The academia, media, NGO activists, and society intellectuals popularize the conception of the Shramana and Bhakti movements, which includes Buddhism and Jainism, as revolting against the caste system in times bygone. Some go to the extent of claiming the roots of the Dalit movement in these movements.
Martin Farek looks at the literature and history of the Bhakti and Shramana movements to put forth his claim that they were never revolting against the caste system, as alleged. Similarly, even a superficial reading of the Chaitanya Vaishnava tradition, one of the important Bhakti sects, hardly show any stress with the caste structure of the Indian society. He also proposes that the origins of the ‘caste-system’ in the Portuguese recordings was a transposition of their own problems in the Iberian Peninsula between the Christians on one side, and the Jews and Muslims on the other.
Were Shramana and Bhakti Movements Against the Caste System?
Martin Fárek shows that the answer is emphatically in the negative. Over the last two centuries, European Orientalists followed by scholars of various disciplines have depicted the ascetics of ancient India and the later bhakti traditions as egalitarian and anti-caste, carrying a “millennial-long” conflict with Brahmanism. This idea -the “uniting anti-caste hypothesis”- unites many different Indian traditions across several millennia into one large stream, with a common goal of portraying of an ongoing struggle of lower castes against brahmanical rule, or “despotism”, soon translated into the “tyranny of caste”.
Scholars on Buddha’s Stand Against the Caste System
Buddha is the first who transforms into a reformer opposing brahmanas and the system of castes. Yet, many scholars strongly contest this premise. Dr. Ambedkar said:
… Put briefly, this hypothesis claims that both ascetic traditions and bhakti movements have considered castes, or better to say varna-dharma, to be the best form of society…
What is the alleged anti-caste agenda of early Buddhism? The textbook story is that at certain stage of its development, brahmanas created increasingly complicated rituals and brought them into all spheres of life. But this “empty ritualism” did not satisfy people in general and hence opposition rose to brahmanical rule in spiritual and social matters. Buddha turned as Martin Luther of India, who fought the corrupted priesthood and preached the equality of men.
Horace H. Wilson, T. W. Rhys Davids, Basham, and other scholars have shown that this is a problematic account. Their readings show that the Buddhists did not reject the brahmanas as such, nor did they fight against the caste system. The Buddhists who accepted an ascetic way of life (bhikkhu, bhikkhuni) exited from society and, in this sense, they created a community outside of it. This was rather typical for several ascetic traditions of those times, called shramanas. Yet, this separation of ascetics from the general society does not imply that they were against the existing social system.
Indeed, some authors saw “little evidence of direct antagonism between Buddhists and brahmans at this early period”. Some have even questioned the existence of a caste system during Buddha times! But even those who accepted claims about brahmanical supremacy already in place during the times of Buddha have argued that Buddha’s criticism of brahmanas was not for social reform. In fact, Buddha spoke of the ‘true brahmin’ as one who had spiritual insight and behaves accordingly. In this sense the Buddha affirmed a hierarchy not of birth but of spiritual maturity.
Shramanas Supported Varna-dharma
S. N. Balagangadhara shows that there was no evidence of Buddhists and Jains rejecting the caste system and revolting against brahmanas. Buddhist ascetics considered varna divisions to be a dharmic and an appropriate grouping of society. In fact, theirs was a question: Who is a true brahmana? Buddha and the following generations in his line criticized some brahmanas calling them false for their corruption. But Buddhists rejected neither brahminhood nor the division of society into four varnas as such.
Buddha’s discourse with the brahmana Sonadanda; the section on brahmanas in Dhammapada; early Buddhist teachings like Kassapa Sihanada-sutta or Sutta-nipata 650; later Buddhist texts like Vajra-suci; and Uttaradhyayana-sutra in Jain traditions discuss extensively the qualitiesthat makes somebody into a true brahmana.
In Aganna-sutta, Buddha explains the emergence of four varnasaccording to dharma. Thus, people originally chose kshatriyas to protect them against stealing and other immoral acts. Later, some people decided to give up harmful and immoral acts, and this is how brahmanas came to being. How could something that Buddha purportedly rejected, emerge and function according to dharma in his view? This is hardly evidence for the Buddhist rejection of the caste system.
