July 16th, 2010
12:47 PM ET

My Take: Hinduism's caste problem, out in the open

Hindu devotees at a religious celebration in India this month.

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

A few weeks ago, at an interfaith gathering at the White House, a Hindu gentleman told me he enjoyed my new book, “God is Not One,” but he objected strenuously to my criticisms of the Hindu caste system.

“There is no caste in Hinduism,” he told me, and no evidence would convince him otherwise. Not the fact that all my Hindu friends know precisely what caste they were born into. Nor the fact that all my Hindu students know precisely which castes their parents will not allow them to marry into.

Now comes even sadder evidence for the enduring power of the caste system in Hinduism—yet another honor killing. According to reports in Time, the New York Times, and elsewhere, a 22-year-old Hindu journalist named Nirupama Pathak was found dead after her family found out she was pregnant and intended to marry a man outside of her Brahmin (priestly) caste. The family claims it was a suicide, but police have arrested her mother on charges of murder—murder for the cause of caste.

In my teaching and writing, I have argued repeatedly that all religions, like all people, are a mix of good and bad.

In “God is Not One,” I try to point out areas where each of the great religions succeeds and areas where each fails. In its Mahabharata and Ramayana epics, Hinduism has produced some of the greatest stories ever told. In its goddesses, Hinduism offers models for womanhood lacking in more patriarchal religions. And in its practice of darshan or "sacred seeing," it has developed one of the most beautiful devotions on earth. But the caste system is, as it were, Hinduism’s cross to bear.

According to the Hindu gentleman I sparred with at the White House, caste is social rather than religious. But the roots of caste can be traced back to a story in the most ancient Hindu scriptures, the Vedas, in which the various social classes are produced from the sacrifice of a primordial man—the priestly class from the mouth, the warrior class from the arms, the merchant class from the thighs, the laboring class from the feet (Rig Veda 90:10).

Today a far more finely grained system of caste is used in the United States to persuade my Hindu students at not to marry below their station, and in India to justify so-called honor killings.

Yes, Hindu thinkers such as the first Hindu missionary to America Swami Vivekananda have argued against caste, and the Indian Constitution outlawed caste-based discrimination, but the caste system, both ancient and religious, will not be swatted away so easily by either reformers or legislators. According to the New York Times, when Pathak’s father learned of his daughter’s engagement, he wrote her a letter arguing that inter-caste marriages, while permissible under Indian law, had been prohibited for millennia in Hinduism.

As someone who has written repeatedly against Hinduphobia in American history, I have no desire to turn Hinduism into the next religion Americans love to hate. But it is in my view an obligation of every religious practitioner—and every atheist—both to admit to the problems in their worldview and to address them.

One of my most frightening experiences as a professor came when I was teaching the history of Christian thought to a largely Christian student body at Georgia State University in Atlanta. I made my students read Nazi theology because I wanted to challenge them to see how the Christian legacy of anti-Semitism, which goes back to claims in the Gospel of John that the Jews killed Jesus, had been used to justify the murder of Jews. My students sidestepped this challenge by insisting that the Nazis were not Christians. Christians are good people, they told me, and good people do not murder Jews. In this way, they absolved themselves of the responsibility of reckoning with their tradition’s dark side. End of discussion.

After 9/11, many Muslims made a similar move. The men who chanted “Allahu Akbar” as they flew their jets into the Twin Towers were not Muslims, they said, because Muslims are good people, and good people do not murder innocent women and children. They, too, absolved themselves of the responsibility of reckoning with their tradition’s dark side.

Most Hindus are good people. The ones I know certainly are. But it does no good for them or for anyone else to pretend that “there is no caste in Hinduism.” There is caste in Hinduism. That question is settled, in blood. The real question is what Hindus are going to do about it.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Hinduism • Opinion

soundoff (80 Responses)
  1. meghal

    Disagree. Caste System was actually dividing the labor in a proper way to maintain the perfect state of social and economic balance. It was misinterpreted by people later on from Work Based to By Birth Caste System. In fact when you look at it even thousands of years back when they defined this code of conduct, they were so organized and advanced. What is called social framework in today's modern society was considered as religion back then. However it was carried out differently by some followers, that is a separate issue and a Religion shouldn't be criticized for that. Without even understanding what and how the caste system was, Do Not say "Caste System is a black spot in Hinduism."

    August 29, 2013 at 2:23 pm |
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    August 26, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
  3. Dharmi

    please educate yourselves. it is a narrow view point to see the 'head' as more important than 'legs' I think you don't want to lose your legs just because it is inferior. they are the pillars that are supporting you.. supporting the very existence of the society.

    it's the primitive viewpoint of islam and subsequently christianity, that forcefully influenced indian and hindu society for several years, have injected this poison of discrimination and untouchability for dividing and ruling. the exact thing the society is getting rid of now.

    There is no caste-system in Vedas

    Breaking India : Western Interventions in Dravidian and Dalit Fault Lines

    March 6, 2011 at 6:25 am |
  4. Allicia

    I believe that the verse in the Rig Veda that mentions the creation of the caste system is actually Rig Veda 10:90, not Rig Veda 90:10

    August 24, 2010 at 3:00 pm |
  5. LearnedLady

    Centuries ago, during the B.C. years, India was perhaps just forests interspersed with pockets of civilization. These pockets grew as outsiders joined in. These outsiders brought their skills and religious beliefs with them, some of which they tried to impose on the local populace. They also adopted some of the local beliefs and customs. It’s also evident, from legends and folk tales, that they married locals of equal standing. For example, a chieftain married a local chieftain’s progeny and a skilled craftsman married the daughter of the local craftsman he was apprenticing with. Eventually these practices, beliefs, and customs became what we now call Hinduism.

    But our ancestors, who brought it about, didn’t actually see themselves as proponents of a new religion. What they wanted to do was to establish a way of life, establish a code of conduct, a set of norms that people could follow. This way, they wanted to maintain order in society. Probably some of them even had an ulterior motive of keeping the so called lower castes away from the more lucrative professions and vocations. They had their reasons, but I doubt they set out to start a new religion. A religion is supposed to unify all people; tell them that they are the children of one god or of the same set of higher beings. Our culture didn’t. Because in the India of yore, the caste system defined how you worshipped your deity, what education you got, what vocation you chose, and even what food you ate. We never really had a single unifying religion. To foreigners, however, we all appeared to be following a religion, and so they started calling our social structure Hinduism.

    Things have changed now. The lower castes have made great progress, and they enjoy much higher status in society than they ever did before. The upper castes have stooped a bit to allow this, and things seem fine. Now it’s time to recognize this fact and allow all people to be equal and not undermine the calibre of certain castes by calling them weak or underdeveloped and by reserving government jobs for them. It’s time to improve the education system and equip every one for the vocation they eventually want to pursue. There shouldn’t be a shortcut to success for certain sections any more. As for marriage and other similar stuff, it should be left to the judgement of each educated and capable individual.

    July 30, 2010 at 3:47 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.