In 1855, Henry David Thoreau was promoting civil disobedience as America grappled with tensions around slavery. Around the same time, 7,000 miles away, in Kerala, the southernmost tip of India, an inclusive saint was born in a thatched, one-bedroom hut.
Sree Narayana Guru, as he was called, used his philosophy of inclusion to transform this coastal state from a caste ridden, highly segregated society into one with equality and justice for all.
The Guru wanted to include all and exclude none. Those were days when people from his caste had to maintain social distancing from the upper castes and they had to stay out of their sight.
His treatise on inclusion revolutionized society. He empowered individuals to have self-respect and instilled equality by preaching “One caste, one religion and one God for all.”
When lower castes were banned from entering temples, he launched his own temple. He opened it to the world for anyone to pray. This forced the princely state of Travancore to allow lower caste people to enter temples, opening a new era of social reform. Individuals from lower castes could now walk on public roads instead of using alleyways.
Inclusion’s long-term societal benefits
Nine decades after this inclusive saint’s death, Kerala is 94 % literate, has a well-developed education system and a sophisticated community health system, the envy of the world. Religious leaders, politicians and intellectuals who came after the Guru fostered an inclusive society.
Kerala’s GDP of $120 billion is miniscule compared to the United States. However, this state’s handling of Covid-19 has become a global case study. On January 27, as soon as the first case of Covid-19 arrived from Wuhan, the state shut down all its airports, and launched WHO’s classic protocol of testing, contact tracing, isolation and support.
A diverse society built on inclusion started educating the masses about the dangers of Covid-19, provided free food, launched rapid testing at convenient locations and diligently implemented WHO’s protocol. The state’s leader told his people: “We’ve got your back. We’ll get through this,” and his tireless cabinet started working for all.
Meanwhile, 7,000 miles away, in the United States with a GDP of $20.5 trillion, January passed by with inaction. The result? Over 120,000 deaths and growing in a short span of a few months.
The rugged individualism of the West has its advantages. We believe we have the individual right not to wear a mask, we believe we have the right to ignore science, and we wish that our donut shops should have opened yesterday.
In our largely self-centered quest for the pursuit of liberty and happiness, sometimes, it might make sense to look Eastward. Let’s hope to build an inclusive society from the fringes of this pandemic.