The term caste is associated with India and the Hindu tradition. An exploration of the term ‘caste’ places its origin in European Catholic religious tradition and experience. This article peers into the beginnings of the casta system and its origins in the Catholic concept of limpieza de sangre (purity of blood).
Over the time, the Indian word jaati is conveniently used as synonym for the term caste. However, the two words are very different and using them as synonyms has created a situation which has led to a warped understanding of the Indian social history, even as it covers up the European religious origins of caste.
In India, the European concepts of racial and religious superiority were crystallized on the ground by the caste census that the British implemented in early 1900s. Considering this specific European religious and racial history of the term caste, this paper proposes that the word caste is not appropriate to describe Indian jaati milieu and experience.
The Religious beginnings of Sistema de Casta (Caste System) in Europe
In 1491, the last remnants of Muslim control in the Iberian Peninsula were defeated and Catholic monarchies gained total control. When the Catholics had removed the Arab influence from the Iberian Peninsula, the existing Jewish and Muslim communities were given the option to convert to Catholicism or be expelled. Most chose to convert. However, soon there was doubt as to whether many of these converts were still practicing their previous religions in secret. This started the Inquisition. An inquisition was a trial to prevent ‘heresy’ by confirming that a convert had truly converted to Christianity and given up their previous religion a. Only the “Old Christians” who had the “Limpieza de sangre” -purity of blood, could hold most of the high public offices and not the newly converted “New Christians”. Catholic notions of superiority and purity of blood that was part of European culture and Inquisition, was the beginning of the Sistema de Casta or Caste System.
Limpieza de sangre and Casta in the New World
In 1492, Queen Isabela of Spain, commissioned Columbus to find a sea route to India, which in turn led to the European landing in the Americas, the New World. The encounter between the Europeans and the pre-existing peoples and civilizations of the Americas was one of the bloodiest in human history and led to the brutal decimation of the indigenous people. Across South and Central America, the local traditions and temples were eliminated, and Catholicism was imposed. Churches were built after destroying the local, Mayan, Aztec, Inca temples. The metropolitan Catholic Church in the heart of Mexico City today stands on the ruins of a destroyed Aztec temple. The colonization by the Portuguese and Spanish of these new lands led to an exponential expansion of power and wealth of the Catholic Church. “Clerics and royal administrators were the face of Iberian power in the Indies” (Burkholder, Rankin and Johnson 2018, pg 69). “A series of Papal bulls (between 1493-1508) were issued clarified its responsibility to promote conversion as well as its substantial authority over religious, educational and charitable institutions. Granted jurisdiction over the tithe collected on agricultural production and livestock, the Crown assigned this fundamental source of income to sustain the ecclesiastical hierarchy and physical facilities and activities.“(Burkholder, Rankin and Johnson 2018, pg 71)
Biblical ideas, slave trade and the rise of “People of Reason”
Increase in agricultural production meant more income to the Church and slaves were the key to agricultural production. The “New World” propelled a phenomenal increase in the Atlantic slave trade. Millions of Africans were captured and sold into slavery by European and Arab slave traders. The Bible was the justification of the slave trade. The Bible refers to three tribes; Japheth, Shem and Ham. The Japheth were the pure white Europeans, the Shem (from which the word Semite originates) were the jewish/middle-easterners and Ham were the Africans. In the Bible, Noah condemns the descendants of Ham to be slaves of the descendants of Japhet and Shem. This Biblical episode was the justification of the slave trade as Africans were considered the descendants of Ham. Biblical beliefs became the self-evident science as well. According to Ben Vinson, “Ideas of science could not be divorced from religious beliefs, and during this period, the supremacy of Christian thought in Europe deeply affected views of the body, caste, and general differences in physiology.” (Vinson III 2018)
The conditions were so harsh that large numbers of slaves died while being transported from the African continent to the Americas. With the slave-trade in full swing, the Catholics in Central and South America had to manage three main races in the new World – Españoles(i.e. from Iberian Peninsula, Europeans), Indios(native American-Indians) and Negro (Africans). The original principles of Limpieza de sangre from Europe that was used to distinguish between pure Old Christians and New Christians was used to create the Sistema de Casta’ hierarchy; Thehighest Españoles caste had two classifications Peninsulares (Europe born whites) and Criollo (Europeans born in the New World i.e. American Contient). Mestizo – mixed between Indios and Whites, Indios – Native Indian, Negro – African. This hierarchy has its roots in Catholicism: “In affirming the supremacy of Old Christian roots, limpieza de sangre supported the notion of the overriding superiority of the español category. Hence most mixture was seen in relation to an español ideal which represented the embodiment of a pure Christian, optimal human type.” (Vinson III 2018, 47).
