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Caste And Hinduism

By Gail Omvedt

Economic and Political Weekly
29 November, 2003

M V Nadkarni's recent article "Is Caste System Intrinsic to Hinduism?:
Demolishing a Myth", (EPW, November 8, 2003) comes as a follow-up to his
earlier article "Ethics and Relevance of Conversions: A Critical
Assessment of Religious and Social Dimensions in a Gandhian Perspective"
(Januay 18). Both articles show the fundamental stamp of Hindutva
ideology, primary of which is shoddy methodology, selective quotation (for
example, his references to my work are to a 10-year old book and
selectively at that), and illogic.

The illogic in the 'Caste System' article begins with a basic, unexamined
premise: that there is some entity called 'Hinduism', a religion which has
lasted 4,000 years and which comprehends 'classical' as well as 'medieval'
and 'modern' forms. This is the most historically unjustified premise,
since the term 'Hindu' to refer to a religious belief was never used until
the establishment of Muslim regimes (and then only in some parts of India;
for instance, Tukaram - who Nadkarni takes as one of the 'Hindu' bhakti
sants, never in all his 4,700 abhangs used this word) and it never came
into generalised use throughout India until the 19th century. This has
been documented by numerous scholars and I will not cite them here. The
illogic is that Nadkarni assumes, and documents, changes in the caste as a
socio-historical structure (which I think is correct) but does not
question the supposedly unchanging character of an essential 'Hinduism'.
(Incidentally, Nadkarni is silent on whether Buddhism, Jainism and the
shramanic traditions should be considered as part of 'Hinduism').

Other mistakes pale before this basic point, but I will take up a few

First, he says that Ambedkar regards the Purush Sukta as an interpolation.
This is an opinion of many Sanskrit scholars, not only Ambedkar. That
different texts ('religious' or not) contain material from different
periods is a historical inevitability; looking at the text within the
framework of the social and material conditions of its time, determining
its time, is a major part of a scholarís task. The Purush Sukta, to my
knowledge, is taken to be a very late addition (whether we use the term
'interpolation' is a matter of definition) to the rest of the Rig Veda.
The dating of the Rig Veda (by most scholars to 1,500-1,000 BC) itself
does not justify the '4,000 year' claim. I have argued in my own recent
book, Buddhism in India: Challenging Brahmanism and Caste (Sage India,
2003) that caste ('varnashrama dharma') emerged as a concept only in the
middle of the first millennium BCE - not at first as an actual social
structure but as an emerging prescription of what an ideal social
structure should be. For about a millennium there was a battle between the
brahmanic tradition (supporting varnashrama dharma) and the shramanic
traditions, especially Buddhism, over the nature of what society should
be. It is relatively meaningless to use the actual social situation in
this period as justifying what Nadkarni calls 'Hinduism' but what de facto
he takes as only the brahmanic scriptures.

A major problem of interpretation comes up as to whether the Gita's
justification of assigning varna categories is by birth or by 'merit'.
Nadkarni argues for merit as do all modern ideologies of Hindutva, as for
that matter Gandhi did at least at the end of his life. (Gandhi did
support 'swadharma', following the profession of oneís father, for a
lengthy period, but leave that aside). I do not think this is what the
ancient texts meant - but even if they did, the point remains that it is
profoundly undemocratic to assign people, at whatever age, to certain
tasks and responsibilities and rights according to some form of presumed
'merit' or 'guna' and then to treat them differentially. Could any
democratic society legislate that people who are primarily workers should
not be able to read or should not be able to read certain valued religious
texts and that they should be punished if they did so? Could any
democratic society legislate that people who are not primarily (by 'merit'
or not) something called 'brahmans' should be forbidden from teaching or
arguing about such texts? Varna by merit is as abominable a conception as
varna by birth. (Nadkarni does not of course mention women, because here
it is almost impossible to sustain any argument.)

Incidentally, the sections of the Gita that Nadkarni quotes (IV:13, II:31,
XVIII: 47) are not necessarily the most pro-varna, according to my
reading. I would refer to the entire sequence of XVIII: 41-47. Even worse
are the verses in I: 40-47, which state that varnasamkarna (mixture of
varnas) leads to destruction of the family and both lead to hell. It seems
to me that such verses cannot be 'explained away'; one must say whether
one agrees or disagrees with them. Nadkarni would apparently 'disagree'
with such sentiments of the brahmanic 'canon' - but why are there so many
of them and why are they so persistent?

