Executive Summary

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 amongst 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.

Conclusion

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.

10 Key Points 

  1. The key message of this report is that caste-based discrimination is not intrinsic to Hinduism, and that the solution lies within the eternal teachings of Hinduism.
  2. The report acknowledges that caste-based discrimination is a complex ongoing problem in India that is distorted by political maneuvering.
  3. HAF believes that caste-based discrimination in India is a domestic issue that should only be handled by the Government of India, and that the U.S. Congress, United Nations or any non-Hindu foreign body has no locus standi to interfere in this matter.
  4. HAF fully acknowledges that there have been and are on-the-ground efforts by Hindus in India to eradicate caste-based discrimination.
  5. This report is a tool to counter countless school textbooks that represent caste as a rigid and hierarchical system that is inseparable from Hinduism.
  6. “Caste” is derived from the Portuguese word “casta” and is not equivalent to the varna/jaati tradition in Indian society; HAF is NOT suggesting an end to the varna/jaati tradition, but an end to caste-based discrimination and birth-based hierarchy.
  7. HAF acknowledges the substantial role played by the British colonial regime in solidifying a rigid caste system in Indian society.
  8. Hinduism: Not Cast in Caste presents “a” Hindu perspective on caste-based discrimination, not “the” only Hindu perspective.
  9. Prior to its release, this report was peer reviewed by approximately a dozen external reviewers, whose suggestions may or may not have been incorporated.

The statements by 14 religious leaders and organizations are not endorsements of HAF’s report, but rather statements against caste-based discrimination provided to HAF prior to their review of the report. Some of these same respected leaders have endorsed the report after its release.

Endorsements

The following are endorsements for HAF’s Hinduism: Not Cast in Caste. The endorsements have been sent to HAF by various academics and leaders in the community, who have given HAF permission to publish their words online. The endorsements have not been altered by HAF.

“We fully and whole-heartedly endorse the HAF report on caste discrimination while simultaneously denouncing the attempts by the western imperialists, Christian missionaries as well as leftists and communists to denigrate Hinduism using “caste” as political tool. We certainly denounce the malicious attempts by Hindu-phobics to equate the “caste issue” with racism or apartheid. Indeed, reform has to come in Hinduism from within. It does not matter whether the process of reform is initiated by Hindus from India, Hindus from America or Hindus from Bali! All Hindus have Adhikaras (locus standi) given to them by Param Pita Parmeshwara. Hindu Samaj has to unite to deal with the perpetual external aggression directed against it by very formidable adversaries. For that reason, we have to judge a Hindu by his Karma and not by his Varna! Let Hindus all over the world not fall prey to the age old imperialistic tactic of Divide and Rule.”

http://aryaputra.sulekha.com/blog/post/2006/11/priyajans-not-dalits-.htm

– Dr. Adityanjee, Secretary, Board of Directors, Hindu University of America (HUA), in his personal capacity. Endorsement does not reflect the official view of HUA. 

 

“One can reject caste discrmination as being opposed to the real teachings of Sanatana Dharma without having to reject the value of varna, jati and kula.  The entire world today is once more recognizing the importance of family, community and traditional cultures, just as it is affirming the importance of biodiversity, which have been key teachings of Hinduism all along. Yet at the same time the world cannot accept discrimination based upon these as justifiable. Ultimately the entire world is one family as Hinduism declares Vasudhaiva kutumbakam.”

– Vamadeva Shastri, Founder and Director of The American Institute of Vedic Studies

 

“I support the Hindu American Foundation’s 2011 report on caste-based discrimination. The report is an important tool that shows that Hinduism can be the solution to this ongoing human rights problem. A Hindu voice has long been missing from the caste ‘debate,’ and HAF’s report will hopefully be the first step in changing that. Caste-based discrimination is not intrinsic to Hinduism, as the report firmly states. The Hindu community should fully support all efforts to eradicate caste-based discrimination. HAF’s report is just one of many such efforts.”

– Dr. Vijay Sazawal, International Coordinator, Indo-American Kashmir Forum, Moderator of www.kashmirforum.org

 

“The HAF is to be lauded for its Hinduism: Not Caste in Caste report which confronts head-on the longstanding blight of caste-based discrimination.  As Swami Vivekananda said: ‘Caste is simply a crystallized social institution, which after doing its service is now filling the atmosphere of India with its stench.’   Unless the issue is squarely faced and addressed — as HAF has boldly done — caste-based discrimination will continue and India and Hindu tradition will suffer under its denigrating weight.  When I speak to high school or college students about the Hindu religious tradition, I am invariably questioned about the caste system. How is it, students ask, that a religion which so soaringly proclaims the divinity inherent in all beings, also promotes misery and degradation which the caste system creates?

 

I am grateful that the HAF has taken a stand in bringing this issue to light, where it can be thoughtfully addressed.  ‘Each Hindu,’ Swami Vivekananda said, ‘is a brother to every other, and it is we, who have degraded them by our outcry, “Don’t touch. Don’t touch!”…We have to tell them, “You are also men like us and you have all the rights that we have.'”

– Pravrajika Vrajaprana, Vedanta Society of Southern California

 

“I find that the HAF report on caste practices in India is true to the existing realities. Birth based caste structures and caste based social discrimination are still practiced in rural India. This report makes enlightened Hindus become acutely aware of the fact and continue with the remedial measures that are already in place to mitigate the scourge of birth based exploitative practices in the Hindu community. The Hindu scriptures as quoted by acharyas of different sampradayas soundly reprove caste based discrimination and affirms the oneness and equality of human beings. I consider this report a major mile stone in addressing the vexed issue of caste in all its ramifications.”

