1. Credal definitions
�The question is�, said Alice, �whether you can make words mean so many different things.�
�The question is�, said Humpty Dumpty, �which is to be master-that�s all.�1
A lot of ink has flowed over the question how to define Hinduism. There is no other religion for which the question of definition is so difficult. A Roman Catholic could be defined as a person who is baptized by a priest ordained within an apostolic succession going back to Jesus, and who accepts the Nicean Creed and the authority of the Bishop of Rome. A Muslim is defined by the Muslims themselves as one who has affirmed the Islamic creed: that there is no god beside Allah and that Mohammed is Allah�s prophet. A Buddhist is one who has taken the triple refuge into the Buddha, his teachings and his community. But there seems to be no accepted definition of a Hindu, neither one sanctioned by Hindu tradition nor one on which the scholarly community agrees.
Yet, for a �Hindu� movement the choice of a good definition may be a very consequential matter. In this book, we will see how the Hindu Revivalist movement since ca. 1875 has dealt with the question: Who is a Hindu?
1.1. Vedic Hinduism
According to Ananda Coomaraswamy, �the literature of Indian thought, apart from Buddhism as interpreted by Buddhists, exhibits a continuous development, and knows no acute crises; or rather, the real crises-such as the identification of all gods as one, and the development of the doctrines of emancipation and transmigration-are not determined by names and dates, they were not announced as the Dharma of any one teacher, and they are only recognized in retrospection. Here there is a gradual process of �thinking aloud�, wherein by stripping the self of veil after veil of contingency there is nothing left but the Abyss which is �not so, not so�, the �Ground� of unity. From animism to idealism there is direct development, and it is for this reason that we meet with primitive terminologies invested with a new significance; moreover the old strata persist beneath the newest layers, and thus it is not only primitive terms, but also primitive thoughts which persist in the great complex that we speak of as Brahmanism. But this does not mean that the highest of these thoughts is primitive, it means only that the historical continuity of thought is preserved in the final system, and that system remains adapted to the intelligence of various ininds.�2
This way, Hinduism cannot be caught in a criterion defining a specific stage of human religious development. Rather, like an individual human being (or like a nation), it represents a continuous identity through very different stages, and carrying the memory and the remains of all these stages along. For this reason, it is very difficult to formulate an essentialist definition of Hinduism, of the type: �Is Hindu, he who satisfies the following criteria:...� Even more difficult is, to catch Hinduism in doctrinal criteria: �Is Hindu, he who believes the following truth claims:...�
A well-known but evidently inaccurate proposal of definition was made by Bal Gangadhar Tilak, the �Father of the Indian Freedom Struggle�, who chose �belief in the Vedas, variety in the means and infiniteness of the objects of worship� as the criteria for being a Hindu.3 The �variety in the means� is a valuable contribution, because it explicitates what is often only a tacit assumption presupposed in most Hindu teachings. The acceptance of many approaches to the ultimate truth is indeed a distinctive characteristic of Hinduism, distinguishing it from the exclusivism intrinsic to Christianity and Islam.
Yet, this reading may be too optimistic: perhaps �disagreement about the means� would be a better description than �variety in the means�. Thus, many of the Sants of the Bhakti movement (Kabir, Nanak, Chaitanya) extol repeating the God-name as the means to Liberation and explicitly denounce both rituals and ascetic practices as false ways. Hindus have only agreed to disagree and not to interfere with other people�s practices eventhough these may be considered as deceptive paths leading nowhere. It is perhaps in this sense that Hindus could accept the presence of Christians and Muslims as much as that of rival Hindu sects, because all of them, i.e. both non-Hindus and Hindus of certain rival schools, are considered as being equally in the wrong. At any rate, Hindu tradition has an acute sense of true and false (hence a lively culture of debate), and it does not attribute equal truth to Hindu and non-Hindu, nor even to different Hindu schools of thought.
The assumption that all roads lead to the same goal is typical for modern (urban and Western-oriented) Hinduism as propagated by Swami Vivekananda and numerous more recent Gurus. Thus, in his highly critical account of the specificities of �Renaissance, English-speaking, eclectic, basically anti-Sanskritic, pamphletistic neo-Vedanta�, including its tendency to uncritical �synthesis�, the late Agehananda Bharati remarks: �Patanjali�s yoga is for people who have accepted brahmin theology. This is a fact which is systematically overlooked (�) by many teachers of the Hindu Renaissance. One of their perennial mottoes was that all religions are the same, that everyone can be a yogi on the basis of his own theology, or of no theology.�4
Hinduism, by contrast, has kept up a tradition of debate and scholastic argument since hoary antiquity, and has typically scorned soft options and insisted on radicalism, not in the sense of smashing the heads of people who disagree, but in the sense of settling for nothing less than the truth which liberates. Recent Hindu Revivalists merely return to the genuine Hindu tradition when they state that �the comparatively newfangled notion that all religions are one, equal or equally valid (�) to us is a pleasant falsehood and thereby the biggest stumbling block in the understanding of religion and the religions�.5 They refer to the Mahabharata editor Vyasa who exercised his power of discrimination when he observed that �moral principles may be shared by all religions (�)but their philosophical positions are often different�.6 And who is to say that philosophical viewpoints don�t matter?
Even at the level of moral precepts, religions are far from equal. Leave alone the details such as dietary taboos, even the general principles may differ considerably. Thus, ecstatic states provoked by alcohol and other psychotropic substances are sought after in many animistic and Shamanistic traditions, but abhorred in more sober traditions like Buddhism and Islam. Violence is strongly condemned in Jainism but glorified, at least in specific conditions, in Islam and other religions. Again, these differences exist not only between Hindu and non-Hindu, but also within the Hindu commonwealth of schools and sects. Tilak is aware of this pluriformity; what he intended to add, is that this �variety of means� is not merely a factual situation, but that it is also valued positively by Hinduism, and that in this, Hinduism differs from its major rivals, which impose a single worldview and a single system of ethics on their adherents.
