Equality in Hinduism
Rev. Dr. Selvam Robertson
Equality in Hinduism
Equality in Hinduism
I always distill appreciable Hindu constructs as a part of my commitment to interreligious relations. It continued in my article (subsequently part of a book) on ‘Hindu Spirituality’ wherein I profusely appreciated certain Hindu values. My doctoral research was to draw insights for theology of religions from the bhakti tradition of Vaishnava Alvars. However the communal violence that consumes so many lives, constant anti-minority polemic and the murderous lynching that honored animals more than human beings and brutally killed many poor, weak, aged, vulnerable people who eked a living on animals, changed my perceptions. Added to these are my reading on Dr. Ambedkar, Manu Smriti and Bhavagavad Githa and my own analysis of ‘Christian identity and witness in India in the context of Hindutva politics’.
However, with due respect to my topic I shall attempt, in the first place, a graphic overview of some of the Hindu concepts, of course not complete, on which equality, although difficult, is claimed in Hinduism. I shall also, in the second place, highlight the inequality or hierarch prevalent in Hinduism. This of course is an outsider’s understanding of Hinduism and hence subject to the necessary limitations.
The possibility of equality in Hinduism can be interpreted, not without ambiguity, from the following formulations. They are: reality, creation, human life, self, salvation, different ways, Sanskritic Hinduism, bhakti and popular Hinduism.
Hinduism, in contrast to the general perception, affirms that ‘the Reality is one’. Even the manifold forms of rituals and worships (spirituality) are explained as, varied means of adoration to that One Reality. This is reasonably justified in the context of geographical, cultural, linguistic, climatic, and even economic variations.
There is also unanimity that God has attributes. It is expressive even in Sankara’s view that only at the higher level of spiritual realization, God can be realized as formless. Another commonality is the acceptance that God is both transcendental and immanent. In the words of Radhakrishna “God is neither completely transcendent not completely immanent”. It is further explained as “an intelligent Hindu thinks of god as residing within himself, controlling all his actions as the ‘inner controller’ and at the same time god is outside him, manifest in innumerable ways, known and unknown.”
These considerations are at a higher level and give the impression that Hindus are one and they are equal in accepting one God, the attributes of God and God’s transcendental and immanent natures.
Starting from Purusa sukta, there are different creation narratives in Hinduism, each claiming that creation is from God -created, emanated, evolved, illusion. Even Manu says “He, desiring to produce beings of many kinds from his own body, first with a thought created the waters, and placed his seed in them.”
Hinduism holds that the world is a ‘spiritual entity’. The theory that five elements constitute creation is also in the same line. Often earth is called the mother. Therefore it can be assumed that everyone is equal in being part of this creation. The Indian Hindu scholars are unanimous in their commitment to represent Hinduism as world-affirming in contrast to the Christian notion that Hinduism is world negating.
1.3 Human Life
Hinduism ‘postulates no absolute distinction between divine and human beings’. Human beings are divine and God lives in them. The concept of rta in the Vedas, in addition, explains that humanity is not only divine, but also is in harmony with nature.
1.4 Self (Soul)/ Karma Samsara/ Karma Janmantra
The idea about soul that it is ‘immortal and eternal’ is another expression of equality in Hinduism. It is further strengthened by the doctrine of Karma Samsara that all souls will be subjected to janmantra until final Moksha. The theory of karma answers the questions of differences and reiterates that each one inevitably undergoes its effect.
The chief goal of Hinduism is attaining salvation/liberation/moksha of the soul from the world (samsara chakara). In the process, peace (santhi) is guaranteed. It is for everyone and it is attainable in this world itself (Jivan Mukti and Jivan Mukta). It is said “the Jivan-Mukti or liberation-in-life ‘ideal’ has been customarily enshrined as the highest vision of life in the Indian Tradition.” It is also expected that a liberated person leads others to salvation. Moksha is also is one of the four goals of life (purusarthas), which is equally expected of all.
