The Origins of Caste: An Overview of Some Scholarly Opinions
Caste is perhaps the most written about Indian phenomenon and, consequently, has generated a truly colossal amount of scholarship. My conjecture is that, in the English language alone, a fairly representative collection of research that figures caste or focuses exclusively on it can easily fill a decently sized library – one with the capacity to display a few lakh volumes. A lot of research figuring or focusing on caste dwells on its putative origins. Let me, before I commence my review, briefly acquaint the reader to some bits of it – the ones that I have been exposed to as a pupil of the discipline of history. This is so that the reader gets some sense of the ideas that this book, Western Foundations of the Caste System, is pitting itself against as well as the brave originality of its core argument.
Romila Thapar, held by most historians of ancient India as the prima donna of their tribe, regards the caste system the outcome of the ‘Aryan conquest’ of our country and the accompanying racial segregation. In her book A History of India, for decades one of the ‘basic’ texts for the undergraduate students of history, she says that the “first step in the direction of caste…was taken” when the Aryans treated the defeated, dark skinned indigenous people of India – the Dasas – “as beyond the social pale.” Thus, she says, the caste system was originally a “division…between the Aryans and the non-Aryans. The Aryans were the dvija or twice-born castes…the fourth caste, the shudras, were the Dasas and those of mixed Aryan-Dasa origin.”
D.N. Jha, another very important historian of ancient India, provides a very Marxist, materialist explanation of the beginning of the caste system. The Aryans were a warlike people and the caste system germinated due to the “unequal distribution of the spoils of war” – the Aryan tribal chiefs and priests began to siphon away a bigger share of them and “acquired greater power and prestige at the cost of their common kinsmen, thus giving rise to social inequalities.” Jha does not altogether discount the racial factor though. The development of the caste system, he says, was “also linked with the process of assimilation of the aboriginal non-Aryan people by the various sections of Aryan society.” Jha, like Thapar, regards the Aryans a conquering foreign race.
Suvira Jaiswal, a peer of Thapar and Jha, says that the varna system emerged in the later Vedic period with the formation of hierarchies in the Vedic tribes (she vaguely claims that the Brahmanical sacrificial ritual played a “crucial role” in this development) along with the emergence of hereditary occupational specializations and endogamy. Jatis, on the other hand, “emerged within the varna system through fragmentation as well as the incorporation of tribal communities…which regulated hierarchy through marriage rules and endogamy….” In the later centuries “the adoption of the brahmanical social scheme in diverse regional conditions resulted in different culture zones having widely divergent categories of caste.” I will not claim to have understood Prof. Jaiswal perfectly well but she appears to be implying the following – the varna-jati scheme is capable of taking various forms and generating a variety of social categories, but in essence it is Brahmanical and the Brahman plays a crucial role in its emergence.
In the view of Louis Dumont, the French sociologist, caste is the outcome of an “ideological principle”, namely, “the opposition of the pure and the impure.” This makes the caste system, from top to bottom, an order of diminishing purity – the Brahman, placed at the apex, is the purest while those who follow are progressively less pure. Dumont too conjectures that the caste system was brought forth by Brahmanical agency. It is “very probable”, he writes, “that the development of caste must historically have been accompanied by the development of Brahmanic prescriptions relating to the impurities of organic life, whether personal or of the family.” In plain language, the basis or the origin of caste are Brahmanical diktats blindly followed by all Hindus – caste is ideological tyranny par excellence.
Dipankar Gupta, a homegrown sociologist, disagrees with Dumont. He observes that the caste system is not determined by Brahmanical ideology alone, it is animated by multiple ideologies as “each caste has its own theory explaining its origins.” He also points out that if Brahmans refuse to perform rituals for a caste, it comes up with its own caste priests – the leather working Chamar caste, for example, has its Chamarwa Brahmans. Gupta suggests that caste hierarchies have been historically shaped by secular, political authorities and not Brahmans – he draws our attention to the fact that king Ballal Sen in eleventh century Bengal “is said to have divided the Kshatriyas into four castes according to locality, and not on the basis of purity and pollution, not under the insistence of Brahmans.” He also claims that the present form of the caste system began to emerge between the seventh and twelfth centuries of the Common Era due to an overlap of political and economic forces. Royal authority weakened in these centuries and a host of samantas, royal officials, village chiefs and lesser landholders now took to usurping the land revenue – there was thus a localization of exploitation. This caused primary producers such as peasants and artisans being assigned to various ranks. The peasants, for example, “were split into grades depending on the type of allotment, differing amounts of payment, whether state peasant, or tied to and taxed by the feudal lord.” The status of a peasant could also be determined by that of his feudal overlord. Artisans were similarly graded “depending on the rank of their patrons and customers.” These developments, according to Gupta, brought about “the elaboration of the jati, or what is popularly known as the Indian caste system.”