– Swami Bodhananda, Sambodh Foundation

 

“Congratulations on the publication of your report on “Hinduism: Not Cast In Caste.” It is very well written and helps shed light on the plight of the lower castes. Human society is the result of the state of consciousness of its members. By making people aware of caste discrimination and the need for change, you are bringing that idea into human consciousness and making it possible for the change to come. Throughout history it has been ideas that have determined the direction in which society moves, and as the ideas of understanding and mutual respect for all becomes part of the human consciousness, the changes will come.”

– Swami Varadananda, Trustee Emeritus of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions 

Senior Sadhu, Vivekananda Vedanta Society (Chicago)

 

“I endorse the ‘Not Cast in Caste’ report brought out by HAF. Hindu society has not historically practiced the evils of slavery, racism and genocide like other religious communities. But caste based discrimination and untouchability continue to plague our community today, even if at a much diminished extent compared to older times. HAF has correctly stated that the caste system is not necessarily essential to Hindu Dharma, and that a solution to these social issues is to be found in the higher and essential spiritual teachings of the Hindu scriptures. The self-reforming ability shown by Hindus time and again needs to be demonstrated once again to root out casteism and untouchability so that our Hindu brothers and sisters can enjoy the true benefits of democracy to their fullest. This will also ensure that the fundamentalist elements in other proselytizing faith traditions do not promote disharmony in the Hindu society.”

  • Vishal Agarwal, Community Activist, Minneapolis, MN

  

“I believe that HAF has committed to do so many good things for the “HARIJAN’S/SC” I believe so the way they are working it seems that it is only institution which is sincere about the HARIJAN’S and untouchables. I hope they will be able to overcome our problems. I give thanks to all the members of HAF. I am very thankful to HAF for its great job.”

– Bhagwati Charan Bhatpare, Civil Rights Activist, Board Member, Sahayog Foundation of Chattisgarh 

  

“The caste issue is discussed in many important fora, but exclusively by anti-Hindus – the evangelical Christian leaders and the leftist academics/Marxists. And that’s what the world hears about the caste system from these anti-Hindus: that Hinduism is all about the caste system. That’s what is contained in many textbooks, most media reports and literature written by Westerners. They tend to emphasize caste out of proportion. 

Let us not have others continue to control the debate. As the ‘take back yoga’ campaign, ‘yogathons’, and corrections to school textbooks about descriptions of Hinduism, India, and the caste system are being done by several Hindu organizations, Hindus must also control and guide the caste debate that takes place in various important fora, not by denying the existence of caste discrimination, but by presenting a balanced view, as HAF report did. They also included important work done by many religious organizations, swamis as well as Government of India to end caste discrimination.

 The Hindu society as a whole has suffered, and continues to suffer, grievous consequences as a result of the age old birth-based discriminatory practices. The reticence or denial from Hindu leaders has not been a prudent strategy; it has not served the Hindu cause well. The HAF report takes a pragmatic approach as it states that caste is not an intrinsic part of Hinduism, but that the solution to the problem lies in the spirit of Hinduism that proclaims Vasudhaiva kutumbakam; it has no place for social discrimination based on birth whether one calls it caste, jaati, trade or occupation. (These are strictly my personal views and not necessarily of the organizations in which I serve.) “

  • Ved P. Chaudhury, Ph.D., General Secretary, Hindu Collective Initiative of North America; President, Educators’ Society for the Heritage of India;

Member, Board of Directors, Monmouth Center for World Religions and Ethical Thought

 

 “I applaud HAF’s rigorous and well-reasoned report, Hinduism: Not Cast in Caste. Nothing has contributed more than the caste system to misunderstandings of, and prejudice toward, Hinduism in the West. Just as only Christians could put an end to slavery in America, only Hindus can put an end to a form of discrimination that outlived its usefulness centuries ago. HAF’s campaign deserves the support of everyone who wishes to end the undeserved suffering of millions, foster the modernization of India and advance the appreciation of Sanatana Dharma in the West.”

– Philip Goldberg, interfaith minister and author of American Veda: 

From Emerson to the Beatles, How Indian Spirituality Changed the West

 

 “Navya Shastra has been has been described by a commentator as one of the most progressive Hindu organizations based in the United States1. From its inception in 2002, it has consistently highlighted the discrimination and daily humiliation faced by Dalits and other marginalized communities in India, and has called on Hindu leaders to rethink the historical exclusion of Dalits from temples and religious ceremonies.

 Navya Shastra has been forthright from the start in its criticism of Hindu religious leaders who perpetuate outmoded or obscurantist practices2, and of caste Hindu spokespeople who become apologetic or insecure whenever the caste issue is raised in a public forum. But it has also worked with groups who have shown a willingness to actualize a contemporary, inclusivist Hinduism. For example, Navya Shastra was the first Hindu organization to lobby the Acharya Sabha to extirpate caste-based practices from religious ceremonies3. It was also the first Hindu organization to issue an apology for the inhumane practice of untouchability4.

 Importantly, Navya Shastra has undertaken its efforts as a Hindu organization, and not as a human rights watch group or a secular NGO. This is because its founders and members believe that an egalitarian stance is not exclusively western or modern, but can be derived from a careful reading of the great many religious poets and mystics from both marginalized and non-marginalized Hindu communities. Together, the vision of these men and women represent a historical resistance to the hegemonic strains that perpetuate a birth-based hierarchy.

 Therefore, Navya Shastra wholeheartedly endorses HAF’s comprehensive report on caste discrimination, and fully supports the organization’s efforts to raise awareness in the global community of this inveterate stain on a great tradition. The age demands groups secure enough in their tradition to question the wrongs of the past. It demands individuals more concerned with the welfare of fellow Hindus than their own image as America’s “model minority” or as citizens of an emerging world power. We support HAF and ask them to remain firm in their commitment.”

