Caste And Hinduism

Gail Omvedt

(Written in November 2003)

M V Nadkarni's recent article "Is Caste System Intrinsic to Hinduism?: Demolishing a Myth", (EPW, November 8, 2003) comes as a follow-up to his earlier article "Ethics and Relevance of Conversions: A Critical Assessment of Religious and Social Dimensions in a Gandhian Perspective" (Januay 18). Both articles show the fundamental stamp of Hindutva ideology, primary of which is shoddy methodology, selective quotation (for example, his references to my work are to a 10-year old book and selectively at that), and illogic.

The illogic in the 'Caste System' article begins with a basic, unexamined premise: that there is some entity called 'Hinduism', a religion which has lasted 4,000 years and which comprehends 'classical' as well as 'medieval' and 'modern' forms. This is the most historically unjustified premise, since the term 'Hindu' to refer to a religious belief was never used until the establishment of Muslim regimes (and then only in some parts of India; for instance, Tukaram - who Nadkarni takes as one of the 'Hindu' bhakti sants, never in all his 4,700 abhangs used this word) and it never came into generalised use throughout India until the 19th century. This has been documented by numerous scholars and I will not cite them here. The illogic is that Nadkarni assumes, and documents, changes in the caste as a socio-historical structure (which I think is correct) but does not question the supposedly unchanging character of an essential 'Hinduism'. (Incidentally, Nadkarni is silent on whether Buddhism, Jainism and the shramanic traditions should be considered as part of 'Hinduism').

Other mistakes pale before this basic point, but I will take up a few issues.

First, he says that Ambedkar regards the Purush Sukta as an interpolation. This is an opinion of many Sanskrit scholars, not only Ambedkar. That different texts ('religious' or not) contain material from different periods is a historical inevitability; looking at the text within the framework of the social and material conditions of its time, determining its time, is a major part of a scholarís task. The Purush Sukta, to my knowledge, is taken to be a very late addition (whether we use the term 'interpolation' is a matter of definition) to the rest of the Rig Veda. The dating of the Rig Veda (by most scholars to 1,500-1,000 BC) itself does not justify the '4,000 year' claim. I have argued in my own recent book, Buddhism in India: Challenging Brahmanism and Caste (Sage India, 2003) that caste ('varnashrama dharma') emerged as a concept only in the middle of the first millennium BCE - not at first as an actual social structure but as an emerging prescription of what an ideal social structure should be. For about a millennium there was a battle between the brahmanic tradition (supporting varnashrama dharma) and the shramanic traditions, especially Buddhism, over the nature of what society should be. It is relatively meaningless to use the actual social situation in this period as justifying what Nadkarni calls 'Hinduism' but what de facto he takes as only the brahmanic scriptures.

A major problem of interpretation comes up as to whether the Gita's justification of assigning varna categories is by birth or by 'merit'. Nadkarni argues for merit as do all modern ideologies of Hindutva, as for that matter Gandhi did at least at the end of his life. (Gandhi did support 'swadharma', following the profession of one's father, for a lengthy period, but leave that aside). I do not think this is what the ancient texts meant - but even if they did, the point remains that it is profoundly undemocratic to assign people, at whatever age, to certain tasks and responsibilities and rights according to some form of presumed 'merit' or 'guna' and then to treat them differentially. Could any democratic society legislate that people who are primarily workers should not be able to read or should not be able to read certain valued religious texts and that they should be punished if they did so? Could any democratic society legislate that people who are not primarily (by 'merit' or not) something called 'brahmans' should be forbidden from teaching or arguing about such texts? Varna by merit is as abominable a conception as varna by birth. (Nadkarni does not of course mention women, because here it is almost impossible to sustain any argument.)

Incidentally, the sections of the Gita that Nadkarni quotes (IV:13, II:31, XVIII: 47) are not necessarily the most pro-varna, according to my reading. I would refer to the entire sequence of XVIII: 41-47. Even worse are the verses in I: 40-47, which state that varnasamkarna (mixture of varnas) leads to destruction of the family and both lead to hell. It seems to me that such verses cannot be 'explained away'; one must say whether one agrees or disagrees with them. Nadkarni would apparently 'disagree' with such sentiments of the brahmanic 'canon' - but why are there so many of them and why are they so persistent?

