Caste system: Hindus need to reflect, drive change

In February 2006 I was invited to the 9th Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Brazil as a representative of the Hindu community. At the very first discussion, a bishop from India reprimanded the council for giving legitimacy to Hindus and their traditions by inviting some of us. He described us as his oppressors and characterized the Hindu traditions as “unjust” and “any redeemable trait”. Finally, he invited everyone to work for the dismantling of Hinduism. I later learned that the bishop was from the Dalit Ward. His words pierced me. I had never heard anyone refer to me as an oppressor.

My great-grandparents emigrated to Trinidad and Tobago as contract workers from northern India at the end of the 19th century. Compliance with caste restrictions was very difficult in the barracks’ shared apartments. Caste, therefore, while not absent, was a minimal trait in my life. I was aware that most Hindu priests claimed brahmin status, but other traditional caste traits such as hereditary work specialization and the rules for eating together, mixed marriage, and social relationships were minimal. Our friendships were not restricted by caste. Temples were open to everyone. My grandfathers served the community as Hindu priests. I was aware of my family’s status as a Brahmin.

I was challenged by the bishop’s indictment to acknowledge that he encountered Hinduism in radically different ways than my own experience. Its context was India and Hinduism was an oppressive tradition that negated the dignity and self-worth of its community. How do I, as a Hindu, respond to this daunting challenge?

I have to start by recognizing the inhumanity and injustice of the caste system and that it has indeed been widely legitimized by its appeal to Hindu teachings and texts. It is ubiquitous in ritual practices. As Hindus, we must refrain from apologetically explaining away the caste system as a creation of foreigners or merely in response to the foreign presence in India. His age is deceptive about such explanations. We must stop speaking of caste as the corruption of a social order that had a noble purpose for the common good. Hindus are not free from susceptibility to power corruption, from a desire to affirm their self-worth by devaluing others and to control the bodies of others for their own economic well-being.

Without the willingness of the Hindus to move from defensive justification to radical self-criticism, there can be no real dismantling of the caste structures. We also need to question the assumptions of the social system that attribute different values, privileges and opportunities to people based on dangerous ideas of purity and uncleanliness.

The rejection of religious doctrines and practices that justify the caste must be complemented by Hindu support for policies that offset economic and other disadvantages. There is a direct correlation between the perception that some bodies are more worthy than others and unequal access to goods and opportunities. The affirmation of a Hindu theology of human equality and dignity based on the doctrine that the divine exists equally and identically in everyone is fundamental to the work of social change and structural transformation.

However, self-criticism is not meaningfully carried out without heeding the voices of those who experience tradition denying them the opportunities and resources to thrive. We need to hear their truths, even if we find them difficult. This is not easy as Hindu religious leaders are still mostly made up of men of the upper castes who have always experienced power and privilege within the tradition.

There is no critical voice as revealing about the oppressive face of Hindu tradition as Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar. Still, no prominent Hindu commentator on the post-independence Bhagavad Gita, including Mahatma Gandhi, mentions his formidable arguments.

The questions from the Dalit community that Dr. Ambedkar formulated in 1935, it is imperative to begin the journey of Hindu self-examination. “Does Hinduism recognize their worth as human beings? Does it stand for their equality? … Does it at least help to forge the bond of brotherhood between them and the Hindus? … Does it tell the Hindus that it is a sin not to treat the untouchables as humans or animals? … that universalizes Hinduism the value of life without distinction? “

The author is Professor of Religion at Saint Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, USA.

Suraj Yengde, author of Caste Matters, curates Dalitality’s bi-weekly column

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