I will make my point in simple terms.
1. Yes, a person who is born a Hindu and feels that he is a Hindu can be an atheist or an agnostic. I am an agnostic. Though I am an agnostic, I am culturally a Hindu and cherish its long tradition. I choose what is good in them and throw away what I consider is rubbish. You may come back and say that the entire tradition is rubbish. That is your choice.
2. Every religion has used violence as a mean of propagation and for imposing the will of a few on the hapless others. Even Buddhists and Jains have done that, though not on the scales of other major religions. Hinduism is no exception.
3. Yes, Hinduism is a set of myriad and, at times, even contrasting belief systems. But ask any ordinary person who is a born into one of India’s many castes, there is an overwhelming probability that he will unhesitatingly say that he is a Hindu. This has absolutely nothing to do with his caste. This was so in the near past. My grandmother had never set foot in a Shiva temple. She would not eat in an Iyer’s house. She would not allow the maid in the kitchen. If somebody had asked her what the religion of the Iyer neighbour or the maid was, she would have said “they are Hindus” batting an eyelid. The Iyer neighbour and the maid would have heartily agreed.
4. Yes, the varna system was hierarchical and it was absolutely condemnable that a set of people were considered beyond the pale of this unjust social system. Varna had scriptural sanction earlier, but in the last few centuries, it has had no legal sanction. Castes, on the other hand, have never had any scriptural sanction. For instance, until about 50 years ago, it was quite difficult to find an Iyer-Iyengar couple, though no scripture speaks against such alliances. Today such marriages are common place. The circle keeps widening. Caste is more a socio-economic phenomenon than a religious one. What is to be kept in mind is that there is absolutely no legal sanction today for both Varna and caste. Hinduism is still thriving. I know what Ambedkar views are on the subject. I don’t think castes will be annihilated in the near future.
5. I repeat. Though what some consider is its core ideology, Varna, has no legal sanction whatsoever, Hinduism is operating merrily and in fact prospering. Caste never had a scriptural sanction to begin with and has no legal sanction now. Socially caste is still strong, there is no doubt. But religion has not much to do with it. It will be instructive to take a survey to find out the percentage of inter-caste marriages among Christians – that is, marriages between Nadar and Dalit Christians and marriages between Parava and Dalit Christians. Or the marriages between Nat, Chamail or Abdal Muslims and other Muslims of non-Dalit origin.
6. Some persons say that Hinduism is a British construct. Even if it were a British construct, today it is an identifiable major religion and, if it is newly born, it is likely have all the vigour that the youth have.
7. Nevertheless, the stranglehold of caste is showing signs of loosening. There are several factors operating against it but these two are the most important. The first is that the quiet social acceptance of caste is being questioned strongly now, which was not the case a few years ago. The intensity is uneven, but it is happening all over India in several forms. The second is that urbanization of India will eventually lead to these distinctions slowly disintegrating. There are signs that endogamy is weakening, albeit at a very slow rate. When modernization gains momentum endogamy will further weaken and eventually disappear. The dominant castes have used the opportunity given by the advance of democracy to monopolize the levers of power. But I am sure this is a temporary phenomenon. The internal contradictions within the dominant castes will ensure the collapse of this monopoly. There will be caste organizations in future, but they will be like the old boys’ clubs, where people gather and lament about the good old days. Of course the forces of caste are fighting tooth and nail in several ways. It will be idle to expect that they will quietly accept the slow disintegration of their social systems. But I am convinced that theirs is a losing battle. This is a long drawn battle and it may take years, even centuries.
8. Now in the event of this disintegration, will Hinduism remain a recognizable religion? My answer to this question is this: even now, it is an amalgam of various belief systems and it is still called the Hindu religion. Will the name of the future religion which has done away with caste system remain Hindu? I am not sure and I don’t care. We will do well to remember that this Indian religion or group of Indian religions acquired the name ‘Hindu’ very recently and it can as well shed it without losing its identity.
9. What is its identity? You may say it is caste. Then you must explain to me as to why Muslims and Christians in India strive to keep their caste identity intact. You may say that it is a remnant of their Hindu past. But they still hold on to this identity and remain Christians or Muslims, Don’t they? Thus it has much to do with social and economic relationships and not religion. I knew of several families in Tirunelveli in which the husband was a Hindu and the wife Christian. They lived peacefully without losing their caste identity.
10. Religiously speaking, what will the Hindu identity be, if it is not the caste identity? Forget the philosophical shibboleths. At the popular level, it will be the basic urge to worship (or view with awe) every aspect of nature and what the Hindu believes is the operating force behind it in an idolized form or even other forms. It will be the belief that the human form is just a temporary gift – it could well be any other form of life. The final overarching belief, common to all religions, will be that there is a supreme being who controls our activities. The Hindu’s supplementary belief will be that it is every life’s goal to be as near Him or Her as possible. There will also be a minority within this religion (a minuscule one without doubt) that may not believe in any of these identities but will still be culturally recognizable as Hindu. Apostates will have no fear that their heads will be chopped off.
11. I am also sure that as civilization advances human beings will come to the conclusion that they no longer need the crutch of religion to tackle the uncertainties of existence. When that happens all religions will disappear. This may not happen like the Big Bang happened. It will be gradual and maybe what we call Hinduism will be the first religion to bid us goodbye. Who knows?