“Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar always taught his followers to base their calculations about their political strategy on deep study of the political situation confronting them. It is necessary and indispensable for us to keep this ideal before us. Otherwise we might mistake the back of a tortoise for a rock, and may be drowned in no time.”
Dalit Panthers Manifesto 1
These are the signs held by young student protestors at the National Institute of Technology, Durgapur:
“Stand 4 integration, no caste reservation”
“Youth for equality zindabad!”
The year is 2006, and mass anti-reservation protests have erupted within some of India’s top educational institutions. Reservations are affirmative action quotas within Indian government institutions, which retain spots for members of Scheduled Tribes (ST), Scheduled Castes (SC), and Other Backwards Classes (OBC); these are the castes and tribes that find themselves at the bottom of the deep and suffocating pit that is the caste system in India. This particular protest – continuing the well-pickled tradition of anti-reservation protests in India – is incited by the government’s proposed implementation of OBC reservations of 27% within tertiary educational institutions. The (upper caste) students from these elite educational institutions are ostensibly the saviours of meritocracy, integration, and are the champions of the end of caste.
In the same year and the same country – and yet in an almost entirely different world – Dalit protestors across Maharashtra also rage for equality (zindabad), and against the farce that is meritocracy and integration. The protests are partly sparked by the brutal murder of Surekha Bhotmange, her daughter and her two sons, by a mob of upper caste villagers. Surekha was 40 years old, educated, a Buddhist convert, and was previously a Mahar (a Dalit caste from Maharashtra). She had been consistently bullied by upper caste landowners who were infuriated that she had bought land in their area. She was denied access to electricity, irrigation water, and the public well. Her complaints to the police fell on deaf ears and ultimately, her persecutors escaped their death sentence. She and her family members were raped and murdered, for deigning to participate in activities that were above their caste.2
The other motivator of the Dalit protests in Maharashtra is the desecration of statues of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, one of the most influential anti-caste activists in India. Ambedkar’s philosophy is embedded within what we may call a ‘scriptural’ understanding of caste. This understanding cites caste as originating from the Purushu sukta hymn of the Rg Veda and the Manusmriti. These texts assert that each caste is based on dharma (duties or ways that they must live life) and karma (the accumulation of positive or negative actions from one’s past life, that determines where in the hierarchy they are born in the succeeding life). This is the modern conception of caste, which characterises it as an endogamous unit that organises society into four hierarchical castes, called varnas, on “an ascending scale of reverence and a descending scale of contempt”.3 These varnas are: the Brahmins (priests) on the top, followed by the Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (merchants) and Shudras (servants). Avarna castes – considered not to be varna or ‘caste’ Hindus – are known as Dalits (or, previously, ‘untouchables’), and these individuals find themselves at the very bottom of this hierarchy.
In an incredibly radical act of defiance against this caste system, half a million supporters of Ambedkar – our anti-caste hero – converted to Buddhism. This was to escape Hinduism, which, according to Ambedkar, is the pernicious creator and reinstitutor of caste. The Hindu scriptures oblige Hindus to blindly follow scriptural dictates, and, as caste originates from the Rg Veda and the Manusmriti, the scriptures, the very basis of Hinduism, suggest and encourage caste. In this sense, a Hindu who renounces caste is essentially a Hindu who must renounce the divinity of the founding texts of Hinduism:
“To ask people to give up caste is to ask them to go contrary to their fundamental religious notions…caste has a divine basis. You must therefore destroy the sacredness and divinity with which caste has become invested. In the last analysis, this means you must destroy the authority of the shastras and the Vedas.”4
But there is an avenue that I believe we must first skulk down, illuminated by bright green escape signs, that may provide us with the option to fumble out of this challenge to Hinduism. This escape route is taken by Hindu reformists, who argue that a Hinduism without caste, without the teachings of the Manusmriti, is an intact Hinduism. They argue that what needs to occur is a movement towards a purified version of Hinduism that is cleansed of the blemish that is caste. It is possible for Hinduism to rid itself of caste, because there are so many anti-caste practices and offshoots within the religion itself: in essence, Hinduism is such a diverse religion that it can diversify its way out of caste. What I aim to do here is to explore some key ideas and arguments of the Hindu reformists and the radical anti-caste anti-Hinduism stance, on eradicating caste. The purpose of this will be to answer the question posed in my title: shall we blame [caste] on Hinduism?
