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  Gur Panth Parkash
Gur Panth Parkash
by Rattan Singh Bhangoo
Translated by
Prof Kulwant Singh







There is generally a lack of understanding of the achievements of the Sikh movement in the field of caste. That is so because neither the rigid strength of the caste system as a unified organic structure, nor the deliberate attempt of the Sikh Gurus to create a new society and to steer it away from the shackles of the constitutive elements of the caste and from the grip of the system as a whole, is fully appreciated. The subject will be discussed under the following sections:
(1) The caste and the Caste system;
(2) Three facets of the Caste system;
(3) The caste system and the Sikhs in the period of ideological ascendency;
(4) The caste system and the Sikhs in the later period;
(5) Conclusion.


A good deal of confusion is avoided if a clear distinction is kept in view between the relative significance of caste, as such and when castes come to constitute a system as it happened in India alone.1 A system, by its very definition is a complex whole, made up of different parts, which coordinates and harmonizes the working of its constituents to serve a set purpose. Without unity of purpose and coordination of functions, the constituents either remain a haphazard assortment of factors and forces, or, at best, these combine casually to form a fraction of the potentially possible resultant force. This is amply illustrated by many examples of caste-like elements present in societies outside India. We cull a few of the facts given by Hutton2 and Ghurya3 to prove our point.

In ancient Assyria and Egypt, trades were forbidden to intermarry. Goguet writes that “in the Assyrian Empire, the people were distributed into a certain number of tribes, and the professions were hereditary ........ We know not the time nor the author of this institution, which from the highest antiquity prevailed almost over all Asia and even in several other countries.”4

Risley argues that whenever the conquest of one people by another has taken place, it has been followed by inbreeding, and by an initial stage of hypergamy. Where the two peoples concerned “are of the same race, or at any rate of the same colour”, the initial stage of hypergamy passes away and a state of complete amalgamation follows. On the other hand, where marked distinctionsof race and colour intervene “the tendency is towards the formation of a class of halfbreeds, the result of irregular unions between men of the higher race and women of the lower, who marry only among themselves and are to all intents and purposes a caste.”5 Thus, in the southern states of the U.S.A. “Negroes intermarry with Negroes, and the various mixed races, mulattoes, quadroons and octoroon, each have a sharply restricted ius Connubii of their own and are absolutely cut off from legal unions with white races.”6 Hutton draws the conclusion that although the “Negro in the southern states has been in many respects kept segregated as a distinct community, prohibited or at least prevented from using the same public amenities as white men”, and while “it is certain enough that there is a strong prejudice on the part of the whites against mixed marriages, but the question of taboo and pollution by touch hardly arises. A Negro servant to a white man is no strange anomaly, but a Brahman with a Chandal cook is unthinkable, and hardly less so a Rajput with a Dhobi for a valet… Conditions such as those under which Negroes and whites live together in the United States do not form a true parallel to caste in India.”7

Herodotus tells us that the Egyptians were divided into seven classes. The profession of priests and fighting men were hereditary. No artisan was allowed to have another trade and employment and the Egyptians came to hold the agriculturists as well as the able craftsmen in light esteem.8 Pig was regarded as an impure animal, “mere contact with which made it necessary to bathe. The swineherds, although native born Egyptians, could not enter any temple, and they married among themselves, as no one would be willing either to give a daughter to one of them in marriage, or to receive a swineherd’s daughter as a wife. The priests were also hereditary, and we learn, among other things, that they bathed themselves in cold water four times every twenty four hours…… drank universally from brass vessels which they scoured daily, and regarded beans as unclean (on katbaron) food ................................... The parallel with caste is further emphasized by a statement that no Egyptian man or woman will kiss a Greek on the mouth, or use the knife, spit or cauldron of a Greek, or taste the flesh of a clean (katharos) ox if cut by a Greek knife…… It all sounds as though a caste system not unlike that of India may have existed in ancient Egypt.”9 Further, “The Egyptians might not eat bread with the Hebrews, for that is an abomination unto the Egyptian.”10 But, Revillout, who has gone into this question carefully, “comes to a definite finding that whatever the nature of these socalled Egyptian ‘castes’, there is nothing to show that there was any caste system which really resembled that of India, nor anything in the customary laws of Egypt which interfered with social intercourse between these groups or prevented their inter-marriage (no doubt with the possible exception of the case of the pig-keepers) instances of which are known to have taken place.”11 “Indeed, in so far as there seem to have been groups analogous to caste in Egypt, they seem to have been rather of the nature of administrative organisations like those of the later Roman Empire, than of quasi- organic development like castes in India ............................ “12

The Burmese analogue is possibly as near to the essence of caste as any parallel elsewhere. Here, seven distinct classes of outcastes were recognized. These outcaste classes in Burma cannot enter a monastery nor become a Buddhist monk. One of these classes, the “pagoda slave is such for life and his children and descendants are pagoda slaves in perpeturn : they cannot be liberated even by a king. If a person who is not a pagoda slave marries or be married to a pagoda slave even unwillingly, such a person and all her or his children, even by a former marriage, also become automatically pagoda slaves in perpetuity. Pagoda slaves cannot be employed in any other capacity than that of pagoda servant. It will be observed that in the last two respects the disabilities suffered are even more severe than those of outcastes in India, though the element of untouchability is not stressed at all to the same degree.”13 However, although the seven classes constituted an outcaste population distinct from the people, their social relations with the remaining population were possible.14 “They did not constitute caste, so that there were, so to speak, only in caste and outcaste in Burma, and no ‘Caste system’.”15 The analogy of the caste system is also clear in this respect that the untouchability in Burma is obviously based on taboo. 16 There seems, therefore, “to be common ground here for an origin of caste, which, while developing in India into an organic structure of society, has in Burma become stabilized in an undeveloped form, or even degenerated, so as to affect only a limited part of society, and leaving the main body of the people untouched. For the Burmese as a whole are as free from the working of the caste system as are other peoples among whom analogous institutions have been pointed out.”

