Colonial Consciousness: Narratives of Caste, Religion, and Secularism – Part 2

Colonial Consciousness: Narratives of Caste, Religion, and Secularism – Part 2
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Read Part 1 here, and Part 3 here

The Caste System

The Ghent School of Scholars demonstrates how the caste story in India is the strongest colonial narrative that we internalized. Instead of rejecting them, we have further built up colonial narratives, leading to many social and political problems. The ‘caste system’, a firm knowledge of Europe about India since colonial times, is allegedly the origin of all evils and an obstacle to all progress.

The classical conception of the “caste system” (Jalki and Pathan, 2015) evolved and consolidated in colonial-missionary writings and has remained unchanged for two centuries. Summarily, the caste system rests on four principles: a) occupational division, sanctioned by Hinduism; b) hereditary membership; c) endogamy; and d) exclusion of and discrimination against the ‘outcaste’ groups (which includes commensality and ‘untouchability’). Field studies and societal practices contradict each of the properties theorized for the caste system. Strangely, caste scholarship presents the disjunction as a unique feature of the caste system!

Balagangadhara says:

“As a system arising from antiquity, it survived Buddhism, Bhakti movements, colonization, Indian independence, world capitalism, and even globalization rather strongly. Hence, it must be a very stable social organization. There exists no centralized authority for enforcing the caste system across the country. It is an autonomous and decentralized organization and no social/political regulation could eradicate the system. Hence, it must be a self-reproducing social structure. It exists in one form or the other in all religious denominations and in different environments. Hence, it adapts itself to any new environment it finds itself in. New castes have come and gone, and hence, this system is also dynamic. Since it has survived under all political regimes, it must be neutral to political ideologies too.

“Would not such an autonomous, decentralized, stable, adaptive, dynamic, self-reproducing social organization, also neutral to all political, economic, and religious doctrines and environments be the most ideal system if one really existed as such? This most ideal caste system derives only from the present descriptions of the caste system and does not require any additional theories or assumptions. Hence, European narrative about the ‘evil caste system’ may not amount to much.”

We do not even want to evaluate what “Varna” and “jati”, our indigenous systems, mean and how they correlate to the word “caste”, an alien word imported from the Portuguese world. The word ‘caste’ has no equivalent in the Indian scriptures, and yet we have extraordinarily superimposed “caste” on all our indigenous social systems and achieved a breakdown of the country that the colonials could only dream of.

We never pondered on why profound thinkers like Sri Aurobindo and Ananda Coomaraswamy felt that the strongest point of India, which allowed it to withstand the constant attacks on our civilization for centuries, were the “three quartets”: a) the four varnas; b) the four ashramas; and c) the four purusharthas. The framework of our civilization was these deeply interlinked quartets, and the ultimate ideal of the individual and the nation was “moksha”. Moksha was possible for any individual who stayed true to the boundaries of Varna and Ashrama. It is possible that studying each of the three quartets in isolation would only lead to distortion, fissuring, and strife, as is happening in society today.

Problematically, Indian scriptures never developed a theory of varna like modern writers. The latter indulged in a selective but constant quotation of the scriptures (the Manusmriti being the most popular) to create this hierarchy of the varnas. A single verse in the Purusasukta wherein the Brahmins emerge from the head of the God figure and the Sudra from the feet becomes the greatest proof of this vertical top-down hierarchy. Modern scholars conveniently ignore other equally important scriptures that note a reversal of hierarchy with Shudras on top and with equal authority for all varnas in gaining enlightenment. It was most likely that the varnas were “categories” without the kind of hierarchy constructed by the colonials and missionaries. The negative connotation of being a Shudra has been one of the worst divisive narratives, even though reality shows that the most powerful communities politically, socially, economically, and culturally belong to the Shudra varna across time and space.

Three phenomena have intertwined in our present understandings: a) the continuing colonial story of the “caste system”; b) the institutionalized hierarchy (forward castes, backward castes, scheduled castes, and so on) created by successive governments to achieve social justice without understanding varnas and jatis; and c) lived experiences and actual societal practices where jati makes the most sense and yet is least focused upon by caste scholarship. There are contradictions, fallacies, ambiguities, and confusion when the three mix to generate newer narratives with conflict as their essence.