– Jaishree Gopal, Chairman, Navya Shastra

  1. “Coming Together for Continuing Bigotry” http://www.tikkun.org/tikkundaily/2009/07/28/coming-together-for-continuing-bigotry/
  2. “US-based Hindu Group Slams Jagannath Temple Priests” http://www.hindustantimes.com/News-Feed/dispatchesfromusa/US-based-Hindu-group-slams-Jagannath-temple-priests/Article1-208364.aspx
  3. “End Caste Discrimination, Hindu Leaders Urged” http://www.shastras.org/IndoAsian
  4. “An Unqualified Apology to Every Untouchable” http://desicritics.org/2006/12/19/103610.php

 

“Exploring the Caste Issue in Hinduism

Pluralism:

Hinduism is a living pluralistic enterprise. Religious pluralism can be called spiritual democracy. Democracy has many endearing aspects. It allows for a vast variety of opinions to co-exist with dignity. Caste issue is one such topic where there are differing opinions within Hinduism. It is important to recognize and not compromise this feature of Hinduism.The opinion expressed by HAF may not sit well with some traditionalists but it should be given a fair hearing.

Evolving Tradition:

Hinduism claims to be a living religion as such it is open to evolution. In my opinion evolution in the realm of religious ideas is the most attractive feature of this religion. Most religions are stuck in a rut with antiquated concepts and practices while Hinduism prides itself as a constantly evolving religion.It recognizes the contextual aspects to all its practices thus giving it the freedom to eject ideas that may become obsolete or counter-productive. This openness of the Hindus come with a drawback; it can create internal conflict because it does not give simplistic prescription to fit all times and all circumstances. The hereditary caste issue comes into this category – a good idea turning sour and asking the Hindus to invoke their ability evolve out of it.

Division of Labour based on Age and Aptitude:

What could have started as a useful social ploy for division of labour based on age and ability (dignified as religious injunction) degenerated and turned into an instrument of oppression. Hereditary hierarchical caste system should be recognized as such – a classic case of good idea turning into poor practice. It is not that the pure idea of caste is flawed. In fact all modern societies use it. They continue to stream their youngsters to become specialists in the skills they possess for the benefit of the greater society. This is the pure idea of caste as division of labour based on age and ability.

Despite the danger that the exploration of the caste issue by HAF may be used by some Western academics to beat up Hinduism I applaud them for their courage. Hereditary, hierarchical caste system has been used to beat up Hinduism in the West for hundreds of years so there is nothing new in that. What is new is the ability of modern thinking Hindu youth to be self-critical and explore their religion with such integrity.

Clearly an attempt is being made to stifle the work you are doing. I come from the Vivekananda stables and hence my comment would be for you to stand firm for what you believe in. The reason you have created an uproar on the Caste issue is because you have developed the ability to be self-critical. I have been watching the way these things are unfolding. It makes me even more aware that our inability to be self-critical is the key reason why we have not been able to uplift our own downtrodden.

We have been an independent nation for 60 years so we cannot blame the outsiders for our woes anymore. We hide behind the bravado of being a major economic power — but do not acknowledge that this wealth is not allowed to trickle down to the 40 percent of the downtrodden living at the lower rungs of society. See, why it is so important to have the freedom to be self-critical? Hiding behind the facade of ‘everything is fine and Hinduism is perfect’ is the reason we lose sight of the deeper problems we need to resolve.”

– Jay Lakhani, Director, Hindu Academy, London

  

“Over one hundred years ago, Swami Vivekananda referred to caste prejudice as ‘a form of mental disease.’ Mahatma Gandhi similarly called the practice of untouchability ‘a cancer on the body of Hinduism.’ The HAF report on caste-based discrimination is part of a long history of Hindus criticizing and questioning the foundations of this particular type of prejudice, which is often misidentified as both unique and essential to Hinduism and used as a rhetorical club with which to bash Hindu traditions. The very existence of this report disproves the notion that all Hindus embrace such prejudice or try to justify it.”

– Jeffery D. Long, Elizabethtown College, Author of A Vision for 

Hinduism and Jainism: An Introduction

  

“It is of seminal importance to the Hindu society anywhere to continue to effectively address caste-based discrimination, a practice which has no scriptural support. This has social, political, economic and religious implications. All said and done, above all, this is our moral imperative. It is crucial that the Hindus direct and have a strong voice in all matters and discussions in any and all fora pertaining to this issue. The Hindu Dharma Acharya Sabha has passed resolutions in this regard in February 2008 and January 2010. In this context, I applaud HAF’s bold efforts and the publication of the report “Hinduism: Not Cast in Caste” to highlight that casteist approach is not only not intrinsic to Hinduism but the solutions lie within its very tenets and teachings. This report lends the needed strong Hindu voice to this subject (These are strictly my personal views and not necessarily of the organizations in which I serve).”

– Sudhir Prabhu, M.D., Joint Secretary, Hindu Collective Initiative of North America (HCINA)

Board Member, Ekal Vidya Foundation USA

Founding Member & Past Chair, The Hindu Society of Northeast Florida

“The HAF report on caste is a welcome addition to the voices and efforts of Hindu leaders and organizations, ancient and modern, protesting the practice of caste as a betrayal of Hinduism’s highest teachings. Whatever might have been its historical origin or intent, and whatever terminology we choose to employ, we must admit that the system developed into a hierarchical and unequal ordering of human beings and sought to legitimize itself improperly in the name of our religion. We need to acknowledge, in self-critical humility, as this study does, the inhumanity, injustice and oppression that ensued. This report is not a betrayal or repudiation of the Hindu tradition but a call to us all to commit ourselves in action to the theological vision of God’s existence in all beings and to the equal dignity and worth of all that logically follows from this teaching. Admitting the gap that exists between ideal and practice in our tradition and calling upon Hindus across our world to become active advocates for change are expressions of strength and not weakness. HAF has a public track record of energetic advocacy on behalf of Hindus and Hindu causes. It is heartening to see that, in this report, the organization deepens this commitment to Hindus by speaking for those who experience pain and suffering within our tradition. This is a cause that must unite and not divide us.”

