Enough has been written about how caste system is blot on Hinduism. Since caste is the stick to beat Hinduism, many well-intentioned Hindus often resort to total condemnation of this practise in its entirety without deliberating on its historically flexible nature and its subsequent distortion under two foreign regimes.
Caste system is based on the understanding that humans are different and this difference needn’t be forcefully levelled, instead it can be nourished for the benefit of the whole society through division of work. This explanation may appear a tad too romantic unless we compare it with the record of so-called egalitarian ideologies.
Equality or Uniformity?
Humans aren’t equal by nature. Whereas animals appear [to humans?] remarkably same, no two humans think alike in all aspects. Each human is endowed with a unique perspective which needn’t tally with majority.
Equality therefore is valid as in “equal before law” & “equality to opportunities”. Otherwise, equality in theory translates as uniformity in practice. Desiring equality in men is tantamount to seeking uniformity in beliefs, values and perspectives and a deviant is seen as a source of anxiety needing “help” or “treatment”.
In brief, I outline instances of crimes against humanity unleashed by such forces.
- Soviet Union (Communist Russia) obliterated millions in concentration camps against those who dared to differ with them, militantly crushed opposition to collectivization of farms, was supposedly also involved in Ukrainian famine resulting in death of millions. All these by a nation founded on Communist ideology with equality as its elemental component. The excess by Communist China and Khmer Rouge in Cambodia are such instances elsewhere.
- Islam, the religion of peace & universal brotherhood, cleansed whole civilizations (notably Iran) in their efforts to spread the religion of “peace” & “universal brotherhood”.
- Christianity, the religion of love, grew with sapping the pagan religions of their philosophy and thereafter eliminating them. Christian Missionaries in their zeal to spread the word of Jesus prosecuted many third world nations. (Eliminating aborigines of America & Australia & Goa Inquisition in India)
Is Caste a tool of exploitation?
For a set of people to systematically exploit another, you need power. Muslim armies in medieval India had huge armies at their disposal which was instrumental in their exploitation of masses. British had huge armies comprising mostly Indian mercenaries who were heavily paid to keep the masses subjugated.
When people speak about wily Brahmins (or upper caste groups) using caste to prosecute the overwhelming majority, one should also cite the source of power that helped them do so. Firstly, Brahmins were not always powerful in many regions throughout the history. Secondly, the powerful groups sometimes consisted of lower castes, notably sudras who were kings in many parts of India. Thirdly, differentiation doesn’t automatically translate into prosecution. One needs to establish that differentiation led to exploitation of a group which is mostly absent in caste based analysis.
Ambedkar noted: “Caste existed much before Manu. It is incorrect to say that Brahmins created caste. The Brahmins might have committed many sins but to impose caste system on the whole non-Brahmin people is beyond their capacity."
However even if for argument’s sake we agree that 1200 years of Hindu rule led to establishment of caste system, why wasn’t the subsequent 1200 years of Muslim & British (Christian) rule able to destroy the same.
Is differentiation confined to Hinduism?
The way we are informed, caste is a unique feature of Hinduism alone with no parallel to other religions. Islam & Christianity have surprising managed to present themselves as torchbearers of liberal society with no classes.
This is a patently false assumption.
USA has different churches for groups such as Blacks, Catholics, and Protestants etc. Separate churches exist for Blacks, Koreans, Hispanic etc. Indian Christians in USA (leave alone India) have separate churches for different groups. All USA Presidents have been Protestant Christians with the exception of Kennedy who was a Roman Catholic. Indian Christians are the highly fragmented with endogamy strictly followed in most cases. In fact, Dalit Christians have petitioned against Indian Church for their biased treatment which disallows dalits to share common burial grounds with other “caste” Christians.
There is an Ashraf- Ajlaf divide among Muslims in general though in South Asia it is even more fragmented. Ashraf are supposed to be the highest sect and such people are categorical in professing their superiority. Arabic descent is mandatory for certain high profile posts in many parts of Islamic world including Iran.
Unity in Diversity
In contrast, India has always welcomed different people and has no record of prosecuting them. Jews who fled from Christian prosecution & Parsees who fled Muslim prosecution joined Indian mainstream without problem. They became a distinct subsect within the multi ethnic Indian social mosaic. Also, while Jews received asylum in China too, though they soon disappeared because of intermarriages with locals.
It is one thing to accept outsiders, but totally another to allow them to keep their distinct identity alive while integrating them into the mainstream.
Ethnic culture & specialization – the core of caste system – has actually prevented full-scale conversion of Hindus to Islam & Christianity. Conversion entails not just change of belief, but change of a complete lifestyle far removed from the community’s. Conversion involves exclusion from one’s community which has often painful.
Also, community support often guarantees jobs reserved for them. An example, in the locality I used to stay few years back, I observed that almost all domestic helps belonged to a certain community and they neatly divided the work among them. Each family is “allocated” a domestic help and the family has to bear with them no matter what. No outsider can venture into the other’s territory for fear of prosecution from the community. This indirectly secured them a stable employment without fear of being evicted. Caste helps in collective bargaining that greatly improves representation of people in governance.
