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Understanding Religions in South Asia – Hinduism

South Asia is not only the home of an amazing variety of different religions and cults, it is also the birthplace of religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism to name just the largest. Arriving from abroad, Islam, Zoroastrianism and Christianity have contributed an independent South Asian variety to the original belief system.

By Ikram Sehgal and Dr Bettina Robotka
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Kapaleeshwarar Temple is an abode of god Shiva and goddess Shakthi, located in Mylapore, Chennai, Tamil Nadu. (Photo by Vinoth Chandar, CC license)

Globalization that includes the interaction, cohabitation and mixing of people from different ethnicities, cultures, religious backgrounds, values and world views has changed the world consisting of nation-states considerably. The growing presence of the “other” in one’s neighborhood has opened up tensions, questioned identities and resulted in a struggle to hold on to one’s inherited positions in society, cultural rites and religious world views. Despite our expectation that the 21st century would overcome the terrible wars of the 20th century. and be a century of peace, what we see today globally and in South Asia is far from peaceful. A

mong the many reasons is the presence of various religions and the respective world views and values that they promote. The seeming “otherness” of other religions than my own is at the root of many misunderstandings, rejections and prejudices. As a matter of fact, educational systems all over the world including the West have so far refrained from informing the young generation about the ideas and values, culture and history of the different religions that all of us are confronted with to a certain extend nowadays. Not knowing the other prevents our understanding quite a bit.

Understanding if not accepting the “other” religion is only possible if and when we have a basic understanding at least what it is all about. In addition, the power of our modern world – the media in all their forms – more often than not contribute rather to the confusion than to promote reliable information. That is especially true for the situation in the subcontinent at large.

South Asia is not only the home of an amazing variety of different religions and cults, it is also the birthplace of religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism to name just the largest. Arriving from abroad, Islam, Zoroastrianism and Christianity have contributed an independent South Asian variety to the original belief system.

Different religions have coexisted more or less peacefully over centuries it was during the colonial period, especially the 19th century that many of the reservations between different religious communities were created. One main reason was the dualistic British and/or European way of looking at things, either good or bad, right or wrong with no grey areas in between. That applied to all spheres of life like social norms, economy, culture and religion.

In the census of 1911 for Gujarat two hundred thousand people stated themselves to be ‘Mohammedan Hindus’, a clear sign that they either had never before thought about that question or they didn’t understand the difference.
Western culture recognizes only one way to do a thing right, that is their own way. This strange dualistic way eradicated even the possibility of another way to be right, it threw all options into the garbage. One starting point was the introduction of census in British-India. One of the questions that had to be answered in the questionnaire was to which religion the proponent belonged. In the census of 1911 for Gujarat two hundred thousand people stated themselves to be ‘Mohammedan Hindus’, a clear sign that they either had never before thought about that question or they didn’t understand the difference. In any case in their daily lives, it seems, there was no need for such a distinction.

But those distinctions became important rather sooner than later. That was when the idea of minority and majority was introduced into political life by the British. After the mutiny of 1857 the British – though reluctantly- introduced representation and later election into their rule of British-India. Of course, it certainly was not a democracy including all of the population. The voting rights were confined to certain eligibility criteria like property ownership, land ownership, payment of income and municipal tax. Including the wealthy class of India across the board it securely excluded the urban poor and most of the rural population. Educated Indians for the first time learned that in order to win a seat you need a majority of votes in your constituency.

Given the fact that the Indian population had only a 20 to 25% part of India’s population, a Muslim would have a slight chance only to win a seat because he could not expect votes from other communities. Sir S.A. Khan in his speech at Lucknow in 1887 expressed that in this way: “And let us suppose first of all that we have universal suffrage, as in America, and that everybody, chamars and all, have votes. And first suppose that all the Mahomedan electors vote for a Mahomedan member, and all Hindu electors for a Hindu member; and now count how many votes the Mahomedan members have and how many the Hindu. It is certain the Hindu members will have four times as many, because their population is four times as numerous. Therefore, we can prove by mathematics that there will be four votes for the Hindu to every one vote for the Mahomedan. And now how can the Mahomedan guard his interests? It would be like a game of dice in which one man had four dice, and the other only one, unquote.”

