As a liberal, practicing Hindu, I read Thenmozhi Soundararajan and Sinthujan Varatharajah’s “Caste Privilege 101: A Primer for the Privileged” with interest. Let me start by acknowledging what the authors get right — invisible caste privilege, not-solely-Brahmin perpetrators, and the artificiality of South Asianness. Moreover, the authors’ palpable pain deserves a hearing from upper caste, lower caste, and non-casted individuals alike. If the goal however is to abolish caste privilege, I would like to engage with their approach, which I think is strategically in error.
The authors begin with the following graf:
Look. It’s time that we South Asians of the diaspora call out caste. Every issue that we might want to understand better and address — whether it is indigenous rights of the First Nations … — will not be possible if caste is not dismantled. (emphasis mine)
and again just a few paragraphs later:
It is time that those who are Savarna, or Upper-caste, begin to learn to name and own their privilege and take on the burden of educating and dismantling caste in your own families and social networks. (emphasis mine)
The Hindu American Foundation’s 2011 caste report (full disclosure: I’m a member of the executive council, but did not write the report) came to a different conclusion: caste-based discrimination and birth-based occupation are the problem, not caste itself. Why the distinction? Because Jaati (i.e. endogamous community, which is what most of us mean by “caste”, and how Soundararajan and Varatharajah use it), is more than just hierarchical position. The Iyer community/Jaati has features true of many of its members: a value for vegetarianism, patronage of Bharatnatyam and Carnatic music, a specific pronunciation of Tamil (including substituting the Sanskrit “श” for the Tamil “ச”). Likewise, the Chettiar community/Jaati has its own unique (Chettinad) cuisine, home design patterns, and worship modes.
Are Iyers and Chettiars to give up the above? Would doing so end caste privilege? Are the authors willing to surrender their hard won food decisions, or value for Ambedkar, in the service of eradicating caste? Of course not. “We need to end caste” is born of noble sentiment, but it runs into the real problem that castes — subcultures — are historical repositories of India’s incomprehensibly vast diversity. It is much more fruitful to focus on treating one another with respect regardless of subculture — and I agree with Soundararajan and Varatharajah that we should be personally responsible for forcefully pushing our loved ones in this direction — and enacting norms and laws against discrimination in schools, work environments, and not least in places of worship, than to attempt homogenization. This kind of pluralism is exactly what Hinduism executes brilliantly with respect to regionalism in places where inter-regional prejudices have eroded, including in the diaspora.
Of course, Soundararajan and Varatharajah consider Hinduism “not a safe space for us, as we are not recognized equal before god.” But this argument buys into the very casteist structure they decry, and mistakes venality for doctrine. In reality, “Hinduism=caste-based discrimination” is at odds with the historical moment, when much of the energy of Hindu reformers for the last 300 years has been spent reaffirming how utterly irrelevant caste — and caste-based discrimination — is to Hinduism. Vedanta, Yoga, Ahimsa, the Gita, Bhakti — none of these depend even remotely on caste. Swami Vivekananda, Dayananda Saraswati, Mahatma Gandhi, Bharatiar all spent considerable time fighting caste-based discrimination, if not always caste itself. India’s constitution outlawed caste-based discrimination and created the most extensive system of affirmative action in the world; drafted by Dr. Ambedkar, it was voted on and approved by a parliament that consisted overwhelmingly of devout Hindus.
And Hindu belief and history is filled with venerated figures from both extremes of the caste hierarchy — Valmiki was a tribal robber before he wrote the Ramayan; Veda Vyasa, the son of a fisherwoman, compiled the Vedas; Guha and Sabari were revered Nishadas who helped Rama; Kannapa was a hunter who proved his devotion to Shiva by placing his foot on the Shiva Lingam; the Reddy dynasty was founded by a herdsman. It is simply not true that doctrinal Hinduism in any way requires caste-based discrimination — or even caste-based hierarchy. Attempts in the past to eradicate Jaati have been failures, often resulting in the formation of new castes which themselves are situated at the top of the hierarchy — Virshaivites (Lingayats) in particular come to mind.
I want to be explicit — the above is not in any way an endorsement of caste. There are many ways of cultivating sustainable subcultures; caste is far from the best one. Many people, myself included, find Jaati anachronistic and irrelevant. If any of us were designing Hindu/South Asian society today from scratch, caste would not likely be the path chosen. But in the world we inhabit, ancient Hindu/South Asian society coalesced tribe by tribe, Jaati by Jaati, and the fastest route to reducing caste privilege does not lie in awaiting or working towards their dissolution.
I found a lot to think about in the authors’ piece, and I hope they will likewise take the time to read the HAF report on caste-based discrimination. I doubt very much that we will agree about all potential solutions, but we certainly agree that there is a problem, and I think it can be the start of interrogating not just caste privilege, but caste-based discrimination as a key player in perpetuating that privilege and its attendant inequality.
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Raman Khanna is an academic physician and member of the Hindu American Foundation, where he serves on the executive council.