But the major problem with Tilak�s definition is the criterion of �belief in the Veda�. This reduction of Hinduism to the �believers� in the Veda does injustice to any accepted usage of the term Hindu (apart from contradicting Tilak�s own just-quoted position of a plurality of ways, arguably including non-Vedic ways as well). For centuries, Brahmins prohibited lower-caste Hindus from hearing, reciting and studying the Vedas, a prohibition still supported in principle by Tilak himself.7 Are those Hindus who are unfamiliar with the Vedas being excluded from the range of the definition? This would be greatly welcomed by anti-Hindu polemicists, who like to claim that only upper-caste Hindus are real Hindus.
Moreover, the expression �belief in the Vedas� shows a rather crude understanding of the exact place of the Veda in the doctrine of its adepts, a place which is radically different from that of the Quran for Muslims. In the Quran it is God who speaks to man, while in the Veda it is man who sings praise to the Gods. It is not even clear what �believing� would mean in the case of the Vedas, collections of hymns written for a number of Gods by several dozens of male and female poets over several centuries. If someone compiles an Anthology of English Religious Verse, would it make sense to say: �I believe in this anthology�?
upâsyânâmaniyama etaddharmasya lakshanam.8
Savarkar translates it as: �Belief in the Vedas, many means, no strict rule for worship: these are the features of the Hindu religion.�9 More literally, it would read: �Acknowledging the authority of the Vedas, pluralism (�not-one-ness�) of spiritual paths, no fixity about the objects of worship: that is the characteristic of the Dharma.�
The point is that the Vedas are to be considered as a pramâna, a �means of valid knowledge�, on a par with direct perception and inference. Veda may be understood in a very broad sense (common enough in actual usage, e.g. �Vedic medicine�, �Vedic cooking�): �knowledge�, as encompassing the entire Vedic corpus including the Upanishads, the Upavedas and the Vedangas, thus meaning �the accumulated ancestral knowledge�, or more or less �the tradition�. This then becomes a reasonable proposition: the accumulated knowledge passed on by the ancestors is an important though not exclusive means of knowledge, due to the human reality that we cannot start discovering everything anew through personal experience within a lifetime. It is also distinctive for Hinduism along with all �Pagan� cultures, contrasting them with Christianity and Islam, and to an extent even with Buddhism. The latter category, most radically Islam, rejects ancestral culture, and takes a revolution against the tradition as its starting-point, a total rejection of the preceding age as �age of ignorance� (jâhilîya).
However, in Tilak�s case, there is every reason to assume that he used �Veda� in the restricted sense: Brahmanic scriptures to the exclusion of all others, notably the four Samhitas (�collections�: Rik, Sama, Yajus, Atharva), chanted by Brahmins since time immemorial and supposed to have an auspicious effect. In that case, the problem with Tilak�s definition is that for a majority of practising Hindus, the Vedas are only a very distant presence, much less important than the stories from the Itihasa-Purana literature, the rules of conduct laid down in the Dharma-Shastras, and (often counterbalancing the latter) the teachings of the Bhakti poets. This is not because of some revolution rejecting the Vedic heritage, but simply because of the time-lapse, and also because of the jealousy with which the Brahmin caste increasingly distanced the Vedic knowledge from the masses.
In the post-Vedic millennia, there was ample room for new writings, and gradually the Veda proper was eclipsed by new Great Narratives, or new formulations of old narratives, springing from the same inspiration as the Vedas but better placed to catch the popular imagination. But at least these younger texts pay homage to the Vedas and fix them as a distant and little-known object of veneration in the collective consciousness. The most influential post-Vedic text, the Mahabharata, is explicitly rooted in the Vedic tradition, but it is younger and not guarded for the exclusive hearing of the Brahmins. Through this indirect lip-service to the Vedas, even illiterate �little traditions� in Hindu civilization can be covered by Tilak�s definition. However, even in its most inclusive reading, Tilak�s definition excludes important groups which many Hindu Revivalists insist on including in the Hindu fold: Buddhists, Jains, Brahmo Samajists, etc. Savarkar, before developing his own alternative, rejects Tilak�s definition precisely because it is not sufficiently inclusive.
Finally, there is a decisive scriptural argument against Tilak�s inclusion of �belief in the Vedas� as a criterion for Hinduism. The Puranas describe (and the Epics occasionally refer to) several dozens of generations of ancestors of the Puru-Bharata lineage which patronized the composition of the Vedas.10 Regardless of whether we accept the historicity of those genealogies and family histories, they prove that Hindus have at least conceived of a pre-Vedic period in Arya/Hindu civilization. Thus, though the Manu-Smriti in its present version does not pre-date the Christian era, tradition ascribes it (or at least its original version) to Manu Vaivasvata, putative ancestor of all the Puranic dynasties and pre-Vedic founder of Hindu civilization, thought to have lived several generations before the first Vedic poets and a great many before the compilation of the Vedic Samhitas.11 If the central concept of dharma is ascribed to pre-Vedic sages, if the Vedas themselves (like all ancient religious traditions) have an awareness of venerable ancestry, it follows that Hinduism conceives of itself as ultimately pre-dating the Vedas. What else could you expect of a religion which calls itself Sanatana, �eternal�, Dharma?
