July 27th, 2010
07:00 AM ET

My Take: Can yoga solve India’s caste problem?

Editor's Note: Ravi S. Kudesia is founder of The Leadership Yoga and is an initiated student of Kriya Yoga.

By Ravi S. Kudesia , Special to CNN

Just over a week ago, regular Belief Blog contributor and religion scholar Stephen Prothero posted on the ills of the Indian caste system. In it, he places the burden squarely on Hinduism’s shoulders. By doing so, he stepped into a centuries-old debate about the origins and future of the oppressive social institution.

The responses were impassioned, but hardly innovative. Most detractors argued that today’s caste system has little actual basis in Hindu scripture. The hymn Prothero cited, the Purusha Sukta, comes from the Vedas–books so ancient that they're widely considered the oldest extant Indo-European texts.

The verse in question describes how various elements of our universe emerged from a cosmic being named Purusha. Priests were born of his face, leaders of his arms, merchants of his thighs, and so on. Thus, it clearly justifies the caste system, right?

Not exactly. The sun also came from his eyes, the earth from his feet, and the wind from his breath. So then perhaps the hymn is more about cosmology, suggesting the universe was not created ex nihilo, but from the very body of God himself. Whichever interpretation we prefer, the text itself leaves little room for certainty.

For this reason the debate has stalled–we are stuck in Purusha’s riddle. In this sense, the Vedas are not alone. The same Quran that preaches no coercion in religion is used to justify violent religious coercion. The same biblical Book of Exodus that beautifully documents a people’s liberation from bondage also suggests how many shekels to dish out for a slave and how hard that slave can be beaten after purchase. (Exodus 21:32, 21:20-21)

Ambiguous scripture is a breeding ground for contention. I often ask myself, “If any politico, bigot, or would-be terrorist can pick up a holy book of their choosing and manipulate it, what good are these texts?” And even if we could ask the authors of scripture about their “true meaning,” would that stop all the discrimination? Most likely not.

So then where is our hope? Perhaps it lies in the coda to Purusha. If the Vedas are Hinduism’s roots, then the Bhagavad Gita is its flowering. The Gita is the go-to book for living a meaningful life, taught by the charismatic avatar Krishna. He leaves little to interpretation when he tells us to make no distinction between the priest, the dog, and the outcaste who eats the dog. (Gita 5:18)

Yet he insists we not simply take his word for gospel – nor even take the gospel for gospel. Scripture, Krishna says, is beautiful in language, but mechanical in practice and ultimately more likely to distract than liberate. (Gita 2:42 – 2:46) Instead of emphasizing revelation, he brought the practice of yoga down from the monasteries into the realm of everyday life. Through yoga, he declares, we can experience universal love, truth, and God firsthand, without any ambiguity.

The stretches that we typically refer to as yoga are actually only a small part of the full practice. Krishna's method, called karma yoga, is about acting mindfully, with an attitude of loving service.

Perhaps a brief introduction to yoga psychology is in order. Krishna explains that humans possess two identities: a narrow self-image called the ahamkara and a deeper level of being called the Atman. The ahamkara is the source of all discrimination; its egocentric identity thrives on race, creed, and clan. The Atman, however, is universal; it is a single life force that beats equally in the heart of all creatures.

Yoga itself means “union” and refers to the process of merging the limited ahamkara into the limitless Atman. When this happens, discrimination of any kind becomes impossible. In Krishna’s words, “Armed with yoga, one sees everything with an equal eye; a yogi sees the Atman in all beings and all beings in the Atman.” (Gita 6:29)

Yoga does not teach us to love our neighbor. It teaches that we are our neighbor–that to hurt another is to actually hurt oneself. This high ideal was demonstrated definitively in the life of Mahatma Gandhi, who called the Gita his solace.

If the problem of caste is Hindu, so must be the solution. We cannot protest or litigate a better world into being. It is slow, ineffective, and decidedly un-Hindu. Krishna says that change comes about by individuals taking charge and inspiring others through their actions, not by filing petitions. (Gita 3:20 – 3:21)

Indeed, social transformation is nothing but personal transformation en masse. So instead of finding blame in the words of scripture or the pages of history, we must search inwards for our own prejudices and fears. They are the culprits, not Purusha.

