It is commonly believed that caste, i.e. the division of society in endogamous groups, is an exclusively Hindu institution. Thus, after briefly describing the system of the four varnas, Ambedkar writes: “This is called by the Hindus the Varna Vyavasthâ. It is the very soul of Hinduism. Without Varna Vyavasthâ there is nothing else in Hinduism to distinguish it from other religions.” Harold A. Gould summarizes: “Most [researchers] have found [caste] an integral and inalienable part of the Hindu religion.” And he himself agrees: “This ancient social institution was the necessary sociological manifestation of the underlying moral and philosophical presuppositions of Hinduism. Without traditional Hinduism there could have been no caste system. Without the caste system traditional Hindu values would have been inexpressible.”
One might say that the caste system has been Hinduism’s body for a long time, the concrete structure with which Hindu culture organized its social dimension. But that is something very different from saying that caste is the soul of Hinduism, its intrinsic essence. Thus, Peter van der Veer writes that caste may not be as all-pervading or intrinsic to Hinduism as is usually claimed: “The idea that caste is the basis of the Indian social order and that to be a Hindu is to be a member of a caste became an axiom in the British period. What actually happened during that period was probably a process of caste formation and more rigid systematization due to administrative and ideological pressure from the colonial system, which reminds us of the so-called ‘secondary tribalization’ in Africa.”
But in fact, castes and caste systems have developed in very divergent parts of the world, e.g. the originally ethnic division in Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda, or the endogamous hereditary communities of blacksmiths, musicians and other occupational groups in West Africa. The European division in nobility and commoners was a caste system in the full sense of the term: two endogamous groups in a hierarchical relation. When the Portuguese noticed the Indian jâti system, they applied to it the term casta, already in use for a social division in their homeland: the separate communities defined by religion, viz. Christians, Jews and Muslims. In practice, these were virtually endogamous, and there was a hierarchical relation between the top community (first Muslims, then Christians) and the other two.
Historically, the insistence on including caste among the criteria for Hinduism is not so innocent: it was part of the British “divide and rule” strategy against the Freedom Movement. In 1910, a British official, E.A. Gait, passed a circular proposing several tests to decide who is a Hindu, regardless of whether the person concerned described himself as a Hindu: whether he worshipped the “great Hindu gods”; whether he was allowed entry into temples; whether the Brahmins who performed his family rituals were recognized as Brahmins by their supposed caste members; on what side of the untouchability divide he was. Except for the first, these criteria were calculated to exclude the lowest castes and certain sects, regardless of their beliefs and Hindu practices.
The aim was to fragment Hindu society: “Given the upper caste character of the leaders of the Swadeshi movement, this ‘test’ was designed to encourage the detachment of low castes from the ‘Hindu’ category, reducing the numbers on whose behalf the upper castes claimed to speak.” The “test” in effect implemented a suggestion by Muslim League leader Ameer Ali (1909) to detach the lower castes from the Hindu category. Ever since, it has remained a constant in anti-Hindu circles to maximize the importance of caste, and in Hindu Revivalist circles to work for its decrease in importance or even its ultimate abolition.
Given the existence of caste practices in non-Hindu societies, the caste phenomenon does not need Hinduism. But does Hinduism need caste? Can Hinduism exist without it? To anti-Hindu agitators, the matter is very simple: “Hinduism means caste.” But real life tells a different story. Among overseas Hindu communities (e.g. in South Africa, Surinam, the Netherlands), the sense of caste has waned and in many circles even disappeared, without making them any the less Hindu.
The Arya Samaj, which has worked hard to diminish the importance of caste, argues that this is merely a return to the Vedic condition, for indeed, the “family books” (2-7) of the Rigveda, the oldest literary testimony of Hindu civilization, are silent about caste. Only in the Purusha Sukta of the Rigveda does the enumeration of the four varnas appear, without any hint that this was a caste rather than just a class system. Even Dr. Ambedkar, who argues that modern Hinduism is absolutely bound up with caste, describes how Vedic society knew a class system rather than a caste system: “Particular attention has to be paid to the fact that this was essentially a class system, in which individuals, when qualified, could change their class, and therefore classes did change their personnel.” This is based on no more than an argumentum e silentio, but there may be something to it.
