Deadly distortions of Colonial Rule- Notes from ‘A Ruler’s Gaze’ by Arvind Sharma- II

Deadly distortions of Colonial Rule- Notes from ‘A Ruler’s Gaze’ by Arvind Sharma- II

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In the first part, we saw how the Saidian lens can apply to assess the British rule over India by the distinguished author, Arvind Sharma. In the second part, we shall see how the author analyses the British narrative about our social systems, especially caste, and the wrong depiction of our education. It also assesses the impact of the dubious Aryan theory and how Dr Ambedkar had roundly rejected this hypothesis.  

Indian Illiteracy

A popular idea which is now inbuilt into the psyche of the colonized mind is that Indians were highly illiterate and education was the exclusive domain of high caste Brahmins and elite Muslims. In fact, the Brahmins prevented the other castes from obtaining education. A deep study of three reports commissioned by the British themselves by people like Dharampal is very useful to deconstruct this idea.

  1. Survey of Indigenous Education in Madras Presidency 1822-1826
  2. State of Education in Bengal 1835-38
  3. History of Education in the Punjab since the Annexation in 1882

There were about 1,00,000 village schools in Bengal and Bihar around the 1830s. Men like Thomas Munro thought that every village had a school. In Bombay too, the authorities noted that most villages had at least one school, the larger ones more. The proportion of those attending institutional schools in India in 1800 was not inferior to that of England. England was likely ahead in education of girls but this number offsets by the number of girls educated privately in India. Private education was 4-5 times more than institutional attendance.

The predominant castes in Madras schools were the Sudras. In Tamil speaking areas, the forward castes comprised of 13-23%. Muslims ranged from 3-10%. The Sudras and other castes formed 70-84% of the school going children. In Malabar areas, the twice -born forward castes were 20%, Muslims 27% and Sudras about 50%. In Bellary, Sudras were 33%. ‘All other castes’ accounted for almost 63% in some areas, which are the castes lower than the Sudras too. In Oriya speaking areas, Sudras and other castes formed 63.5% of the school going population. In Telugu areas, the proportion of Brahmins was between 24-46%, and that of Sudras between 35-41%. Brahmins filled the higher learning courses perhaps, but in astronomy and medicine, Brahmins were significantly less in proportion. In some areas the proportion of girls was high, like in Jeypore it was 29.7%. In Malabar, amongst Muslims, the proportion of girls was 35%.

William Adam said in his first report about Bengal and Bihar that every village had at least one school and that there were 1800 institutes of higher learning with at least 6 scholars in each of those. He clearly mentions that elementary education was accessible to all sections of the population.

This creates a problem for British historiography because the literacy rate when they left India was about 12%. It also creates problems for the oft repeated formal accusation that the forward castes ‘exploited’ the lower castes in the access to education. However, the clear facts which emerge is that the replacement of the traditional and classical education system by the Anglicized education destroyed the literacy rates of India. The justifications used by the British however stuck in the collective Indian mind, with the result that even today, the same discourse is prevalent even amongst the educated. Yes, the British did indulge in a long-term damage.

Caste System

A caste represents a group of families who eat and marry among themselves and follow the same profession. Endogamy and craft exclusiveness follows the caste system. The last is the least strong marker and hence, a profession may not be restrictive to caste. Similarly, caste position is unaffected by belief of disbelief in creed, doctrine, philosophy, or religion. A breach of caste regulations leads to forfeiting the caste position however. Every Hindu has a caste, an estimate number is between 2000-4000.

‘Jati’ is the word in Hinduism for ‘caste proper,’ which is the social unit one is born in. Hinduism contains another word called ‘varna’ with which jati is confused with. Varna best translates as class and jati as ‘caste proper.’ The varnas are four in number: Brahmanas (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (traders), and Sudras (labourers).