When the Americas were colonized, the Catholic Church, encountered native peoples of Americas and further developed the casta system along with a ferocious drive at eliminating indigenous traditions. The Catholic Church was initially unsure as to whether the defeated native Indians could be converted at all, as many still held onto their traditions. The Native-Indian traditions were considered barbarian as opposed to the rational Christian beliefs. The common idea of the time was of the gente de razón(people of reason – because they were Christian) and gente sin razón (people without rationality). Under Catholic rules, the slave Indios caste (i.e. the native Indians) could become free by converting to Christianity, however, the Indios had to pay a tax (note: compare this to the Jaziya tax and Dhimmi status in Moghul India).
These religious supremacist ideas of gente de razónalso later morphed into a secularized version of a “rational European” against irrational Asiatics by Karl Marx and other Colonialist Europeans. (Note: Karl Marx considered the “Hindoos” as“semi civilized…semi barbarian”(Marx 1853)).
European Race-Religion supremacy superimposed onto India
Even as the Catholic Church had established its supremacy, and imposed a vibrant caste system in the Americas, In Asia, India had fallen to the possession of the East India Company. William Jones had stumbled upon Sanskrit in the 18th century, he had noticed the correspondences between Sanskrit and European languages and then given rise to the study of linguistic connections between Europe and India.
In 1847, a major “Yucatan Caste war” broke out, where the native Mayan people had started fighting against the Spanish/European settlers in the Yucatan region of Mexico. Around the same time in 1857, Indian soldiers had risen against the East India Company and the British Anglican Crown had taken over direct rule of India. It was under these British and larger European colonial experiences of invasion and imposition of casta-system in the Americas; a full-fledged study of India was established, in order to rule India.
In a model based on the European invasion of the Americas, the Anglican and Catholic academic establishment developed the Aryan Invasion Theory that postulated that the pure white Aryans from Central Asia had come into India and mixed with the dark-skinned natives to create the various castes and the heathen religion of “Brahmanism” which had then evolved into present day “Hinduism”.
Caste Census in India
In 1901, the then commissioner of the census, Sir Herbert Hope Risley, son of a rector, and firm believer in the “science” of race and superiority of the white Aryan Castes, conducted the first census of India and classified the thousands of jaatis into castes. Caste was what the Europeans knew and experienced, and they promptly applied that framework onto India as well. The original Christian ideas and European experience like Limpieza de sangra, Casta and Biblicalviews (of tribes and languages) had by now been morphed into secular scientific truths of Race, Caste and Language to understand and classify India.
The reality was that the jaatis of India were very fluid, were in constant motion based on resources and the Hindu traditions have official ceremonies to make various dominant groups the rulers. The vedic Hiranyagarbha yajna would allow a jaati leader to be considered a Kshatriya and become a King.
What were until then, India’s innumerable jaatis, sub-jaatis etc – i.e. a self -organized, loosely vocational, social groupings now got slotted into fixed “castes” by Risley.
The de-industrialization and colonial shackling of India was pushed behind an academic veil and the poverty of India was explained using sociological categories of a fixed “Hindu caste” system of thousands of years! There were efforts at measuring the nose, foreheads and phonotypical characteristics to identify the Aryan, Dravidian and other races of India. Such was the influence of the racist Aryan theory that even famed statisticians like PC Mahalonobis were measuring physical skull sizes of ‘castes’ following the work of Risley.
No agreed upon definition of ‘caste’ in India
Numerous academics in post-colonial India have various ideas of what is ‘caste’ in India(see Guha 2013 and Ferro-Luzzi 1986)Some have also internalized the missionary accusation of ‘purity taboos’ for caste in Hinduism, but the fact remains that many such taboos are rampant in most other parts of the world and in Christianity itself with Limpieza de Sangre.
