Thursday, April 23, 2009

Caste – devised by the British!

Castes have never existed in the Hindu society and there had never been discrimination of one section against the other in the name of caste.

It all began with the census taking in the British era. When the British wanted to use statistical method to arrive at the demographic details of the vast population of India for the purpose of better administration, they introduced the clause on caste. The British have had discriminatory practices in their land on the basis of castes. They thought of the same for the Indian society and created 'castes' differences among the people of India.

The census gave them a basis to thrust their views on Aryan race versus Dravidian race and superiority of a caste in relation to another. They saw the Hindu society through their perceptions of race back home.

Until then all the sections of India had remained together in a symbiotic relationship. Every hamlet or a town had people of all 'castes' living together in a way of give- and –take economic inter-dependence. That was given a caste color of social hierarchy by the British.

Until then each section enjoyed superiority in their field of specialization and enjoyed respect for what they were. But all that was vitiated by the British with little understanding of the Hindu society.

A detailed study on this by Mr Kevin Hobson reveals the true picture of how a major twist to the Hindu society having serious ramifications was evolved by the British.

His research paper can be read at

Some excerpts from the research paper:-

"The word caste is not a word that is indigenous to India. It originates in the Portuguese word casta which means race, breed, race or lineage. However, during the 19th century, the term caste increasingly took on the connotations of the word race. Thus, from the very beginning of western contact with the subcontinent European constructions have been imposed on Indian systems and institutions.

To fully appreciate the caste system one must step away from the definitions imposed by Europeans and look at the system as a whole, including the religious beliefs that are an integral part of it. To the British, viewing the caste system from the outside and on a very superficial level, it appeared to be a static system of social ordering that allowed the ruling class or Brahmins, to maintain their power over the other classes.

What the British failed to realize was that Hindus existed in a different cosmological frame than did the British.

The concern of the true Hindu was not his ranking economically within society but rather his ability to regenerate on a higher plane of existence during each successive life. Perhaps the plainest verbalization of this attitude was stated by a 20th century Hindu of one of the lower castes who stated: "Everything lies in the hands of God. We hope to go to the top, but our Karma (Action) binds us to this level."

If not for the concept of reincarnation, this would be a totally fatalistic attitude but if one takes into account the notion that one's present life is simply one of many, then this fatalistic component is limited if not eliminated.

Therefore, for the Hindu, acceptance of present status and the taking of ritual actions to improve status in the next life is not terribly different in theory to the attitudes of the poor in western society.

The aim of the poor in the west is to improve their lot in the space of a single life time.

The aim of the lower castes in India is to improve their position over the space of many lifetimes. It should also be borne in mind that an entire caste could rise through the use of conquest or through service to rulers. Thus, it may be seen that within traditional Indian society the caste system was not static either within the material or metaphysical plane of existence."

"Unlike its predecessors in England, the census of India attempted not only to count, but to define and explain. As a result, the census became not simply an accounting of what existed but an active participant in the creation and modification of the society."

"A further example of Indian reaction to judgments made within the censuses becomes apparent from the claims of castes that they should have higher ranking following the census of 1901.

One claim in particular, that of the Mahtons, is of particular interest for the present paper. The Mahtons claimed that they should be granted the status of Rajputs because of both history and the fact that they followed Rajput customs.

Therefore, since they had not received this status in the 1901 census, they requested the change to be affected in the 1911 census. Their request was rejected, not on the basis of any existing impediment but on the basis of the 1881 census which stated that the Mahtons were an offshoot of the Mahtams who were hunter/scavengers. Thus, it appears that the census system had become self reinforcing.

However, after further debate the Mahton were reclassified as Mahton Rajput on the basis that they had separated themselves from the Mahtams and now acted in the manner of Rajputs.

Interestingly, it was at this point that the reasoning behind the claim became evident. Some of the Mahton wanted join an army regiment and this would only be possible if they had Rajput status.

The Mahton, a rural agricultural group, were fully aware that the change of status would allow their members to obtain direct benefits.

In and of itself, this definitely shows that the actions of the British in classifying and enumerating castes within the census had heightened indigenous awareness of the caste system and had added an economic aspect that the Indian people were willing and anxious to exploit."

"Contrary to what the British appear to have believed, it seems doubtful that the Brahmans were dominant within the material world in pre colonial Indian society.

A cursory examination of any of the ruling families quickly shows a dearth families of the Brahmin caste.

Rather, one finds that the majority, though by no means all, of rulers were Kshytria and occasionally Vashnia.

This suggests that although the Brahmin caste had power in spiritual matters, their power and control within the material world was limited to the amount of influence that they could gain with individual rulers.

No doubt there were instances when this was quite considerable but there is also little doubt that there were times when Brahman influence was very weak and insignificant.

With this in mind, it is not difficult to imagine a situation where, Brahmans, seeing the ascendancy of British power, allied themselves to this perceived new ruling class and attempted to gain influence through it. By establishing themselves as authorities on the caste system they could then tell the British what they believed the British wanted to hear and also what would most enhance their own position.

The British would then take this information, received through the filter of the Brahmans, and interpret it based on their own experience and their own cultural concepts. Thus, information was filtered at least twice before publication.

Therefore, it seems certain that the information that was finally published was filled with conceptions that would seem to be downright deceitful to those about whom the information was written. The flood of petitions protesting caste rankings following the 1901 census would appear to bear witness to this.

To fully understand how the British arrived at their understanding of Indian society it will now be necessary to look at where British society was during the 19th century in both its concepts of self and of other…."

"What seems, however, to have confused the British, was the fact that when they asked Indians to identify the caste, tribe or race for census purposes, they received a bewildering variety of responses.

Often the respondent gave the name of a religious sect, a sub-caste, an exogamous sept or sections, a hypergamous group, titular designation, occupation or the name of the region he came from.

Obviously Indian self identifying concepts were quite different from those concepts that the British expected. In response to this problem, those in charge of the census data took it upon themselves to: "begin a laborious and most difficult process of sorting, referencing, cross-referencing, and corresponding with local authorities, which ultimately results in the compilation of a table showing the distribution of the inhabitants of India by Caste, Tribe, Race, or Nationality."

Certainly this leaves a great deal of room for error. It also virtually ignores the fact that many Indians, when questioned, did not identify themselves in the way that the British expected.

Rather than ask themselves why this was, the British appear to have assumed that either the respondents did not understand the question or that they were incapable of correctly answering the question.

It never seems to have occurred to any one involved with the census that the British may have been asking the type of question that had a variety of correct answers depending upon the circumstances in which the question was asked.

It is interesting to note that when modern sociologists posed the same type of question to Indians in the 1960s, they too received a wide variety of responses.

The simplest explanation for this is that on a day to day basis caste may not be the most important factor in the life of a Hindu.

This notion is given support by a handbill that was distributed by Arya Samaj in Lahore just prior to the 1931 census:

Operations Have Begun


You Should Answer


Vedi Dharm


Arya Samajist






Arya Bhash

Related post:s-

Research paper on castes by Dr Raj Pandit Sharma of HCUK:-


Roy Muller said...

This is blatant lie, caste system was there before the British.
The lower caste alvars and nayannamars were discrimated by the upper caste e.g Thirupanna alvar

Just dont ahve to blame teh british for everything wrong in the Hindu soceity.

Jayasree Saranathan said...

The differences in the state and status were not as how the British projected and perpetualised - something that continues even today. If so, the ones you have quoted, the alvars and nayanmaars could not have become worshippable equivalents of Gods!