Religions, castes


The most important phenomenon of (the original) Indian religions, those ones that were born and developed on Indian soil is the theory and practice of non-violence. It is difficult not to underestimate, how deeply this way of life, understanding of the surrounding world, interrelationship with the nature of the great majority of Indians penetrates the everyday life of them.

Most of them are devout believers in god(s) and in the permanent circle of life, in rebirth, reincarnation. According to opinions (written and verbal) I was able to collect and summarise, around 80% of followers of Indian religions believe in the sanctity of animal life as well. Thus, the belief in three interconnected phenomena, in supernatural power, in the teaching that the quality of one’s next life depends on his or her behaviour during the present life and in the absolute sanctity of life led to non-violence, non-violence towards their fellow citizens of this globe and also towards the whole animal world. Vegetarianism of different strictness is just one of the simple appearances on the surface of this internal hate of killing (and then eating) animals, there are much deeper forms, expressions of love and esteem of nature (the powers of nature as well).

I do not cite philosophers writing about religion and I have never meditated on this subject as carefully as I do now. I may see a lot of aspects in wrong light: correct me in case you do not agree with me.

One of the striking results of the basic beliefs is probably that a lot of animals are god-like features (Nandi, the bull, snakes), that gods appear with animal-heads, like the elephant-headed Ganesh (or Ganesha), the famous god of luck and the horse-headed god (to come?). But I see the same reason behind the rich varieties of gods. I am not talking about the fantastic scene of gods of the official tableau (hm, it does not exist!) of Hinduism, but of the fact that everything on the earth may become god for the common people of India. They may worship flowers or even grass, a tree (think of the banyan-tree, for example), a piece of stone in front of a tree, a column of a temple. One small figurine on the wall of a temple may be treated as a new shrine, anointed with oil, presented with flowers. We left with this the question of love of the nature and entered the field of richness of Indian fantasy.

The Indian way of seeing the world through the wonderful (and absolutely human, natural) philosophy of non-violence must have effected Jesus Christ as well. I thought much earlier than I read the first book expressing the same idea: Jesus had spent his years of absence in India, before returning to Israel with his well-formulated preaching. The idea of Trinitarianism exists in Hinduism in the form of three gods: Brahma, the Creator, Vishnu, the Preserver and Siva, the Destroyer, representing different values of the same God (they say so). This idea is as dark for me as the Trinity in the Catholic teachings. There are also a lot of similarities in the ceremonies and means of worshipping, like usage of songs (how early was discovered the force of music and songs to influence human beings!), of holy water, censing, the usage of rosary, bells, the Christian greeting of God by the everyday Indian greeting, Namaste. I do not want to say that these methods are used only by Indians and followers of Jesus Christ, the line of similarity is much wider, still striking.

Another equally important fact originates from the general idea of non-violence: no Indian religion ever intended to convert others. In fact Indians open wide eyes seeing non-Indians clad into Indian robes and worshipping their gods. Most of gurus who arrive to the USA (why almost exclusively there?) to teach Hinduism (Hara Krishna, etc) are money-makers, not real preachers.

The simple question, should I use capital letter in the word God (according to my dictionary god is to be used when one describes gods of believers in more than one god, God is the Almighty of monotheists) reminds me a much more interesting question: do Hindus really believe in so many gods? Now, I learnt from S. Radhakrishnan, that in spite of the richness of forms, in which the God of Indians appears in the eyes of its believers, Hinduism is monotheist religion! Siva is as much the same God as are the 100 (or more) incarnations of Krishna or is Amrita, the small goddess of Hinduism and - in the form Amirita - of Zoroastrianism. Amrita - the nectar of everlasting life - is at least 4000 years old.

What else should I tell you that I feel important or simply interesting in the religions of India?

Yes, one important aspect is that Indian religions are not Churches as such, as the main religions in Europe are. There are no heads of Churches and religions, bishops, small officers of the armies of religions fighting for saving the maximum possible number of souls (tax-payers). No hierarchy exists at all. Is this also the result of the basic values? I would say yes, the everyday thinking in terms of non-violence effects the methods of preaching as well. Achariyas, gurus and prophets called by other names fight not for power, but intend to teach people in peaceful manners to solve their problems, to obtain peace of mind. They establish a kind of school, collecting interested listeners around them and trying to share their views, discussing their values, their theories with their followers. These places are the ashrams. The ashrams are absolutely independent from each other, no power can (or want to) bind them together.

One interesting point: how a good guru shows his abilities to his followers? Seances are held when 100 questions may be asked. The guru listens to all the hundred and only after all the questions have been asked, starts replying them in the order they were asked. Some say there are not very difficult techniques to memorize 100 questions. Try to repeat the performance in public.

Lets go to a short description of religions, existing in India.

