The caste system is a colonial idea

This expose of the West’s sordid social record shouldn’t make Indians feel smug at all.

It was primarily under colonial Christian rule that the caste system as we know it today was defined, shaped and a narrative built around it. It’s time for India to take back the caste narrative in its own hands.

Caste is today the core symbol of community in India. According to a survey carried out by the National Council of Applied Economic Research and the University of Maryland, US, one in four Indians still practices untouchability.

First up, any study about India in which the West is involved should be prima facie suspect. Americans are a highly racist people and it perfectly suits their interests to show that India is no better – ‘If we have Ferguson, then you have untouchables.’ The campaigns conducted by western NGOs at the United Nations to equate casteism with racism are geared towards that end.

But while untouchability is – albeit slowly – making its disappearing act in India, in the West racism is growing. If you look at the glass half full, then 80 per cent of Indians do not practice untouchability whereas in the US, nine in 10 people are explicitly racist, as per an Associated Press poll.

The inflexible pecking order of Indian society – as we see it today – does not reflect the country’s civilisational tradition. In some places like Kerala, untouchability was created by Brahmins at a much, much later age, but in most parts of the country, foreign invasions played a catalytic role in altering society. What used to be a constantly changing and evolving system of social interaction became fixed in its hierarchy. We can thank the British for this.

Of all the foreign elements that entered India, the British were the most malignant virus to infect it. Before the Europeans arrived, Islamic invaders such as Mahmud Ghazni, Mohammed Ghori and Allauddin Khilji had caused upheavals across India. It kicked off the process of caste inflexibility.

invasionThe Islamic invasions can be compared with the entry of a virus in the human body – growth and repair functions stop and all the energies are directed towards fighting and expelling the foreign cells. Similarly, when hordes of Arabs, Turks and Afghans poured into India’s once prosperous plains and valleys, the social ferment of millennia stopped as Hinduism became a besieged society. As Hindus fought for over 700 years to save their country from Islam, the caste cauldron stopped churning.

But by and large, Islamic rulers – who found it difficult to parse the caste system – did not attempt to meddle in Indian society. The primary reason was the furious Hindu resistance against Islamic rule. While every ancient country capitulated before the forces of Mohammed, India alone resisted. For instance, it was after more than 170 years of resounding defeats that the Arabs were able to finally get a foothold in India, in Sindh in 710 CE. This pattern persisted during much of Islamic rule. Realising it was futile for them to try and convert Hindus by force, Muslim rulers were content to impose their oppressive taxes, and life in India continued more or less as before.

The British, on the other hand, while systematically destroying India’s economy also tinkered with its social DNA. Nicholas B. Dirks, Chancellor of the University of California, has conducted an exhaustive study of how the British transformed Indian society for the worse. In his ‘Castes of the Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India (2001),’ he says the concept of caste hierarchy was a British construct.

For instance, before the emergence of British colonial rule, ‘kings were not inferior to Brahmins’, and ‘[u]nder colonialism, caste was thus made out to be far more – far more pervasive, far more totalising, and far more uniform – than it had ever been before, at the same time that it was defined as a fundamentally religious social order,’ says Dirks. Further,

In fact, however, caste had always been political – it had been shaped in fundamental ways by political struggles and processes….What we take now as caste is, in fact, the precipitate of a history that selected caste as the single and systematic category to name, and thereby contain, the Indian social order…In pre-colonial India, the units of social identity had been multiple, and their respective relations and trajectories were part of a complex, conjunctural, constantly changing, political world. The referents of social identity were not only heterogeneous; they were also determined by context. Temple communities, territorial groups, lineage segments, family units, royal retinues, warrior subcastes, ‘little’ kingdoms, occupational reference groups, agricultural or trading associations, devotionally conceived networks and sectarian communities, even priestly cabals, were just some of the significant units of identification, all of them at various times far more significant than any uniform metonymy or endogamous caste groups. Caste was just one category among many others, one way of organising and representing identity.