Nearest to the Indo-Aryans are the Aryans who migrated to Iran. There, the work of the priest was regarded as of the highest merit and that of the artisan as of the lowest. Change of profession from one class to another was allowed only to those who demonstrated exceptional merit. The priest could marry girls from the lower classes, but did not permit his daughter to marry a man from the lower class.17

In fact, the early population of Iran was divided into four pishtras, analogous to the four varnas of India,18 and the priests were likened to the head of man, the warriors to his hands, the husbandmen to his stomach, and the artisans to his feet,19 which simile reminds one of the Purusha Sukta Hymn. But, the “existence of castes is nowhere attested in the history of Persia.”20

China, whose civilization is considered older than ours, also had traces of caste-like social exclusiveness. The barbers and their sons were regarded among the pariah classes. They were not allowed to compete for the civil service. Singing girls, play actors, policemen and boatmen were considered low and had to marry within their own class. No slave could marry a free woman.21 But, seen in the overall context, the “Chinese society has been characterized by a remarkable minimum of hard and fast class division.”22 “By the time of the fourth and third B.C., the idea that social status should be determined mainly by individual merit had become deep rooted.”23

In Japan, during her military age, society was divided into five distinct groups. The fifth group was formed of the Eta and the Hinin, who were the outcastes of the society. “Every occupation that brought a man into contact with unclean things, such as the corpses of human beings, the carcases of animals, and offal of all descriptions were degraded.”24 “So strong is the prejudice against them (Eta) that the very word Eta, if it must be uttered, is only whispered. They were considered subhuman; remembered with the termination-biki used for quadrupeds; lived in separate quarters in the village; had to wear distinct dress; could only marry among themselves; had no social intercourse with other classes, and could only go abroad between sunset and sunrise In the small fishing village of Mihorosaki…… the children on either side never crossed an imaginary line which marked the frontier of untouchability half way up the street.”25 “Their (Etah’s) position is not without analogies to that of the exterior castes of Hinduism, but probably both here and in Burma what there is of caste is closer to the Ceylon than to the Indian pattern.”26

“The laws of the Anglo-Saxons laid it down that none was to seek in marriage a mate outside one’s class, so that if a person of lower status married a woman of a higher class he was to perish…… In the eyes of the tribal law the only legal marriage that could take place was between freeborn people of equal status. The free women who married her own slave lost her freedom, and had her property confiscated, and the slave was killed on the wheel..... Originally members of different status groups could not contract a marriage… Well-marked status-groups within a society, distinguished from one another by rights and disabilities, separated from one another by the absence of freedom of intermarriage, may, therefore, be considered to be a common characteristic of the mental background and social picture of the Indo- European cultures.”27
It was a common characteristic of the mental background and social picture of not only of the Indo-European cultures. In fact, social differentiation has been, and is, a characteristic common to all societies, including the most primitive ones. This social differentiation has developed into different degrees of social discrimination or exclusiveness, and taken various forms in different societies. Hutton and Ghurya have given instances also of caste-like elements present in many primitive, tribal and less developed societies outside India. The excerpts given above we have selected only from advanced societies, because the chances of system formation were greater there. In the instances cited above, we meet almost all the elements that go into the formation of castes. There are strong colour and racial antipathies; taboos regarding human beings, animals and callings; notions of purity and impurity; restrictions on marriages; hereditary status differentiation and functionalism; social disabilities and segregation: and even extreme social formations of outcastes comparable in some respects, at least, to the miserable condition of the Indian outcastes. But no where these caste-like elements of social exclusiveness present in societies outside India developed into an elaborate system of castes.28 The general tendency for caste-like social exclusiveness in other societies was either to melt away into more fluid class distinctions, or this exclusiveness, in its rigidity, remained in the nature of aberrations limited to a segment of the society concerned. Social exclusiveness elsewhere lacked that motivative force, unity of purpose, organization, coordination, thrust and propulsive force that welded the Indian castes into an elaborate and all embracing caste system.

A system is qualitatively different from a casual or unintentional get together or assortment of factors or forces. It is what distinguishes a philosophy, a religion or a science from an unintegrated mass of doctrines, tenets or data. It is what distinguishes an army from a rabble, as it involves organization, arrangement, method and considered principles of procedure. Above all, it presumes a direction, a plan, a purpose, an objective, towards the fulfillment of which the functioning of the different parts of the system is coordinated and harmonized. As soon as a person loses his urge and will to live and survive, the working balance between his nervous, circulatory, respiratory and digestic apparatuses, etc., which maintains the body as a functional whole, is disturbed, and he is on the way to his final end. Morever, a system has its own cumulative power, thrust, momentum and grip. Whereas, in other societies, the number of distinct hierarchical layers or stratum could be counted on one’s figures, the number of well-defined Indian sub-castes is well over 3,000. And, all these sub-castes were meticulously arranged in a hierarchical social pyramid in which the social grade of each group and individual was fixed permanently by birth. Each layer in this social pyramid was superior in caste status (i.e. virtually in social status) to all the layers below it, and lower in caste status to all the others above it, irrespective of their political and economical position. Even the Brahmins at the top of the pyramid and the unapproachables at its bottom were graded among their own ranks. The privileges, disabilities, obligations and duties, Le. practically all aspects of social behaviour, of each subcaste were regulated by fixed rules and codes. These sub-castes were, by and large, endogamous groups, and they worked sedulously to isolate themselves from each other in other social matters too. Mutual exclusiveness was caused predominantly not by social but by ritualistic factors.29 Ritual barriers are absolutely essential for caste30, and the caste order is orientated religiously and ritually to a degree not even partially attainedelsewhere.31 Such factors as personal endowments, wealth, political power, colour and racial prejudices, and even taboos (which could, and did, vary, and which determined the hierarchical setups in other societies) were not the final determinants of the Indian Caste hierarchy, though these did contribute to its development. Nothing could change the Indian caste hierarchical pattern. Although individuals, groups and subcastes were in the grip of a continuously downgrading process, there was practically no upward social mobility. Whatever little there’ was, was only marginal and was exceptionally allowed in the interests of preserving the overall hierarchical structure, and never to its detriment. In short, the Indian caste hierarchy was not a fluid hierarchy of the types based on social prejudices or social grades, which are common enough, but which elsewhere lack integration into an elaborate social philosophy or a rigid social system. The caste system was a hierarchical system with a vengeance. The way its hierarchical strata were arranged in minutest details in a hierarchical whole; the elaborate caste rules, codes and norms which regulated the application of the hierarchical principle at various sub-caste levels; and the thoroughness with which sanctions were applied by the caste Contunittees or panchayats to enforce these caste rules and norms; all showed a unique social phenomenon in human history. In other words, the caste system had all those elements of arrangement, organization, methods and principles of procedure which distinguish an organic growth from a casual one.

