The Hindu American Foundation seeks to promote equal civil, religious, and spiritual rights for all human beings, and stands firmly against any and all types of caste-based discrimination.  HAF also acknowledges that caste-based discrimination has not disappeared despite substantial efforts over long periods of time by a wide range of actors, including Hindu saints and social reformers, laws passed in independent India and the strenuous conversion programs targeted at “lower” caste Hindus by Christian missionaries. HAF firmly opposes caste-based discrimination, rejects the unfortunate and erroneous claim that caste is intrinsic to Hindu teachings and practice, and acknowledges the complex reality behind caste dynamics. 

Given the lack of basis in a single Hindu scripture or canon, HAF believes that spiritual movements are the foremost answer to bringing about real and lasting social change. Accordingly, HAF supports calls from leaders of various Hindu sampradayas which openly and strongly condemn caste-based discrimination. 

Understanding Caste

Caste is one of the most complicated and misunderstood concepts encountered when attempting to understand India and Hinduism. What began as a way to understand individuals through personality types based on inherent qualities (varna), in conjunction with how it was actually organized by occupation (jati), evolved over time into a hereditary, birth-based system supported especially by many members of the religious orthodoxy. While the social hierarchies that became known as “caste” did develop in India, they are not specifically sanctioned by the Vedas, one of the oldest Hindu sacred texts.  Moreover, the system was initially neither rigid nor hereditary (birth-based). The notion of caste passing down through family, not to mention caste-based discrimination, is a later social development and is neither intrinsic to the practice of Hinduism nor does it span all of Hindu history.

Varna and Jati

The Vedas make reference to four personality or psychological types which are known as varna. Various Hindu texts have come to use the term, which has a variety of meanings (including form, figure, character, and hue) to describe a way of understanding the diversity of personality types or human temperaments found in any society. 

In most societies, this typology contends, there are some individuals who are more strongly adept in intellectual pursuits; some who are more capable in governance and exercising power; others who gravitate to materially productive occupations and wealth accumulation; and those who prefer to work with their hands, or otherwise function as laborers. 

Ideally, an individual was not born into a varna social role, but instead became identified as such through their abilities and actions. Traditionally, there are four varna:

  • Brahmin – Those who pursue knowledge
  • Kshatriya – Those who exercise power
  • Vaishya – Those who seek to own land or engage in commerce
  • Shudra – Those who grow, make, and labor

The Vedas do not state that varna is based on familial birth, nor that it is a determinant of an established social hierarchy. Instead, they associate one’s varna with the individual’s predominant personality type.  A personality type is determined by varying combinations of three inherent qualities (See HAF’s primer on Varna and Jati to learn more).

Jati refers to the communities defined by occupation, and can loosely be compared to medieval European trade guilds. The closest equivalent would be a professional or occupational class. Those who worked different occupations became their own communities such as priests and teachers, became associated with being a brahmin varna; warriors and kings, became associated with kshatriya varna; trader and merchants, became associated with vaishya varna; and laborers, became associated with shudra varna. 

Over time, thousands of jatis developed in India, each with its own religious and social practices, and socially bound by numerous conventions governing their interactions and perceived hierarchies. Because Hinduism has never had a central religious authority to enforce any one understanding of the faith, often many castes or groups of castes, including Scheduled Castes, might also have had their own spiritual leaders and religious practices distinct from those of other castes.  Any rules within each jati, however, were not and are not tied to scripture — they were passed down traditions and norms, which slowly became associated with birthright. The Europeans’ understanding of caste emerged from observing such traditions and norms within different jati.

The Evolution Into Caste

The jati system grew more complex, more formalized, and eventually birth-based over the centuries, and not only amongst Hindu communities, but across all religions. Although Hinduism is essentially non-doctrinaire and non-dogmatic, the life experience and circumstance of any individual identified with a particular jati community came to be equated with the qualities associated with the broader varna classification of the jati, rather than the inherent qualities of the individual. As a result of this societal conflation, many Hindus also began viewing reincarnation and karma through the lens of jati and society’s perceived hierarchies.  Similarly, perceived hierarchies based on jati evolved in other religious communities. By the time the Portuguese arrived in the 15th century, many in India (including present day Pakistan and Bangladesh), across all religions, had their own formal jati identities and customs.

The British utilized and thus further formalized caste with the introduction of the census in the 19th century as a way of tracking the different groups in the colonial subcontinent. Although the connection between varna and jati had long been in existence, it had generally been more regional and loosely defined until the British reified and formalized the system. This codification led to a more intractable social hierarchy and was done to better facilitate social and political control of India and its people.  