1.2. Credal definition: Puranic Hinduism
Indologists have distinguished between Vedic religion, laid down descriptively or normatively in the Vedic text corpus, and Puranic religion, or Hinduism proper, as it developed after the Buddhist interregnum (later Maurya dynasty). The distinction is not an orientalist imposition, for Brahmins have all along made a distinction between Vedic and non-Vedic elements within the native religion, e.g. Shivaji was crowned with two ceremonies, one Vedic and one Tantric.12
For all practical purposes, the Puranic tradition is now the dominant one, and many of its non-Vedic elements have replaced the corresponding Vedic elements even in circles of Vedic purists. Thus, Vedic Gods like Varuna and Indra have practically disappeared from the Hindu collective consciousness in favour of restyled minor Vedic Gods like Shiva and Vishnu and non-Vedic gods like Ganesha and Kali. The major festivals of the Hindu calendar are based on the epic feats of Rama and Krishna and on the Puranic lore pertaining to Shiva and the Goddess.
A credal definition of Hinduism commonly accepted by Western scholars is that a Hindu:
(1) believes in reincarnation,
(2) observes caste rules, and
(3) observes the taboo on cow slaughter.13
This is an explicitation of Mahatma Gandhi�s description of his own Hinduism: �Hinduism believes in the oneness not merely of all human life, but in the oneness of all that lives. Its worship of the cow is, in my opinion, its unique contribution to the evolution of humanitarianism. (�) The great belief in transmigration is a direct consequence of that belief. Finally the discovery of the law of Varnashrama [= differentiation after age group and social function] is a magnificent result of the ceaseless search for truth.�14
This description fits �Puranic Hinduism�, usually defined as the specific form of Hinduism developed after the ascendancy of Buddhism in the Maurya period, and which has as its dominant scriptural corpora the Dharma-Shastras and the Itihasa-Purana literature. This chronology of Hindu religion is rejected by some Hindu Revivalist scholars, who claim that the Puranas contain traditions as old as the Vedas (though also including younger material), and that Vedic tradition even in its prime should be seen as just one lineage within a much larger religious landscape which is preserved in the Puranas.15 They point out that a work or a literature called Purana is already mentioned in Vedic literature itself.16 Nonetheless, we will consider these three criteria when checking whether a given tradition is Hindu or not, but not without some caveats. On all three counts, this definition is considered not to fit the pre-Buddhist Vedic religion, hence the decision of many Indologists to consider the pre-Maurya Vedic tradition and the post-Maurya Puranic tradition as two separate religions. Even in present-day Hinduism, these three criteria only fit a certain mainstream but fail to include groups of people whom anyone would call �Hindu� upon watching their religious practices, as we will see in the next paragraphs.
It is commonly believed that caste, i.e. the division of society in endogamous groups, is an exclusively Hindu institution. Thus, after briefly describing the system of the four varnas, Ambedkar writes: �This is called by the Hindus the Varna Vyavasthâ. It is the very soul of Hinduism. Without Varna Vyavasthâ there is nothing else in Hinduism to distinguish it from other religions.�17 Harold A. Gould summarizes: �Most [researchers] have found [caste] an integral and inalienable part of the Hindu religion.� And he himself agrees: �This ancient social institution was the necessary sociological manifestation of the underlying moral and philosophical presuppositions of Hinduism. Without traditional Hinduism there could have been no caste system. Without the caste system traditional Hindu values would have been inexpressible.�18
One might say that the caste system has been Hinduism�s body for a long time, the concrete structure with which Hindu culture organized its social dimension. But that is something very different from saying that caste is the soul of Hinduism, its intrinsic essence. Thus, Peter van der Veer writes that caste may not be as all-pervading or intrinsic to Hinduism as is usually claimed: �The idea that caste is the basis of the Indian social order and that to be a Hindu is to be a member of a caste became an axiom in the British period. What actually happened during that period was probably a process of caste formation and more rigid systematization due to administrative and ideological pressure from the colonial system, which reminds us of the so-called �secondary tribalization� in Africa.�19
But in fact, castes and caste systems have developed in very divergent parts of the world, e.g. the originally ethnic division in Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda, or the endogamous hereditary communities of blacksmiths, musicians and other occupational groups in West Africa.20 The European division in nobility and commoners was a caste system in the full sense of the term: two endogamous groups in a hierarchical relation. When the Portuguese noticed the Indian jâti system, they applied to it the term casta, already in use for a social division in their homeland: the separate communities defined by religion, viz. Christians, Jews and Muslims. In practice, these were virtually endogamous, and there was a hierarchical relation between the top community (first Muslims, then Christians) and the other two.
Historically, the insistence on including caste among the criteria for Hinduism is not so innocent: it was part of the British �divide and rule� strategy against the Freedom Movement. In 1910, a British official, E.A. Gait, passed a circular proposing several tests to decide who is a Hindu, regardless of whether the person concerned described himself as a Hindu: whether he worshipped the �great Hindu gods�; whether he was allowed entry into temples; whether the Brahmins who performed his family rituals were recognized as Brahmins by their supposed caste members; on what side of the untouchability divide he was. Except for the first, these criteria were calculated to exclude the lowest castes and certain sects, regardless of their beliefs and Hindu practices.
The aim was to fragment Hindu society: �Given the upper caste character of the leaders of the Swadeshi movement, this �test� was designed to encourage the detachment of low castes from the �Hindu� category, reducing the numbers on whose behalf the upper castes claimed to speak.�21 The �test� in effect implemented a suggestion by Muslim League leader Ameer Ali (1909) to detach the lower castes from the Hindu category. Ever since, it has remained a constant in anti-Hindu circles to maximize the importance of caste, and in Hindu Revivalist circles to work for its decrease in importance or even its ultimate abolition.
