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Monday, 30 January 2017

The Scriptural Sanction for Caste-Based Discrimination in Hinduism. Part I: Introduction, Summary, and Methodology

The Scriptural Sanction for Caste-Based Discrimination in Hinduism. Part I


The Scriptural Sanction for Caste-Based Discrimination in Hinduism

Part I

ISM: Introduction, Summary, and Methodology

Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 30 January, 2017


Abstract

Does the social evil of caste-based discrimination in Hinduism have a justification in Hindu scripture? If so, what can be done about it?

These are the questions to which this article, which is the first in a series of articles on caste in Hinduism, is devoted. To understand this question, I have investigated various key texts of Hinduism, such as the Bhagavad Gita, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the Manusmriti, to see if they contain explicit passages that support caste-based discrimination.

My finding is that there are plenty of verses, dialogues, and parables in highly-regarded Hindu scriptures that actually do support and sanction caste-based discrimination.

Because of this, any Hindu who wishes to discriminate against other Hindus on the basis of caste has a ready justification in his religious texts.

I do not make the claim that every Hindu scripture contains verses that support or encourage caste discrimination, nor do I say that there are no verses in Hindu scripture that take a more enlightened view of caste. But I hold that neither of these two requirements is necessary for the argument I am making, because a person who wishes to discriminate on the basis of caste needs only one justification based in religious scripture to justify his actions – the absence of such justification in other parts of the scripture, or the presence of other verses in scripture that say discrimination is wrong, do not invalidate the first scripture, as long as the first scripture is well-regarded by the mass of Hindus.

If we wish to deprive those who would like to use a religion-based justification for discriminating against others based on caste, the only remedy is to remove all offensive parts of Hindu scripture that explicitly support caste discrimination. This is the Hindu equivalent of the Christian Reformation that happened in medieval Europe, and is essential if Hindu society is to progress and be concordant with modern human rights and values.


Table of Contents

The Problem
The Question at Hand
The Difficulties in Answering the Question
The Age of Hindu Scriptures
The Oral Tradition of Transmission
A Lack of Coherence and Consistency
Consequences of the Ambiguity of Hindu Scripture
Methodology and Objective
Implications of the Study and the Path Forward for Society
Path 1: The Ambedkar Approach: Destroy the Scriptures, or Leave Hinduism
Path 2: The Appeal to “Pure Hinduism”
Path 3: Denial and Selective Interpretation
Attempts to Equate Caste with Profession (in the Modern Sense)
Mahatma Gandhi's Attempt to Equate Caste to Profession
Modern Examples of Denial of Caste: Sri Sri and Jaggi
Claims on Mobility within the Caste System
Vivekananda's (in)Famous Statement on Caste Mobility
The Story of Matanga
The Story of Karna
The Story of Shambuka
Benevolent Verses in the Scriptures
Exceptions: The Stories of Vishwamitra and Parashurama
Exceptions: The Stories of Vyasa and Valmiki
Why Deny or Interpret Selectively?
Path 4: Surgical Reconstruction of Hinduism – A New Proposal
Summary
Caste-Based Discrimination in Hinduism – The Full Series
Acknowledgments


The Problem

Unlike the social construct of class, it is impossible to transform a person from a lower to a higher caste, because caste is only inherited by birth, not earned.

Caste has been one of the most significant and divisive factors in Hinduism in India, for millennia since its inception. As practiced today, caste is a birth-based segregation of the Hindu community. One is born into a certain caste (Various Indian languages: jAti) and cannot change it ever in their lifetime. There are thousands of castes in Hinduism. Castes operate as a hierarchy: hence, some castes are deemed to be of a higher status than others. Unlike the social construct of class, it is impossible to transform a person from a lower to a higher caste, because caste is only inherited by birth, not earned. However, a person can lose their “high” caste status by doing things that are forbidden for their caste (in particular, marrying people “forbidden” for people of their caste, and eating “forbidden” things. There was even a common belief that crossing the seas would make a person lose their high caste status).

This social system has led to untold suffering and exploitation of the so-called “lower castes” by the so-called “higher castes” of Hinduism, and this injustice was well-recognized in Colonial times in India’s history. At the time of independence, the founding fathers of India decided that this kind of discrimination must be outlawed.

Many of the so-called “lower” castes are denied even basic human rights by the so-called “upper” castes, in clear violation of the law of the land – such as access to a well or a road, or entry into a public temple.

The founding of the modern Indian nation-state was based on a Constitution that explicitly guarantees the equality of all Indians, specifically keeping caste-based discrimination in view. In spite of this, caste discrimination continues to be practiced by many Hindus in India, even in the 21st century. Many of the so-called “lower” castes are denied even basic human rights by the so-called “upper” castes, in clear violation of the law of the land – such as access to a well or a road, or entry into a public temple.

While the Government of India outlawed and criminalized caste-based oppression immediately upon India achieving independence (ca. 1950), and introduced quotas for the depressed castes to improve their lot and overcome centuries of discrimination, it has proved difficult to eradicate caste-based discrimination from the minds of Hindus.

… it has proved difficult to eradicate caste-based discrimination from the minds of Hindus.

Laws alone can only do so much in eradicating caste discrimination. If a community or a population does not believe in the law, they will violate it, and those who are tasked with enforcing the law, if they belong to the same community, will be lax in enforcing the law. A change, therefore, has to be effected in the minds of people.

That is the focus of this series: to determine if there is something in the very foundation of Hinduism that exerts such a strong hold on the minds of Hindus that so many of them remain immune to humanistic concerns and practice the evil of caste discrimination on their fellow-humans. Does Hindu scripture explicitly exhort or sanction the evil of caste-based discrimination?

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The Question at Hand

Is caste discrimination an intrinsic part of Hinduism, or, is it a social aberration?

Many spiritual gurus, such as Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Swami Vivekananda, and Swami Dayananda Saraswati, and social reformers, such as Mahatma Gandhi, have tried to counter casteism in practice by saying that Hinduism never expressly sanctioned caste discrimination in its scriptures; and that the evil of caste discrimination that was seen in society was a social aberration, not a fault of Hinduism per se. By saying this, they hoped to change the behaviour of Hindus and tell them that their religion did not condone this evil.

This raises the very important question: Is caste discrimination an intrinsic part of Hinduism, or, is it a social aberration?

Is there something deeply unjust and evil at the core of Hinduism? Or, were the social reformers right, and has Hinduism just been twisted to perpetrate this evil?

The determination of the truth of this matter, viz., whether casteism is a social aberration or whether Hinduism itself expressly sanctions these injustices, is very important in understanding how to treat this problem in Hinduism.

  1. If Hindu scriptures are considered to be the cause of caste discrimination, then an effort to reform Hindu society will not bear fruit unless the scripture is changed, for no faithful follower of the religion will readily abandon its scriptures. Of course, such a change cannot be made except by high priests vested with the authority to interpret and change the canon. This worldview would put the blame on Hindu scripture.
  2. If Hindu scriptures are not considered to be the cause of caste discrimination, then an effort to reform Hindu society will focus on education – education of Hindus that their religion does not, indeed, sanction discrimination on the basis of caste; that one would not be behaving as a “good Hindu” by treating other Hindus in a cruel way. This worldview would not put the blame on the Hindu religion but on practicing Hindus who have gone astray.

To answer this question, it is important to look at the Hindu scriptures and understand what is written in them. A century or two ago, this would require a person to learn Sanskrit and spend several years with a teacher understanding what was written in the scriptures. Often, the scriptural texts themselves might not be fully available, and one would have to rely on the teacher to learn what was written in the scriptures. In today’s internet age, accurate translations of all the Sanskrit originals are available online in their entirety, making it possible even for English-speaking people to understand what is written in the Vedas, the Bhagavad Gita, the Manu Smriti, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and other scriptures, on the topic of caste. We are therefore in a privileged position in the millennia-old history of Hinduism to examine this topic with no restrictions on our knowledge.

I have indeed done such an examination of many of the important scriptures of Hinduism to understand to what extent caste discrimination is ordained in the scriptures. My findings, based on my extensive study of the Hindu scriptures, form the core of this series of articles.

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The Difficulties in Answering the Question

I encountered several practical difficulties in answering this question. But before I talk about the difficulties, let me first talk about the roots of these difficulties, so that the difficulties will be apparent by themselves.

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The Age of Hindu Scriptures

… there is a huge time interval between the time of composition of Hindu scripture in the original oral tradition and the versions that were cast in stone and have been unchanged ever since.

Hindu scriptures are dated to various eras. The oldest of them, the Vedas, date back to as far as 1500 BCE, which corresponds to the late Harappan period of the Indus Valley Civilization. The Vedas came into being just as the Harappan period was ending. The war on the basis of which the Mahabharata epic is based, is said to have taken place around 900 BCE, and the Mahabharata poem would have been composed after that, though no one knows exactly when. These dates are deduced largely from linguistic analysis, by looking at the Sanskrit used in the texts.

However, despite the age of these scriptures, written versions of Hindu scriptures are found only as far back as the 4th century BCE. There are variations seen even in the written versions, and final, unchanging versions of the main Hindu scriptures are seen only after the 4th century CE, which corresponds to the Gupta period of north India, by which time writing was firmly established as a means of preserving information. Some Hindu scripture (e.g., the Puranas) are of much later vintage, with some dating to as late as the 10th century CE.

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The Oral Tradition of Transmission

This means that no one really knows what the original scriptures of Hinduism were, because they were transmitted mainly by word of mouth and were therefore susceptible to changes from generation to generation over a thousand years.