How much of the Gita is left that cannot be found in the Dhammapada, or in Samkhya philosophy? Why should the Gita be considered a particularly holy book? And if not the Gita, which are the texts Nadkarni would recommend?

To take up the issue of bhakti as Nadkarni calls 'the most prominent movement within the framework of Hinduism to fight against casteism'. Again, we have to be on guard against the tendency to classify all bhakta sants as within the same system, the same religion, the same framework. There were orthodox institutionalised sects, many of which controlled a good deal of money and power - the Vallabhaites in north India, the Ramdasis in Maharashtra, to take two exmaples. Those whom I have been calling the radical bhakta sants - Kabir, Ravidas, Mira, and in Maharashtra Tukaram, Cokhamela, Namdev, Dnandev - were quite different.

Kabir clearly differentiated himself from both 'Hindus' and 'Muslims' (whom he usually called 'Turks'); so did Nanak, though Nadkarni does not apparently consider him a part of 'Hinduism'. Tuka spoke primarily in terms of Vithoba or Vitthal, but when he used the term 'Vishnudas' or 'Vaishnava vir' for the varkaris, he used it in such a way as to include many Muslims and to exclude pandits, followers of brahmanic rituals, and advaita philosophy. Numerous abhangs take dharma and karma as referring to 'the others' and not to the varkaris. The fact is that Cokhamela died young while carrying out his caste duty, which he could not escape; Tuka's manuscripts were drowned because as a shudra he was not supposed to write or teach, and there is good evidence that in the end he was murdered by his orthodox opponents.1

The opposition to caste, untouchability, panditry, etc, by the radical sants cannot be taken as a 'proof' of the progressive and reform qualities of something called 'Hinduism'. Coming to the 'modern' period, Nadkarni makes a serious error when he takes ezhavas and nadars as examples of dalits who have raised their status by reformist policies. Ezhavas (also known as tiyyas) and nadars were never untouchables in the sense that pulayas and cherumans in Kerala, or paraiyas and pallars in Tamil Nadu. They were lower OBCs. And while many among them have benefited by modern changes, it is still apparently true that as social groups, that is, they remain in the same place in the hierarchy as before - that is, above the scheduled castes, and below the upper shudras and twice-born categories.

Finally, the point is not whether caste is dying away or not. Certainly it can survive only with difficulty in a modern democratic age and, as a historical form that came into existence at a certain time it is also certain to vanish. At the same time it is clear that forms, or 'remnants' or whatever Nadkarni or others would like to call them - he prefers terms such as 'caste identities' and 'ghosts' implying lack of material reality - remains. What is his position regarding these remnants or surviving forms? Does he agree or not that programmes of affirmative action are still needed in the economic sphere? Does he agree or not that the continuing domination of a hereditary brahman priesthood in most 'Hindu' temples - and especially in the very lucrative ones - is wrong and should be abolished? In his January 18 article Nadkarni has justified opposition to conversion with particular citations from Gandhi. There may be plenty of reason to argue against conversion. This does not justify any law banning it or discriminating against people who 'convert' (who choose to follow a particular religion or a particular sect within a religion). Laws may ban only those practices which infringe on the rights of others, otherwise propagation of a religious point of view - just as propagation of a political point of view - is a fundamental right.

Nadkarni has written that within Islam and Christianity there are retrogressive as well as progressive and democratic tendencies. This is true, and I (and most others) would support the democratic tradition within these religions - and oppose retrogressive ones. I do not consider 'Hinduism' to be a religion in the same sense, but I would certainly support Nadkarniís right to call himself a religious 'Hindu'. The rest depends on what kind of stand he takes within what he considers to be Hinduism: would he support affirmative action or diversity programmes at all levels? Would he support the removal of hereditary priesthood from temples? Would he support the right of people to choose which faith to follow? I await his answer.

Time will submit to slavery

from illusions bonds we'll be free

everyone will be

powerful and prosperous -

Brahman, Ksatriya, Vaishya, Shudra

and Chandala all have rights

women, children, male and female

and even prostitutes

-Tuka (Tukaram), 17th century Marathi Sant of India. 


[1] See the ongoing translations of Tuka which have been done by Bharat Patankar and the author; for an early publication see 'Says Tuka .Songs of a Radical Bhakta', Critical Asian Studies 35, 2, June 2003 (translations from the Marathi with introduction).


[Published in Economic & Political Weekly in November 29, 2003 issue.] 

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