Hindu Brahmins and Democracy's Origins

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Caste System, church, state,

Hindu Brahmins and Democracy's Origins

By Ron Banerjee

Monday, May 7, 2007

Many of the founders of American democracy are intellectuals fromdistinguished families known as 'Boston Brahmins'. This term was coinedfrom the Hindu priestly class, the 'Brahmins', who allegedly occupy theupper reaches of the maligned Indian 'caste system'

This skewed vision of Hindu hierarchy stems from foreign observers tryingto frame non-Western societies within Western and other non-Hinducontexts. It is flawed and inaccurate, like fitting a square peg into around hole. The only similarity that Hindu Brahmins share with American'Boston Brahmins' is a reverence for culture and education, and a key rolein the development of democracy

Criticism of this system arises from the allegation that upward mobilityis impeded, in the same way that mobility between Euopean and Americanclasses was limited. What has happened in modern India is that socialconventions regarding marriage between castes, though not prohibited bylegislation, have endured as part of an ancient culture. Withinemployment, politics, and the labor market, however, barriers toadvancement by 'lower castes' do not exist in democratic India

In European history, the Church and religious establishments wieldedenormous economic and political power, taxing peasants, selling'indulgements', and working hand-in-glove with the nobility to sharewealth. Thus, it is natural that Westerners would view a priestly class asa dominant, and possibly oppressive, elite

This is not the case because Hindu society was the first to master theconcept of separation of Church and State, one of the key elements ofdemocracy. Power in ancient India was dispersed, with merchant classesrunning the economy and the nobility taking care of matters of state

The Brahmins, on the other hand, wielded no economic or political power,but had tremendous moral authority. Their education and knowledge inspiredcommon people as well as leaders to solicit advice, which was oftendispensed from remote forests and mountains where these 'sadhus' livedsimple lives without material possesions

This setup gave rise to the world's first universities, and breakthroughdiscoveries in mathematics and astronomy. These concepts spread to theWest via traders, and helped inspire the Industrial Revolution

This explains why Hindu-majority India today is both the world's largestdemocracy and also a knowledge superpower. Reverence for education,inspired by priests, percolated down to all classes and imbued all Hinduswith a thirst for learning. The separation of authority, rooted in theHindu belief that absolute power corrupts absolutely, explains why theworld's largest democracy prospers even amidst staggering diversity andrelative lower incomes

Hindu priests and religious leaders today do not interfere in politics.Even parties which are denounced as 'Hindu nationalists' do not includereligious leaders. Fundraisers in temples and religious establishments forfavored political parties do not exist, in the way that conservativechurches in America back Republican candidates. For the most part, Hindupriests maintain the same distance from politicians and business as theyalways have

We can see a reflection of this separation here in Canada. Dozens of Hindutemples proliferate in the GTA, and yet temple leaders do not oftencomment or give interviews for news media. We do not see political ralliesor regular delegations of vote-seeking politicians in temples, as we do inmosques and other community religious establishments

This does not mean that Canadian Hindus do not have concerns or politicalviewpoints; rather, the community is simply following the age-oldtradition of refraining from sullying religious traditions with crasspolitical lobbying or aggressive media overtures. Sporadic attempts bytemples to form such organizations have not been successful: Hindus haverightly recognized such endeavours as personal ego gratification by templeleaders undertaking goals inconsistent with abilities or traditions

As a director for the non profit Hindu Conference of Canada, my job is tostrengthen the pillars of democracy by providing an outlet through whichCanadian Hindus may express their views. Conversely, we serve as a sourceof information and dialog into the Hindu community for the Canadianmainstream

By doing so, we provide a service which Canadian Hindus badly deserve andwant, while maintaining the separation of religion and politics which hassustained Hindu civilization's glorious democratic traditions

Ron Banerjee is the director of the Hindu Conference of Canada. He can be reached at letters@canadafreepress.com.

Canada Free Press, CFP Editor Judi McLeod