I am going to try to bring some clarity in the diversity of beliefs that all go under the ‘flag’ of Hinduism. I know that this is not easy, and that it is even more difficult as I write columns, not lengthy articles or books.
The words Hindu and Hinduism are derived from Indus as in the river, which before partition was the western border of the plains of Hindustan. Hindus are the followers of a religion from across the Indus and Hinduism is that religion. In this geographical interpretation Buddhists, Jaina and Sikhs are also followers of religions from across the Indus, and could therefore be called Hindus.
Looking back in time, when the Indo-Germanic people started arriving in Northern India we see that their ‘priests’ were specialists in rituals that would appease the Gods and that would confirm the leaders in their position. I am not going to get involved in the question when the caste system as we know it now, mixed with jatis, groups of people working in the same or similar jobs, came into being.
What is clear is that the system was much more flexible than you would suppose going by the Dharma-shastra rules. Non Indo-Germanic groups were inducted into the caste system by designating their leaders as Kshatriyas and most of the ordinary people as Shudras. Local governors who rebelled against their king and started their own kingdom often underwent the same change.
The Brahmins who created these new Kshatriyas had more to offer than just a higher status protected by religion. Apart from their rituals Brahmins collected knowledge that was useful to any ruler. The Brahmins bought power and influence, and were often given land grants in exchange for their knowledge and for the gift of a higher caste status. The new Kshatriyas were also given a fabricated genealogy to ‘prove’ that they were what they claimed to be.
From the beginning there have been counter movements, who were against caste or who did not attach so much importance to it. The appeal of Buddhism and Jainism to traders was that these had to deal with people of all backgrounds, and did not want be bound by the restrictions of the caste system.
Long before Guru Nanak people stood up against the Brahmins, looking for the true way of righteousness, and for bhakti, devotion to God. But most of these movements were integrated back into the Brahminical system. Some anti-caste groups ended up being a caste themselves like the Lingayat of South India.
The present ‘jathedars’ en mukh-mantris who run the Sikh institutions in Amritsar care nothing about Guru Nanak, about the uplifting of the oppressed or about being the servant to all. They sell Gurus’ principles in exchange for political power and the illegal fruits of being in government. They can keep the institutions, but I trust that Sikhs who seriously try to follow the Guru Granth Sahib will survive, both in Hindustan and in other countries where the Sikhs have settled.