An “Untouchable” Who Became a Doctor, and Touched the Lives of Many.

K. Raghavadas was born into the world on the earthen floor of a meager straw hut on a small parcel of land in a small south Indian village, the youngest of four children. He had the fortune of being born to an industrious father who, through hard work and luck had been able to secure the purchase of that small parcel of land which contained an orchard and rice fields which sustained the family through many lean years. He had the misfortune of losing his father a few years later and, through no fault of his own, being born into the bottom rung of a caste system whose basic premise is that all men are not created equal.

Growing up in a small village in Kerala, he realized early on that his best chance to escape poverty, the low expectations of his situation, and the notion that he should not accomplish anything in his life was to educate himself. Hoping that it might help his chances, early on in his childhood his eldest brother, who was forced to be the head of the family, changed his low caste name to Ramachandran, a name normally reserved for higher castes. And so a young Ramachandran entered into school, worked hard and excelled, enduring an occasional beating by low caste teachers who did not understand why a backwards caste person could dare have an aspirational name.

He went on to college, where he took the entrance examination to medical school. With that he made history in becoming the first backwards caste person in the state of Kerala to attend medical school, and the only such person in his medical school class. His time in medical school was not without more difficulties. Despite his being at the top of his class, during one of his oral examinations his examiner apparently thought that this low caste young man was not worthy of being examined. The examiner simply excused himself from the room and then gave him a failing grade. Despite the difficulties, he finished medical school and became a local celebrity, and a hero among low caste people. In his former village, now a large and thriving  town, rallies have been thrown in his honor. To this day, one has simply to tell a taxi driver “Dr. Ramachandran’s home” in order to get there.

His aspirations didn’t end with medical school, though. After getting his degree, he travelled to England for further training, and then on to the United States. There he completed training in psychiatry, and went on to become a clinical director of a state hospital. Throughout his career as a physician, he saw a chance to give opportunities to others through hiring and training. Foregoing lucrative opportunities for private practice, he instead put himself into what he loved. He opened his heart and his home to others, mentoring dozens of young physicians. Sometimes that meant professional support and teaching, sometimes it meant a ride to the airport, and others it meant having his home be the local babysitting center.

Through it all, I never heard him once complain about the rigors he had to go through to get where he was. And through it all, he never forgot, and never accepted  what his own religion taught him about what his station in life should have been. But instead of rejecting that religion, he applied the same hard work and analytical process to the teachings themselves. He went to the scriptures, examining them in their original sanskrit. What he found was that the scriptures did not teach such things. The caste system was a general division of labor, it was never intended to be used to divide society as it had. Instead it had been manipulated, distorted, by those who had the most to gain. He wrote a book about this, with his interpretation and analysis of how he felt the scriptures were distorted (The Bhagavad Gita from a Different Perspective, see below).

I didn’t truly appreciate how adored and respected my father was until his funeral. When aside from his family, more than 120 of his friends and colleagues came from all over the country to pay their respects. Many of them speaking through tears of how much he meant to them. They spoke of how different their lives would be if they had not crossed paths.

From his first breath taken more than 80 years ago, to his last breath one month ago, he fought the idea that what he accomplished through his life should not have been possible, he fought the assertion that all men are not created equal. If there is one thing I learned from my father’s life it is this: Some men are not created equal; Some are exceptional.

Dr. Ramachandran’s online obituary and memorial are located here.  Below is the  preface from my father’s book, “The Bhagavad Gita from a Different Perspective” It is also available on Amazon.com.

 

Dedication: All those who were victimized by social discrimination and suppression of caste and casteism in the name of God and religion.

Being born in a small village of Kerala, I have gone through some of the bitter experiences of denial of basic human rights and dignity by high caste Hindus. I have been thrown out of the village tea shop and the village barber shop. I have been beaten for sitting  on a public bench. I have been beaten for entering the premises of the village temple and even for having a decent name. These things were happening just a half century ago. What was happening before that was even unthinkable. It was all in the name of God and religion. The madness of cast Hindus was so horrible that Swami Vivekananda who visited Kerala in the early part of the 20th century called it a ‘lunatic asylum’. The rest of India was not any better. The rest of India at that time probably was qualified for that name.

The justification of all these lunacies were the teachings that it was in accordance with the scriptural sanctions, the Bhagavad Gita included. I was told that the rights, priveleges, and restrictions of each caste was dictated by God and God created the caste system at the beginning of time, caturvarnyam maya srstam. I am told that I am born into the womb of a woman of low caste as punushment for some bad karmas in did in my past life and there is mothing I can do to change it. However I was consoled that if I continued to do the work assigned to my caste faithfully (which may be the toilet cleaning) as a service to God without any motivation for reward whatsoever, after many births I may have a chance to be born in the womb of  a woman of high cast and for a better job. Obviously, I was not willing to wait that long. When I had the chance to get an education I devoted a lot of my time to study of the scriptures, particularly Bhagavad Gita to see what exactly is said in it.

