Caste is a form of social exclusion that is firmly entrenched because it is justified by religious scriptures. Brahmanic theory gave religious sanction to an unequal society. This article traces both the history of caste and the history of opposition to it
Caste is a form of social exclusion unique to the South Asian subcontinent. It is most prevalent in India, but exists also in Nepal and in modified forms in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Castes or jatis are identified in a hierarchy; at the top are usually brahmins, members of various merchant or bania castes, and members of regionally-identified 'dominant castes' who are farmers and control much of the land. (These include the Maratha-Kunbis in Maharashtra, Patels in Gujarat, Lingayats and Vokkaliga in Karnataka, and many others. Other castes close to these in the hierarchy are the shepherds and cowherds, such as the Yadavas, Dhangars, etc.) Lower down are those performing artisanal skills within the jajmani system, and lowest of all are the ex-untouchables, now called dalits, who are considered ritually impure but also perform most of the agricultural labour and much of the casual labour in India. Then there are the various 'nomadic tribes' and 'scheduled tribes', or adivasis as they prefer to call themselves, who are outside the village but still linked to it by numerous ties of exchange and ritual relationships.
These jatis are classified, normally according to the four-varna system, as brahmin, kshatriya, vaishya, and shudra -- though dalits and adivasis are outside this system.
Caste within Muslim society has its own classification; those who are considered ashraf (named Sheikh, etc, are supposedly derived from immigrants from Iran or the Turkish territories), and those considered altaf, the 'backward' or even dalit Muslims, who also often have occupational linkages.
Castes are identified with typical occupations, though usually these are not performed by the majority today. Nevertheless, the names of many castes derive from these -- potter (kumbhar, in the Marathi term), carpenter (sutar), blacksmith (lohar), goldsmith (sonar), etc. Within all of them are important sub-castes (and clan-like groups among the various brahmin castes). Marriages, by normal rules, are only supposed to take place within the caste and sub-caste; thus what is called roti-beti vyvahar, exchange of bread and daughters, is a defining feature of caste.
Caste is a system of social exclusion because the caste a person is born into is supposed to determine his or her occupation and status in life. Further, as a system of social exclusion it is -- unlike most others, like racism for example -- justified by the religious scriptures which have been considered dominant in Indian society: the Vedas, the Dharmashastras, the Bhagavad Gita and the Puranas. This religious justification continues today and has a power that holds sway over millions of people.
Several stories from the ancient Sanskrit symbolise caste exclusion: those of Shambuk, Ekalavya and Sita. In the cases of both Ekalavya and Shambuk, youth of great accomplishment from dalit and adivasi backgrounds were denied their due because of the hierarchy of caste: only a brahmin (or twice-born) could practise austerity; only a kshatriya could be a great archer. The youth were victims of social exclusion due to caste.
Sita was also a victim of India's caste-defined patriarchy. Cast away by her husband as a result of suspicion after her great ordeal, she had no independent access to property -- as innumerable Indian women do not today. She was subject to the cruel norms of the day and to the whims of her husband.
Though the Vedic texts describe a stratified society, it was not yet a caste society. The first text to actually mention the four varnas is the Purush Sukta of the Rig Veda, which is considered relatively late (around the 10th century). This famous text describes the brahmin as being born from the mouth of the primordial man, the kshatriya from his shoulders, the vaishya from his thighs, and the shudra from his legs/feet. The inequality of this -- the feet normally being considered lower (falling at a person's feet is still widely practised in India as a way of declaring one's humility before someone greater) -- is clear.
So is the famous passage from the Chandogya Upanishad -- part of a group of texts ordinarily considered high philosophy. This declares that birth into a particular caste results from actions in a previous life, the theory of karma. Notably it states that:
"...those who are of pleasant conduct here, the prospect [in rebirth] is indeed, that they will enter a pleasant womb, either the womb of a brahmin, or the womb of a kshatriya or the womb of a vaishya. But those who are of stinking conduct here, the prospect [in rebirth] is indeed that they will enter a stinking womb, either the womb of a dog [who is despised even today] or the womb of a swine, or the womb of a candela" (5.10.7; translation by Michael Witzel).
Strikingly, here the untouchable or chandala is equated with a dog or a pig. This, among other things makes the racism in caste clear, that it is the denial of humanity to those of castes considered 'low'.
But it is the Dharmashastras and later texts which offer the fullest elaboration of caste. The Manusmriti is quite clear on this, outlining the duties of the four varnas in great detail, and noting that a shudra cannot be relieved from service since it is his "essence" to serve. Indeed it was the notion of divided human essence -- split into four major groups -- that underlay much of caste.