Initially, there were a few jatis, and now they have expanded to almost 4000. The correlation of jatis to varnas has been one of the most dubious exercises. Weird categories like caste, sub-caste, and sub-sub-caste now apply to the various jatis. The only lived reality of people in the Indian social system is the jatis. Thousands of these exist based on occupation, language, ethnicity, customs, traditions, and even gender, with their own rules of marriage, food, clothing, belief in gods, and so on. They have proliferated, dissolved, merged, split, and migrated up and down across time and space on the social-political-economic scale. On the other hand, varnas, always four in number, have remained constant across centuries. Varna categories have been based on ideas like guna (nature), swadharma (duty), and karma (quality of work). Our texts focused more on duties than rights; they have been inconsistent in placing varna in a hierarchical order.

As the Ghent School shows (Western Foundations of the Caste System), three important colonial ideas played an important role in consolidating the narrative of a “caste system” in India: a) The Portuguese origin of the word “casta”; b) the Protestant criticism of Jewish and Catholic priesthood as the background of the colonial criticism of the Brahmanical priests; and c) the Aryan theory with its racial connotations. Caste grew in the Western context; varna and jati grew in the Indian context. It is possible that they might refer to different phenomena and that one culture studied another using its own framework. The colonials had an experience of our social systems, which laid the basis for establishing an explanatory meta-narrative in the form of a ‘caste system’.

The British, like the current social sciences, put across meta-theoretical claims of a coherent structure called the ‘caste system’. The horror stories of ‘caste discrimination’; the social humiliation of groups; ‘untouchability’; poverty, and such became the routine evidence for this. This discrimination is neither unitary nor monolithic and is universally present. Hierarchy, purity, pollution, endogamy (marriage concerns), occupational communities, and any such properties were and are properties across the globe in multiple social settings. Discrimination and social humiliation of groups are in slavery, in the feudal societies of Europe, in the capitalist societies of today, and compatible with multiple social structures. On their own, these phenomena are not evidence of one specific social structure, namely, ‘the caste system’. Thus, as the Ghent school demonstrates, there is no unity in the sets of phenomena, clubbed together and described as either component parts, causes, or effects of the Indian ‘caste system’.

As a classic colonial consciousness, our thinkers, politicians, and academia simply accepted the colonial discourses of a caste system in India—a religiously sanctioned hierarchical social system that made it almost morally obligatory to act in an immoral fashion. The colonials and the missionary narratives made the Brahmins an intense focus of all the evils in the Varna system. The Brahmins continue to have the most disembodied power in all modern intellectual narratives. Even when there is an issue between two non-Brahmanical jatis, violent or non-violent, the cause seems to be ‘Brahmanism’. The colonials described the Brahmins as oppressors, exploiters, and creators of the caste system. Francis Xavier made his position clear when he wrote to the king of Portugal, ‘If there were no Brahmins, all pagans would be converted to our faith ‘, calling them the ‘most perverse people’. The present social sciences just build up data to show the validity of previous truths; rarely do they turn back to reflect that these narratives could be false too.

Dharampal (The Beautiful Tree) deconstructs the popular idea that education was the exclusive domain of high-caste Brahmins based on reports commissioned by the British themselves. The archival records of the early 19th century show a significant percentage of Shudras, sometimes even more than Brahmins, in the schools and colleges situated across various presidencies. This is a problem for British historiography because the literacy rate when they left India was about 12 percent. It was not the outcome of the forward castes denying others access to education but the replacement of the traditional and classical education systems by the Anglicised education. But we believed and continue to believe in the “Brahmanical denial of education”.

Academia, media, NGO activists, and intellectuals project the Shramana (Buddhism and Jainism) and Bhakti movements as egalitarian anti-caste revolts. This hypothesis places Buddha (Martin Luther of India) as the first reformer. Scholars have shown that Buddha and Buddhists neither rejected Brahmanas nor did they fight against the ‘caste system’. They considered varna divisions to be an appropriate dharmic grouping of society. Buddhism was just another tradition in the Hindu land, where new traditions, sects, and gurus evolve all the time, showing many paths to the final enlightenment. The British attacked Brahmins for many reasons, but it is sad that our politicians, social sciences, and society failed to look beyond what the colonials said.

Dalits and Untouchables

“Caste Hindus” and “Untouchables” were never an age-old division within Hindu society. The Commissioner (1901 Census) sent to every Census Commissioner four Sanskrit-named “Shudra” categories, of which the last was Asprishya Shudra, castes whose touch is so impure as to pollute even Ganges water. The system failed, but they forced fit many jatis and eventually divided society into “Caste Hindus “and “Depressed Classes “. The Government of India Scheduled Castes Order of 1936 and even later of 1950 continued to follow the colonial legacy to this day.

