Hinduism in the Modern World
Contemporary Issues
The Varnas seem to date back to the Vedic age. ... Over time, Vedic religion was increasingly controlled by the Brahmins, and contact between castes was limited. Varna membership became hereditary. The caste system became a significant aspect of Indian life, although many Hindus questioned its rules, particularly with respect to spiritual capabilities. Many medieval bhakti poets of low caste challenged the restrictions that kept them out of temples, asserting that the gods accepted sincere devotion even from those of the lowest status. Since the nineteenth century, many Hindu leaders and groups have challenged and rejected caste distinctions. Mahatma Gandhi renamed the lowest caste Harijans, “the children of God.” Finding this designation condescending, a segment of this population who are pressing for better status and opportunities now refer to themselves as Dalits (oppressed).
       In 1948 the stigma of “untouchability” was legally abolished, though many caste distinctions still linger in modern India. Marriage across caste lines, for instance, is still usually disapproved of and families typically try to maintain Jati endogamy when arranging marriages. ... The division of labor represented by the Varnas is part of Hinduism’s strong emphasis on social duties and sacrifice of individual desires for the sake of social order.
The Vedas, other scriptures, and historical customs have all conditioned the Indian people to accept their social roles. These were set out in religious-legal texts such as the Code of Manu, compiled 100-300 CE. In it are laws governing all aspects of life, including the proper conduct of rulers, dietary restrictions, marriage laws, daily rituals, purification rites, social laws, and ethical guidance. It prescribed hospitality to guests and the cultivation of such virtues as contemplation, truthfulness, compassion, nonattachment, generosity, pleasant dealings with people, and self-control. It condemned “untouchables” to living outside villages, eating only from broken dishes. On the other hand, the code proposed charitable giving as the sacred duty of the upper castes, and thus provided a safety net for those at the bottom of this hierarchical system. (Living Religions, 93-5)
Mahatma Gandhi on Caste
I do not believe in caste in the modern sense. It is an excrescence and a handicap on progress. Nor do I believe in inequalities between human beings. We are all absolutely equal. But equality is of souls and not bodies. ... We have to realize equality in the midst of this apparent inequality. Assumption of superiority by any person over any other is a sin against God and man. Thus caste, in so far as it connotes distinctions in status, is an evil. I do however believe in varna which is based on hereditary occupations. Varnas are four to mark four universal occupations — imparting knowledge, defending the defenceless, carrying on agriculture and commerce, and performing service through physical labor. These occupations are common to all mankind, but Hinduism, having recognized them as the law of our being, has made use of it in regulating social relations and conduct. Gravitation affects us all whether one knows its existence or not. But scientists who knew the law have made it yield results that have startled the world. Even so has Hinduism startled the world by its discovery and application of the law of varna. (academia.edu/326347...)

It is a[s] wrong to destroy caste because of the outcaste, as it would be to destroy a body because of an ugly growth in it or of a crop because of the weeds. The outcasteness, in the sense we understand it, has therefore to be destroyed altogether. It is an excess to be removed, if the whole system is not to perish. Untouchability is the product, therefore, not of the caste system, but of the distinction of high and low that has crept into Hinduism and is corroding it. The attack on untouchability is thus an attack upon this ‘high-and-low’-ness. The moment untouchability goes, the caste system itself will be purified, that is to say, according to my dream, it will resolve itself into the true Varnadharma, the four division of society, each complementary of the other and none inferior or superior to any other, each as necessary for the whole body of Hinduism as any other. (mkgandhi.org...)

  • Is the caste system “just”? Why or why not? How does its conception of karmic consequences compare with Abrahamic (i.e. Jewish, Christian, and Islamic) perspectives on divine rewards and punishments?
  • How does the caste system compare with the concept of social classes in America? In what sense are all Americans equal ... and in what sense are they not?

The Status of Women
At the level of spiritual ideals, the female is highly venerated in Hinduism, compared to many other religions. Women are thought to make major contributions to the good earthly life, which includes dharma (order in society), marital wealth (by bearing sons in a patriarchal society), and the aesthetics of sensual pleasure. ... Women were not traditionally encouraged to seek liberation through their own spiritual practices. A woman’s role is usually linked to that of her husband, who takes the position of her god and teacher. For many centuries, there was even the hope that a widow would choose to be cremated alive with her dead husband in order to remain united with him after death.
       In early Vedic times, women were relatively free and honored members of Indian society, participating equally in important spiritual rituals. But because of social changes, by the nineteenth century wives had become like servants of the husband’s family. With expectations that a girl will take a large dowry to a boy’s family in a marriage arrangement, girls are such an economic burden that female babies may be intentionally aborted or killed at birth. There are also cases today of women being beaten or killed by the husband’s family after their dowry has been handed over
— an atrocity that occurs in various Indian communities, not only among Hindus.
       Nevertheless, many women in contemporary India have been well educated, and many have attained high political positions. As in the past, women are also considered essential to the spiritual protection of their families, for they are thought to have special connections with the deities. Married women carry on daily worship of the deities in their homes, and also fasts and rituals designed to bring good health, prosperity, and long life for their family members.
(Living Religions, 106-7)