What interests me greatly is the possibility that Hindu reformists might be right in suggesting that Hinduism hasn’t always looked the way that it has. Rather, Hinduism was subject to the British imperialist blade as part of a tragically unsuccessful plastic surgery operation. The hierarchy that placed Brahmins on the top was the result of the transformation of caste and Hinduism during the colonial era in India.
The contemporary concept and practice of caste is derived from the British coloniser’s attempt to control India by ‘knowing’ India. ‘Knowing’ India inevitably led to the active redefinition of Indian traditions and customs, and the delineation of what was acceptable and authentically Indian. In this way, caste was misrecognised as the epicentre of Indian society, whilst simultaneously becoming the epicentre of Indian society. The caste system was thus transformed into a “far more pervasive, far more totalizing, and far more uniform” system.5Indeed, in precolonial India, Dirks emphasises that there was multiplicity in the social markers that constituted one’s social identity. When caste was an element of social identity, it was categorically nonuniform – signifying different things such as one’s job or cultural background – and was not strictly ranked according to the varna system, varying remarkably across regions. Once the British came to ‘know’ caste, their method of governance over India led to a series of policies that would (perhaps irrevocably) annihilate and reconstitute India’s social fabric – much the worse for the Indians, much to the benefit of the British (and the Indian elite). For example, army recruitment focused on certain ‘martial’ castes, whilst certain other castes were recognised as ‘criminal castes.’ In this way, subgroups of people were told that they were actually castes, and then were attributed essential characteristics, such as being a criminal or a soldier (such is the nature of karma and dharma).
The accentuation of caste occurred as a result of the varied motivations of the ‘knowers’ of India. As missionary attempts at conversion were frustrated by Brahmanical religious hierarchies, missionary accounts of caste emphasised the prevalence and religiosity of caste. The British belief in the pervasiveness of the caste system – which was to them symptomatic of Indian depravity – occurred in part to justify the moral character of the ‘civilising’ colonial rule. But most importantly, the few Indians who were consulted about the nature of Indian society were Brahmins. These Brahmins espoused the integral nature of caste and its religious underpinnings, as reflected by the preachings of Brahmanism, understood in this level of analysis as a religious sect of Hinduism. Brahmanism is the sect of Hinduism from which the very ideas of social division and hierarchy according to caste emerges. It is the part of Hinduism that believes most strongly in the sanctity of the Vedas and the smriti texts such as the Manusmriti. It is also the part of Hinduism that believes in dharma (way of living), specifically varnasharma dharma: the organisation of society into varnas each with a dharma. Brahmanism is not only the creator of caste but it is also logically dependent on the existence of caste; the very existence of Brahmanism is by definition the exclusion of all other groups, or, all other castes. As the Manusmriti and the Vedas became the lead script in the play of caste during colonial rule, it was taken for granted that the Manusmriti was a ‘Hindu’ text. It is clear now that the Manusmriti was compiled by Brahmins in the post-Vedic period to describe how religious and social life should be, rather than how it is.
Hence, the concept of caste was transformed into a totalising social marker, based on Brahmanical notions of rituals, religion and purity (the varna system, who can touch what, who can enter temples, who can marry whom etc.) The key argument here for the Hindu reformist is that caste became about Hinduism, Hinduism became about Brahmanism, and therefore caste too became about Brahmanism. As a result, perhaps it is possible to argue that a Hinduism existed that did not imply the inevitability of caste and the inevitability of Brahmanism; and to this extent, it can escape the blame.
Indeed, caste is not only religious, it involves also the economic and the political. Consider the example of Harijans (Dalits) from the Chingleput district, Tamil Nadu. Harijans are banned from touching a water tank in the village, as it is believed that black and yellow eggs will grow in it if they do:
“We don’t go near [the tank], at least in daylight, because after all they are the ones who give us work. But at night, if we should be passing by the tank on our way from the fields, and if we are thirsty, we simply use it. They only say like that to make us afraid.” 6
The regret which Climacus describes arises from the fact that, in making a commitment to marry or not marry, to laugh or not to laugh, a person gives up an alternative mode of life. Climacus is paralysed by angst. He is unable to commit to anything and hence plagued by a nihilist indifference to any kind of choice.