Today, the government has transformed more than one thousand two hundred communities (jatis) and 64.5 million people at the last census into a single category of Scheduled Castes. Surprisingly, the decisive factors are not social or economic backwardness, age, income, or disability but a single tenuous “untouchability”. The Constituent Assembly never clearly defined “untouchability”, despite its decisive role. The practices were widely variable across the country with new additions on an ad-hoc basis. It accepted two “tests of untouchability” from the 1911 Census: “those who are denied access to the interior of ordinary Hindu temples” and “cause pollution by touch or within a certain distance”. If one refrains from touching another, it becomes caste-based untouchability when the former belongs to the Caste Hindus while the latter belongs to the Untouchable Caste. And the Untouchable Castes are those subjected to caste-based untouchability. There are severe cognitive problems with such circular logic confronting the currently dominant account of Indian society. Scheduled Castes exist, but only in the Indian legal and political system.

Tribals – The “original” Inhabitants

The neologism Adivasi (adi, original; vasi, inhabitant) of the 19th century became the most successful disinformation campaign of modern times by the colonials and missionaries. In settler colonies (like Australia), “aboriginal” made sense to distinguish the European settler from the natives. However, in non-settler colonies like India, “aboriginal” became a pure colonial construct, which placed the “majority” as simply the pre-European colonisers of the “tribal minorities”.

Many tribes of North-East India migrated much later from the surrounding countries after the indigenous non-tribal peasant population. Historical data does not support the division of India’s population into “aboriginal tribals” and “non-tribal” invaders. International organisations (like the ILO) strengthened this distinction by introducing internal coloniality and a permanent faultline. Hinduism, dating back to pre-Aryan times, is as “aboriginal” as the tribal populations. The similarities between Hindu traditions and the tribal traditions in their fundamental polytheistic nature and paganism (deifying the feminine, nature, and animals) show them clearly distinct from the prophetic-monotheistic religions. The “tribals” and other “mainstream” Vedic-Sanskritic traditions have many elements in common through mutual interactions.

The impossibility of defining and the broad usage have relegated the concepts of race and tribe into disuse. “Tribe” is a key but obsolete concept from anthropology’s early history that usually served colonial, administrative, and ideological purposes to call the indigenous groups primitive. Strangely, anthropologists spent decades trying to get rid of a pernicious concept like “tribe,” only to see it sneak back into the Indian Constitution, Indian legislation, and its administration.

Proselytization and the Clash of Religions

The fundamental thesis of Dr. Balagangadhara is that the phenomena in India termed Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism are colonial constructions. The British experienced many practices in India, and using a Protestant theological framework, they constructed religions of different kinds, sometimes even fighting each other like in European Christendom. But they are all phenomena best described as “traditions” and differ from pure religions in the definitional sense (Islam, Christianity, and Judaism). With such an understanding, there is scope for better understanding India, discarding the noxious idea of secularism damaging Indian culture, finding a way forward for harmony between different faiths, and tackling the tricky issue of proselytization.

Conversions and anti-conversion movements are tricky issues all over the world, including India. At a fundamental level, the clash is on the meaning of “freedom of religion.” For proselytising religions, it means the freedom to convert people into their faith; for non-proselytising religions, it implies freedom from interference by outside religions. The root problem is trying to understand the various indigenous phenomena (Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, and Jainism) as ‘religions’ in the same mould as Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.

Sanatana Dharma lacks all the characteristics that allow us to recognise and differentiate Christianity, Islam, and Judaism as religions: a fixed body of doctrine, an ecclesiastical organisation or central authority, a holy book, etc. Hindu, Jain, Sikh, and Buddhist traditions and the religions of Christianity and Islam are phenomena of different kinds. When religion is a matter of doctrinal truth and different religions are rivals, the freedom to convert becomes of the utmost importance. Since false religion always implies immoral practices according to Christian and Islamic viewpoints, conversion entails the escape from immorality and injustice. The secularisation of Christian theology translates into the importance of the absolute right to profess, propagate, and change one’s religion.

Where “religio” means the ancestral tradition of a community, like in India and Greco-Roman traditions of the past, the significance shifts to the freedom to continue one’s tradition without aggressive interference from the outside. The dominant liberal principle of religious freedom, even enshrined in the Constitution but which the courts disagree with, privileges Christianity and Islam because it involves the freedom to propagate one’s religion and to proselytize. It implicitly endorses the assumption that religion revolves around doctrines and truth claims, something unknown in traditional cultures. Neither anti-conversion laws nor the principle of religious freedom work since both privilege one of the two sides of the controversy.

