Jati, Varna, Caste, Kula – many words are being thrown at an average Indian fully blaming India’s evils on a certain thing called caste system. But, is it that simple a thing? Before going deep into the concept of caste, there are three things which we need to focus on –

  1. Birth based identity
  2. Profession based identity
  3. Rigidity of the position of caste in a social hierarchy

The three things exist in every mature society – you are based on your birth – is your father a Serf or a Lord?, based on what you do – are you the one who makes the best weapons in the kingdom or are you the mediocre village carpenter? and is your position in social hierarchy fixed or mobile – you were a pirate yesterday but you are a noble today.

The same existed in Indian theatre as well. The grouping of people into sub-units is natural. Gotra, affiliated Gotras, Kula and Jati – all these define your birth. Varna decides what you do in a society. Now, Gotra and Jati cannot be changed – you are what you are, not what you are capable of. This is nothing more than a supra-family unit – a marriage circle as what someone put it. Every group has it’s own rules, own customs and will marry inside it’s own circle. This is what your Jati is. You are a carpenter, you marry a carpenter. Why do you do that? Professional comfort? Similarity of Customs? Can be anything. Is there a level of oppression here by forcing people into certain castes? We wouldn’t know exactly.

In fact, this is also not rigid. A paper published in 2016 states that rigidity of caste identity happened some 70 generations ago.

In addition to the ANI and ASI, we identified two ancestral components in mainland India that are major for the AA-speaking tribals and the TB speakers, which we respectively denote as AAA (for ā€œAncestral Austro-Asiaticā€) and ATB (for ā€œAncestral Tibeto-Burmanā€). Extant populations have experienced extensive multicomponent admixtures. Our results indicate that the census sizes of AA and TB speakers in contemporary India are gross underestimates of the extent of the AAA and the ATB components in extant populations. We have inferred that the practice of endogamy was established almost simultaneously, possibly by decree of the rulers, in upper-caste populations of all geographical regions, about 70 generations before present, probably during the reign (319ā€“550 CE) of the ardent Hindu Gupta rulers. The time of establishment of endogamy among tribal populations was less uniform.

Though the authors theorize that this happened during the Gupta Era coinciding with the Hunnic Invasions, a counter argument is that an average generation should be looked upon between 13-18 years, placing it around 1000 AD – the period of Islamic Invasions. Devala Smriti which was written after the first wave of Islam retreated, tried to address the issue of vast number of pregnant women and orphans – such a document addressing contemporary social issues is only possible unless there is a massive social churning further giving a fillip to the solidification of caste as a consequence of Islamic invasions.

Whatever the argument considered, one would see that the solidification of caste(endogamy) happened in response to foreign invasions – India simply closed it’s ranks and formed smaller units.

Next is, the classification based on what you do. You are a carpenter, you are a blacksmith, you are a mason – you are all clubbed together. You are a butcher, you are a shepherd, you deal with leather – you are all clubbed together. Some role profiles may be abhorrent and some aren’t – but, the society needs everything. Nothing works without a village priest and nothing works without the village cobbler. It’s a close-knit, composite mass. The professions are classified based on the kind of work you do and not based on your social standing.

Social standing is different. Unless you are a personal outcaste, you will swim with the tide. Your social standing is same as the relative standing of the caste you are a part of. The question is all about whether the social standing is rigid or mobile. While history shows that Indian caste hierarchy is partly rigid and partly mobile, one would see that the European anthropology of Indian caste, structured on the models they know is rigid.

A possible model for Indian caste hierarchical stratification comes from the origin of society itself – the start of Indian villages was from isolated settlements declaring allegiance to a king. As time passed and population pressure increased, reclamation of forests led to settlement of new villages – a practice which continued unabated into recent years. In fact, that is considered to be one of the greatest achievements of the mythical Trilochana Pallava. Khandava Dahana of Mahabharata is another example of reclamation and settlement. Those who reclaimed the territories generally followed the armies and converted forests into cultivable lands. In effect, the armies consisted of soldiers who can double as farmers. This raised a situation where the landholder(Tamil = Vanniyar caste) held the prime land in the kingdom and held massive influence.

