casteism Freethought Activism

Caste and Gender perspective of Modern Science in India 

Bigotry and science can have no communication with each other, for science begins where bigotry and absolute certainty end.

~Ashley Montagu

When we talk about science, we expect rationality and logical reasoning. But just like other people, scientists too are prone to the prevalent ideas of the times. It is no wonder then that gender and caste based discrimination would cast their shadow on Indian science. Recently, Madras HC ruled that The IIT-Madras had “committed gross irregularity” in selection of Associate Professor and Professor in the Department of Mathematics amounting to caste discrimination [1]. In IIT Bombay, students got an instruction to not use the ‘main’ plates for non-vegetarian dishes. Unfortunately, little seems to have changed from the times when Astrophysicist Meghnad Saha faced ‘food casteism’ in his hostel in 1911, while he was studying at Presidency College, Calcutta.

A 2016 study found that the gender gap in engineering colleges exists in India, but it is not as large as that found in other countries. However, the ratio of male-to-female engineers in the workforce was much higher than that found in college, producing questions as to the cause of the loss of female engineers from college to workplace (leaky pipeline- a metaphor for the continuous loss of women in science from college to the career ladder) [2]

In her book ‘Dispersed Radiance: Caste, Gender and Modern Science in India’ Abha Sur talks about her meeting with scientist Anna Mani (1993) who asked her “What is this hoopla about women and science?… It must be getting difficult for women to do science these days. We had no such problems in our time” Anna Mani was one of CV Raman’s (the 1930 Nobel laureate in Physics) students. Sur says “To be sure, Mani was not referring to ordinary women, rather, her “we” happened to be a highly selective and privileged group of women whose urban, upper-caste, and Western-educated families ensured their individual access to higher education”. During later conversations, Anna Mani seemed to be ‘not only deeply aware of but also “willing to discuss the pervasive but very personalized gender discrimination women endured as scientists. She seemed implicitly to differentiate between social relations in laboratories, which mimicked gender relations of the society at large, and the bureaucratic structures of scientific and technical institutions, which touted their “gender-blind” rules and regulations…In this respect, for women, doing science was not any more difficult than or qualitatively different from pursuing a career in literature or history. ” Sur thinks that another likely explanation of Mani’s attitude could be nationalism, which had a profound influence on women scientists of that era and tended to mask class, caste and gender differences as it asserted a self-conscious and self-confident Indian identity.’ Anna Mani, in later conversations realized that during the years when she had worn the mantle of science, had had the authority to hire women as scientists, and could have been a conscious role model for younger women, she had been unaware of the need to do so.’ [3]

Diversifying the scientific establishment is important as it helps change the nature of science: what questions are asked, what arguments are made, what observations are highlighted.

The Caste Aspect of Modern Science in India:

The beginning of institutionalization of Modern science by Indian scientists was marked by multiple and often contradictory visions. For some, science symbolized the continuity of a long tradition spanning centuries- Prafulla Chandra Ray considered “ father of Indian Chemistry” produced an impressive treatise on Ancient Hindu Chemistry to reclaim continuity of Indian scientific traditions. JC Bose ‘s research in Plant physiology led him to proclaim that Modern Science could only benefit from an infusion of Indian philosophy (Nandy 1980; Ray[1905]1909). For Chandrasekhar, the Nobel Prize winning astrophysicist, his motivation for doing science was a strong sense of nationalism (Wali 1991). Strongly critical of barbarism of the Vedic culture, Meghnad Saha ushered in the era of “science for the people”.

According to Prafulla Chandra Ray, the reason for the decline of the rich culture of medicine and surgery (of Charaka and Susruta tradition), was the introduction of the code of conduct by Manu: “According to Susruta, the dissection of dead bodies is a sine qua non to the student of surgery and his high authority lays particular stress on knowledge gained from experiment and observation. But Manu would have none of it. The very touch of a corpse, according to Manu, is enough to bring contamination to the sacred person of a Brahmin. Thus we find that shortly after the time of Bhagavata, the handling of a lancet was discouraged, and anatomy and surgery fell into disuse and became to all intents and purposes lost sciences to the Hindus.” He might have been the first working scientist in India to look at cause of decline of scientific spirit of India not within science but outside it. He felt that if one believes that the material world itself is unreal or “Maya”( Vedanta philosophy modified by Samkara) , it is impossible for him to harbor curiosity about it, let alone seek truth about it. [4]

Meghnad Saha (PC Ray’s student) was an astrophysicist best known for his development of the Saha ionization equation, used to describe chemical and physical conditions in stars. He was the first scientist to relate a star’s spectrum to its temperature, developing thermal ionization equations that unified astronomy and atomic physics and transformed astrophysics from a largely qualitative to a quantitative discipline. Astrophysicists often use the phrase “to Saha correctly,” making Saha one of the few scientists whose name is a verb. He was repeatedly and unsuccessfully nominated for the Nobel Prize in Physics.

Saha was born a shudra and faced casteism- At the Eden Hindu Hostel, some students objected to eating in the same dining hall with him because of his caste status. He believed that science was impersonal, objective and free from any and all social considerations and argued that a pernicious aspect of caste distinctions was the severing of mental and manual labor, resulting in stagnation and “backwardness” of Hindu society (hence the student doing science shied away from manual work) ; in contrast, the cooperation between mechanics and scientists had led to great advances in the western world.

Sur contrasts the cases of the physicists Meghnad Saha and C V Raman- Raman came from a south Indian educated and caste privileged family steeped in classical art forms, Saha from an uneducated rural family of modest means and underprivileged caste status in eastern Bengal. Both were non-believers. Raman was initially forced into a career in administrative services because of restrictions on travel by the conservative edicts of caste purity and pollution, while Saha was denied access to administration because of an earlier association with revolutionaries fighting for national liberation.

Saha was of the view that all castes, especially the ‘lower’ ones that he termed the “democratic classes”, be accorded “the same rights as members of other classes”. He was also politically active and was elected in 1952 to India’s parliament. His writings on river management, railway reconstruction, India’s need for power development showed a distinct cultural awareness not shared by many of his colleagues. In 1931 he founded the Academy of Sciences of the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh (later India’s National Academy of Sciences). However, Meghnad was not very aware of gender aspect of science, disapproving of his daughter taking up science in intermediate college while encouraging his son to do so. But later in life, his views changed as he became more left leaning.

Sur also talks about Homi Bhabha, the founder of India’s nuclear programme, who was born into a wealthy, elite and Westernized Parsi family based in Mumbai. Saha’s differences with Bhabha, revolved primarily around differing notions about the goals of science and technology, and the means of achieving them. Saha emphasized equity and participatory democracy, even in highly technical engineering projects. This was quite at odds with the thrust of Indian policymaking in the 1950s, which was dominated by professional economists and technocrats who created a milieu ideally suited to Bhabha’s exclusivist and elitist approach. Thus, even though Saha had been engaged with formulating science policy since the 1930s and had deep political roots in the Indian nationalist movement, he was almost completely excluded from making decisions on science in independent India, especially in the arena of atomic energy.

Lest we think that caste’s role in shaping science and science policy is a characteristic of the distant past, there is the example of Raja Ramanna, former chairperson of India’s Atomic Energy Commission and one of the leaders of India’s 1974 nuclear weapons test. Sur discusses Ramanna’s autobiography Years of Pilgrimage as an example of how the “construction of illustrious genealogies” is deployed to naturalise a social order where privilege is inherited and maintained. He, like many other scientists of upper-caste background, claimed that his proficiency in science traced back to his caste’s traditional interest in higher learning, often of a religious nature which translates into the assumption that members of the upper castes, especially Brahmins, have an innate proclivity for science. [5]

What needs to be done:

Reservations are still not being properly implemented in some of the top science institutions based on the argument that reservations dilute merit (same people will have no problem with capitation fees being paid to buy seats)- Whether it be in case of admitting students or hiring faculties. A study of the impact of reservations in public sector jobs on productivity and efficiency has shown that the affirmative action did not reduce productivity in any sector, but had, in fact, raised it in some areas [6].


The Pioneer women scientists

The entry of women in higher education depended crucially upon the social reform movement and the educational programs of missionaries in nineteenth century India. Indian reformers saw women’s education as essential for the elimination of such social evils as child marriage, sati, polygamy, and the denial of property rights to widowed women [3]. They further saw education as a means to “improve women’s efficiency as wives and mothers and strengthen the hold of traditional values on society, since women are better carriers of these values” [Jaywardena 1986:88]

Kadambini Ganguly and Chandramukhi Basu were the first two female graduates from India and the entire British Empire. Kadambini Ganguly was also the first South Asian female physician, trained in western medicine, to graduate in South Asia. Like most of the earlier women scientists with a success story, she had the support of her family, mainly her father and husband. She and her husband were involved in activities for women’s emancipation. Her husband, Dwarkanath encouraged her to study medicine and she received severe backlash in the Bhadralok (upper caste Bengali) community. So much so that the editor of the popular periodical Bangabasi, referred to her as a courtesan in his piece. Dwarakanath confronted him, made him swallow the piece of paper where that comment was printed. He was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment and paid a fine of one hundred rupees. Even getting into a Medical college was not easy. Calcutta Medical College refused to admit Kadambini as a candidate despite her merit because there was no history of Indian women studying there. Dwarakanath, for the longest time, had also been campaigning to ensure accommodation and enrollment of female students in Calcutta Medical College. It was only after the couple legally threatened the authorities that she was allowed to study.

“For many men of the times, the aspirations to educate a wife or a daughter became a driving passion- pushing them to disregard the sentiments or even the protests both of the women they were educating and other members of the family” (Chitnis 1992). As in the case of Anandi Gopal Joshi who graduated as a physician the same year (1886) in the United States as Kadambini Ganguly. She had suffered domestic violence at the hands of her husband who coerced her to study even when she didn’t want to. Unfortunately, she contracted TB and had to return to India. She received no treatment: Western doctors refused to treat a brown woman and Indian doctors would not help her because she had broken societal rules. Joshi died in 1887 at 22 years of age. Though she was the first Indian woman to qualify as a doctor, she never practiced as one. That credit goes to Dr Rukhmabai who studied medicine in London and qualified as a doctor in 1894. Married at the age of 11, Dr Rukhmabai contested her husband’s claim to conjugal rights in a court case that led to the passage of the Age of Consent Act in 1891.

The growing numbers of educated men desired “limited and controlled emancipation of [their] wives” in order to reconcile the grave disjunction between their social position and that of their wives (Sarkar 1985: 160). As women began to get more educated, they became more aware of their subjugation by men. The cause of gender equality was taken up by the younger women. For instance, students of all-women Bethune College argued against a separate university for women claiming that a university exclusively for women would necessarily limit competition.

Janaki Ammal was a botanist who conducted scientific research in cytogenetics and phytogeography; her most notable work involved those on sugarcane and Brinjal. She faced sexism and casteism in her field of work. Her efforts to publish results of her research in the prestigious journal Nature led her to face discrimination at the hands of the male, upper caste establishment. She decided to fight it and got two articles published in Nature in 1938. Another scientist Asima Chatterjee who worked on organic chemistry was the first Indian woman to be awarded a DSc. In rural Punjab, mathematician R. J. Hans-Gill had to pretend to be a boy and wear a turban to attend school — a secret that was kept between her family and the headmaster.

When Kamala Sohonie, the top student at her undergraduate university in 1933 had applied for admission to the graduate studies program at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, CV Raman, the 1930 Nobel laureate in physics reportedly retorted, “I am not going to take any girls in my institute.” He finally admitted her although not as a regular student. She completed her course with distinction in 1936 and earned a doctoral degree from Cambridge University [3]. After her, Lalitha Chandrasekhar, Anna Mani and Sunanda Bai joined Raman’s class. Anna Mani like many other women of her times had aspired to be a medical doctor but due to paucity of medical schools for women, had to go for science.

Abha Sur writes about how ‘The lives of the women scientists in Raman’s laboratory evince an ongoing tussle between individual agency and societal discrimination. If Kamala Sohonie’s perseverance and academic success opened doors for Lalitha Chandrasekhar, Anna Mani, and Sunanda Bai, perhaps a perceived social transgression by Sunanda Bai may have closed them, at least in Raman’s eyes, for subsequently there were no women students in his laboratory.’ Adding that ‘Survival in science demanded from the women social conformity and conservatism.’

The segregation by sex insisted upon by Indian society found its way into the research laboratories, severely limiting the intellectual contact so essential for full participation in scientific life. Raman maintained a strict separation of sexes in his laboratory. Mani and Bai for the most part worked alone, isolated from their peers. The crucial practice of discussion and debate about scientific ideas among peers was denied to them, rendering the women peripheral to the scientific enterprise. Casual, informal association with male colleagues was strictly out of bounds. Raman frowned upon any interaction between men and women. Mani recalled how he would mutter “Scandalous!” every time a male and a female student walked together by his window.

Educational and research institutions are seen primarily as admission granting bodies that ignore gender and caste and are concerned only with merit and excellence in their pursuit of knowledge, and not as cultural and social sites. This helps perpetuate the myth of gender neutrality in science. The gender and caste prejudices embedded in the interactions of the laboratory are not seen as reproductions of the social relations of the society at large, but as individual actions. The merit -based admission process helped to establish the gender-neutral credentials of the institutions. However, the academic credentials of the women students were brought into question again and again by some of their male colleagues as every action of theirs was minutely scrutinized with suspicion and doubt, undermining their position and slowly eroding their sense of belonging to the laboratory. Women students received more than their share of the ridicule and banter – Every woman student was given a derisive “nickname.” that ‘struck at the core of the woman’s personality, setting her apart from the other women students. The women, even as they were targets of this insidious practice, participated in the game, masking their individual embarrassment in the jovial mockery of their friends’ [3].

Lalitha Chandrasekhar ‘epitomizes the educated woman visualized by the Indian religious reformers; her education made her the ideal wife, willing to forego her career to be a supportive companion’ – She married Chandrasekhar the renowned Astrophysicist who went on to win the Nobel Prize in 1983.

Anna Mani and Sunanda Bai spent long hours in the laboratory, snatching a few hours of sleep under the table whereas men could rest in the corridors or out in the patches of green outside the lab. They did a lot of pioneering work. Raman himself had nothing but praise for Sunanda Bai’s work. Among other things, she worked extensively on the phenomena of light scattering. However, at the end, neither of them was awarded a degree. Anna Mani claims that the lack of a PhD degree made little difference in her life. In August 1944, Sunanda Bai submitted her PhD dissertation, but attempted suicide with her friend Sharda, just before she was to leave for Sweden for post-doctoral work in experimental physics. Sunanda Bai could not be saved but her friend survived. Her colleagues and friends remain disquietingly silent about the reason behind her suicide denying any role of science or IISc in her death. Sur says that ‘The secrecy shrouding her suicide serves to heighten the sense of a scandal surrounding a social transgression. ‘

Anna Mani was the most successful among the three. She went on to pursue a career in meteorology. She was unmarried and never regretted the decision. The incompatibility of marriage and a career in science is a recurrent theme in the lives of women scientists in colonial India. [3]

The scale of the gender problem :

The fact that two out of every three scientists in India today is a woman seems implausible given that just three generations ago, in the 1900s, there were only a handful of women enrolled at the collegiate level and these included women in all disciplines (See Krishnaraj 1991 and Jayawardena 1986).

Among the Ph.D.’s in science, about 25-30% are women with fair distribution among different subjects, life sciences and chemistry dominating. Of the 25-30% Ph. D.’s, the proportion in faculty is between 15 and 20% and at higher levels the number further drops. Women heads of laboratories, science departments of the government, or as members of governing or advisory bodies are rare. The numbers indicate that the fraction of women as recipients of an advanced degree decreases along the line of undergraduate degree in science (40%, 20% in engineering) to Masters (35%, with only 15% in engineering) and similarly for the Ph. D. Thus the fraction of women Ph.D. holders is not insignificant, but this is not reflected in the number of women faculty in institutions of higher education or research in science. The most significant drop in the leaky pipeline seems to be after the doctoral degree and not before. The serious attrition as far as participation of women in science in India is concerned is during the transition from the pursuit of degrees in science to that of scientific careers. [7]

At the core of the problem is the inability to balance a family and career, the inherent assumption being that the family is solely the responsibility of the woman. The proportion of women scientists who never married (14%) is higher than that of similar male scientists (2.5%), and further, the number of women scientists married to scientists (40%) is more than double the reverse case (19%). When speaking of work post-marriage, many scientists recounted that family support was not only essential, but that it enabled them to do better work or more work. Indian Academy of Science (IASc) and National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS) undertook a survey which included women who could not continue in Science after a Ph.D., along with scientists of both genders who had continued in science or related professions. In the survey all but the women who had had to leave, said that in their perception those who left had left due to family reasons whereas those who had actually left answered that it was because they did not find appropriate job or support. This survey, in spite of the small sample size, indicates that the normal perception that marriage and family is responsible for leaky pipe line needs further analysis: the leak may arise from other biases as well.

The way forward:

8 March, International Women’s Day, is celebrated in many research institutes, with discussions on Women in Science. Committees that address sexual harassment at work place are a must. Research institutions and Universities in India should aim for greater awareness on gender parity and addressing implicit bias. Pinjra Thod, seize the night are movements that have created awareness about the plight of women students in colleges and hostels. Challenging stereotypes, better support for parents in childcare, awards and programs to encourage participation of women and non-cis, non binary individuals are steps that can ensure diversity in the establishment.



[2] Aspiring Minds. (2016). National employability report: Engineers. Annual Report 2016.

[3] Dispersed radiance: Caste, Gender and Modern Science in India







About the author

DrBeena Kayaloor


  • As brilliantly explained, caste and gender had a lot of impact on scientific education. Gender gap and caste bias are social antagonistic contradictions that plagued society for long and even continuing to this day, although to a lesser degree. Many of the scientists had reservations regarding gender and caste and they discouraged both women and lower castes from entering the field.
    There is a need for scientists to ‘ scientifically’ view social contradictions and demystify caste and gender discrimination. A true scientist must treat women scientist as well as a dalit or adivasi scientist on par with higher caste or elite scientists. That is only th

  • As brilliantly explained, caste and gender had a lot of impact on scientific education. Gender gap and caste bias are social antagonistic contradictions that plagued society for long and even continuing to this day, although to a lesser degree. Many of the scientists had reservations regarding gender and caste and they discouraged both women and lower castes from entering the field.
    There is a need for scientists to ‘ scientifically’ view social contradictions and demystify caste and gender discrimination. A true scientist must treat women scientist as well as a dalit or adivasi scientist on par with higher caste or elite scientists. That is only the true ‘ scientific temper ‘ for a scientist to be called a ‘ scientist’ . Otherwise, the person is just a student learning science without imbibing the basics of science

  • fighting caste gebder bias through the wetern lens without ontology. Niemukta is anchronistically in the western battles of 19th century, let us go for a radical change by first recognizing the difference between de juris and de facto. Secondly early teaaching of science and mathematics and demolition of the western social sciences that are based on the philosophies of known misogynists like Aristotle, Kant and Hegel. Finally a revival of the study of “Being qua Being” as it appears in the Samkhya tradition. Also encouragement of husbands who love their wives who are brilliant scintists by offering to be house husbands

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    enjoyment, for the reason that this this site conations in fact good funny data too.

  • Caste System in Ancient India

    Ancient India in the Vedic Period (c. 1500-1000 BCE) did not have social stratification based on socio-economic indicators; rather, citizens were classified according to their Varna or castes. ‘Varna’ defines the hereditary roots of a newborn, it indicates the colour, type, order or class of people. Four principal categories are defined: Brahmins (priests, gurus, etc.), Kshatriyas (warriors, kings, administrators, etc.), Vaishyas (agriculturalists, traders, etc., also called Vysyas), and Shudras (labourers). Each Varna propounds specific life principles to follow; newborns are required to follow the customs, rules, conduct, and beliefs fundamental to their respective Varnas.

