Part of my growing up (ages 5 to 10) was in Madras in the 1970s, in an Andhra Brahmin family. It was during those years that I was taught the basics of the Hindu faith and the joys of puja at home, visits to temples near and far, and the celebration of the major Hindu holy days. It was also then that I witnessed and participated in caste discrimination as part of daily life. I was aware of my family’s upper caste, and even though I was only five years old, I understood that this meant we were somehow better or superior. In my family, when we had haircuts, we had to bathe immediately because the barbers were lower caste and would have polluted us. When the “scavenger” (a term used in India for those who manually clean latrine toilets and also sewers; most people who do this work are Dalits) came to clean the toilet, we weren’t even allowed to lay eyes on her. We had separate (cheaper) rice and separate aluminum (not stainless steel) dishes for servants. I remember also that the women of our household were segregated during menstruation – they stayed in a separate room, weren’t allowed to cook (which, ironically, meant rest), and they also ate on aluminum dishes. I had my first period on a trip to Madras, and my mom wasn’t with me. I too experienced that segregation of menstruating women a few times in my life. I never (in my childhood or adulthood) agreed that people of lower castes and other religions, menstruating, pregnant or widowed women, or anyone at all, were polluting to others and to the things they touched.
While my cousin’s wife, who comes from a lower caste, is now respected and beloved in our family, I remember clearly the scandal and shame of this inter-caste love marriage when they eloped 40 or so years ago. For me, a young girl of seven, fed regularly on Bollywood and South Indian movies, this was the ultimate romance – a story of passion and forbidden love, and to my joy, the lovers won over a tradition I didn’t agree with. Today, my extended family in India is less guilty of such discriminatory practices and many more of my cousins have married outside of their caste, even outside their religion and race. Nevertheless, even now, when some of my family members place matrimonial ads for their children, they identify their caste and require applicants to be of a similar caste, rather than choosing the more progressive “caste no bar” option.
There were some very vivid experiences in my life that were liberating because they enabled me to shed any notions of the impurity of others, and still hold on to my identity as a justice-loving Hindu:
1) The first was when I argued with my aunt as a very young child about having to bathe after a haircut. I argued that it was a good idea to bathe, not because the barber was a lower caste, but because of all the small bits of cut hair that remain in the hair and all over our necks and shoulders. I remember challenging my aunt with the argument that humans seem to always consider someone less or inferior to themselves. “So a right-handed barber probably thinks himself superior to a left-handed barber,” I remember saying. My doting aunt indulged my arguments, but never really changed her opinions. Practices in my aunt’s home have had to change because of a general process of modernization, but not because of a reconsideration of ethics.
2) Soon after my marriage to a Hindu Indian in New York in 1988, my first mother-in-law told me it was perfectly okay to go to the temple even though I had my period. She said, “Do you love God any less because you have your period? Do you feel dirty or impure?” I said no, and we went to the temple.
3) The final example is one of my first meals in Afghanistan, in 2003. Everyone in the house, including drivers and household help, sat down together for the meal, and we all ate from the same plates (with thoughtful accommodations made for the vegetarians in the group). This egalitarian meal was such a powerful antidote to being raised with a mindset that some weren’t worthy of eating with others.
While caste-based violence and discrimination is an everyday reality in India, the topic of caste really doesn’t come up much among Hindus in the United States. However, there is no doubt that both the privilege and stigma of caste have been transplanted to some extent. As Dalit activist Thenmozhi Sounderarajan told Colorlines, “Many of the South Asians who were privileged to migrate [to the U.S.] have privileges related to language, class and, most importantly, to caste. So when the diaspora is said to be “casteless,” or South Asians want to say that caste doesn't exist here, it basically erases the vocabulary we have to talk about the hierarchical privileges we occupy. Caste is all around us. We know that gurudwaras [temples] are organized by caste and that people still marry and associate along caste lines. When you look at the majority of the faculty in South Asian departments in North America, you have one to two professors who are Dalit but none are tenured.”1
I have rarely come across a Hindu temple where the priests are anything but Brahmin men. And caste is most certainly discussed during weddings: parents in the West are having to come to terms with their children marrying non-Hindus and non-Indians, but they are unlikely to be overjoyed at the prospect of a Dalit son- or daughter-in-law. Muslims and African Americans are also unpopular choices for sons- and daughters-in-law.
