July 16th, 2010
12:47 PM ET
My Take: Hinduism's caste problem, out in the open
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.
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The author has done a really good job describing the problem. The answer to your question "what Hindus are going to do about it." is that the younger generation is much more open minded and slowly but certainly the the effects of caste system are eroding. I was born a brahmin, I do not take pride in that, nor do I make any exceptions in treating others. Me being from a certain caste doesn't effect my day-to-day life and that's what matters. Unlike old times, caste plays less and less role in normal life of people (unless Indian Government decides not to abolish reservations) and as the economic progress reaches the poorer sections of the country, it will bring about the social change as well.
I am a Hindu and doesn't believe in castism. Lets safeguard our religion.
You are not alone. The vast bulk of Hindu's don't believe in castism. The Hindu haters want to make it seem like all 1 Billion Hindus are somehow racists. Hinduism is the solution to solving ethnic tensions not the problem.
when I am in heaven I am not going to hang out with other souls who were losers here on earth. I am going to spend eternity with the caste of souls to my liking !
In that case, don't you mean casta of souls?
Dear Stephen Prothero, Caste system in Hinduism has existed from time unknown. But you have to understand that it was also appreciated and exploited. When people really understood the cause of the social classification, they appreciated it. When people failed to understand the purpose of its conception they exploited it. You are talking about something which you agree that has existed for thousands of years. The socio, economic, geographical situations of India have also changed along with it. Today, illetracy in India also means that people lack the 'knowledge' about their religion, culture and traditions. Even many educated lack it today. In olden days even though people were illeterate, they had the 'knowledge'. The knowledge to understand what is rong and what is right. Today, caste system is in the exploitation stage. Politicians contributed the most for the same. They have utilized it for their own selfishness and have led generations into darkness. Again talking about caste system on the religious front, innumerable number of Gods, Gurus and Devotees have hailed from the so called lower castes and are respected and worshipped by Hindus from all walks of life even today. If socially, soemthing has failed and religiously accepted, where do you think the problem is? I will tell you a short story, A boy reading the Book of Revelation goes to his pastor and says, 'its written in this book that we should not obey Gods commands", " from today I will not listen to anything related to God". The pastor is confused and aks him to show it in the book. The boy opens the page and reads, " You shall not obey the Lord". He says" Look, its here, and I will not obey the Lord". The pastor sees that its Satan saying these words to Eve.
I appreciate your reference to the Vedas, but it also clearly shows your ignorance of not understanding the situation, time, concept and scenario behind the meaning of the words. You are talking just like the boy in the above story. Also, anything good if exploited will always result being worse. The best part of the so called 'religious scholars' like you is that, you try to talk about a religion thousands of years old, with just a few hundred hrs of study. Remember, its as foolish as showing a torch to the Sun.
Hindus cant just say it is social and not religious because the caste system of brahmins etc. is only practised by Hindus and not of any religion unless of course they were originally Hindu but converted recently to some other religion. Also, legally the Govt recognizes the castes for reservation purposes only if the person is a Hindu.
Also, practice of caste marriages is spread every where unless of course if the couple love each other outside caste boundaries and in which case they have to fight the parents to get approval or they just elope.
We can be best of friends with people with other castes and get into business with them and live side by side, but very rarely do you have marriages solemnized between their children if they are of different castes. And also the caste system is very encouraged by the vedas, the puranas and the Gita, so it is most definitely a religious issue and one for which we should all be ashamed.
The Pakistanis are Muslims but they also have castes.
I was born a Hindu, became an atheist at college, and got married to a non-practicing Christian 25 years ago. I largely agree with the article–caste is indeed Hinduism's black spot.
However, there is some basis to say that it is also social: Both Islam and Christianity–religions imported into India–also have their own version of caste, with exact same sanctions on intermarriage, eating together etc. For instance, in South India, the 'Syrian Catholics' do not inter-marry with the 'Latin Catholics' because, apparently, the latter were converted from lower castes! (even though the conversion happened at least 400 years back)
Fortunately, the stranglehold of the caste system is slowly–but surely–eroding. Mixed-religion or mixed-caste marriages do not evoke extreme responses any more (esp. in progressive provinces such as Kerala).
i did the same. born into religious family, went to college and opened my eyes and brain, and now repudiate all business (a synonym for religion).
I am glad to hear that mixed caste marriages are more accepted now.
FYI...I used low caste word just for identity.
Caste system is social issue not religious. In Mahabharata King Shantanu married to a low caste girl (daughter of a a fisherman). Krishna brought up with low caste people. God Rama lived with low caste people and he let a fishermen worship and hug him. Plenty of low caste saints like Kabir are worshiped by Hindus. Some saints like Saibaba, about whome no one knows what religion he belonged to is worshiped by most Hindus. Also, plenty of Muslim saints like Khwaja Moinuddin Chisty, Haji Ali and plenty others are worshiped by majority of Hindus. Even mother Teresa is one of the Christian saints is worshiped by plenty of Hindus. Mostly Hindus get annoyed when they are being told that they follow wrong religions. Hindus do not like to respect people who do not respect other religion. Above all Caste system and Honor killing is problem among major Hindus.