Given the existence of caste practices in non-Hindu societies, the caste phenomenon does not need Hinduism. But does Hinduism need caste? Can Hinduism exist without it? To anti-Hindu agitators, the matter is very simple: �Hinduism means caste.�22 But real life tells a different story. Among overseas Hindu communities (e.g. in South Africa, Surinam, the Netherlands), the sense of caste has waned and in many circles even disappeared, without making them any the less Hindu.23
The Arya Samaj, which has worked hard to diminish the importance of caste, argues that this is merely a return to the Vedic condition, for indeed, the �family books� (2-7) of the Rigveda, the oldest literary testimony of Hindu civilization, are silent about caste. Only in the Purusha Sukta of the Rigveda does the enumeration of the four varnas appear, without any hint that this was a caste rather than just a class system.24 Even Dr. Ambedkar, who argues that modern Hinduism is absolutely bound up with caste, describes how Vedic society knew a class system rather than a caste system: �Particular attention has to be paid to the fact that this was essentially a class system, in which individuals, when qualified, could change their class, and therefore classes did change their personnel.�25 This is based on no more than an argumentum e silentio, but there may be something to it.
At any rate, hereditary varnas are a very old institution, well-attested in the Mahabharata and its most popular section, the Bhagavad-Gita. This text is frequently quoted by reformers as attesting that the four varna functions already existed, but were allotted on the basis of (not one�s birth but)26 one�s guna-karma, �qualities and activities�. This is a constant in Hindu revivalist discourse aimed at disentangling Hinduism from the caste system with Scriptural authority: reference is to Krishna�s words in the Bhagavad-Gita: �The four varnas have been created by Me through a classification of the qualities and actions.�27
On the other hand, in the same Gita, the curse of varna-sankara, �mixing of varnas�, is invoked as one of the terrible consequences of intra-dynastic warfare by Arjuna: �When women become corrupted, it results in the intermingling of varnas.�28 If this can still be dismissed as part of Arjuna�s initial plea (for not joining the battle), which Krishna�s subsequent explanation seeks to refute, it is harder to ignore Krishna�s own statement implying a negative opinion of inter-varna marriage: �If I do not perform action, I shall become the agent of intermingling (of varnas).�29 it seems clear that by the time of the final editing of the Gita, varna endogamy was a firmly entrenched institution. But one has to make the best of it, and so, reformers like Swami Shraddhananda have highlighted such scriptural alternatives to hereditary and endogamous caste as are available.
Observing caste rules is still the general practice among Hindus in India, yet even there it has not been accepted as a defining component of Hinduism in at least one court ruling. The Ramakrishna Mission, in its attempt to acquire non-Hindu status, had used the argument of its professed rejection of caste as proof of non-Hinduness, but the Supreme Court pointed out that abolition of caste had been the explicit programme of outspoken Hindus like Swami Dayanand Saraswati, so that Hinduism without caste did seem to be possible after all.30
1.4. Sri Aurobindo on caste
The difficult relation between caste in Hindu history and modern anti-caste reform was perhaps best articulated by Sri Aurobindo. First of all, he emphasizes the confinement of caste to purely worldly affairs: �Essentially there was, between the devout Brahmin and the devout Sudra, no inequality in the single virât purusha [Cosmic Spirit] of which each was a necessary part. Chokha Mela, the Maratha Pariah, became the Guru of Brahmins proud of their caste purity; the Chandala taught Shankaracharya: for the Brahman was revealed in the body of the Pariah and in the Chandala there was the utter presence of Shiva the Almighty.�31 This could, of course, be dismissed as a case of �opium of the people�, conceding to them a spiritual equality all the better to justify the worldly inequality.
Secondly, Aurobindo avoids the somewhat contrived attempts to deny the close connection between the specificity of Hindu civilization and the caste system: �Caste therefore was (�) a supreme necessity without which Hindu civilisation could not have developed its distinctive character or worked out its unique mission.�32 So far, he actually seems to support the line now taken by anti-Hindu authors, viz. that caste is intrinsic to Hinduism, eventhough selectively highlighting cases where low-caste people got a certain recognition in non-social, religious respects.
However, Aurobindo�s third point is that social reform including the abolition of caste is equally true to the fundamental genius of Hindu civilization: �But to recognise this is not to debar ourselves from pointing out its later perversions and desiring its transformation. It is the nature of human institutions to degenerate, to lose their vitality, to decay, and the first sign of decay is the loss of flexibility and oblivion of the essential spirit in which they were conceived. The spirit is permanent, the body changes; and a body which refuses to change must die. (�) There is no doubt that the institution of caste degenerated. it ceased to be determined by spiritual qualifications which, once essential, have now come to be subordinate and even immaterial and is determined by the purely material tests of occupation and birth. By this change it has set itself against the fundamental tendency of Hinduism which is to insist on the spiritual and subordinate the material, and thus lost most of its meaning.�33
Chronologically, this position could use some corrections (was the low status of the Chandala who spoke to Shankara not a symptom of an already advanced �degeneration�?), but we get the picture, the caste system may have been right in some past age, but now Hindu society should adapt to the modern age. This evaluation by Aurobindo proved to be trend-setting and is now very common in Hindutva discourse.
1.5. Caste as a non-violent integrator
The institution of caste is now eroding, first by the amalgamation of closely related castes, and marginally, slowly but surely, even by the intermarriage of people from very divergent ranks in the caste hierarchy. Interdining with people of unequal caste rank, a revolutionary act in the British period, has become commonplace. Even the priesthood is open to members of lower castes in an increasing number of temples. The RSS was instrumental in fighting the rejection of S. Rajesh, an RSS-affiliated low-caste candidate for the priesthood in a Shiva temple (Kongarapilly, Kerala), in court; the verdict upheld the candidate�s rights.34 The fact that judicial interventions are needed proves that there is still some way to go; on the other hand, the fact that people challenge caste privileges in court, as a last resort after challenging them in civil society, and that they succeed, proves that caste is losing ground, and this without entailing the disintegration of Hinduism.