Historically, India has a far better record of pluralism and multiculturalism in mostly peace than Europe and the western world in their histories. We need to rediscover the inherent mechanisms in Indian traditions responsible for this vibrant pluralism in India. Many scholars have pointed out that local Islamic and Christian traditions lost their aggressive proselytising drive in India. Hindu attempts to impose anti-conversion legislation aggressively also seemed to be absent. The decolonization would most importantly be to revise our understanding of our traditions as religions. The solution then would be in the direction of ‘traditionalizing our religions’ rather than ‘religionizing our traditions’. Religions say, “I am true and you are false”; traditions say, “I am true, but you are not false.” And therein is the difference.

Hindus, Hinduism, Hindutva

The standard liberal elite discourse is: ‘Hinduism is good and Hindutva bad’. However, have we understood the meanings of the words Hindu, Hinduism, and Hindutva? For the Islamic invaders and the later colonials, all Indians on the other side of the Indus River who were not Abrahamic were collectively ‘Hindus’. A west rooted in religion saw religions in all the colonized cultures. The experience of alien practices came together in the meta-narrative explanatory framework of a religion called Hinduism. The subsequent religions of Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism were further explanations of Indian society.

The colonial intellectuals did not realize that Indian ‘traditions’ behaved differently from a phenomenon called ‘religion’ as exemplified by Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Barring a few, generations of intellectuals since colonial times to the present do not question the understanding of Hinduism as a religion. The widely diverse traditions with still wider beliefs go against the definition of religion. Yet, our understanding of Hinduism as a religion stays intact despite all the inconsistencies and contradictions.

Similarly, Balagangadhara shows that colonial consciousness in Hindutva manifests as a repetition of Orientalist discourse. Whether it was Francis Xavier, Grant, or James Mill, the description of degraded and condemnable Brahmins was a standard Orientalist discourse. Reformist movements like Arya Samaj swallowed this and did not pause to check the Orientalist discourse of ‘western education removing the accumulated filth produced by Brahmins’ in its reformist strategies. Acceptance of Orientalist discourse as a true description of Indian society leads to repetition of the same discourses. India is thus corrupt, immoral, idolatrous, and has a false religion in desperate need of reform. This is precisely colonial consciousness. The colonial and ‘post’ colonial experiences of Indians remain the same.

The similar rhetoric of the Sangh Parivar and Orientalism with regards to denouncing the caste system, eradicating superstitions, and searching for a ‘pure’ Hinduism for a ‘Hindu’ nation shows that the Sangh has been unable to discover a non-colonial, non-western framework to understand India. Colonization (both Islamic and European) broke the access that Indians had to their own traditions; post-independence, colonial consciousness maintains this barrier. Today, the Hindutva movement continues a tendency to ‘reform’, which ironically becomes Orientalism 2.0 in terms of the damage it causes to Indian culture.

Buddhism vs. Hinduism

A disruptive colonial narrative that we fail to reject is the supposed antagonism of Buddhism with Hinduism. Thus, Buddha broke away, rebelling against the “caste system” and the Vedas. However, Buddha himself described Rama as his previous incarnation. He may have said the Vedas were unnecessary for enlightenment, but his messages were Upanishadic in nature. The subtle differences between Advaita and Buddhism are hardly a reason for violent or unpleasant encounters.

Orientalists started treating Buddhism as a separate religion because they discovered it outside India. With clearer origins, Buddha became Martin Luther and Buddhism, a Protestant-like attack on Hinduism. An exclusive belief in Buddha over the rejection of any other god is unbelievable in traditional cultures like India. Buddhist buildings, temples, rituals, and mantras follow established Hindu Vedic patterns and Vastu Shastras. The image of Buddha sits happily in many Hindu homes and temples.

Buddha, contrary to popular narratives, never rejected the varnas. He, in fact, put the Kshatriyas at the top of the hierarchy. The conversion of Dr. Ambedkar, along with thousands of his followers, in 1956 strengthened the anti-Hindu programme of Buddha in a retrospective manner. Buddha was simply a beneficiary of an established Hindu pluralistic tradition.

Koenraad Elst simply says, “Buddha was every inch a Hindu”. One of the most profound intellectuals of the twentieth century was Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, who made a deep study of almost all the faiths in the world. He begins his introduction of Buddhism (Hinduism and Buddhism) by writing: The more superficially one studies Buddhism, the more it seems to differ from the Brahmanism in which it originated; the more profound our study, the more difficult it becomes to distinguish Buddhism from Brahmanism, or to say in what respects, if any. Buddhism is really unorthodox.

