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. BaSH PR0MPT

    I know you American's are a bit slow. But YOGA IS A CULT. It always has been. It's not an exercise. Just as chiropractic is a religious 'energy healing' bunch of woo with no medicinal benefit beyond remedial massage. You guys eat up the snake oil and don't see much common sense, but please, switch on.

    October 31, 2013 at 3:31 am |
  2. Basil

    "social transformation is nothing but personal transformation en masse"
    Very true but often overlooked...our eyes naively look outward for change before we examine our own inward faults.

    Great article Ravi, keep it up.

    August 22, 2010 at 11:06 pm |
  3. Prasanth

    Even if we take the literal meaning from Purusha Suktham when it says "The brahmins are a part of the Face of the Cosmic Being and Shudras are at His feet", in Hindu tradition Feet are given utmost importance when we adore some one. We touch elders feet and our Teacher's feet seeking their blessings. And the Mantra says that Shudras are part of his feet which shows that Shudras are as equal to as the Brahmins and so the thought that Shudras are low caste is a maligned thought in few people but not in Vedic and Yogic traditions!

    August 7, 2010 at 2:56 pm |
  4. chanchala nayak

    In Bhagabat Purana, It is mentioned that every humanbeing are equel in the sense that , the four casts system is embeded in every humanbeing : one's head is Brahmin, where knowledge is stored & delivered,one's arms is Kshyatria, since it is the tool to fight to save self, one'sthigh is Baisya since it is the tool to earn livelyhood and foot is Sudra, which is the obidient tool to carry out order. Hinduism teaches Universal Equality. The wrong perception of Cast system is egravated by politicians who are implimenting policies of resevations etc on Cast basis which too is based on wrong conception.

    August 4, 2010 at 8:09 am |
  5. Jim Bob

    Very very good article. The actual religious problem is Fundamentalism, which uses God's Word to promote ignorance. Most Hindus are fundamentalists; they blindly follow cultural tradtions but rarely meditate.

    July 30, 2010 at 8:26 am |
  6. pirate


    July 29, 2010 at 4:53 pm |
  7. Booga

    Although this article attempts to correct the arrogance and erroneous assumptions made by Stephen Prothero regarding caste, Ravi Kudesia subliminally alludes to Yoga being somehow separate and distinct from Hinduism. This type of veiled bilge is highly detrimental to not only Hindus, but everybody else as well.

    The Caste System, or Varnashrama Dharma, is the backbone of Hinduism and is an absolute must. It is actually prevalent in every society in the world except Hindus have codified it and have explained the background of it in the scriptures. What we don't need is casteism, akin to racism. One cannot get rid of racism by getting rid of race. Likewise, casteism must go but not caste itself.

    And secondly, Yoga, is a fundamental school of philosophy (darshana) of Hinduism. It would behoove these so-called yoga "instructors" to learn a thing or two about Yoga before attempting to "teach" others.

    Furthermore, caste is most definitely NOT based on race and/or skin color. All non-Hindus and non-Indians are untouchables. I hope Stephen Prothero understands that. In fact, Hindus have become so progressive that they mingle with non-Hindus quite freely. Thus, Hindus must be applauded for it.

    July 29, 2010 at 4:37 pm |
    • subliminal?

      his argument is more about how passive scripture leads us nowhere versus active experience gets away from discrimination. seems like you're reading too much into this article?

      July 29, 2010 at 6:06 pm |
    • I am not Untouchable

      How can you in one sentence call non-Hindus untouchables and in the next say you're progressive and mingle quite well with non-Hindus??

      July 29, 2010 at 6:11 pm |
  8. 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 Islam and Christianity. That needs to absolutely stop.

    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 11:00 am |
    • Gary

      SR, agree totally I am agnostic but I cant stand the attacks on Hinduism by other religions....I agree with many hindu and budist philosophies....

      July 29, 2010 at 4:12 pm |
  9. Ajay

    Kudesia, one of the best books on Hinduism is "The Fundamentals of Hinduism" by Bansi Pandit. Yoga is a branch of Hinduism. Please see the book.