Hinduism is the dominant religion throughout the country. It lost its overall power only once, 3 – 4 centuries BC, when Buddhism took over as the main religion of the country. Some consider that the victory of Buddhism may be attributed to the absence of sacrifices and other false priestcrafts, I believe that Buddha’s preaching for more equality and against the cast-system played at least as important role as the revolt against the priesthood of Hinduism.

I have mentioned the three principal gods of this religion: Brahma (his consort is Sarasvati, riding a swan, she is the goddess of learning), Vishnu, an outstanding figure in the Vedas already (Lakshmi, his consort rose from the ocean and is liked and worshipped as goddess of wealth and prosperity) and Siva, riding on bull Nandi and whos consort is Parvati. Parvati appears on the pantheon of Hindu gods in other forms, incarnations as well: as Durga and Kali, both being dark and fearful beings. Kali is probably the most cruel of all the gods and goddesses, having black head and her red tongue always hangs out thirstily. She is usually decorated with a garland of skulls and cut off heads of humans. I just read in one guide that savage sacrifices used to be offered to her, but the sacrifices of present days are merely flowers. Why do we hide facts? I have a slide taken in the yard of a Kali temple in Calcutta, when goats were sacrificed, one after the other. And this was not just an occasion, butchers (priests?) curved up the animals and the small pieces of flesh were sold to worshippers, who then offered them – along with flowers – to the goddess. Indians told me that not long ago human sacrifices used to be offered as well.

Going back to the Trinity: if there is any division among believers of Hinduism, it is caused by these three gods. Believers are divided into groups according to their belief that one of the principal god’s values dominate the Universe.

The Hindu pantheon is rich of avatars, incarnations of two of the principal gods, Vishnu and Siva.

Vishnu alone had 10 avatars, two of them being very popular figures among believers.

Rama is the hero of one of the two most outstanding epic poems of India, Ramajana. He and his wife Sita are widely worshipped.

Krishna, the eighth incarnation of Vishnu is definitely the most popular god of the pantheon and not without reason: he has absolutely human values. Painted always in blue and playing on his flute he is surrounded with gopis, apparently in love with him, or at least playing love-games with this amiable, playful god. His popularity must be the cause of the great number of his incarnations as well. Wonderful! Compare him with the bigotry of Christian saints.

Siva is also worshipped in two well-known forms. One of them is the lingam, the central image in most of Hindu temples. It is not easy for people of Western cultures to appreciate this symbol of fertility, the force behind Creation as subject of worship. The other form, popular mostly in the south, is Nataraj (or Nataraja), the Cosmic Dancer. This depiction of Siva became one of the symbols of India, the other two being the wheel of Ashoka and Taj Mahal.

One cannot forget about the sacred cow, when deals with Hinduism. If I understood India well, there is one more reason besides sanctity of animal life, that made cow a subject of worship, a subject protected even by the constitution of India. Cows gave everything to the inhabitants in the early stages of development: pulling power when working in the fields, milk as the best product of nourishment, excrement, used as fertiliser and as combustible as well. Cows are sacred creatures indeed, be careful, driving car in India: if you hit a cow you may be lynched by witnesses. On the other side: owners of cows treat them as common tame animals, may even hit them with sticks in case they do not behave.

Thousands and thousands of aspects will be left out. I decided to mention only two more that I found just interesting for myself. I hope I am not going to be boring for you.

The teachings of Hinduism – as of most of ancient religions – contain a lot of prescriptions of hygienic character. The most striking is probably that the body of Hindus is divided into two distinctive parts from the point of view, which part should be touched by which hand. A Hindu eats and washes his or her teeth using right hand and washes his or her lower parts using left hand. It is also prescribed by holy scripts, how, when, on what distance from rivers, lakes, trees should one pass the motion, using what should wash himself, etc. Wise advises for the bigger part of the population even today.

The other aspect is the self-purification after committing sin. There are different ways, starting from taking several baths (sometimes up to 100) in one of the sacred rivers (the best being Ganges), drinking the water of those rivers, offering special sacrifices to the best loved piety of the person involved, to the extreme to consume a mixture of four or five “sacred materials”: milk, dung, urine and ghee (a special kind of butter) of the sacred cow, adding honey to the mixture. I hope this habit is on the way of extinction.

There are two religions derived from Hinduism: Buddhism and Jainism.

Both differ from the usual conception we understand under religion. None of them deals with god as the supernatural power that created the Universe and directs our faith, behaviour, thinking, fate.

Both were born, created at the same period of development of Indian thinking: it is not proved that the two prophets, Prince Siddartha and Mahavira, the first tirthankara ever met, but they could have.

I am not brave enough to talk much about the two religions: both concepts – close to each other - are quite difficult to interpret by common man like me and you may easily find good treatments of the subject opening Western sites like About, Yahoo! or almost any of the above indicated general Indian sites.