At any rate, hereditary varnas are a very old institution, well-attested in the Mahabharata and its most popular section, the Bhagavad-Gita. This text is frequently quoted by reformers as attesting that the four varna functions already existed, but were allotted on the basis of (not one’s birth but) one’s guna-karma, “qualities and activities”. This is a constant in Hindu revivalist discourse aimed at disentangling Hinduism from the caste system with Scriptural authority: reference is to Krishna’s words in the Bhagavad-Gita: “The four varnas have been created by Me through a classification of the qualities and actions.”
On the other hand, in the same Gita, the curse of varna-sankara, “mixing of varnas”, is invoked as one of the terrible consequences of intra-dynastic warfare by Arjuna: “When women become corrupted, it results in the intermingling of varnas.” If this can still be dismissed as part of Arjuna’s initial plea (for not joining the battle), which Krishna’s subsequent explanation seeks to refute, it is harder to ignore Krishna’s own statement implying a negative opinion of inter-varna marriage: “If I do not perform action, I shall become the agent of intermingling (of varnas).” It seems clear that by the time of the final editing of the Gita, varna endogamy was a firmly entrenched institution. But one has to make the best of it, and so, reformers like Swami Shraddhananda have highlighted such scriptural alternatives to hereditary and endogamous caste as are available.
Observing caste rules is still the general practice among Hindus in India, yet even there it has not been accepted as a defining component of Hinduism in at least one court ruling. The Ramakrishna Mission, in its attempt to acquire non-Hindu status, had used the argument of its professed rejection of caste as proof of non-Hinduness, but the Supreme Court pointed out that abolition of caste had been the explicit programme of outspoken Hindus like Swami Dayanand Saraswati, so that Hinduism without caste did seem to be possible after all.
Sri Aurobindo on caste
The difficult relation between caste in Hindu history and modern anti-caste reform was perhaps best articulated by Sri Aurobindo. First of all, he emphasizes the confinement of caste to purely worldly affairs: “Essentially there was, between the devout Brahmin and the devout Sudra, no inequality in the single virât purusha [Cosmic Spirit] of which each was a necessary part. Chokha Mela, the Maratha Pariah, became the Guru of Brahmins proud of their caste purity; the Chandala taught Shankaracharya: for the Brahman was revealed in the body of the Pariah and in the Chandala there was the utter presence of Shiva the Almighty.” This could, of course, be dismissed as a case of “opium of the people”, conceding to them a spiritual equality all the better to justify the worldly inequality.
Secondly, Aurobindo avoids the somewhat contrived attempts to deny the close connection between the specificity of Hindu civilization and the caste system: “Caste therefore was (…) a supreme necessity without which Hindu civilisation could not have developed its distinctive character or worked out its unique mission.” So far, he actually seems to support the line now taken by anti-Hindu authors, viz. that caste is intrinsic to Hinduism, even though selectively highlighting cases where low-caste people got a certain recognition in non-social, religious respects.
However, Aurobindo’s third point is that social reform including the abolition of caste is equally true to the fundamental genius of Hindu civilization: “But to recognise this is not to debar ourselves from pointing out its later perversions and desiring its transformation. It is the nature of human institutions to degenerate, to lose their vitality, to decay, and the first sign of decay is the loss of flexibility and oblivion of the essential spirit in which they were conceived. The spirit is permanent, the body changes; and a body which refuses to change must die. (…) There is no doubt that the institution of caste degenerated. It ceased to be determined by spiritual qualifications which, once essential, have now come to be subordinate and even immaterial and is determined by the purely material tests of occupation and birth. By this change it has set itself against the fundamental tendency of Hinduism which is to insist on the spiritual and subordinate the material, and thus lost most of its meaning.”
Chronologically, this position could use some corrections (was the low status of the Chandala who spoke to Shankara not a symptom of an already advanced “degeneration”?), but we get the picture, the caste system may have been right in some past age, but now Hindu society should adapt to the modern age. This evaluation by Aurobindo proved to be trend-setting and is now very common in Hindutva discourse.
