FUTURE OF CASTE IN HINDU SOCIETY
Seshachalam Dutta, Ph.D.
Edited and partially modified by Shree Vinekar
Some critics of caste system, mainly those who support the status quo, argue that there was never a "caste problem" other than that created by colonial rulers. While it is not entirely true, there is substantial contribution by the British rulers to accentuate the problem when they found this weakness in Hindu Society, and took advantage of the divisions, and further institutionalized the castes, legally protecting the system by codifying through discriminatory laws. It all started with William Jones, an 18th century British Jurist and linguist who took interest in Hindu scriptures, Manusmruti in particular... Jones is referred as an “Indologist,” a designation used by Westerners, for describing those among them with a smattering of knowledge of Sanskrit, not by any measure scholars, but who also have sparse knowledge of Indian History. In their writings they make outrageous speculations on Indian History, Archeology and Anthropology with no formal training in any of these disciplines. For instance, one such theory advanced by such Indologists is that Pallava kings of South India were Iranian invaders because the word Pallava rhymes with “pahalvis,” an Iranian word! The exclusive club of Indologists without any Indians included among them, inhabit mainly in poorly funded basement departments in academic institutions in Britain and the U.S and are patently hostile to Hindu scholars who question their wild speculations. They are the relics of colonial past. Theirs is a colonial mindset to analyze India’s antiquity as primitive culture to be explored by the colonial scholars. There is no comparable discipline as Americanologist, Francologist or Grecologist in the lexicon.
Coming to Manusmruti, according to Puranas, Manu, the author of
Manusmruti was born at the beginning of the cycle of creation (kalpa) to give the laws to people. Historically, however, the author of Manusmriti is dated to be not earlier than 200B.C, for there was no reference to his work in Chanakya’s Arthashastra or in Vedas and Vedangas. Manu’s work which deals with ethics, statecraft, and organization of society was perhaps based on the existing contemporary customs, traditions and practices (aachara) incorporating the genius of Hindus which only he formalized as a legal code. It is important to emphasize that this code never reached the southern part of India and never appears to be enforced as written by him. It only came to prominence when William Jones, the linguist brought it to light in the late 1800 ACE which excited the foreigners. There was vicarious pleasure for Westerners to feel good that Hindus who pride in spirituality and humanism practiced near slavery and oppression of their own people, so they themselves need not feel ashamed of their treatment of subjects. Indians often bog down on discussion of relative severity of Caste discrimination of Hindus with racial and social injustices of the Western society. Any such defense is not only needless but meaningless. Hindus never had slavery, never sold the fellow human beings, even those conquered in the wars; never lynched the slaves which was a practice in the U.S until the second World War. There was nothing comparable in India to the vassals and nobles in Europe. Even the Hindu authors of fiction, who portrayed Rakshasas (Demons) as most cruel, could not envision the cruelty of Emperors of Rome, or of Nazis or not even of the Abu Graib prison. So it is useless to compare the Western culture of the past with a Hindu antiquity. This should not mean that we should ignore or deny the truth in our analysis of caste system. Denying the truth is an escape from responsibility to deal with it.
There are many facts pointing to the lack of relevance of Manusmruti as Vedic standard. Manu’s appalling view of place of the woman in society is a case in point. It is unfortunate that Woman throughout history gave everything to her man, children and family and lived in suffering in all cultures and at all times, as the Old Testaments says that she was accursed to love and live in sorrow. This was not the view of Hindu Rishis of Rig Veda. The wife and husband, being equal of one substance and equal in every respect, Rig Veda says (5th Mandala, 6 and 8) that that both should join and take part in all work, religious and secular (sahadharma charini). This is not the view of Manu. Never-the -less he had admirers both in the East and the West. Friederich Nietzsche, a German philosopher who had similar contempt like Manu’s for women and “common man” extolled Manu as ideal for western world. Dayanada Saraswati of Arya Samaj admiring the overall work, attributed the worst and revolting parts of the Smruti to the interpolation of the bad Brahmins; blame the Brahmins to exonerate the author! Linguistically, Manu’s work was the product of a single author according to the experts. So, it is easy to surmise that Manu was only following the contemporary practices, with or without Vedic authority.
As far as Shudras working for poor Brahmins, as most scholarly sections of their caste were indeed poor, there is no evidence that such an offer was taken up by the Shudras hoping for better birth in next life as advocated in Manuismruti. This Smruti, therefore, was only useful for colonial scholars to denigrate Hindus.
