Jati, Varna, and the Adhikara to Speak

First published in The Pioneer, January 01, 2011


In a September 2010 report in a Bengaluru newspaper readers were told about the distribution of ministerial portfolios in the Yeddyurappa cabinet. It said, “The Lingayat community, to which Yeddyurappa belongs and is viewed as the BJP’s vote bank, dominates the Cabinet with as many as 11 representatives. The Lingayats are followed by six ministers who belong to other backward castes and SC category. There are four ministers from the Brahmin and three from the Vokkaliga communities. Two ministers represent the ST category and two are from minority communities.” If this is the high-end of modern day caste dynamics in India, the low end can be seen in a report from a national newspaper, also in September, which said, “A mongrel brought up in an upper caste home in Morena was kicked out after the Rajput family members discovered that their Sheru had eaten a roti from a dalit woman and was now an ‘untouchable’.”

In so many ways, caste casts its shadow on Indian society, and caste has been used as the hook to hang the Hindu portrait in a lot of the modern discourse on Hinduism. Christian missionaries in the U.S. and Europe use it all the time to raise funds for their church-planting activities in India; the Dalit Freedom Network lobbies U.S. Congressmen to have discussions on caste and caste-based discrimination; the United Nations’ sponsored Durban Conference sought to equate caste with race; and no posting on Hinduism on any Islamic/Muslim website fails to mention how Hindus are bound by caste. Most courses on India, not just on Hinduism, taught in U.S. universities highlight caste as a major topic of enquiry. Worried Indian-American parents scratch their heads as their children come home from school and ask questions about caste based on the simplistic presentation of Hinduism and Indian history by their teachers.

Therefore the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), after due diligence, presented a report on caste, titled, “Not cast in caste: Seeking and end to caste-based discrimination.” HAF argues that while caste-based discrimination and violence is an ongoing human rights problem in India, the solution to the problem lies within Hinduism itself. The report reiterates that many Hindu scriptures and commentaries extol the inherent divinity and spiritual potential of all, and that caste-based discrimination therefore represents “a lamentable gap between the Hindu teaching of recognizing and respecting the divinity in all beings and the practice of this precept in the treatment of many fellow Hindus.” The report urges Hindus to acknowledge that the caste system has become perverted, and that if they looked at the situation objectively, realistically, and compassionately they could bring about positive changes in caste dynamics. HAF clearly states that it is against a birth-based hierarchy, and that caste-based discrimination leading to violence against the Scheduled Castes, and the exploitation of women, or denial of entry into temples can be labeled as human rights abuse. Arguing that the jati and varna identities calcified and warped over the centuries of exploitative foreign rule, predatory proselytism, and bureaucratic classification of jatis by colonial administrators, the writers of the report point out that the current Indian political dynamics have contributed to the strengthening of caste identity and complexity.

The press statement announcing the release of the report begins by saying, “Caste-based discrimination is an ongoing human rights problem in India that must be eradicated.” This gauntlet seems to have got the goat of many the critics. Unfortunately, the critics refused to read the rest of the report in which it is clearly pointed out that caste-based discrimination has survived despite considerable Hindu attempts to eradicate it. But who would not acknowledge that caste-based discrimination evolved in Hindu society? Or that some ancient Hindu texts include social laws and codes that support caste-bias and a birth-based hierarchy? The HAF consultants for the report all pointed out the complexity of the caste conundrum. The experts, well-versed in the Hindu texts as well as in Indian history, weighed in with their advice, support, and cautionary notes.

Some pointed out that caste (or the traditional jati system) provided an important social organizing framework that enabled people to coexist, to exchange goods and services, and which led to the flowering of a rich and diverse culture. But would jati, grown in a feudal setting, work in the context of a modern state? Surely, it would not. Others directed us to the work of historians, like Dharampal, who provided evidence that caste-based hierarchy had not negatively affected the education of Indians in the past. Dharampal reported that an 1822 survey ordered by Thomas Munro found that in Vishakapatnam district Brahmins and Vaishyas together accounted for 47 percent of the students, Shudras 21 percent, and the other castes 20 percent. The remaining 12 percent were Muslims. In Tinnevelly (now Tirunelveli), Brahmins comprised 21.8 percent of the students, Shudras 31.2 percent and other castes 38.4 percent. In South Arcot, Shudras and other castes together comprised more than 84 percent of the students. Whatever the results of that survey, limited to two South Indian districts, we do know that birth-based hierarchy has taken a heavy toll on Indian society as a whole, and the Scheduled Castes bore the brunt of the pain, humiliation, and disenfranchisement in such a system.