The idea of crystalized monolithic castes with rigid compartmentalization is incorrect as caste, derived from Portuguese word “cast” is an incorrect conflation of two dimensional varna & jaati. There have been many inflows & outflows from all castes and several castes are mixed ones too.
The Satanic Other: Demonizing the Different
Abrahamic religions have often demonized “the others” as agents of Satan and successfully rallied its people against such people. Europe convicted many women as witches and indulged in witch-hunt. Muslims label idol-worshippers as kaffirs who deserve stringent punishment for not recognizing the true God. Diversity is seen as a threat that needs to be eliminated.
Hindu civilization, on the contrary, doesn’t demonize the other. Even the antagonists of the epics Mahabharata and Ramayana are presented in grey shades and they shine on several occasions. Ravana is seen as a good king who rules his people well besides being a great Vedic scholar. Duryodhana for all his jealousy is seen as a good king, good friend and a valiant warrior.
Diversity is not seen as a threat, but is accepted as a different approach. Caste system had indirectly helped Indians to view differences are intrinsic part of the society which need to be celebrated rather than cremated.
The Politics of Caste
Politicization of dalits issue has unfortunately resulted in full-scale slander of Hinduism by those claiming to fight on behalf of dalits but most of whom are crypto-converts who in reality are converted Christians or Communists under Hindu names. Public perception of a Hindu criticizing Hinduism would be vastly different from an outsider criticizing Hinduism. What is factually an outsider’s criticism of Hinduism is passed on as internal criticism adding more weight and credibility to their allegations.
Incidentally, these non-practising Hindus get to define Hinduism – a practice unheard of in any other religion. No anti-Christian would be allowed to define Christianity however genuine the criticism may be.
Genuine grievances and injustices exist – not denying that. But they must been seen in perspective. Caste discrimination is hardly a problem today of the same magnitude it was 65 years before. The rapid improvement India has achieved in their socio-economic status through an unprecedented scale of reservation should not be overlooked. When Whites in USA who discriminated against Blacks as recent as 1960s, are allowed to feel guilt-free considering the discrimination as a legacy of past no longer relevant, why should India be guilt trapped into feeling for crimes of past. If one argues that caste discrimination persists, so does Black-discrimination.
Also, Indian population is really large easily covering many European nations put together. Caste based crimes need to be evaluated against total number of crimes to get a better perspective. Also, many times, crimes against dalits have no caste-angle in it. Without careful consideration of the entire situation, Christian missionary apparatus, with worldwide influence manages to fabricate such statistics & disseminates it effectively to create a perception that India has poor human rights record against minorities. The distortions are clearly evident when it sensationalizes violence against missionaries without recording what they have been doing in the first place.
Also, Christian missionaries, classify tribal people as non-Hindus (or aborigines compared to later day immigrant Aryans & Dravidians) to dislocate them from Hindu identity while conveniently labelling them as Hindus when they become violent against them.
Whitewashing Western (Christian) Guilt
In its efforts to make further inroads in India, missionaries have abetted racial notions of understanding Indians and have managed to use few (converted) Indians– much like brown sahibs or sepoys of British Raj – against fellow Indians.
People like Kancha Illiah or John Dayal – claiming to be dalit spokespersons – are known for their stark hatred for Hinduism. Having read “Why I am not a Hindu” by Kancha Illiah, I am surprised that he is considered an “intellectual” – and no, I don’t say this because of his criticism to which he’s entitled in free India. I say this because there is utter lack of any scholarliness in this book. His grasp on even elementary information on Hinduism is painfully inadequate which makes one wonder how genuine his criticism could be if he doesn’t even get the basics right. Read a scathing review of his book here. The book should make clear that far from objective assessment of Indian society, the forces that patronize such people, have an ulterior motive in denigrating Hinduism.
These intellectuals perform the task of whitewashing western (Christian) atrocities throughout the third world by slyly exaggerating internal problems of these nations. When these intellectuals speak about crimes against lower castes, are they really unaware of how their [new] religion was instrumental in crimes against humanity enormously larger than what they accuse Hinduism of?
Hindus must be wary of exaggerating caste discrimination abroad while simultaneously making efforts to eliminate the same internally. Unnecessary sensationalization is likely to end up as ammunition in the hands anti-Hindu forces that will use to same to bolster their activities.
Caste as a system that divides Hinduism into mutually hostile groups is the handiwork of British to enhance their grip on local governance which thus far was still with local communities. Hindus must refuse to present their internal problems to world and end up like 19th century Indian Rajas who appealed to British to settle their differences. [I will explain British role in redesigning caste in future]
In conclusion, I submit that while caste-discrimination is wrong and we must do our best to eradicate it – indeed, Hindu dharma exhorts us to introspect and change ourselves for better – we must not allow ourselves to be guilt trapped by vested interests whose own record in human rights is more dismal than our own.