Caste and the discourse of Casteism

Shudras in pre-colonial India were totally different from how they are seen in the popular imagination of modern India leading to a perverted discourse that looks for solutions to the problems of the marginalised sections of society in the vague past instead of the concrete present.

Caste and the discourse of Casteism

“Almost everyone who knows anything at all about India has heard of the caste system; almost every outsider and many people in India condemn it or criticize it as a whole.” – Jawaharlal Nehru.

In this series of articles that we began writing a few years ago, we are interested in observing, as objectively as possible, why the many-headed monster called caste does not go away, why constitutional solutions do not work and why more amendments are needed to the very solutions prescribed by the Chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee, himself an untouchable. More and more jaatis discover their backward status with each passing year and yet are organised enough to go to the highest court to press for it. Atrocities and skirmishes continue to be reported with increasing frequency instead of tapering off as intended by the lawmakers. Our attempt is to pinpoint the inconsistencies in the narrative that get circulated as scholarship and the danger it holds as even international policies seem to now build on these outdated theories. We want to bring to the readers’ attention the various versions of evangelical literature related to “caste” mushrooming in local and international activism and its effect on young minds trying to sincerely understand their history and traditions. Lastly, we’d like to explore inadequacies in the constitutional and policy measures suggested and connect the dots between the economic and social implications of “caste” through the ages. 

The current trend in debates about this topic is unsettling. Differing points of view get countered by citing perceived privilege. This is done with the idea to silence the opposing voice however well informed, to discredit it on the basis of its perceived inherent “supremacist” caste etc. Studying examples of the political left’s modus operandi from world history suggests that the verbal act of calling out privilege to discredit a point of view or classification into a “label” is just a few steps away from a planned genocide. Several such undocumented examples of mass migrations, dispossession, and abuse of the hypothetically privileged groups in independent India will be dealt with in detail during the course of the series.

The past lives in us

An often-repeated maxim of modernity is to look forward rather than backward, so that we may stop living in the supposedly barbaric past and focus our energies towards building a better future. We do appreciate the healthy optimism in this view but are forced to reconsider its validity for most situations, especially those that involve collectives and groups as the unit for analysis as opposed to individuals. Politics is downstream of culture and we may add that culture is informed by history. But unlike a river whose downstream course does not influence the source, there is deep reflexivity embedded in the world of ideas, which grants politics the privilege to manipulate culture as well as – further upstream – history.

As Adluri and Bagchee have demonstrated, the academic disciplines of History in general, and Indology in particular, have been a decisively political project from the very beginning, with their roots in race supremacism, protestant theology, and colonialism1. Given these facts, it becomes imperative for any indigenous people to reconstruct an emic perspective of their own past, which is free from all colonial prejudices and serves the interests of their own civilisation if it happens to have survived the trauma of imperialism. India survives but the lens we use to understand our past continues to be that of the colonizer. The price of this sloppiness is deadlier than it appears.

Sources – Primary and Secondary

Our survey of the literature authored by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and other prominent Indian scholars in the colonial era – writings that form the bedrock of post-colonial discourse on caste, within and outside academia – is deeply unsettling. We find gross oversimplifications, misinterpretations, conjectures passed off as authoritative descriptions, an over-reliance on colonial and openly evangelical sources, and an almost complete disregard for primary literature and its hermeneutic principles. We will expand on this theme in our subsequent articles in this series but it was an important point to mention before we proceed to build our argument.

Indian scholarship on caste, with notable exceptions from the last decade or so, has been dominated by Marxists, mainly because of their hegemonic influence on Indian Humanities education. While it is not our intention here to cast aspersions on their intellectual integrity, we do want to point out that there has been little to no space ceded to alternative viewpoints. As a result, even when we try to comprehend the spirit of a classical text like the Natyashastra or Manusmriti by reading modern academic commentaries, we are handed down only one kind of explanation, which does not do justice to the complexities of the texts and hardly makes an attempt to reconcile glaring contradictions. Force-fitting the Marxian view on ancient Hindu texts renders them quite meaningless but leaves enough room for them to be unfairly criticized. Further, this has resulted in the popularization of some ‘scholarly dogmas’ that trickle down to mainstream political discourse as tropes, such as the following.