Bhakti Traditions as Anti-caste Movements
Vishnu-bhakti and especially the Chaitanya Vaishnavas, are an example of alleged social reformation in India as per many scholars. Yet, many scholars who held this opinion have also repeated that this bhakti tradition hardly changed the caste divisions in the larger Indian society, and even among the Chaitanya Vaishnavas themselves. The scholars conceded that strangely, brahmanas in fact kept their position even within the allegedly egalitarian Vaishnava traditions.
Even though bhakti gurus and their followers were critical of the caste system, proponents of this idea had to admit strange historical evidence. Apparently, scholars noted, “the bhakti spirit of intercaste communal devotion does not seem to have affected the local functioning ritual-occupational caste systems. … There is little direct criticism of the social order. In fact, people converting to bhakti sects in past centuries have formed new castes, so that sectarian castes constitute a minor number of castes in the local caste systems.”
Hence, there is a huge problem. On the one hand, bhakti traditions are anti-brahmanical and anti-caste movements, using words like “reform”, “revolution”, or “fight against oppression”. On the other hand, the same authors tell that the bhakti traditions held brahmanas in high esteem and even created new castes of their own. How could proponents of the uniting anti-caste hypothesis reconcile their claims to this empirical evidence?
Spiritual equality and social equality are two very different notions of equality and the link between them is all but clear. Yet, precisely this questionable connection is often enough for the statements about anti-caste agenda of the bhakti traditions.
The proponents of the anti-caste hypothesis often refer to B. R. Ambedkar. He interestingly says:
The saints have never, according to my study, carried on a campaign against caste and untouchability. They were not concerned with the struggle between men. They were concerned with the relation between man and god. They did not preach that all men were equal. They preached that all men were equal in the eyes of god – a very different and a very innocuous proposition, which nobody can find difficult to preach or dangerous to believe in.
Bhakti Traditions Against the Caste System? Where is the Evidence?
Bhaktivinode, an important teacher of Chaitanya Vaishnava tradition, in his book Jaiva-dharma, answers the following question: Why do Vaishnavas reject certain brahmanical practices? He answers, ‘According to their eligibility (adhikara) people follow one of the paths: karma, jnana, or bhakti. But all of them must perform auspicious activities. These auspicious activities are nitya-karma (daily rites or duties) and naimittika karma (occasional, due to circumstances, such as funeral rites). And for these activities a certain kind of social division is the best. Varnasrama-dharma was a system in which nitya-karma and naimittika-karma could work out excellently. There are four natural types of human beings, classified according to the work they are eligible to perform. The different varnas are determined by nature, birth, activities, and characteristics. When varna is determined only on the bases of birth, one loses the original purpose of varnasrama.’
Bhaktisiddhanta, another important teacher and son of Bhaktivinode argues in a public discussion: (a) brahmanas are glorious and respected throughout the history of India; (b) but even those born in highly respected families can fall from the elevated position because of their bad activities; (c) thus they should be considered only relatives of brahmanas (brahma-bandhu); (d) all varnas are in a certain sense brahmanas, because they all came from Brahma; (e) many respected texts like Upanishads or Mahabharata tell stories about people born to a particular varna, who became recognized as members of another varna. Some of the heroes too became brahmanas; (f) therefore, a true brahmana is recognized as such only if he shows qualities like simplicity, truthfulness, compassion etc.; (g) Vaishnavas and brahmanas should maintain mutual respect, they are like brothers to each other; and (h) the divisions of varna were created according to the symptoms of qualities and occupations.
Another scholar of Chaitanya Vaishnava tradition, says that their copious literature records relatively little evidence of hostility of Vaishnavas toward Brahmans generally. What we do find, however, is considerable criticism by Vaishnavas of the practice of animal slaughter by a class of ritual priests of Shakta cults.
Chaitanya teachers repeatedly stressed the fact that birth (jati) is not the main criterion for decision about varna of a person. For example, Bhagavata-purana describes qualities of a brahmana in this way: peacefulness, self-control, austerity, purity, satisfaction, forgiveness, simplicity, knowledge, truthfulness, etc. Few verses later, there is an explicit mention that although somebody is born into some varna, this person’s true varna is according to the qualities described above.