Table 1: Comparing Jaati and Caste
|What it is||What it is Not||Who Enforces it|
|Caste||Racial classification with religious origins in Limpieza de Sangre (purity of blood) from the Inquisition||Vocational grouping||Church Organizations in the past; Though not explicit today, most churches are racially/casta segregated|
|Jaati||Mostly endogamous vocational grouping with certain flexibility. However, hard to have exact definition, as it varies by region.||Racial classification||Self-organized by localized practices. Modern Indian government hands out official ‘caste’ certificates|
Sumit Guha in his book “Beyond Caste” offers up the explanation that ‘caste’ as a constantly changing and “bounded corporate body shaped by sociopolitical power from its beginnings” (Guha 2013, pg 213) . If ’caste’ is constantly changing, then how does it get connected to Manusmriti in modern leftist political ideologies? Guha quotes examples from Yemen to Srilanka, where Brahmins do not exist, but still the notions of purity and “caste” were extant. Guha writes – Deference to Brahmans could not, for instance, be deployed to understand the regime of Tipu Sultan in Mysore who, in a set of regulations issued two or three years after his accession, ordered the seizure of all grants held by temples or Brahmans within his dominion while he simultaneously exempted ‘Cauzees” and”respectable” Muslims from grain and house taxes. He also decreed that all new converts to pay (Land?) tax at half rate because Muslims were the most worthy community (ahamm kaum).
18th century South/Central American religious laws now in vogue in India
In colonial Mexico in 1789, a certain Christobal (Carrera 2003, pg 2) petitioned the Catholic ecclesiastical court to change the classification of his wife’s casta to higher casta oflibro de espanoles instead of the lower casta oflibro de castas. Today, in modern ‘secular’ India, the Government of India hands out ‘caste certificates’ pretty much like the Catholic church in Mexico of the late 18th century! Modern day Goan Indians use last names such as ‘Lobo’, without an understanding that it is a Catholic assigned caste name.
“Caste” that originated in Catholic Europe, travelled to the Americas, came to India during colonialism and is now firmly embedded as a Hindu “sui generis”. The Catholic concerns of Limpieza de sangrein Europe, which developed into casta system in Europe and American continents, had morphed into an explanation of Indian social milieu under Anglican colonialism in the 19th century.
The irony is of how the explanation of “Hindu caste system” in India today has become a social science twist on the pre-modern religion-science establishment of the Casta system in Europe and Americas. How a Catholic caste system that was born and developed in Europe, continuously refined during the European colonial rule of the Americas, then applied to India in the 19th and 20th century has turned into a characteristic of the Hindu tradition, is one of the most interesting and sad legacies of euro-centric hegemony that still persists in academia.
Modern sources hide the origin of the word caste and instead connect it to Hindus
Today, the common understanding and information in sources like Wikipedia, encyclopedias and dominant university academia in much of the world tend to label “caste” as a Hindu problem and have successfully pushed the European Religious-Racial-Complex origins of Caste into being just a mere footnote of history. When we look up the definition of Caste in Merriam Webster dictionary(Caste 2019), the primary definition connects the word to Hinduism and is explicitly stated “one of the hereditary social classes in Hinduism that restrict the occupation of their members and their association with the members of other castes”, there is no mention of the connection to Christianity at all, instead a generic description that mentions race and religion is provided in the secondary and third explanations.
Even after independence, the resources of the Indian state have been directed towards classifying people into fixed castes and handing out caste certificates. Politicians have leveraged this into creation of electoral vote banks. This has also meant that the 15th century Christian Limpieza de sangre and casta system has ossified into a full-blown Government perpetuated caste system in India.
Persistence of Casta differences in the Americas
This experience of casta hierarchy is still a lived experience in the whole of the American continent in various forms. The Hispanic communities in the United States classify themselves along “white” (indicating Criollo caste) and “non-white” (indicating mostly Mestizo and Indios caste) lines. There is still widespread disparity in wealth and political power between the native Indios, Mestizo’s, and people who have European heritage in all Central American and South American countries.
