"Freedom From Caste" by Dr. Anantanand Rambachan


The following selection is excerpted from Sadhana advisory board member Dr. Anantanand Rambachan's newest book, A Hindu Theology of Liberation: Not-Two Is Not One. In A Hindu Theology of Liberation, Rambachan presents the Hindu tradition of Advaita Vedānta as a philosophy of social justice for the modern world. 

Advaita, the non-dual school of Indian philosophy and spirituality associated with Śaṅkara, is often seen as “other-worldly,” regarding the world as an illusion. Rambachan presents a more authentic Advaita, one that is positive about the here and now. The first part of the book presents the hermeneutics and spirituality of Advaita, using textual sources, classical commentary, and modern scholarship. The book’s second section considers the implications of Advaita for ethical and social challenges: patriarchy, homophobia, ecological crisis, child abuse, and caste. Rambachan establishes how Advaita’s non-dual understanding of reality provides the ground for social activism and the values that advocate for justice, dignity, and the equality of human beings.

Learn more about Dr. Anantanand Rambachan here.


I was born of Hindu parents and raised in Trinidad and Tobago. My great-grandparents migrated from Northern India in the late nineteenth century as indentured workers to escape hunger and poverty in India by taking the place of freed African slaves on sugar plantations. Paradoxically, their living conditions, especially life in plantation barracks, contributed to the erosion of caste differences and exclusion. In the shared and common living space of a barrack, the observation of caste strictures was rendered very difficult. Caste, therefore, although not entirely absent, was a minimal feature in our everyday lives. We were aware that most of the Hindu priests claimed status as brahmins, but other traditional features of caste, such as hereditary work specialization and regulations governing interdining, intermarriage, and social relations, were minimal or nonexistent. Our friendships in school and in village playgrounds were spontaneous and free and not constrained by caste considerations. Hindu temples were open to all. Labels such as "Dalit," "untouchable," or harijan were unknown to us. We never thought that identifying with a caste was necessary or central to what it meant to be Hindu. Our experience of the Hindu tradition was, by and large, caste free.

Because the Hindu community and tradition in which I was raised had shed the most unjust and brutal features of the caste system, I found it disconcerting to be called an "oppressor." In my mind, the word conjured a person who intentionally inflicted suffering on others, curbed their freedom, and took perverse delight in the exercise of power and domination. I did not recognize myself as an oppressor.

I was challenged, however, by the bishop's denunciation of my tradition to recognize that he encountered it in ways that were radically different from my own experience. His context—historical, cultural, and social—was India, and he encountered Hinduism, in the practice of caste, as an oppressive tradition that negated the dignity and self-worth of his community. I had to see my tradition through his eyes and understand the source of his pain and anger. The same tradition that affirmed my self-value denied his own. His experiences had convinced him that caste injustice was intrinsic to Hinduism.

The reality of caste oppression

The experience of being oppressed is a reality in the lives of Dalits like Ramlal Ram. On October 4, 2003, Ram, accompanied by his son Khelaw, and three other family members, headed for the Shiva temple in the village of Bahera, located in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. With flowers and sweets in hand, they wanted, like everyone else, to offer worship to the Goddess Durga on the occasion on of her festival. Although some local leaders gave assurances that his visit to the temple would not be problematic, Ram's presence immediately unleashed a storm of verbal abuse and violent efforts to physically expel them. Ramlal Ram and his family stood their ground and edged closer to the Goddess. Blows rained, stones were thrown, and a rifle was discharged. Ram was hit in the chest and, bleeding profusely, died. "We only demanded," commented one villager, "that we be allowed to pray. It is the people of our caste who build the deity with mud, ink and color. But when it comes to offering puja, we are left out."

All the details of historical developments that explain the murderous hate and violent outrage against Ram may never be precisely documented. These belong to a past that is complex and inaccessible. We do know enough, however, to understand that this brutality is rooted in a worldview that represented Ram as the negativized other: inferior, impure, and threatening.