India has amazed the world with its economic maturity into a veritable global power. To be complete, it must now grow into its full potential as a spiritual exemplar. Hinduism still has work to do. Yoga may be the perfect tool for the job.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ravi S. Kudesia.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: India • Opinion

soundoff (58 Responses)
  1. SR

    Those of you marveling at Ravi's wisdom, you are better off going to the source: The Gita. Explains all of this beautifully and without any hatred of Infidels.

    July 27, 2010 at 3:03 pm |
    • jmb2fly

      Why are christians being killed by Hindu's in India if there is no hatred of infidels?

      July 28, 2010 at 4:16 pm |
    • SR

      You need to do further research than knee jerk reaction about a headline. I have seen as many headlines where isolated violence about some Hindus being killed by Christians as much as the other way. You seem to be implying something like a "concerted pogrom" of violence happening in India against Christians which is not the case at all. If you don't believe ask anybody from India.

      The reason there is even some violence against religions in India is this: Many Christian "missionaries" who want to "convert the natives", are aggressive proselytizers and are exacerbating tensions among formerly "live and let live" Hindus.

      Here's what's happening: How would you feel if someone came to your home and called your 5000 yr old religion as Satan Worship and your God as The Devil. This is the kind of message that Hindus are hearing from the aggressive proselytizers from Islam and Christianity.

      July 28, 2010 at 5:40 pm |
    • jmb2fly

      SR, I really don't mean to argue with you, but I would like to point out a couple of things for your consideration although you are free to disagree with me. First of all my knowledge of the increase in the attacks on christians in India are first hand accounts from from friends and relatives of victums, not headlines. Secondly, a very significant number of christian workers in India are Indians rather than foreign missionaries. Those who work in ministries that I have contact with are almost exclusively Indian nationals. Lastly, with regards to christianity in India, when westerners first arrived in India, they were surprised to find the christian religion was already there. The tradition of the christian chruch in India, is that it was started by the apostle Thomas. If this tradition is correct then Christianity in India predates the Islam in India by at least 700 years, not that that matters but FYI...............

      July 28, 2010 at 7:47 pm |
    • SR

      Please don't misunderstand me. I have no ill will against any religion or its practitioners as long as they will let me and my people pursue our beliefs in our God and our way of life. Our 5000 yr old highly tolerant religion is under attack from THE FALSE propaganda of Islam and Christianity. That needs to absolutely stop.

      I have no problem with people choosing religions on their own. But we don't need anyone to come and save some "souls" for one religion or another through coercion or money or terror.

      Until then, call me a Defender of the Truth or Infidel or whatever name you want. But I will not rest until all religious followers respect all other religious followers as equal in their right to follow what they believe in.

      July 29, 2010 at 11:16 am |
  2. John griffith

    What a powerful and poignant view. I love that it is introspective and calls each individual to action to solve these problems instead of simply talking about them. Thanks for sharing!

    July 27, 2010 at 2:45 pm |
    • Gandhi

      Gandhi said it best – we have to be the change we want to see in the world.

      July 27, 2010 at 3:55 pm |
  3. Jonny J

    I really like how this viewing of yoga as a religious experience shifts religion from being an ideological experience, in this case maintaining caste systems, to an intensely personal experience, stressing personal improvement as a means of spiritual realization.

    This application of yoga to the practice of Hinduism really reminds me of Kierkegaard's application of existentialism to Christianity.

    July 27, 2010 at 2:44 pm |
  4. Mihir

    A good read, its refreshing to see an article about an Indian issue that's actually written by someone of South Asian origin, especially on a media outlet like CNN

    July 27, 2010 at 2:33 pm |
    • South Asians

      Amen to that... an authentic voice from India.

      July 27, 2010 at 3:56 pm |
  5. Thomas

    A fresh perspective on an age old issue!

    July 27, 2010 at 2:33 pm |
  6. Jasper

    Well thought out and interesting idea of a unifying factor to end a practice of social phenomena rather than religious; since caste discrimination exists not only for Hindus in India, but also Muslims, Christians, Jains, and Sikhs. The practices also reach to other countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh, which had Hindu roots and are now Islamic, showing that this is a social doctrine rather than religious.

