Monday, November 2, 2015

Caste and Varna system...

Social stratification based on the birth is considered to be unique feature of the caste system. Also it is largely assumed that caste rigid, birth based and unjust caste system has antique origin. The various Indian and European scholars have attempted to find the origin of the caste system. What we can derive from their viewpoints?

1.     Invariably most of the scholars have erroneously confused Varna system with caste system. In fact both are distinct concepts.

2.     Birth-based rigid caste system is thought to be an ancient fact of Hindu life.

3.     Some scholars believe that endogamous Jati’s, not Varnas, are castes.

4.     Scholars like H. S. Risley thinks that the caste means endogamous groups resulted from interactions between the different races of past.

5.     Dr. B. R. Ambedkar has different view. According to him the castes in India before colonial rule were exogamous society because marriages within blood-relatives and class-relations were forbidden. He proposes that the castes should be defined as a social group that tries to impose endogamy in an exogamous population.

6.     The definition given by Amar Kosha is, “Caste is a synonym of class. The groups formed by the social common customs are called Castes.”

7.     According to Dr. Iravati Karve the castes main feature is they are endogamous. Spread of the caste is in the limited geographical area where a single common language is spoken. Every caste has one or two ancestral profession and its status in comparison with other castes can be either higher or lower. The families with which marital ties can be established such group of the families is the caste. Hence the caste is nothing but expanded group of relations. Dr. Karve further states that the caste and tribe has striking similarities, such as limited geographical spread and presence of the caste panchayat (Assembly), hence the castes are formed out of ancient tribes.

8.     The castes are enforced upon the aboriginals by the invading victorious Aryans is another school of thought that is still dominant in the Indian society.
From above it will appear that what G. S. Ghurye wrote in 1932, “…despite much study by many people,... we do not possess a real general definition of caste. It appears to me that any attempt at definition is bound to fail because of the complexity of the phenomenon. On the other hand, much literature on the subject is marred by lack of precision about the use of the term.” is not exaggeration.

The above overview of the opinions of various scholars clearly shows that they are not unanimously clear about the origin of the castes. Some scholars have taken racial angles whereas some have taken tribal angle. However the fact remains that there are castes and every caste is concrete, independently functioning body set distinct and aloof from other castes, maintaining higher and lower status at the same time in the society.

Let us first discuss on the various opinions of the scholars of the past and try to find what could be the truth. We have seen in opening chapter that the scholars have mixed up Varna system with caste system and that is the reason most of their opinions have gone wrong and misleading.

Varna system is like a pyramid. It has descending order. Brahmin is placed higher and rest of the Varnas are set in descending order. It appears that there also was a time when Kshatriya’s claimed highest position over Brahmins. When Varna system became birth based is not exactly known. However, it appears when this religion came to India, the early preachers accumulated new converts in either Varna, excepting Shudra. It is possible that by this era Varna system gradually had become rigid and birth based.

Was Varna system profession based? Or was it essential that the particular person had to strictly follow the profession prescribed for his Varna? Smriti’s do not indicate this though they forcefully command it. Though Smriti’s laid down principles of profession to be followed by each Varna, it doesn’t appear that Vedic people strictly followed them. However they maintained their social status based on their Varna.

To a small religion, classifying people in three Varnas was quite easy. I doubt how many Kshatriyas were converted Vedics and how many were just designated by the Vedic Brahmins for the patronages they received from the warrior class people out of gratitude or flattering. After close analysis of Mahabharata and Ramayana, though later heavily interpolated, it does not seem that Kuru or Rama’s clan was Vedic Kshatriya as it is assumed. Later on Brahmins stopped designating any warrior or King as Kshatriya. They simply made declaration that in Kaliyuga there no more are Kshatriyas.