– Anantanand Rambachan, Professor and Chair, Religion Department, Saint Olaf College

 

“With the publication of he report ‘Not Cast in Caste,’ Hindu American Foundation (HAF) possesses a valuable tool to respond to caste-related inquiries. It is a product of five years of study involving many scholars and saints. The report correctly emphasizes that the caste-ism is not authorized by Hindu scriptures, but it’s a social evil. It further explains that the solution to caste-ism lies in the Hinduism itself. Bogey of caste-ism in Hinduism has been frequently raised in various forums. HAF has been proactive in fighting misrepresentation of Hinduism and discrimination against Hindus. We applaud HAF’s superb efforts and accomplishments.”

– Rameshwar Singh, Retired Professor, Current Member of 

SF Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board

  

“Hindu American Foundation has recently produced Hinduism: Not Caste in Caste which seeks to end the rampant prejudice known as caste discrimination which some Hindus suffer on a daily basis. While much criticism and venom has been levelled against this report, it is an inescapable fact that it lifts the lid on an issue which too many Hindus have been keen to ignore and brush under the carpet. The report examines specific instances of caste discrimination and offers solutions on how to tackle what in many cases is nothing less than vile and raw hatred. Criticisms have included the fact that the HAF report somehow insults Hinduism and what business do American citizens of Indian origin have in denouncing human rights abuses which take place in India. First of all, offence should not be taken because religious beliefs are constantly evolving and Hindu Dharma in particular has always been open to new ideas. The second major objection against the “foreigners” examining society in India is completely misplaced as globalisation marches apace. At the beginning of a new century and millennium when people and ideas interact as never before, is it rational to put up tariff walls? Should our place of birth, country citizenship and national origins inhibit our respective interests, research and analysis? On that basis are not parliamentary democracy, modern technology and even staple foodstuffs such as the chilli pepper and potato also “foreign”? Knowledge and excellence recognises no national boundaries. The HAF report is therefore a welcome breath of fresh air in an otherwise stale environment which veers towards an intolerant tribalism and in this sense is itself the diametric opposite of Hindu Dharma. For this reason the Hindu Human Rights Group fully endorses the endeavours of the Hindu American Foundation and sincerely places hope in wider society appreciating and recognising the hard work and conscientious effort which has gone into the report’s publications and the manner in which it has been written.”

– Ranbir Singh, Chair of Hindu Human Rights Group, UK

 

“I congratulate HAF on their bold move to acknowledge and condemn discrimination based on caste in the Hindu society and HAF’s attempt to mobilize Hindus against this menace. While the revered Hindu scriptures do not endorse birth based castes and the discrimination that follows, if there is such a book or author, the inherent dynamic evolutionary nature of Hinduism eliminates the need to depend on such a source. Only when every Hindu stands up against this deep-rooted evil is change possible. In that light, I think this is a new beginning of the end of caste-based discrimination. Thank you, HAF!”

– Ashwini Surpur, Director, Yoga Therapy, Yoga Bharati, Cupertino, CA

 

“Discrimination based on any form of difference is an evil in the society, and we applaud Hindu American Foundation (HAF) for confronting caste-based discrimination in the Indian Subcontinent, which has been a greater evil distorting the true form of Hinduism.

Caste is not intrinsic to Hinduism and no where do the scriptures support it. Hinduism, as has been said by many spiritual leaders, is a way of life and teaches equality not discrimination. Hinduism and spirituality are in fact synonyms and if at all there has been any distortion, it is only manipulation of the perverted and self absorbed Hindus who have been responsible for promoting caste system. We, as proud Hindus, take full responsibility for perversions of the caste system and with the same responsibility we support HAF in fighting to eradicate this evil from the face of this earth.”

– Jeevan Zutshi, Founder, Indo-American Community Federation (IACF-USA)

President, Global Organization of the People of Indian Origin (GOPIO – San Francisco)

 

 “I appreciate and support the step in this direction by Hindu American Foundation’s 2010 report on caste-based discrimination. A Hindu voice has long been missing from the caste “debate,” and HAF’s report will hopefully be the first step in changing that. Dr. B R Ambedkar drafted the constitution of India and the beauty in it is ‘All are equal before law,’ likewise, ‘All are equal before god.’ How does discrimination come in Hinduism? It is challenge we have to accept. And we have to work all together to rid of it.”

– Milind Kamble, Coordinator-Dalit Affairs, Global Human Rights Defence

 

“I applaud HAF’s recognition of caste as a genuine embarrassment plaguing modern Hindu society, irrespective of the historical and cultural roots of a system that explicitly discriminates against fellow Hindus. I appreciate HAF’s  continuing interest in trying to do something to free Hinduism from this serious anachronistic blemish. I endorse the attempts of all Hindus, as individuals or in groups, whose goal is to make a more socially and spiritually just Hindu society, and pray for their success.  Aum, shanti!”

– V.V. Raman, Professor 

 

“Swami Vivekananda the first monk to come to America in 1893, urged the Hindus to understand then, “There cannot be growth without liberty. Our ancestors freed religious thought, and we have a wonderful religion, but they put a heavy chain on the feet of society…The secret of success of the Westerner is the power of organization and combination. That is only possible with mutual trust and co-operation and help.” (From a Ramakrishna Math booklet, Vivekananda writes to you). We at Hindu American Seva Charities recognize in the last 100 years much has been done to change the social landscape including institutionalized affirmative action in many sectors in India; but vestiges of social inequality may linger on and support all organizations which are working to make a difference.”

– Anju Bhargava, Founder, Hindu American Seva Charities

“The Hindu American Foundation’s report “Not Cast in Caste,” represents an important step for Hinduism in the twenty-first century. The problems of caste prejudice and untouchability have long plagued a significant number of low caste Hindus. Although there have been countless socio-religious movements throughout the history of India seeking to end these, they have nevertheless persisted. The primary reasons for this are: 1) the more narrow minded on top of the system who have benefited from the superior status do not want to give up the power and authority that it gives them, and 2) it is a long standing and traditional social system that far too many people have come to unquestionably accept as inevitable. In this light, HAF has taken a bold but necessary step on the road to bringing equality to all Hindus. Moreover, since caste prejudice has seeped into all the major religious traditions currently being practiced in India, including Christianity and Islam, a removal of it will benefit everyone, not just Hindus.