Within localities, or kingdoms, groups could rise or fall (and in the process become more or less caste-like), depending on the fortunes of particular kings, chiefs, warriors, or headmen, even as kings could routinely readjust the social order by royal decree.’

Dirks’ claims are backed by Indian authors. M.N. Srinivas explains in Castes in Modern India: ‘It is well known that occasionally a Shudra caste has, after the acquisition of economic and political power, Sanskritised its customs and ways, and has succeeded in laying claim to be Kshatriyas.’

Srinivas cites the Raj Gonds, originally a tribe, but who successfully claimed to be Kshatriyas after becoming rulers of a tract in Central India. ‘The term Kshatriya, for instance, does not refer to a closed ruling group which has always been there since the time of the Vedas,’ he says. ‘More often it refers to the position attained or claimed by a local group whose traditions and luck enabled it to seize politico-economic power.’

One such ascendant community was the Marathas, from which group came Shivaji Bhonsle, one of the greatest Hindu rulers of the modern era. After Shivaji’s spectacular battlefield victories – against the Mughals, southern Muslim sultanates, English and Portuguese – he wanted to be crowned emperor. But there was a problem. The orthodox Brahmins were not ready to accept Shivaji as a Kshatriya. They argued that according to the shastras (holy texts) only a Kshatriya could be coronated. The Bhonsle’s were considered Shudras in the then Maratha society.

bhonsleHowever, the powerful Shivaji was not ready to accept this argument of the pundits. He sent a delegation to various Brahmin centres which finally met the liberal Bishweshwar Bhatt of Kashi. Bhatt, who had immense knowledge of Vedas, Puranas, Smriti and politics, issued a certificate that Shivaji was indeed a Kshatriya. In 1674 Shivaji was crowned emperor.

Even then, at the coronation ceremony, the Maratha Brahmins flew into a rage, saying: ‘The Kshatriya caste has been extinct in Kaliyug. Now there is no upper caste except the Brahmin.’ This is a pointer to the dysfunctional nature of Hinduism at that point; the country had been largely under Muslim rule for centuries and yet at long last when a Hindu king started to win back India from the Muslims, the orthodox Brahmins could only try and humiliate Shivaji.

Like the Mauryas and Marathas, there are other examples of Hindu dynasties that came from the lower castes – the powerful Cholas, Hoysalas, Chalukyas and the Rayas of Vijayanagar.

Two well-known castes that go against the grain of caste are the Lingayats of Karnataka and Nairs of Kerala. The Lingayats, who claim equality with, if not superiority to, Brahmins, have priests of their own caste who also minister to several other non-Brahmin castes. The Nairs, who come under the Shudra category, had to keep a distance of eight feet from a Brahmin, but at the same time they were soldiers and commanders in the king’s army.

In 1798, English Orientalist Henry Colebrooke wrote: ‘Daily observation shows even Brahmins exercising the menial profession of a Shudra.’

Says Srinivas: ‘Innumerable small castes in a region do not occupy clear and permanent positions in the system. Nebulousness as to position is of the essence of the system in operation as distinct from the system in conception….A point that has emerged from recent field-research is that the position of a caste in the hierarchy may vary from village to village. It is not only that the hierarchy is nebulous here and there, and the castes are mobile over a period of time, but the hierarchy is also to some extent local.’

S.S. Ghurye of Bombay University explains in Caste, Class and Occupation (1961) how the British infused caste identity among Indians by the simple task of conducting a census. The ‘nice grading of contemporary groups provided a good rallying point for the old caste-spirit’ he writes. Several caste advocacy groups were formed and these groups wrote petitions to the British, requesting a higher rank in the hierarchy to be drawn up by the census authorities. Rajni Kant Lahiri, Professor of Hindi, University of Kanpur, writes in the European Conspiracy Against Vedic Culture:

The British rulers documented caste and tribe in all its complexities in the gazetteers and counted it in census operations from 1881. For 1911 census, Herbert Risley, the commissioner, went a step further and said the census had also to identify ‘social precedence as recognised by native public opinion’. It means the caste had to be located in the ritual and social hierarchy and it was to determine which caste was high, which intermediate, and which low. It was a divisive game played by the western rulers to divide and rule and reduce Hindu society into many fractions.’

