A recent statement made by RSS supremo Mohan Bhagwat that pandits (priestly class) created the caste system has stirred up a hornet’s nest (India Today 2023). It is natural since Indian politics centers around the caste factor. Followers of Dr. B R Ambedkar, father of the Indian Constitution, cite his 1916 paper to support their contention that Brahmins created the caste system. Interestingly, Dr. Ambedkar initially blames brahmins but later exonerates them from this accusation. I critically examine Dr. Ambedkar’s claims. I contend that Ambedkar’s arguments are not fully developed. In so doing, I automatically dismiss Bhagwat’s arguments.
Dr. Ambedkar’s central thesis in the above paper was ‘the superposition of endogamy on exogamy means the creation of caste’ (Ambedkar 1916: para 15). His argument flows like this. Brahmins occupied the top rank in the social hierarchy. They closed the door (endogamy) for marrying outside the circle (exogamy). Non-Brahmins imitated their example and created their own endogamy. Consequently, Brahmins are the ‘father’ of the caste system.
One can easily discern that Dr. Ambedkar’s arguments are not well-developed. The first question is who put the Brahmins at the top of the social hierarchy? Did the Brahmins themselves? If it was so, why would society accept such hegemony? Dr. Ambedkar does not explain. Assuming the Brahmin percentage in the total population currently about 4% has not changed since antiquity, it seems absurd that the rest 96% meekly submitted to the hegemony. Furthermore, Brahmins rarely wielded political power which was largely held by the Kshatriyas or the Sudras (Maurya and Gupta dynasties for example). Consequently, it is unfathomable that a minuscule minority would wield such an enormous power. Furthermore, the King could not have unilaterally imposed such a system defying the views of the majority, and that too since millennia. It leads one to conclude that the system was a society-accepted voluntary grouping. The Brahmins may have contributed to it but to say that they ‘created’ it is rather tenuous. The politician within Dr. Ambedkar appears to have overtaken the scholar.
If the Brahmins created caste there would be only two casts: Brahmins and non-Brahmins. However, that would defeat Ambedkar’s thesis. Consequently, he makes a conjecture that non-Brahmins imitated the Brahminical endogamy restrictions. He uses the Tardian Law to contend that the prestigious position and daily contacts of Brahmins, resulted in the imitation of endogamy by non-Brahmins. However, the Tardian law refers to nobility or rulers which in the Indian context were the Kshatriya or Shudra or foreign invaders. Yet the other castes did not emulate them. Why? Again, why did the non-Brahmins only emulate the caste aspect (endogamy) of Brahmins but ignored other attributes such as scholarship, moral values, or cleanliness? Why did they not emulate the beef-eating practice of Muslim rulers or did they only consider emulating the one on the highest pedestal within the Hindu fold? And if so, why? The aristocrat in Europe too closed doors (endogamy) to the commoners. Why did it not create a caste system in Europe among the commoners? Dr. Ambedkar does not provide an answer.
Furthermore, Brahmin hegemony was in question from the Upanishadic period itself. Buddha (about 500 BCE) and many saints thereafter opposed the caste system. Why were they not emulated? Obviously, there was a larger societal acceptance of it. Consequently, it would be unfair to blame only one section of the society – the Brahmins – who neither had the numbers nor the political power for all these years to somehow impose the system on other sections of the society. Dr. Ambedkar makes an interesting argument of endogamy (or caste) outside the Hindus – for example, Christians would not marry Mohammedans.
Dr. Ambedkar makes a further claim wherein the economist within him takes over. He considers that caste created the surplus man or surplus woman problem within the endogamous group. To overcome it, a solution of Sati was devised. However, he himself admits that a scientific explanation for the custom is not available. Recent research by Prof Jain (2016) found that Sati was restricted to royals and only sporadic instances of the system were found. Furthermore, with the abolishing of Sati the caste system should have disappeared if Ambedkar’s contention is to be accepted.
In the last paragraph of his paper, Dr. Ambedkar contradicts himself. He considers the possibility of an ‘unconscious growth in the life of a human society’. If that argument is accepted, how does he justify putting the blame on the Brahmins being the ‘father’ of the caste system? If we consider it a God-ordained system then rebels against the system existed in India since the time of Charavaka, Buddha, and Mahavira, yet the system survived. Did the Brahmins wield some superhuman power for its continuation? Ambedkar himself admits that his conclusion is not ‘in any way final, or anything more than a contribution to a discussion of the subject’. Does it mean he wrote the paper without sufficient evidence and without considering the repercussions that it would entail for a section of society – the Brahmins?
Caste existed long before Manu, Dr. Ambedkar admits, yet he chose to burn Manu Smriti. Manu just documented the prevailing customs. Was Dr. Ambedkar fair towards Manu then? Furthermore, he contradicts himself by blaming the Brahmins for having ‘fathered’ the caste system in para 32 of his paper but later exonerates Brahmins as the creators of caste ‘the Brahmins may have been guilty of many things, and I dare say they were, but the imposing of the caste system on the non-Brahmin population was beyond their mettle’ (Ambedkar 1916: para 34).
Furthermore, Dr. Ambedkar converted to Buddhism but ‘Buddhism is only a sect of Hinduism. Its tenets are not even novel. It did not, contrary to popular opinion, seek to undermine caste’ (Rawlinson 1919, p.ii)
It would give solace to Mr. Bhagavat when Dr. Ambedkar notes that there is a deep cultural unity though caste parcels it in smaller units and there was one caste to begin with though ex-communication divided it. The famous Atri sutra also notes all are born Shudra (Kane 1953)
It goes to Dr. Ambedkar’s credit that he warns against any bias and sentiments overtaking objective judgments. He also welcomes rational disagreements on the topic and in the true spirit of a scholar is prepared to give up his theory if rival arguments are advanced.
(Milind Sathye is an Australian academic. Views personal as a private citizen. Earlier published in the Medium under a different title with some additions)
Ambedkar, BR. 1916. Castes in India: their mechanism, genesis, and development, Available http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00ambedkar/txt_ambedkar_castes.html
India Today. 2023. Who created the caste system in India and how has it changed over time? Available https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/rss-chief-mohan-bhagwat-reignites-caste-debate-who-created-varna-system-2331113-2023-02-06
Jain, M. 2016. Sati – Evangelicals, Baptist Missionaries, and the Changing Colonial Discourse, Aryan Books International, Delhi).
Kane, PV. 1953. History of the Dharma Shastras, Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune.
Rawlinson, E. 1919. in a Foreword to Bhandarkar, RD, 1920. A peep into the early history of India, Taraporewala, Bombay.
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