Caste, Hinduism and Human Rights

In my role at the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), I participate in a lot of interfaith dialogue. In most sessions I end up having to present a Hinduism 101 of sorts as I face a curious audience that knows little if anything about my tradition. I start with some of the basics that guide me and other Hindus in their daily lives -- the essential spiritual teachings of Hinduism: belief in an all-pervasive Divine; that selfless service for the betterment of others and without expectation of the fruits is always the higher path; and that each and every living being is, by his or her very nature, divine. By the end, my respect grows even deeper for the timeless wisdom and applicability of Hinduism. And then it comes... Hinduism's white elephant -- the caste system -- abruptly extinguishing my kumbaya afterglow. No interfaith event would be complete without an accusatory question about the "Hindu caste system."

The topic of caste is especially relevant today. First, Dec. 10 commemorates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It's a day to appreciate our haves and to remember the many in our vasudhaiva kutumbakam (universal human family) who have not -- those millions around the globe who do not enjoy basic human rights of freedom, dignity, and equality. Dec. 10 is also the day that HAF releases a first of its kind report -- "Hinduism: Not Cast in Caste - Seeking an End to Caste-based Discrimination". Co-edited by HAF Board members, Swaminathan Venkataraman and Mihir Meghani, and HAF Executive Council member, Pawan Deshpande, the report provides a Hindu perspective on the very serious human and civil rights issues of caste-based discrimination and birth-based hierarchy.

In "Hinduism: Not Cast in Caste," HAF acknowledges that while caste-based discrimination represents a failure of Hindu society to live up to the essential spiritual teachings of the tradition, the solution, in part, lies in the proper practice of these teachings (and on better enforcement of existing anti-discrimination laws in India). It also recognizes that while caste arose in Hindu society, and that some Hindu texts and traditions justify a birth-based hierarchy and caste-bias, many Hindu scriptures and Hindu religious and spiritual figures, throughout history, have vehemently opposed caste-based discrimination and a birth-based hierarchy. And lastly, it explains that caste discrimination and caste-based violence affect all of India's religious communities and is today driven significantly by political and economic factors.

But the single most important point to take home from this pivotal report, I believe, is that even though caste-based discrimination may have arisen in Hindu society, it is not intrinsic to Hinduism. Contrary to the wide academic and media conflation of caste and Hinduism, the practice of caste-based discrimination is in direct contradiction to the quintessential Hindu teaching that each individual is equally divine and has the potential to realize God based on his or her own effort.

Ask the millions of practicing Hindus such as myself whether caste is intrinsic or irrelevant to Hindu belief and practice. I remember vividly the day I learned about "caste." Was it a sit down session with my parents as they explained to me what my birth meant in terms of where we stood on the social ladder, what career I might pursue or whom I might marry? On the contrary, it was my white American, ninth grade world history teacher who took it upon herself to have me, the only Hindu in a class of 30 students, stand up during our unit on Ancient India and Hinduism to ask me, "What caste are you, Suhag, and are your parent's saving up for your dowry?"

But as irrelevant as caste might be to my own identity and practice as well as countless Hindus around the world, admitting that abuses are carried out on the basis of caste is very relevant and necessary, not only for the well being of my fellow Hindu brothers and sisters who suffer, but for Hinduism itself. Yes, caste-based discrimination and caste violence occur largely in rural areas of India, and often times between one "lower" caste and another. But does that really matter if we know people are suffering? Yes, caste did not devolve into today's rigid, social hierarchy in a vacuum -- foreign rulers, predatory proselytizers on their harvest for souls, and current Indian politicians have contributed their fair share in the complexity and persistence of caste. But does that really matter if people continue to be outcaste, even after conversion to other religions? Yes, many "lower" castes have contributed enormously to Hinduism and these contributions are recognized and even cherished. But does that really matter if we don't practice what our teachings preach?

The fact that we as Hindus have bore witness to the disconnect between the divine revelations of humanity's divine oneness and the practice of birth-based discrimination is a shattering reality that we must accept. But there is hope and there is relief. I am hopeful because many Hindus worked and continue to work to eliminate the vestiges of caste-discrimination. Statements from 13 of today's leading religious and spiritual Hindu leaders share as much. And I am relieved by the knowledge that Hinduism's strength lies in her ability to allow us to recognize and combat any darkness within our own society and bring forth light through the teachings found in Hindu scriptures and in the guidance of our spiritual luminaries.