Herbert Spender, the great apostle of individual freedom, says that the position of women supplied a good test of the civilisation of the people. In Bharat, women have always occupied a position of very high esteem. Professor HH Wilson says, “It may be confidently asserted that in no nation of antiquity were women held in so much esteem as amongst Hindus.” (Mill’s History of Bharat, Vol. II)
God in Hinduism is Ardha Nareeswara in form and gender-free when formless.
Women enjoyed not only equal opportunities and privileges with men in the classical Hindu literature; they even enjoyed rights that were not available for their counterparts.
Manu Smriti, the greatest work on Hindu social codes, declares:
“Yatra Naryastu Pujyante Ramante Tatra Devatah” (Where women are worshipped there the angels tread)
This great law-giver of Hinduism defined the status of a wife and her equal rights thus:
» If a wife dies, her husband may marry another wife. (Manu, Chapter V, Verse 168). If a husband dies, a wife may marry another husband. (Manu, quoted by Madhava and Vidyanatha Dikshita; Parasara; Narada; Yagnavalkya; Agni Purana) » If a wife becomes fallen by drunkenness or immorality her husband may marry another. (Manu, Chapter IX, Verse 80). If a husband becomes fallen, a wife may re-marry another husband. (Manu, quoted by Madhava and several other scholars) » In particular circumstances, a wife may cease to cohabit with her husband. (Manu, Chapter IX, Verse 79) » If a husband deserts his wife, she may marry another. (Manu, Chapter IX, Verse 76 and several others)
Varnashrama (Later day Caste System) and Human Dignity
No discussion on human dignity and rights with respect to Hinduism can be complete without taking up the question of the caste system and the hierarchical arrangement therein.
The Hindus perfected social organisation. The Hindu Varnashrama was the most scientific principle of social organisation. The Varnashrama was not the same as the present day caste system. Society was organised into four varnas (castes). However, unlike the caste system of the present day, the Varnas were not hereditary. Untouchability and caste-based discrimination were unknown during the varnashrama days. No one was high and no one low.
Shankara Digvijaya of Adi Shankaracharya boldly proclaims:
Janmanaa Jaayate Shudrah Sanskaraat Dwija Ucchate; Vedapaathi Bhavet Viprah Brahma jnanaati Brahmanah (By birth all are Shudras only. By actions men become Dwija (twice-born). By reading the Vedas one becomes Vipra and becomes Brahmin by gaining the knowledge of God.)
A passage in the Vanparva of the Mahabharata runs thus, “He in whom the qualities of truth, munificence, forgiveness, gentleness, abstinence from cruel deeds, contemplation, and benevolence are observed, is called a Brahmin in the Smriti. A man is not a Sudra by being a Sudra nor a Brahmin by being a Brahmin”.
The Shantiparva in Mahabharata categorically rejects the idea of some castes being superior to others.
Na Visheshosti Varnanaam Sarvam Braahmyamidam Jagat Brahmanaa poorva Sristhim hi Karmabhih Varnataam Gatam (There are no distinctions of castes. Divine consciousness is omnipresent in the world. It was Brahmanic entirely at first. The Varnas have emerged in consequence of men’s actions.)
In his paper read before the International Congress of Orientalists at Berlin in 1881, Shyamji Krishna Verma, a renowned scholar had said, “We read in the Aiteriya Brahmana (ii.3.19), for example, that Kavasha Ailusha, who was a Sudra and son of a low woman, was greatly respected for his literary attainments, and admitted into the class of Rishis – the pre-eminent Hindu sages. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of his life is that he, Sudra as he was, distinguished himself as the Rishi of some of the hymns of Rig Veda (Rig. X. 30-40). It is distinctly stated in the Chandogyopanishad that Jabala, who is otherwise called Satya Kama, had no gotra, or family name whatever (Chandogya. Upanishad. IV. 4). Though born of unknown parents, Jabala is said to have founded a school of the Yajur Veda. Even in the Apasthambha Sutra (II. 5-10) and Manu Smriti (x. 65) we find that a Sudra can become a Brahmin and a Brahmin can become a Sudra.” (Harbilas Sharda, Hindu Superiority)
From Vyasa, Valmiki, and Vishva Karma, to present day saints, one finds countless eminent Rishis who are Sudras by Varna. Even Megasthenes, the great Greek historian wrote that there were four castes in Hindus and a Hindu of any caste may become a Sophist (Brahmin).
Caste hierarchy and privileges based on caste had no sanction in Hinduism. They were the result of the distortions crept into the Hindu body politic during the medieval period. Hinduism has witnessed a continuous stream of social reformers to uproot this malice, like Narayana Guru, Swami Vivekananda, Jyotiba Phule, Mahatma Gandhi and Dr BR Ambedkar.
“Wherever you go, there will be caste. But that doesn’t mean that there should be these privileges. They should be knocked on the head. The duty of the Advaita is to destroy all privilege. The days of exclusive privileges and exclusive claims are gone, gone forever from the soil of Bharat”, exclaimed Swami Vivekananda. (Subhash Kashyap, Understanding Bharat – Relevance of Hinduism)
Interestingly, the caste system is no longer the exclusive appendage of Hinduism. Almost all religions in Bharat have these castes today, and they are afflicted by the system of caste-based privileges leading to conflicts within. Dalit Christians is a phrase frequently used to describe converts to Christianity from the so-called low castes. These Dalit Christians complain that they suffer a number of disabilities and discrimination within the Christian Church establishment in Bharat. There were instances when it lead even to violence and separation of Parishes on caste lines as in the recent incidents in the South Indian city of Pondicherry in March 2008.
No way of life or philosophy can be free of contemporary aberrations. Hinduism is no exception. Myriad jostles of history and deliberate misinterpretations have left it scarred albeit cautious. In its present condition, it connects simultaneously with the highest philosophic deliberations and variegated folk systems of worship while embracing with happy understanding all other systems of belief. The only reservation is about exclusivist medieval codes which refuse to allow other faiths to survive. The supreme salvation of Hinduism, which is no different from realisation of the self as an essential component of the divine whole, is achieved thus by peaceful coexistence rather than aggressive ambition, by cooperation rather than competition.
As the Mahatma says, “Hinduism is a living organism liable to growth and decay, and subject to the laws of nature. One and indivisible at the root, it has grown into a vast tree with innumerable branches. The changes in the seasons affect it. It has its autumn and summer, its winter and spring. The rains nourish and fructify it too. It is and is not based on scriptures. It does not derive its authority from one book. The Gita is universally accepted, but even then it only shows the way. It has hardly any effect on custom. Hinduism is like the Ganga, pure and unsullied at its source, but taking in its course the impurities in the way. Even like the Ganga it is beneficent in its total effect. It takes a provincial form in every province, but the inner substance is retained everywhere.” (Mohandas K. Gandhi; Young India; April 8, 1926)
As Gandhi’s deity Ram says in Ramcharitmanas, the most popular religious text of our times:
Nirmal Man Jan So Mohi Pawa; Mohi Kapat Chhal Chhidra Na Bhava (The pure of heart can find me in them. I do not come to pretenders, deceivers and vicious persons.)
* * *
“Today we are still living in this transitional chapter of the world history, but it is already becoming clear that a chapter which had a Western beginning will have to have an Indian ending if it is not to end in self-destruction of the human race. At this supremely dangerous moment in human history the only way of salvation for the mankind is an Indian way.” – Arnold Toynbee, Introduction to World Thinkers on Ramakrishna and Vivekananda.