Manu, like all ancient law-givers, considers varna samkara or intercaste marriage or unions, to be the greatest sin. But he and other Dharmashastra authors also use this as an explanation for the origin of the existing multitude of jatis considered low which did not fit in the orthodox varna system. They are considered products of such illegitimate unions between human beings of different varnas. Thus Manu and others have complex descriptions of various named groups or jatis, which are all classified as products of unions between members of different varnas.
"Among all the classes, only [children] who are born 'with the grain,' [or] in wives who are equal [in class] and have their maidenheads intact [at marriage] should be considered members of the caste. They say that sons begotten by twice-born men on wives of the very next [lower] class are similar [to their fathers] but despised for the flaw in their mothers" (Laws of Manu, 234-5).
Then various 'castes' or jatis which are said to be products of mixed union are named, and Manu goes on to say:
"All of those castes who are excluded from the world of those who were born from the mouth, arms, thighs and feet... are traditionally regarded as aliens, whether they speak barbarian languages or Aryan languages. Those who are traditionally regarded as outcastes [born] of the twice-born and as born of degradation should make their living by their innate activities, which are reviled by the twice-born" (Laws of Manu, 241).
It is not simply the notorious Manusmriti which gives a justification for caste. So does the most exalted text of what Romila Thapar called "syndicated Hinduism," that is, the Bhagavad Gita. In the final section, of course, there is the famous passage in which Krishna defines the duties of the four varnas (and, in fact, the whole Gita is in the context of an admonition to Arjuna to fight and thus do his duty, or follow his dharma as a kshatriya), and says that it is better to do one's own duty badly than to do another's duty well. This is the meaning of the notion of swadharma, which even Gandhi praised so much. And, in the first section, where Krishna explains the reason for his taking form as an avatar to save the world, he states that it is due in the end to varnasamkara:
Upon destruction of the family, perish
The immemorial holy laws of the family;
When the laws have perished, the whole family
Lawlessness overwhelms also.
Because of the prevalence of lawlessness, Krishna,
The women of the family are corrupted;
When the women are corrupted, O Vrsni-clansman,
Mixture of castes ensues.
Mixture [of castes] leads to naught but hell.
(Bhagavad Gita, part I, verses 40-42, translation by Frank Edgerton. Many modern translations of the Gita avoid this passage and translate varnasamkara by some other term)
In other words, the greatest sin was intercaste marriage; and one of the duties of a good king following this doctrine of brahmanism was to enforce the ban on varnasamkara. In historic times, the most famous example of this was that of the Veerasaivas in the 12th century: because their founder and leader Basava had arranged a marriage between a dalit boy and a brahmin girl, the parents of both were brutally executed by being dragged behind elephants, and in the resulting uproar the Veerasaivas were driven from the kingdom of Kalyana.
Today, of course, caste is prevalent in other religious communities as well; but this is true in the Indian context. Neither Buddhism nor Christianity nor Islam have anything similar to caste in other societies.
Neither the Indus civilisation nor Vedic society knew caste as such, though they had other forms of social stratification. The caste system is not, then, as normally believed, 5,000 years old. It can be said to have originated during the long period of the first millennium BCE. This was a period in which the Aryans were moving and settling in the Gangetic plain. The Indus cities had long ago disappeared, but with the growth of agriculture, the discovery of iron and new productivity came what historians often call the 'second urbanisation': a growth in trade and commerce and the rise of cities and kingdoms. It was a turbulent period, one in which a new class society was coming into existence amidst conflicting ideas about what shape this society should have.
The two major streams of these conflicting ideas were the brahmanic and the shramanic. The brahmins derived from the earlier priests of the Vedic society (though many originated also from indigenous inhabitants), and influential sections of them were beginning to propagate a theory in which the Vedas were the original, unwritten, eternal sacred literature, the brahmins their authorised interpreters, and a varnashrama system (the four major varnas and the prescribed four stages of life, or ashramas) was the ideal social form in which Vedic sacrifices could be performed and the proper rituals maintained by the elites of society who were preserved from impurity by having 'impure' occupations performed by groups lower in the hierarchy. This theory was beginning to be put forward in clear terms by around the middle of the first millennium BCE.