    The first mention of Varna is found in the Purusha Suktam verse of the ancient Sanskrit Rig Veda. Purusha is the primordial being, constituted by the combination of the four Varnas. Brahmins constitute its mouth, Kshatriyas its arms, Vaishyas its thighs, and Shudras its feet. Likewise, a society, too, is constituted by these four Varnas, who, through their obedience to the Varna rules, are provisioned to sustain prosperity and order. A newborn in a specific Varna is not mandatorily required to obey its life principles; individual interests and personal inclinations are attended upon with equal solemnity, so as to uproot the conflict between personal choice and customary rules. Given this liberty, a deviated choice is always assessed for its cascading impact on others. The rights of each Varna citizen are always equated with their individual responsibilities. An elaborated Varna system with insights and reasoning is found in the Manu Smriti (an ancient legal text from the Vedic Period), and later in various Dharma Shastras. Varnas, in principle, are not lineages, considered as pure and indisputable, but categories, thus inferring the precedence of conduct in determining a Varna instead of birth.

    Purpose of the VARNA System
    The caste system in ancient India had been executed and acknowledged during, and ever since, the Vedic period that thrived around 1500-1000 BCE. The segregation of people based on their Varna was intended to decongest the responsibilities of one’s life, preserve the purity of a caste, and establish eternal order. This would pre-resolve and avoid all forms of disputes originating from conflicts within business and encroachment on respective duties. In this system, specific tasks are designated to each Varna citizen. A Brahmin behaving as a Kshatriya or a Vaishya debases himself, becoming unworthy of seeking liberation or moksha. For a Brahmin (having become one by deed, in addition to the one by birth) is considered the society’s mouth, and is the purest life form as per the Vedas, because he personifies renunciation, austerity, piousness, striving only for wisdom and cultivated intellect. A Kshatriya, too, is required to remain loyal to his Varna duty; if he fails, he could be outcast. The same applies to Vaishyas and Shudras. Shudras, far from left out or irrelevant, are the base of an economy, a strong support system of a prosperous economic system, provided they remain confined to their life duties and not give in to greed, immoral conduct, and excess self-indulgence.


    The main idea is that such order in a society would lead to contentment, perpetual peace, wilful adherence to law, wilful deterrence from all misconduct, responsible exercise of liberty and freedom, and keeping the fundamental societal trait of ‘shared prosperity’ above all others. Practical and moral education of all Varnas and such order seemed justified in ancient Indian society owing to different Varnas living together and the possibility of disunity among them. Hence, Brahmins were entrusted with the duty of educating pupils of all Varnas to understand and practice order and mutual harmony, regardless of distressed circumstances. Justice, moral, and righteous behaviour were primary teachings in Brahmins’ ashrams (spiritual retreats, places to seek knowledge). Equipping pupils with a pure conscience to lead a noble life was considered essential and so was practical education to all Varnas, which provided students with their life purposes and knowledge of right conduct, which would manifest later into an orderly society.

    The underlying reason for adhering to Varna duties is the belief in the attainment of moksha on being dutiful. Belief in the concept of Karma reinforces the belief in the Varna life principles. As per the Vedas, it is the ideal duty of a human to seek freedom from subsequent birth and death and rid oneself of the transmigration of the soul, and this is possible when one follows the duties and principles of one’s respective Varna. According to the Vedas, consistent encroachment on others’ life responsibilities engenders an unstable society. Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras form the fourfold nature of society, each assigned appropriate life duties and ideal disposition. Men of the first three hierarchical castes are called the twice-born; first, born of their parents, and second, of their guru after the sacred thread initiation they wear over their shoulders. The Varna system is seemingly embryonic in the Vedas, later elaborated and amended in the Upanishads and Dharma Shastras.


    Brahmins were revered as an incarnation of knowledge itself, endowed with the precepts and sermons to be discharged to all Varnas of society. They were not just revered because of their Brahmin birth but also their renunciation of worldly life and cultivation of divine qualities, assumed to be always engrossed in the contemplation of Brahman, hence called Brahmins. Priests, gurus, rishis, teachers, and scholars constituted the Brahmin community. They would always live through the Brahmacharya (celibacy) vow ordained for them. Even married Brahmins were called Brahmachari (celibate) by virtue of having intercourse only for reproducing and remaining mentally detached from the act. However, anyone from other Varnas could also become a Brahmin after extensive acquisition of knowledge and cultivation of one’s intellect.

    Brahmins were the foremost choice as tutors for the newborn because they represent the link between sublime knowledge of the gods and the four Varnas. This way, since the ancestral wisdom is sustained through guru-disciple practice, all citizens born in each Varna would remain rooted to the requirements of their lives. Normally, Brahmins were the personification of contentment and dispellers of ignorance, leading all seekers to the zenith of supreme knowledge, however, under exceptions, they lived as warriors, traders, or agriculturists in severe adversity. The ones bestowed with the titles of Brahma Rishi or Maha Rishi were requested to counsel kings and their kingdoms’ administration. All Brahmin men were allowed to marry women of the first three Varnas, whereas marrying a Shudra woman would, marginally, bereft the Brahmin of his priestly status. Nevertheless, a Shudra woman would not be rejected if the Brahmin consented.

    Brahmin women, contrary to the popular belief of their subordination to their husbands, were, in fact, more revered for their chastity and treated with unequalled respect. As per Manu Smriti, a Brahmin woman must only marry a Brahmin and no other, but she remains free to choose the man. She, under rare circumstances, is allowed to marry a Kshatriya or a Vaishya, but marrying a Shudra man is restricted. The restrictions in inter-caste marriages are to avoid subsequent impurity of progeny born of the matches. A man of a particular caste marrying a woman of a higher caste is considered an imperfect match, culminating in ignoble offspring.


    Kshatriyas constituted the warrior clan, the kings, rulers of territories, administrators, etc. It was paramount for a Kshatriya to be learned in weaponry, warfare, penance, austerity, administration, moral conduct, justice, and ruling. All Kshatriyas would be sent to a Brahmin’s ashram from an early age until they became wholly equipped with requisite knowledge. Besides austerities like the Brahmins, they would gain additional knowledge of administration. Their fundamental duty was to protect their territory, defend against attacks, deliver justice, govern virtuously, and extend peace and happiness to all their subjects, and they would take counsel in matters of territorial sovereignty and ethical dilemmas from their Brahmin gurus. They were allowed to marry a woman of all Varnas with mutual consent. Although a Kshatriya or a Brahmin woman would be the first choice, Shudra women were not barred from marrying a Kshatriya.

    Kshatriya women, like their male counterparts, were equipped with masculine disciplines, fully acquainted with warfare, rights to discharge duties in the king’s absence, and versed in the affairs of the kingdom. Contrary to popular belief, a Kshatriya woman was equally capable of defending a kingdom in times of distress and imparting warfare skills to her descendants. The lineage of a Kshatriya king was kept pure to ensure continuity on the throne and claim sovereignty over territories.


    Vaishya is the third Varna represented by agriculturalists, traders, money lenders, and those involved in commerce. Vaishyas are also the twice-born and go to the Brahmins’ ashram to learn the rules of a virtuous life and to refrain from intentional or accidental misconduct. Cattle rearing was one of the most esteemed occupations of the Vaishyas, as the possession and quality of a kingdom’s cows, elephants, horses, and their upkeep affected the quality of life and the associated prosperity of the citizens. Vaishyas would work in close coordination with the administrators of the kingdom to discuss, implement, and constantly upgrade the living standards by providing profitable economic prospects. Because their life conduct exposes them to objects of immediate gratification, their tendency to overlook the law and despise the weak is perceived as probable. Hence, the Kshatriya king would be most busy with resolving disputes originating of conflicts among Vaishyas.

    Vaishya women, too, supported their husbands in business, cattle rearing, and agriculture, and shared the burden of work. They were equally free to choose a spouse of their choice from the four Varnas, albeit selecting a Shudra was earnestly resisted. Vaishya women enjoyed protection under the law, and remarriage was undoubtedly normal, just as in the other three Varnas. A Vaishya woman had equal rights over ancestral properties in case of the untimely death of her husband, and she would be equally liable for the upbringing of her children with support from her husband.


    The last Varna represents the backbone of a prosperous economy, in which they are revered for their dutiful conduct toward life duties set out for them. Scholarly views on Shudras are the most varied since there seemingly are more restrictions on their conduct. However, Atharva Veda allows Shudras to hear and learn the Vedas by heart, and the Mahabharata, too, supports the inclusion of Shudras in ashrams and their learning the Vedas. Becoming officiating priests in sacrifices organised by kings was, however, to a large extent restricted. Shudras are not the twice-born, hence not required to wear the sacred thread like the other Varnas. A Shudra man was only allowed to marry a Shudra woman, but a Shudra woman was allowed to marry from any of the four Varnas.

    Shudras would serve the Brahmins in their ashrams, Kshatriyas in their palaces and princely camps, and Vaishyas in their commercial activities. Although they are the feet of the primordial being, learned citizens of higher Varnas would always regard them as a crucial segment of society, for an orderly society would be easily compromised if the feet are weak. Shudras, on the other hand, obeyed the orders of their masters, because their knowledge of attaining moksha by embracing their prescribed duties encouraged them to remain loyal. Shudra women, too, worked as attendants and close companions of the queen and would go with her after marriage to other kingdoms. Many Shudras were also allowed to be agriculturalists, traders, and enter occupations of Vaishyas. These detours of life duties would, however, be under special circumstances, on perceiving deteriorating economic situations. The Shudras’ selflessness makes them worthy of unprecedented regard and respect.

    **Gradual withdrawal from the ancient Varna duties

    Despite the life order being arranged for all kinds of people, by the end of the Vedic period, many began to deflect and disobey their primary duties. Brahmins started to feel the authoritarian nature of their occupation and status, because of which arrogance seeped in. Many gurus, citing their advice-imparting position to Kshatriya kings, became unholy and deceitful by practising Shudra qualities. Although Brahmins are required only to live on alms and not seek more than their minimal subsistence, capitalising on their superior status and unquestioned hierarchical outreach, they began to demand more for conducting sacrifices.

    Kshatriyas contested with other kings often to display their prowess and possessions. Many kings found it acceptable to reject their Brahmin guru’s advice and hence became self-regulating, taking unrighteous decisions, leading to loss of kingship, territory, and the confidence of the Vaishyas and Shudras. Vaishyas started to see themselves as powerful in their ownership of land and subjection of Shudras. Infighting, deceit, cheating influenced the conduct of Vaishyas. Shudras were repeatedly oppressed by the Kshatriyas and Vaishyas at will, which made them disown their duties and instead opt for stealing, lying, avariciousness, and spreading misinformation.**


    Thus, all Varnas fell from their virtuosity, and unrighteous acts of one continued to inspire and justify similar acts of others. Mixing of castes was also considered a part of the declining interest in Varna system. Most of these changes took place between 1000 BCE and 500 BCE when constant social and economic complexities emerged as new challenges for Varna-based allocation of duties. Population increased, and so did the disunity of citizens in their collective belief in the sanctity of the original Varna system. Religious conversions played a significant part in subsuming large societies into the tenets of humanism and a single large society.

    The period between 300 CE to 700 CE marked the intersection of multiple religions. As a large Varna populace became difficult to handle, the emergence of Jainism propounded the ideology of one single human Varna and nothing besides. Many followed the original Varna rules, but many others, disapproving opposing beliefs, formed modified sub-Varnas within the primary four Varnas. This process, occurring between 700 CE and 1500 CE, continues to this day, as India is now home to a repository of the primary four Varnas and hundreds of sub-Varnas, making the original four Varnas merely ‘umbrella terms’ and perpetually ambiguous.

    The subsequent rise of Islam, Christianity, and other religions also left their mark on the original Varna system in India. Converted generations reformed their notion of Hinduism in ways that were compatible with the conditions of those times. The rise of Buddhism, too, left its significant footprint on the Varna system’s legitimate continuance in renewed conditions of life. Thus, soulful adherence to Varna duties from the peak of Vedic period eventually diminished to subjective makeshift adherence, owing partly to the discomfort in practising Varna duties and partly to external influence.

    While the above impacts were gradual, expeditious withdrawal from Varna rules was made possible by the large-scale influence of western notions of liberty, equality, and freedom. These changes can be observed from 1500 CE right through the present. For Western nations, rooted in their own cultural background, it made little sense to approve of this in their eyes antiquated Varna system. Intercepting the Moghul invasion and the near-end sovereignty of multiple Hindu dynasties, British invasion brought with it a fresh worldview based on equality and freedom, incompatible with the Varna system. Massive colonisation, impact of ‘cultural imperialism’ enforced significant alterations on Varna duties. Trade and liberalisation, exchange of culture dented the tiny bit of belief left in continuing the Varna system.

    Despite this perpetual decline, the descendants of all four Varnas in contemporary India are trying to reinvent their roots in search of ancestral wisdom. Although the four Varnas have encroached upon each other’s life duties, a sense of order and peace is sought and recalled in discourses, community gatherings, and engagement between different generations. Varna system in contemporary terms is followed either with earnest commitment without reservations and doubt or with ambiguity and resistance arising out of unprecedented external influence and issues of subjective incompatibility. While many citizens practice a diluted version of Varna system, extending its limitations and rigidness to a broader context of Hindu religion, staunch believers still strive and promote the importance of reclaiming the system.

  • The Bottomline:

    The barriers of caste continued to strengthen over centuries, until voices of reforms emerged from the colonial India.

    It is clear it is because of this complex and hereditary focused system has led us to such distasteful behaviour in the 19th century by our elders and that it is still continuing in 70% of the population we have to accept the system what our ancestors created has evolved us to such discriminatory system!

    There is no denying that caste system has shaped the Indian society for a long time, possibly due to an abridged interpretation of ancient texts and epics.

    The caste system envisaged in ancient literature was not rigid and hereditary, and over time, some corrupt practices may have polluted the original structure of the society.

    This has given rise to widespread oppression and hereditary entitlements which continue even today. It is to be ensured that the steps taken to undo the harm done by such medieval practices are made more effective and do not create further inequality in the society.

  • The past of caste: Ancient India did not sanctify it, caste discrimination is more recent than we think

    In the Bhagwad Gita, Lord Krishna clearly enunciates that He created the four varnas based on guna (attributes) and karma; birth is NOT mentioned. Rishis, or sages, were accorded the highest status in ancient India, and two of our greatest epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, were composed by Rishis who were not born Brahmins.

    Valmiki was born a Shudra and Krishna Dwaipayana (also known as Ved Vyas) was born to a fisherwoman. Satyakam Jabali, believed to have composed the celebrated Jabali Upanishad, was born to an unwed Shudra mother and his father’s name was unknown. According to the Valmiki Ramayana, Jabali was an officiating priest and adviser to the Ayodhya royalty during Lord Ram’s period.

    Arvind Sharma, professor of comparative religion at McGill University, states that caste rigidity and discrimination emerged in the Smriti period (from after the birth of Jesus Christ and extending up to 1200 CE) and was challenged in the medieval period by the bhakti movement led by many non-upper caste saints. At the time even powerful empires emerged that were led by Shudra rulers, for example the Kakatiyas. Then, the birth-based caste system became rigid once again around the British colonial period. It has remained so, ever since.

    Scientific evidence provided by genetic research corroborates the ancient scriptural absence of a birth-based caste system. Banning of inter-marriage in pursuance of ‘caste purity’ is a fundamental marker of this birth-based caste system. Various scientific papers published in journals such as the American Journal of Human Genetics, Nature and the National Academy of Sciences Journal, have established that inter-breeding among different genetic groups in India was extremely common for thousands of years until it stopped around 0 CE to 400 CE (intriguingly, this is in sync with the period when Sharma says caste discrimination arose for the first time in recorded history).

    The inference is obvious. The present birth-based caste system – a distorted merger of jati (one’s birth-community) and varna (one’s nature based on guna and karma) – emerged roughly between 1,600 to 2,000 years ago. It did not exist earlier. Note that the word ‘caste’ itself is a Portuguese creation, derived from the Portuguese/Spanish ‘casta’ meaning breed or race.

    The founding fathers of the Indian republic were, thankfully, aware of the pernicious effects of the birth-based caste system on Indian society. The Indian Constitution had bold objectives. But, as is obvious today, while government policies such as reservations have made a difference, they have not been good enough.

    The work of Dalit scholar Chandra Bhan Prasad shows that the post-1991 economic reforms programme has seminally addressed this issue. According to the 2006-07 All-India MSME Census, approximately 14% of the total enterprises in the country are owned by SC/ST entrepreneurs, and they generate nearly 8 million jobs! The figure is probably much higher today.

    There are many who claim that the reservations policy has ignored the upper caste poor and rural landless. This may hold some truth. But this is also largely due to the absence of enough education facilities and jobs, which leads to rationing of the few opportunities that do exist.

    Post-1991 reforms have no doubt brought down these shortfalls, but they have not gone far enough. Many argue that reformist policies will not just help the Dalits, but also the rural and urban upper-caste poor.

    So, as Prasad has pointed out repeatedly, more economic reforms and urbanisation will go much further in mitigating caste discrimination and poverty in general, compared to government policies. However, caste discrimination must be opposed and fought against by all Indians, for the sake of the soul of our nation.

    Annihilating the birth-based caste system is a battle we must all engage in at a societal level. We will honour our ancient culture with this fight. More importantly, we will end something that is just plain wrong.

  • The whole philosophy of Indian social organization may be summarized in one word, varna-ashrama-dharma, which may be appropriately translated as Social Federalism. This principle of social integration or synthesis was understood as early as the times of the Samhitas in the Vedic age. The Vedic seers realized that the best and surest way of saving society from frequent suicidal chaos was to divide its members into specific groups, with well-defined functions and privileges or rewards for each.


    Those who were associated with the field of teaching and research were called as Brahmins. Teachers, scientists, astrologers and priests were included in this category. They were the custodians of the social and spiritual heritage of the group and were to pass it on to the succeeding generations. They were to preserve the purity of idealism.


    They were the gaurdians of the soceity. Their duty was to maintain law and order in the society. They were comprised of Soldiers, Sailors, Legislators and Civil Servants.


    They looked after the trade and economy of the society. They were comprised of businessman, traders and merchants.


    This social group looked after the physical welfare of the soceity. They were the producers of food, clothes, fibers and other products of day to day life. They were comprised of farmers, peasants, mill workers and laborers.

    The Division of Society :

    The society was divided to ensure proper functioning of all classes, and provide a guideline to achieve spiritual and economic development of the soceity and individuals as well. To each are assigned the task true to its type, in conformity with its inherent temperament, svadharma. All together formed an organic whole. Under an arrangement such as this, there is conservation of social energies; there is no necessity of trial and error method.

    The segregation of people based on their Varna was intended to decongest the responsibilities of one’s life, preserve the purity of a caste, and establish eternal order. This would pre-resolve and avoid all forms of disputes originating from conflicts within business and encroachment on respective duties. In this system, specific tasks are designated to each Varna citizen.

    Dissolution of Caste System:

    Despite the life order being arranged for all kinds of people, by the end of the Vedic period, many began to deflect and disobey their primary duties. Brahmins started to feel the authoritarian nature of their occupation and status, because of which arrogance seeped inKshatriyas contested with other kings often to display their prowess and possessions. Many kings found it acceptable to reject their Brahmin guru’s advice and hence became self-regulating, taking unrighteous decisions, leading to loss of kingship, territory, and the confidence of the Vaishyas and Shudras. Vaishyas started to see themselves as powerful in their ownership of land and subjection of Shudras. Infighting, deceit, cheating influenced the conduct of Vaishyas. Shudras were repeatedly oppressed by the Kshatriyas and Vaishyas at will, which made them disown their duties and instead opt for stealing, lying, avariciousness, and spreading misinformation.