From the evidence, Chaitanya Vaishnavas considered the varna division of people by qualities and qualifications to be the best model for society in general. If they criticized brahmanas, the main goal of this criticism was to defend true brahmanical qualities according to their best knowledge.
Where is the rejection?
Roots of Dalit Movement Discovered in the Bhakti Movement
Affirmative repetition over generations of scholars made the uniting anti-caste hypothesis a given. Scholars started placing the roots that the Dalit movement in India in the reformative Bhakti Movement by ignoring contradictions and by distorting history. One scholar says, ‘The Bhakti Movement was anti-caste, anti-elite, pro-women, pro-poor, anti-Sanskrit, and affirmed that genuine love of God was enough to find solutions to social problems.’ Another says, ‘Though the Bhakti Movement has not spoken exclusively for the Dalits or proposed any agenda for radical changes in the social structure of Hindu society, it has established a pattern of questioning the Hindu social order which later provided a platform for an organised Dalit Movement with a strong voice for social reforms.’
There are huge problems here. How could any movement be “anti-caste” and, at the same time, not to propose “any agenda for radical changes in the social structure of Hindu society”? Which bhakti tradition ever discussed “genuine love of God” to solve social problems? Not to mention that the use of words “genuine love of God” needs a profound clarification about their precise meaning. Bhakti movements were not “anti-Sanskrit” as many sampradayas of Ramanuja, Chaitanya, Vallabha and many other Vaishnava groups, as well as many Shaivas produced a vast body of Sanskrit compositions.
In fact, over several generations of scholars, the main problems became integrated as parts of the accepted description and they provoke less and less curiosity. The claim about traditions that never attempted a reform of the caste system, but are still anti-caste movements, is the most startling problem.
Endogamy as a Property of Caste System-the Portuguese Roots
Endogamy is the most common characteristic ascribed to caste, but piling evidence shows it is hardly a defensible idea. The original ideas and practices of religious endogamy date back to the history of Christian Europe, and especially to the Portuguese and Spanish in their dealings with Jews and Muslims as religious rivals. Here, the concept of purity of blood played a major role in the European understanding of social groups in India. The British in attempts to understand their subordinates during colonial rule picked up these ideas; and they continue to shape our discussions till today.
S. N. Balagangadhara has shown that dominant theories about Indian culture depend on the Christian theological understanding of heathen religions. The conclusions of this theological understanding became the background foundation of later theories about Indian society in Oriental studies, religious studies, anthropology, and other social sciences and humanities. Today, the whole structure of current caste explanations relies on a theologically shaped story of religion in India.
Problems With Theories and Definitions of Caste
Before World War II, scholars following ideas of the nineteenth century Orientalists tried to provide a satisfactory definition of caste. Blunt, a superintendent of the census operations of 1911, strived for a clear definition of caste:
A caste is an endogamous group, or collection of endogamous groups, bearing a common name, membership of which is hereditary, arising from birth alone; imposing on its members certain restrictions in the matter of social intercourse; either (i) following a common traditional occupation, or (ii) claiming a common origin, or (iii) both following such occupation and claiming such origin; and generally regarded as forming a single homogenous community
The ambiguity is evident as it connects several characteristics suggested by previous authors. The most important of all is endogamy but Blunt failed to provide a clear criterion. Caste is either one endogamous group, or a collection of such groups, and this is not the same phenomenon. One excludes the other, logically. Collection of any number of endogamous groups does not create one larger endogamous unit, and therefore it is not clear what constitutes its unity, allegedly comparable to one endogamous group. There are also problems with other properties like when he says that many castes do not fit the criterion of common traditional occupation.
What does evidence from the experiences of the British in India say? Although endogamy is one of the main characteristics of the castes and even more of the sub-castes (jatis), the British officers and scholars observed a puzzling flexibility in Indian reality. They noted the endogamy of sub-castes to be surprisingly flexible, mutable, and varying across time and place. But most puzzlingly, their own members or by the rest of Hindu society did not consider endogamous sub-castes as castes.
Thus, either it is jati, that is an endogamous group, or it is varna, that is endogamous. There was more than enough empirical and historical evidence against both. Instead of admitting that evidence proved endogamy not to be a decisive criterion, officials and Orientalists reconciled the problem by ascribing endogamy as the main characteristic to both varna and jati. Despite these crucial problems of interpretation, quite a few Indian authors had no problem repeating the ideas of their colonial masters.