The British, of course, were thoroughly pleased with the outcome of their social re-engineering. Administrator and diplomat Lepel Griffin believed caste was useful in preventing rebellion, while James Kerr, the principal of Calcutta’s Hindu College wrote in 1865: ‘It may be doubted if the existence of caste is on the whole unfavourable to the permanence of our rule. It may even be considered favourable to it, provided we act with prudence and forbearance. Its spirit is opposed to national union.’

Ghurye adds:

It is well to remember in this connection that even the Roman Church, in its desire to propagate its faith, was prepared to accommodate caste in its practical programme, though it was opposed to the humanitarian principles of the Church. Pope Gregory XV published a bull sanctioning caste regulations in the Christian Churches of India.’ [Emphasis added]

Ancient India

Ancient Hindu texts like the Vedas, the Puranas and the Shatapatha Brahmana explicitly mention that the involvement of the Shudras in Vedic rituals is essential, and that reverence to the lower classes pleases God.

The Shukla Yajurveda (16.27) says:

Homage to you carpenters and to you chariot makers, homage.Homage to you potters and to you blacksmiths, homage.Homage to you boatmen and to you Punjishthas, homage.Homage to you dog-leaders and to you hunters, homage.

Another hymn (18.48) from the same Veda says: ‘O Lord! Please fill the Brahmanas with light, the Kshatriyas with light, the Vaishyas with light and the Shudras with light; and in me fill the same light.’

It is a measure of the enlightened nature of Indian society that it accorded great respect to the working class. In contrast, most other civilisations treated labourers and agriculturists as property. In Athens, only 10 per cent of the population had the vote; the majority were slaves.

The ‘Holy’ Bible is rampant with slavery. Not one Biblical figure, including Jesus or St. Paul, is recorded as saying anything against slavery, which was an integral part of life of Judea, Galilee, and in the rest of the Roman Empire during those times.

Take this passage from the Bible, 1 Timothy 6:1-2:

All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered. Those who have believing (Christian) masters should not show them disrespect just because they are fellow believers (Christians). Instead, they should serve them even better because their masters are dear to them as fellow believers and are devoted to the welfare of their slaves.’

On the other hand, ancient Indian history is littered with examples of men who crossed the great divide. Take Veda Vyasa, who wrote the Mahabharata: his mother was a fisherwoman. Valmiki, who wrote the Ramayana, was a Dalit in today’s parlance.

Several celebrated rishis (seers) hailed from lower castes – Jabali’s mother was what one would call a prostitute today. Aitareya, who wrote the Aitareya Upanishad, was born of a Shudra woman. Parashara, the revered law-giver, was the son of a Chandala, the lowest of the Shudras. Vishwamitra was not a Brahmin but a Kshatriya.

Again, Saint Thiruvalluvar, who wrote the Thirukural, was a weaver. Kabir, Surdas, Ramdas and Tukaram, who are revered as saints, came from the humblest echelons of Hindu society.

Unlike Jesus, who had to be whitened and given blond hair in order to be accepted as the son of god by Europeans, Indian saints did not have to undergo any cosmetic surgery to be accepted by the masses.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says: ‘Birth is not the cause, my friend; it is virtues which are the cause of auspiciousness. Even a Chandala observing the vow is considered a Brahmin by the gods.’

bhimThe great Bhim Rao Ambedkar observed that caste was absent in early Indian society. In a speech delivered on May 9, 1916 at Columbia University, New York, on the subject, Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development, Amedkar said:

Society is always composed of classes. It may be an exaggeration to assert the theory of class conflict, but existence of definite classes in a society is a fact. Their basis may differ. They may be economic or intellectual or social, but an individual in a society is always a member of a class. This is a universal fact and early Hindu society could not have been an exception to this rule, and, as a matter of fact, we know it was not. If we bear this generalisation in mind, our study of the genesis of caste would be very much facilitated, for we have only to determine what was the class that first made itself into a caste.