Castes rise and fall on the social scale, the varnas are always stable which are always four in number; and their order of precedence has not altered over the last thousand years. The author says that all ancient Indian sources make a sharp distinction between the two. Much frequently varna has a mention and jati, rarely. Manusmriti mentions that the various jatis form by a process called ‘varna-sankara’ or intermixture of varnas. Members of the same varna are supposed to marry within themselves, but intermarriage between the varna gave rise to the various jatis. The Manusmriti mentions fifty castes but only four varnas.

V. Kane, a distinguished scholar of Hindu Law mentions that the numerous castes found in the country arose from the union of men with women of differing varnas. The social status of the several castes might have varied from region to region or from epoch to epoch. The smritis were composed in different parts of India and at different times and they were meant to supply a popular want, to guide the people, and to reflect the prevailing state of society. Vedic authority was important to recognize the infallible varnas described, but the smritis, which were composed later were more cognizant of the realities of societies and the emergence of castes and sub-castes.

However, the British administrators, either by ignorance or deep intent, depicted the Indian caste system as consisting of four varnas, with a new category of ‘untouchables’ below the ‘sudras.’ Also, there is no depiction of the various jatis as derived from the intermixture of the four varnas, but as wholly located within the varna. This had important consequences in the future which is persisting even today in the colonized minds. The jatis are simply a result of admixture of varnas, and one could clearly move across the various varnas. It is not ‘up or down’ as the varnas denote a professional qualification and are not inherently superior or inferior to each other. The British were very eager to depict the ‘untouchables’ as falling outside the Hindu domain, and their attempt to create a sperate electorate for them was effectively foiled by Gandhi who undertook a fast unto death. A similar plan implemented for the Muslims in 1909 effectively divided the country on religious lines. It is true that in some parts of India, the untouchables were the fifth (pancama) or even as outside varna (avarna). However, as seen in the texts of Manu and Patanjali, there was no fifth varna and these castes were the sudras. The untouchable or chandala were clearly a part of Hindu society as seen from the ancient texts like Mitasksara in 11th century, a well-known commentary on the Yajnavalkya smriti.

H.H. Risely carried an obnoxious large-scale census of India in 1901. He laid down the principle that caste hierarchy be determined by social precedence as recognized by native public opinion. The jamming of varnas and jatis together with involvement of social status produced a chart of a different type. It forced people to get into one or the other castes and gave rise to a huge number of petitions and representations so that classifying castes by status stopped in 1919.

The ancient texts linking varna and jati united the country and society, but Western Indology divided the society by creating separate castes by using a logic unknown in the ancient Indian texts. A major part of British discourse concentrated on showing India as barbaric, uncivilized, uneducated, and heathen so that the justification could come for the task of the West, Europe, and the missionaries. At the heart of it however is the fact that ruling another country by force and looking at a foreign culture through one’s own prism is very abnormal.

Us and Them: The Status of Sudras and the Aryan Invasion

Orientalism had at its core the reliance on the distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ and deliberately accentuating it. The difference between the Aryans and the Dravidians, the subjugation of women, and the status of sudras with respect to the other three varnas were the narratives played strongly by the British rule and Western Indology.

The first direct textual reference to the four varnas, and the only time vaisyas and sudras get a mention, is a hymn in the Rigveda, the Purusasukta, which says:

The Brahman was his mouth

Of his arms was made the warrior

His thighs became the vaisya

Of his feet the sudra was born.

The four varnas emerge from the various parts of the same ‘purusa’ in this hymn. The sun and the moon are this purusa’s two eyes in the next hymn.  This hymn has undergone some serious interpretational problems by authors of the past and present (like Wendy Doniger). While depicting sudras based on this, words the like ‘dirtiest and the lowest,’ ‘afterthought,’ ‘outsiders’ came as a colourful interpretation to hugely exaggerate the differences when none existed. The problem is existing with present narratives too; and a strong bunch of self-sustaining academia who do not even know Sanskrit fight any attempt to correct the malignant interpretation.

