Hinduism’s fight against Caste and Birth based discrimination

This was written for Myind Makers, a Startup Platform for exchange of Ideas, run by a team of US based Indian professionals. The article was published in July 2015

I hope the title of this piece did not make you read it twice. Hinduism’s fight against Caste and Birth based discrimination is not an oxymoron or anomaly. For the population that was made to study for at least three generations that ‘caste-ism is one of the evils in Hinduism’, this might come across as a surprise. We have sadly failed to study about the scores of Hindu gurus, composers of Bhakti movement and literary poets who in their own ways have shown the irrelevance of caste in their body of work.

One of the earliest commentaries advocating the need to look beyond the concept of ‘outcaste’ appears in Mahabharata in the Ashvamedhika Parva (I shall not be surprised if one is able to find even earlier sources too). A Brahmana named Uttanka is given a boon by Krishna that he would be able to find water whenever he is thirsty. Uttanka remembers the boon when he feels thirsty while travelling through a desert. He then encounters a Chandala who offers him water to quench his thirst. Looking at the Chandala’s state, Uttanka is angered and refuses to drink the water despite repeated requests. After the Chandala leaves, Uttanka invokes Krishna demanding that a Chandala cannot be sent to give him water. Krishna chides him saying that it was in fact Lord Indra who was offering him the Amrita upon Krishna’s request. Uttanka’s attachment to the Chandala being outcaste thus deprives him of the divine nectar. A lot of interpretations could be drawn out of the episode but philosophically it does glaringly strike that obsession with untouchability keeps one away from realising the true potential of Atma (The jnana being symbolized by the nectar in this case).

Coming to the Hindu gurus, Adi Sankara’s encounter with a Chandala in whom he saw Shiva is well known. Maneesha Panchakam of Sankaracharya composed in that context stresses on the concept that Atma is unaffected by the physical attributes, one of which is caste. Adi Sankaracharya also composed Upadesha Sahasri, which is regarded as the teacher’s manual for imparting the concept of Advaita. In the verses describing a student’s graduation from learning theShrutis to learning about the nature of self, Sankara urges the teachers to prod the students to answer the question of ‘Who am I?’ He then directs the teachers to question and refute those answers which associate the student with birth, caste, gotra and other physical attributes which limit the self to just the body. Obviously, a school of thought which propounds ultimate one-ness, the identification with any classification is a strict no-no

Most of us might have heard this story of Sri Ramanujacharya, the leading proponent of Visishtadvaita. Ramanuja as a young student receives the mantra from his teacher to attain moksha (loosely translated as liberation). The teacher gives strict instructions to keep it a secret. As is believed, Ramanuja climbed up the roof of the temple and shouts out theMantra so that everyone in the village hears it. He then argues with his teacher that it is worth facing the consequence of leaking the ‘secret’ if everyone in the village gets to know of the path to Moksha. In another incident, Ramanuja became the disciple of Tirukachi Nambi a proponent of the Vaishnava philosophy, who belonged to a lower caste. Defying scepticism from the orthodox people around him including his wife, Ramanuja went ahead to serve Tirukachi Nambi with a single point aim of gaining knowledge. Sadly these anecdotes are not spoken about much and the reformist side of the great guru remains eclipsed.

Bhakti movement saw scores of composers who sang in the streets about the Supreme Lord’s equal treatment to all beings and that human made stratifications meant nothing to Him. A striking success case is the movement headed by Mahatma Basaweshwara of Karnataka in the 12th Century. A poet, philosopher, reformer and a political figure himself, Basaweshwara put up an active fight against untouchability. Shivanubhava Mantapa, an institution he founded is believed to have initiated the concept of social democracy ensuring fair representation across genders and classes. Exponents of this institution like Akka Mahadevi have propagated this philosophy through the Vachana literature. The success of this movement is seen today as we see the members of this community assuming positions across all spheres of life from priestly to political.

Narsi Mehta or Narsihn Mehta, composer of the famous bhajan Vaishnav Jan Toh, also known Adi Kavi in Gujarati literature was believed to have dined with scavengers, going against the orthodox beliefs of discrimination. The spirit of soul being unaffected by such discriminative attributes was echoed by a number of saints across India from the compositions like Sant literature of Maharashtra, compositions of Odiya poets and the Dasarapadas in Kannada. A cursory research into these works throws up a lot of examples speaking against birth/class based discrimination and oppression. Legends about miraculous incidents like the statue of Lord Krishna in Udupi turning around to give Darshan to Kanakadasa tell a lot about the strong belief that the divine favoured true devotion and merit over social privileges.

I personally desire to study them all in detail and also wish there was encouragement by State towards propagating the compositions of saints which establish Hinduism’s intellectual transaction of discriminative thought. The propagation of such knowledge and awareness of the oneness behind these compositions I am sure would help us unite and progress as proud inheritors of this civilization.

One example which stays close to my heart is the Telugu composition, Brahmamokkate Parabrahmamokkate by Annamacharya, another exponent of the Sri Vaishnava philosophy. I shall end this article with a loose translation of the immortal composition.

There is but one Supreme Being, the one and the only one Supreme Being

There are no such fixations of who is high and who is low, for Sree hari resides in everyone

The state of sleep of a king is not different from that of his servant. The earth on which a Brahmana steps on and a Chandala moves on is one and the same

The sensual pleasures are the same irrespective of whether celestial beings indulge in them or the animals and insects. The day and night are one and the same for those who are rich and those who are poor

The taste of delicious food and decaying food would differ but the tongue that tastes them is the one and the same. The wind that brushes past the foul and fragrant is one and the same

The rays of sun are one and the same whether they fall upon an elephant or a dog. The name of Lord Venkateswara is the one that can protect the meritorious and the sinful alike.

