Caste 102- Our Collective Cultural Caste-ration
“Caste is worse that Jihad!”
All you ground-warriors of Hinduism, the work you do is essential and difficult. I have the greatest of respect for it.
I also understand that you are in the thick of “battle” and like the Indian Army, the way you see the world is unique to your situation.
So take this not as a criticism but as a more nuanced take on the relationship between Bharatiya society and the phenomenon of “caste”. As the Bharatiya awakening continues, it’s important that we at least look at ourselves with some nuance and complexity. After all Viveka, or the ability for discernment, has been the civilizational hallmark that has distinguished us from the Western Abrahamics and their tendency towards black and white judgementalism.
The enemies of Bharat follow a two step process. First, they reduce all of Hinduism to “Caste” and then they reduce the complex and yet undefined phenomenon of “Caste” to Oppression. By repeating these faulty axioms over two centuries they have built a hate-Bharat consensus in the wider world and simultaneously injected our colonized minds with the poison of self-hate. We are a long way down that road today. Self-Hate is a widespread phenomenon in our society and many of us offer ourselves up for conversion – to Islam, Christianity, Communism, Globalism and all the other “isms” that have world-domination as their goal.
As an indigenous civilization which does not believe in world-domination, we must continue to fight these forces. In today’s world, when their strategy has made deep inroads into our self-perception, the first step is to recover from the ill-effects of self-hate by de-colonizing our minds through personal research from primary sources. The second is to speak our truth to the world unapologetically. We must stop using the language of our enemies against ourselves. Hinduism is not “caste” and “caste” is not oppression. Oppression is a universal phenomenon built into all power structures. Our fight is against oppression, period, not against “caste”.
Today, every major Hindu organization wants to “strive towards a caste-less society”. Implicit in this stance is the unquestioned belief that caste is a bad thing. Where does that belief come from? Why do we so easily equate caste with oppression? I know, I know, these questions that must not be asked, the white man has told us that caste is bad.
Lets wind the clock back a little and ask the primary question – “What is caste?”. Only when we have a satisfactory answer to that question can we decide if it is a bad thing or not.
Tribe and Tradition
Let me start by laying out an intellectual roadmap that, if we are lucky, will lead us to, if not a definition, at least an understanding of the phenomenon that goes by the name of “caste”.
“Tradition is bad. Tradition has weakened us. We have to look beyond rituals to the essence of what the rituals represent. Ultimately, to beat them, we have to become like them.” This is a common point of view of a number of people who are fighting for Hinduism’s cultural renaissance.
We can now ask, if, to beat them, we have to become like them, then why fight them in the first place?
I find myself forced to respond to a reading of our history that has led a segment of patriotic Bharatiya people to believe that in order to beat the enemy we need to abandon our traditions as weakness and each of us needs to become some version of an Advaitin Kshatriya. This is a reductivist view of our culture…the view of a soldier on the battlefield. But we know that not everyone is a soldier. When the wars are won don’t the soldiers all have to come home?
Visualize home then – from every corner of Bharatvarsh, every village, every forest, every hill, innumerable little unique streams of ritual and tradition emerge from the earth and flow across the land. As these streams flow and water our inner gardens, they manifest our Bhakti, simultaneously connecting us to each other and our land, thus forming the grand river of our civilization. These little streams are as important as Gnyana, Yoga and Shaurya. When we disregard tradition, we are not only bringing down the specialized orthodoxy, we are also looking down upon the daily lives of hundreds of millions of common rural and urban folk for whom these traditions are the metaphorical spiritual palace that their ancestors have built and that they live in and maintain every single day of their lives. It’s important that we do not reduce the awesome umbrella of the cultures of Bharat to simplistic labels such as backward, weakness and oppression like our enemies do. Some of our practices may or may not need reform, but that is beside the point. Reform, only when essential, will happen bottom up only when we discard top-down narratives of negativity.
