Om Sweet Om

Om Sweet Om


What caste are you?

posted by sheetal

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.



  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/omsweetom/2011/08/what-caste-are-you.html Mihir Meghani

    Outstanding balanced piece about Hinduism, whose universal and pluralistic teachings can be an important solution to caste discrimination, a social problem that has plagued mankind across civilizations for millenia.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Jiger Patel

    Brought back my memories of seating through Social Study class. I hope HAF report is used by text book providers and State education board to better portray Hinduism. Also I am not sure why they have “Caste” as one of the topics, there are so many other topics they can choose to better educate students on what is Hinduism.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment j narayan

    ythank you for the article. caste-based discrimination is a firm reality in india.
    people dont discuss it, but its behind every dowry and every marriage and every thing! because caste is not a sin, caste is part of culture. people who have intercaste marriages still can get killed or thrown out of inheritance or cant take dowry or have to marry in arya samaj which is known for intercaste marriages. my friends from dehli told me that arya samaj wast a “real” hindu wedding, because its intercaste. and these people were 20 something. so i just want to say that american textbooks dont have it wrong. they absolutely dont have the bigger picture. but one thing is clear, all hindus know the last names of other hindus, and inherent in those last names are the castes of people. this stuff is part of peoples family itll never die. and the discrimination will continue, just in secrecy and the gov will continue its reservation system- itself another form of nonmerit based discrimination…..

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Bill Tuthill

    I have never talked with a Hindu to ask, Just what do the Hindus ” believe” in ?
    I am a Roman Cathlic and know what our fath is based on.
    There is no “caste” system. You are either a “good” person and will go to heaven or you are not.
    I do not think that is a “caste” system.
    The Ten Commandments were given to all humanbeings, not just to any one group or nationality. So figurativly speaking , all hat live by those Command ments shall get to heaven.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Michelle

    Sheetal:

    I am a Hindu as well, though I was never born in the country. I have met quite a few people that believe that because I am not from India, I have no place adhering to the faith. I understand this point of view, but at the same time I have been inexplicably drawn to this faith since 13. There is a magnetic draw to Hinduism for me, and when I am meditating or at a temple or reading spiritual text or talking with other people belonging to this world wisdom tradition, I am filled with both peace and love. It’s like being home at last when you never really knew that you were away to begin with.

    Recently, the subject of caste came up in conversation. I was told that in no uncertain terms I was a Dalit, or Harijan. I was initially confused, then a bit hurt as I felt this was meant as more of an “insult” and less of an informative remark. I have thought a lot recently where I fit into the grand scheme when it comes to my spirituality, as it is the most important building block of me. Would the caste system even apply to me and if it did, how would I know where I fit in? It is embarrassing that maybe I don’t have a good handle on the caste system either.

    • sheetal

      Michelle:
      Thanks for your comment and for your lovely words about Hinduism. I am so glad you have found solace in its teachings.
      With regards to your question on caste – I am by no means a scholar, but a couple of thoughts come to mind. First, I have no idea who told you what caste you must belong to, but they are incorrect. Your varna is determined by your actions, character, and learnings – not by whether you were born in India. It’s beyond unfortunate that any Hindu would say that you can’t be a part of the faith b/c your birthplace. Please ignore that and do not take offense. It’s just plain wrong.
      Secondly, why does it matter if one is a Harijan or a Brahmin? The Divine resides in all living beings and the Divine in the Harijan is no less than the Divine in the Brahmin. So, do not be insulted. Carry forward with your practice and belief and ignore those who are trying to bring you down.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Steven

    Is that why so many people come to the United States? They think they are coming to a freedom based society? Maybe they would be better going to Canada or Mexico. The United States to me seems more controlled by a “few” people, than people are willing to admit.

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