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Why do even educated people believe in caste? || Acharya Prashant, with Delhi University (2023)
Author Acharya Prashant
Acharya Prashant
15 min
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Questioner (Q): Hello sir, recently there was an incident — a first-year student of IIT died; he was from a lower caste and poor background. He fought really hard to get into IIT without any coaching. It is alleged that once his friends on campus found out about his caste, their behaviour towards him changed completely. This eventually led him to commit suicide. In the wake of this incident, many instances of caste discrimination on elite campuses have come to light. So, in the name of meritocracy, a lot of students coming from privileged backgrounds are filled with caste bias. Sir, you also studied at India’s elite institutions. What are your views on it?

Acharya Prashant (AP): You see, first of all, as we are biologically constituted, as the human baby is born, we have an innate tendency to exploit, to divide, to consider ourselves as separate, either in the sense of being superior or sometimes inferior. So, we are not born very illuminated. It is as if there is a tendency within that is seeking ways to create mischief. It hunts for opportunities. Those opportunities, in the Indian context, are unfortunately very easily provided by culture and religious practice.

You see, being born in the human shape does not alone make you human. Having knowledge about the world, sciences, humanities and politics and everything else does not make you human. You are human when you understand who you are. And that's something, that's the only thing rather, that distinguishes us from animals. And we are not being given that education; instead of that education, we are being given something quite blind, quite dead, quite dark and that's culture. Who you are should be the knowledge that dictates your relationship with the other.

So, my relationship with you should come from a fundamental knowledge of my existential reality — who I am internally. I should have some knowledge of my consciousness, where my sense of identity comes from; there is a particular way I look at the world where does that come from, where do my hopes, aspirations, my fears, my despairs where do they come from, I should know these things and when I know myself, I also know the point from where you operate. Right?

I also know how vulnerable I am to being duped by my tendencies and worldly appearances. When I know that, I equally know that you too are vulnerable and that then governs the relationship between the two of us. And when I say the two of us, that does not merely mean me and you, that means me and, let's say, all hundred students who are right now in the audience, to extend that also means my relationship with the entire existence — all the animals, plants, the past, the future, the various countries, the various people. So, that relationship must come from a knowledge of myself and that knowledge is something our education does not provide us, we have neglected that.

Now, instead of that our relationship with the other is being governed by conditioning, flowing down from the past and that's what we proudly called as culture in India and everywhere else. So, I may not know a thing about life, I may not know at all what it means to be alive, what it means to be called a human being, but if I am born in a particular family, that culture of that family that's going to condition me will tell me well in advance how to behave with the neighbour. And if the neighbour belongs to a different religious belief or different caste I have been conditioned, it will tell well in advance about the way to behave with them.

Are you given a chance to discover on your own? Nobody gets a chance. “This is the way to behave with a Muslim, this is the way to behave with a Hindu, with a Buddhist, with a Christian, with the Sikh.” We know that already, and how do we know that? Did we enquire? Did we go out and experiment and test? Was there a zeal to find out? Was there love for Truth? No, there was just age-old conditioning made sacred in the name of culture — this is our culture.

This is our culture that women have to be looked at in a particular way, that men will behave like this and women will behave like that, that this is the way the wife will behave with husband, this the way the upper-class fellow will behave with the so-called lower-class fellow. And this is such a lazy thing because life is meant to be a very lively process of exploration.

It's life, so there has to be liveliness, right? Now, instead of that explorative spirit, what we get is readymade answers just handed over. What's worse is we start believing in them. Anything that you take for granted, anything that you invest belief in without having known it for yourself, it's just not good for you. If you want to talk about religion, then such a thing is sacrilege. Are you getting it?

Now, what is it that makes this kind of conditioning ‘sacred’? It is not sacred but people talk of it as something beyond enquiry, something transcendental and therefore sacred. What is it that attributes this sacredness to it? Is it the association with religious books? No, this sacredness is obviously just putative but most people do not know that. They think that the root of this kind of culture is the great books.

See, we will have to go all the way if we want to understand what is happening on the campuses. If we are really, sincerely interested in knowing why the young chap had to die by suicide, we will have to go to the roots. And you will have to have patience and the spirit to go the whole distance.

So, what is it that makes us believe that this conditioning that we call as culture is, indeed, to be taken as sacred? It’s a link between culture and religious books. So, culture linked with scripture is what lends an aura of sacredness to culture. See, culture could be dismissed if it is proven that culture is exploitive and violent; one could dismiss it. But when you say that your culture is flowing from scripture, then it becomes difficult to dismiss it.

Q: Right, Sir.

AP: Now the thing in Hinduism is that there are so many books, like hundred of books that you call as scripture. This is a problem that most other religious streams don't face. There is a central book and that's such a great thing to have.

But in Hinduism, not only do you have hundreds of books but, first of all, most people do not know which among these is central, and secondly, if there is a central book in Hinduism, most of the other books totally violate that central book. And yet, people continue to follow the other books because they do not know, first of all, that there is a central book and because they have not read either the central book or the other books. So, they do not even know that there is a contradiction. They talk of all the books in the same breath as if all of the books are saying the same thing.

The net result of this is that some very obnoxious beliefs continue to prevail because they get their sustenance from some verses of some scriptures. Those books are not fit to be called scriptures but popularly they continue to be.

