“Rula, Sha, Padha, let’s go! You too, Pitu,” exclaimed Svasti, an
eleven-year-old boy, as he opened the gate to the stable just as he
would every morning.
Svasti loved his water buffaloes, all four of them including Pitu, a baby calf. Though they did not belong to him, he looked after them, day in and day out. It was a special arrangement between him and Mr. Ramu, the owner of the buffaloes. In exchange for taking care of the buffaloes, Svasti was supplied with some rice, some flour and some salt. That was not all; every day he also brought home a jug of milk from Sha, the female cow. Now this was very important to Svasti because he needed it to feed his baby sister. Together with Bima, his other sister who was six, they were three orphans. Their mother had died shortly after giving birth to the baby and their father had passed away earlier.
Every morning just like that morning, Svasti let the water buffaloes out of the stable. Pitu was always happy to greet Svasti. He would go right up to the boy and press his head against the little body. Svasti in turn would give him a big hug around his neck and then gently lead him outside. Rula, Sha, and Padha would follow behind them. The first order of the day was grazing. Svasti knew the surrounding fields well. In his head, he had marked out the best patches for grazing. He would then rotate the grazing from one patch to the next. This way, he made sure that there was enough time for new growth to set in.
At midmorning, Svasti and his water buffaloes headed towards the River Neranjara. They reached the riverbank just before noon. The sun was hot. Svasti took care to find a shallow and shaded part of the river. There, they happily waded into the water. Svasti took off his shirt and climbed first onto Padha’s back. With his soaked shirt in hand, he washed the big animal’s back. This he did in turn to all four buffaloes. Oh, how they loved the back rub! The gentle creatures were so thankful for the temporary relief from the little bugs that usually lodged onto their bodies.
Having thoroughly enjoyed the wonderful cool soaking, the little buffalo herder and his herd crossed the river to the other side. There, Svasti let them walk about on their own seeking out little treats amongst their surroundings. He pulled out a small sickle from his bag and proceeded to cut the tall krusha grass that grew on the riverbank. Soon he had collected quite a bundle. This was to be the buffaloes’ evening meal back at the stable.
Svasti gave a whistle to beckon the four buffaloes back to his side.
“Where is Pitu?”
Svasti quickly looked about him to see if he could spot the young calf. Much to his relief, he saw the tip of its tail just disappearing into the woods. He whistled and called after it,
“Pitu, come back!”
But the calf went right on his way. Svasti hurried to tie Rula, Sha, and Padha to a tree with a rope. Then he ran after Pitu.
Into the woods, Svasti ran. He soon caught up with Pitu.
“You heard my whistling and calling after you, Pitu, didn’t you?” stated Svasti in a stern voice looking right into Pitu’s eyes.
Somehow the gentle calf knew what those words meant. It looked away to avert Svasti’s eyes.
“Alright, let’s go back now,” Svasti patted the backside of Pitu and gently nudged it to turn back. Just then, Svasti saw.
Only a short distance away, under a huge pippala tree, sat a man. His face was very handsome. If it was not for the ragged cloth that wrapped his body, Svasti would surely thought him a prince! The man sat cross-legged. His two hands rested on his lap and such a straight back he kept. But what really captivated Svasti was how the man looked so serene and peaceful. A wondrous calm came over the young onlooker. He quietly walked towards the man. Pitu followed him this time.
Svasti was now very close to the man. But he stopped short of reaching the man.
“I mustn’t go too near. I might pollute him. He must be a Brahman.”
The Hindu’s society in those days was based on a caste system. Babies were born into one of four classes. The highest class was the Brahmans. They held the spiritual power. They were the priests and teachers privileged to learn and study the Vedas. Only they were qualified enough to give offerings to the gods.
“He looks so wise but his attire is too ragged to be a Brahman,” thought Svasti.
Next in the caste system were the Ksatriyas who held the governing power of the people. The kings, the politicians, and the military belonged to this second highest caste.
“He can’t be a Ksatriya who would usually sit in the high courts, and certainly not under a pippala tree!”
