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An enlightened liberalism underpins all Hindu philosophy and metaphysics.
The media and academic narrative today presents Hindu civilization as a negation of 21st century egalitarian norms. While elements of this description are not entirely incorrect given the hierarchy and exclusion prevalent for instance in post-war Sri Lankan Tamil society, it is imperative to challenge this version and provide a liberal counter-narrative consistent with intellectual honesty and truth. A counter-narrative would help empower the socially marginalized in the Sri Lankan North and unite the population under the rubric of economic development.
Fluid Social Relations
Hindu civilization was never static. It was marked by constant movement, redefinition and struggle. It had no fixed position. Reformers within the Hindu tradition confronted hierarchy and exclusion throughout history. The pre-eminent scriptures in Hinduism i.e. the Vedas and Upanishads were not centered on caste. Key successor texts and folk practice frequently challenged social elitism.
The absence of fixed tenets or a rigid theology is conducive to free thought and an enlightened liberalism. Dr. Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan views Hinduism as "a movement, not a position; a process, not a result; a growing tradition, not a fixed revelation." The religion is a non-institutionalized continuum of different schools, denominations and practices where common motifs and themes recur to give it a recognizable identity and coherence.
Hinduism is not a monolith. It comes in all colors and sects. Its social legacy in the late classical Khmer Empire and the Indonesian archipelago was quite different to that in the Indian subcontinent. Hindu civilization cannot be reduced to a mere caste-centered tradition.
This opinion piece will focus on India. Within the Indian subcontinent itself, caste was never a static concept. Social relations were fluid in the history of Hinduism. Entire communities moved up and down the social ladder with shifting trade routes, developments in commerce, technological advancement and peasant movement. Temples in South India played an integrative role as they channeled resources for investment, assumed the role of bankers, employers and landlords and emerged as centers of retail enterprise. The Temples illustrated a de facto alliance of peasant and priest, of king and merchant, of artisan and artist.
One can turn to Dharampal's landmark thesis titled "Indian Science and Technology in the 18th Century: Some Contemporary European Accounts". The publication refers to archival records in London to demonstrate that the "Madras Presidency" enjoyed impressive levels of prosperity and literacy in the pre-colonial 1700s. The affluent village economy in South India supported a broad network of rudimentary schools centered on the village temple, where basic skills in reading, writing and arithmetic were imparted to members of all castes.
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