What I want to underline about Buddhism is, that this religion (if you may call it religion at all) is definitely atheist. Siddartha, the Buddha (and his close followers) has never talked about supernatural powers that could solve anything instead of you, that anyone’s fate was in the hands of someone above us. Your salvation comes from inside, you have to be righteous, seeker of truth, benefactor. He has never talked about himself as representative of supernatural power.

He was converted into a god-like creature much later, by his followers, as it is happening in our days with Mahatma.

Buddhist philosophy achieved unbelievable scientific results. They new – without having the slightest opportunity to make experiments, backing their philosophical concepts – that the world is infinite in both “directions”, both the micro- and the macro-world is endless. They treated time too as infinite, counted time in aeons of countless quantity. Fantastic knowledge at times, when Europe did not exist as a part of any significance of the world.

Buddha is not the only one preaching this theory, according to followers of Buddhism, buddhas appear time to time on this globe. The next one is expected some 30000 years from now. There are at least two places in India/Nepal where Maritrea, the next Buddha is already worshipped: in a monastery close to Darjeeling (in Ghoom) and at a rock-wall of the Himalayas, where his name is carved in.

Jainism has nothing to do with supernatural as well. Their concept is more philosophical than religious. The interpretation of “right conduct” that leads to salvation contains the basic principles of non-violence and total tolerance for other faiths which may all contain a partial truth. Compare this “ideology” with that of some popular faiths in the USA preaching that “the only truth, the only god is ours”.

The Jains consider that soul and matter exist separately as well, therefore the ideal peaceful existence for soul is the state of its liberation from matter’s (body’s) tyranny. Their tirthankaras are such perfect souls, but they are only examples how this liberty may be obtained and not gods. The Jains – since they also understood the infinity of the world – do not even seek a god or any supernatural power as Creator of the Universe, by definition eternal. Half a millennium earlier than Jesus Christ, son of the Creator of Universe was born (who created the Universe in seven days, etc.)

The third Indian religion that is originated from Hinduism is the Sikh religion.

It was found by Guru Nanak in the 15th century with the aim to bring Hindus and the Muslim occupants closer to each other. They did not succeed in fulfilling this concept by preaching and after falling victims of cruel raids by the Moghuls, their 17th-century head, Guru Gobind Singh converted them into a martial community, prescribing – among other changes – to wear 5 signs to make Sikhs easily distinguishable by the enemies, teaching them to be always ready, always fit to fight and win. All of them got common “family name”, Singh, meaning lionhearted and the five signs are: unshorn hair (under turban), comb, steel bracelet, sword and shorts. He also created Khalsa - the word is an abridgement for spirituality, worldly enjoyment and unity - the path to bring Indians of different faith and origin together. Anyone from any background can join the Khalsa,  without any barriers of caste. 

Sikhs call each other Sardarji. If you are not Indian and want to be kind to a Sikh, do the same.

Guru Gobind Singh’s idea was bright: Sikhs became and are tall, sportive, good fighters (most of the officers of the British-Indian army were Sikhs), excellent technicians and their community is known as the one of equals.

The rest of religions were brought to India.

Only one of them had success, because of two reasons, I believe. The Moghuls were cruel converters and Hindus had to give way in masses and – not less important – the Muslim religion preached equality of human beings, the new society was casteless, which pulled in all the lower strata of Hindus. Till today, after the caste system has penetrated the Muslim community again, the second – both by number of believers and influence - religion of India is Islam.

A few words about Zoroastrianism, a small religion, strange for onlookers from West and misunderstood from more than one aspect.

The followers of this faith have escaped from Persia, from invading Arabs in the 7th century and settled down in and near Bombay. They brought with them the sacred fire which has to burn permanently on the shrines of their temples. I have a good collection of holy books of Zoroastrianism and I believe that this fire is just symbol of their God, the same Almighty, most of religions worship. At least I did not find clear reference to the fire as their god.

Another misunderstanding is that the way they bury their deceased ones is a cruel, barbaric ritual, since they put the dead on towers built for the purpose and let vultures to clean the bones from flesh. Think over quietly: their original homeland was desert, it was impossible to cremate the dead under the soil, jackals would find them, it would have also been incredible to burn them, since wood was in short supply, lakes and rivers were also insufficient to swallow the dead. The only efficient way was to let them be eaten up. Nothing horrifying in this!

The more so since the holy scriptures contain fantastically advanced instructions of hygienic nature. Parsees new thousands of years ago, that a dead body should be pulled out of water touching only his or her clothing, that the clothing of both the dead and the rescuer had to be burnt – just one example.

Parsees are a small, but very efficient community. Some of the best entrepreneurs, scientists of India are Parsees and they are fond of Western classical music too.




