Caste system in India: alive and kicking

Do not Destroy the Caste System, Strengthen it

Posted on 1-February-2012

     In any discussion of the Hindu caste system, a reference is as likely as not made to the purusha sukta of the Rig Veda, giving thus the system the authority that is believed to come from tradition and antiquity. Whether or not it is right to trace the origin of the fourfold division of Hindu society into four varnas called brahman, kshatriya, vaishya and shudra to this section of the Rig Veda, the template itself is very old. In reality, it has functioned also as a programme of assimilation of diverse native or immigrant ethnic groups into the Hindu fold as different jatis, placing them in one of the four varna categories, depending on their power, wealth or skills. Thus a trading, farming or pastoral tribe would normally be slotted into the vaisya category while a warlike tribe could force its way into the fold as kshatriyas. Others with special professional or manual skills such as carpentry, smithy, pottery, horticulture or dexterity with scissors and razors had no choice but to come in as shudras. It was much more difficult to be admitted as brahmans. But the pastoral/agrarian society that devised this system needed yet others to perform dirty, defiling or sombre tasks such as disposing of waste, of carcasses of dead cattle or tending to funeral pyres. For this purpose other economically weak groups were co-opted. They lived on the periphery, depended on minimum subsistence level compensation and, because of the defiling nature of their work, became untouchable. They were called chandalas, precursors of modern day dalits, their lowly status not being a check against their being subdivided into separate jatis. The system has continued more or less unchanged  for at least two thousand years. Many historians have argued that under colonial rule the boundaries between different jatis--what it has now become accepted to call caste and in what follows the words caste and jati will be used interchangeably--became more rigid. While there is a great deal of variation in this general scheme from one part of India to another--for example, in many areas there are only brahmans, the dalits and a large number of other jatis in between--and among jatis, they have over time become fixed hereditary groups and all rigidly follow rules about endogamy--with, often, exogamous sub-groups within-- and commensality. Over time the system has been given religious sanction by not only the purusha sukta but also by other texts, the most notable among them being the Manu Smriti, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana (especially the Valmiki version as interpreted by Hindu reactionary groups). It is difficult not to be impressed by the durability of the system.

     For a good Hindu, it is a mistake to think that a caste system cannot and does not flourish outside the hot tropical climate of the Indian subcontinent. A look at the least traditional of all western societies, the United States of America, may be useful. First of all there are the intellectuals--journalists, political scientists, economists, other academics and writers--who perform the role of brahmans. Among them there are those who, like the brahmans of India whose task was to bless the actions of kings, engage themselves in inventing theoretical justifications for what the government wants to do. There are some among them, like Zbigniew Brzezinski, Henry Kissinger or Lawrence Summers who became cabinet officers in different US administrations just as brahmans routinely became ministers of kings in India. Woodrow Wilson became the President of the USA just as the Maurya dynasty of India was succeeded by a brahman dynasty of kings. There are some content to spend their lives in pursuit of knowledge, depending on grants from government and private agencies, just as the rishis and other sanyasin did in India. Then there are politicians who like the kshatriyas of India occupy themselves full time in acquiring and retaining control over the governmental machinery. Other kshatriyas naturally are the Generals and Admirals who concentrate on achieving power and glory abroad for the nation, though not very successfully these days. Then there are the industrialists and bankers and managers of finance companies who like the vaisyas of India concentrate on making money and in the process wield great influence on public policy just as rich merchants have through the ages done in India apart from building temples and hostelries for pilgrims. In the USA, people like J.P.Morgan, Henry Ford, and three generations of the Rockefellers not only became very rich and spent some of their wealth on philanthropic activity but also had at different times determining influence on government policy. Other traders, like the owners of small and medium enterprises remain content with their relatively modest station in life just as small traders in Hindu society have always done. The blue collar workers--factory workers, plumbers, electricians, brick layers, masons and a host of others--like the shudras of India have no choice but to accept their lot even though aspiring to climb up the social ladder and even at times succeeding, just as Vyasa and Valmiki, to whom the authorship of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana is attributed, did in India. And then there are immigrant workers, legal and illegal, to do dirty, demeaning and dangerous jobs just as the chandalas have always done in India. As in the case of Hindu society, in the USA also different ethnic groups have been assimilated at different levels in this fivefold division of society and in at least one case different ethnic groups do function as two different castes, that is the blacks and the Hispanics even though most members of the two communities are the shudras of the USA. In more traditional western societies such as Britain and France, the caste system is even more deeply rooted. What distinguishes the western caste system from the Hindu one is the degree of rigidity-- the rules of heredity and endogamy are not as strictly observed in the western caste system as in the Indian one.