Western translation of Ramayana by Robert Goldman adds an adjective ‘lowly sudra’ when no such qualification gets a mention in the original. Similar is the usage by AL Basham of ‘the humble sudra.’ These were all narratives of a Western Indology which attempted an accentuation of differences. Again, by giving examples of Ramakrishna Paramhansa, Radhakrishnan, Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Tagore, Dayanand Saraswati, modern Hinduism became elitist and Brahmanical.  There was however a deliberate downplay of non-Brahmanical figures like Swami Vivekananda or Gandhi.

The same Purusasukta hymn, from another perspective, easily shows that the association of various functions of the varnas with various parts of the same purusa is purely functional and not hierarchical in nature. It does not suppose an importance to any one part of the body as all of them are equally important. It represents rather a case of an attempt at egalitarianism rather than a justification of casteism; an attempt at fusion rather than fission. Justifying the feet as the other, the lowly, or the humble was a remarkable twist of a single hymn which set the course for almost a permanent battle in the name of caste.

If one looks at this hymn as an attempt to unite the four varnas to the parts of the same person, or recognizing the four main professions in society, or crystallization of an existing social set up, then one gets the perspective altogether different. It is simply a statement of fact and not hierarchy at all. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is almost as old as the Rigveda which has also important ideas on the four varnas; however, most authors have ignored these.

It says (I.4.11-15):  In the beginning was only Brahma. He created a superior form called Kshatra as he was undeveloped. Kshatra was undeveloped too, and hence created the Vis (commonality). Vis was undeveloped too and hence created sudra varna, for it nourishes everything else. He was   undeveloped too and created an even better form- Dharma (law). Brahma appears as Brahman, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Sudra by means of various divine gods like Agni. Nothing is higher than the   law or Dharma…

Similarly, this Upanishad talks about skin colour in a manner disturbing, but also very surprising. It says, ‘If a man wants a progeny of fair complexion, he should study the Veda. If he wants a son of tawny or brown complexion, he should study two Vedas. If he wants to obtain a son with dark complexion and red eyes, he should study the three Vedas.’ This is surprising because it counters the view the so-called superiority of the fair skinned Brahmins and the inferiority of the dark Sudras. Darker skin in children is the fruit of higher proficiency in the Vedas.

This scripture calls for a succession of castes created from the same Brahma, and Brahmana being the original caste in men. The others derive from the same Brahmana in succession, but in fact shows a superior progression. This Upanishad establishes that the Sudras do not emerge from the feet; it also says that there is a celestial form of the Sudra just as an earthly form; and that the god Pusan is associated with the Sudra. It is frequently argued that the Sudras is ineligible for a Vedic ritual as he was without a deity.

Mahabharata too says that, ‘there is nothing special about caste. The whole world is Brahmana. It was originally created by Brahma and then castes arose based on differences in action.’ Bharadvaja in reply to Bhrigu’s explanation of castes based on colour says,’ If different colours indicate different castes, then all castes are mixed castes.’ He also says, ‘We all are affected by desire, anger, fear, sorrow, worry, hunger, and labour; how do we have caste differences then?’

Western Indology accentuated the differences between ‘us’ and ‘them’: between the dvija (twice-born) and the sudras, and between the ‘egalitarian’ Westerners and the ‘caste-ridden’ Hindus. Cherry picking and selective interpretation of texts and by also erasure of a major alternative history of the caste system achieved this discourse. Brihadaranyaka gives successive progressive evolutions of castes (where sudras become the best) and similar is the case with Satapata Brahmana, but these accounts disappear as a case of classic Orientalism. Western Indology neglected the evidence of hierarchy reversal in context of the status of sudras. Shankaracharya gaining highest wisdom from a sudra; or Manusmriti giving the quantum of punishment depending on the caste with the highest to Brahmins for a similar crime, are some important debating points while considering caste. Manusmriti is more about duties of various varnas rather than their rights and this is a subtle point which has gone over the heads of most western Indologists. The Western Indology endeavour over the past two hundred years has been to inject race as driving wedge between the twice-born and the sudras.