Blunt recognised the complicated segmentation and realised that a correct answer to the simple question, “What is your caste?” can be elusive. Social class; endogamous sub-caste; exogamous section- prohibiting intra-group marriages (for example, same gotra marriages); some caste-title can all come as answers.
Are We Better Now in Defining Varna and Jati?
No. We are still struggling to define and to correlate varna and jati. There are repeated ideas of endogamy, fixed social hierarchy controlled by brahmanas, ritual purity – pollution scale, occupational criteria, and Marxist or Weberian theories of classes as explanations for caste divisions. But extensive evidence of caste mobility, emergence of new castes (jatis), changing occupations of many members of all castes, is against all such ideas.
Till today, scholars and experts disagree both about the historical development of varna and jati, as well as about the realities these concepts are supposed to describe. Some translate varna as “class” and jati as “caste” and admit that the human jatis are a highly complex social reality which incorporate within them many sub-divisions. Also, they agree that philosophical texts do not consistently distinguish between the two terms.
All the various groups listed by the governmental bodies or Commissions may be jatis. But can they translate in the English language as castes? The term caste answers only partly, but not fully, to what jati means; which refers to tribe, sect, and religious or linguistic minority, according to context and situation.
The problem may not be a problem of definition, but a problem of ideas that formed our understanding of society in India. Given the fact that concepts of caste and sub-caste emerged within European thinking about society, whereas concepts of varna and jati originated in Indian thinking, we should consider the possibility that respective terms refer to different realities in two different cultures. What were the original European ideas about caste and sub-caste? How did Europeans develop their theories about society in India?
About Religious Endogamy
Evidence fails to answer why endogamy is in practice in certain contexts and why sometimes it is not. Extensive permissive hypergamous (marriages between different jatis) marriages is major evidence against a fixed endogamy; and scholars like Quigley ask, ’Given that caste is often perceived as a rather static form of social organization in which only marriage between status equals is permissible, what are the consequences of this pervasive hypergamy? Indeed, why is hypergamy found at all?’
There are several interconnected issues. First, the scholars understand caste endogamy as religiousby nature, maintained by the rules established by the brahmanical priesthood. This idea has developed from a Christian discussion that considered Indian groups being a religious organization analogous to the organization of castes in the Portuguese and Spanish empires of the Early Modern era.
Second, this idea found its way into the common sense understanding of India from the European point of view and finally, got the status of a neutral explanation in the course of the nineteenth century. But its intelligibility still depends on the Christian theological framework.
‘Casta’ and Christian Concept of Purity of Blood
The Portuguese referred to social units in sixteenth and seventeenth-century India as ‘casta.’ Scholars pointed at different meanings of ‘caste’ in those times: breed, lineage, tribe, or race. They also briefly discussed the emergence of the Christian concept of ‘purity of blood’ and connected practices, something which needs more study.
When Vasco da Gama’s ships reached India, an important massive religious reorganization was taking place on the Iberian Peninsula. In 1492, Christian rulers of the recently established Spanish kingdom conquered Granada, the last kingdom under the rule of the Muslim dynasty on the peninsula. Within the Spanish kingdom, the future of local Muslims and Jews was in jeopardy. A Royal edict forced Jews out of the country. Conversion or emigration were the only options for Muslims too. Both religious groups suffered from violence, loss of their homes, land, and possessions.
Many Muslims and Jews left, butthe kingdoms of Spain and Portugal had large numbers of forced converts, called New Christians. The hostility between the New Christians and the Old Christians was severe. Old Christians soon started to see people from newly converted families as rivals in several domains. In some cases, new converts secretly kept their original faith and practices, a fact that was the focus of the Inquisition. Old Christians created the concept of ‘purity of blood’ to defend their positions and purity of faith. However sincere the faith and practices of new converts could be, they had contaminated blood because their ancestors believed in false religions. It was not desirable to allow marriages between these groups, because the contamination would extend to the blood of the children from such unions too.