Reality Check: Greek sources

To be sure, while the jati – the actual Indian word for social groups – divide may not have been as deep as it is today, crossing the chasm may have been common.

In his memoirs Indika, Megasthenes (300 BCE), the Greek ambassador to the court of Chandragupta Maurya, identifies seven groups – Philosophers, Agriculturists, Herdsmen, Artisans, Soldiers, Inspector and Councillors – within Indian society, without ranking them in any way.

  1. The Philosophers are held in estimation as the top group notwithstanding their number is the smallest. They performed yajnas and funerals, and the Brahmins among them married and had children but lived a simple life. This suggests that Brahmins were in no way superior or considered superior. They just performed a very important role and were respected for their nobility which came from their learning and penance. ‘And it is a law that if any one of them be three times convicted of falsehood, he shall be doomed to silence during life; but the upright they exonerate from tax and tribute.’
  2. The second division is the Agriculturists, who are the ‘most numerous and worthy’. This suggests they were not considered inferior to any other group. They pursue their occupation free from military duties and fear; neither concerning themselves with civil, nor public, nor indeed any other business.
  3. The third rank is that of the Shepherds and Hunters, to whom alone it is lawful to hunt, graze, and sell cattle, for which they give a premium and stipend. For ridding the land also, of wild beasts and birds which destroy the grain, they are entitled to a portion of corn from the king, and lead a wandering life, living in tents.
  4. The fourth rank is that of the Artisans and Innkeepers, and bodily Labourers of all kinds, of whom some bring tribute, or, instead of it, perform stated service on the public works. But the manufacturers of arms and builders of ships are entitled to pay and sustenance from the king, for they work only for him.
  5. The fifth group is the Military, who, when disengaged, spend the rest of their time at ease, in stations or barracks assigned them by the king, so that, whenever occasion may require, they may be ready to march forth directly, carrying with them nothing else than their bodies.
  6. The sixth rank consists of the Inspectors, whose business it is to pry into all matters that are carried on, and report them privately to the king, for which purpose in the towns they employ courtesans, and camp-followers in the camp. They are chosen from the most upright and honourable men.
  7. Ranked seventh are the Councillors and Assessors of the king, by whom the government, and laws, and administration are conducted. Megasthenes says this is among the smallest groups but the most respected, on account of the high character and wisdom of its members; for from their ranks the advisers of the king are taken, and the treasurers, of the state, and the arbiters who settle disputes. The generals of the army also, and the chief magistrates, usually belong to this class.

As we can see, army generals – who formally belonged to a separate group – were taken from among the Councillors. Conceptions of caste, Megasthenes suggests, were much more fluid than today. Emperor Chandragupta Maurya himself was of mixed descent.

Inter-caste marriage in ancient India

Manu, the ancient Indian sage and lawgiver, considered anuloma marriages – the system of men of higher castes marrying women of lower castes – acceptable. An example of this is the Brahmin King Agnimitra (150 BCE) who married a woman from a lower caste.

According to sociologist Rajendra K. Sharma, ‘Manu and Yajnavalkaya (one of the first philosophers in recorded history; seventh century BCE) have also written on the inheritance of sons born to a Brahmin by a Shudra wife. From this it is evident that such marriages did take place.’

Pratiloma marriage is another form of Hindu marriage in which men from lower castes marry women of higher castes. Although Manu has criticised the institution of pratiloma, Sharma says ‘subsequent commentators have accepted it’. For instance, a Brahmin king named Kakustha Verma gave his daughters in marriage to the Gupta kings. Sharma adds:

Anuloma and Pratiloma marriages retained their acceptability till the end of the 10th century because till that time there were not many cultural differences between Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas. Gradually, the rituals among them diverged further and further till this divergence became so marked that both these forms of inter-caste marriage rapidly vanished. In 1020 CE, Alberuni writes the Brahmins of the time considered it improper to encourage the three lower castes and did not hence take girls in marriage from among them…The rejection and prevention of inter-caste marriages is based upon the notions of purity and the cultural differences between various castes. But as a result of the influence of western cultrual differences between the various castes are gradually being developed.’

