Mayank Shekhar talks about the caste system and its origins in modern Indian history
(Mayank Shekhar is secretary, Educators' Society for the Heritage of India (ESHI) and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Around 1960, Dharampal was traveling in train from Gwaliar to Delhi. He came across a group of people from two villages on teertha, pilgrimage, who had gone from near Luckhnow to Ramehswaram. Dharampal narrates in his works an experience he had through this interaction in the train.
"I said they must all be from one jati, from a single caste group. They said, 'No, no! We are not from one jati—we are from several jatis.' I said, how could that be? They said that there was no jati on a yatra—not on a pilgrimage. I didn't know that."
The so called caste lines that we all were told and believe as facts were not so. Dharampal, a 38 year old Gandhian then, admits he didn't know. The small interaction threw the Gandhian into introspection. Where did we acquire this idea of caste based society? The ways of the society certainly was not the perspective of those who spoke for and about the Indian society. It was not even in the perspective of those who took the mantle to govern India after transfer of power from the British. During the interaction in train that lasted over 6 to 7 hours, Dharampal also enquired if they would go to see Delhi, the capital of the free India. Their negative response left Dharampal wondering.
"Those people on their pilgrimage were not interested in any of this. And they were representative of India. More representative of India than Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru ever was. Or I and most of us could ever be."
Dharampal describes this experience of his as
"I think in a way that meeting gave me a view of India, the larger India."
The characteristics of a caste system, in its origin in the West, do not reflect in the ways of people of India or the Hindu society. The caste system in the West is a social stratification based on inheritance, endogamy, economic and political power. These were of the clergy, the rulers, and the commoner. Inheritance and endogamy were important elements of the caste system. In practice this lead to segregation and access to rights (consumption, occupational and ceremonial). In John Locke's words, West was barbarian. What we know of India, its society and systems today, is what Westerners described of it. Their description was not a factual account of India. In Prof. Balagangadhar's words, "Indians took to this way of talking about themselves the way ducks take to water."
It is a little known fact that until the seventeenth century European traveler's records from India reported a highly educated and productive Indian society. Together with China, India produced 73% of the world's industrial production in 1750. While education was accessible only to the privileged in the eighteenth century England, India had an elaborate system of education. Drawing attention to civility amongst Indians and Indian education, John Locke attributed this barbarianism (in the West) to lack of education. These facts are not found in the textbooks.
The acquired knowledge of caste system is invariably accompanied with the stories around water wells, physical beatings, denial of access to temples and untouchability. One can certainly leave the emotional pitch found in these stories aside. The Christian missionaries and travelers who landed in India saw the so-called caste system and described their observations as such, but, there is no mention of any of the horror stories. While Prof. Balagangadhar argues that the characteristics of the western caste system is absent from the Indian society, he also asserts that jaati is not an equivalent of caste. A research group from Kuvempu University is studying the phenomenon and has collected useful data. Though the Kuvempu University research is ongoing, it is able to draw our attention to some interesting facts. For example, they do not find any evidence of an ideology for Jaatis. Even the idea of endogamy exists only on paper far removed from practice. Jaatis allow marriage across jaatis for several reasons including survival of a jaati, and uniting different jaatis belonging to the same cluster.
Inheritance is also not found as a necessary constituent of jaati. Jaatis have ceremonial practices to include a new member. Food habits and social practices vary by climate. Prohibitions are not universal for a jaati and are limited to climate or regions. Practices change with time. These reflect upon the adaptability of the practices. Another critical finding of this research is absence of textual authority. Neither the people themselves, nor the jaati swamis, purohits nor Sanskrit scholars use text to support the aspects or practices of Jaati, except, on some occasions by Brahmins in performing a ceremony when there is a dispute. The word Dharma is used for good actions, respecting one's elders, hospitality, doing pooja etc. Purohits and Sanskrit scholars do not refer to Dharmashastra texts or Varnadharma for Dharma.