Thus, there is a huge time interval between the time of composition of Hindu scripture in the original oral tradition and the versions that were (often literally) cast in stone and have been unchanged ever since. Many changes would have happened in the oral versions between 1500 BCE/900 BCE and 400 BCE, and many in the written versions between 400 BCE and 400 CE/1000 CE.

This means that no one really knows what the original scriptures of Hinduism were, because they were transmitted mainly by word of mouth and were therefore susceptible to changes from generation to generation over a thousand years. Given that society itself goes through a lot of change in its values, attitudes, and mores in such a large span of time, this means that new ideas and new interpretations, often influenced by the societies of the times and the intelligentsia of those societies, would have inevitably found their way into the scripture.

There are some who argue that the Hindu epics and Hindu scripture are even older than linguistic analysis shows them to be. But if that were true, that only strengthens my point, because that means that the oral tradition of transmission of these scriptures continued for even longer than we currently believe, and this means that it is even harder to know what “original” Hinduism, whatever that may mean, was.

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A Lack of Coherence and Consistency

If we cannot define what Hinduism is and what its position on caste is, how do we decide whether caste discrimination is a diktat arising from Hindu scripture or whether it is a social custom?

The result of this oral tradition is that Hindu scriptures are simply not very coherent in their complete translations. It is very common to find a few shlOkas (verses) espousing extreme discrimination against “lower” castes at a certain place in a scriptural text, and then find other shlokas in the same scripture and even the same chapter talking about equality of all people. I will point out several examples in this series. The reason for this is that there is no single author for any of the scriptures. For instance, even though tradition credits a single author, “Vyasa,” as an author of the Mahabharata, in practice this is impossible, for no author would flatly and completely contradict what he himself wrote within the same chapter, as can be seen in the Mahabharata. The Mahabharata (and other Hindu scriptures) must have been written by a series of authors, each of whom seem to have, on inspection of the verses, simply added their own verses to the earlier scripture, without really making an effort to make the whole of the scripture consistent with the new additions.

This makes defining what Hinduism really is a very difficult proposition. If we cannot define what Hinduism is and what its position on caste is, how do we decide whether caste discrimination is a diktat arising from Hindu scripture or whether it is a social custom?

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Consequences of the Ambiguity of Hindu Scripture

… those holding the view that Hindu scripture is fundamentally flawed and riddled with inequality are regarded as traitors to the faith, and those criticizing Hinduism on these grounds are viewed as conspirators attempting to topple, undermine, and denigrate a great world civilization …

This ambiguity causes severe social tension. Since there is no objective reality owing to lack of absolute clarity on what the “original” scripture said, those holding the view that Hindu scripture is fundamentally flawed and riddled with inequality are regarded as traitors to the faith, and those criticizing Hinduism on these grounds are viewed as conspirators attempting to topple, undermine, and denigrate a great world civilization, especially if such critics are foreigners; and any attack on caste-based inequality and discrimination is viewed as an attack on Hinduism and Hindus per se.

The latter view, viz., that an attack on casteism is seen as an attack on Hinduism, Hindus, and Hindu civilization, has led to a crisis in the self-perception of Hindus today, and the reaction of a large majority of them is to violently lash out at whoever shines the light on the dark ugliness present in their religion. This perceived attack is also at odds with the relatively recent attempts in India to achieve a pan-Hindu pride and the attempt to view India as a Hindu nation.

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Methodology and Objective

The chief finding of this study is that there is plenty of material in the Hindu scriptures that explicitly supports and sanctions caste discrimination and even enjoins upon the Hindu faithful to practice caste discrimination against those considered lower in the caste hierarchy.

In such an atmosphere, and with such defects in source material, what can a researcher hope to achieve by studying the basic Hindu scriptures to get insight into casteism and caste-based discrimination? What guidelines does one need in order to ensure that logical conclusions can still be obtained from such imperfect sources?

These are the basic principles, assumptions, and guidelines of my study:

  1. With an ambiguous scriptural canon, anyone can selectively pick anything they want from that canon to highlight what they like.
  2. This has been the major defect of the various critiques and defences of Hinduism – they have been guilty of selective quoting and interpretation.
  3. If people choose to pick the good and salutary parts, that is good for society as a whole – for instance, morals relating to mercy, kindness, and fairness.
  4. However, if there are objectionable parts – such as those relating to caste-based discrimination – then there are many who have every right to choose those objectionable parts as also essential teachings of Hinduism – and that gives scriptural sanction to their objectionable deeds.
  5. Hence, my objective is to determine if there are substantial portions of scripture that are in favour of caste-based discrimination.
  6. The reason is that the mere presence of such verses gives Hindus who wish to discriminate based on caste against other Hindus carte blanche for their actions.
  7. This is all the more important because one rarely or never needs to justify good deeds as having spiritual or religious sanction; but evil is often justified by recourse to religious arguments.
  8. There are other verses in the Hindu scriptures that offer a more liberal view of divisions in society – for instance, verses saying that the caste of a person is determined by their character and not by their birth.
  9. The presence of those verses does not, however, mitigate the damaging effect of the verses (often in the majority) that clearly state and reinforce caste-based discrimination, even in the case when the liberal verses completely contradict the offensive verses.
  10. The two do not cancel out, especially given that no well-known religious authority in Hinduism, such as a Shankaracharya, has exhorted Hindus to disregard any verses in Hindu scripture.
  11. Therefore, this is not and cannot be an exercise in counting how many verses support caste discrimination versus how many oppose it.
  12. This is not an abstract theoretical exercise; it is a practical analysis of Hindu society and its relationship with the scripture that matters to this society.

The chief finding of this study is that there is plenty of material in the Hindu scriptures that explicitly supports and sanctions caste discrimination and even enjoins upon the Hindu faithful to practice caste discrimination against those considered lower in the caste hierarchy.

In the subsequent parts of this series, I will examine several Hindu scriptures, one by one, and show specific examples of caste-based discrimination contained in them to prove my point. I will use unabridged translations of important scriptures to make my point, sometimes quoting multiple interpretations of complex texts so that my method for understanding the import of the texts is completely transparent.

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Implications of the Study and the Path Forward for Society

Given that Hindu scripture offers plenty of support for caste discrimination (as I will show in this series) and can therefore inspire people to discriminate on the basis of caste, what is the best route to address this evil?

There are, broadly speaking, four paths to address this evil.

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Path 1: The Ambedkar Approach: Destroy the Scriptures, or Leave Hinduism

After fighting all his life to help the Dalits get a better deal within Hinduism, Ambedkar finally decided that Hinduism could never change, and the only way to bring justice into Hinduism was to destroy the Hindu scriptures themselves. Since he could not do that himself, and knew Hindus would never agree to his recommendation, he decided to leave Hinduism and convert to Buddhism.

In the caste-based hierarchy of Hindu society, the lowest social strata is occupied by those known as Dalits. These are the people who have been oppressed in unimaginable ways for millennia by the so-called “upper castes” of Hinduism.

Some of the greatest advances in civil liberties in India have been due to the personal life and struggle of Dr. BR Ambedkar, a great scholar who was born into this Dalit community but rose despite his severe social handicap to become a towering intellectual in 20th century India and a voice for justice for the Dalit community. Dr. Ambedkar, despite being a Dalit, managed to get doctoral degrees from both Columbia University and the London School of Economics, became independent India’s first Law Minister, and was the principal architect of India’s Constitution.

After fighting all his life to help the Dalits get a better deal within Hinduism, Ambedkar finally decided that Hinduism could never change, and the only way to bring justice into Hinduism was to destroy the Hindu scriptures themselves. Since he could not do that himself, and knew Hindus would never agree to his recommendation, he decided to leave Hinduism and convert to Buddhism. While this is a viable option for an individual, the vast majority of Hindus are unlikely to leave Hinduism or to agree to completely destroy the scriptures, and hence this is not a practical option.

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Path 2: The Appeal to “Pure Hinduism”

The exact determination of the “original” version of Hinduism and of what are later additions is likely to be highly subjective and controversial.

Another way is to say that the evils of caste are a later interpolation onto Hinduism; that the core of Hinduism did not contain these evils; and that thus it is not Hinduism (the “pure” version) that needs to change, but Hindus themselves.

This path is impractical and generally worthless for the following reasons:

  1. The exact determination of the “original” version of Hinduism and of what are later additions is likely to be highly subjective and controversial. The example of Swami Dayananda Saraswati, the 19th century Hindu spiritual leader who founded the Arya Samaj, is a case in point.

    Dayananda Saraswati held that the only true and unadulterated parts of Hinduism were the Vedas and the Upanishads. Everything else, including the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the Puranas, he regarded as polluted by later additions. This had two implications. The first was a genuine effort by him to make Hindus return to the Vedas as a way of life. The second was that he could now completely disregard all the references to caste discrimination in the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the Puranas as later “pollution” of those epics by unscrupulous people over the centuries. Of course, this did not stop him from selectively picking and quoting from texts like the Mahabharata when it suited him.

    Dayananda died in 1883, and in spite of his efforts, Hindus are no closer in 2017 to regarding the Vedas as the exclusive fountainhead of Hindu philosophy today than they were then. The fact of the matter is that to most Hindus (with the exception of scholars and holy men), the true import of Hinduism comes not from the Vedas, but from the great epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and from the various Puranas.

    The fact of the matter is that to most Hindus, the true import of Hinduism comes not from the Vedas, but from the great epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and from the various Puranas.