If self-hate is not a part of the Muslim and Christian self-perception, then why is it only the Hindu who carries this cross of self-hate, knowing full well that our history of oppression is minimal compared to the centuries of inter-continental Christian and Islamic cruelty? Is it because we have internalized the idea that we lost? And we lost because we are weak? And that we are weak because there is something wrong with us? And that thing can only be “caste”…because the white man told us so?
Step 1, it is essential that we stop believing this lie that the muslim armies kicked our ass. A battle by battle analysis shows us that Bharatiya people won more battles that the muslim armies. Start with Sitaram Goel’s “Heroic Hindu Resistance” and take your research all the way to the retaking of Delhi by the Marathas and the retaking of the Khyber Pass by the Sikhs. We are a brave and strong people who safeguarded our culture over the longest assault in history. It doesn’t get better than this. We need to celebrate this. Barring small pockets, every single other land on the planet has been conquered by Christianity, Islam or Communism. We’re still standing…and growing.
It’s also true that the Turks and the British ruled vast parts of this land for long periods of time and we’ve lost a significant chunk of our civilizational territory. We allowed this to happen to us because we made one single but fatal mistake. And we made it repeatedly- we failed to understand that people who only fight defensive battles are destined to lose area. For 1000 years, until Shivaji, we didn’t fight a single offensive battle. I understand…that is our ethos. It still is. “I leave you alone, you leave me alone”. I get it, that’s beautiful, but unfortunately our enemies never subscribed to this worldview and we had to fight and fight and fight, all the time protecting ourselves and our ways of living. But we never took the fight to the enemy’s camp with the intention to end the menace once and for all. This one thing we need to rectify. And I do think our ground-warriors have a clear-eyed recognition of this.
And Step 2, we need to come to a proper understanding of “caste” from an anthropological perspective. The Bharatiya people are essentially a coalition of tribes. In modern times, the word tribe has come to exclusively mean hunter-gatherer forest dwellers but in fact it refers to any group of people who follow the same rules and taboos and define their identity via these rules and taboos. Generally speaking, tribal people are those whose communal identity is stronger than their individual identity. Every jaati, sect and sub-sect in India functions as a tribe. If the Yanomami and Guarani in Brazil and Paraguay, the Navajo and Sioux in the USA, the Masai and Zulu in Kenya and South Africa, the Jarawa and Sentinelese in India do not inter-dine or inter-marry that is considered normal but if the Bharatiya jaatis do the same, they are deemed as evil. Why? This international take-down of Bharat needs to be addressed honestly both externally and internally within our minds. Our jaatis are just as old as these tribes and deserve to be looked at using the correct anthropological lens. Unlike these other tribes though, our civilizational wisdom developed philosophies and stories to bridge our divides, communicate across differences and build socio-cultural mechanisms to help us work together and live as good neighbours. This is what makes us a coalition of tribes and not just a set of isolated groups. This is also what helped us, the world’s largest civilizational group of people, make the smooth transition from the Neolithic to the Agricultural Age as one people.
The words tribe and tribal are not bad words. The words community and communal are also not bad words. These words have been given a bad name by western modernists who are adherents of the cult of individualism. This cult of individualism is a brand new mutation in human history and is made possible by the invention of extreme technologies that feed people the illusion that they can survive all by themselves. Such individuals tend to believe that relationships are choices to be made and that one should control how much influence family and friends have on our lives- “If we have our microwave, our fridge, our shopping malls, ATM cards and internet, we don’t need anybody else!” is the thinking of the individualists. Take a breath and look at where this way of being has led America, the foremost practitioner of this lifestyle- Depression, school shootings, the world’s highest rates of incarceration, spring-break culture, pornography, drug abuse, broken families, loneliness, and wars without end, all pointing to a society, all of 300 years young, on its last legs. Run-away individualism and the wealth and technology to make it happen are not the right answers to life’s questions. With all of its “technological enlightenment” the USA needs a virtual army of doctors and policemen to simply manage the emotional ill effects of its chosen mode of being!
