Editor’s Note: Varun Soni is an adjunct professor of religion and dean of religious life at the University of Southern California. He is the first Hindu to serve as the chief religious or spiritual leader of an American university. The views expressed are his own.
When I graduated from college 20 years ago, I embarked upon a spiritual journey across India to learn more about my Hindu faith and Indian ancestry.
Having grown up Hindu in the United States, my understanding of Hinduism was largely informed by temple visits and cultural celebrations, so I knew very little about how Hinduism was lived and practiced on the ground in India.
For more than a year, I traversed the length of India as a Hindu pilgrim, and I was profoundly inspired and transformed by the wisdom, beauty, and light of Hinduism.
But I also witnessed firsthand the dark side of Hinduism and I remain haunted by it.
I will never forget the day I set off on a camel safari from Jaisalmer, an incomparably romantic citadel in the Thar Desert. What started off as an adventure to reach the nearby border of Pakistan soon ended at an isolated village of “untouchables,” a community often referred to as Dalits.
As an Indian, I already knew that Dalits had long resided at the very bottom of the Indian social hierarchy and were continually subjected to discrimination and disenfranchisement.
But as an American, I was shocked by what I encountered in the village – abject poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy, children in desperate need of medical care, no running water or electricity, and a dried up well in the midst of the unbearable desert heat.
These villagers faced many of the same challenges and difficulties that 150 million other Dalits face in India today. Many Indians view Dalits as “polluted” based on their familial lineages and occupations. They are effectively segregated from society.
Program note: Go inside a mysterious Hindu sect on the premiere episode of “Believer with Reza Aslan,” Sunday, March 5, at 10p ET.
They are forced to live in separate villages and drink from separate wells. They are prohibited from marrying outside their communities and are precluded from working in many professions. They are more likely to be victims of violence and sexual assault.
And in a country that has more poor, illiterate, and hungry people than any other country in the world, they are disproportionately represented among the more than 250 million people who live below the poverty line.
In so many ways, the enduring existence of “untouchability” is India’s greatest sin and Hinduism’s greatest challenge.
But this wasn’t always the case.
Birth and rebirth
Hinduism, the world’s third largest religion, traces its roots back to the most ancient extant religious text in the world, the Rig Veda. This text contains within it a scriptural passage that outlines a theoretical division of labor for an ideal Indian society based on four social groups: (1) priests and teachers, (2) rulers and soldiers, (3) merchants and traders, and (4) laborers and artisans. According to the Rig Veda, this division of labor is not predicated on a social hierarchy or dictated by bloodline.
But nevertheless, over the course of many centuries and due to a variety of factors, a rigid caste system of social stratification developed in India that was based on status and kinship, with the priests at the top of the social hierarchy and the laborers at the bottom.
Even below the lowest caste of laborers are the Dalits, so low on the social hierarchy that they are outside the formal structure of caste altogether.
From a theological perspective, most Hindus believe that every human being has a soul that is reincarnated over many lifetimes, and the goal of Hindu life is to achieve liberation from the cycle of rebirth. Most Hindus believe that in order to achieve liberation, one must perform one’s duty and cultivate the right action, wisdom, and devotion so as to achieve a higher-caste rebirth.
So within the context of caste, social and spiritual mobility happen between lifetimes, and it could therefore take many lifetimes to escape lower-caste social status and achieve spiritual liberation.
As a social structure, the Indian caste system is unique in the world as it is based on birth and rebirth. But the philosophies, practices, and prejudices animating and informing the caste system can be seen throughout history in different cultural contexts.
For example, in his seminal work “The Republic,” Plato articulated a theoretical division of labor based on different social groups much like the one found in the Rig Veda. Medieval European feudalism instituted a social hierarchy and division of labor based on kinship, similar to the caste system.
And the “one-drop rule” in the United States provided American courts with a legal doctrine to enforce segregation and support a racial hierarchy based on similar notions of purity and pollution as found in the caste system.
An outlawed caste system
Today the caste system in India is a complex and contentious web of social, political, commercial, and interpersonal relationships intertwined with hereditary groups, tribal and regional identities, and cultural practices.
Indeed, caste consciousness permeates the Indian cultural landscape and often transcends traditional religious boundaries, adversely impacting both Hindus and non-Hindus alike.
But fortunately, the future of the caste system in India looks a whole lot different than the past.
Since India’s independence in 1947, there have been comprehensive efforts to address the dehumanizing impact of the caste system on lower-caste communities. For example, India’s constitution legally abolishes “untouchability” and prohibits discrimination on the basis of caste.
Over the past two decades, the government of India initiated a number of ambitious affirmative action programs to ensure lower-caste participation and representation in higher education and government.
Over the same period of time, nearly 200 million people in India were lifted out of poverty and are now part of a vibrant middle class that is less entrenched in caste identity. As India continues to urbanize, the caste system remains more of an issue in rural and agrarian communities than in the urban centers.
Ultimately, it will be up to young Indians to determine the future of the caste system. India has more young people than any country in the world, with more than 600 million people under the age of 25, and these extraordinary young Indians are poised to tell new stories about themselves and their country, new stories about reconciliation and redemption.
And by doing so, they will serve as a signpost to a new national consciousness, one that affirms and embraces the inherent dignity, self-worth, significance, and potential of each and every Indian.