Q: You are claiming that the belief in reincarnation and the caste system are integral to Hinduism; reincarnation is linked to karma and is an integral part of Hinduism - But the caste system was never integral as it was not based on birth; it was a social structure based on profession, but unfortunately with great help from Christian missionaries and the British imperialist rulers, the social structure was embedded in the law during the British Raj, and even today we see this falsification continued by you
A: I must say that I am somewhat happy to see this controversy develop because it indicates to me that many Hindu people are attempting to distance themselves from the traditional view of the caste system. Perhaps we are approaching a time when there will be world-wide consensus and injustice will be abolished in many places. Of course, blaming the British colonialists or Christian missionaries for a problem that’s unfortunately endemic to Hinduism doesn’t help any. To be sure, any society is likely to harbor a certain amount of social injustice. The difference is that, whereas the Christian scriptures forbid it, I am sorry to say that some ancient Hindu text have promoted it. For example, from the Christian side we read in the New Testament in Galatians 3:27-28:
27 For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Or, again in James 2:1-4:
My brothers, hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ without showing favoritism. 2 For suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring, dressed in fine clothes, and a poor man dressed in dirty clothes also comes in. 3 If you look with favor on the man wearing the fine clothes so that you say, “Sit here in a good place,” and yet you say to the poor man, “Stand over there,” or, “Sit here on the floor by my footstool,” 4 haven’t you discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
My point is that, insofar as Christians may be guilty of social discrimination, they are also violating their Holy Scripture.
In Hinduism, the division into castes goes back to some of the earliest scriptures. In the Rigveda in 10.90.12 we read of the fourfold division of Purusha’s body (using the 19th-century translation by Ralph Griffith):
12 The Brahman was his mouth, of both his arms was the Rajanya made.
His thighs became the Vaisya, from his feet the Sudra was produced.
The “Rajanya,” viz. the class of kings, are, of course, the same as the Kshatriya.
The most explicit ancient text enjoining the caste system is the so-called Law of Manu (often called Manusmriti). Some Hindus these days attempt to minimize the authority of this work because they find its content repugnant, but, regardless of how one assesses the contemporary authority of the Law of Manu, it gives clear evidence of how the caste system was being viewed by Hindus themselves long before the British raj. Calling it smriti implies downplaying its authority somewhat because it would not be counted among shruti, the inspired writings heard by the Rishis. Still, even with the designation as smriti, it is in the same category as the Bhagavad Gita.
Here are some excerpts from the Law of Manu that clearly link one’s caste membership to one’s birth (from the 1886 Sacred Books of the East, vol. 25. translated by George Bühler):
1.99. A Brahmana, coming into existence, is born as the highest on earth, the lord of all created beings, for the protection of the treasury of the law.
1.109. A Brahmana who departs from the rule of conduct, does not reap the fruit of the Veda, but he who duly follows it, will obtain the full reward.
The point of my listing that second verse is to show that, whereas a person is born as a Brahmin, he may not live up to his birth-rank. In other words, he did not earn the standing in this life by his actions, but he can lose it by his actions.
The second book the Law of Manu begins by describing the duties connected with the birth of a child, depending into which caste they are born.
29. Before the navel-string is cut, the Gatakarman (birth-rite) must be performed for a male (child); and while sacred formulas are being recited, he must be fed with gold, honey, and butter.
30. But let (the father perform or) cause to be performed the Namadheya (the rite of naming the child), on the tenth or twelfth (day after birth), or on a lucky lunar day, in a lucky muhurta, under an auspicious constellation.
31. Let (the first part of) a Brahmana''s name (denote something) auspicious, a Kshatriya''s be connected with power, and a Vaisya''s with wealth, but a Sudra''s (express something) contemptible.
32. (The second part of) a Brahmana''s (name) shall be (a word) implying happiness, of a Kshatriya''s (a word) implying protection, of a Vaisya''s (a term) expressive of thriving, and of a Sudra''s (an expression) denoting service.