Even when this counting would not have come true, it matches the reality quite well. Muslim families like Sir Syed’s who were the former rulers of their states could not accept not to be part of the political elite of modern India. Thus, the rivalry between different communities, especially religious ones were mainly political created by the majority system.

Today religious prejudices originating from that period have reached a stage when differences in belief and/or ritual take violent forms and the state – far from neutral – has problems dealing with the situation. The idea of tolerance seems to have been pushed away and the attitude “my way or the highway” is ruling in South Asia. This situation brought to us the idea to review the religions of South Asia separately and in a closer way.

This new series of articles thus will deal with Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Islam, Zoroastrianism, Sikhism and Christianity in South Asia. This sequence roughly follows the timeline of its appearance in the subcontinent.

South Asia, with a population of 1.9 billion,  had the world’s largest population of Hindus (1.0 billion), Jains (4.25 million) and 21 million Sikhs, there were about 600 million Muslims, as well as over 25 million Buddhists and 35 million Christians. Hindus make up about 68% of Indians population and Muslims 31% or about 600 million of the overall South Asia population, while Buddhists, Jains, Christians and Sikhs constitute most of the rest. However India’s Hindu population include 200 million Dalits (untouchable) and about 100 million mountain tribes.

About one-third of the world’s Muslims are from South Asia. Even within the broad denominations of each religion, there are hundreds of sects, creeds or movements within each of them, nowadays some with political connotation. The hope is that by giving a closer look at the details of each of them, we can not only learn something about our neighbors, but maybe even detect some common ideas within the wider variety of ideas.

Hinduism or Sanatana Dharma

Hinduism which is also called Sanatana Dharma (eternal law), refers to the idea that its origins go back beyond time and space, has about one billion followers; they represent about 15% of the world population. After Christianity (31%) and Islam (23%), Hinduism is the third largest religion globally. Other than Islam and Christianity it is considered to be a polytheistic religion (worshipping more than one God) that is not revealed to anyone prophet and relies on a variety of sacred texts, among them the Vedas, Puranas, Bhagavadgita and others. Having developed over almost four thousand years Hinduism is considered to be the oldest religion in the world.

92% of the Hindus live in India, forming 80% of the population. Hindus are a majority in Nepal as well (81%) and in Mauritius they form 49% of the population. Smaller Hindu populations in South Asia are in Bhutan (25%), Sri Lanka (13%, all of them Tamils), Bangladesh (9%) and Pakistan (1.5%).

The term “Hindu” originates from the river Indus (in Persian) and Sindhu (Sanskrit). It started as a geographical term in the ancient Persian scriptures. When Alexander the Great came to India his chronicles called the river “Indoi” in Greek from which the European name Indian derived.

With the advent of Muslims in Sindh in 711 AD the population was called “Hindu” and the country “al Hind”. But for centuries the term kept a secular connotation and the idea of a religion called Hinduism was not born before the British entered the frame. Their scholarly purpose and their compulsion to name and categorize and bring some kind of “order” into the perceived religious chaos created the term Hinduism thus summarizing countless cults and belief systems of India under one heading so that it could be listed properly.

Hinduism seems to be rather an umbrella term for many different streams and branches of believes that share only few common understandings about the character of gods, time, life and life in the hereafter, salvation and other important parts of the religious philosophy.
In the beginning, the subtleties of the different believes were not known. The same happened to the caste system that had a mind-boggling variety of forms and names in different regions. The British tried to bring “order” and make it a “proper system” which made castes steadier and more continuous in Indian society. The difference between varna and jati also escaped attention for many years and is not understood until today by many in the west who use the terminology. Finally, Hinduism seems to be rather an umbrella term for many different streams and branches of believes that share only few common understandings about the character of gods, time, life and life in the hereafter, salvation and other important parts of the religious philosophy.