Susan Bayly and Nicholas Dirks, in their historical cum anthropological studies, ascribe to British colonialism a decisive role in making the caste system what it is today. In Bayly’s account, the crystallization and hardening of hierarchies in the Indian social milieu first received a fillip under the Mughal Empire and its successor regimes. However, the coup de grace, bringing forth the familiar to us delineation of caste differences, was delivered by British rule. For example, as colonial officials were charged with the task of deciding and imposing revenue rates in the countryside, much talk was generated “of tillers who were ‘skillful’ and productive by nature – the sturdy ‘Jat’, the ‘manly’ Kanbi ‘race’, the thrifty ‘Shanar’….” Bayly argues that “these stereotypes both echoed and enhanced the differentiations which many Indians were now making….” The colonial economy too played a role in hardening caste differences. The East India Company rendered the traditional rural landowning patricians vulnerable by demanding high revenue rates amid depressed market conditions (between 1820 and 1840). These old landed elites dealt with their insecurity by stressing their “distinctiveness as people who scorned the plough and commanded retainers.” This caused a “widespread hardening of boundaries between the landed groups and those deemed to be low and ‘impure’ in caste terms.” According to Nicholas Dirks, caste assumed the current, Brahmanical appearance with the emergence of the colonial ‘ethnographic state’ after 1857. As knowledge of Indian peoples and cultures was required after 1857 to assess their loyalty, “anthropology supplanted history as the principal colonial modality of knowledge and rule.” Further, Dirks tells us, the British “ethnographic curiosity…took caste as the primary object of social classification and understanding.” In this milieu “Brahmans came to have particular authority as the arbiters of confessional belief” as the customs of castes, tribes and regions were documented and a proper delineation of Hinduism was sought. Finally, when the first census of India was undertaken in 1871-72, varna was “the primary principle of classification” and the colonial authorities relied on “Brahmanic and textual authority for the establishment of rules of social precedence…”
Western Foundations of the Caste System: A Fresh New Approach
The volume Western Foundations of the Caste System (edited by Martin Farek, Dunkin Jalki, Sufiya Pathan and Prakash Shah) is divided into eight chapters, including the introduction and the afterword. Barring the first and the last, each of the intervening six chapters is a standalone research paper, authored by different scholars, and discusses some caste related issue or problematic.
The introduction, co-authored by the editors, draws the reader’s attention to the fact that, despite the vast numbers of studies that have been produced on caste, there is actually no clear consensus even on its fundamentals. We do not yet know, for example, “how the caste system came into being and what sustains it,” or what exactly is the relationship between jati and varna, since jatis constantly dispute which varna they belong to. Though we saw both Dipankar Gupta and Susan Bayly suggesting that castes were graded, or they proliferated or ‘hardened’, under certain political (and economic) circumstances in the past, the editors are quite dismissive of there being any clear link between political authority and caste. If particular kingdoms in the past created and upheld a certain order of castes, they ask, how could that order survive the demise of those kingdoms? Like Dipankar Gupta above, the editors too disbelieve the claim that the caste system was devised by self-serving Brahmans. How could, they ask, a small number of Brahmans be so successful in propagating the caste system across the country? The editors are not in agreement with Dirks’ assertion either that colonial information gathering through the census (in collusion with Brahmanical agency) made caste what it is today. Caste, they correctly point out, was a category in the census for a mere sixty years (from 1871 to 1931). A ‘caste system’ spanning the country could not have been generated in such a brief duration. Thus, at the end of the editors’ assessment of a number of academic studies on, or approaches towards, the caste system we truly notice that none of them actually leave us any wiser. The editors, eventually, point out that the great varieties of studies on caste converge on just two points – they all conclude that there is something called a caste system (in India) and it is oppressive. They go on to propose that “instead of studying the caste system, we should attempt to study what has generated this consensus on the caste system….” – about its existence and alleged oppressiveness.
