Why caste will never be annihilated in India

Gayatri Jayaraman
Gayatri JayaramanApr 22, 2016 | 18:50

Why caste will never be annihilated in India

The battle to annihilate caste, with all due respect to BR Ambedkar, is being fought all wrong. It is the equivalent of taking an axe to a forest that feeds the axeman.

Does the abuse of caste exist? Absolutely. Is it abhorrent? Absolutely. Its atrocities are still part of our consciousness, and even the mid-day meal programme has seen separate plates and tumblers being used for Dalit children who are then forced to wash the dishes and the toilets while the upper caste ones play and study.


And this is the mildest form of abuse prevalent today. Yet, every time the chorus comes up around April 14 (Ambedkar Jayanti), one wants to ask: does anyone know what caste is and how to annihilate it?

One way is by burning the Manusmriti. This is a circuitous exercise in a lack of knowledge that the printed text came into existence only post the 15th century and its propagation has survived through centuries by the spoken word and across various texts. Burning the Manusmriti is symbolic and achieves nothing but venting one's anger; the equivalent of throwing stones, and often not even at the appropriate target(s).

A second way would be the Social Boycott Bill that Maharashtra claims to have the political will to enforce shortly. However, one is sceptical because the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 hasn't changed too much. Despite several prominent Dalits rising to prominent positions in politics, and even after much awareness, ills like forced labour, denial of access to water and education, sexual abuse, and social ostracisation continue.

A third way is through reservation policies. These work to ensure those kept out of the education system get an access to knowledge and are given a leg up through it.


But some are against it.

Here's an example why: I recently met an elderly woman who insisted that the best doctors in Maharashtra were brahmins. She had formed this opinion because as a result of reservation her milkman's daughter, whom she tutored free of charge and who consequently passed her class 12 exams with barely 45 per cent, was today a practising doctor in Kalwa.

A brahmin is "twice born", which means he is not born as one, but becomes one when he acquires knowledge. 

How would this young girl, who could barely grasp the basics of science or maths, treat people medically? This was a situation proliferated by reservation, she believed. Brahmins however, she said, have a genetic propensity towards knowledge and acquire it and disseminate it better. In short, she would only see a Maharashtrian brahmin doctor for her health.

My counter-argument to her, in short, was that what she saw as a genetic propensity towards knowledge, was rather a hereditary monopoly over knowledge. So a doctor's son passed that knowledge down to his son and so on until the lineage by default supported the profession.

This has been true as much of medicine as of chartered accountancy and music, teaching or philosophy. It is easier to say this of doctors, lawyers and teachers, people at the higher end of the education spectrum. Turn this hierarchy downwards, to say cobblers and potters, and you see the ills of caste.


And yet, you will hear the argument that because of the selflessness of these individuals and the dignity of their labour, they should be afforded a higher status in society. We often argue that teachers and doctors must be paid more. Respected more. Most people opposed to the caste system have no problem deferring to their lawyers, doctors and teachers, calling them "madam" or "sir" or sending them gifts at festivals as tokens of respect.

And the difference is this: when a doctor's son becomes a doctor, it is not seen today as the caste system at work. Most people, even those opposed to caste, have no problems with accepting an inherited superiority in family professionals: Feroze Soonawala or Behram Soonawala, sons of the famous urologist FP Soonawala. Doctors Om Prakash and Putli Kapoor and their children, doctors Shashi and Shammi Kapoor. Kaushiki Chakraborty Desikan is not propagating the caste of her father Pandit Ajoy Chakraborty, nor is Anushka Shankar propagating the caste of her father Pandit Ravi Shankar any more than Mohinder Amarnath was propagating that of Lala, or Abhishek propagating the caste of Amitabh Bachchan, Prashant Bhushan, the caste of Shanti Bhushan.

And yet, caste does propagate profession through lineage.