Particularity & Universality
Hindu Nationalism/Absolutism/Fundamentalism

The galvanizing event in the recent history of religion in India was the destruction of the so-called Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, a sleepy pilgrimage town on the Gangetic Plain southeast of Delhi. There, on December 6, 1992, Hindu militants pulled down a Mughal mosque stone by stone as two hundred thousand people watched and cheered. They were clearing the ground for a massive temple to Rama on the site they believe to be this god’s birthplace — a site, therefore, where no mosque ever belonged. ...
The problem as the BJP saw it was the Ayodhya, once a truly sacred center, had been defiled. Its most massive building was now a mosque, a structure representative of a polity and religion that the BJP and VHP depicted as belonging to an invader — politically Mughal, religiously Muslim. The mosque must go if India was to recover the sacred core of its identity. A new temple marking Rama’s birthplace would supplant it. ...
December 6 was the day announced for attack (“liberation”), and a flurry of last-minute measures involving the provincial and central governments and the judiciary ultimately did nothing to deflect it. To many people’s surprise — and horror — the government failed to intervene in any decisive way. In five hours’ time the mosque came down, its three great domes crashing into a dusty sea of rubble. (The Life of Hinduism, 257-9)

Particularity & Universality
Hindu Universalism: Jiddu Krishnamurti

Jiddu Krishnamurti was born in 1895 in the town of Madanapalle in the hill-country of southern Andhra Pradesh. His father, a struggling clerk, was a member of the Theosophical Society. After his retirement, he took Krishna and three of his other children to the society’s headquarters in Chennai, where he had found employment. Soon after their arrival, C. W. Leadbeater, a prominent Theosophist, became convinced that Krishna was meant to be the vehicle of the World Teacher that he and his colleagues were awaiting. Soon Krishna had been adopted by Annie Besant, the President of the Theosophical Society, who became his legal guardian. In 1911 an organisation called the Order of the Star in the East was founded with Krishna at its head. The same year he was taken to England, where he lived for the next ten years. Tutored by members of the Society, he grew up in an atmosphere charged with occult mysteries. He also received a conventional education, but repeatedly failed his examinations.

In 1922, while staying in California, Krishnamurti had a three-day long spiritual experience that utterly transformed him. He wrote of this later: “The fountain of Truth has been revealed to me and the darkness has been dispersed. … I have drunk at the fountain of Joy and eternal Beauty. I am God-intoxicated” (Lutyens 1983:7). He now accepted that he was indeed a world-teacher, though perhaps not in the way that had been expected of him.
        For several years Krishnamurti spoke at meetings and conventions of the Order of the Star in the East, but he became increasingly disenchanted with the Order, the Theosophical society, and its hierarchy. Finally, in 1929, he dissolved the Order, returned the properties and funds he had been given, and began to teach to the general public on his own. Over the next fifty-five years he addressed many hundreds of meetings and spoke with thousands of individuals in North America, Europe and India. To all he gave the same fundamental message: an individual in search of truth must not depend on outward authority, whether religious, political, moral, intellectual or other. To find what is not known there must be freedom from the known, from the past, from the web of time. To become aware of what is, one must put an end to the known by means of “meditation”, which is not a state brought on by concentration or any form of practice, but a natural, effortless “emptying of the content of consciousness — which means the fears, the anxieties, the conflicts in relationship — the ending of sorrow and, therefore, compassion. The ending of content of consciousness is complete silence” (Total Freedom, 320). In this silence one can find the immensity or benediction of that which is. (Indian Religions, 516-7)
Truth is a Pathless Land
August 2, 1929
We are going to discuss this morning the dissolution of the Order of the Star. Many people will be delighted, and others will be rather sad. It is a question neither for rejoicing nor for sadness, because it is inevitable, as I am going to explain.
      You may remember the story of how the devil and a friend of his were walking down the street when they saw ahead of them a man stoop down and pick up something from the ground, look at it, and put it away in his pocket. The friend said to the devil, “What did that man pick up?” “He picked up a piece of Truth,” said the devil. “That is a very bad business for you, then,” said his friend. “Oh, not at all,” the devil replied, “I am going to let him organize it.”
      I maintain that Truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by an sect. That is my point of view, and I adhere to that absolutely and unconditionally. Truth, being limitless, unconditioned, unapproachable by any path whatsoever, cannot be organized; nor should any organization be formed to lead or to coerce people along any particular path. If you first understand that, then you will see how impossible it is to organize a belief. A belief is purely an individual matter, and you cannot and must not organize it. If you do, it becomes dead, crystallized; it becomes a creed, a sect, a religion, to be imposed on others. That is what everyone throughout the world is attempting to do. Truth is narrowed down and made a plaything for those who are weak, for those who are only momentarily discontented. Truth cannot be brought down; rather, the individual must make the effort to ascend to it. You cannot bring the mountaintop to the valley. If you would attain to the mountaintop you must pass through the valley, climb the steeps, unafraid of the dangerous precipices. ...
You want to have your own gods–new gods instead of the old, new religions instead of the old, new forms instead of the old–all equally valueless, all barriers, all limitations, all crutches. Instead of old spiritual distinctions you have new spiritual distinctions, instead of old worships you have new worships. You are all depending for your spirituality on someone else, for your happiness on someone else, for your enlightenment on someone else; and although you have been preparing for me for eighteen years, when I say all these things are unnecessary, when I say that you must put them all away and look within yourselves for the enlightenment, for the glory, for the purification, and for the incorruptibility of the self, not one of you is willing to do it. There may be a few, but very, very few. So why have an organization? (www.jkrishnamurti...)