The second main feature of a system, we pointed out, is that it has a purpose, an objective and a plan in view, and the functioning of its different parts is coordinated and harmonized towards the fulfillment of that purpose and plan. It is, infact, this purpose which sets the direction which sets the direction in which the system is to move, and helps to coordinate the functioning of its constituents towards that direction. The overriding consideration of the caste system was the preservation of the caste status, primarily, of the priestly castes and to a lesser degree of that of the lower ones in fulfilment of the hierarchical scheme noted above. Towards that end, economic status was lowered than in caste status, and political power was made subsequent to the Brahmin priesthood.32 The preservation of the caste order became the overriding compulsion of the caste society to such an extent that all liberal and egalitarian social values and movements were either scorched or suppressed. Even purely religious movements, which had in them socially egalitarian seeds or trends, were either engulfed in the caste ideology or distorted to blunt their liberal import.33 The functioning of the main elements that characterize Indian castes was directed towards the fulfilment of the supreme purpose, noted above, of the caste system. In fact, the distinctive traits and significance these factors assumed in the Indian context, in contrast to the significance of the role of the same factors in other societies, was due to their getting interlocked in and with the caste system.

“Neither race nor occupation or function is by itself enough to cause a caste system to come into being, or to account for its restrictions on commensality and marriage.34 Hereditary fuctionalism does not constitute caste.35 “Colour and racial exclusiveness have been common enough, but they have nowhere else led to such an institution as caste, and it would be rash to suppose that they could have done so in India of themselves.”36 In the modem world, the racial and colour prejudice is most prominent by contrast among the Negroes and whites of the southern states of U.S.A. “It is no doubt true that separate railway carriages, separate restaurants, even separate townships, are provided for Negroes, but no pollution takes place as a result of employing Negro servants, and there is no hard and fast line which is really analogous to a caste distinction between, say, quadroons and octoroons; nor have the social factors which might have tended to produce similar results in India ever succeeded in making Muslims, Anglo-Indians or Eurasians into a caste in the Hindu sense; and where Muslims do form a real caste it is always one which has been converted to Islam from pre- Islamic inhabitants while retaining its original caste organization.37 In India, hereditary functionalism assumed special significance because it was used to support a permanent hierarchical caste order. It is not hereditary functionalism that created caste, rather it was the caste system, of which it became a part, that gave hereditary functionalism its own significance in the Indian caste context. Similarly, the racial and colour prejudice between the Negroes and the whites in the U.S.A. is a hard present day reality of life, but the admixture of racial and ethnic stocks in India had taken place on such a scale that no caste can boast of its blood being pure.38 The actual existence of racial and colour prejudice in the U.S.A. has not led to the formation of castes there but the myth of the preservation of the nonexistent purity of Aryan blood grades set in and augmented the process which led to the formation of numerous subcastes. This difference is due to the fact that, in the U.S.A. the racial and colour prejudice did not develop into an all embracing Dharma or system of socio-religious exclusiveness; in India it did.

Restrictions on connubium and commensalism are the most outstanding features of caste hierarchy. These restrictions are, in fact, a part and parcel of a general principle of purity and impurity “on which the entire system depends.”39 It is not to our purpose to go into the various hypotheses which trace the genesis and working of this notion of purity and impurity to the beliefs in taboos, mana, soul-stuff and magic etc.40 What is pertinent for us is that the beliefs in taboos, mana, soul-stuff and magic were current in many societies but no where these led to the formation of castes, much less a caste system. “No doubt ideas of magic, mana, taboo and soul-substance were not wanting among the Indo-European themselves. Parsi priests have to undergo elaborate ceremonies of purification, and while in state of purity must eat no food cooked and drink water drawn by anyone but a man or woman of the priesdy class.”41 “With Parsis, eating and drinking are religious rites.”42

“The mana principle appears in the Buddhist religion as iddht and in Islamic beliefs as kudrat.”43 “It is not suggested that the caste system has developed from ideas of soul-stuff, mana, magic and taboo above; only that without these ideas it could not have developed. If these ideas alone were enough, one might expect to see a caste system in every island from the Nicobars to Easter, instead of only in India.”44 Not only that. We have seen, more than mere ideas or notions, a fairly well developed social phenomenon of untouchability in the cases of the pagoda slaves of Burma and of Eta in Japan. “The untouchability in Burma is obviously based on taboo.”45 What was peculiar to India was that these notions of taboos, mana, etc., were systematized by Hindu priests and lawgivers into an elaborate system of Social philosophy, Dharma, rules and norms which, in turn, became the all pervasive ideological basis of the caste system. In fact, these rules and norms were a part of a wider hierarchical cosmic principle which grades gods, animals, food, drinks, vegetables and many more things of common use into higher and lower categories in terms of their preconceived graded of intrinsic purity and impurity. Similarly, restrictions on intermarriages are a common feature of many societies. But, in class societies the prohibition on intermarriages was not one of taboo so much as one of mere social prejudice, while there was no commensal taboo as in India.46 In addition to the commensal taboos, what further complicated the connubial restrictions in India was that these were linked with religious sanction and Dharma. In other words, the connubial restrictions became a part of that complex what is called the Indian caste system. And it is this integration into this caste system which made the Indian connubial restrictions more exclusive and rigid than the restrictions on intermarriage elsewhere. “Among classes who marry among themselves, marriage outside caste is prevented by sentiment and not by hard and fast rules. Marriage outside the class in Europe might be rare and invalid, but in India, if it is contracted outside the caste, it is a sacrilege.47

