A very thought- provoking letter in reply to an article published in The Hindu on caste consciousness is dying down in India is given below. If it is true that caste consciousness is dying down, we would not be having numerous matrimonial sites catering to specific castes. And no one feels bad about it either.
If you want to know the names of castes, there are 2 areas where you can get them, one is the prospectus for Professional courses of Tamilnadu and another is the online matrimonial sites. While the former would surprise you to see wealthy castes tagged into backward or most backward castes, the latter would help you come to know of the never known castes. I found out a caste with "Dravida" name when by instinct I decided to search the matrimonial site to know if there was any caste with that name. There does exist a caste by name, 'Kona seema Dravida', but this Dravida is not what the likes of Karunanidhi think. They are a group of Brahmins who migrated from Kumbakona to Godhavari region some 1000 years ago. Infact Dravida is a name that Brahimins took up after the Dravideswara, who was none other than Vaivasvatha Manu according to Srimad Bhagavatham.
The name of this caste is a good example of how the castes came into existence. Any group with closely knit people and families having common interest and economic inter dependence grows up to become a caste. The identity as a caste gives them a sense of safety and mutual help in times of troubles. The caste identity had come from the same job done by different people. So it is natural that they would have lot of scope for interaction and inter relation within themselves. Their family members also would be better tuned to adjusting to similar environment if they get married to the same caste - homes. In the letter given below the author has quoted Mahatma Gandhi who supported same caste marriages. Gandhi had given a philosophical reason to justify it from the point of view of what Hinduism says. One of the reasons why Hinduism supported such a notion is because of the easy adaptability.
Some time ago I read a narration by two sculptors belonging to a family of sculptors of a known lineage of nearly 2000 years. One point they made, showed the importance of maintaining caste identity and purity of caste. They said that while the menfolk were trained in sculpting, the womenfolk were educated at home in maintaining the manuscripts on the techniques of sculpting images of various Gods. These women used to make copies of the old manuscripts very quickly and helped a lot in preserving them for posterity. Certainly a sculptor's daughter would understand the sculptor's vocabulary better and also be helpful in his job.
In yet another instance, a copper plate inscription found in Chidambaram tells about the Vannaar caste! The Vannars are dhobis (washermen) who called themselves as caste. When the Vijayanagar King visited Chidambaram, his dhobi also accompanied him. Upon coming to Chidambaram, this dhobi was naturally interested in meeting the dhobis of Chidambaram. He did meet them and found out their condition. The Dhobis had maintained a mutt for themselves in Chidambaram. Since it was in need of funds and renovation, the King's dhobi had brought the issue to the King's notice and got them solved. This shows that an understanding and kinship could exist between the people of same caste (formed as a natural union) –irrespective of the place they came from.
It is also possible that matrimonial connections were made between the dhobis of different regions of India. The Chidambaram copper plates also mention about the marriages conducted in that mutt and the payment to be made to the mutt by the two sides of marriage parties. This again shows that each caste had their own customs – arising from their lifestyle, need and other factors – and had their own religious heads to sanctify them.
The caste differences came up only due to differences in economic status. This difference did not arise between two different castes but within the same caste. The information gathered from the inscriptions on Oil millers called as 'chekkaar' in Tamil give us the insight. Production of oil for lighting lamps was an important economic activity until electric lamps replaced them. Wherever new habitats were made, establishing 'Chekku" – the huge mill for crushing the seeds for extracting oil, was one of the early works done. Most of the donations by common people were for buying oil to light the temple lamps. From the available information gathered from the inscriptions, it comes to be known that there were people who owned the oil mill, those who worked in them and those who were engaged in selling and exporting oil. Of these three, the worker would have had a low income while the other two would have had better economic condition. In this scenario, you can not expect the owner of the mill to give his daughter in marriage to the worker of the mill. A wall of segregation cropped up between the two making them two different castes who would not accept each other. If the girl from owner caste eloped with the boy from worker caste, it would not have received acceptance.
An important issue about Chekkars is that it was considered as a bad omen if one happens to see a man with oil on his body, when stepping out of the house. In view of this the workers in the oil mill did not walk on the road straight from their work places oil marks on their body, where people moved about, They used to take a separate route. This could have become a stigma in course of time. But then even a lone Brahmin coming in front of one who was stepping out of his home was considered as a bad omen. This is followed even today. In chekkar's case, it had nothing to do with his caste, but not so in the case of a lone Brahmin.
