Shastric Reform: - Varnas, Jaathis and Castes
The discussion on shastric reform with respect to caste in effect addressed four questions.
1. Is caste reform needed considering that the scriptures are freely accessible nowadays and religious leaders are trying to reach out across the divide?
2. Do the Hindu scriptures advocate hereditary caste?
3. Should religious reform with respect to caste follow liberal non-traditional paths?
4. If the reform is to be a mainstream effort what are its goals and what should be the means whereby these are achieved?

Dear Navyadharmics,

Summarizing the discussion in this regard from the archives is like trying to summarize the vast body of scriptures. I am no Vyasa but I'll try. The following is the summary of the discussion from October 2002 (when the forum was set up) to Jan-Feb 2003 in response to the following question:

This summary will focus on answers to these questions.
Part - 1

1. Is caste reform needed considering that the scriptures are freely accessible nowadays and religious leaders are trying to reach out across the divide?


Is caste reform needed considering that the scriptures are freely accessible nowadays and religious leaders are trying to reach out across the divide? If the shastras which determine the codes are out of touch with reality? A young non-Brahmin, sattvic, spiritually-inclined young teen asked us why should he go to Arya Samaj to learn the Vedas--why can't he learn it in a traditional setting? We did not have an answer for him which is what led us to development of this website.

So while we fully support all those efforts at educating the Dalits, we are taking a long-term view here to address the issue which many 'dalits' and 'sudras' are already asking--why is there no place in traditional Hindu society for them as per the shastras? Should we be in denial here and watch intelligent, young people walk away from Hinduism (not necessaily lured by other religions) or do we take action now?
Dr. Jaishree G 11/01/02

Coming to Ekal vidyalayas--do they conduct sacred thread ceremonies for those children and teach them Gayatri? Sanskritizing is not a new phenomenon. Even Mahabharatha declares "he is to teach the four castes", but vedantacharyas have interpreted this to mean that the 'sudras' are qualified only for Itihasas and Puranas--these are also in Sanskrit, not Vedas. They quote Manu or other smritis to justiy this, and their only argument is that they are not twice-born or that they are not qualified for upanayana-ceremony. I won't quote some of the cruel lines they use from those smritis Of course that was 1000 years ago but what about now?

It is not intellectually honest to dismiss Manu or other smritis as irrelevant without looking into whether they will continue to be used in some form or other in the future if not by Hindus then by missionaries, and if so why not have a revised version so some of the cruel, discriminatory injunctions in them are taken out permanently.
Dr. Jaishree G 11/4/02
Much of caste is simply political---the rise and fall of various groups within a local political system often determined their caste "status".
Shri Vikram Masson 11/4/02

I think the dalit leadership is looking for clearer statements and actions ("The proof is in the pudding criteria"). The following statements by Dalit leader Udit Raj in one of news stories (On NavyaShastra site) provide insight to there mindset:

"If the Sanatan Dharam is sincere of reforming Hinduism of caste discrimination, here's a suggestion: appoint the four Shankaracharyas of the four Peeths one from each varna: Brahmin, Kshtriya, Vaishya and Sudra. Conversion will become history"

I personally do not think the task is accomplished until the orthodoxy acknowledges the following fact:


Since unless this is done, there is a implication that whole communities are inferior to other communities.This will never be acceptable to any-self respecting Dalit and there are going to be more and more self respecting Dalits as education among them spreads.
Shri. Rahul Saxena 11/4/02
Most religious Hindus consult priests or Shastrigals as they are called, who interpret the shastras for us. So shastras are still relevant to most practicing, religious Hindus and as they are configured currently there is a divide between dvija and non-dvijas most of which is based on birth. Those who are 'dvijas', even if they donot wear the thread or chant the Gayatri, may not realize that those who areclassified as sudras and thus not accorded the same privilege, perceive this as spiritual discrimination. Arya Samaj is certainly a good model to follow to end this 'discrimination' and can even be modified as Subramaniam pointed out.
Dr. Jaishree G 11/6/02

"How many Indian lives are governed by knowledge of these smritis?"

This is a tough one to answer. Many of us depend on our family traditions, but dig a little deeper, you will notice that they are derived from these smritis. And not ALL of them are bad, of course.
Shri. VC Vijayaraghavan 11/7/02

"Is a hierarchical and rigid srtucture of system itself is an extreme case of hierarchical system, where the common mass the shudra etc. don't have access to books, temple, a decent preacher)?"