Caste Privileges and the Negativized Others

Although there is a developing and serious critique of the so-called Aryan Invasion hypothesis calling into question some of its fundamental assumptions, it is clear, from the evidence of the Rig Veda, that there was an early polarization between those who regarded themselves as of noble descent (arya) and those, named the dasyus, who were regarded as lacking in virtue observing different customs. They were likened to a famine and excluded from sacred rituals. Evidence suggests that by approximately 800 BCE, those regarding themselves as aryas had consolidated themselves in relation to other groups and systematized their relationship in the form of a hierarchically structured system (varna). The brahmanas (priests) occupied the top, followed by the rajanya/kshatriya (soldiers), vaishyas (merchants and farmers), and shudras (laborers). The first three groups were regarded as the dvijas or twice-born and were entitled to perform and participate in Vedic ritual. Generally, male members of these varnas alone underwent the initiatory ritual (upanayana) that enabled them to study the Vedas. The incorporation of the shudras into the varna system, and especially their subservient role in relation to the other groups, supports the hypothesis that they represent the "others" who were gradually included into the complex social order. It is also possible that a policy of appeasement was practiced that rewarded cooperative groups with elevation to membership in the upper varnas.

Not all groups, however, were assimilated and incorporated. It is likely that some groups resisted or were not offered the "privilege" of becoming part of the hierarchical order. Such groups, such as the chandalas and shvapachas, were declared ritually impure (ashuchi) and segregated. The chandalas, for example, were equated with animals and considered unfit even to eat the remnants of others meals. By the time of Manu (ca. 150 BCE), it was believed that birth into a particular caste was the consequence of karma or the maturation of past moral actions in the present life. For bad deeds in this life, one could be reborn as a dog, a boar, or a chandala, in that order. From its early use to refer to a specific group, chandala became a general term for the untouchable other.

Numerous injunctions, such as the polarity of purity and impurity, hereditary occupations, and the idea of the dvija (twice-born), led to the institution of innumerable injunctions against those groups now branded as asprishya (lit. untouchable). By the period between 400 BCE and 400 CE, standard features of untouchability such as physical segregation, non-commensality and non-connubiality were firmly in place. The Vedas were not to be studied in a village where chandalas resided. Food offered in ritual was defiled if seen by a chandala, and sacrificial vessels were rendered impure by their touch. Food and ritual vessels also were polluted if seen and touched by dogs, crows, and donkeys; the implication is that untouchables are grouped with animals.

Omprakash Valmiki, in his powerful autobiographical account, comment on the fact that "while it was considered all right to touch dogs and cats or cows and buffaloes, if [a higher-caste person] happened to touch a Chuhra, one got contaminated and polluted ... The Chuhras," as Valmiki notes, "were not seen as human. They were simply things for use. Their utility lasted until the work was done. Use them and throw them away." An upper-caste person coming into contact with an untouchable was required to take a purificatory bath. Untouchables were to have separate wells and to enter villages at night or during the day only if they identified themselves by sound or appropriate marks. For food, they had to depend on others. A person stealing the animal of an untouchable was required to pay only half of the required fines. As Wilhelm Halbfass has rightly noted, the chandalas are part of the dharma system through their exclusion from sacred ritual. "They participate in it insofar as they accept their exclusion; they subject (or ought to subject) themselves to the ritual norms of exclusion and prohibition, and they are recognized as negative constituents of the system."

Today, approximately 15 percent of the population of India, consisting of approximately 160 to 180 million people, are labeled "untouchable" or members of the "Scheduled Castes" in the terminology of the Indian constitution. The same constitution also specifies that "the State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth." Special laws, such as the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1976, have been enacted to give meaning to the constitutional provisions. In spite of such measures, however, the phenomenon of untouchability persists in contemporary India, and many Hindus continue to define the meaning of Hindu identity over and against those who are deemed impure and, for this reason, marginalized. The sharp distinctions between self and other, the boundaries of the pure and impure are still drawn sharply in Indian villages, where the character of the human and economic relationships are still governed by the hierarchies of caste and where reports of violence against persons of lower castes are common.

Although the conditions of life in Indian cities are quite different from those in rural areas, cities are not free from the travails of caste and untouchability. In urban areas, discrimination expresses itself in more subtle forms and in limited job choices that push untouchables into menial tasks. In a city like Haridwar, on the banks of the Ganges, physical segregation is evident in the fact that the upper-caste dwellings are closer to the pure water of the river, while the lower castes are relegated, depending on relative degree of purity, to locations farther away from the river.

Similar conditions have been reported in Nepal. The entry of untouchables into upper caste homes is forbidden, and the latter still think it necessary to have a bath of purification if contact is made with an untouchable. Tea shops in western Nepal use separate utensils for untouchables and require them to wash their own glasses. They are regularly debarred from temples and denied access to water sources. The legal prohibition of untouchability has not done much to ameliorate the conditions under which the community lives.