Caste differences could have come up in Aayar – yadava groups also. People think that in sangam texts we do not come across castes. But going through the life style expressed in Kalith thogai on cow-herds, we can sense that there had existed differences in status among them. Some of them were owners of cattle and some are cattle tenders. Yet another class of people called Podhuvar is mentioned as those joining them in music and dance features. The practice was to accept the one as the groom, who overpowers the bull grown by the girl. The boy could be the owner of cattle or just a cowherd. But he must possess the prowess to control the cattle. That was tested in the jalli-kkattu (bull fight). If he succeedes he was accepted as the man for the girl.
In one instance, the sangam song tells about the Podhuvan, who was not directly connected with cattle-rearing. But the girl was in love with that Podhuvan. The family did not accept the affair, but made a condition that he must take part in the bull-fight. This shows that Podhuvan could have become a separate caste in course of time and marriage of an Aayar (yadava) with the Podhuvan could have become unthinkable in course of time. In this way caste differences had come up over a period of time.
The conflicts between different castes came up when the economic chances of one caste was threatened or usurped by the other. When one caste people thought that their interests were under threat due to another caste, the conflicts had started. The fear of encroachment and loss of opportunities were the real causes for the conflicts and not the castes themselves.
There are inscriptions showing the king's decree to make peace between 'Naattaar" and others in the Kongu regions. The region from Sholapur to Tirunelveli had seen movement of people for trading purposes in the last 1000 years. 98 groups of people (castes based on their religious habits) have come to the Kongu region. There was another group of 98 divisions – each called as a caste also pre-existed there. There were places called "Naana desi pattanam" where merchants from different countries of India had gathered and did their business. The region upto Nagapattinam and Kanyakumari had seen the frequent movement of different people coming and settling for business purposes. It is only too natural that conflicts had risen among them.
The caste had never been a bane but the differences in economic status within the same caste and conflict of interests between groups vying for the same opportunity are the causes. The British assigned an economic value to all castes and thereby created division among them in status. The politicians are perpetuating the division by selective appeasement. Denial of caste or inter caste marriages are not the remedies in this situation.
Before concluding let me quote a passage from the book "From the voyages to the East Indies" by John Philip Wesdin on what he saw in India, particularly South India, during his travel between 1776 to 1789. He says that every person he met in India was deeply religious and accustomed their children to consider Gods as their protectors and benefactors. The education and the climate are the strongest causes for their total submission to Will of God.
"Education, and the nature of the climate, are the strongest incitements to the natives to worship the deity, and to submit themselves to his will.
The boys, in the ninth year of their age, are initiated with great ceremony into the calling or occupation of the caste to which their father belongs, and which they can never abandon. This law, mention of which occurs in Diodorous Siculus, Strabo, Arrian, and other Greek writers, is indeed exceedingly hard; but, at the same time, it is of great benefit to civil order, the arts and sciences, and even to religion. According to a like regulation, no one is allowed to marry from one caste into another. Hence it happens that the Indians do not follow that general and superficial method of education by which children are treated as if they were all intended for the same condition and for discharging the same duties; but those of each caste are from their infancy formed for what they are to be during their whole lives.
A future Brahman, for example, is obliged, from his earliest years, to employ himself in reading and writing, and to be present at the presentation of offerings, to calculate eclipses of the sun and moon; to study the laws and religious practices; to cast nativities; in short to learn every thing, which, according to the injunction of the Veda, or sacred books of the Indians, it is necessary he should know. The Vayshya on the other hand, instruct youth in agriculture; the Kshetria, in the science of government and the military arts, the Shudra, in mechanics, the Mucaver, in fishing; the Ciana, in gardening and the Banyen, in commerce.
By this establishment the knowledge of a great many things necessary for the public good is not only widely diffused, but transmitted to posterity; who are thereby enabled still farther to improve them, and bring them nearer to perfection. In the time of Alexander the Great, the Indians had acquired such skill in the mechanical arts, that Nearchus, the commander of his fleet, was much amazed at the dexterity with which they imitated the accoutrements of the Grecian soldiers.
I once found myself in a similar situation. Having entrusted to an Indian artist a lamp made in Portugal, the workmanship of which was exceedingly pretty, some days after he brought me another so like my own that I could scarcely distinguish any difference. It, however, cannot be denied, that the arts and sciences in India have greatly declined since foreign conquerors expelled the native kings; by which several provinces have been laid entirely waste, and the castes confounded with each other. Before that period, the different kingdoms were in a flourishing condition; the laws were respected, and justice and civil order prevailed; but, unfortunately, at present everything in many of the provinces must give way to absolute authority and despotic sway."