1.6 Different ways
Hinduism cares everyone equally can be illustrated from the principles of adhikāra and ishta-devata. The first one is called the doctrine of the spiritual competence and the second is the doctrine of chosen deity. Hinduism proposes that a seeker of religious truth should choose a means of realization according to his/her ability. If anyone follows a path which is beyond his/her capacity, he/she will meet spiritual death. Similarly a devotee can choose any deity of his/her own choice.
1.7 Sanskritic Hinduism
M.N. Srinivas, in his book, Religion and Society among the Coorgs of South India suggests that the ‘Sanskritic Hinduism’ presents certain common characteristics of higher Hinduism which seem to be equal to all. They are, ‘worship of great deities like Vishnu and Shiva, the pan-Hindu sacredness of rivers, the importance of major pilgrimage centers, the currency of the two classical epics (the Ramayana and the Mahabharata), the sanctity of the cow, belief in the concepts of karma and dharma, and the preeminent role of Brahmans’.
1.8 Bhakti/ Devotionalism
Bhagavad Gita, emphasis on the ‘grace’ of God and ‘devotion of God’. These have become foundations of bhakti marga which centers on the doctrine of grace.
Devotionalism, seems to be revolutionary, and it insists that ‘true Brahmanhood is achieved by devotion to god, not given by birth’. In a way everyone can equally be recipient of God’s grace.
To avoid possible limitations (caste hierarchy and strict religious observances) in practicing bhakti because of its requirements, Alvars in the south propounded prapatti, which people of all class and grade could practice. They constantly maintained that, the ultimate reality is one and that is Tirumāl, used Tamil and Tamil poetical skills to convey the content of Sanskrit religious texts. The presence of a woman and people from different caste groups in the band of Alvars are radical reformations. They have also revealed the inherent riches and divinity of nature in their poems.
1.9 Popular Hinduism
Popular Hinduism, like in every religion, is a social and cultural construction. There are innumerable religious developments like Ayavazi, Aathi parasakthi, Narayana Guru, Linkayats, Dalit religion, etc to enforce equality in Hinduism. I am not in a position to assess their success.
Having presented, as much as possible, the seeming sources for equality claims in Hinduism, let us proceed to the second part of the paper.
You would have already realized my struggle with the first part of the paper and I am sure that it can be overcome in the second part. My quest for equality in Hinduism helped me to consider the opposite of it as well. Let us start with religion.
2.1 Religion- Hinduism/Dharma
The word Dharma is used in most cases as religious ordinances or rites. Hindu dharma/religion is ‘really Law or at best legalized class-ethics’. It is ‘misrepresented to the people as religion’. “By “Dharma” the Hindus mean ‘right, duty, law’ and also ‘religious custom and usage’. It is true that “customs have been recognized from the very beginning as a source of the Hindu Dharma.”
Ambedkar writes that in Hinduism ‘religion, in the sense of spiritual principles, truly universal, applicable to all races, to all countries, to all times, is not to be found’ and ‘I have, therefore, no hesitation in saying that such a religion must be destroyed’. He goes on to say that “You will succeed in saving Hinduism if you will kill Brahmans.” His anger germinated from the view that all the inequalities in Hinduism and society are the product of one group and there is no equality in Hinduism.
2.2 Sanskritic Hinduism
The Sanskritic Hinduism, opposed to its claim of equality, is ‘the religion of the high castes’ derives universality from its roots in the Sanskrit scriptural tradition mainly perpetuated throughout the country by the Brahman literati’. The reality of this is true in the division of Hinduism as ‘higher Sanskritic and lower non-Sanskritic strata’ or great and little traditions. The hierarchy and inequality is right through Hinduism.
For example ‘the temples of great deities like Vishnu and Shiva, tend to attract more high-caste worshippers, and they are mainly served by Brahman priests, who make only vegetarian offerings and use Sanskrit as the ritual language’. On the other hand ‘the temples of many other deities tend to be patronized by the low castes, and they generally have non-Brahman priests, who make both vegetarian and non-vegetarian offerings and use vernacular languages in ritual’. The bitter fact is that ‘the separation is reinforced by the higher-status groups’.
