Hindus certainly need to tackle privilege and caste-based discrimination, but not on the terms set by Western media and academia.
It’s a shame that many good people don’t understand the reality of anti-Hindu fanaticism. It is one of the slimiest, nastiest, persistent, violent and intolerant hate-industries in history and yet people don’t even know how to see it, name it, or fight it. Worse, some people even actively deny it, even as they profess their dedication to fighting Islamophobia and the like. Some people deny it so much they abhor saying they are Hindus (preferring to call themselves South Asian, or “born into a Hindu family” and the like). There are others who call themselves Hindu, but that doesn’t equip them to see that there is such a thing as anti-Hindu prejudice and hate either. They merely become pawns in perpetuating it.
Anti-Hindu hatred is not a matter of explicit religious hatred between one group and another, as it was in the medieval or colonial era when Muslim and Christian imperialists sought to conquer and convert the non-Muslims and non-Christians of India (of course, there were some non-imperialist Christians and Muslims already living in India at that time, but unfortunately, their legacy of coexistence and love pales before the destructive effects on economy, culture, education, families, animals, nature and virtually every sphere of life in India by the imperialisms). It is more complex.
There is some debate these days in academia about the nature of imperialism’s impact on India. Postcolonial scholars agree European imperialism was real and devastating. Most of them look away from Islamic imperialism though, and prefer instead to argue that even the most ardent and militant Islamic crusaders in India such as Aurangzeb and Tipu Sultan were acting non-religiously while ordering mass slaughters of Hindus and destructions of their most sacred spaces of civic, spiritual, and economic life.
In addition, many scholars in academia today prefer to focus on what they believe is a much bigger concern for the world—Hinduism and its persistent colonization of India/South Asia along with its tangential alleged culpability for Hitler’s genocidal massacre of millions of Jews during World War 2. These scholars have retreated somewhat in the last few years on this last point. They no longer insist openly that India was invaded by Hindus/Aryans who massacred and colonized the natives. They say instead that there was an “Aryan migration,” and then proceed to ignore every bit of fact and truth expressed by dissenting scholars to go on doing what the openly racist and religiously intolerant colonizers were doing a few generations ago: hating Hinduism and making up completely false stories in order to destroy it.
Now, once again, some of these scholars might protest that they do not hate Hinduism at all, and that they are merely speaking against its “dark side,” such as “caste.” I would sympathize with that intent, and in the case of USC Dean Varun Soni’s recent article in CNN entitled “Why I am haunted by My Religion’s Dark Side,” I would add that the problem in his position is not necessarily one of malice, but of ignorance. He attributes the poverty and malnutrition he saw in India singularly to what he sees as the theology around the “caste system” without a mention of economic devastation caused by colonialism or by postcolonial political corruption (he also seems to think that anti-caste efforts began only after India’s independence in 1947). Even if some of these omissions can be overlooked on the grounds that he is not a social historian but an adjunct professor of religion, he makes the outlandish claim that “most Hindus believe that in order to achieve liberation, one must do one’s duty… so as to achieve a higher-caste rebirth.” (emphasis added). I have seen this notion in American history textbooks and some other old orientalist yarns, but have to say this is totally at odds with both Hindu thought and popular practice. After all, when the “lower caste” Shabari or Tukaram are said to have attained moksha, do our oral and cultural traditions depict them as simply attaining moksha (in Tukaram’s case Lord Vishnu sending his own celestial vehicle to pick him up from Dehu) or as saying, “ok, Lord, let me be reborn as a Brahmin and then I will get moksha”?
Let us now look more closely at the problem with approaching issues like caste and poverty with the whole “my religion’s dark side” angle.
First of all, it doesn't make sense at all to reduce Hinduism to a "religion" in the Western sense. It is a historic fabrication. However, since we live in a deeply interconnected postcolonial global culture, it is perhaps impossible to escape the use of a non-Hindu notion like “religion” to identify, self-represent, and indeed, survive. And survival is still a concern given that for centuries the original self-proclaimed “Religions” denied even the right to exist for people they sneered at as “unbelievers” (okay, we must grant that after several centuries of only partly successful if enormously destructive attempts, the believer/unbeliever dichotomy-makers now grant that everyone else is a “believer” too; not unlike how in the age of the colonial “civilizing mission” the dichotomy was civilized Europe versus the primitive or savage other, but now academia and media speak commonly of “civilizations” in the plural).