1. Caste is uniquely Hindu

In our lifetimes and that of our fathers, the consensus among Indian academics has been that caste was a uniquely Hindu phenomenon and that nowhere else in the world was such a ‘terrible’ system in existence. However, recent research has found conclusive evidence to support the view that caste and caste-like birth-based compartmentalization was a norm in places under the immediate influence of India like Sri Lanka (no brahmins, but a well-demarcated caste system), Nepal, Indonesia but also those that independently evolved into caste-based societies such as Japan2, Korea, Yezidi, pre-Islamic Iran, and the very distant Hawaii3. The implications of this discovery are two-fold:

a. Caste has something to do with the socio-economic conditions of the times. 

b. Caste-based societies are, more often than not, polytheistic societies.

2. Dharmashastras were religious sanctions

The caste ‘system’ has come to denote an exploitative social order imposed on Indian society in the distant past that refuses to die because it has the sanction of the Hindu religion. We have put the word system in single quotes because it implies that order was uniformly imposed on the whole society based on an edict or something similar. This is quite contrary to how traditional, as well as modern international scholars, understand the role played by Dharmashastras in maintaining social order, which was limited to formalizing the dynamic equilibrium that society had achieved after a long period of experimentation and recommending a consistent scheme for the rulers to dispense justice.

The onus to prove religious sanction in Hinduism for caste discrimination is still a pending project despite long-standing vicious attempts by Indologists and Orientalists. The arbitrariness of singling out Manusmriti as the sole basis for Hindu law, when there are a hundred or so known Dharmasutras known from bhashyas of which four are extant, seems to be driven by the shock value of a handful of verses, which are quoted in isolation to convey a meaning that is, in fact, contrary to the spirit of the text. We are conscious that this may sound dangerously close to an apologia but in the interest of fairness, we recommend the same approach for all classical texts including Islamic and Christian scriptures, for which selective quotations are often chosen to give a positive aura to the overall intolerant spirit of the whole scripture. There is also the phenomenon of contradictions between one Dharmasutra and another that has not been addressed in mainstream scholarly analyses.

Now, let us pick one of the less cited verses from Manusmriti where the acquisition of art, dharma, and women is talked about in the same line ironically.

स्त्रियो रत्नान्यथो विद्या धर्मः शौचं सुभाषितम् ।

विविधानि च शिल्पानि समादेयानि सर्वतः ॥ २४० ॥

striyo ratnānyatho vidyā dharmaḥ śaucaṃ subhāṣitam |

vividhāni ca śilpāni samādeyāni sarvataḥ ||

Wives, gems, learning, virtue, purity, wise saying, and the various arts may be obtained from all sources.

Several such verses, (which we will be dealing within the course of our series) coupled with the fact that the same smriti sanctions eight different types of marriages including the right of women to choose their own husbands and also to marry against parents’ wishes, should make a logical dent in the narrative of endogamy as a religious enforcement. This brings us to the conflicting proof of this dogma.

3. Endogamy was imposed on society

As per the genetic analysis of Dr. David Reich4, Indians have been remarkably endogamous in the last 2000-3000 years, so much so that “the degree of genetic differentiation among Indian jati groups living side by side in the same village is typically two to three times higher than the genetic differentiation between northern and southern Europeans”. 