Again, it is possible for anyone of the top three castes (the “twice-born”), who does not live up to the standards of his caste, to lose his status.
2.168. A twice-born man who, not having studied the Veda, applies himself to other (and worldly study), soon falls, even while living, to the condition of a Sudra and his descendants (after him).
3.17. A Brahmana who takes a Sudra wife to his bed, will (after death) sink into hell; if he begets a child by her, he will lose the rank of a Brahmana.
Of course, there is a certain mobility in the caste system, namely a person’s actions in this life will affect his status at his next birth. The result is entirely determined by his own actions; society has no say over it.
4.240. Single is each being born; single it dies; single it enjoys (the reward of its) virtue; single (it suffers the punishment of its) sin.
Book 10 provides for various contingencies of mixed, cross-caste births. Here are some samples:
10.5. In all castes (varna) those (children) only which are begotten in the direct order on wedded wives, equal (in caste and married as) virgins, are to be considered as belonging to the same caste (as their fathers)
10.6. Sons, begotten by twice-born man on wives of the next lower castes, they declare to be similar (to their fathers, but) blamed on account of the fault (inherent) in their mothers.
10.7. Such is the eternal law concerning (children) born of wives one degree lower (than their husbands); know (that) the following rule (is applicable) to those born of women two or three degrees lower.
10.8. From a Brahmana a with the daughter of a Vaisya is born (a son) called an Ambashtha, with the daughter of a sudra a Nishada, who is also called Parasava.
10.9. From a Kshatriya and the daughter of a Sudra springs a being, called Ugra, resembling both a Kshatriya and a Sudra, ferocious in his manners, and delighting in cruelty.
Finally, the Law of Manu becomes very specific in Book 12 on how various bad actions in one life result in undesirable incarnations.
12.54. Those who committed mortal sins (mahapataka), having passed during large numbers of years through dreadful hells, obtain, after the expiration of (that term of punishment), the following births.
12.55. The slayer of a Brahmana enters the womb of a dog, a pig, an ass, a camel, a cow, a goat, a sheep, a deer, a bird, a Kandala, and a Pukkasa.
12.56. A Brahmana who drinks (the spirituous liquor called) Sura shall enter (the bodies) of small and large insects, of moths, of birds, feeding on ordure, and of destructive beasts.
12.57. A Brahmana who steals (the gold of a Brahmana shall pass) a thousand times (through the bodies) of spiders, snakes and lizards, of aquatic animals and of destructive Pisakas.
12.58. The violator of a Guru''s bed (enters) a hundred times (the forms) of grasses, shrubs, and creepers, likewise of carnivorous (animals) and of (beasts) with fangs and of those doing cruel deeds.
I mentioned above that today many Hindus downplay the authority of the Law of Manu. Still there are many others who construe it as Vedic and a part of the shruti. This is something that Hindus must decide among themselves. Nevertheless, the Law of Manu makes it crystal clear that the idea of one’s caste membership comes about by birth cannot be laid at the doorstep of either colonialists or missionaries.
The Bhagavad Gita presents a somewhat different view (4.13). God (Krishna) created the caste system, and he did so based on his foreknowledge of each person’s disposition, specifically which of the three gunas (sattvas—goodness, rajas—action, tamas—darkness) are dominant for an individual. However, the person does not really have a choice in the matter. From a practical perspective, this idea only helps to explain (or rationalize) ex post facto what presumably would be true by presupposition: “this person is a Brahmin; therefore, sattvas must dominate his personality,” or “isn’t it interesting that this Shudra evidences a lot of tamas.” The evident reality is still that people become members of the caste into which they are born. For example, Arjuna did not choose to become a Kshatriya; he inherited that status.
Still, as I said at the outset, there’s no need to belabor the historical reality—let alone to invent a historical fiction—if we reach the consensus that a person’s opportunity should not be limited by the circumstances of his birth or his heritage. If that’s the case, let us work for equality together for the equality of all human beings.