Like all modern “elites” of India, I went through a convent school education for more than half my schooling (the rest in a Central School).
History was taught from Rawlinson’s Student’s History of India. The book taught the Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT).
My later studies of history more or less supported the AIT, till around a few years ago, when I started reading material that rebutted the AIT.
In the context of my readings on this topic, I came across Sanjay Sonawani’s book on the Vedas and although poorly written, it was the most persuasive of all. See my blog post here, for instance.
Sanjay has also written a book on caste, but in Marathi. He is working on an English translation at the moment.
In the meanwhile someone sent me a questionnaire on caste, which I sent to Sanjay to respond. This has developed into a good summary of Sanjay’s theory.
Therefore I’m publishing the questionnaire and Sanjay’s response here.
As you go through it, you’ll find your “well-known” assumptions quashed and questioned. Sanjay is like Sherlock Holmes – he is forensic and detailed in his analysis and questions every “standard” approach. No sociologist, and not even Ambedkar, has come through unscathed.
I’m sure we’ll hear much more in the coming years about Sanjay’s theories of the Vedas and caste.
- Dr. Sanjeev Sabhlok
- Dr. Sanjeev Sabhlok
Please make sure to answer as many questions as you can properly:
The following summary background is crucial, without understanding which it is certain that you would completely misunderstand the caste situation in India. I have written extensively on this issue in Marathi literature and am working to get this information out in English in the coming months.
Point 1: There are two distinct religions in India
There are two distinct “Hindu” religions and systems although these are erroneously conflated by most scholars: (i) the Vedic religion, which consists of three varnas (compartmentalized class) and finds its source in the Vedas and allied Smriti literature. This religion came into what is modern India from Afghanistan; and (ii) the actual Hindu religion (the Vedics referred to people belonging to this religion as Shudra). This latter, the main Hindu religion is Tantra(fertility-occultism) based and is idolatrous, with remote origins. This religion (Tantra doctrine) does not support any hereditary caste or gender-based discrimination.
The distinction between the two religions is bleedingly obvious to anyone who goes with an open mind to ask questions, but virtually every “scholar” glosses over it.Indeed, “scholars” who are following the British tradition (detailed below) simply blanked out the vast masses of India, not did not ask them questions about their religion, beliefs and practices. Even where they asked questions, these questions were framed around erroneous assumptions – which assumed that the Vedic varna had “something” to do with the thousands of jatis.
Point 2: The occupation based system (jati) evolved in ancient India
The ancient Indian traditional system evolved occupational guilds (which had nothing to do with hereditary caste). People of an occupation formed a jati(caste) with its own internal code and social regulations. This jati system was, being occupation based,socially mobile.
Guild members manufactured their specialty articles and provided their specialised services and conducted local, interstate and foreign trade. The guilds, nigams (shrenies) also issued coins, of which an abundance has been found in excavations across India, from north-Western Gandhar to south India. Guilds were the issuance authority for coins from the Janpada era till the Gupta era. Guilds or Jatiswere governed by their own leaders without any interference from political authorities.
This system disintegrated during 10th to 12th century A.D. (more in point 4 below), but the people associated with them preserved the identity of their occupation in form of the caste names.
Point 3: The traditional Hindu religion had nothing to do with jati (caste) – except in some cases, in recent centuries
Jatis are an occupational classification and have nothing to do with any religious code. In particular, the Vedic Smritis have absolutely nothing to do with the codes of the castes (jatis). The varna system of the Vedic religion is pyramidal, with upward mobility almost impossible. This is not the case with the mainstream “Hindu” (reminding that this use of the word Hindu represents the non-Vedic society and does is being used without any religious connotation) caste (jati) system. Today, by conflating these two systems, and by not distinguishing the occupational nature of the jatis, it is commonly believed that the castes (jatis) emerged out of the varna system.
Point 4: Reduced social mobility and untouchability arose relatively recently
Birth-based castes have a relatively recent origin. The occupational caste (jati) system started becoming rigid in the beginning of last millennium. It did not, however, became as rigid as it has become in some cases today. Many people from the assumed “low” castescould readily change their professions and attain a higher social status, but by that stage their original caste identity continued with them.