As has already been pointed out the word varna means color, but where did the colonial racists get the idea that it meant color of skin which is an utterly absurd conclusion. The word varna represents the color of the three gunas: white for sathwik, red for rajasic and black for tamasic. It is the heght of ignorance or cynical manipulative duplicity (aka white lie) to replace guna which has spiritual quality, to skin color which is meaningless in the spiritual context. That so many hindus, who should know better, are dumb enough to go along with this colonial construct shows why it was so easy for handfuls of brits and before them the mongol-turks/mughals to rule over 100s of millions of indians.
Brahmins are as dark skinned as any indian. Most if not all would be called the N word in Jim Crow America and forced to drink from the fountains reserved for african-americans.
"Varna" also means "Color" in Sanskrit. Therefore, Hinduism is the only religion which indoctrinates skin-color-based racism."
This crazy notion is ridiculous and false as already pointed out by someone else. Why else are so many brahmins black and so many sudras a relatively lighter shade of brown? The color is not of skin or else the much lighter mongol turks and englishmen who conquered and ruled india would have been worshipped as deities instead of called unclean mlecchas. Speaking of deities, the fact that the hindu gods are overwhelmingly depicted as black/dark makes a lie out of your racist equation which was used by british colonials to fool the gullible/not so smart hindus into buying into the european colonial caste system which was indeed based largely on color, with white on top and black on bottom and which put hindus of all castes near the very bottom of the color heirarchy.
I agree with you 100%: Hindus do worship dark-skinned gods, such as Krishna. From what I understand, "Krishna" actually means "dark-skinned".
However, please look up the word "Varna".
Regarding Brahmins being lighter-complexioned and lower-castes being darker complexioned: This is a fact, pal. In GENERAL, when viewing a sample size of, say 5-10, you would see that the upper castes are lighter in complexion. Within a sample, of course, there would be people very swarthy and people very Mediterranean. Heck, Nikki Haley and Bobby Jindal are both Punjabis, and see how dark one is over the other.
Re: British rule of India. This was made possible by all the collaborators. Never in human history has so few (~10,000) ruled so many (over 300,000,000), and this was only made possible if some type of "hero-worship" existed.
Caste by definition is European (Spanish/Portuguese word casta) and refers to the racist Christian system they created in South and Central America. You will notice that in Christian Latin America, the tiny white % rules over the mixed race people and income disparities (as measured by the GINI index) are huge in countries like Mexico and Brazil. The tiny White elite uses the Christian casta system to rule and oppress the mixed races. They have further subdivided the non whites in caste like Mestizo, Pardo etc... Infact the Brazilian President, Lula (a Pardo Caste member) said that the White/Blue eyed people were responsible for the global financial crisis. While that statement was an exaggeration, it showed the frustration felt by the lower Christian casta's in South America.
It's NOT a fact at all, within the same family there is a range of skin color. As for your assertion about surveys, I would to see a link with the report on this survey as it doesn't match with ground level experience.
Hinduism is infact the solution to solving ethnic differences and not the problem.
As for the British, their rule was very brief by historical standards (although relatively recent) and they achieved it not by direct rule but by divide and conquer. 10,000 was just the permanently stationed White army, they had reserves from their homeland they could draw on, plus they used the religious differences within India and local rivalries to keep the princely states in check. The British were cunning, I will grant you that. To make some ethnicities feel better, they said you are better than the others, you are "upper caste", while they went to other's and said that "see those other ethnic gruops, they think they are better than you and consider you lower caste". Infact no one used these terms lower and upper caste. Too bad, many Indians/Hindus even today can't see through the British divide and rule strategy. Where is this glorious British Empire today I wonder since they are supposedly superior.
200,000 Mongolian cavarly ruled over 200 million Chinese even with pre-industrial technology so nothing new about that.
"About 98% of Hindu South Indians are considered Sudras (the serfs and subsistent farmers – general 'masses'), and the other 2% are Brahmins. Of course, South India is closer to the equator, and hence, the people are darker. Simply because they're darker, they are automatically deemed "Sudras" (and "untouchables")."
Complete BS. To an objective observer the brahmin looks as much an indian as an untouchable. 90% of north indians are as dark as south indians. Most of the "lightest" indians are either descended from muslim invaders or are sudras and untouchables from punjab; or they are tibeto-burmese, not natives of india.