But the number of soldiers which the traditional Tamil society provided wasn’t sufficient when the Cholas under Rajaraja Chola decided to cross the traditional Tamil lands. He recruited the hill tribes and soldiers from the armies of defeated kingdoms into his army. Some of them became capable leaders as usual and matter of time they too started to assert their position in the society. Now, you have two competing groups claiming to be the superior in the society – the old landed castes and the new upstarts. Caste hierarchy is a consequence of this competition.

(Origin of the Right and Left Hand Caste Divisions – JAHRS Vol4 Part 1)

This was more about upstarts challenging the superiority of the existing order than about societal discrimination based on who you are. In Tamil Country, there was a vertical split into the society – the Valangai(Right Hand) and Idangai(Left Hand) Classification with random castes coming together as a group and attempting to assert their position. A look at the caste groupings tell us this was never about hierarchy. Sometimes, Brahmins also joined these groups.

(Origin of the Right and Left Hand Caste Divisions – JAHRS Vol4 Part 1)

Parallel to this, something else was happening elsewhere in India – Islamic invasions and flight of people from Afghanistan and Gandhara. When people streamed across to settle into other parts of India fleeing invasions and chaos, one should question if stratification of caste was a response to that – more social bonding, preserving of traditional crafts and carving one’s own identity in an alien land. In fact, another hint for this comes from the Islamic advances into Bihar where kings competed with each other to patronize the Brahmins. They became the protectors of traditional knowledge of Hinduism – a very great epithet. Why Brahmins and not farmers? The answer is obvious.

But, all it’s history, caste system always faced challenges in upholding – someone or the other rebelled from time to time. Srivaishnavas, Varkari, Mahanubhava, Lingayat and even recently, Pranami, Brahmakumaris and many such. However, there are fleeting references of caste system before this timeframe – Nammalwar, one of the original proponents of Bhakti movement is a Sudra. Whether it’s on birth or on his family before he became a saint, there is no information. Shambhuka from Ramayana’s Uttara Kanda is another example. But, for some reason, the hierarchial caste structure always trumped, seeping even into seemingly casteless theologies like Islam and Christianities.

But, what changed the narrative? European understanding of Indian caste structure which is almost similar to their own Sistema de Casta.

The Fall of Granada in 1492 was the end of all Islamic enterprise in the Iberian Peninsula. With the fall of Granada to a Christian Aragon and other kingdoms, the local Jews and Muslims were given two options – conversion or ejection. Most converted, few left with the retreating armies – some reached as far as Kerala. In fact, one such Jew was the one who acted as a translator for Vasco Da Gama.

Now, the clergy is in a fix. There is no way to tell which of those new Christians were genuine adherents. Hence comes the Inquisitions. The society is divided into three parts – Blue Bloods or the Aristocrats, Old Christians and the New Christians. This is called Sistema de Casta, with Casta deriving from the word purity.

Coincidentally (or not so coincidentally), this timed with the Iberian Colonization of Americas. The same system is replicated there. Espanoles and Indians. Now, Espanoles are of two types – Peninsulares(Iberians or more generally, Europeans) and Creoles(born in Americas).

And Indios were of two types – people with reason(christian) and people without reason(native religionists). Where does church fit into all this? More conversions means more power and more assets. Schools, churches, everything. With the able support of Spanish Monarchy, this Granadan Sistema de Casta was imported to Americas and along with it, Inquisitions. Parallel to this, Church became a massive land holder. Massive land means need for more agricultural labour(or slaves). This resulted in a booming slave business.

Why blame Church specifically and not Spain? Because of a spate of Papal Bulls from 1490 to 1530 supporting Spanish colonial enterprise. So, we have a solidified caste system here.

  1. Peninsulares – Europeans born in Europe
  2. Creoles – Europeans born in Americas
  3. Mesitzos – those with European and American Indian mixed parentage
  4. Indios(with reason) – converted American Indians
  5. Indios(without reason) – American Indians following native religion. They payed a tax like Jaziya.
  6. Negros. They are just slaves and had no rights.

