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A Question of Indian Caste System

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The caste system has been regarded by many Indian reformers as an obscurantist by-product of an ancient and spiritual way of life; a religious and cultural tradition which confines people within rigid class and caste roles.

The political elite in India have long acknowledged the adverse socioeconomic consequences of the caste system and following independence sought to outlaw its practices, especially the practice of ‘untouchability’. Such a deeply ingrained social and cultural phenomena, however, has proved exceptionally resistant to the legislative process. Despite heavy fines and terms of imprisonment for those who discrimminate against their fellow citizens, the trappings of the caste system are still prevalent throughout India. However, there are signs that the caste system is finally buckling beneath the growing pressure of prosperity and the process of Westernisation.

The commercial demands of global capitalism, complete with the western notions of rationalism, liberalism and individualism, are challenging and changing some of the central tenets of classical Hinduism and, by association, the very nature of Indian society. As one would expect these changes are most notable around the large industial centres with a ripple effect gradually encompassimg the surrounding towns and villages. Given these factors the question arises does this signal the end of the caste system and, if so, is this necessarily a social revolution which should be welcomed without reserve? In this paper we will briefly outline the structure of the caste system and then study various examples of how the caste system operates in modern day India. These studies will enable us to draw some conclusions as to whether the caste system is in terminal decline or merely adapting itself to the rigours of industrial society.

Hinduism and Caste According to the Hindu doctrine of Creation, human beings belonged to a heirarchical order of four social categories (Chaturvarnas) based on an occupational division of labour. The Brahmins who emerged from the mouth of the creator were assigned the task of looking after the spiritual welfare of society; they were priests and teachers.

The Kshatriyas who emerged from the hands of the creator were expected to physically maintain and protect society and therefore became the rulers and administrators. The Vaishyas came from the thighs of the creator. Thus their task was to sustain the society materially; they were the accredited producers of wealth. The Shudras, who emerged from the feet of the creator, were asssigned the task of serving the three superior Varnas. (Oommen p.69) These Varnas were broad classifications only; within each classification would exist hundreds, if not thousands, of subtle caste and sub caste variations (jatis), leading to the possibility of a caste increasing its intra varna status by strict adherence to brahmanic rituals.

Furthermore, whilst their existed strict pollution/impurity taboos between Varnas, castes and sub-castes; making it possible for certain sub-castes to be intrinsically both morally and physically polluted and, by extension, making it impossible for them to touch or come near higher caste or varna members, there was/is, an intense interdependence between these groups. The division of labour was so strict, elaborate and specialised that each one of these groups made it possible for the other to function. Indeed, without these arrangements, which entwined the economic and ritual relations between castes and have been termed the Jajmani system, Hindu society would not have functioned at all. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it should be noted that their existed outside of this chatuvarna system a social group that had no class and no status: these were the outcastes or the untouchables; who, at any one time, represented nearly a fifth of the Hindu population; existing on the very margins of society and performing the most menial and demeaning of tasks.

One may well ask why such a rigid and unequal pyramidical heirarchy, with the brahmans at the top and the Shudras at the bottom, has remained intact for so long? The answer to this lies in the belief of the transmigration of souls, or reincarnation. The Hindu belief in reincarnation is accepted by all sects and philosophical schools of Hinduism as a self-evident fact of existence. At the human level, this means that what a man is in this life has been determined by his conduct in previous lives.

Similarly, his conduct in this life will determine the kind of life he will lead in his next existence. (Ling p.28) Therefore, one earns one’s position in the Varna heirarchy through the process of one’s actions (karma) in life. If the actions are in conformity with one’s varnashrama dharma (class/life duty), one gathers merit; if one deviates from it, one accumulates demerit. If one’s merit exceeds one’s demerit, one is reborn with a higher station in life; conversely, if one’s demerit exceeds one’s merit one is reborn with a lower status. (Oomen p.71) Thus a Shudra can be reborn either as a Brahmin or a monkey; depending on how he has lived his life. Of course the ultimate aim of a Hindu is to be released from the endless cycle of birth and rebirth (Mukti) by performing one’s dharma without any expecation of reward – action without desires. But the important point here is the widespread belief that one’s actions (karma) in this life can impinge on one’s rebirth in the next life: ” a moral cause and effect which operates automatically and externally throughout the whole universe.” (Ling p.27) So far we have established that the caste system was/is the socioeconomic edifice that Hinduism is based on. And that adherence or non-adherence to the principles and duties of the class/caste system dictates one’s reincarnation in the next life.

