Non-Brahmins themselves Responsible for the Caste System: Dr. B R Ambedkar
Image courtesy of: OpIndia.com
A recent statement made by RSS supremo Mohan Bhagwat that pandits (the priestly class) created the caste system has stirred up a hornet’s nest (India Today, 2023). These kinds of forays into the old/new arguments about is natural since Indian politics centers around the caste factor. Followers of Dr. B R Ambedkar, considered the “father” of the Indian Constitution, cite his 1916 paper to support their contention that Brahmins created the caste system. Interestingly, Dr. Ambedkar initially blames Brahmins but later exonerates them from this accusation. In critically examining Dr. Ambedkar’s claims, I contend that his arguments are not fully developed. In so doing, I automatically refute Mohan Bhagwat’s argument/thesis.
Dr. Ambedkar’s central thesis in the above paper was that “the superposition of endogamy on exogamy means the creation of caste” (Ambedkar, 1916, para 15). His argument flows like this: Brahmins occupied the top rank in the social hierarchy. They closed the door (through endogamy) for marrying outside the circle (exogamy). Non-Brahmins imitated their example and created their own endogamous habits and practices. Consequently, Brahmins are the “creators” of the caste system.
One can easily discern that Dr. Ambedkar’s arguments are not well-developed. The first question is who put the Brahmins at the top of the social hierarchy? Did the Brahmins do so themselves? If it was so, why would society accept such hegemony? Dr. Ambedkar does not explain. Assuming the Brahmin percentage in the total population currently about four percent has not changed since antiquity, it seems improbable that the rest – the 96 percent — meekly submitted to this Brahmin hegemony. Furthermore, Brahmins rarely wielded political power, which was largely held by the Kshatriyas or the Shudras (Maurya and Gupta dynasties, for example). Consequently, it is unfathomable that a minuscule minority would wield such enormous power. Furthermore, the king could not have unilaterally imposed such a system defying the views of the majority, and that too over the period of a few millennia. It leads one to conclude that the system was a society-accepted voluntary grouping. Brahmins may have contributed to it, they may have used the system to their advantage, but to say that they “created” the system is a rather tenuous claim. The politician and activist in Dr. Ambedkar appears to have overtaken the scholar in him.
If Brahmins created “caste” (which is itself a modern, European term foisted on India, and now enshrined in the Indian Constitution) there would be only two castes: Brahmins and non-Brahmins. However, that would undermine Dr. Ambedkar’s thesis. Consequently, he makes a conjecture that non-Brahmins imitated Brahminical endogamy restrictions. He uses Tardian Law to contend that the prestigious position and daily contacts of Brahmins resulted in the imitation of endogamy by non-Brahmins. Tarde (1843-1904), a French sociologist, offered an explanation of herd behavior and crowd psychology, and proposed the idea of imitation, “conscious or unconscious, as a fundamental interpersonal trait, with imitation of fathers by sons…,” etc. However, the Tardian law refers to nobility or rulers, which in the Indian context would mean the Kshatriya, the Shudra, or the foreign invaders. Yet, other castes did not emulate them. Why was that? Again, why did non-Brahmins only emulate the caste aspect (endogamy) of Brahmins but ignored other attributes such as scholarship, moral values, or their rules for cleanliness? Why did they not emulate the beef-eating practice of Muslim rulers or did they only consider emulating the one on the highest pedestal within the Hindu fold? And if so, why? The aristocrat in Europe too closed doors (endogamy) to the commoners. Why did it not create a caste system in Europe among the commoners? Dr. Ambedkar does not provide an answer.
Furthermore, Brahmin hegemony was in question from the Upanishadic period itself. Buddha (about 500 BCE, according to Buddhist tradition) and many saints thereafter opposed the “caste system”. The idea of a “caste system” is rejected by some scholars who consider it a Western reading of the Jati/Varna categories (see, Farek, et al., 2017). Why were they not emulated? Obviously, there was a larger societal acceptance of it. Consequently, it would be unfair to blame only one section of the society – the Brahmins – who neither had the numbers nor the political power over the past few millennia to somehow impose the system on other sections of the society. Dr. Ambedkar takes a little detour and makes an interesting argument about endogamy (or caste) outside the Hindu groups – for example, Christians would not marry Mohammedans.
Dr. Ambedkar makes a further claim when the economist within him takes over. He considers that caste created the surplus man or surplus woman problem within the endogamous group. To overcome it, a solution of sati was devised, he claims. However, he himself admits that a scientific explanation for the custom is not available. Recent research by Prof. Jain (2016) found that sati was restricted to royals and only sporadic instances of the practice were found. Furthermore, with the abolishing of sati the caste system should have slowly begun to disappear if Ambedkar’s contention is to be accepted.
In the last paragraph of his paper, Dr. Ambedkar contradicts himself. He considers the possibility of an “unconscious growth in the life of a human society”. If that argument is accepted, how does he justify putting the blame on Brahmins being the originators of the caste system? If we consider it a God-ordained system, rebels against the system existed in India since the time of Charvaka, Buddha, and Mahavira. Yet the system survived. Did Brahmins wield some superhuman power for its continuation? Ambedkar himself admits that his conclusion is not “in any way final, or anything more than a contribution to a discussion of the subject”. Does it mean he wrote the paper without sufficient evidence and without considering the repercussions that it would entail for a section of society — the Brahmins?
“Caste” existed long before Manu, Dr. Ambedkar admits, yet he chose to burn the Manu Smriti. Manu just documented the prevailing customs, and proposed rules based on those customs. Was Dr. Ambedkar fair towards Manu then? Furthermore, he contradicts himself by blaming Brahmins for having “fathered” the caste system in para 32 of his paper but later exonerates Brahmins as the creators of caste: “the Brahmins may have been guilty of many things, and I dare say they were, but the imposing of the caste system on the non-Brahmin population was beyond their mettle” (Ambedkar, 1916, para 34).
Dr. Ambedkar chose to convert to Buddhism, but did Buddhism reject the “caste system”? “Buddhism is only a sect of Hinduism. Its tenets are not even novel. It did not, contrary to popular opinion, seek to undermine caste,” says Rawlinson (1919, p. ii).
It would give solace to Mr. Bhagwat, the RSS supremo, when Dr. Ambedkar notes that there is a deep cultural unity though caste parcels it in smaller units, and there was one caste to begin with though ex-communication divided it. The famous Atri sutra also notes all are born Shudra (Kane, 1953).
It goes to Dr. Ambedkar’s credit that he warns against any bias and sentiments overtaking objective judgments. He also welcomes rational disagreements on the topic and in the true spirit of a scholar is prepared to give up his theory if rival arguments are advanced.
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Ambedkar, B. R. (1916). “Castes in India: Their mechanism, Genesis, and Development”. http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00ambedkar/txt_ambedkar_castes.html
Farek, M., Jalki, D., Pathan, S., & Shah, P. (2017) (Eds.) Western Foundations of the Caste System. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
India Toda (February 06, 2023). “Who created the caste system in India and how has it changed over time?,” https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/rss-chief-mohan-bhagwat-reignites-caste-debate-who-created-varna-system-2331113-2023-02-06
Jain, M. (2016). Sati –– Evangelicals, Baptist Missionaries, and the Changing Colonial Discourse. Delhi: Aryan Books International.
Kane, P. V. (1953). History of the Dharma Shastras. Pune: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute.
Rawlinson, E. (1919). Foreword to Bhandarkar, R. D., (1920). A peep into the early history of India, Bombay: Taraporewala.