Friday, October 07, 2005

Hinduism and Caste: A Radical Reinterpretation

Hindu civilization has not been static. It has been characterized by constant movement, intellectual redefinition and struggle. Reformers within the Hindu framework continually contested certain tenets. The Veda and Upanishad are not centered on caste. Key successor texts, not to mention folk practice, challenge social elitism. Hinduism can not be reduced to a mere caste-centered tradition as it goes on to include a sense of the aesthetic, a method of statecraft and an approach to the secular. It incorporates empiricism, philosophy, devotion and dissent. To quote Radhakrishnan, "Hinduism is a movement, not a position; a process, not a result; a growing tradition, not a fixed revelation." It is an unstructured assortment of different sects, denominations and practices where common motifs and themes recur. The absence of fixed tenets or a rigid theology is conducive to free thought.

Persons of all castes contributed to a Hindu intellectual understanding of the world. The author of the Aitereya Brahmana was half Dasyu. Valmiki, the author of the Ramayana, belonged to a robber tribe. Epic legend has it that the great rishi, Parasara, was the son of an outcaste girl. Vyasa, his son by a fisherwoman, edited the Mahabharata and Brahma Sutras.

There is a rich tradition of dissent in Hindu civilization. The Upanishads question ritual and ceremony. These texts emphasize reason as against priest craft. One Upanishad likens the chants of the priests to frogs croaking in twilight while the Svetasvatara Upanishad asserts that the attainment of immortal bliss is the birthright of all, irrespective of social position.

Much of the Bhakti movement of devotion to a personal god, emphasized democratic values. Proponents questioned exclusiveness, hierarchy, ritual and exploitation. One can refer to Namdev, the tailor, (1270-1350) whose guru was a grocer and sister, a maidservant. His songs of protest and devotion influenced medieval Hindu thought. Jnaneshwar, Eknath, and Tukaram likewise were poets of the masses who stressed the equality of man in the eyes of God. Texts such as the Bhagavad Geeta and Srimad Bhagavatam influenced these Maharashtrian saints.

The Lingayats represented democratic stirrings in early medieval Karnataka. This movement drew persons of all castes in committed devotion to Siva and organized the Siva anubhava mantapa in the 12 century, wherein all discussed, debated and defined the principles of Saivite Hinduism, regardless of caste. This movement, which included some 60 eminent women saints in positions of leadership, emphasized inter-caste marriage, the abandonment of untouchabity and the dignity of labor.

Other voices of protest rooted in the Hindu tradition included Ramanand and his disciples Kabir the weaver, Ravidas the shoe maker, and Sena the barber. Akho, the gold smith and the Tamil Siddhas opposed caste-based oppression as well. Most Siddhas belonged to the untouchable caste and spoke out, in Siva's name, against exploitation. The Siddhas, Pattinattar, Sivavakhiyar and Pathirakiriyar, criticized hypocrisy and formalism.

This liberal tradition continued into the 19th and 20th century with Ram Mohan Roy, Keshub Chandra Sen, Rabindranath Tagore, Jyotiba Phule, Narayana Guru, Vivekananda, Dayananda Saraswathi and Mohandas Gandhi. Each attempted to introduce a more just and compassionate society and did so from the Hindu standpoint.

One has to re-assert this liberal trend in Hinduism and re-emphasize the oneness of humanity. One can then recover an inheritance centered on loka samgraha, the purposive action towards the social good, and Kshemakrit, the welfare obligation to the poor. The highest worship is that of Daridra Narayana, that divinity who assumes the form of the downtrodden. To quote the author of the Bhagavata Purana,

"I desire from God neither Lordship nor absence from rebirth! I pray that I stay amongst the afflicted, that I bear the load of their grief and help liberate themselves from the causes."

Tiruvalluvar, the ancient Tamil poet, goes on to assert,

"real superiority does not stem from birth, wealth and education; it is born of character alone. The absence of character cannot sustain all or any of the former; indeed even with all of them, the absence of character would make one but a wretch."