Within half an hour of the report going online, and in a flurry of email activity and Internet discussion board postings, HAF was sought to be driven into a corner by some Hindus who found the report objectionable for a variety of reasons. They asserted that HAF does not have the “adhikara” or authority to present such a report; that HAF had not consulted with the pontiffs of the traditional Hindu temples/groups but only “jet set” and “dollar swamijis”; that HAF’s report played into the hands of “Marxists, Christian missionaries, ‘white people’, jihadists, Western academics, and American imperialists”; that HAF’s report was not scholarly; that HAF’s report conflated jati and varna with caste; and that HAF has no right to “apologize”, on behalf of Hindus, to those who have suffered discrimination and abuse. “Those of you who have left India have no right to weigh in on these matters,” a couple of them vehemently denounced HAF. The attacks got personal, abusive, and very quickly spiraled into a no-holds barred speculative enterprise in which rude road-runners crowed that HAF had been commandeered by anti-Hindu forces; that HAF had sold out to “mystery donors” who now controlled HAF’s agenda; and that HAF should open up its offices for inspection!

The tone of the attacks against HAF got shriller by the day, and a feeding frenzy ensued with cross-postings of emails, telephone calls to one another, appeals to the swamijis to intervene, and even threats of using black magic to kill and maim the report’s writers. There were calls for the resignation or dismissal of the report writers and editors. “Withdraw the report,” cried some; “how dare you apologize?” berated others.

We do know that those who are inimical to Hinduism could selectively and mischievously use the language in the report for their own manipulative ends. However, HAF argued that without owning the problem, and engaging in open debate, the issue will continue to be hijacked by anti-Hindu forces. Why not acknowledge what is wrong, and go on to strengthen Hindu society, as many Hindus have done in the past? HAF therefore wisely argued that birth-based hierarchy goes against modern tenets of equality, and that caste-discrimination, in some of the egregious forms, constitute human rights abuses. When we do have the scriptural basis to get rid of birth-based hierarchy and end discrimination, why not announce it to the world?

Some of the critics came back, quoting verse and page, arguing that varna and jati should not be conflated with caste, that discrimination is an intrinsic human characteristic, that the Bible and the Quran contain many more verses that pass worse strictures against infidels and against the unclean, that the Brahmin not touching the “Chandala” on special occasions had to do with impurity and not untouchability, and that there is a clear distinction between the two. Some others asserted that karma plays a role in determining where and in what category we are born, ignoring the fact that as human beings we all struggle to improve our lives, and that understanding karma in such a narrow manner will destroy society. Hindu texts cannot be read literally, a few chastised, cherry-picking what they liked in those texts and pontificating that we should not comment on the mysterious, cosmological, magical, and esoteric aspects that could, might, have meanings that we cannot fathom.

HAF has consulted experts who have decades-long grass roots experience working with Dalit groups, and who have observed first-hand the shaming and the marginalizing, if not the dehumanizing aspects of caste-based discrimination. HAF acknowledged that over centuries wars, occupation, colonization shaped and reshaped caste dynamics. HAF also pointed out that many Hindu swamijis and gurus, who have knowledge of the esoteric, have also called for changes in Hindu society.

What is evident from this experience, ironically, is that caste continues to shape modern discourse about Hindus and Hinduism. It also shows that the various social and religious movements over the past 2500 years – from Buddhism and Lingayatism to the Dasa Sampradaya, and from Sikhism and Arya Samajism to the Self-respect and the Dravidian movement – have sought to engage and deal with excesses or anachronisms in Hindu society with varying degrees of success. Great social reformers, from the Buddha to Basaveshwara, from Kanaka Dasa to Narayana Guru, from Swami Vivekananda to Mahatma Gandhi, as well as influential men like Periyar have churned Hindu society. All of them faced challenges. Therefore this report by the Hindu American Foundation is only a small contribution to the debate, but is a necessary one in a new, fast-paced, globalized world. India is changing, and many young Hindus have begun to distance themselves from what they consider as anachronistic and archaic beliefs. They do not know that Hinduism, a “grand caravan of rolling spaces, each opposed to and facing one another,” can provide the world a new lead – encouraging pluralism, respect for one another, and support for diverse cultures to flourish. Monotheistic and monopolistic religions and ideologies rely on standardization. They cannot sustain diversity. But Hinduism, which sustains diversity, is burdened by caste. We can recover the grandeur of this ageless “religion” if, and only if we are all willing to take another critical look at caste-based discrimination and birth-based hierarchy.

Featured Review
Tag Cloud