It is the indignity and violence of a life where one is not called by a personal name that Omprakash Valmiki narrates in Joothan. Schooling became possible for him only after his father repeatedly begged the principal to teach him "a letter or two." At school, he was never allowed to forget his caste status, and violence, for no specific reason, was a constant threat and reality.

"I had to sit away from the others in the class, and even that wasn't enough. I was not allowed to sit on a chair or a bench. I had to sit on the bare floor; I was not allowed even to sit on the mat. Sometimes I would have to sit away behind everybody, right near the door. From there, the letters on the board seem faded."
“The labor of the lower castes was regarded as a right of the upper castes, whether it was reaping the wheat harvest, cleaning the baithaks (outer room used by men for chatting), or removing dung from the cattle sheds.”
“The rewards of labor, in a barter system centered on crop production, were minimal and took the form of wheat and joothan, scraps of leftover food, the eating of which is taboo and assiduously avoided by upper castes. It is an ultimate indignity.”
"During a wedding, when the guests and the baratis, those who had accompanied the bridegroom as members of party, were eating their meals, the Chuhras would were put in sit outside with huge baskets. After the bridegroom's had eaten, the dirty pattlas, or leaf plates were put in the Chuhras' baskets, which they took home, to save the joothan that was sticking to them. The little remnants of pooris, puffed bread; bits of sweetmeats; and a little bit of vegetable were enough to make them happy. They ate the joothan with a lot of relish. They denounced as gluttons the bridegroom guests who didn't leave enough scraps on their leaf plates ... During the marriage season, our elders narrated, in thrilled voices, stories of the bridegroom's party that had left several months of joothan."

Valmiki's father, who invested precious family resources in his education, hoped that his son's caste status would be improved by education. Omprakash discovered, through one humiliating experience after another, that even when it is possible to get past poverty and want, it is not possible to get past caste. Unlike many educated Dalits who changed their surnames to avoid the stigmatization of caste, Omprakash refused to take what he regarded as an easy way out, although his worth as a person was continuously devalued because of his surname. Omprakash concluded his story with a question, perhaps rhetorical from his perspective, but one that all Hindus must ask themselves with urgent concern.

"Times have changed. But something somewhere continues to irk. I have asked many scholars to tell me why savarnas hate Dalits and Sudras, the lower castes, so much. The Hindus who worship trees and plants, beasts and birds, why are they so intolerant of Dalits? ... As long as people don't know that you are a Dalit, things are fine. The moment they find out your caste, everything changes. The whispers slash your veins like knives. Poverty, illiteracy, broken lives, the pain of standing outside the door, how would the civilized savarna know it?"

Change, Conversion, and leadership

We must acknowledge that changes, though occurring at a slow pace, are under way. The impact of legislation, urbanization, democracy, freedom, equality, and feminism are transforming age-old attitudes and customs. In addition, the modem era is also witness to increasing self-awareness among the untouchables and their readiness to organize themselves to agitate for justice. They are also prepared to embrace alternative religious options. The conversion of untouchables to traditions such as Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam has evoked concern among several Hindu groups, and some have responded with shuddhi (purifying) rituals to admit them back into the fold of Hinduism.

There is an urgent need, however, on the Hindu side to understand the meaning and attraction of other religions to the convert. It must be instructive that the largest numbers of converts from Hindu traditions come from the so-called untouchable castes. They experience the tradition as oppressive and as negating their dignity and self-worth. For such persons, the message of human equality, though not easy to realize in practice, even in the traditions they adopt, is received as liberating. In a social context where occupation may still be determined by caste and where the ability to change one's identity and work must await future birth, the opportunity for a new identity that may afford dignity, choice, and better economic opportunities is compelling. For such persons, the argument that the religion into which one is born is best only adds to the oppression and is seen as part of a deliberate effort to deny them freedom and control over their lives. Hindus must be challenged by conversion to understand the many ways in which the tradition is failing to meet the legitimate needs of those who are born into its fold. Hindus must continue to labor for a religious and social system that attests to their dignity and self-determination.

The difficulty of such self-critical reflection is, in parts the consequence of the fact that Hindu leadership is still dominated by men from the upper castes who have always experienced power and privilege within the tradition. Having never experienced religiously justified oppression and injustice, they assume wrongly that the tradition that has been good to them is good for all who are born within its fold. They resist the questioning of a system that guarantees them power and privilege. Conversion is an opportunity for Hindu leaders to consider the relation between religious doctrine, especially the theological assumptions of caste, and systemic social and economics structures that condemn millions to lives of poverty, indignity, and marginalization. The tradition needs to stop treating converts like childlike people who always need to be always protected from the lures and deceptive practices of missionaries. This is a demeaning condescension that denies them agency and self-determination.