Caste is good - MS Radhakrishnan
To The Editor, The Hindu Newspaper
In response to the editorial article (dtd Feb. 21, 2012) "India's destiny not caste in stone" by Prof. Andre Beteille , Prof Emeritus of sociology, Delhi University.
I have only the faintest hope that you will publish this letter. In this age of 'paid news", who will dare to provide real knowledge, insights and truth at the cost of career (including academic) & business profits ? But if you are serious about the issues you highlight, then you could NOT possibly ignore this letter. If in case you do not publish my response in your newspaper, please at least forward this mail to Prof.Beteille. (My protest is against the unfair castigation of caste. !!!)
If the Prof. had taken into consideration the current world scenario, I think his output would have been different and he certainly would have eulogized CASTE. The peak of prosperity achieved by Europe and US in the past 200 to 300 years is behind them. Now both are plagued by chronic economic problems and unemployment. Their current pattern of thinking and action is miring themselves as well as the rest of the world in deeper and messy unsolvable problems. An eg :-Greenhouse gases, global warming and consequent climate change. Taking the cue from the experience of the West, we Indians will be acting stupidly by entertaining doubts about our age old sound and proven institutions. It will become suicidal for us if we abandon them and ape Western social patterns, which academicians & some politicians paint as Universal and inevitable. Eg. Prof. Francis Fukuyama's 'The End of History and the last Man'.
The advantages of caste, how it had sustained peaceful and harmonious life of our ancestors and thereby sustained Indian civilization without break, could be garnered from the life (in the last century) and ideas, of The Father of our Nation. This is illustrated in detail in the subsequent paragraphs. Prior to that, ie in the 17thcentury, (the beginning of the 1800's) the French Missionary , Abbe J.A.Dubois had emphatically written " I consider the institution of castes amongst the Hindu nations as the happiest effort of their legislation; and I am well convinced that if the people of India never sunk into a state of barbarism, and if, when almost all Europe was plunged in that dreary gulf, India kept up her head, preserved and extended the sciences, the arts and civilization; it is wholly to the distinction of castes that she is indebted for that high celebrity" (p.10, Chapter 2, 'Advantages Resulting from The Division of Castes' from the book 'Character, Manners & Customs of the People of India and of their Institutions Religious and Civil", published by Asian Educational Services). I think Europe still is caught in the 'dreary gulf' which the Abbe mentions in the above sentence, (the two World Wars) inspite of its apparent material prosperity which is enjoyed only by a select few. (1%). In fact Europeans and Americans are the 'barbarians' of the modern world due to their insatiable hunger for resources and the conflicts they engender all over the world, both directly as well as indirectly. I fervently hope that to civilize themselves they will adopt the CASTE system. I further hope that we Indians would be counted upon to act as guides, in their efforts in adapting to a European version of the Caste System.
Talking about the Swadeshi spirit in political matters, Gandhiji during the course of a speech addressed to the missionaries (Christian Missionary Conference at Madras on Feb 14, 1916) said "…….The vast organization of Caste answered not only the religious wants of the community, but also its political ends. The villagers managed their internal affairs through the Caste system, and through it also dealt with any oppression from the ruling power. It is not possible to deny, with regard to a nation producing the Caste system, its wonderful powers of organization, one has but to attend the great Kumba Festival at Hardwar to know how skilful that organization must have been which without any seeming effort was able effectively to cater for more than a million pilgrims. Yet it is the fashion to say that we lack organizing ability. This is true, I fear, to a certain extent of those who have been nurtured in the new traditions. We have labored under a terrible handicap owing to an almost fatal departure from the Swadeshi spirit"………(p.79-80, Chapter 6, 'The Religious Meaning of Swadeshi', from the book "Mahatma Gandhi-His Life & Ideas" written by Charles F. Andrews, published by Jaico Publishing House)
Further quote from the same chapter "The careful study of this address on Swadeshi throws light on certain important details in Mahatma Gandhi's own religious position. It is not of the type that ever looks forward (if I judge him rightly) to a single World Religion and a single World State, but rather to separate units working out their individual destiny in cordial, harmonized, friendly relations. There will always be impassable barriers between them which appear to him divinely ordained. Herein he differs , as far as I can gather, from Tagore, to whom this limited aspect of patriotism and religion is unthinkable. To Tagore the overpassing of these boundaries is all-important; to Gandhi their due observance appears essential in this present stage of human existence. Holding strongly a belief in reincarnation , he seems to have no anxiety about reaching any further stage of unification in this present cycle of existence.