In time, professional inheritances begin, as we see in the case of politics most clearly, to become power structures. These not only protect the inheritor of knowledge with the accumulated assets of generations, but also exclude others from stealing a march, by making opportunities available to the inheritor in the form of ease of access, even if not directly influenced.

It would take a selector of steel to not pay special attention to Arjun Tendulkar when he takes to the pitch. Abhishek Bachchan had his chance, as did Rohan Gavaskar. Without the system, they wouldn't have had an entry point. This is something we translate less offensively as "nepotism".

Which is why no one is burning a copy of Grey's Anatomy or the Wisden Almanack or the Collected Works of Khusro, though they may as well. The knowledge itself will depend on the inheritor, but the system of channelling knowledge protects their ability to access it and train in it regardless.

The purpose of the reservation policy has been to induct people not afforded that same opportunity into the system. But here is the catch: reservation can get you into the seat, your application through the door, it may even subsidise your fee. All things being equal, is a child who has no lineage to lean on in college on the same footing as the one who does?

The answer is unequivocally, "no".

The reason is not the inability to pay fees, attend classes, or obtain housing, it is not even, as many like to paint it as, the obstruction of the vernacular versus the fluency in English. It is the support of the system.

When a child of an upper class lineage reaches his tenth or twelfth standard, there is an entire generational line-up of resources from him to access. He knows how to evaluate his interests, he knows what his professional options are, he knows what a legal profession entails, an understanding of work hours, the nature of cases and kind of books to be referred.

If he is studying chemistry or physics, he knows the best scholars, best textbooks, best institutions to apply to, what level of reading and application is required to realise it.

We need to divest caste of social privilege and return it to a system of critical thinking.

He has an end goal: where he would like to work and how much he would like to earn and understands what currency this affords him in life. He can discuss this with someone at home and in the community. The child is enabled by the wealth of access, resources and knowledge inherited by generations. It not only makes him more empowered, but more confident and more focused.

This is what a Dalit student enters that world of education without.

Eight years before Hyderabad Central University (HCU) Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula's suicide, another student from Salem, Senthil Kumar, a PhD in Physics at the HCU, the first to reach that level of education in his community, killed himself. Just after Vemula, Parithi, a Dalit was found dead at the Sree Mookambika Institute of Medical Sciences in Kanyakumari.

A month prior to that, three Dalit students were found dead in Villipuram. All of them had access to seats and scholarships, but none felt supported by a social structure. In this is the eternal catch-22 situation of the caste system. To annihilate caste is to dismantle a social structure of support for systems of learning.

And this is just learning in India.

A level above it is the intellectual prowess of those who have graduated from foreign universities.

The current anti-intellectualism backlash against the "elites" of the knowledge domain is but an anti-caste stir against the "brahmins" of knowledge who could afford a higher mode of learning. Most graduates from an international course are paid higher salaries and valued more in the professional structures because they bring back an exposure to more advanced systems of thinking.

One of the greatest achievements of Ambedkar's life was his epiphanic tenure at the Columbia University. This is heralded because it afforded him a way of thinking, reasoning and researching that we can respect even today in the systems he left behind for us. And yet, it fits into the brahminical access to elite professional knowledge systems.

Dalits are still victims of forced labour, sexual abuse, and social ostracisation. 

One of the greatest benefits of international study, any graduate will tell you, is an ability to structure research. Typically, this involves background, subject, timetable, methodology, ethics, data protection, dissemination. And of course, the mentor whom you study under.

You would be known as a very good physicist if you were mentored by Stephen Hawking, or a biologist if mentored by EO Wilson, in chemistry, you would hope to study under Roald Hoffman. The work you would do in their labs, and under their guidance marks you out to be better than the rest. Without these distinctions, studying there or here is just a matter of geography.

The caste system performs that function: to structure systems of knowledge and support learning.

So what comprises the caste system in India?

There are six religious texts: Srutis, Smritis, Itihasas, Puranas, Agamas, Darsanas.

There are four non-religious texts: Subhashitas, Kavyas, Natakas and Alankaras.

