This is my response to Caste in the caste, curry and cows caricature of India. Out of all the topics covered in this blog, perhaps none has vitiated the public discourse on India and Hinduism more than caste. Some of it stems simply from ignorance of history and context, but there is a good degree of malice too, particularly on the part of western indologists, Indian activists, ‘NDTV intellectuals’, and, of course, Indian politicians.
There is a lot to say on this topic and the discussion can quickly get all convoluted. Let me first say that caste discrimination in India is real and needs to be fixed. However, the solutions cannot be found till we understand the problem correctly and identify the forces which are working for and against caste discrimination. This post does not aim to be the last word on this topic, but hopes to highlight a few key points which are often overlooked.
Forces Working to Remove Caste-based Discrimination
1. Caste is much less of a problem in Indian cities than it is in the rural areas. Yes, India is still predominantly rural (67% in 2016), but it is rapidly urbanizing and by some projections the urban population may be in majority by 2050. Another factor which counters caste discrimination is education and that is also moving in the right direction. Economic development of Indian is also helping to weaken the caste divide.
2. Anecdotal evidence quickly shows up in any debate on caste. You start hearing statements like I have seen my own grandmother discriminate, or, that temple or that guru in my village does not allow people from that caste, etc. What fails to come out is stories of all the other relatives, friends, temples and gurus who do not discriminate. There are quite a few gurus out there today – Ramdev Baba, Sadhguru, Sri Sri, etc – who do not care about caste. As for temples, I have never had to declare my caste to enter in a temple. The point is that for every temple or guru who cares for caste, you would not have to go too far to find another who does not. So, just go with the one who does not! You have complete freedom to do so being a Hindu. This is where the inherent comfort of the Hindu tradition with diversity of opinion becomes important.
3. No debate on caste can escape the ghost of Manusmriti! Here, I really don’t understand what the whole fuss is about. Not only I have not read Manusmriti, I do not know of anyone else who has. Do you? I have heard temples hosting jaagran and kirtan to chant Ramayan or Mahabharat, but never Manusmriti. Have you? I know of a few translations of Gita which are commonly referred to and also where to buy them, but have no idea of about Manusmriti. Do you? My point is simple – if you have a problem with Manusmriti, just let it go. No one cares for it anyway. Again, inherent comfort and respect for different schools of thought helps here. As someone said – Hinduism is not a religion of A book, it is a religion of a library!
In this context, it is also important to understand the fundamental Hindu concept of Shruti and Smriti (the master explains here). Shruti contains eternal truths and can be thought of general principles, for example, equality of all people. Smritis, in contrast, are context dependent and can be rewritten for a given society and age, for example a constitution implementing the principle of equality. In other words, Manusmriti, if you still want to read it (!), should be read in the context of when and where it was written.
Forces Propping Up the Caste Divides
Why then, instead of diminishing, caste seems to be only getting more prominent in Indian pop culture and also in academia? In western academia, caste has pretty much become a defining characteristic of Hinduism. Here are some thoughts on how we got here and who is working to deepen the caste divide, instead of healing it.
First we need to get the history right. The current version of the caste system in India is a direct result of multi-generational social engineering by the British as part of their divide-and-rule strategy. One of the key architects of this engineering was Lord Risley who institutionalized caste by making it part of the census. Over multiple censuses caste was inherited and soon one would be rigidly assigned to a caste right at birth. Caste-by-birth is a distortion of Hindu philosophy and tradition. Caste itself is a distortion and an European import, just like secularism. The closest Hindu construct is that of varna and jaati. This is a big topic, but Varna may be be thought of as division of labor in society and jaati as professional associations, like the Institute of Engineers. The relevant point is that these categories were fluid and could evolve over time and are certainly not fixed at birth. I repeat – Inheritance of caste is a distortion, and not a fundamental tenet of Hinduism. Most prominent scriptures of Hinduism, such as the Gita, completely reject the idea of ‘caste by birth’. By the way, Lord Risley had gone further and also assigned a hierarchy to the different castes. That was the origin of the current upper, lower, scheduled, OBC and tribal categories.
Another notable Brit in this context is Sir William Jones. He interpreted Manusmriti to give Hindus their laws! My guess is that our current obsession with Manusmriti can be traced back to him.
Ok, so the brits messed it up big time. But that was nearly 70 years ago. Why was it not fixed after independence in 1947? Well, this is one of the biggest puzzle for me about our history. Not just caste, British messed up our education, legal system, religious harmony, and on and on. Why then, in spite of wide spread nationalism following the freedom movement, was there not a move to review and break free of everything that the British did? On the contrary, instead of turning to be deeply skeptical of the west like Chinese today, Indians seemed to have become anglophiles. Again, right after independence! Beats me!
Speaking specifically of the caste system, from a public policy point of view, since Independence no steps seem to have been taken to make the government and the society “caste-blind”, for example, by undoing what Lord Risley started. On the contrary, our politics seem to have gone is exactly the wrong direction. Who would deny that caste-based reservation is a bad idea and Mandal commission in the 90s was a monstrosity? Vote-bank politics by politicians like Mulayam Singh Yadav and Laloo Yadav is working to deepen the caste divide. Of course they claim to champion the cause of the downtrodden.
Such politicians are supported in not small measure by Western indologists like Sheldon Pollock, their leftists Indian sepoys in universities like JNU and Jadhavpur, social activists like Arundhati Roy and of course biased media like NDTV. Through muddled up interpretation of scriptures, selective presentation of history, exaggerated reporting of discrimination and deliberate suppression of efforts to remove caste divides, these people are effectively legitimizing caste-based politics and even providing ideological ammunition for it, again all under the veil of championing the cause of the ‘weaker’ castes. So next time someone expressed their dismay over caste discrimination in India, just ask if they would call for complete repeal of caste-based reservations, and replacing it with need-based reservation. If they say no or avoid the question, then call out their hypocrisy. It is the same as an animal rights activist eating meat.
[By the way, if all this sounds like one big conspiracy theory to you then all I can suggest is that you read Rajiv Malhotra’s book Breaking India. If even that doesn’t change your views, well, then see you in the next life!]
Hindu society in India is naturally evolving to remove caste divides, and there are plenty of forces within Hinduism working toward it. There is no need for importing western constructs of human rights, or conversions to other religions to free India of caste issues. What is needed is, first, a recognition that the current caste system is inconsistent with core values in the Hindu philosophy, and then working to heal the divide by appealing to those core values. An analogy would be that of slavery in the west. Slavery was initially not considered inconsistent with Christianity, but later the anti-slavery movements employed a different interpretation of Christian ideas to appeal to the masses. Finally, all the forces that are working to prop up the caste divides, regardless of what their motivations are, must be exposed and curtailed.
- Views of another master on this topic – Subramanian Swamy
- In this video, in response to a question, Rajiv Malhotra explains in detail why the caste system as it exists today has nothing to do with Hinduism. He also explains jaati and varna.
- I added this post on Ambedkar.
[note to readers: please share any additional material on this topic, particularly talks or writings of RM. I will try to weave it into the above narrative.]