Brahmanic theory gave religious sanction to a society of inequality. It has to be noted that we use the term 'Brahmanism' for this, and not 'Hinduism'. 'Hinduism' as a term for a religion only begins to be seen in very late Sanskrit texts after the Muslim period, and became generalised with the colonial era when it was identified as the religion of the 'people of India' and a number of disparate elements (including the sanctity of the Vedas, the various bhakti movements, and popular stories such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata) were brought together as the main components of this constructed religion. In the earlier period, the term 'Hindu' was unknown in India; it originated first as the mispronunciation of 'Sind' by people in the Iranian plateau, who pronounced 'S' as 'H', thus turning 'asura' into 'ahura' and 'Sind' into 'Hind'. For a long period the area beyond the Indus (Sind) was known as 'al-Hind' to the Muslim world.
The shramana trend contested brahmanic inequality. The word 'shramana' means 'to strive', and these trends consisted of those who renounced worldly life in striving for religious and social meaning. The shramanas included many groups: Buddhists, Jains, other important sects of the time such as the Ajivikas, and the materialists known as Lokayatas or after their reputed founder, Carvak. These had many points of difference on spiritual and social issues, but they agreed on the important points of denying the authority and antiquity of the Vedas, denying the pre-eminence of brahmins, and rejecting varnashrama as a model of society. In other words, they were relatively egalitarian and the social model they were propagating for the newly emerging class society was an open one, in contrast to the closed system of the brahmins.
It is also significant that the shramanic groups, especially the Buddhists and Jains, were associated with the relatively open commercial and urban world, while Brahmanism developed a more rural base. This is reflected in their literatures.
Buddhist literature (which is normally more socially realistic than the Sanskritic) gives a clear picture of this contestation. In the Vasettha Sutta of the Sutta Nipata it is described how a young brahmin, Vasettha, comes to Buddha. He says: "My friend Bharadwaj and I have been having a dispute: what makes a brahmin. He asserts that it is birth (jati): a pure birth through seven generations produces a brahmin. I say it is action (kamma)." The Buddha then answers him by arguing that while there are jatis among plants and animals, human beings, from the hairs of their head to the nails of their feet, have no essential biological differences. Rather, it is action that makes a person: one who makes war is a soldier; one who farms is a farmer; one who does commerce is a trader, and so on. The debate depicts several features. First, there were differences also among brahmins about the emerging theory of 'Brahmanism'. Second, there was a racial-biological element in the interpretation of caste even from the beginning, which the Buddha refutes (showing that he knew what the Hindu Council theorists do not know even today: there is no race among humans). And third, what was essential at the social level was not so much the varnas as the various occupations which were to become (in varnashrama dharma) described as caste duties.
The debates went on, and so did the contestations. It is important to realise that the caste system was never imposed all at once on Indian society: it took centuries -- a full millennium -- before caste became the hegemonic feature of society. This happened before the Muslim invasions, and came around the 5th-6th centuries with the defeat of Buddhism. But the beginnings were laid in the middle of the first millennium BCE, when the caste system was promulgated as a theory, a model of how to organise society, being propagated vigorously by the brahmins. They used their interpretations of earlier scriptures such as the Vedas (particularly the Purush Sukta), and then produced many 'manuals' of the social order, or Dhramashastras. Texts such as the Manusmriti are thus more prescriptive than descriptive. It is important to stress that the most severe interpretations of caste rigidity, such as the Manusmriti, came long before Islam even came into existence. The Hindutva theory that it was Muslim invasions that caused the rigidity of caste is historically impossible.
Resistance to caste
The history of resistance to caste exclusion includes the early shramanic religions; it includes much of the way in which Islam and Christianity functioned in India. There were also many indigenous religious movements that rejected caste, including the Nath Siddhas and others. Perhaps the most famous of these is the Bhakti movement, that is the movement which spread throughout much of India from the 12th century onwards. (Earlier Tamil Bhakti, which had the stamp of opposition to Buddhism, is perhaps an exception to this, but radicalism was very evident in some of the Saivite Siddhar groups). The Veerasaiva movement in Karnataka, the Varkaris in Maharashtra (Namdev, Jnandev, Tukaram, Cokhamela), the movement of Kabir and Ravidas in northern India are among the most famous of these. Sikhism itself as a separate religion grew out of a Bhakti movement. Of these famous sants, none identified themselves as 'Hindus'; some, including Nanak and others (as well as some Sufis such as Bulle Shah) insisted that they were "neither Hindu nor Muslim (Turk)". Their opposition to caste was famous and was expressed very strongly by Kabir:
Worship, libations, six sacred rites,
this dharma's full of ritual blights.
Four ages teaching Gayatri, I ask you, who won liberty?
You wash your body if you touch another,
tell me who could be lower than you?
Proud of your merit, puffed up with your rights,
no good comes out of such great pride.
How could he whose very name
is pride-destroyer endure the same?