    Thus, all Varnas fell from their virtuosity, and unrighteous acts of one continued to inspire and justify similar acts of others. Mixing of castes was also considered a part of the declining interest in Varna system. Most of these changes took place between 800 BC and 500 BC when constant social and economic complexities emerged as new challenges for Varna-based allocation of duties.


    The period between 300 CE to 700 CE marked the intersection of multiple religions. As a large Varna populace became difficult to handle, the emergence of Jainism propounded the ideology of one single human Varna and nothing besides. Many followed the original Varna rules, but many others, disapproving opposing beliefs, formed modified sub-Varnas within the primary four Varnas.

    The subsequent rise of Islam, Christianity, and other religions also left their mark on the original Varna system in India. Converted generations reformed their notion of Hinduism in ways that were compatible with the conditions of those times. The rise of Buddhism, too, left its significant footprint on the Varna system’s legitimate continuance in renewed conditions of life. Thus, soulful adherence to Varna duties from the peak of Vedic period eventually diminished to subjective makeshift adherence, owing partly to the discomfort in practicing Varna duties and partly to external influence.

    /hope this helps:)

  • First and foremost, Varna Vyavastha of ancient times is entirely different times from the caste system of the present days. It was more for the well being of the society. There were only four Varnas, unlike the innumerable castes. They were Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaisya and Sudra. People were divided into the four depending on their personality and the occupation. Lord Krishna says the same in Bhagavad Githa.

    Chatur Varnam Maya Srishtam

    Guna Karma vibhagasah.

    The four Varnas are created by me based on Guna(character or personalty) and Karma(work done).

    The same is confirmed by Manu.

    Janmanaa jaayathe Sudrah Sanskaarath Dwija uchyathe

    Everyone is born as a Sudra only. Depending on his Sanskaara, he is a Dwija( any of the other three Varnas). It generally so happens that a son takes after the profession of the father. One can observe it in the modern society also.

    It was in the best interest of the society that one should follow only one profession. Hence the clear cut division of the society was made. There was no rule that one born to a man of one Varna can not take up the profession of another Varna. Kings of Sathavahana, Sunga and Kanva dynasties were Brahmanas. Chatrapati sivaji and Sri krishnadeva Raya were Sudras. Hemachandra vikramaditya( popularly known Hemu) was a Vaisya. A point not necessary here perhaps, but the last Hindu king to occupy the Delhi throne was not Prithviraj Chauhan, but Hemu.

    The professions allotted to Brahmanas were teaching, performing religious rites, medicine etc. Charging students, clients etc was not permitted. The rulers allotted grants which were to be used for the professional necessities only. Most of the Brahmanas were poor. An example can be seen in Dronacharya who could not afford even milk for his son, Aswatthama.

    Interest rate was to be 12 % on the loans given and the profit was generally about 6%.Business community could not make money by fleecing.

    The rules were such that the entire society prospered. One person could take up only one job. That is the main essence of Varna Vyastha.

    Look at the present society. Almost all the rulers have business interests. Many doctors have medical shops and diagnostics centers. Priests in temples perform religious rites in the houses of the rich and powerful. Everyone knows the losses and difficulties to the common man because of this situation. Varna Vyavastha (So actual Caste System) was there to stop these malpractices.

    Sudras and women were perhaps denied Gayatri Mantra but they were not disallowed all the religious activities. Everyone knows the story of Sravana Kumara. His respect and devotion to his parents impressed Mahatma Gandhi. His mother was a Sudra woman and his father was a Vaisya. At the time of his death, they were doing Tapas in the forest. Satyavathi, matriarch of Kaurava dynasty was advised by her son, Veda Vyasa, to go to the forest and perform Tapas. She followed his advice and went to the forest along with her daughters-in-law to do Tapas till death.

    Varna Vyavastha does not distinguish between the four Varnas. It has nothing to do with the present caste system. Let us not still be ruled by the Divide and rule policy of the British and their mental slaves.

    At present, there is no Varna Vyavastha. Let us forget the caste system, or at least stop hating each other based on caste. Let there be only one group, that is, the group of Indians. Jai Bharath.

  • Caste system in ancient India wasn’t as staunch. It was limited to division of society according to different professions in three Varnas. The rigid application came only after Rig vedic period ie. 1000 B.C.

  • Every society needs some kind of structure to survive and grow. The Vedas categorize four types of occupations for this. These are in no particular order:

    Intellectual/Service occupations
    Political/military occupations
    Business occupations
    Blue collar occupations
    Each person, based on his/her interests, chooses one of these occupations in life and gains education and experience in pursuing it.

    For those not interested or having the penchant for a certain skill, every society has opportunity for unskilled labor.

    How did this rational and natural process turn into the chaos it is today?

    How did plastic become a pollutant today?

    Why is the modern world so stressed today?

    See all these were actually created for the betterment of human being it is just that over time people misused them.

    So like everything in universe over time due to the misuse of the higher caste people caste system became the bane it is today but in reality it was for the well being of the society.

  • In ancient India, everyone was assigned to the Shudra varna by birth. Then the education obtained by them, determined their caste. That is why Bramhan, Kshatriya, Vaishya – all were known as twice-born.

    Bramhans dealt with mostly the ancient texts (Vedas, Upanishads, etc.), perusal of knowledge, teaching the new generation, etc. These people, although learned, weren’t allowed to amass huge chunks of wealth and were mostly sponsored by the ruling Kings of the region their Ashrams or Gurukuls were.

    Kshatriyas were the ones who had learnt the art of weaponry. They were the warrior varna tasked with defending the community and some permanent posts like the army chiefs were held by them who obtained the Kshatriya varna. They were comprised of the foot soldiers to the Kings.

    Vaishas were the merchant class, who had mastered the arts of trade and commerce. They were the main revenue generators and were depended upon for the economy of the kingdom/community.

    Shudras were the working class – the ones who wouldn’t obtain education, would remain in this caste and take up jobs like – fishing, carpentry, serving in households, etc.

    Lastly, there were some places where Dasyus were mentioned to classify the criminals.

    Now, at Rig Vedic age, this system remained very fluid. A lot of examples of very learned people coming from a family of different varnas can be found.

    But as ages went by, there was a sense of superiority. Many descendants who stuck to the family business, created a semi-rigid format; and conversions were frowned upon. Usually, if the parent has a certain profession, they made sure their offspring got similar support systems. Now, although birth wasn’t a deciding factor; it did affect the process of education.

    Many places the last version of Manusmriti was villanised. Many who have read it have considered this self contradictory and contradictory to the Vedas. One conclusion arrived was the text was changed and smudged a lot. There are other countries where this text is revered, viz. Thailand and they never had such a warped system of caste that was seen at the time of British Raj.

  • There were no “castes” in ancient India, but only “classes”. Determined by their occupation & lifestyle (not birth), these were just 4 varnas: Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vysya & Shudra. This was not a hierarchy & individuals could freely move from one class to another by their actions.

    India’s caste system is a “race classification scheme” designed & implemented by Mr. Herbert Hope Risley, a British colonial administrator in 1901 during the first census of India. For this, he cunningly twisted India’s ancient social systems of Varna & Jaati. Varna is a social classification based on work; no inequality here. Jaati (as an extension of kula & gotra) is a voluntary social grouping based on family & village associations to prevent inbreeding & genetic deformities in children; no inequality here, again.

    However, in the British caste system, no 2 castes were equal.

    The British forcibly implemented this caste system over a 40-year period by denying government aid to anyone who would not accept the system. Today, the British caste system is continued by politicians in independent India as a continuation of the “divide & rule” strategy for vote-banking. Foreign enemies of India use this system to raise “human-rights concerns” to threaten India with sanctions & invasions. Misinformed Indians use the caste system to feel inferior/ guilty about themselves & hate other Indians… which was the original intent of Mr. Risley.

    Also, see…

    Beginning Of Caste System In India by Rajiv Malhotra
    Excerpts from Rajiv Malhotra’s lecture on his latest book “The Battle for Sanskrit” at Indian Institute of Technology-Madras

  • There was no caste system in Ancient India unlike what we have now. We have a very horrible so called caste system which is again divided into sub-castes and discrimination takes place among those sub-castes also which is really shameful. But, it was not like this in Ancient India.

    In Ancient India, there were only four types of people and these divisons were called as varnas. It was a varna system and the four varnas were – Brahmin, Vaishya, Kshatriya and Shudra.

    BRAHMINS – They are the people who do the job of a teacher, a priest and even, they are scholars as they have a great knowledge of Vedas, Upanishads and other Hindu Scriptures. Without Brahmins, knowledge of Vedas and other Hindu Scriptures would not have been shared to other people and so, people would not have known how to lead life on this planet. We would have lived like uncivilised animals.

    VAISHYAS – They are the people who do the job of a salesman, merchant, cattle herder, artisan and even, cattle herders. Vaishyas are greatly known for their business brains. They are great at business.

    KSHATRIYAS – They are the people who are great at fighting i.e they are great warriors, they are great at ruling an empire or a kingdom i.e they are great rulers and even great administrators. Without Kshatriyas, a kingdom would not have been protected. They were the people who serve day and night to protect the subjects of the kingdom. They were really great.

    SHUDRAS – They are the people who do the job of a labourer or a servant. They are born to serve the people by sweeping the floors of someone’s home, doing labour job and other service related jobs.

    These were the divisions which were there in Ancient India. There were no sub-castes and these divisions were made only to make it easy for the people to recognise the type of job a person will do.

  • The caste system in ancient India was on the basis of ability. A beautiful utopian world wherein, everyone deserved as per his/her ability and no one was entitled to anything. Youngones were bought into a boarding school at a very young age. As per the traits/abilities/behaviour shown by them, were divided into 4 sections:

    Brahmins: were sharp with logical reasoning, philosphical clarity & great sense of right & wrong
    Chatriyas: Were strong built with leadership & combative traits. Were protective in nature.
    Vaishyas: are business minded & good with Quants & arth vedas. Are extremely pragmative & strategic.
    Shudras: are extremely caring, sensitive, simple living & full of empathy. Are in the real sense, selfless.

    Issues emerged when, the heads became too powerful and the idea of socialism came into this system. (Which eventually comes in any system, which starts flourishing, & then on, results in the downfall of the same system)

    ‘To each as per his needs’

    ‘I have been a vaishya for 20 years and my son shall be one’

    NOTE: This is a laymans’ view of Hindu caste system. Might look a bit amateurish, but can be proven based on scriptures. There was a reason for caste system, it might look ugly but take a look at the way a corporation performs ( liberals just had a heartattack). Each employee is hired as per his ability. A sales person might not perform as an accountant & vice versa. Once again, people who wrote scriptures were visionaries whose vision, today is of relevance or not, might be debatable, but they were certainly not high or dimwitted!!

  • No. There was no casteism in ancient India. It was a later period development. The original classification was as per Varna system, wherein it was said that every human bring was born with different talents and aptitude. Some will be very intelligent, like scientists, some will be business minded, some will be good at administration or warfare and some will be good at physical labour. So, every society has four classes of people, the working class, business class, rulers or warrior class and intellectuals. This classification is found throughout the world, Even in Govt offices we have 4 categories of employees class A, B, C and D and there is difference of salary for each class. In India these classes were called Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra. In modern days, this classification is not heriditory. Even the son of a worker can become a doctor or an engineer by education. But this was not so in casteism. A son of worker or Shudra will remain a worker or Shudra and they were looked down as lower castes.

    Now, question is, why profession became heriditory in India at some period of Indian history? It was because of rules of inheritance and lack of modern education and educational institutions. Law of inheritance, which is valid even today says that son of a king will become king. Son of a businessman will inherit his property. Education meant only religious education and warfare. Education could proceed from father to son. A Brahmin could teach scripture to his son and he could become a priest. A farmer could teach farming to his son and he became a farmer. King’s son taught warfare to his son. A businessman’s son would become a businessman. Only Brahmins had entrance to religious education. Kshatriyas were allowed to learn warfare. This system of inheritance, heridity and education promoted csste system in India which became rigid and sometimes oppressive. But the basic thing is that Hindus accepted this system and no one revolted against it. Some Hindu saints in every age fought against casteism and did reform. There was no war or violence in the name of casteism. There was no slavery in the name of casteism. Attitude towards lower castes was an attitude which we have towards poor people in modern times. Some people like Dr Ambedkar are exaggerating casteism in Hinduism but I don’t agree with their view. Every Hindu is not casteist and Hinduism itself is not casteist. Casteism is a perverted form of Varna system as mentioned above.

    1000 years of foreign rule in India was not conducive for fighting casteism, because slavery of Islam, Christianity and the British was an worse evil than casteism. Hindus had to put all energy to fight foreign invaders to save Hinduism and therefore caste problem was neglected in 1000 years of foreign rule, prior to independence, except some saints who fought the custom.

    Main reason of casteism was that there were no schools and colleges as in modern times to get professional education. Only such an education system could enable children choose profession other than their heriditory profession. This modern education was introduced by the British during 200 years of their rule. But here again, higher castes, being more advanced, took advantage of western efucation and went more forward and lower castes remained backward. So, British rule could not end casteism. Mahatma Gandhi fought casteism and Dr Ambefkar politicized casteism which continues even today.

    Casteism could only be eliminated in a free India where we have democracy and modern education. In 1947, India became independent and we established a democratic republic. Casteism was abolished by Constitution. Modern education was introduced which allows a child to choose any profession. Fast development is removing poverty which was a part of the lives of lower castes. Now inter-caste marriages are taking place. Reservstion is enabling lower caste people to rise in professionally. Democracy is allowing anyone to rule the country. Casteism has reduced greately in last 70 years of independence. It is practically not there in big cities.

    So, I think, with this pace of development, education and ule of democracy, casteism will soon become a thing of the past.

  • In Sanathana Dharma, and only in Sanathana Dharma, the word caste itself ceases to find a place. It is the work one does that makes him a “brahmin” or a “Shudra”. Santhana Dharma or more commonly known as Hinduism doesn’t vouch for caste by birth. A brahman isn’t required to be rich, he is supposed to have delved deep into the vedas and upanishads and hence finds his place inside the sanctum or “garbagiraha” of a temple. It is often ludicrous when “shudras” with a shallow knowledge stake their claims to step into the “garbagraha”. One should know sanskrit, that would concentrate the positive vibrations on the idol and hence every temple goer would benefit, absorbing it. Coming back to the topic, caste was never indoctrinated by birth, and no caste is superior to other castes. A classic example is Brahmins of the older days who used to go around pleading for alms chanting “bhavadhi biksham Dehi” while the Vaishyas, the traders were replete with wealth.
    Caste system became rigid in India only when caste and skin color were clubbed, or in other words, the Aryan Dravidian divide was brought upon. Max Muller, the one who propounded the theory himself didn’t pledge for the veracity of the theory and in fact retreated the concept. In the Indian context, the theory is sheer rubbish. As published in the BBC, the DNA of every Indian is identical, or in other ways there isn’t even a modicum of evidence that supports the theory of an Aryan invasion. Hence, those power hungry were bent upon to divide the nation and accentuated the caste system in the disguise of obliterating it. The revolutionary Periyar himself wrote a letter to Jinnah seeking his support for the Dravidian uproar in TN then. Hence, the dwindling caste system was made rigid by those who wanted to eradicate it.

  • Short answer: Geography.

    Long answer, take a look at this matrix

    Every society in the world had social stratification in some way or another. The more stable that society was, the more it was stratified. Famous examples in Europe include Roman society where society was stratified into Slaves, Plebians and Patricians.

    If the Roman empire lasted until modern times, the same stratification might have existed today. Roman stratification didn’t get rigid because plenty of geopolitical changes occured throughout its history. Check why this occured by observing the Europe column in the matrix.

    Here’s how each geographic condition contributed to the stability of societies.

    Plenty of arable land made sure food was cheap. Cheap food spurs population growth and keeps it intact.

    Plenty of food also creates favorable conditions for division of labor, which gives rise to intricate art forms, political and philosophical thought. For example, you are able to enjoy Game of Thrones only because you don’t have to think about what you’re going to eat for dinner tomorrow. If you lived in a country where food was expensive, you’d find the plot lines for Game of Thrones too taxing. Entertainment would be a “waste of time”. You’d rather do something more “productive”.
    Geographic barrier made sure drastic changes in culture didn’t happen. In Europe, the Roman empire wiped out Celtic and Germanic tribes. It later got wiped out by Goths and Huns. Then it eventually became Germanic in modern ages. India on the other hand, remained Indian for thousands of years. The only significant changes in culture occured during formation of Delhi Sultanate, the Mughal invasion and The British Empire. All these 3 changes happened far apart, giving each culture time to assimilate and establish itself in the subcontinent.
    Mineral Resources availability made sure, Indian rulers didn’t have to look beyond the subcontinent to prosper. So they focused all of their time and energy developing the subcontinent instead of looking outside.
    Water supply. Plenty of rivers and fresh water was available in India, contributing to a population boom. This booming population was still able to survive cheaply. When population is high, social stratification is easier. You don’t need every man, woman and child to pick up arms to defend the country; unlike the Vikings or the Huns. Indian rulers had the luxury of picking the best among their own populace to get things done. You can see this phenomenon even today wherein the criteria to get into the armed forces is very steep. All of India’s military is military; unlike some manpower-strapped countries like Israel, Singapore and North Korea which makes military service mandatory for its citizens.
    Steady Climate meant steady supply of food and low cost of construction. All you need is to provide shelter from rain, sun and wind. There was no need to make buildings temperature-proof or maintain it with heat. Even today, many people in India casually lay out cots and sleep outdoors.
    Low cost of survival. See points 1,4 and 5. Even if you are piss-poor, you won’t starve in India. Of course, modern day starvation is artificially created in the last 100 years or so. In fact, this is why India became democratic. Its independence movement happened in the backdrop of massive famines and starvation caused by the British empire.

    If everybody had plenty of food to eat, then caste system in India would have been even stronger. In fact, you can see this phenomenon in modern times; where India ends up electing right-wing fanatics to power whenever its economy is doing fairly well. These right-wing fanatics push India back to the middle-ages; antagonizing minorities, legitimizing privileged casteist trolls et al.
    This is the big picture overview of why caste system in India became rigid compared to other countries.

  • Apart from the brilliant answers by Sharath Ram, initially it was not based on birth it was based on your qualities( because it is said that to do a particular type of work one should require such type of quatites, as it explains in Bhagavad Gita and the highest are required by a Brahmana) you acquire. But son of a brahmana has high chances to be a brahmana because just like a son of a doctor has high chances to become a doctor(atleast in ancient days and to a certain extent now), because when his father is doing some treatment, the son of a doctor would be assisting his father in it, and while preparing the medicines he will assist his father leading to knowing the things what a doctor must know from childhood onwards as he is most familiar with the treatment process, preparation of medicines etc; it doesn’t mean others cannot become a doctor, if they want they can become a doctor by suitable practice.

    Similarly, the son of a brahmana has high chances as he is familiar with the type of mantras in the tune to recite, the verses he is familiar with, and in vedic traditions a person is called brahmana by his qualities, mentality not by his ancestral lineage, infact scriptures seriously don’t give any credit to lineage, for example in Srimad Bhagavatam when Maharaj Parikshit was cursed by the son of a Brahmana the scripture calls him as a sudra rather than as a Brahmana. And in another case the disiple of Narada Muni who was initially a hunter when he changed after that was considered a brahmana and there are several such examples in scriptures. So, it is clear that scriptures don’t make differentiation based on birth. It is the humans who not follow them properly and exploit them for personal gains which leads to all confusions and problems. Scriptures when you properly follow you’ll be amazed by the depth of their understanding, their beauty, they will guide you throughout your whole life from what to eat, how to prepare the dishes, how to pray,… It is a way of life to connect to God and when you properly follow them you will love the depth of understanding in them. According to scriptures all the humans at present are considered sudras, none of the Self proclaimed Brahmanas ,kshatriyas, vysyas, sudhras are actully the Brahmans or Kshatriyas or vysyas but everyone are sudhras ,as they all don’t have the respective qualitites according to scriptures. There are some Genuine people who follow them they belong to them. Caste system at present is because of people who misused it and not because of Hinduism

  • Caste System in my opinion is introduced in India (Hindustan is more apt word) to differentiate people based on their duties.

    Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras
    Its just a way to have an effective administration.
    Pls see Yadavas are not kshatriyas but still they got to rule the kingdom.

    Historically, these are just terms used to call people performing different duties like Business man, police, cobbler; that way

    How did we come to a situation where people starting ill treating others based on caste
    If one might be of opinion that caste system was always like this in India from beginning, then they are absolutely wrong.

    Its the people in top positions who started misusing it. They are the ones who started untouchability and all this. Definitely, it would have never been a populous opinion to strip people themselves of their rights.
    Definitely this was backed up by wrong demonstration of religious texts.

    Caste system, why is it still thriving us
    It all lies in us, People. Caste system.
    –> Why do not many people want to marry out of their caste? <10% intercaste marriages
    –> Why do we try to uplift only ‘our’ people(‘our’ term based on caste)
    –> Why do we ask for reservations when there is every way to ask govt to bring awareness & help in BC, SC, ST castes. I guess this could uplift the ‘so-called’ economically backward people.

    All these things are to attain leadership and get posts. Most of the leaders who talk about caste based reservations are kindling the caste feeling in people rather than concentrating on the main solution. This might never change provided kids are brought up with caste feeling in their head.

  • In olden days, let us say about 25,000 or so, people started to live in groups near any water body, by construing houses.Thus the place is called village. We know every person is having some skills of their own.

    They used to do the jobs according to their skills.and each skill is named.

    The person skilled in making pots are named (కుమ్మరి) potter.

    The person handles iron and other metals is called (కమ్మరి) black smith

    The person who makes jewelry with gold is called (కంసాలి) gold smith

    Like wise barber(మంగలి) who is skilled in cutting hair, washer man(చాకలి) who is skilled in washing clothes etc.

    The persons in experts in cleaning the village of debris and human discharges (shit)are used to do the job, who are termed as dalits . At the time there is no discrimination as to which skill is higher or lower. All are termed equal.

    But due to cleaning etc. people are afraid to touch dalits fearing that any disease may crop up.Thus later became the unworthy habit of untouchability.

    Due to prevailing conditions in that village, there is excess crop of some items and lower crop of some items. To balance them they have to acquire some items from other villages. Negotiating for the exchange is a skill itself. Thus the persons possessing that quality are called Vyasya (కోమటి) .

    So at that time family system developed and marriage has become a custom. Each person having skill used to search for bride or groom for his daughter or son of the same skill in order to train them .Thus marriages made between same skilled groups , if not in the same village in another village. Thus all the persons having same skills became relatives, eventually became a cast.

    Then people start thinking about supernatural power god. In order to avoid natural calamities they used to worship god.They used to build temples for the gods. To maintain temples, and to systematically perform pujas a special skill required thus Brahmins cast developed.Later to grow their activity, they started performing marriages, yagnas,and other rites.

    Then in a village there used to be quarrels, some un lawful acts which is interrupting the daily life. To control them, One skill is required, that is ruling the mass. Thus Kshatriys caste taken shape.

    After many years each caste grew in stature and castes who are experts in cleaner jobs taking precedence over the castes doing dirty jobs.

    The cleanest job. i. e. performing pujas etc considered god’s job, so Brahmins stood top. Next negotiators Vyasyas became the second best because people are dependent on them for their daily ration. Although Kshatriyas being rules, some what dependent on brahmins and vyasyas they become third important in the process.

    All other skilled persons are termed as Shudras

    AS the time passed, Each cast is associated with their cast emotions, hatred towards other casts and all the misconceptions associated with it.

    Initially there is no discrimination as to which cast is low or which cast is high. As the time passed, the castes performing decent jobs have been dominating the castes performing dirty jobs.

    So please understand the history behind the caste system and stop seeing other castes as their enemies.

    Now a days any skill can be acquired by any body. Brahmins are doing other jobs.(take my example. I am a Brahmin. But I have done dirty job of coal mining, as was my father) Vyasyas are also ruling the state. Kshatriyas doing agriculture. Shudras are also ruling the state.

    So let us abolish caste system as the custom based skills are altogether vanished.

  • India, My Puzzle?

    I have two big puzzles about India. It is said that ancient India was highly advanced. Then what happened to this advancing community? Why it went to technology sleep for last 2000 years? My sarcasm is that i was first in fourth standard. Now I am 75 with no notable achievement but still I recall that I was first in fourth standard. This is my first puzzle about India. The other puzzle about India is the caste system. India is the only country in the world with caste system. Surprisingly, I found that both the puzzles are linked together. Very high technical growth needed a secrecy system & this secrecy was achieved by inventing a rigid caste system. Later caste system did its function; it maintained secrecy but in the process killed all initiative. No wonder India went to big slumber & as long as caste system exists, India can never grow to its full potential. QED : Puzzles solved. Now let me explain how I came to this conclusion.

    Ancient India

    The prominent civilizations before Christ were Egypt, China, Greece & India. Out of these ancient civilizations, political & technology history of most of them is available except India. For India most of the history is available in form of legendary stories. Still there are archaeological evidences & travelers chronicles to prove that Indian Civilization was advanced for a long period from 3000 BC to 500 AD. India was great in Astronomy. Even in 1000 BC, Indian knew that earth is round and it revolves around sun. Indians could predict eclipse & retrograde motions of planets. Indians invented zero. They knew value of Pi ( to 20th decimal place exactly matching to today’s value.

    Today’s value π = 3.141592653589793238462643383279502884197169399 upto 100 decimals

    Ancient India value π = 3.1415926535897932384626433832792 correct up to 31 decimals.

    But this value of Pi is not given in plain numbers. It is given in form of a poem & you have to substitute letters by numbers in that poem. Ref You Tube –“Ancient India was more technologically advanced than the west Ancient India was more Technologically advanced than the West. Surely India was advanced in astronomy & arithmetic’s in years 1000 BC. Was it advanced in only these fields? What about progress in other fields?

    I did some arm chair research on Wikipedia and the result is astounding.

    There are more you tube videos ancient scientific knowledge of India: A lecture delivered by CSIR scientist in IIT Chennai

    They were claiming tall but no physical proof . Then I saw a video of Sushil kumar Soni The Scientific and Technological Advancements of Ancient India.

    He claimed that Zinc was monopoly of ancient India. Wikipedia Agrees with it. From Wikipedia “Zinc metal was not produced on a large scale until the 12th century in India and was unknown to Europe until the end of the 16th century. The mines of Rajasthan have given definite evidence of zinc production going back to the 6th century BC. To date, the oldest evidence of pure zinc comes from Zawar, in Rajasthan, as early as the 9th century AD when a distillation process was employed to make pure zinc.” “

    3000 years back India was sole supplier of zinc. Zinc is essential in making brass. At 419.5 Deg C zinc melts but at 907 Deg C zinc vaporizes. So collecting zinc was tricky. Ancient India did it in ingenious way. Zinc ore in a pot was heated from top & the pot was kept cool at bottom. Fumes were extracted at the bottom of pot .Result was a solid zinc lump collected at bottom. This extraction technology was a closely guarded secret till 500 AD. Then it leaked to China & later on to Europe.

    There is a video on how Indians used to cut rocks by wooden wedges without hammers but by swelling the wedges in water.

    Ancient Indian Rock Cutting Technology

    The famous Wootz steel originated in south India in the 3rd century BC and was also exported to foreign countries. Wootz steel also known as Damascus steel made in Syria. It is a multilayer steel with different grades of steel flats forged together to make strong & rust proof swords.Ancient India’s Contributions to the World | Ancient Discoveries

    Painting , Medicine , Textile & food grains etc are the other areas of advanced technology of India.

    Let us assume that from 1000 BC to 500 AD India was advanced & it was renaissance period of India.

    There was a need to guard our Technology & maintain our monopoly. A closed loop system was adopted to protect all secrets. This method was our infamous Caste System

    The system was simple. Craftsmanship was retained in family. Next Generations were trained by older generation. No one beyond the community was to be trained in technology. No Instructions were documented. If any details are required they can be coded & remembered as poems.

    Principle was 1) Keep the trade secrete within your community. Teach it to next generation within community. 2) Do not record any secretes. If you have to record it, keep it in coded words so that only person of your community can decipher it.

    For example value of Pi. Value of Pi is accurate but it is coded & is embedded in a poem. As the business grew, the family was expanded to community. So Community of Goldsmith, Potters, Weavers, Bronze makers, cobblers was evolved. This was beginning of skill based cast system to contain trade secrets. In the initial period, caste system helped innovation & specialization to great extent. The limitations of compartmental communities were not realized. Cross breeding of Ideas stopped. Application of ideas from other fields stopped. For example a good innovation in pottery could not reach tannery. Developments done in other parts of world were ignored. As humanity was progressing, there were lots of innovation developing in other parts of world but for India technology was stagnating.

    Ill effects of Caste system did not stop at stagnation. Communities started living in separated areas.

    The caste system not only divided the society but also graded it. The work relate to religion was rated high & any physical work was graded low. Functions with more labor were graded even lower. So road & bridge building, Scavenging & making shoes & shields were rated even lower. Castes involved in unhygienic but essential work were degraded as untouchables. The lower caste handling human waste & dead animals were graded so low that any contact with them was banned. It was not considered to automate drainage but separate castes as untouchables. It was like if your hands are dirty, do not wash them but chop them.

    With such retrograde thinking, the downhill of Indian society was natural. After 500 AD there is no record of any new invention in India. There is silver lining to it. India continued to progress in Philosophy Literature, Drama & Social sciences like Economics & Politics Examples are Ramayana, Mahabharata, Kalidas,Panini,Kautilya & Arya Chankya.

    However we lost love & respect for human dignity. Care & improvement to reduce human efforts was zero. Even 2000 years back; women used to carry water on head & melodious songs are composed on how beautiful they look in carrying water pots on head. I am surprised that nobody feels ashamed as how insensitive we were to human labor.

    In medieval period world was galloping in technology. War machine like catapult & trebuchet were developed in Middle East. Not even one trebuchet was copied in India. India was advanced in metallurgy but there was no development in Gun casting. If these was war inventions, there were inventions for piece like water lifting, wind mills & water wheels, irrigation dams, stone bridges developing in the world but India slept over it There is no evidence even far fetched mythology story & poem is recorded of any new invention in India. Caste system divided & graded Indians so deeply that even today, you can get NASA posting or IAS cadre or Super specialized doctor: but you have to marry in your caste. In case someone tries interstate marriage, a caste equivalent in that state will be searched by family.

    In short India had a technology holiday of 2000 years. It is surprising that it continued to exist.

    It is the price we are paying for being too advanced in 2000 BC. Unless we drop the caste system, India has no chance to progress even

  • Significantly historically it is suggested that Varna status is not ascribed status ( ie. by birth).

    It was not transmitted from generation to generation.

    Many texts tell us that inter-Varna mobility was possible.

    For e.g.

    Raja Janak inspite of being Kshatriya enjoyed the status of Brahmin because of knowledge.
    Dronacharya although Brahmin, enjoyed the status of the Kshatriya because of his vast knowledge of warfare.
    Nand and Mourya were Shudra but became Kshatriya.
    In the Gita, it is said that everyone is born as Shudra. It is one’s karma which makes them Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra.

    Thus it laid emphasis on achievement and not ascription.

    These give some ideas that Varna status was not ascribed one.

    Even Shudras were not untouchable in Rigveda. Shudras were associated with carpentry, artisan etc,

    In the other words, it was a whole range of conglomeration of artisans of Varna.

    Historically Jati system consolidated and fairly established in Gupta period and this trend replaced the Varna system and a new order of Jati system emerged.

    During this time, the khastriya caste swelled up with the influx of the Hunas and subsequently of the Gurjars who joined their ranks as Rajputs.
    The increase in the number of shudra castes and untouchables was largely due to the absorption of backward forest tribes into the settled Varna society.
    Large scale land grants to the brahmanas tells about the brahmana supremacy during Gupta times. The greater the emphasis on brahmana purity the greater was the stress laid on the impurity of the outcaste.
    The Varna system seems to have been considerably modified owing to the proliferation of castes.

    Due to influx of large amount of unknown tribes into the society, and addition of new people to other Varna, large scale grants to Brahmanas, made them modify the varna system as ascribed cast system.[ As the upper varna people were enjoying the status in the society, they wanted to continue the system as ascription( Right by birth), without doing any achievements as mentioned in the Gita. ]

  • Originally caste system was based on what one does for living. Nowadays it has no relevance. At present anyone can do anything based on their basic nature and survival in society, even this is their own choice. Choice of living may change with time in anyone’s life. You can find more details about this from more recent research done by Subramanya Swamy, Shashi Tharoor, Rajiv Malhotra. May I can enclose eminent people’s research on this area and their talks in UK Parliament and Cambridge University:

  • If we look into our Vedas and Purana’s we come to know that we had different caste system back then we have today. It was defined as a Varna system. In Rig Veda there is 10th Mandala written about the varna System. Which describe that Humans are divided in to 4 Varna.

    1 Brahman (Superior to all human beings)

    2 Kshatriya ( Warrior class)

    3 Vaishya ( Trader or businessmen)

    4 Sudra ( Inferior to all who does household works etc.)

    Earlier Varna system was implemented according to work given or chosen but with time upper mentioned two Varnas ( Brahmin & Khastriya) became superior and the people below them were considered inferior and having any kind of relation with them was considered a Sin.

    But how did it started ? and how did a system which was started to make people more efficient turned into modern times so called Caste system?

    According to Some intellectuals There were only eight mandalas in Rig Veda. So it means two more mandalas were added later on in to it one of which is about the Varna System.

    According to Some people India was under attack from the outsiders since ancient time. So to Secure Our Dharma some intellectual people of that time Divided People into 4 Varna. So that people can get efficient in the given work only to raise efficiency in particular work.

    For example it was the work of Brahman to worship God and doing all spiritual work necessary for the Society. To provide justice and safety to all people was the duty of Kshatriya. To provide food and other necessary things of livelihood was the work of Vaishya. and to serve theses 3 classes was the work of Sudra’s.

    But with the passing time Varna system was transformed in to caste system and once which was divided as per work was now as per birth.

    The Caste was started to considered by birth not by his capability to do work and slowly the situation of shudra caste in India deteriorated to its low level and there was a situation when they were not allowed to live in the town where upper 3 mentioned caste used to live.

    They had their cottages outside of the main town and they had no ample facility of food and water. they were not allowed to drink water from the well belonged to upper caste and were not allowed to worship in the temple.

    Even in this modern age after having so much laws to secure their rights there are many ares where the situation of Sudra’s are as it was earlier.

    So If we can say that in ancient time the varna system was just to make the work simplify by distributing it among the people to make them master of single work. but with the time it got transformed in to Caste system and the example of that can be seen in Mahabharata and Ramayan as well.

  • Misconception and Misunderstanding are clearly the cause of problems related to castes in India. Here’s what Bhagavad Gita says about the castes:

    Lord Krishn sings in Chapter Four, Verse Thirteen of Bhagavad Gita :

    cāturvarṇyam mayā sṛṣṭam
    tasya kartāram api mām
    viddhy akartāram avyayam

    “Although I have created the four classes (varn)-Brahmin, Kshatriy, Vaishy and Shudr-according to innate properties and actions, know me the immutable as a non-doer.’’

    Lord Krishn represents himself as the maker of the four classes.

    Does it mean that he has divided men into four rigid categories determined by birth?

    The truth is rather that he has divided actions into four classes on the basis of inherent properties. All the same, as he tells Arjun, he-the imperishable God-is a non-agent and should be known as such. The innate property (gun) of a being or of a thing is a measure, a yardstick. If the dominant property is that of ignorance or darkness (tamas), it will result in an irresistible inclination to laziness, excessive sleep, wantonness, aversion to work, and compulsive addiction to evil in spite of the realization that it is evil.

    How can worship commence in such a state?

    We sit and worship for two hours and we try to do it with the utmost earnestness, and yet we fail to secure even ten minutes that are truly propitious. The body is still and quiet, but the mind which should be really quiet soars aloft weaving webs of fancies. Waves upon waves of speculation toss it. Then why do we sit idly in the name of meditation and waste time? The only remedy at this stage is it dedicate ourselves to the service of wise men who dwell in the unmanifest and of those who have gone ahead of us on the path.

    This will subdue negative impressions and strengthen thoughts that are conducive to worship.

    Gradually, with the diminishing of forces of darkness and ignorance, there is the growing sway of the quality of rajas, and a partial awakening of the property of good and moral virtue (sattwa) as well, because of which the worshiper’s ability is elevated to the Vaishy level.

    Then the same worshiper begins spontaneously to imbibe qualities such as control of the senses and to accumulate other virtuous impulses. Proceeding further on the path of action, he is endowed with the wealth of righteousness. The property of rajas now grows faint and tamas is dormant. At this stage of development the worshiper steps on to the Kshatriy level.

    Prowess, the ability to be immersed in action, unwillingness to retreat, mastery over feelings, the capacity to carve his way through the three properties of nature-are now the inherent features of the worshiper’s disposition.

    With yet further refinement of action, sattwa makes its approach, at which there is the evolution of virtues such as
    control of the mind and senses, concentration, innocence, contemplation and abstract meditation, and faith as well the capacity to hear the voice of God-all qualities that provide access to Him. With the emergence of these qualities the worshiper comes to belong to the Brahmin level.

    This, however, is the lowest stage of worship at this level. When ultimately the worshipper is united with God, at that point-the highest point-he is neither a Brahmin, nor a Kshatriy, nor a Vaishy, nor a Shudr. So worship of God is the only action-the ordained action.

    And it is this one action that is divided into four stages according to the motivating properties. The division was made, as we have seen, by a saint—by a Yogeshwar. A sage dwelling in the unmanifest was the maker of this division.

    Yet Lord Krishn tells Arjun to regard him, the indestructible and maker of varn, as a non-doer.

    Lord Krishn declares in Chapter Sixteen, Verse Six of Bhagavad Gita:

    dvau bhūtasargau loke’smindaiva āsura eva ca
    daivo vistaraśaḥ prokta āsuraṁ pārtha me śṛṇu

    “There are in the world, O Parth, two kinds of beings, the pious, on whom I have already dwelt at length, and the devilish of whom you will now hear from me.”

    There are in the world two kinds of men, godlike and demon-like. When sacred impulses are active within the heart, man is godlike; but he turns devilish if he is rife with demoniacal inclinations. Whether born in Arabia or Australia or anywhere else, people all over the world are divided into only these two classes.

    “Varn” denotes “form”. A man’s form is not his body but his inborn disposition. Sri Krishn tells Arjun in the third verse of Chapter 17:

    ”Since the faith of all men, O Bharat, is according to their inherent propensity and man is essentially reverent, he is what his faith is.”

    Every man’s character is moulded by his faith and the faith is according to his dominant property. Varn is thus a scale, a yardstick, to measure one’s capacity for action. But with the passing of time we either grew oblivious of or discarded the appointed action, began to decide social status by heredity-thus treating varn as caste, and laid down rigid occupations and modes of living for different men. This is social classification, whereas the classification made in the Bhagavad Gita is spiritual.

