Were Hindus always casteist?
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The casteism, as we know it today with strict rules of purity prohibiting inter-caste marriages, started 1,900 years ago, became common 1,500 years ago and rigid 1,000 years ago. We know this because of recent genetic studies.
Note: the word caste is a European word for clan that is used for the Indian system of jati. The word jati, in turn, is confused with the Vedic system of varna. Vedas speak of a theoretical four-fold structure (chatur-varna). In reality, India has thousands of jatis that are crudely mapped to these four varnas, leading to much chaos and confusion. There is further confusion on the issue by equating caste with class, or caste with race, or caste with tribes.
The British claimed that Hindus are essentially casteist. That the idea comes from a verse in the Rig Veda that describes society as an organism made of four groups (chatur-varna) of people. They argued "white" Aryans invaded India and turned "black" Dravidians into slaves located at the bottom of this four-fold hierarchy. Their argument was based on the translation that "varna" means colour. This theory has been disproved based on genetic studies. All we know is that a linguistic group which spoke proto-Sanskrit entered India 3,500 years ago and they mingled extensively with the rest of the population; there was no endogamy. We also know that Hinduism is not "commandment-based", and so scriptures merely reflect (smriti) on social reality; they do not inform it as in Islam, Christianity and Judaism.
Pages from the manuscript 'Seventy-two Specimens of Castes in India'. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The Vedic reference to "varna" is probably not physical. It is metaphorical, referring to the nature of human society. Every society in the world has divine mediums (brahmin), land-owners (kshatriya), product producers and merchants (vaishya) and service-providers (shudra). In practice, Vedic society, 3,000 years ago, had common people (vish) ruled by chariot-riding warriors (rajanya) who depended on mantra-chanting divine mediums (kavi or rishi). Brahmana texts say that a man is born "shudra" until he is initiated into reading Vedas after which he becomes "brahmin", revealing that "brahmin" was a position to be attained through education and contemplation, not a condition one is born into.
Following the rise of Buddha, 2,500 years ago, we find writings that refer to many communities (jati) that followed a single vocation. There is reference to guilds of potters, weavers, metal smiths. They secured their knowledge systems by preventing inter-jati marriage. However, this was not a strict rule. In Buddhist literature, we find two divergent ideas. One that karma determines the kind of jati we are born into: those that dominate or those that serve. As per Jataka tales, good karma of past lives enables Siddhartha Gautama to become Buddha. However, we also hear Buddha stating (something that is repeated in Mahabharata too) that a true "brahmin" is determined by deeds not birth. Thus, we see tension between birth-doctrine and deed-doctrine in matters related to jati and varna.
In Jain stories, we hear how the Tirthankara’s embryo is transferred from the womb of a Brahmin woman into the womb of a Kshatriya woman. So Jains, who were monastic, also recognised a society made of multiple communities. In Hindu epics, we find stories where men are denied choice. Karna is insulted for learning archery as his foster father is a charioteer. Shambuka is beheaded by Ram for abandoning his trade and becoming an ascetic. Krishna tells Arjuna that his duty is to do his role determined by his family. Bhagavad Gita seems anti-monastic with Arjuna being told not to give up the world as monks do, but do his duty as a warrior and member of a royal family. Note: the only choice here is to either to follow the family vocation, or become a monk. You could not really choose a vocation, as per Hindu, Jain or Buddhist lore. Vocation comes from the father.
In all these stories we hear of a "chandala" who lives in crematoriums, is surrounded by dogs, and generally shunned by people. Who are these people? The "lower" castes? Shiva is called a god who lives with dogs in crematoriums, who is feared and shunned by "brahmin" leaders like Daksha. Daksha is obsessed with purity and Shiva mocks ideas of purity. Is this the clash of ancient Hindu "conservatives" and Hindu "liberals"?
With the rise of Puranic literature, something shifts. This is roughly 1,500 years ago, when temples were being built, Buddhism was on the wane, Tantrik Hinduism that values the body was on the rise, and dharma-shastras, including Manusmriti were guiding principles. All of society was based on jati-system. Every individual belonged to a community (jati). Earlier, marriage within jati was preferred, but it was not obligatory. From this period onwards, as genetic studies show, the rules became increasingly rigid and draconian. Why?
Some people speculate that arrival of foreigners into India - first Indo-Greeks (Yavana), then Kushans, then Scythians (Sakas, Gujars), and finally Muslims, made Indians increasingly inward looking fearing pollution from outside. If caste became rigid 1,000 years ago, so did the prohibition of sea-travel. All things that increased chance of pollution were forbidden. Pollution meant contact with "lower" caste, especially marriage that could mix castes and herald Kali Yuga.
Like all societies, the Hindu society also had many communities that were located in economic and political hierarchy. All "jatis" mapped themselves to the theoretical four-fold "varna" model. The veda-controlling and temple-controlling jatis were seen as brahmins who had access to divinity and so had spiritual power. The land-owning jatis were seen as kshatriyas and so had political power. The market-controlling jatis were grouped as vaishyas and they had economic power. The service-providing shudras had neither spiritual, political or economic power. They were servants of all, like serfs in other feudal societies.
However, there was something more that make the Indian caste system unique. It is the doctrine of purity (shuddhi).