These increasing rigidities are attributable to the economic turmoil from Islamic invasions, disintegration of traditional power bases, the rise of feudal lords, and the famines that ravaged India after the eleventh century till 1630.
In addition, Vedic fundamentalism had increased, with its doctrine of Vedic varna inequality spreading during this era through corrupted myths which suggested the infallibility of the Vedas. A sense of impurity and pollution penetrated Hindus through Vedic propaganda from approximately the tenth century onwards. This sense is otherwise is absent from tantra literature. In fact Vedics began defaming tantras on a large scale from this time, causing an adverse impact on the Hindu mindset.
The commonly cited “self-reliant-village” system of India arose during this era to foster survival in the face of economic turmoil. This village system made many groups of people poorer and dampened occupational (jati) mobility.
The efficient and mobile guild system was thus replaced by caste assemblies which started implementing harsh codes in order to keep out outsiders from competing with their occupation under these difficult economic circumstances. Every caste (occupation-based) closed their doors. Even so, as mentioned above, social mobility (including occupational) was available with permission from caste assemblies.
Untouchabilty in the (mainstream) Hindu society started emerging during this time, later being instiutionalised into the Hindu religion itself. Thus, no untouchable caste is mentioned in any Hindu religious scripture till the end of the first millennium. The untouchables of the Vedic religion, of course, had ceased to exist long ago.
There is no uniformity in caste status in India. Mostly it is the local prejudices and economic conditions that determine the local status of the castes. A caste could be touchable in one state or region and untouchable in other regions or states. Had castes originated from any religious commandments such an anomaly would be absent. Thus it was the independent (“self-sufficient”) village system which emerged after collapse of guild system, famines and political change affecting the economic condition of many occupations, that resulted in the rise of social evils including the caste-discrimination and untouchability we see today. Though the famous scholar Dr. Ambedkar connected untouchability with beef eating, that is not how this arose; social history does not support his claim.
This history has a positive side to it. It shows that the idea of caste is ever-changing and once economic circumstances change, the traditional “Hindu” caste can itself readily dissolve – or in any event, have a much less negative effect.
Point 5: British rule gave a significant boost to Vedic religion due to adoption of the racist “superior” Aryan mythology – thus confounding the Vedic and traditional jati system
In the 18th and 19th centuries, British rule significantly muddied the water.
The British strongly supported the Aryan Invasion and racial theory which was proposed by some scholars in the West. They also actively divided Indian population into five different “races”. Racist explanations of jatis (caste) came into vogue.
The greatest mistake the British made was to think that the Vedas were the chief source of Hinduism and that India was always governed by the Vedic code (such as Manusmriti). This entirely false view informed the creation of a Hindu code by the British which was drafted by hiring Sanskrit pundits. This code sowed great confusion in Indian society and allowed Brahmin scholars to revive the Vedic religion – even though they were fully aware that it was entirely different to the Hinduism that the masses practiced. The British were simply unable to distinguish the two. They also preferred some castes for administrative appointments and advice – which further embedded their false perceptions. They also thought poorly of some other castes and did not go out asking questions and objectively studying the ground situation.
This evolution of caste understandings must be seen in the context of strong racial propaganda, with Indian (and indeed, world) history now being written from an Aryan/ Vedic perspective that asserted Western (“white”) dominance even in Indian language and religion (this approach later led to eugenics and to the rise of Nazism).
The British then conducted a census that stratified the castes in official records. During the conduct of the census, many occupational castes (jatis) chose to upgrade their status by changing their caste names. (Today, of course, many castes (jatis) are intent on reducing their status to benefit from job and other reservations).
The reason they wanted to upgrade their status is that during many traditional occupations had further lost steam – because of industrialization. They had no access to training in modern technology to recoup their economic condition. Therefore upgrading their social status through the census was seen as a way to rise in society. There was no opposition by other castes to such attempts, mostly because such decisions were taken by caste assemblies and there was no immediate economic dividend merely of changing caste status (as we know has happened after independent India: with a strong urge by castes to downgrade their social status).
Thus the until-then widely known fact that Hindu and Vedic religions are entirely distinct (and that caste has no sanction even in the “Hindu” religion) got totally obscured.
The leaders of India, the Hindus educated in English medium schools, learnt an entirely fictional history of India. (Indian history school books were written exclusively by British authors at that time since Indians had no tradition of history). Till well after independence, books by British “scholars” continued to misguide millions of Indians.