Advertisements

How united are we?

Had blogged this almost two years before. Might be right to call it my first formal blog post, thanks to the encouragement of Ratnakar Sadasyula (@Scorpiusmaximus on Twitter), the founder of https://mirrortoindia.wordpress.com/ and the author of “Inglorious Kweezerds” and “History under your feet”. Adding this to my collection today on my views on Caste system.

Politically Incorrect

I hear a lot of bigwigs in the mainstream media projecting a certain leader as ‘divisive’ and hence not suitable to lead this country. No prizes for guessing who the ‘divisive’ leader is. But what sets me thinking is about how united we are in the first place as the citizens of this country. Even a superfluous study of the political scenario in different states would tell us how castes and religious communities are treated as vote banks. Yes, there is no dearth of divisive leaders for we as voters have time and again proved that our unity is can easily be broken with the feudal caste card.

Caste has remained one of the the left wing’s favourite punch bags to bash Hinduism. Given their credibility, I would certainly not buy their rhetoric but this element of social classification is certainly worth a thought.

The first basis of caste had…

View original post 753 more words

Of Caste and Outcaste – Attempt to diagnose the roots of oppression

I am thankful to Rohini Bakshi didi for encouraging me to express my thoughts on caste boldly. This was published on her Learn Sanskrit blog. Rohini Bakshi (@RohiniBakshi on twitter)  is a Sanskrit teacher based in London and the founder of #SanskritAppreciationHour, a regular twitter chat led by her and other Sanskrit scholars that explores grammatical aspects of Sanskrit literature and delightful stories.

“We got rid of the caste system, but not caste-ism.” This was an anguished admission of a dear friend of mine whose views generally clash with mine. Yes, in today’s world of hurried and forced labels, one can call him a ‘liberal’ and me, a ‘conservative’. The context of the conversation was based on the electoral dynamics where certain castes end up being the vote banks. I often wondered if I was among the finite minority that cringed every time electoral results are analyzed on TV screens with caste dynamics over riding the real issues. (May be, one could get philosophical and argue about what is real and what is not!)

My liberal friend and I share a view in common, that we would like to see these lines of caste disappear in our respective ideal worlds. Yes, discrimination is a disease, a disease which requires the medicine of social reformation.  But here I come to the point where I would differ from my friends on the other side of the imaginary line of liberalism. The point is about the diagnosis of the disease. Much of the literature on the social dynamics lays blame on the Hindu fourfold Varna system.  I find the famous line of purusha sukta being quoted with a lot of zeal to prove that discrimination existed right in Vedic texts.

The ones that lay the blame do conveniently forget the openness of the interpretation that the Vedic texts have. My spiritual guru, Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba had advocated many times that service to the lowest strata of the society is the real ‘pada puja’ made to the universal Lord.

Interpretations and politics apart, I think that the much blamed chaturvarna system died a long while ago. I call it a dead system as the social dynamics of the Varna system had long turned porous and post the dark ages and before the invasions from the middle east, we do have many instances of new dynasties being founded independent of the ‘four-fold’ sanction. The Mauryas, the Guptas, the Shatavahanas, the Kakatiyas and many such empires made a mark in the history defying the much blamed sanction. May be there was no strict sanction and power dynamics redefined the sanction? I would leave it to the historians and period scholars to determine it. The founding of a new empire was often based on pulling down another empire where mostly the King had turned oppressive and unpopular. Empires used to reach the peaks of glory when they balanced the expansion of land with administrative reforms that left the citizens happy. They often reached their peril due to oppressive rule that galvanized a revolution or due to strategic mistakes which gave their rivals an upper hand.

Oppression in such cases in my opinion shifted to power dynamics. Those who wielded power (excluding the heroic kings and reformers who we all remember with reverence) oppressed those who were ideologically opposed to them or presented a threat. That is the reason why I feel blaming the purusha sukta for oppression serves no real purpose and is rather a lazy diagnosis of a serious social problem. The ones doing so probably are not accountable to give a solution so can command the luxury of such lazy diagnosis. But it is important for the ones looking for real solutions to get to the real roots of the problem. When I hear of inhuman practices that prevail among India’s lesser accessible areas, my belief is further strengthened. Though not proud of my knowledge of scriptures, I am yet to come across any such inhuman doctrines which forbid the ‘lower’ class from using the common wells in the village and advocate violent things.

Oppression is always the language of power maniacs and not of the system writers. As repetitive as I might sound with this sentence, I would want the readers to realize this and more. If one throws the blame of oppression on Hinduism, one has to realize that the defying discrimination also belongs to Hinduism more than the imported idealist theories. I refer to the Bhakti movement and the scores of reforms that were achieved by the likes of Mahatma Basaveshwar, Madhvacharya, the Nayanmars of Tamilnadu and the scores of composers who have denounced all forms of birth based discrimination. My personal favourite is the one in Telugu, “Brahmamokkate” by Sri Tallapaka Annamacharya. Those interested can find the complete lyric and meaning here (http://www.karnatik.com/c1107.shtml). There are more compositions of his decrying discrimination and oppression.

One needs to observe that Bhakti movement scored above the recent movements against caste in one thing – restoring the dignity and in preaching universalism that brought the people of various strata together. Sadly the modern movements though rooted in progressive ideals have done little more than casting the oppressed classes into political toys through reverse discrimination. This is the reason why we see clans and communities aspiring for ‘backward’ tag for reservations and other short term benefits. Sadly, this is the greatest harm that the social engineers of the last century have done to our system. I can only hope that the next wave of reformers would take inspiration from those movements which have advocated the oneness and inherent human merit across the divisions rather than those which have capitalized on mutual hatred and reverse oppression.