Book Summary: Western Foundations of the Caste System- IV

Book Summary: Western Foundations of the Caste System- IV

The three major frameworks with which the Europeans crystallised their ideas on the Indian caste system were the Christian issues in the Iberian Peninsula, the Protestant problems with the Jews and Catholics, and the Aryan-Dravidian theories proposed by the later Indologists, especially the Germans. We saw the first framework in the previous part.

Jakob De Roover shows here, how Indian society modelled on the Christian understanding of ancient Israel and Jewish society. Later Orientalists and Indologists may have discarded the initial theological frameworks, but the explanations and understandings remain the same, but now in a secular garb. Ancient Israel with a social hierarchical model of clans and priestly Levites at the top became an explanation of the Indian society with four castes and the Brahmins at the top.       


Jakob De Roover

In the currently dominant discourse about Indian society, the caste system appears as an immoral social structure, most visible in political and popular rhetoric. Arundhati Roy calls the caste system as “one of the most brutal modes of hierarchical social organisation that human society has known.” A report denounces the system as “the largest systemic violation of human rights in today’s world”.

There are two dimensions of the dominant discourse about caste – a factual and a moral dimension. The first concerns the empirical properties attributed to the system: the Hindus are divided into a variety of castes and sub-castes; caste forms a hierarchical social organization; Brahmins traditionally occupy the highest position in the caste hierarchy and possess certain privileges; endogamy and commensality play major roles in the interaction between different castes, as do practices of untouchability and concerns about purity and pollution.

From these factual claims, descriptions easily move to moral judgements. They do so by highlighting certain practices as blatant instances of caste discrimination. According to these descriptions, anyone who defies the customs of caste is subject to violent reprisals: expulsion from one’s caste, general ostracism, degrading treatment, and physical violence.

When authors identify such practices as reprehensible behaviour, they do something more. The practices represent, in fact, a recurring pattern of interaction in the caste system. The dominant discourse about caste hence suggest that these odious practices must be manifestations of the principles that constitute the caste system.

As Balagangadhara argues, this discourse implies that “the caste system is an immoral social order twice over: not only does the practice of caste discrimination violate certain moral norms but also, as a social order, it makes immorality obligatory.” This is the moral dimension of the dominant discourse about the caste system: a social organization that transforms immorality into a duty by representing its practices as moral obligations.


It transforms many Indians – all those who have not renounced the caste system – into immoral beings bound to discriminate and dehumanize. The descriptions carry two contradictory messages: the meta-level message suggests that Indians are rational and moral by consistently following a set of rules or principles; the object-level message says just the opposite, since the same people systematically engage in immoral and irrational behaviour.

According to this textbook story about caste, then, generation after generation of Hindus lived by unethical rules and raised their children to do the same. Despite movements, legislation, penalty, and aims to set right the historic injustices of caste, these laws have had little impact on the attitudes of the average Indian: caste violence and discrimination thrive in contemporary India. Consequently, the Indian people must show a stubborn insistence to live by this system of obligations and prohibitions, even after receiving recurrent proof of its immorality.

If this textbook story is correct, the caste system must have an extraordinary capacity: as a social structure, it is able to blind the men and women living under its spell to such an extent that they cannot see what everyone else appears to see so easily. To those who are not part of the caste system, it appears to be self-evidently immoral. One thing is clear: since this conception of caste implies that “insiders” cannot see the true nature of the caste system, it must necessarily be the result of the observations of “outsiders.”


The minimal factual structure attributed to the caste system is that it constitutes a hierarchical social system. During the seventeenth century, this ordering of Indian society emerged in European travel accounts and missionary reports. The notion crystallized that one “Gentile” or “heathen” nation populated India, divided into four general tribes or lineages, subdivided into many clans, and held together by an institution that ranked these tribes according to nobility and purity.

This idea did not come by way of empirical data because it ignored the conceptual problems that we still face in understanding the Hindus as a nation united by a common religion and caste hierarchy. Later studies produced increasing anomalies that undermined this account. During the colonial census, attempts to categorize the various groups of “Hindus” according to a caste hierarchy revealed that it was impossible to do so in any coherent way.

