Hinduism: Not Cast in Caste - Executive Summary

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Hinduism, or Sanatana Dharma, is a rich and dynamic collection of hundreds of spiritual and philosophical traditions that are based on certain essential, core tenets. Its transcendent insights into the existential questions of humanity -- the meaning of life, why we are here, fate versus free will -- have led to a profound and global embrace of such Hindu concepts as religious pluralism, yoga, meditation, ayurvedic healing, reincarnation, karma, environmentalism, the celebration of the divine feminine, and vegetarianism. Yet, even as Hindu precepts are ascendant in contemporary discourse, Indian citizens, Hindus in the diaspora, and many Western seekers eager to immerse themselves in the Hindu way of life, see a glaring dichotomy in the vast gap between the religious teaching of divinity inherent in each being and the continued social reality of discrimination and inequality in parts of Indian society predicated on the “caste” of one’s birth – a striking contrast between Aham Brahmasmi (“I am that Divine”) and untouchability.
The Hindu American Foundation (HAF) seeks to elaborate on six key themes in this report:
  1. Caste-based discrimination and a birth-based caste hierarchy are not intrinsic to the Hindu religion.
  2. Caste-based discrimination does exist in many parts of India today.
  3. Caste-based discrimination fundamentally contradicts the essential teaching of Hindu sacred texts that divinity is inherent in all beings.
  4. Contemporary Hindu spiritual leaders are actively promoting authentic interpretations of Hindu sacred texts, affirming that the solution to caste-based discrimination lies in an adherence to core Hindu teachings.
  5. Representative democracy, government policies, and urbanization/economic liberalization have wrought a sea change in caste equations in modern India, but the matter is complicated by the emergence of caste-based politics.
  6. Caste-based discrimination is being exploited by multi-national evangelical and missionary organizations whose ostensibly humanitarian and development goals are too often intertwined with predatory proselytization and conversion. Also, caste-based discrimination is an issue that the sovereign state of India and its people have addressed and continue to do so, thus interference by any external agency in India’s internal affairs is unacceptable and unwarranted.
Theme #1: HAF reaffirms that caste-based discrimination is not, and has never been, intrinsic to the essential teachings of Hinduism. Hindu history is replete with revered saints who were born into castes considered “backward” (used interchangeably with “lower”) and whose contributions are significant. Hinduism also has a history of inspiring numerous religious movements through the millennia where saints have shown the way in rejecting caste-based discrimination and emphasizing the eternal teachings of Hinduism about the true nature of mankind and its relationship to the Divine (God). Notions of birth-based caste and untouchability (caste-related social ostracization) themselves are much later social developments and do not span all of Hindu history.
Theme #2: Today, over 160 million people in India fall under the category of Scheduled Castes (SCs), the erstwhile untouchables, and are considered the lowest rung of the caste hierarchy. Despite many years of grassroots work and ameliorative measures by the government, a large number of cases of persecution and unjust discrimination affecting SCs are recorded by the Government of India (GoI) every year. While untouchability has long been outlawed in India and there has been notable improvement in the living conditions of the lower rungs of the caste hierarchy since independence, abuse of and discrimination against SCs persists, particularly in some pockets of rural India. This report recognizes that caste-based distinctions have been prevalent in Indian society for millennia and that some ancient Hindu social laws and codes were used to justify caste hierarchies and bias.
Theme #3: Hinduism’s revealed sacred texts such as the Vedas, state emphatically that divinity is inherent in every individual; that the ultimate purpose of Hindu spirituality and religion is to know, grow closer to, and experience, this divinity; and that all physical/social differences (ie. caste, gender, race, etc.) are wholly unrelated to one’s ability to achieve that goal. Numerous Hindu sacred texts, morality tales, and commentaries extol sama-drishti -- or the capability to look upon all beings as equal. Thus, caste-based discrimination represents a societal neglect of these essential teachings of Hinduism, rather than an intrinsic feature of the religion itself. Reform therefore consists of closing the gap between Hindu spiritual and religious teachings on the one hand and social practices on the other. While Hindu society is not alone among faith communities that have seen unjust social hierarchies, Hinduism is distinct in that it is premised on concepts of inherent divinity of all living beings, and that Truth is not the exclusive property of any particular community, organization, or belief system.