The so called bhakti tradition, contrary to expectations, has resorted ‘to institutionalized inequality’.  Often the devotees greet the gurus ‘by prostrating at his feet’. In other words ‘hierarchical inequality is embedded within the structure of all devotionalist orders, which can never be fully egalitarian.”  The entry of Ācāryas once again brought Sanskrit and Brahmanic control into prominence.
Samskaras are Hindu sacraments (of purification). Many social and cultural elements have entered into the religious ceremonies to mould the Samskaras. Most of them are domestic rites and ceremonies based more on precedence and popular traditional usages than on any definite written code. In other words “really speaking, customs were the only source of the Samskaras before they were codified in the Girhya manuals.”Yet they were binding on the Hindu householder. Samskaras mark the transition from the Vedic to Smarta(smriti) and Pauranika Hinduism where ‘greater restrictions are placed on social sides of the Samskaras’. There is greater amount of inequality in terms of age, duration, rites and ceremonies according to caste. For example “the corpse in its hands, should have a piece of gold if it is of a Brahman, a bow if of a Kshttriya, a jewel if of a Vaisya.”
Even different forms of marriages are suggested for different castes. All the once-born and women are not entitled for Samskaras.
2.5 Caste Constrains and Influences
Inequality is pervasive in Hindu literatures. Ambedkar writes that “the literature of the Hindus is full of caste genealogies in which an attempt is made to give a noble origin to one caste and an ignoble origin to other castes.”
It is traditionally claimed, as opposed to the current trend, that Hinduism is not missionary in nature. The reason given is that “caste is inconsistent with conversion.”
Since Hindu Society is ‘a collection of castes and each caste being a close corporation there is no place for a convert’. Therefore so long as caste remains ‘shudhi will be both folly and a futility’. This we see in many contentious discussions related to religious mobility.
Another main reason for this divide and inequality is that Hinduism ‘postulates no absolute distinction between divine and human beings.’ Often ‘human beings are seen as actually divine in one way or another’, and the same ‘gesture is made to deities as well as people’, ‘so that human superiority is justified by god-like attributes’. Or ‘the gesture tends to disguise behind a religious veil the objective bases of social inequality that lie’, ‘in unequal control over politico-economic resources’.
2.6 Hindu Society
Ambedkar says that the ‘Hindu Society is a myth’. The name Hindu is itself a foreign name given by the Mohammedans to the natives for the purpose of distinguishing themselves. It does not occur in any Sanskrit work ‘prior to the Mohammedan invasion’. Hindus did not feel the necessity of a common name because ‘Hindu society as such does not exist’. ‘It is only a collection of castes’. Similarly ‘one of the most fundamental principles in Indian society is hierarchical inequality’. Therefore, it is in place to look for the reasons behind these inequalities and hierarchies.
2.7The Varna and Caste Hierarchies
The ‘hierarchical inequality’ in Indian society is most distinctively expressed ‘by the concepts of varna and caste’. It begins with the Purusha sukta. For Ambedkar Caste is a ‘human institution’ and it is different from varna. Varna is necessary because it ‘is an ideal model for the caste system despite the latter’s more complex structure’.
The word ‘caste’ is translation of jati in all the main Indian languages. It ‘literally means “kind” or “species,” so that the social unit that we describe as a ‘caste’ is but one of these kinds.’ It is not an abstract, but ‘a visible dimension of everyday life’. 
Vivekanand Jha defines caste ‘as a system of social stratification characterized by hierarchy, heredity, pursuit of one or a few particular occupations, inequality, endogamy, restrictions as to taking food and drink from the outsiders, and the notion of purity and pollution associated with hierarchy’. While dealing with the caste inequality it is a huge surprise to read that ‘due to the distribution of the people into castes that India did not lapse into a state of barbarism’.