Such ordered descriptions always depend on the concepts available to the describer. That is, when early modern European observers described the people of India as a nation organized into a hierarchy, they drew upon a set of conceptual resources, including notions like nation, tribe, and heathen religion.

In ‘The Open Door to Hidden Heathendom’ (1651), Rogerius presented Indians as “a heathen nation” consisting of four general tribes, each valued higher than the next. The most distinguished was the “Tribus” of the Brahmins. The law book of these heathens was the Veda. The Jews also played a central role in Rogerius’ account: he pointed out the many resemblances between Jewish practices and those of the Brahmins. He even drew upon biblical references to suggest that the Brahmins had adopted practices and stories from the Jews. The striking parallel between the Old Testament Jews and the Brahmins by such authors attributed a structure to the “Gentile” people of India, transforming it into a variant of the ancient nation of Israel.

It is after having conceptualized “the heathen nation of India” as a variant of the ancient nation of Israel that these seventeenth-century authors then postulate explicit similarities between the Indian heathens and the Jews.


According to the Old Testament, the tribes of the Jews had become one nation through a covenant with God. Members of one of the tribes, that of Levi, were set apart and divinely appointed as priests to perform the religious ceremonies. These Levites held the office of priesthood not because of a vocation, but because it was an exclusive hereditary office passed on from generation to generation. The Levite priests also played a central role in the assessment and treatment of impurity.

The basic concepts of this account of the Jewish nation structured the experience of early modern European observers of Indian society. These authors understood the division of the Hindu people into “castes” like the tribes of Israel and their subdivisions into clans. The Brahmins were the equivalent of the Levites. Once this basic structure was in place, later authors drew on the same set of conceptual resources to make sense of the traditions and practices they encountered in India.

This Christian understanding of the ancient nation of Israel described in the Old Testament functioned as the framework for making sense of the people of India and provided terms of description that would remain central to future European accounts of India, its religion, and its social structure.

Author after author deployed concepts that transformed the religion of the Hindus into a variant of that of the Jews, establishing the truth in a Goebbelsian manner. For example, in the introduction to his Code of Gentoo Laws (1776) – the first English translation of a dharmashastra compilation and an important text of this period – Nathaniel Halhed pointed out the similitude between “the Mosaical and the Hindoo dispensation”.


Moses was crucial to the biblical account of the nation of Israel. He was the deliverer of the Jews from captivity and the prophet to whom God revealed the laws of the covenant at Mount Sinai. Eric Nelson shows that the Old Testament and the Mosaic law played a major role in the political thinking of the seventeenth-century Protestant world.

From the late seventeenth century, the conception of Moses as a lawgiver fed into a general theory, claiming that every civilized nation had its origin in a first legislator who provided it with a legal foundation. In the act of constituting such nations, ancient lawgivers drew upon the sense of divinity implanted in every man to pretend that they had received a divine revelation to the laws that a people should follow. Thus, these lawgivers were variants of Moses. The success in establishing a nation depended on this merging of civil law with divine injunction as author after author suggested.

However, the eighteenth-century European descriptions of India do show how significant this cluster of ideas had become in the attempt to understand alien cultures. This first legislator – initially identified as Brahma and later as Manu – was supposed to have performed a role very similar to that played by Moses. By invoking a divine revelation, he had made the customs of the Hindus part of religion and given them a foundation in sacred law; thus, he had founded the Hindu nation.


Once this isomorphism was in place, other aspects of Judaism could help the Europeans to structure their understanding of the foreign culture of India. One description says, “the Indians have among them such Persons as are Excommunicate, as formerly the Jews had. He that is Excommunicate is said to lose his Caste, i.e. he is no more to be reckon’d as one of the Members of his Tribe.” This was a reference to the punishment “excommunication” in Judaism, which entailed “the expulsion of a Jew from all aspects of Jewish community life” when one violates the divinely ordained Mosaic law.