Drop the limits of caste and clan,
seek for freedom's space,
destroy the shoot, destroy the seed,
seek the unembodied place. (Ramaini 35)
(Translation based on Hess and Singh in Kabir 1986)
In a famous doha from the popular tradition, Kabir sings:
Baman se gadaha bhalla, aan jaat se kutta,
mulla se murag bhalla, raat jaagaave suta
(A donkey's better than a brahmin, a dog beats other castes, a cock is better than a mullah to tell us night is past [my translation])
Tuka (Tukaram), the famous Maharashtrian sant of the early-17th century, was brutal in his condemnation of brahmins for the practice of caste. In one song he contrasts the brahmin with the famous Ravidas:
He's a devotionless brahman, let his face burn.
From what concubine was he born?
Blessed is the mother of the Vaishnava Chambhar;
both lineage and caste are pure.
It is not simply what I say --
this is the decision given anciently.
Tuka says, let this greatness burn up in fire,
I don't want to even see these evil ones. (#1319)
In the end, however, the Bhakti movement failed to create a casteless society; it was absorbed and co-opted by a resurgent brahmanism that distorted the lives and teachings of the sant. This process was nearly complete by the 18th century, though it continues today. For example, there has been a widely popular movement in Maharashtra against the control of brahmin priests at the Pandharpur temple, centre of the Bhakti movement; but although the state finally took control in early-2008, it prescribed two things that went against the spirit of Bhakti: one, that only 'Hindus' (no Muslims) could be members of the controlling committee; and two, that the Purush Sukta must be part of the rituals observed!
It was during the colonial period that the strongest radical movement against caste exclusion took place, pioneered by Mahatma Jyotirao Phule in Maharashtra, Pandit Iyothee Thass in Tamil Nadu, and carried forward by E V Ramsami 'Periyar', Dr Ambedkar and a host of leaders and multitude of activists throughout India. These could, with the help of early British scholarship, give a historical and social interpretation of caste -- something the Bhakti radicals could not do. The non-brahmin movements in Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, the movement of 'backward castes' in north India, and finally the dalit movement throughout India posed a challenge both to the dominant brahmanic leadership of Congress and to the British who, in the end, were upholding the dominant social order in India. It is this movement that is carried on today.
Caste in Independent India
The complex dialectic between a Gandhian and Nehruvite Congress, still much under the domination of brahmanic thinking but fighting for independence, and a movement of the less educated, less resourceful subalterns led finally by Ambedkar, Periyar and others, has left a mixed legacy to Independent India. Formally and legally, the country denies caste and considers untouchability a crime. But socially and ideologically, it persists in many ways. Thus we see a mixture today: the rise of a Mayawati symbolising dalit aspirations in a politically powerful way; the political power of 'other backward castes' symbolised by Lalu Prasad and Mulayam Singh Yadav; the existence of reservations and with it the slow but inevitable emergence of an intelligentsia from among dalits themselves; the fact that even with globalisation, dalits and other subalterns are making their way -- overseas, into new professions, away from agriculture. And, on the other hand, the continuance of practices of exclusion that include much less access to land, food and water for the lower castes and dalits; the lack of a really solid business base (in the share of 'capital') for the dalit middle class -- contrasted, for example, with African Americans in the US; and, above all, the continuation of individual and group atrocities. Chhunduru in Andhra Pradesh, Jajjar in Haryana, Khairlanji in supposedly progressive Maharashtra are only a few examples. The famous dalit woman writer Bama relates that in a seminar on literature in France, when she brought up the issue of Jajjar, a brahmin writer present replied by saying: "But they had killed a cow!"
Caste exclusion, in other words, still exists, and it still has religious sanction.
(Gail Omvedt is a scholar, sociologist and human rights activist who has been involved in dalit and anti-caste movements. She is the author of several books including Dalits and the Democratic Revolution and Dalit Visions: The Anticaste Movement and Indian Cultural Identity. She is currently a Fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla )
The Bijak of Kabir, translated by Linda Hess and Shukhdev Singh. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1986
The Bhagavad Gita, translated and interpreted by Franklin Edgerton, Harper Torchbooks, 1944
The Bhagavad Gita, http://www.bhagavad-gita.us/categories/Chapter-One-of-the-Bhagavad-Gita/?Page=2
Kautilya, The Arthashastra, Edited, rearranged, translated and introduced by L R Rangarajan, Penguin Books, 1992
Manusmriti: The Laws of Manu, with an introduction and notes, translated by Wendy Doniger with Brian K Smith, Penguin Books, 1991
InfoChange News & Features, October 2008