In fact, these castes and caste wars happened even into 1850s as like the Yucatan Caste Wars. There are a few things here.

  1. This is an exploitation and race based segregation
  2. There is no upward mobility of social status.

When the Europeans tried to make sense of Indian caste system, they have a model readily available – the Sistema de Casta. It was almost identical fit but not an exact fit.

  1. European invaders of Americas become the Aryan Invaders.
  2. Espanoles become Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas.
  3. The Indios become the Sudras who are from a different race, Dravidians.

Why isn’t it an exact fit? Because there is a social mobility. In time of a war, a blacksmith gets more social prominence, after a war, a farmer gets prominence. And there is a clear-cut demarcation of Jati and Varna. There is a Hiranyagarbha ceremony where a king of whatever origin can become a Kshatriya. Non Brahmin scholars of note are well known, with Valmiki being the greatest example, and to some extent, Veda Vyasa, the one who classified the Vedas – he was born to a Brahmin and a fisherwoman. A Kshatriya Viswamitra became a Brahmin and the Kshatriya/Brahmin status of dynasties like Cholas or Pallavas is accepted, whatever their origins.

But, this is not what an evangelical and colonial ecosystem wanted. These are the people without reason – those semi-barbaric, unwashed masses who needs to be civilized.

  1. Select verses from Dharmasastras dealing with Jati and Varna and position them as rigid constructs with no social mobility. Sudra is the oppressed one.
  2. When no one was ready to call himself a Sudra in 1891 Census, Herbert Risley introduced caste into census in 1901. Using this, a rigid caste hierarchical system was built.
  3. Write false narratives and fake atrocity literature. Koregaon-Bhima for instance, which, from 1870s is used as a point to prove Mahar services to the British when the British started disbanding Mahar units after 1857 and a general calm in India. Clearly, to get a better deal with the British, the Mahars cannot project their leaders like Sidhnak Mahar who fought for Parashuram Bhau at Khardla in 1795. The legend of Nangeli is another.
  4. The frequent rioting in Madras between the Idangai-Valangai caste groupings made the British ban any banner except the Union Jack. Combined with seizing of temple assets, it’s a matter of time this cross caste unity disappeared.

And with the same narrative drilled over centuries, you will be in a situation to believe the new narrative without even having an inkling of how it started and what was the purpose why it started. And forget about the original practitioners and original victims.

The vilification of caste system(which is regularly confused with caste hierarchy) is main stream now. Any evil India faces is a result of caste system. But, there are some fundamental questions which need to be addressed before trashing it as something abhorrent to human nature.

  1. During the siege of Palakkad Fort, Tipu Sultan lobbed the heads of Brahmins and not of any other caste(specifically the Nairs, the caste of the rulers of Palakkad and the Samoothiris of Calicut who were put under siege)
  2. When Islam gave a shortcut to avoid oppression through conversion, why didn’t the oppressed castes of India take that option and oppress their oppressors? Why did they prefer to pay Jaziya instead of taking revenge against their oppressors?
  3. When Jaziya induced a mass conversion of Zorastrians in Persia, why didn’t it happen in India? Why is it that people converted only because of sword or a free meal?
  4. How did it happen that all those religions which guaranteed equality (Buddhism, Islam, Christianity) started adopting Indian caste system?

Synopsising, while it makes sense for one to understand the reason for caste system in India, it becomes imperative for one to attempt to quantify the atrocity in India.

  1. Do we know how caste system became hereditary?
  2. Do we know what exactly was the oppression perpetrated?
  3. Do we know how Indian caste system fared as compared to contemporary world – both in inclusion and oppression?
  4. Do we know the support the oppressors got from the balance of the religion?
  5. How much of this imposition was inherent and how much was influenced by other factors?
  6. How did Brahmins fare as oppressors compared to other castes/religions in contemporary India?
  7. Without staying in power, what instruments did the Brahmins use to practice oppression?
  8. What is the bridge between today’s oppression and historic oppression?
  9. How did the British influence Hindu way of life – religion, caste, society everything.
  10. What contemporary literature do we have over this?

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