Over the years, within the Iberian empires, a system of different groups emerged, which distinguished between people on the lines of family origin. Those from the “pure” Old Christian families were on the top of the hierarchy in society, with doors open to careers in the army, administration, Church, and elsewhere, attaining which was much more difficult for people from mixed or completely impure lineages.
Step by step, decree by decree, the system became a closed hierarchy based on discrimination by religious descent.Purity of blood statuses gradually spread through the Portuguese world, especially during the first quarter of the seventeenth century, entering both ecclesiastic and civil legislation. It also became a part of royal ordinances and the regulations of religious orders, lay brotherhoods, and military orders.
Superimposition on Indian Society
This is what a ‘caste’ meant when Europeans started to describe their experience in the Indian society. Analogous to their own system, religious lines divided different groups of the subcontinent. When Portuguese, Italian, and Spanish authors wrote about “caste of the Brahmans” in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they understood this group in the same way as “caste of the Moors” or “caste of the Christians.”
While discussing the application of “caste” by the Portuguese in India, a scholar like Pitt-Rivers simply presupposed that “caste” as a descent group was an appropriate description of the caste system of India “which also happened to entertain notions of purity and pollution, albeit very different ones from the Portuguese”. This is problematic since even if we would agree on the existence of “notions of purity and pollution” in India, why should the Iberian system of descent groups, divided on the principle of the religious faith of ancestors, be an appropriate description of India?
Originally, Europeans knew of few groups, like brahmanas or kshatriyas. Here and there, they experienced evidence of a ban on inter-group marriages. Naturally, immersed in the teaching and practices of their own culture, the Portuguese in India started to see these groups as “castes” maintaining endogamy along the religious lines. This is how originally Christian ideas and practices of religious endogamy entered discussions about society in India.
The number of different groups described as castes grew, and by the nineteenth century, Europeans wrote about “thousands and thousands” of castes.
The author now suggests strongly thatdespite the cumulative experience with many different social groups in India, the original model of a religiously sanctioned endogamous division originating in Christian dealings with Muslims and Jews became an accepted explanation for divisions in Indian society. Early British Orientalists took for granted the analogy between Christian dealing with religious rivals in the kingdoms of Portugal and Spain and castes in India.
Caste as Part of the Story of Religion in India
Balagangadhara’s research of the comparative science of cultures says that western thinking about society in India has developed within a paradigm in the philosophy of science. If this paradigm remains constrained by Christian theological thinking, then it does not fulfil several crucial requirements of scientific analysis.
A most important requirement is a never-ending search for contradictions in interpretations. With a contradiction, a tentative resolution is important. But in the case of the caste system, serious problems both with the basic claims of the dominant story and with several ideas (such as endogamy being the main characteristic of a caste) have not led many scholars to a fundamental reconsideration of the whole framework of ideas about the caste system.
Another important point from the philosophy of science which is pertinent to the re-examination of ideas about the caste system is the relationship between theories and observations. Scholars in the humanities and social sciences implicitly believe that right interpretations follow correct observations. But, philosophers of science, like Popper, warn against such a simplistic approach. All facts that are results of scientific observations are “theory laden”. As Popper says:
…there is no such thing as unprejudiced observation. All observation is an activity with an aim (to find, or to check, some regularity which is at least vaguely conjectured); an activity guided by problems, and by the context of expectations … There is no such thing as passive experience; no passively impressed association of impressed ideas. (Popper 2002, 55)
These ideas suggest that we first start with the analyses of the framework that has been crucial in the European attempts to understand society in India. The continuing importance of the Christian theological paradigm in European thinking about other cultures needs a serious attention. The descriptions of the observed culture reflect the culture of the observer. The concept of religion has played a fundamental role in the European encounters with other cultures, and interpretations of India were not an exemption.
SN Balagangadhara’s Description of European Frameworks
Since the early Christian apologetics, European intellectuals have understood different cults of the Ancient world as false religions, in contrast to their true religion. This simple division gradually built up a framework of thinking that does not allow for other interpretations. Whatever other previously unknowns cultures Europeans encountered in the course of the Middle Ages and later, the range of their possible interpretations was constrained by this understanding: either they would meet heathens, or heretics (which could be extended to Jews and Muslims alike) or there would be Christians “out there”.