Some communities were labelled "impure". In the past thousand years, villages and cities were designed so that the purest, not necessarily the wealthiest or the most powerful, stay in the centre next to the temple, which is the pure navel of the settlement. The less pure stayed at a distance. And the least pure stayed at the margins. And the tribal communities, stayed in the forest. The people who lived in the margins were "ritually unclean" owing to their profession, which involved dealing with dead bodies and excrement. It all sounds highly logical: but it dehumanised people, denied them human dignity, and access to common resources like water and education. Who set up these cities? In all probability brahmins who were given this power by kings. Thus, we have many copper inscriptions in Odisha, Deccan and Tamil Nadu, since the past 1,500 years, detailing land grants to brahmins who set up new villages (brahmadeya settlements), and created an administrative structure to collect grain-tax on behalf of the king.
Adi Shankara who lived in the 8th century once met a Chandala and asked him to move aside and the Chandala argued, "You want my impure body to move or the pure soul?" This story has been interpreted in many ways and shows the gap between idealistic Hinduism where knowledge of soul (atma) helps us rise above caste hierarchy and practical Hinduism where caste hierarchy thrives. Around the same time lived one Nandanar, a Tamil Shiva-saint (nayamnar), who was denied entry into the Shiva temple at Chidambaram. Some claim he passed through fire and turned into a Brahmin and only then was allowed entry, thus reaffirming the idea of keeping impure people away from the temple.
In 12th century Karnataka, we hear of Basava challenging the caste system and being thrown out of his job in the king’s court for encouraging inter-caste marriage. In 14th century Maharashtra, we hear of Chokha-mela who was not allowed to enter the temple of Vitthala in Pandharpur, and so his shrine was built on the temple steps where it still stands. Marathi poet-saints like Dyaneshwara and Tukaram and Eknath were also persecuted for writing about God in local languages, rather than Sanskrit, and for promoting idea of equality before God. Similar songs of equality were sung by Ravidas, whose verses are found in the Granth Sahib of Sikhs, a religion that emerged from the rejection of the caste system (though today the divide between Jat Sikhs and Dalit Sikhs is deep reminding us how deep runs the idea of purity and casteism).
The chief gate of Vithoba temple, Pandharpur, with the shrine of Chokhamela on the steps outside, as he was never allowed inside. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons).
In the 16th century, there were five poet-saints (pancha-sakha) in Odisha who identify themselves as servant-sages (shudra-muni) and wrote poems about Krishna in Odia, challenging the might of the brahmins who control the temple, and restrict their access to the temple. Even today at the gateway of the Puri temple, there is another image of Jagannath meant for "lower" castes, who were not allowed to enter the temple. Around the same time, in Udupi Karnataka, Kanaka was not allowed to enter the temple. So he sang songs from behind the temple and we are told the east-facing image turned to face the west and wall breached so that Kanaka could see the lord (darshan).
Until 100 years ago, in many villages of India, in Kerala and Maharashtra and Gujarat, there were some communities who were not just allowed to use the village well, they had to wear a broom to wipe away their footprints, carry a pot to spit so that it did not fall on the ground and contaminate it, and a drum to announce their arrival. All this because their family vocation was to clean toilets and deal with animal carcasses, a vocation they were obliged to perform as per "jati" system. In other words, they could not change their vocation, and at the same time deprived of dignity for it as they were seen as impure by birth. Despite great progress in the past 70 years, many people still avoid sitting with "lower" castes, and letting "Dalit" women cook their food. The argument is fear of "pollution".
The idea that Brahmins through "commandments" of Manusmriti created this system from the top is a very simplistic understanding of a system that is acknowledged and even followed by "lower" castes and Muslims and Christians who even today are highly selective about who their son or daughter should marry. Reformers argue they suffer from "Stockholm Syndrome" and reject the idea that they are using their own agency and thus support the system. Equally simplistic is the idea that positive discrimination and reservation system will create a fairer society. In fact, it creates a violent backlash and a further hardening of boundaries. Some people believe in "trickle down" effect; others believe in "instant revolution". Neither really works entirely. So the situation remains complex and volatile with no simple answer, but a lot of self-righteous outrage on every side.
The idea of purity is what established casteism in India. Purity has been manipulated by many Hindus to create a draconian hierarchy, despite opposition by other Hindus, especially the poet-sages. Academician-activists tend to focus on the former as "real" Hindus and ignore the latter. They ignore the idea that purity pervades all of human society in various forms from taboos in ancient tribes to fascism in modern times.
The "visa" system of nation-states was designed to keep out poor and unskilled people from "developed" countries, hence the rage against immigrants. People argue that when immigrants come, they "pollute" the value system of the land. For example, many Muslim immigrants reject the idea that women and homosexuals have rights. Likewise in India, non-violent Jain communities use their political power to protect themselves from the "pollution" of meat-eaters. Muslims in Pakistan and Iran reject the "pollution" of liberal values, including Sufism, that is seen as idolatry (shirk). Marxists see capitalism as pollution. Maoists see development as pollution. Dalits of India are being told Hinduism is pollution and Buddhism is purity. Vegetarians insist that meat-eaters are impure, heterosexuals insist homosexuals are impure, monogamists are convinced polyamorists are impure.
The doctrine of purity hence cancer of casteism in India began 2,000 years ago and consolidated itself 1000 years ago. Now this doctrine of purity is spreading around the world. It takes the form of discrimination and a yearning for pure "homogenous" paradise with no diversity. You see this in the speeches of politicians who want to exclude everyone except those who subscribe to their party politics. This is neo-casteism.