Over the almost four thousand years that this oldest of Indian religions has existed it has changed quite a bit. In Vedic times (named after the foundation of the Vedas) about 1500 BC to 500 BC after the Indus Valley culture had perished, the four Vedas that had been transmitted orally up to then were written down. Rigveda, Samaveda, Yajurveda and Atharvaveda consist of verses that are described believes and rituals and are accepted as of supra-natural origin by all branches of Hinduism. The ideas believes and rituals described in the Vedas were introduced into India by nomadic Aryan tribes that came to India from the Central Asian steppes. They were cattle drovers and settled in northern Punjab first and from there spread out along the Ganges valley. At the end of the Vedic period, the Upanishads were written down, philosophical texts that show the pre-eminence of the Brahma idea that comes closest to a monotheistic understanding and include the idea of reincarnation.

In later times this monotheistic idea of Brahma was substituted by combination with a variety of other deities. In the course of this development Brahma, a deity that lacked any characteristics, personal attributes and was beyond recognition by men was substituted by personalized gods. For unknown reasons, by 200 BC the Vedic times came to an end and the Vedic rituals lost some importance. Though the Brahmans who alone were allowed to bring sacrifice and conduct the sacrificial rituals stayed in power two monastic branches of the religion came to prominence: Jainism and Buddhism. Both these branches were reform movements that were initiated by non-Aryan rajas in the Ganges valley.

Buddhism became the ruling religion between 500 BC and 700 AD, Jainism co-existed but never ruled
From the Vedic Upanishads, only the teaching about reincarnation and karma were adopted by Jainism and Buddhism. While Buddhism became the ruling religion between 500 BC and 700 AD, Jainism co-existed but never ruled. Previous branches of Vedic Brahmanism and many popular cults continued throughout the Buddhist period. From 700 AD onwards with the retreat of Buddhism Brahmanism retakes its old position in a new form. Brahmans extend their influence, child marriage, widow burning (Sati) and untouchability come to the fore. A variety of local cults takes the lead and sectarianism spreads.

Modern Hinduism develops from the 19th century onwards as a reaction to British/Western critique of Hindu rites such as caste system, untouchability, widow burning and child marriage. Brahmo Samaj (Rammohan Roy) and Arya Samaj take the lead in two different directions. Brahmo Samaj tries to restore the monotheist character of Hinduism while castigating the criticism by the British traditions as aberrations thus trying to “modernize” Hinduism. Arya Samaj, on the other hand insists on the traditions and tries to revive the vedic religion by declaring the Vedas sacrosanct and basis of a Vedic society that long before Europe knew airplanes and other symbols of technical progress.

Arya Samaj was founded by Dayanand Saraswati in 1875. The latest wave of “modernization” came in the 1920s when in 1925 Hinduism was wedded with aggressive nationalism in the form of Hindu Mahasabha and Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS). V. D. Savarkar laid the ideological foundation with his book “Hindutva: Who is a Hindu” that was published in 1923.  These politicized forms of Hinduism that we are most aware of these days do not mean that Hinduism as such has become political. A vast variety of popular cults and even sects like the Ramakrishna Mission keep existing and by far not all Hindus are Hindutva-savvy. Since the end of British rule and attempts of the early Indian government to promote secularism especially in urban surroundings, Hindus are distancing themselves from those traditions that they regard as preventing social progress. But the election and re-election of BJP also show that politicized nationalistic Hinduism has many followers.

There has developed a discussion around the polytheism of Hinduism. If we look at the main spiritual branches there are three main deities in Hinduism: Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu. Brahma who is supposed to be the creator is the oldest deity. Brahma is prominently mentioned in creation legends of the Vedic period, he seems to be one of the oldest gods. After the 7th century he lost much of his significance.

Today only few Hindus recognize and worship Brahma. The two other deities that form together with Brahma a trinity (Trimurti) are Vishnu and Shiva. Most modern branches of Hinduism and their deities are forms of either Vishnu or Shiva. While Vishnu is understood to be the sustainer and preserver of the world, Shiva represents the perfecting and destroying force.

There is a fourth branch as well the main force of which is Shakti, a female goddess. She represents the divine mother and motherhood, but at the same time, she can be furious and destructive. Other female goddesses like Durga, Kali, Lakshmi and Sarasvati are all connected to Shakti.

The Cast System

The term “caste” is of western origin based on the Latin “castus” meaning pure. It was obviously created and introduced during the time when western (Portuguese, Dutch, French, British) seafarers and conquerors came to India and tried to make out and understand the society they found in India. The caste is legitimized by Hinduism social differentiation that divides the population in strictly separated hierarchical groups.

