Monday, February 28, 2011


Is Ramdas Lamb wiser than Mahatma Gandhi ?


Dr. Vijaya Rajiva

Dr. Ramdas Lamb is President of the Sahayog Foundation at Chattisgarh, is an academic and one closely associated with the HAF (Hindu American Foundation) and the production of their report ‘Hinduism : Not cast in caste’ (Dec.2010). He is an American, and came to India several years ago in search of spiritual guidance and has reportedly found a Hindu guru. His Foundation works for the uplift of the former Untouchables and he himself has done sincere work on their behalf. It seems to be a subsidiary of its head branch in the U.S.

This article then, is not a personal attack on Dr.Lamb, but is an attempt to understand why he thinks that Varna and Jati need to be eradicated if there is to be justice for the former Untouchables. Mahatma Gandhi endorsed both Varna and Jati because he saw them as both natural and useful for a productive society (as is well known, he opposed Untouchabilty and worked tirelessly for its eradications, as do many of the government organizations, NGOs, and the Sangh organizations). In agreement with the ancient sages of the Vedic period he saw that Varna which divides society into 4 general segments, the intellectual, the political, the producers of wealth and the agriculturists, reflected the needful structure of any developing human society. Jati, loosely and mistakenly translated into English as ‘caste’ allows individuals to achieve excellence and pride in their work. There are innumerable examples of this but one that comes to mind is that of the jati in Kerala which produces high quality mirrors from burnished metal. Down the ages the craftsmen of various jatis produced goods that were famed throughout the ancient world (and even today). One should mention the outstanding shilpis who built the great Hindu temples. The list of the achievements of the jatis is endless.

Gandhiji did advocate flexibility in this system in that the individual, if he/she chooses, can move into another caste. This was, of course, true of ancient and medieval Indian society before the two Occupations, the Islamic and the British. The guild like structure of the jatis was flexible, even while it provided support to the individual. It was primarily a socio-economic entity. Varna and Jati were what made for the celebrated prosperity of ancient and medieval India and as well for the great Hindu classics in every department.

The system was flexible and fell back into itself in a rigid way with the invasions and the two Occupations. Even an historian such as Romila Thapar (not known for her sympathies towards Hindu India) points this out.

Ramdas Lamb’s preoccupation with Varna and Jati arises from his mistaken view that they are responsible for the existence of Untouchability. It must be pointed out that even Manusmriti does not mention the word, though it does go into great detail as to how the 4 Varnas should conduct themselves. The 4 Varnas were: Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras.

Scholars are not entirely in agreement as to when Untouchability started in India. The date is roughly assigned to the three or four hundred years before the Christian era. Dr.Ambedkar believes that they were composed both of fallen Brahmins and Shudras.

Some scholars believe that they fell from the Varna-Jati system because they did not conform to social expectations. They became outcastes who then performed the most menial tasks of society, such as removing refuse and night soil, engaging in the disposal of dead animals, removing their hides, etc. Still others believe that they were captured in war, much like the helots in ancient Sparta.

Whatever the origin of the ex Untouchables, they performed a service job and were not
part of the main productive activity of society. And technological improvements did not exist as they do in contemporary India which eliminates by and large in most of the subcontinent the need for a special class of people to do these menial jobs.

Dr. Lamb does not see Untouchability as an historical emergent and one that would pass away in due time, with modernization and urbanization. He seems to think of Varna-Jati as intextricably linked with the oppression of the Untouchables (Dalits) becaue of its inherent built-in oppressive nature.

He has not advanced any systematic view of this subject, as far as the present writer is aware. That he does hold to the above view is evidenced in one or two e-mails that he exchanged with the present writer (Mention of this fact is after obtaining permission from him to cite him and even quote his views).

The present writer wishes to advance an interpretaion of his anomalous position. He is a former Christian and therefore brings to his work and activity a lack of genuine understanding of the basic ethos of Hindu India. Hindu acharyas have pointed out that Untouchability is a social injustice and is not part of Hinduism. Ramdas Lamb only reacts to the social reality he has witnessed (and no one can deny that it continues to exist in various parts of India) and mistakenly projects it onto the Varna-Jati system.