This new, racist history of India had many political implications. Many castes (jatis) started had a severe identity crisis. Some started thinking that Brahmins were responsible for their destitute and humiliating conditions. Many movements began against Brahmins. Much blame was attributed to Manusmriti, a Vedic religious code – which had never had any influence whatsoever on any part of India, and was in any case never written to apply to Hindus. With these new fictional histories, even Dr. B. R. Ambedkar got confused and started publically burning copies of the Manusmriti, blaming it for alleged slights against the Dalits.
As far as the study of history and society is concerned, the great problem is that India’s rich social history, practical traditions and the tantra doctrine were totally ignored during this era, and indeed, continue to be so ignored – so deeply ingrained is the British version of Indian history in India.
It is amazing that something in plain sight – the huge variety of fertility-related festivals of Indiathat have absolutely nothing to do with the Vedas – is continually ignored today even as “scriptures” that are (and were) unknown and unheard of by the vast majority of Indians (Hindu is essentially a geographical term), are deemed even today to be the driving documents of Hindusim.
NOW FOR RESPONSES TO THE QUESTIONS
· There are a lot of misgivings about the caste system in India. That it enslaves others since membership is by birth. Do you agree? And how would you define the caste system in India?
It is crucial to distinguish between the Vedic varna and the traditional occupational based castes.
India’s caste system is essentially occupation based and is therefore fundamentally not as socially immobile as often considered by the literature. It has been evolving for thousands of years and much of its negative side is driven by economic circumstances. Changing these circumstances is therefore likely to make it relatively easy to break out even from the evils of untouchability.India needs liberal economic principles so everyone can access opportunity.
Indeed, the dissolution of the evils is already starting to occur wherever economic linkages are being broken.
· How are members of a caste identifiable? As in, how do children learn to recognize people from different castes? If it is due to surname, what's to stop people from just changing their name and lying about their caste?
Knowledge of one’s own and others castes comes to a person from childhood through information from parents/relatives and society, even schools.
It is generally not possible to change surnames to hide one’s caste identity since many surnames do not indicate caste (such as mine), but still the caste persists.
· Is it only people in the worst caste who are shunned? Are all other castes now intermingling, intermarrying and facing no barriers? Or do barriers exist between all castes?
There are many dimensions to caste-based oppression.
Some people belonging to low castes, especially in rural India, are facing serious problems. An upper caste man marrying a low caste girl (or vice versa) can sometimes invite honour killing.
Caste identity has become more problematic post-globalisation and post the Mandal era, which has sharpened caste conflicts.
Economics continues to play a major role in all this. Castes with similar incomes intermingle and intermarry but wherever an economic gap exists, caste prejudices and hatred emerges, particularly towards lower income cases.
Reservations for lower castes also are a cause of uneasiness among the open category (unreserved) castes. This is a factor in reducing the social change that would come were economic opportunities widely available.
· Can people who grew up in India generally tell what caste someone belongs to by looking at him/her? Are there physical qualities that suggest a person's caste? Or would you have to learn the person's surname or other information about him/her to know?
Looks cannot generally distinguish someone’s caste. For instance, the Deshastha Brahmins of Maharashtra and the Mahars (a Dalit caste) look similar, being from the same ethnic stock.A few, such as Kokanastha Brahmin, can sometimes be identified by looks, such as their fair complexion and feline eyes. But not all Kokanastha Brahmins possess these traits.
· Which category of the caste system do you belong to originally; Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, Shudras or Dalits? Has the caste system affected your life? If so, in which ways (state examples if possible)?
As noted earlier, Brahmin, Kshatriya and Vaishya belong to the Vedic religion, not the mainstream Hindu (i.e. non-Vedic) system. I belong to the Hindu religion. As I study my family history, I have come to realise that my family changed many occupations over time and hence I do not have any permanent caste. This is also the case with many others.
However, given the ongoing misunderstandings about the nature of caste, there are a range of caste biases across society, and every Indian (no matter whether Vedic or Hindu) benefits or suffers depending on the circumstances.
· The caste system in India is receiving a lot of scrutiny from the media. It has been blamed for lots of conflicts taking place in India as a result of the oppression and discrimination. Do you think the caste system is embedded in society or in religion? Or both?