Though trying to discover a basis in Hindu tradition for casteless equality (as the Arya Samaj claims to have found in the Vedas) is a good thing, it should not keep us from understanding why Hinduism could accommodate the caste system so well. One underlying Hindu value is that of ahimsâ, �non-violence�, not in its extreme Gandhian sense (when slapped, turn the other cheek), but in the subtler sense of respecting every entity, not upsetting but preserving it.
To preserve the distinctive character and tradition of a community, caste separatism was extremely helpful. Thus, in China the Jews were not persecuted, yet they disappeared because of intermarriage; in India, in spite of their small numbers, they remained a distinctive community, thanks to their caste separateness. Hinduism profoundly respects worldly difference and distinctiveness, and while that cannot justify the atrocities which have been committed in the name of caste, it does help to explain why Hindus could maintain the system with a perfectly good conscience for so long. So, in one sense, it is undeniable that caste resonates profoundly with the Hindu world-view; but the point is that Hinduism has more arrows in its quiver.
To put it differently, there is one intrinsic aspect of Hindu culture for which the caste system was an eminently useful (though not strictly necessary) social framework: the fabled Hindu tolerance. It is one thing to say that Hindu society has received the persecuted Jewish, Syrian Christian and Parsi communities well, but another to devise a system that allowed them to retain their identity and yet integrate into Hindu society. Whatever else one may think about the caste system, it is a fact that it facilitated the integration of separate communities.
This very process of integration of separate communities with respect for their distinct identity is at least a part of how the caste system came into being: by gradually integrating endogamous tribal communities in such a way that they could retain their identity, with only minor changes in their traditions. Dr. Ambedkar has drawn attention to this structural continuity between caste and tribe:
�The racial theory of Untouchability not only runs counter to the results of anthropometry, but it also finds very little support from such facts as we know about the ethnology of India. That the people of India were once organized on tribal basis is well-known, and although the tribes have become castes, the tribal organization still remains intact. Each tribe was divided into clans and the clans were composed of groups of families.�35
And this tribal structure continues in the system of endogamous castes divided in exogamous clans (gotra), indicating that caste is in fact a continuation of tribal organization in a supra-tribal or post-tribal society.
Likewise, the British indologist J.L. Brockington correctly argues that one of the prime functions of caste �has been to assimilate various tribes and sects and by assigning them a place in the social hierarchy�, so Hinduism and caste do have a long common history, without being identical: �To the extent that Hinduism is as much a social system as a religion, the caste system has become integral to it. But (�) in Hinduism outside India, caste is withering. More significantly, some elements in India would deny its validity; the devotional movement in general tends towards the rejection of caste (�) The limitation on such attitudes to caste is that in general they were confined to the distinctly religious field, but that only reinforces the point here being made that caste, though intimately connected with Hinduism, is not necessary to it�.36
Later on, Brockington gives the example of Virashaivism, a sect intended as casteless, founded in 13th-century Karnataka by the Brahmin politician Basava: �Yet, despite Basava�s rejection of the Vedas and the caste system, along with so many other characteristic features of Hinduism, the Lingayat movement has remained a part, though admittedly an unorthodox part, of Hinduism.�37
Even at the height of his egalitarian innovation, Basava never called himself a �non-Hindu� (because such terminology was not yet in use), and he remained faithful to Hindu religious practices, starting with the worship of Shiva. He did promote intermarriage for one or two generations, i.e. a caste equality which was more than merely spiritual. Very soon, his sect simply became one more high and proud Hindu caste, which it has remained till today. Its egalitarianism lasted but a brief moment. This may be sufficient to serve as a selling proposition in the modern religion market, at least among people who go by historical anecdote rather than living social practice. On the other hand, a non-cynical approach of this heritage would be, to say that the hour for the awakening of a long-dormant ideal of casteless Shaivism has struck.38
Along with the persistence of living Hinduism among non-resident Indians who have shed their caste identities, this illustrates how Hinduism can survive caste. Likewise, it has also been amply documented how caste can survive Hinduism: converts to Christianity or Islam tend to maintain caste divisions even when they have long given up the supposed Hindu basis of caste: belief in Shastras or in the doctrine of Karma.
A typical aspect of the Hindu caste system is the notion of purity, unattested as such in the Vedas.39 Here again, we find the same phenomenon in divergent cultures, e.g. Islam has a distinct notion of purity and impurity, and requires purity before offering prayers, just like Hinduism. Islam also considers unbelievers impure, though they are free to become Muslims and shed their impurity. It is only the coupling of the hereditary character of caste with the notion of impurity which yields a typically Hindu institution: hereditary untouchability. The genesis of this institution has not been definitively reconstructed yet, though it is a matter of prime importance for understanding Hindu history.
