Issues of Social Justice

Contemporary Moral Issues

There is no one ‘Hindu’ view on any moral issue, any more than one ‘Christian’ or ‘Humanist’ view. There is only space here to indicate some Hindu perspectives on some controversial moral issues.

Human rights

Traditionally Hinduism has emphasised duties over rights and this, together with different moral duties for different categories of people and a focus on the collective rather than the individual, has been cited as a reason why human rights are incompatible with Hinduism. However, the corollary of duties is rights, so that one person’s duty implies another person’s rights. Similarly, while dharma does apply differently to the classes (varnas) and ashramas (modes of life), there are also universal virtues that apply to everyone. While there is an obligation to family, caste and society in general, there are also opportunities for the exercise of individual autonomy including the decision to renounce the world. The law of karma also implies individual autonomy and responsibility. Consequently, commentators have identified a basis for human rights in Hinduism and certainly the concept of human rights enjoys wide support among Hindus today, particular those involved in struggles against perceived social injustices.


Most Hindus today would argue that Hindus support equality, whether in terms of class/caste, gender or race. Hindu philosophies hold that the true self or atman is not to be identified with the particular physical body or social self of a current incarnation. Whether the atman is individual, or all one in Brahman, the divine dwells in all, and thus everyone is at least spiritually and ultimately equal, and should be treated as such. On the other hand, even spiritually, people are at different stages on their journey through many lives, and so saints, gurus and swamis who have achieved liberation or realised their oneness with the divine are honoured as superior beings.

Socially, in contrast with the modern concept of equality, where people are viewed mainly as individuals, many traditional societies often thought more about the harmonious functioning of the community as a whole, which required people to play the part given to them, and all would work for the good of the whole. This had its advantages, in that everyone had a useful role and a job, and groups were not in direct competition with each other, but disadvantages if an individual found their talents and interests were not suited to the role assigned them by birth, class or gender, and where the roles of some groups were obviously more valued and brought more material compensations than others. In common with other traditional societies, Hindu society developed hierarchical systems of organising society, which were not static throughout the millennia, and are still in processes of change today.

Caste, class, varna and jati

Many Hindus today argue that varna and jati have been much misunderstood by non-Hindus, as indicated by the very word ‘casta’ being coined by Portuguese traders in the sixteenth century and then incorporated into English as ‘caste’ and used by British colonialists. Indeed, in English usage ‘caste’ is often used to designate both varna and jati and thus the general hierarchical principle of Hindu, and to some extent Indian, society, though it may be used more technically to designate jati specifically.

Some insist that ‘caste’ (the concept as well as the name) is a British invention in the sense that the social groupings relating to the terms varna and jati that were a traditional part of Hindu social identity were reified and codified on the basis of the classical texts and as a result accorded a primary importance that they did not previously possess. This had the effect of making existing disadvantages of some groups more prominent.

In addition, whatever might have been true or not in the past, today it is argued that the ‘caste system’ with discrimination on grounds of caste no longer exists, and caste discrimination has been illegal in India since soon after Independence. Not all would agree that this ideal has yet been reached, especially those from groups traditionally viewed as the bottom end of the system, though there is evidence that both in India and diaspora, caste is becoming less important for contemporary Hindus as seen in areas such as socialising and marriage. Some Hindus argue that the whole topic is a social and economic one that has nothing to do with Hinduism as a religion.

In relation to varnas, contemporary Hindus may also distinguish between specific roles and responsibilities and the notion of superiority and inferiority attaching to the division of labour, or advocate the application of the meritocratic instead of the hereditary principle in which an individual’s abilities, not their birth, determines their place in society. There is evidence that the four varnas were perhaps more fluid in ancient times than they later became.

There are also thousands of jatis (usually translated as ‘castes’ in the narrower sense) and subgroups thereof. These are groups into which members are born, traditionally contracting marriages and sharing food with members of the same group, many of which were, and still to some extent are, associated with specific occupations. How these relate to the idea of varnas is disputed. In an effort to align the social reality of thousands of jatis with a textual model of four varnas, jatis have been often assigned to varnas. Various sacred texts have attempted to explain how the multitude of jatis arose, suggesting intermarriage between members of different varnas. In contrast, many scholars regard varna and jati as two separate systems though they have been associated with one another as jatis have been aligned with varnas as points of reference and, on occasion, as means of claiming enhanced status.

Certainly the history of the jati system is complex and disputed, has varied in different regions, and has changed and developed over time. Some blame colonial rule for making things more rigid and fixed than they were before. On the positive side, jatis have provided people with security, employment and welfare, and allowed different groups to continue with diverse customs (from food eaten to religious rituals) without forcing uniformity on everyone. On the other hand, some groups were viewed less favourably and suffered real material hardship and social discrimination. Particularly those jatis considered to be outside the varna system, below even the servants, sometimes labelled ‘outcastes’ (that is, outside of the system) or ‘untouchables’ because of the attitude of some groups at the top of the system, who feared that their purity would be compromised by contact with such people, have been subject to many forms of discrimination, even exclusion from places of worship. Examples of such jatis are those who traditional jobs are considered to be polluting (cleaners of toilets, dealing with dead bodies, processing leather).

