To hear the modern media tell it, Hinduism is a religion in which a privileged, “high caste” elite are permitted to brazenly mistreat “low caste” commoners for the selfish benefit of the former. This caricature of Hinduism as a casteist ideology feeds into a superiority complex of anti-Hindu ideologues who subsequently assume an air of moral superiority, thinking themselves fit to lecture seemingly “backward” Hindus on basic, humane, morality.
Yet this trite, politically-convenient, post-colonial fiction runs counter to core principles of the orthodox Hindu worldview found in widely accepted scriptural texts. One such text, the Viṣṇu Purāṇa, has been quoted by scholars of all three major schools of Vedānta, is one of the 18 major Purāṇas classified as sāttvik (in the mode of goodness), contains an exposition of Hinduism grounded in Vedāntic thought, is the authored composition of the great brāhmaṇa sage Parāśara, is accessible to all Hindus without prior qualification based on caste or gender, and is one of the most well-preserved of the Purāṇas. In this Purāṇa, we find this answer to a question posed regarding the means by which ordinary people should worship Viṣṇu, the Supreme Person identified as such in Vedas:
वर्णाश्रमाचारवता पुरुषेण परः पुमान् ।(Viṣṇu Purāṇa 3.8.9-12)
विष्णुराराध्यते पन्था नान्यस्तत्तोषकारकः ॥ वि.प. ३.८.९ ॥
यजन्यज्ञान्यजत्येनं जपंत्येनं जपन्नृप ।
निघ्नन्नन्यान्हिनस्त्येनं सर्वभूतो यतो हरिः ॥ वि.प. ३.८.१० ॥
तस्मात्सदाचारवता पुरुषेण जनार्दनः ।
आराध्यस्तु स्ववर्णोक्तधर्मानुष्ठानकारिणा ॥ वि.प. ३.८.११ ॥
ब्राह्मणः क्षत्रियो वैश्यः शूद्रश्च पृथिवीपते ।
स्वधर्मतत्परो विष्णुमाराधयति नान्यथा ॥ वि.प. ३.८.१२ ॥
परापवादं पैशुन्यमनृतं च न भाषते ।
अन्योद्वेगकरं वापि तोष्यते तेन केशवः ॥ वि.प. ३.८.१३ ॥
परदारपरद्रव्यपरहिंसासु यो रतिम् ।
न करोति पुमान्भूप तोष्यते तेन केशवः ॥ वि.प. ३.८.१४ ॥
न ताडयति नो हंति प्राणिनो न च हिंसकः ।
यो मनुष्यो मनुष्येन्द्र तोष्यते तेन केशवः ॥ वि.प. ३.८.१५ ॥
देवद्विजगुरूणां च शुश्रूषासु सदोद्यतः ।
तोष्यते तेन गोविन्दः पुरुषेण नरेश्वर ॥ वि.प. ३.८.१६ ॥
यथात्मनि च पुत्रे च सर्वभूतेषु यत्तथा ।
हितकामो हरिस्तेन सर्वदा तोष्यते सुखम् ॥ वि.प. ३.८.१७ ॥
यस्य रागादिदोषेण न दुष्टं नृप मानसम् ।
विशुद्धचेतसा बिष्णुस्तोष्यते तेन सर्वदा ॥ वि.प. ३.८.१८ ॥
वर्णाश्रमेषु ये धर्माश्शास्त्रोक्ता मुनिसत्तम ।
तेषु तिष्ठन्नरो विष्णुमाराधयति नान्यथा ॥ वि.प. ३.८.१९ ॥
“The supreme Viṣṇu is propitiated by a man who observes the institutions of varṇa, āśrama, and purificatory practices; no other path is the way to please Him. He who offers sacrifices, sacrifices to Him, he who murmurs prayer (japa), prays to Him; he who injures living creatures, injures Him; for Hari is all beings. Janārdana therefore is propitiated by him who is attentive to established observances and follows the duties prescribed for his varṇa. The Brāhmaṇa, the Kṣatriya, the Vaiśya, and the Śūdra, who attends to the rules enjoined by his varṇa, best worships Viṣṇu. Keśava is most pleased with him who does good to others, who never utters abuse, calumny or untruth; who never covets another’s wife or another’s wealth and who bears ill-will towards none; who neither beats nor slays any animate or inanimate thing; who is ever diligent in the service of the devas, of the brāhmaṇas and of his guru; who is always desirous of the welfare of all creatures, of his children and of his own soul; in whose pure heart no pleasure is derived from the imperfections of love and hatred. The man, oh muni, who conforms to the duties enjoined by scriptural authority for every varṇa and āśrama, is he who best worships Viṣṇu: there is no other way.”