    Most “morally correct” or “recommended” behaviour of Hindus is motivated by the epics and the Puranas. Some examples will make this clear:

    1. Monogamy has never been laid out as a religious requirement in Hindu scripture. In fact, a lot of the scripture clearly talks about men being allowed to have multiple wives. However, the hero of the epic Ramayana, the Prince Rama, considered to be an incarnation of the God Vishnu and the ideal human being, says in the epic that he believes in monogamy. The example of Rama inspired independent India to enact the Hindu Code Bill, which mandated monogamy for all Hindus.
    2. Every Hindu child knows the following famous tale from the Mahabharata epic. It concerns one of the heroes of the epic, Arjuna, and is used to illustrate the importance of focus and concentration. The story goes that Arjuna’s martial arts teacher, Drona, asked all his pupils to take aim at the eye of a wooden bird placed at a high branch of a tree. Before the student could shoot, Drona would ask the student what he saw. All the other princes said that they saw a tree, its branches, a bird upon a branch, and the eye of the bird. Drona would tell them to stand down. Finally, at the end, he asked Arjuna to tell him what he saw. Arjuna replied simply, “I see only the eye of the bird.”
    3. My third example is taken from the Shiva Purana, and is a tale used to illustrate the point that one should be careful about granting wishes to people because those wishes could be used against those who granted the wish in the first place. This is the story of the demon Bhasmasura, who prays fervently and performs severe penance in order to win the grace of the god Shiva. Shiva finally appears before him and asks him what boon he seeks. Bhasmasura says that the boon he seeks is that anyone on whose head Bhasmasura places his palm should be immediately reduced to ashes. Shiva grants this boon, and Bhasmasura immediately attempts to test this new-found ability on Shiva himself! Shiva runs for his life, and is finally saved by the god Vishnu, who appears in the form of a beautiful maiden in front of Bhasmasura. Bhasmasura is enchanted and tells the maiden, Mohini, that he wishes to marry her. Mohini tells Bhasmasura that she will marry him only if he can dance with her and match her, move for move. During the dance, Mohini places her palm on her head. Bhasmasura follows suit and dies.

    Most Hindus have no idea what the Vedas contain, and could not even chant the mantras without the aid of a priest.

    In similar fashion, most of the morals and even many of the rituals of Hindus are based on the two great epics and the Puranas. Hindu marriage rituals are directly based on the rituals of the wedding between Rama and his wife Sita, described in the Ramayana.

    The two epics and the Puranas permeate every aspect of a Hindu’s life. The Vedas, on the other hand, are only a collection of mantras (chants) which most Hindus do not even know the meaning of. They are chanted usually during important rituals by people who don’t even know what they are saying – birth, death, marriage, and even daily offerings to the Gods. Most Hindus have no idea what the Vedas contain, and could not even chant the mantras without the aid of a priest.

    … any attempt to claim that Hinduism does not support caste discrimination — any attempt that relies on completely discounting what is in the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, or the Puranas, and purely focuses on the Vedas or Upanishads – is simply unrealistic and should be disregarded as unrepresentative of Hinduism in practice.

    The Upanishads are detailed philosophical discussions that are read only by a relatively few philosophers of Hinduism. The arguments in the Upanishads are so complex and so difficult to follow that students of philosophy need a teacher to explain the texts to them, during several years of dedicated study at an academy. Whether the Upanishads or the Vedas contain anything about caste, or about anything else at all, is completely unknown to the overwhelming majority of Hindus.

    In sharp contrast, the stories of the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the Puranas are so well-known to Hindus that most are narrated even by unlettered parents or grandparents in their native tongues to children as they grow up. The real impact of a religious text on the believing population is seen only in the case of the epics and the Puranas, not in the case of the Vedas or the Upanishads. It is not the Vedas or the Upanishads that inform the average Hindu of the teaching of his religion; it is the highly accessible dialogues, parables, and stories from the two epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata; the poem Bhagavad Gita that is embedded in the Mahabharata; and the Puranas, that truly help Hindus understand their religion.

    Therefore, any analysis of caste-based discrimination should heavily focus on the epics and the Puranas instead of the obscure Vedas and the even more obscure and philosophical Upanishads. More importantly, any attempt to claim that Hinduism does not support caste discrimination — any attempt that relies on completely discounting what is in the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, or the Puranas, and purely focuses on the Vedas or Upanishads – is simply unrealistic and should be disregarded as unrepresentative of Hinduism in practice.

  2. The determination of what “original” Hindu scripture is has no practical value. It may be a good theoretical exercise to know how Hinduism has evolved over the centuries, but for a low-caste Dalit person today, the issue of concern is not how injustice came to be, but that it exists today.

  3. It is not clear to me if any researchers are actually engaged in detailed chronological research to determine which verses in various Hindu scriptures date to which time periods in history, and to place them even within 100-year windows within the vast span of 1500 BCE to 400 CE. Given that there is no written record in antiquity, such an analysis can only be made from linguistic analysis – on the kind of Sanskrit used in different time periods, etc. It is thus exceedingly hard to know which passages were in the so-called original version and which portions were inserted later, and when.
  4. Even if such a determination could be made, it does not address the dilemma a researcher would face if indeed, he or she were to find out that a very regressive passage in a Hindu scripture actually dates to hoary antiquity. What is to be done then? Should caste discrimination be then accepted since it was present in the “original” Hinduism? One may wish to believe that the “original” scripture would necessarily be blemish-free, but there is really no guarantee that our ancestors were always wiser than us – indeed, experience has shown us that in many practical matters, they were not.
  5. The humanitarian imperative is to end discrimination today, not to understand how discrimination may have come to be institutionalized in Hinduism over the centuries.

  6. Lastly, but most importantly, the determination of what “original” Hindu scripture is has no practical value. It may be a good theoretical exercise to know how Hinduism has evolved over the centuries, but for a low-caste Dalit person today, the issue of concern is not how injustice came to be, but that it exists today.

    To a modern Hindu today, it does not matter whether what is in the scripture today was present in 1500 BC or whether it was added in 100 CE or even in 800 CE. The fact is that what is there is now fixed and it is what they see as Hindu scripture. It comes with no riders in the text telling them that one part is more important than another.

    The humanitarian imperative is to end discrimination today, not to understand how discrimination may have come to be institutionalized in Hinduism over the centuries.

    The only value to such an exercise, if indeed one finds value in such things, is in establishing bragging rights, so that defenders of Hinduism may proudly say that “pure Hinduism” did not condone caste discrimination – that evil has seeped into it through social custom to institutionalize discrimination. How does this theoretical argument help the Dalit?

    The fact is that Hinduism, as practiced today, does include institutionalized caste discrimination and cruelty, and knowing that an original or a “pure” version did not have these detestable attributes (even if that were true, which is doubtful, and for which claim there is no conclusive evidence today) does nothing to help the situation today. The fact also is that the scriptures, as they exist today, provide plenty of scriptural sanction for caste-based discrimination, revealing which is the focus of this series.

This leaves mainly two major paths to address the evil of caste discrimination.

One is the path taken by reformers such as Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Swami Vivekananda, and Mahatma Gandhi – which is to highlight the positive aspects of Hindu scripture and deny, ignore, or minimize the negative aspects. This is essentially a path of denial and selective interpretation – denial of the negative aspects and a selective embrace of the positive aspects.

The second is to perform a surgery on the scriptures; create a Hindu “reformation,” whereby the scriptures are modified to remove the objectionable parts and new versions of the Hindu scripture, consonant with the humanistic principles of today’s world, are written. This may seem similar to the idea of the “pure” version of Hinduism mentioned above, except that in this approach, there is no need to do any historical research to determine what the original version of Hinduism might have been, which additions were corruptions, and so on. This approach simply looks at Hindu scriptures as they exist today and removes whatever may be objectionable, regardless of when they may have been added to the Hindu canon.

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Path 3: Denial and Selective Interpretation

The two main avenues for denial and selective interpretations available to defenders of the Hindu caste system are focusing on the difference between jAti and varNa, since Hindu scriptures talk mostly about varNa and Hindu society is mostly concerned with jAti; and insisting that, even though there are many castes in Hinduism, there is mobility in the caste system. Below, I focus on both these attempts at obfuscation.

Attempts to Equate Caste with Profession (in the Modern Sense)

One of the key points that many reformers, who wish to leave Hindu scripture untouched and yet combat the evil of caste-based discrimination, latch on to is the fact that a lot of Hindu scripture refer not to caste (“jAti”) itself, but to the notion of “varNa.” The two concepts are distinct, in that varNa refers to a broad category of castes, whereas jAti refers to a specific caste.

In Hinduism, society is divided into the four varNas of Brahmins (or Brahmanas) (priests and teachers – the educated elite); Kshatriyas (warriors – soldiers and kings); Vaishyas (the merchant castes); and Shudras (the labourers or the working class – those engaged in all kinds of menial tasks to serve the other three varNas.) In addition, there is a fifth category – the category of Hindus who are excluded from the varNa system, from all formal society – but who have to serve the formally categorized four varNas (known as “sa-varNa,” or “those with varNa” Hindus). The people in this category are little more than slaves, and have been known by various names over the centuries – “pancamas” (meaning the “fifth people,” referring to the fact that these are from the unwritten fifth category of Hindu society), “avarNas” (“those without varNa”), “achUt” (meaning “untouchable,” as it was forbidden for savarNa Hindus to touch them and for them to touch the savarNa Hindus lest they pollute the savarNa Hindus by their touch), depressed classes, oppressed classes, and the modern word, “Dalit” (which means “the broken/crushed people.”)