Members of the media are obviously educated with the same histories about India, and they potentially overlay their biases on events. Their reports must therefore sometimes be taken with a pinch of salt.
The present caste conflicts are best seen as an outcome of political, economic and cultural competition among different caste groups. Many castes have become impoverished and thus are oppressed, because modernization made their ancestral occupations irrelevant and the economic system has failed to upgrade their skills and prepare them for better means of survival. There is no such liberal economic system in place in India even after independence. This perpetuates caste oppression.
The positive discrimination in the Indian constitution has not solved any social or economic problem but has given rise to new caste conflicts.
Instead of demanding equality of opportunity for the poor, caste has become the preferred tool to fight economic oppression. This is driven by the nature of Indian democratic processes. The Indian political and democratic system should be considered to be a failure in this regard, with politicians exacerbating and using caste identity to garner votes. Such caste competition is driven by politics and not at all for the benefit of the relevant socio-economically oppressed caste. For instance, caste identities are being strengthened based on alleged historical injustices or pride, regardless of whether these are mythical. This pride (or sense of insult) serves a useful political purpose during elections.
The use of caste to seek economic uplift through the political process has added strongly to caste rivalries, sometimes becoming violent.Small, scattered castes often remains neglected but they too sometimes agitate to show their existence.
The political system works well for the politically strong castes. For example, the politically strong Maratha community agitated for reservations which they were granted by the Maharashtra state government, when it is unclear whether Marathas as a whole are socially backward. On the other hand, the Dhangar (shepherd community) that has been agitating since 30 years to change their reservation classification from nomadic tribe to scheduled tribes remains in the wilderness because it wields no political power.
· Elite Indians have been on the forefront saying that the caste system is no longer there – that no one cares about it anymore. Is this true?
People in better economic conditions in urban areas don’t much care about caste, except for those who have a vested political interest.
On the other hand, the rural aristocratic atmosphere continues to be responsible for ongoing caste-based discrimination. This discrimination has had the effect of strengthening the caste system by providinga kind of a justification for the oppressed to come together as a support system against such oppression. Caste pride and caste unity provides them with a sense of security.
This was not the case in India before British rule as there is documentary evidence that even what are now called Dalit castes freely took their issues to the royal courts. No doubt, there is much work to be done in this regard in the rural areas.
· There are a number of inequalities associated with the caste system, such as cases of children born to ‘slavery’ where they have to work in the worst possible conditions till they die. Is it correct to say that the caste system is responsible for the huge levels of inequality in India?
Slavery is not part of the caste (jati) system. It also has no religious sanction. Even in history, instances of slavery are rare. Slaves had many rights as stated in Arthashastra of Kautilya. Slavery is not practiced in India (slavery being a system to own, buy and sell other individuals) though the practice of bonded labour (debt slavery) still persists.
Some castes associated with work like scavenging live in terrible conditions. But it cannot be said that such professions were forced upon them by any ruler or religious authority. This occupation arose probably a mechanism for survival during difficult economic conditions. Occupations of the lower order are an evil but were not hereditary till the medieval era.
The jati system did not have any relationship with social status. The jatis are now untouchables in Maharashtra were granted reputed positions like the village-head (Patil) and fort-protector (Killedar) and enjoyed a respectable status in the army. A shepherd like MalharraoHolkar reached the status of commander-in-chief of the Maratha confederacy, which incidentally improved the social position of shepherds. There are many examples where there was no caste-based discrimination even against the so-called lower castes.
The causes of the social inequality we see today lie in the drastically changed political and economic order of the country from the beginning of last millennium, as clarified in the introduction.
The innate biases towards communities carrying out any work associated with filth and death are responsible for much inhuman social treatment. A humanitarian sense is absent in Indian society in many cases. However, in my opinion, it would not be correct to place the blame for this situation on the caste system.
The responsibility should be placed squarely with the inability of India’s economic system to create opportunities for the lower economic segments so they can raise their economic and (hence) social status. A scavenger dies a scavenger only because there are so few opportunities to change professions in modern era, too. That is the real problem.