The problem is this: the scriptures of Hinduism describe the glories of an ascetic tradition in great detail, but most human beings cannot follow such a tradition. How, then, do they who must support themselves through worldly activity worship the Supreme Person? The answer given relates to varṇāśrama-dharma, which are the practical, prescribed occupations and duties for four categories of individuals in four different stages of life in the Vedic tradition. Although somewhat lazily translated by outsiders as “caste system,” it is clear from the answer that varṇāśrama-dharma is not an exploitive hierarchy that formalizes social privilege. Quite to the contrary, it is very clearly described in the text as a devotional practice grounded in a fundamental ethos of universal compassion. On this point, there is simply no equivocation, for the Purāṇa explicitly states that “He who injures living creatures, injures Him, for Hari (Viṣṇu) is all beings” (nighnannanyānhinastyenaṁ sarvabūto yato hariḥ). This metaphor is based on the Vedāntic principle that Brahman is the inner-self of all selves (the Paramātmā within all jīvātmās), and so He is in that sense, all beings.
स य एषोऽणिमैतदात्म्यमिदँ सर्वं तत्सत्यँ स आत्मा तत्त्वमसि श्वेतकेतो इति भूय एव मा ॥ छा.उ. ६.८.७ ॥(Chāndogya Upaniṣad 6.8.7) [translated by N.S. Anantha Rangacharya]
“That “Sat” of this nature is very subtle. All this is having this “Sat” as its Ātman. That (fact of having Sat as its Ātman) is real. He (Sat) is the ātman in all. That (Supreme cause) is thy (inner) self. Thou (i.e. your Antaryāmin) art that.”
But what does this mean practically?
The Viṣṇu Purāṇa clearly answers that by stating that Keśava (Viṣṇu) is most pleased “…with him who does good to others, who never utters abuse, calumny or untruth” (parāpavādaṁ paiśunyamanṛtaṁ ca na bhāṣate anyodvegakaraṁ vāpi toṣyate tena), “who never covets another’s wealth and who bears ill-will towards none” (paradārapardravyaparahiṁsāsu yo ratim na karoti pumānbhūpa toṣyate tena), “who neither beats nor slays any animate or inanimate thing” (na tāḍayati naḥ haṅti prāṇino), and who is “always desirous of the welfare of all creatures” (sarvabhūteṣu hitakāmo). None of these directives are qualified by the race, sex, or caste of the living being to whom compassion is to be shown. That the answer culminates in a restatement of the premise that following varṇāśrama is the best worship of Viṣṇu leads to this inescapable conclusion: The practice of showing compassion towards all living beings, seeing each one as the dwelling place of the Supreme Person Viṣṇu, is not an incidental virtue, but rather an integral part of the practice of varṇāśrama-dharma.
How does this world view of the Lord’s presence in every living being support the theory of Hinduism as a religion in which those of “high caste” gleefully and cruelly oppress those of “low-caste?”
The simple fact of the matter is that it doesn’t.
It simply is not possible to misinterpret these instructions in such a way as to privilege an entire group of people at the expense of another. Quite to the contrary, this instruction can be seen as an override to the unfortunate tendency throughout human history to use socioeconomic privilege to rationalize antipathy or apathy towards those who lack it. Viṣṇu’s presence within all living beings means that, regardless of other directives governing inter-varṇa relations, a Hindu must have a strong and uncompromising ethic of universal compassion. To put it simply, without denying the temporary differences based on guṇa and karma, a Hindu must see the Lord’s presence in everyone and everyone as therefore a representative of the Lord Himself.
This once again demonstrates the recurring theme that atrocities observed in modern society, including Indian society, are clearly not the result of Hinduism, but rather a lack of it. The casteist reimagining of Hinduism by anti-Hindu ideologues is intellectually lazy at best, if not a politically-expedient fiction propagated by the electively uninformed. Embracing genuine Hinduism as it is revealed in the śāstras must necessarily inculcate an attitude of unity in diversity, an attitude that forbids all forms of animosity based on the attributes of the temporary body, including racism, sexism, and even casteism.