Discovering other cultures was closely connected with another important fruit of the Christian apologetics – the concept of the universal history of humankind. With a firm belief in the historical truth of the Biblical stories, Europeans included more facts about newly discovered cultures into speculations about the descendants of Noah. There were other important concepts and discussions about them that were meaningful in this framework, such as ideas about God, soul, salvation, sin, good and evil, or justice and law.
When Europeans started to discover more about India since the end of the fifteenth century, they encountered several problems in understanding the Indian society. It was not clear why people respected brahmanas and ascetics so much. It seemed to be clear that the non-Muslim majority followed rules of behaviour that must have been rather complex, but what were their foundations?
The search for Indian laws started, rooted in the unquestioned truth of the Biblical story about God the original lawgiver. In this perspective, all nations had some access to revealed laws, or at least the innate capacity to formulate some of them. Also, Europeans could hardly step out of their domestic experience of order in society and its laws. It was difficult for them to see that what they considered as universal principles were in fact results of the Christian reworking of Ancient Roman law. They sought the Indian law that was inevitably supposed to be a part of the heathen religion. Although both Catholic and Protestant missionaries gathered a lot of interesting material in this regard, early British Orientalists took up the task to discover “Hindu Law”.
Within the framework of European theological understanding, dharmashastras ascribed to Manu, Apastambha, Gautama and others became the fundamental laws of the heathens. When William Jones translated Manava-dharmasastra, he considered it to be the oldest document of the heathen law. We should remember that in the eyes of early British Orientalists the heathen law meant a corrupt version of the originally pure laws revealed by God to humankind since the times of Adam and later Noah. Such religious explanations played a crucial role in the determination of European questions and range of possible answers to them. Thus, Manu was the Moses of India and William Jones looked at himself as fulfilling the same noble task as the Roman emperor Justinian once had done.
There is no question that Manava-dharmashastra and other such works did play some role in conflicts and courts’ proceedings. But let us keep in mind the repeated complaints from the judges of the East India Company that they did not understand decisions made by the domestic court pandits. In fact, this was one of the main reasons why W. Jones decided to learn Sanskrit and to translate Manu. Local scholars employed by the British Court in Calcutta often passed a judgment, which was incomprehensible to Jones’ mind, that of a Western lawyer. We should also consider the fact that many conflicts had a settlement by families, friends, or panchayats; and this continues till today. These incidental facts indicate that the people of India have developed a very different system of problem-solving, including the punishment for crimes, from the Western legal framework. What if the dharmashastras played a very different role from that of the European codes of law?
Although it seems that Early Orientalists had developed new theories free from the Christian theological roots, there can be argument for an opposite conclusion. These theological roots, or better to say the whole framework, faded into the background of the discussions during the second half of the nineteenth and in the twentieth centuries. But its questions, problems and whole clusters of ideas still form and constrain the kind of discussions we have today. Many Christian ideas became the “of course” axioms of the secularized Orientalist paradigm.
Several authors have noted the theological roots of people like Jones and Mill writing on Indian traditions. The recent book by Swagato Ganguly, ‘Idolatry and the Colonial Idea of India’ talks about this elegantly.
The Standard Story of Religion in India by the Orientalists
The cumulative efforts of several generations of Orientalists created a very convincing account. It started with the coming of the Aryans to India more than three thousand years ago. Aryan ritual specialists, brahmanas, soon enjoyed the power gained by their special knowledge and usurped the rule over early Indian society. Scriptures sanctified this supremacy. This is the sacred basis for the model of hierarchical society with brahmanas on the top and untouchables at the bottom.
Original Vedism thus degenerated into Brahmanism. The four castes, varnas, tried to keep clear divisions between themselves by observing strict rules of marriage only within the respective varna. However, caste endogamy was difficult to maintain and therefore the Indian people created more sub-castes, called jati. Meanwhile, there was a growing unrest in the ancient Indian society.
The priestly class then started claiming authority in spheres other than religion, arousing the resentment of the Kshatriya nobility. Both the Brahman and the Brahmanical religion became thoroughly unpopular; and the result was that other religions arose, of which two were definite revolts against Brahmanism; Buddhism and Jainism.
