co-founder, Hindu American Foundation Aseem ShuklaAssociate Professor
in urologic surgery at the University of Minnesota medical school.
Co-founder and board member of Hindu American Foundation.
Hinduism is not cast in caste
Millenial questions haunt various religious traditions, and their
adherents are too often forced into the roles of apologist or
antagonist. Islam is hounded by the questions of extremism and
violence--of the past and present; Christianity deals with a history
of the crusades and inquisition of yore, and church scandals today;
Jews are bedeviled now by the Palestinian question; and Hindus, well,
there is the caste conundrum.
A hierarchical system of caste based discrimination against those
belonging to the "lowest" castes, often referred to as Harijans or
Dalits, is still in play in parts of India, especially rural villages.
Hindus too often feared to tread on this "untouchable" issue--one that
is so contrary to the lofty ideals of a religion that speaks of an
immanent and transcendent divinity that inhabits every being
equally--or historical analogies and tortured explanations are
proffered to explain what should not be.
Marking Human Rights Day and the sixtieth anniversary of the
ratification of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Hindu
American Foundation released today a report that confronts the caste
issue head-on. Hinduism: Not Caste in Caste--Seeking an end to Caste
Based Discrimination is a groundbreaking, 172-page report, that states
with brutal honesty that Hindus bear a special burden to denounce
caste-based discrimination since some Hindu texts sanction the caste
system. But in contending that caste is in no way "intrinsic" to
Hinduism, the report is redemptive: the solution to the caste blight
actually lies in a proper interpretation of authentic Hindu scripture.
It is an admission, a renunciation and a call to action.
Presented here, is the report's Executive Summary, as authored by the
report's editor-in-chief, Swaminathan Venkataraman, and co-editors,
Pawan Deshpande and Mihir Meghani.
Caste-based discrimination is a serious human rights issue in the
Indian sub-continent. Over 160 million people fall under the category
of Scheduled Castes (SCs), the erstwhile untouchables, and still
suffer from terrible discrimination. And, while untouchability has
been outlawed, abuse and discrimination of SCs persist, particularly
in rural areas of India. In 2008, the Government of India recorded
33,615 human rights violations of various types affecting SCs.
Hindus must acknowledge that caste arose in Hindu society, that some
Hindu texts and traditions justify a birth-based hierarchy and
caste-bias, and that it has survived despite considerable Hindu
attempts to curtail it. Caste-based discrimination represents a
failure of Hindu society to live up to its essential spiritual
teachings and is not an intrinsic part of Hinduism itself. It
represents a lamentable gap between the Hindu teaching of divinity
inherent in all beings, and the failure of society to put that precept
into practice in its dealings with fellow Hindus.
While many in Hindu society may have failed the SCs in the past , it
is critical for Hindu leaders and the larger community to own up to
the problem and address it. While we recognize, and salute, that much
work is already being done in this regard by many Hindu religious
leaders, organizations, and individuals, there is a need for a more
forceful, coordinated, and concerted approach than has been undertaken
thus far, given the sheer magnitude of the problem. In this
connection, HAF presents statements from 13 prominent Hindu religious
and spiritual leaders categorically denouncing caste-based
discrimination as having no part of their teachings and practice of
Hinduism. Several more leaders support our effort, but were unable to
provide us with written statements in time for this publication.
HAF supports the reanalysis and subsequent rejection of any and all
teachings that promote caste-based discrimination and birth-based
hierarchy. Most such teachings are found in texts called Smritis, or
books of ancient Hindu social law, which by their very nature and
intent, are recognized to change with space and time and do not
necessarily teach Hinduism's eternal spiritual truths. Hindu religious
and spiritual leaders must take the lead in ensuring that those parts
of the various scriptures that promote notions of caste-based
discrimination and a birth-based hierarchy are explicitly denied any
authority in the minds of their followers. We hope that they work more
actively to end discrimination, promote equality, and end birth-based
hierarchies by ensuring that their followers put Hindu spiritual
teachings into practice.
At the same time, traditional power structures in the caste hierarchy
have undergone a substantial change, and any solution to the problem
of caste-based discrimination must incorporate the new dynamic that
has emerged in India. The urbanization and economic development of the
country, the Government of India's (GoI) reservation policies, and the
sheer dynamics of representative democracy have wrought a sea change
in caste dynamics since India's independence in 1947. These factors
have also lead to dramatic improvements in the social status of
numerous erstwhile "lower" castes. Thus, while much remains to be
done, especially for the SCs and Scheduled Tribes (STs), the
significant progress in the six decades since India's independence
must also be acknowledged and built upon.
We must also recognize that caste violence in India today is
significantly driven by political and economic considerations and
occurs not between "upper" castes and SCs but rather largely between
the erstwhile "backward" castes and the SCs. For this reason,
eradicating caste-based discrimination not only places a religious
responsibility on Hindus, but also a secular responsibility on civic
and business institutions, and a political responsibility on the GoI
as well as state and local government and law enforcement. Effective
implementation of police reforms and stringent law enforcement are
critical in combating caste-based discrimination.
The movement for the emancipation of SCs is an important one. HAF is
fully committed to the end of discrimination against all SCs, Hindu or
otherwise. We are supportive of the vibrant Harijan and Dalit movement
that has taken root in India today, are working with such groups today
and seek to work with more in the future. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar's greatest
legacy consists not only in his authorship of the Indian Constitution
but also the self-empowerment that he has inspired among the Dalits,
as seen in the large number of secular, Dalit, non-governmental
organizations (NGOs) that are engaged in improving the lot of SCs in
various parts of the country today.
The modern Dalit movement has been joined in the last decade or two by
many Christian organizations, often supported financially from Europe
and the U.S. HAF lauds those organizations involved in mitigating or
eliminating human rights abuses, but is wary of the motives of those
that seek to exploit the situation through anti-Hindu propaganda and
that are driven primarily by conversion agendas. The presence of
caste-based discrimination in Hindu society is one of the reasons that
provides missionaries the ability to "fish in troubled waters." This
is why we argue that Hindu society has a great moral burden to act in
a more determined and concerted fashion to end caste-based
Missionaries are correct about the prevalence of caste-based
discrimination in India, but their claims about caste-based
discrimination being intrinsic to Hinduism, and that conversion to
other religions is the only way to eliminate this problem, must be
seen in the light of their vested interests of "harvesting souls."
Tellingly, conversions to Christianity have not led to an improvement
in the situation of SC converts, who continue to suffer discrimination
at the hands of "upper" caste Christians. We also present testimonials
from a Hindu SC community leader in Chattisgarh affirming his pride in
Hinduism and only demanding for an end to social discrimination, as
well as an article on the plight of Christian Dalits by a well-known
Christian interfaith activist.
By Aseem Shukla | December 10, 2010; 12:07 AM ET
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