Rajiv and Amita are expecting their first child this summer. They were strangers until Rajiv’s aunt hatched a conspiracy to bring them together. Two years ago, they were married with the blessings of their parents and relatives.
Rajiv and Amita (not their real names) follow Hinduism. But there is an unusual aspect about it. Rajiv belongs to an educated but low-caste Shudra (potter) family. Amita’s parents are high-caste Brahmins. In India, their marriage would have caused a scandal. Amita would have been disowned for disgracing her family.
Hindus have been in the iron grip of a caste system for many centuries. This system is an aberration of the Hindu social classification called Varna Vyavastha. The social scientists of ancient India put society into four occupational groups: Brahmins (priests and intellectuals); Kshatriya (rulers and warriors); Vaishyas (merchants and traders), and Shudras (artisans and manual workers). This social order is no different from classifying any modern society into occupational categories – professionals, administrators or legislators, businesspeople and industrial workers.
The Varna system was a social framework based on freedom of choice and equality. Each member of society could elect an occupation according to his or her aptitude. There were no restrictions on switching from one group to another. Sanctified by the Vedas, Hinduism’s primary scriptures, the Varna system had absolutely nothing to do with birth, race, color or creed.
Over the centuries, the Varna system degenerated into a hereditary, hierarchical and rigid caste system, with Brahmins occupying the top tier and Shudras at the bottom. Each of the four had countless subgroups, called jati or caste, that followed a specific trade or occupation. Today, there are more than 3,000 castes, and every Hindu belongs to one.
The system operated on three basic rules: One must not share food with a person of another caste, especially of a lower caste; one must marry within one’s own caste; one must live by the trade or occupation of one’s own caste. Anyone who violated these rules was ostracized and ex-communicated. A person without a caste had no social status.
In this hierarchy, the people of upper castes oppressed those of the lower castes, weakening the pillars of Hinduism – equality, freedom and tolerance.
In modern India, anti-discriminatory laws, education and industrialization have loosened the caste system’s grip. Educated, urban Hindus have done away with the restrictions related to hereditary occupation and inter-caste dining. But a high-caste Hindu marrying into a low-caste Shudra family is still a taboo.
In Canada, second-generation Hindus like Rajiv and Amita are making history. They have done what ardent social reformers in India could not, after centuries of anti-caste crusades. What is more amazing is their parents approve.
Why have Hindu parents in Canada become so liberal? The answer lies in one word – survival. They realize Hinduism is a minority religion that will not take root here unless their children marry within their faith.
Even the most modern Hindu parents want to pass on their religious heritage. When they see an increasing number of interfaith marriages, they worry. They know their children will not obey objections. These sobering thoughts and survival instincts have made Hindu parents pragmatic. With their new generation, Hindu Canadians have demolished caste. They have no choice.
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Article by: Ajit Adhopia