Hindus, Hinduism, and Casteism:
system and the status of
Dalits (a.k.a. Untouchables) in India.
It is our policy to not criticize theological beliefs of any religion or
spiritual tradition. However, we do occasionally criticize behaviors like
sexism, racism, casteism, homophobia, transphobia, religious intolerance, the use of religious freedom to denigrate and abuse others, etc. We do this even in those
cases where the oppression of others is derived from theological beliefs.
That is: we do not criticize beliefs, only practices that harm others. We
feel that the following example within Hinduism falls into this category.
As the term "casteism" implies, it refers to prejudice or antagonism directed against someone of a different, generally lower, caste. A caste is a method of classifying people into different groups depending upon their social status of degree of ritual purity or pollution. Among Hindus in India, one's caste is determined by the caste of one's parents. It does not change during a person's lifetime.
Fundamentals of the caste system in Hinduism:
Although the caste system was abolished by law in 1949 in India, it remains a significant force
among Hindus throughout much of India, particularly in the rural areas.
Each Hindu belongs to one of the thousands of Jãtis
(communities/sub-communities) that existed in India. The Jãtis were originally defined by the person's profession. They were grouped into four Varna (social
castes). A fifth group called the "untouchables" were outside the caste system. A
person's Jat determined the range of jobs or
professions from which they could choose. Marriages normally took place only within the same
Jat. Typically, parents passed on their professions and Jat to their children. There was little mobility in the country. Little mobility remains today in those areas of India where the caste system is still enforced.
Over time, successive generations became trapped within a single profession and thus a single community.
There were rules that prohibited persons of different groups from eating,
drinking, or even smoking with each other. People were once able to move from one
Varna to another. However, at some time in the past (estimates range from about
500 BCE to 500 CE), the system became rigid, so that a person was generally born
into the Jat and Varna of their parents, and died in the same group. 1
The website InvestIndia.com once concluded:
"The caste system splits up society into a multitude of little
communities, for every caste, and almost every local unit of a caste, has its
own peculiar customs and internal regulations." 2
The Rigveda is a collection of ancient Vedic hymns in Sanskrit that are dedicated to the
Gods. They defined four varnas (castes). In decreasing status, they are normally
||Brahmins (the priests and academics)
||Kshatriyas (rulers, the military)
||Vaishyas (farmers, landlords, and merchants)
||Sudras (peasants, servants, and workers in non-polluting jobs).
The Dalits were outcasts who are not even considered to be part of the caste
system. They form about 22% of the population of India. They total about 300 million persons, almost the population of the United States. Until the
late 1980's they were called Harijan (children of God). They generally work at what are
considered polluting jobs. They were untouchable by Hindus in the four castes. In some
areas of the country, even a contact with their shadow by a member of the Varnas
was considered polluting.
Practicing untouchability or discriminating against a person because of their
caste is now illegal in India. The caste system has lost much of its power in urban
areas. However the tradition has been preserved largely unchanged in some rural districts. The
government has instituted positive discrimination by reserving a percentage of civil service jobs for Dalits.
Many Dalits have converted to Buddhism, Christianity, and other religions in recent years. This has often been
motivated by a desire to escape the caste system. Since 2001, there have been a number of mass conversions of Dalits from Hinduism to Buddhism -- a religion that does not have a caste system. Tens of thousands of Dalits changed their religion at some of these events. According to Gospel for Asia, Dalits feel that:
only way for our people to find freedom from 3,000 years of slavery is to quit
Hinduism and Casteism and embrace another faith."
Mass conversions to
Christianity have also occurred. 3 This has generated great anger and even instances of violence and murder
directed at followers of proselytizing religions by some Hindus.
2016: Atrocities committed against Dalits in India. The Prime Minister takes a stand against the caste system:
Dalits are often referred to as "untouchables." One of the few tasks open to many Dalits is to dispose of the bodies of dead animals. Some will remove the skin from dead cows and sell it to tanneries to convert into leather.
In recent months, there have been a incidents involving Dalits that generated a great deal of outrage both within and without the Dalit community.
Rohith Chakravarti Vemula, a Dalit and a PhD scholar at Hyderabad, India, was accused of physically attacking a leader of a conservative student group. He and four other students were suspended from the University of Hyderabad for three months, and not allowed on campus. His friends compared their treatment to the ancient practice of villevarda, in which Dalits were were excluded from their villages. Rohith later committed suicide. He left a suicide note, saying:
"My birth is my fatal accident. Yes, this is the human condition: our birth, all birth, is an accident. We do not choose our father or mother, our group or community. But only in India, only in caste society, and only for Dalits does this accident of coming into an unequal life become the fatality of either living with relentless inequality and enduring its cruelties, or dying a terrible, unfair, premature and unredeemed death." 8
While Dalits are the most oppressed group in India, Veula's comment also applies, to a lesser degree, to those in the lower of the four castes.
