Most Hindus are shocked to know that, according to the ancient Dharmashastras, over 80% of the Hindu population is forbidden to read the Vedas. These law books were written by sages as procedural and legal outlines for governing society, and they have remained de facto authority on religious matters to this day. For example, some traditional mathas still forbid Vedic instruction to anyone who is not a ?dwija?--a male born into one of the three upper castes.
A recent Supreme Court of India decision held that non-brahmins are now entitled to serve as temple priests, effectively opening up the Vedas and Agamas to all seekers. While the ruling is laudable, we wonder whether this judicial activism is sufficient to transfigure the often miserable status of the so called lower castes. Most religious leaders have remained conspicuously silent on the decision and, whether out of indifference or disapproval, have not publicly reflected on the potential consequences of the decision for Hindu society. Until we have a convergence of sentiment towards a true casteless society--one acknowledged by religious leaders, the government and the Hindu community alike--all steps towards improvement will be tentative gestures, at odds with recrudescent casteist power structures that operate frightfully and efficiently in rural India.
Rather than bemoaning, with the fatalists, the inexorably static nature of society, or assuming, with the optimists, that change is a natural process, we have decided to take matters into our own hands by inciting a public debate on the caste issue and other salient social issues. Would a Navya Shastra (or a comprehensive reinterpretation of existing Dharmashastras), proposing a more egalitarian configuration of Hindu society, be a beneficial template for affecting change? We believe shastric and social reform is important for several reasons.
1. The caste system, as it is currently structured, spiritually disenfranchises the vast majority of Hindus: Shudras, Dalits, Adivasis, women and converts. No one, we believe, has studied the negative psychological implications of such birth-based classifications on the so called lower castes. A recent wave of Dalit atrocities morbidly reveals that caste discrimination is still rampant throughout India. This leaves many spiritually inclined Hindus feeling that they are unwanted, peripheral stragglers, giving credence to Hegel?s assertion that the caste system breeds ?spiritual serfdom?. A Navya Shastra would open the Vedas (as they are traditionally taught) to everyone, regardless of birth.
2. Until we have a Navya Shastra, the old Dharmashastras will remain, by default, the governing authority on matters concerning the religious status of Hindus. It would be rather absurd for the government to comment on every religious controversy affecting Hindus. After all, in a truly secular society, the government does not interfere in religious matters. The will to change must come from the Hindu leadership itself.
3. Non-Hindus who wish to convert to Hinduism cannot truly do so, because the Dharmashastras make no place for them. This is very unfortunate; arresting what was once a great enthusiasm for the Hindu Dharma in the West.
4. Women are treated as second class citizens. A Navya Shastra would also increase the status of women.
5. Though there are many reformist sects that have sought to redress these inequalities, we feel it is crucially important for orthodoxy to assent to this effort. Otherwise we will have a fractured Hinduism, with different groups asserting that they alone represent the truth.
Please join our effort by participating in our community forum. We welcome all sincere strategies for social change. We have an unprecedented opportunity to make a difference together. Let?s not let anyone else make it for us.