Hindus, Hinduism, and Casteism:
system and the status of
|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:
"The 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.
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.
"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
"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:
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.
Copyright © 2007 to 2016 by Ontario Consultants on Religious
Original posting: 2007-OCT-07
Latest update: 2016-SEP-07
Author: B.A. Robinson