Cosmic Being), is said to embody all of the world. All that is seen and not seen. All that is conscious and unconscious. Every person, animal, plant, and inanimate object. Even the gods. His heads, eyes, arms and legs envelop the world and yet are greater than its totality. He is imminent and transcendent. In other words: even after everything is made from the Purusha, there’s still plenty more left of him that remains distinct from the world.
In the story Purusha is sacrificed by the Devas (a term that, in this context, refers to the early Vedic gods) thus establishing the universe as we know it and creating the inhabitants of the earth. Of particular importance, however, is the manner in which humanity is organized.
There are two important ideas at work here. The first is unity: While the Rigveda emerged many hundreds of years before the arrival of more radical notions of Monism (the idea that God is everything) present in later Hindu texts (known as Vedanta), the notion that we are all of one essence is quite plain to see – and not just one essence in the sense that God made all of us. We are literally just different parts of one physical (albeit transcendental) being. The same flesh and blood. Kumbaya.
But just as a body has different parts to do different jobs, so must society. And so it went with the Purusha. The mouth speaks – the Brahmins guide religious life; arms defend – as do the Kshatriyas; the thighs are the sturdy core, the pistons by which we are powered – as are the Vaishyas, the farming caste. Finally, the feet – the humble organs on which the whole unit rests. The essential, and yet the unclean. The Shudras.
Of course, Indian society is nowhere near as clear cut as the metaphor may suggest. Most Indians, if they identify with a caste, will point to one of the many thousands of locally-rooted divisions and subdivisions of the original four. The overwhelming majority of “Brahmins” today are not priests. Kishatriyas are certainly not all soldiers. Vaishyas don’t all farm. However, even as the caste system has formally been abolished, what does remain is a general sense of a natural order and hierarchy. While the effects of globalization are eating away at notions of traditional roles, it is still often true that someone born a Dhobi (clothes washer) will remain a Dhobi. A Darzi (tailor) will stay a Darzi. A Kabari Wala (garbage collector) will stay a Kabari Wala.
“yay mira kaam,” as the merchants will say in the market, with pride. “It is my work.”
For the past three months my housemates and I have had the most fortunate of luck in hiring a wonderful chef by the name of Prem (pronounced: Praym). Not only is Prem a phenomenal cook of both vegetarian and non vegetarian Indian cuisine, but he is one of the most kindhearted, wonderful people I have met in India thus far. Warm, earnest, and diligent, he greets us every afternoon around 3, palms together at his chin.
“Namaste ji, namaste.”
The other day I was talking (or making an effort, at least) with Prem as he was preparing our meal of Paneer and Peppers (one of my personal favorites). He listened patiently, offering slight corrections as I explained to him my plans for the upcoming vacation, chuckling at some particularly egregious errors.
While I’m very grateful for having met Prem, I’m generally not very comfortable with hiring help – even (or perhaps I should say, particularly) in India, where it is something of an institution. Its not that I think there is anything wrong with it in and of itself. It provides people with necessary paying work – I get that. There’s just something in the inherent power dynamics of such a relationship that makes me uncomfortable. The notion of millions of men and women just like Prem traveling by bike and foot from the humblest of abodes to the marble-floored kitchens of the wealthy to cook and clean and take orders in houses the likes of which they will never have just strikes me as… well… kind of cruel. That, and I just don’t really feel the need to have people do my chores for me.
Prem and I continued making small talk as he cut up vegetables for a side dish. I pointed at each and said their Hindi/Urdu names, the way a 2 year-old might. “Gajr (carrot), matr (green beans), timater (tomato), gobi (cauliflower).”
Prem nodded, smiling. “Ji sir.” (Yes sir.)
“kya app us kay angraizi kay nam jantay hain?” (do you know their English names?) I asked.
“No sir,” he responded, shaking his head, still smiling. “Mein nay kabhi nahin parha hai””(I have never studied).
He motioned as if he was signing a paper, then sliced the air with the edge of his hand, shaking his head.
“Mein likh nahin sakta. Mein Sirf…” (I can’t write, I just…”), and with that, Prem pressed his thumb firmly upon the counter, as if giving his fingerprint.
I stood there for a second, my eyes on the floor, unsure of what to say, in part because of my poor command of the language, but also in part because… I mean… what do you say to something like that?
“That’s too bad…?”
“Thanks for cooking dinner…?”
I looked up after a few seconds, expecting, I think, a moment of solemn sadness of some kind. Some type of acknowledgement of the tragedy of global inequities. He would look into my eyes and shake his head, as if to ask, “why?”. We would ponder how fate had placed us in such drastically different circumstances. Maybe a single tear would form in the corner of his eye.
Instead, he stood there, continuing to smile. I could not detect an ounce of sadness in his composition.
“mein sirf kam kirta houn” (I just work) he said in a matter-of-fact manner. His back straightened as he began to cut the gajr lined up on the counter.
“Aissa hai miri pouri zindagi kay liyay.” (Its been this way for my whole life.)
I nodded slowly, once again unsure of what to say or do. Looking around, I noticed that the garbage below the counter had begun to overflow and reached down to collect it and bring it outside. Prem stopped me, touching his hand to my shoulder. He chuckled.
“Yay mira kam hai.”
This is my work.