The hierarchy of rituals and purity is one that is enforced because Harijans are implicated in other hierarchies: political (as a result of punishment and authority) and economic (because they depend on employment and land). Indeed it has been argued that “religion (purity/impurity) is not of itself the basis of caste hierarchy. Much rather, religion is the legitimating principle… of caste hierarchy”.7 Therefore, whilst caste may be seen as a practice of endogamy and separate rituals for separate castes (inspired by Hinduism’s karma and dharma), its purpose is actually to maintain economic exploitation and political hierarchies. Consider this quote from a Dalit worker in Ahmedabad, commenting on the effects of the government’s development agenda:
“There will always be 20 percent rich, 40 percent middle-class and 40 percent poor. The government and society need 40 percent to remain poor. Who else will do all the manual work, the scavenging, the carrying of night soil, labour in the mills, provide cheap clothes, furniture and domestic work.” 8
Whilst Ambedkar highlights the economic dimension of caste, he emphasises the failure of socialist critiques of caste that render it synonymous with class. As Ambedkar states: “the caste system is not merely a division of labour. It is also a division of labourers.” He cites the example of the “penniless sadhus and fakirs” that do not have economic power, but, because of their status, can influence the decisions of a rich man through their dictates. In this sense, power is not only economic, and yet it is not only religious. If a socialist revolution in India erased only the inequality and exploitation based on ownership of the means of production, many elements of the caste system that have nothing to do with the means of production would survive. Take for example the philosophy of Jyotirao Phule which:
“...can be looked at as a kind of incipient historical materialism in which economic exploitation and cultural dominance are interwoven. In contrast to a class theory, communities become the basis for contradiction (the shudra-ati-shudra peasantry versus the brahman bureaucracy and religious order); in contrast to changing property relations, conquest, force, state power and ideology are seen as driving factors.” 9
It may seem easy to conclude that caste is an identity constructed within larger religious, political and economic systems. On this level of analysis, the religious, political and economic are separate domains that interact with each other to produce the phenomenon of caste. But this isn’t exactly what thinkers like Phule or Ambedkar believed. What I want to present to you now is some analysis of a more searing, revolutionary flavour – that of the radical anti-caste movement. This will lead us to the conclusion that, when it comes to caste, Hinduism does not interact with political and economic systems. Rather, it contains, it is itself, the political and the economic. In making this argument I will explore the interaction between Brahmanism, the Vedas, the Indus Valley, the idea of pluralism, and finally Hinduism. The key argument here will be that Hinduism has never been anything more than Brahmanism, therefore, caste is an essential part of Hinduism (Brahmanism).
Hinduism is commonly understood as the continuation of the religion of the ancient civilisation of the Indus Valley, by whom were created the key Hindu texts, the Vedas. Other essential Hindu texts include more recent texts such as the Ramayana. Whilst Hinduism reveres three main gods (Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva), countless other deities feature in the star cast of Hinduism, which is where it gets its reputation as a diverse, polytheistic (and ‘tolerant’) religion. Indeed, deities from other religious movements, such as Buddhism, are often subsumed under the ‘Hindu fold’ – in some cases the Buddha is seen as reacting against Hinduism, in others he is literally an avatar of Vishnu. Whilst the majority argue that ‘Hinduism’ entails multiplicity, it can be argued that this multiplicity is really the site of rupture and hegemony; in reality Hinduism as it is today is singularly Brahmanism.
The Vedas, the texts from which Hinduism was birthed, are primarily concerned with priestly rituals. This reflects the role of religion in the Indus valley civilisation, which created the four texts during the period from 1500 BCE to 500 BCE. Arising out of the Vedic tradition was the religious subsect of Vedic Brahmanism, the progenitor of modern Brahmanism. The survival of Vedic Brahmanism was threatened by political instability, brought partly by the demise of the Indic civilisation (around 400 BCE) and the conquest of Alexander the Great (327-325 BCE) (just to name a few events occuring in Ancient India at the time). During this time, Vedic Brahmanism struggled to find an accepting political and social formation which revered priests and rituals. However, around 185 BCE, Vedic Brahmanism reconsolidated itself:
“Brahmanism came out of this difficult episode as a socio-political ideology in which Brahmins claimed for themselves the highest position in society. They owe this special position to their exclusive knowledge of sacred texts, and to their extreme ritual purity; the combination of these two, they claimed, provided them with great powers.”10
Bronkhorst argues that this new Brahmanism was not a continuation of the old Vedic Brahmanism or the Vedic religion itself.11Rather, ‘new’ Brahmanism was barely even a religion, forming instead a sociopolitical ideology. In essence, this Brahmanism was not marked by the devotion to any particular god. Regardless of the god worshipped, it was an ideology that consistently placed the Brahmin at the top of the religious hierarchy; ensuring that only Brahmins could provide the religious authority or spiritual prowess to perform relevant religious rituals. Importantly, the ‘religion’ that ‘continued on’ from the Vedic period was Brahmanism, which is what Hinduism was known as during this time. Although Brahmanism had to compete with the other dominant religions of the day, Buddhism and Jainism, it slowly established its empire over the period of 500 CE - 900CE, becoming the dominant religion of the Indian subcontinent.