     In the 19th and the first half of the 20th century, a series of Hindu intellectuals, religious teachers and politicians infected by western liberal ideas became anxious to purge Hinduism of a number of what they saw as social evils that had crept into high Hinduism during centuries of backwardness, ignorance and superstitions. They saw the caste system, particularly the practice of untouchability against the dalits, as an important evil to be got rid of. They not only forgot the antiquity and the high religious authority on which the Hindu caste system is based but also failed to understand that caste systems can and do exist in other societies too. One of them, the dalit leader Bhimrao Ambedkar held the view that eradicating the practice of untouchability was not enough; the caste system itself had to be destroyed. He led a number of his followers to convert to Buddhism. That did not help his dalit followers in escaping either untouchability or the caste system. He, a dalit who went for higher studies to the USA, and Gandhi, a vaishya who trained to be called to the bar at the Inns of Court reached an agreement, called the Poona Pact, under which in the new constitutional dispensation for India being discussed by the British colonial administration, there would be no separate electorate for the dalits--known in official terminology as scheduled castes-- but reservations for them in representative bodies and in government jobs. In continuation of this policy, it was provided in the Constitution adopted by the Republic of India in 1950 that until 1965, 15% of the seats in the federal parliament and in the legislative bodies of the states and in government jobs would be reserved for the scheduled castes and 7 1/2 % for scheduled tribes. Ambedkar who was deeply involved in the drafting of the Constitution was firmly opposed to extending the system of reservations beyond 1965. Since then India's politicians, always on the lookout for gimmicks to win them instant popularity and votes in the next election, have repeatedly extended these reservations for ten years at a time. In 1989, another set of politicians, equally unscrupulous and anxious to deal with a political contingency of the moment, basing themselves on a provision in the Constitution for enacting affirmative action programmes for other backward classes extended reservations in government jobs to 'other backward castes'---mainly vaishya and shudra castes--of another 27% of government jobs. Since then reservations have been made in institutions of higher and professional learning for other backward castes in addition to those for scheduled castes and tribes. Demands from different castes for inclusion in one category or another for reservations have not ceased and India's politicians would have conceded every demand made loudly enough had it not been for a cap of 50% on all reservations in jobs and educational institutions imposed by the Supreme Court of India. At this writing there is talk of a special reservation for minority communities within the reservation for other backward castes. This will no doubt be contested as was the reservation for other backward castes but will eventually be accepted by all of India's politicians. India's politicians have been remarkably oblivious of the fact the reservation policy combined with the appeal by all political parties to caste sentiments at every election have not only solidified the ancient caste structure more than ever before but have exacerbated rivalries often laced with animosity between different caste groups. In fact India's polititicians have been singularly pusillanimous in dealing even with clearly criminal acts performed in recent times by caste headmen ordering the execution of young couples marrying in contravention of caste rules. But this description bespeaks an alien, un-Indian way of thinking.

