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Living in a Casteless World:

Interview with Prof. Arvind Sharma.

 

By Farish A. Noor

 

Recently the House of World Cultures in Berlin organised a seminar where the

prominent Hindu reformist thinker Professor Arvind Sharma of McGill University

spoke about the challenges of living in a casteless world. Farish A. Noor was

invited to moderate the discussion and he managed to conduct this interview. In

the first part of the interview, he talks to Prof. Sharma about the historical

evolution of Hinduism, the need for a deeper understanding of world religions

through inter-civilisational dialogue and the challenge of reforming Hindu

thought in the global age we live in today.

 

Noor: 'One of the things that you are known for is your sustained critique of

the misconceptions and misunderstandings about Hinduism among non-Hindus, which

persist till this day. How and why do you think these misunderstandings persist, and what are the factors that stand in our way of really understanding

Hindu thought and civilisation?'

 

Sharma: 'It is good that we begin by clearing away the errors and fallacies

first. As you know, much of what we call 'Hinduism' today has in fact been

constructed by the Orientalist scholars of the West. The encounter between the

Western world and the Hindu world was a fateful one, in the same way that the

encounter between the West and Islam or Chinese civilisation has left a lasting

mark on our understanding of those cultures.

Now in the case of Hinduism we cannot discount the impact of European colonial

rule in India and the impact of missionary activities carried out by Europeans

who believed that they were part of a civilising mission. Unlike the encounter

between Indians and other outsiders, the Western encounter was a particularly

important one that shaped the understanding of both sides about the other. It

was during this time that Western Orientalist thinkers began to imagine the

non-Western world along caricatural terms. The East was seen as 'exotic',

'despotic', 'static' and so on. The first Europeans who came to India did not

really understand that the Indians had a number of different religions and

different social systems. In an attempt to give some cohesiveness to what they

regarded as a complex and confounding environment, they coined terms like

'Hinduism' which referred to the religions of the Indian peoples as a whole.

'Hinduism', as imagined by Western scholars, became an assembly of apparently

contradictory elements: it was seen as open and pluralistic, yet the Europeans

continued to condemn what they called the fanaticism and intolerance of the

Hindus themselves. Because many of these Europeans also wanted to convert the

Hindus to their own beliefs, they also painted a picture of Hinduism as

something backward, superstitious and oppressive.

Such a narrow and instrumentalist view of Hinduism overlooks the fact that what

we call Hinduism has in fact evolved and developed over the years. But till

today so many people who stand outside the Hindu world have the impression that

Hinduism is static and that it does not possess an internal dynamic of its own'.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Noor: 'Now that you have brought up the question of evolution and dynamics,

allow me to ask you the important question of where the so-called 'caste system'

comes into all this. This has been one of the most important features of

Hinduism as it has been presented to the outside world, yet few people actually

understand what it is and what it means'.

 

Sharma: 'The caste system has really been presented as the defining feature of

Hinduism and Hindu civilisation to the outside world. Again this is linked to

the encounter between Hindu civilisation and the West, where the latter wished

to present the former in static and stereotypical terms. Over the years, Western

scholarship presented to its audience the image of Hinduism as being tolerant of

the outside world but essentially intolerant within itself. The caste system was

presented as proof that Hinduism was hierarchical and that stasis and inertia

had brought Hindu civilisation to a standstill.

But of course most of these outsiders had no idea of what the caste-system

really was, how it evolved and what was its relevance to the Hindus themselves.

For us to understand Hinduism today, we must really clarify some of the deeply

rooted misunderstandings about caste in general.

Now it is often said that Indians belong to many 'varnas'. 'Varna' is a concept

that has been loosely translated and identified with caste, but this does not

really help us understand anything for the caste system is actually based on a

number of important concepts: Varna, Jati and Caste.

The first concept that was developed was 'Varna', which in practise amounted to

a sort of functional division in society. There were many varnas in Indian

society, which reflected its pluralistic and organic nature. Varnas existed

according to social functions that were being performed by various groups and

these varnas could evolve, rise and fall, and even become extinct as the

lifestyle of that society changed over the course of time.

By the seventh century 'Jati' divisions began to take over and these were

reduced to a smaller number of groupings. The jati categories were also more

rigid and general. In the early classical period jati was explained as emerging

from the intermarriage between the varnas.

It was only around the seventeenth century that what we now call 'Caste' comes

to dominate. This was also the time when Indian civilisation encountered the

Western world, and for the Europeans caste became the defining feature of Hindu

civilisation.'

 

Noor: 'Apart from emphasising the pluralistic and evolutionary nature of the

caste system, you have also called for a radical re-thinking of caste itself.

What do you mean by that?'

 

Sharma: 'Now here is where I think we need to re-appraise our understanding of

the key concepts of Hinduism. As I have said, these social divisions and

categories of differentiation were evolutionary and dynamic. They were founded

on both theological premises (such as one's conduct in one's previous life,

karma, and so on) as well as practical considerations such as one's function in

society. Caste was as much based on orthopraxy as it was on belief.