Within these broad categories of varNas are countless subdivisions known as jAtis, or castes. So, for instance, there are caste subdivisions among the Brahmin varNa. Looking just at the Brahmin varNa in Tamil society, for instance (which I myself was born into), we find that it is divided into Iyer Brahmins and Iyengar Brahmins, each of which is a jAti, a caste; within the Iyers, one finds Vadama, Vaathima, Brahacharanam and Ashtasahasram Iyers – these are sub-castes; and even within the Vadama Iyers, there are those that are known as “Vadanaattu Vadama Iyers.” It is these minute variations that form the universe of jAtis.

Such variations exist in every varNa. But every one of these aforementioned subdivisions of Tamil Iyers and Iyengars regards themselves as Brahmins, i.e., as belonging to the same varNa of Brahmins. Brahmins from a different part of India, say Maharashtra or Bengal, will have their own subdivisions, but they all see themselves as belonging to the Brahmin varNa.

The story is the same for every varNa. The Vaishya varNa will have different jAtis that comprise it in Bengal, different jAtis in Rajasthan, different ones in Uttar Pradesh, and different jAtis in Tamil Nadu. But all these jAtis identify themselves as Vaishyas, even as they may consider some of them to be of “higher” status than others.

Mahatma Gandhi's Attempt to Equate Caste to Profession

The truly rigid boundaries laid down in Hindu scripture are the inter-varNa boundaries, not the inter-jAti boundaries.

This statement from Mahatma Gandhi illustrates how he uses the distinction between varNas and jAtis to deny the existence of the caste problem in Hinduism:

I draw, as I have always done, a sharp distinction between castes and varNas. Castes are innumerable, and in their present condition they are a drag upon Hinduism. Therefore you and I do not observe caste distinctions.

varNa stands on a different footing, and it means profession. It has nothing to do with inter-dining and intermarriage. People belonging to the four professions used formerly to inter-dine and even to intermarry, and by so doing they naturally could not and did not leave their varNa. This is absolutely clear from the definitions of the different varNas in the Bhagavad Gita.

Not only was Gandhi wrong in his understanding of scripture in saying that inter-varNa marriage would not result in a person leaving his varNa, as I will show in my subsequent articles in this series, he forgot that jAtis are merely a subset of varNas. While Vaishyas of different jAtis may intermarry, a Vaishya woman (of any jAti) may not marry a Shudra man (of any jAti).

The import of Gandhi’s statement is this: scriptural stipulations refer to varNas and not to jAtis. Therefore injustices committed by higher jAtis upon lower jAtis are simply social evils, and not traceable to scripture. To use the example given earlier in this section, a traditional Tamil Iyer Brahmin may not feel comfortable even entering into a matrimonial alliance with an Iyengar Brahmin (this was true 50 years ago, even though this is not so much of an issue these days.) The Hindu scripture says nothing about Iyers and Iyengars; it only speaks about the Brahmin varNa. This helps Gandhi say that inter-jAti boundaries are not important. He is correct that inter-jAti differences have no scriptural sanction.

Thus, Gandhi is saying that there is no scriptural proscription against a Tamil Iyer and a Tamil Iyengar entering into a matrimonial alliance. And indeed, during his time, they would have been reluctant to do so but might not have considered such an alliance calamitous. But Gandhi forgets that the Tamil Iyer Brahmin may not be anywhere as comfortable in doing the same with a Shudra. The truly rigid boundaries laid down in Hindu scripture are the inter-varNa boundaries, not the inter-jAti boundaries.

Not only was Gandhi wrong in his understanding of scripture in saying that inter-varNa marriage would not result in a person leaving his varNa, as I will show in my subsequent articles in this series, he forgot that jAtis are merely a subset of varNas. While Vaishyas of different jAtis may intermarry, a Vaishya woman (of any jAti) may not marry a Shudra man (of any jAti). Hindu scripture makes it very clear what the rules of inter-varNa marriage are. These rules are very strict, as we will see.

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Modern Examples of Denial of Caste: Sri Sri Ravishankar and Jaggi Vasudev

Many modern apologists of the caste system in Hinduism have taken the same approach as Gandhi in equating varNa with the modern concept of profession to suggest that the barriers in Hinduism are not rigid. I will show statements from two current, highly popular Hindu gurus that illustrate this.

There indeed are castes in Hinduism who are allowed to only do manual scavenging – this demeaning job is reserved for these castes by the higher castes in Hinduism. Similarly, there are castes whose only job is to burn corpses in crematoria. From parent to child, generation upon generation, these castes are not allowed to perform any other function in society.

How, in any possible humanistic view of the world, is being born into the latrine-cleaning or corpse-burning caste “not a curse,” as Sri Sri Ravishankar puts it? What kind of “innate tendencies” must a person possess in order to be forced to live as a latrine-cleaner or corpse-burner his entire life?

This is a statement from Sri Sri Ravishankar, a modern spiritual guru whose ministry runs into the millions:

The scriptures did not support the caste system by birth, but caste is suggested by professional and innate tendencies. Such systems are prevalent in all the civilized societies and in every culture around the World. For instance, only doctors form part of a doctors’ association. It is the same with other professions be it lawyer or the military. The need of the hour is to help people realize that being born in any a particular caste is not a curse and that discrimination is not sanctioned by religion.

Here is another very popular and extremely successful guru, Jaggi Vasudev, speaking on the topic of caste:

The caste system came about when there were no formal training centres for any particular profession. So the family was where training and passing on of skills from one generation to the next happened — so a blacksmith’s son became a blacksmith, a cobbler’s offspring became a cobbler and so on. Over a period of time, we turned differences into discriminations. We started to say that the one who runs the temple is better than the man who runs the school, the one who runs the school is better than the one who runs the blacksmith shop, and so on. So from being a productive system it became an ugly, negative system.

Let us analyse these statements. Ravishankar would have us believe that all caste-based distinctions in society are free and voluntary associations – in the same way, as he puts it, that doctors band together to form a doctors’ association.

But while this may be true of doctors or musicians or mechanical engineers, how does it apply to the caste of Hindus whose lot it is to be manual scavengers – those whose duty, determined by Hindu society, is to clean the excreta of other humans (of higher castes) from their latrines? For, there indeed are castes in Hinduism who are allowed to only do this job – this demeaning job is reserved for these castes by the higher castes in Hinduism. Similarly, there are castes whose only job is to burn corpses in crematoria. From parent to child, generation upon generation, these castes are not allowed to perform any other function in society. How, in any possible humanistic view of the world, is being born into the latrine-cleaning or corpse-burning caste “not a curse,” as Ravishankar puts it? What kind of “innate tendencies” must a person possess in order to be forced to live as a latrine-cleaner or corpse-burner his entire life?

And what of Jaggi Vasudev’s statement? Do people become latrine-cleaners or corpse-burners because they get specialized training from their parents and are thus at an advantage over others in the business? Do you require special, sophisticated training to be a latrine cleaner and carry human waste on your head??

Can the degrading occupation of manual scavenging ever reach the dignity of the occupation of a teacher, a priest, or even a blacksmith?

And what of Vasudev’s statement? Do people become latrine-cleaners or corpse-burners because they get specialized training from their parents and are thus at an advantage over others in the business? Are there lots of applications for the post of latrine cleaner and does the son born to a father who had to clean latrines from the time he was old enough to do this job get a special advantage, in the same way that a goldsmith’s son is at an advantage relative to others in the business of making jewellery? Do you require special, sophisticated training to be a latrine cleaner and carry human waste on your head??

Vasudev says “We started to say that the one who runs the temple is better than the man who runs the school, the one who runs the school is better than the one who runs the blacksmith’s shop, and so on.” But the devil is in the “and so on.” Let us, indeed, go on, because while it may be a matter of opinion as to whether the one who runs the temple is better than the one who runs the blacksmith’s shop, there can be no doubt that either is better than the one who carries human waste on his head.

Even if we did not say that the one who runs a school is superior to the one who cleans latrines, would they be equal in any sense? Can the degrading occupation of manual scavenging ever reach the dignity of the occupation of a teacher, a priest, or even a blacksmith?

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Claims on Mobility within the Caste System

A common attempt to airbrush or minimize the effect of the caste system is to suggest that even though people were grouped into castes, there was actually a lot of mobility within the system. This attempt at denial of the effects of the caste system dates to as far back as Swami Vivekananda.

Vivekananda's (in)Famous Statement on Caste Mobility
Take a man in his different pursuits, for example: when he is engaged in serving another for pay, he is in Shudra-hood; when he is busy transacting some piece of business for profit, on his account, he is a Vaishya; when he fights to right wrongs, then the qualities of a Kshatriya come out in him; and when he meditates on God, or passes his time in conversation about Him, then he is a Brahmana. Naturally, it is quite possible for one to be changed from one caste into another.

— Swami Vivekananda, circa 1900

A prime example of the doctrine of denial and selective interpretation is provided by Swami Vivekananda, who once wrote:

… the qualities which make a Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya or a Shudra are inherent in every man, more or less. But at times, one or other of these qualities predominates in him in varying degrees and is manifested accordingly. Take a man in his different pursuits, for example: when he is engaged in serving another for pay, he is in Shudra-hood; when he is busy transacting some piece of business for profit, on his account, he is a Vaishya; when he fights to right wrongs, then the qualities of a Kshatriya come out in him; and when he meditates on God, or passes his time in conversation about Him, then he is a Brahmana. Naturally, it is quite possible for one to be changed from one caste into another.

