I was talking to a friend of mine this past week, and he told me something quite astonishing. He said that Mahatma Gandhi was in favor of the caste system in India, and that he defended it. Further, he said, the Richard Attenborough film about Gandhi was, in his words, “bullshit.”
Now, I would not say that I am an expert on Gandhi, but I have always admired him tremendously. So when I got home, I did an Internet search to see if what he said was true.
Sure enough, I found that there are claims that this was his view. In particular, a woman named Arundhati Roy, who is a prize-winning author, makes these claims and wants everything named after Gandhi to be changed.
However, as you might suspect, the truth is more complicated than that:
“Prof Mridula Mukherjee, an expert in modern Indian history at Jawaharlal University in Delhi, said Roy’s criticism was misplaced. ‘Gandhi devoted much of his life to fighting caste prejudice. He was a reformer not a revivalist within the Hindu religion. His effort was in keeping with his philosophy of nonviolence and bringing social transformation without creating hatred,’ Mukherjee said.”
– [“Arundhati Roy accuses Mahatma Gandhi of discrimination”, The Guardian, July 18, 2014]
And his descendants vehemently deny that Gandhi supported the caste system:
“Being outspoken is one thing but being so blasé about your ignorance is quite another,” said Tushar Gandhi, great-grandson of the world-renowned thinker and activist. “It’s just an attempt to get publicity.”
Gandhi was especially appalled by the treatment of outcastes:
“Mahatma Gandhi was accused of acting as an apologist for the caste system in India. In 1932, he resorted to fasting ‘to block an affirmative action’ planned by Britain in favour of the outcastes, the so-called ‘untouchables’. Gandhi tried his best to undermine the centuries-old caste system and to remove the blot of untouchability from Hinduism. When he returned from South Africa, Gandhi was on the periphery of nationalist politics and launched a propaganda against the evils of untouchability. His fasting struck the British officials as a thinly disguised mode of coercion. After he was released from jail, Gandhi embarked on a tour in hopes of informing the Indians about the evils of untouchability.”
– [“Gandi and His Critics”, B.R. Nanda, Oxford Scholarship Online, 1994]
He also went through a change in views on the caste system:
“Gandhi’s views in regard to basic aspects of the caste system changed in the last years of his life. In the 1920s he had held that every Hindu ‘must follow the hereditary profession’ and that ‘prohibition of intermarriage’ between people of different varnas was ‘necessary for a rapid evolution of the soul.’ But later he gradually became ‘a social revolutionist,’ advocating intermarriage between Brahmins and Untouchables in order to dismantle the caste system ‘root and branch,’ and acknowledging that ‘When all become casteless, monopoly of occupations would go.’ The changes were due in part to the influence of two opponents of the caste system whose integrity he held in high regard: Ambedkar and Gora. His view of marriage between people of different religious affiliations underwent a similar change.”
– [“Changes in Mahatma Gandhi’s views on caste and intermarriage”, Mark Lindley]
(Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar is an important person in Buddhism because he revived Buddhism in India, founding the Dalit Buddhist Movement, partly as a way to fight against the caste system.)
It is also, I think, important to remember the times. In politics, it is often necessary to seek incremental change given current realities. You cannot let the “perfect be the enemy of the good.” The caste system in India is deeply entrenched. To an outsider it may seem obvious that it is woefully discriminatory, and that is true. But then all cultures have some form of caste system. We certainly do in the U.S. I live among native Americans, Blacks, and Hispanics who will attest to that. Women are also largely outcastes, and most especially the poor are outcastes. It just takes a more formal form in India.
And while I know this will be quite controversial, I also saw how the caste system can work. In India your profession is inherited. If you are in Agra you might be descended from the people who built the Taj Mahal. Those skilled workers still exist, and they do the same extraordinary work. Of course, you might not want to do that kind of work, but it gives you family, tradition, and a kind of security. It is an inherited guild system.
I am not trying to defend it, just to try and get inside of it. Social systems persist because there are at least some benefits. And further, as I have seen moving to New Mexico and learning about the pueblo Indian culture, we always look at another culture through our own eyes, and we judge it based on our own often myopic values. Most people I know judge India based on one or two things they know about it. There are a million things to know about India. It is a very complicated country.
This is all by way of saying several things. First, Gandhi’s views on caste are not, as far as I can tell, all that simple. They are not one dimensional. He most assuredly deplored untouchability. At worst his views on caste and how to eliminate the caste system changed over time.
But second is the matter of speech and how we handle information that we hear. In the Buddha’s teachings on right speech, he taught two aspects that are in play here. First and most importantly is speaking the truth. Saying that Gandhi defended the caste system is simply not true. And Richard Attenborough’s film about Gandhi, while I am sure it is not perfect, is not “bullshit.” Gandhi and Attenborough’s film about him have been quite inspirational to many people. I am one of them.
The second aspect to right speech is causing discord in the community. This friend of mine spends a lot of time in India. I presume that he is perpetuating these beliefs about Gandhi. In a country that is as politically charged as India, where political parties are always trying to re-write history based on their own ideologies, sowing seeds of discord is very unskillful.
One of the aspects of the Buddha’s teachings that is especially hard to hear is how much damage we do with our unskillfulness. The moral and ethical precepts are about refraining from doing harm. We abstain from killing and harming. We abstain from taking what is not freely offered. We abstain from illicit sex. We abstain from wrong speech. We abstain from intoxication. And most importantly we constantly examine the consequences of our actions and try to learn from our mistakes.
We all want to do good things, but it would be more helpful if we put as much energy into not acting in ways that are harmful. We do more harm with wrong speech than with any other form of conduct. For some reason we always seem to want to tear people down and to believe the worst about them. This can be extremely damaging, to ourselves and to others.