It is at any rate not due to the much-maligned �Aryans�, who originally had no such notion whether in India or abroad. Neither do the Vedic Samhitas contain any reference to Untouchability; Vedic Hinduism, at least, could exist without untouchability. The Dravidians, by contrast, seem to have had the notion in complete form: �Before the coming of the Aryan ideas (�) the Tamils believed that any taking of life was dangerous, as it released the spirits of the things that were killed. Likewise, all who dealt with the dead or with dead substances from the body were considered to be charged with the power of death and were thought to be dangerous. Thus, long before the coming of the Aryans with their notion of varna, the Tamils had groups that were considered low and dangerous and with whom contact was closely regulated.�40
Gerhard Schweitzer reports that even the orthodox are uncomfortable with the Untouchability category: �The untouchables have not been noticed in any of the sacred scriptures. As Mahatma Gandhi said in an oft-quoted statement: if he were to find even a single text passage in the Vedas or the great Hindu epics which justified the abomination of Untouchability, he would no longer want to be a Hindu. For lack of historical source material, it is completely unknown when this greater category of �Untouchables� on the lowest rungs of the social ladder was established. No high-caste author of the past millennium seems to have found it necessary to discuss the question in any form in his writings. Probably this greater category has only come into being during the 8th or 9th century, so it is truly a young phenomenon.�41
In today�s urban Hinduism, the practice of untouchability (unlike the practice of caste endogamy) is disappearing, yet that does not mean that Hinduism is disappearing. Indeed, it is the Hindu nationalists� boast that in their meetings and group activities, there is no trace of untouchability or caste discrimination.42
So, caste may be included as a criterion for defining Hinduism in a purely descriptive sense when discussing Hindu society in the classical and medieval period (which in India is reckoned as lasting into the 19th century), though Hindu religion can and does exist without it. Of untouchability, even this need not be conceded: its presence in Hindu history is considerably more limited than the caste system, and there is plenty of Hindu history which would wrongly be labelled �non-Hindu� if untouchability were accepted as a criterion. Though contemporary anti-Brahmin polemic in media like Dalit Voice tends to fuse all social phenomena of Hindu civilization into a single (�evil Brahminical�) design, a more historical attitude is recommended: one which explores the exact and probably separate origins of untouchability and caste, just as within the institution of caste, social rank/varna and endogamy/jati may have separate origins.
1.7. Arun Shourie on the abolition of Untouchability
Untouchability has been outlawed (1950), and even before that, it was losing ground. As Arun Shourie has observed, �reformers like Swami Vivekananda, like Gandhiji, like Narayan Guru had had no difficulty in showing that Untouchability had no sanction in our scriptures, that, on the contrary, the conclusive doctrinal argument lay in the central proposition of the scriptures themselves: namely, that all was Brahman, that the same soul inhered in all. There was also the historical fact that whatever might have been the excrescences which had grown around or in the name of Hinduism, the entire and long history of the religion showed that it was uniquely receptive to new ideas, that it was uniquely responsive to reformers, that it was adaptable as no other religion was, and therefore there was no reason to believe that it would not reform itself out of this evil also.�43
Incidentally, I don�t think that Shourie�s reference to the vision of the same soul inhering in all (any more than the vision that all are created by the same God) provides a sufficient ground for equality in social practice. At any rate it doesn�t remove the real-life inequality between human beings and animals, so it can also co-exist with inequality between nobles and commoners, between priests and laymen, between Banias and Chandalas. But the point is that both ancient scriptures and modern Hindu reformers could perfectly do without the institution of untouchability without being any the less Hindu for it.
Arun Shourie tells us that a lot can be learned from the case of Narayan Guru who, early this century, as a member of the unapproachable Ezhava caste in Kerala, became an acknowledged religious leader and profoundly changed caste relations in Kerala for the better.44 He �attained the highest spiritual states, thereby acquired unquestioned authority, and transformed society from within the tradition�.45 He made use of a major loophole in the rigidities of the caste system, a loophole which Hindu society deliberately maintained precisely because Hinduism was not merely a social system but, among other things, also a spiritual system: renunciates in general, and sages with acknowledged yogic realization in particular, are above the worldly divisions such as caste. They also have the authority to herald social transformations which Hindus would never accept from purely political busybodies.
As you can verify from any publisher�s book list, Narayan Guru is not very popular among Indian secularists and foreign India-watchers, quite unlike that other Untouchable, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar: �today, scarcely anyone outside Kerala even knows about Narayan Guru�, while by contrast, �Ambedkar�s statues outnumber those of Gandhiji�.46 Narayan Guru upsets the now-dominant Ambedkarite description of Hindu tradition as a den of caste oppression beyond redemption.
Unlike secular people who were insensitive to the spiritual dimension, such as Dr. Ambedkar and Ramaswamy Naicker, �Narayan Guru consistently taught against conversion, he himself took back into the Hindu fold persons from the lower castes who had gone over to other religions�.47 And the contrast with Ambedkar�s Dalit movement persists when we study the long-term results: �The legacy of Narayan Guru is a society elevated, in accord, the lower classes educated and full of dignity and a feeling of self-worth. The legacy of Ambedkar is a bunch screaming at everyone, a bunch always demanding and denouncing, a bunch mired in self-pity and hatred, a society at war with itself.�48
Though there is still some way to go, it is nonsense to claim that nothing in caste relations has changed, especially after ex-Untouchables have become Deputy Prime Minister (Jagjivan Ram, 1977-79), President (K.R. Narayanan, 1997-) and chairman of the ruling party (Bangaru Laxman, BJP, 19992000). This evolution provides an opportunity to test the dominant theory that Hinduism cannot exist without caste: has Hinduism diminished in proportion with the losses which caste inequality has suffered? The problems besetting Hinduism are most definitely not due to the withering away of untouchability. On the contrary, recent conversions to Islam have typically happened in areas like Meenakshipuram (1981) where discriminations of the Scheduled Castes are still severe, e.g. where they are harassed by unscrupulous policemen and seek safety by acceding to the Muslim community.49 Hinduism has everything to gain by liquidating caste inequality as quickly as possible.
