Three Facets of the Caste System
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, Bhahmins and the Caste society) responsible for constituting and consolidating the castes into the Indian Caste System.
1. The Caste Ideology
The fundamental assumption of the caste ideology is that 'Men were not-as for classical Confucianism- in principle equal, but for ever unequal. They were so by birth, and 'were as unlike as man and animal. 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. 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. '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.' 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-eminance 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. Besides, social status is generally variable. With the loss of political and economical power, status consciousness tends to vanish. Old 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 biases 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 caste-status 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. Shivaji, the embodiment of the solitary successful Hindu revolt against the Muslim political domination, had to go about abegging to the Brahmins for the legitimization 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."
(ii) Authority of the Scriptures: From very remote times, it became the cardinal belief of the orthodox religion that the Veda was 'Aspurshaya' (that it was not the work of man), or that these were self-revealed 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 super-structure 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 involved 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. The Veda was declared by Manu to be the direct revelation of God (Sruti), and was to be viewed as the sole source of all knowledge, secular as well divine. '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 al.) authority with them; but in the last chapter of this book is a passage (p. 359, 109) wherein the Vedangas, Mimamsa, Nyaya, Dharma Sastras, and Puranas are called the extended branches of the Vedas.' "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 Veda was deadly sin; and however, in reliance upon heretical books, questioned the authority of the revealed Veda and of the Dharma Sastra was to be treated as an atheist, and driven from the society of the Virtuous.' 'Rejection of the authority of the Vedas, transgression of the precepts of the Sastras, and a 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 Brahmans, a 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 much men set to wrangle and to overthrow the sacred books.' 'Abandoning fruitless reasoning, resort to the Veda and the Smriti.' '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).
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 Veda is the foundation for that."
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. He further declared that the soul of one who neglected his caste-duties might pass into a demon. The Gita preaches that, 'according to the classification of action and qualities the four castes are created by me. Know me, non-actor and changeless, as even the author of this.' It further sanctifies hereditary functionalism thus: "Congenital duty, O son of Kunti, though defective, ought not to be abandoned." 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.' The Dharma-Sutras enjoined that a king has to rely on the Vedas and Dharma Sastras for carrying out his duties."
Whether the Purushua 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. What one cannot get away from is 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. 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 so-called 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.' And, 'Brahmanical and caste power resulted from the inviolability of all sacred law which was believed to ward off evil enchantment.'
(iii) Hindu Dharma: In the ever-changing scene of the shifting 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, this Varna Ashrama Dharma determined the limits within which the current of Indian social life must flow and the direction in which it must move. So long as this current remained confined within the prescribed social limits of the caste 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 frame-work of the social order was frowned upon, condemned, or combated 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.' The Vedas rather defy the dharms of Hinduism. In fact, it is such a get-together to 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..
As such, what was really at stake was not the religious doctrines and beliefs, but the orthodox social order, i.e. the caste system of 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.'
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 presecution 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.' 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 B.C. (and was the predominant religion in the 7th and the 8th centuries or shared even
honours in popularity with Vaishnavism) but which did not stress the observance of caste, and showed comparative independence from Brahmins and Brahmanism, got steadily pushed into the background by Vaishnavism, which was liberal in accepting the caste system and the Brahmins as its ministers.
The above hypothesis also helps us to explain why Brahmarism, 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, i.e. 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 development 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. 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 noteworthy. 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 anti-social 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. 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. Custom, says the code of Manu, is transcendent law. "The bridge between speculation on the one hand, and ritual and custom on the other, is not so long in India as it is with us. Both disciplines claim to be founded on the Veda, with nearly the same justice in either case." The Vedas and the Brahmanas, in fact, concentrate upon sacrifice and ritual. Even the Upanisads are a misture of philosophy, Mantras and ritualism. The importance attached to custom and rituals may be gauged from the fact that a separate body of literature, the Griyasutras (which are, of course, not Mantras), deals almost entirely with these. In the Brahmanas it is the sacrifice that is god-compelling. 'By sacrifice', says the Taittriya Brahmana, 'the gods obtain heaven.' According to Atharva Veda, should sacrifice cease for an instant to be offered, the gods would cease to send us rain, to bring back at the appointed hour Aurora and the sun, to raise and ripen our harvests, because they would no longer be inclined to do so and also, as is sometimes surmised, because they could not any longer do So.