It is not only restrictions on intermarriages that were sanctified by religion and Dharma. Also, it is not only religious sanction and Dharma that made the Indian caste system the Gordianknot it is. Of this, we will see later. What we want to point out here is that the Indian caste system was no ordinary system. Its constituents were interdependent and interlocked both horizontally and vertically in the social fabric. Within the sub-caste, each constituent of the system (e.g. hereditary functionalism, restrictions regarding commensalism and connubium, pollution, ritualistic taboos, religious sanction and Dharma, etc.) tied its own..caste-knot around the individual, and the several caste-knots so made by the different constituents multiplicated caste exclusiveness and rigidity, because all these served the same overall purpose of the caste system. Individuals bound in such manner joined together to form the sub-caste, which may be called the horizontal network of the caste system. The sub-castes, so made, were further interlocked in a vertical network of similarly constituted sub-castes, arranged in a hierarchical structure of higher and lower sub-castes. It was, again, not a simple hierarchical system based on one or two factors. Here the hierarchical principle was reinforced by a variety of supposed grades of intrinsic purity or impurity inherent in individuals and groups of human beings; in trades, occupations and professions; in articles of food, drink, and of common use; in ritualistic and ethical standards; and in Dharmik and religious duties and obligations. As an illustration, we will give only one example; as to how untouchability was graded, as if untouchability as such was not low enough. “A Nayar may approach a Nambudri Brahman, but must not touch him; a Tiyan (toddy-drawer) must remain 36 paces off; a Malayan (Le. Panen, exorcist basket-maker) must remain ‘three or four’ paces farther; a Pulayan (cultivator and untouchable) must keep 96 paces from a Brahmin. A Tiyan must not come within 12 paces of a Nayar; a Malayan (panen) must keep 3 or 4 paces farther off, and a Pulayan must still keep his 96 from a Nayar as well as a Brahmin.” A Panen may approach but not touch a Tiyan, but a Pulayan must not even approach a Panen.48 The intricate entanglement of the warp and woof of the Indian caste system hardly needs further comment. It amply illustrates how wrong it is to evaluate the role of the various factors that contribute to caste formation by viewing them in isolation without taking into consideration the enhanced significance their role assumes when placed in the context of the Indian caste system. The third prominent feature of a system, we mentioned, is that the system as a whole acquires much greater grip, momentum and thrust, a greater total resultant force than the leverage exercised individually by its uncoordinated constituents. The primitive beliefs in taboos, mana, soul- stuff, magic purity and impurity never came near (not even where these gained some dimension as in the case of the pagoda slaves of Burma and Eta of Japan) to becoming that propulsive, enveloping and binding force that these became when these were coordinated and systematized into a code and Dharma by the Hindu priests and lawgivers. The same is true regarding hereditary functionalism and restrictions on commensalism and intermarriages. As regards its sweep and grip the caste system became a self-expanding downgrading process which gradually enveloped large section of the Aryan people themselves, including the kshatriyas. It did not spare the Aryan women folk, not even those of the Brahmins.49 It covered the entire Hindu society, excepting the Sadhus and medicants, etc., who had broken off all worldly connections. There could be no Hindu without being a member of one caste or the other. 50 A conquered barbarian territory was ‘ritually pure’ only when the king established the four castes. 51 There were ritualistic barriers against tribes not affiliated with the Hindu association. They were magically defiled and no Hindu temple was open to them.52 There were codified sanctions against the breach of caste norms and rules, and the caste-committee or panchayat of each caste was itself the jealous guardian for enforcing these sanctions. These caste rules were so elaborate and systematized in such detail that there was no escape from these for any group or individual. Wilson has graphically described how these rules regulated in minutest details the life of an individual from birth to death.53

We are not attempting to detail here all the different features of caste as such. What we want to point out are the three main factors (i.e. caste ideology, Brahmins and the Caste society) responsible for constituting and consolidating the castes into the Indian Caste System.

The fundamental assumption of the caste ideology is that ‘Men were not-as for classical Confucianism-in principle equal, but for ever unequal’.54 They were so by birth, and ‘were as unlike as man and animal.55 It has to be clearly grasped that this inequality between man and man was in principle, and not merely the result of a gap between man’s aspirations and practice that is the common failing of all human organizations, religious or social. Permanent human inequality by birth is the summum bonum of the officially declared brahmanical ideology. This forms the very basis of its social order. Instead of being akin to a universal father, God himself was made the author of unequal Varnas. Prajapati created him (the Sudra) as the slave of other castes.56 Moreover, He was the God of the Aryans only, from whom the Sudras were excluded. ‘Everyone cannot obtain this (for the gods do not associate every man), but only an Arya, a Brahmin, or a Kshatriya, or a Vaisya, for these alone can sacrifice. Nor should one talk with everybody (for gods do not talk with everybody) but only with an Arya.57 Order and rank of the castes is eternal (according to the doctrine) as the course of the stars and the difference between animal species and the human race.”58 Therefore, the key to the caste system is the pre-eminence given by it to the caste-status; and the key to the pre-eminence gained by the caste-status is the sanction it received from the orthodox scriptures, ritualism, old tradition and custom. The last three also had a religious sanction and sanctity.