Really Nice article nd exchange of impression of each others culture should be done more in public in order to bridge the GAP in and ignorance in our minds for each other. CASTE SYSTEM DOES EXIST IN INDIA TODAY no denial from the fact ...However I would like to share my perspective on the subject and some facts to correct some part of your research on Hinduism.
CASTE SYSTEM was nothin more than Devision of Labour in the society which is stil followed in modern days by all Organizational and HR structure. The only discrepancy which crept into and should be condemned was "By Birth Only caste allocation" which lately added and practiced. In vedas it was on the basis of work. Its like saying Mr CEO's Son can only be the CEO and Mr. Peon Son will be Mr. Peon.....This was not the case in ancient Hinduism and society. As a matter of Fact GOD like krishna incarnated in lower caste ....RAMAYAN was written by Valmiki an "SHUDRA SAINT...lowest caste". There are plenty of examples like this ...Which should give you enough evidence to correct your research and correct the generic generalization of such ancient "State of mind or social framework which today has been called as Religion i.e. Hinduism". You should be aware there is not a single mention of word "HINDU" in any of the Vedas including "Rig Veda". I urge you to have a fresh perspective with complete understanding of teh subject. It is quite obvious to get misjudged by evaluating the current state of the society and its practices, which has changed so much due to External and internal society changes within india. Hinduism was never spread as missionary or as a cause, you will not find a single hindu invading or traveller preaching hinduism outside india. Swami Vivekanand and Ramkrihna Mission are from contemporary times.
Hinduism is one of Mankind's Oldest Religion (>10000 years old) ...and unlike most later religion Judaism (ancient) ->Buddha (branch frm Hinduism 600 BC i.e. 2600 years old ) – > Christanity (2000 years old) -> Islam (600 years old). It was never driven by 1-2 scriptures or books nor by one person or god as ultimate authority. Its rule and framework developed with human and mostlyinvolves work of thousands of seers, saint and scholars over this thousands of years. This is the reason you see sometime contradictory statement and practices mentioned in stories and scriptures differing from the period they belong. As you know you can even question your own god and scriptures in Hinduism...which is a rarity and indicates how humanity grew in this part of the world (INDIA) and how it developed its own social and religious rules framework for itself. Since inception this has been Peace loving and belived in co-existence which is evident from the fact that almost all the religion known to mankind exist in india and practiced.
In summary please condemn the "By Birth CASTE" which exist today but please correct your generic comments pointing to flaw in its ancient practice and society.
About 98% of Hindu South Indians are considered Sudras (the serfs and subsistent farmers – general 'masses'), and the other 2% are Brahmins. Of course, South India is closer to the equator, and hence, the people are darker. Simply because they're darker, they are automatically deemed "Sudras" (and "untouchables").
Sorry Hari, but South India has more "pure-caste" brahmins than North India. They are the ones who wear the janeu, or sacred thread. ANd yes, most of them are dark-skinned. However, that has absolutely no reflection on their "status".
However, Hinduism is divisive and cliqueish, and as I had mentioned, it is the only religion which indoctrinates racism. I realize that within Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, etc. there is a racial hierarchy, and this is informalized. The Jews have their Ashkenazi/Sephardic/Mizrahi/Ethiopian division (from higher to lower); the Muslims of South Asia have their Ashraf/Ajlaf divisions; and of course Christianity has many socio-economic dividers; within Sikhism, there is a Jatt/Arora/Others split, and the communities don't, as a rule of thumb, intermarry.
"Only religion that indoctrinates racism?" Looks like you have reading too much propaganda. Read the great Christian leader Martin Luther's book "on the Jews and their lies", where he quotes Jesus who calls them a "brood of vipers".
Hitler's "Mein Kamf" and hatred of Jews was inspired by the great Protestant Christian leader Martin Luther.
Infact Biblical law was used as a way to justify slavery, read the documents and literature of that time. If you make Jathi (ethnicity) as part of the "Hindu" religion, then how come ethnicty/tribe is not part of other religions. Double standard?
The only relgion with racism, yet the West and Arabs had the world's biggest slave trade. Shia, Sunni, Ahmadi, sufi's keep killing each today. Protestants and Catholics have been murdering and killing each other in Europe for hundreds of years. Europe has a history of brutal ethnic conflict (including World War 1 and 2) yet Hindus are the racist ones even though we have never seen Hindu sects fight like the Abrahamic religions.
I'm an American-born Indian man, and my parents are Hindus, however, I don't identify myself as a Hindu. Because of my exposures to many different belief systems, I believe that I have a good view of strengths/weaknesses of the different faiths out there. I sincerely applaud Dr. Prothero's critique of the world's major religions, including his own, Christianity.