Once these concepts are established it can be seen why the caste system has proved so resistant to change. However, the past hundred and fifty years have seen determined attempts by various leading Hindus, such as Ram Mohan Roy, Ramakrishna and Mahatma Ghandi; to ameliorate and downgrade the social framework of caste in its relationship to Hinduism. Together with the penetration of western ideas and techniques this has culminated in a noticeable weakening of the practice and observance of caste. This phenomenon is illustrated when comparing three case studies of village societies during the post-independence period, when moderization and pressure for change have been greatest. Modern Society and the Caste System As was mentioned earlier, the nineteenth century heralded an era of intense scrutiny and reappraisal of the Hindu faith by many of the leading Indian scholars of the day. This ‘Hindi Renaissance’, as it was called, was a denial of its formal self and the reassertion of its spiritual essence. These reformers, beneath the onslaught of western secular thought and religious example, became the visible embodiment of a new, awakened Hinduism – awakened by Christianity and by government agencies to social concern for the sick and needy especially, but awakened also to the need for a religion of tolerance and charity. (Ling p.370) This revaluation of Hinduism was prepared by the reform movements of the nineteenth century, but only reached and touched the hearts of the entire Indian people following the emergence of Mahatma Ghandi as the pre-eminent Hindu spiritual leader. ‘For it was he who lent his enormous prestige to the onslaught on what all that was finest in India had for centuries felt to be a canker in the very heart of their religion, the caste system itself and its ugly corollary, the creation of a disfranchised religious proletariat, the outcastes or untouchables.’ (Zaehner p.8)

However, it must be pointed out that this liberal revolution, which was attempting to bring Hinduism into the twentieth century while retaining the spiritual essence of the religion without the social artifice; did not go unchallenged; afterall it was an orthodox Hindu who shot Ghandi, the great reformer, dead. Therefore the acceptance and dissemination of new ideas and modes of living was one of slow and painful progress. In the 1960s, Bharati made the assertion that he believed that before the great majority of the Indian people could ‘modernize’ they must first undergo the process of Sanskritization. Involved in this concept of Sankritization is the adherence to certain forms of traditional behaviour epitomized in the Sanskrit language, its hieratic literature, and the centuries old practices associated with it.

A simple example of this process may be seen in a caste of tanners in South India. If such a group seeks to become more acceptable and respectable in the eyes of the surrounding Hindus, its leaders must decree, and succeed in implementing, the omission of those occupational and ritual acts which in the wider Hindu context are regarded as defiling. Involved might be a decree which prohibits the remarriage of widows, for example, or a change in the dietary habits , such as those relating to the consumption of meat, or a change in the worship of those deities which lacked an ideologiacl link with the pantheon of Sanskritic divinities. (Bharati p.70) Furthermore, Bharati points out that literally hundreds of tribal and other low caste groups did not traditionally employ Brahmin priests for their ceremonies at marriage and funerals; but in the process of their modernization they passed through a phase of Sanskritization, meaning the acceptance of the Brahmin and his rituals as instrumental in the performance of rites of passage and other ceremonial observances. If this hypothesis was to be given credence, this meant that the majority of rural India would first seek to increase status by putting aside their traditional devotion to the Bhakti cults and begin the process of modernization by adopting orthodox Hindu practices.