 As an academic researcher, I have studied and worked with Scheduled Caste/Harijan communities since the mid-1970s. In doing so, I have witnessed first hand the negative and harmful effects of untouchability on the lives of both those who are its victims and well as the perpetrators. After all, prejudice is a form of hatred, and it does not leave the hater or the hated unscathed. In attempting to address the issue, HAF is reflecting the beliefs of past movements and attempts to end a hurtful practice that does nothing to benefit any of the religions in which it exists. There are those within the Hindu tradition who are upset with what HAF has done. There are no doubt multiple reasons for this. Many who resent the report have been beneficiaries of caste prejudice at the expense of the low caste, while others fear that the report exposes a weakness in Hinduism that will be used against the tradition by missionaries and Marxists. The reality is that caste prejudice IS a weakness in the tradition, and missionaries having been using the issue for nearly two centuries as a primary weapon against Hinduism to induce conversions among the lowest castes. At the same time, however, the report will hopefully find support among those who want all Hindus and others to be treated with respect and equality. On its own, it will do little unless those who agree with its goals join in efforts to address the problem. The issue is a complex one that has no easy answers. HAF is attempting to create a dialog toward helping ameliorate the situation and bring justice to the oppressed.

 Change is not easy, and some traditions die slowly and painfully. However, those that oppress and perpetuate inequality, be they based on caste, gender, race, or religion need to die away. Caste is integral to the self-identity of millions of Hindus. Sadly, caste prejudice is integral as well. The sooner it ends, the sooner all Hindus will have the opportunity to gain respect. Only then will the tradition provide a path for all its members to reach the goals of truth and non-violence that so many of its ancient sages envisioned and elucidated. In the process, Hinduism will also be able to stand as a true example for others of compassion, tolerance, and wisdom.”

– Ramdas Lamb, Associate Professor, Department of Religion, University of Hawai’i

  

“Sanatana Dharma represents the most ancient and universally applicable spiritual tradition on earth. It is a tradition that has historically been open, inviting and welcoming to all sincere spiritual seekers, regardless of their ethnicity, language, nationality, previous religious affiliation, or “caste”. Multiple millions on non-Indians have been attracted to Sanatana Dharma and have openly embrace our religion as a direct result of the great beauty, philosophical profundity, and vividly experiential insights that they have encountered in Vedic spirituality. Sadly, however, one of the most misunderstood issues that has been unfairly tied to Sanatana Dharma by both its detractors, as well as by all too many of its less knowledgeable nominal adherents, has been the dark issue of caste.

When speaking of this issue of caste, it is crucial for every member of the Hindu community to understand that we are actuality speaking of two very different phenomena. The first is varna. The second is “caste”. Varna and “caste” in actuality have little to do with each other. Varna is the original and orthodox Vedic understanding of the natural differences that occur in human beings of any given society as a result of their innate psycho-physical tendencies. Varna is determined by observing the internal qualities of the individual, and has little to do with the individual’s parentage. Varna alone represents authentic Vedic Hinduism. “Caste”, on the other hand, is the heretical and anti-Dharmic belief that the varna of one’s parents automatically locks into place the varna of the child. “Caste” either dooms or blesses a person with a specific career course in life that may or may not actually reflect the internal propensities, talents, desires, or interests of the individual. “Caste” is a genetic-inheritance model that represents a perversion of the original Vedic varna system. Varna is Hindu; “caste” is not.

 “Caste” is not Vedic. “Caste” is not a part of Sanatana Dharma. “Caste” is not Hindu. “Caste” is nothing less than the institutionalization of injustice.

 More, “caste” discrimination has historically done more to severely damage the reputation of Sanatana Dharma, to drive millions of Hindus away from their religious heritage, and to provide fuel to the opponents of our religion (specifically Christian and Islamic missionaries, and Marxist terrorists) than any other factor. The time for all sincerely religious Hindus to renounce the perverted “caste” system, and to re-embrace the original principles of varna, has now come.

 As an American convert to Sanatana Dharma who has himself been blessed to have experienced the tremendous openness, love and welcoming spirit shown him by the vast majority of Hindus, I strongly commend the Hindu American Foundation for their courageous efforts in addressing the issue of caste in a manner that is well-researched, articulate and thoroughly grounded in the greatest spirit of our religious tradition.”

– Dharma Pravartaka Acharya, Founder & President, International Sanatana Dharma Society

View his video about caste by clicking here.

 

“As a practicing Hindu layman, whose day to day life is deeply informed by Sanatana Dharma’s spiritual traditions and its exhortations on how to live a life of dharma during our time on this earth, I welcome this report that deals with a complex and troubling issue with honesty, intellectual integrity, and in a way that allows the discourse to move forward with the ‘others’ – those that are inimical towards Hinduism as well as those that are relatively ignorant about it – in a robust, engaged manner.”

