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Hinduism, Caste System and Untouchables

Introduction – Hinduism has never been considered as a religion like Christianity believing only in Bible or Islam in Kuraan. It has always been a way of life, which created an inclusive society. In South-East Asia, each social group coming to India, which desired to settle down there with the people living in Indus Valley  and beyond it, were given a separate caste name. Thus many incoming groups were  welcomed and without any difficulty were assimilated into the mainstream and brought under one umbrella called Hindu society.     

Different castes in Hinduism – All local groups, whether high or low, living in a local area were mutually dependent, cared and supported each other and fulfilled different kind of needs of local people. Hindu society ranked different castes not done by putting them within a framework of hierarchical layers of social order, each fitting neatly below the other, but more or less as a series of vertical parallels. 

Interdependence of different social groups living in a local area – Different social groups living in a village or city-state, were bound together by economic and social ties and had a strong bond of mutual dependence. There was hardly any room for any group to consider itself, as being placed in greater or lesser disadvantageous position with reference to another. Concept of forwards or backwards or feeling of exploitation of lower strata by upper castes was almost non-existent at that time.

There was no hard and fast rule of ranking various castes. It did segmental ranking of different caste groups according to relevance and contribution of their occupations to society. Usefulness of a profession to society as a whole, conduct and way of living of different people were the factors to determine social, economic or political status of a group in society vis-a vis others. In addition to it, considerations of self-discipline, hygiene, cleanliness, morality, knowledge and spiritual standards were given importance in their ranking. Higher a caste, purer it was considered, and greater were the self-restrictions on its behavior through rituals. Brahmins commanded respect of the whole society. They were put under maximum restrictions – to lead a simple life, devoted to the spiritual and intellectual pursuits and denied accumulation of wealth.

Stress on self-reliance, self-discipline and self-restraint – Respect to a person or group was never given on the basis of material success or control of power. Different groups earned respect of society was supposed to lead a self restraint and self disciplined life in all respect, be it in the matter of daily routine, occupation or inter caste relationship.   Sir John Shore (Sir John Shore, the Governor General of India during the period 1793-1798) had observed that in spite of being their rulers, Hindus regarded Britishers at par with the lowest natives, no matter how strong or powerful were they. Similarly Brahmins associated with unclean jobs like, Mahabrahmins performing last rites, have also been treated, more or less like Shudras and have been put at the bottom of the social structure. There were instances when non-Brahmins or Harijans served as priests of temples of goddesses like Sita or Kali, where all castes made offerings.

Co-existence of different groups generally in harmony and some times in rift – In its long process of evolution, caste-system has developed such an atmosphere, where different identities co-exist, generally in harmony and sometimes in rift. As far as masses were concerned, the system always kept them reconciled, if not contended in the past. It kept all the sections of society united under one umbrella despite of their diversity and gave the society stability, continuity and prosperity.

At times, there had been strife, contradictions and discords amongst different identities, so much so that India appeared to be a land of contrasts.  Nevertheless, most of the times, the Indian society has been able to develop  an attitude of reconciliation rather than refutation, cooperation rather than confrontation and co-existence rather than mutual annihilation.” (Khan, Democracy in India, pp 4-5)

Existence of Shudras – Existence of Shudras (at present referred as untouchables or out-castes) was recognized, as early as, Pre Mauryan Period (6th century BC to 3rd century BC). Though given a lower status, they were always an integral part of Hindu society. They performed essential social and economic tasks as well as in agricultural sector. 

Who were shudras? – Conquered groups, individuals or groups engaged in unclean occupations, clinging to the practices, which were not considered respectable, or persons born illegitimately or the groups clinging to anti-social activities were treated as Shudras and were given lowest status in the society. Breaking the caste rules meant loss of caste, meaning complete ostracism or having no place in the society. Permanent loss of caste – out-caste- was considered to be the greatest catastrophe for an individual, short of death penalty. By the beginning of Christian era, the out-castes themselves developed caste hierarchy and had their own out-castes. Socially, they were put amongst the lower strata of Hindu community doing all sorts of menial work and serving the upper castes of the three Varnas.

Hinduism taught not to blame others for deprivation – Many studies have shown that Hinduism never prevented Shudras or others to rise in the scale of society or to earn respect of the society. Hindu Dharma never held others responsible for an individual’s misery or deprivation. According to it Adharma” (immoral behavior), “Alasya” (laziness) and Agyan (ignorance) were to be blamed for all evils, exploitation and miseries of people.

In many parts of the country, people belonging to lower strata held position of power/superior status or earned respect of Hindu society. Many warrior kings of Shudra and tribal origin sought Brahmins’ help to acquire Kshatriyas status for themselves. Many Shudras were accepted and revered as philosophers or spiritual teachers like .Lord Rama, a king, ate half-eaten berries of Shabri – an untouchable. Lord Krishna’s foster parents Nand and Yashoda, who in today’s classification would be called OBC, get more respect than his real Kshatriya parents from Hindu society. Vashishtha, the principal of the conservative school of Brahmanism, was the son of Uravshi, a prostitute. Vishwamitra, the maker of the very Gayatri Mantra, the quintessence of the Vedic Brahmanism, was a Kshatriya. Aitreya, after whom the sacramental part of Rig-Veda is named as Aitreya Brahamana, was the son from a non-Aryan wife of a Brahman sage. Vyasa of Mahabharata fame and Balmiki, the original author of Ramayana, both untouchable according to present standards, were not ashamed of his origin and are highly respected persons all over India. In middle ages, Sant Ravidas, Namdev, Tukaram, Malika, Sunderdas and several other saints, belonging to lower ranks, earned the same respect as any higher caste saint. There had been instances of people of lower ranks becoming kings.