fa hienAt the same time, there were some jatis that were literally ‘caste’ out. The Chinese traveller Fa Hien (405-411 BCE) describes how Chandalas (who cremated the dead) had to live apart from mainstream society. They had to give notice of their approach on entering a town by striking a piece of wood. This has an uncanny similarity to the practice in Kerala of the Paraya caste members who – well into the 20th century – had to utter the warning cry ‘ho ho ho’ if they saw a higher caste person approaching.

Edward Blunt writes in The Caste System of Northern India that:

The endogamous custom (marriage solely within a certain group) which was regarded as ‘preferable’ in the Buddhist period, has become ‘usual’ by the time of Megasthenes, and by Manu’s, a rule.’

Megasthenes corroborates:

It is unlawful either to contract marriages with another caste, or to change one profession or occupation for another, or for one man to undertake more than one (profession), unless the person so doing shall be one of the Philosophers, who are privileged on account of their dignity.’

And yet these divisions did not roil Indian society. Take something as basic as education. Dharampal shows in his stunning work The Beautiful Tree: Indigenous Indian Education in the Eighteenth Century that the majority of students enrolled in schools in India in the 1700s were from the so-called lower castes.

Incredibly, Dharampal’s research shows that teachers at publicly funded Hindu schools in two Bihar districts came from more than 30 jatis, with even the Chandals having six students. And this was at a time without Mandal Commission quotas. Moreover, in these districts Brahmins and Kayasthas together formed no more than 15 to 16 per cent of the tutors. The more surprising figure is of 61 Dom and 61 Chandal school students in the district of Burdwan, nearly equal to the number of Vaidya students, 126, in that district.

And Dharampal unravels the big lie about Christian and British schools making education universally available for the ‘oppressed’ castes. While Burdwan had 13 missionary schools, the number of Dom and Chandal scholars in them was just four. Only 86 of the scholars belonging to 16 of the lowest castes were in these missionary schools, while 674 scholars from these castes were enrolled in native schools. Also, 30 per cent of Indian children in the age group 6-15 were enrolled at school, at a time when most British children were either chimney sweeps or forced into begging.

Caste in Europe

When westerners poke India with the caste prod, they should look back at their recent history. John Campbell Oman, who was a professor of social sciences at Government College, Lahore, wrote in Caste in India (1907):

One much derided peculiarity of the Hindu caste system is the hereditary character of trade and occupations, and in this connection it is interesting to recall to mind that at certain epochs the law in Europe has compelled men to keep, generation after generation, to the calling of their fathers without the option of change…In England an ancient enactment required all men who at any time took up the calling of coal mining or dry salting, to keep to those occupations for life, and enjoined that their children should also follow the same employment. This law was only repealed by statutes passed in the 15th and 39th years of the reign of George III; that is in the lifetime of the fathers of many men who are with us today. A more striking European example of a compulsory hereditary calling, common enough in the Middle Ages and down to the last century in Russia, is that of the serfs bound to the soil from generation to generation.

Edward Alsworth Ross offers a detailed account of Europe’s caste system, which lasted till the beginning of the 19th century in Principles of Sociology (1920):

In Prussia (modern Germany), not only men, but land too belonged to castes, and land belonging to a higher caste could not be purchased by an individual belonging to a caste lower than that. This provision was abolished by the Emancipation Edict of 1807.

cagotsAnother oppressed community was that of the Cagots of France:

‘They were shunned and hated; were allotted separate quarters in towns, called cagoteries, and lived in wretched huts in the country distinct from the villages. Excluded from all political and social rights, they were only allowed to enter a church by a special door, and during the service a rail separated them from the other worshippers. Either they were altogether forbidden to partake of the sacrament, or the holy wafer was handed to them on the end of a stick, while a receptacle for holy water was reserved for their exclusive use. When a Cagot came into a town, they had to report their presence by shaking a rattle, just like a leper, ringing his bell.