Humans are a communal species. For four million years, it is tribalism that has protected homonids and enabled us to thrive in virtually every ecological niche on the planet. We need community and strong wholesome relationships with other people, ideally family and extended family…This has been and continues to be the quintessential human experience. It is this and only this that allows us to feel connected in a horizontal and a vertical matrix that lends us our “place in the world”. Horizontally we connect us to our brothers and sisters via commonly held traditions and vertically we connect with our parents and our children via traditions that we receive and pass on.
Tribalism and tradition are intimately linked. Without tribalism there would be no tradition and without tradition, we would not know who our brothers and sisters are and we would not know what to say to our children about who we are and where we come from (a deeply unsettling condition that many of us in the modern world are facing today).
This is not to say that tradition is a straight-jacket that limits us. Tradition does change after deliberations within the community especially in Bharat. The people who will never change regardless of the context are called orthodox in general parlance. Perhaps, our modern day kshatriyas are speaking of “orthodoxy” when they are being critical of “tradition”. Lets start by using the right words.
“Caste” and Context
“Traditionalists weakened Hinduism
by putting obstacles in the way of Buddha, Shankara, Shivaji, Baji Rao”
It is important to note that if after fighting for 1300 years we are still Bharatiya, it is because there were traditionalists who did not compromise. If we had compromised with our traditions just in order to win or escape, then who would we be when we did win? Meenakshi Jain recounts in her book, “Flight of Deities and Rebirth of Temples”, “(Aurangzeb’s) decree (in Mathura, 1669) led to a mass migration of deities. Govindadeva’s long journey from Vrindavan has been reconstructed by historians. Altogether eight temples were built as temporary abodes for the deity in flight, till it finally reached Jaipur and was instated in the ninth temple, where it remains under worship today.” Imagine that.
Our traditions, and the rituals that manifest those traditions, are an essential part of redefining who we are with every generation. Without these, we do not know who we are as a people; we do not have anything valuable to pass on to our children. Above and beyond this, our traditions are the continuation of our peoples’ commitment to all that is beautiful in life- that celebration of life, living, fertility and the cycles in Nature that we are all part of. All Bharatiya traditions celebrate the cyclic nature of life. Some communities have exuberant celebrations, some are understated and some are philosophical, but we, along with all the ancient cultures on the planet, are a cyclic and life-affirming culture, unlike the linear, death-centric Abrahamic religions or the linear, future-centric, technology-driven “Western culture”.
In Bharat, since ancient times, it has been the tribal system of jaatis that has been that vehicle for the protection and propagation of our traditions. By calling for a destruction of this vehicle (by wrongly defining it as “caste”), we are also calling for the destruction of all that it carries. Are we thinking deeply enough about this problem?
Even assuming that it is ok “in this day and age”, as the “West” has constantly been telling us, to discard “caste”, we would be doing ourselves a great disservice if we do not in all honesty recognize the jaati system for what it was and what it enabled for our civilization. I am looking objectively at the great system of division of labour/culture developed by our ancestors. Here is the the Rev. Joseph Roberts speaking in 1844CE, Madras. In an address to 33 Missionary Groups, he says “Caste is the great barrier in India betwixt the pagans and Christ…We think however that this wonderful institution of India, maybe traced to a more probable source…we are not convinced that all the tyrannical notions ascribed to this classification of men can be received as correct…and the constant provision for all kinds of artisans and labourers so that in every emergency there might be a supply of the required workmen to meet the various wants and needs of the realm. By fixing each person in a profession, there would be a greater perfection secured in the several works of art. The children not being allowed to adopt any other calling would naturally from the first dawning of thought associate themselves with their father’s pursuit and try to emulate each other in gaining the greatest reward”.
Let that sink in. Let us acknowledge then that it was our system of jaatis that stood between us and conversion to alien death-centric faiths. We are all still Bharatiya today because of the jaati system. If, paradoxically, this system today is seen as the root cause for conversion that is because of two things. One, the coming of the industrial age, the closing down of our traditional schools and the take-over of the commons by the British and then the Indian government over the past 175 years has brought poverty and loss of pride to a number of our communities who used to work with their hands and the land – agriculturalists, artisans, nomads etc. And Two, the constant demonization of our civilization by the West that we have internalized has installed permanently in us the feeling that we need to be “reformed”. We have been told to hate this thing called “caste”. We do not know what the definition of that word is but all of us who have had a modern education automatically hate it, whatever it is.