Although other researchers have raised concerns5 about the sample size and ethnicity; and consequently, the conclusions of Dr. Reich’s study, we will grant them provisional validity for the purpose of our analysis. These conclusions clearly contradict the reasonable implications of the verse quoted from Manusmriti above, that of widespread exogamy. In other words, while Manusmriti clearly allows inter-varna anuloma marriages, Indians somehow continued to practice endogamy by-and-large. Viewed in conjunction with the caste-like social arrangements in other cultures, it becomes exceedingly difficult to agree with the received wisdom in Humanities that endogamy was a Brahminical imposition on society or a sharia type of binding norm. It was quite clearly an outcome of socio-economic pragmatism rather than conformance with religious diktats. As an aside, it is interesting to note that contrary to the popular image of the Buddha as an anti-caste reformer, various Buddhist texts record his severe displeasure with the Brahmins for their penchant of marrying outside their caste.6 This begs the question as to why the Marxist scholarship has yet to talk conclusively about the economic angle of their favourite grouse against Hindus.

Who are the Shudras, really?

It is a question that needs to be addressed keeping in mind that colonial atrocity literature painted a very dark picture of India’s past that had little correspondence with the sustained reality of several millennia. The reason for the same was simple enough – shifting the blame for the collapse of India’s socio-economic fabric to its hoary, supposedly barbaric past so as to justify the oppressive and inhuman new policies as part of the civilising mission of the imperialists. The idea of the Colonial Mahar butler does not account for the majority shudra population of India that Dr. Ambedkar talks about in his books and essays. Nor does the example of bhangis do justice to the question, given that the Indian government had to launch a nationwide movement to build toilets in the 21st century, implying that there were few toilets to clean, thereby doing away with the need for large-scale manual scavenging.

A compelling glimpse of the proud self-image of the Shudras in our reading comes from Cynthia Talbot’s commentary on society in Kakatiya Andhra, in which she notes that the Shudra families, not the Kshatriya lineages, possessed the greatest degree of actual political power in medieval Andhra, despite their so-called humble ancestry.7 The Vishnusmriti classifies the artisans as shudra. They are called Shilpis. The Arthashastra also emphatically qualifies the shudras as artisans. On the other hand, the Parasara Smriti allows all the four varnas to practise the crafts and the Jatakas mention Brahmin carpenters8. Notwithstanding the contradictions between these texts, which are often a result of differences in space and time of their applicability, it is safe to say that the status of a craft was a function of its proximity and utility to Vedic ritual as well as the practitioners’ social ambition and the utilitarian value of their products.

Notes Stella Kramrisch in her paper, “Traditions of the Indian Craftsman”, 

“The upward trend within a craft, however, has also a deeper cause than social ambition. This was implicitly recognized in the law books. Manu says that the hand of a craftsman engaged in his work is always ritually pure. The Gautama Dharmasastra postulates that a Brahman may not accept food from an artisan. The law books thus distinguish the craftsman in his social position on the one hand, and in his state of grace on the other-when he is engaged in his work, when he creates and, thereby, gives effect to his being an embodiment of Visvakarma.”

Thus, excellence in craftsmanship had a direct impact on the social status of a Shudra artisan. Kramrisch cites the example of the Kammalar, or artisans of South India, who disputed the supremacy of Brahmins, holding themselves of equal rank by virtue of being descendants of the divine architect Vishvakarma’s sons. The myth of the descent of Shudras from divine origins is in equal measure a scheme for self-identification as well as a work ethic to strive for divine perfection through art.8

We will expand on this theme in the subsequent articles but for now, we would just like to point out that their pre-colonial status is a far cry from the stereotype of perpetual victimhood that is attached to the Shudra communities of modern India.

Slavery and Caste

It is fashionable in certain circles to first talk of the atrocities on the Shudras of a nebulous past sanctioned by the shastras and then equate it to the abominable practice of slavery. The most basic reductionary measure of “slave work” is repetitive and undignified tasks that reduce a human being to an automaton. The diversity of the trades and practices and the surplus that even a plundered and colonised India was able to produce is antithetical to the universal markers of what slavery means. 