The Srutis are divided into four Vedas: Rig, Yajur, Sama, Atharva.

Each is divided into mantras, brahmanas, aranyakas and upanishads.

The mantras are hymns, the brahmanas are rites, aranyakas the mysticism behind rites, and the upanishads, systems of philosophy.

There is a further division of the whole into: karma, upasana, jnana. Work, practice, know.

The Smritis are the reference books to the Srutis: the Vedangas, Upavedas, Upangas, Darsanas, and the 18 Sastras.The Vedangas are subjects whose support is required to comprehend the Vedas; the Upavedas are the arts and sciences; the Upangas are debates on dharma; the Darsanas are different systems of approaching the truth. Each of the 18 Sastras differs on law. Manu was written for the Satya Yuga; Yajnavalkya for the Treta Yuga; Sankha and Likhita for the Dvapara Yuga; and Parasara for the Kali Yuga. Each is updated and made relevant to its age, discarding former outdated texts. Each Smriti is written in either sutra or metrical form. The former mystical, the latter descriptive.

The Itihasas are the Valmiki Ramayana, the Yogavasishta, the Mahabharata and the Harivamsa. These are stories that illustrate the abstract principles of the first two in practice, and draw morals that exhort us to learn from history.

The Puranas are 18 in number (six rajasik - Brahma, six tamasic - Shiva, six satvik - Vishnu). There are also 18 upapuranas or sub-stories. Like Itihasas, these have stories that have five characteristics: history, cosmology, secondary creation, genealogy, manvantaras. These were created for those who found the main texts obscure.

The Agamas are of three kinds: Tantras, Mantras, Yantras.

These are basically manuals for rituals.

Each Agama deals with jnana, yoga, kriya, charya (knowledge, concentration, metaphysical ritual, advanced meditative rites).

The Darsanas are the six schools of philosophy: nyaya, vaiseshika, sankhya, yoga, purva mimamsa, uttara mimasa. Each is mentored by the guidelines of rishis Gautama, Kanada, Kapila, Patanjali, Jaimini, Bhadrayana or Vyasa. Each school pairs off in twos to form sutras, and each guru taught these sutras through the methodologies of bhashya, vritti, varttika, vyakhyana and tika or tippani.

A sutra is an aphorism, a bhashya is a commentary, a vritti is an elaborate glossary, a vartika is a critical study, a vyakhyana is an easy explanation, a tippani explains the difficult words.

The Subhashitas are epigrammatic poems, the kavyas are epic formal poems, the natakas plays and the alankaras music.

This is the sum of Hinduism. The propagation and preservation of each text and methodology through its rishis or assistant gurus, or assistant teachers, comprises the caste system.

The teachers were the brahmin rishis, the schools or classes whom they passed the learning on to were their gotras, those assigned specific assistant teachers are the pravaras. What they were studying was their Veda or Sakha. The students formed the castes. Caste is not what was learned. It is learning itself.

Caste is not a subject. It is study itself. Hence, when one says, "burn the Manusmriti", it still won't break a monopoly, because the text may change, as it has, but the monopoly is over the system. The protest, however, is still against the text.

Therefore, to seek an annihilation of caste is to seek the shutdown of Hinduism, a system of learning. There is no Hinduism without caste. The two cannot be separated.

And yet, as a goal, this is self-defeating. To remove the system of learning is to remove one's own access to it. The abuse of the caste system is unquestionable.

The system has been used to subjugate and dehumanise entire sects of people for the very political purpose - much like many university departments today deal with abuse, allegations of sexual impropriety from the UCLA Berkley to The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), and subjugation of black rights - of power.

The entire caste system is nothing but a university with a very corrupted core. The schools of learning with the highest importance and the best teachers received higher funding, more respect and more licence. While university admission tests weed out those who would be able to cope with more advanced forms of studies - as indeed they should, else we would rightly say that the education system is unclear and fails to achieve its purpose - that a doctorate should be available to those who've done their masters, and to graduates, and further down the line, is only logical.