Dalits and Hindu identity

The question of whether or not the Dalits are Hindus is central to determining Hindu responses to the injustices of untouchability. It was one of the questions that sharply divided the approaches of the Dalit leader B. R. Ambedkar (1891-1956) from that of Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi believed that the untouchables belong to the Hindu fold and that untouchability is an aberration that must be expunged. He argued, however, for the retention of the four varnas and the performance of hereditary occupations. Ambedkar, on the other hand, argued that untouchables are not Hindus because they are not included in the varna system. As Hindus continue to consider this issue, we must be especially attentive to Dalit voices who question and are deeply suspicious of what they see as another effort to define their identity.

"I was not born a Hindu for the simple reason that my parents did not know that they were Hindus. This does not mean that I was born a Muslim, a Christian, a Buddhist, a Sikh or a Parsee. My illiterate parents, who lived in a remote South Indian village, did not know that they belonged to any religion at all. People belong to a religion only when they know that they are a part of the people who worship that God, when they go to those temples and take part in the rituals and festivals of that religion. My parents had only one identity and that was their caste: they were Kurumaas."
- Kancha Ilaiah

Dalits issue an important challenge to those who claim them as Hindus to tell them which morality is Hindu morality, Ilaiah's questions, though uncomfortable, cannot be ignored by Hindus. "Which values," he asks, "do they want to uphold as right values? The 'upper' caste Hindu unequal and inhuman cultural values or our cultural values? What is the ideal of society today? What shall we teach the children of today? Shall we teach them what has been taught by the Hindus or what the dalitbahujan masses of this country want to learn?"

The primary challenge for Hindus is not just claiming Dalits as Hindus but the more demanding one of owning responsibility for the historical physical and psychological brutalization of the Dalits by representing them as the untouchable other in relation to whom Hindu identity is affirmed. It is the task of identifying and repudiating doctrines and customs that profess the unequal worth of others and legitimize their dehumanization and humiliation. It is the task of moving from defensive apologetic to self-criticism and articulating a vision of the tradition that affirms human dignity and worth. It is responding to Ilaiah's challenge by clearly defining the core values of the tradition, especially in relation to systems like caste. Defensive arguments that suggest a harmonious and noble original intention underlying caste do nothing to define those values or deal with the reality of oppression.

Self-Value and the Devaluation of Others

While the specific origins of untouchability are historically complex, we cannot dispute the fact that it is rooted in the more general human tendency to affirm self-value by devaluing the other, who is branded as different and by exercising power and control over him. Devaluation leads to the perception of people as objects and not as fellow beings who feel and suffer as we do. It provides the conditions for guilt-free violence and mistreatment. Humans are less likely to oppress those with whom they self-identify and whom they value for this fact.

Hindus must acknowledge the inhumanity, injustice, and oppression of the caste system and the fact that the system has been widely legitimized by the tradition and its practitioners. Many Hindus still, unfortunately, consider the practice of caste to be a religious requirement. We need to see caste as one historical expression of a system of human oppression and domination, present in many societies, that sanctified itself in the garb of religious validation. Hindus are not exempt from this susceptibility to the corruption of power and the tendency to affirm self-value by devaluing others. Regardless of its origins in antiquity, our challenge today is the urgent one of responding to a hierarchical ordering of human beings that ascribes unequal value based on identities imposed at birth.

Affirming Equal Worth and Justice of All

Where I must differ, however, with the Dalit bishop with whose challenge I started this chapter, and with interlocutors like Ilaiah, is over the claim that untouchability is intrinsic to the Hindu tradition and that the tradition has no resources to redeem itself. As I have argued throughout this work, there is a theological vision at the heart of Advaita that invalidates the assumptions of inequality, impurity, and indignity that are the foundations of caste belief and practice. From the perspective of Advaita, it is clear that the highest value is attributed to brahman. In creation, brahman enters into every created form, and it is the presence of brahman that gives value and significance to the human being. The dignity and worth of the human being is the consequence of the fact that she embodies the infinite. Brahman includes everyone; caste excludes.

