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EQUAL RIGHTS TO VEDIC RITES

Bala N. Aiyer


Dharmo' Rakshati Rakshidaha
Preserve this Dharma -- that will protect you

1. Let us work together for the growth of Sanătana Dharma

1.1 The globalization of the earth portends a new age for all cultures and religions, including Hinduism. Emboldened by the changes all around us, we now have the desire and ambition to spread the message of our eternal Philosophy and tradition, particularly the Vedas but also the Agamas and other scriptures, to every Hindu, regardless of varnas, jaathi or gender.

1.2 We find that the majority of Hindus have very little knowledge of their traditions; others, not born into the faith, face formidable cultural obstacles integrating themselves into our vast community. Are the Vedas, as traditionally taught, available to all Hindus? Are we sincerely welcoming newly initiated outsiders who often amaze us with their devotion and love for Sanatana Dharma? We might quickly say "yes", but look closer. Are there equal privileges to all Hindus? Who said that all Hindus should not read the Vedas? Who said that Hindus cannot proselytize?

1.3 Most Hindus do not know that, according the Smrithis as it is popularly understood now, all members born in the varnas of the “lower” castes or the so called Sudras, as well as women from any varnas, are forbidden to read the Vedas or to recite sacred mantras like the Găyathri. Some of these rules totally excluded the entire progeny of people did not obey the rules of the kings and priests, who were driven out as avarnas and untouchables. Unfortunately, this rule also applies to converts and to reconverts as well, as the ancient forms of our faith did not recognize anyone outside the Hindu Dharma. So, the great teachings of the Hindu faith were available only to the exclusive study of a selected group of members of the community for several generations, though these were not the intention of the original sages who gave it to the world.

1.4 These Smirthis, also known as DharmaSastras, were written by ancient sages and kings as procedural and legal outlines for governing the society. If followed strictly, they exclude over 80% of the Hindu population from receiving spiritual initiation and Vedic knowledge. These codes do not welcome new seekers to come into the faith either. They do not have the same privileges like Dwija men. A large number of Hindus and prospective Hindus, so rejected, have become ambivalent about our faith or have even left the Dharma for good.

2. The Hindu Nation--Is it Equal Rights for all?

2.1 This was not always so. In the past, a great many studied the Vedas and other holy texts in the gurukulas of ancient India. There were many women and people born of the lower strata of society mentioned in the Vedas and Upanishds. Sri Badharayan or Veda Vyasa who organized the four Vedas himself was born to a fisher woman. We read of Maitreyi and Gargi in Upanishads. Satyakama Jabala, for example, obtained initiation and attained the highest knowledge because of good qualities, and not because of birth into a particular caste or lineage. But during a tumultuous period in our history, the universally available knowledge got limited to a select few. The learned gurus began imparting our collective heritage to their children and close relatives in the joint family, usually only to the boys.

2.2 Why did this happen? It appears that during the medieval period, especially during times of occupation by foreign forces, those entrusted with the preservation of the scriptures felt that the Dharma was becoming perhaps irreparably diluted. During this time, droves of Hindus converted to other faiths or were forcibly converted. Surly invaders destroyed schools and universities and burned down ancient temples. The priests had to preserve the Temple Vigrahas, books and pooja materials in secret locations known only to their families. Lest the Vedas be lost forever, they decided to make the tradition an esoteric family affair, ensuring that the truths of Sanatana Dharma would be available long after the fury subsided. Even the caste system appears to have emerged in its present stratified form only after this time and there is no reference to such a system in our ancient texts.

2.3 Several scholars have demonstrated that the Puranas, Ithihasas and Dharma Săstras are tinctured with interpolations. During the medieval period and even before, scheming individuals often changed or deliberately misinterpreted passages to reflect the prevailing ethos, which had become narrow and exclusionary. For example, Hindus believe that souls, at birth, are the product of all the knowledge and karma that they acquired in previous births—this concept is known as “Janmana.” But in ancient India, it was never suggested that these good qualities accrued exclusively to those born in the “higher” castes or Varnas. What was once referred to the individual Gunas or inborn qualities became privileges and rights based on the family of birth and parents.