The treatment of such jatis has been the most controversial aspect of the varna/jati system and was the subject of campaigning by, among others, Gandhi, who often denounced ‘untouchability’ to be an abuse of the system, and coined the term ‘harijans’ (‘people/children of God’) as an alternative label. In contrast, Ambedkar (1891-1956) maintained that the whole system was wrong, and such an intrinsic part of Hindu tradition that he turned to Buddhism. In response to such campaigns, Indian law made such discrimination illegal, and there have been various initiatives to improve conditions and opportunities for underprivileged ‘scheduled’ groups. Sometimes these have led to a backlash from other groups who considered that such ‘affirmative action’ discriminated against them, for example, in respect of education and employment. Contemporary activists from ‘ex-untouchable’ jatis often prefer to use the name ‘dalit’ (broken or oppressed) in order to draw attention to the still continuing suffering experienced by many.

Gender and the role and status of women

As with class, caste and race, the importance of gender is relativised by the concept of reincarnation, as it applies only to current embodied form and not the essential self or atman (even though the concept of karma might lead to acceptance of any disadvantages of a current gendered incarnation). Moreover, it is possible to draw upon Hindu beliefs that uphold equality such as the divine indwelling all selves and the ultimate unity of the selves as one, so at least spiritually all are equal. Gender diversity and fluidity beyond a male/female divide can also be found within the Hindu tradition (see Sex, gender and sexuality below).

Nevertheless, it is not surprising that in such an ancient, diverse and dynamic tradition one can find both negative and positive views of women, and it is anachronistic to expect ancient texts and traditions not to be sexist by contemporary standards, even if capable of different interpretations. On the negative side, women, like the servant class and those outside the varna system, were excluded from Vedic learning according to the varnashramadharma system (if perhaps less so in earlier times) and their role was mainly seen as in the domestic sphere of wife and mother. The ashrama pattern of student, householder, forest dwelling hermit and renouncer did not apply to women, though they were vital to the second stage as wives and mothers and might accompany their husbands in the third of these stages as part of their domestic duty or stridharma (women’s dharma). There has certainly been an historic preference for sons, even instances of female infanticide or foeticide (see Abortion below) as well as less favourable treatment of female children, and some examples of historic abuses such as mistreatment of widows and child marriage (see Sex, gender and sexuality).

On the other hand, many Hindus argue that some of the more negative aspects were later developments and point to the favourable position of women in ancient India as a measure of true Hindu norms and values. Not only are mothers traditionally respected, but when some Hindus have campaigned against, for instance, child marriage, the exclusion of women from education and their inability to participate in public life, they have done so by appealing to a positive reconstruction of the ideals of the distant past. Examination of the Vedic texts suggests that women had more agency and involvement in matters beyond the domestic, for instance (from the Upanishads) Gargi, a participant in philosophical debate with the sage Yajnavalkya, and Maitreyi, Yajnavalkya’s spiritually inclined wife who requested her husband’s instruction. Some suggest that many of the restrictions on women were only introduced as necessary protective measures under Muslim rule or that a divide in experience between men and women was exacerbated by the British Raj.

The modern Indian women’s movement has reinterpreted female figures presented as ideal wives in sacred texts to highlight qualities other than deference and obedience, for instance, courage and initiative as seen in Draupadi, Savitri, and even Sita. Historical figures that offer women a variety of roles and role models include women saints from the bhakti (devotion) traditions who challenged expectations of the nature and purpose of women’s lives. These include Andal (eighth century) devoted to Vishnu, the Shaivite ascetic Mahadevyakka/Akka Mahadevi (twelfth century) who is revered as a pioneer of women’s equality, and the princess Mirabai (sixteenth century) who considered herself married to Krishna. There are warriors, politicians and activists such as Rani (Queen) Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi (d.1858) who fought against the British, Sarojini Naidu (d.1949) who was a leading political activist in the Congress movement during and after the struggle for Indian Independence, a campaigner for women and a poet, and Jayaben Desai (d.2010) who led the strike at the Grunwick factory in England for better conditions for a mainly female South Asian workforce in 1976-78. There are also modern, recent and contemporary female saints, ascetics and gurus, such as Sister Nivedita (d.1911), Sarada Devi (d.1920), Anandamayi Ma (d.1982), Mataji Nirmala Devi (d.2011) and Mother Meera (born 1960).