I remember a deeply interesting conversation which I had with him concerning the relationship of Marriage. This brought out his own theory of Swadeshi in an interesting form. During a sustained argument I put to him the purely hypothetical case of a marriage between our families which should hcross te boundaries of Caste and institutional religion.(For the sake of clearness let me add that I am still unmarried and therefore have no children; Mahatma Gandhi has a family of four sons but no daughters)
"Suppose,' I said to him, "simply for the sake of argument, that I myself had a daughter, who in every way was a suitable bride for your son, and that the two loved one another with devotion of the purest character. You have often told me that I am more than a blood-brother to you and the friend of your heart. Would you, then, stand in the way of such a marriage on the ground of difference of Caste or creed?"
Mahatma Gandhi answered in some such words as these: "Yes, I would never give my consent to such a marriage, because it would be contrary to my ideas of religion thus to transgress the boundaries wherein we were born. I would not personally agree to a marriage out of Caste; at the same time I do not believe in the artificial multiplication of Castes which has occurred in India. That evil and the evil of untouchability are both seperable from the true ideal of Varna."
"What, then," I asked him, "is your own conception of the true Caste system, which you call Varnashrama Dharma?"
"It is not easy," he answered, "to explain it to you, because you have never come under its discipline. To one like myself, who believes in the four Varnas, human life, during this present birth on the planet, is only one of a series. There are other experiences which have to be gone through when this life is over. Our present existence is a discipline which has to be lived within certain rules suited to this special stage. We cannot choose at this stage, for instance, our own parents, or our own birthplace, or our own ancestry. Why, then , should we claim as individuals the right during this present brief life-period to break through all the conventions wherein we were placed at birth by God Himself? The Gita has very wisely said that the performance of one's own religious duty is preferable to the carrying out of the religious duty of others. This religious duty, which we call by the untranslatable word 'Dharma', appears to me to include the environment wherein we were placed at birth by God. It connotes our seeking to live in harmony with those birth conditions and not rebelling against them, or seeking to overpass their limitations, either for individualistic or selfish reasons."
I (Charles F. Andrews) have tried to put down, through the medium of my own interpretation, the ideas that Mahatma Gandhi had sought to express to me on that memorable morning. It was easy to see that his own thought about Swadeshi was very intimately related to his Hindu religious training in Varanashrama Dharma or Caste religion; for while Tagore has abandoned the Caste system once for all, Gandhi still declares that he believes in the original four Castes, or Varnas, as natural divisions of society.
What I am trying to make clear is this, that "Swadeshi" with Mahatma Gandhi is not to be confused with the current belief in sovereign "nationalism" in the West, though it runs at certain points perilously along the edge of it and has actually been mistaken for it by some of his own more impulsive followers. Rather it is something much more elemental; it goes back to the Varnashrama Dharma itself, the Religion of Caste. Indeed, this Hindu Caste Religion still retains among the orthodox people in India the name of Sanatana Dharma, the Eternal Religion."
Caste System could cater to the Religious needs, Political needs & Economic needs of the vast population of India. Also the sciences and arts had been nourished by the caste system .
If so what interests are served by painting a dark picture of caste by modern academicians.?
14/21, School Street,
Sathya Nagar, Padi
Published: February 21, 2012
India's destiny not caste in stone
[Outside politics, there are other areas of life in which caste consciousness has been dying down.]
Those who try to keep up with discussions on current affairs in the newspapers and on television may be forgiven if they conclude that caste is India's destiny. If there is one thing the experts in the media who comment on political matters have in common, it is their preoccupation with caste and the part it plays in electoral politics.
Many are now coming to believe that, despite the undeniable demographic, technological and economic changes taking place in the country, the division into castes and communities remains the ineluctable and ineradicable feature of Indian society. They also believe that to ignore those divisions or to draw attention to other divisions such as those of income, education and occupation is to turn our backs on the ground reality. The more radical among them add that ignoring those realities amounts to an evasion of the political responsibility of redistributing the benefits and burdens of society in a more just and equitable manner.