Leela Navaratnam said...

Interesting editorial and take on the subject of caste. Social stratification is not unique to Hinduism though.

Primary Red said...

While your points are generally valid, it's not clear who exactly should be reasserting the liberal trend in Hinduism?

As you note, there is no fixed center in this faith.

Besides, we need to be extremely careful about such discussions -- esp. in the secular political space. There is a dangeorus argument made by the Sangh Parivar that India's socially progressive ideals (the one they ironically wage war on) are a consequence of their shrill Hinduism they claim is liberal. We reject such arguments, and for that reason, are wary of getting into deep religious discussions in the political space.

All faiths probably should reassert their innate liberalism. But whether they do or not, is really not the concern of the secular state -- except when faith-driven bigotry spills out as rivers of blood on Indian streets. Then, the state is obliged (but has often failed) to crush the bigots in our midst.

Best regards.

doubtinggaurav said...


I didn't get your point.
If by secular politcal space you meant your blog, then certainly it is your privilege to decide the topics, however if your intention was general social space, the same space has to be shared by all sorts of discussion.
Specifically same set of people will be discussing political(or as you put secular) as well as religious issues.
When the church and state was seperated, it only meant that state (that is government )will not promote religion or interfere in it,
however society and individuals can and in my opinion should indulge in these discussions.
That means the fact I am interested in religion and discusson on religious issues should not be construed as bar on my entering into discussions on political economical or other so called secular issues.
At anyrate secularism is a western construct and more applicable to semitic faiths.
As regards to your animosity with Sangh Parivar,I fail to see the reason.
If the reason for this is few scoundrels(or extremist) in organisation,then this is our misfortune that they are present in all groups in India, in fact You can find more scoundrels in "so called" centre and left than right.

I firmly believe that many of our national problems, whether social or political, can be traced back to stagnation in hindu religion,
these problems can be solved only by reforming Hinduism.
Therefore resurgence of India is impossible without reforming our Indian/Hindu culture.
Just like the main thrust of christianity is seeking love and that of islam is seeking austerity, that of Hinduism is of seeking Gyan (knowledge and/or wisdom), therefore reforming Hinduism means restarting the process of dialog in the religion,
this process was started in 19th and early century by intellectual stalwarts like Vivekananda,Guru Aurobindo and so many other people.
However because Mahatma Gandhi mixed the reformation with politcal movement after independence it was stopped.
This process has to be started again and I think it is for Hindus to do it.
RSS is more than a political organistaion, it was founded for resurgence of India.
RSS also believes in reformation and resurgence of Hinduism.
Yes I am also disappointed with RSS, but the reason for that is RSS instead of furthering the case of discussion has become a dogmatic entity.But I still think it's heart is in right place.
As for it's shrillness you alluded to, it is natural considering that how socialists and communists have targeted hindu culture since independence in order to have control on Indians.
By maligning Hinduism, they seek to rob Hindus of their spirit.
It is this and it's witchhunting and demonization RSS is fighting.
As far as RSS claim that India is intrinsically liberal because of Hinduism goes, I agree with it, even though I can disagree on interpretation of Hinduism.
I agree with Jaffna contention that Hinduism is a movement, and revive it from it's stupor,new movement is needed


Jagan Mohan said...

I attempt to answer this question on my blog at

My post is from a Vaishnavite perspective.

Sadly, only about 1 - 3% of Hindus ever have read their respective Parampara Scriptures and have a Dikshit Guru.

Without belonging to a Parampara or taking Diksha from a genuine Guru from a established Guru-parampara, one can never claim to be qualified to discuss these topics.

nukh said...

first off, congratulations and many thanks to the keepers of this blog. we needed such an organ.
btw, primary, all religions cannot honestly lay claim to being innately liberal.

and doubtingg...thanks for raising soem very valid points.

libertarian said...

Jaffna, thanks for a very informative article on liberal trends in Hinduism. In particular, Tiruvalluvar's observation inspired me immensely.