Anyway, Varna system was created by Vedics. Brahmins maintained their superiority for they were the early missionaries those had introduced Vedic religion to the people of Indian subcontinent. It flourished in Kuru-Panchal regions in the beginning and later thrived in Gangetic plains. The early opponents to this religion like Buddha and Mahavira too arose from these regions. Elsewhere this religion was yet to find some space.

What was the social system of the Indians before and after Vedic religion was introduced to some sections of the society?

We must bear in mind that Varna system of Vedic religion has divine origin. Such is not the case with Caste system because it always depended on the occupations and was so much so flexible that non-Vedic Hindu religion needed not any divine explanation for it.

We have archaeological proofs of early settlements throughout India. The settlements patterns clearly show that there were many professions, agriculture being prominent supported by animal husbandry and fishing. The housing patterns in towns and villages indicate it depended on financial ability or political authority of the owner. There were professions like pottery, copper-smith, ornament making, carpentry, trading (including import export), mining, mason work, tool making (from stones and metals) etc. in early period. There were semi-nomadic people like shepherds and cowherds.

Were they birth based? Did some religious authority suddenly invented all the professions and enforced on the whole Indian society, dividing it in the birth-based castes?  It would be ridiculous even to think of it. All the professions of early humanity are the outcome of gradual inventions and modifications.

For example, after copper Age Iron Age appeared. Sensing its utility many people got diverted to the new profession, to smelt the iron and make implements from it. It must be very profitable business in its early times. From where these people came and entered new profession had Caste system been rigid? The people entered this new profession must have been engaged in other businesses before. They could desert their previous business to enter another only because there did not exist birth-based rigid caste system. It only can happen when freedom to change profession is in place. And it clearly seems from available proofs and simple logic such freedom certainly did exist in India.

What is caste?

We have seen different opinions of the scholars on origin of the caste system. They are ambiguous while defining the caste system. We will critically examine their definitions later. What is the caste is main question and we have to deal with it first.

Caste is the profession that one adapts for his/her livelihood. All the castes in India are having some or other traditional profession. Many professions are now outdated as need of their professional skills no longer are required by the society. There are many professions those have been replaced by modern technologies. Many professions are long gone but the caste remains. Ironic but true fact is with any professions death or change in profession caste too should have been dead or changed. But our stark reality is stigma or pride of caste still thrives, no matter whether one adheres to ancestral profession or not. 

However fact of the past with emergence of new profession new caste would arise and death of it the caste too would vanish.

Rathkar (Chariot-maker) was a caste. With decline of chariot use in warfare the caste too vanished. Magadh, Suta, Bandi etc. castes (professions) too met with same fate. Did the people of that caste too vanished? No. They attended to other professions and survived.

Caste system was flexible. Caste is loose translation of original word “Jati”. It has not certain etymology. Jati (or Jaat) closely is related with the word that means “To go to”. It can mean that the profession one goes to is called “Jaat” (Caste). Or it will also mean, the profession one adapts for livelihood is “Jaat” (Caste).

The definition of Amar Kosha is descriptive. “Caste is a synonym of class. The groups formed by the social common customs are called Castes,” it says. It doesn’t help us much. Customs keep on changing and groups are not solely formed based on similarities in customs. Group can form based on similar profession in same religion or society. We can call it as affinity or brotherhood among similar professions.

There is no caste in India that doesn’t have (or had) any traditional occupational business. But originally occupation was not traditional. It was solely depended on the person to decide whether to stick to ancestral profession or to leave it.   

This does mean that castes are nothing but professions. Caste names too mostly are associated with the professions.

Now the question is apparent that how inequality among various castes did start to plague Indian society? Most important is how flexible caste system became rigid and birth based?

We shall deal with this vital question in next chapter.
(To be contd.)

1 comment:

  1. It was known in 19th century that the Varna references in Purush sukta were later interpolations. See John Muir. Varna is a post Vedic concept. 19th century ethnologists believed Varna was a purely theoretical category that had historically never been practicedpracticed. See Latham. So how did Varna come to define modern India? See Risley.