Is Caste Intrinsic to Hinduism?

Article excerpt

IN A RECENT ARTICLE, "UNTOUCHABLE AND UNTHINKABLE," THE ECONOMIST (October 4, 2007) described the caste system as "possibly the world's ugliest social system." The article went on to speak of caste as "sanctified" by the Hindu tradition and cites the violent punishments recommended in an ancient law code (Manusmriti) for lower caste persons who transgress caste boundaries. The suggestion here is that caste is intrinsic to Hinduism; a caste-free Hinduism, in other words, is a contradiction in terms. The argument that Hinduism and caste are inextricably related is one that I struggle with and often engage. Last year, I was a Hindu guest at the 9th Assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Porto Alegre, Brazil. In one of the sessions focused on interreligious dialogue, the participation of Hindus in the Assembly was loudly criticized and condemned by a Christian bishop from India. The bishop was a Dalit (the oppressed), the name preferred by many relegated to the lowest rungs on the hierarchical caste ladder and regarded as untouchables. He chastised the WCC for giving legitimacy to his oppressors and their religion. Hinduism, in his experience, is inherently oppressive and bereft of any redeemable features. The only legitimate response to Hinduism, in his view, is to work for its extinction.

How do I as a Hindu and a Hindu scholar respond to this challenge and characterization of my tradition? First, by acknowledging the inhumanity, injustice, and oppression of the caste system and the fact that, although not inseparable from Hinduism, the system has indeed been widely legitimized by the tradition and its practitioners. As Hindus, we must desist from apologetically explaining away the caste system as a creation of foreigners or as simply a response to foreign presence in India. The fact is that, by 400 CE, standard features of the caste system such as physical segregation and prohibitions on socializing and intermarriage were firmly in place. Today, in spite of laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of caste, we must admit that the phenomenon of untouchability persists in contemporary India and that too many Hindus still continue to define the meaning of Hindu identity over and against those who are deemed polluting and, for this reason, are marginalized. It is necessary to move from defensive apologies to self-criticism. We need to see caste as one historical expression of a system of human oppression and domination that sanctified itself in the garb of religious validation. Hindus are not exempt from this susceptibility to the corruption of power and the tendency to affirm self-value by devaluing others.

Second, although caste has sought and continues to seek legitimacy by appeal to the authority of tradition, there is a theological vision at the heart of Hinduism that invalidates the assumptions of inequality, impurity, and indignity that are the foundations of caste be lief and practice. Nourished by this theological vision, there is a chorus of Hindu prophetic voices, ancient and modern, protesting the practice of caste as a betrayal of Hinduism's highest teachings. Some protesters, like the Buddha (6th century BCE) and Mahavir (6th century BCE), became the inspiration for the founding of alternative religious traditions such as Buddhism and Jainism. They promised, not always successfully, communities that were free from caste prejudice and injustice. Others such as Tiruvalluvar (2nd century BCE), Tirumular (6th century CE), Basaveshwara (12th century CE), Ramananda (15th CE), Kabir (16th century CE), and Eknath (16th CE) spoke of human brotherhood and the equality of all before God. Their impact, however, was limited by regional linguistic differences. The equality they advocated was an ideal of the religious and not always the secular sphere. Many of these teachers were of a pacific turn of mind, tolerant in outlook, and eschewed controversy and conflict Social reform was peripheral to the reconstitution of religious belief and many emphasized an otherworldly attitude to life. …

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