Caste as a non-violent integrator
The institution of caste is now eroding, first by the amalgamation of closely related castes, and marginally, slowly but surely, even by the intermarriage of people from very divergent ranks in the caste hierarchy. Interdining with people of unequal caste rank, a revolutionary act in the British period, has become commonplace. Even the priesthood is open to members of lower castes in an increasing number of temples. The RSS was instrumental in fighting the rejection of S. Rajesh, an RSS-affiliated low-caste candidate for the priesthood in a Shiva temple (Kongarapilly, Kerala), in court; the verdict upheld the candidate’s rights. The fact that judicial interventions are needed proves that there is still some way to go; on the other hand, the fact that people challenge caste privileges in court, as a last resort after challenging them in civil society, and that they succeed, proves that caste is losing ground, and this without entailing the disintegration of Hinduism.
Though trying to discover a basis in Hindu tradition for casteless equality (as the Arya Samaj claims to have found in the Vedas) is a good thing, it should not keep us from understanding why Hinduism could accommodate the caste system so well. One underlying Hindu value is that of ahimsâ, “non-violence”, not in its extreme Gandhian sense (when slapped, turn the other cheek), but in the subtler sense of respecting every entity, not upsetting but preserving it.
To preserve the distinctive character and tradition of a community, caste separatism was extremely helpful. Thus, in China the Jews were not persecuted, yet they disappeared because of intermarriage; in India, in spite of their small numbers, they remained a distinctive community, thanks to their caste separateness. Hinduism profoundly respects worldly difference and distinctiveness, and while that cannot justify the atrocities which have been committed in the name of caste, it does help to explain why Hindus could maintain the system with a perfectly good conscience for so long. So, in one sense, it is undeniable that caste resonates profoundly with the Hindu world-view; but the point is that Hinduism has more arrows in its quiver.
To put it differently, there is one intrinsic aspect of Hindu culture for which the caste system was an eminently useful (though not strictly necessary) social framework: the fabled Hindu tolerance. It is one thing to say that Hindu society has received the persecuted Jewish, Syrian Christian and Parsi communities well, but another to devise a system that allowed them to retain their identity and yet integrate into Hindu society. Whatever else one may think about the caste system, it is a fact that it facilitated the integration of separate communities.
This very process of integration of separate communities with respect for their distinct identity is at least a part of how the caste system came into being: by gradually integrating endogamous tribal communities in such a way that they could retain their identity, with only minor changes in their traditions. Dr. Ambedkar has drawn attention to this structural continuity between caste and tribe:
“The racial theory of Untouchability not only runs counter to the results of anthropometry, but it also finds very little support from such facts as we know about the ethnology of India. That the people of India were once organized on tribal basis is well-known, and although the tribes have become castes, the tribal organization still remains intact. Each tribe was divided into clans and the clans were composed of groups of families.”
And this tribal structure continues in the system of endogamous castes divided in exogamous clans (gotra), indicating that caste is in fact a continuation of tribal organization in a supra-tribal or post-tribal society.
Likewise, the British indologist J.L. Brockington correctly argues that one of the prime functions of caste “has been to assimilate various tribes and sects and by assigning them a place in the social hierarchy”, so Hinduism and caste do have a long common history, without being identical: “To the extent that Hinduism is as much a social system as a religion, the caste system has become integral to it. But (…) in Hinduism outside India, caste is withering. More significantly, some elements in India would deny its validity; the devotional movement in general tends towards the rejection of caste. (…) The limitation on such attitudes to caste is that in general they were confined to the distinctly religious field, but that only reinforces the point here being made that caste, though intimately connected with Hinduism, is not necessary to it”.
Later on, Brockington gives the example of Virashaivism, a sect intended as casteless, founded in 13th-century Karnataka by the Brahmin politician Basava: “Yet, despite Basava’s rejection of the Vedas and the caste system, along with so many other characteristic features of Hinduism, the Lingayat movement has remained a part, though admittedly an unorthodox part, of Hinduism.”
Even at the height of his egalitarian innovation, Basava never called himself a “non-Hindu” (because such terminology was not yet in use), and he remained faithful to Hindu religious practices, starting with the worship of Shiva. He did promote intermarriage for one or two generations, i.e. a caste equality which was more than merely spiritual. Very soon, his sect simply became one more high and proud Hindu caste, which it has remained till today. Its egalitarianism lasted but a brief moment. This may be sufficient to serve as a selling proposition in the modern religion market, at least among people who go by historical anecdote rather than living social practice. On the other hand, a non-cynical approach of this heritage would be, to say that the hour for the awakening of a long-dormant ideal of casteless Shaivism has struck.