    Moreover, they who have thus twisted the meaning of varn have also distorted the implications of action. With the passage of time, thus, varn came to be determined by birth alone. But the Gita makes no such provision.

    Lord Krishn says that he was the creator of the fourfold varn. Are we to assume from this that there was creation within the boundaries of India alone, for castes such as ours cannot be found anywhere else in the world?

    The number of our castes and subcastes is beyond counting. Does this mean that Sri Krishn had divided men into classes?

    The definitive answer to this is found in the thirteenth verse of Chapter 4, where, he declares:

    ‘‘I have created the four classes (varn) according to innate properties and action.”

    So he has classified action, not men, on the basis of inherent properties. The meaning of varn will be understood without difficulty if we have grasped the significance of action which is nothing but true worshiping of single God as per core teachings of Bhagavad Gita.

    Peace! Love! Joy! Hope! Wishing you and yours all this and more!

  • Varna system mentioned in Hindu scriptures is different then what is practiced by people.

    No. The Varna system mentioned in the Dharmashastras is not different from what is practiced in the cow-belt, aka, BIMARU region.

    India was made up of different kingdoms which followed different models of governance.

    Typically in the south, among Dravidian speakers, varna system did not take root; as Dharmashastras, for governance as state laws, were introduced very late (in the Vijayanagar period), as compared to their long history. Even then, varna system was not imposed strictly fundamentally in its original form. The Vijayanagar period too promoted people irrespective of their caste, through the ranks.

    Yet people in all Indian religions seems to follow some form of caste. Why? And how come it has not been abolished?

    Caste is different from Varna: Vyuha Karmin’s answer to What are the origins of the concepts of Jati and Varna?

    Caste was never really binding. As society grew (from cavemen, jungle dwellers to neolithic settlements, tribal settlements, to village settlements) new occupations came into existence. People picked up such new occupations; and over time, also moved across occupations.

    The caste system was somewhat heredity, because the craft was often passed on from father to son. Yet, the son had the freedom to move to a more lucrative occupation.

    It was the varna system (of dharmashastras or smartism), which unfortunately suppressed opponents into slavery, and imposed heredity rights with a rigid occupation system.

    Varna system has not been abolished so far because it is part of the religious ethos of Smartism.

  • Blame it on Time & Ignorance.

    Till the time of Manusmriti (100BC-100AD), Varnas were a fluid concept, idea of 1000s of castes based on jobs came later, arguably during the time of Guptas in the 3rd century and Cholas in the South.

    There have been examples of saints and geniuses from every caste, it should have been enough proof to realize caste system should not be a fixed system but a fluid system according to each person’s capabilities.

    Especially now when jobs change their nature very quickly, lot many castes do not have any use anymore, it neither works as a system of labor-division or genetic refinement.

    It is ignorance that lead to the continuation, and it will be knowledge which will dismantle it.

  • The “Varnashrama” system of social organisation is perfect when it works properly, in this age nothing works properly, if fact if they can get away with it the lower orders will not work because they now run things and do so very badly as the real purpose of the varnas and ashramas is no longer taught.

    For example A judges son does not become a judge just because his father was a judge, like wise one is not a high caste man just because one is born into a high caste if one does not follow the rules applicable to the caste.

    for each caste there are duties and each depends on the other in different ways, but in this age all men are low class/caste.

  • Note: I am no expert on this issue. These are my opinions of today and may change. I am sorry in advance if I hurt anyone in discussing this thorny issue.

    I don’t believe in castes, much less in social stratification because of it. My discussion below is an attempt to address a very complex phenomena of castes. Please form your opinion responsibly. Castes are/were/will be bad for the society.

    I am avoiding the change in ‘kshatriya’ composition with time, up-down movement of castes within caste hierarchy with time, non-uniform classification of castes into varnas across various states, prevalence of castes in Abrahamic religions in India, parallel existence of tribes with castes etc. for the sake of brevity.

    I think caste system and astrology are other’s children adopted by Indian society, which have gone wayward and have led to terrible losses to Indian society.

    India did have varna by bent of mind and profession. By Gupta period, India did isolate chandals – probably for sanitary misconception because chandals were keepers of crematoria and were susceptible to be infected.

    Interestingly, Iran also believed in caste. Sometime 1,800 years back Iran adopted to a caste system during Sasanian Empire, which (IMHO) Guptas and others monkey-copied caste system to India 1,600 years back. (That is why in India DNA slowed mixing 1,600 years back.)

    Probably both the empires were trying to stabilize the society and minimize trade friction within the society. Especially Guptas, who granted monopolies on large scale to various castes. (That is origin of the word gutte for ‘on state granted monopoly’ in North Indian languages.) However, it was a half-cooked idea that has backfired in real bad manner.

    Soon after Guptas, around Kushan period, a lot of people (Proto-Rajputs? Jats? Gurjars?) migrated in India. This phenomena just strengthened caste structure. (IMHO) during this period two other caste related menaces started. Limiting access to Sanskrit slowly to the twice born males (and later only to male Brahmins) happened as a result of hardening the grip on economic means. Forbidding foreign travel to Brahmins came up to stop India from ‘receding back to’ Buddhism.

    (IMHO) Third and the worst menace, untouchability took roots around Islamic invasion. (Cursed be the day.) Blaming only Islamic invasion for untouchability is wrong but surprisingly, probably inadvertently, it helped consolidate the bias. It is interesting to note that Iranians/Turks became Muslims without dropping their Zoroastrian culture roots of looking down at dealing with filth little too hard. Their concepts of cleanliness continued holding in Indo-Persia. (IMHO) So when Islam invaded, a large section of surrendered Rajputs was forced to cleaning up tasks and it mixed with existing low stratum of the society. (IMHO) That is why so many dalits share Rajput last names. History of surrender to foreigners, Persian concepts of cleanliness and already lower status of some professions has (IMHO) made this menace so mean, hard to remove and shameful. [Again, such mixing hasn’t happened across India uniformly or across lower castes uniformly or across time uniformly.]

    Inter-caste marriages continued even through Muslim period. (That is why we all Indians don’t look so different from each other.) It is only during British time that system hardened – probably due to institutionalization of dowry and zamindari. British confused castes as tribes and hence expected hard boundaries around it. Indians didn’t question such a misunderstanding (among many others) and current picture of castes is finalized.

    Further mistakes in strengthening castes happened in post-Independence India. The most discussed is reservation by castes, exerting reverse-Brahman-grip on education, till government loosened its iron grip on number of seats for a particular university course. Less discussed but bigger obstacle to elimination of castes is the protection to farmers in which the only way to own a farmland is through inheritance (except in Tamil Nadu). (IMHO) These two steps, though with good intention, pave path back to caste-hell.

    A few related points:

    Sad state of confusing gotras with castes by English speaking, ignorant+liberal+arrogant media

    Unlike castes that forbid marriage outside castes (starting with British period), gotras forbid marriage within the same gotra. While castes divided the society, gotras (in some sense) bind the society through inter-marriages. Gotras were based on how cows become strong (go-tru) if bloodlines are NOT mixed.

    Similarly, in large parts of India, it is forbidden to marry too-close – as many as 9 steps in cousins in North INDIA, even if gotra permitted.

    Thus, it can be said that gotras and cousin-marriage-taboo are attempts to eugenics. Since less than a century, eugenics is considered ‘bad in any form’. That is the only rational basis of decrying gotras and cousin-marriage-taboo. If one protests gotras, one should also protest cousin-marriage-taboo.

  • Hinduism teaches that men and women are of equal worth, but have different roles and responsibilities because they have different dharmas to follow.

    When we discuss gender or gender equality in Hinduism, we have to consider it from both spiritual and worldly perspectives. It is because the spiritual and philosophical views regarding gender in Hinduism are somewhat different from those followed in worldly life and religious practice by most people. In theory, they are the same, but in practice, there is a clear distinction between both genders. Men and women are expected to perform separate roles, as dictated by the tradition and law books for the preservation of Dharma and continuation of family and society. They have to do it as a part of their obligatory duties to ensure peace and happiness for themselves and others, and achieve salvation.

    In Hinduism, gender distinctions are not confined to the earthly life only. They extend to whole creation. The duality of gender exists not only in our world but also in the higher and lower worlds. Hence, we have both male and female divinities and celestial beings in the upper worlds, and male and female asuras, daityas, etc., in the lower worlds. With few exceptions, almost every deity in the Hindu pantheon is associated with one or more deities of the opposite sex. Some of them are also driven by attraction and aversion, and often engage in lustful actions.

    Thus, in Hinduism gender differences are universal. They extend to all worlds and planes of existence. The whole creation is clearly distinguished into male and female components, represented by Purusha and Shakti or Prakriti respectively. They constitute the two highest aspects of Manifested or Saguna Brahman, who also acts as Isvara, the supreme lord, creator and controller of the universe. We variously worship them as Shiva and Shakti, Purusha and Prakriti, Vishnu and Lakshmi. Brahma and Saraswathi, Father God and Mother Goddess, and so on. They are believed to be inseparable, but appear as different in the material field due to the power of Maya.

    The source of gender distinctions
    However, gender in Hinduism is not confined to sexual organs or reproductive functions only. The distinction is not purely sexual or biological in nature. It is mainly functional and arise due to other factors. Gender related differences arise mainly due to the power of Shakti. In lower planes, they arise mainly due to the presence of sexual organs and reproductive function which Shakti manifests. In the higher planes it is determined by the powers which Shakti chooses to materialize in male and female entities or divinities.

    The soul does not participate in creating these distinctions. It has no gender because it is asexual. It does not take part in the creation or manifestation of anything, but its presence is necessary for Shakti to manifest the forms and functions. All the diversity and duality arise in the field of Prakriti only due to her force and her power of Maya. Just as it is the mothers or women in the physical planes who give birth to children, in the spiritual plane it is Shakti or the Divine Mother who produces all dualities and diversity, including the duality of male and female.

    In the field of Shakti, gender differences arise mainly due to three phenomena, which are also responsible for all duality and diversity. They are nama (name), rupa (form) and karma (action or function). The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad summarizes this ideal in the sixth Brahmana of the first chapter, stating that all that is here has a threefold aspect, name, form and function. Names arise from speech. Forms arise from eyes, and functions arise from the body. They are responsible for all the visible diversity which we perceive through our minds and senses.

    The source of gender distinctions
    Thus, gender is a manifestation of Shakti. Due to the triple gunas, the play of Maya, the power of Shakti and karma, it may be visible, invisible, and fully or partially expressed, suppressed or dormant in the beings. It is an outer or superficial aspect of all living beings. In other words, gender distinctions are mostly confined to the body or the form, and they begin to recede or weaken as we go into deeper layers and aspects. For example, it is easier to distinguish the body of man from that of a woman, but it is not so easy to distinguish their minds or senses. It becomes even more difficult when we consider their egos (aham) and intelligence (buddhi), which are considered the highest realities (tattvas) of Nature.

    At the still deeper level of pure consciousness or witness consciousness, the distinction completely disappears, since the self has no gender, name or form. In other words, gender distinctions are superficial. They are confined to the body and to the objective reality of the mind, where names and forms still matter. Deep inside all humans are the same. Each is a combination of Purusha and Prakriti, the male and female aspects of creation. The mind and body represent Prakriti or the female deity, and the soul represents Purusha, the male deity. Deep inside, we all represent the same indivisible, indistinguishable, imperishable and eternal Brahman, who is extolled in the Vedas as the One (ekam), without a second (advitiyam).

    Genders are meant to be equal
    The essence of it is that, whether you are male or female, you are a combination of Shiva and Shakti. They exist in everyone as an inseparable reality. Your masculinity or femininity arises from Shakti only, the female energy of creation. Both men and women possess souls, and their bodies are made by Shakti only. The gender distinctions are illusory, a play of Maya, meant to ensure the continuity of life and the bondage of beings.

    Further, the gender of a person is an aspect of his or her name or form. It does not extend to the soul. For convenience we may say that the self or the soul is Purusha (male) but in reality, it is neither male nor female. Our Puranas also allude to the fact that a person’s gender is not permanent. Karma plays an important role. Due to karma, in one life a person may be born as a male and in another as a female or even as a transgender.

    Hence, although for the sake of Dharma, we may honor gender distinctions and gender roles in society, we should not take them too seriously or discriminate between them. Spiritually, all beings are equal. Both the genders are meant to be equal, although they may perform different functions, because both are equally important for the continuity of the world.

    A woman’s body is a field of Prakriti just as a man’s body. It is untrue that a man represents Shiva and a woman Prakriti. Both divinities are present in everyone. It is just that Prakriti acts differently in each to create a distinct form. A spiritual aspirant on the path of liberation goes beyond names and forms to cultivate sameness or equality (samatvam). By that, he or she also becomes free from attraction and aversion and succeeds in withdrawing the mind into the Self.

    Gender discrimination in reality
    Although gender is supposed to be illusory and superficial and we are supposed to treat equally both men and women, in practice the ideal hardly took roots in our culture or in our social or religious life. With regard to the status of women, then as well as now, India has not been much different from the rest of the world. This is a good example of how our idealism and spiritual beliefs rarely become translated into reality. The problem was not confined to Hinduism alone but other religions also.

    Historically, irrespective of their social or religious background Indian women were subjected to many disabilities and restrictions. From the earliest times, Hindu families and communities were dominated by male members and male privilege. Hindu law books legitimized their authority and superiority in various ways, giving them the role of ownership (yajamana) and control in most matters. They endowed them with the right to own and control not only property, children and the institution of family, but also women. In doing so, they also invoked divine authority and the fear of divine retribution.

    In all fairness, we have to say that the law books also acknowledged the sanctity of womanhood and the divine nature of women as the personifications of Shakti, cautioning men not to misuse their authority, ill-treat women or subject them to cruelty and neglect. For example, Manu who was rather harsh towards women also declared that women should be fairly and justly treated because a house where women suffered was a house of great misfortune.

    However, the law books cannot be considered conclusive enough to draw inferences about the status of women in ancient India or suggest that they were totally at the mercy of men in their families. The reality was somewhat complicated since ancient Indian society was diverse and complex. Comparatively, women of upper castes faced more discrimination and restrictions compared to women from other backgrounds. The latter ones enjoyed considerable freedom in their personal lives and in matters of marriage, birth, occupation, livelihood, etc. They also engaged in various high and low professions, trade and commerce, business, agriculture, hunting, manual labor, mining, fishing, etc. Some even served the kings and high officials as spies, artists, scribes, healers, diviners, counselors, artisans and warriors.

    The problem of gender distinctions
    Discrimination of women still exists in various forms in contemporary Hindu communities both in India and abroad. Traditional gender differences and discrimination are still prevalent in various forms. In some communities, it is more pronounced. While many educated Hindus and people in prominent positions speak about the importance of gender equality in public, one can see that it rarely translates into reality. Women are still vulnerable to violence and domestic abuse. A majority of women are still subject to discrimination and exploitation. It shows that the community is still a long way from the ideal of gender equality and treating women without discrimination.

    The idea that gender is a mere illusion or a projected duality, which has no basis in the reality of Brahman, is unique to Hinduism. The duality of male and female exists only in the objective realm, as the projection of Purusha and Prakriti who are themselves without specific gender. As Hindus, we must realize this and acknowledge gender as the function of the mind and body, but not of the soul. The distinction arises in the field of Nature (Prakriti) and in the objective reality (not self) due to karma, attachments and the force of Maya.

    A woman is not inferior simply because she is a woman, nor is a man superior because he is a man. Both are equal because they are the embodiment of Purusha and Prakriti. In a man, Shakti or Prakriti becomes objectified into a male body and in a woman, into a female body. Both have masculine and feminine aspects, and both have the potential to transform into the opposite gender through rebirth. Thus, any gender distinction is but a play of Shakti.

    Lastly, whether one is male or female, everyone has a destiny to fulfill and karma to resolve. One must honor one’s obligatory functions and duties, which arise from one’s gender. For the sake one’s own happiness and salvation and for the sake of all existence, one must be committed to virtue, righteous conduct and moral obligations according to one best judgment and discernment, without being egoistic, selfish and discriminatory.

  • Sometime ago, there was a story in news that a girl in India was physically assaulted by an angry mob and her mother was beaten to death, following an argument and altercation over the girl’s decision to wear jeans and walk in the streets. Those who were responsible for this inhuman action thought that it was inappropriate for the girl to wear a jean pant and appear in public.

    It happened in a world and at a time when in countries such as the USA and Canada both young and older women habitually wear half pants, skirts, shorts, etc., in public for convenience or to look attractive. The public at large do not care and do not considers it a social or moral problem. For most people, it is just a matter of personal taste, choice, convenience or freedom.

    There are still many people in Hindu communities across the world who believe that women need to be told what they should wear, how they should look or how they should behave in public. They may do it for various reasons, out of concern or fear or to avoid social pressures, but it is an indication that they are still caught in the past. There are many predators in the country who do not let go a chance to molest women or harass helpless girls in buses and trains, movie theaters and solitary places.

    This unfair treatment of women in Hindu society is not a new phenomenon. It has been going on for centuries and millenniums. We are gradually becoming aware of the number of atrocities against women by men because of the 24/7 news cycle and the social media. Let us be clear, it is not Hinduism or Buddhism or Jainism which is responsible for this. It is human nature and the vulnerability of human beings to evil conduct.

    Outwardly, religions seem to be restrictive and encourage orthodox and outdated practices. However, if you dig deeper, you will realize that most of these rules were invented by men in the name of religion to control and dominate others or secure resources, power and wealth for themselves. A composite religion such as Hinduism is flexible and gives you freedom to take responsibility for your life and actions. You cannot solely blame it for your choices.

    In the hands of the wicked, religions become oppressive, whereas in the hands of the wise and the awakened they become the means to express love and compassion. The arch villains of Hindu Puranas and epics were deeply religious people who practiced the Dharma according to their convenience. The Bhagavadgita succinctly describes how wicked people with demonic qualities practice their faith with egoism and delusion.

    If religions tend to be oppressive, we have a right to reject them and follow our own conscience or intelligence. The Vedas loudly proclaim that intelligence is God himself (prajnanam brahma). Intelligence should be the rightful guru in this world of conflicting interests and approaches. We should put intelligence or discerning wisdom on the high pedestal in our public and private lives and discard superstition, blind belief and obscurantism.

    The Shatras (law books) are manmade (smriti). Hence they are not inviolable. We can reject them if they appear to be outdated or flawed. The Buddha and many Upanishadic sages set an example long ago, suggesting that people should take refuge in their own intelligence (prajna or buddhi). We can each take inspiration from there and follow our own paths in the pathless land of eternal wisdom.

    In this article we will examine how gender inequality manifests itself in Hindu marriage customs and practices, and how it limits women’s freedom to make decisions for themselves or their children. For that we need to revisit some of the popular beliefs or misconceptions people have about our socioreligious dynamics.

    Women are not goddesses
    In Hinduism, tradition gives more importance to men rather than women in matters regarding marriage. Hindu world is essentially a man’s world. It revolves around patriarchy and continuation of male seed. Although many Hindus worship goddesses and female deities, they do not extend the same respectful attitude towards women in real life. In doing so, they do not seem to experience cognitive dissonance or suffer from any inner conflict.

    It is as if in their worldviews they have compartmentalized reality and see a clear distinction between the goddesses they worship and the mortal women whom they see or interact with. In all fairness, we have to state that they do not also treat men as gods while they do worship many male gods. We have stated this to clear the misconception that in Hinduism women are treated as goddesses. It is true only in a limited sense. We might have culturally appropriated the idea that women are goddesses, but in reality we act differently.