The implication in this passage is that while caste is present in Hinduism, it is simply a way to organize society, to group people who have certain characteristics as a certain “caste”; that this caste is a very fluid thing, which does not attach permanently to anyone – in Vivekananda’s example, a person could belong to four different castes at different times during the same day, depending on what he was doing; and if Hindu society in reality is not this way, it is because the teachings of Hinduism have been perverted by certain groups of individuals to serve their selfish needs; that Hinduism itself is quite benign; and that the evil of casteism is a social evil that has nothing to do with Hinduism per se.

While there are certainly passages in Hindu scripture that would support such an interpretation, they are few and far between. The dominant passages in Hindu scripture are those that state quite unambiguously that a person’s caste cannot change no matter what he does. There are several examples in Hindu mythology that clearly illustrate this.

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The Story of Matanga

The example of the story of Matanga from the Mahabharata comes to mind. Matanga is a person who is born as a Shudra, abandoned as a baby, and is adopted in infancy by a childless Brahmin. On reaching adulthood, he inadvertently learns the truth of his birth and wishes to be transformed into a Brahmin, only to be told again and again by Indra, the king of the Gods, that such an endeavour is impossible, regardless of how much he may have purified his soul by penance, brought his passions under control, or learned, because all this is inadequate to liberate him from his “sinful” birth as Shudra. (This tale is discussed in detail in a future article dealing with Mahabharata scripture.)

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The Story of Karna

Regret is expressed after Karna's death that he was unfairly abused while alive, not because it is unfair to abuse a person of a certain “lower” caste, but because the secret of his birth is revealed after his death, and then people realize that he was wrongly thought to be a Suta – that he was a Kshatriya after all.

Every Hindu may not know the story of Matanga, but every Hindu will definitely know the story of Karna, one of the great anti-heroes of the epic Mahabharata. Karna was born to a Kshatriya mother and a queen, Kunti, but his mother abandoned him as an infant out of fear of social opprobrium because he was born when she was not yet married. He is also a divine offspring – the son of the Sun God and Kunti. As a result, he is not only a Kshatriya, but he is a great warrior by his deeds, considered by many to be equal to the greatest archer of the land, the royal prince Arjuna. But Karna, after being abandoned, was adopted by a charioteer belonging to the lower caste of Sutas. Sutas were a mixed caste arising from the marriage of a Kshatriya father and a Brahmin mother, and were considered to be inferior to both castes.

Karna inherited the caste of his adoptive father, not knowing his true genetic roots. Contrary to what Vivekananda says in his quote above, in spite of excelling in every virtue that a Kshatriya should possess, in spite of being able to defeat most of the kings of the land by his valour and his skill at arms, Karna is not considered by the royal establishment to be worthy of fighting Arjuna. When he challenges Arjuna to single combat, the teacher of the princes tells him that princes only engage in combat with other princes, and Karna not being a prince, and not being a Kshatriya, is not worthy of fighting Arjuna. Karna has to bear the humiliation of not being born a Kshatriya (as he himself, and the world as well, sees it, both being unaware of the secret of his birth) again and again in the epic, until his very death, in spite of every evidence of bravery and martial skill he can demonstrate. Repeatedly he is derided by casteist abuses – by people referring to him as a “mere son of a Suta.” In the entire epic, no one ever thinks any of this is wrong. Regret is expressed after his death that he was unfairly abused while alive, not because it is unfair to abuse a person of a certain “lower” caste, but because the secret of his birth is revealed after his death, and then people realize that he was wrongly thought to be a Suta – that he was a Kshatriya after all.

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The Story of Shambuka

The ascetic replies that his name is Shambuka, he is a Shudra, and he is performing penance to enter heaven in his human body. Upon hearing this, Rama simply takes out his sword and beheads Shambuka. For this act, the Gods in the sky shower flowers on Rama …

A third story, this from the Ramayana, shows that Vivekananda’s assertion that Hinduism permits caste mobility is simply not true. This story comes from the Uttarakanda of the Ramayana. The story is that terrible things are happening in Ayodhya, Rama’s kingdom. Rama asks his royal council of wise men what the cause may be, and is told that a Shudra in his kingdom has been doing great penances. A Shudra is not allowed any learning according to Hindu scripture; his duty is only to serve. Hence his performing penance to gain spiritual merit is a sin, and is the cause of the terrible things happening in Rama’s kingdom. Rama promptly sets out in search of this Shudra ascetic, finds him doing penance peacefully. Rama asks him only one question: what is his varNa, and why is he doing penance? The ascetic replies that his name is Shambuka, he is a Shudra, and he is performing penance to enter heaven in his human body. Upon hearing this, Rama does not even bother to counsel him and tell him that what he is doing is contrary to his duty, etc. He does not give him a warning. He simply takes out his sword and beheads Shambuka. For this act, the Gods in the sky shower flowers on Rama, and the sages sing his praises as one who has upheld the law of the land.

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Benevolent Verses in the Scriptures

The problem with this kind of selective interpretation is the fact that Hindu scripture contains many more verses (by more than two orders of magnitude) supporting ideas of caste-based discrimination than they do verses along the lines of Shiva’s statement. To take a decidedly minority view and present it as the authentic view of Hinduism is intellectually dishonest.

Clearly, the stories of Matanga, Karna, and Shambuka are completely contradictory to what Vivekananda has said. But Vivekananda is not entirely wrong or completely dishonest; he has simply quoted selectively. Here is a passage from the Mahabharata, in the god Shiva’s voice, that certainly justifies Vivekananda’s interpretation (again, discussed in detail later):

Neither birth, nor the purificatory rites, nor learning, nor offspring, can be regarded as grounds for conferring upon one the regenerate status. Verily, conduct is the only ground.

By “regenerate status” is meant the status of Brahmins, the highest caste. So Vivekananda has selectively accepted the one-line quote above (and a few others like it) but has ignored the stories of Matanga, Karna, and Shambuka, which are told over hundreds of verses in the Mahabharata and Ramayana, spanning many pages.

The problem with this kind of selective interpretation is the fact that Hindu scripture contains many more verses (by more than two orders of magnitude) supporting ideas of caste-based discrimination (as in the stories of Matanga, Karna, or Shambuka) than they do verses along the lines of Shiva’s statement above. To take a decidedly minority view and present it as the authentic view of Hinduism is intellectually dishonest.

In addition, as I have pointed out from the beginning, the very fact that stories such as Matanga’s, Karna’s and Shambuka’s are prominently highlighted in Hindu scripture means that Hindu scripture can be used to support caste-based discrimination. In other words, a Hindu seeking to indulge in caste-based discrimination will find plenty of material, such as the story of Matanga or that of Karna or Shambuka, to justify his stand.

Thus, the approach of denial and selective interpretation does not work if someone is actually aware of what the scripture actually says. Once someone is aware of what Hindu scripture actually says, he has a religious justification for his bigotry, regardless of any other passages in scripture that may hold an opposing view.

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Exceptions: The Stories of Vishwamitra and Parashurama

It can be easily seen that the stories of Vishwamitra and Parashurama are very special cases which are supposed to have happened only due to the effect of powerful mantras. Therefore, to hold these as examples of general caste mobility in Hinduism is clearly disingenuous.

Another common argument in the selective interpretation of Hindu scripture is to quote exceptions and present them as the norm. One such argument is to claim that Hinduism indeed does have caste mobility, as the examples of Vishwamitra and Parashurama from Hindu scripture show. I explain below why this reasoning is again selective interpretation and false generalization.

Vishwamitra in Hindu mythology was born a king and hence belonged to the Kshatriya Varna. However, after his encounter with a Brahmin sage, Vasishta, he realizes that Brahmin spiritual power is greater than Kshatriya physical power, and decides to transform himself by penance into the highest level of Brahmin sage (which Vasishta himself was), a Brahma rishi. After a long period of penance, Vishwamitra achieves his goal. (And is thereby transformed into a Brahmin.)

The other example is that of Parashurama, who was born to a sage, Jamadagni, and hence was born a Brahmin. From an early age, however, Parashurama takes a great interest in weapons, and gets himself trained in martial arts. He even does penance to the god Shiva and, as a boon, gets the God to train him as the supreme martial arts expert in the world.

These two examples are held up by Hindu apologists to claim that there was mobility of caste in Hindu scripture. However, this is not true. The examples of Vishwamitra and Parashurama were actually unique exceptions to the rule, made possible by extraordinary circumstances.

The full story is mentioned in the Ramayana. There was apparently a king named Gaadhi who had a daughter named Satyavati. According to the rules of the day, marriages between Brahmins and Kshatriyas were permitted, so long as the man was a Brahmin and the woman a Kshatriya. Satyavati married a Brahmin sage, Richika, who wanted a son with the finest Brahmin qualities even though his wife was a Kshatriya woman. He therefore prepared some sacred pudding, investing it with powerful mantras, and asked his wife to eat it. Satyavati’s mother, learning of this, asked Richika to prepare some pudding for her as well, so that she could also have a son. Richika therefore prepared a pudding for Satyavati’s mother so that she could have a son with the finest Kshatriya qualities. For some reason, the two puddings got mixed up, and Satyavati ate the pudding meant for her mother and her mother ate the pudding meant for her. Richika told her this was a mistake, as now she would have a son with all the Kshatriya qualities, in violation of the duties of his caste, and her mother, a Kshatriya woman and queen, would now have a son with Brahmin qualities. Satyavati begged Richika to change this, but he replied that once he had invested the pudding with the mantras, it could not be changed. However, it was possible to skip a generation. Hence Satyavati gave birth to the Brahmin sage Jamadagni, who gave birth to a warrior son, Parashurama. Satyavati’s mother, the wife of the king Gaadhi, gave birth to a son who had all the qualities of a Brahmin, which is why that son, who was known as Vishwamitra, ended up becoming a great Brahmin sage.