‘Higher’ and ‘lower’ are categories that exist in every human society, but interestingly the Varna-Jati system does not condone that. Dr. Lamb is unable to see this, precisely because he brings to bear a mythical ‘egalitarian’ ethos which he inherits, whether he likes it or not, from his early Christian upbringing. The fact that this ‘egalitarianism’ has never existed historically is beside the point. This is his mind set. In addition he has seen at first hand the social injustices of inequality in Chattisgarh.

The question then that needs to be asked is whether he or the HAF Report that he advised should not change their focus. Of course, Varna and Jati are central to Hindu India’s historical development, but the development and continued existence of Untouchabilty is not linked to Hinduism.

This latter point is submerged in the HAF Report precisely because the authors of the Report (as advised by Dr. Lamb) have conflated Varna, Jati and Caste. The complex system of Varna-Jati has been assimilated to Untouchablity (of a variety of forms). This leads to an unintended linkage with the Hindu religion per se, even when the Report denies it.

The unintended consequences of Dr. Lamb’s and the Report’s theoretical failures are:

1. An excessive mea culpaing.

2. Opening the door to the excesses of Navya Shastra whose director has also been
involved in the production of the Report.

3. The Report’s vulnerability to be used by outright opponents of India such as
Pathmarajah Nagalingam.

(The writer is a Political Philosopher who taught at a Canadian university)


  1. What other entities is Ramdas Lamb an advisor to? Is he an advisor to RISA? Is he an advisor to US congress or Congressional Commission on Human Rights? Is he an advisor to UN? Is he an advisor to Navya Shastra? How did he do his root-cause analysis of the injustice suffered by the Harijans to come with his answer? He started his career studying Indian society in 1969. Did it take him 31 years to make this unique discovery to sell it to HAF and Navya Shastra or may be five years earlier when the secret deliberations on writing the HAF report started? Is he also a politician? Who is financing his trips to India for thirty one years? Is he going to discuss now withdrawn HAF report with members of RISA? For what purpose? Why is RISA not inviting Indian and Hindu American scholars of Hinduism if Ramdas Lamb is to discuss HAF report in RISA?


    Dear Friends,

    The critiques have been published, the dueling emails have coursed the web like live magnesium wires, and the readers of the readers of the report have weighed in.

    We are in agreement that the report in its original form was unacceptable; that it harbored serious contradictions in its content – in that on the one hand it emphatically denied that Hinduism condoned caste and on the other, called for "rejection" of certain texts; that it presented a catalogue of horrors perpetrated on "lower" castes while failing to correspondingly highlight equally specific instances of actual progress in India’s social uplift that the west is clueless about; and that overall, it communicated more as work of self-flagellating expiation than as a blueprint for positive change.

    I share my perspectives here as someone who has both criticized the report AND acknowledged in all fairness portions of it that are laudable in their clarity and substance.

    Among its positive qualities: The report lucidly describes caste dynamics as a political rather than a religious phenomenon. It also addresses and dismisses another popular perception in the west -- namely, that the oppressor class is exclusively "brahmin." It incorporates well-chosen quotations from Hindu texts that promote a mindset of insight-based mutual tolerance equal to, if not unparalleled by any other faith tradition.

    To prevent a forest fire from advancing, firefighters set off small controlled fires to clear swathes of vegetation that might feed the blaze's carnivorous advance. When the fire is in your own home however, you would not expect firefighters to respond by setting off fires in different corners of your house. Nor would you expect them to call a wrecking crew to demolish the home in order to contain the fire. No, you would expect them in that situation to PRESERVE lives and CONTAIN the damage.

    HAF has made a gesture towards CONTAINING the damage by taking their report offline. We, the critics of the report, should contribute to the PRESERVATION angle by not engaging in personality-assassination.

    Why not just wait for the revised version? It is not just an imperfect report that can hurt the Hindu image and cause, you know. The relentless public skewering of those involved in the report, the insulting presumptions of an ulterior agenda, the reckless disregard for the feelings of HAF office-bearers who have a history of shared activism that predates this report – what does this achieve, other than to exacerbate an already polarized climate?