The third caste was the Vaisyas who were the merchants, landowners, and the skilled tradesmen. Mr. Ramu, the owner of the water buffaloes, was in this caste. The lowest caste was the Sudras who performed manual labor for the higher castes. Svasti thought that the man under the tree did not belong to either of the lower castes because he would be too busy making money and working.
“He could not possibly be like me, an untouchable!”
There were people excluded from the four-caste system. They were the “untouchables.” They had to live outside the villages, well away from the people. The belief was that by merely touching an untouchable would make a person polluted. The untouchables did all the most undesirable jobs such as feeding the pigs, collecting the garbage, spreading manure in the fields. They did the tasks that nobody in the caste system wanted.
Ever since Svasti could remember, he avoided the two upper castes. Even accidentally touching a Brahman or a Ksatriya could fetch a good beating. The so-called polluted person would then have to do months of special prayers of repentance and fasting to purify himself. Svasti often thought his water buffaloes were more fortunate than he was. They could roam the streets freely. They would not be beaten if they accidentally touched a Brahman.
While Svasti was lost in his thoughts, the man got up and started to walk towards the boy and his buffalo. Svasti instinctively stepped backwards. But before Svasti could even think of running away, the man reached out and patted him ever so gently on his head.
“Hello. That is a handsome calf you have there,” he smiled looking at the stunned boy.
“I am an untouchable,” Svasti hastened to confess.
“I just touched you so you are definitely touchable,” the man laughed. “What is your name?” he asked.
“Svasti. I look after water buffaloes. Who are you?”
“I am Siddhartha Gotama. I live here now in this forest. Are you from the Village Uruvela?”
“Oh no! I cannot live there. My hut is just outside the village. I live with my two sisters.”
“Do you like looking after the water buffaloes?”
“The truth of the matter is I am ever so thankful for this job because my two sisters do not have to go hungry. Our little hut is small but cozy. My sister Bima always fills in all the holes in the walls before they get too big. She also takes care to check the roof for sparse spots and covers them up with new mud and grass. Best of all, she cooks the most delicious riceball by mixing in herbs and berries. I usually manage to catch some fish from the river. We are happy together. As for the water buffaloes, I love them because they are such gentle creatures . . . um, why are you not afraid of being polluted by me?” Svasti wanted to know.
“Svasti, you don’t have to believe everything people tell you. We live in a society where people like to label everything. Sometimes labels are useful because they make it possible for us to communicate with each other. Sometimes, labels are harmful and unnecessary.”
“I don’t understand what you mean by label,” Svasti said rather softly fearing that he might offend Siddhartha.
“It’s alright to ask when you don’t understand something. Svasti, a label is a name given to something that has certain characteristics. For example, the word "table" is a label or name that we all understand to mean a flat top supported by four legs and we can put things on it. Can you think of another example?”
“Water, trees, sky, ” Svasti could name more. He had understood what Siddhartha meant by label.
“Very good. With these labels, people can communicate with one another. The names and labels are a part of our language, aren’t they? Otherwise, how difficult it would be for me to tell you to look up in the sky without pointing to it! The labels are in this way useful to us.”
“When is a label harmful then?” Svasti asked.
“When it is not true, the label is then just a word. We don’t have to pay any attention to it. Sometimes, labels are based on a false belief; sometimes they create injustice among people. We need to see beyond the labeling and discover for ourselves whether the label fits. Does it makes sense? For example, you are labeled an untouchable. Why? Is your blood not red? Are your tears not salty? Do you not wish to be happy just like all human beings? We need to check especially when a label brings suffering to some people. ” Siddhartha’s words struck a chord in Svasti’s heart.
The untouchable boy had always wondered how people could tell that he was an untouchable other than by his wretched clothing. When bathing in the river, he had at times wondered: if ten babies were bathing in the water in the nude, would a passer-by be able to distinguish to which caste each baby belonged?
Siddhartha continued, “It is also important that we understand that a label is only meant to name a thing, to act as a pointer in a very general way. It can never stand for the thing itself. For example, when I say an apple, you may think of a red apple, while I may mean a green apple. The color aspect of the apple is not included in the word "apple". Likewise, its taste—whether it is sweet or sour, its size—whether it is big or small, and other qualities are not reflected in the label. This is why we need to take the time to check for the qualities behind a label.