– Arjun Bhagat

 

“I offer my sincere appreciation and gratitude to the members of the Hindu American Foundation for their courage and wisdom in producing this timely report on caste-based discrimination, and I endorse it as an important step in inspiring the Hindu-American community to address and eradicate this malady. I am particularly appreciative of the thoughtful, nuanced approach HAF has taken in laying out the complexities of the issue, articulating the challenges, and identifying resources and voices from within the Hindu world to address it. It is clear that the report’s authors worked hard to engage the issue with balance and sensitivity, steering clear of extreme positions or agenda-driven oversimplifications. Instead, they raise questions and encourage meaningful discussion. Rather than provide monolithic answers, they acknowledge and honor that different Hindus address the issue in different ways. Rather than encourage the community to play victim or blame others for our shortcomings, they offer us a refreshingly proactive approach: Hindus can own up to the problem, admit where we may have failed the most vulnerable and in-need among our own people, and take personal responsibility for it. In so doing, we might offer the most powerful response to those — from within and outside of the tradition — who seek to use caste-based discrimination as a sweeping critique of the Hindu faith as a whole. In this respect, the Hindu-American community may prove to be an even more influential and critical voice on this issue than the community in India. The Hindu American Foundation is to be commended for modeling this for the rest of us, and for getting the conversation started.”

– Vineet Chander, Coordinator for Hindu Life, Princeton University

  

“I congratulate HAF for doing such extraordinary work on caste based discrimination. I think this work will be yet another wonderful spark that ignites further positive change in the Hindu society to address caste-ism that has plagued India for centuries.

 

While I have trouble equating the western notion of caste with Indian notion of varna, I believe that the Hindu concept of four varnas is not an ‘individual-centric’ concept, but is actually ‘society-centric’, as is with many other similar Hindu concepts. The activities of the society were divided into four varnas based on the need for economic and social sustenance and growth of the society. It was a means of self-governance where the society gets the best utility with the bulk of labor power, the entrepreneurial capital, the defense strength, and the intellectual wisdom of thinkers and visionaries for society’s advancement. The uniqueness of Hindu thinking lies in the discovery that every activity (karma) is characteristically associated with a certain temperament (guna) and the society naturally has people with these aptitudes and psychology. An attempt was made to match these natural tendencies (gunas) of the people to fit society’s requirements. Then alone work will be enjoyable and efficient for the individual (vyasti) while harmony will prevail in the society (samashti) and with that, spiritual growth of the individual is possible, which has always been the central theme of Indian thinking.

 

Apart from varnas, we also had several classifications such as jati, kula, gotra, sutra, etc which also follow the same society-centric thinking and when viewed with individual-centric perspective, it seems corrupted. This kind of mistake in our view has happened on several occasions earlier and is also affecting the society presently. Any solution offered without in-depth understanding of the philosophy will result in a greater damage than help. Therefore, one needs to study with right perspective to get the entire concept. Let us make an attempt to do that, which in itself removes all the superstition-based evils in the society.

Once again, congratulations for taking an excellent step towards the progress of the Hindu society!”

– Yogashree N.V. Raghuram, Spiritual Founder, Yoga Bharati

 

“The HAF report “Hinduism: Not Cast in Caste” is a highly significant document that strives to present this issue in all its complexity without compromising on the integrity of HAF’s stance on caste-based discrimination. It offers balanced arguments, authentic scriptural evidence, and the support of Hindu spiritual leaders against the traditional post-colonial perspective of caste as intrinsic to Hinduism. Rather than offer Marxism, atheism, or the doctrines of other religious traditions to counter this blight, the report offers a moving and inspiring call to Hindus to strive towards a solution to this problem from within Hindu Dharma itself, extracting and employing resources inherent in Hindu spiritual culture itself. No doubt, this report will be criticized by ideologues on the left and the right, as well as by those who seek to undermine the very fabric of Hinduism for specific agendas. Nevertheless, fair minded individuals of any religious or political affiliation will find that, despite the constraints inherent in the position of a Diaspora Hindu organization, HAF has done a commendable job in its attempt to provide a wide-angle lens for viewing this difficult issue, and in its effort to bring back the unheard voices of the heritage community to this discourse. The support and confidence of many Hindu Americans are behind this courageous endeavor by HAF.”

– Rita D. Sherma, Ph.D., Professor & Executive Director, Confluence School of Theology, Taksha University, VA

 

 “The HAF Caste Report is an objective analysis of a difficult and complex issue. Significantly, it helps the reader understand the definition and historical context of the English word caste” and its relation to “jati” and “varna.” The definition of caste is often misunderstood, not only outside of India, but also within India and within the Hindu community. Furthermore, this lack of understanding has fueled misconceptions about Hinduism and Hindu society and has allowed some to exploit the issue. Many Hindus have suffered from discrimination by fellow Hindus, and the Hindu community collectively has suffered because of the stain of discrimination. The report successfully addresses the social and political issues related to “caste” and Hinduism. It sincerely and honestly analyzes the social injustice of discrimination in India based on “caste” and how this relates to Hinduism and Hindu society. This is a controversial topic, but one that cannot be ignored, especially in a world full of inadvertent and deliberate misconceptions of Hinduism and caste. Too often “caste” has been a blunt instrument with which Hindus have been bludgeoned by those who have no sincere desire to improve the condition of the Hindus suffering injustice. This has created mistrust, which in turn has stifled  honest conversation that will lead to more rapid social reform. The HAF report represents the beginning of this honest conversation which will not only help decrease caste-based discrimination by Hindus predicated upon misconceptions, but also help undermine those who would want to attack and weaken Hinduism.”

– Vineet Sharma, M.D. 

“I have gone through the detailed report which is an outcome of thorough research and analysis of this age-old system. Congratulations. I am pleased to endorse the report.”

– Dr. Uma Mysorekar, President, The Hindu Temple Society of North America

  

“Global Human Rights Defence (GHRD) welcomes the HAF report on Dalits. The work done by HAF provides a clear insight on the touched topics on human rights in South Asia. The courage shown by HAF, being a Hindu organization, to put forward the issue of Dalits within and outside their own communities, is an inspiration for many organizations to amplify the work on the Dalit issue. GHRD is determined to use the provided data in our own work on human rights in South Asia. Furthermore, GHRD will stringently observe the false usage of this report by organizations with the purpose of conversion, fraud, or politics.”