Does nothing change in India? A great many things have in fact changed in the last 60 years both in our political perceptions and in the social reality. The leaders of the nationalist movement who successfully fought for India's freedom from colonial rule believed that India may have been a society of castes and communities in the past but would become a nation of citizens with the adoption of a new republican constitution. They were too optimistic. The Constitution did create rights for the citizen, but it did not eradicate caste from the hearts and minds of the citizens it created. For many Indians, and perhaps the majority, the habits of the heart are still the habits of a hierarchical society.
Universal adult franchise opened up new possibilities for mobilising electoral support on the basis of caste and thus prevented the consciousness of caste from dying down. Democracy was expected to efface the distinctions of caste, but its consequences have been very different from what was expected. Politics is no doubt an important part of a nation's life in a democracy, but it is not the only part of it.There are other areas of life in which the consciousness of caste has been dying down, though not very rapidly or dramatically. The trends of change which I will now examine do not catch the attention of the media because they happen over long stretches of time, in slow motion as it were. They are not noticeable from month to month or even year to year but across two or more generations.
Let us start with the ritual opposition of purity and pollution which was a cornerstone of the hierarchical structure of caste. The rules of purity and pollution served to mark the distinctions and gradations amongcastes and sub-castes. Characteristic among them were those relating to commensality or inter-dining. They determined who could sit together at a meal with whom, and who could accept food and water from whom. Only castes of equivalent rank could inter-dine with each other. In general people accepted cooked food and water from the hands of their superiors, but not their inferiors.
The ritual rules governing food transactions were rigid and elaborate until a hundred years ago. Nobody can deny that there has been a steady erosion of those rules. Modern conditions of life and work have rendered many of them obsolete. The excesses of the rules of purity and pollution have now come to be treated with ridicule and mockery among educated people in metropolitan cities like Kolkata and Delhi. It is impossible to maintain such rules in a college canteen or an office lunch room. To insist on seating people according to their caste on a public occasion would cause a scandal today.
In the past, restrictions on inter-dining were closely related to restrictions on marriage according to the rules of caste. The restrictions on marriage have not disappeared, but they have eased to some extent. Among Hindus, the law imposed restrictions on inter-caste marriage. The law has changed, but the custom of marrying within the caste is still widely observed. However, what is happening is that other considerations such as those of education and income are also kept in mind in arranging a match. At any rate, it will be difficult to argue thatcaste consciousness in matrimonial matters has been on the rise in recent decades.
In politics, the media
There continues to be a general association between caste and occupation to the extent that the lowest castes are largely concentrated in the menial and low-paying jobs whereas the higher castes tend to be in the best-paid and most esteemed ones. But the association betweencaste and occupation is now more flexible than it was in the traditional economy of land and grain. Rapid economic growth and the expansion of the middle class are accompanied by new opportunities for individual mobility which further loosens the association between casteand occupation.
If, in spite of all this, caste is maintaining or even strengthening its hold over the public consciousness, there has to be a reason for it. That reason is to be found in the domain of organised politics. Caste had entered the political arena even before independence, particularly in peninsular India. But the adoption of universal adult franchise after independence altered the character and scope of the involvement ofcaste in the political process.
The consciousness of caste is brought to the fore at the time of elections. Elections to the Lok Sabha and the Vidhan Sabhas are now held all the year round. For logistical and other reasons, elections to even the Vidhan Sabhas may be stretched out over several weeks. There are by-elections in addition to the general elections. Election campaigns have become increasingly spectacular and increasingly costly, and they often create the atmosphere of a carnival. The mobilisation of electoral support on the basis of caste is a complex phenomenon whose outcome gives scope for endless speculation.
Even though for the country as a whole the election season never really comes to an end, the individual voter participates in the electoral process only occasionally and sporadically. The average villager devotes far more thought and time to home, work and worship than to electoral matters. It is well known that the voter turnout among urban professional Indians is low. But even when they do not participate in the elections to the extent of visiting their local polling booths, they participate in them vicariously by following on television what happens in the outside world. Television provides a large dose of entertainment along with a modicum of political education.
Private television channels have created a whole world in which their anchors and the experts who are regularly at their disposal vie with each other to bring out the significance of the "caste factor," meaning the rivalries and alliances among castes, sub-castes and groups of castesby commentators who, for the most part, have little understanding of, or interest in, long-term trends of change in the country. These discussions create the illusion that caste is an unalterable feature ofIndian society. It will be a pity if we allow what goes on in the media to reinforce the consciousness of caste and to persuade us that caste isIndia's destiny.
(The writer is Professor Emeritus of sociology, Delhi University, and National Research Professor)