When we talk about the four castes of Hinduism- the philosopher-savants,

warriors, merchants and labourers- we need to remind ourselves that these caste

categories were not merely labels or names of communities but they also referred

to specific stations in life and modes of being. In the pre-modern age where

societies the world over were less developed and where social advancement was

hindered by so many factors, people were less free and able to exercise their

human potential. But in the present modern world and the global age we live in,

the possibility of pushing the limits of human potential and rational agency

seem limitless. Here is where Hinduism can re-appraise its understanding of the caste system. For in the light of present-day realities, human beings no longer live compartmentalised lives. None of us live and work according to singular

functions. In every single working day we are all forced to perform a number of

tasks, and when we do so we exist at different stations or modes of being. So,

for instance, while you and I are discussing right now, we are both in a state

of intellectual activity which conforms to the Brahminical 'dharma' or law. When

we defend our interests we are in the state of the Ksatria dharma. When we go

out and work for a living, we are engaged in the dharma of the merchant class,

and so on.

What I am trying to argue for is an understanding of caste in terms of different

dharmas or moral principles which we all possess at different stages of our

lives and in our daily activities. And apart from that there is the higher

dharma or moral principle which binds all of us, as human beings, to proper and

good moral actions: telling the truth, upholding justice, being charitable and

so on.'

 

Noor: 'What you have just said is very interesting as it forces us to

re-conceptualise and revise what we understand as the caste system. If by caste

you really mean 'states of mind' or 'modes of being' then in a sense you are

saying that in each individual you already have all the castes bound up in a

single consciousness. Does this not lead to problems or contradictions you

think? What happens when a soldier has to kill, for instance? Is there not a

crisis of purpose or conscience here?'

 

Sharma: 'Yes of course we have a crisis there, but Hinduism accepts that.

Hinduism accepts that life is not easy or clear cut and that there are bound to

be such moral dilemmas that confront all of us. A warrior or soldier, for

instance, must obey his dharma as a Ksatria- he must fight and kill if

necessary. But he must also obey a higher dharma which is universal to

humankind, which compels him towards justice and mercy. Such contradictions have

been examined in detail in the major works of Hindu philosophy and literature.

The dialogue between Arjuna and Khrisna in the Mahabharata, for instance,

revolves around such questions when Arjuna is battling with his own conscience

and does not know which path to take. These are the moral dilemmas that confront

every one of us in our daily lives and we cannot escape them.'

 

Noor: 'So where does your critical approach towards the question of caste take

us? How does it bring us closer to a casteless world?'

 

Sharma: 'We need to accept that living in the world is not a matter of free-play

where there is total freedom. We are bound by the circumstances of our birth

whether we look at it from a secular or religious perspective. Those from the

secular Western world may think that their own societies are far more open, free

and egalitarian but we all know that the truth is not the case. People the world

over are bound by blood, birth, heritage, culture, language and class. We cannot

even escape out nationalities, which are determined by the circumstances of our

birth.

But if we can re-think these categories in non-essentialist terms as I have

tried to do with the concept of caste, and if we can think of such differences

as dynamic, evolutionary and existential, then we can break free from the

mistaken belief that our identities are fixed and that we are doomed to a static

existence in the world. Being able to rethink our understanding of caste is one

of the first steps we need to take towards a world where we are all seen as

complex individuals with complex personalities of our own.'

 

 

Noor: 'We began by discussing the work that you have done towards clearing up

the various misunderstandings that persist in the world concerning Hinduism and

Hindu civilisation in general. As someone who has written and spoken so much

about the need for non-Hindus to understand Hindu culture and religion, you must

feel strongly about the need to dispel such fallacies and stereotypes about the

Other'.

 

Sharma: 'Yes indeed. But the process goes both ways. While it is true that

non-Hindus must really question some of their own misconceptions about Hindu

culture and religion, it is also true to say that Hindus in India are not immune

to such mistakes either. This is the problem when prejudice comes to dominate

consciousness and understanding. It ultimately distorts our view of reality

itself and we all end up being victims of it. While Hindus were misrepresented

by outsiders, the backlash that it created has caused Hindus to think of others

in equally biased terms.'

 

Noor: 'Can you give us an example of that? How does this distortion work in the

Indian context?'

 

Sharma: 'Well, as you can see today in India there are those who are trying to

present the other religious communities there in decidedly negative terms.

Christians and Muslims are being re-cast as outsiders and enemies who are trying

to work against Hinduism, trying to convert Hindus and trying to undermine Hindu

solidarity. This fear of the Other is underlined by the fact that despite

appearances there has been little contact between the communities themselves on

a large scale.

The popular understanding of Christianity, Islam and other religions among some

sections of the Hindu community is shallow to say the least. Christians and

Muslims have been portrayed as belonging to different communities and who have

values that are different from the norm. They are seen as being out of place and

sometimes even a threat. It is a pity that so much of this is due to the fact

that the Hindus themselves have so little knowledge of Islam and Christianity'.

 

Noor: 'In a sense the problem you refer to is typical of all plural societies

where communities exist side by side but do not really mix because the

pedagogues among them choose to emphasise their differences rather than the

common humanity that we all share. What you say about Hindu communalism is of

course true in the Muslim and Christian context as well, and there are plenty of

examples where we can see how Muslims are apprehensive of Hindus simply because

they do not understand them. The irony is that in societies like India and

Malaysia these communities have actually been living next to each other for

centuries'.