PR I'm afraid that not addressing the issue of religion in India, from a secular standpoint, allows extreme viewpoints to thrive unchallenged. To loosely quote Shashi Tharoor (Invention of India), Nehru "underestimated the hold the Temples of the Past had on the Indian imagination" (while focussing exclusively on the Scientific Temples of the Future). Further, (I might be drinking strong Kool-Aid here ;-) ) I believe we are culturally better-equipped than most to handle divergent viewpoints. This extends to relative comfort while discussing religion in a strongly secular forum.

DG while I certainly don't subscribe to the RSS-as-angels view, I believe they are the manifestation of the religious right-wing that would pop up in any largely free society. It's inevitable. They may have a point that India is intrinsically liberal because of Hinduism, but they've done their damndest to undo that liberal mindset. I've seen the fruit of their evil spawn, the Shiv Sena.

Jagan Mohan, I think it's a good thing that most people (Hindus or not) are not constantly immersed in scriptures or ideology. That to me is a healthy society. When a large proportion of people start worrying about ideology, or theology, instead of a better life for themselves and their kids, I think we're in deep trouble.

Jaffna said...

I must thank Leela Navaratnam (a fellow national, it seems), Primary Red, Doubting Gaurav, Nukh and Liberatarian for their perspectives. This is sincerely appreciated. A clash of viewspoints and intellectual disagreement are useful stimulants for rational thinking. The beauty of this blog is not just its postings but its vigorous discussion threads.

The Arabic word is "ijtihad" i.e. reasoning (or alternatively intellectual struggle) to interpret the law. I will try to post something on this soon.

And this is where I vigorously disagree with Jagan where he claims that certain subjects are beyond debate and open only to the initiated. I get intolerant of such exclusivism for it is the very basis of caste and all its shortcomings.

As the Buddha mentioned in the Kalama Sutta, nothing is ever exempt from investigation. "Test a viewpoint", he added elsewhere, "as you would test iron in fire". This to me is the shared Indic inheritance.

doubtinggaurav said...


I liked your conclusion.
But I would like to give Jagan some leeway, I think he only means that in order to reason, you need thorough knowledge, which I think is, well reasonable ;-)
Yes itjihaad is a perfectly good idea,I am not sure it is continued any more.

I don't claim that it is angel
or it is perfect.
But I don't quite think that it is a demon or monster as made out to be in intellectual circles.
Truth be told, RSS is one of the major voluntary oranitations helping people without respect to their identities in time of emergencies.
Ofcus they don't have a good PR, which is always a shame :-|.
When you say RSS is right wing then yes it is in a way, however I would like to advise to use phrases like "right wing" or "left wing", which are useful in western context with caution and that too only loosely.
(But then I have same idea about secularism ;-))
Shiv Sena is right wing, but I don't think it is inspired from RSS, Shiv Sena is basically a regional extremist organisation, while RSS has a national perspective.
In fact, ironically, the most pan national entities in India in the sense that they don't play on regional identities are Communist, BJP and Congress.

And about theology vs philosphy that again is a western idea, Hinduism doesn't have sharply demarcated positons. Here theology, philosphy all intermingle in fine verses.


sanjay said...

I agree with nukh - not all religions can claim to be innately liberal. Perhaps the most objective measure of the "degree of a liberalism" within various religions is to analyze how many different ways of knowing (WoKs)God/ Truth/ Ultimate Reality/ etc. these religions accept as being valid.

1. Modern science typically accepts as valid two ways of knowing: perception (pramana) & inference (anumana)

2. Christianity accepts only Word (Shabda) as valid WoK

By contrast, Hindu philosophy accepts six valid WoKs: perception, inference, comparison, word, postulation & non-perception

Hindu thinkers believed that the special knowledge, as obtained through the different WOKs, was always relative and gave only a glimpse of the Absolute Truth. By allowing a voice to all WoKs, the discussion/ debate became a joint search for Truth - the essence of Samvaad – rather than victory of one side over another.