Today that codified system is still in place and is the basis for numerous affirmative action and reservation policies.  But, even though an individual is part of a particular jati or caste, say a blacksmith or priestly caste, today they are likely pursuing an entirely different profession or occupation such as engineering or housekeeping.  What this means is that one’s jati is not necessarily an indicator of one’s profession or occupation in current Indian society.

Untouchability

One group that had long been relegated to the bottom of the social ladder outside the varna system were what the British referred to as “Untouchables,” a fairly accurate translation of the various indigenous labels for them. It is critical to emphasize that while support for a  hierarchical caste system can be seen in certain texts of social laws, no sacred text or book of social law ever prescribes or defines this category of “untouchables.” 

Untouchability is a purely social evil, not recognized anywhere in the Hindu tradition and which arose nearly 2000 years after the Vedas were compiled.

The official term for “untouchables” is “Scheduled castes,” from a schedule of castes created by British colonial administrators that listed jati names. In the early twentieth century, Mahatma Gandhi began calling untouchables “Harijan” (children of God) to show his support and concern. In the latter part of the century, some members of the group started an anti-Hindu and anti-government movement called ”Dalit Panthers.” The term “dalit” gained widespread use in the media and in academic and activists circles from the late-1990s onwards. Many of the prominent activists who first began using the term “dalit” consisted of those among Scheduled Castes who had converted out of Hinduism to other religions.

Although some Hindus view caste and untouchability as part of their religious practice, neither are inherent to the foundations of Hinduism (in fact they are in violation or core teachings), nor are they exclusively practiced by Hindus. In India, caste discrimination is practiced by people of all religious traditions, including Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians. Each has established social hierarchies laden with norms and dogmas that govern interaction within those groups. Inter-jati conflicts have existed among all faith traditions in India, which continue to complicate efforts to abolish the system.

Hindu Teachings About Equality

HAF strongly rejects much of the debate in the West that portrays caste and discrimination based on caste as being integral to the practice of Hinduism. The Shrutis, Hindu sacred texts which articulate eternal spiritual truths, explicitly and repeatedly recognize the existence of the divine in all beings and advance the concept equality of all mankind as demonstrated in the ancient hymn:

Ajyesthaso akanishthaso ete sambhrataro vahaduhu saubhagaya

No one is superior, none inferior. All are brothers marching forward to prosperity.

Lacking an authoritative scriptural basis, it is unfortunate that the Hindu tradition has been conflated with the reprehensible practice of social discrimination that has manifested as racism, religious persecution, and slavery in other cultures throughout the world.  

Most sampradayas (Hindu religious traditions) reject caste-based discrimination and a birth-based hierarchy, and numerous Hindu saints and reformers have opposed caste-based discrimination over the centuries, going on to create their own sampradayas and providing models for caste reform. 

Influence of “Low Caste” Hindu Figures

A large number of Hindu figures revered by all Hindus, including those of “upper” castes, have emerged from the Scheduled Castes and other “low” castes, including several alive today.  These are individuals who have deeply and profoundly impacted Hindu philosophy and devotional practice.

To cite only a few: Shabari, a woman ascetic of tribal background described in the Ramayana as having inspired Lord Rama’s discourse on the Nine Fold Path of Devotion; Sant Raidas, a cobbler who was the guru of Mirabai, the most famous of the women devotional poets of northern India; Sant Ramdev, a prominent devotional poet from central India important to both Hindu and Sikh traditions; and Sant Tiruvalluvar of southern India who wrote the Tirukkural, an influential scripture of sacred wisdom. 

Modern-day saints, with millions of followers worldwide include Mata Amritanandamayi or Ammachi who was born into a fishermen community and Satya Sai Baba who was born into an agrarian community.

Changing “Caste”

Movements in the historic past against caste-based discrimination have largely been led by Hindu spiritual and religious leaders. Many Hindu religious figures, including Basaveshwara (11th Century, CE) and Dayanand Saraswati (19th Century, CE), condemned caste as being outside of Vedic teachings. Other Hindu leaders argued that caste discrimination and oppression violate a fundamental principle in Hindu philosophy that we should recognize the common divinity in all beings and treat them as we would treat ourselves. 