(i) Pre-eminence of Caste Status
The caste status comprised social status, but it was something more than what is generally meant by social status. Ordinarily, social status depends upon the personal endowments of an individual or a group, as also on wealth and power. These could be additional adjuncts to
the caste-status, but the caste-status retained its primacy even without these. Manu declares that whether learned or not, and even when practising undesirable occupations, a Brahmin is a great divinity.59 Besides, social status is generally variable. With the loss of political and economic power, status consciousness tends to vanish. Whole classes have been replaced by other classes; races have been known to lose their identity; occupations have risen and fallen in the scale of social estimation; and group bias and prejudices have disappeared altogether, or have been replaced by others of different kinds. But, here the caste status was based on birth and placed above political and economic status. The wealthiest Bania was lower in caste-status than the poorest Kshatriya. The Chaturpatti Hindu King was lower in castestatus than his own priest (Purohit) who was economically dependent upon the prince. Gautama lays down that when a king and a Brahmin pass along the same road, the road belongs to the Brahmin and not to the king. 60 Shivaji, the embodiment of the solitary successful Hindu revolt against the Muslim political domination, had to go about a begging to the Brahmins for the legitimation of his sovereignty by them. As late as the beginning of the present century, “the Shanan of southern India, inspite of the wealth they have acquired, have no right to build two-storied houses, to wear gold ornaments, or to support an umbrella.”61

(iiJ The Authority of Scriptures
From very remote times, it became the cardinal belief of the orthodox religion that the Vedas were ‘Aspurshaya’62 (that it was not the work of man), or that these were selfrevealed texts. Had this belief been confined purely to the realm of religion, it would have been quite different. But, it was used as the central pillar on which the superstructure of the Caste system was raised and maintained. The Vedic hymns are, by and large, concerned with sacrifices and ritualism, which served to consolidate the position of the sacerdotal class. These hymns also directly extol the priestly class which, as a caste, became inextricably bound up with caste system. Above all, the authority of the Vedas, and of other scriptures (by linking them with the Vedas), was invoked to sanctify and declare inviolable the caste system and its retrograde rules.

The oft-cited Purusha Sukta hymn, which is sung by the Rig Vedic and Yajurvedic priests at the time of their principal ceremonies (as if to emphasize its importance), was regarded as a divine ordinance sanctioning the origin of the four castes.63 The Vedas were declared by Manu to be the direct revelation of God (Sruti),64 and was to be viewed as the sole source of all knowledge, secular as well divine.65 Throughout the earlier part, and even in the body of the Institutes, the Dharma Sastra of Manu is spoken of as the inspired exponent of the Vedas, almost of equal (p. 18 et. a1) authority with them; but in the last chapter of this book is a passage (p. 359, 109) wherein the Vedangas, Mimansa, Nyaya, Dharma Sastras, and Puranas are called the extended branches of the Vedas.66 All outside it (the Vedas), or not derived from it in the Dharma Sastra by the perfect wisdom of Manu, was human, vain, and false. Unbelief in the Vedas was deadly sin; and whoever, in reliance upon heretical books, questioned the authority of the revealed Vedas and of the Dharma Sastras was to be treated as an atheist, and driven from the society of the virtuous.67 Rejection of the authority of the Vedas, transgression of the precepts of the Sastras, and an universal lawlessness, lead to a man’s own destruction. The Brahmin who regards himself as a Pandit, who reviles the Vedas, and is devoted to useless logic, the science of reasoning, who states arguments among virtuous men, defeats them by his syllogisms, who is constant assailant and abuser of Brahmins, an universal doubter and a fool, is to be regarded as a child; people regard that man as a dog. Just as a dog assails to bark and to kill, so such men set to wrangle and to overthrow the sacred books.68 “Abandoning fruitless reasonings, resort to the Vedas and the Smrities.69 One of the few essentially binding duties of Hindu ‘faith’ is not-at least not directly-to dispute their authority (i.e. of the sacred books).”70

Manu did not rest content with establishing the divine authority of the Vedas, his own work, and that of other scriptures. His object thereby was to sanctify the caste system and the position of the Brahmins. So he decreed that “the teaching of a Brahmin is authoritative for ‘man’, because the Vedas are the foundation for that.”71

That the authority of the scriptures was used to sanctify the caste system and other retrograde social laws, hardly needs any elaboration. This point has been the main burden of Manava and other Dharma Sastras. Their inimical approach towards the Sudras, Vaishyas and women is crystal clear. Manu claimed that Brahma enacted the code of laws, and taught it to him (Manu), Manu taught it to Bhrigu, and the latter would repeat it to the sages.72 He further declared that the soul of one who neglected his caste-duties might pass into a demon,73 The Gita preaches that, ‘according to the classification of the action and qualities the four castes are created by me. Know me, non-actor and changeless, as even the author of this.’74 It further sanctifies hereditary functionalism thus: “Congenital duty, O son of Kunti, though defective, ought not to be abandoned.”75 According to one passage in the Mahabharata, ‘As cisterns for cattle, as streamlets in a field, the Smriti (law-code), is the eternal law of duty, and is never found to fail.’76 The Dharma-Sutras enjoined that a king has to rely on the Vedas and Dharma Sastras for carrying out his duties.77

Whether the Purusha hymn is a later addition or an interpolation, and whether its interpretation is correct or not, and whether the sanctity derived for the Dharma Sastras and other post-Vedic scriptures from the Vedas is real or fake, is beside the point. One cannot get away from the hard reality that the scriptural sanctity attached to the Dharma Sastras and the like texts, and to the inviolability of the laws laid down by them, became a cardinal part of the religious belief of Brahmanism, old and new. The Brahmins came to monopolize the interpretation of these scriptures.78 The Brahmanical interpretation of these scriptures became the main prop for sanctifying and maintaining the caste-system and social reaction. Above all, the Brahmanical interpretation of the scriptures in this respect was neither challenged for thousands of years, nor a single voice raised against it from within orthodoxy. Anybody who dared to differ from the Brahmanical view was declared a heretic, and this socalled heresy was the main plank for combating Buddhism and other liberal trends controverting or doubting the validity of the caste-system or Brahmanism. ‘To acknowledge the authority of the Vedas, as demanded of the Hindu, means fides implicita in a more fundamental sense than that of Catholic Church, and precisely because no saviour is mentioned whose revelation could have substituted new law for old.’79 And, “Brahmanical and caste power resulted from the inviolability of all sacred law which was believed to ward off evil enchantment.”80