    I am intrigued and would like to try Kriya yoga to learn more.

    Thanks for the insight Mr. Kudesia!

    July 27, 2010 at 2:30 pm |
  7. replier

    thats not what i meant at all

    July 27, 2010 at 2:27 pm |
  8. SR

    Replier: nice. It's all the poor peoples' fault. Ok, Then try educating the people of those faiths about the dangers of intolerance. Don't sit here and wait for change to happen. Make it happen.

    We need nothing less than a complete mindset change among muslims and christians the world over. I myself am seeing first hand how India is being torn apart by the aggressive proselytization of these Supremacist Religions.

    I don't want the same thing to happen to the US.

    July 27, 2010 at 2:20 pm |
  9. SR

    I know fully well that both Islam and Christianity are intolerant of other faiths (or ways of life). That's why i call them both "One Book Ponies". See my other posts.

    July 27, 2010 at 2:12 pm |
    • replier

      But they're not... people are intolerant of other people, beliefs are intolerant of other beliefs, how can the truth being pointed at in all these religions have any contradiction with each other?

      July 27, 2010 at 2:14 pm |
  10. Joseph

    Great article! Insights into hinduism are always fascinating to me, and its a great link into Yoga, a practice that is being absorbed by Western Culture.

    July 27, 2010 at 2:10 pm |
  11. Gary

    SR. Islam is not the only intolerant religion. Many Christians think you are headed straight to hell too.

    July 27, 2010 at 2:03 pm |
  12. SR

    By doing Yoga, and meditating upon one God worshipped in many different forms by the Hindus, we have gained tolerance for all faiths. Can you say the same about Islam?

    July 27, 2010 at 1:59 pm |
    • replier

      No we haven't those who see distinction even in the subtlest form and cling to a religion or creed is still right in the midst of delusion. Many gods or no gods, all means to attain the formless.

      July 27, 2010 at 2:06 pm |
  13. Hamza Hassan

    I agree that the potential for change is within us and if yoga is a medium in which we can improve ourselves, I say we should all at least consider it. Also by removing the caste system, you remove a major part of Indian culture and religion and this is something one can not do for a variety of reasons.

    July 27, 2010 at 1:50 pm |
    • sgtgurrd

      Very interesting article. I agree Hamza, we have the power to change and that yoga is a medium by which we can do so

      July 27, 2010 at 2:19 pm |
  14. SR

    Dear Replier:
    Thank you for that exposition. This is the kind of enlightened debate that i am used to. Not threats against "disbelievers" or forcing "their God" over "your God" kind of hateful ideology.

    The one-book Ponies (similar to the one-trick Ponies) need ti come out of their Supremacist ideologies parading around as Religions.

    I welcome further input from rational commentators such as Reality and others.

    July 27, 2010 at 1:36 pm |
  15. SR

    Thanks to Ravi for an enlightening article.

    The Gita is a fantastic book without any of the horrible stories found in Old and New Testaments.

    The Gita is a particularly easy read that tells you how to live peacefully and get ahead in life. But I don't think it matters to me whether the person who gave the book is a God or man. Even with that belief, I know I will be accepted in my religion.

    But I have read the other little books that people here go nuts about.

    I cannot understand 3 things about those religions and would appreciate a rational explanation from you or anyone:

    1. If God is shapeless, nameless and formless, how can you insist on calling that one God just by the name of Jesus and denying all others, the right to call him (or her) by the name of Shiva, or Vishnu or whatever. Answer me this: how can you “convert” someone to call that God by the name of Jesus only? Isn’t this mental domination? Why is there a fight for "Your God" vs. "His God"? If God’s name is that important (Allah or Jesus) then come can you alone have figured this out? C'mon don't pull my leg. I am not that stupid.

    2. Why are you living in fear of this God? How can you be scared into believing in this Satan, Hell, etc. and be scared into believing in this God? How can anyone be called a loving God when he uses scare tactics to believe in him (or her)?

    3. If this God created all the humans in his image, Why are non-believers hated? It is after all his children. Those children (non-believers) must be loved as much as the children who believe.

