Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Medieval India and Caste System

As we discussed in an earlier chapter, the rise, decline and fall of the Shreni (Guild) system echo the economic ups, down and end of an economic order that had made India “Golden Sparrow” once upon a time. Gupta era is highly praised by Indian Historians, but they hardly have realized that it was Gupta era that started bungling up the economic strength of the Shreni’s, whether craftsmen or Trader, by transferring the financial centers from guilds to the Vaishnavait temples. Gupta kings were ardent supporters of Vedic religion. An offshoot of Vedic religion, Vaishnavait cult flourished during that era, many temples were erected, though Vedic religion originally was not idolatrous. Vishnu too, was adorned with an entirely new character erasing his original Rig Vedic form as a subordinate to Indra. Laxmi is not his consort in Rig Veda, rather he has none, still she was associated with him. Vishnu and Laxmi suddenly became the deities of the wealth. So the flow of the wealth was diverted towards the temples and suddenly the guilds became just the creators of the wealth, but management of the wealth no more was left with them.
We have seen how later on the rise of feudal powers and political upheavals gradually brought limitations on the inland trade and production. The series of foreign invasions, their discriminatory rule and a series of famines was the final blow on the indigenous economic system. It collapsed. There were no saviors. Islamic rulers imposed heavy duties on the foreign trade on non-Muslim craftsmen and traders called ushr which forced Hindu traders in winding up foreign operations too.  From the seventh century onward overseas trade was usurped by the Arabs and other Muslim powers. Al Masudi in his "Meadows of Gold" reports he had seen over ten thousand Muslim traders settled at the Cheul port.
When the centralized production centers were disintegrated, craftsmen started abandoning them. When one economic system collapses, for want of survival people get engaged in building a new order.  Agriculture, the backbone of the economy, too, was fractured, limiting creation of the wealth and so the local demands that eventually  hampered the craftsmen, those produced articles of their utility and fashion. The condition of the service providers must be more pitiable. 
This situation, pathetic though, forced the people to change previous social modality, overall functioning, social relationships and ways of survival. Indians invented a new order to survive through those odds. “Self reliant Village system” emerged gradually by tenth century and became permanent by the twelfth century. Tough there are no written records available of emergence of this system and its exact time, we can infer from the circumstantial evidences those must have led the people to find new was of the life. Let us not forget that it is economy that commands the social models.How it could have happened? We can infer from the following circumstances.
1.     In the absence of the sufficient demand, naturally, production too suffers. Supplies cannot be more than the demand as the economy cannot absorb surplus productions. Under such circumstances, no profession can expect any kind of competition from new entrants. Hence mobility from one to another profession becomes highly difficult for the resistance from the people already engaged in the same profession. We can find the same thing happening in modern era too everywhere where doors are closed to the new entrants when economy suffers form the recession.
2.     In the absence of regional or national marketplaces and the trade channels, the production becomes localized and need-based. 
3.     Disintegration, separation and Localization of the craftsmen, traders and service providers were inevitable making them village oriented, where they could meet local needs. A village could not absorb excessive craftsmen and service providers for their limited demand. Farmers (whether landlords or the tenants) still were the major component of the buyers, but were in a distressful economic condition, since they too were suffering from the droughts and political upheavals.
4.       For survival, a new professional relationship came to be established, called as “Balute” or “jajmani” system. In this system seller had no bargaining power whatsoever or right to decide the price of his products or services. However, his survival was assured. Suddenly professions became of secondary importance; some lost their requirement making them solely dependent on the mercy of the villages, accepted to do the menial work as farm laborers, tenants or even undertook filthy jobs.  
5.       Under the circumstances the status of the every profession solely depended on the needs of the people and what they were paid in return for their services. The disparity in the revenue of the every profession, though required same labor and skills, brought social inequality and dissatisfaction among the professions. 
6.       The professional guilds appeared in a new form, called as Jati Panchayat (Caste assembly) that started governing the professional communities by designing new professional ethics, restricting other caste men to enter their profession and vice versa, and by making their own caste-men outcast or enforce excommunication, if the codes of the caste were broken. In a way the guilds started interfering in the ethical and personal conduct of the people belonging to their caste (profession) and gradually it seems it became more tyrant and unjust. But it was accepted for the basic need to stop competition, protect their rights, survive and solve professional issues. 
7.     Since, it became almost impossible to enter another profession, it was but natural that the castes became birth based and rigid. Also, since there was no more competition there was no need to be innovative. Anyway, revenue would remain the same. India was thrown into an abyss of Dark Age because the time killed their zeal of learning to become more productive and innovative. In a way people’s life and horizons got restricted to the villages making them almost careless about the rulers. It is important to note that the fall of Yadava dynasty, that ruled over 300 years in Maharashtra, do not reflect at all in the Saint literature of 13-14th century. In a way it is miraculous, but is a fact.
