I hope the title of this piece did not make you read it twice. Hinduism’s fight against Caste and Birth based discrimination is not an oxymoron or anomaly. For the population that was made to study for at least three generations that ‘caste-ism is one of the evils in Hinduism’, this might come across as a surprise. We have sadly failed to study about the scores of Hindu gurus, composers of Bhakti movement and literary poets who in their own ways have shown the irrelevance of caste in their body of work.
One of the earliest commentaries advocating the need to look beyond the concept of ‘outcaste’ appears in Mahabharata in the Ashvamedhika Parva (I shall not be surprised if one is able to find even earlier sources too). A Brahmana named Uttanka is given a boon by Krishna that he would be able to find water whenever he is thirsty. Uttanka remembers the boon when he feels thirsty while travelling through a desert. He then encounters a Chandala who offers him water to quench his thirst. Looking at the Chandala’s state, Uttanka is angered and refuses to drink the water despite repeated requests. After the Chandala leaves, Uttanka invokes Krishna demanding that a Chandala cannot be sent to give him water. Krishna chides him saying that it was in fact Lord Indra who was offering him the Amrita upon Krishna’s request. Uttanka’s attachment to the Chandala being outcaste thus deprives him of the divine nectar. A lot of interpretations could be drawn out of the episode but philosophically it does glaringly strike that obsession with untouchability keeps one away from realising the true potential of Atma (The jnana being symbolized by the nectar in this case).
Coming to the Hindu gurus, Adi Sankara’s encounter with a Chandala in whom he saw Shiva is well known. Maneesha Panchakam of Sankaracharya composed in that context stresses on the concept that Atma is unaffected by the physical attributes, one of which is caste. Adi Sankaracharya also composed Upadesha Sahasri, which is regarded as the teacher’s manual for imparting the concept of Advaita. In the verses describing a student’s graduation from learning the Shrutis to learning about the nature of self, Sankara urges the teachers to prod the students to answer the question of ‘Who am I?’ He then directs the teachers to question and refute those answers which associate the student with birth, caste, gotra and other physical attributes which limit the self to just the body. Obviously, a school of thought which propounds ultimate one-ness, the identification with any classification is a strict no-no
Most of us might have heard this story of Sri Ramanujacharya, the leading proponent of Visishtadvaita. Ramanuja as a young student receives the mantra from his teacher to attain moksha (loosely translated as liberation). The teacher gives strict instructions to keep it a secret. As is believed, Ramanuja climbed up the roof of the temple and shouts out the Mantra so that everyone in the village hears it. He then argues with his teacher that it is worth facing the consequence of leaking the ‘secret’ if everyone in the village gets to know of the path to Moksha. In another incident, Ramanuja became the disciple of Tirukachi Nambi a proponent of the Vaishnava philosophy, who belonged to a lower caste. Defying scepticism from the orthodox people around him including his wife, Ramanuja went ahead to serve Tirukachi Nambi with a single point aim of gaining knowledge. Sadly these anecdotes are not spoken about much and the reformist side of the great guru remains eclipsed.
Bhakti movement saw scores of composers who sang in the streets about the Supreme Lord’s equal treatment to all beings and that human made stratifications meant nothing to Him. A striking success case is the movement headed by Mahatma Basaweshwara of Karnataka in the 12th Century. A poet, philosopher, reformer and a political figure himself, Basaweshwara put up an active fight against untouchability. Shivanubhava Mantapa, an institution he founded is believed to have initiated the concept of social democracy ensuring fair representation across genders and classes. Exponents of this institution like Akka Mahadevi have propagated this philosophy through the Vachana literature. The success of this movement is seen today as we see the members of this community assuming positions across all spheres of life from priestly to political.
Narsi Mehta or Narsihn Mehta, composer of the famous bhajan Vaishnav Jan Toh, also known Adi Kavi in Gujarati literature was believed to have dined with scavengers, going against the orthodox beliefs of discrimination. The spirit of soul being unaffected by such discriminative attributes was echoed by a number of saints across India from the compositions like Sant literature of Maharashtra, compositions of Odiya poets and the Dasarapadas in Kannada. A cursory research into these works throws up a lot of examples speaking against birth/class based discrimination and oppression. Legends about miraculous incidents like the statue of Lord Krishna in Udupi turning around to give Darshan to Kanakadasa tell a lot about the strong belief that the divine favoured true devotion and merit over social privileges.
I personally desire to study them all in detail and also wish there was encouragement by State towards propagating the compositions of saints which establish Hinduism’s intellectual transaction of discriminative thought. The propagation of such knowledge and awareness of the oneness behind these compositions I am sure would help us unite and progress as proud inheritors of this civilization.
One example which stays close to my heart is the Telugu composition, Brahmamokkate Parabrahmamokkate by Annamacharya, another exponent of the Sri Vaishnava philosophy. I shall end this article with a loose translation of the immortal composition.
There is but one Supreme Being, the one and the only one Supreme Being
There are no such fixations of who is high and who is low, for Sree hari resides in everyone
The state of sleep of a king is not different from that of his servant. The earth on which a Brahmana steps on and a Chandala moves on is one and the same
The sensual pleasures are the same irrespective of whether celestial beings indulge in them or the animals and insects. The day and night are one and the same for those who are rich and those who are poor
The taste of delicious food and decaying food would differ but the tongue that tastes them is the one and the same. The wind that brushes past the foul and fragrant is one and the same
The rays of sun are one and the same whether they fall upon an elephant or a dog. The name of Lord Venkateswara is the one that can protect the meritorious and the sinful alike.
By Saiswaroopa Iyer