Along with the persistence of living Hinduism among non-resident Indians who have shed their caste identities, this illustrates how Hinduism can survive caste. Likewise, it has also been amply documented how caste can survive Hinduism: converts to Christianity or Islam tend to maintain caste divisions even when they have long given up the supposed Hindu basis of caste: belief in Shastras or in the doctrine of Karma.
A typical aspect of the Hindu caste system is the notion of purity, unattested as such in the Vedas. Here again, we find the same phenomenon in divergent cultures, e.g. Islam has a distinct notion of purity and impurity, and requires purity before offering prayers, just like Hinduism. Islam also considers unbelievers impure, though they are free to become Muslims and shed their impurity. It is only the coupling of the hereditary character of caste with the notion of impurity which yields a typically Hindu institution: hereditary untouchability. The genesis of this institution has not been definitively reconstructed yet, though it is a matter of prime importance for understanding Hindu history.
It is at any rate not due to the much-maligned “Aryans”, who originally had no such notion whether in India or abroad. Neither do the Vedic Samhitas contain any reference to Untouchability; Vedic Hinduism, at least, could exist without untouchability. The Dravidians, by contrast, seem to have had the notion in complete form: “Before the coming of the Aryan ideas (…) the Tamils believed that any taking of life was dangerous, as it released the spirits of the things that were killed. Likewise, all who dealt with the dead or with dead substances from the body were considered to be charged with the power of death and were thought to be dangerous. Thus, long before the coming of the Aryans with their notion of varna, the Tamils had groups that were considered low and dangerous and with whom contact was closely regulated.”
Gerhard Schweitzer reports that even the orthodox are uncomfortable with the Untouchability category: “The untouchables have not been noticed in any of the sacred scriptures. As Mahatma Gandhi said in an oft-quoted statement: if he were to find even a single text passage in the Vedas or the great Hindu epics which justified the abomination of Untouchability, he would no longer want to be a Hindu. For lack of historical source material, it is completely unknown when this greater category of ‘Untouchables’ on the lowest rungs of the social ladder was established. No high-caste author of the past millennium seems to have found it necessary to discuss the question in any form in his writings. Probably this greater category has only come into being during the 8th or 9th century, so it is truly a young phenomenon.”
In today’s urban Hinduism, the practice of untouchability (unlike the practice of caste endogamy) is disappearing, yet that does not mean that Hinduism is disappearing. Indeed, it is the Hindu nationalists’ boast that in their meetings and group activities, there is no trace of untouchability or caste discrimination.
So, caste may be included as a criterion for defining Hinduism in a purely descriptive sense when discussing Hindu society in the classical and medieval period (which in India is reckoned as lasting into the 19th century), though Hindu religion can and does exist without it. Of untouchability, even this need not be conceded: its presence in Hindu history is considerably more limited than the caste system, and there is plenty of Hindu history which would wrongly be labelled “non-Hindu” if untouchability were accepted as a criterion. Though contemporary anti-Brahmin polemic in media like Dalit Voice tends to fuse all social phenomena of Hindu civilization into a single (“evil Brahminical”) design, a more historical attitude is recommended: one which explores the exact and probably separate origins of untouchability and caste, just as within the institution of caste, social rank/varna and endogamy/jati may have separate origins.
Arun Shourie on the abolition of Untouchability
Untouchability has been outlawed (1950), and even before that, it was losing ground. As Arun Shourie has observed, “reformers like Swami Vivekananda, like Gandhiji, like Narayan Guru had had no difficulty in showing that Untouchability had no sanction in our scriptures, that, on the contrary, the conclusive doctrinal argument lay in the central proposition of the scriptures themselves: namely, that all was Brahman, that the same soul inhered in all. There was also the historical fact that whatever might have been the excrescences which had grown around or in the name of Hinduism, the entire and long history of the religion showed that it was uniquely receptive to new ideas, that it was uniquely responsive to reformers, that it was adaptable as no other religion was, and therefore there was no reason to believe that it would not reform itself out of this evil also.”
