Is Hinduism Exclusive and Inherently Casteist?

The Discussion Map charts important debates from the pages of EPW.

In October 2002, the Tamil Nadu assembly promulgated an ordinance “to provide for prohibition of conversion from one religion to another by the use of force or allurement or by fraudulent means and for matters incidental thereto.”

M V Nadkarni, commenting on the issue in an article in January 2003, wrote that the concern over religious conversions in India was nothing new. “These concerns,” wrote Nadkarni, “have been expressed by as progressive and broadminded persons as Raja Ram Mohun Roy, Sir Syed Ahmed, Swami Vivekananda and Mahatma Gandhi.” Nadkarni believed that conversions did not solve caste-based issues or end social discrimination, but “self-help” did. He cites the example of Ezhavas in Kerala and Nadars in Tamil Nadu, who elevated their caste status not by converting to Christianity or Islam but by helping, educating, and creating employment for their community. 

The “myth” that the caste system was unique to Hinduism, Nadkarni holds, was propagated by elements “outside Hinduism” with the “mischievous intent” of converting those disadvantaged by it. In a closely related article, Nadkarni goes on to “demolish” this myth, citing evidence from what he calls “classical Hindu” texts. Nadkarni wrote that Gail Omvedt also saw no correlation between the caste system and Hinduism when she wrote that caste was a South Asian practice rather than a Hindu practice. Further, Nadkarni believed that the caste system was actually a “class system based on vocations,” and “guna” or merit.

Omvedt responds to both of Nadkarni’s articles. Omvedt questions his interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita justifying varna by categorising on the basis of merit. She writes that Nadkarni also “selectively” referred to her previous work and selectively quoted sections of the Gita which were “not necessarily the most pro-varna.” Further, Omvedt wrote that Nadkarni citing Ezhavas and Nadars as examples of “Dalits who have raised their status by reformist policies” was a serious error since the Ezhavas and Nadars were not untouchables but lower Other Backward Classes (OBCs). Referring to the second article, Omvedt wrote that arguing against conversion does not justify laws that ban it or discriminate against people who convert.

In his response to Omvedt’s rejoinder, Nadkarni reiterates his stand that a “heritage” of opposing the caste system does exist in Hinduism. Nadkarni defends the idea of “varna by merit” by writing that the Gita advises following one’s “aptitude and inclination.” He further writes that Hinduism is “dynamic and liberal,” and is therefore not bound to a single text or source. He gives the examples of the Ezhava and Nadar communities who were not mentioned to show their relative position in the caste system but to show that despite having little or no constitutional provisions against discrimination, the communities worked within the framework of Hinduism to overcome oppression. 

Omvedt replies to Nadkarni’s response, recapitulating and questioning the notion of “merit” in classifying society; writing that Nadkarni did not respond to her objections and questions. Omvedt concludes her rejoinder by writing that Nadkarni’s argument of following one’s “ancestral” occupation is a denial of human freedom; and putting legal obstacles to ensure the same goes against the spirit of the Constitution.

A few other works that are broadly related to this discussion:

  1. Hinduism and Politics, Gail Omvedt, 1990
  2. Hinduism without Caste, Vinod Vyasulu, 2003
  3. Does Hinduism Lack Social Concern?, M V Nadkarni, 2007
  4. When ‘Anybody Can Be Brahmin’, O B Roopesh, 2017
  5. Lakshmi against Untouchability: Puranic Texts and Caste in Odisha, Raj Kumar, 2019
  6. Impasses around Contemporary Hinduism, R Srivatsan, 2019

 

Ed: To contribute to a more comprehensive discussion map, please share links to other relevant articles in the comments section or write to us at edit@epw.in with the subject line—“Religion and Caste.”

 

Curated by Anandita Chandra [anandita@epw.in]

 

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