(iii) Hindu Dharma
In the ever-changing scene of the importance of deities, creeds, racial antipathies and other considerations, there was in Hinduism one factor which was persistent. It was the concept of Hindu Dharma. This concept was synonymous, or very closely interwoven, with the social order of Brahmanism. viz., the caste system (Varna Ashrama Dharma). Like the banks of a stream, it determined the limits within which the current of Indian social life must flow and the direction system, all varieties and sorts of dogmas, ideas, faiths, creeds, customs and practices were tolerated and allowed to be a part of the Hindu Dharma. But any threat to the framework of the social order was frowned upon, condemned, or combatted against, depending upon the seriousness of the threat posed. The concept of Hindu Dharma was the main plank for fighting heresies like Buddhism and Jainism, but what Brahmanism was concerned with was not the divergence from the Vedic religion and practice, because Neo- Brahmanism itself was the result of such a variation in belief and practice. It had virtually broken away from the old Vedic religion. ‘Vedas contain nothing about the divine and human affairs fundamental to Hinduism.’81 The Vedas rather defy the dharma of Hinduism.82 In fact, it is such a get-together of fluid religious ideas, beliefs, cults, etc., that ‘at the present time it is next to impossible to say exactly what Hinduism is, where it begins, and where it ends. Diversity is its very essence.’83

As such, what was really at stake was not the religious doctrines and beliefs, but the orthodox social order, Le. the caste system or the Varna Ashrama Dharma as it was called. ‘In contrast to the orthodox sects, the heresy of the theophratries consists in the fact that they tear the individual away from his ritualistic duties, hence from the duties of the caste of his birth, and thus ignore or destroy his dharma. When this happens the Hindu loses caste. And since only through caste one can belong to the Hindu community, he is lost to it.’84

The above view is further supported by the fact that the hostility of Brahmanism towards different heretic sects has varied almost in direct proportion to the effective threat they posed, not so much to the orthodox creed as such, but to the caste system. From the purely theological point of view, Jainism was no less heretic than Buddhism, but the Jains suffered far less persecution than the Buddhists. It was so because, ‘if the necessity arose, Jainism was not unwilling to admit a god of popular Hinduism to this galaxy. Besides, it was also not opposed to the theory of caste. It was thus very much less hostile and more accommodating to Hinduism than other heterodox systems. The result of this spirit of accommodation was that Jainism has survived in India till today, whereas Buddhism, its twin sister, had to look for habitation elsewhere.85 Also, when Buddhism itself had ceased to be a serious challenge to the established social order, Lord Buddha was included in the list of Vishnu’s Avtaras, although Buddhism had by no means compromised, even at that period, its essential tenets.

It is significant that Saivism, which had been established throughout India in the third century BC.86 (and was the predominant religion in the 7th and the 8th centuries,87 or shared even honours in popularity with Vaisnavism88), hut which did not stress the observance of caste,89 and showed comparative independence from Brahmins and Brahmanism, got steadily pushed into the background by Vaisnavism, which was liberal in accepting the caste system and the Brahmins as its ministers.

The above hypothesis also helps us to explain why Brahmanism, which had all along been very particular about sex morality and even upheld celibacy as an ideal, could put up with the Sakatas, with their obscene practices, but rejected the highly ethical Buddhists. It also explains why the doors of Vedic religion, which were closed to Sudras and women so long as they remained in the social field, were opened to them if they became sophists or mendicants, Le. when they cut themselves away from the general society and their status ceased to be of any consequence to the social order.

It is not our aim to reduce the interpretation of various socio-religious developments in India in terms of a simple formula. We only seek to emphasize that the consideration of preserving the orthodox social order (the caste system) was supreme in determining the direction and developments of even the religious systems. This view is further supported by the pattern of assimilation of alien elements into Hinduism. The motivation on the part of those assimilated, whether tribes, classes, sects, or nobles, was the legitimation of their social and economic situation.90 The precondition for their assimilation was the adoption by them of the Neo- Brahmanical social customs and usages. Two aspects of this process of assimilation are note-worthy. First, both the motivation and the conditions for accepting outsiders had not much to do with religion as such; these were primarily social in their nature. Secondly, the more one accepted the antisocial restrictions regarding occupations, contact, table community and widow-remarriage, and adopted customs such as endogamy and child-marriage, higher the status one got in the orthodox social order.91 In other words, conformity with the caste-system was the central criterion for admission to the Hindu Dharma. The assimilated races, tribes or nobles, found their place only as members of some caste or as new castes.