2.8 Chaturvarnya and Guna
Chaturvarnya is the division of society onto four classes instead of the four thousand castes that we have in India’. It is claimed that varna ‘is based not on birth but on guna (worth)’. This has support in Manu, Githa, philosophy and all the Hindu religious literatures. The theory of guna is nothing but presenting inequality in creation.
Ambedkar writes ‘my whole being rebels against it’ because the varna is closer to class where cast is birth. The varna and guna forms of explanation reinforces inequality.
2.9 Brahmin –Twice Born
As caste is based on birth the inequality is infused into the creation itself that “man is stated to be purer above the navel (than below); hence the Self-existence (Svayambhu) has declared the purest (part) of him (to be) his mouth.” This is a vivid systematic effort to present the Brahmins superior and unequal to others.
Brahmins’ status is portrayed as superior to kings. For example “know that a Brahmana of ten years and Ksatriya of a hundred years stand to each other in the relation of father and son; but between those two the Brahmana is the father.”
Their food habits, although similar to others, is presented as distinct: “A Brahmana must never eat ( the flesh of ) animals unhallowed by Mantras; but, obedient to the primeval law, he may eat it, consecrated with Vedic texts.”
The religious rights for the Brahmains are performed earlier than others: “In the eighth year after conception, one should perform the initiation (upanayana) of a Brahmana, in the eleventh after conception (that) of a Ksatriya, but in the twelfth that of a Vaisya.” The list goes on.
2.10 Sudra-Fourth Varna
The Sudras are treated much unequally from the other three varnas. According to Manu “One occupation only the lord prescribed to the Sudra, to serve meekly even these (other) three castes.” Serving the Brahmanas ‘is the highest duty of a Sudra, which leads to beatitude’.
The first part of the name of a Sudra should express something ‘contemptible’ and the second part ‘denoting service’.
Sudra is treated as a slave and hence, “No collection of wealth must be made by a Sudra even though he be able (to do it); for a Sudra who has acquired wealth, gives pain to Brahmanas.”
2.11 Dasyus and Chandalas
Those who are not part of varna are called Dasyus. They have to live “near well-known trees and burial-grounds, on mountains and in groves, let these (tribes) dwell, known (by certain marks), and subsisting by their peculiar occupation.”
Candalas should live outside the village, ‘they must be made Apapatras, and their wealth (shall be) dogs and donkeys’. ‘A Chandala, a village pig, a cock, a dog, a menstruating woman and a eunuch’ are at same level. The directions for their life is that “their dress (shall be) the garments of the dead, (they shall eat) their food from broken dishes, black iron (shall be ) their ornaments, and they must always wander from place to place.” They were prohibited from walking in villages and towns during night.
A worrying form of inequality in Hinduism is untouchability. Ambedkar argues that ‘there is no racial difference between the Hindus and the Untouchables’. Before the arrival of untouchability there was a ‘distinction between Tribesmen and Broken Men from alien Tribes’. It is the broken Men who subsequently came to be treated as Untouchables.
Untouchability has no occupational basis too. It sprung from ‘contempt and hatred of the Broken Men’ and ‘continuation of beef-eating. The Untouchables are distinct from the Impure. According to Ambedkar “while the impure as a class came into existence at the time of Dharma Sutras the Untouchables came into being much later than 400 A.D.”
The hereditary form of Untouchability ‘has no parallel in the history of the world.’ A polluted person can become pure by purification ceremonies, ‘but there is nothing which can make the Untouchables pure. They are born impure, they are impure while they live, they die the death of the impure, and they give birth to children who are born with the stigma of Untouchability affixed to them, it is a case of permanent, hereditary stain which nothing can cleanse’. It is lamented that “there has never been a case of a people treating a section of their own people as permanently and hereditarily impure.” Untouchability among Hindus is unknown to humanity in other parts of the world.