Confusion of terminology
In Indian sociology studies, the term ‘caste is used when the writing is in English or in any non-Indian European language. However, in Indian languages, the term jaati is used to describe the social groups. The two terms caste and jaati have two very different histories, usage and understanding, but the irony is that the two terms are used as if they are synonyms. There has been extensive academic and popular work done by scholars like Rajiv Malhotra(Malhotra 2013) reiterating that many Sanskrit words are non-translatable and must be retained as such to convey a more nuanced and fuller understanding. As we have discussed, the word ‘caste’ has a European religious-racial history and understanding, while the term Sanskrit jaati has a very wide range of meaning; from being a group or set, to being a philosophical technical term as ‘a futile rejoinder’ that rises up based on similarity or dissimilarity (as in Nyāyasūtra 1.2.18). The usage of the term caste to describe Indian social conditions thus leads to confusion and does not reflect Indian experience or history. The imposition of the term caste to describe Indian social conditions is an example of how the European religious-racial experience is imposed on India.
Limpieza de sangre (purity of blood), was part of the Catholic system in Europe during the Inquisition. This purity of blood concept was applied to create the “Sistem de Casta” in Central and South America. By the end of the 18th century, Europeans had colonized most of the world and the superiority of Christianity and “White race” was commonly promoted. In India, the combination of the two ideas, (a) Aryan Invasion Theory and (b) European experience of ‘Casta’ in Europe and Americas, became accepted rational science of language and race, and ‘caste’ classification was imposed on the (tens of) thousands of Jaatis. Caste was turned into an essence of Hinduism and morphed from a European religious-racial classification into being a persistent Hindu problem.
The rapid de-industrialization that India suffered under colonialism was then pushed to the background and the poverty of the Indian people could now be explained as being due to the oppressive Hindu caste system rationale. The myth of a constant unchanging India that had thousands of years of caste oppression, starting from a putative Aryan invasion/migration has been promoted by an Eurocentric academic establishment.
There is now an emerging school of thought that has noticed how European experience has greatly influenced the representation and understanding of India (Balagangadhara 2012) and (Farek, et al. 2017).
The word caste, its religious development within Christian it as Limpieza de Sangre and racial implementation across the Americas are of European origin and history. The word caste for description of Indian social milieu was officially imposed on India only from the early 1900s. An important move towards better understanding of Indian social experience would be to free study of Indian experience and history from western sociological theorizing. An important beginning step would be to utilize the traditional Indian word jaati to describing the Indian milieu rather than utilize a European religious-racial term like caste.
Additionally, this example of how caste was turned into a Hindu problem, demonstrates the destructive effects of colonial legacy and how victors choose the labels and description of the vanquished. It is even more disheartening that academicians in the fields of Indology and Indian Sociology continue to portray caste as a Hindu problem, even while maintaining silence over the religious origins of the European terminology and its inappropriateness to describe the Indian milieu.
Meanwhile, European religious ideas of Limpieza de sangre and Casta continue to persist in various forms on the American continent.
Balagangadhara, S N. 2012. Reconceptuallizing India Studies. Oxford University Press.
Burkholder, Mark A., Monica Rankin, and Lyman L. Johnson. 2018. Exploitation, Inequality and Resistance, A History of Latin America since Columbus. Oxford University Press.
Carrera, Magali M. 2003. Imagining Identity in New Spain. Race, Lineage, and the Colonial Body in Portraiture and Casta Paintings. University of Texas Press.
Farek, Martin, Dunkin Jalki, Sufiya Pathan, and Prakash Shah. 2017. Western Foundations of Caste System. Palmgrave McMilan.
Guha, Sumit. 2013. Beyond Caste, Identity and Power in South Asia, Past and Present. Leiden: Brill.
Malhotra, Rajiv. 2013. Being Different: An Indian Challenge To Western Universalism. HarperCollins.
Marx, Karl. 1853. “The British rule in India, published in New-York Herald Tribune.” Marxists Internet Archive. June 25. Accessed 12 15, 2018. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1853/06/25.htm.
Vinson III, Ben. 2018. Before Mestizaje, the Fronties of Race and Caste in Colonial Mexico.
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