- As progressive Hindus who have seen discrimination based on caste throughout our lives — including, in more subtle but undeniable ways in the United States — we applaud the Dalit complainants for coming forward.
On July 30, 2020, a lawsuit was filed against Silicon Valley tech giant Cisco by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, alleging workplace discrimination based on caste. Over 70 percent of workers in Silicon Valley companies are immigrants, and more than 40 percent are Indian immigrants; and the majority of Indian Americans are Hindu.
As progressive Hindus, our biggest priority is to address every kind of injustice and discrimination in our society from a Hindu perspective — particularly caste discrimination, since our religion has had the biggest role in this atrocity which dates back thousands of years and still exists today.
Some Hindus argue that the caste system is not intrinsic to Hinduism, and that untouchability was outlawed at the time of independence and is not practiced today. We take issue with both assertions.
We are Hindus who are committed to both preserving the inclusive heart of our faith, and also vehemently reject the parts that are inhumane. It simply isn’t true that Hinduism has no relationship to caste. Chapter 10:90 of our oldest known scripture, the Rig Veda (a shruti text, considered to be transmitted from God to the sages of that time), outlines the four-fold varna system:
“When they divided Purusa how many portions did they make?
What do they call his mouth, his arms? What do they call his thighs and feet?
The Brahman was his mouth, of both his arms was the Rajanya made.
His thighs became the Vaisya, from his feet the Sudra was produced.”
(From Ralph T.H. Griffith’s translation of the Rig Veda)
Some argue this is merely a pragmatic division of labor, and there is no hierarchy between those who came from God’s head and feet, but this is disingenuous. To us, it is self-evident that this passage treats the Brahmins who purportedly came from God’s head as the highest caste and the Sudras who purportedly came from God’s feet as the lowest caste.
This is the most horrific thing we learned from our elders about caste, which we object to vociferously — that our faith requires us to place our brothers and sisters in such a dehumanizing hierarchy. We and our colleagues in Hindus for Human Rights embrace a love-centered Hinduism that rejects caste entirely, and which insists that all of us, regardless of race, religion, caste, gender, are equally deserving of dignity and justice.
The group of people who were formerly called “untouchables,” today self-respectfully refer to themselves as Dalits. “Untouchable” castes are mentioned repeatedly in Hindu scriptures. For instance, the Bhagavata Purana includes the story of King Rantideva.
King Rantideva is the most beloved devotee of Lord Vishnu because he sees God equally in everyone, including a “chandala,” a person of an “untouchable” caste. While the story tells us that the ideal devotee sees all people equally, it also tells us that there were people of “untouchable” castes in ancient South Asia.
Another undeniable fact is that untouchability persists today. While the practice may have been outlawed in India, we know from personal experience that untouchability is still practiced today. “Servants” don’t eat the same food, eat on the same plates or sit on the same furniture as the families they work for. There is a special caste of people — the lowest among the Dalit castes — who clean people’s toilets. In the South, people still refer to these people as scavengers. And the people who clean India’s sewers, known as manual scavengers, are almost all from the Dalit community. Manual scavengers all too frequently die while doing their job: they either drown in the sewage or they die from breathing the toxic fumes.
It is inhumanity of an unfathomable order for any of us to suggest that the caste system and the discrimination that results from it are vestiges of the past. It makes sense that we Indians have brought the caste system with us to the lands we have emigrated to. While caste discrimination is not as extreme in the United States as it is in India, it nevertheless exists. It especially rears its ugly head at the time of marriage, when families look for upper-caste partners for their children.
The case against Cisco alleges that upper-caste managers in the company have discriminated against a Dalit worker because of his/her caste. As Hindus who have seen discrimination based on caste throughout our lives, in extreme ways in India, and more subtle but undeniable ways in the United States, we applaud the Dalit complainants in this case for coming forward.
We believe it is up to so-called upper caste Hindus to call out and denounce casteism every time we encounter it, and furthermore to live and build a Hindu faith and practice that rejects caste entirely. We are honored to have played an “ally” role in support of an anti-caste organization called Ambedkar International Center (AIC) that has filed an amicus brief in this case against Cisco.
The next hearing date for the case is March 9th, when a judge will likely decide if caste is admissible as grounds for workplace discrimination, or not, and whether the case can go forward. We hope AIC’s strong amicus brief persuades the judge that caste discrimination is illegal under California’s civil rights law, which clearly states that discrimination on the basis of ancestry is illegal.
(Illustration by Max Pepper, courtesy CNN)
Sunita Viswanath and Raju Rajagopal are co-founders of ‘Hindus for Human Rights,’ an advocacy organization dedicated to human rights of all communities in India and the U.S. www.hindusforhumanright.org.