 

Sharma: 'This is why it is so important for those in power to play a leading

role in cultivating inter-communal and inter-religious understanding. One of the

things I have been calling for is the teaching of comparative religions in

India. This is particularly important now that the BJP party has come to power

and India has a negative image internationally. Everyone thinks that India will

slide towards increasing communalism and intolerance and part of the reason for

this is the lack of inter-communal understanding between the various religious,

linguistic and ethnic groups.

For me, the teaching of comparative religion is important as it helps ordinary

people- and young people in particular- to understand that despite the

superficial differences between religions there are common moral concerns and

moral values that all communities in the world share. As we understand the Other

better, our fears and doubts are gradually dissipated. The problem arises when

we insist on our differences and we use these differences as markers of identity

that are fixed and non-negotiable. That way, no understanding can be achieved

and even communication itself breaks down'.

 

Noor: 'It is interesting that you speak of the need for inter-religious and

inter-civilisational studies and dialogue. You may know that Malaysia is one of

the countries that has introduced this subject in its educational system and it

has been made a compulsory subject at university level. However, this was not

without its own share of problems and resistance. There were many parties that

objected to the move, on the grounds that it might confuse matters and lead to a

blurring of differences'.

 

Sharma: 'It is sad to hear that. I never realised that you encountered so many

problems and so much resistance. But in the light of present day realities, what

other choice have we? If we fail to teach our young about the commonalities they

share with their peers from other communities, who will do it? And if such

pedagogic education is not attempted, how can we ever work towards true

tolerance and respect for difference in our communities?

The problem lies in the way that all religions teach their followers that theirs

is the right path to follow, the right way of life and the right choice. Of

course this generates tension when people of a certain religion encounter others

who believe in other things and worship in different ways. Such encounters force

us to look at ourselves and make us question our own beliefs. This can be a

potentially rewarding experience, but sadly for many people it can also be a

point of crisis. In many cases the response to such encounters is to negate the

other or to try and convert the other to one's own way of thinking. But this

completely goes against the need to respect the Other as well.

One of the cardinal rules of tolerance is respect for the Other. This respect

comes only after we understand one another, and we recognise that the Other has

beliefs and values of his own which are worthy of respect. Once this common

respect is established, communities can co-exist in peace without trying to

overcome or dominate each other. What we often forget is that for any

authentically missionary religion to be missionary, it just has to be. To be, to

simply exist and to excel in oneself is to be missionary in the best sense of

the term.

Today we live in an age where the different religious and cultural systems of

the world have been brought so close together. At times this proximity can be

discomforting and problematic, causing tension, anxiety and problems. If we can

all just respect each other and be the best that our own religions expect us to

be, perhaps we will see that we all belong to a common humanity that is

essentially moral and benevolent.'

 

Noor: 'Speaking of crisis situations, the situation in India today seems to be a

cause of concern for the rest of the world. There are many people who think that

India's experiment with Secular democracy has failed and come to an end. Others

claim that India is about to slip into a form of sectarian politics which will

lead to bloodshed and suffering on a scale hitherto unknown. What are your views

on the matter?'

 

Sharma: 'This is not the first time that Indian democracy has been in a state of

crisis. Years ago a number of prominent Indian intellectuals were already

claiming that the democratic experiment in India has failed, long before the

rise of the BJP and what is known as the 'Hindu fundamentalists'.

For me, there is little point in talking about the so-called 'ancient hatred'

between the communities that is said to have come out into the open with the

destruction of Babri Mosque in Ayodhya. The problem for me goes back to the very

beginning, when India gained its independence in 1947 and started off with a

secular constitution.

The problem with the constitution was that it was seen as being asymmetrical and

therefore unjust from the outset. The early leaders of India wanted to be fair

with the religious minorities, but they ended up over-compensating when they

offered them too much legal protection in a sense. What is worse, they allowed

these communities to co-exist but they failed to encourage mutual understanding

and education between them. So as a result in all the communities we saw the

rise of sectarian leaders who claimed to be speaking for their respective

communities while the truth was that they had their own exclusive agendas. The

rise of the BJP merely mirrors the rise of other dogmatic and conservative

leaders in the other communities. All of these leaders have emphasised the

particularities and specificities of their communities rather than the

commonalities they share with others.

Now that we have reached this stage, it is even more important for us to rescue

these religions and cultural systems from those who wish to turn them into

vehicles for sectarian politics. But this also means that we have to seriously

and critically re-examine our constitution which promoted a form of pluralism

that led to fragmentation'.

 

End

 

 

Prof. Arvind Sharma is a professor of Comparative Religion in the Faculty of

Religious Studies, McGill University, Canada. He has written extensively on

matters related to contemporary Hinduism and comparative religion for more than

two decades.

 

Dr. Farish A. Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and human rights activist.

He is currently a research fellow with the working group on Modernity and Islam at the Wissenschaftskolleg of Berlin, Germany. He is presently working on a book on the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, PAS.