So, if Hinduism is not even a religion in your sense of the word, why do self-identifying Hindus even go along with this inaccurately self-relativizing “every religion has a dark side and this is mine” modus operandi? It makes sense for members of religions that have been at the heart of global imperialisms and violent conquests driven by their religion’s clearly stated, organized, and practiced theologies of conversion. Unless you believe that Hinduism too is a “religion” in the same sense, right down to messianic founders, civilizing missions, conquest-management institutions, and most of all, blood on its hands and its books, why would you go along with such a delusion? Do you believe, still, that Hindus are fair-skinned Aryans from Eurasia who invaded and enslaved Dravidians in 1500 BCE after destroying the Indus Valley Civilization, and therefore that you must chirpily rise up and denounce your non-existent invading class of religious zealots?
And even granting that Hindus have an obligation to denounce caste-privilege and oppression (which I agree with), why would you do so on the false terms set by colonial propagandists and not on your own? And most of all, is the media environment in which you denounce Hinduism for its dark side presenting an equal set of arguments from other religionists about their “dark side”? I only see writers from and about other religions arguing about how they invented civilization, science, math, astronomy, justice, law, all that is great, while the poor self-flagellating Hindu denounces himself without a clue.
Second, if you accept the fact that there is a reality to what is loosely called the “caste system,” and your conscience demands you speak about it, then does it not behoove you to understand it and talk about it accurately? Is it not possible to find an alternative between perpetuating a naïve 19th century colonial missionary propaganda with its Aryan Invasion nonsense and denying the inequities that exist and used to exist in India? It is remarkable that a scholar like Soni describes caste and poverty in India as if it was some eternal, unchanging, essence without a word of understanding for how much that poverty is a cause of centuries of economic colonization and plunder. No one would deny the existence of social, symbolic and even political hierarchies in premodern societies. But the violence of the sword and the cannon that reduced economically sovereign people to miserable desperation (despite several acts of heroic but sometimes futile resistance) cannot be ignored. Let us understand oppression realistically, and accurately.
It is not inaccurate to say that the subaltern communities of India carried those with privilege on their backs in some ways. But what happened when another set of people with even more power and privilege (and swords and guns and intolerant ideologies) showed up and jumped on their backs too? Who bore the brunt of it? That is the reality of caste, religion, identity and privilege in India today. The Dalits and the communities who make up most of the Indian population, often called Other Backward Castes, bore the brunt of the Islamic and Christian European imperialism. One can criticize the elites for escaping by compromising with imperialists on occasion while the masses bore the worst (a point supported perhaps by another fact Soni ignores in his enthusiasm to pin a Hindu theology on poverty; the wholesale practice of caste distinctions even among Indians who have converted out of Hinduism). And I wonder what Soni would make of the scholarship of Dharampal which shows us a very different picture of what Indian society was like at least as far as education is concerned.
If Hinduism, the simplistic Aryan Invasion “caste system” discourse, and the alleged centrality of the latter to the former, are all persistent remnants of colonial distortions of a far more complex reality, then how do we move towards a better understanding? Can we refuse the ridiculously false platforms of the “I’ll show you my religion’s dark side if you show me yours” game that so many well-meaning Hindus and Hindu Americans seem to be trapped in, and, at the same time, speak our conscience about privilege and oppression?
I think it is not only possible, but inevitable. However, we need to be clear about one thing. If you wish to speak about privilege and its abuses as a Hindu, you will need to be very clear and firm in differentiating between global privilege of the sort that accrues from having operated and prospered from vastly oppressive and exploitative global empires, and local privilege of the sort that middle or upper caste Hindus in their villages might have over Dalits or whom Westerners still inexplicably insist on calling “untouchables” (and also making lame jokes about the word, there are some right there on CNN’s website too); and local privileges which got solidified by their cooptation into colonialism rather than the opposite too.
Know your privilege, and those of others, honestly. In other words, if you are an American born and raised Hindu, and you saw poverty on your visit to your family’s village in India, know that what they have faced is a lot, lot more than what you can ever imagine. It may include that symbolic (and inexcusable) humiliation of having separate wells, but it also includes being displaced, killed, or converted for a whole millennium. The evidence of this trauma may not be obvious to you on the face of it. But if you look, you will see it. It is there, everywhere, from the destroyed ruins of a Hindu temple lying around the Qutub Minar in Delhi, to the ravaging of one of the greatest art treasures of the world in Hampi. It is also there in Kashi, the City of Light, currently being smeared as the “City of Death” by CNN (incidentally, I wonder if we will get to see Reza Aslan standing in front of the Kashi Vishwanath temple and saying “my religion has a dark side” and admitting that it destroyed this holy shrine and built a gigantic mosque that hulks over it to this day).
All I can say to Varun Soni is this. If you say you are a Hindu, speak for those who feel have been marginalized by your own privilege as you are doing, sure. But do not be silenced from speaking against a greater privilege system that now seeks to co-opt you.
Note: A reference to a scholar's work on Hinduism and religion in an earlier version of this piece was deleted.