    Strangely enough, M. K. Gandhi was assaulted by Christian missionaries all his life to convert and he refused because he said that Christianity’s beliefs don’t make sense. He found the Gita and Hinduism far superior to the bible. Here’s the link.0 Read it and weep for what you have done to humanity through your hate filled ideologies.

    Gandhi on Religion
    By M.K.Gandhi


    July 27, 2010 at 11:07 am |
    • Reality

      For full disclosure:

      For three weeks now, a morbid murder story has been playing out in the Indian media. Nirupama Pathak, 22, a New Delhi–based journalist, was allegedly murdered by her own mother. Her crime? She had wanted to marry a fellow journalist who belongs to a lower caste — and she was pregnant. On a trip home to make a final effort to convince her family, Nirupama texted her boyfriend that she was being held captive, locked up in a bathroom. On April 29, she was found dead. The family claimed Nirupama had killed herself, and lodged a case against her boyfriend for rape and abetting suicide. But when the postmortem results revealed Nirupama had been asphyxiated, the police arrested her mother, Sudha Pathak.

      The case is now headed to court, which will disentangle the web of allegations and counterallegations. Meanwhile, it has thrust the issue of honor killings to the center of public debate. Though Western readers associate the term more with Taliban-ruled Afghanistan than with 21st century India, honor killings are shockingly frequent in villages in the northern and northwestern parts of the country, where those daring to cross the barriers of caste are made to pay with their lives. Mostly, these cases are confined to the inside pages of newspapers, but the Nirupama case — in urban, educated, middle-class India — has hit the front pages.

      July 27, 2010 at 11:50 am |
    • replier

      1. All names are meant to point the mind to that formlessness. If there is any name, such as Shiva or Christ, look to their meanings and you will recognise that these names aren't meant to create separate creeds or ideology but act as pointers to the formless one. It is human nature to misinterpret these names into creating all the misfortunes that follow, an act of innocent ignorance.

      2. As I said before, in respect to the formless, fear does not exist. Whatever is written as satan, or other names in scriptures have been given a bad connatation through years of misuse. In reality these terms aren't meant to bring fear but create a reference for all the subtle thoughts that exist in our consciousness. An example would be the word Sin. It is thought to refer to bad doings and punishable deeds in present day, but infact its true definition is "to miss the mark", meaning to not truly understand.

      3. Hatred of non-believers is the same as love for the believers, equally irrelavent. Creating distinction to elevate yourself in some way or the other is the very definition of delusion. all these are happenings which aren't in any way related to"god" but occur out of the simple delusion of not understanding. There is no truth in distinction.

      July 27, 2010 at 1:05 pm |
  16. SR


    what happened to my post? CNN censoring?

    July 27, 2010 at 10:46 am |
  17. Gary

    SR great point . thats why as an agnostic I lean toward hinduism and buddism as a philosphy not a judgemental evil organized religion ...

    July 27, 2010 at 10:13 am |
  18. Gary

    Yoga,stretching meditation takes away stress, meditation and relaxation really enhances our minds and seems to open them too.

    July 27, 2010 at 9:23 am |
  19. McCluck

    A simpler solution. Stop worshiping fairymen in the sky. Then you will have to find a different way to controlling others.

    July 27, 2010 at 9:10 am |
    • Daniel

      Unfortunately, not all social discrimination, oppression and injustice can be blamed on religion.

      July 27, 2010 at 12:43 pm |
    • Fairymen

      Mccluck – maybe you should try reading the post first. the whole point was that god is within us not in the sky and that we dont need religion or scripture to reach it...

      July 27, 2010 at 1:18 pm |
  20. Reality

    Ravi S. Kudesia noted that " the responses (to the Hindu caste system) were impassioned, but hardly innovative. "

    Innovative? As in ways to eliminate one of the most discriminatory practices ever developed by humankind? Simply eliminate this dark age practice!!!! No innovation required or desired!!!!!!

    July 27, 2010 at 7:44 am |
    • Daniel

      You miss his point. People in India have been struggling with this practice – which is deeply socially ingrained and thousands of years old – for decades. None of the replies brought up in regards to Prothero's post actually said anything that had not been said, agreed with, debated, refuted and reiterated countless times already.

      July 27, 2010 at 12:42 pm |
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