Interestingly, in the United Kingdom, there are efforts underway to introduce legislation to make caste discrimination an offence. According to an article in The Guardian last month, “Research by the British government has found evidence of caste discrimination among Britons of Asian origin in the workplace and in schools. Legislation is due to be introduced this year to make caste discrimination an offence in Britain.”2
The issue is very contentious and politicized. UK-based advocacy organizations including CasteWatch UK and Dalit Solidarity Network have been leading the efforts to recognize caste discrimination as a form of discrimination distinct from discrimination based on race, gender and religion. Those opposed to such legislation, mostly Hindus and Sikhs, argue that it would lead to institutionalizing caste whereas caste isn’t even a big issue on the minds of South Asians. I certainly wouldn’t want Hindus, Sikhs and others to have to disclose caste at birth when filling out government forms and applying for jobs – this doesn’t seem like progressive change. Personally speaking, I’m not sure what I’d be expected disclose – would I be a Brahmin because of my birth, a Vaishya because of my first marriage, or a Dalit because of my second marriage to a Jew? And yet, there ought to be a way for victims of caste-based discrimination to fight for justice. People don’t have to disclose their sexual orientation when applying for a job, but they can still sue if there is discrimination. Why should caste be any different?
If caste-based discrimination is as rare as Hindus and Sikhs in the West seem to think it is, and we are all committed to ending it, then what is the danger of legislation which criminalizes caste-based discrimination? The onus will be on the victim to prove discrimination – we all know how hard that would be – and if there is proof, then let there be punishment. We know, working on the environment that businesses and individuals don’t abstain from Styrofoam use, nor do they recycle and carry reusable shopping bags because it is the right thing to do; behavior change is encouraged and accelerated by progressive legislation, and I see nothing wrong with that. While the caste debate in the UK is very interesting, I am not aware of any effort to mobilize practicing Hindus to advocate against caste and caste discrimination in their personal lives and faith communities. Sadhana is committed to living and building a Hinduism which rejects caste and caste discrimination.
Hindus are right to point out that there are innumerable instances within our scriptures which teach us that in the eyes of God, we are all one. Many important characters in Hindu epics were from lower castes. For example, Vidhura was born to a shudra mother, and both Krishna and Karna were kshatriyas by birth but were raised in much lower caste families. Valmiki and Kamban who authored versions of the Ramayana, and Veda Vyasa who authored the Mahabharata, were all from castes which we would today consider Dalit. Also, many of our bhakti saint-poets (Tukaram and Raidas are examples) were from the lower castes. Indeed, I believe that Hinduism as expressed in its texts and its history is inherently progressive, and requires no contorted hermeneutics to arrive at its progressive values of justice, fairness and equality.
I want to live in a world where caste is a shameful vestige of the past. I cringe when even here, in the States, I hear people identify themselves as TamBrams or Vaidiki Brahmins. But then, in a way, this is no different to a Dalit person referring to their status with pride. How do we work towards the annihilation of caste when so many people of all castes, high and low, consider their caste a central part of their identity?
So, as Hindus who aren’t ready to turn our backs on Hinduism but who believe in equality and justice, the question is: what exactly do we do?
We can't change history, and we can't change the world overnight, but we can act to address these issues. Here are some baby steps Sadhana is taking:
· We will stay true and committed to the principle of oneness at the heart of Hinduism, the idea that the same divinity is inherent in each one of us, regardless of caste, gender, race, religion.
· We understand the privilege that comes with being born a caste Hindu, and what that status means and does to those who don't have it. We are committed to working against such hierarchy and its toxic effects.
· We will disseminate progressive readings of Hindu texts.
· We will stand in solidarity with Dalit movements for justice, and opposed to all forms of caste discrimination. Truth-telling is core to our sadhana (the practice of our faith) – and we will speak up every time we see injustice and oppression.
· We in Sadhana reject any personal affiliation with caste or the system of castes, We realize that this is a privileged choice, but it is the starting point for our journey into a world where we are all free from the mechanism of caste.. Others can identify as they wish, and if caste is an important part of someone’s identity, we respect their choice so long as they do not see themselves as higher or lower than others, and so long as they do not perpetrate abuses based on caste.
· We will try to worship in temples where all castes participate equally. We may need to help create more such temples that see all as equal, and where anyone can be priests, regardless of caste at birth or gender.
· And most importantly, we dream this dream with humility. In small ways, every day, we will do our part to build a lived Hinduism where all are truly equal.
1 How to Fight a Deadly Caste System, Colorlines, April 21, 2015
2 London house to become museum to Indian activist, Guardian, June 14, 2015
Sunita Viswanath is a co-founder and board member of Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus.