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




The Caste* and the Caste System

A good deal of confusion can be 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. 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 Hutton and Ghurye to prove our point.

In ancient Assyria and Egypt, traders 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."

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 distinctions of race and colour intervene, "the tendency is towards the formation of a class of half-breeds, 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 case." Thus, in the Southern states of the U.S.A., "negroes intermarry with negroes, and the various mixed races; mulattoes, quadroons and octoroons, each have a sharply restricted jus Connubii of their own and are absolutely cut off from legal unions with white races." 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 although "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.... ".

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. 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 katharon) food…… The parallel with caste is further emphasized by a statement that no Egyptian man or women will kiss a Greek on the mouth, or use the knife, spit in 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." Further, "The Egyptians might not eat bread with the Hebrews, for that is an abomination unto the Egyptian." But, Revillout, who has gone into this question carefully, "comes to a definite finding that whatever the nature of these so-called 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." "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."

The Burmese analogue is possibly as near to the essence of caste as any parallel elsewhere. Here, seven distinct classes of outcastes were recognized. Members of these outcaste classes in Burma cannot enter a monastery nor become a Buddhist monks. One of these classes, the "pagoda slave is such for life, and his children and descendents are pagoda slaves in perpetum; they cannot be liberated even by a king. If a person who is not a pagoda slave marry 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." However, although the seven classes constituted an outcaste population distinct from the people, their social relations with the remaining population were possible. "They did not constitute castes, 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 clear also in this respect that the untouchablity in Burma is obviously based on taboo. 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 stablized 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. In fact, the early population of Iran was divided into four pishtras, analogous to the four varnas of India ; 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 , which simile reminds one of the Purusha Sukta Hymn. But, the "existence of castes is nowhere attested in the history of Persia."

China, whose civilization is considered older than India, 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. But, seen in the overall context, the "Chinese society has been characterized by a remarkable minimum of hard and fast class divisions." "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."

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 being, the carcasses of animals, and offal of all descriptions were degraded." "So strong is the prejudice against them (Eta) that the very word Eta, if it must be uttered, is only whispered…… They were considered sub human; remembered with the termination-bikt used for quadrapeds; 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," "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."

"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 free-born 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 inter-marriage, may, therefore, be considered to be a common characteristic of the mental background and social picture of the Indo-European cultures."

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 Ghurye 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 inter-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 nowhere these caste like elements of social exclusiveness present in societies outside India developed into an elaborate system of castes. 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 only 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.

Caste as a System

A system is qualitatively different from a casual or unintentional get-together or assortment of factors or forces. It is what distinguishes philosophy, a religion or 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, a system presumes a direction, a plan, a purpose, an objective, towards the fulfilment 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 digestive apparatuses, etc., which maintains the body as a functional whole, is disturbed, and he is on the way to his finale. Moreover, 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 fingers, 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, i.e. practically all aspects of social behaviour, of each sub-caste 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 predominently not by social, but by ritualistic factors. Ritual barriers are absolutely essential for caste , and the caste order is orientated religiously and ritually to a degree not even partially attained elsewhere. Such factors as personal endowments, wealth, political power, colour and racial prejudices, and even taboos, which determined the hierarchical set-ups 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 sub-castes 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 perserving 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 stratum 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 committees or panchayats to enforce these caste rules and norms; 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 fulfilment of that purpose and plan. It is, in fact, this purpose 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 that of those slightly lower to them, in fulfilment of the hierarchical scheme noted above. Towards that end, the economic status was lowered than the caste status, and political power was made subservient to the Brahmin priesthood. 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.

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." Hereditary functionalism does not constitute caste. "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." In the modern 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 Europians 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 organisation." 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. 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 non-existent purity of Aryan blood grades set in and augmented the process which led to the formation of numerous sub-castes. 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 Varna Ashrama Dharma, or a system of socio-religious exclusiveness; in India it did.

Restrictions on connubium and commensalism are the most outstanding features of the caste hierarchy. These restrictions are, in fact, part and parcel of a general principle of purity and impurity "on which the entire system depends." 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. What is pertinent for us is that the beliefs in taboos, mana, soul-stuff and magic were current in many societies, but nowhere 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 priestly class." "With Parsis eating and drinking are religious rites." "The mana principle appears in the Buddhist religion as iddht and in Islamic beliefs as kudrat." "It is not suggested that the caste system has developed from ideas of soul-stuff, mana, magic and taboo noted 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." 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." What was peculiar to India was that these notions of taboos, mana, etc., were systematized by Hindu priests and law-givers into an elaborate system of social philosophy Varna-Ashrama, 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 graded gods, animals, food, drinks, vegetables and many more things of common use into higher and lower categories in terms of their preconceived grades on intrinsic purity and impurity. Similarly, restrictions on intermarriages are a common feature of many societies. But, in class societies the prohibition on intermarriage was not one of taboo so much as one of mere social prejudice, while there was no commensal taboo as in India. 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 as a Dharma, became a part of that complex what is called the Indian caste system. And it is this religious integration into the caste system which made the Indian Connubial restrictions more exclusive and rigid than the restrictions on inter-marriage 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."

It is not only restrictions on intermarriages that were sanctified by religion and Dharma. Also, it is not only religious sanction and Dharma that alone made the Indian caste system the Gordian knot 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 net-work of the caste system. The sub-castes, so made, were further interlocked in a vertical net-work 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 graded ritualistic and ethical standards; and in graded Dharmic and religious duties and obligations. As an illustration, we will give only one example; as to how untouchabiIity was graded, as if untouchabiIity 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 (i.e. Panen, exorcist basket-maker) must remain 'three or four' paces farther; a Pulayan (cultivator and untouchable) must keep 96 paces from a Brahman. A Tiyan must not come within 12 paces of a Nayar; a Malayan (pan an) must keep 3 or 4 paces farther off, and a Pulayan must still keep his 96 from a Nayar as well as a Brahman." Further, among the untouchables themselves; "A Panan may approach but not touch a Tiyan, but a Pulayan must not even approach a Panan."

The intricate entanglement of the warp and woof of the hierarchical 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 as a whole.

The third prominent feature of a system, we mentioned, is that the system was 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 law-givers. 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. It covered the entire Hindu society, excepting the Sadhus and mendicants, etc., who had broken off all worldly connections. There could be no Hindu without being a member of one caste or the other A conquered barbarian territory was 'ritually pure' only when the king established the four castes. There were ritualistic barriers against tribes not affiliated with the Hindu association. They were magically defiled and no Hindu temple was open to them. 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.




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