The Christian understanding of the Jewish practice of herem (excommunication)seems to have played a significant role in the crystallization of another idea that would prove central to the European image of Indian society: the idea that there was a separate class of people among the Hindus, which existed outside of the caste hierarchy and its laws. Already in the mid-seventeenth century, Rogerius discussed “the Perreaes” as a separate lineage considered too unworthy by the heathens; they existed outside of the four principal tribes of the heathen nation and lived in separate parts of towns and villages.

These were hundreds of similar descriptions of “the outcasts,” “the casteless,” or “the untouchables” that the coming centuries produced. This took the form of the conviction that there is a separate class of impure people placed outside of the caste system and subject to the greatest abhorrence and vile treatment.


Scholars have amply shown that European scholars drew upon the chronology and ethnology of the Old Testament as a framework for making sense of the diversity of peoples encountered in the human past and foreign parts of the world.

The tentative hypothesis offered here is stronger: the basic factual structure that is still attributed to “the caste system” is dependent on understanding the Hindu people and culture of India as a variant of the nation and religion of the Jews, as it was described in the Old Testament and understood by post-Reformation Christendom. Without this background, Europeans could not have characterized the many groups and traditions they encountered in India as one nation consisting of a hierarchy of tribes or castes, founded by a lawgiver, and dominated by the tribe of the priesthood and its privileges and prerogatives.

Today’s textbook discourse about the caste system still presents the Hindus as a people divided into a hierarchy of castes and the Brahmins as the privileged priestly caste. It continues to say that certain groups in Indian society are the descendants of people originally expelled from their caste as a punishment for violating the laws of the caste system.


European authors often expressed negative judgements about “heathen idolatry.” Gradually, they conceptualized the distinct moral structure attributable to the caste system: a social organization that deceives people into following a set of immoral injunctions as moral obligations.

Brahmins, now identified as the priests of the local brand of heathen religion, became the object of many a moral diatribe. From the seventeenth century, European authors of all stripes and colours began to accuse the Brahmanical priesthood of establishing the hierarchy of castes in its own interest.

This account built around two clusters of ideas from the intra-Christian debates that had taken place in Europe during the preceding centuries. The first is the critique of Judaism as a religion of bondage to law and ceremony. The Gospel, Christian theologians argued, had made all kinds of restrictions and rules of the nation of Israel’s covenant with God superfluous to religion. However, the stubborn Jews continued to take the Law literally and practice empty ceremonies; they could not see that Christianity had supplanted Judaism, that “the New Testament” made void “the Old Testament”.

Second, these accounts of the Brahmin priesthood also derived from the Protestant Reformation’s attack against the Roman-Catholic Church. What had started out as a rejection of the authority of the papacy and its clerical hierarchy would soon give rise to a more general critique of “the religion of the priest.”

In fact, these characterizations transformed both Catholicism and Judaism into negations of the norms of Protestant Christianity: the latter stood for Christian liberty and inner spiritual faith; the former embodied clerical tyranny and servitude to external ceremonies and laws. This contrast then served as a general template for conceptualizing “false religion” or, in secular sounding terms, “organized religion”: it was a tyranny of laws and ceremonies imposed by a priesthood that used the name of God to claim religious authority.

By the eighteenth century, these two clusters of ideas appear to have become so generic and widespread that they could constitute the conceptual background for the common European accounts of Indian culture. The description of the Brahmins as a priesthood with absolute dominion over the minds of the Hindu nation would soon spread widely across Western Europe. It appeared in popular texts like the gazetteers, geographical dictionaries, and encyclopaedias of this age and gradually ensconced itself in the educated public’s image of India.


The claims about the supremacy of the Brahmin priesthood could go together with ambiguous moral assessments of other dimensions of caste by both Orientalists and Christian missionaries. However, these missionaries did not regard caste distinctions and practices as parts of an immoral and idolatrous system irreconcilable with Christianity. In fact, they accommodated many such practices in the local Christian communities and churches.

Thus, the earliest Lutheran missionary to India, Bartholomeus Ziegenbalg of the Tranquebar Mission in present-day Tamil Nadu, allowed converts from different castes to sit in separate divisions in the church and even to separately go for communion at the Lord’s table. Similarly, the most successful Protestant missionary of eighteenth-century India, Christian Friedrich Schwarz, tolerated caste distinctions and never denounced them as unacceptable.

Kaye (1859) quotes Reginald Heber, the second Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Calcutta:

Is there no such thing, he asked himself, as Caste in Europe? Is there no such thing as Caste in America? Do not the high and the low sit apart in our English churches? Do not our well-dressed high-caste folks go up first to the altar to communicate? Do high and low sit down to meat together – do their children attend the same schools? Are there no pariahs amongst us? In other civilized countries, is there not a prevailing sense of Caste, apart from all associations of worldly distinction?

Certainly, the Bishop argued, it is a Christian principle that all men are equal in the sight of God, but it is equally certain they are not equal in the sight of Man. Social distinctions exist in all societies, he added, and it is a fair presumption to say that God never intended all men to be equal. Hence, caste should be tolerated as a type of social distinction similar to those that exist elsewhere.


In the first decades of the nineteenth century, a series of works appeared that left no doubt as to the immorality of the caste system. Charles Grant pointed out the following: “Despotism is not only the principle of the government of Hindostan, but an original, fundamental, and irreversible principle in the very frame of society. Under the fatal influence of this abominable system, the members of all four varnas have become inept and miserable.”

It was self-evident that immoral principles are inbuilt into the very frame of Hindu society. “The cast” or the system of caste now counted as an oppressive tyranny opposed to every principle of justice, whose rules compel people to be unjust and inhuman to such an extent of killing all social and benevolent feelings.

Evangelicals and missionary driven East India officials shared the agenda of convincing the government of the need for allowing the propagation of the Gospel in British India. With this aim, they stressed how terrible the state of society was and how false religion dominated every sphere of life among the Hindus. The evil of caste needed destruction, not only by means of benign rule but also through the dissemination of true religion. However, there were voices of many scholars and officials in the same period giving sympathetic accounts of Hindu society and argued against disrupting its religion and customs through missionary activity. Unfortunately, their narratives have not survived.

It is the conception of the caste system held by these Protestants – and not that of the sympathetic Orientalists – that survives today in its basic outlines. That is, it is the missionaries who propagated the account of the caste system as an immoral social structure at the core of Hindu religion. It is they who insisted that this system compelled the Hindus to act by the most unjust and inhuman principles. And it is this step that appears to have constituted the discourse about the immorality of Indian society.


The “Malabar rites controversy,” as it was later called, concerned a simple question: did usages like the privilege of certain castes to wear a cotton thread around the torso, carrying a tuft of hair on a shaven head, or applying sandalwood paste to one’s face count as manifestations of religion or merely as civil observances? This dispute had its origins in the work of the Jesuit missionary Roberto De Nobili, who lived on the Malabar coast during the seventeenth century.

Other missionaries and officials challenged De Nobili’s position on caste-related customs. In an Apostolic Letter, Pope Gregory XV permitted Indian Christians to continue several of the relevant practices like wearing the sacred thread and performing ritual baths. Again, the decisive factor in these judgements about the customs of caste was the verdict that these were not inextricable parts of the religion of the Indians.

The concern about the religious nature of social practices went back all the way to early Christianity. After this religion had become dominant in the Roman Empire, the reach of “pagan idolatry” in everyday life became a crucial question. The worship of false gods, the church fathers said, had tentacles across social life. Any practice needed examination in terms of its connection to idolatry, from carving statues to attending games.

Early Christianity had thus carved up social life into three spheres: all actions essential to the worship of God were obligatory; all those related to idolatry or the worship of false gods were forbidden; and everything that remained was permitted, since it was indifferent to religion and the worship of God. In the early modern period, the same standard began to determine the missionaries’ moral judgements about the practices they encountered among pagan people in exotic parts of the world.