Thereby buttressing the caste system at the very time when one would expect it to be crumbling. Although one can see the merit and logic of such a position; this writer would suggest that Bharati underestimated the pace and power of modernization and overestimated the attractions of tradition. A much fuller picture is realized by the work of the American anthropologist, Kathleen Gough. A survey of village life in a traditionally strong Hindu area- Tanjore, in South India -led Gough to conclude that the social and economic structure of caste was beginning to break down even there: `It is clear that, in general, the social structure of theTanjore village is changing from a relatively closed, stationary system, with a feudal economy and co-operation between ranked castes in ways ordained by religious law, to a relatively ‘open’ changing sytem, governed by secular law, with an expanding capitalist economy and competition between castes which is sometimes reinforced and sometimes obscured by the new struggle between economic classes. (Ling p.376)

Although ths survey was conducted in 1955, its findings would have great resonance for the villagers of Deoli, in Uttar Pradesh, the Hindi heartland; almost thirty years later. For it is in the internicine caste warfare that began to appear on a regular basis in the 1980s, that the cumulative effects of modernization can be seen more clearly. In this case a massacre of 24 of ‘untouchables’ had occurred. (Selbourne p.219) Of the 18-strong gang of killers who had fell upon the village during the night, selecting only the Yatavs (outcaste cobblers) amongst the mixed population, 16 of them were dressed in police uniform. The terrified villagers who survived the massacre had no idea whether they were really policemen, or upper-caste guns dressed up as policemen. Whatever the answer, the fact remains that this was a bloody attack driven by caste hatred: driven, in turn, by envy and a collapse of the traditional caste obligations. This supposition is borne out by the subsequent investigation into the incident. The time of the ‘trouble’ between the castes could be traced back two or three years; when the young Yatavs refused to continue to do Begar for the village caste of landlords. Begar is bonded or unfree labour, the labour of the landless and land-poor harijans on the fields of the Thakur landlords. It is labour not for a wage, but for a handful of rice or pulses; labour in payment of ancient debts , very often usurious, and passed on from father to son, from generation to generation. The older Yatavs were still deeply enmeshed in the practice.

It was the younger generation who refused the inheritance of these labour burdens and set themselves against the heirarchy of caste privilege and power; challenging the traditional supremacy of the Thakurs. As one young man commented: “I have never done begar, I have always refused to do begar, and I will never do it.” (Selbourne p.221) The refusal of traditional caste obligations is all part of a larger picture. In a half a million other villages just like Deoli, the social landscape is changing rapidly.

A rudimentary education for the harijans and shudras, traditionally denied to them by the caste system; a few bighas of land, or perhaps escape from the village to greater awareness in the urban centres, or criminilisation through unemployment within a money economy; all of these factors are now threatening to bring the whole structure of rural thraldom and dependent servitude into crisis. The fact that this ‘upward mobility’ among the poorest can be classed in relative shades of poverty rather than prosperity (from barefeet to plastic sandals!), makes the whole concept of ‘resistance’ and ‘retribution’, even more sad. “That we are leading independent lives,” says a harijan figure with a tea-towel headcloth, is what he calls an “eyesore” to the Thakurs. (Selbourne p.221)

Conclusions The fact that the caste system has persisted for so long in India points to the conclusion that it is, as Brockingham puts it: ‘part of the totality of the Indian way of life.’ (Brockingham p.1) It has served as a strong stabilisng factor, a refuge of last resort, and a cultural bond in a heterogenous and volatile society. Within the confines of a closed, agrarian, barter economy; a description one could loosely use to describe pre-19th Century India, this rigid socioeconomic system, with all its faults and anomalies, prospered for many hundreds of years. However, secular forces of the kind that are common to all developing societies in a technological age are now at work to undermine the barriers of caste and sub-caste. Life in the cities and in the growing industrialised areas makes the observance of caste distinction difficult, if not virtually impossible. (Ling p.375) Even in the rural areas, as we have seen, these same modernising forces are at work. Once the renaissance of the 19th Century began to take hold, and the entwining of one’s caste duty with one’s Karma began to be questioned, the social edifice that was the caste system simply had to change. Like the post-Enlightenment ghettoized Jews, the castes of India have been exposed to revolutionary thoughts, ideas and practices. The modern world has seeped into the social structure and changed it irrevocably. However, because the caste system was/is the ‘totality of Indian life’, it is unlikely that it will collapse. It has, however, become less central, and this process is likely to continue in tandem with India’s degree of modernity and progress.

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