     The present day confusions about caste--the entire question of caste based affirmative action, intercaste rivalry and tensions, questions about the authority of caste elders on matters relating to caste rules--would not have arisen if modern Hindu intellectuals infatuated with weird western ideas about democracy, secularism, rule of law, justice, human rights and feminism had not interfered. The Hindu caste system has existed since time immemorial and is derived from India's perennial religion, the sanatan dharma,-- misnamed as Hinduism by western writers-- which itself is a distillation of ancient Hindu wisdom contained in the vedas, the puranas, the Manu Smriti and the great Indian epics. Besides even a cursory look at the way other societies, western societies for example, function is enough to show that the system is based on universal principles about human societies. India achieved the highest in human wisdom and learning long before other societies started being civilised. Hindus have already reached heights in spirituality, human psychology, mathematics, medicine, astronomy and physics that remain unattainable for the West. In brief the West has nothing to teach Hindus. Therefore Hindu society should stop chasing false mirages in the West and concentrate on preserving its most valuable possessions. It should accept that the maintenance of the caste system, an integral part of Hindu social structure, is essential for the survival of Hinduism itself. It is a social structure in which every group and every individual fully understands its role--its dharma--and its position and understands that its happiness and salvation lies in the fulfillment of its role in harmony with all others. Nothing can bring greater happiness here and hereafter than obedience to dharma acceptance one's ordained place in the scheme of things. To try to change this ancient order is both unnecessary and futile.

     It follows from this that for its own good Hindu society should not only stop pretending that the caste system has ceased to exist or that at some distant date in future it can be destroyed, and instead seek ways of strengthening it, shaken in recent times by the onslaught of westernising Hindus and their western friends. To move in that direction, India's Hindu majority should ask its government to immediately take steps to enact three laws. The first of these should definitively fix the position of each of its hundreds of jatis in the five varnas: brahmans, kshatriyas, vaishyas, shudras and dalits. This would help eliminate all future disputes about the position of individuals and groups in the social hierarchy. Litigation about deciding whether a certain jati was brahman, kshatriya or shudra, as often happened in colonial India in the 19th century, would become unnecessary. A second law should make a definitive allocation of quotas to each jati in government and private jobs and educational institutions in proportion to its population. Now that the Indian censuses have, after a hiatus of sixty years, started enumerating people castewise, the census figures should facilitate the enactment of both these laws. A third law should set up a system of jati courts for each jati with authority to adjudicate violations of jati rules and award punishments including, if necessary, death sentences. Consequently, enforcement of jati rules should be taken out of the purview of secular courts. It should be made optional for India's religious minorities to opt to be integrated into the varna hierarchy which could be done on the basis of the integrant's profession and birth: thus a Muslim barber would get the same treatment as a Hindu shudra while a Muslim butcher or a Muslim shoemaker would be treated the same way as a Hindu dalit. Muslim sheikhs or pathans would have to be treated like upper caste Hindus. Such a system will make for greater peace and harmony in society than has been the case in a post-Independence India trying vainly to adopt alien western values and ideas. An India under a strengthened caste system--time has shown that the system is best suited to India's genius--need not feel on the defensive when dealing with the rest of the world, for just as the culture and civilisation of Europe and the Americas are even now, in spite of two centuries of advancing secularism, imbued with Christianity and if the culture and civilisation of China are in spite of sixty years of Communism imbued with Confucianism, there is nothing wrong with Hindus seeking to preserve India as a Hindu nation in spirit. Hindus should feel pride in their hinduness and should go on to revive all that was great in their ancient civilisation including Hindu science, Hindu medicine, Hindu mathematics, Hindu aeronautics (remember the craft in which Rama, Lakshmana and Sita flew from Lanka to Ayodhya) Hindu astronomy (for which read astrology) and above all the Hindu caste system. For doing so they must first cleanse their minds of corrosive western notions such as liberalism, utilitarianism, scepticism, rationalism, social justice, equality before law and above all secularism.        


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Also on this site:               Introduction to The Waste Sad Time             The Waste Sad Time

Linked articles:

Affirmative Action to Help the Dalit in India

A Downtrodden Woman

Reforming Hinduism

A Foolish Protest





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