It can be easily seen that the stories of Vishwamitra and Parashurama are very special cases which are supposed to have happened only due to the effect of powerful mantras. Therefore, to hold these as examples of general caste mobility in Hinduism is clearly disingenuous.

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Exceptions: The Stories of Vyasa and Valmiki

The author of a text need not have anything to do with the content of the text. It is reasonable for us to think that it might. In today's world, it would be hard for us to imagine someone who writes a book being adopted by those traditionally engaged in oppressing the community the writer is from. But what if the writer himself denies his origins? What if he praises the oppressors of his community and speaks ill of the community he hails from? In such a case, would it not be the obvious political move to appropriate that person from the opposite side as a champion?

So it is with Vyasa. It should surprise us little that the Brahmins have held him up as a great example.

Apologists of the Hindu caste system also often like to quote the examples of Vyasa and Valmiki to claim that there was caste mobility in ancient Hinduism, despite the rules on caste-based discrimination, and use this to claim that the barriers could not have been as rigid as they seem today. I wish to show in this section that these, too, are special cases.

Vyasa is a famous sage in Hinduism credited with the division of the Vedas as well as the authorship of the Mahabharata and the Gita. However, he was born into a low caste, since his mother Satyavati was a woman of the nishAda or fisherfolk varNa, even though his father Parashara was a sage. According the rules of varNa extant in Hinduism, this would make Vyasa a person of a low caste, since only children of Kshatriya and Vaishya mothers to Brahmin fathers would retain the status of Brahmins. In spite of this, Vyasa is highly respected in Hinduism. Apologists of the caste system use this to claim that there was caste mobility in ancient times.

Similarly, there is a story that before he became a sage and the author of the Mahabharata, the sage Valmiki was a highway robber. Today he is highly respected as the author of one of the holiest books of Hinduism, the Ramayana. Apologists of the caste system ask how one can claim that the caste system is rigid when someone like Valmiki can be so respected.

I wish to address both of these arguments here.

The author of a text need not have anything to do with the content of the text. It is reasonable for us to think that it might. In today's world, it would be hard for us to imagine someone who writes a book being adopted by those traditionally engaged in oppressing the community the writer is from. But what if the writer himself denies his origins? What if he praises the oppressors of his community and speaks ill of the community he hails from? In such a case, would it not be the obvious political move to appropriate that person from the opposite side as a champion? We see this all the time in modern politics — a person from a minority community being adopted by the majority because he praises the majority community. So it is with Vyasa. It should surprise us little that the Brahmins have held him up as a great example.

Let us see one example of this kind of behavior from Vyasa. I should first mention that the nishAdas are outside the pale of the four-varNa system — in other words, they belong to what we could call in modern terminology, Dalits. In spite of this, this is what Vyasa has written in the Mahabharata when he narrates the story of Garuda, king of the birds.

Garuda is the son of the sage Kashyapa and his wife Vinata. Kashyapa has another wife, Kadru, the mother of all the snakes. Kadru cheats Vinata in a bet and forces her and her children to become her slaves. When Garuda grows up, he asks of Kadru what the price of their liberty will be. Kadru tells him that he must bring the nectar of immortality from the Gods to her children to be liberated from bondage. Garuda agrees to the condition. Before he starts off on his arduous journey, he needs food. He asks his mother for advice. The following is what Vyasa writes about what happens next.

Vinata replied, 'In a remote region in the midst of the ocean, the nishAdas have their fair home. Having eaten the thousands of nishAdas that live there, bring thou amrita. But let not thy heart be ever set on taking the life of a Brahmana. Of all creatures a Brahmana must not be slain.

“Sauti said, ‘Garuda, thus addressed by the snakes, then said unto his mother, ‘I shall go to bring amrita; I desire to eat something in the way. Direct me to it.’ Vinata replied, ‘In a remote region in the midst of the ocean, the nishAdas have their fair home. Having eaten the thousands of nishAdas that live there, bring thou amrita. But let not thy heart be ever set on taking the life of a Brahmana. Of all creatures a Brahmana must not be slain. He is, indeed, like fire. A Brahmana, when angry, becomes like fire or the Sun, like poison or an edged weapon. A Brahmana, it has been said, is the master of all creatures. For these and other reasons, a Brahmana is the adored of the virtuous. O child, he is never to be slain by thee even in anger. Hostility with Brahmanas, therefore, would not be proper under any circumstances. O sinless one, neither Agni nor Surya truly can consume so much as does a Brahmana of rigid vows, when angry. By these various indications must thou know a good Brahmana. Indeed, a brahmana is the first-born of all creatures, the foremost of the four orders, the father and the master of all.’” Garuda then asked, ‘O mother, of what form is a Brahmana, of what behaviour, and of what prowess? Doth he shine like fire, or is he of tranquil mien? And, O mother, it behoveth thee to tell my inquiring self, those auspicious signs by which I may recognise a Brahmana.’ Vinata replied, saying, ‘O child, him shouldst thou know as the best amongst Brahmanas who having entered thy throat would torture thee as a fish-hook or burn thee as blazing charcoal. A Brahmana must never be slain by thee even in anger.’ And Vinata out of affection for her son, again told him these words, ‘Him shouldst thou know as a good Brahmana who would not be digested in thy stomach.’ Although she knew the incomparable strength of her son, yet she blessed him heartily, for, deceived by the snakes, she was very much afflicted by woe. And she said. ‘Let Marut (the god of the winds) protect thy wings, and Surya and Soma thy vertebral regions; let Agni protect thy head, and the Vasus thy whole body. I also, O child (engaged in beneficial ceremonies), shall sit here for your welfare. Go then, O child, in safety to accomplish thy purpose.’”

“ A Brahmana, it has been said, is the master of all creatures. For these and other reasons, a Brahmana is the adored of the virtuous. O child, he is never to be slain by thee even in anger.”

“ Indeed, a Brahmana is the first-born of all creatures, the foremost of the four orders, the father and the master of all.”

“ Sauti continued, ‘ Then Garuda, having heard the words of his mother, stretched his wings and ascended the skies. And endued with great strength, he soon fell upon the nishAdas, hungry and like another Yama. And bent upon slaying the nishAdas, he raised a great quantity of dust that overspread the firmament, and sucking up water from amid the ocean, shook the trees growing on the adjacent mountains. And then that lord of birds obstructed the principal thoroughfares of the town of the nishAdas by his mouth, increasing its orifice at will. And the nishAdas began to fly in great haste in the direction of the open mouth of the great serpent-eater. And as birds in great affliction ascend by thousand into the skies when the trees in a forest are shaken by the winds, so those nishAdas blinded by the dust raised by the storm entered the wide-extending cleft of Garuda's mouth open to receive them. And then the hungry lord of all rangers of the skies, that oppressor of enemies, endued with great strength, and moving with greatest celerity to achieve his end, closed his mouth, killing innumerable nishAdas following the occupation of fishermen.’ ”

Should it surprise us that Brahmins glorify this son of a fisherwoman, Vyasa, who says his own people deserve to be eaten for food, and glorifies the Brahmins in such effusive terms? What’s there not to like about Vyasa, if you are a Brahmin?

With regard to Valmiki, the story regarding his beginnings is controversial, to say the least. The popular story that he was a low-caste highway robber is not well-corroborated in scripture. Most versions of the Ramayana do not mention this.

The popular story that Valmiki was a low-caste highway robber is not well-corroborated in scripture. Most versions of the Ramayana do not mention this.

But even if Valmiki were a low-caste person, it is not relevant to the message of the Ramayana. Even if one were to assume that he was a Shudra by birth and reformed through Narada’s intervention, the story of Shambuka mentioned earlier clearly indicates that his low-caste birth has nothing to do with the message of the Ramayana, because in the story of Shambuka, a man is executed simply because he chanted mantras and performed penance in spite of being a Shudra - something that Valmiki himself clearly did quite regularly.

For instance, the translation of the Ramayana by Manmatha Nath Dutt (Volume 7, Uttara Kanda, Calcutta, 1894, page 1909) mentions that when Valmiki brings Sita and the twins Lava and Kusha to Rama's court to prove Sita's innocence, he says, “I tell you the truth, O Rama, that these irrepressible twin brothers are your sons, O descendant of Raghu. I am the tenth son of Pracheta, and so, far from speaking untruth, it does not even spring up in my mind. I have performed austere penances for many thousand years; I now swear before thee, that if this Maithili is found touched by any sin, I shall not reap the fruit of my ascetic observances extending over many thousand years. I have never before perpetrated a crime, either in my mind, body, or speech. If Maithili is found divested of sin, I may then partake of the fruits of piety.”

This passage does not support any suggestion of Valmiki having been a highway robber in his past — his clear assertion that he had never before perpetrated a crime, either in his mind, body, or speech, puts paid to that speculation. Also, the way he states his birth (as the son of Prachetas, and therefore speaking untruth never even springs up in his mind) clearly indicates that he is high-born, and the son of a Brahmin.