    Sanatana Dharma is meant for men only
    The onus of practicing Hindu dharma or the Sanatana Dharma mostly rests with men. The law books abundantly support the idea. It is essentially men’s obligatory duty as householders to practice it for their salvation and for the continuation of their families and lineages through male progenies. All other purposes, including the participation of women in religious rites and rituals are secondary. The Vedas, which are considered inviolable, are clear about gender roles in ensuring the order and regularity of the world. A family progresses from one birth to another through sons. Hence a father can marry multiple times for the sake of a son.

    According to the Shastras, creation is for men and their enjoyment. God is Purusha (male archetype) and Nature (female archetype) is his instrument or property. A man lives through his sons, but a woman does not. Hence, only the father has the privilege to transmit his knowledge and powers through a transmission ceremony to his elder son, and women in the family are not even allowed to witness it. To maintain the purity of the caste and of the family name, lineage and progeny, men should not allow family women (kulastri) to live freely or on their own, unless they are ostracized or excommunicated. As a family woman, she must always be under guard and put in the care of a male person in the family such as the father, brother, husband, son or a close relation. She is not allowed to interact on her own with a man who is a stranger and does not belong to the family.

    Women duty is only to serve, support and stay with men
    These attitudes and the biases are reflected in the practice of religion also. For example, in many traditional Hindu rites and rituals, women play a secondary role. As dutiful wives (dharma patni), they have to serve their husbands and empower them to achieve the four aims of human life. They share the honors and the fruit of sacrifices with their husbands, but not on their own. Hence, a woman’s right to participate in religious rites and rituals depends upon whether her husband is alive or not. As long as he is alive, she is considered an auspicious and pure woman who is endowed with five virtues and fully qualified to receive social honors or participate in religious rituals. When she becomes a widow, she loses all her privileges (in the past her property rights too). She can no more participate in auspicious ceremonies and has to live a solitary life or live in the protection of her husband’s family.

    These norms are gradually changing. Women can now go temples and worship on their own or perform domestic worship at home, without their husbands, children or family members. Traditionally, Hindu women took lead in the performance of penances (vratas) which required them to observe fasting, etc. However, the purpose has always been to ensure the protection and welfare of their families or husbands or children or overcome problems for peace and happiness. By that, the Shastras affirm that a woman fulfills her duty besides reaffirming her chastity, loyalty and spiritual purity.

    These gender roles are reinforced in other way also. For example, one of the popular sayings is that a wife’s traditional role in a marriage is to assist her husband as a servant, mistress, counselor and mother. We can always talk about exceptions to these norms, pointing to historic women who participated in religious discussions, ruled as queen, fought in wars or stepped out of their bounds to live as free women. It is true that many women also lived free and were not subject to such restrictions. They either belonged to the lower castes or warrior clans or did not fall under the gambit of Vedic laws.

    In Vedic Dharma man is the center the universe
    As we have stated before, according to the Vedic tradition men are central to the practice of Hinduism. Women’s right to participate in religious duties arises from men only in their roles and relationship or association with them as mothers, daughters or wives. It is a man’s primary duty to support his family, earn livelihood according to the caste norms and produce offspring as a part of his duty to serve gods, ancestors and others. As the head of the family and upholder of Dharma, he has to protect his wife (or wives) and care for the elders and children. The welfare of his family, society and the world rests upon his shoulders.

    His wife is a silent and dependent partner, if not a mute witness to the sacrifice of life performed by her husband, with herself becoming one of his sacrificial materials on the altar of duty. In the past, women played a subservient role in family matters. Whatever influence she had upon men was mainly through her conduct and personal appeal or the good nature of her husband while she was vulnerable to domestic abuse, calumny and marital unhappiness. Unfortunately, although a lot of it has changed in the last century, the traditional beliefs and practices still continue to exert their influence in many communities and families even now.

    Child marriages helped parents get rid of girl children
    Child marriages were the norm in the Vedic time, and perhaps until a few centuries ago. There might have been many reasons for this practice. People died young due to frequent wars, famines, natural calamities, disease and other causes. Having more children meant more economic burden and more mouths to feed. Hence, girl children were frequently married off before they reached the age of puberty, sometimes to men who were several times their age.

    Apart from these reasons, child marriages also provided a convenient way for parents to get rid of girl children and focus their energies solely upon upbringing their sons in the interests of their families. Further, they provided older men and widowers with a convenient way to marry younger women and obtain children (sons). The Shastras supported the practice, affirming that a woman’s place was in her husband’s home and his family where she was destined to perform her duties to resolve her karma. Therefore, an early marriage presented itself as a better choice for her, her parents, her husband and her husband’s family.

    Gender based abortions to get rid of girls
    India is one of the countries with very high abortion rates. Although abortion is subject to government oversight and many laws, it is still practiced in many unauthorized clinics mostly to avoid girl children. According to newspapers, not less than a million abortions are performed in the country every year based on economic or gender criteria, without any noticeable public protest. In most cases, it is usually men or their elders who take the decision, forcing the women to go through the ordeal irrespective of their personal feelings. Unlike in the USA where abortion is a sensitive issue, no political party in India is willing to take a firm stand on it on ideological or religious grounds. It is paradoxical that in a community which reveres Mother Goddess and her numerous forms on a large scale and where cows are worshipped and protected, female feticide goes on and girl children are not only discriminated but also considered economic burden.

    The plight of widows
    Widowed and divorced women now enjoy considerable freedom although there is a stigma still attached to them in many parts of the country. Until a century ago, the plight of widows in Hindu households was pitiable. They were not allowed to remarry even if their husbands died at an early age or participate in sacraments and ceremonies. Women were blamed for any misfortune in the family, including the death of their husbands, and if there was premature death they had to carry that guilt and the burden of shame for the rest of their lives.

    The very presence of widows on certain occasions was and is still considered inauspicious. Irrespective of the caste into which they were born, widowed women were (and in some cases still) treated on par with the untouchables. Under certain circumstances, the law books permitted a childless widow to marry the eldest brother of her deceased husband to bear children and save herself from the purgatory. The practice (which is still practiced in some parts) helped the family retain the ownership of the property, besides preventing the widow from marrying an outsider or losing her chastity.

    Sati was a means to get rid of unwanted women
    Sati was a common practice in some parts of India, until it was declared illegal in the 19th century by the British rulers. The practice is rooted in the ancient legends associated with Shiva and Sati. According to the beliefs, a woman attained salvation and ensured the salvation of her husband by immolating herself on the funeral pyre of her husband. This may seem barbaric by modern standards, but in ancient times it had its own justification. Women also had the freedom to make the choice.

    However, one can imagine how difficult it must be for them to go against public opinion or family expectations and wish to be alive. Considering the alternative which was to condemn themselves to a life of widowhood, isolation and ignominy, they probably viewed Sati as a better option. Whatever may be its justification, the practice itself was discriminatory. Men had no obligation to die with their deceased wives. They were in fact allowed to remarry, while the same privilege was not extended to women.

    Polygamy meant more women to serve the same husband
    Polygamy was an approved practice in Hinduism until the government passed the Hindu marriage act. It was approved by the law books for various reasons. Men had the permission to marry and obtain another wife if the first wife was barren, mentally deranged, chronically sick, or unable to bear male children. Men from higher castes were permitted to marry more than one wife, without any of these conditions and without the need to justify it on moral or religious grounds.

    Kings invariably married many women as a political expediency or for pure pleasure. The wives of a king participated in religious ceremonies and sacrificial rituals such as Asvamedha for the welfare of the king and his subjects. Sometimes, the king gave away (really or symbolically) one of his wives as a gift to the deity or to the priests who performed the sacrifices for him.

    Polyandry was also traditionally practiced in certain outlier and tribal communities on a limited scale. However, presently polygamy is a defunct practice. Hindu men can still legally marry more than one woman under some circumstances, or if the existing wife gives her written consent. Because of the stigma associated with it and its social and economic implications, the practice is very rare. Monogamy is the standard practice.

    The Hindu law books justified Gender bias as divine will
    In Hindu law books you will find a clear bias against women in matters of gender equation, inheritance, obligatory duties, social and economic status, and personal relationships. According to Manusmriti (9.1-3) women are fickle and weak, and cannot be trusted. Hence, to avoid disrepute for their families and their husbands, they should be controlled and kept under constant watch. The law books do not consider gender equality as an important factor in marriage or social engagement. In fact, they take gender inequality for granted. However, they do suggest that in a traditional marriage the woman’s consent is important and she should not be forcibly married against her will. They also recognize the unique role each partner has to perform in a marriage, which cannot be compensated by the other. The husband is the upholder of dharma and the recipient of all ritual honors, while his wife serves him as his partner and associate (saha-dharma-charini).

    In a traditional household, according to the Shastras a woman’s role is to serve the family, confining herself to the house and avoiding any action which may bring disrepute to her and her family. According to a popular saying, a woman is spoilt by going around whereas a man by not going around. She should avoid going out on her own to participate in public ceremonies or communicate with other men.

    In comparison, her husband has the permission to go out and mingle freely. Life revolves around him as if he is the personification of the family deity (kula devata). Privileges to the family accrue because of him. Even his illegitimate children have rights under the laws of inheritance as suggested in them. His wife enjoys privilege and status as long as he is alive. After that, she loses everything, her wealth, identity, comforts, status and her right to participate in social and religious activities.

    Gender bias in today’s world
    Thus, clearly and unequivocally the Hindu law books relegate women to a subordinate position in relationship to men. However, we have to state that in the last few decades there is an appreciable improvement in the status and treatment of women in India. It is more pronounced in the urban areas, where the pressures of urban life take precedence over gender inequality.

    We cannot say the same about all women. Although the status of women in present day society and the equation between men and women have been slowly changing, gender discrimination is still a major social problem. The discrimination varies from caste to caste and region to region. In many parts of India women still suffer from oppression, domestic violence, dowry related deaths, forced marriages, honor killings and many social and economic disabilities. Love marriages across caste lines is still a major taboo, especially when the castes of the couples are widely divergent.

    Bias towards women and girl children exists even today in many Hindu families, and even among highly educated and wealthy Hindus. Female infanticide in the form of abortions is a major social issue which not many people would like to discuss in public or admit as a gender issue. Due to the values bred by modern education, many do not consider it a major problem, but an expression of women’s choice. There is hardly any protest by the elitist sections in India against abortions of girl children. Many do not want to speak against it or speak about it because it contradicts their narrative to promote heterodox lifestyles and secular values.

  • Is Hinduism feminist or patriarchal?

    Hinduism is patriarchal like most other religions. However, it is also feminist, unlike most other religions. Please note: many Muslim women insist that the Quran for its time gives women unprecedented agency and rights, though social practice of Islam, led by conservative male maulvis, tends to be patriarchal. Likewise, Hinduism contains many feminist ideas that are often ignored, often deliberately, especially by male Hindu leaders and activists who are generally uncomfortable with religion, Hinduism in particular.

    Broadly, there are two types of feminism. Equality feminism believes that men and women are equal. Liberation feminism believes that women, like all humans, have a right to make decisions about their bodies, and their lives. Hinduism aligns more to “liberation” feminism than to “equality” feminism.

    In fact, equality as an ideology has its roots in Christian mythology that rejected the notion of social hierarchy and saw all men (not women) as equal in the eyes of god. This idea became popular roughly 1,500 years ago when the Roman Empire turned Christian. This idea of equality also informs Islam that all men who visit Mecca are expected to dress in the same uniform, despite belonging to diverse economic, political, national, racial and ethnic groups.

    Many contemporary societies want to see people as humans, independent of all biology, including gender. “Equality” feminists seek same opportunities as men. This makes sense when the same labour is involved. Indra has to treat Durga as equal to Shiva or Vishnu if she kills an asura for him. But that does not mean Durga is equal to Shiva, or Shiva is equal to Vishnu. Each one has their unique personality and need. So Shiva is content with raw milk, Vishnu needs processed milk and butter, while Durga demands blood. And “liberation” feminism seeks that diversity to be acknowledged. In feminism, Durga is not inferior to Shiva or Vishnu; nor superior. In “equality” feminism, they are the same, or “as good as” each other. In “liberation” feminism, they are all unique, part of a diverse ecosystem.

    In Hinduism, all creatures are equal in the sense that all of them are containers of aatma. However, all creatures are diverse as the aatma occupies different bodies. Aatma is dehi, resident of the body, deha. Everyone’s dehi is the same but our deha is different. So like various plants in the forest, every human is unique, though he or she may belong to a particular species of plant and so display a few categorical commonalities which allows them to be categorised. Categories like be psychological (four-fold varna system of the Veda), physiological (three-fold guna system of Gita), social (thousand communities of the jati system). But the most important category is gender (male, female and others). Just as every plant has different food requirements, different humans need different things. Just as in a garden some plants are favoured over others, in society, some humans are given greater value than others. In some gardens, fruit-bearing trees are valued. In others, flower-bearing trees are valued. Likewise, in some societies, the intellectual is valued, and in others the rich are valued. In some, men are valued, and in others women are valued. Thus, different societies value different aspect of our body.

    In Buddhism and Jainism, the female body was considered inferior to the male body. To attain the highest knowledge, one had to take rebirth with a male body. This is because a male body creates life outside itself and a female body creates life inside itself. A male body can retain semen by mind control, however, a female body sheds menstrual blood which is outside mind control.

    In Hinduism, a god was seen as incomplete without a goddess. Shiva is incomplete without Shakti, Krishna without Radha, Rama without Sita. Likewise, the householder was seen as a balancing force in society, not the single men or single woman. Single man could be respected if he was celibate; and single woman if she attached herself to a deity like Mirabai, and Andal who loved Krishna, or Akka Mahadevi who loved Shiva.

    In early days, both celibate men and women were feared. Celibate men were feared as powerful and fierce yogis with magical powers who could only be controlled and made productive and calm through marriage. Likewise, unattached women were seen as sexual predators and fearful yoginis who could consume men, unless they were restrained by marriage and maternity. This may explain the cultural fear of independent women. The medieval “nath” traditions, the celibate nath-jogi was in constant battle with the wild yoginis and matrikas, who could turn men into goats. Great value was placed on the woman who chose to be faithful to one man (the sati), or who rejected her body altogether, like Karaikal Ammaiyar, the Tamil saint, who became a shrivelled gaunt post-menopausal crone so she did not have to be a wife to her husband and simply worship Shiva without being bothered about her body and its menstrual cycles. In later times, celibate man became holy while unattached single women were seen as dangerous.

    Many non-Hindus love to mock Hindus as penis worshippers and see it as reaffirmation of patriarchy. This reveals shame and embarrassment with sexual organs. It also reveals an inability to distinguish between literal and metaphorical meaning of an image. Just as worshipping the crucifix in Christianity is not the same as worshipping a torture instrument, worshipping a lingam is not the same as penis worshipping. In Hinduism, lingam embodies the dehi, while yoni embodies the deha. And so in Shiva temple, you don’t just worship the “penis”, you worship the linga placed in a yoni, the union of dehi and deha. Some people call the linga as the male principle and the yoni as female principle. However, this confuses the literal with the metaphorical. In Hindu mythology, the male form or male principle symbolises dehi (spirit or mind) and the female form or female principle symbolises deha (substance or matter). Dehi is beyond gender. Deha is gendered.

    This brings us to the yoni or vagina, another word that embarrasses non-Hindus and Hindus who are not familiar with Hindu scriptures. All creatures in this world are classified as yonija, those born of a womb, and a-yonija, those not born of a womb. The former are trapped in samsara, so birth and death. The latter are not. In Ramayana, Rama is yonija and so experiences birth and death like a normal person. However, Sita is not yonija; she is born of earth and so does not die, just returns to earth. Likewise, in Mahabharata, Pandavas are yonija while Draupadi is born of fire so not yonija. Ganesha is a-yonija as he is created outside Parvati’s body. So is Kartikeya. This makes them divine. Yoni or vagina is seen as reminder of human mortality. And so in temples, women are shown standing displaying their vagina to devotees – for it offers both pleasure of life and pain of death. Literally and metaphorically, as symbol of the world. That is why the inner sanctum of the temple is imagined as womb-house or garbha griha and the temple is imagined as a spread-eagled woman who houses the deity in her body.

    In Hinduism, all creatures exist within a framework of caste and gender and society, over which one has little or no control. We cannot chose what happens to us; that is determined by karma. But yoga is all about choosing how we choose to react or respond to a situation. We have agency over our choices. We have to take responsibility for the consequences of our actions.

    In Manusmriti we are told that a woman is subservient to men: to her father, brother and son. She has to obey him. In other words, her agency is taken away from her. But in Puranas, Sati and Parvati choose their own husbands and Lakshmi leaves Vishnu when she is not treated with respect In Mahabharata, Ganga and Satyavati lay down strict conditions before agreeing to marry. Usha even abducts her lover, Aniruddha, grandson of Krishna in the Bhagavata. In Ramayana, Sita insists she will follow her husband to the forest, despite his opposition. These show that Manusmriti was never “supreme” code as it is made out to be. Women in Hindu narratives have displayed agency in various contexts, in keeping with “liberation” feminism. However, unlike “equality” feminism, you never see Parvati or Sati or Lakshmi or Ganga or Usha or Sita speaking of being oppressed by the men in their lives. There is no victim in Hindu mythology.

    Yes, caste Hindus forbade widows from remarrying, but in Ramayana the vanar-queen Tara remarries Sugriva and the rakshasa-queen Mandodari remarries Ravana, tales we don’t highlight as these were practices in “lower” castes. The Vedas have no reference to sati and jauhar that has been glamorised by Bollywood and Rajput communities; but clearly these practices became popular in medieval times. This was part of a global trend towards patriarchy. Yet, simultaneously, in many communities in India, there were women who were allowed to have multiple husbands and lovers, and even inheritance through women. But we do not talk about it as they are seen as “inferior” castes. We must keep in mind that Hindu practices are not just practices of “upper” castes. We must recognise the larger picture of myriad practices. In different communities, and at different times, women had different levels of agency.

    Looking at the world through the lens of oppression has its roots in Greek mythology, where the hero is someone who challenges the whims of the gods, who control the fate of humans, and often a martyr who dies resisting. Glamorisation of victimhood comes from Abrahamic mythology where the slaves of Egypt have to be saved by the prophet from the evil Pharoah, or one is continuously asked to mourn the death of Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet. In Hinduism, by contrast, villains whether it is Ravana (who does not care for Sita’s consent) or Duryodhana (who publicly abuses Druapadi) who are seen not as evil, but as ignorant and insecure and faithless. A very different paradigm, one of constant tension, not vilification. In Hinduism, God is not a judge and so feminism is not about judging men.

    To deny a person, male or female, agency is to indulge our ego (aham); it is an outcome of insecurity that makes us want to control and dominate. A wise man or woman will always grant agency as per their level of self-realisation (atma-gyan) so that the dehi can experience life to the fullest through the deha, be it male or female. This essentially is the idea that would inform Hindu feminism.

  • Hinduism view spans all jeevas, in various stages of their lives. So, there are defined dharmas for men, for women, and for various varnas and asramas. Such dharmas again take into account time and space (kAla and dEza). Dharmas are defined for activities that are transactional in nature as well as those that have far-reaching consequences. The basis of defining all these dharmas is that life and the universe are not limited to the here and the now. There are rules that must be followed if life as a whole must endure , thrive and advance across millennia. In addition, each individual jeeva must attain moksha at the end of it all. This is the ultimate goal of Hinduism. So dharma is defined keeping in mind the goals of moksha plus harmonious living during a particular janma/lifetime.

    If certain dharmas at times seem biased in favour of one gender or the other, that is because one is not looking at the larger goals stated above. Having said that, Hinduism holds women superior in many ways some of which are mentioned already in the Question ; men are held superior in some other ways. The takeaway is that, there is a balance of reward and responsibility, a division of labour, a sharing of duty to uphold the laws of the universe, and guidance towards achieving the ultimate goal of moksha.