Traditionally members of a caste cannot intermarry with members of other castes, they are bound to specific occupations and are limited in their interaction by rules of purity. In modern India the caste system is prohibited by law but practiced widely in urban as well as rural surroundings. The traditional Hindu social order described in English by “caste” though consists of two very different connotations, namely Varna and Jati.

Varna meaning colour in Sanskrit the highest caste having the lightest colour of skin and the lowest the darkest skin colour. Traditionally there are four varnas, with Brahmans (traditional intellectual elite having a monopoly on reading and interpreting the Vedas, priests), Kshatriya (traditionally being warlords, higher administrators, kings), Vaishyas (traders, landowners, agriculturalists) and Shudras (craftsmen, workers, landless peasants). Below these four varnas there are the Dalits (meaning suppressed) who again are divided into many groups with different social standings but mostly considered “achut” (untouchable) by the upper four varnas.

Jati (meaning born or by birth) is a kind of occupational group. There are thousands of jatis in India that often have local or regional connotation. Each jati is supposed to belong to a certain varna but not list or schedule for that exists or has ever existed. A person is born into a jati, has to live his or her life within that jati with no (and even today hardly any) possibility to improve the social status by exiting one and entering a higher jati. A jati is thus a kind of extended family system or clan that is sharing not only an occupation, but tradition, culture, values and common ancestors. Each jati is ruled by a group of elders that decide controversies that may arise in different questions of daily life.

Varnas are of ancient origin. They are mentioned first at the time of the Rigveda about 1500 BC. At first two varnas were mentioned in the ancient texts – the light-coloured ones and the dark coloured ones. The Aryan population that around 3000 BC came to the subcontinent from Asia belonged to the Indo-Aryan group of people that included Caucasians and Europeans. When these Aryans entered they found the subcontinent inhabited by an indigenous tribal population of dark skin colour, we can therefore conclude the differentiation was between immigrants and indigenous population.

Only in later texts the light varna is mentioned to be divided into three groups brahmans, kshatriyas and vaishyas. Shudra seems to have become the varna of the dark coloured. Latest genetic research has established that 4200 years ago there was no contact restriction between the varnas and a mixing took place resulting in the darkening of the colour of some and the lightening of others. Only about 1900 years ago the mixing stopped, contact and marriage restrictions were put in place. Coming from the north the Aryan immigrants proceeded only slowly east and south, reaching southern India much later when contact was already restricted. The result was that in South India the original population kept their relatively darker skin colour.

With contact restrictions staying in place until today, the occupational preferences have almost vanished. Under British rule the Brahmans lost their monopoly to read the Vedas when the British founded educational institutions that were open to all. When the Sanskrit College was founded in Calcutta in 1824, where students could study Sanskrit. That opened the way to read the Vedas. In addition, European scholars started reading, translating and editing the Vedas to that the scriptures became available to all. The performance of Vedic rituals, one of the core occupations of Brahmans, also became rare and that is why we read already in the 19th century about poor Brahmans in need to go for jobs in the colonial administrative service or educational institutions. There they have to compete with people from other varnas that had passed college and started applying for jobs. Today one can find Brahmans working as cooks in good restaurants because many of the rich higher caste guests do not want to eat food cooked by a lower caste person. Reversely, representatives of lower varnas in modern day India can reach good positions in social life, join politics and grow rich as an entrepreneur.

K. R. Narayanan was the first President of India from 1997 to 2002 who was born an “Untouchable”; still that may not have opened him the doors to marriage into a varna family. Usually, the varna or even jati can be established by the name of a person. Sharma and Banerji are typical Brahman names, other names disclose the belonging of a person to other varnas or to untouchables. For marriage, of course, a thorough investigation is conducted so as to find a bride from the right varna or jati. Marrying into a lower caste would result in losing one’s higher caste status!

For the hierarchy in Hindu society the idea of purity is important. Certain occupations until today are considered impure, such as leather workers, barbers, dhobis, people dealing with garbage. To keep their purity higher varnas and jatis try to keep away from lower ones, for instance they avoid using the same crockery as the servants. In modern life this is not always possible, especially in urban areas we don’t know the name and the social status of people we meet.