2.4 This type of misreading is symptomatic of the insecurity bought on by medieval invasions and later, even colonialism. Some of these exclusionary rules, while well meaning, may have been not only the effect but also the cause of the further degradation of Hindu society. This division of the society was well used by the colonizing army to further their hold on the various groups of the society. In colonial times and the rules by alien forces, the DharmaSastras gained undue prominence, causing caste based rifts and anti-Hindu political movements.

3. The Present State of Special Privileges, Decay and Disunity

3.1 Today, the orthodox leaders of several Hindu sampradăyăs, citing the Smrithis, still believe that birth into a particular caste is an inviolable prerequisite for Vedic studies. Those so entitled are the male members from the three upper castes, known as dwijas. They alone may obtain Brahmopadesam, study the Vedas, and recite the Gayatri mantra. Females from the upper three castes, indeed from all castes, are disallowed simply because of their gender. It is true that several past Ăchăryas supported such orthodox views, even though the founder Ăchăryăs like Sankara, Rămănuja and Mădhva, never did. We often hear from several sampradăyăs that it is a "sin" for women to read the scriptures or to read certain mantras. Most people so denied, often accepted these rules as their Karma and often prayed to get these privileges by better karma at their rebirth. We do agree that the learning and recitation should be done by only those well trained in that profession, just like with any other profession. But we must question rules about the birth based family hierarchy.

3.2 In the past few centuries, some religious groups and their leaders organized programs for the study of Vedas and other religious texts by all their disciples. Some of them even "elevated" the status of these people to become "Brahmins". But often these reforms continued the problems with few new converts as their own devotees who became more orthodox, ignoring their past. In the recent years, we have been seeing reports that call for urgent action by Hindus as a community. It is said that in Hindu religion there is unity amidst diversity. But, in truth, there is disunity which is glaring.

3.3 Look at these events from the recent news: The government of Tamil Nadu passed an ordinance forbidding forcible religious conversions. In Rajasthan, avarnas are denied free access to temples, water wells and ponds. Adivasis are relentlessly targeted for conversion in every state. In Tamil Nadu, Avarnas are frequently attacked and even killed by members of other castes. We realize that all these problems are related to each other, created mostly by greed, by egoistic superiority, and by the misperceived need for self preservation of their own groups.

3.4 Isn’t it a shame that we hear and read news reports that some groups of Hindus are attacked or even murdered in the name of "religious purity" merely for entering a place of worship or for taking water from a pond or well? This is in sharp contrast to the African jungles where animals like apes, boars, leopards and zebras share the same waterhole. Animals do what human’s apparent can’t; we are now in an age in need of reform.

4. The Need for Reform and a Renaissance for the Dharma

4.1 First there is a need to arrange basic religious study made available to all. Then regarless of Jaathi or Gender, anyone who completes such a study be given the privileges of Brahmavidya as a dwija, granting brahmopadesam to all and creating a framework for spiritual equality.

4.2 While the Orthodox is worried that the roots of Hindu Dharma need to be preserved well, the very roots will be destroyed by the weeds unless these weeds are identified and effectively removed to save the roots. There is a need to preserve many of our traditional practices while some restrictions in the spreading of the messages of our ancient texts may need to be relaxed.

4.3 If the rules do not accommodate all Hindus as equal, this will leave many sensitive, religious people feeling that they have no place within Hinduism. The privileges of some people to study the texts as determined by varnas of their birth may be preserved for the reasons known to our great sages. But, there is a need to increase the availability of the same privileges to the people of the lesser privileged classes by providing religious educations. Millions of non-Indians will never be able to formally join Hinduism.

4.4 The time has come now to correct all of these anachronisms, in this, the sixth millennium of Kali Yuga. The message of the Vedas, Agamas and other scriptures must be made available to all Hindus and encourage them to study these holy texts. There are several areas where there is a need to address this problem with a Navya Shastra. Is this the right time for the new Hindu Renaissance?

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