By the 1850s, as Duncan Forrester shows in his Caste and Christianity (1980), a new consensus had crystallized among the Protestant missionaries in India. It was not simply the case that some specific set of customs was religious, they argued, but that the entire system of caste was a “sacred institution” to the Hindus and an integral part of “the whole system of idolatry.” Converts now had to renounce all customs of caste as an expression of their embracing of Christ, for it did not concern a mere civil distinction but an institution to which the Hindus attributed a divine origin.

Forrester further says that missionaries began to consider caste as the main obstacle to conversion: the system which held the Hindu religion together and protected it from disintegration in the face of the Gospel. Thus, this Protestant consensus transformed caste into a religious institution, transferring from the sphere of things indifferent to that of false religion to the realm of the prohibited.


This shift allowed for the birth of the conceptual entity that we call “the caste system” by bringing together several clusters of ideas into one integral whole: the claims about the nation of the Hindus as a variant of that of the Jews; the conception of the Brahmin priesthood and its practices as an instance of false religion similar to the institutions of Catholicism and Judaism; the idea that such institutions deceived the believers into following a set of human fabrications as though these were divine commandments; the claim that the Hindu religion revolved around external ceremonies and concerns about purity and pollution. By integrating these elements into a coherent entity called “the caste system,” this shift provided order and stability to the European understanding of Indian culture and society.

It is this fabrication of divine origin that enables the priesthood to dominate the civil state of the Hindus and not just their religious life, by deceitfully imposing civil laws as though these constitute religious obligations. In brief, this shift brought these elements together to form a coherent conception of “the scheme of caste”: a system that had merged civil law and religion into one whole by claiming a divine origin for itself.

The Madras Missionary Conference perhaps put it most clearly in its declaration of 1850, which concluded decades of dispute about the status of caste:

Caste, which is a distinction among the Hindoos, founded upon supposed birth-purity and impurity, is in its nature essentially a religious institution, and not a mere civil distinction. The Institutes of Menu and other Shastras regard the division of the people into four castes, as of Divine appointment. The Hindoos of the present day believe, that the preservation – or loss of caste deeply affects their future destiny.


A persistent problem in the Western understanding was that the religion of the Hindus seemed to be an incoherent amalgamation of all kinds of doctrines, traditions, practices, texts, myths, and groups, without any shared creed, sacred text, or religious authority. How could it then be a religion at all?

Closer studies of Indian society kept generating anomalies that put into disarray the account of the “heathen” people of India as a nation of castes united by a common religion. However, instead of realizing that these were problems internal to the European account of Hinduism, Western scholars engaged in a protective move: they externalized this disorder as a characteristic property of the religion in question. Over the decades, they began to characterize Hinduism as “a chaos,” “a jungle,” or a “banyan tree,” which nevertheless formed the religion of the Hindus.

Hinduism had survived for centuries if not millennia. Given its apparent lack of structure, what kept this religion together and prevented it from falling apart? This issue was of importance to Christian missionaries in India, since they professed the aim of breaking the hold of false religion. The missionaries claimed to have found the common system called ‘caste’ that held the nation and religion of the Hindus together.

 “Caste is now so inseparably part of the Hindu system, that any attempt to sever it from what is considered religious, would be to render Hinduism, as it now exists, a mass of confusion”, said one.

The followers of Hinduism had nothing in common except the system of caste; therefore, this religion would dissolve without this core structure. The idea that caste was the sacred institution at the heart of Hindu religion had brought internal order to the European experience and understanding of Indian culture. The accounts then made caste a structural property of the alleged religion and social system of the Hindus.


From a Christian perspective, the distinction between a religious and a civil institution revolves around the fact that the former is of divine origin and embody the purpose of God, whereas the latter is merely a human creation.

Reformers like Luther and Calvin argued that the authority of human legal institutions could only be civil or political and never religious. Canon law, according to them, was a system of human law falsely presented as religious by claiming divine sanction. The Church and its clerical hierarchy did not represent God’s purpose on earth but it was a purely human institution that falsely presents itself as religious and imposes its fabrications onto the believers in the name of God’s will. The Reformation also reinforced a similar argument about Judaism.