Coming to the subject of the Shudras ruling the country, it is well established that both before and after Manu, both great empires of Maurya and Nanda were founded by Shudras. In Mahabharata Ithihasa, when Dharmaraja wanted to offer the honor of Rajasuya to Lord Sri Krishna, Shishupala objected saying that he (Krishna) was of low caste (cattleman) Yadava and not a Kshatriya and that Senile Bhishma had lost his mind for recommending him. Krishna answered by cutting of his head! In Mahabharata war, while forces were arraigned for battle, a Vaishya king took the offer of Pandavas and switched the sides. Shudras, mlechhas and non- Kshaktriya rulers were so prevalent that the Bhagavata Purana prognosticates that in Kaliyuga (future ages) Shudras will rule the earth! As of the writing of the purana, that might have been obvious state of affairs. During later times there were Vaishya kings in 11th century C.E and Jain kings in many parts of the country. The Vijayanagara Empire was ruled by Krishnadevaraya, a shudra. It is, therefore, clear that Manusmruti has no historical relevance.
CASTE AS SELF-CERTIFICATION IN LATER HINDU HISTORY
Once caste that was well defined to a large extent, but not exactly, is that of Brahmins, who are distinguished with lineage to Rishis called Gotras, originally forty of them but later multiplied with real and imaginary names of Rishis. The word Gotra comes from the location of cow sheds of Rishis (gooyate anena gaastrayate gosamuhacheti Gotram) members are also distinguished by Shikha and Charana. These distinctions make it difficult, if not impossible to break into this caste by other communities. However, with the absorption of Buddhism and Jainism, there was commingling of others, some returning to Hindu society, creating more Gotras sometimes naming after fictitious Rishis for their origin. The most surprising of all, some of the Vaishnava Acharyas began giving Gotras for Shudras, although they did not fit into the definition. As the times went by, the term Gotra was modified to include the names of the progenitors.
SELF-CERTIFICATION OF VAISHYAS IN ANDHRA
After the decline of Jainism in South India, jains integrated into Hindu society. The followers of Gomateswara called Komatis designated themselves as Vaishyas. Some say that the word Komati came from Gomathi, river Godavari where a Vaishya king ruled during 11th century C.E. As a trading class they became very prosperous and called themselves Vaishyas. During early 1800s in Machililipatnam (A.P) they performed Upanayana (thread ceremony) officiated by vaidic Brahmins. They took the Gotras of Rishis, which enraged a class of non-Vaidic Brahmins (Niyogis). The Niyogis invaded the houses and disrupted the services. This happened several times during the years 1784-1825, causing loss life by employing violent hired hands by Brahmins. In the year1905 the Komatis formed an Association called not simply Vaishya but Arya-Vaishya Association, indicating of Aryan descent and successfully registered themselves as such with the Government of Madras in 1921.
Other non-Brahmin communities also merged with each other losing their original identities. Before industrialization Indian families lived in rural communities confined mostly within 20 mile radius, sometimes for centuries unless forced to migrate by famine and other natural disasters. Later, with the improvement in communications and educational status, extensive migrations occurred when caste identification became self certification. As an example, an officer's son of a washer-man or a pot maker or a basket weaver would acquire other caste titles and rightly so as they abandoned their meager profession. So many others with less reputable caste background would acquire the caste identity of other more prosperous communities, but sometimes as sub-caste with hyphenation like Naidu and perika-Naidu or Reddy and Dehashuru-Reddy, motadi-Reddy and innumeral other hyphenated subcastes. The coalescing of castes and subcastes was extensive among the so called “backward “classes.”
While this integration among Hindus is welcomed, the reverse identification occurred by Government action of offering educational and Job preferences. Each year the State Governments in India published listing of Backward Castes (B.C) and the list changed each year. The students and their parents listed their children as B.C for tuition preferences or admission into professional schools. But as the listing changes each year, each child in the same family is registered under different sub-caste! Now the Government of India wants to fix the problem by taking census making the caste a permanent fixture. While it may be administratively convenient, it is short-sighted for it would impede the process of integration of Hindu society. Sometimes this integration was achieved after great effort by various social and religious reformers, beginning with Buddha, Ramanujacharaya, and Naanak in the past and by Brahmosamajists at the turn of the century that paid a heavy price by getting excommunicated.
In our times many well meaning people of all political persuasions both left right and middle have supported the integration of society by elimination of caste. P. Sundaraih, the secretary of Communist party of India dropped the caste title Reddy and persuaded his other family members to do so. Gora (Goparaju Ramachandra Rao) worked all his life to eliminate caste. Then there are writers like Gurijada Appa Rao who wrote the famous play Kanya Shulkam (dowry from the bridegroom) translated in many languages, worked towards the same goal to the end of his life. In this play the heroin Madhura Vaani (devadasi) asks a social reformer advocating elimination “naach” (prostitution) practice that she was what she was by divine ordinance, not by free choice and who would marry her and what happens if he eliminates the legal prostitution? Surprised, he answers that he never thought of it. Now the Government of India is asking this woman and her children and grand children to designate themselves to belong to this community for fistful of rupees as academic aid or preference for Government jobs!
