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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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'.
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
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.