Here is the British Superintendent, L. Middleton, in the 1921 Census– “We pigeon-holed everyone by caste and if we had no true caste for them, labelled them with the hereditary occupation. We deplore the caste system and its effect on social and economic problems but we are largely responsible for the system we deplore…Government’s passion for labels and pigeon-holes has led to a crystallization of the caste system, which except among the aristocratic castes was really very fluid under indigenous rule.”
Here is Vivekananda speaking in Sri Lanka in 1897 he says- “The older I grow, the better I seem to think of these castes and other such institutions. There was time when I used to think that many of them were useless and worthless. But the older I grow the more I seem to feel a diffidence in cursing them because many of them are embodiments of experience over centuries and they facilitate in terms of development of these communities.”
The tribal jaati system was not a system designed for oppression but rather an organic system of economic and cultural arrangement that evolved to bind a multitude of tribal groupings together who would otherwise have remained isolated and materially weak like other tribes all over the world have been. Instead, from Neolithic times till the 18th Century, our socio-economic coming together made us the richest and longest-lived civilization in human history! It is quite possible that in today’s high-tech industrial world our tribal system of jaatis will automatically become obsolete. High-Technology allows us to multi-task in ways that were not possible in the earlier low-tech agricultural world, thereby rendering obsolete the need for strict divisions of labour. But we need to stop telling ourselves that the ancient system that kept our ancestors alive in agricultural and pre-agricultural times was evil. Petty politics and jockeying for power between groups are human traits. At times our inter-tribal skirmishes were ugly and groups did behave obnoxiously…but evil? I mean let’s at least use the right adjective.
In Bharat, our quarrels never led to genocide, slavery, ethnic cleansing, mass rapes and wars without end, all of that really evil stuff that Abrahamic religions and Western ideology suffer from and perpetrate upon the rest of us. Of all the civilizations that have existed, and despite its ugly warts, Bharat alone stands tall for its commitment to humanity and its recurrent acceptance of reform from wise men and women within.
We are a shining light.
We need to remind ourselves that division of labour has been a fact of anthropological evolution in every single agricultural civilization in the world – in Europe, in China, in Japan, in Egypt, everywhere. To simply keep referring to this as a Bharatiya phenomenon is dubious. Anyone who has ever lived in a low-tech agricultural situation will instinctively understand the nature and need for division of labour. A lot of time-consuming physical work has to be done everyday in order to ensure the very survival of everyone in the community!
We can loosely assume that a feudal order existed in Bharat too with a strict division of labour and birth-based allotment of responsibility, but unlike the terrible conditions that feudal systems created in Europe, we have known since the time of the composition of the Purusha Sukta that we are all ultimately one Purusha. It takes all parts for the whole to function and the whole has always been held in high spiritual regard. I am not denying the presence of perversions but by and large the Bharatiya view has always been more unifying and subtle that the European view. This led to a very different kind of society. Here in Bharat, power was always recognized as being in the service of a greater end. The people held in highest regard (in a ritual sense) were people whose temporal freedoms were severely curtailed and led the most austere lives. On the other hand, the people who were held in low regard (in a ritual sense) were people who were allowed the most temporal freedoms in terms of flexibility of work (apart from certain restrictions), marriage, food and personal habits. It is important to recognize that hierarchy in a ritual sense did not correspond with power in the temporal sense thereby turning today’s social justice arguments on their head. Over vast periods of our history, from the time of Chandragupta Maurya himself, kings rose up from the “lower castes”. Because renunciation was held in high regard, our morality has always tended towards honesty and sharing not deceit and accumulation. It was in Bharat that the great monarch Chandragupta gave up his kingdom and died as a wandering Jain monk in the jungles 2000 km away from his capital city. It was also in Bharat that Marco Polo observed – “These are the best and most honourable merchants that can be found. No consideration whatsoever can induce them to speak an untruth, even though their lives should depend on it…this Brahmin (Bania?) undertakes the management of it (the foreigner’s goods), disposes of the goods and renders a faithful account of the proceeds, attending scrupulously to the affairs of the stranger, and not demanding any recompense for his trouble.” It is also in Bharat, till today (especially among the remarkably generous “lower castes”), that no stranger is left standing at the door, who is not offered water and who is not invited in for a meal regardless of what time of day it is.