– S. Sital, Chairman, GHRD

  

“I had the opportunity to thoroughly review the revamped HAF caste report. I support this report and the spirit behind generating such an extensive case study. HAF has been rendering yeoman service to Sanatana Vishwa Dharma and my support/blessings will always be there for them.”

– Pramod Kumar Buravalli (Noted rediff columnist and Editor of Pravasi Kamal – A Publication of Overseas Friends of BJP-USA) endorses this report in his personal capacity

Statements from Hindu Leaders

The Hindu American Foundation (HAF) recognizes that most major Hindu religious or spiritual leaders and organizations do not support caste-based discrimination and birth-based caste. Nevertheless, Hinduism is often blamed as a major cause of the caste problem in India. Therefore, from 2007 to 2010, the Hindu American Foundation asked prominent Hindu spiritual and religious leaders to provide the following (click here to see the request letter sent to the leaders):

  • A clear statement against caste-based discrimination and against a birth-based social hierarchy
  • Material from Hindu scriptures that support this position
  • Efforts they are involved with to promote the integration and upward mobility of Harijans within society
  • Additional explanation about the origins of, present status of, and solutions to the caste problem today

HAF is pleased to present statements from 14 prominent Hindu religious and spiritual leaders and organizations who responded to HAF’s request. The inclusion of these statements should not be construed as an endorsement or approval of the contents of HAF’s report.  While some of these statements were submitted independent of a review of HAF’s draft report, several leaders and organizations did review the draft report and provided detailed comments in addition to submitting their statements.

Please click on the name of the leader or organization to view the statements (in alphabetical order).

  1. Swami Bodhananda, Founder and Spiritual Head, Sambodh Foundation
  2. Satguru Bodhinatha Veylanswami, Spiritual Head of the Kauai Adheenam, Publisher of Hinduism Today magazine, and President of the Hindu Heritage Endowment
  3. Swami Chidanand Saraswati, President and Spiritual Head, Parmarth Niketan Ashram
  4. Sri Chinna Jeeya Swami, Pontiff, Vishishta Advaita Tradition of Sri Ramanujacharya
  5. Swami Dayananda Saraswati as Convenor, Hindu Dharma Acharya Sabha
  6. The International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) Office of Communications
  7. Amma Sri Karunamayi, Spiritual Leader and Humanitarian
  8. Swami Paramanand Giriji Maharaj, Spiritual Head, Akhand Paramdham
  9. Swami Prabhananda, General Secretary, Ramakrishna Order   
  10. Pramukh Swami Maharaj, Spiritual Head of the BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS)
  11. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Founder and Spiritual Head, the Art of Living Foundation
  12. Swami Tejomayanand, Chairman and Spiritual Head, Chinmaya Mission
  13. Swami Varadananda, Monk, Vivekananda Vedanta Society – Chicago
  14. Pravrajika Vrajaprana, Nun, Vedanta Society of Southern California

 

Some of them preferred to submit a statement representing their organization or a statement from their guru or spiritual mentor. Many of them submitted statements from Hindu scriptures to support their position and their perspective on the origins of, present status of, and solutions to the caste problem today. All of them are clearly against caste-based discrimination and against a birth-based hierarchy and believe that Hinduism, when followed properly, can be a solution to the problem of caste-based discrimination, inequality and injustice anywhere in the world.

 These Hindu leaders are also involved in social service projects in India, America, and other parts of the world, including projects focusing on socially and economically underprivileged members of society; we have included that material elsewhere in this report.

 HAF is tremendously appreciative of the following prominent Hindu religious and spiritual leaders and organizations for contributing to this part of the report and taking time out of their very busy schedules to support HAF’s initiative.

 It is the hope of HAF that the following statements will, in addition to the scriptural material provided, do the following:

  • Show people concerned about India’s social problems that caste-based discrimination and a birth-based hierarchy are not integral parts of Hinduism, as supported by Hindu spiritual and religious leaders and organizations and by Hindu scriptures.
  • Encourage Hindus to do more work in the realm of eradicating caste-based discrimination and a birth-based hierarchy.

Why I am a Hindu

Bhagwati Charan Bhatpare is a school principal, a leader of the SC Ramnami community and a civil rights activist in the Indian state of Chattisgarh. He is also a Board Member of the SahayogFoundation, a U.S. based non-profit, charitable organization established to provide support for the educational and health needs of rural poor and SC community in Chhattisgarh. Below is a short introduction to Bhagwati (in italics) written by Prof. Ramdas Lamb, followed by Bhagwati Charan’s article. Prof. Ramdas Lamb is Associate Professor of Religion at the University of Hawaii, has studied the traditions and practices of the Ramnami community for over three decades and is a personal friend of Bhagwati. Dr. Lamb is also the President and co-founder of the Sahayog Foundation.

When I first began to visit Matiya, Bhagwati’s village, in the mid -1970s, he was about 12 years old and used to come to see me regularly. He had been raised to be interested in the world and in spirituality and saw me as someone from whom he could learn something. His father, Ram Lal, was one of the only educated residents,and the only one who was Harijan. His father was also the principal of the school and the village postman. In addition, he was the person in the village with the most knowledge of medicine and served as its “doctor.” Whenever any of the caste Hindus were ill, he would be called upon, would go to their homes and treat them. When they were well, he would not be allowed into their homes for any reason. Ram Lal was also a scholar of the Ramcharitmanas and would give talks on it several times a year when his caste group would hold nine-day Manas readings and discourses called “katha”. Caste Hindus would go to listen to him, but he would not be allowed to participate in any of their religious rituals. It was in this environment that Bhagwati and his four brothers were raised.