How much of the Gita is left that cannot be found in the Dhammapada, or in
Samkhya philosophy? Why should the Gita be considered a particularly holy
book? And if not the Gita, which are the texts Nadkarni would recommend?

To take up the issue of bhakti as Nadkarni calls 'the most prominent
movement within the framework of Hinduism to fight against casteism'.
Again, we have to be on guard against the tendency to classify all bhakta
sants as within the same system, the same religion, the same framework.
There were orthodox institutionalised sects, many of which controlled a
good deal of money and power - the Vallabhaites in north India, the
Ramdasis in Maharashtra, to take two exmaples. Those whom I have been
calling the radical bhakta sants ñ Kabir, Ravidas, Mira, and in
Maharashtra Tukaram, Cokhamela, Namdev, Dnandev - were quite different.
Kabir clearly differentiated himself from both ëHindusí and 'Muslims'
(whom he usually called 'Turks'); so did Nanak, though Nadkarni does not
apparently consider him a part of 'Hinduism'. Tuka spoke primarily in
terms of Vithoba or Vitthal, but when he used the term 'Vishnudas' or
ëVaishnava virí for the varkaris, he used it in such a way as to include
many Muslims and to exclude pandits, followers of brahmanic rituals, and
advaita philosophy. Numerous abhangs take dharma and karma as referring to
'the others' and not to the varkaris. The fact is that Cokhamela died
young while carrying out his caste duty, which he could not escape; Tukaís
manuscripts were drowned because as a shudra he was not supposed to write or teach, and there is good evidence that in the end he was murdered by
his orthodox opponents.1

The opposition to caste, untouchability, panditry, etc, by the radical
sants cannot be taken as a 'proof' of the progressive and reform qualities
of something called 'Hinduism'. Coming to the 'modern' period, Nadkarni
makes a serious error when he takes ezhavas and nadars as examples of
dalits who have raised their status by reformist policies. Ezhavas (also
known as tiyyas) and nadars were never untouchables in the sense that
pulayas and cherumans in Kerala, or paraiyas and pallars in Tamil Nadu.
They were lower OBCs. And while many among them have benefited by modern changes, it is still apparently true that as social groups, that is, they
remain in the same place in the hierarchy as before - that is, above the
scheduled castes, and below the upper shudras and twice-born categories.

Finally, the point is not whether caste is dying away or not. Certainly it
can survive only with difficulty in a modern democratic age and, as a
historical form that came into existence at a certain time it is also
certain to vanish. At the same time it is clear that forms, or 'remnants'
or whatever Nadkarni or others would like to call them - he prefers terms
such as 'caste identities' and 'ghosts' implying lack of material reality
- remains. What is his position regarding these remnants or surviving
forms? Does he agree or not that programmes of affirmative action are
still needed in the economic sphere? Does he agree or not that the
continuing domination of a hereditary brahman priesthood in most 'Hindu'
temples - and especially in the very lucrative ones - is wrong and should
be abolished? In his January 18 article Nadkarni has justified opposition
to conversion with particular citations from Gandhi. There may be plenty
of reason to argue against conversion. This does not justify any law
banning it or discriminating against people who 'convert' (who choose to
follow a particular religion or a particular sect within a religion). Laws
may ban only those practices which infringe on the rights of others,
otherwise propagation of a religious point of view - just as propagation
of a political point of view - is a fundamental right.

Nadkarni has written that within Islam and Christianity there are
retrogressive as well as progressive and democratic tendencies. This is
true, and I (and most others) would support the democratic tradition
within these religions - and oppose retrogressive ones. I do not consider
'Hinduism' to be a religion in the same sense, but I would certainly
support Nadkarniís right to call himself a religious 'Hindu'. The rest
depends on what kind of stand he takes within what he considers to be
Hinduism: would he support affirmative action or diversity programmes at
all levels? Would he support the removal of hereditary priesthood from
temples? Would he support the right of people to choose which faith to
follow? I await his answer.

Time will submit to slavery
from illusionís bonds we'll be free
everyone will be
powerful and prosperous -
Brahman, Ksatriya, Vaishya, Shudra
and Chandala all have rights
women, children, male and female
and even prostitutes
-Tuka (Tukaram), 17th century Marathi Sant of India


1 See the ongoing translations of Tuka which have been done by Bharat
Patankar and the author; for an early publication see 'Says Tuka .Songs of
a Radical Bhakta', Critical Asian Studies 35, 2, June 2003 (translations
from the Marathi with introduction).


Courtesy - Harsh Kapoor/SACW