The same is true for people. You are labeled as an untouchable and it makes you an outcast because some people decided to make up a caste system. But the caste label does not tell me anything about who you are. I think you are a very caring and responsible brother. You are happy because you are content with what you have. You are kind to the water buffaloes and I am sure they love you too, in return. These are some of your qualities. And no matter what people choose to call you on the outside, those qualities inside you will not be affected. How could you harm me by merely touching me? So the label, untouchable, does not make sense. To me the word is meaningless. It is a harmful label because people mistreat you because of it.”
Svasti felt a little embarrassed because this man praised him. He had never been praised before like this. Yet, what he said made sense. He looked away and said in a soft voice, “I will think about what you’ve just said. Could I come to see you again?” Svasti looked into Siddhartha’s eyes hoping that he would say yes.
“Yes, and you must tell me all about how to look after water buffaloes.”
Svasti thought of Rula, Sha, and Padha that he had left at the river’s edge.
“Uu…Oooh, I left them at the river’s edge! I better go tend to them now.”
“Wait here,” Siddhartha walked towards the pippala tree and picked up a basket. He walked back to Svasti and handed the basket to him. “If you don’t mind, please take these cakes and breads. They are just leftovers but they are delicious.”
Svasti’s eyes opened wide; he had not tasted sweet cakes in a very long time now. Siddhartha placed the handle of the basket right into the boy’s hand. They started to walk towards the River. Pitu followed behind them. At the riverbank, Rula, Sha, Padha, were all lying down in the shade. Svasti sure was glad to see that they were all fine.
“There they are, my water buffaloes! I mean, I look after them all.”
Svasti untied them; picked up the bundle of krusha grass he had cut earlier and turned to say good-bye to his new friend.
“I don’t have anything nice to give you but could I bring you a riceball next time I come?”
“Thank you for your kind offer. The bundle of grass in your arm smells good and it would serve as a cushion for me to sit on. Would you mind very much cutting me a small bundle the next time you come?”
Svasti could not believe his ears - that he had something to offer someone. Quickly, he extended both arms and offered the bundle to Siddhartha.
“Please take this. I will cut some more right away.”
Without waiting for an answer, Svasti took his sickle and ran to the water’s edge and started cutting. Before long, he was done. Another bundle was gathered.
“See,” he waved to Siddhartha, “easy! I’ll come see you again.”
He picked up the basket and whistled for the buffaloes to come and waded across the river holding the basket on top of his head
On his way back to the barn, Svasti always had to pass by some children from the Village Uruvela. They played ball and shot darts right on the road that Svasti took. They would not let Svasti by without shouting at him and taunting him.
“What did you learn from the water buffaloes today?”
“Stupid boys look after stupid animals.”
“You are ugly.”
“You are the smelliest boy.”
Svasti always dreaded this part of his route. He would feel angry and hurt by the nasty words because he too thought he was stupid, polluted, and unworthy. He would look down as he passed the village children, and try to get the water buffaloes through as quickly as possible.
Just as usual, the insults were hurled at him on that day. But somehow, Svasti felt different. He saw that the insults were merely words and labels. They were not him. He knew he was not stupid. He knew his water buffaloes were not stupid. He held his head up high and walked passed the bullies calmly, totally unaffected.
Back at Mr. Ramu’s barn, Svasti settled the buffaloes in for the evening. He placed the cut grass in a trough and filled up their water trough with clean water from the well. Then with the basket in hand, he headed home.
Svasti couldn’t wait to show his sisters the treats in that basket all wrapped in the prettiest paper. Bima would surely want to save the paper. He couldn’t wait to tell them about his new friend, Siddhartha Gotama. He couldn’t wait to tell his sisters that being untouchables did not mean they were bad human beings. In his heart, Svasti felt a new found hope and freedom that he could not express in words.
That night, Svasti and his sisters enjoyed the treats. They played games, sang songs, and had a wonderful party in their cozy little hut.
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