However, even the idea that Brahmanism was dominant at this time is contested. What is clear is that the underlying method of Brahmanism was to make itself appear as if it was always dominant and had always been there. Integral to the construction of this narrative was the appropriation of different religious movements, which is one of the ways in which contemporary Hinduism is capable of claiming its diversity.
For example, the success of Brahmanism is often attributed to its movement away from priests to the common person, through the Bhakti movement. The Bhakti movement is thought of as Hinduism’s own Lutherian movement, starting in the 7th century (CE) in South India and subsequently spreading to the North. Although variable across regions, key themes of Bhakti include ‘household’ gods, individual devotion, egalitarianism and anti-caste sentiment. Kabir, a famous Bhakti poet and saint in the 15th century wrote:
“Worship, libations, six sacred rites,
this dharma’s full of ritual blights.
Four ages teaching Gayatri, I ask you, who won liberty? You wash your body if you touch another,
tell me who could be lower than you?
Proud of your merit, puffed up with your rights,
no good comes out of such great pride
How could he whose very name
is pride-destroyer endure the same?
Drop the limits of caste and clan,
seek freedom's space,
destroy the shoot, destroy the seed,
seek the unembodied place.”12
Hindu reformists cite movements such as Bhakti as examples of how Hinduism can act radically against caste. Yet the statement that Brahmanism and Bhakti can both fall under the category of Hinduism seems imperfect. Many Bhakti movements (not all, but some of the founding movements) existed to directly repudiate the foundational concepts of Brahmanism – priests, temples, rituals – and did not see themselves as related to Brahmanism at all. Such is the case with the contemporary claim of Buddhism and Jainism as essentially Hindu or Hindu offshoots. Whilst Buddhism and Jainism are as old as the Vedic Brahmanism, both these religions were practiced further to the east of the Indus valley, in the region that would later become the seat of the Maurya Empire. This particular area had no influence from the Vedic texts. Indeed, when Brahmanism eventually met Buddhism and Jainism, it was Brahmanism that would borrow ideas from these religions, such as reincarnation and karma.
In reality, the nature of Brahmanism ensured a particular sociopolitical order, regardless of the Gods it was mediating on. With apparent ease, Brahmanism appropriated local Gods and practices, adding them to the smorgasbord of religious doctrines and deities of Brahmanism, or ‘Hinduism’. Diversity was also created through the many texts written by Brahmins after the Vedic period, such as the Manusmriti and the Mahabharata. This undercuts the claim that Hinduism (Brahmanism) is diverse and accepting; rather, it seeks to lay claim to other religious movements and deities in order to make itself appear far more powerful and influential. This is Brahmanism’s attempt to make itself eternal: as far back as Brahmanism stretches into the past, in a similar fashion it will stretch itself into the future.
Throughout the colonial period, Brahmanism spread because the British believed that talking to Brahmins was the way to understand Indian society; they believed that Brahmanism could be foundational to what they perceived as a unified ‘Hindu’ society. Consider the words of Guna, a scholar-activist:
“The Brahmans, who had English education and had the opportunity of studying abroad, took some threads from the Europeans who conceived of a political entity called ‘Hindustan’. With the borrowed idea, they could clumsily merge the divergent cults and Brahmananic caste apartheid to term it as Hinduism. This concept ... resulted in formulating a pseudo-religious-political concept called ‘Hinduism’, based on which they sought to define their myth of a ‘Hindu’ nationhood.... The ‘Hindu’ was thus born just two centuries back; and he is still a colourless, odourless and formless illusory artificial construction.”13
Viewed in this way, Hinduism is the homogenisation of religious groups and the erasure of difference, in order to build an empire of Brahmanism within the area defined as India. In this interpretation, caste is necessarily a part of Hinduism, because Hinduism is the political and religious structure that is created by Brahmanism. Contrary to a reformist claim, caste and Hinduism never became about Brahmanism. Brahmanism predates Hinduism, it is Brahmanism that became the idea of Hinduism. It is this idea of Hinduism that pulls together the religion originating from Indus Valley, the Vedas, that which inspired the Bhakti movement, Buddhism and Jainism, all of which were ultimately considered Hindu. Through British rule the homogenising entity called Hinduism was reified, and became about the fictionalised geographical entity called India (where India is roughly equivalent to wherever the British decided to rule). And to top it all off, Hinduism was always defined in opposition to the other religions in the region of India that were just as important or ancient or native. If this is the case, then we should blame caste on Hinduism. Insofar as Hinduism is really only Brahmanism, then it is the Hinduism that exists today that is both the creator and reifier of caste.