PV Kane, an important scholar of Hinduism made the following observations:

  1. Several texts speak of all the four varnas in a sacrificial context, specifically including the sudra.
  2. Chandogya Upanishad implies the right to Vedic studies on the part of sudras.
  3. Bharadvaja Srauta Sutra and Katyayana Srauta Sutra refer to the sudra participation in Vedic ritual.
  4. Mimansasutra recognises this as a position of Badari.
  5. Hindu mythology preserves accounts of such access to sacrificial ritual on the part of the sudra.
  6. The Manusmriti provides for generational transformation of Brahmanas into sudras and vice versa through jatyukarsa and jatyapakarsa (or change in one’s varna status over generations through hypergamy or hypogamy).
  7. The Arthashastra explicitly acknowledges the sudra as an Arya.

The Aryan Invasion Theory and Dr Ambedkar

One of the most pernicious theories affecting the country’s unity and solidarity has been the Aryan Invasion theory. This has played havoc with our country at multiple levels. The classic Western view enforced on us and internalized too by majority of Indians without question is the Aryan-Dravidian theory.

As the narrative goes, around 1500 BC or so, horse riding invaders called the Aryans from Central Asia invaded North India. The natives of India were the Dasas and Dasyus who were racially different and dark in colour. The fair-skinned Aryans defeated the dark skinned Dasas and Dasyus and drove them South. The Dasas and Dasyus became the sudras in the varna system devised by the Aryans who wrote the Vedas in a remarkably short time after 1500 BC after creating the near perfect language of Sanskrit. The sudras also became slaves after capture. The original people driven South evolved into the Dravidians of today. This was based on linguistics and was a creation of people like Max Mueller. The problem with this narrative is that there is no evidence of this from any other source, archaeological, geological, historical, or otherwise. This paradigm came accepted as the great truth but there were people who seriously questioned this narrative. Dr Ambedkar was one.

He wrote scholarly articles on this issue completely refuting this idea. The differences were more cultural where the Dasas and Dasyus were more likely non-believers of Vedas, but clearly integrated into the society. The Dasa and the Dasyas are the non-Vedic Aryans. The slave system in India is also questionable. He researched deeply to show that there were no racial connotations in the Vedas, and he was convinced to show that there was egalitarianism in the Vedas rather than a hierarchy.

If Aryans are the originals coming to India, the Europeans by being distant cousins of the same Aryans perhaps had a moral justification to continue their civilizing mission. The Europeans adopted it as a model to justify their rule in India; and the Brahmins identified with the Aryans in this model identifying their proximity to the fair-skinned rulers. Dr Ambedkar strived to show that the Aryan invasion theory should die. He was batting for a solidarity amongst all the castes and dreamt of a day when the majorities and minorities could merge into one. He said significantly, ‘the moment the majority loses the habit of discriminating against the minority, the minorities have no ground to exist. They will vanish.’

The author explores the scholarly work of Dr Ambedkar in great depth. It is quite a revelation too, as our historians largely ignore Dr Ambedkar, especially his views on the Aryan theory. Nehru and the left dominated history in the post-independence period had no qualms accepting the invasion theory and the general narrative reinforced by Western Indologists. Hence, this model was in force for almost two generations, and with some sad consequences. The fact is there were powerful voices against this narrative, but we were simply not aware.  His ideological differences with Nehru and the conviction that the liberation of Dalits no longer lay within Hinduism but rather away from Hinduism made him into a Buddhist.

For colonized minds before the independence, the Aryan discourse might have been acceptable. A significant archaeological finding of the Harappan civilization discovered much before the independence flew in the face of the Aryan invasion theory; and here it becomes unacceptable that the left dominated historians, deriving their power from Nehruvian philosophies, and trying to fit everything historical into the paradigms of exploiter and the exploited, did not offer an alternative narrative of the obviously erroneous Aryan-Dravidian theory.

In the final part, we will summarize the author’s thesis on ancient Greek, modern European, and Islamic accounts of India in support of the Saidian hypothesis as applicable to India. Ancient Greece could not rule India as they were effectively repulsed; however, Muslims and the Britishers were successful. This has very interesting implications in the depiction of India by these three sources.

Featured Image: The Irish Times

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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.