During my two weeks off of school, I made it my goal to find out more about the effects the Hindu caste system still have in modern India. The caste system divides largely Hindu populations like India into social classes, the bottom-most being the 'untouchables'. Untouchables, also called dalits, are said to have committed heinous sins in past lives, and must repent as members of a class that people of higher castes are not supposed to even look at. Although caste discrimination is legally outlawed, its presence is still undeniable in employment rates, violent crime, and education.
When speaking to Rev. Riegel, I discovered that caste desparities are especially evident in rural villages and agricultural communities like Tannirpalli, the home village of Shantivanam. He told me that in the village, there was a stone wall built to divide the brahmin (upper class) neighborhood from the homes of the untouchables. One side of the wall is the home of 'modern' India, with the homes of business owners and easy access to education and aid, and one is made up of the huts and meager homes of the untouchables. The wall is a clear dividing line between the quality of life, and those who live and work at the ashram are trying hard to close the gap.
Current social outreach from Shantivanam covers education, healthcare, and spirituality. The part of my stay at the ashram not dedicated solely to spirituality and meditation will be devoted to supporting these social justice programs. Volunteers from the ashram work to educate untouchable children in hopes of social mobility and opportunity to work. A home for the destitute elderly is also run by Shantivanam, taking care of those who usually would not be able to stop working. These projects are ongoing, as well as building housing to accommodate dalit homeless.