‘Some of the other prohibitions on the Cagots were bizarre. They were not allowed to walk barefoot, like normal peasants, which gave rise to the legend that they had webbed toes. Cagots could not use the same baths as other people. They were not allowed to touch the parapets of bridges.’

Modern India has introduced one of the largest compensation packages – in the form of reservation of seats in colleges, government jobs and electoral seats – for communities that were the unfortunate victims of untouchability. Several Indians states are run by ministers from the backward castes.

On the other hand, the US – after the genocide of Native Americans – practises virtual apartheid against its black minority. The percentage of blacks in US prisons is higher than blacks jailed by the former Apartheid regime of South Africa. And the wealth gap ratio between the average white family and the average black family in American is 18:4 – that’s greater than the wealth gap between the two races in Apartheid South Africa.

India’s greatest drawback

This expose of the West’s sordid social record shouldn’t make Indians feel smug at all. For, despite the rapid disappearance of untouchability from mainstream India, caste divisions remain, posing an existential threat to the country.

While caste divisions did not matter in ancient times, the equation changed with the coming of the desert delusions – Islam and Christianity. The biggest problem India faced while fighting these hordes was that only a tiny minority of Hindus – and very few among the Buddhists and Jains –was engaged in the defence of the country.

G.S. Cheema writes in The Forgotten Mughals:

That a nation of such ferocious warriors should ever be defeated seems incredible but the caste-ridden nature of Hindu society ensured that the masses were never involved in the struggle. The Rajputs, in reality, were only the thin upper crust of the warrior aristocracy which held the land in feudal tenure from their chief who was usually the head of their clan and, at least theoretically, of the common descent…The mass of the population, consisting of the innumerable different castes and sub-castes of Indian society were seldom involved, and rarely felt the need to lift the sword in defence of their king, and indeed were not expected to do so. Thus the Rajput armies, even with their semi-barbaric tribal auxiliaries, were never able to match the armies of the Turkish, Mughal or Pathan rulers of Delhi in manpower, even though foreign invaders constituted but a tiny fraction of the teeming multitudes of Hind.

India is currently at a major crossroads in its history. After the mayhem of partition in 1947, Muslims are yet again becoming a tumultuous minority. From 8 per cent in 1947 they have almost doubled in number to over 15 per cent of the country’s population. In areas where they have already become a majority, Muslims are demanding a number of concessions from the Hindus. For instance, in Kerala’s Malapuram district if a Hindu wants to dispose of his land, he is not allowed to sell it to another Hindu but instead has to offer it for sale to a Muslim.

Again, Muslims in pockets of western Uttar Pradesh districts want a ban on Hindu religious processions and an end to the ringing of temple bells. In their view, when an area becomes Muslim majority it has been won by demographic jehad and from then on is considered Islamic land. By their logic, in such a land a non-Muslim place of worship is illegal as per Islamic law. Migration of Hindus from many Muslim majority districts in Bengal and Uttar Pradesh has started. Separate electorates could be the next demand.If Hindus persist with their caste divisions, treating each other as different, then a second partition could well be the result in a few decades.

Rakesh is a journalist at New Zealand’s leading media house. He mostly writes on defence and foreign affairs.
His articles have been quoted extensively by universities and in books on diplomacy, counter terrorism, warfare, and development of the global south; and by international defence journals.
Rakesh’s work has been cited by leading think tanks and organisations that include the Naval Postgraduate School, California; US Army War College, Pennsylvania; Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington DC; State University of New Jersey; Institute of International and Strategic Relations, Paris; BBC Vietnam; Siberian Federal University, Krasnoyarsk; Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi; Institute for Defense Analyses, Virginia; International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, Washington DC; Stimson Centre, Washington DC; Foreign Policy Research Institute, Philadelphia; and Institute for Strategic, Political, Security and Economic Consultancy, Berlin.
His articles have been published by the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi; Foundation Institute for Eastern Studies, Warsaw; and the Research Institute for European and American Studies, Greece, among others.