Incidentally, I don’t think that Shourie’s reference to the vision of the same soul inhering in all (any more than the vision that all are created by the same God) provides a sufficient ground for equality in social practice. At any rate it doesn’t remove the real-life inequality between human beings and animals, so it can also co-exist with inequality between nobles and commoners, between priests and laymen, between Banias and Chandalas. But the point is that both ancient scriptures and modern Hindu reformers could perfectly do without the institution of untouchability without being any the less Hindu for it.
Arun Shourie tells us that a lot can be learned from the case of Narayan Guru who, early this century, as a member of the unapproachable Ezhava caste in Kerala, became an acknowledged religious leader and profoundly changed caste relations in Kerala for the better. He “attained the highest spiritual states, thereby acquired unquestioned authority, and transformed society from within the tradition”. He made use of a major loophole in the rigidities of the caste system, a loophole which Hindu society deliberately maintained precisely because Hinduism was not merely a social system but, among other things, also a spiritual system: renunciates in general, and sages with acknowledged yogic realization in particular, are above the worldly divisions such as caste. They also have the authority to herald social transformations which Hindus would never accept from purely political busybodies.
As you can verify from any publisher’s book list, Narayan Guru is not very popular among Indian secularists and foreign India-watchers, quite unlike that other Untouchable, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar: “today, scarcely anyone outside Kerala even knows about Narayan Guru”, while by contrast, “Ambedkar’s statues outnumber those of Gandhiji.” Narayan Guru upsets the now-dominant Ambedkarite description of Hindu tradition as a den of caste oppression beyond redemption.
Unlike secular people who were insensitive to the spiritual dimension, such as Dr. Ambedkar and Ramaswamy Naicker, “Narayan Guru consistently taught against conversion, he himself took back into the Hindu fold persons from the lower castes who had gone over to other religions”. And the contrast with Ambedkar’s Dalit movement persists when we study the long-term results: “The legacy of Narayan Guru is a society elevated, in accord, the lower classes educated and full of dignity and a feeling of self-worth. The legacy of Ambedkar is a bunch screaming at everyone, a bunch always demanding and denouncing, a bunch mired in self-pity and hatred, a society at war with itself.”
Though there is still some way to go, it is nonsense to claim that nothing in caste relations has changed, especially after ex-Untouchables have become Deputy Prime Minister (Jagjivan Ram, 1977-79), President (K.R. Narayanan, 1997-) and chairman of the ruling party (Bangaru Laxman, BJP, 1999-2000). This evolution provides an opportunity to test the dominant theory that Hinduism cannot exist without caste: has Hinduism diminished in proportion with the losses which caste inequality has suffered? The problems besetting Hinduism are most definitely not due to the withering away of untouchability. On the contrary, recent conversions to Islam have typically happened in areas like Meenakshipuram (1981) where discriminations of the Scheduled Castes are still severe, e.g. where they are harassed by unscrupulous policemen and seek safety by acceding to the Muslim community. Hinduism has everything to gain by liquidating caste inequality as quickly as possible.
17Dr. Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, vol.4, p. 189.
18Harold A. Gould: The Sacralization of a Social Order, p. 1. This statement is at least partly circular, for �traditional� Hinduism (as opposed to anti-caste reform Hinduism) would be defined precisely as that tendency within Hinduism which upholds traditional institutions such as caste.
19Peter van der Veer: Gods on Earth, p.53.
20Tal Tamari: �The Development of Caste Systems in West Africa�, Journal of African History 1991, p.221-250.
21Pradip Kumar Datta: ��Dying Hindus��, Economic and Political Weekly, 19-6-1993, p. 1306.
22Congress MP and Scheduled Caste member B.P. Maurya, replying to Organiser�s question what Hinduism is (8-9-1996). He strongly advocated conversion of Hindus to any other religion on the plea that they are all more egalitarian than Hinduism.
23In most of these communities, the Arya Samaj with its anti-caste stance has played a major role. The Arya Samaj is also a factor in the much lower intensity of caste inequality in the Arya heartland, Panjab. As Bahujan Samaj Party leader Kanshi Ram, told me (interview at BSP headquarters, Delhi 1993), he only became aware of the seriousness of caste inequality when he moved from Panjab to the more backward state of Uttar Pradesh.