    Caste is not from India. In India there is Varna which is from Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism) which places jobs into 4 different categories. These jobs are Sanatana Dharma is not hereditary but individual inclination. There is jati which is just a word for community that one is born into. Caste is from Europe, from Portugal. See Casta. "Casta is a Portuguese and Spanish term used in seventeenth and eighteenth centuries mainly in Spanish America to describe as a whole the mixed-race people which appeared in the post-Conquest period. In English, the term casta also refers to the colonial Spanish American system of social stratification based on a person's racial heritage that evolved along with the rise in miscegenation. A parallel system of categorization based on the degree of acculturation to Hispanic culture, which distinguished between gente de razón (Hispanics) and gente sin razón (non-acculturated natives), concurrently existed and worked together with the idea of casta." (wikipedia)

    When the Portuguese came to India they projected Casta onto two concepts Varna (Sanatana Dharma) and jati (generic Indian word for community). The British anglicanized the word to caste. During the Raj they tried to put on paper what community fits into which varna, thereby making it more rigid than it had been.

    July 28, 2010 at 11:10 pm |
    • Missed the Point

      you entirely missed the point... your argument does nothing to actually help people. blaming another country instead of trying to solve the problem is because of your ahamkara or ego.

      July 29, 2010 at 11:25 am |
  10. Sach

    Very well said.

    July 28, 2010 at 11:56 am |
  11. SR


    I agree with you. Why oh Why do people go into fits whenever some one mentions Islam. It must be something to do with that religion and its fanatical followers like you. It must also be something to do with their Supremacist Ideology and perhaps, only slightly, to do with subjugation of other peoples through bombs and may be terror.

    There must be something in Yoga that is causing people to actually experience peace and happiness.

    Truth hurts.

    July 28, 2010 at 9:55 am |
    • jmb2fly

      Yes SR, yoga has made you much more loving and tolerant.............

      July 28, 2010 at 4:18 pm |
  12. Sue

    Why is it that the minute anyone mentions yoga, people go into a trance of "oh what a wonderful man" ?? Why is it that most of the articles in this section are preceded by information about the author's books/career/profession, and that *gasp* the article always says that the author's book/career/profession is the path to solving the world's problems ??? The next thing this man will say is that India and Pakistan should meditate together over Kashmir.

    July 28, 2010 at 7:49 am |
    • Gary

      Sue, will not happen islam dosnt negotiate . islam only responds to violent force. India and its billion people are proof that Hinduism is such a peaceful productive religion than islam.

      July 28, 2010 at 10:50 am |
    • Passion

      Sue, because people who devote their life to something are passionate about it and believe in its ability to change the world.

      July 28, 2010 at 11:19 am |
  13. Elena Santarelli

    nice article, it's been a while since I ventured from my normal readings. I'm sure there wasn't enough space for it, but what's the link between yoga, being neighbors and capitalism and global power. I thought capitalism is all about inequality and exploitation

    July 28, 2010 at 1:09 am |
  14. Shahan

    Very interesting article. Caste system needs to be done away with, i think Ravi Kudesia presents an excellent solution to the issue at hand.

    July 27, 2010 at 5:54 pm |
  15. acekgarg

    This is an awesome article! Can't wait to read more from this author...

    July 27, 2010 at 4:44 pm |
  16. Jamil

    One of the best points of this article is that Ravi takes examples from the Hindu faith to attempt to disprove the Hindu belief in the caste system. I think focusing on points such as this are crucial to convince religious enthusiasts of the flaws of the caste system. It is great that you kept Hinduism in context for I believe that is an important stepping stone to convincing others to consider yoga as a solution.

    July 27, 2010 at 3:42 pm |
    • So true

      At one level he's saying that religions argue both for and against issues so we need to go beyond religion to firsthand experience... and at another, he's still using the Hindu religion to show how wrong the caste system is. I like that you pointed this out.

      July 27, 2010 at 3:48 pm |
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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.