The common mass (Shudra and women:) do have access to temples, even priests and Swamis--they have been traditonally barred from studying the Vedas. Bhakti literature has always been open to all; personally I love Bhakti literature, so I don't feel the common (wo)man was being deprived of spiritual knowledge. But in order for Hinduism or Sanatana Dharma to be truly egalitarean, Vedas should be available to all in its traditional form.
Dr. Jaishree G in response to Shri Ranbir Sinha 11/8/02
The sociologist Rodney Stark suggests that conversion is generally a serious consideration ONLY among the educated elite. This would explain why Dalit conversions, despite the burgeoning number of Dalit atrocities India-wide, hasremained minimal. Poorer people (again, according to StarK) will try to find alternative religious constructions within their own faith; part of this perhaps stems from the need for legitimation. But what happens when Dalits become (as they are becoming) more educated? Do increasing literacy levels and the improvinq quality of life in India portend mass conversions?
Shri. Vikram Masson 11/20/02

The Vedantacharyas themselves forbade Vedic (which would include the Upanishads) learning to sudras, women and dalits. Here is Shankaracharya:

Sankara and that a sudra does not possess the prerogative of acquiring divine knowledge, appears from this that, according to the smrti, he is forbidden to hear it (veda-sravana-pratishedhaH), or read it (vedAdhyayana-pratishedhaH) or learn its sense (tad artha jnAnAnushthAnayoscha pratishedhaH) it is declared in the smrti that he is forbidden either to hear the veda, or read the veda or to learn its contents, or to practise its injunctions. hearing is forbidden to him in these texts: "if he listens to the reading of the veda, his ears are to be filled with molten lead and lac' (vedam upasrinvatas traptu-jatubhyAm srotra pratipUranam); and 'the sudra is a walking cemetery; therefore no-one must read in his vicinity' (padyu ha vai etat smasAnam yat sUdras tasmAt sUdra-samIpe na adheyatavyam). "and consequently the reading of it is forbidden to him: for how can he, in whose neighbourhood even the veda is forbidden to be read, read it himself? and if he utters it, his tongue is to be cut; and if he retains it in his memory, his body is to be slit. and it results from the meaning of the terms that he is prohibited from learning its contents, or practising its injunctions, according to the texts, "let no-one impart intelligence to a sudra' (na sUdrAya matim dadyAd) and 'reading, sacrifice and liberality are the duties of twice born men' (dvIjAtInAm adhyayanam ijyA dAnam).

As for the sudras who are thought to have attained "liberation" in the Hindu tradition -- "as regards vidura, dharma, vyadha and others in whom knowledge was produced in consequence of their recollection of acts performed in former births, their enjoyment of its results cannot be prevented, from the transcendent character of the effects of knowledge; and because in the text; 'let the four castes be made to hear them', the smrti declares that the four castes possess the prerogative of learning the itihasas and puranas. but it has been established that sudras do not possess the prerogative of acquiring divine knowledge derived from the veda."

You will find similar passages in Ramanuja and Madhva. This is not something we can brush away, this is a PROBLEM, a specific theological problem.
Shri. Vikram Masson 11/24/02
Lets have a frank, analytical discussion about Sanatana Dharma. Breakthroughs generally emerge from tension, and not from consensus.The acharyas said what they said, and I am not finding "fault" with them; theyare all far removed from us in cultural outlook. But these are some of the things that could very well undermine Hinduism in the next fifty years. Education will increase the cultural and religious sophistication of these groups. Globalism and the internet will bring alternative perspectives to them in a New York minute. Kancha Ilaiah says that sudras have a "primitive" understanding of Hinduism--and he means it. We had better be at work developing alternative accomodation strategies to foil Dalit theologies, OBC perspectives and the like.Who is a sudra? 75% of Hindus are sudras or dalits. Read what Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham says in its official website.
Shri. Vikram Masson 11/26/02
When it denies certain sections of society access to some of the scriputres, then it begins to enter the spiritual and religious sphere too. I eat in my non-Brahmin friends homes and hug their children but when I visit their home for Pujas, I notice that Vedic rituals are NOT performed in their traditions. For ex. Satyananrayana Puja is based on Puranas and not Vedas. I am not arguing that Puranic rituals are inferior, just pointing out the distinction between dvija and non-dvija spiritual practices. I understand that dvijas can perform Puranic pujas but is the reverse allowed in 'tradition'? That is what Navyshastra hopes to accomplish and from your reply to Vikram it sounds like you agree, so I am not sure what we are arguing about here.:)
Dr. Jaishree G 11/28/02