The question of whether Valmiki was a highway robber before becoming a sage has been hotly debated, and has even been the subject of a court case. I quote some relevant portions of the judgement in this case below:

A debate rages on amongst scholars both religious and academic about the authenticity of the story, whether Maharshi Valmiki was a dacoit. The actual facts appear to be lost in the mists of antiquity. Dr. Manjula Sehdev, one such scholar kindly consented to address this court. She has carried out a detailed research into the origin and authenticity of this story and if her work is to be accepted as correct, there may be force in the argument raised by counsel for the respondent that there is no historical or mythological basis for the story that Maharishi Valmiki was a dacoit before he became a sage. It would, therefore, be relevant to reproduce a few salient features of her research.

  1. From Vedic literature upto 9th Century A.D., there is no reference as such that Maharishi Valmiki led a life of a dacoit or a Highwayman.
  2. Even upto 9th Century A.D., the etymology of the word Valmiki (a person born from an ant-hill) is not available.
  3. In his own work 'Ramayana', he is called Bhagwan, Muni, Rishi and Maharishi. No reference of his Highwaymanship is available there.
  4. First reference regarding Rishi Valmiki as a Highwayman is mentioned in the Skand Purana. The time of this Purana is considered 10th Century A.D.
  5. The first reference of the mantra 'Mara-Mara' has been mentioned in the Adhyatma Ramayana (Ayodhya kanda, 6.80-81). The time of Adhyatma Ramayana has been considered 15th Century A.D. by scholars. In the same way, we find mantra 'Mara-Mara' in Ananda Ramayana (Rajya-Kanda, 14.141). This work has been considered of 16th Century A.D.
  6. The Bhakti movement was started in the southern part of India about 8th & 9th Century A.D. by Alwars. When this movement came at its peak from 3th to 16th Centuries A.D., many stories were woven around the personality of Rishi Valmiki keeping in view the importance of Sri Rama as an incarnation of Vishnu.

The salient features of this research appear to cast a doubt about the authenticity of the story that Maharishi Valmiki was a dacoit.

But even if Valmiki were a low-caste person, it is not relevant to the message of the Ramayana. Even if one were to assume that he was a Shudra by birth and reformed through Narada’s intervention, the story of Shambuka mentioned earlier clearly indicates that his low-caste birth has nothing to do with the message of the Ramayana, because in the story of Shambuka, a man is executed simply because he chanted mantras and performed penance in spite of being a Shudra — something that Valmiki himself clearly did quite regularly.

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Why Deny or Interpret Selectively?

Vivekananda realized that to eradicate the problem of caste discrimination in Hinduism, if he criticized Hindu scripture too harshly, a population that was already feeling depressed about the low status of its culture would get further discouraged, and he might not achieve his objective of getting them to change their behaviour. Hence he maintained a focus on the positive aspects of Hinduism, and focused on those verses in Hindu scripture that decried caste divisions, and did not mention the really offensive parts of Hindu scripture that explicitly supported caste discrimination.

Given all these contradictions, why then do spiritual and social leaders indulge in these kinds of denials and selective interpretations? The answer to that question lies in the circumstances in which they gave or are giving these opinions.

I should mention that this section is somewhat speculative. My objective is not to slander anyone but to try and give the most positive reason I can think of why someone who clearly would know what is contained in Hindu scripture would deny, ignore, or selectively interpret it. For instance, I am sure that Swami Vivekananda was such a great scholar of Hinduism that he could quote scripture in his sleep. There must have been, therefore, a reason why he chose to minimize the negative aspects of Hinduism.

Swami Vivekananda was born during the British rule of India, in 1863 – after the country had been completely subdued in the final gasp of rebellion against British rule – the 1857 mutiny that was brutally crushed by the British. The country as a whole was depressed and lacked self-belief. The British dismantled the traditional systems of governance and education and replaced them with their own. In 1835, Lord Macaulay, who served on the Supreme Council of India under Governor General Lord Bentinck, changed the entire educational system of India so that education would no longer be provided in Sanskrit and Persian, as had been done for centuries in India, but in English – the objective being to create a class of people educated in English and capable of service in the Indian Administrative Service to help the British govern India. As a result, young Indians grew up with a greater appreciation of western traditions and started looking down upon their own native traditions and religion. In addition, the British started the process of translating many Hindu scriptures into English in order to understand them. They learned about the evils of the caste system and therefore denounced Hinduism for being a backward religion.

Mahatma Gandhi was reluctant to rock the boat because much of his support (especially financial support to the Congress Party) came from wealthy upper-caste businessmen and he could not antagonize them. In addition, he was not a great expert in the Hindu scriptures … He tried to influence people to give up untouchability and to start dining with people of lower castes, but was only successful in a limited way. A strident criticism of Hinduism and Hindu scripture would not have helped his larger objective of unifying Indians against the British.

In this context, when Vivekananda started preaching on the positive aspects of Hinduism, starting in 1888, and achieving great fame in 1893 with his address at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago, he realized that to eradicate the problem of caste discrimination in Hinduism, if he criticized Hindu scripture too harshly, a population that was already feeling depressed about the low status of its culture would get further discouraged, and he might not achieve his objective of getting them to change their behaviour. Hence he maintained a focus on the positive aspects of Hinduism, and focused on those verses in Hindu scripture that decried caste divisions, and did not mention the really offensive parts of Hindu scripture that explicitly supported caste discrimination.

Mahatma Gandhi had similar motivations. Gandhiji returned to India in 1915 after leading a highly successful struggle in South Africa for the equal treatment of coloured people under the Apartheid regime. He knew intimately the problems of caste discrimination, having seen them in his formative years in Gujarat all too well. But he was reluctant to rock the boat because much of his support (especially financial support to the Congress Party) came from wealthy upper-caste businessmen and he could not antagonize them. In addition, he was not a great expert in the Hindu scriptures. He stated that his understanding of Hinduism was based chiefly upon his detailed study of the Bhagavad Gita, and it was his interpretation that the Gita did not sanction caste discrimination. He tried to influence people to give up untouchability and to start dining with people of lower castes, but was only successful in a limited way. A strident criticism of Hinduism and Hindu scripture would not have helped his larger objective of unifying Indians against the British.

People come in vast numbers to these gurus (Ravishankar and Vasudev) to seek solace and to feel good about their culture and religion. And so, they don’t want to hear bad things about their religion. So the gurus give them a positive message (caste discrimination is bad) but also absolve their religion of the blame and the guilt, so that their followers can feel good about themselves, and say that caste discrimination is a social evil with no sanction in Hinduism, even though that is not true.

The reasons for the modern-day gurus, such as Ravishankar and Vasudev, are somewhat different. Both of them cater to the upwardly-mobile upper middle class in India and to wealthy non-resident Indians (NRIs) and Persons of Indian Origin (PIOs) in foreign countries. These are mostly prosperous people who come in vast numbers to these gurus to seek solace and to feel good about their culture and religion. And so, they don’t want to hear bad things about their religion. So the gurus give them a positive message (caste discrimination is bad) but also absolve their religion of the blame and the guilt, so that their followers can feel good about themselves, and say that caste discrimination is a social evil with no sanction in Hinduism, even though that is not true. After all, a plausible reasoning is that if their devotees listen to them and do not discriminate against others on the basis of caste, it matters little what their reasons for not indulging in caste discrimination are. Whether they discriminate against their fellow beings today is more important than whether they know the flaws in Hindu scripture.

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Path 4: Surgical Reconstruction of Hinduism – A New Proposal

A better alternative to the culture of denial and selective interpretation is to call a spade a spade – to recognize that Hindu scripture has many passages that are simply incompatible with what we hold today to be fundamental human rights, and so should simply be removed from the texts.

A better alternative to the culture of denial and selective interpretation is to call a spade a spade – to recognize that Hindu scripture has many passages that are simply incompatible with what we hold today to be fundamental human rights, and so should simply be removed from the texts.

This is because teachers or gurus are temporary, whereas the scripture is permanent. If some people were to come under the spell of a guru who asks them to treat others with compassion and not observe caste boundaries, that is good, but it only lasts as long as their association with the guru. But today, anyone can read the scriptures and realize that there is scriptural sanction for discrimination. Therefore, if one must eradicate the evil of caste discrimination, one must change the offending scriptures.

The proof that this is needed is clear from the fact that it has been more than 130 years since Vivekananda started preaching, and we have seen so many social reformers and gurus in India, but caste discrimination still exists. It may have reduced to some extent in big cities, but that is more due to the anonymity of city living, where you do not know anything about the person who occupies the apartment next to yours; or the need to work in modern corporate offices where hiring is done on the basis of merit and examination marks rather than your family and your caste. But these are externally imposed constraints. When it comes to things one can control, such as whom one wishes to marry, then caste is on full display. The majority of Hindus, even today, get married through the arranged marriage, where the first thing that is checked is caste compatibility. The majority of Hindus marry within their varNa – regardless of what a Vivekananda or a Gandhi or a Ravishankar or a Vasudev may say. Thus, it must be said that none of these efforts of reformers have succeeded in cleansing the minds of the Hindus. But they have helped Hindus feel better about themselves.

The circumstances in his lifetime that would have prevented someone like Vivekananda from directly confronting the discriminatory passages in Hindu scripture do not exist today. India is now a confident and successful nation, and this is the time to introspect and correct what is wrong in Hinduism’s foundation.