  • Women and Hinduism

    One of the most profound attributes of Hinduism is the recognition and worship of God as feminine. In fact, Hinduism is the only major religion that has always worshipped God in female form and continues to do so today. Many Hindus revere God’s energy, or Shakti, through its personification in a Goddess. Many festivals, such as Vasant Panchami, Navarātri, and Dussherā, are wholly dedicated to Goddesses. While social practices have not lived up the the Hindu ideal of gender equality and mutual respect, Hinduism remains one of the few major religions in which women have occupied and continue to occupy some of the most respected positions in spiritual leadership.
    Female and Male as Two Halves

    Hindu scriptures extol the qualities of the feminine divine as well as the spiritual sameness of male and female deities, while highlighting their differences in nature. Female and male principles are described as two halves of a whole or two wheels of a cart. The oneness of male and female is also highlighted. Emphasis is placed on the gender neutrality of the divine as well as the ambiguity of distinctions between men and women. Hindu teachings state that every human is made up of varying degrees of both feminine and masculine traits. Many ritual texts also emphasize that there is no difference between man and woman as far as the right to perform Vedic rites is concerned, and they often use gender neutral language when describing God.

    Goddess in Worship

    Among the four main deity traditions still followed to date, Ganapatya, Vaishnava, Shaiva and Shakta, the feminine divine plays a central role. The Shakta tradition exclusively worships the feminine divine in the form of Shakti or Divine Mother. God as a Mother Goddess is responsible for the well-being of the Universe, and is considered the embodiment of incredible power. Shrines of the Shakta tradition are found all across the Indian subcontinent, unlike some of the male deity traditions, which often times are found in geographically confined regions. Furthermore, even in the male deity traditions, including Shaiva and Vaishnava, Shakti is considered the energy which sustains everything, including the male deities. In fact, such male deities are seen as incomplete without their consorts.

    The Feminine in Scripture

    Since ancient times, female figures have featured prominently in Hinduism, both in human and divine form. Many of the sages associated with the realization and authoring of the Vedas were women. The Rig Veda contains hymns composed by women such as Lopamudra and Maitreyi. Sage Gargi appears in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad where she poses a volley of questions to Sage Yajnavalkya on the nature of the soul, and teases out core teachings from Yajnavalkya that a courtroom of male philosophers failed to. Hindu epics such as the Mahabharata and Ramayana idealize women, embodied by depictions of Draupadi, the wife of the five Pandava princes in the Mahabharata, and Sita, the wife of Prince Rama in the Ramayana. There are also many Puranic texts which elucidate the stories and symbols of solely the feminine divine. Stories and prayers from the Devi Mahatmyam and Devi Bhagavata Purana, for example, are the subject of art, poetry, dance, drama, and worship. Of course, consorts of male Gods such as Vishnu and Shiva, also figure centrally in respective Vaishnava and Shaivite scripture.

    The Role of Women in Ritual

    Certain rites of passage, which were traditionally for both genders, such as the sacred thread ceremony signaling the commencement of one’s religious education, over time, became the domain of boys and men only. Now there are steps, albeit small, to have such rites for both boys and girls. Regionally, there are also special rites that are just for boys and just for girls as well.

    Traditionally women were not priests, but some are getting trained in officiating rituals. But a priest is not necessary to conduct all rituals. Most rituals require a married couple to perform them as a pair. There are, however, many rituals that are exclusively female, dealing primarily with the prospect of marriage and reproduction, considered two of the primary goals in life for both men and women.

    The Disconnect Between Philosophy and Reality

    In practice, gender equality for women in Hindu society is more challenging. Though some parts of Hindu society are matriarchal or matrilineal, many women aren’t treated as equals or accorded the dignity promised by Hindu teachings – a consequence of evolving social practices. For example, practices such as barring women from reading Vedic texts, prohibiting remarriage, or restricting property rights are not mentioned in ancient Hindu Shruti texts. On the contrary, there are many Vedic era examples of women having the liberty to do all of these things. Instead, these patriarchal practices evolved culturally due to a number of factors. Some of the most prominent included the subjugation of women as a result of urbanization and division of labor, the economic pressures placed on Hindu society as a result of invaders and wars, the spread of British colonial policies such as the prohibition of female inheritance, the reformulation of Hindu law with an emphasis on Victorian standards, and the reversal of prosperity under European mercantilism.

    Reconnecting Philosophy with Reality

    Long before modern, urban social justice advocacy and feminism took root in India, Hindu female saints provided a voice for the oppressed and spread messages to help other women regain many of the rights they had lost with time. With the rise of the Bhakti movement in the middle ages, the influence of women in Hinduism became even greater, as numerous female saints and poetesses composed songs and poems of devotion to God. The scores of devotionals or bhajans devoted to Krishna by the Rajput princess named Mirabai, for example, are still widely popular. Saints from underprivileged castes, such as Soyarabai, Janabai, and Nirmala wrote extensively in protest against the injustice of the Indian caste system. See the following verse by the untouchable sant Soyarabai: “O God, every human being carries impurity along with purity, why then should some human beings be treated as untouchables?” And:

    “All the colours together united,
    Became one colour.
    Thus my Lord became
    One with my song!

    No discrimination between
    The high and the low
    And thus ran away farther now
    The passions and anger together.

    Now the outward sight is
    Not for me,
    I have gained the inward
    Eye, to see Thee before me.
    Says thus the poet Soyara

    Others like Bahinabai challenged patriarchal and priestly privilege alike. Sometimes her songs were temperate in their assertiveness:

    “…A true wife is she who is aware of her own self
    Being married she has to fulfil her family duties:
    but she must have the craving for spiritual salvation too.
    It is possible that the husband children and others may not approve.
    But she must not give up her true path…”

    Other times her words were fiercely critical, communicating determination to foster spiritual growth even in the context of her real suffering: “Whenever it pleases him, he beats me a lot, binds me like a bundle of sticks…My husband earned a living through practicing Veda. Where is God in this?..But my mind has taken a vow. I will not leave singing for devotion, even if I die.”

    Protest songs like these helped to lay the philosophical groundwork for later colonial era reformers such as Savitribai and Jyotirao Phule, and Tarabai Shinde, who brought the fight against caste oppression and patriarchy into the arena of politics and civil institutions.

    Hinduism’s embrace of bhakti (devotional worship) led to the emergence of key female spiritual reformers and saints. They have also been uplifted through the teachings and efforts of many male religious figures. The noted social reformer Swami Dayananda Saraswati, for instance, cited Vedic testimony to argue that women are entitled to Vedic study. He founded the Arya Samaj in 1875, and its members soon established colleges for teaching Hindu scriptures to girls. Swami Vivekananda, the 19th century Hindu spiritual luminary, harshly criticized the condition of women in Indian society, and staunchly advocated for their equality, education, and self-empowerment. He also proposed the establishment of a order of women, as part of the larger orders established by Adi Shankaracharya, to be managed by women only. This came to fruition in 1959.

    What was a rarity until recently, is now becoming an increasingly common practice. Through the efforts of Lala Devraj several decades ago, for instance, women scholars were finally able to recite the Vedas and perform Vedic sacrifices publicly after several centuries. And in 1931, Upasani Baba founded the Kanyā Kumāri Sthān in Sakori (Ahmednagar district, India) where, to date, women are taught Vedas and the performance of seven sacred Vedic sacrifices every year. Influenced by this endeavor, another institution named Udyān Mangal Karyālaya was started in the city of Pune wherein women of all castes and vocations are learning to chant the Vedas and become priests. There are now thousands of Hindu women priests both within India and outside India (including the United States) and they continue to be in great demand because they are considered as sincere, learned, and pious as their male counterparts.

    Today most lineages or sampradayas (“denominations”) are male-dominated in terms of leadership, but generally open to women for dedicated monastic life or other levels of involvement. There are others, however, that are lead by women such as Ammachi, Dadi Janki, Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, Karunamayi, amongst others.

    Lastly in many temples, that have secular, legal governing structures, there is no differentiation between men and women made for voting or decision-making. Many temples have had women leaders – with women serving as presidents or chairmen, involved in organizing and leading religious events, and in managing temple operations.

    Key Takeaways

    Hinduism has always worshipped divinity in female form as Shakti.
    Women have played prominent roles in Hindu society from ancient time till now.
    Over time, a disconnect between Hindu philosophy and reality developed, leading some women to be treated as less than equal.
    Thanks to the efforts of many reformers, women have begun to regain their ancient rights.

  • Hinduism, History of Science and Religion
    Hinduism is not the name of a particular religion in the narrow modern sense but it stands for a cultural tradition that developed over thousands of years on the South-Asian subcontinent, now embracing many different religions, such as Vais˔n˔avism, S´aivism, S´a¯ktism, and others. Hinduism comprises, besides rituals and festivities and detailed ethical regulations for individuals and communities, also the arts and sciences. Hinduism never knew the Western antagonism between philosophy and theology, nor does it have a history of warfare between science and religion. It was the highest aim of Hindus to find satyam, truth/reality, which could be approached in many ways and appear in many forms.

    The well organized, publicly sponsored ancient Indian universities such as those at Taxila¯ and Na¯landa¯ (considered venerable institutions already at the time of Gautama the Buddha [late sixth and early fifth centuries b.c.e.]), with thousands of teachers and tens of thousands of students, taught not only the Veda (revealed scripture) and the Veda¯.gas (auxiliary disciplines), but also the “eighteen sciences.” The basic curriculum included s´abda-vidya¯ (linguistics), S´ilpastha¯na-vidya¯ (arts and crafts), cikitsa-vidya¯ (medicine), hetu-vidya¯ (logic and dialectics), and adhya¯tma-vidya¯ (spirituality). Religion, while suffusing all life and activity, was not isolated from other subjects or given exclusive attention. The brahmins, the custodians of the sacred texts, were also the leading intellectuals who studied and taught secular subjects.

    Hindu scriptures and thought
    The Hindus called their most ancient and most venerated scripture Veda (from the verbal root vid-, to know). Vidya¯, from the same root, designated knowledge acquired in any subject (a medical doctor was called a Vaidya ), particularly that of the highest reality/truth taught by the Upanishads. The term s´a¯stra (from the root s´a¯s -, to order) became the most general designation for science (in the sense of French science or Italian scienza ): authoritative, systematic teaching, ranging from Dharma-s´a¯stra, the exposition of traditional law, and Artha-s´a¯stra, the teaching of statecraft and administration, to S¯ilpa-s´a¯stra, instruction in art and architecture, and Kṛṣi-s´a¯stra, the theory and practice of agriculture. A learned person carried the title of S´a¯stri¯, respected by the community regardless of the subject of his learning. Graduation was a “third birth”: members of the three higher castes became dvijati (twiceborn) through upanayana (initiation), the s´a¯stri¯ degree made them trijati.

    Encyclopedia 1080
    Traditional Indian thought is characterized by a holistic vision. Instead of breaking experience and reality up into isolated fragments, the Indian thinkers looked at the whole and reconciled tensions and seeming contradictions within overarching categories. Thus the poets of the Ṛgveda speak of vis´va-jyoti, cosmic light as the principle and source of everything, and of ṛta, the universal cosmic order connecting and directing all particular phenomena and events. The Upanishads organize the world by relating everything to the pañcabhu¯tas (five elements: earth, water, light, wind, ether) and identify in Brahman an all-embracing reality-principle. The name of the major deity of later Hinduism is Viṣṇu, the “all-pervading,” whose body is the universe. Nature (prakṛti ) was never seen as mere object, but always as productive agent. The Hindu view of life found expression in the four puruṣa¯rthas : a person was to acquire wealth (artha ), enjoy life (ka¯ma ), practice morality and religion (dharma ), and seek final emancipation (mokṣa ) in appropriate balance. Religion was a natural part of the universally accepted order of things. Texts dealing with medicine contain religious regulations, and theological treatises also frequently refer to worldly matters. The study of Nya¯ya (logic and epistemology) was undertaken to achieve mokṣa (spiritual emancipation). The notion of atman was applied to humans, animals, and plants. Many Indian scientists show an interest in religious issues, and Hindu spiritual leaders frequently appeal to science to illustrate their instructions. They would never relegate science to pure reason and religion to pure faith and treat them as natural enemies, as is often done in the West.

    According to the Vedas, only one-fourth of reality is accessible to the senses, which also include manas, instrumental reason. Supersensual reality revealed itself to the ṛṣ is, the composers of the Vedic su¯ktas. The Upanishads know an ascending correlation of subject/consciousness and object/reality: Only the lowest of four stages (ja¯garita ) concerns sense perception of material objects. The three higher levels of reality are intuited through meditative introspection, which culminates in the insight that a¯tman is Brahman: Spirit-self alone is supreme reality.

    The central ritual of Vedic culture was the yajña (sacrifice of material objects according to fixed rules). Brahmin students had to train for many years to learn to perform yajña, which involved, besides the priest and the patron, the devas (the deities of earth, space, and heaven who were invited to attend). It was offered on altars built with specifically produced bricks arranged in a prescribed geometric pattern, performed at astronomically fixed times. The altar was conceived as symbol of the human body as well as of the universe: One text relates the 360 bricks of an altar to the 360 days of the year and the 360 bones in the human body. The building of altars of different configurations, and more so their change in shape and volume, as required in certain rituals, involved a sophisticated geometry. S´ulva-su¯tras (part of Kalpa-su¯tras, ritual texts) provided the rules for constructing a variety of shapes of altars and their permutations. They exhibit an algebraic geometry older and more advanced than early Egyptian, Babylonian, or Greek geometry. The exact timing of the performance of the sacrifices was accomplished by people conversant with the movement of the stars. Jyotiṣa, one of the six early Veda¯.gas (auxiliary sciences of the Veda), reveals a good deal of astronomical knowledge.

    Study was mandatory for brahmins. They had to devote the first part of their lives up to age twenty-four to systematic training under the supervision of a guru. Later they had to practice sva¯dhya¯ya (study on their own.) While the study of the Vedas and the Veda¯·gas was reserved for brahmins, the study of the Upavedas was open to all higher castes. These comprise A¯yur-veda (“life-science,” medicine), Dhanur-veda (“bow-science,” martial arts), Gandharva-veda (“art-science,” music and dancing), and Sta¯pathya-veda (“building science,” architecture, sculpture, and painting). The universities, where these subjects were taught, attracted a large body of students from all over Asia. Reports from fourth and sixth century Chinese guest-students praise the physical amenities as well as the high standard of learning. In the eleventh century, after the Muslim invaders had already destroyed much of India’s cultural infrastructure, the Muslim scholar-diplomat Al-Biruni spent a decade in India researching and documenting many aspects of traditional Indian science in his Al-Hind.

    The practical sciences of Hindu India
    Research in the history of Indian science is still in an early stage and much work remains to be done. New material is regularly published in the well established Indian Journal for the History of Science, Vedic Science, and other periodicals. In the following, elementary information is offered on some specific areas only. The dates for early Indian literature are still a matter of controversy; expert opinions often differ by thousands of years.

    Astronomy. Astronomical knowledge of a fairly high order was required for the performance of Vedic yajñas. According to Subhash Kak, the structures both of the Ṛgveda text and the Vedic altars contain an “astronomical code,” embodying precise and fairly accurate information about distances and revolutions of planets and more general astronomical data. The Ṛgveda has some astronomical markers that have been used for dating these texts to the fourth millenium b.c.e. From the Jyotiṣa Veda¯·ga (third century b.c.e.) onwards there is a rich Indian astronomical literature. Indians operated with various cycles of lunar and solar years and calculated cosmic cycles of 10,800 and 432,000 years. Their findings and theories are embodied in numerous siddha¯ntas, of which the most famous is the Su¯rya-siddha¯nta (fourth century c.e.). Indian astronomers calculated the duration of one kalpa (a cycle of the universe during which all the heavenly bodies return to their original positions) to be 4,320,000,000 years. Several Pura¯ṇas contain cosmogonic and cosmological sections utilizing astronomy, describing periodic creations and destructions of the universe, and also suggesting the existence of parallel universes. While the main purpose of the Pura¯ṇas is to recommend a specific path of salvation, this is always set into a cosmic context. Many popular stotras (hymns, prayers) recited at religious gatherings allude to cosmic events as well. One of the most interesting figures among Indian astronomers is Vara¯hamihira (fifth to sixth century c.e.), the author of the celebrated Pañcasiddha¯ntika amd of the Bṛhat-Saṃhita¯, which besides astronomical information teaches astrology and all kinds of occult arts.

    Mathematics. Indian mathematics developed out of the requirements for the Vedic yajña. The Yajurveda knows terms for numbers up to 1012 (by comparison the highest number named by the Greeks was 104). Later on the Indians coined terms for numbers up to 1024 and 1053. Algebra, in spite of its Arabic name, is an Indian invention, and so are the zero and the decimal system, including the “Arabic” numerals. The names of some great Indian mathematicians and some particulars of their accomplishments are known. Thus A¯ryabhaṭa I (fifth century c.e.), a link in a long chain of unknown earlier master mathematicians, knew the rules for extracting square and cubic roots. He determined the value of π to four decimals and developed an alphabetical system for expressing numbers on the decimal place value model. His A¯ryabhaṭi¯aya was translated into Latin (from an Arabic translation) by a thirteenth century Italian mathematician. Brahmagupta (seventh century c.e.) formulated a thousand years before the great Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler (1707–1783) a theorem based on indeterminate equations. Bha¯skara II (twelfth century) is the author of the Siddha¯nta-́iromaṇi¯, a widely used text on algebra and geometry. Hindus have continued to show great aptitude for mathematics. Ramanujan (1887–1920), practically untutored, developed the most astounding mathematical theorems.

    Medicine. The Atharva-veda, considered by some to be the oldest among the four Vedas, contains invocations relating to bodily and mental diseases. Its Upa-veda, the A¯yurveda (life-science) was cultivated systematically from early on. It was mainly oriented towards preventing diseases and healing through herbal remedies, but it also later developed other medical specialties. Good health was not only considered generally desirable, but also priced as a precondition for reaching spiritual fulfillment. Medicine as a charity was widely recommended and supported by the rulers. Two Indian medical handbooks, the result of centuries of development, became famous in the ancient world far beyond India: the Carakasaṃhita¯ and the Sus´ruta-saṃhita¯. They were later translated and utilized by the invading Muslims. Caraka deals mainly with general medicine and identifies hundreds of medical conditions for which mainly plant pharmaca are prescribed. Sus´ruta focuses on surgery, which by that time was already highly developed, with an array of specific surgical instruments. Indian surgeons were famous in the ancient world; their skills were especially appreciated by the wounded in the frequent wars. Hindus also called upon the divine physician of the gods Dhanvantari, “the one who removes arrows.” The theory of A¯yurveda was based on the tri-doṣa theory, which is older than the similar Greek three-humours teaching, used for diagnosis as well as in the treatment of diseases. While the healthy body has a perfect balance of vata, pitta, and kapha, disease is a disturbance of that harmony, to be cured by re-establishing the right proportion.

    A¯yurveda was also applied to animals and plants. There is an ancient Vṛkṣa¯yurveda, a handbook for professional gardeners, and a Ga¯va¯yurveda for veterinarians of cattle. Other texts deal with veterinary medicine relating to horses and elephants. Ancient India also had hospitals as well as animal clinics, and gos´ala¯s, places in which elderly cattle are tended, are still popular in some parts of India. A¯yurveda was the source of much of ancient Greek and Roman, as well as mediaeval Arabic, medical knowledge. The scientific value of Vyurvedic pharmacology is being recognized by major Western pharmaceutical companies who apply for world-wide patents on medicinal plants discovered and described by the ancient Indian Vaidyas.