Therefore, it is not fully correct that Hinduism or its practices are responsible for Shudra’s isolation, deprivation, exploitation, low social status, inhuman treatment by caste Hindus, their low status in traditional Hindu Society, or forced them to do menial, unsavory and unclean jobs.

All troubles of lower strata of society started after the downfall of Hindu Raj and old Hindus values. Continuous invasions by Turks, Afghans and Mughals who earlier drained out the wealth of the nation to foreign lands and afterwards made India their homeland and ruled the country for centuries. It resulted in Hinduism turning inwards and observing all the rituals rigidly and blindly to save its distinct identity under foreign rule. Afterwards, feudalistic attitude, extravagance and luxurious life style of Mughal rulers and those at the helm of authority, increased the disparity between the rulers and the ruled.

Again, in  nineteenth century during British rule, modernization an industrialization process has made many traditional occupations obsolete or less paying or were regarded more hazardous and more time consuming. White collared jobs gained importance. Modernity taught people to escape from menial work and discredit manual work. More, a person withdrew from physical labor, more civilized, honored and qualified he was regarded by modern society. The British apathy towards indigenous skills, knowledge and occupations pushed millions of rural artisans, craftsman and small scale farmers, for whom work was essential for survival, backwards in a very subtle manner. It resulted in discrediting many traditional occupations and in destruction of Indian handicrafts and cottage industry. It scattered efforts, sense of direction and manufacturing skills of millions of artisans, craftsman, weavers etc. A few of them joined modern occupations. Majority belonging to different groups could neither enter modern sector, nor could stick to their traditional occupations considering menial work derogatory and lost their creativity, sense of achievement and pride. Masses had no option, but to either join band of agricultural laborers, industrial workers, and marginal labor and increase number of poor and unemployed. Outcome of such a change has been casualty of workers first, afterwards their work style, commitment, motivation and culture.

Recently empowerment of backward and untouchable castes has becoming once again a buzz -word in political arena. Poverty is the most pervasive phenomenon, which cuts across all the barriers of caste religion and region. It has been estimated that despite numerous developmental plans, schemes and legislation, including Reservation Policy in higher education and jobs, there are about 500 million Indians are living in squalor. There are many reasons responsible for their deprivation, agonies and poverty other than caste. Population explosion, illiteracy, unemployment, lack of awareness about opportunities to progress, insufficient wages in unorganized sector, indebtedness, politicization of caste system, obsolete forest and land policies and half-hearted implementation of developmental plans.   

Therefore, it can be said that it is not the malice of castes-Hindus, but the circumstances, that are pushing untouchables and some other backward castes away from the mainstream. Suffering from centuries old enslavement, suppression and ostracism deteriorated severely the condition of lower strata of society, stopped growth of their personality and made them dependent on others for their livelihood.

It is a humanitarian obligation of any civilized society to bring suitable changes to uplift and empower the submerged sections of society. The overwhelming poverty of millions belonging to lower strata of society and their near absence in echelons of power has led the law makers in India to intervene. Generally law follows social changes. But in India, after the Independence, the political leadership in their hurry and enthusiasm, tried to foster social changes through law.  In order to finish monopoly of a few groups in power structure and, as well as to bring to an end prejudice against discriminated groups, age-old imbalances and cumulative disparities of power, wealth and culture, they have initiated politicization of Caste-system. They hoped to integrate the whole country by casteless society. Unfortunately, instead creating a better future, it has generated other complications. Its paternalistic policies for bringing the submerged sections of the society into mainstream and creating a casteless society has not yielded the desired results, because these are –

  • Devised by self-proclaimed leaders and administered by bureaucrats belonging mainly to the elite of urban society,
  • Not rooted in local priorities or skills. The beneficiaries do not choose, design and implements the projects.
  • Often represented patronage networks of those doling out the money.
  • Often benefiting the rural elite.

Recently, many reformers and religious/spiritual institutions are focussing their attention on community empowerment. Many self-help groups have emerged all-over India. They  They bypass the government mechanisms and go straight communities. It hopes that their efforts would Recently the world over, community empowerment is becoming once again a buzz -word. The idea is to bypass government mechanisms and go straight to communities. It is expected to check corruption and waste, to take arbitrary power away from politicians at central, state, even at local level, also to build the skills of targeted groups through learning by doing and to empower them as decision-makers.

These self-help groups provide mutual safety-nets to its people in times of distress, use ostracism to penalize undesirable behaviour, rewards those with desirable behaviour, mediate and settle disputes without costs and delays of the formal of the formal legal and administrative system. They involve and encourage its people to design, implement and monitor the schemes, which the feel are beneficial for their community members.

Wherever properly harnessed, efforts of such self-help groups have yielded rich dividends. For example the Parsi and Christian communities, institutions run by Veerashaivya Mutts of Karnataka, Ramakrishan Mission, Radhaswami Satsang, Satya Sai Baba, Sadhu Vasvani and many others are practising community based approach for the development of humanity. They provide far better municipal, civic, educational, and medical services then the government. 

 

 

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November 26, 2017 - Posted by | Reservation/Affirmative action program, Social and political values and systems |

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