(iv) Custom, Ritualism and Ceremonialism
Custom, ceremonialism, and ritualism do not lag behind in claiming sanction of the sacred scriptures.91-92-93-94-95-96-97-98-99-100 Custom, says The Code of Manu, is transcendent law. 101 Hence, the assertion of Manu that a number of Kshatriya races sank among men to the lowest of the four castes on account of their omission to perform holy rites and to see the Brahmins.102 Similarly, children, although the off springs of a couple in the same caste, were likely to forfeit their caste- status if the obligatory ceremonies were neglected. A special term Vratyas was used to distinguish them from others.103

The path of action (Karma-marga), one of the three recognised paths of attaining salvation, which was emphasized by the Vedas and the Brahmanas, was the path of doing prescribed duties of rituals. It was the most widespread of the three paths. ritualism was not confined to the religious sphere; it governed all aspects of the life of an individual and circumscribed his outlook and action. The great importance attached to religious and ceremonial observances enabled the priestly class to entrench itself in the social system to an extent wholly unknown elsewhere. Upanayna ceremony was made absolutely obligatory for the first three castes. Unless performed by the prescribed age, the individual lost his caste. Thus, in addition to the right by birth, initiation, which was called rebirth or second birth, was the door by which one entered the Aryan family. The key to this door was placed in no other hand than that of the Brahmin, because he alone had the right to initiate. All roads lead to Rome. Ritualism, ceremonialism, and custom also converged towards entrenching the caste order and social reaction. Mutual exclusiveness was predominantly caused not by social, but by ritualistic factor,104 and “the essential concepts of commensality, and endogamy are ritual rather than economic in nature.”105 Ritual barriers were absolutely essential for caste,106 “The caste order is orientated religiously and ritually to a degree not even partially attained elsewhere.”107 That territory only was ritually pure where had been established the four castes.108 As already noted, the dharma, which hinges on the ritualistic duties of one’s caste, ‘is the central criterion of Hinduism.’109

(v) Pollution
The notions about pollution, of which the taboo on food is just one aspect, played the biggest role in extending the caste system and in projecting it in its day to day operation. It has been mentioned that colour-prejudice and racial hatred, perhaps, were responsible for lowering the status of the Sudras. But it was not just that. They were considered to be impure by their very birth as Sudras. Their mere presence defiled the air. The inherent impurity in them could not be shaken off by any means. The story of Matanga, a Sudra, given in the Epic, well illustrates the approach of the caste ideology towards the Sudras. Matanga does penance for centuries to regain his lost dignity. Indra on his throne is moved and promises him exceptional favours; but the one of rise to a higher caste, which the penitent solicited, was impossible. ‘Thousands and millions of successive births are necessary to obtain the ascent from a lower to higher caste’, replies Indra.110 It was, thus, the notion of inherent pollution or impurity which was mainly responsible for stiffening and making permanent the social exclusiveness against the Sudras. The concept of pollution did not remain confined to the Sudras. As it originated in the fancy of Brahmins and was not subject to any principle, it was diversified and extended in many ways and directions. Human beings, animals, vegetables, articles of food and of daily use, occupations, etc., were graded in an arbitrarily fixed scale of comparative purity and impurity. What is still worse, this gradation was made an instrument for fixing the social position of individuals and groups in the caste society. The idea of pollution associated with the after-effects of child-birth and the flow of blood at the time of the monthly period of women had much to do with the undermining of their social status. The peasants, who comprised the majority among the Vaisyas, were downgraded simply because ploughing involved the killing of worms. In the classical literature ‘the Vaisya is, first a peasant. 111 Arian describes the husbandsman as respected and as having his rights preserved even during a war. 112 But ‘in post-classical times and at present the conception of the Vaisya as a “peasant” has completely vanished.’113 He has been, with a few exceptions, pushed to the borderline of the Sudras. ‘For a man to lay his hand to the plough or to cultivate vegetables is throughout the high castes, considered to entail derogation.’114 Similarly, honoured Vedic professions, such as those of the tanner, weaver, smith and chariot-maker came to be confined in later days to the Sudras.115 Castes came to be downgraded because they took to vocations which involved processes or handling of articles considered to be religiously impure. ‘The lowest caste strata was considered to be absolutely defiling and contaminating. First, this stratum comprised a number of trades which are almost always despised because they involve physically dirty work; street cleaning and others. Furthermore, this stratum comprised services which Hinduism had come to consider ritually impure: tanning, leather work.116 Then there were other castes which, though trifle higher in the social scale, are for all that not treated with any respect. The barbers and washermen are looked upon as menials because of the unclean things they have to handle. The potters are also a very low class. The five castes of artisans and the manufacturers and vendors of oil are very much looked down upon. The Mochis or tanners are so much despised that other Sudras would hardly condescend to give them a drop of water to drink. This feeling of repulsion is caused by the defilement which is presumed to ensure from their constantly handling the skin of dead animals.117 “And in all cases the nature of taboo is such, of course, that the contagion of the pollution occupation contaminates all members of the caste whatever their individual occupation may be, and to an infinite number of generation.118

Not only was impurity or defilement believed to be imparted by direct contact, but it was supposed to be contracted indirectly through objects, and in an extreme case even through sight. This is what led to the castes of untouchables, unapproachables and unseenables. There are villages of Brahmins to which all other castes were strictly refused admittance.119 Impure castes shunned infectious contact with nonmembers as rigidly as the high castes. 120 As already seen, unapproachabiIity also came to be meticulously graded.

There is a proverb that caste is only a question of food.121 The Santhals, a very Iow caste in Bengal, have been known to die of hunger in times of famine rather than touch food prepared even by Brahmins.122 A general criterion of the social position of the caste of a person was as to which of the higher castes would accept water or food from him.123 In fact, the notion of pollution in its application assumed innumerable variations and confronted individuals often in their daily life. The grading of professions, crafts and occupations, of which downgrading of some of them is a corollary, ‘was so much an integral part of the caste system that Nesfield goes to the extent of regarding occupation as the centre around which the caste has grown up. The pressing of oil-seeds is stigmatized as a degrading occupation in the Code of Manu because it is supposed to destroy life. This seems to have led to the division of the Teli caste into two. The ones who press oil are treated as untouchables, and the Telis who only sell oil will outcaste a member who should venture to press it.124 It is not Our purpose to go into many details. But it needs to be stressed that the idea of pollution was given a distinct religious significance. It spread a wide network which directly downgraded existing castes, created new ones, and consolidated social differentiation in the caste society by raising religiously (or magically) tinged insurmountable barriers between different castes.