Secularism as the Great Indian Solution for Harmony

Colonial consciousness generates through three steps: 1) it presupposes a Western narrative to be normative ideal for everyone, 2) then describes non-Western society as deficient, and 3) finally, implements normative values to reform the deficient situation. Thus, liberal secularism was the only model for harmony. Next, Indian culture consisting of religious tyranny, caste violence, communalism, Dalit atrocities, and so on proves a deficient society.  Then the final reform of the Indian society: in the past, by missionaries (replacing the false with the true religion) and the colonials (replacing native superstitions with scientific education); after independence, by Indian reformers and secularists (by secularism and scientific temper to address the societal evils).

A polity is thus of either liberal toleration or embodies its negation. Rejection implies that the polity is dangerously mixing religion and politics. Post-Independence, Nehruvian ‘scientific temper’ to tackle a superstition ridden society were simply the Enlightenment values of the 19th century. His reasoning was clear and straight: either a progressive secular state or a backward religious one. Dr Ambedkar’s representation of caste and his critique of Hinduism were a straight inheritance from the orientalist discourse on the nature of true and false religions. Neither Nehru or Ambedkar presented Christianity or colonialism as a way out, but they argued on the principles of secularism, liberty, and equality to address communal oppression and caste tyranny.

Historically, Indian, and Greco-Roman pluralistic societies were far more tolerant and liberal than any society so far which includes the past and present West. Critics however quote that egalitarianism did not truly exist because some groups had an oppression. The past pluralistic societies maybe had principles other than liberal secularism holding societies together; intolerance could be due to factors other than the absence of liberal values.

Secularism was a solution for European Christendom at a specific time of its history when the various denominations were fighting each other based on individual doctrines. The State separation from the Church made profound sense only in that Christian world. The influx of Islam into Europe and the facts of relationship between Hindus and Muslims in India show a severe stress in the secularism model for harmony.

Educated Indians used Western cultural experiences to describe themselves. In the absence of alternative frameworks, at best the Asian and Indian intellectuals described their own cultures as deficient variants of the West. We are not developing alternative theories of harmony forgetting that pluralism and mutual respect existed for thousands of years in India without any large-scale persecutions and genocides. There must be another approach, different from the secularism of the west, embedded in our culture, which we need to discover.

Secularism and Writing History

Secularism was a solution for European Christendom at a specific time of its history when the various denominations were fighting each other. The separation of the Church from the state was never a universal solution for all cultures across time. Today, the secularism model is severely stressed with the influx of Islam into Europe. Paradoxically, in India, as Jakob De Roover shows, secularism is generating more hardening of stances from all sides. Our post-independent political thinkers, heavily influenced by western thought, in a classic example of colonial consciousness, applied secularism for dealing with the ‘communal’ problem in India.

The unclear understanding of Hinduism, the different nature of the clash between Hinduism and Islam, and the intricate intertwining of the ‘secular’ and the ‘sacred’ in Indian cultural life not allowing a separation finally amounted to secularism an intense violence on Indian culture. Gradually, secularism degenerated into an appeasement of the minority.

The distorted writing of history resulted from these ideas of secularism. Our history books turned indigenous figures into footnotes while we imbibed the Delhi-centric history with great passion and vigour. The Indian past became ‘primitive’ even as the vision was to a ‘golden’ future represented by Europe. The left-liberal thinking and powerful Marxist academicians writing our textbooks, in a great symbiotic relationship, completely distorted the historical narrative.

At Independence, at our lowest in confidence and self-respect, there was a need to teach something positive about ourselves without needing to lie. The teaching should have been that we were one of the richest and the most culturally advanced countries in the world with wonderful achievements in various domains. We, on the other hand, just grew up being ashamed of our country, its religion, its culture, and its arts. Today, there is a disconnect in the youth with the idea of India. In fact, a twisted ideology is out to convince people that any idea of patriotism is fanatical. Sanskrit became an exploitative language; Ramayana and Mahabharata were trivialised; and Indians, of course, became misogynistic, casteist, and socially exploitative. Of course, India did not ‘really exist’ before the colonials. Hinduism was a template to show that everything was wrong in Indian culture.

History writers used every trick in the book for brainwashing like lies, appealing to authority, prejudice, cherry-picking, generalities, assumptions, thought terminating cliché, and so on. At least two crucial generations built their lives believing that nothing good came from our country. Our history became a history of invaders (the mythical Aryans, Islamic rulers, the Europeans, and the British in succession) instead of the land and its people. There was no discussion on why greedy rulers needed to come to India in the first place when the reverse never happened. To please or protect, our thinkers in all relevant fields inappropriately associated the present-day Muslims to the past Islamic invaders when it was quite unnecessary. The invaders became benign and benevolent which went against a huge body of contemporary descriptions by chroniclers and historians of the Islamic period.

Read Part 1 here and Part 3 here

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.