After independence from the British, Indian leaders enshrined a ban on caste discrimination in the Indian Constitution. Additionally, the Indian government instituted what is arguably the most aggressive affirmative action program in the world for the scheduled castes and other communities historically vulnerable to discrimination. As a result of those opportunities, as well as India’s economic development, those once classified as outcastes began to achieve increased social and economic mobility. In 1997, India elected its first Scheduled Caste president, K.R. Narayanan.

Today, caste still pervades as a social distinction, though there can be still some religious undertones.  And various forms of discrimination remain, especially in the more remote areas of the country. Many from the lower castes have converted to other religions such as Christianity, Islam, or Buddhism. The reality is, however, that in spite of converting to religions that often claim to be “caste-free,” lower castes continue to face discrimination and social ostracization in their respective faith communities. The majority remain practicing Hindus.

Many lower caste communities have benefited from official programs, and many Dalits/Harijans have also become more prominent economically and politically. Meanwhile, the poor among many higher castes continue to suffer from the same disadvantages poor Dalits/Harijans do, but without the benefits that come from the Indian government’s affirmative action and reservation policies. In many ways, poverty works as a caste equalizer in terms of the poor, regardless of caste, having to take up menial or scavenging jobs in order to survive.

Caste politics is an enormously complicating factor in modern India. Politicking for caste-based affirmative action benefits has become a mechanism to extract concessions from the State. Thus, caste remains alive today because people see its utility in social and economic upliftment on the one hand, and in political mobilization on the other. Thus while representative democracy and affirmative action policies have enabled lower castes to reach the highest echelons of government, one consequence has been the reinforcement rather than amelioration caste identities and divisions, and the election of legislators largely based on the individual’s caste, rather than his policies. In casting their vote, Indians are often accused of voting their caste.

As should be apparent, the dynamics of caste in India are far more complex than what most textbooks suggest. In fact historians such as Valerie Hansen and Kenneth Curtis note that “most outside observers tend to exaggerate the rigidity of caste in modern India” (Hansen and Curtis, 2011: p. 64). Still, the stigma of caste and caste-ism is a problem in India that reformers – both religious and secular – are working to change.

Realities of Caste in Modern Day India

Jurisprudence in modern India outlaws caste discrimination and contemporary Hindu spiritual leaders and organizations, including but certainly not limited to Raja Ram Mohan Roy; Mahatma Gandhi; Narayan Guru; Sri Shivamurthy Murugharajendra; Arya Samaj; Sahayoga Foundation have been engaged in eradicating this system from society.

That said, today the worst instances of caste-based discrimination and violence occur largely between those occupying the “lowest” rungs of the codified caste system, where economic factors play a pivotal role. Chiefly, landowners continue to rely upon illiterate and landless laborers from Scheduled Castes for farming in an economy where agriculture still employs 60% of the country’s population.  Moreover, the rise of a large number of caste-based political parties, who focus on only attracting votes from one or a few specific castes, has further heightened the political tensions that has often given rise to caste-based violence.

The Indian Government’s reservation policies and the sheer dynamics of representative democracy have also wrought a sea of change in caste dynamics in India. Today, considerations of ritual purity take a backseat to politics and economics and “Other Backward Castes” (OBCs), rather than forward caste Brahmins, are the real oppressors of the Scheduled Castes. Power structures in the caste hierarchy have undergone a substantial change, and any solution to the problem of caste-discrimination must incorporate this new dynamic. Thus, while much remains to be done, especially for the Scheduled Castes, the significant progress in the six decades since independence must be acknowledged and built upon.

Compounding the above issues is the work of Christian missionaries whose evangelizing in India often exploits the poverty of the Scheduled Castes to convert them to Christianity, chiefly with the aid of economic allurements. HAF considers such efforts to be effectively coercive, fraudulent and unethical.  Moreover, despite conversion to Christianity, caste-based discrimination continues to plague Scheduled Caste converts. In fact, over the years, both Christian and Muslim communities, as well as some “upper caste” communities, have lobbied for official scheduled caste or other backward caste classification in order to benefit from government affirmative action programs.

Strong laws against caste-based discrimination do exist in India, but the serious lack of adequate law enforcement is a key impediment to eradication of caste-based discrimination.  Urbanization has proved a great foe of caste-based discrimination and there is dramatic difference in caste-consciousness and caste-based discrimination between urban and rural India.  A similar divide also exists between the younger and older generation in India. With the young approaching ⅓ of India’s population today, this portends well for the future.

To learn more, read: Hinduism: Not Cast in Caste – Seeking an End to Caste-based Discrimination.