(vi) The Theory of Avtaras and the ‘Karma’ theory
The Avtara theory, or the theory of incarnations or the descent of God, led to important social implications. Social reaction was tagged on to the fair name of the Avtaras and their authority was invoked to confer divine sanction for the caste-order and social reaction. Lord Rama was said to have cut off the head of a Sudra for the sole crime of indulging in religious rites not allowed to his caste.125 Lord Krishna was supposed to have asserted that he was the creator of Chaturvarnya.126 The association of the authority of Lord Krishna and Lord Rama, the popular Avtaras of Vishnu, with the caste order and the reactionary social usage, gave great support to these institutions. The Shastras and the other Brahmanical religious literature had, no doubt, already claimed Vedic sanction for these. But Vedism had ceased to be a living force in the post-Buddhist period, except as an authority for owning formal allegiance. But, Lord Krishna and Lord Rama, who as Avtaras were thought to have come in the garb of human beings to uphold Dharma, had become living realities for the vast multitudes who worshipped them. Sanction of the caste order by these Avtaras, therefore, gave fresh sanction to this inequitous social system.

The Karma theory, as applied by Brahmanism, not only explained the caste origin of individuals and provided for ‘the co-existence of different ethical codes for different status groups’, but it also benumbed the moral sensitiveness of those who came under its spell. It made blind to the evident immorality of the caste ethics. For, once the premises of this theory were accepted, ‘Karma doctrine transformed the world into a strictly rational, ethically-determined cosmos.127 The caste situation of the individual was not accidental. He was born into a caste as merited by his conduct in a prior life. ‘An orthodox Hindu confronted with the deplorable situation of a member of an impure caste would only think that he has many a great sin to redeem from his prior existence.128 This also led to the corollary that a member of an impure caste through primarily of bettering his future social opportunities in the next birth by leading an exemplary life according to the prescribed duties of the caste in which he was born. In this life there was no escape from the caste. There was no way to move up in the caste order. ‘The inescapable on rolling karma causality is in harmony with the eternity of the world, of life, and, above all, the caste order. 129 It was, therefore, senseless to think of overthrowing the system. An individual oppressed by the caste order was not left with any hope whatsoever. ‘He too can “win the world”, even the heavenly world; he can become a Kshatriya, a Brahman, he can gain Heaven and become a god-only not in this life, but in the life of the future after rebirth into the same world pattern.130 ‘Absolute pre-requisite, however, were strict fulfilment of caste obligations in this present life, the shunning of ritually sacrilegious yearning for renouncing caste.’131 The Bhagavata Purana (Book XI, Chap. X) demanded that the followers of Bhagavata, ‘forsaking all desires should act in consonance with their castes.’

In such a scheme of Karma-bound society, men were ‘for ever unequal’. ‘Thus there was no “natural” order of men and things in contrast to positive social order. There was no sort of “natural law”…… All the problems which the concept of “natural law” called into being in the Occident were completely lacking. There simply was no “natural”. equality of man before any authority, least of all before a super-worldly god it excluded for ever the rise of social criticism, of rationalistic speculation, and abstractions of the natural law type, and hindered the development of any Sort of idea of “human right”.132

It is not suggested that the Karma theory was formulated necessarily to justify the caste order and caste-ethics. But, there is no doubt that it admirably served the ends of the caste order. Like the scriptures, religious literature and the epics, it was moulded to the extent necessary for the Brahmanical purposes. The facts enumerated above leave no doubt that the Indian caste ideology was altogether different from the loose bundle or combination of social prejudices and discriminations, such as we meet in the colour and racial bar among the Negroes and the whites in the US.A., or in the restricted jus connubii among class societies in general and among the mixed races of mulattoes, quardroons and octoroons in particular, or in the notion of impurity attached to pig and swineherds in Egypt, or in the elements of untouchability that we find concerning the pagoda slaves of Burma and Eta of Japan. The Indian caste ideology was not a simple ideology. It was an ideological system, wherein social prejudices concerning hierarchy, colour, race, taboos, purity, impurity and pollution etc., were integrated into one whole to serve the overall purpose of the caste system. Towards this end, Hindu scriptural sanction, Dharma, tradition, custom, ritualism, ceremonialism and the theories of ‘Karma’ and ‘Avtaras’ were interlinked and coordinated. “To quit the work and duties of (one’s) caste is a sin.”133 The most heinous crime was to commit an offence against the caste order. 134 The soul of one who neglected his caste duties might pass into a demon.135 Dharma came to mean primarily ritualistic duties, and ritualistic barriers between castes are fundamental to the caste system.136 One’s Dharma depended upon the Caste into which the individual was born137 and was indissolubly connected with his caste duties. Hence, for the duties of one’s caste, a special term, ‘Varnasrama Dharma’, was coined. As such, ‘Varnasrama Dharma’, the ritualistic duties of castes, became the central criterion of Hinduism.138 By ignoring his ritualistic duties, namely the caste duties, the individual lost both his Dharma and his caste.139

Significantly, the codes, which laid the legal basis of the caste society, were titled as Dharam Shastras. In this way, Dharma was, on the one hand, linked to religious duties, and, on the other, to the caste duties, thus, forging another link, apart from scriptural sanction, for endowing religious sanctity to the castes and the caste system. This ideology raised social heirarchy to the level of a religious principle by giving it the sanction of Hindu scriptures, Dharma and other constituents of the caste ideology, which also had religious connotation of one kind or the other. This principle of social hierarchy, in its practical application, was diversified and codified by Hindu lawgivers and priests in such great detail as to make the Indian caste society the most elaborate hierarchical social system ever known to the world. We have seen above how the Hindu Dharma made the caste system rigid and inviolable. In short, the caste ideology, we repeat, was not a simple ideology. It was an ideological system, different constituents of which were indissolubly inter-linked and coordinated with one another to serve one set purpose, i.e. of the caste order. In fact, this ideological system was the ideological base on which the superstructure of the caste system was reared and maintained. Rather, we may not be wrong in calling the two systems (the ideological system and the social system-the caste system) two sides of the same coin.




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