Despite the prohibition of caste-related disadvantages in the Indian Constitution these thousands of years old customs and beliefs survive and erode only very slowly. The category of “scheduled castes and tribes” reserves seats in educational institutions and jobs in the administration, those try to smoothen out the social injustice but cannot do away with it.

An interesting fact that can be observed in Pakistan as well is that ideas of purity and caste have been incorporated into other religious communities as well. While one reason for conversion of low-caste or untouchable people to Christianity or Islam may have been to escape the inequality of the Hindu caste system, today we can see that this did not happen. The centuries-long co-habitation of Muslims and Hindus, for instance, has resulted in the adoption of ideas of purity/impurity among Muslims. Trying to find a white-skinned bride, keeping a separate, often metal drinking glass for servants and incoming labourers is common in Pakistan. Even marriage partners are more often than not chosen according to biradri or clan belonging. In Sri Lanka, these ideas of inequality have been adopted even among the Buddhist population.  Islam, Christianity and Buddhism all uphold notions of basic equality of men, but co-habitation with Hinduism over long time have brought these changes.

The Dalits of India

(Photo courtesy ActionAid India – campaigns, CC license)

Since Dalits are excluded from the four-fold varna system of Hinduism and are seen as “Avarna”, they are examined separately. Dalit (meaning broken, shattered in Sanskrit) is a name for people who used to belong to the lowest jatis (occupational castes) in India. They are called “untouchables” because they are considered impure in the religious understanding and physical touching or social intercourse with Dalits is supposed to pollute the caste purity of a Hindu person. Another term for Dalits, created and promoted by Mahatma Gandhi. Is Harijan. Hari is another name of the Hindu god Krishna and Gandhi was trying to include the Dalits into the devotees of Krishna.

Economist, politician and social reformer B. R. Ambedkar (1891–1956), himself from a Dalit background, and commonly known as Babasaheb, said that untouchability came into Indian society around 400 AD, due to the struggle for supremacy between Buddhism and the overwhelming power of Brahmins, called Brahmanism. Ambedkar, who served as India’s first Law and Justice Minister and considered the Chief Architect of India’s Constitution,  just before his death led a mass conversion of Dalits into Buddhism.

India is home to over 200 million Dalits, the Dalit community being not only larger than any of the Hindu varnas, but also larger than the Muslim community in India. They live in all over India, usually separate mohallas at the outskirts of villages and towns. Dalit communities comprises 16.6% of the country’s population, according to the 2011 Census of India. Uttar Pradesh (21%), West Bengal (11%), Bihar (8%) and Tamil Nadu (7%) account for almost half the country’s total Dalit population. Their percentage is lowest in north-east India because the indigenous population there are not Hindus and don’t follow the caste system. Bengali immigrants have introduced a small number of Dalits into their society. Similar groups are found throughout the rest of the Indian subcontinent; less than 2% of Pakistan’s population is Hindu, 70–75% are Dalits. Bangladesh had 5 million Dalits in 2010, the majority being landless and in chronic poverty.

Dalits are very much divided among themselves into different jatis depending on the occupation they are practicing. There are also social differences between different groups of Dalits, some consider themselves socially above others. Dalits in India continue to work as sanitation workers: manual scavengers, cleaners of drains, garbage collectors, and sweepers of roads. Other occupations are leather workers, tanners, flayers, cobblers, agricultural labourers and drum beaters.

Though the varna system, introduced to India by Aryan nomadic immigrants, is absent in the Vedas, the idea of purity and impurity was already present there. It was later used by the Brahmins to support and perpetuate their rule. In the process, the indigenous non-Aryan population (often tribal people with dark skin) were not included into the varna system and over the centuries became untouchable. That meant varna Hindus were not allowed to physically contact them, to take food prepared by them, accept water from them. The idea that leather shoes are impure (even when not muddy) comes from the idea that leather, the skin of the cow and the worker who have produced the shoes are impure as well. So throwing shoes at each other to express disregard or even revulsion comes from this chapter of Hinduism and is practiced in Islamic Pakistan without a thought. Other habits like keeping a separate glass for workers coming to the house or for servants originate also in the Hindu idea of purity/impurity.