2.13 The position of Women
According to Manu ‘a woman must never be independent’. ‘Nothing must be done by her independently, even in her own house’. If her suitor is handsome and same caste she should be married even before age. Early marriage was to avoid mixing caste with the notion that woman are more polluting. Even, “though destitute of virtue, or seeking pleasure (elsewhere), or devoid of good qualities, (yet) a husband must be constantly worshipped as a god by a faithful wife.” In this woman should not care about beauty, age and look.
Men can be away from home and the woman should wait for him. It is said, “if the husband went abroad for some sacred duty, (she) must wait for him eight years, if (he went) to (acquire) learning or fame six (years), if (he went) for pleasure three years.”
Whereas men of the first three varnas undergo an initiation rite in early adulthood, women do not and, like all Shudras, women remain disprivileged in religious and legal terms. They are not entitled for rites with sacred texts.
They are considered as seducers of men. Therefore “one should not sit in a lonely place with one’s mother, sister or daughter; for the senses are powerful, and master even a learned man.”
A wife is an auspicious, perfect Hindu woman only while her husband is alive. Whereas, a widow is inauspiciousness personified and epitomizes every negative quality. Widows cannot attend auspicious rituals, such as weddings’.
2.14 King and Justice
Inequality has not spared the king and justice system. According to Manu, “the king has been created (to be) the protector of the castes (varna) and orders, who, all according to their rank, discharge their several duties.” Even the Gita says “it is far better to discharge one’s prescribed duties, even though faultily, than another’s duties perfectly. Destruction the course of performing one’s own duties better than engaging in another’ s duties, for to follow another’s path is dangerous.”
The king has to ‘worship Brahmins’ and honor them with gifts.  Still further, “when a learned Brahmana has found treasure, deposited in former (times), he may take even the whole (of it); for he is master of everything” , but “when the king finds treasure of old concealed in the ground, let him give one half to Brahmanas and place the (other) half in his treasury.”
No great crime is known on earth than slaying a Brahmana. Hence no Brahmin should be given capital punishment irrespective of the crime: “Let him never slay a Brahmana, though he have committed all (possible) crimes; let him banish such an (offender), leaving all his property (to him) and (his body) unhurt.”
In contrast, if a Sudra insults a twice born man with gross invective, ‘shall have his tongue cut out’. And “if he mentions the name and castes (jati) of the (twice-born) with contumely, an iron nail, ten fingers long shall be thrust red-hot into his mouth.” More severe is that “if he arrogantly teaches Brahmanas their duty, the king shall cause hot oil to be poured into his mouth and into his ears.” If ‘a low-caste man tries to place himself on the same seat with a man of a high caste, he shall be branched on his hip and be banished, or (the king) shall cause his buttock to be gashed.”
Having reasonably presented the inequality in Hinduism, now we have to conclude whether Hinduism represents equality or inequality.
3 Concluding Lines
The concluding lines are inconsonant with the suggestions of Ambedkar. Innumerable Castes and embodiment of inequality are realities. India ‘presents more survivals of primitive times than’ any other civilized society.
It is also held that ‘India form a homogeneous whole’ and ‘possess cultural unity’, therefore caste (inequality) thrives. In my view Hindu culture cannot be Indian culture therefore I am unable to identify the homogeneity and cultural unity.
Since endogamy is caste, (can be differed), ‘the real remedy for breaking caste is inter-marriage’. The real enemy to fight with is the Shrutis and the Smritis which have inculcated the notion of caste’.
It is hard to believe that inequality has taken the place of equality in Hinduism in the name of castes. It is harder that Hinduism has hated and pushed the least in the society to the most unimaginable position without even suggesting any measure to improve their plight. It is so painful that, in Hinduism, there is no ‘consciousness of kind’ except castes. There is no appreciation of merits in a person unless a fellow caste.
The notion that birth determines one’s status is nowhere in the world and this is behind the discussions on freedom of religion in India. As the constitution of India envisages equality our responsibility is squarely before us.
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