So how was the prevailing consensus on caste generated, or from what frame(s) of perception does it issue? The answer, and it is a radically original one, is contained in chapters five (‘Were Shramana and Bhakti Movements Against the Caste System’ by Martin Farek), six (‘A Nation of Tribes and Priests: The Jews and the Immorality of the Caste System’ by Jakob De Roover) and seven (‘The Aryans and the Ancient System of Caste’ by Mariannne Keppens) of the volume. Let me take up chapter seven first, since it contends with the very old claim, uncritically accepted and reiterated in our times by the likes of Romila Thapar and D.N. Jha, that the caste system originated with an ‘Aryan conquest’ of the Indian Subcontinent in a hoary past. Marianne Keppens does this very competently by exposing the lacunae in the Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT). She, for example, points out that there is no archeological or genetic evidence to substantiate it. Keppens dismisses the AIT’s successor Aryan Migration Theory (AMT) as well. She asks as to how, being an immigrant population which did not use military force, the Aryans were able to reduce the indigenous Dasas to subordinate status and impose their language upon them? Thereafter, we see Keppens arguing that the idea of an ‘Aryan’ people or race actually has its roots in Biblical ethnography. It assumed that the speakers of a language ought to be traceable on the Biblical family tree and descended from one of the three sons of Noah (Japhet, Shem and Ham). When William Jones discovered the kinship of Sanskrit, Greek and Latin, he supposed that both Indians and Europeans share the same lineage on the Biblical family tree and that they are the descendants of Ham. Later, this alleged common ancestry of the Indians and Europeans was ascribed to an ‘Aryan race’ – it was only a reformulation, or renaming, of a notion derived from Christian belief. Even when the idea of there being a direct link between languages and peoples was discarded, writes Keppens, the idea of an ‘Aryan’ people was not. Because, “the link between a religion and nation was not rejected” and it was assumed that the Vedas must bear a connection with the Aryans. Finally, the idea of an ‘Aryan invasion’ took root due to the social inequalities prevalent in India – they seemed to point to the existence of two races of people, one superior and another inferior.
In chapters five and six we have Martin Farek and Jakob De Roover tracing the roots of European notions of rigidly endogamous castes and Brahmanical power. Farek begins by competently questioning the extent to which bhakti movements and Buddhism were against caste. Thereon he suggests that the idea of castes that follow strict rules of endogamy laid down by a Brahmanical priesthood is actually a projection upon India of an Iberian (Spanish and Portuguese) historical experience. As Muslims were defeated in the Iberian Peninsula in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, they were given the option of converting to Christianity or leaving. Thus, this part of world ended up with a lot of ‘New Christians.’ The Old Christian families, however, did not marry into the New Christian ones as they regarded both their faith and blood better and purer. Iberian society, thus, organized itself into a hierarchy on the basis of the supposed purity of blood. Farek contends that when Europeans first came into contact with and observed Indian society, they assumed that it is organized similarly. “When”, he writes, “Portuguese, Italian and Spanish authors wrote about “castes of the Brahmans” in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they understood this group in the same way as “caste of the Moors” [Muslims] or “caste of the Christians.” “Here and there”, they also found “evidence of a ban on inter-group marriages” and “immersed in the teaching and practices of their own culture, the Portuguese in India started to see these groups as “castes” maintaining endogamy along religious lines.” The notion of Brahmanical power, on the other hand, says Farek, was grown by Europeans since they took it for granted that all peoples have their revealed, sacred laws. In India, they assumed that such laws are provided by the dharmashastras ascribed to Manu, Apasthambha, Gautama, et al, and they sanctify the superiority of the Brahmans. Thus emerged the European idea of an Indian society in which Brahmans reign supreme at the top and untouchables lie at the bottom. Jakob De Roover, on the other hand, argues that Europeans ended with the idea of Brahmanical superiority and tyranny because they mapped onto Indian society their perception of the Jewish people. They assumed that Indians, after the fashion of the Jews, are divided into four tribes or lineages and tyrannized by their (Brahman) priests and (their) laws. Further, the idea of an over powerful Brahman priesthood emerged due to “Protestant Reformation’s attack against the Roman-Catholic Church.” Presumably, though Roover does not say so in as many words, Brahmans were equated in the minds of Europeans with the corrupt Catholic clergy.
