IN the controversy that currently raging with regard to the proposed enumeration of caste in the census, a vital question about the place of caste in Hinduism has been lost sight of. My contention is that the caste system, as it has operated on the ground for centuries, is against the basic structure of Hinduism.
This ‘basic structure’ lies embedded in the Upanishadic thought. Its central message is that all life in this universe is divine and individuals are ‘divine specks’ of the same Supreme Divinity which permeates the inextricably enmeshed cosmic web of human existence. In this metaphysical principle, the notion of equality is in-built. If the same divinity is embodied in different individuals, they cannot but be equal. The Bhavisya Purana says: “Since members of all the four castes are children of God, they all belong to the same caste. All human beings have the same father, and children of the same father cannot have different castes.” In the Mahabharata, Bharadvaja, in reply to Bhrigu, goes to the very root of the issue: “We all seem to be affected by desire, anger, fear, sorrow, worry and labour; how do we have caste differences then?”
Because of widespread ignorance about Hinduism and the extensive interpolations and manipulations which it has undergone over the ages, few in India today understand its fundamental principles and propositions. The very soul of Hinduism debunks the caste-system.
The only source to which the origin of this system could be attributed is the second portion of Purusha-Sukta hymn of the Rig Veda, wherein it is stated that the Purusha was cut into four parts, the first pertaining to his mouth, the second to his arms, the third to his thighs and the fourth to his feet. An interpretation of this statement was drawn to lay down that the Brahaman came from the highest portion of the Supreme Self and Shudra from the lowest. In between came the Kashatriyas, the warrior class, and the Vaisyas, the traders, agriculturists etc. This interpretation is, clearly, arbitrary and untenable.
Nor is there any scriptural authority on the basis of which the caste-system could be made either hereditary or water-tight. In his remarkable write-up, titled : Un-Hindu Spirit of Caste-Rigidity, Sri Aurobindo has pertinently observed: “The baser ideas underlying the degenerate perversions of the caste system, the mental attitude which bases them on a superiority, depending on the accident of birth of a fixed and intolerant inequality, are inconsistent with the supreme teaching, the basic spirit of Hinduism which sees the one invariable and indivisible Divinity in every individual being.”
It was the utter selfishness of the vested interests that hid the true spirit of Hinduism and created a discriminatory and inflexible social system. The society was so structured that the caste of Brahmans acted like ‘a sun around which all other castes revolved like satellites’. The treatment accorded to the Shudra was extremely harsh. But it were the untouchables amongst them who received the unkindest cut of all. The basic tenet of Hindu thought, which looked at the whole human race as one family was side-tracked and what has been called as ‘one of the most disastrous and blighting of all human institutions’ was brought into being. Apart from causing horrible inequities, it divided the people in various water-tight compartments. Al Beruni, the famous traveller, who visited India in early eleventh century, noted with surprise that the people were being fed with poison ‘in land where nectar-stream of an ancient and life-giving religion flowed perennially’.
Clearly, in the light of the above brief analysis, it is a national obligation of every earnest and knowledgeable Hindu to effectively propagate that caste is against the basic structure of Hinduism and to practice it is to violate this faith. Every effort should be made to eject caste from the mindscape of Hindus. In fact, Hinduism, in the form it is generally practiced these days, requires a new orientation. In my recent publication, Reforming Vaishno Devi and a Case for Reformed, Reawakened and Enlightened Hinduism, I have presented a blue-print of reforms, the core of which envisages splitting of Hinduism into the following three broad levels, each covering a distinct segment with a character of its own.
This level comprises the basic structure of Hinduism, and shows it in its highest orbit. It is the result of a long evolutionary process that culminated in the formulation of Upanishadic thought and philosophy of Vedanta. It is this Hinduism which had captivated the mind of renowned philosophers, scientists and literary giants of the nineteenth and twentieth century.
It includes temple-going, deity worshipping and festival-observing Hindus. It encompasses beliefs and practices which are not contrary to the basic structure of Hinduism and which came into being in response to the religious needs of the common folk who could not grasp the intellectual content of its core and had to depend on temples, images of gods and goddesses and their symbols.
Level III :
In this level would fall all superstitions, spurious rites, malevolent cults, caste-divisions, gender discrimination etc., which are violative not only of the basic structure of Hinduism but also of modern sensitivities and norms of human rights.
My reform-proposals advocate total elimination of level III, refinement of level II and regeneration of level I. It is only by implementing these proposals that we could rid Hinduism of the pollutants which have seeped into its texture, by way of misinterpretations and interpolations, in the course of its long march in history. Then alone, India would pull herself out of the quagmire of caste and also acquire a new prestige and position in the comity of nations.
(The writer is a former Governor of J&K and a former Union Minister.)