Back in 1960 a group of students organized a meeting in Trivandrum. The subject discussed was religion and caste. I was invited as a speaker. The meeting was presided over by the distinguished scholar of Kerala, Dr. Sooranad Kunjan Pillai. In my speech I stressed the point that religious scriptures are created by humans and therefore they cannot be considered infallible. As an example I quoted certain verses from Bhagavad Gita and pointed out the unacceptability of ideas contained therein by modern standards of human knowledge. Dr. Sooranad Kunjan Pillai in concluding his speech made the following remarks as a response to my speech. ‘We don’t know whether there was a war in Kuruksetra. We dont know whether Lord Krsna said everything in the Bhagavad Gita, part of it or none of it. We don’t even know whether Vyasa who is said to have composed it ever lived. We know one thing for sure that there is a book called Bhagavad Gita, which is available to us. It is unheard of that anybody has ever said that anything mentioned it is is wrong’. I was amazed to see such dogmatism exist even amongst  such revered scholars, leave alone the priestly religious scholars and the common folks who follow them.

However this scholarly remark promted me to commit myself to a study of Bhagavad Gita. This book is the product of that commitment. It is an attempt to look at Bhagavad Gita from a different perspective, from  the perspective of a victim of the social consequences of distorted and misinterpreted teachings of Bhagavad Gita.

It is an undeniable fact that Bhagavad Gita contains some of the the precious jewels of ancient wisdom, which the world can not lose sight of, particularly brahmavidya and yogasastra, which are the core themes of this great book. But there are a lot of unwanted and unacceptable statements which contradict its own core philosophy. It is reasonable to conclude that these contradictions and objectionable ideas are interpolations by interested parties over the course of history.

Some friends have asked me why I had to put so much effort to translate the entire book. There are numerous translations already available, I could simply pick out the specific areas from one of these and make comments on that. One of my reasons in doing this is to have a broad review of the entire work in the light of thinking of other major commentators and then making the choice of words and interpretations that in my view is the best. Another reason is to avoid the mistake of picking up areas out of context when critically evaluating a particular verse. Another question asked is how this book is different from the numerous other commentaries that are available. The answer is there is no attempt to cover up what is seen as wrong. Wherever possible, alternate interpretations are provided to make controversial ideas more sensible and acceptable to modern thinking. What ever is considered to be wrong and harmful to the society is explicitly rejected.

Well known interpreters of Bhagavad Gita from Sankara to Chinmayananda did not find anything wrong in it (Bhagavad Gita). Even if they find anything wrong the general tendency is either to keep silent or try to justify it by quoting from Sruti or Smrti, because they believed that Sruti is the last word in any discussion. The latest tendency is to resort to some pseudo-scientific explanations. These teachers seem to be compelled to justify every word mentioned in Gita. This is consistent with belief that every word of Gita comes from God. They are blinded by their faith. They  can neither see the injustices done to the low caste people by caturvarnya system nor feel their pain. This author believes that the caturvarnya classification of society which allowed its gate keepers to enslave and exploit its own people in the name of God and religion is unethical, immoral and unacceptable. Whenver these issues come for discussion in modern times our religous leaders shift their gear conveniently  and say that the caturvarnyam and the classification of work is based on their quality (guna) and not on birth based caste system. But when it comes to the practical side they are all together  in holding on the preservation of birth based caste.

Everybody knows that caste system is the worst curse on our country. It is an insult to our culture and civilization. Yet, no religous leader has ever recommend to get rid of it, Why? Even Mahatma Gandhi was against abolishing caste system. It will be interesting to know why this is happening.

Perhaps the answer is in Bhagavad Gita itself. In chaper one we see Arjuna arguing about the danger of breaking the age old traditions of sanatanajatidharma, kuladharma, etc. and the peril that mixing of caste would bring even to the dead ancestors. The very thought of these things made him panic and paralyzed. Our leaders must realize that Arjuna made these statement in a very confused state of mind and Lord Krsna dismissed these ideas of Arjuna as due to unnecessary fear and stupidity (kasmalam). He advised him to rise above the gunas  and become gunaless (VII.45). Gunaless means also casteless, since guna is the basis of caste. It appears that out leaders have not received that message from Kuruksetra yet. They are still suffering from the ‘Arjuna disease’. To get out of that frame of mind it requires a new way of thinking, understanding and ability to question the validity of old ways of thinking.

It is hoped this book will encourage just that. . . a new and free thinking in the interpretation of old scriptures.

 

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  • Vinod Krishnan

    *Accidental stumble on to your blog (via kevinmd).*
    First, my condolences on your loss. Your dad sounds like a visionary…
    Who are his publishers, by the way? Couldn’t find the book online, here in India. Will try the stores next week.
    Liked your blog, by the way, and will come back.
    VK