In Sanskrit texts, as we know, Dharma is used for duties, moral and ethical values, right-wrong, righteous-unrighteous, doable-not-doable actions and niti. Words Dharma, adharma, karya and akarya are used by different writers to mean good and bad, doable and not-doable actions. Balagangadhar Tilak points out that the words niti and dharma have been used interchangeably in Sanskrit texts. They used Dharma pravachan, an exposition of Dharma, instead of niti pravachan. Niti or Niti Shashtra is concerned with the regal jurisprudence (rajniti). Dharma is used in this sense to define duties. Manu defines Dharma for each of the varnas, where each of the duties was important to sustain a society. When one varna becomes extinct, then some other persons will have to take that labor otherwise society will become a ship without a rudder. The writers of the Sanskrit text recognize the fact that good and bad, and right or wrong are subjective to circumstances. There are numerous examples in the Sanskrit text where actions normally considered wrong or not righteous are allowed in calamities and other circumstances. Bottom line is that morals, ethics, truthfulness etc. do not provide answers to all situations and writers of the Sanskrit texts were well aware of the exceptions. Same is true for common laws and is recognized by the writers. In other words, answer provided by religion is not sufficient. Unlike in the west where laws and justice were applied depending upon the status of the concerned, both wealth (artha) and desire (kama) can be acquired through Dharma. In this sense Dharma can be looked upon as the equivalent of morals of the western philosophers. Dharma is neither about Ishwara, Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva or Shakti nor about their desire or designs. Hindus, even then, do not loose site of atma-kalyana and moksha. Dharma as it becomes obvious is used in different senses and is not an equivalent of religion, short of recommending raj religion, kula religion, religion of upholding, of right actions, of wrong actions and so on.
Balagangadhar Tilak supporting his demand for Swaraj argued that we need our own schools, our own systems and our own government. Until then we would just be implementing and perpetuating the colonial designs. He would not compromise for anything less; the state of affairs was amply clear to Tilak and Lala Lajpat Rai. When Swaraj was put to vote in the Nagpur session of congress it got overwhelming votes against the wishes of Mahatma Gandhi. Coming out of this session, Mahatma Gandhi expressed that he will not return to congress ever again. By this time he had decided to move back from South Africa to India. He was visiting India to evaluate and identify a suitable place for his ashrama and was invited to the national session of the congress by Lala Lajpat Rai.
Dharampal deliberates on the Indian Chitta, Manas and Kaala in his collected writings. He points out that we do not know our people and we do not know our systems. The alienation of the leaders from the larger India is unfortunate. The actions of the leaders, and thus the policies and programs, had very little to do with the larger India. If anything, it had to do with the legacy of the colonials and continuance of the colonial institutions and systems, which replaced the once successful indigenous systems. According to Prof. Balagangadhar, this is a result of the colonial consciousness. For this very reason the Panchayti Raj instituted by the constitution did not work, while the Bees Biswa and the Sasana village systems still worked. It is interesting to note that the version of the Panchayati Raj introduced in the constitution was different from the deliberations on the Panchayati Raj from 1930s until the transfer of power. Questions were raised in the constituent assembly to address these. These, however, could not be addressed giving lack of time in the constituent assembly as the reason. Unfortunately, the larger India and its working systems were left aside replaced by a hurriedly put together system. Dharampal, reflecting on the chitta and manas, suggests that Mahatma Gandhi was in the process of arising larger India's chitta, and by this time, it was too late for he did not live too long.
Until cautioned by Dharampal's writings and of Colonial Consciousness in the researches of Prof S.N. Balagangadhara, Ghent University, Belgium, one takes the Western perspective and looks at its own people and its systems just as the Westerner did. The social stratification in the caste system is the characteristics of the European societies. It is debilitating to associate caste system to the Hindu society of pre-colonial period. Colonization has disconnected its people from its own systems, tradition, culture and past. "Colonialism" according to Prof Balagangadhar, "alters the way we look at the world and it displaces native ways of experiencing the world through sheer violence."
"In the colonized field that the Indian mind had become, many Indians set up tents to sell their merchandise: an attack on the Indian caste system; an instant mixture of reform that could cure the ills of the Indian 'religions'; tracts and books that told tales of the tyranny of the Brahmin 'priests'; and, of course, the sale of the seductive siren songs of modernization and progress."
Contrary to the Christian claim of universality of religion, religion is not practiced by all human beings nor do all societies have religion. Dogmas and beliefs could be found in any society, however, in tradition these are not institutionalized as a religion. Hinduism is a way of life transmitted from generation to generation. The practices vary depending upon region, climate, time and age, chitta, bhuddhi and manas. Just as acquiring knowledge is a building block process, one's experience (anubhava) takes one to the next step of jnana. Reasoning helps after one has the anubhava and applies bhuddhi to differentiate. Once one becomes aware of the colonial consciousness the next steps for a Hindu come naturally.