While there are many at personal level try to reform the Hindu society of Caste, there is no organized effort in this direction other than by one organization. That organization is Rashtria Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS) which for 85 years advocated removal of caste among their volunteers. Working with children, they were asked not to seek the caste of others or declare theirs, a sort of “don’t ask and don’t tell policy”. This has become their lifelong culture. Unfortunately it did not make a dent in the larger society. Oftentimes, even though caste title is dropped, the family name makes caste evident like, for example, names like Trivedi, Agnihotri etc. A lifelong Swayamsevak who became the secretary of BJP in India still carries the title Naidu (Venkaih Naidu). Communists who are dedicated to Marxian dialect and Universalism could not avoid that either. As bemoaned by Late Basavapunnaih the Communist leader of Andhra, when the Communist party of Andhra split into two, CPI and CPM, it was along the caste lines Reddy vs. Kamma.
Coming to political alignment of Castes, it is not the highest cast (Brahmin) suppressing the lowest. Brahmins in most states face reverse discrimination. From the feudal and landed aristocracy corresponding class system emerged underlying their castes, a combination very recalcitrant to change. It is recalcitrant, as the class system can admit new rich, caste would obstruct any neo-wealthy by keeping the wealth in the same segregated group fortified by endogamy and often even by consanguinity such as maternal uncles marrying nieces. Thus political economic power is concentrated in the feudal and landed aristocracy which presents a face of traditional castes, but essentially they are privileged classes. Remove the caste mask and what you find beneath is the class. It is not the case of high caste oppressing the lowest as portrayed by those who have not followed the development in India. In this environment, while Brahmins are subject to reverse discrimination, Dalits, the upcoming political group is organizing to get preferential treatment and an amalgamation of castes, generally poor or middle class are competing with Dalits for political favors by designating themselves as “backward communities”. Muslims who ruled India for 600 years and who are by any economic index superior to average Hindus would like to be classified as “backward.” The ruling congress wants to add Christians to this group. The ruling classes would like to throw some crumbs to these groups to keep their power. The caste problem in India is not the High caste Brahmins suppressing the Dalits as portrayed by the Indologists like Wendy Doniger. At least in one State, Andhrapradesh familiar to the author, this political alignment is clear. In the recent cabinet Ministry in Andhra there are 14 Reddys among 39 and only one from Kamma caste the second largest group, an alternative to come to power. Would education eradicate this tribal division as some hoped? Not so. Educated immigrant Andhrites to the U.S mostly doctors, engineers and scientists formed along caste lines two organizations, one Kamma called TANA and the other ATA a Reddy organization reflecting the political and feudal alliance in their home State in India.
It is heartening that the opposition in Indian Parliament opposed and prevailed in opposing the collecting the caste based census. The feudal castes that held the power for over 100 years in Indian political system are happy with the current state of Hindu society playing one group against the other. These castes after amassing ill-gotten wealth by corruption which is endemic in India have fortified caste with class and are resisting the change. What is in store for India is that these groups will transform the old feudal wealth to Banking and Industry as it happened in Britain. In Britain Class system had been as exclusive as caste. For instance, Robert Clive who amassed enormous wealth in Bengal was not admitted into Lordships when he returned to England. There were general apprehension when Jack Kennedy ran for the presidency in the U.S that he would not be supported or voted in by the ruling class of WASPS (White Anglo-Saxon protestants) as he came from Irish-Catholic family. The upstart wealthy families were addressed by a derogatory term as nouveau riche (new rich). The issue of ruling castes in India is similar to Ruling classes in the West and cannot be eliminated until the state becomes totalitarian. It has nothing to do with any religion, much less with Hinduism.
With all obstacles outlined we end this discussion with a great hope for Hindu reformation. Growth of middle class which Indira Gandhi feared supporting Hindu Nationalists, universal education, large scale emigration to the West are impacting on changing the fabric of Hindu society. Forty years ago Matrimonial advertisements in Indian immigrant News Papers, specified caste almost universally, now after 40 years the most of the ads read “caste- no bar” while still declaring the caste of the advertiser! This is a small change, but more will come lest they lose their total identity. The only way casteism will disappear in India is to let the natural process of integration work without Governmental interference and incentivizing the backward communities with meager preferences to keep them separated.