Hinduism in the Modern World
Contemporary Issues
Hinduism: Contemporary Issues
Watch the videos, read the material, and then respond to the questions at the bottom of the page.
The Four CastesThe 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 Spinning Cotton
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 defenseless, 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...)
Gandhi Icon
It is as 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...)

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)
The Widows of Vrindivan
Widows in India no longer throw themselves on the funeral pyres of their husbands. But life for them can still be hard. Considered inauspicious, many soon find they have lost their income and are ostracised in their home villages. Some are sent away by their husbands' families who want to prevent them inheriting money or property. ... Some come [to Vrindivan] as genuine pilgrims to devote their remaining years to the service of Radha/Krishna, but many others come here to escape from brutal family homes or have been flung out by their sons and daughters-in-law as unwanted baggage. This is one unusual aspect of Indian society that the government might prefer the outside world not to see, despite all their genuine efforts to solve the problem. (bbc.com/news/magazine-21859622)

Reflection Paper Icon
Reflection Paper 24
Contemporary Issues

Choose one of the following two topics:
  1. 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?
  1. Discuss the status of women in contemporary India. To what extent is Hinduism responsible for the social structures that often lead to the mistreatment of women?