The Untouchables: A Nepali Perspective

As an only child, I am well accustomed to living on my own – and talking to myself (as well as my computer)!  It’s one way I can ensure I have some really intelligent conversations.  Also, as some of you may know, I’m not a touchy-feely sort of person and so I am not really missing those hugs and kisses.  However, I know many others are.  Therefore, in these rather weird days of social distancing, I got to thinking about untouchability.

Now I know that Dan recently touched on this subject – get it?  But, because this is an issue that I came to understand while in Nepal, I can share from a rather different perspective.  Untouchability is an integral part of the Hindu caste system.  High caste Brahmins will not touch low caste people.  They will not eat rice that low caste people have cooked or even accept a drink of water from them.  Of course, Brahmins can socialise with Brahmins and Dalits with Dalits.  But there are also two groups, I discovered, who were even worse off.  Their social isolation is far in excess of what we have experienced during the last month or so.

No. 1, the people who had leprosy.  Despite the fact that leprosy is a bacterial disease, far less contagious than Covid-19, Nepalis were scared of it, thought it a curse and threw out of their communities all those who were diagnosed with it.  These unfortunate people were then forced to self-isolate, not just for 3 weeks – or 6 weeks; not even for 3 or 6 or 18 months but for the rest of their lives.  I have personally met some who had been forced out like this by their families.  Prithi, the man in the left-hand photo above, was found living with his brother in a cave.  He was I think 12 at the time.  Ganga, the lady in the right-hand photo above, was sent to live alone in the jungle when she was just a young girl.  Many others like them were also forced to beg for their food.  Only later were some rescued by Christian workers from our mission, given medical treatment and restored to the community.

No. 2, women of child-bearing age.  Every month, during their periods and after childbirth, women are regarded as unclean and untouchable.  Up until even quite recently, in some parts of the country, women were forced to leave their homes for a few days every month and live apart often in shacks in the forest.  There, significant numbers died of snakebite or fire as they tried to keep warm in a very restricted space.  And – every year, during one religious festival, women are expected to bathe 365 times in the river to cleanse away the sin of perhaps touching a man during one of these unclean seasons.

Times – and customs are slowly changing in Nepal but reflecting on this subject does give a fresh perspective to the 2 metre rule! and the relatively smaller hardships we are currently having to put up with.

What I mean is, if we get our perspective right, then for many – if not most – of us, things could well be a lot more difficult than they actually are.  Just two examples from my own experience.  As I began the spring cleaning, I was standing on a wobbly stool to wipe out the top of a wardrobe.  Suddenly, I toppled backwards and landed on the bed, breaking a leg – the bed’s leg, I hasten to add.  As I am not needing a spare bed for visitors any day soon, it’s not the major tragedy it might have been had it been my leg!  Then, a couple of days ago, I was innocently eating a snack (not even toffee) when a piece of tooth fell out.  Happily, it was only a little piece and doesn’t seem to have affected me.  I am just grateful that I have no raging toothache and so I am not having to search desperately for an emergency Dental Hub complete with PPE.  At times like these, it’s good to remember what a friend of mine originally coined amusingly, “It’s not the end of the world, and if it was, it wouldn’t matter.”  Yes, it’s good to keep things in perspective.

But back to those ‘Untouchables’ as I have remembered that these same 3 issues were around in Bible times.

The Jews ‘had no dealings with the Samaritans’, and that’s why it was so shocking when Jesus asked the Samaritan woman at the well for a drink of water.

In both OT and NT days, lepers were regarded as unclean and untouchable.  But Jesus healed several lepers and in one case, in Mark chapter 1, we read that Jesus specifically ‘reached out and touched the man with leprosy’. This may well have been the first time he had experienced a human touch in years.  As a result, that man was healed and cleansed and restored to his community.

Women in Bible times too were regarded as unclean and untouchable when bleeding.  In Matthew chapter 9 we read about the woman who had had a menstrual disorder, presumably meaning that she had been bleeding on and off – and therefore being ceremonially unclean – and unable to participate in community activities, including worship at the synagogue or temple – for 12 years.  But somehow, she found the courage and faith to locate and touch Jesus’ garment and as a result she was made whole and restored to her family and community.

These stories of Jesus seem to make sense of a rather strange passage in Haggai chapter 2 that I read again recently.  It was a question about contamination.  The law said that contact with a dead body made people and things unclean.  True, this meant ceremonial uncleanness but at the same time it was a sensible public health measure.  We could perhaps paraphrase this nowadays to ‘If we disobey the government advice to wash our hands and stay at home but instead have contact with others and potential infection, we run the risk of helping to spread the virus and so not protecting the NHS or saving lives.’  However, the verse before talks conversely about the impossibility of something holy making something unclean clean and holy.  But, like so many things that Jesus did, he turned this matter on its head.  Jesus did not ‘catch’ the uncleanness of the leper or the woman but in contrast he passed on to them his healing and cleansing and restoration.

So, while we are socially distancing from everyone else, remember we can without fear draw near to Jesus, and enjoy his companionship, peace, hope and healing.  And that’s actually, as good as it gets!