The hymns of the Rig Veda take quite a strong line towards the omission of ceremonial obligations. "Indra, who is the slayer of him, however strong, who offers no libations. " "The hostile man, the malicious enemy, who pours out no libation to you, O Mitra and Varuna, plants fever in his own heart. "Slay everyone who offers no oblations…… "...the sacrifice shall divide the spoils of the unsacrificing." On the other hand, even the thief, the sinner, or the malefactor, who wishes to sacrifice, is a good man. 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 ommission to perform holy rites and to see the Brahmins. Perfection, we are told in the Markandeya Purana, can only be attained by the man who does not deviate from the duties of caste. Similarly, children, although the offsprings 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.
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 mainly 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 out-look 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. Even in the Rig Vedic time, the presence of a priest was considered an important condition for the efficiency of the ceremonial. Upanayna Ceremony was made absolutely obligatory for the fin three castes. Unless performed by the prescribed age, the individual lost his caste. Thus, in addition to the right by bird 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 factors; and "The essential concepts of pollution, commensality and endogamy are ritual rather than economic in nature." Ritual barriers were absolutely essential for caste. 'The caste order is orientated religiously and ritually to a degree not even partially attained elsewhere.' That territory only was ritually pure where had been established the four castes. As aleady noted, the dharma, which hinges on the ritualistic duties of one's caste, 'is the central criterion of Hinduism."
(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 Sudra 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 a higher caste', replies Indra. 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.' Arian describes the husbandsman as respected and as having his rights preserved even during a war. But 'in post-classical times and at present the conception of the Vaisya as a "peasant" has completely vanished. He has been, with a few exceptions, pushed to the borderline of 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. 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. 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.' Then there were other castes which, though a 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 ensue from their constantly handling the skin of dead animals. "And in all cases the nature of taboo is such, of course, that the contagion of polluted occupations contaminates all members of the caste whatever their individual occupation may be, and to an infinite number of generations."
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 unseeables. There are villages of Brahmins to which all other castes were strictly refused admittance. Impure castes shunned infections contact with non-members as rigidly as the high castes. As already seen, unapproachability also came to be meticulously graded.
There is a proverb that caste is only a question of food. The Santals, a very low caste in Bengal, have been known to die of hunger in times of famine rather than touch food prepared even by Brahmins. 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. 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 seel oil will outcaste a member who should venture to press it. 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 Karma: 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. Lord Krishna was supposed to have asserted that he was the creator of Chaturvarnya. The association of the authority of Lord Krishna and Lord Rama, the popular Avtaras of Vishnu, with the caste order and the reactionary social usages 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 coexistence of different ethical codes for different status groups', but it also benumbed the moral sensitiveness of those who came under its spell. It made them 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.' 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.' This also led to the corollary that a member of an impure caste thought 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 onrolling karma causality is in harmony with the eternity of the world, of life, and, above all, the caste order.' 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.' ' Absolute pre-requisite, however, were strict fulfilment of caste obligations in this present life, the shunning of ritually sacrilegious yearning for renouncing caste." The Bhagavata Purana (Book XI, Chap. x) demanded that the followers of Bhagvata, '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 natural law type, and hindered the development of any sort of idea of "human right".
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 D.S.A., or in the restricted Jus connubii among class societies in general and among the mixed races of mulattoes, quadroons and octoroons in particular, or in the notion of impurity attached to pig and swine-herds in Egypt, or in the elements of untouchability that we find concerning the Pagoda slaves of Burma and Etah 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 works and duties of (one's) caste………..is a sin" The most heinous crime was to commit an offence against the caste order. The sould of one who neglected his caste-duties might pass into a demon. Dharma came to mean primarily ritualistic duties, and ritualistic barriers between castes are fundamental to the caste system One's Dharma depended upon the Caste into which the individual was born 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. By ignoring his ritualistic duties, namely the caste duties, the individual lost both his Dharma and his caste. Significantly, the codes, which laid the legal basis of the caste society, were entitled as Dharm 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 hierarchy to the level of a religious principle by giving it the sanction of Hindu scriptures, Dharma and other constitutents 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 law-givers and priests in such great detail as to make the Indian caste system the most elaborate hierarchical social system evolved by human ingenviety. 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 social 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.
The second facet of the caste system were the Brahmins as a caste. Dr. Bhandarkar writes: "There is hardly a class or caste in India which has not a foreign strain in it. There is admixture of alien blood not only among the warrior classes-the Rajputs and the Marathas-but also amongst the Brahmins. Looked at from the antiquarian or ethnological point of view, the claims of either community (Brahmin or Kshatriya) to purity of blood are untenable and absurd." This conclusion is supported by almost all authorities. Now, the preservation of the supposed purity of Aryan blood in the upper classes is the raison d'etre for establishing the castes. It was what led to hereditary functionalism and restrictions on connubium and commensalism. A great human conscious effort was needed to arrest the admisture of Aryan and non-Aryan blood and to establish the myth of Dvijas or the twice-born. Similarly, a great conscious effort was needed to dethrone Buddhism and its political sway which had lasted supreme for over one thousand years. These developments were the handiwork of Brahmins. In addition, the Brahmins, as a caste, were the all-time standing kingpin of the caste system in more than one way. They were its ideologues as well as the focal point around which the system revolved.
(i) As Ideologues: Undoubtedly, the entire non-heretical post-Vedic literature is the handiwork of Brahmins. They are also mainly responsible for the moulding of non-heretical tradition. All through the centuries, no one from within the orthodox society has ever dared to question this remoulding handiwork of the Brahmins.
The literature of the new form of Brahmanism is all the work of, or inspired by, the Brahmin hierarchy. The fifth book of Aitareya Aranyaka is notoriously spurious. According to one view, even Vedic hymns have been arranged in the Brahmanical interests, and Manu Smriti has been shortened and reactionary new laws introduced in the old version. Aboutthe present Mahabharata there is no doubt that it is a redaction of Vyasa's original historical poem, edited by Vaishampayanee and reissued a second time with notes and additions by Sauti. It is inferred that the recasting was done to combat Buddhism, because 'adherence to Dharma and obedience to Brahmins is constantly insisted upon throughout the Mahabharata. Bhagvadgita, in its present form, is also supposed to be the work of different hands, because the contradictory postulates that it contains cannot otherwise be explained. It is shown by internal evidence that this sacred book was, in the Brahmanical interests, interpolated with questionable passages. At one place Lord Krishna is said to preach that 'God distributes recompense without injustice and without partiality. He reckons the good as bad if people in doing good forget. He reckons the bad as good if people in doing but remember Him and do not forget Him, whether these people be Vaisya or Sudra or Women…….' At another place, the same Divine Being is made to say that, 'If each member of these castes adheres to his customs and usages, he will obtain the happiness he wishes for, supposing that he is not negligent in the worship of God, not forgetting to remember Him in his most important avocations. But if anybody wants to quit the works and duties of his caste and adopt those of another caste, even if it would bring a certain honour to the latter, it is a sin, because it is a transgression of the rule. There is apparent contradiction in the concept of what is just and unjust in these two different stands. Obviously, the latter passage attempts to manipulate ethics in the interests, preserving the caste order.
Puranas too were changed. One undoubted proof of interpolations having taken place is that, although these belong to different periods, 'each and all of the Puranas have each an all of them the names of the whole eighteen recorded in the text.'
(ii) As a Pivotal Point: Almost all authorities agree that, is the Brahmin caste, which, like a wheel within a wheel, serve as the axis of the caste-system. It is this caste which sets the guide-lines of the system, and determines the direction of its course. It is the Brahmins who have profited most from the system and are mainly responsible for its maintenance and furtherance.
We have mentioned that the key to the caste system is the urge for gaining a position of vantage in the caste pyramid. Undoubtedly, the pivot of caste hierarchy is the recognize superiority of the Brahmin caste. Not only that. The Brahmin came to occupy the central position in Hindu society because caste is essentially a social rank; and the social rank of the caste is determined with reference to the Brahmins. The Brahmi 'reception or rejection of water or food is the measure of the status of any given caste in a given place. ' All things considered, what governs precedence is the degree of fidelity with which eac: caste conforms, or professes to conform, to Brahmanical teaching either as regards marriage or external purity, or as regards the occupations or accessory customs. A 'caste such as might arouse much prejudice and contempt may, in spite of all this, be treated, with lasting esteem for the sole reason that it displays superior fidelity to the Brahmanic practices.'
The religious and social authority that the Brahmins came to wield is too weIl known to need any comment. The recognition of the sanctity of the Brahmin Lavite caste became one of the very few binding factors in the chaotic mass of New-Brahmanica dogma and practice. The respect of some of the Hindus for the
Brahmins goes so far that, according to a proverb, to be robbed by Sanavriya Brahmins, who had adopted highway robbery as a profession, was regarded as a favour from heaven.
In the political sphere, too, the Brahmins' influence came to be unchallenged. Even the Epic, which is connected with the nobility and hence tends to attribute to kings the supremacy which is claimed by the law books for the Brahmins, concedes the incomparable grandeur of the sacerdotal class. 'Whereas in other countries the rivalry between the nobility and the sacerdotal class generally resulted in the triumph of the temporal power over the spiritual,…….in India reverse has been the case. The caste system, with its water tight compartments, has been always adverse to the establishment of a regular political organization, while the great importence attached to religious rites and ceremonial observance has enabled the priestly class to aggrandize itself to an extent wholly unknown elsewhere. The supremacy of the Brahmins has now become one of the cardinal doctrines of Hinduism.'
