Hinduism: Not Cast in Caste - HAF's Hopes for the Future

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Hinduism, its transcendent insights, and ancient, yet ever-relevant teachings on living in harmony with the Earth and one another inspire well over a billion people, including those born into the tradition and a growing number drawn to it from all corners of the world. Yet, even as Hindu precepts are ascendant in contemporary discourse, the glaring dichotomy between its spiritual teaching of divinity inherent in every being and the continued social reality of discrimination and inequality in parts of Indian society, predicated on the “caste” of one’s birth, forms an obstacle to all that Hinduism has to offer towards solving many of humanity’s most pressing problems.
 
To the ultimate end of seeking an end to caste-based discrimination and in the hopes of facilitating an understanding of Hinduism beyond caste, this report has sought to clarify that caste-based discrimination is a social evil that is not intrinsic to Hinduism and that indeed, the solution to this problem lies within the eternal teachings of Hinduism. HAF has highlighted both the historic and modern-day role played by Hindu religious and spiritual teachers, leaders, and organizations in caste reform movements, and has shown how the combination of representative democracy, reservation policies, and economic growth has wrought a sea change in India’s caste dynamics. Nonetheless, caste-based discrimination continues to plague Indian society. HAF shares here, its hopes for the future.
 
7.1 That government and Hindu efforts complement each other
For well over a century, great Hindu leaders, including Subramania Bharati, Swami Vivekananda, Mahatma Gandhi, and Sri Narayana Guru uniformly warned that caste-based discrimination imperils the Hindu tradition – yet the practice still remains. History has shown that reform movements driven by Hindus have been met with the greatest success, and as such, the continued guidance of religious leaders’ is the way forward. Arguably, the greatest challenge lies in changing mindsets to bridge the gap between the spiritual principle accepted by all Hindus of mankind’s inherent divinity and the practice of this lofty ideal, both in attitude and interactions. Actively breaking the links that some may perceive between caste hierarchies and notions of “traditional Hinduism,” in addition to other challenges is indeed a monumental task, but HAF believes that Hindu religious leaders are the best equipped to overcome them. As the social evil affects every diverse religious tradition in India, the same responsibility is borne by spiritual leaders of each of those faiths as well.
 
The complexity of the problem, much of which falls outside the sphere of religion, also requires Hindu efforts to be supplemented by the GoI, and state and local governments. Curbing and ultimately eliminating India’s notorious corruption at all levels of government and enabling more effective law enforcement to investigate crimes promptly and render justice fairly will arguably prove to be the most effective solution. The need to reform law enforcement institutions is also particularly acute as the archaic Police Act of 1861, first implemented by the British to establish a police force that would suit the purpose of crushing dissent and suppressing any movement for Indian independence still continues to govern policing in the country.
 
7.2 That mechanization of “dirty” or “polluting” jobs becomes a reality
Perhaps the most demeaning, nay dehumanizing, aspect of caste-based discrimination is manual scavenging, both in individual homes and in municipal sewage systems. While clearly a modern phenomenon dating to the British rule of India as discussed in Section 5.7, it has been forced upon certain SC castes. It is the hope of HAF that development of proper drainage systems in all parts of India and mechanization of sewage maintenance are made a top most priority. Inability to achieve this simply represents a failure of governance in India rather than a religious problem.
 
7.3 That NGOs focus on indigenous empowerment and emphasize education and economic development
Too often, the debate on caste outside of India underplays or entirely ignores both historical and ongoing indigenous efforts, and seeks to portray missionary activities in India — predicated as they are on church-planting and religious conversion – and foreign governmental intervention as the only solutions. With the “reservation” system substantially improving access to education, India’s economic growth in the last two decades has allowed disadvantaged groups to gain greater representation in all walks of life by favoring individual merit over jāti membership. Economic development brought by reforms has also profoundly altered social attitudes (see Section 5.5). This combination of education, economic development, and indigenous self-empowerment has been historically stressed by leaders as diverse as Dr. Ambedkar and Sri Narayana Guru. Prominent dalit intellectuals today have also embraced education and economic reforms as the solution, rather than religious conversion.
 
HAF hopes that the focus of the numerous NGOs working in India further emphasize self-empowerment and indigenous movements, rather than seeking international intervention or religious conversion.
 
7.4 That the ongoing work by Hindu institutions be recognized and supported by lay Hindus
A corollary to the lack of recognition for indigenous efforts is that ongoing work being performed by Hindu leaders and institutions is too often unrecognized as well. Many Hindu leaders and organizations (too many to enumerate here) are tirelessly working to address the problem of caste-based discrimination in various ways, including through charitable institutions that provide education, medical services, disaster relief, and other humanitarian assistance to the needy and the poor — many of whom are often SCs or other oppressed castes. They are also reaching out to promote equality for SCs, as well as sanctioning the appointment of SCs as temple priests. HAF admires and is inspired by Hindu leaders and organizations that continue to speak out firmly and work against caste-based discrimination and untouchability.
 
Given the unique responsibility and opportunity that the Hindu community has in dealing with caste-based discrimination, HAF hopes more of the Hindu diaspora will volunteer and contribute financially to support Hindu charities working in India in issues as diverse as education, development, and healthcare. There is a direct relationship between improvements in human, ecological, and societal welfare with the elimination of caste-based discrimination.