Religious Studies

Hinduism: prejudice and discrimination

People sometimes say that discrimination is created when prejudice is combined with power. Prejudice is the attitude of someone whose opinion is not based on fact. Prejudice can be triggered by differences of religion, race, colour, sex, language, disability or age. Prejudice is not illegal, as an attitude can't be illegal, but discrimination is illegal.

Discrimination and human rights

All forms of discrimination go against the first two Articles of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights:

Article 1 All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 2 Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

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.

Attitudes to women

Hinduism teaches that men and women are of equal worth, but have different roles and responsibilities because they have different dharmas [Dharma: Religion or religious duty. ] to follow.

The Ramayana (Hindu text) tells the story of Lord Rama and his wife, Sita. Women are encouraged to be good wives and mothers and to follow the example of Sita.

The role of the mother has always been given a very high status in Hinduism. The mother goddess is associated with everything that is good and protective. Mothers are respected because the mother is the first teacher of the child, and she has a special role to play with regard to worship in the home.

Throughout the history of Hinduism religious teachers of Hinduism have been both male (rishis) and female (rishikas).

In the UK it is usual for Hindu women to have an equal role with men in every respect eg education, employment, marriage, worship, voting, politics.

Revision activity

Back to Revision Bite