Coming to ‘Hinduism’, from the Protestant perspective, if caste was an institution of false religion, it would have to function in a similar way. That is, the Hindu religion would enforce the civil laws of caste by falsely claiming that the system is rooted in divine revelation. This ploy gave caste its deceptive strength and allowed the system to reproduce itself despite the immorality of its injunctions.

Together, caste and Hinduism form a religious system that misleads the Hindus into following a set of immoral principles as the requirements of morality. The entire structure of today’s dominant conception of “the caste system” derives from a Protestant-Christian account, which basically describes caste as an institution of false religion that deceptively merges civil laws with religious obligations.


If we were to discard the overtly biblical elements from the nineteenth-century missionary descriptions of Hinduism and caste, it would become difficult to distinguish them from the contemporary moral discourse. In its outlines, the basic message of anti-caste academics and activists corresponds largely to that propagated by Christian critics more than two hundred years ago.

First, today’s critics chastise the caste system for providing people with certain privileges and occupations according to the caste of their birth and thus imprisoning individuals in the social position in which they are born, no matter how talented they may be.

Second, the system gives some castes a sense of inherent privilege and entitling them to control, discriminate, and humiliate others.

Third, it supposedly draws on religion to divide the Indian people into distinct groups separated by insurmountable barriers.

Fourth, it dehumanizes the untouchable castes or Dalits by excluding them from all civilized social life and treating them like animals or worse. Together, these aspects allegedly make the caste system “one of the most brutal modes of hierarchical social organisation that human society has known”.

The original religious core driving such judgements becomes visible when we remember that they went not only against Hinduism but also against Catholicism and Judaism. In fact, most of the major criticisms of caste traces back to a contrast made by Protestant Christianity between the state of society under true religion and that of societies under the rule of “false religion” and its “bondage of law.”


The contemporary analysis based on human rights and principles of equality relies on clusters of theological background ideas about the relationship between Christianity and Judaism. More than being a set of explicit ideas only, this framework consists of implicit conceptual resources that have allowed Europeans to make sense of the popular descriptions about religion and caste in India. Modern Europeans viewed the “heathens” of India as a variant of Jews of the ancient nation of Israel. How could it make sense to see an alien people found on the Indian subcontinent as a variant of the Jews who had lived in the Middle East more than 1,500 years before?

The basic nineteenth-century description of the caste system integrated earlier theological ideas into one coherent whole: a system that merged civil and religious law by ascribing a divine origin to both. Initially, this diagnosis was specific to Protestant analyses but it soon appeared in the most popular geographical and historical works of Western Europe, written by authors with a variety of religious and philosophical backgrounds. Without even referring to the biblical account of the nation of Israel or the Protestant objections to the Catholic Church, these authors told stories about India that presupposed elements from both theological accounts.

Academics, activists, and journalists keep drawing upon descriptions that derive from concerns and concepts internal to these debates. Still, their conceptual vocabulary indicates that they implicitly accept the truth of such theological claims.

Indian debates on the caste system are puzzling too as these also presuppose the existence of a social organization that deceives the Hindus into living by a set of immoral injunctions disguised as moral obligations. Thus, they also rely on elements from the Protestant consensus about “the Hindu system” of caste. Indian academics and activists do not belong to a culture constituted by centuries of Christian religious dynamics. Nonetheless, educated Indians reproduce “critical” descriptions that emerged from mapping “the caste system” onto these concepts and concerns. This has been going on for over two centuries and even led to laws enacted by the Indian authorities. Today, we are in the privileged position of pointing out the flaws in these past attempts. We realize that the dominant conceptual language does not help us in formulating the problems of Indian society, let alone in solving them. We now have a responsibility in identifying the flaws in the current conception of the caste system and develop better descriptions.

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Dr Pingali Gopal

Dr Pingali Gopal is a Paediatric and Neonatal Surgeon practising in Warangal, Telangana. He has a keen interest in Indian culture and does his little bit to correct the many wrong narratives which hurt India at many levels. Opening his eyes rather late to the wonder called India, it is now a continuous journey for him to sip bits from the oceanic nectar of Indic Knowledge Systems.