Reading all above written one would think I am blind or at least close my eyes when something ugly about India is coming up. Though I indeed like India, it is certainly not the case. I know ugly faces of India as well: the unbelievable poverty of the masses, dirt, beggars, prostitution, sale of children, women in hopeless situations, the very low level of agriculture, burglaries, killings, hatred among ethnic groups, violence in certain areas, corruption. Why should I deal with such problems in details? Centuries will go, these problems will remain. We face most of these difficulties in Hungary, in Europe, all over the world.

One of the reasons I am atheist.

But one cannot avoid dealing with the ugliest sin of the Indian society, the caste system, if one intends to draw comprehensive picture of India.

The shame is of such extent that most of Indians – including Indian web-sites – do not touch this question.

I can touch only the surface of it here.

There are two basic points regarding which all experts agree: the origin of the caste system is connected with religion (Is it not fantastic? – with the religion, Hinduism, which teaches non-violence.) and with the invasion of India by Aryans. The intruders not only pushed the inhabitants, Dravidians down to the south, but also worked out (brought by them?) a system of making the original population second class citizens of the society, the caste system. Do not ask me details, how this inhuman ideology could penetrate the masses, how the Dravidians became a part of the upper layers of society, how could this system achieve the level of throwing out of the society (in the proper sense of the word) huge masses. Libraries have been written about it, but nobody could explain the real deepness of human slavery, of the structure of mind of those who accepted the highest levels and treated their fellow human beings like dogs or pigs.

I want to throw light on a couple of misunderstandings prevailing among non-Indians regarding the caste system.

Most of foreigners talk of four castes. This is a mistake. There are close to three thousand castes (at least in the ‘70s), changing, dividing, growing, disappearing. When we talk of four, those are classes: Brahmins (the class of priests – my God, priests in the most inhuman role one can imagine – and teachers, one can only wonder again, what kind of teachers?); Kshatryas (administrators and soldiers); Vaisyas (the business class and those connected with crafts) and Sudras, the slaves (or using more mild expression, those who do not belong to the upper classes but are still caste-Indians). The rest are classless, casteless, untouchables or Harijans.

I have described (in Hungarian) in “my Delhi” one case that shocked me in 1972, some 25 years after the caste system was prohibited by law. I was trying to get someone to take up a combined job that would contain cleaning as well and could not find anyone. I was later told that only untouchables may take up the cleaning part of the job and the sweeper of the Trade Counsellor’s Office was introduced to me. I made a few steps towards him, wanting to shake hands. He made the same steps backwards, because – as I immediately understood – he could not touch me, could not let me come close, could not throw even his shadow on me! What a shame on me, what a shame on India, what a shame on the whole human race!

Mahatma and his followers understood very well that this ugliest of sins has to be eliminated in case they want to have one nation, want to have political and economic freedom, want to develop fast.

But it was only a nice dream to stop the practice by low. It will cause headaches for India for at least decades to come, the society is so much interwoven with the system.

The law secures positive discrimination for the Harijans (Children of God – introduced by Mahatma to reduce the pain), one example that should be followed all over the world (including Hungary) for discriminated strata.

Another misunderstanding: pariahs are just one group (caste) of the untouchables, not the entire mass of Harijans. I do use the definition caste not without purpose. The Harijans divided themselves into castes of casteless people. The same has happened to believers of faiths in India that won significant position because one of their basic principles was equality. The Hindu system of castes slowly but surely penetrated into them as well.

Do not ask Indian ladies, if the coloured dot on their forehead was a sign of caste distinction. You will never get proper reply.

If you – a foreigner – arrive to India, do not keep your nose high: in the eyes of orthodox Hindus you are untouchable, he cannot consume his own dish – if he is caste-Indian - in case your shadow was cast on it.

And I am not joking: in Calcutta, where I occupied the post of Trade Commissioner for Hungary, I was asked by a newly appointed Honorary Consul to receive him for an introductory meeting. I offered him to dine with us, he refused, then to have an afternoon tea with us, he accepted. But neither he himself, nor his pleasant wife consumed a drop of liquid, not talking about sweets or anything else. They were obviously afraid of pollution from untouchables.

A cook has to be Brahmin, otherwise your Brahmin guest will not touch your dishes. In most of the cases they clarify the situation by asking the cook. The rule is not very strict any more, I have to believe, because – though we could not be sure about the caste-position of our cooks – our guests never refused to enjoy what they were offered.

Eating together is – and must have been for thousands of years – a sure sign of acceptance of friendship in India, like hug among non-Indians.

We do not offer sites to read, most of the best western sites and “our” general Indian sites deal with religions, just one – as a matter of curiosity, how products of religious character are offered – – Giri Trading