09/28/2012 01:09 pm ET Updated Nov 28, 2012

Is Casting Aside Caste Possible? Can One Reclassify Class?

Self-proclaimed Hindus ought to have a position on the centrality of class (varna) and caste (jati). While Hinduism is known for its tremendous diversity, for "Hindu" to be useful category, there has to be some religious claims and teachings that are agreed upon by all who proclaim to be Hindus. Is class (varna) and caste (jati) a core claim? Or, can they both be jettisoned? Or can one keep their centrality but reclassify their scope or character? There are benefits and risks of both possibilities...

If one thinks that class (varna) can be abandoned and, if one upholds the authority of the Vedas, what would one do with Purusha-sukta ("Hymn to Primal Man") hymn 10.90 of the Rig Veda, which includes specific references to the birth of the class (varna) system? One may wish to abandon the centrality of the Vedas (and some Hindus do just this) but is not that easy to do.

One may wish to contend that caste and class membership is an achievable, rather than hereditary, status. One may argue that it was intended this way in the Rig Veda and that at some unspecifiable time in history, and because of some unspecifiable instigator, it was subsequently, and incorrectly, understood to be inherited. A variant of this is that whether it is inherited or not, class was not intended to be hierarchically arranged.

On the other hand, If one thinks that it can be abandoned completely, as can the Rig Veda, then one still needs to explain what doctrines and teaching are central and where such items can be found (i.e. in what text). One will also need to account for references to class and caste in the corpus of texts typically understood to be Hindu ones.

And just to add to the complexity of this quandary, what happens when one juxtaposes class (varna) and caste (jati) with the Declaration of Independence in which one finds the (religious?) claim that "all men are created equal." Is this claim false? Does it conflict with claims about class and caste? And, if the claims of the Declaration trump religious ones then would it impede the "free exercise of religion," as guaranteed in the First Amendment to the U.S. constitution?

What do you think?