Abrahamic religions like Islam and Christianity in principle also reject inequality of men but in the subcontinent the idea has been corrupted by Hindu influence.
The idea and social reality of untouchability as much as inequality of men was first criticized by both Buddhism and Jainism. Abrahamic religions like Islam and Christianity in principle also reject inequality of men but in the subcontinent the idea has been corrupted by Hindu influence. When the British came to India, they started criticizing untouchability, Sati (widow burning), child marriage and other social customs. This initiated a self-critical view among Hindus and Hindu reform movements like the Brahmo Samaj and other proponents of the Bengali Renaissance in the 19th century that rejected the caste system but when it came to getting their own daughters married, they had to accept it. So, social reform was not successful in this regard.

Another problem was the electoral system that introduced the idea of majority vote. Upper-varna Hindus had to decide how to manage their votes. Normally they would not have considered Dalits Hindus. But with the need to secure a majority for their election, they understood that leaving out the large number of Dalits would make their election campaigns much more difficult. Thus, it was Mahatma Gandhi who promoted the idea of including Dalits into the Hindu fold (by calling them Harijan) which would secure Hindus a stable majority. In 1932, the British Raj in the Communal Award recommended separate electorates and introduced reserved seats for Dalits. This was favoured by the Dalit leader Ambedkar but Mahatma Gandhi opposed the proposal because it would be to the detriment of Hindu numbers. The Government of India Act, 1935 then introduced the reservation of seats for the Depressed Classes, now renamed as “Scheduled Castes” in India.

In independent India caste-based discrimination is prohibited and untouchability abolished by the Constitution of India. Soon after that India introduced a reservation system to enhance the ability of Dalits to have political representation and to obtain government jobs and education. Now renamed as “Scheduled castes” Dalits have reserved seats in educational institutions and for government jobs. While in principle this has opened up the possibility of Dalits to get education and a job it has only minimally reduced discrimination. Forced by the circumstance of their birth and poverty, Dalits in India continue to work as sanitation workers and in other “impure” jobs.  As of 2019, an estimated 40 to 60% of the 6 million Dalit households continue to be engaged in sanitation and other like jobs. Even those who make it to universities and good jobs have to fight against discrimination. A learned judge of the Allahabad High Court had his chambers “purified” with the sacred water from the River Ganges, because they had earlier been occupied by a Dalit judge.  The question asked about the number and/or percentage of Dalits in the Indian Armed Forces will get an evasive reply, contrary to what is proclaimed only high-class pure-blooded Indians allowed into the Indian Army.  The number of Dalits in the army could well be close to ZERO if not ZERO.

Dalit is a social status more than a religion. There is no record of religious beliefs among those Dalits who have not converted. Given their dismal social position they are not allowed to practice mainstream Hindu religion, they were prevented from entering temples and attend religious ceremonies. Most are illiterate and have no access to religious books and scriptures.  They surely do have religious beliefs and follow some rituals but those have not been recorded. Due to the lack of proper recognition in the mainstream of Hindu religion, Dalits have been adopting religions such as Islam, Christianity and Buddhism but despite of that they remain socially deprived.

In a 113-page joint report in 2007 “Hidden apartheid, anti-discrimination against India’s untouchables”, the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice said that 16.5 million Dalits in India are condemned to a lifetime of abuse simply because of their (non)caste. In fact, Indian PM Manmohan Singh called “untouchability a “blot on humanity”.  Caste-related killings, rapes and other abuses are a daily occurrence in India, a 2005 got report said a crime against Dalits is committed every 20 minutes. In 2007, an EU Parliament Resolution found India’s efforts to enforce laws protecting Dalits to be “grossly inadequate”.

(A defence and security analyst, the writer is Chairman Karachi Council of Foreign Affairs (KCFR) and the Vice Chairman Board of Management Quaid-e-Azam House Museum [a Nation Building Institution] and Dr Bettina Robotka, former Professor of South Asian Studies, Humboldt University, Berlin, Editor of the Defence Journal and a Consultant to the Pathfinder Group).

These articles first appeared in Daily Times

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