Yet, the abuse of this system, as with all entry requirements, is that some students, those who belonged to the more privileged sections, and we see this all the time in sororities, fraternities, gymkhanas and old boys' clubs, got away, quite literally, with murder.

Which school you went to, whether Columbia, Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) or Doon, began to dictate which job you got, and how much of a salary you got paid, which country club memberships you had, and worse, how much respect society afforded you.

It began to dictate what you ate, how you dressed, and how you spoke and whom you married. Which guru your lineage of learning descended from began to dictate exactly the same. Those who did not make the clan went to the community colleges and the vocational training institutes of Hinduism.

And yet, you do not hear of wanting to shut down Harvard, Columbia or any other structures that raise people up professional hierarchies. This is because the atrocities they impose are less inhumane, but the hierarchies they do, are not. We effectively have stitched caste so effectively into the fabric of society and learning, that at best, we replace one system for another.

Without diminishing the suffering of those who, for generations, have had to put up with the atrocities perpetrated in the name of caste, let us be clear that we cannot annihilate it without understanding what it gives us.

Caste is an essential structure to our systems of learning.

So, do we want to remove caste or do we want to remove the political hegemony of the some over the rest?

To annihilate it is to seek knowledge without the supporting structures of teachers, social and professional guidance. To deprive ourselves of generational information and resources and methodology.

To claim that the commentary failed in the second century to be critically overturned is futile hand-wringing. Both Copernicus and Galileo were persecuted by the Pope for believing the Earth was round. We don't continue to burn the Bible, though it is still in currency as a text.

It was important that the following Popes didn't continue persecution. Abortion, birth control and divorce are still fighting that battle. What is important for us is that our codes set in the second century were overturned in the centuries that followed and continue to be critically upturned.

It is important not to create new systems of learning, but to use those self same channels to update truths. New constitutions don't carry forward a national legacy; amended ones do. Only then will the new version of the truth prevail in the places where the old propagated it.

It is essential that the cliques be broken, that access to opportunities be made available to those who have been excluded for centuries.

Without this scaffolding, there is an essential lacuna surrounding those who acquire knowledge, even through reservation.

We need to divest caste of social privilege and return it to a system of critical thinking.

We also need to make allowance for schools of learning different to those our own.

It will still have hierarchies. There will always be a doctor you prefer to go to, or a lawyer whose advice you would rather seek. But it will be because you trust where his knowledge is coming from, even if that was from his father, an even better doctor or lawyer, or from his school, possibly the Harvard Medical School, and not simply because he is his father's son.

It will be a hierarchy of advancing knowledge that knows well to build on its legacies of research, debate and dialogue, rather than of birth and blind adherence to systems no school of thought today can claim superiority in.

We seek caste because it validates our learning, in the same way as the scientist seeks a peer-reviewed journal, an author seeks a publishing house, or an artist representation by a gallery.

If caste is an ill today, it is not because the structure or systems of knowledge are wrong - if anything they are expansive - but because they are not being used for study and learning, but are being propagated as unquestionable truths.

Who has added to the body of Hindu knowledge with style, structure, study, debate, bhashya, vartika and tippani in the last 500 years? We must decide whether to extinguish 2000 years of learning, or to appropriate it.

They call the brahmins "twice born" for a reason. He is not born a brahmin, he becomes one when he acquires the highest form of knowledge and is initiated into it by a worthy teacher. It's an admission test that should be open to all.

Dronacharya is not a lesson in what should be propagated, but occurs in an Itihasa: a cautionary tale. There is no school of knowledge that belongs to Dronacharya today. He was slain by the brother of Draupadi, the consort of his five Pandava students.

All his other students were killed in battle. There is no Dronacharya gotra or school of thinking in Hinduism. The teacher's immortality equally depends on his students carrying his school of thinking forward. Anyone who tells you otherwise paid for his seat.

Last updated: April 25, 2016 | 21:05
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