The role played by the Brahmins, as a caste, in interlinking the caste ideology and the caste society is thus obvious enough.
3. The Caste Society
The third facet of the caste system was the caste society. Ideologies, to be effective on the practical plane, have to develop corresponding institutions. These institutions, once developed, have, apart from their ideological content, a compulsive mechanism and drive of their own. In the case of the caste ideology, the primary social institution which embodied it was the caste society itself as a whole.
The very constitution of the caste society, its every cell, was built on the principle of caste inequality and hierarchy. The position of each sub-caste, and through the sub-caste that of its every individual member, was fixed permanently by birth in the caste hierarchy. Also it was a social structure which was all. inclusive for those within its fold, and all-exclusive for outsiders.
As already pointed out, each and every Hindu had to be a member of one caste or the other. Also to be a Hindu, one had to be born as a Hindu. All outside the Hindu fold were either heretics, malechas,or tolerated as untouchable exterior castes. Anyone once converted to Islam, even though forcibly, could not be taken back in the Hindu society, and anyone who partook beef even once, he and his progeny were relegated to the exterior caste status, once for all. So much so, a territory where castes were; not established, was declared to be impure.
The caste society was equally comprehensive, rigid and inexorable in its operational aspect. Wilson sums up comprehensively the extent to which caste rules govern every member of any caste. Caste, he says, 'gives its directions for recognition, acceptance, consecration, and sacramental dedication, and vice versa, of a human being on his appearance in the world. It has for infancy, pupilage, and manhood, its ordained methods of sucking, sipping, drinking, eating, and voiding; of washing, rinsing, anointing, and smearing; of clothing, dressing and ornamenting; of sitting, rising and reclining; of moving, visiting and travelling; of speaking, reading, listening, and reciting; and of meditating, singing, working, playing, and fighting. It has its laws for social and religious rights, privileges, and occupations; for instructing, training and educating, for obligation duty, and practice; for divine recognition, duty and ceremony; for errors, sins, and transgressions; for intercommunion, avoidance and excommunication; for difilement, ablution, and purification; for fines, chastisements, imprisonments, mutilations, banishments and capital executions. It unfolds the ways of committing what it calls sin, accumulating sin, and of putting away sin; and of acquiring merit, dispensing merit, and losing merit. It treats of inheritance, conveyance, possession, and dispossession;, and of bargains, gain, loan, and ruin. It deals with death, burial, and burning; and with commemoration, assistance, and injury after death. It interferes, in short, with all the relations and events of life, and with what precedes and follows life………'
Adherence to these rules or usages is normally ensured through the caste members of the locality who know each other intimately. The members, through the caste council (panchayat) or otherwise, become the guardians of the caste rules. And the irony of it is that 'the lower the caste in the social scale, the stronger its combination and the more efficient its organization.' In other words, the lower castes are more prone to tighten their own shackles.
The infringements of caste rules carried their own censures and penalties which were as varied as the caste rules. But, we shall take here only the case of ex-communication from the caste so as to illustrate the inexorable working of the caste mechanism. O'Malley describes the wretched plight of some high-caste persons who had been ex-communicated in Orissa. No priest, barber or washerman would render them any service, with the result that 'they had long beards matted with irt, their hair hung in long strands and was filthy in the extreme, and their clothes were beyond description for uncleanliness.' Similarly, Abbe Dubois draws an even more graphic picture of the fate of an ex-communicated man. 'This expulsion from the caste, which occurs in cases of breach of customary usage or of some public offence which would dishonour the whole caste if it remained unpunished, is a kind of civil ex-communication which deprives the person, who has the misfortune to incur it, of all intercourse with his fellows. It renders him, so to speak, dead to the world. With the loss of caste, he loses not only his relations and friends, but sometimes even his wife and children, who prefer to abandon him entirely rather than share his ill-fortune. No one dare eat with him, nor even offer him a drop of water.
'He must expect, wherever he is recognized, to be avoided, pointed at with the finger of scorn, and looked upon as a repobate. ...A mere Sudra, provided he has some trace of honour and scrupulousness, would never join company nor even communicate, with a Brahman thus degraded.'
