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From: S G Naravane
From: S G Naravane
The past of caste: Ancient India did not sanctify it, caste discrimination is more recent than we thinkFebruary 2, 2016, 2:17 AM IST Amish Tripathi
The tragic death of Rohith Vemula has again brought to the forefront of public imagination the painful reality of caste discrimination in Indian society. Notwithstanding the noise generated by relentless pursuit of politics, evidence clearly indicates that the Scheduled Castes as a group do face terrible prejudice in India.
Understandably, many non-Westernised Indians would be loathe to accept the 'atrocity literature' churned out by Western academics/ NGOs. After all, among the most oppressed minorities in the civilised world are the African Americans and the European Romas, as evidenced by various detailed studies.
However, the hypocrisy of Western academics/media/ NGOs cannot be an excuse for Indians not to confront their own failings. The present birth-based caste system and its attendant societal discrimination is a blot on India and completely against the conceptualisation of our ancient culture. There are some who claim that the present caste system is sanctified by our ancient scriptures. Not true. B R Ambedkar, in his scholarly book 'Who were the Shudras?', had used Indian scriptures and texts to prove that in ancient times India had widely respected Shudra rulers as well, and the oppressive scriptural verses, justifying discrimination and a caste system based on birth, were interpolated into the texts later.
In the Bhagwad Gita, Lord Krishna clearly enunciates that He created the four varnas based on guna (attributes) and karma; birth is NOT mentioned. Rishis, or sages, were accorded the highest status in ancient India, and two of our greatest epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, were composed by Rishis who were not born Brahmins.
Valmiki was born a Shudra and Krishna Dwaipayana (also known as Ved Vyas) was born to a fisherwoman. Satyakam Jabali, believed to have composed the celebrated Jabali Upanishad, was born to an unwed Shudra mother and his father's name was unknown. According to the Valmiki Ramayana, Jabali was an officiating priest and adviser to the Ayodhya royalty during Lord Ram's period.
Arvind Sharma, professor of comparative religion at McGill University, states that caste rigidity and discrimination emerged in the Smriti period (from after the birth of Jesus Christ and extending up to 1200 CE) and was challenged in the medieval period by the bhakti movement led by many non-upper caste saints. At the time even powerful empires emerged that were led by Shudra rulers, for example the Kakatiyas. Then, the birth-based caste system became rigid once again around the British colonial period. It has remained so, ever since.