24�The Brâhmana was his month, of both his arms was the Râjanya made. His thighs became the Vaishya, from his feet the Sûdra was produced.� (RV 10:90:12)
25Dr. Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, vol. 1, p.18.
26I put these words between brackets, because they do not appear in this line of the Gita (4:13), though Hindu apologists usually pretend that they have at least been intended by Krishna.
30M.D. McLean: �Are Ramakrishnaites Hindus? Some implications of recent litigation on the question�, in South Asia, vol. 14, no. 2 (1991).
31Aurobindo (22-9-1907): India�s Rebirth, p.27.
32Aurobindo (22-9-1907): India�s Rebirth, p. 27.
33Aurobindo (22-9-1907): India�s Rebirth, p. 27.
34�Caste no bar to be Hindu priest�, Times of India, 8-12-1995.
35B.R. Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, vol. 1, p.303. Emphasis added.
36J.L. Brockington: The Sacred Thread: A Short History of Hinduism, p.3.
37J.L. Brockington: The Sacred Thread, p. 148.
38See e.g. J.P. Schouten: Revolution of the Mystics. On the Social Aspects of Vîtrashaivism; at least for historical data, for in its interpretation, it overstates the egalitarian �revolution� of Basava, in the usual Christian tactic of reducing everything Hindu to caste, wholly caste and nothing but caste. Basava was an ardent Shiva worshipper, to the extent of feeling close enough to Shiva to neglect the worldly conventions outside. Virashaiva castelessness and unconcern for purity rules (e.g. in case of menstrual �impurity�) results from an intense religious, viz. Shaiva-Hindu, enthusiasm. For a first-hand account of Virashaivism, I thank my old friend Shambo Linga, who spent seven years as the live-in pupil of a traditional Virashaiva Guru. He told me how a government official had to intervene in a Virashaiva-run village school in order to stop caste discrimination, with Virashaiva children sitting on a platform and others on the ground. Equality: a long way to go even for self-proclaimed egalitarians.
39For an analysis of the notion of purity, see the path-breaking study (e.g. the first to discern the rationale behind Biblical purity rules, p.51-57) of Mary Douglas: Purity and Danger, esp. p.8 and p. 123-128.
40George L. Hart, III: �The Theory of Reincarnation among the Tamils�, in W. Doniger: Karma and Rebirth, p.117.
41Gerhard Schweizer: Indien, Stuttgart 1995, p-97 ff., reproduced in Joachim Betz: �Indien�, Informationen zur politischen Bildung no.257/1997, p.24.
42The RSS likes to quote Mahatma Gandhi�s appreciation of the absence of untouchability at RSS Shakhas, e.g. RSS Spearheading National Renaissance, p.23.
43A. Shourie: Worshipping False Gods, p.230. Shourie is arguing against Dr. Ambedkar�s view that Untouchability is of the essence of Hinduism.
44Vide P. Parameswar: Narayan Guru.
45From the cover text of A. Shourie: Worshipping False Gods.
46From the cover text of A. Shourie: Worshipping False Gods.
47A. Shourie: Worshipping False Gods, p.381. About �Perivar� Ramaswamy Naicker, see Amulya Ganguli: �The atheist tradition�, Indian Express, 20-9-1995, and M.D. Gopalakrishnan: Periyar, Father of the Tamil Race.
48A. Shourie: Worshipping False Gods, p.381. The last sentence refers to the foul language, violent ways and infighting among the low-caste parties claiming Ambedkar�s legacy. Christian missionaries likewise report that communities converted to Christianity have progressed much more in the last half century than the castes which have followed Dr. Ambedkar into neo-Buddhism or into Dalit activism.
49One of several more recent cases was reported in Indian Express, 12-2-1995 and in Young India, July 1995: police excesses have triggered off conversions of Pradhi tribals in central India to Islam. A local leader declared: �Now they have started laying hands on our women. We cannot tolerate this. The only way to resist the continued torment is to embrace Islam. Conversion to Islam would earn the Pradhis the support of a community which can act as a pressure group.