    ( to be continued)

  3. PART TWO ( continued from Part one )

    I am aware that NavyaShastra’s worldview has permeated this report and their members are acknowledged as partners and contributors to it. But let me remind all that it is the SUBSTANCE of the report that is being debated. And that substance has been thoroughly examined and critiqued. So now, unless HAF officially announces a merger with NavyaShastra, why should NavyaShastra’s baggage be used to punish HAF?

    NavyaShastra is a sovereign group with a clearly articulated mission and agenda distinct from HAF. When HAF makes it clear that they had no knowledge of inflammatory statements made by a member of NS, there the matter should end. If the NS member in question is absorbed by HAF in some capacity, then we should worry. Otherwise, it is a non-issue.

    It is one thing to warn of the consequences of certain actions and judgment calls. It is quite another to work up a frenzy of conjecture as to what caused those actions, generating a tsunami of reactive speculation that subsumes reality.

    I appeal to all concerned to strive for more objectivity and graciousness. In construing HAF's current silence on the matter as hostility, some of HAF's detractors come across as both vocally and destructively hostile. You cannot challenge HAF to heal the original schism while opening up fresh rifts!

    HAF also was criticized for its “hubris” in not consulting with older and more experienced members of the community before going public with the report. What about HAF’s critics? Have some of them not displayed a Rambo-esque lack of anger management and proportionality? Who among us can honestly say that our egos have no bearing on our actions?

    I appreciate Dr. Vijaya for signing her name to her personal views on Dr. Ramdas Lamb. I would respectfully urge "nokidding" to shed the anonymity, pick up the phone and have a direct, civil conversation with Dr. Lamb. That is what I would do if I were genuinely interested in answers, rather than fuelling the feeding frenzy.

    Chitra Raman

  4. Dear Chitra Raman:

    Your comments on both the negative and the positive aspects of the HAF Report were useful.

    In my opinion, the achilles heel of the Report is the absence of a clearly worked out statement on Varna and Jati which would explain the historical success of India's prosperity and fame in the ancient and medieval worlds, until the two Occupations (Islamic and British).

    Secondly, both Varna and Jati have no connection with Untouchability. It used to be that Western scholars (and following them Indian scholars also) thought of Varna as the beginning of rigid stratification. That
    approach no longer exists except among some fundamentalist thinkers who want to use that stick with which to beat Hinduism.

    Jati has not yet been fully explored. As I say in my article Jati was the basis of ancient and medieval India's enormous success. It was the framework to structure the society. And
    there was mobility within the system. Neither Varna nor Jati have anything to do with the
    oppression of the Untouchables.

    The Report by not addressing these questions has weakened their (HAF's) defence of Hindu India. My guess is that they (HAF) were influenced in this direction both by Dr.Lamb's lack of understanding of the Hindu ethos and by Navya Shastra's extremism; also HAF Report was not based on a proper understanding of Indian history.

    It is still a mystery why a supposedly Reform group like Navya Shastra would have an anti- Indian associate like Pathmarajah
    Nagalingam. In his case his malafide intentions are crystal clear.

    HAF has probably publicly distanced itself from such undesirable elements as surmised by you but it has not been that widely publicised. Most critics do not think that HAF has done that. Yet, I do hope that in their revised version of the HAF Report they will make an effort to refocus their work on the importance of Varna and Jati to Hindu society in its economic functioning. The work on the CONTEMPORARY significance of Jati in the
    Indian economy has been amply elucidated by people like S.Gurumurthy.

    I can cite one easily accessible article by him which was published in The Hindu:

    "Is caste an economic development vehicle?" S.Gurumurthy, The Hindu, Jan.19,2009.

    Dr. Vijaya Rajiva

  5. Dear vijaya,

    Can u say MK Gandhi was Lord Ram, no, but he helped the community by large in his own ways.
    So similarily DR. lamb is doing his part has he understand. you believe or not untouchability is still an harsh truth of hindu india.even this low caste who get converted in other religion, the jati still exists...
    also u are contradicting his view saying hes not born hindu, so does that mean those born hindus will understand the subject more???