1.8. Belief in reincarnation
The Bhagavad-Gita, often called the �fifth Veda� and explicitly paying respects to the Vedas, contains an explicit affirmation of the doctrine of karma and reincarnation. This doctrine is not attested in the Veda proper (which hints at an afterlife not unlike the Germanic Walhalla or the Greek Elysean Fields), and is only in statu nascendi in the great Upanishads, eventhough there are sophisticated hypotheses detailing the deeper origins of this doctrine in the Vedic doctrine of sacrifices.50 At any rate-and here we introduce an element which must be taken into account in any definition of Hinduism-, Hinduism is not a belief system. Its rules extend to behaviour (âchâra), not to opinion (vichâra). Therefore, although �belief in reincarnation� is indeed quite common among Hindus (and Sikhs and Buddhists), it is questionable as a defining characteristic of Hinduism, modem or ancient.51
Thus, Ananda Coomaraswamy, one of the most accurate and profound 20th-century exponents of Hindu thought, did not believe in individual reincarnation: with an appeal to Shankara, he thought that �only Brahman reincarnates�, not some individual soul.52 Within Hindu tradition, this is a somewhat simplistic view when compared to the doctrine of the �causal body�, which as carrier of the accumulated karma defines the individual soul as distinct from the universal Brahman-consciousness. On the bright side, this simplicity yields a more robust view of human destiny than the awkwardly moralistic Puranic belief in an individual soul being rewarded or punished for its past deeds, a belief which deprives all good and bad events in life of their innocence by employing them in a cosmic calculus of retribution.53 Indeed, the Upanishadic doctrine of the Self (âtman), which transcends all individual distinction, may even be read as the very opposite in spirit of the theory of reincarnation, which extends individuality (jîva) beyond this life-time to near-eternity.
Frits Staal observes: �A Hindu (�) can but need not believe in reincarnation or rebirth, or if he believes in them, he may interpret it in so many ways that it is not clear whether there is a common element in all these diverse notions.�54 The Hindu view of afterlife and reincarnation has evolved over the centuries, and it would be wrong to pin �Hinduism� down on any single one of the stages in this development. Belief in reincarnation may be found among the majority of contemporary Hindus and could be used as a valid indication but not as a decisive criterion
1.9. Caste and reincarnation
It has often been said that the belief in reincarnation is a cornerstone of the caste system. For instance, Christian author Dr. J. Verkuyl writes: ��the caste system in India has always been officially justified and legitimized by the doctrine of karma. Someone�s birth in a higher or a lower caste or as an outcaste was the consequence of the law of karma.�55 But the fact is that many other societies have known the doctrine of reincarnation (e.g. the Druze of West Asia) without setting up a division in endogamous groups, or at least without deriving the need for such a division from this belief.
It is especially remarkable that Buddhism has brought the notion of reincarnation and karma to most of East Asia, without thereby creating a caste system in those countries. To be sure, Buddhism never had the intention of reforming the Chinese, Japanese, Burmese etc. societies in any direction, and it fully cooperated with and integrated into the existing feudal and monarchical establishments in these countries; but if caste were �the necessary sociological manifestation of the moral and philosophical presuppositions of Hinduism�56, among which reincarnation and karma are certainly considered the foremost, then these same notions, even when labelled �Buddhist�, should have had the same effect on those other societies.
One might reply that the Buddhist notion of reincarnation is not entirely the same, as Buddhism �does not believe in the Self�, but that distinction is purely academic. Commoners belonging to both Hinduism and Buddhism take the karma doctrine as a ground for fatalism: you have deserved what you are getting, so don�t complain. People with more philosophical education take it as a ground for activism: you make your own fate, so do your best. Practically all of them, excepting a handful of scriptural purists, take reincarnation as an individual process, as a journey of an individual Self directed towards its temporary destiny by its specific load of karma. The Jatakas describe the previous incarnations of the Shakyamuni Buddha; the Dalai Lama (and all the other institutionally reincarnating lamas or Tulkus) is believed to be always the same individual reincarnating, etc.: in actual practice, Buddhists have the same understanding of reincarnation as Hindus have, relative to their level of education and inclination to purism.
And yet, in countries at some distance from India where Buddhism became the state religion, it has not built the same social system. That is because the Buddhist notion of reincarnation does not motivate people to build a particular type of society rather than another one, just like the Hindu notion of reincarnation is not the cause of India�s particular type of society either. It is simply wrong to deduce an entire social system from abstract metaphysical notions like karma.
1.10. Taboo on cow-slaughter,
or: are the Untouchables Hindus?
As for the taboo on cow slaughter, this is definitely accepted by most committed Hindus (including the Sikhs, but not all tribals) as an intrinsic element of their religion, at least in the last twenty centuries or so. Anyone not observing this taboo is ipso facto untouchable. That is why the Muslim invaders made forced converts eat beef, to prevent them from being reintegrated in their castes afterwards. Here again, what counts is not belief but behaviour: Jain scriptures are not particularly fussy about cows as distinct from other animals, but since the Jains don�t eat any kind of meat, they are untainted by beef and hence not untouchable.
The question whether the Vedic seers practised cow-slaughter is hotly debated among Hindu revivalists and traditionalists.57 Even the Hindu Revivalist historian K.S. Lal quotes Arabic writer Albiruni (ca. AD 1000) with approval, when he relates about the Hindus: �for they say that many things which are now forbidden were allowed before the coming of Vasudeva, e.g. the flesh of cows�.58 It is certain that the cow was a sacred animal to the authors of the Vedas, but it may be precisely because of that sacredness that the cow was sacrificed and eaten on special occasions. Indeed, P.V. Kane, the great expert on Dharma Shastra, has written: �It was not that the cow was not sacred in Vedic times, it was because of her sacredness that it is ordained in the Vâjasaneyî Samhitâ that beef should be eaten.�59
At any rate, by modern consensus the Vedic Aryans ate beef, and if the tribals are not Hindus on this ground, then neither were the Vedic Aryans. It is perfectly possible to worship the Hindu Gods but not to observe the Hindu purity rules, of which the taboo on beef is one; that was historically the situation of the untouchable castes, who by their profession violated the taboo on handling dead and decomposing substances (cobbler, barber, washer, sweeper, funeral worker). If you stick to such taboos as defining characteristics of a Hindu, then untouchables are not Hindus. Anti-Hindu campaigners do indeed apply this logic, to lop off as many parts as possible from Hindu society.60 This would mean that many westernized modern Hindus should also be subtracted from the Hindu fold, along with the Vedic seers.