· The high ranking members of the caste system such as the Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas, enjoy many privileges while the low ranking, the Untouchables, such as the Dalits (the downtrodden), live in abject poverty serving the Brahmins. Is this socially and morally acceptable in modern day India?
Things are far more complex than is commonly understood.
Of the Vedic religion, only Brahmins are left at present. Although many castes claim Kshatriya status, this varna have no basis in the Vedas.The proclamation in the later Vedic scriptures is that in present era (Kaliyuga) no Kshatriya or Vaishya exists.
In Indian society, Brahmins have enjoyed religious and social privileges but we must not forget that extreme poverty has persists even among them, and there is inequality within their own varna. For instance, Brahmins have numerous subdivisions (almost 550 Brahmin sub-varnas nationwide) and they practice hierarchical discrimination amongst themselves. They use their sub-varna name first and then the varna, such as Kokanastha Brahmin, Yajurvedi Brahmin, Deshastha Brahmin, Gaud Brahmin, etc. The temple priest generally has the lowest social status in Brahmin society. Hindu jatis often have their own priests and except for a few elite jatis, very rarely invite Brahmins to conduct their rituals. These rituals have nothing to do with the Vedas. Likewise, Dalits often have their own priests, as well.
In ancient times, nobody served the Brahmins unconditionally, except their menial servants or those gifted to them by their patrons. In medieval India, it is true that the Dalits were paid less for their services but the rest of the society was also in dire economic strife, although slightly better. (The term Dalit for the untouchable class has much more recent origins.)
While the Dalits have been economically backward for a long time, there also are some carefully nourished romantic stories about their plight that need to be evaluated on merit. An unbiased analysis of the conditions and history of all groups is needed. Some stories of caste-based cruelties in the past have proven to be false or exaggerated. For example, “a broom in the waist and pot in the neck of the untouchable” is not a historical fact. Dr. Ambedkar also could not adduce any proof of this story during public debate.
There is no doubt that atrocities occur in North Indian. North Indians found much to like about the Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT), which allowed them to think of themselves as belonging to a pure “Aryan” stock. It is possibly this belief that prompts many more atrocities against Dalits in north India than in south India.
The rebuttal of the AIT, the opening up of the economy to new opportunities, and conducting genuinely scientific studies about actual history, can help eliminate some of the oppression that arises in modern India due to caste.
· In looking further at inequalities, do you think that the Dalits and Brahmins should not have dinner at the same table? In the traditional caste system a dinner hosted by a Dalit cannot be attended by a Brahmin. And at a dinner hosted by a Brahmin, the Dalit will be sent away. Is this still the case?
This problem rarely exists in cities though this practice still prevails in some villages.
Needless to say, most social dinners are a part of family functions and events in which only family members, close friends and relatives are invited. The practice of Western ‘social dinners’ where a broad range of friends is invited is almost absent in India except among the elites.
· In the traditional caste system, members of the lower caste were strictly discriminated against. Has that changed now? What is the situation now?
· Inter-caste relations have been a sore topic in India. There have been cases of Dalits being tortured or killed if information or knowledge of their involvement with a man or woman of a ‘clean’ caste (Brahmins-Kshatriyas) came out. What is your observation?
Most youth prefer to marry within their caste to gain associated benefits. Out of 100 inter-caste marriages, less than 1% of the couples are tortured and far fewer killed. Regardless, whatever the percentage, this is still very alarming.
There are cases where couples marrying inter-caste have been tortured and sometimes killed brutally. But this happens not only where a higher caste person marries into a low caste, it also happens when members of the couple are from almost equivalent castes. The reasons for this include the fear of getting defamed in one’s own caste – this carries a lot of weight. Caste prejudices are always in the back of the mind.
Once again, the elimination of caste prejudice requires a dramatic increase in economic opportunity and a widespread revised understanding of caste.
· What would you suggest as a way forward for tackling the problems associated with the caste system in India?
As seen above, occupational jati in itself is not a problem but its evolution into rigid structures is. Deteriorating economic conditions played a major role in developing caste-related problems. Driven by similar needs, today many the rich and dominant castes of the past are queuing up to get reservation claiming backward status.
Economic status plays a major role in caste conflicts, as well. There is an urgent need to adopt liberal policies to widen the horizons of the opportunity for all, with least government interference, thereby allowing all sections of the society to become partners in growth.
