Hinduism today is in need of reform

Caste looms large as one of its biggest dangers.

 |  5-minute read |   14-01-2018
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I’ve often dwelt on my admiration for Hinduism. It is the world’s oldest and wisest religious philosophy. Sanatana Dharma predates Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Islam. Its vedic wisdom is unmatched. But like all things ancient, it needs constant care or the wisdom can turn into dogma.

The Abrahamic religions all suffer from this malady. Islam is shackled to the Quran written over 1,300 years ago. Rather than interpret its verses in modern, socially liberal terms, Islamic clerics have frozen them in time. That has led to appalling gender injustice. It has also sanctioned a violent interpretation of jihad which the Quran in its verses defines as self-defence, not conquest, but with enough semantic ambiguity to justify violence against infidels.

Christianity is similarly didactic. The Catholic Church, despite some recent efforts at reform, does not ordain women priests as a matter of “divine law”. It regards homosexuality as a “moral evil”. And it encourages belief in miracles. The break in the sixteenth century between the Catholic and Anglican churches led to the formation of Protestant majorities in countries like post-Reformation Britain and the future United States of America.

Both Islam and Christianity are proselytising religions. They have fought each other for over a thousand years, invaded territories in Africa and Asia, colonised them, plundered their wealth, and transported African slaves and Indian indentured labour to the newly settled Americas and the West Indies.

Hinduism, passive and inward-looking, has meanwhile absorbed invasion, subjugation, tyranny and plunder. It gave rise to Buddhism and Jainism, both older than Christianity and Islam, and both relatively more peaceful. Neither though could replace Hinduism in its birthplace.

But this shouldn’t blind us to the need for reform. Hinduism is amorphous, organic and shapes itself into whatever form its practitioner wants. You can pray at a temple or at home or not at all and yet be a good Hindu. You can be agnostic, atheist or religious and still be a good Hindu.

Islam and Christianity are stricter. Obey or else.

But Hinduism’s formlessness and sponge-like absorptive capacity can be a double-edged sword. Lack of discipline can breed disorder and division.

Caste looms large as one of its biggest dangers.

It is argued that the caste system in Hinduism helped India escape the fate of other countries whose native religions succumbed to mass conversions to Islam or Christianity.

The caste system has two concepts: varna and jati. Varna in vedic India was linked to the profession one followed based on aptitude, skill and interest. It was flexible and allowed social and occupational mobility. Jati, in contrast, was defined by birth. You couldn’t escape the jati you were born into.


Defending caste, Rajeev Srinivasan, an IIT and Stanford alumnus, wrote in Swarajya: “To consider resilience, think of the fact that of all the civilisations that the Muslims encountered when they swept out of Arabia, Hindu civilisation is the only one that did not get wiped out. Great, established cultures such as Egypt and Persia and all the Buddhist cultures of Central Asia were completely erased in a very short time. In the case of Hinduism, the jati served as the node. If your allegiance was to a particular jati, in essence, the destruction of other jatis had little effect on you. In one sense this is bad because of the lack of unity of purpose, but on the other hand, the system is resilient. I think this baffled Muslim invaders. Initially, they thought the centre of Hinduism was Somnath, so they sacked it, and nothing happened. Then they thought the centre was Benares, and they sacked it; again Hinduism did not vanish.

“Humans have an innate need to belong. Jati is an innovation that uses this drive for many positive (but alas, also negative) things. A flexible system of jatis where occupational value determines its market price was a good idea. An ossified system still seems to function pretty well, and I am not sure that jati will disappear with urbanisation.

Beyond such historical justifications lies today’s reality. The riots that took place in Pune and Mumbai during the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the British-Dalit victory over the Peshwa-Brahmin-Marathas in Bhima-Koregaon show how caste remains a dagger aimed at the heart of Hindu society.

Whatever the justifications of “distributed systems” of jati and their historical role in protecting Hinduism from invading Islamic and Christian armies, the argument does little credit to Hinduism.

If a religion needs a caste-based distributed system – and the cruel injustices that go with it – to merely survive onslaughts from outside, it speaks poorly of its inherent strength. There must be a higher ambition than mere survival. 

Hinduism fell into such decay that it needed brutal Muslim and Christian invaders to, first, subdue it and then in the nineteenth century, as the British, for their own benefit brought modern education to the subcontinent, spark its renaissance.

It is a well-worn cliché to quote economist Angus Maddison’s thesis that India accounted for nearly 24 per cent of global GDP before the British colonised the country and systematically destroyed its industries, trade and crafts.  

But that was an India of 650 princely kingdoms, united by geography and culture but divided by religion, language, region – and caste.

Caste is today a potent electoral weapon. Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani used it effectively in the Gujarat assembly election. The Congress has begun to employ caste with an eye on the 2019 Lok Sabha poll. While Congress president Rahul Gandhi showcases his janeu-dhari Brahmin roots, his allies like Mevani play to Dalit sentiment. Divide and rule: it is an old ruse.

To again be a great religious philosophy, and not be held hostage to cynical electoral politics, Hinduism must shed old shibboleths and embrace reform. Caste divisions must go. Dalits must be allowed entry into every Hindu temple. So must women. There can be no exceptions and no excuses.

Also read: Why Deen Dayal Upadhyay is an icon for BJP and RSS


Minhaz Merchant Minhaz Merchant @minhazmerchant

Biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla. Ex-TOI & India Today. Media group chairman and editor. Author: The New Clash of Civilizations

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