Unfortunately, the psychology of victimhood that the social justice machinery has injected like a virus into our minds hides from us the entirety of our complex intertwined histories, our high ideals, our proud communities and our long history of collaborative effort. In fact, it can be argued that the secular, western rights-based discourse is directly opposed to our native duty-based discourse, and has prepared the ground for conversion to Abrahamic religions. This is more obvious if we look at the numbers of people converting to Christianity in modern India as opposed to earlier when non-modern ideas held sway over our minds. The more modern we get, the less Bharatiya we become and the more likely we are to become some form of Muslim, Christian, Communist or Western lackey. We have to ask ourselves the question why, if they were so oppressed, the so-called “lower castes” didn’t convert to Christianity in the 1700 years they were in touch with Christianity and the 1300 years they were in touch with Islam? There can only be one real reason – Pride. Pride in who they were, pride in how they contributed and pride in their culture and their imagination of the world. They were not a broken people. Aravindan Neelakandan’s article in Swarajya lays it all out while looking at one particular example – that of the Devendra Kula Vellalars.
A community becomes “SC” when its traditional role becomes obsolete. A traditional people who have lost their purpose and whose members are yet to modernize themselves as individuals are a lost people open to all sorts of predatory advances. The British did a great job destroying traditional community roles by taking over the commons and shutting down our native schools (see Dharampal’s “The Beautiful Tree”). The secular Indian state does an even better job.
A hundred years before 1857, before the Criminal Tribes Act and before Sir Herbert Risley and his race-based caste census here is Edmund Burke in the mid 1700s with a deep insight into our societal organization – “For sometimes our (English) laws of religion differ from our laws of land, sometimes our laws of land differ from our laws of honour; but in that country(Bharat) the laws of religion, laws of land and laws of honour are all united and consolidated into one, and bind a man eternally to what is called his “caste”. Though he uses the wrong word “caste” and does not define what he means by it and though he exaggerates with the use of the word eternal with respect to “caste”, his intellect still locks into the real key to our society – the consolidation of religion, law and honour. That’s not “caste”, but that does sound a lot like Dharma.
Beauty and Strength
“Israel, not India, is the most
Dharmic nation because it emphasizes courage.”
If tradition is connected to identity and our rituals are a celebration of life via the offering of beauty, then there is also a counter point needed to protect it all - Strength. To all reformists, who fight orthodoxy and believe tradition to be a weakness, I have to point out that while I agree that context is important and victory is important, Beauty too is important. To all orthodox people who fight reform, I have to point out that, though I admire your commitment to keeping the fire burning, context is important and especially in Bharat, evolution in traditions is accepted and is sometimes essential. There can be no doubt that without strength, beauty will die. But there is also no doubt that without beauty, strength loses its purpose for being, thereby dying a metaphorical death. Both beauty and strength are symbiotic and essential for our continued survival as ourselves.
Israel, who our modern day kshatriyas say is more “Dharmic” than Bharat actually exhibits this split personality very well. Do our ground-warriors know that there is a substantial chunk of Israel’s population that is considered “orthodox” and is free to pursue tradition? They are not required to join the army or pay taxes. In fact they are funded by all other parts of Israel’s society in their traditional religious pursuits. Sounds familiar?
Here is Al-Beruni in 1030CE – “There is always a Brahman in the houses of people who administers the affairs of religion and the works of piety…he lives from what he gathers on the earth or from the trees…it is preferable that he does not trade himself. The Brahmans are not, like the other castes, bound to pay taxes and perform services to the king…He must always beat the drum before the fire and recite for it the prescribed holy texts.”
