As a child, I always dreaded the world’s religions portion of social studies. In particular, it was the section on Hinduism that made me shudder, because it was always portrayed as weird, exotic, and discriminatory. There I was, the only Hindu in my classroom, wishing I had Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak so I wouldn’t have to be subject to the looks my classmates gave me when they read about blue Gods, third eyes, and the suppressive caste system. The first two were relatively easy to explain as profoundly symbolic, and we see their resonance in popular culture – the film Avatar, for example, or runway models sporting bindison their foreheads. But the latter was more bothersome; first, because it made Hinduism appear to be a hierarchical, rigid faith which discriminated against people solely based on their birth, and second, because I knew that immediately after class, I would face the inevitable question: “So, what caste are you?”
Less than two weeks ago, the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) released an updated version of its report on caste-based discrimination in India. The report, Hinduism: Not Cast in Caste – Seeking an End to Caste-based Discrimination, makes a number of important points. First, discrimination based on the caste of one’s birth is against Hinduism’s core teaching that the divine is inherent in all beings, and the practice of untouchability is not sanctioned in any of Hinduism’s sacred texts. “Hinduism’s revealed sacred texts, such as the Vedas, state emphatically that divinity is inherent in every individual; that the ultimate purpose of Hindu spirituality and religion is to know, grow closer to, and experience, this divinity; and that all physical/social differences (i.e., caste, gender, race, etc.) are wholly unrelated to one’s ability to achieve that goal.” As many yoga practitioners already know, the commonly heard Hindu greeting “Namaste” translates to “The Divine within me bows to the Divine within you.” Yet for some reason, this fundamental teaching of Hinduism has been left out of school textbooks, much to the detriment of all schoolchildren, but especially to Hindu American schoolchildren who face ridicule at the inaccurate portrayal of their faith.
Second, while the report is firm in its stand that caste-based discrimination is against Hinduism’s core teachings, it does not ignore that caste-based discrimination exists as a social evil and is still a reality for many, especially the so-called Scheduled Castes (SC) — also known as “Harijans” or “Dalits”– in many parts of India. More than 160 million people in India fall under the Scheduled Castes (SCs) category. The movement to end all discrimination against SCs is an important one, and there are countless ongoing efforts spearheaded by Hindu spiritual leaders to end this discriminatory practice. It should be noted that Christian missionary groups continue to claim that caste-based discrimination is intrinsic to Hinduism, and the only way to escape it is by converting. This claim is tellingly false as SC converts to Christianity continue to suffer discrimination at the hands of “forward” caste Christians. HAF’s report includes both a statement by a Hindu SC community leader in India explaining his commitment to Hinduism and a statement by a Christian interfaith activist highlighting the plight of the Dalit Christians. These statements are poignant and stand to reaffirm that caste-based discrimination is not intrinsic to Hinduism.
And finally, the report points out that political leaders and missionary organizations routinely exploit the caste issue for vote-bank advantages and through predatory proselytization, respectively.
The report, not intended to be an academic treatise, is an important one as it provides a Hindu perspective on the “caste debate.” While caste-based discrimination does exist in India today, it is a social evil and is not intrinsic to Hinduism’s teaching. In fact, as the report aptly states, “The solution to this problem lies within the eternal teachings of Hinduism.” Maybe one day, the textbooks will get it right.