For some centuries, Buddhism gained the major influence over the subcontinent. But brahmanas were skilled in the adaptations of some attractive features of Buddhism, and in the course of the first millennium AD they won back their supremacy. It was not without other necessary changes, such as the absorption of “primitive” and “low” religious ideas and practices, especially Tantric. Yet, the victorious brahmanas were not destined to enjoy their rule without opposition. New bhakti movements now challenged the rule of the priestly class.
Problematic Story- Now Secularised, Internalised, and Unquestioned
This textbook story was based on answers to originally theological questions. This view presupposes the existence of one original Indian religion and its degeneration from Vedism to Brahmanism and later to Hinduism. Who was responsible for the alleged degeneration? Europeans found their answer: the crafty brahmanas, deceiving the large masses of people. Brahmanas created the caste system and thus maintained their rule over the society.The same explanation remained the basic framework for later sociological speculations about caste as specialization in occupation and in racial theories. And in the cumulative work of Orientalists, sociologists, and others, it remains the background framework of ideas about caste till date.
Buddhists and bhakti traditions as protestant anti-caste movements, and as the forerunners for Dalit activism today is an unacceptable story. That hypothesis is untenable in the light of textual and historical evidence. Buddhists and Vaishnava bhaktas asserted varna-dharma as the best form of society. Even the Pali canon does not offer any evidence for the Buddhist rejection of brahmanas and varnadharma as such. Chaitanya Vaishnava teachings also were proponents of varnashrama ideals for society in India.
Secularised Christian Thinking in the Caste System Today
Today, the discussion on caste remains constrained by Christian theological thinking, which created the story of religion in India and its decay in the hands of a crafty priesthood. Some authors thought different jatis developed with the religious split and mixture from the original four varna system. Others did not believe in this model and argued for a different emergence of jatis, such as specialization in occupations. But all of them agreed on the crucial role brahmana priests played in the Indian society.
It makes sense to talk about religious hierarchy in Indian society and about the protestant Shramana (Buddhist, Jainism) and bhakti movements only from this point of view. This idea is intelligible only if we presuppose the truth of several theological ideas. Caste was in a general sense perceived as a religious institution sanctioned by fake scriptures and as an institution that allegedly upheld the rule of priesthood. And specifically, caste was an institution based on religious endogamy analogous to divisions between Old Christians with “pure blood” and new converts in the empires of Portugal and Spain from the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries.
Most importantly, should we keep the dominant ideas about the caste system as they are, we will not be able to move towards understanding Indian culture at all. The British colonial rulers considered the caste system to be rooted in and sanctioned by religious (Hindu) law and this is a part of the dominant explanation till today. Given the whole framework of originally Christian thought and experience, Europeans had to see the Indian society in this way.
What Should Be a Future Undertaking for Us?
One, we should aim to develop a new theory of the phenomena described by the Indian terms varna and jati. It is extremely important to gain an insight into the traditional Indian understanding of these concepts. Only then we can consider in what sense this traditional thinking is relevant to theorizing society in India.
If we really want to take the traditional Indian understanding seriously, a new approach to its research is necessary. It will focus on theorizing the domestic Indian framework within which ideas such as guna (mode of nature), adhikara (eligibility or qualification) and svabhava (natural inclination) make sense. This kind of research will create new hypotheses, which should enable us to answer important questions such as: What is the Indian framework of understanding of varna, jati and biradari? How do Indians decide about the status of different people?
However, it is difficult to have a reasonable discussion about these problems with many Indians today. Generations educated under British rule have passed the colonial legacy to people of independent India. As SN Balagangadhara says:
Indian intellectuals and reformers enthusiastically embrace the criticism of the Brahmin priesthood, which was a reformulation of the Protestant criticism of Catholic Christianity, as scientific criticism of the caste system. How is it possible to have a firm moral opinion on the caste system, when no one understands what that system is? … As indicated already, the Western cultural experience of India has assumed the status of a scientific framework for describing Indian culture and society … In this process, one accepts that the European cultural experience of India is a scientific framework for Indians to understand their own culture. However, this very acceptance prevents them from accessing their culture and experience.
British census officers and anthropologists from both West and East have done a lot of such research with no satisfactory results because, as in Popper’s words, a specific horizon of expectations guided their research. We need to discard this framework for all the inconsistencies and contradictions generated and seek alternatives to explain or understand Indian society.
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