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Religious Studies

Hinduism: prejudice and discrimination

Hindu attitudes towards prejudice and discrimination

According to the scriptures of the Vedic tradition Hindus belong to one of four varnas or social groups. Each varna has associated with it specific duties (dharma). The Purusha Sukta (Hindu text) explains how the different varnas were formed from different parts of the body of Purusha, the first 'cosmic man', and comments on how different parts of the body fulfil different roles for the effective working of the whole body.

His mouth became the Priests; his arms were made into the Warrior, his thighs the People, and from his feet the Servants were born.

Rig Veda 10.90

The four varnas are:

  • Brahmins (priests and teachers)
  • Kshatriyas (warriors, rulers, administrators and leaders of society)
  • Vaishyas (traders and merchants)
  • Shudras (a variety of jobs, serving the needs of the other three varnas)

The word 'caste' refers strictly to the sub-divisions within each varna, and not to varnas themselves.

One group of Hindus is regarded as being outside the varna system - they call themselves Dalits (from the Sanskrit, meaning 'suppressed'). This is a large and very mixed group found throughout South Asia. They do jobs often regarded as ritually unclean such as working with leather, handling meat carcases, street cleaning, cleaning latrines. Some are folk artists, poor farmers, or landless labourers.

Not all Dalits are poor and some are very successful business people. Despite changes in the law there is still evidence of discrimination against Dalits.

Hinduism teaches that all people are part of one unified whole. All life forms are part of the 'stream' of life, so harming another living thing is the same as harming yourself.

As a result, many Hindus believe that it is wrong to be prejudiced [Prejudice: An opinion about something or someone not based on fact. ] against someone just because of their ethnic origin or other differences.

Do not do to another what you do not like to be done to yourself; that is the gist of the law - all other laws are variable.

Mahabharata, 5: 39

However, no one can follow these teachings perfectly, and there are occasions when Hindus are guilty of prejudice and discrimination.

Sometimes an individual or an organisation decides that they must challenge injustice wherever they see the laws of God being broken.

One such organisation is Hindu Human Rights. HHR is an organisation based in the UK that aims to educate people about the human rights of Hindus. They maintain a website and publish reports and articles. They have also run many very successful campaigns eg against the alleged misuse of Hindu icons.

Back to Prejudice and discrimination index

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