Thursday, September 06, 2018

Varna, Caste, and the Dalits in India

[D]espite its longevity, caste, and caste oppression, is not a popular theme in India.

In Telangana, which had its own feudal ruler, ‘every untouchable family in every village had to give up their first male child as soon as he learned to talk and walk. They would bring him to the dora [landlord] to work in his household as a slave until death.’ Other castes suffered too. This wasn’t, as Gidla writes, ‘a traditional system,’ but one instituted in the late 19th century to allow the large-scale cultivation of tobacco and cotton. The peasants, aided by the Communist Party, rose up and fought this servitude. By now the brahmins were in power in Delhi. No untouchable or low-caste Hindu harboured many illusions. Some even feared that after the British withdrawal things would get worse for them. They did. The Indian army invaded the city of Hyderabad in Telangana, deposing its rulers, but then turned its guns on the peasants, detaining, torturing and raping thousands and evicting them from the land. The more progressive elements in the Congress Party may have believed that with industrialisation and modernisation the problem of caste would solve itself. It never did. Capitalism itself may be caste, colour and gender-blind but the dominant classes utilise these divisions to preserve their own rule.

In 2012 the Indian and Western media extensively covered the gang rape and murder of a single woman in Delhi, largely because students and feminist groups had protested on the streets and made it an issue; that same year 1574 Dalit women were raped and 651 Dalits murdered. Add to this the regular mob punishment of Dalit and low-caste women: they are forcibly stripped then paraded through villages to humiliate them further. Politically a democracy, constitutionally secular, India has, since 1947, been a caste Hindu dictatorship. – Tariq Ali (from his review cited below)

I want to recommend, without reservation, Tariq Ali’s review of Sujatha Gilda’s book, Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017), “The Unseeables, in the latest issue of the London Review of Books, Vol. 40, No. 16 (30 August 2018).

See too Pankaj Mishra’s review, “God’s Oppressed Children,” for The New York Review of Books, December 21, 2017.

[A self-imposed time constraint precludes the use of subscript diacritic dots in what follows, hence, for example, the ‘s’ in ksatriya should be pronounced more like ‘sh.’] 


While I unqualifiedly recommend Ali’s review, I could not resist making one comment, not about what Ali himself writes, but on a quote from Arundhati Roy’s introduction to B.R. Ambedkar’s 1930s classic, The Annihilation of Caste:

“What we call the caste system today is known in Hinduism’s founding texts as varnashrama dharma or chaturvarna, the system of four varnas. The approximately four thousand endogamous castes and sub-castes (jatis) in Hindu society, each with its own specified hereditary occupation, are divided into four varnas – Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (soldiers), Vaishyas (traders) and Shudras (servants). Outside of these varnas are the avarna castes, the Ati-Shudras, subhumans, arranged in hierarchies of their own – the Untouchables, the Unseeables, the Unapproachables – whose presence, whose touch, whose very shadow is considered to be polluting by privileged-caste Hindus.”

In this passage Roy elides, as many others (including those who should know better) have done before her, the historical and sociological differences between the varna model1 and the caste and jāti (‘birth-group’) system. Varna (‘color’); is the Vedic fourfold—vertically and horizontally hierarchical—normative division of labor and patrilineal social system: brāhmanas (priests), ksatriyas (soldiers, administrators, rulers), vaiśyas (farmers, merchants, artisans, etc.), and śudras (servants, landless laborers, etc.). The first three groups are called “twice-born” (dvija) meaning they participate in a religious rite of passage and initiation ceremony that permits them to fully participate in Vedic study and ritual, while the śudras were deemed impure and excluded from Vedic religious practices. The varna system is not, speaking strictly and historically, the caste or jāti system (the word ‘caste’ is from the Portuguese word casta, meaning ‘breed,’ ‘race,’ or ‘kind,’ while the latter term refers, descriptively, to thousands of ‘birth-groups’ throughout India), although it is fair to say that it later serves to provide the religious (Rg Veda 10.90) and conceptual template, if not social and cultural sanction or legitimation, for that system (as in the Dharmaśāstra-s), thus it acts as a necessary yet not sufficient condition for its historical realization (and the two terms are later in fact closely allied, sometimes even interchangeable). It’s possible if not likely that the varna system was originally “little more than a social division of labor” much as one finds in both in older and contemporary civilizations. The following from Gerald Larson is apropos:

“To be sure, the Dharmaśāstra-s, or law-books of [the] Indic period [c. 300-1200], especially perhaps the Mānava-dharma-śāstra or ‘Law-Book of Manu,’ provide clear evidence that a full-blown caste system was in operation, but it is not as clear that social life always mirrored the system as articulated in the official texts. There is some reason to believe that over the centuries there has been more flexibility and mobility among caste groupings in various parts of India than is commonly thought. The more rigid, modern system of caste probably develops during the long centuries (c. 1200-1750) of Muslim dominance in India when Hindu tradition became much more defensive and in-grown for the sake of communal survival.”2 

As Larson also explains, it is with this later, more rigid and horrific caste system that “[t]o some extent one can correlate the varna-system with the jāti-system, so that, for example, one might refer to various jāti-s as ‘sub-castes’ of ksatriya-s or vaiśya-s, and so forth.” It has been plausibly argued that the conceptualization and rationalization of this system are said to locate “homo hierarchicus” within a macrocosmic hierarchy extending “from Brahmā to the tufts of grass” (brahmādistambaparyanta). 


1. In Hinduism, the varna model is importantly and suggestively correlated with two other fourfold categorical classifications. The first is purusārtha-s: the four principal aims or ends of man, namely, wealth (artha), desire (kāma), ethics (dharma), and liberation (moksa). These are best seen as “ideal-typical” categories reflecting corresponding values: economic, psychological, moral, and spiritual. Thus understood, there is an implicit hierarchy here, with dharma and moksa higher than artha and kāma, and moksa the highest of the four. Descriptively and psychologically speaking, these may also represent various forms of motivation, keeping in mind the ubiquity of mixed motivations among human beings. They also represent the possibility that the first three aims may be harnessed toward the fourth end, hence wealth, desire and ethics can be subsumed within, and in service of, moksa. John Grimes accordingly speaks of artha and kāma as instrumental values, dharma as an integrating or regulative value, and moksa as an intrinsic and end value. The second fourfold model is aśrama-s: stages in life, of which there are four: brahmacarya, young person under tutelage of a religious teacher (guru), including the practice of strict sexual continence; grhastya, life as a householder; vānaprastha, “forest-dweller,” beginning of withdrawal from familial and social obligations to spend more time on spiritual practice; and samnyāsa, “renunciation,” all attachments to family and home now abandoned, one is usually initiated into the customs and specific religious practices of a sect. Samnyāsīs, while free of societal rules, norms and conventions, adhere to rules fashioned for them alone (yatidharma). These stages of life are considered normative for brāhmanas or brahmins. Again, as religiously inspired normative models and ideal-typical categories, it should not be assumed that Hindus conform to these models in their daily lives, even if they might be quick to verbally acknowledge their religious and cultural significance.
2. Gerald James Larson, India’s Agony over Religion (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1995): 91.

(Some) Relevant Bibliographies (and one ‘study guide’!):
Hinduism Study Guide (this was put together for my students when I taught a course on ‘comparative world religions’)


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