The teaching on divine immanence and the consequent equal worth of all human beings must inspire and impel Hindus to identify and overcome the exploitative and oppressive caste structures. We cannot be content with merely offering concessions to those who have been disadvantaged and who have not traditionally enjoyed the privileges accorded to members of the upper castes. While supporting such measures, the tradition must also get to the heart of the matter by questioning the very legitimacy of a hierarchical social system that assigns different privileges and value to human beings on the basis of exclusive notions of purity and impurity. The role of religious doctrine and ritual in legitimacy for the system of caste must be examined. A self-critical sincerity is needed to acknowledge the ways in which many, especially those from the so-called untouchable castes, experience the tradition as oppressive and as negating their dignity and self-worth. The fact that the religion into which one is born may not be experienced as liberative must be admitted. The acknowledgment of past and present injustices by those who have enjoyed the benefits of caste is a necessary step. There also must be the will for the reform and reconstruction of Hindu society on the basis of those central insights and values of Hinduism that promote justice, dignity, and the equal worth of human beings.

Discerning the unitive presence of brahman in all creation results in a deeper identity and affinity with all. It leads to the empathetic owning of the pain and suffering of the other as one's own. It challenges attitudes of indifference toward the suffering of others with whom we do not identify because of caste boundaries. It enables us to see all beings as constituting a single community and provides a theological basis for a compassionate and inclusive community where the worth and dignity of every human being is affirmed and where justice at all levels is sought. Caste inflicts suffering on millions of our fellow human beings, and the Advaita tradition insists that we see this suffering as our own. Hindus must respond to caste as an urgent problem, as fundamentally incompatible with Hinduism's most profound teachings and necessitating a unanimous and unequivocal repudiation. The meaning of being Hindu must not continue to require the demeaning of another human being. As with the issue of gender injustice, legal remedies are necessary, but there is an urgent need for an unambiguous Hindu theological repudiation of caste.

Although Gandhi's views on caste are not with controversy and are rejected by prominent Dalit leaders, his understanding of the theological implications of the divine equality is still important for the Hindu tradition. "No scripture," he contended, "which labels a human being as inferior or untouchable because of his or her birth can command our allegiance; it is a denial of God and Truth, which is God." Gandhi's understanding of non-injury (ahimsa) as negatively implying abstention from injury and positively requiring the practice of compassion and justice is relevant to the overcoming of caste. The degradation of others is violence. "No man, said Gandhi, "could be actively nonviolent and not arise against social injustice no matter where it occurred."

Dharma, caste, and liberation

At various points in this book, I have referred to the four goals of Hindu life: wealth, pleasure, virtue, and liberation. The four goals have the potential for universal applicability, and their attainment should be a measure of the moral and just character of any community and its progress.

In reality, however, these goals have been circumscribed by the boundaries of a hierarchical social system that privileged the worth of some human beings over others, limited their access to certain goals, and interpreted dharma as requiring order rather than justice. On the whole, dharma was primarily and narrowly identified with the rigid order of the caste system. In the interpretation of dharma, emphasis was placed on the faithful performance of duty as determined by one's birth-derived location in the caste. The maintenance of caste order and stability, not justice, became the unquestioned overriding concern.

This limited identification of dharma with caste constricted and obscured its more radical and challenging implications for critiquing social structures and engendering compassionate concern and action for liberation from suffering. At its heart, however, the goal of dharma is satisfied only through actions that are undertaken with attentiveness to the good of all beings and not to specific groups. Dharma derives from an understanding of the universe as an interdependent and interrelated whole. It emphasizes that existence and the realization of our human potential are possible only in the context of this whole and the benefits derived from the generous giving of all constituents of reality. The meaning of dharma as duty, broadly conceived, and not conflated with caste requirements, requires a lifestyle that is deeply informed by a sense of obligation and generous self-giving for all that one receives.

Although dharma has been explicated almost singularly with reference to caste obligations (varna dharma), the tradition recognized the necessity for universal, ethical norms (sadharana dharma) binding on all human beings and governing their relationships. There are various lists offered in sacred texts, and these include non-violence, compassion, self-control, truthfulness, concern for the welfare of all beings, justice, forgiveness, and non-stealing. The Golden Rule, "not doing to others what one would not like done to one's self," is an effective summary of the meaning of sadharana dharma.

Today, the need is for an explication of the liberative meaning of these universal ethical norms and a rejection of dharma as implying the unequal rights and privileges of caste. Dharma must become synonymous with the common good, what the Bhagavadgita (3:20) refers to as lokasangraham, and applied rigorously in the quest for justice against all forms of injustice and oppression.