    Architecture. The ancient Indus civilization exhibits a high degree of architectural achievement. The well-laid out cities, the carefully built brick houses, the systems of drainage, and the large water tanks reveal the work of professional town-planners and builders. This tradition was continued and enhanced in later centuries, especially in connection with the building of temples to provide abodes for the deity. No village or town was deemed fit for human habitation if it did not possess a temple. Careful selection and preparation of the ground preceded the building activity proper. The edifice had to be constructed according to an elaborate set of rules that took into account not only structural engineering and quality of materials, but also circumstances of caste and religious affiliation. The Upaveda of Stha¯patya-vidya¯ was expanded into a professional Va¯stu- s´a¯stra and S´ilpa- s´a¯stra. Elaborate handbooks like the Ma¯nasa¯ra and the Mayamata provide detailed artistic and religious canons for the building of temples and the making of images. Temples and images of deities were consecrated only if they conformed to the standards established. The temple (maṇḍira ) was a visible symbol of the universe, showing the entire range of entities from the highest to the lowest. The image (mu¯rti ) was the very body of God, who descended into it for the purpose of receiving worship. Thousands of large and beautiful temples dot the landscape of India, and millions of images adorn maṇḍiras and homes.

    Linguistics. While India’s medical doctors, architects, metallurgists, mathematicians, astronomers, and others were appreciated for their knowledge and skills in their fields, the pride of place in the world of brahminic knowledge always belonged to the study of the Word (va¯k ), which from early on was seen as embued with divine power. The brahmins who preserved and investigated the Word occupied the highest social rank. Sanskrit, the refined language of the Veda and of higher learning, was considered a gift of the gods.

    The Sanskrit alphabet, in contrast to the chaotic alphabets used in Western languages, is based on a scientific system: All vowels are arranged in an orderly fashion according to acoustic principles. The consonants are organized in five classes (guttural, palatal, cerebral, dental, labial) and, in each of these, five varieties were distinguished (hard, hard-aspirate, soft, soft-aspirate, nasal). This system shows great ingenuity and a keen sense of observation and proved conducive to formulating general grammatical and phonetical laws. It was in place already by one thousand b.c.e. By six hundred b.c.e., Pa¯niṇi, a linguistic genius of the first order, systematised Sanskrit in his Aṣṭa¯dhya¯yi¯ by deriving all verbs and nouns from about eight hundred roots and formulating four thousand interconnected grammatical rules—an achievement unparalleled in any other language until the twenty-first century. Pa¯niṇi was followed by a long line of commentators, who continued his work: The best known is Patañjali, the author of the Maha¯-bha¯ṣya. Traditional Indian scholarship was based on memorizing enormous amounts of literature and transmitting it orally over thousands of years. In the process Indians developed very sophisticated mnemotechnical devices.

    Ancient Indian theoretical sciences
    Among the ṣaḍ-dars´anas, the traditional “six orthodox philosophical systems” of Hinduism, Sa¯ṁkhya stands out as possibly the oldest and certainly the most interesting in the religion and science context. It offers a general theory of evolution based on the interactive polarity of nature and matter (prakṛti ), and spirit and soul (puruṣa ). All reality is subsumed under five times five principles (tattvas ), originating from one substratum (pradha¯na ), covering all possible physical, biological, and psychological categories. Sa¯ṁkhya shows the interconnections between the various components of our world in order to unravel the evolutionary process (which is seen as the cause of all unhappiness and misery) and to return to the changeless bliss of spirit-existence. The twenty-five categories to which Sa¯mkhya reduces the manifold world became widely accepted in Hindu thought. The Yoga system of Patañjali is wholly based on it. The Pura¯ṇas also accept it as their philosophical basis, with one amendment: Prakṛti and puruṣa are overarched by i¯s´vara, a personal creator-maintainersavior God.

    Vais´eṣika, another one of the six orthodox dars´anas, offers a theory of atomism more ancient than that of the Greek philosopher Democritus, and a detailed analysis of vis´eṣas, qualities and differences, after which the system is named. The Vais´eṣika-su¯tra describes the formation of physical bodies from atoms (aṇu ) through dyads (dvya¯ṇuka ) and triads (trya¯ṇuka ) in a strict cause-effect series. The positioning of the atoms determines the qualities of a body. Vais´eṣika also developed the notion of impetus, a concept that appeared in Western science only in the fourteenth century. In Vais´eṣika the relation of science to religion is less clear than in the case of Sa¯ṁkhya. However, the other dars´ana with which it has been paired, Nya¯ya, concerned with epistemology and logic, declares that such analysis is necessary for obtaining spiritual liberation.

    Spiritual sciences
    Among the prescribed subjects of the ancient Indian university curriculum was adhya¯tma-vidya¯, the science relating to spirit. As the most important level of reality, Brahman was the subject of the highest science, employing personal experience (anubha¯va), a coherent epistemology (yukti ), and the exegesis of revealed utterances (s´ruti or s´abda ). The Upanishads mention thirty-two vidya¯s, paths leading to the goal of all science: “One who knows Brahman becomes Brahman. ” The ideas of the Upanishads were further developed into the systematics of Veda¯nta philosophy laid down mainly in commentaries (bha¯syas ) on the Brahma-su¯tras ascribed to Ba¯dara¯yaṇa (second century b.c.e.). Beginning with S´a.kara (eighth century c.e.), through Ra¯ma¯nuja (eleventh century) to Madhva (thirteenth century), the greatest minds of India have endeavored to cultivate science that concerns itself with the eternal reality of the spirit. Yoga too, in the form in which it was systematized by Patañjali (Ra¯ja-yoga ) is proceeding scientifically by analyzing the world of experience in terms suitable to spiritual enlightenment and describing experiential steps to be taken to find enlightenment.

    India’s spiritual fame in the West is of long standing. During the fourth century b.c.e., Alexander the Great, intrigued by the proverbial wisdom of the brahmins, sought out the company of what the Greeks called gymnosophists on his Indian expedition (eventually replacing his mentor Aristotle by Kálanos, an Indian sage). Six centuries later, the philosopher Plotinus joined the expedition of Emperor Gordian in order to meet the famed Indian sages. No less a modern Western scientist than Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger (1887–1961), who won the Nobel prize for physics in 1933, has paid tribute to that “other” science: “The subject of every science is always the spirit and there is only that much true science in every endeavour as it contains spirit” (p. 495).

    India and scientific technological progress
    Glazed pottery appeared in Mohenjo Daro fifteen hundred years earlier than in Greece. Indian steel was so famous three-thousand years ago that the ancient Persians were eager to obtain swords from India. Indian silk and cotton fabrics were among the most prized imports of ancient Rome. The famous Iron Pillar in Delhi, almost eight meters high and weighing more than six tons, has weathered more than fifteen hundred monsoons without showing a trace of rust. Amazing engineering feats were displayed in the construction of numerous temples of huge dimensions. The capstone of the Bṛhadi¯s´vara temple of Tanjavur, weighing eighty tons, was moved up to a height of sixty-five meters in the eleventh century. The skills of ancient Indian craftsmen, who created innumerable tools and works of art from ivory, wood, metal, and stone, show a broad based technical culture that had few equals in its time.

    Many of the intellectual or practical achievements later ascribed to the Babylonians, the Greeks, or the Arabs had originated in India. India was the envy and the marvel of the ancient world before it fell victim to Muslim invaders, who massively disrupted its cultural, scientific, and religious traditions. The British who succeeded them encountered a weak, backward, fragmented, and demoralized India. Together with machine-made fabric, British India imported Western education and with it a hitherto unknown tension between culture and religion. Modern science and technology were touted as an accomplishment of Christian Europe and seen as the most effective instruments in overcoming superstitious Hinduism. Ram Mohan Roy, an early Hindu reformer, believed in the possibility of harmonizing Hinduism with modern Western science and the teachings of Christ. He founded English-language schools in which modern Western scientific knowledge was taught. Swami Dayanand Saraswati asserted that the ancient Hindus had known the principles of Western science long ago, had anticipated some of the technological marvels like steam-engines and airplanes, and did not need a new religion. He founded a traditional Gurukula with Sanskrit medium and only traditional Indian subjects. By the late twenty-first century, there are thousands of Indian scientists with a Hindu background. Most do not see a conflict between their religion and their science, but some do notice a difference in orientation. Some have been led to astounding discoveries through the application of ancient Hindu insights to new fields of enquiry. Thus the biologist Jagdish Chandra Bose (1860–1937) used the Upanishadic idea of the universal a¯tman to conduct groundbreaking research in plant physiology. The traditional Hindu holistic and personalistic orientation could serve as a necessary corrective to mainstream Western science with its Cartesian legacy of an impersonal mechanistic worldview and a purely pragmatic, analytic approach to nature.

  • Conventional wisdom holds that religion and science stand in opposition — with religion oppressing science in the past and science undermining religion in modern times. Today, many scientists and believers are wary of attempts either to reduce science to religion or religion to science; there is good reason to distrust those who seek to prove religious truths scientifically or to read religious scriptures as science textbooks. But the relationship is not simply antagonistic. Religious institutions have in many cases supported scientific inquiry. The rise of science depended in part on metaphysical beliefs with religious roots, and arguably on certain religious virtues. Religious belief, in turn, has been enriched by scientific insights into the natural world. And technological innovation has been essential to the spread of religious ideas.

    The authors of this symposium each examine some aspect of the relationship between religion, science, and technology. Writing from different religious traditions, their essays touch on history, theology, and philosophy, and they explore how modern science and innovation affect religious practice and faith. Charles T. Rubin considers the lessons that can (or cannot) be drawn from the Jewish legend of the golem. Joseph Bottum argues that the Catholic sense of wonder can survive the disenchantment of the world. Timothy Dalrymple makes the case for appreciating tools and using them for Christian evangelism. Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad criticizes pseudoscientific readings of the Koran. Varadaraja V. Raman (below) suggests that ancient Hindu thought, while not scientific in the modern sense, anticipated various recent scientific debates. Martin J. Verhoeven pushes back against the view that Buddhism and science are in simple harmony. And Peter Morales describes the Unitarian Universalist search for truth and meaning through science and faith.

    The publication of this symposium is supported by a grant from the Religion and Innovation in Human Affairs Program (RIHA) of The Historical Society.

    One can find apologists from all the major religions who aim to bolster the standings of their faith by proclaiming its confluence with science. Some have even gone so far as to argue that their ancient scriptures and doctrines presage specific ideas and findings of modern science. As Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad and Martin J. Verhoeven show elsewhere in this symposium, this is a growing trend among some scholars of Islam and Buddhism. But it is also a perennial presence in the great religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Hinduism.

    From a scientific point of view these claims are untenable, as the findings of modern science spring from observations, insights, instruments, philosophical outlooks, and knowledge that were absent in the ancient world. But the defenders of these claims contend that the philosophers and prophets of distant ages had other means of knowing than logic, differential equations, and the spectrometer — that the scientific insights in scripture are a testament to their divine origin. Though perhaps well-meaning, such claims essentially belong to pseudoscience, not least because they are typically based more on parochialism and questionable hermeneutics than on serious scholarship.

    But this does not mean that the search for areas of genuine harmony between science and scripture is always misguided. There is no solid evidence that ancient prophets or religious thinkers were privy to any revealed knowledge of scientific findings in advance of their peers. But ancient thinkers did articulate many of the broad possibilities for answers to major questions that have since been, in a sense, adjudicated by science. Many of the metaphysical, philosophical, and scientific ideas that are so often trumpeted as entirely novel and recent discoveries of modern science were in fact subjects of discussion by ancient Hindu thinkers.

    Perhaps the most famous discovery of modern science, the one that launched it as a revolution, was the Copernican insight that shifted the Earth’s coordinates from a defining (0, 0, 0) in a vast, three-dimensional Euclidean space to an insignificant (x, y, z) in a coordinate system whose center is altogether indeterminate. This was followed by the Galilean-Newtonian revolution, which developed the view of a universe governed by inexorable laws written in the language of mathematics, graspable primarily with the aid of instruments of ever-increasing precision. Notwithstanding the considerable achievements of that science, whose methods soon expanded well beyond the realms of astronomy and physics, it took nearly four centuries after Copernicus before the notion of the birth of the universe through purely physical processes at a determinable time was developed and regarded as a scientific finding.

    Yet long before modern science, practically every religion had its own version of cosmogenesis, a notion of the origin of the universe at some definite time. Most are based on the idea that an all-powerful god created a world of matter and man. These doctrines cohered with the view of a God or gods who should be invoked and thanked. At another level, they were widely accepted because there was no better hypothesis to explain the existence of the world.

    Hinduism has its own idea of a God-created universe. Hindu lore offers a mythic vision of the world emerging from a cosmic egg (Brahmanda), a seed from which the whole universe emerged, not unlike the idea of the Big Bang. In the Hindu picture, the current phase of the universe will dissolve, only to be reborn again. Like in some modern scientific theories of cosmology, this process continues ceaselessly, like a frictionless oscillating pendulum.

    This kind of mythical and metaphysical account is not the only aspect of Hindu thought that touches on the origins of the universe. Consider, for example, a passage from the Nasadiya Sukta, or Hymn of Creation, from the Vedas. In a chapter written more than three millennia ago, the author presents various possibilities as to how the universe might have come about, and concludes by rhetorically exclaiming:

    …Who really knows, and who can swear,
    How creation came, when or where!
    Even gods came after creation’s day,
    Who really knows, who can truly say

    When and how did creation start?
    Did He do it? Or did He not?
    Only He, up there, knows, maybe;
    Or perhaps, not even He.
    [Rigveda X: 129]

    While raising the question of how the world might have arisen, the poem also expresses a modest skepticism about where one might find an answer. This could be interpreted as a lack of certainty that is uncommon in religious literature, but we should notice the extraordinary leap, not of faith, nor into agnosticism, but into humility. The sage poet in these lines is moved from a mystical meditation on cosmogenesis to the sudden realization that our visions of how it all started are constrained by our finitude. This lack of certainty about explanations of natural events beyond our immediate grasp foreshadows the epistemic doubt often described as a requirement for modern scientific thinking.

    Below and Beyond
    In the early days of modern science, scientists recognized two levels of reality: the physical world we experience on our everyday scale, and the astronomical world, up there, where every entity is of stupendous proportions. Both levels, scientists thought, had a material basis, a substantial concreteness that make them part of the same palpable reality.

    As the scientific revolution advanced, physicists discovered a reality smaller even than the microscopic scale, and eventually began to identify the roots of the physical world. They had uncovered entities that are invisible, undetectable to our normal senses. As they continued probing, these entities became ever more evanescent, fading away into mere mathematical probabilities. Beneath the atomic and subatomic particles that undergird the material world to which we are accustomed, there is a sea of intangibles that emerge and disappear in unimaginably small time frames. This is what constitutes and sustains the physical world. If physics before the twentieth century dealt with nature as we commonly experience it, and religion postulated a supernature that caused nature to arise, then the twentieth century brought to light a sort of subnature, a realm that we know thus far mainly in theory but that seems sure in some way or another to account for our tangible world in essentially non-tangible terms.

    Ancient Hindu thinkers too postulated an immaterial, intangible, and all-pervasive cosmic realm, called Nirguna Brahman. Its material manifestation is the physical reality we experience and study scientifically. But the realm also has a spiritual dimension, which was regarded as the source of all consciousness. Nirguna Brahman is thus the abstract impersonal cosmic consciousness pervading the universe, the transcendental equivalent of the personal God of other religions.

    The Hindu writings known as the Upanishads talk about Nirguna Brahman in esoteric terms. We find in this literature terse statements like, “Brahman is real; the world is unreal.” It suggests that the physical reality we take for granted is not quite what it seems, and its deeper nature is veiled from our normal perception.

    One needn’t dwell overmuch on the details of Nirguna Brahman, which clearly could not have anticipated the specific subatomic theories of modern physics. Rather, it is striking to note how this ancient metaphysical concept of an omnipresent, intangible reality that gives rise to the physical world of experience anticipates the metaphysics of the most promising current theories about the fundamental nature of the universe. Even more striking is a growing strain of philosophical thought, led by David Chalmers, arguing that consciousness too is a fundamental aspect of this universe, something that is present in all of it, and not just in obviously thinking beings such as ourselves. These understandings about the basic nature of reality may not now enjoy the status of confirmed scientific theories, but it is fascinating to consider that the basic metaphysical structure of these ideas has much in common with ancient Hindu thought and related traditions.

    Unveiling Reality
    Philosophers have long argued about whether there is a separate reality behind the one we perceive. From the scientific perspective, there is such a reality. In fact, the very goal of science, one could say, is to derive from perceived reality what the objective, non-perceived reality is all about. For example, sound is an aspect of perceived reality that science has shown arises from compression waves in an elastic medium such as air.

    Classical Hindu thinkers stated that perceived reality, which they called maya, is in many ways a deception. Practically every finding of modern science in some way or another is taken to suggest a similar view. Whether the motion of the sun, or of the seemingly fixed star we call Polaris; whether the apparent substantiality of a rainbow or solidity of hard steel; whether the visible break in a stick immersed in water, or the intrinsic sparkle of the diamond — seemingly every aspect of perceived reality is in some sense an illusion. What we take to be substantial properties of the material world have, in fact, underlying features that are altogether different. Science may well be described as an effort to see beyond the maya, to unveil the world’s concealed reality.

    Hindu thinkers also proclaimed that perceived reality is transient. While the ephemeral nature of experiences and of life itself had been recognized by ancient thinkers in many cultures, Hindus asserted something more: that not just human life, but the physical world itself is transitory, and will eventually fade away. This, too, is an idea that seems to presage certain strains of today’s theoretical physics and cosmology. According to one line of thought, not only radioactive elements but all of the basic constituents of physical matter are unstable. Even the proton may have a half-life. This would mean that eventually, albeit after an unimaginably long time, all tangible matter in the universe will vanish. This is another theoretic

    Ways of Knowing
    Beyond the broad outlines of scientific theories about the universe, ancient Hindu thought also presaged some of the contours of the modern debate over the nature of science itself, particularly its seemingly never-ending conflict with religion. For example, Stephen Jay Gould’s notion of “non-overlapping magisteria,” by which science and religion should each concede that the other is a powerful and important mode of inquiry but that they do not attend the same questions and problems, echoes an epistemic view of Hindu thinkers that was posited not as a strategy for peace but a fundamental truth.

    Ancient Hindu thinkers of course did not talk about science as we use the term today, or about religion as a set of doctrines and practices. Rather, they said that human beings can acquire two kinds of knowledge. One pertains to the world of everyday experience or perceived reality. This kind of knowledge, called apara vidya — “not-beyond,” or worldly knowledge — can be obtained through experiment, analysis, and logical reasoning. The other kind of knowledge relates to the transcendental, the realm beyond the physical. It was called para vidya, or “beyond” knowledge.

    It is fair to say that conflicts often arise when, in pursuit of transcendental knowledge, people attempt to explain matters pertaining to this world. When they do this without having peered through a telescope or a microscope, read a seismogram, handled a Bunsen burner, or made sophisticated calculations, and they expound on the workings of matter and energy, biological evolution, or other natural phenomena, they are bound to provoke practicing scientists. Likewise, when people governed solely by knowledge of perceived reality summarily deny the existence or the possibility of transcendental knowledge without going through the rigorous disciplines demanded for getting a glimpse of it, they too appear naïve and epistemically hubristic.

    Yet it is undeniable that these two realms of knowledge are interrelated, and that the study of one may have bearing on the other. We see in the areas briefly discussed here that at least the spirit of modern science, if not always its specific substance, was implicit in a number of contexts among ancient Hindu thinkers. That these thinkers foresaw the broad outlines of many modern theories is a testament to the harmony between Hinduism and science, both of which are a part of the collective human effort to appreciate the world of experience and describe the nature of reality.

    Varadaraja V. Raman is emeritus professor of physics and humanities at the Rochester Institute of Technology, president of the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science, and the author of Indic Visions in an Age of Science (Metanexus, 2011)

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