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