However, as even Christian missionaries admit, �the deep-rooted personal attachment of the Dalits to the Hinduised form of their ancestral gods and goddesses (�) make[s] any mass exodus of the Dalits out of Hinduism unlikely.�61 In a religious sense, the Dalits practise Hinduism; a definition of Hinduism which ignores this, is a bad definition. It is only logical to include all those who worship the Hindu Gods or who perform Hindu rituals in the Hindu category. Hinduism is certainly larger than the tradition of theistic worship of Gods like Shiva, Durga, Rama or local Goddesses, but at least it must include that devotional tradition. I know quite a few westernized Hindus who eat meat including beef, but who practise Hindu rituals, marry their daughters to fellow Hindus etc.; in what religious category would you put them, if not under the heading �Hindu�?
That indeed is how the historical leader of the Untouchables, Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, saw it. In the 1930s, when the British pressed him to champion their plans for institutional separation of the Depressed Classes from the Hindu category, Ambedkar declared that the Untouchables were a �separate community�, though practising the �same religion� as the caste Hindus, comparing their separateness to the separateness of the European nations in spite of their common religion.62 Though he hated Hinduism, he admitted that he was born as a Hindu, an Untouchable Hindu, that his community �worship the same Gods and Goddesses as the rest of Hindus, they go to the same places of pilgrimage, hold the same supernatural beliefs and regard the same stones, trees, mountains as sacred as the rest of the Hindus do�.63 He deduced quite logically that it would take a formal conversion including an explicit repudiation of Hinduism (which he performed shortly before his death in 1956) for him to become a non-Hindu, in his case a Buddhist.
Let us conclude this section with an instance of the pragmatic way in which a leading Hindu Revivalist philosopher deals with the admittedly intricate question of �who exactly is a Hindu?� As we just saw, criteria like taboo on beef-eating or belief in reincarnation might stamp the Vedic seers as non-Hindus. This point is exploited by people who want to diminish the semantic extension of the term �Hindu�, e.g. by spokesmen of the Ramakrishna Mission when they were trying to get their organization reclassified as a non-Hindu minority. Swami Hiranmayananda asked a number of semi-rhetorical questions which were nonetheless pertinent, e.g.: �I want to know something from Shri Ram Swarup. Were the Vedic people Hindus?� Of course, the term was not in existence yet, so the Vedic people certainly didn�t call themselves Hindus. But were they Hindus? This is Ram Swarup�s answer:
�Well, firstly, I would answer this question by putting a counter-question: �Were they non-Hindus? Were they Muslims? Were they Ramakrishnaites?� Secondly, I would say that (�) they were (�) people who in later days became better known as Hindus. People have more names than one and sometimes old names are dropped or forgotten and new names given or adopted. Thirdly, (�) though we may not be able to say whether the Vedic people were Hindus, we quite well know that �the religion of the Vedas is the religion of the Hindus�, to put it in the language of Swami Vivekananda. This kind of looking at the problem is good enough. It was good enough for Vivekananda, and it should be good enough for any serious purpose.�64 indeed, the question whether the Vedic seers were Hindus is a contrived one, and Hinduism can flourish without bothering about it.
Through the Looking-Glass, in The Complete Illustrated Works
of Lewis Carroll, p.184.
2Ananda Coomaraswamy: Buddha and the Gospel of Buddhism, p.207.
3First given during Tilak�s speech at the 1892 Ganapati festival in Pune; quoted in D. Keer: Lokamanya Tilak, p. 173-174.
4Agehananda Bharati: Light at the Center, p.155.
5Harsh Narain: Myth of Composite Culture, p.47.
6Harsh Narain�s paraphrase (Myth of Composite Culture, p.53) of Mahabharata, Shanti-Parva 300:9.
7D. Keer: Lokamanya Tilak, p. 174-175.
8Reprodticed in V.D. Savarkar: Hindutva, p. 109.
9V.D. Savarkar: Hindutva, p. 109.
10According to the Puranas, Manu Vaivasvata, patriarch of the present human race, or at least of the Aryas, had ten successors, one of them being Sudyumna, founder of the Prayag-based Lunar dynasty (another being Ikshvaku, founder of the Ayodhya-based Solar dynasty). His great-grandson Yayati left Prayag to conquer western India, and one of his five sons, Puru, acquired the metropolitan area (East Panjab and Haryana) of the Saraswati basin where the Vedic tradition was to develop. One of his descendants (23rd generation starting from Manu) was Bharata, after whom India is named Bhâratavarsha.
11A systematic table of dynastic lists given in the Puranas was prepared by P.L. Bhargava: India in the Vedic Age, reproduced in S. Talageri: Aryan Invasion Theory and Indian Nationalism, p.338-343. A cross-reference between these lists and the kings names appearing in the Vedas is given in Talageri: op.cit., p.345-347.
Jadunath Sarkar: S
1. Credal definitions
2. Hindus as �Indian
3. Legal definition
6. Are Hindu reformists
7. Are Jains Hindus?
8. Are Sikhs Hindus?
9. Are Indian tribals
10. Are Buddhists
11. Are neo-Buddhists-
12. General conclusion