Wednesday, December 22, 2010

[ZESTCaste] Recasting Hinduism for the 21st century

Recasting Hinduism for the 21st century

It is important that Hindus take the lead in acknowledging the damage
that caste discrimination does and resolving to tackle it

o Ramesh Rao
o, Tuesday 21 December 2010 16.00 GMT

Caste has become the convenient "hook" to hang the Hinduism portrait
since Hinduism, that "rolling caravan of conceptual spaces," is too
complex a religion/way of life for the "people of the book" who have
reigned supreme the past two millennia. Unfortunately, caste being the
complex conundrum that it is, Hinduism almost always is seen through
the prism of caste.

In a newly published report, the Hindu American Foundation tackles the
issue of caste discrimination, and of the immediate and urgent need
for Hindus to acknowledge that caste is not an intrinsic part of
Hinduism, that continuing caste-based discrimination is a major human
rights problem, and only Hindus, through reform movements, through an
activist agenda, and through education can rid Hindu society of the
scourge of caste-based discrimination.

While there will be naysayers in the Hindu community, who wish to get
into their bunkers and fight a rearguard battle to "defend" Hinduism
from what they see as a concerted campaign of vilification by
Christian missionaries, Muslim fundamentalists, Marxist Hindu haters,
and a global-capitalist-western hegemony, it is important that Hindus
bell the casteist cat themselves. In this regard, the HAF report
points out that caste-based discrimination is a serious human rights
issue in the Indian sub-continent, and that over 160 million people,
whom the Indian government categorises as "scheduled castes" (SCs),
suffer from discrimination by not only a variety of Hindu caste groups
but even by "upper caste" Christians and Muslims after they have
converted to Christianity or Islam.

The Indian constitution, whose chief architect, BR Ambedkar, was
himself a member of the scheduled castes, outlaws "untouchability" –
the act of segregating and ostracising a social group by literally
prohibiting physical contact with members of the SCs. Alas, India is
hobbled by a weak and sometimes dysfunctional judicial system, and
therefore acts of discrimination against the SCs (or Dalits, as many
of them prefer to call themselves) either go unpunished or ignored.

Other lawlessness in India goes unpunished but the challenge of
dealing with caste-based discrimination has been the most
disheartening. This is especially so in rural areas where caste
dynamics continues to play havoc. In 2008, for example, according to
the Indian government, there were 33,615 human rights violations of
various types – from the denial of entry into temples to denial of
service in wayside restaurants, and from bonded labour to the
exploitation of women.

HAF's report therefore begins with an important point: that 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 attempts by Hindus to
curtail it. It notes that caste-based discrimination represents a
failure of Hindu society "to live up to its essential spiritual
teachings," that divinity is inherent in all beings, and that caste is
not an intrinsic part of Hinduism.

Sure, untouchability is practiced not just by Hindus in India and
Nepal but by non-Hindus in Yemen, Japan, Korea, France, Somalia, and
Tibet. But the sheer number of people who are discriminated against in
India makes this a uniquely Indian and Hindu problem. Fishing in
India's troubled waters are therefore missionaries who for long have
sought to make India Christian, and the left/Marxist forces in India
who see only Hinduism as a problem but not religion per se. In recent
decades, and especially after George W

Bush became president, there was a surge in monies funneled into India
for planting churches and converting Hindus. Organisations like the
Dalit Freedom Network, led by and catering to mostly Christians, have
gone on overdrive and sought to categorise SCs as non-Hindus and
therefore arguing that they are not converting Hindus to Christianity.

HAF's report, a first of its kind by a modern Hindu advocacy group,
provides readers a handy but grand sweep of the problem of caste –
from its origins to its role in the past and at present, its use and
abuse, and reform movements from the earliest by the likes of
Basaveshwara to the great 19th- and 20th-century reform movements like
the Arya Samaj movement, and reformers like Jyotiba Phule, Narayana
Guru, Mahatma Gandhi, and others.

Noting that there are defenders of the caste system, not just the
curmudgeon and cruel among Hindus, but the likes of Voltaire and
Diderot who fought against the monotheistic intolerance of Christians
and Muslims, to sociologists like Louis Dumont who argued that the
"distribution of functions leads to exchanges", to the great
Indophile, Alain Daniélou who argued that caste does not equate to
"racist inequality but… a natural ordering of diversity," the HAF
report argues that a birth-based hierarchy is unacceptable, that
inequities against and the abuse of the Dalits/SCs is a human rights
issue, and that the solution to this social ill is available within
Hindu sacred texts themselves, and that Hindus should be at the
forefront of putting an end to the system of birth-based hierarchy as
well as taking the lead in energising the Dalit community to fight

As the British seek to draft a new bill of rights, and from what one
hears, equate caste with racism, similar to what was sought at the
United Nations' Durban conference on racism and racial discrimination,
as western Europe and US-based missionary groups ratchet up the calls
for actions and sanctions against India, and as we move into a new era
of global interaction, it is time for Hindus to act.


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