The net result of such a huge and significant endeavour would be to remove all the inconsistencies from Hinduism and make it a religion that respects all people, men and women alike (for there are also blatantly misogynistic passages in Hindu scripture), and remove caste discrimination, so that no one can claim spiritual sanction for perpetrating evil.

I believe this is because of the scriptures. As long as the scriptures sanction caste discrimination, it is impossible to erase caste discrimination in society. One must change the scriptures.

This is not an easy thing to do, and since the scriptural texts have to do with religion, not everyone can do this and hope to get their version accepted. Someone with authority, such as a Shankaracharya or other highly respected Hindu seer, needs to take the initiative, rid Hinduism of all the backward passages in its scripture, and present it as a revised version of Hinduism with divine sanction.

An example of how something like this can be accomplished is seen in the Mormon Church, a sect of Christianity. Traditionally, the Mormon faith preached that Black people were born sinners due to a fault that one of their ancestors committed – that their black skin was a mark that God put on them to punish them. This resulted in the early Mormon Church discriminating against blacks. However, after the civil rights movement outlawed discrimination against blacks, the Mormons amended their scripture in an innovative way. The leader of their Church then, who was regarded as a living Prophet, claimed to have received a vision from God where he was told that discrimination against blacks is wrong and should no longer be done. The scripture was changed, and now Mormonism officially does not discriminate against blacks (at least in theory.) This was possible because the person who was supposed to have received the vision was the most respected person at the time in the religion. Hence what he recommended was accepted by all the followers.

The circumstances in his lifetime that would have prevented someone like Vivekananda from directly confronting the discriminatory passages in Hindu scripture do not exist today. India is now a confident and successful nation, and this is the time to introspect and correct what is wrong in Hinduism’s foundation.

The net result of such a huge and significant endeavour would be to remove all the inconsistencies from Hinduism and make it a religion that respects all people, men and women alike (for there are also blatantly misogynistic passages in Hindu scripture), and remove caste discrimination, so that no one can claim spiritual sanction for perpetrating evil.

I fervently hope that spiritual leaders of the Hindus take it upon themselves to start a “Hindu reformation” and rid this religion of the blot of caste discrimination.

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Summary

In this introductory essay, I have explained why it is important to investigate the scriptural sanction for caste-based discrimination in Hindu scripture.

I have explained the difficulty of ascertaining what “pure Hinduism” really is, because of the long oral tradition of Hindu scriptures, and explained why there are contradictions in the Hindu scriptural literature.

Because there are both passages exhorting Hindus to discriminate on the basis of caste as well as to not do so, and because there is not a consistent position throughout, I explained why my goal was to see if the passages exhorting and supporting caste-based discrimination were minor aberrations or large, significant portions of the scriptures. I mentioned that I have found in my research of Hindu scripture that the support for caste-based discrimination is indeed wide-spread, even though there are even a few passages that take a more enlightened position.

I then talk about the four ways in which the scriptural sanction for caste-based discrimination can be dealt with.

The first is to completely reject Hindu scripture or reject Hinduism, as Ambedkar had done. I reject this as impractical.

The second is to insist that while Hinduism today has scriptural support for caste-based discrimination, a “pure” version of Hinduism does not. I reject this approach because of the difficulties in defining this “pure” version of Hinduism and also because such an approach has no practical value.

The third is to engage in denial and selective interpretation – in other words, pretend the problem does not exist, that the offending passages that encourage caste-based discrimination do not exist, and instead focus on the positive parts of scripture. I reject this approach for two reasons. One is that it is intellectually dishonest. The other is because in today’s information world, people can easily know what their scripture is telling them, and this means that you do not solve the problem, because those who wish to engage in caste-based discrimination will be able to find scriptural sanction in Hindu scriptures to justify their actions.

The fourth option is what I recommend – a surgical reconstruction of Hinduism by eminent, respected Hindu spiritual and religious leaders to remove all the offending parts in Hinduism which are not consonant with modern human rights values.

Future articles in this series will focus on individual scriptures, such as the Bhagavad Gita, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and so on, and identify specific passages that explicitly condone and even exhort caste discrimination. They will be the “evidence” for the claim I have made here – that Hindu scriptures contain plenty of explicit material that clearly encourage and dictate caste discrimination.

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Acknowledgments

I would first and foremost like to thank my wife, Sandhya Srinivasan, for giving me unstinting support in the many months and years it has taken me to do the research for this article series and write it, even though it took me away from her and our daughter for extended periods. Without her constant, unwavering, and enthusiastic support, this series would not have been possible.

I also owe thanks to Sandhya for being a strong intellectual partner in this endeavor. She has been very kind to spare time from her busy schedule to read every word of every article that I have ever written for my blog, and offer careful, considered, and critical feedback on them. Her inputs on this caste-discrimination series in the form of feedback and suggestions have been invaluable.

One friend without whom this series would not have been possible is Ganesh Prasad. He has been a source of constant encouragement, and his unflagging enthusiasm for the project allowed me to continue with it even at times when I started to wonder if the effort was at all worth it. In addition, Ganesh has been very patient and thorough in proofreading every line of every article in the series, and offering extremely valuable feedback that has greatly improved the series, from as far back as 4 years ago when he read the first draft of this series, to the final posted articles now. I owe him a debt of gratitude.

I would like to thank Dileepan Raghunathan for his help in understanding some passages in the Gita. I would also like to thank Ramdas Menon for helpful comments and feedback on the articles in this series, and for his strong encouragement and support of this series in particular, and my writing in general.

Lastly, I would like to thank the many people with whom I have had vigorous arguments on this topic, on Facebook and WhatsApp. Some of those arguments took up entire weekends, but they ended up clarifying my thinking immensely and helped me sharpen my positions.

Any errors or mistakes in this article, however, should not be attributed to any of these people, for such errors and mistakes are entirely my own fault. The contributions of my kind and patient friends and family have been only to enhance this humble work.

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Caste-Based Discrimination in Hinduism – The Full Series

This is an evolving list. More titles will be added as they are published. This list is the current list of published articles.

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Disclaimer: All the opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of Dr. Seshadri Kumar alone and should not be construed to mean the opinions of any other person or organization, unless explicitly stated otherwise in the article.

13 comments:

  1. To say anything would be like attempting to gild the lily

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  3. Fantastic! Very thoroughly researched article. For the sake of newspaper articles, I have been searching in this topic/area for quite a few years; ultimately, I happened to land on this one which has sated my thirst to the fullest. Very comprehensive, clear and precise. I wish it comes in as many Indian subcontinental languages like Nepali, Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, etc as possible. I am really really overwhelmed by reading this. Whole-souled appreciations!!!

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    1. Thank you so much for your nice words. I deeply appreciate it. If you do plan to get it translated, that would be great! But do keep me involved!

      Incidentally, part 2 of this series (on the Bhagavad Gita) will be out soon.

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    2. Hi,

      WRT your query for a translation, I have added a gadget for translations on the right of the page. You can pick the language you want and it will auto-translate for you (using Google Translate). The output is not perfect, but is a good starting point that can be later refined, if you are serious about translating the article.

      Also, check out the other parts of the series (links can be found in the article itself).

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  4. Finally got time to read this post. This is excellence in the age of quick-fill infotainment. Inspiring work

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  5. Thank you! Be sure to read the rest of the series (links to which can be found in the article)!

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  6. All Hindus believe in two fundamental doctrines, the law of karma and doctrine of reincarnation. Life carries its moral bills, and they are paid in the cyclical pattern of rebirth until all dues are paid in full. Hinduism here conveys an inherited sense of wrong, which is lived out in the next life, in vegetable, animal, or human form. This doctrine is nonnegotiable in Hindu philosophy. Repercussions of fatalism (that is, whatever happens will happen) and the indifference to the plight of others are inescapable but are dismissed by philosophical platitudes that do not weigh out the consequences of such reasoning. Thus it is key to bear in mind that although karma is seen as a way of paying back, this payback is never complete; hence life is lived out paying back a debt that one cannot know in total but that must be paid in total.

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    1. All this is fine; but as I say here in Part VI (http://www.leftbrainwave.com/2017/04/the-scriptural-sanction-for-caste-based_15.html#TOC2O8),

      "The only logical difficulty in this entire karma-guNa-varNa-dharma theory is that no one can actually verify what a person did in his previous life in order to verify the theory."

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    2. Are you claiming since Karma, reincarnation cannot be proved, they are false?

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  7. This article is based on wrong assumptions, just as the people who do such unsanctioned acts of discrimination. Knowledgeable people should be trying to educate the facts. Not wrong assumptions.

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  8. An excellent and truly exhaustive study. I am a Hindu brahmin born in a mleccha family. I have experienced both discrimination and acceptance from other brahmins. I have a few points to make — Dharma Shastras is quite clear that a birth-brahmin who does not perform Sandhya Vandana for 2 days reverts to being a Sudra - so we can say that there are exremely few people who can lay claim to being brahmins! Secondly living in the west we find that the vast majority of expatriate Hindus have abandoned the caste system. Thirdly all the scriptures can be edited and the offending material expunged - I myself do this. Only the Vedas can not be edited. Fourthly we should also be careful to avoid being sucked into a neo-Marxist leftist utopian fantasy of society. Hierarchy is integral to all societies and will always be so - even the Bolsheviks failed to eliminate hierarchy. Discrimination based on birth should be eliminated based on core Hindu ethics, and every body should be given a fair go. There are millions of geniuses among the street kids of India.

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