So, which side of the debate do I fall on? Do I believe in Hindu reformism, or do I think that Hinduism is really at the core of the problem? Do I think that the annihilation of caste comes only with the annihilation of Hinduism? As the writer I’m supposed to tie all the strings together and tell you what I think (and by extension to tell you what you should think).
I think I might have click-baited you. At this point, I refuse to answer the question that I have set myself as the title of this essay: shall we blame it on Hinduism? The debate that I have presented here has deeper roots and wider branches, its foliage is far denser and far more mottled than what I have described. I refuse to have the arrogance to believe that, having read a few books and essays, I exhaustively understand the intricacies and complexities of Indian culture. If I did have such arrogance and decided to conclude for you, I would be the same as the British, who, as Dirks points out, “reduced vastly complex codes and their associated meanings to a few metonyms.”14 Just as Dalit Panthers say, each must “base their calculations about their political strategy on deep study of the political situation confronting them.”15 My efforts must be stronger, my study must be deeper. There are so many terms I feel I must question, rather than use indiscriminately as if their meanings aren’t murky. Perhaps you can direct me towards some form of an answer.
This does not mean that I have not processed all the evidence so far and am not compelled by certain arguments. The fact that some of the wisest (and most revered) anti-caste activists and philosophers – Ambedkar, Phule – decided that we should blame it on Hinduism, is quite telling. With a few exceptions, these thinkers represented the subaltern, those capable of merging their lived experiences with theory. They were responding to the reality of their situation – the reality of the singular oppressive head of Hinduism. On the other side of the spectrum, other political theorists – Gandhi, Nehru – came from upper caste backgrounds. Though they denounced caste, the comfort of their Hindu abode beckoned them away from taking a more radical stance against caste. To put it simply, they had less to lose if the idea of Hinduism strengthened. To put it politically, they had more to gain when they included the ‘Hindu’ masses.
Perhaps to truly rupture the structures that firmly maintain caste, we must blame Hinduism. Burn our saffron robes, destroy the pale skinned statues, throw away our sindoor. Like Ambedkar, find religious doctrines that begin and end with justice. But I am worried that the anti-Hinduism revolutionary call, the one that I am slowly finding my own voice mimicking, is born out of a deep desperation. It is the nihilistic desire to tear it all down and to start from scratch; to provide people the opportunities that the caste system refuses them. It is the desperation to stop Dalit women from being raped and murdered just because they are Dalit, to stop the lives of lower-caste individuals from being subject to misery because of who they are born as – all because of the lie of karma and dharma. Destroy it all, if you must! I want someone to hate, something to blame, because I am so damn angry. And I have every right to be. But, of course, I cannot only be angry. I must be strategic and well-reasoned, and perhaps I will find this strategy and reason within the politic of anti-Hindu Dalit activisim.
Here is my shame. I am a caste Hindu; born into an upper-caste family. I am secretly compelled by my own idyllic Hindu nostalgia. Although Hinduism to me has always been standing in front of a statue and mimicking the ritualistic movements of a figure in my periphery (“is this what I’m meant to be doing?”), it has played a part in my life. I remember going to the temple with my family, holding my grandparent’s hands. I remember watching the fish in the pond at the back of the temple and playing on the trees. I associate the smell of agarbatti, and the sound of the tabla and temple bells, and some of my favourite temple food with the people whom I love the most, my little community in the background of immigrant loneliness: my family. I don’t want to alienate them or lose them - in uprooting from India I have already lost so much. So maybe this is the source of my hesitation, this is the beckoning of the Hindu reformism.
But, I cannot accept that the warm memories of my childhood are sourced from the very same ideology that destroys the lives of so many lower-caste families. I cannot place my nostalgia higher than the life of Surekha Bhotmange and her children. Maybe I do need a little more courage. Just for a little less Hinduism.
Nandini was born a caste Hindu. She is in a consistent state of juggling: juggling between her outsider NRI-ness and Indian-ness, her family and her own opinions, her privileged positionality and her hope to make use of that privilege for the subaltern, her love for research and writing and the understanding that this is not always the same as useful political action. What does useful political action look like? Who am I to speak out, to think that I can speak, or think that there is worth in my speech? The juggling continues.