The fact that the divine can be represented in female form, the Goddess and the many goddesses, and their association with power or shakti, especially figures such as the fierce goddess Kali, can be viewed as empowering for women. Many have pointed out that some of the issues that caused suffering for women such as the treatment of widows and the divorced only applied to higher class groups and women from lower classes were often free of such restrictions at least until the colonial era. There are examples of women-only rituals, at first menstruation, before marriage, and during pregnancy, and such gatherings might be occasions for sharing less-than-flattering views of men, as found also in folk songs.

The practice of vrats (vows), which involve actions such as fasting and prayers, traditionally engaged in for the welfare of the husband and the family, may be performed by women for their own purposes too. The Indian women’s movement in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, before and after Independence, were thus able to draw upon Hindu tradition to argue for equality for women, as do contemporary Hindu feminists today.

Racism and colourism

Given the Hindu belief that the self (atman) is successively re-embodied, the body including race or ethnicity is unimportant. The idea that the divine dwells within all beings also leads Hindus to see discrimination based on outward differences like skin colour or ethnicity as wrong, and any exploitation of one race by another, for example in slavery, as unacceptable. Nevertheless, accounts of the Aryan ‘invasion’ tend to portray the Aryans as light-skinned and the indigenous inhabitants of the subcontinent as dark-skinned though, of course, this account of the early development of Hinduism has been disputed (see Change and continuity: historical and geographical distribution) and Hindus themselves were subjected to racism under the British Raj and are still today in the diaspora. Gandhi is often seen as a heroic antiracist campaigner in apartheid South Africa, although others have claimed he had racist attitudes towards black Africans and was only concerned about the racism of white rulers against Indians. The two perspectives can be reconciled by suggesting that Gandhi’s attitudes developed over time and that his personal experience of anti-Indian racism gradually gave him insight into racism against all groups.

In common with other Indian communities and communities of Indian descent, the issue of colourism has also been highlighted, that is, discrimination based on skin colour that occurs within these communities to the advantage of lighter-complexioned and disadvantage of darker complexioned individuals. This has been analysed as an internalising of the historical experience of foreign rule and the negative legacy of colonial attitudes but Hinduism does provide resources to challenge such prejudice such as the dark-skinned goddess Parvati as an image of beauty diametrically opposed to the use of skin-lightening creams.

Wealth and poverty

The acquisition of wealth (artha) is a legitimate goal of human life (purushartha) though the means of its acquisition and how it is spent are also importantly and generally seen to be governed by dharma (duty, righteousness). Consequently, the significance of the householder reflects the obligation to maintain one’s dependents and generate the wealth required to contribute towards the flourishing of society as a whole including donations to religious and charitable causes. There is no romanticising of poverty in ordinary life even if an individual may choose to embrace poverty for spiritual reasons when renouncing the world and subsequently rely on the generosity of others for food and to satisfy any few remaining needs. There are many examples of Hindu charities to address poverty such as food banks organised by local temple communities in the UK and ISKCON’s international Food for Life programme which provides vegetarian meals to those in need as a practical expression of equality as well as a revival of the ancient tradition of hospitality.


The concept of dharma in the sense of duty means that everyone should do their job to the best of their ability. The varna (and also jati) system (see Varnashramadharma) understood in an idealised way means that everyone has an important part to play in the overall running of society, from monarch or president to cleaner, and if everyone plays their part the whole of society will benefit. In this sense, everyone is a key worker. However, the traditional division of labour was hierarchical, so that those at the lower end of the system might not experience it in such a positive way as those at the top, especially those whose jobs are considered to be polluting (cleaners of toilets, dealing with dead bodies, processing leather) which meant that they were considered even beneath the servant class. This has led some contemporary Hindus to interpret the varna system as a matter of different people having different skills and aptitudes to contribute rather than anything to do with the group you are born into or difference in status.

The ashrama system came to mean that different work is expected at different stages of (at least males from the top three varnas) lives. A student should dedicate themselves to study, a householder to providing for their family and helping a wider range of others. The following two ashramas somewhat relativise the importance of work viewed as paid employment, running a business or even subsistence farming. Not only those who ‘work’ contribute to society. The third stage of retirement represents a stage when the many responsibilities of a full-time job, business, land and family can be gradually left to younger people, while still being able to contribute advice and the wisdom of experience, as well as living a simpler life with space for spiritual practices. Originally this stage involved leaving home and moving into the forest to live a simple hermit life, but still as a married couple if this was the husband’s wish. In this form, it has fallen into disuse. The final stage of renunciation frees you completely from the need to be involved with worldly concerns and marks a complete break from any remaining ties to family and household. Renunciation can also be a lifelong alternative to the world of work, reflecting earlier ideas of the ashramas as different modes of life that might be pursued in their own right rather than in combination over a lifetime, and the many kinds of monks, swamis and ascetics who rely completely on others for their sustenance are admired as dedicating themselves to the most important aims of life.

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Hindu Worldview Traditions


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