Being a Hindu and a still modern, rational student of the 21st century, who interacts with people from all communities and cultures on a day to day basis, what is my stance on the caste system? Will I go to the extent of defending the injustices? Will I try and justify oppression of millions?
Short answer? No.
I will be exploring why I follow Hinduism despite there being many instances of oppression in its name. But before that, I would like to answer an important question: why this issue on ‘caste’ all of a sudden?
There are two reasons. The first reason is that, in one of my articles, I expressed my stance on Caste and Varnas but didn’t offer as much analysis on it because the focus of the article was different. This seems to have made some people believe that I deliberately avoided the topic because my arguments were ‘shallow’ or because I was taking a biased stance. While many appreciated the article, some believed that I ignored the oppression of many people. Here’s one example of the sort of opinions I received-
The second reason that I write about the caste system is because I notice that many people believe that true Hinduism is a religion that inherently contains the caste system. A few even say that it has “no place in modern India” and go to the extent of talking of the nation’s future after Hinduism. Kancha Ilaiah for example has written books such as, “Why I am not a Hindu”, “Post-Hindu India” and “The Untouchable God”.
In Ilaiah’s 146 page book, Why I am not a Hindu, there are 403 references to the word “caste” and 606 references to the word “Dalit”. It means something, if a book that is a (proclaimed) “refutation of Hinduism” only talks about the caste system for a religion of such depth.
In other words, there is only one argument that these books really contain within them. And that is about the “caste divide” that supposedly lies in Hinduism.
And, these authors cannot be ignored. They are given far more importance than they deserve on the Indian media. They are invited to conclaves and TV debates. They sadly even manage to convince many unaware Hindus and Indians by pretending to be very informed about the religion and catching the ordinary person off guard. Therefore, their lofty claims deserve a response from a rational perspective. Let us give them that response.
I would like to begin by analysing the Hindu scriptures. Because in my firm opinion, the best way to judge the rationale of a religion is to go by its scriptures, not by its followers. The reason I say so (as do many scholars of religion) is because often, practitioners of a religion may alter things in the scriptures to suit their convenience. But a scripture consists of the original teachings and the grounds of the religion. Let’s check the Hindu scriptures for casteism, shall we?
Firstly, I wish to be very candid when I tell you how unjust the caste system was at its peak. Many wrongs were committed in the name of caste. There were ghastly incidents of discrimination. Although there is no concrete documented evidence to prove this, some say that sometimes molten lead was poured into the ears of people who were born Shudra, just because they happened to listen to the Vedas. Others say, that they were prohibited from entering temples and even chanting the Lord’s name. If these did take place, I have no hesitation in saying that those who committed it would be nothing but oppressors.
But, where do we draw the line when we attribute these injustices to Hinduism? This brings me to the next area of rebuttal: proving that these acts of injustice were a total misrepresentation of Hinduism. The first thing here, is proving that every single person was welcome to pray and chant God’s glories. One example of this is the Phalaśruti of the Vishnu Sahasranāma, (where the benefits of chanting are mentioned), it is openly stated:
“By chanting this, the Brahmana will get knowledge, The kshatriya will get victory, the vaisya will get wealth and The shudra will get pleasures”. This obviously means that Shudras were only encouraged to pray and so, is there even a question of praying being impermissible for Shudras?
Also, it is clear that the caste discrimination was condemned in every segment of Hindu scriptures. In the Mahabharata Shanti Parva 188, there is a blatant mention of there being no superior Varna, because every part of the universe is the work of an immense being. Sage Bhrigu also says there is no difference among Varnas. It occured because of differentiation of work and qualities. Duty and rites of passage are not forbidden to any of them.
Frankly, I don’t think the writings could have made it any clearer that equal treatment was a necessity.
Now, I can already sense some skeptics raising eyebrows at me because of one card that has never failed them: the Manusmriti.
Here is where I wish to address something key regarding this scripture that people cite all the time. There is strong evidence to prove the tampering of this one scripture by the likes of Sir William Jones and other self proclaimed “Sanskrit scholars”. The fact that in other scriptures like the Bhavishya Purana there is reference to people like Jesus Christ, Prophet Muhammad, Mughal rulers and even Queen Victoria, makes it obvious that a large amount of interference with Indian scriptures has taken place. But let’s be generous to the skeptics. Let us concede that the Manusmriti is in its purest form. Even then, a basic fact silences their argument. The precedence of the Manusmriti ended in the Dvapara Yuga. Smritis needs to be rewritten for every age based on the Vedas and Upanishads.
So, it is a totally different Smriti for Kali Yuga (the current time period) and thus, the Manu Smriti’s supposed discrimination is irrelevant and is not meant to be followed. But let’s not stop there and give the likes of Ilaiah, even more generosity. Let us even say that this book is relevant now. Even then, their argument on “discrimination” falls flat on its back. It is this very Manusmriti (11.157) that unambiguously says, “Without studying scriptures, Vedas and the development of intellect, a brahmin by birth cannot be considered a brahmin”. This essentially means that only a practitioner of the Vedas and scriptures can be a Brahmin, not someone who is born into it. And the Vedas (that you are meant to practice as a Brahmin) say that among men there are no superiors or no inferiors, no middle ones either. They become great from small beginnings (Rig-5-59-6). And so, based on the Manusmriti, you need to follow the Vedas, which only propagate equal treatment. A Brahmin ceases to be Brahmin if he does not follow this.
To sum up the point, the only scripture that is quoted by skeptics is the Manusmriti, which has been tampered. If it has not been tampered, it is still irrelevant because of the basic cycle of Smritis. If it is somehow relevant, it reiterates the message of equality more than ever.
In conclusion, the purpose of this article has been to illustrate something that has been crystal clear since the beginning of the Vedic era: the original scriptures of Hinduism have only wished for equal treatment irrespective of birth and Varna. The biggest violation in Dharma took place when some ignorant, self proclaimed “Brahmins” turned a blind eye to every part of their own scriptures. But we should not let the Hinduphobes misrepresent the religion as a whole, just because of some discriminatory, hypocritical people who emerged as a blot on Hinduism. Such people want this blot to overshadow the real principles of equality that lie in its scriptures. We as informed people, must be able to battle the bigoted misinformers, to prove that the oppression came socially and was contradictory to the fundamentals of the religion. So, the next time you hear someone say “caste” and “Hinduism” in the same sentence, or see an Ilaiah get applauded in the India Today Conclave for attributing injustices to Hinduism, or see a child’s history textbook say “The Vedic social order predicated in inequality”, your job of stopping the delusions, begins.
- The World’s Religions- Huston Smith
- The Bhagavad Gita Podcast- Michael Scherer
- Why I am Not a Hindu- Kancha Ilaiah
- The Huffington Post- The Caste System of the Hindu Society
- Manu Smriti- Sir William Jones
- Theme Picture- Kullabs