One has to be a Dwija by birth, or even a Brahmin by birth, to get a Brahmopadesam which includes Namakaranam and establishment of the Githra. Once they have the Upanayanam ceremony and is taught Gayathri, they get the right to learn, memorize and recite and teach the Veda Mantras. That is the way the Shastras are now. So, the orthodox group of Hindus will continue to follow the rules as it exists now, and even the un-orthodox are afraid to go against the writing. [This will be the problem of SIES at this stage - they may teach Agamas, some of the Mantras and Pooja vithis to all but will NOT teach Vedic Recitation against the rules established and as understood at this time]. This is where NS has work to do. Even the most forward looking Hindu who go to a variant practice of Hinduism under a guru who accepts all Varnas as the same, when they have to approach a traditional priest for a Hindu Ritual in practice will face that problem, sometimes feels marginalized.

So, we should not give up about acceptance until we work on basic rules acceptablie even to the most orthodox who refuse to see the modern times and the problems faced by lower "castes' and posed by other faiths in conversion.
Dr. Bala Aiyer 1/20/03
(SIES alludes to a school in Bombay that has a policy of vedic education limited to Brahmin boys)

Mr. Subrahmanya suggests, " there are any number of Vedic pathashalas that are already open to teach all sections of Hindu society," and even if, as Gopalakrishnan reminds us, "VHP has trained 14000 OBC and Dalit priests already," the fact remains that there are also any number of Hindu temples and households which still admit only traditionally trained Brahmins as pujaris and purohits. All I was suggesting was that the school was probably meant to cater to the needs of such people. I like to think - even if I am proved to be eventually wrong - that people who do such things don't have some stupid or sinister motives. I also try to be sympathetic to their deepest convictions as long as these are not harmful or hurtful to others. I would of course want all temples to be open to every one, and I would like to see spiritual initiation to be available to every Hindu, but I also hope that every subgroup within the large and diverse Hindu community enjoys the freedom to worship the way it feels appropriate, and have the kinds of priests it chooses, as long as the group does not trample on the religious rights and freedom of fellow Hindus.

I am gratified that practically all of us here find a For-Brahmin-Boys-Only-Mentality anachronistic.

Prof. V.V. Raman 1/16/03


Neverthless we do need to apply "gentle pressure" when these things happen, to try influence society into what we consider to be a better Hindu world view.

Shri. Rahul Saxena 1/16/03 (In response)


"I had always considered the Vedas as the heritage of all Hindus,because for some reasons that is what I was led to believe.Now after seeing Subramanya's post and the news such as this one about the school, I am beginning to wonder. Whose heritage am I fighting for?"

This is a private communication from a NS member. I hope the erudite members on this board can answer this poignant question.
Dr. Jaishree G 1/16/03

A. "I had always considered the Vedas as the heritage of all Hindus, because for some reasons that is what I was led to believe."

1. The sad fact is that for many centuries of Hindu history, the Vedas were NOT the heritage of all Hindus. That is precisely why we need Navyashastra.

2. Actually, from a larger perspective, the Vedas are the heritage of all ofhumanity. There are certain great works of inspiration, whether of spirituality or of poetry, of science or of religion, which transcend national, cultural, and religious borders. The Vedas belong to this category of humanity's heritage.

B. "I am beginning to wonder. Whose heritage am I fighting for?"

I am not sure we are "fighting for" anything. We are working to make the religious, spiritual, and cultural experience of being a Hindu within reach of one and all, because they do belong to all who call themselves Hindu, and even to those who are not technically Hindus. That is the vision of Navyashastra.

C. There was a time when the Vedas were beyond the reach of certain people, not just in principle, but in fact also. They were not allowed to be heard by the non-initiates [that's where th noion of dvija comes from], nor translated into other languages. This is no longer the case. Any number of Sudras and mlecchas have studied and interpreted the Vedas, and translated them into various languages. So we are no longer in a stage when non-Brahmins and women cannot hear or read the Vedas.

What many contemporary enlightened Hindus are doing is simply to transform the caste-based mind-set of a great many Hindus in spiritual/religious contexts.

Prof. VV Raman 1/16/03 (in response)

The answer as one can well gauge is an unequivocal "Yes" .
Dr. Mira Govindarajan
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