Why did Bharat survive when all the other pagan cultures slid into extinction? Bharat was unique among all the ancient pagan cultures in that we had perfected that delicate dance between the particular and the universal. Our traditions are particular – limited to each jaati and geography but our philosophies are universal, limited not by geography or jaati. To solve ticklish tribal problems, we count on our universalizing philosophies to unite us and to solve totalitarian problems, we count on our innumerable tribal groups to raise the flag of freedom. We have avoided both genocide (extreme particularism) and dictatorships (extreme universalism), for god knows how many millennia that we’ve been around. We are not this or that. We are this and that.
Our particularism (the tribalism inherent in our system of jaatis) was the unconquerable bulwark against the muslim armies. Put down one rebellion and another one starts, there was no end to the constant centripetal force among the infinite unique groups. There was never one power centre that could be crushed ensuring a final victory over Bharat and the Abrahamics could never get their heads around that. Paradoxically, it is today, when we are a “free” country that the Abrahamics sense the possibility of victory more than at any other time in history. We have created a single monolithic political structure that has a clear path for control. Simultaneously, the Western technologies of the internet, telephone, vehicles, railways etc. are all universalizing technologies, they aid in bringing people closer and making the world smaller. The fewer the political centres, the more universalizing the technologies, the easier it is for the Abrahamics to take control. That’s their speciality. From this point of view, it can be argued that “development” and “parliamentary democracy” are suicidal for Bharatiya civilization as we know it.
To counter the rising tide of Abrahamism in Bharat, we have two options before us,
Option1 : Break Apart. Assert our tribalness in a massive
defensive maneuver. I don’t think this option will have any takers at this
point in history. But this is something we need to keep in mind. Jagganathan at
Swarajya has alluded to something akin to this in this article but was immediately
silenced by the comments section.
Or, Option 2 : Come Together. Assert our civilizational unity in a massive offensive maneuver. This is something that our activists working on the ground sense instinctively. We need to push back against the enemies using their cultural weapons. Do what no Bharatiya had done for 1000 years until Raghunathrao stood on the walls of Attock on 28th April 1758 and contemplated taking back Kabul – take the fight to the enemy camp (politically of course).
We will win, even our enemies know that.
It’s only we who don’t.
“Flight of Deities and Rebirth of Temples” – Meenakshi Jain, 2019
“Caste Opposed to Christianity” – Rev. Joseph Roberts, 1847
“Lectures from Colombo to Almora”, Swami Vivekananda, 1897
“The Travels of Marco Polo”, Marco Polo, 13th Century CE (Translated by Komroff Manuel, 1928)
“The Importance of Being Dr. Krishnasamy”, Aravindan Neelakandan in Swarajyamag.com, 2019
“The Beautiful Tree”, Dharampal, 1983
“The Works of Edmund Burke – Volume 3”, Edmund Burke, 18th Century CE
“Al-Beruni’s INDIA”, Al Beruni, 11th Century CE
“Will breaking up Hinduism into its parts preserve it better than trying to keep it as one”, R.Jagannathan, 2017
This essay is an attempt at creating a foundation of ideas from which to view our cultural history afresh. Given the long history of outsiders reducing our identities to an undefined entity called “caste” and then further linking “caste” with oppression, I am forced to start by issuing a disclaimer- Support for oppression and supremacy of any sort, whether it is casteist, religious, racist or economic is unacceptable. Forcing people to do what they don’t want to do, and thinking of fellow human beings as intrinsically high or low are unacceptable moral positions. No doubt anyone can learn the Veda regardless of his jaati. No doubt anyone can enter the gates of heaven, if such a thing exists, regardless of his religion. No doubt anyone can learn to design a cryogenic engine regardless of the colour of his skin. No doubt anyone can be rich, if they so choose, regardless of how poor he is today.
Featured Image: Down to Earth