8.     The circumstances made castes a close ended loop, where mobility was not possible as the circumstances did not allow it to happen. There were absolutely no chances to break the caste barriers to breath in the free atmosphere and choose a profession of individual choice. The acquired skills from the past tradition were transferred to the next generations. Barring a few professions, those still had been in demand, too, become stern enough not to allow new entrants. It is not that the Brahmins closed their doors against others first which was imitated by the others, as Dr. Ambedkar opines. The fact is the process of closing the doors against others had its roots in the changed political and economic scenario. The people could not afford to be liberal when the survival had become of prime importance. It had no religious relevance. It is impossible that some authority could enforce such commands that would assassinate the sense of the human freedom and the people accept them unopposed. It is against human nature. 
This was how the caste and sub-caste structure became permanent. Financially, barring a few, all castes became almost pauper. Self-reliant village system sounds good even to some today, but it was the system people designed to survive through hard times. It killed basic human instinct of competition and progress through it.
This situation occurred between the tenth to the twelfth century AD and became stratified by the thirteenth century to become unjust and cruel. The role of the Vedic Brahmins was not in making that system, but in regulating it as priests/ministers of the feudal lords and kings. Brahmins or the rulers never interfered in the decisions given by the Caste Assemblies. Even the verdicts of the Gotsabha’s (Brahmin caste assembly) were hardly declined by the rulers. In fact, every caste assembly, old guild system in new form, too, remained defacto ruler of the profession (caste) in new order too! 
It is a common experience of the mankind that the people become more fatalists in the time of the distress. Recently, in USA, in 2008, during the recession, it was observed that the attendance in the Churches had phenomenally risen. Indians suffered from such period over a millennium, was natural to become more Destiny-Centric and thus believing in divine command. 
This broke the backbone of original Indian free will. So many new deities emerged during this vast span of the time. Various new rituals too were introduced by the acting priests, alien to Hindu religion, Brahmins, for their own benefit. In Royal courts and with feudal lords they formed a coalition that helped them to preach Vedic supremacy. They captured many Shaivait shrines claiming them to be Vaishnavait. A fine example is of Vitthala of Pandharpur. 
They didn’t stop here. The new philosophy got prominent in this era of “Karmavipaka. Siddhanta”. This theory proposed that the distresses of present birth were because of the sins of the past birth. Brahmins vehemently proposed and propagated this theory making the people more religious and slavish to the inevitability of the destiny.  Many Saints too fell to this fatal doctrine and echoed it in their writings. The acceptance of the inevitable destiny was dangerous to the society, but Brahmins found opportunities in it. They invented many selfish ritualistic remedies those people followed almost blindly in a hope of ultimate salvation or better next life. 
We have many instances in the medieval history, how the Vedic doctrine of inequality had started poisoning the peoples mind. Though they didn’t create birth based caste system, they provided pseudo-divine reasoning for its brutal existence. Hemadri Pundit, a Minister of Yadavas, authored Chaturvarga Chintamani in which over 2500 religious rituals was listed, most of which never existed before. 
The Vedicism and Vaidik Brahmins become an evil force as they misused the religious authorities over the people those never belonged to their religion.  The Fraudulent nature that persisted in them since the Gupta era, took disadvantage of the changed circumstances. They used every tool to impose their supremacy that made their life easier. Even they corrupted the religious scriptures. Rather, they imbibed the Vedic divine order theory in the minds of the distressed people during this era. The social inequality, they tried to connect with the Vedic ladder-like social order. Varna system thus started plaguing Hindu’s and they too started to connect, like Varna system, their superiority over some while inferior to another with their natural social status of the time. 
This situation created such a complex relationship between the castes  and subcastes that even acceptance or rejection of food or even water from other castes became a preordained custom. The inter-caste marriages became almost rare, and if conducted the families of the concerned couple were thrown away from the castes or punished heavily. These customs were made and enforced by the caste assemblies. Hence, it can be said that the tyranny of the caste assemblies too were responsible for the tightening of the caste-grip. 
Though it had inherent limitations, the movements against brutalities of the caste system begun by the 12th century to break the caste barriers. To do so it was essential to overthrow the yoke of Vedic dominance and doctrine of birth-based inequality. Though Hindu followed their ancient religion in this era too, the Vedic philosophy had penetrated into the minds of the people through the corrupted Puranic tales and new myths. Very few saints realized this and tried to delink Hindu religion from the Vedic dominance, but ultimately failed to do so. 
(To be contd.)