- Hindus must honestly acknowledge the good, the bad, and the ugly parts of our legacy, before we can make forward progress in annihilating caste.
We are astonished at the views on caste and Hinduism in a recent American Kahani op-ed by Suhag Shukla, executive director of the Hindu American Foundation (HAF).
In an attempt to insert itself into an ongoing lawsuit in which California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing has sued Cisco Systems for failing to address caste discrimination among its employees, HAF has argued that caste has nothing to do with Hindu religious thought. It further claims that by describing caste as “a strict Hindu social and religious hierarchy,” the State of California is violating the religious freedom rights of Hindu Americans and opening the door to “widespread discrimination” against them.
We reject HAF’s bogus and self-serving assertion that speaking honestly about caste opens up discrimination against Hindus. Certainly, HAF does not speak for us or for the hundreds of millions of Hindus who continue their daily struggle against casteism.
HAF claims that casteism is “in absolute contradiction to … the words of the most prominent Hindu spiritual leaders,” citing 12 reflections from Hindu religious leaders on “oneness.” Some of these reflections may be quite beautiful, but let’s be clear: Talking about oneness is not the same as proving the non-existence of caste in Hindu religious thought. In fact, our ancestors make many references to varnashrama dharma as an essential part of an ‘orderly’ society.
We need go no further than the celebrated Bhagavad Gita, in which Arjuna speaks of the dire consequences of families not adhering to varnashrama and jaati dharma.
“Owing to predominance of lawlessness…the women…become corrupt…there ariseth caste confusion…[which] draggeth to hell the slayers of the family…
These caste- confusing misdeeds… abolish the everlasting caste customs….
The abode of the men from such families is everlastingly in hell.”
— Chapter 1, Verse 40-44
As Hindus ourselves, we believe deeply in oneness, ekatva, as a guiding principle that leads us to see the Divine in others and stand up for the rights of all. But we cannot say that believing in oneness absolves our traditions of a long legacy of casteism. Caste will not go away if we simply stop talking about it—rather, we need to confront it head on.
In its selective citations from a few Hindu spiritual leaders, HAF seems to have conveniently forgotten many other prominent voices from our past, both of those reaffirming the caste system and those staunchly opposing it:
Kanchi Shankaracharya, Sri Chandrasekharendra Sarasvati (1894-1994), one of the most respected and erudite scholar of Hinduism in recent times, whole-heartedly embraced the hereditary caste system as part of Hinduism:
“According to shastras, the Hindu community is divided into various castes. A particular duty is assigned to a particular caste. By heredity people come into caste…”
— ‘The Jagadguru,’ Sri Sankara Bhaktha Jana Sabha, 1987
“Throughout India, Manu’s dharmasastra is held in the highest esteem…For us ‘Manu-niti-sastra’ (Manusmrti) is the authority on dharma.”
— ‘Hindu Dharma,’ Bhartiya Vidhya Bhavan, 1995
Basavanna (1105-1167 CE), who not only took a courageous stand against the evils of caste, but also walked the talk by encouraging inter-caste marriages and dialogues, and drew the wrath of the Brahmanical establishment of his time.
“The son of the slave in Untouchable Channayya’s house,
The daughter of the maid in Butcher Kakkayya’s house.
Those two went to the fields to gather dung and fell in love.
I’m the son born of these two;
the lord of the meeting rivers is my witness.”
— A Vachana by Basavanna, Gita Hariharan in Indian Culture Forum
And what about Shree Narayana Guru (1855-1928), a social reformer and Hindu spiritual leader, who came from the oppressed Ezhava caste in Kerala, who addressed caste differences explicitly?
Of the human species
Is a Brahmin born
As is a Pariah [Dalit] too.
Where is caste difference, then,
Amongst the human species?
— Jati Nirnayam (‘Critique of Jati’), 1914. Narayana Guru: Complete Works, translated by Muni Narayana Prasad.
We suspect that none of the above or any other diverse stream within Hinduism were on HAF’s mind, who seem only too keen to advance Hindutva’s fanciful political argument that caste has nothing to do with Hinduism.
It is worth noting that this is not the first time that HAF has tried to wish away the harsh realities of caste oppression. HAF and its RSS allies’ multiple failed attempts to delete the word ‘Dalit’ from California school textbooks and to sugar coat the caste system have been well documented.
During the textbook controversy, we saw HAF argue that teaching about caste in the classroom leads Hindu (read, upper caste) children to face bullying and feel embarrassed about their heritage.
Certainly, no child should ever be bullied. But if white American students can learn about their ancestors’ role in the shameful history of slavery, and German students can learn about the role of fellow-Germans in enabling the Holocaust, surely Hindu children can survive a lesson on the legacy of the caste system—and become better Hindu American citizens as a result?
Today, HAF is challenging the Cisco lawsuit by arguing that talking openly about caste discrimination in the workplaces and in schools would unfairly point fingers at all Hindus.
We find such an argument deeply demeaning and insulting. HAF is suggesting that we run away from inconvenient truths rather than struggling with the legacy of caste that lives inside each and every one of us. As Hindus, do we not have the capacity for self-criticism, humility, and growth?
In our view, it is time for us retake ownership of all that is Hindu, whether it is good, bad, or ugly, instead of pointing fingers at others for our own bigotry. Only then can we begin to make true progress towards equality of all communities, as imagined by Basavanna in the twelfth century and as enshrined in the Indian constitution written by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar.
As a gesture of our commitment to the Dalit struggle for equality, we whole-heartedly embrace the amicus curiae brief recently filed by Ambedkar International Center (AIC) in the Cisco lawsuit. The brief argues that caste discrimination stands in direct opposition to U.S. civil rights laws, which list discrimination based on “ancestry” as one of the protected categories in U.S. housing and employment discrimination.
We realize that whether or not caste is part of Hinduism is not directly germane to AIC’s brief, whose arguments are centered around ancestry, race and color. Nonetheless, as Hindu Indian Americans, it is our earnest hope that this case will lead to more conversations on caste within our communities.
Hindus for Human Rights is committed to both a historical accounting of the roots of casteism and a legal accounting of caste discrimination. The historical arguments can be had within the Hindu religious and Indian traditions, but as the amicus brief of AIC points out, whatever those roots, casteism violates California law.”
Sunita Viswanath and Raju Rajagopal are co-founders of Hindus for Human Rights.