Packing the best males of the community in crates and shipping them forcibly three continents away is slavery while leaving them to practise their own profession and refusing to marry or dine with a particular community is what the “caste system” may be. That these two practices happened side by side in India and we choose to remember the ostracising while forgetting the horrors of hundreds of thousands of shipped humans is another reason why we need to renew our perspective urgently on how caste is being presently viewed.

While slavery in the colonial era is easy to point out in hindsight and is still swept under the rug, it would be naive to expect anti-caste crusaders in contemporary politics and media, who are completely oblivious of the realities of pre-colonial India and needlessly optimistic about the state of the world today, to take the trouble of pondering on how the institutions of modernity have oppressed the less privileged sections of society often in ways that leave them in conditions no better than slavery.9


The narrative of caste as a degrading and oppressive religious institution that is singularly responsible for all the problems of modern India including poverty, discrimination, unemployment and violence derives its potency from reducing Shudras to a handful of modern menial professions like manual scavenging that did not even exist in pre-Islamic India. Sans this reductionist approach, the glory and power of the Shudra artisan guilds, the exquisite skill and craftsmanship of Indian workers, the surplus generated in the system and the excellent quality of life in pre-modern India would all need to be acknowledged and explained. It would also make it more difficult to offer a convincing defence of the affirmative action policies of the modern Indian State and thus, it would pose a grave threat to the foundation of electoral politics in India – caste-based voting blocks.

Without being insensitive to the need for affirmative action for the marginalized sections, we believe that the Shudras today are victims of the very schemes that are announced to purportedly emancipate them. By keeping them in ignorance of their legitimate place of pride in the march of the Indic civilisation, the Indian State has, true to its conflicted character, denied the majority of the shudras the opportunity to participate in nation-building, condemned as they are to a much-exploited dependence on the state apparatus. They are losing their occupational skills, their craftsmanship and artistry to the dangling carrot of government jobs, while other organized religious groups are wasting no time in taking ownership of these occupations once totally dominated by Hindus. The war against casteism has turned out to be a war against the spirit of grassroots entrepreneurship among Hindus. Our future articles will discuss the economic angle in detail and demonstrate how refraining from passing uninformed moral judgements on the distant past may lead us to the elusive solution to the conundrum in the near future.
References / Footnotes

1. Alduri,V & Bagchee,J. (2014); The Nay Science, Oxford University Press.

2. Newell H, William (1932); Comparative study of caste in Japan. 

3. Kashay, Jennifer Fish (2008); From Kapus to Christianity: The Disestablishment of the Hawaiian Religion and Chiefly Appropriation of Calvinist Christianity.

4. Reich, David. (2018); Who We Are and How We Got Here.

5. Chakravarti, Aravinda (2009); Tracing India’s invisible threads.

6. Krishan, Y. (June 1998), Buddhism and Casteism – East and West.

7. Talbot, Cynthia (2001); Precolonial India in Practice – Society, Region, and Identity in Medieval Andhra.

8. Kramrisch, Stella (1958); Tradition of Indian Craftsman. Journal of American Folklore.

9. Bhowmik, Sharit Kumar (1980); The Plantation as a Social System.

About Author: Sonalee Hardikar

Sonalee Hardikar has a bachelor in chemistry and a masters in mass communication. She is an alumna of the National School of Drama and was the first recipient of the "Jim Henson" fellowship, during which she studied scenic design. She is also a theater practitioner, a documentary film-maker, a student of Shaiva/Buddhist/Tibetan philosophies, a self-taught photographer and a teacher of Indian art and aesthetics at leading National Theater and Filmmaking institutes in India.

About Author: Ashish Dhar

Ashish Dhar is the co-founder of Pragyata and Upword Foundation and the Director of Operations at The Indic Collective Trust. He writes on History, Kashmir, Culture and Religion.

About Author: Shivam Mishra

Shivam Mishra has done Masters in Sociology and is interested in Indian history and society. He believes in the Indic intellectual tradition of Guru-shishya and Shastrath. He is currently a Research Associate at the Upword Foundation.

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