Is caste fundamentally and inevitably “Hindu”?
According to scholars and detractors of the Hindu religion alike, the answer is yes.
Our children learn this answer in public schools across America; in the California Content Standards for 6th grade, it is one (6.5.3) of just four content standards specific to Hinduism (6.5.2-6.5.4, 6.5.7). The Hindu American Foundation (HAF)’s proposed scholarly edits to the California Frameworks were falsely critiqued on the premise that HAF seeks to “obscure” caste in our proposed changes to the frameworks.
But in point of fact, the answer is no.
Many Hindus certainly do practice caste — division based on endogamy and prohibitions on certain kinds of interaction — and many Hindus also practice the odious extension of caste in caste-based discrimination. However, caste was, is, and likely will continue to be, not just an Indian, but a pan-South Asian phenomenon with deep roots in the village, countryside, and tribe.
So without further ado, here are five reasons why caste cannot be ultimately considered a solely or necessarily Hindu religious practice:
South Asians of ALL religions identify with caste.
Muslims do it; Christians do it; so do Sikhs. In fact even reformist sects of Hinduism animated in large part by a desire to ease caste discrimination, such as the Lingayats, eventually do it.
Caste appears to be an enduring and endemic aspect of life in India, and throughout South Asia. Asking why, and engaging with the answer, is ultimately more interesting and fruitful than just using caste as a stick with which to beat practicing Hindus.
All denounce the caste system in theory. In practice, all practice it and justify doing so by attaching more neutral words like “community” to it. For caste is not merely the decision to restrict or expand the marriageable pool; it is also language, cooking, clothing, values, and so many other things that create the intense in-group/out-group sentiment driving caste.
Hindu South Asians themselves aren’t immutably attached to caste.
When Hindus move away from the village and/or into other countries, their attachment to the caste system often dissipates accordingly.
This was seen for example in the National Family Health Survey done in India in 2005-2006 and analyzed here (see table 5), where overall urban residence increased the likelihood of intercaste marriage (i.e., marriage in violation of the caste-system).
Hindu Non-South Asians aren’t at all attached to caste.
Hindus not of Indian origin, including those taking up Hinduism as “converts,” do not appear to feel a need to take up caste as well.
The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), comprised of many followers of non-Indian origin, makes only passing reference to caste in its official website, and there only to clarify that the Bhagavad Gita (one of Hinduism’s most important scripture) rejects a birth-based caste system and never to positively affirm it is a path to be maintained in this day and age.
The non-Indian founder of the Kauai Aadheenam, a Hawaiian Hindu Monastery, clearly declared opposition to the caste system in India as practiced.
There is nothing inherently Hindu about the caste system if converts to Hinduism feel free to reject it.
Hindus of all stripes do not themselves number caste as the critical feature of their religion to follow.
The features of Hinduism that most practicing Hindus (particularly in the US, where after all, these textbooks will be used) identify as being of great relevance and importance to their spiritual practice (the Bhagavad Gita, ashtanga yoga, karma, seva, meditation, bhakti, ahimsa, pluralism, Vedanta) have nothing to do with caste. Many can in fact be inherently transgressive against caste. Numerous bhakti stories exalt piety over hierarchy (e.g. Kannappa Nayanmar). Meditation and yoga can be practiced by anyone. Obedience to ahimsa (the principle of non-harming) could be interpreted to mean not increasing the suffering of anyone including those of other castes, while pluralism could be interpreted to mean that different ideas about what to eat or wear are not fitting topics for bigotry. And the understanding of the equal and inherent divinity of all beings speaks for itself. There is simply nothing in the best of Hinduism that is mixed up in any way with the necessity of caste.
The most fundamental Hindu scriptures do not speak of caste at all.
Hindus draw a distinction between shruti (literally, “that which is heard”, scriptures that are meant to be immutable and received directly from God) and smriti (literally,”that which is written”, scriptures that can be conceived and re-conceived over time). Hindus value both but place shruti higher. It is notable that shruti is silent on jaati and barely mentions varna (personality types that eventually came to be understood as four classes which interact with but are distinct from caste), a fact pointed out by numerous Hindu spiritual leaders.
Caste-based discrimination has had a long and terrible history in India, other parts of South Asia, and the diaspora.
Hindus moreover cannot and should not deny that many religious leaders, particularly in the Medieval period, tried to lend a divine patina to caste-based discrimination.
But the timeless aspects of the Hindu religion went right on existing and being discovered and rediscovered in times of caste influence both heavy and dilute, while non-Hindus proved that caste could be practiced under the aegis of any religion.
The next time it is claimed that Hinduism is solely and unalterably associated with caste, it is worth recalling these above inconvenient facts: all South Asians practice caste, Hindus themselves are less caste-oriented when they leave the village and much less so when they join the religion by conversion, and practicing Hindus and fundamental Hindu scriptures neither associate core insights with caste.
These facts should serve to reorient the conversation away from whether caste is fundamentally and inevitably Hindu, and towards the far more useful questions of why caste persists in South Asia and how South Asians can collectively accelerate the processes that will bring caste-based discrimination to an end.