Hinduism also has a diverse scriptural tradition and small portions of texts called the Dharmashastras outlined social laws, some of which codified caste-based discrimination. It is unclear as to whether the injunctions found in this body of texts were prescriptive or reflective of contemporary social practices or both. Dharmashastras are many in number, often times contain contradictory injunctions between and within texts, and are not recognized as divinely revealed, as is the case for the Vedas. Most importantly, the Dharmashastras are understood to be bound by time, space, and circumstance. In fact, the tradition of these texts was such that, with the passage of time, they were routinely reinterpreted and revised to reflect changed social, political, and religious realities. In this way, Hindu society is not bound by any final or unchangeable social law code and has evolved and adapted itself throughout history. HAF supports this tradition of re-analysis by spiritual and religious scholars and teachers, of any teachings in the Dharmashastras that do not promote equality, respect, and just treatment for all individuals regardless of caste, class, birth, or gender.
It is also important to recognize that untouchability is a purely social evil with no sanction in Hindu texts and which arose thousands of years after the first Vedas were composed. The Dharmashastras do not recognize the concept of untouchability, let alone promote it.
Theme #4: Because SCs, since the rise of untouchability, have been denied equality, dignity, and justice, HAF believes that all Hindus should endeavor to help end this sad chapter of history. Substantial work has been done in this regard over the centuries by many Hindu religious and spiritual leaders, organizations, and individuals, as well as in recent decades by the elected representatives of an overwhelmingly Hindu majority electorate in India. HAF is confident that their continued work will lead to an end to caste-based oppression by ensuring that their followers or constituencies adopt a more forceful, coordinated, and concerted approach, given the magnitude of the problem. In this connection, HAF presents the independent statements of 14 prominent Hindu religious and spiritual leaders who categorically reject caste-based discrimination in their teachings and practice of Hinduism. HAF feels a moral and dharmic obligation to be a part of this ongoing work.
Theme #5: It is imperative to recognize that the caste system in India has undergone substantial change, and any solution to the problem should be cognizant of, and accommodate such changes. The adoption of a representative democracy (which ensured higher political representation for the numerically stronger “backward” castes), the GoI’s extensive affirmative-action quota system (called “reservations”), and urbanization and economic development of the country have together wrought a sea change in caste dynamics since India’s independence in 1947, and have collectively led to dramatic improvements in the social and economic status of numerous so called “backward” castes. At the same time, certain traditionally “forward” caste communities are among those who remain economically disenfranchised and mired in poverty. The nature and extent of this shift varies widely between urban and rural areas as well as by region, highlighting the fact that the dynamics of caste and community are far more complex than the over-simplified, popular perceptions proffered outside of India about the “Hindu caste system.” Thus, while more remains to be done, especially for the SCs, the tremendous progress as well as shifts in power structures over the past six decades since India’s independence must be acknowledged and built upon.
Caste-identity in modern India is largely fueled by an extensive system of state patronage implied by the reservation policies. Politicking for caste-related reservations has become a mechanism to extract concessions from the State, but in most parts of India, the lion’s share of the benefits of reservations have thus far accrued to a few among the “backward” castes, making them regionally dominant and powerful, both economically and politically, and often discriminative towards other castes. This dynamic has also lead to the bizarre situation where castes sometimes compete with one another in declaring themselves “more backward” than others.
Caste politics is an enormously complicating factor in modern India, and is alive today largely because people see its utility in social and economic upliftment on the one hand, and in political mobilization on the other. Representative democracy and reservations policies have enabled “backward” castes, including SCs, to reach the highest echelons of government, including the office of the President. They have also provided political power to castes that have historically lacked such power, and have enabled the diversion of resources to those segments of society along with the benefits of reservations. The consequences, however, have been the reinforcement rather than amelioration caste identities and divisions, especially amongt erstwhile “backward” castes, and the election of legislators largely based on caste, rather than merit. Caste-identity is also further bolstered among economically disadvantaged or impoverished “forward” castes which share resentment over their lack of access to lower caste-based educational, economic, and political reservations. It would be accurate to state that the long-term goal of a post-caste society, where one’s caste is an irrelevant moniker, is impeded by the very same politicians that vilify the caste-system as a grotesque relic.
