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Caste system: Hindus must reflect, drive change

Anantanand Rambachan writes: I was challenged by the Bishop’s denunciation to recognise that he encountered Hinduism in ways radically different from my own experience.


Updated: October 4, 2021 9:07:02 am
There can be no genuine dismantling of the structures of caste without the willingness of Hindus to move from defensive justification to radical self-criticism. (Reprsentational)

Written by Anantanand Rambachan

In February 2006, I was invited as a representative of the Hindu community at the 9th Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Brazil. At the very first discussion, a Bishop from India chastised the Council for giving legitimacy to Hindus and their traditions by inviting a few of us. He described us as his oppressors and characterised Hindu traditions as “unjust” and “bereft of any redeemable features”. He concluded by inviting everyone to work for dismantling of Hinduism. I learned later that the Bishop came from the Dalit community. His words pierced me. I had never before heard anyone describe me as an oppressor.

My great grandparents had migrated from Northern India to Trinidad and Tobago in the late 19th Century as indentured workers. The observation of caste strictures was very difficult in the shared living space of barracks. Caste, therefore, although not absent, was a minimal feature in my life. I was aware that most Hindu priests claimed status as Brahmins, but other traditional features of caste such as hereditary work-specialisation, and regulations governing inter-dining, intermarriage and social relations were minimal. Our friendships were not constrained by caste. Temples were open to all. My grandfathers served the community as Hindu priests. I was aware of my family’s status as Brahmins.

I was challenged by the Bishop’s denunciation to recognise that he encountered Hinduism in ways radically different from my own experience. His context was India and Hinduism was an oppressive tradition that negated the dignity and self-worth of his community. How do I as a Hindu respond to this powerful challenge?

I must begin by acknowledging the inhumanity, and injustice, of the caste system, and that it has indeed been widely legitimised by its appeal to Hindu teachings and texts. It is pervasively present in ritual practices. As Hindus, we must desist from apologetically explaining away the caste system as a creation of foreigners or as just a response to foreign presence in India. Its antiquity belies such explanations. We must cease speaking of caste as corruption of a social arrangement that had some noble underlying purpose for the common good. Hindus are not free from susceptibility to the corruption of power, from the desire to affirm self-value by devaluing others, and from controlling the bodies of others for their own economic wellbeing.

There can be no genuine dismantling of the structures of caste without the willingness of Hindus to move from defensive justification to radical self-criticism. We must also interrogate the assumptions of the social system that assign different values, privileges and opportunities to human beings on the basis of dangerous notions of purity and impurity.

The repudiation of religious teachings and practices that justify caste must be complemented by Hindu support for policies that redress economic and other disadvantages. There is a direct relationship between regarding some bodies more worthy than others and unequal access to goods and opportunities. The affirmation of a Hindu theology of human equality and dignity, grounded in the teaching that the divine exists equally and identically in everyone, is fundamental for the work of social change and structural transformation.

Self-criticism, however, will not be meaningfully undertaken without attention to the voices of those who experience the tradition as denying them the opportunities and resources to flourish. We must hear their truths, however difficult for us. This is not easy since Hindu religious leaders still come primarily from males of the upper castes who have always experienced power and privilege within the tradition.

There is no critical voice as insightful about the oppressive face of the Hindu tradition than Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar. Yet, no prominent Hindu post-Independence commentator on the Bhagavad Gita, including Mahatma Gandhi, even makes mention of his formidable arguments.

The questions from the Dalit community, articulated by Dr Ambedkar in 1935, are compelling ones to begin the journey of Hindu self-examination. “Does Hinduism recognise their worth as human beings? Does it stand for their equality?… Does it at least help to forge the bond of fraternity between them and the Hindus?… Does it say to the Hindus it is a sin to treat the Untouchables as being neither man nor beast?… In fine, does Hinduism universalise the value of life without distinction?”

The writer is a Professor of Religion at Saint Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota, US .

Suraj Yengde, the author of Caste Matters, curates the fortnightly Dalitality column

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