While his oldest brother works in the coal mines, Bhagwati and his next brother followed in the footsteps of their father and became school teachers. The fourth brother died of leukemia as a teenager, and the youngest brother works the family land as a farmer. Bhagwati earned a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree at a university about 100 kilometers from their village and has been teaching since the late 1980s. Currently, he is the principal at a village school in which half the students are tribal youth. He is also on the board of Sahayog Foundation in the U.S. and serves as the primary overseer of Sahayog’s work in Matiya and the area. He has two sons, both of whom attend college. Bhagwati is highly respected in his village,both by his own caste group as well as by many caste Hindus. In fact, many caste Hindus will secretly share food with him at his own home but will not do so publicly for fear of being ostracized by the rest of their respective caste group. Others might see this as hypocrisy and be upset with it. Bhagwati understands the complexity of the situation and accepts the difficult situation of his caste Hindu friends. For him,his relationship with Lord Ram allows him to have patience with others without judging them. — Prof. Ramdas Lamb

Today I want to write something that has been in my thoughts for a very long time, but that I have been previously unable to accurately express. I have pondered the reality of the physical world, religion, the various devis 149 and devatas (various forms of God that Hindus worship). I also thought about many of the religions that exist in my country, such as Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism,Buddhism and Zorastrianism. Because my own Guru knows about all these belief systems, I have learned about them as well from spending time with him. He looks for the essence in all of them and reflects it in his own life and religious experience. What I have gained in this regard is due only to him, and I bow my head to his feet for this. All my religious knowledge comes from the blessings of my Guru.

When I was in a deep reflection, one question would arise in my mind, and that is “Why I am Hindu?” To answer this question I sought deep within. In the process, I reflected on my life when I was a student. I had learned that the Persians used to pronounce the River “Sindhu” as “Hindu,” and they called our land (Bharat) as “Hindustan.” Also, they called the people of Hindustan as “Hindu.” It means all Indian people were called Hindu by them. Later on, the word “Hindu” came to refer to the religious beliefs that originated in the country.

I was born in a Hindu family and when my understanding of life grew, I began to take part in religious and social activities. My father was both a school teacher and a very religious person. He had a great influence on me. Later on, I began to study the myths and beliefs of other religions as well and would try to compare one religion to another. I did not find what I was looking for in any of the other religions that are present in my area. The more I searched inside for what was right, I came to realize why I am Hindu. It was an answer that came from my heart and from my experiences.

Today, the recognition and understanding of life that I have is due to my Hindu religion, and I feel myself very grateful and happy for many reasons. I am free to undertake my religious practices as I wish and there are several ways of worshipping God. This is a unique feature of Hinduism. This freedom is there from the time of birth. Respect is given to everybody – even the animals and other creatures of this world are given respect, because we believe there is godliness in every living thing and in nature. 

The ‘Vedas’ tell us the reason for creation, but they give only one particular view. There are so many other holy books of literature, poetry and stories in the Hindu religion as well. In them, each and every topic is mentioned about life and its requirements. In one of our most sacred books,“Ramcharitmanas,” it is clearly explained how we should live our lives. In the “Mahabharata” we get moral teachings that war should be fought only when necessary to save dharma and not for any other reason. The Puranas teach us that we should adore God every day, and this will lead us toward immortality in life. One of the more special things about my religion is that it has the capacity to respect all other religions. We don’t always find this attitude in other religions. There is no narrow mindedness in the foundation of Hinduism, although there are some Hindus who are narrow minded.

Today, I feel great inner peace being a part of Hindu society, and I also feel very happy. In it, I feel freedom in body, mind, and actions on the path towards finding God in my life. The Hindu emphasis on truth and non-violence are very important to me. Hindu Dharma also teaches various types of yoga for gaining health of body and strength of mind, both of which are very essential. Concentration of the mind creates a foundation to help one gain spiritual strength in our lives.

There are so many religious persons born within Hinduism who have dedicated their lives for the welfare of all humanity and of Hindustan. Their lives were devoted to ridding the world of spiritual ignorance and promoting world peace. This shows the greatness of the Hindu religion. 

Dharma and righteousness are the highest values in one’s life, influencing the past, present, and future. They affect our lifestyle and thoughts and guide us. I have no problem following the paths and customs of Hinduism. I can take part in each and every religious activity. Most people have to struggle and have to face many difficulties to live up to their religious beliefs and doctrines. I do not see such problems in Hinduism. My religion gives me the freedom to choose my path and my doctrine to knowing God. I can see what is the right path for myself and what is not. To be a complete person, one has to adhere to some belief system. For me, Hinduism is the only religion that clearly teaches the path to knowing myself and knowing God. So I have accepted the path of Hinduism. It has influenced my life very much. I believe in its spiritual practices and I follow the path of Hinduism. 

The Hindu American Foundation asked me to write this article for this report specifically because my family belongs to a scheduled caste. My community and other scheduled castes have suffered great discrimination for centuries. The Hindu community is divided into many castes, creeds, and other types of groups. Some high caste religious persons have spread the feeling of partiality and superiority of their caste, but this only destroys the reputation of the Hindu community. 

Casteism is not good for the Hindu community. Its appearance has been deformed and defamed by those upper caste persons who are taking advantage of their caste status by belittling others. Many religious texts were manipulated and changed by upper castes to justify their acts. All religions have faults in them, so I do not say that Hinduism is at fault, only that casteism is a problem that needs to be removed.

I belong to the Ramnami Samaj, and our main purpose in life is to practice devotion to Lord Ram by chanting Ramnam. We are not concerned too much about casteism. The Hindu religion has cared for and nurtured our existence, so we have much to be thankful for.

The Hindu religion is our protector, and it has taught us the lesson of equality and ideal life. Some people think that the Hindu religion is not good for us Harijans (SC), but I disagree. This is only the hypocrisy created by some people to spread enmity among people of my caste. They don’t understand the real Hindu Dharma. It seems that they only want to weaken the Hindu religion. It is only the conspiracy of those who want us not to be Hindu. In the Hindu religion that I know, there is only fraternity, peace and humanist ideology. That is why I am Hindu.

— Bhagwati Charan Bhatpare, Matayi, Chattisgarh, India, May 19, 2010

Hopes for the Future

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.