A rich Dalit does not suffer as much as the poor Dalit does. Poor people from upper castes also suffer from social discrimination.
Caste biases can be eliminated only when people live in a free atmosphere and have equal and ample opportunities. The current system (as explained in the introductory section) institutionalizes caste without providing economic opportunity, and therefore exacerbates the underlying problem. As part of this reform, it would be necessary to eliminate caste-based reservations entirely, which have actually increased conflict between the castes.
· Is there a struggle between the traditional and modern rules of the caste system in India and if so, what are some of the positive changes that have taken place so far?
Caste rules have been constantly changing to adopt to new circumstances.
In democracy numbers matter and castes are therefore trying to unite for political and economic gain. Sub-caste elimination movements within the castes are getting stronger. They aim to unite the maximum people politically under the roof of a single caste. This is happening within the Brahmins as well.
I am a pioneer of the sub-caste elimination movement in Maharashtra which is gaining some success. My Marathi writings on the origins of the caste have helped many social and caste organizations redefine their views, which is bringing about a more harmonious and respectful relationships between the castes.
· Many years after the independence of India, caste based discrimination goes on. What is the Indian government doing? What about social movements and the international community?
Officially, caste-based discrimination is prohibited. The government encourages inter-caste marriages. However, inter-caste marriages do not eliminate caste because the children get the father’s caste, or of the mother if the children so choose.
Instead, positive caste-based discrimination in form of reservations, laws and budgetary provisions is becoming a hurdle to caste elimination by creating perverse economic incentives.
· Has the caste system fostered peace in India as regards inter-caste relations? If so, how?
There are many recorded disputes between the castes but they very rarely took violent path. There are no instances of wars between the castes – which were after all, merely different occupations – in Indian history. Every caste followed its internal code and every caste had predefined code of conduct with other castes. Caste assemblies played major role in deciding internal and external disputes. It is difficult to say whether such relationships were healthy, but they were not violent.
· Which types of human rights violations are associated with caste discrimination?
There are many incidents each years of violent skirmishes between high and low caste people in rural areas, particularly in the north. These skirmishes are usually over local disputes of various nature, and remain limited to the local level.
On the other hand, some castes which the British declared as criminal castes (Denotified Tribes)continue to suffer human rights violations at the hand of the Police machinery and society.Since many of them have no permanent address, ration cards or even voting cards and live in temporary hutments in open grounds, the rights of citizenship are denied to them.
· In some caste-affected countries, such as India, there is excellent legislation against casterelated human rights violations, why is this not sufficient?
The judicial machinery in India is limited and its processes are time consuming. There are insufficient judges to deliver quick justice and insufficient police to tackle such issues.Further, the machinery often carries its own biases. The flip side is that caste-related legislation such as the Atrocities Act is sometimes misused by Dalit castes.
A legal approach is never going to resolve the caste issue, anyway. Doing that requires complete change in economic policy to improve economic opportunity for the poorest of the poor, regardless of caste.
· What are the Dalits, the main victims of caste discrimination, doing to improve their situation?
The major need of the Dalits, which they also have realized, is to improve their economic status. They are now looking for new avenues, such as businesses, rather than depending upon government jobs. Politically they are comparatively well-organized and are attempting to become a major political voice. Though these attempts have some inherent limitations, they are laudable part of the journey to caste reform.
· Is there a set of recommendations you would suggest for international organisations such as the UN or Human Rights Watch, to do to address or fight against caste discrimination?
UN or Human Rights Commission depends on reports from NGOs or the media. There are many issues faced by the small voiceless castes those are not addressed by any. For example, a girl from Vadar (stonemason) caste was raped and killed last month, but no media or political or social organization came forward to demand justice, except a few from her tiny caste. But when anybody from a big untouchable caste meets the same fate, the whole media, social organizations and NGOs join the outcry. This creates a problem in understanding the true reality of caste.
· What have you done to fight against the caste system or caste discrimination?
See notes on my work on caste, above. I am currently attempting to bring an English version of my findings to public attention.
Has the government of India played a key role to implement changes? Give reasons for this answer if possible.
I do not think it is a government’s role to interfere in any social relationships. It should only see that any violence is quickly punished. It is the society itself which will bring change once a liberal atmosphere is created.