The role of the caste ideology and the Brahmins in the development and consolidation of the caste-system is well known. What needs to be emphasized is the important part played by the rigid social framework, i.e. the caste society, in maintaining and entrenching the system. We referred briefly to the fact that each salient element of the caste ideology (caste hierarchy; scriptural sanction; sanctions of Hindu Dharma, ritualism, ceremonialism and custom; the taboos and pollution; caste connubium and commensalism; the theory of Karma etc.) fastened each and every individual of a sub-caste with its own separate ideological strand of human inequality andsocial exclusiveness. In other words, a member of a sub-caste was bound down not by one or two, but by several ideological bonds of human inequality and social discrimination. If one keeps in view how difficult it has been to erase such social prejudices even where these were operating as a single factor (e.g. as colour and racial prejudice between the whites and the negroes of the D.S.A., or as taboos against the Pagoda slaves of Burma and Etah in Japan, or as endogamy in casteless societies), the improbability of success in cutting the Gordian knot woven by the multiplicative effect of the various factors of the caste ideology becomes quite apparent. And what made the problem of the caste system still more intricate and intractable was that this composite ideology of caste hierarchy and social exclusiveness was fused with every fibre of the social texture of the caste society.
Every individual in the caste society was not only himself entangled by several tentacles of the caste ideology, but he was fastened to other similarly bound individuals to form a horizontal social network within a sub-caste. In fact the caste bonds were the most predominant, if not the only social bonds, the united members of a sub-caste. The operational efficiency with which members of sub-caste severally and jointly as a group (i.e. as a sub-caste) ensured rigid adherence to the caste norms and rules rendered the sub-caste further inflexible in terms of caste. On the top of it, this horizontal social network of each sub-caste was tied vertically, both ideologically (as the ritual , the ethical code , and the penal code were hierarchically graded) and organisationally, to other similarly constituted higher and lower sub-castes. In short, the social fabric and the caste ideology were interlocked around every unit of the caste society. This is what made the caste system synonymous with the Hindu society. This is what made the Indian caste system, in its ramnified power and influence, more rigid and all-pervasive, as compared to caste-like formations elswhere. In Risley's phrase, the removal of the caste system would be 'more than a revolution; it would resemble the removal of some elemental force like gravitation or molecular attraction.' His statement might appear somewhat graphic, but what he means to convey is substantially correct.
The very structural make-up of the caste-society, and the ideological stranglehold of the caste ideology which compounded its every unit, left little, if any, room for reforming or reconstructing it on egalitarian lines from within. To take only one item, Max Weber has come to the conclusion that "India's caste order formed an obstacle to this (i.e. commensal fraternization) which was insurmountable, atleast by its own forces." Egalitarian values and egalitarian social formations are the anti-thesis of the caste system and the caste society. For the same reason, there was equally little chance for groups or sections of the caste society to do it independently on their own, so long these continued to function as a part of the whole. Of individuals, we need not speak of, as they were automations, whose fate was indissolubly linked with that of the sub-caste to which they belonged. The only practical way open for forming an egalitarian society was to cut off compeletely from the caste ideology and the caste society and to build anew, outside it and on a new ideological basis.
The impact of capitalist economy, its culture and values, is no doubt, beginning to erode not only the caste but also the caste system itself. It has spread a general awareness of the inequitable nature of this social formation and given rise to several anti-caste movements within the Hindu fold. But, this should not mislead us into assessing movements of the pre-British era, with which we are mainly concerned, in the light of the milieu and forces generated by the Western culture and civilization with which the British rule brought us into contact for the first time. For one thing, the caste system is now up against not mere ideas and ideologies, but against another well-organised political and economic system. It is a remarkable phenomenon of history that although Islam is outstandingly egalitarian, the impact of Islamic rule for centuries together instead of softening the caste rather hardened it. It was probably because Shariatic exclusiveness and politico-religious persecution associated with the Muslim rule prevented the penetration of Islamic egalitarianism outside the Muslim polity. Above all, Islamic egalitarianism relied mainly on its religious appeal and was not organized as a comprehensive political and economic force (i.e. a system) such as caitalism is. Capitalism is not mere an economic set-up. It is associated also with human rights, political democracy and ma education. The preponderance of money values in all walks of life brought about by the capitalist economy and the ration approach emphasized by the western culture and digging deep into religious and caste affiliations, sanctions of Dharma and the scriptures, and notions of taboos and pollution, etc. If the caste system is still proving a hard nut to crack inspite of this onslaught by another stronger system, (supported as it is by such potent factors as money values, political democracy and mass education it only buttresses our contention that the only feasible way open to build an egalitarian society in the pre- British period was to rear it outside the caste society.
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