According to the Guardian newspaper, after Vemula's suicide:
"The death sparked protests on campuses worldwide last week and prompted a national debate about the treatment of dalit students and academics at Indian universities. The main square on the campus, where Rohith spent his final days, was littered with posters and leaflets carrying images of the young scientist with slogans such as 'We shall overcome'. ... After Rohith’s death, hundreds of students at the University of Hyderabad gathered to protest at the administration’s decision to exclude the five dalit students.
A friend of Rohith’s explains: 'This is not just a dalit movement; it is a movement for democratizing higher educational institutions. It is a movement to keep the values of the constitution of India. We are ready to die for these values.' Another chips in: 'They are trying to erase our history as dalits by this uprooting. We don’t believe his death is a suicide. It is a part of this erasing. His death is a martyrdom, a sacrifice'." 7
Ashok Sarvaiya, Vashram Sarvaiya, Bechar Sarvaiya and Ramesh Sarvaiya, four Dalit youths from the state of Gujarat in the west of India, were badly beaten and had to be hospitalized. They were attacked by a mob who accused them of having skinned a cow -- an animal that is a protected species among Hindus. 4 (Contrary to much public opinion, cows are revered, not worshiped, by Hindus.) 5
- A group of Hindu fundamentalists murdered Mohammad Aklaq by hanging, after beef was found in his home.
- Two Dalit parents were hacked to death because of a 1 rupee ($0.22) debt.
During early 2016-AUG, Bismillah Geelani, writing for Free Speech Radio News (FSRN) commented:
"In India, attacks against members of the Dalit caste at the hands of Hindu extremists are on the rise. That’s led to protests across the country by Dalits who are now showing themselves more and more capable of standing up for their rights." 9
On 2016-SEP-02, Rahul Joshi interviewed Prime Minister Modi on CNN-News18 about a number of issues including the status of the Dalit community in India. An excerpt is posted on the Internet. 6
The Prime Minister condemned the caste system, saying that it has:
"... no place ... in civilized society. This is a social problem, which is deeply rooted. Politics over social imbalances is a disservice to society. To all those who have faced injustice for generations, today the [Bharatiya Janata Party] has a sizeable presence of tribal [members of parliament] and [members of the legislative assembly].... I’m devoted to the development of all Dalits — the oppressed, under-privileged and the deprived. Those who use this as an obstruction to their politics, those who have fed this country with the poison of caste divide, have destroyed the country. ... We must go forward with a purpose. Are these incidents fitting of a civilized society? ... While there can be no ‘end of caste’ in India without massive social reform, today -- perhaps for the first time in my lifetime -- I actually believe that there could be a casteless India. In fact, I pray for and imagine an India where there are both equal rights and equal opportunity for all Indians regardless of the fortune of their birth." 4
Rev. Dr. Joseph D’Souza, the moderating bishop of the Good Shepherd Church and Associated Ministries of India and president of the All India Christian Council, issued a press release. He described the caste system as:
the single most significant civil rights issue in the world, and maybe in world history. ... Today, Prime Minister Modi went where no other prime minister has gone before. He condemned the system which has disenfranchised hundred of millions of Indians for centuries."
Bishop D'Souza also said:
"[Prime Minister] Modi is right: caste is a poison that threatens to destroy India. The Dalit uprising has spoken to our conscience, and has granted us an opportunity to correct centuries of wrong and to show the world we are not only a great nation, but a good nation." 4
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
"The Caste system," at: http://members.tripod.com/
"India's social customs and systems: The caste system,"
at: http://www.investindia.com/ (Apparently offline)
" 'Untouchables' on Verge of Turning to Christ," Religion Today
summaries for 2001-OCT-5.
Tré Goins-Phillips, "India’s Prime Minister Vows to Upend Centuries-Old ‘Poisonous’ Caste System," The Blaze, 2016-SEP-02, at: http://www.theblaze.com/
"Hindu cow taboo," Religion Facts, at: http://www.religionfacts.com
Narendra Modi, "PM Narendra Modi exclusive interview: I am devoted to development of Dalits," FirstPost, 2017-SEP-02, at: http://www.firstpost.com/
"India's caste system: ‘They are trying to erase dalit history. This is a martyrdom, a sacrifice’," The Guardian, 2016-JAN-24, at: https://www.theguardian.com/
Ananya Vajpeyi, "Ancient prejudice, modern inequality," The Hindu, 2016-JAN-20, at: http://www.thehindu.com/
Bismillah Geelani, "Spike in violence against India’s Dalits by Hindu extremists sparks protests," Free Speech Radio News, 2016-AUG-04, at: https://fsrn.org/
Copyright © 2007 to 2016 by Ontario Consultants on Religious
Original posting: 2007-OCT-07
Latest update: 2016-SEP-07
Author: B.A. Robinson