I'm very proud of the Hindus for their religious tolerance, non-proselytizing/non-expansionary ways, worshiping of female dieties, and antiquity. It was the Indians who granted religious refuge to: Jews (>587 BC), Zoroastrians (>620 AD), Sikhs (1947), Tibetan Buddhists (1950), and Baha'is (around the 1800s). Moreover, various Islamic communities within India have more rights/respects than Islamic communities within other Muslim theocracies, such as the Ismailis and Shias.
The Hindu religion seems non-proselytizing/non-expansionary, isn't it? I'm sure Hinduism, like any other religion, would love to expand; however, there is a problem: to which case the new convert be assigned? This pathetic discriminatory practice alone will prevent the growth of this religion that keeps over half the people in "slavery" (has anyone seen, "India Untouched"?).
drbala, new converts can take the caste of its choice. Recently 5000 muslims and christians were converted by Agniveer, a Arya samah group. All of them were made brahmins. Pakistani hindus who were dalits were also converted to Brahmins. HInduiism = Sanathan Dharma. First understand the meaning of Dharma before discussing about HInduism.
"India Untouched" – a good video by the proselytizing church. High time the church is banned from this nefarious liberation activity. Can you tell me how to lobby the congress for this ?
I posted something yesterday, but it didn't get published. "Varna" also means "Color" in Sanskrit. Therefore, Hinduism is the only religion which indoctrinates skin-color-based racism.
To be fair, the Muslims of South Asia and the Sikhs all practice their own caste system.
You have to question the intelligence of the supposedly western educated Hindus here who brazenly deny the existence of the universally known hindu crime against humanity: hereditary casteism. Trying to deflect attention to jati in a deceitful attempt to deny the existence of varna is a waste of time.
The West has criminally given India a pass on it's gross violations of human rights for far too long.
Maybe Pakistan's can blowing up Mosques of different sects of their own religion before talking about Human rights. Also let's not forget that the racist Pakistani Army in 1971 killed 3 million Bangladeshi's (Mostly Hindus but also Muslims) and called them "Black dogs". I don't get fooled by this propaganda, I know the ground level racist skin color obsession in Pakistan and the Middle east.
"This system is far more modern than the 21st century thoughts and science. And this is not iPhone4, this system is proved, ever lasted and permanent, do not need any updates."
That is so incredibly irrational. If your beloved Brahminical caste system is such a modern and proven system to organize society why is India such a miserably backward and shockingly degraded place?
Save your post for review later. This "shockingly" backward place is growing at almost 10% GDP growth rate and is shooting ahead of Islamic nations like Pakistan and many 3rd world Christian nations. India has a higher per capita GDP, much higher literacy rate and life expectancy than it's Islamic neighbors who started with the same or better conditions.
The so called shockingly backward religion produces millions of scientists and engineers and is a space power unlike any Islamic nation. This “backward” religion produced 3 nobel prize winners in physics and chemistry. Hindu culture was also where all the foundations of mathematics were laid, including the numerical system, zero and decimal system. It’s little surprise that India hi-tech industry is growing by leaps and bounds as India rockets through to prosperity. It will smash poverty while the hecklers try to make Hindus lose confidence in themselves by dismissing the achievements of their ancestors. It’s curious that all the haters of Hinduism always point out things that are not related to the religion at all. Whereas no one calls it a Christian medieval caste system or Christian slave system, it’s somehow a Hindu caste system.
Wake up call:
Start accepting caste to save your culture, values, beliefs as people mixing up in all Western countries. If you do not believe what your ancestor given it to you, you will be finished as white English, French, Spanish, Netherland people are increasingly becoming mixed race. You will end up like a Tigon or Liger, a dark/light skin human with curly hair. You will only find white blue eyed people in the picture frames. 99% Hindus never mix up with white or black people as they are not allowed to marry out side their castes.. 1% do marry as they are born and grow up in Western countries and finish their life in misery (though there are some exceptions). Hindus are protected by the caste system. This system is far more modern than the 21st century thoughts and science. And this is not iPhone4, this system is proved, ever lasted and permanent, do not need any updates.
What are you talking about? Mixing the races is actually quite beneficial as it is part of the evolutionary path to better minds and better health. Recent examples, Barrack Obama and Tiger Woods. And what happened to aristocrats who refused to marry outside of their "privileged" status? One example is hemophilia.
Reviewing Hinduism via Google results in the following conclusion:
It is almost impossible to understand the complexities of said religion. Throw in the caste system, reverance of cows and reincarnation and one does conclude that substantial 21st century updating is needed.
It is very easy to find faults in other person or religion and that includes me. I do not know what is going on among Hindus. In the recent years there has been some paradigm shift in Christianity, people are trying to understand what Jesus really did and preached. I attend a non denominational church and its emphasis is to love one another as taught by Jesus. Who can argue that ? The recent book " Hole in the Gospel" by Rich Stearns is something I recommend everyone regardless of your faith including atheists. The book has really challenged my life.