World Interfaith Harmony Week: Keval of The Karuna Trust on education for the marginalised

World Interfaith Harmony Week takes place over the first week of February to provide a platform for interfaith groups and other groups of goodwill to show the world what a powerful movement they are. This week allows for these groups to become aware of each other and to strengthen the movement by building ties and avoiding duplicating each other’s efforts. The initiative is based on the commandments Love of God and Love of the Neighbour and this has been extended to include “Love of the Good and Love of the Neighbour” to apply to anyone – regardless of religion. To mark this occasion, the Global Faiths Coalition for Education, in collaboration with Beydaar Society and Echo Change, will publish a series called Young Perspectives: Articles on Faith & Global Education – written by young advocates for education of different faiths.

The fifth article in this series is by Keval Shah, a 28-year-old Gujarati living in a Buddhist community in London.

I am a follower of the Buddha. I care about education.

The central teaching of the Buddhist tradition is that everything arises in dependence upon causes and conditions. There is no phenomenon for which this is not true. For the Buddha, most importantly, this fact is true of human suffering. In our time, I see this is true of the poverty and exploitation that exists in the world today.

The Buddha said to change something, you must look at the causes, not just the symptoms: “This being, that becomes;
 On the arising of this, that arises.
This not being, that does not become;
 On the cessation of this, that ceases.”

That’s why I work for The Karuna Trust. Inspired by Buddhist values, Karuna supports grassroots projects throughout India. These projects are run by local leaders who come from the same “low-caste” and “tribal” communities that they are working with. Well over half of our projects are educational interventions with children from these backgrounds.

Pictures: Facebook/The Karuna Trust

When I lived in India, I remember seeing the massive disparity between the wealthy and the poor, between the exploiters and the exploited. I studied law because I wanted to affect the system positively, but afterwards I realised that legislation can only do so much. When people do not have access to decent education, they know neither their rights, nor their alternatives in life, if they even have any. They are easily taken advantage of, abused and quickly end up in the same cycles of suffering that have bound their families for generations.

In India, the poorest tend to come from the lowest castes (who call themselves “Dalits” in some parts of India), or “tribal” communities. For those at the bottom of the caste hierarchy, traditional South Asian society has systematically excluded them from participation in society on all but the most humiliating terms. They were always excluded from “learning” and “culture” of the dominant castes, their very presence considered polluting. This discrimination and exclusion continues today.

India has excellent laws. Free and compulsory education is a fundamental right under the constitution, as underlined by the Right to Education Act 2010. However, there are other causes to consider why the most marginalised cannot access decent education. These include: poor quality schools; absent teachers; poverty in the home; the need to work; and, most importantly, attitudes throughout society (including in their families) that education is “not for them”. The situation is particularly dire for girls living in rural and urban poverty in India, who are often confined to their family homes only to later become domestic slaves in the families of their in-laws.

This is why working for education means working to change these deep-seated attitudes about who should be educated and who should not. The Buddha was a revolutionary in teaching that every human being can reach their highest potential – not just those from particular castes and certainly not just men. To encourage education for all in this way requires holistic interventions that address every aspect of society – the causes and conditions, as well as the children and the schools.

Dr Ambedkar, the first law minister of India and a Dalit, famously embraced Buddhism in 1956. He encouraged his followers to “Educate, Organise, Agitate”. Education is the first step in changing this unequal society for the better – a change that must focus on causes rather than symptoms and must involve a movement from the bottom up.

But the Buddhist view of education has another element. Karuna supports 20 hostels, which provide a nurturing environment for children from rural poverty so they can take advantage of decent quality education. Here children from different castes mix, study and play together. They learn that they have the same wishes for life. The same thing happens with the children from Muslim and Hindu manual scavenging communities we support in Madhya Pradesh.

That’s why I’m a Buddhist and why I work for Karuna. Because I believe, more than anything, we all need to be educated in our common humanity. As we do this, we can all help each other to make meaningful quality education for all a reality and not just a “right”.

Keval is a Gujarati living in a Buddhist community in London. He works at The Karuna Trust, a Buddhist-inspired charity which has been supporting grassroots projects in India for 30 years. Keval is also currently pursuing a Master’s degree in South Asian Area Studies at SOAS University.

Read more blogs about World Interfaith Harmony Week on our Global Faiths Coalition for Education page.