Caste violence too is almost entirely driven by political and economic factors, rather than religious ones. Not surprisingly, caste tensions often increase around election time as politicians exploit the issue to get votes. The inextricable intertwining of opposing political parties representing the interests of various castes, for instance, landlords and landless laborers, also feeds such tensions. It is important to note that violence occurs not between “forward” castes and SCs, but rather largely between “backward” castes and SCs, as well as amongst SCs themselves. Inter-caste violence also occurs within non-Hindu religious communities, and caste-based discrimination occurs among all religious communities today, including Christian and Muslim.
Theme #6: The movement to end all discrimination against SCs, Hindu or otherwise, is an important one. HAF is fully committed to its success, is working with many grassroots groups dedicated to the upliftment of the SCs, especially those which emphasize indigenous self-empowerment and reconciliation as a means of eradicating the caste-based discrimination.
The modern Dalit movement has been joined in the last few decades by many Christian organizations, with financing often coming through Europe, Australia, and the United States. HAF commends those that are solely providing material assistance to the needy, but finds unethical, fraudulent, and morally reprehensible, the motives of those that seek to exploit the situation through anti-Hindu propaganda or that provide humanitarian aid as a means to the end of religious conversion. While HAF insists that addressing caste-based discrimination is the urgent collective responsibility of Hindus and the GoI, it is in no way meant to condone Christian missionaries who falsely claim that such discrimination is inseparable from Hinduism and propound that argument as a pretext to "harvesting souls.”
It is necessary to point out that the Christian missionary claims that caste-based discrimination is intrinsic to Hinduism, and that conversion to other religions is the only way to eliminate the problem, are patently false. Tellingly, despite conversions to Christianity (and other religions), SCs continue to suffer discrimination at the hands of “forward” caste Christians. Neither have other Christians been free from intra-Christian discrimination based on ethnicity, race, gender, and class, in India and other parts of the world. In more tribal/SC-dominated areas, concerted conversion efforts have led to inter-religious strife among SCs, because they are often times accompanied by the open denigration of Hinduism and its religious practices, and the oppression of non-converted local populations.
This report presents a statement from a Hindu SC community leader in Chattisgarh, India affirming his commitment to Hinduism while forthrightly demanding an end to social discrimination, as well as an article on the plight of Christian Dalits by a well-known Christian interfaith activist.
There have been recent attempts to pass resolutions and legislation on the issue of caste-based discrimination in international fora, including the United States Congress, United Kingdom, European Union, and the United Nations. These efforts should be firmly rejected as they are often lobbied for by the same international organizations that seek to carry out aggressive conversion campaigns.
These efforts are also significantly misguided as they often equate caste-based discrimination with racial discrimination of the kind that existed in apartheid South Africa. Not only have modern genetic studies shown conclusively that caste is not the same as race, but caste-based discrimination is certainly not the policy of the GoI as racial discrimination was in apartheid South Africa.
Indeed, the GoI, an avowedly secular institution comprised predominantly of Hindus, has instituted one of the most extensive and far-reaching systems of affirmative action quotas anywhere in the world. Interference by any external agency in the internal affairs of the sovereign state of India, a vibrant democracy, is thus unacceptable and unwarranted.
Given these ground realities, treating caste as solely a religious issue is erroneous, and more often a means of disparaging Hinduism rather than seeking an effective solution to a social problem. Eliminating caste-based discrimination is not only a responsibility for Hindu society (and also other religious traditions in India), but also for civic institutions, and the three branches of state and central governments. Effective reform of law enforcement agencies and stringent enforcement of already existing laws are necessary and the GoI and state and local governments must ensure that the conduct of politics and implementation of reservation policies spread economic and educational benefits to all Indians, regardless of castes, in a manner conducive to the eventual emergence of a society free of caste-based discrimination.