It follows, therefore, that the more voices are included, the closer one gets to the Truth/ Reality etc. This is perhaps the bedrock of Indian pluralism.


sanatan said...

I think if we were to truly follow the spirit behind our national motto, Satyameva Jayate, we all will be better off. I say this from my understanding of Satyam; it is something that can be arrived at through various means as Sanjay points out, but behind it lies a very ethical premise, which is lok hitam, without which search for Truth or Knowledge becomes a mere academic exercise. And please don't confuse this idea of lok hitam with socialism or communism.

Satyameva Jayate will result if we were to follow dharma (as understood in the original sanskrit context), which is a principle to bring about dynamic equilibrium in society by removing any limitation on freedoms of man, best conceptualized by the word Rta.

Dharma is bereft of the categories of left, right or center, as it is more commonsensical in approach. There are no predetermined theories except that both individuals and society are interlinked and only when both flourish can there be genuine human advancement and peace.

Another problem that I have with PR and other people in the Indian Blogoshpere that they criticize the left but play by its rules. As long as you play by some one else's rules, you cannot bring about real change because in politics, as in other spheres of life, setting the agenda and the rules of the game is most important aspect of controlling the outcome.

This is where I think a new liberation theory for India is needed which is not premised on the duality of left or right or anywhere in between. The idea is to transcend this framework.

The new framework will be concerned about the poor because it will be concerned about their freedoms. The question that we need to be asking the left is how come they are for the poor with all the regulations that curb economic liberty. The debate is not, and should not be, about trickle down effect. The starting point of the debate is the poor person on the street who is not economically free.

To bring about a real change in India, lets begin with a new paradigm which begins with the notion that freedoms are not rights that the state can bestow or take away. It is people who are the sole possessors of those freedoms who are willing to give up some of their freedoms in a social compact to prevent exploitation and live a peaceful live without constant worrying of how to defend themselves, for example.

Jaffna said...

Sanjay and Sanatan,

Thank you for the food for thought. Inspiring indeed.

Best regards

sanjay said...

Sanatan: I would argue that the multiplicity of WoKs accepted by Hindu philosophy is itself the bedrock of "lok hitam" since it accepts as valid a wide range of human experiences i.e it does not a-priori discriminate against a given form of experience. Let me use the example of modern science to illustrate my point. Consider the following two statements:

1. The horse is not in the stable i.e. the horse must be somewhere else.
2. This man is dead and has no signs of consciousness i.e. consciousness has ceased to exist

Modern science accepts both (1) & (2) as true statements & therein exposes the problem of bias in modern science. In case (1), non-perception of the horse leads to the conclusion that "the horse is some where else" whereas in case (2) non-perception of consciousness leads to the conclusion that "consciousness has ceased to exist". This means that modern science uses "non-perception" selectively to justify radically opposing conclusions. If the same logic were applied to both cases, science would have to conclude for (1) the horse does not exist or (2) consciousness must exist somewhere else. This means that science will ridicule, suppress, deny funding to, persecute, deny etc. those yoga practitioners, tantrics, gurus, swamis, individuals etc. who claim to experience other states of consciousness. Which would be a limitation on or trampling of the "freedoms of man".

Even if you personally subscribe to a school of philosophy that accepts only 4/6 WoKs, you still have to know about & respect the other two else you inadvertently trample on the freedoms of those other two. This is perhaps why the very first chapters taught in all systems of hindu philosophy are precisely on the valid ways of knowing. I would humbly suggest that dharma & rta are simply impossible to put into practice unless we first understand the importance of accepting the six ways of Knowing.

I agree with you that there is a need for a new transcendental, liberation theory for India. I suspect, however, that the current "rights-based" paradigm that sees human beings as "a bundle of rights attached to a human body" is here to stay for the forseeable future. This idea has become "commoditized" down to the common person via mass education, mass marketing etc. The way to counter it has to include the mass marketing of duty or dharma based education.



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