The central thesis of the book, Western Foundations of the Caste System, is thus this – the consensus on the existence and malevolent nature of caste derives from certain western, Christian theological notions and historical experiences. The caste system, the book’s afterword (again collectively authored by the editors) contends, actually refers to a lot of discrete phenomena (roles taken up by different groups during rituals and festivals, or modes of wearing dress and food habits) and is an “experiential entity” constructed by the west (to collate and make sense of these discrete phenomena). However, one might ask, why do Indians refer to the ‘caste system’ always and seem to experience it? The editors suggest that this could be due the reason that we have learnt to see ourselves as our colonizers did. I do not find this a totally implausible claim. Do not we Indians now refer to our murtis and vigrahas as ‘idols’ and dharma as ‘religion’? Similarly, we have (unfortunately) adopted a western coinage – ‘caste system’ – to describe our unique, incomprehensible to the west, social formation.
I have found Western Foundations of the Caste System a brave and very original effort and its core argument worthy of further, intensive research. I hope academics will give its contentions the attention they deserve and engage with them. I have just one small complaint though. The book’s chapters could have been arranged better – if chapters five, six and seven had followed the introduction (that is, had they been chapters two, three and four instead) the book’s thesis will be easier to follow for the general reader.
Besides the ones referred to above, Western Foundations of the Caste System also contains interesting and informative chapters by S.N. Balgangadhara (‘Caste-Based Reservation and Social Justice in India’) and Prakash Shah (‘Dissimulating on Caste in British India’). Balgangadhara’s contention is that when the framers of the constitution adopted the provision of caste based reservations, they did not have in mind some normative notion of social justice (as claimed by the Ambedkarites) but plain political expediency or the need to allay suspicions of some communities. Prakash Shah’s paper throws light on the shallow, uninformed thinking behind United Kingdom’s Equality Act of 2010 which provides for legal action on grounds of perceived ‘caste discrimination’ and the Christian lobby at work behind it. Finally, there is in Western Foundations of the Caste System a chapter co-authored by Dunkin Jalki and Sufiya Pathan (‘Are There Caste Atrocities in India? What the Data Can and Cannot Tell us’) which demonstrates what statistical sleights of hand are employed to fudge or inflate the numbers of ‘caste atrocities’ in Indian society.
 Ibid., p.38.
 Ancient India in Historical Outline, Manohar, 2014, p.50.
 Ibid., p.49.
 Ibid., p.50.
 Caste. Origin, Function and Dimensions of Change, Manohar, 2014, p.12.
 Ibid., p.13.
 Ibid., p.17.
 Homo Hierarchicus. The caste System and its Implications (translated by Mark Sainsbury), The University of Chicago Press, 1970, p.33.
 Ibid., p.53.
 Interrogating Caste. Understanding Hierarchy and Difference in Indian Society, Penguin Books India, 2000, p.73.
 Ibid., p.117.
 Ibid., p.136.
 Ibid., p.221.
 Ibid., p.224.
 Caste, Society and Politics in India. From the Eighteenth Century to the Modern Age, CUP, 2002, pp.123-124.
 Ibid., p.201.
 Ibid., p.202.
 Ibd., p.203.
 Castes of Mind. Colonialism and the Making of Modern India, Permanent Black, 2003, p.43.
 Ibid., p.151.
 Ibid., p.202.
 Ibid., p.210.
 Western Foundations of the Caste System, Palgrave Macmillan, 2017, p.2.
 Ibid., p.4.
 Ibid., p.8.
 Ibid., p.16.
 Ibid., p.19.
 Ibid., p.231.
 Ibid., p.233.
 Ibid., pp.237-238.
 Ibid., p.246.
 Ibid., pp.153-155.
 Ibid., p.156.
 Ibid., p.157.
 Ibid., pp.161-163.
 Ibid., p.177.
 Ibid., p.192.
 Ibid., p.193.
 Ibid., p.254.
 Ibid., p.256.
 Ibid., p.259.
 Ibid., p.43.
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Saumya Dey is an associate professor of history at O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Haryana. His primary research interests are intellectual and cultural history. He has, till date, authored one monograph and a collection of essays – Becoming Hindus and Muslims. Reading the Cultural Encounter in Bengal. 1342-1905 (Munshiram Manoharlal, 2015) and The Cultural Landscape of Hindutva and other Essays. Historical Legitimacy of an Idea (Shubhi Publications, 2019). He earned his PhD at the Center for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.