Now, what to do with that? We need education, we need education of the self and if you are to call yourself a Hindu or a Sikh or a Muslim, then you need to be educated in at least your own scripture.

Preferably you should be educated in all major scriptures because they are important and because they affect the life of the world, therefore you ought to know of them; if nothing else then as general awareness.

But we do not know of that; neither do we have the education of the self nor do we have the education of the scripture. So, some very useless books, some very mediocre documents, some compilations of outdated, imaginary stories continue to hold currency. And many of them do talk of caste as something flowing from the divine, therefore the culture remains because culture is granted its sanctity from scripture and when that culture remains, suicides like the one you mentioned continues to happen.

We might be educated in technology or in commerce or in science or in arts but internally we are very, very uneducated people.

What is being? What is existence? What is the self? What does it mean to live? — These questions are rarely taken up in our classrooms. Life or existence or self is nowhere a subject to be taught, whereas that's the most important thing because that's who we are. All the other things are for us.

Mathematics is not who you are; mathematics is for you. Commerce is not who you are; commerce is for your sake. A machine is not who you are; all engineering and technology and science are for your sake. So, we are taught a lot of things that are for us but nobody is teaching us who we really are and that is leading to a lot of blind belief.

And if you'll challenge that belief, you will meet with a lot of resistance; people will say, “This is our great culture” and if you question the culture then, as we discussed, they will say, “No, if you're questioning our culture then you are questioning the scripture and if you question the scripture, we will attack you.” And that's when nobody has read the scripture. Especially in Hinduism, it is considered very unnecessary to really read the central canonical scripture.

Hinduism is a Vedic religion and the name of the philosophy of Vedas is Vedanta. And Vedanta basically means the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita and the Vedanta Sutra and Hindus do not know of this. Hindus do not know of this, but they continue to read hundreds of miscellaneous books in the name of religion and those miscellaneous story books, they continue to call as scriptures. They are not scriptures at all and that's not what I am saying.

They are not scripture because anything that violates the Veda, the Shruti , is to be immediately dismissed. The first proof of whether something is to be accepted as religious in Hinduism is that it should have Shruti Praman . What does the Shruti Praman mean? Shruti is Veda. It should be saying something that is aligned with the philosophy of Veda. That means it should be aligned with Vedanta. If something is not aligned with the Upanishads, then it has to be immediately dismissed as non-religious.

Now, caste is something that the Upanishads just do not approve of. In fact, they very actively dismiss caste. But still, caste continues to hold sway; why? Because there are certain other books that talk of caste as important, for example: some smritis and a lot of Puranas support caste. Had we really been careful and attentive and awakened people, we would have said, “Okay, all these books are there in the gamut of religion; let me enquire into it; how can we have five hundred different books in five hundred different directions? Then, is there something called religion at all, if anything goes; what do mean by Hinduism?”

Then I can pick up a book according to my own tendency, my own choice, my own conditioning and claim to be religious. Then it's a free for all thing; then it's like a supermarket where you go and you pick up whatever you choose and you will continue to be called a decent customer. That's not what religion is. Religion is not about going in whatever direction you please. Religion is about going in that one direction called the Truth. You begin with the word ‘ek’ or one; don’t you? Or do you say ‘anek’ (many)?

Q: No, ‘ek’ .

AP: You say ‘ek’ , that Oneness is at the centre of religion. Now, the whole tragedy is that Hinduism, in spite of being the mother of that Oneness, has totally lost that Oneness. And that is the reason why, from time to time, religious reformers had to emerge and they tried so much, they tried so hard to cleanse Hinduism and to some extent, they succeeded also. You think of the gurus, you think of Mahatma Buddha, you think of Lord Mahavir, they all tried their best.

You think of all the saints and so many of them came actually from the so-called lower castes. They tried so hard to purge Hinduism of its nonsense but still, those things continue for the first reason. What was the first reason we said? The child is born with the tendency to favour darkness. With great effort, light has to be awakened in him and that effort is called real education. Unfortunately, we are not having that education. Till the time that education remains unavailable to us, we will continue to have unfortunate incidents like the suicide of that bright fellow.

He would have cleared an entrance exam. With great hopes, he would have gone to the campus, and one shudders to think of the experiences that he had there where he had to take that ultimate and drastic step and I have talked of the root cause. Unless that root cause is addressed, there is no hope. One needs a sweeping and deep reform in Hinduism and in the entire field of religion, and in religions all over the world if one is to wipe out this evil.

Caste in some way or the other is present in all religions of the world but one cannot deny that it is at its most obnoxious form and in its worst form in Hinduism, and that can be corrected only when first of all we sit together and we bother to define what is Hinduism and which are its central scriptures. If it is a free fall kind of situation, then anything will be acceptable in the name of scripture. The fact is that the sages, the seers have already defined scriptures or Shastra and not every book, not every ancient book in Sanskrit deserves to be called ‘Shastra’ .

Only the books that deal with self-enquiry deserve to be called Shastra or scripture. If you talk of miscellaneous things of the world, if you talk of imaginary stories and such things, that's not scripture.

Scripture is a book that questions your very identity, probes it, goes into it, negates it, dismisses it and therefore purifies it. And Hindus will have to sit together and decide that this is the scripture or this particular set of books is to be called as scripture and anything outside of that is not Hinduism. Hindus will have to sit and decide that the thing called caste is not Hinduism. If that does not happen, we will continue to see more occurrences like this.

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