‘’If one begins with the assumption that ‘Brahmins are the highest caste’ one will
never understand how the caste system in India works’’
Declan Quigley, 1993
The forty odd statues of ‘Untouchable’ icons erected by Mayawati, the ‘Dalit Queen’ – a few of herself – at an estimated cost of some £250 million, would certainly beg to differ with the Dumontian assumption of Brahmans as the ‘top dog’. This essay will seek to argue that the premise of a Brahmanical superiority is not sufficient to explain observations of caste in India, the world’s biggest democracy. Rather Brahmanic ideology is unable to recognize its own roots in colonial history.
Thus the tenets that determine Dumont’s focus on the dominant ‘pure’ Brahman – ideology, uniformity and the purely social sphere – are out of historical and empirical context. The language of purity and pollution is in fact yielding to a rhetoric of ‘differences’. The vocabulary of this new language of the caste system is as diverse as the new spaces it is negotiating. Rising from the complex and overlapping reality of modern India then is a graded system of caste that persists because all, but the lowest, can rest assured that there is someone lower. The owner of this perverse sense of privilege changes according to the field of interaction: Mayawati’s political claim to the privilege as the ‘Untouchable’ Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh can co-exist with the Brahman as an object of aspiration for her ‘untouchable’ Dalit vote bank.
The caste system in India is commonly accepted as the central feature of Hindu social life. Indian society is divided into four broad categories – the chaturvarna – Brahmans, Ksatriyas, Vaisyas and Shudras form a pyramidal hierarchy of decreasing status. The relative positions of Page 2 the varnas determine access to the holy knowledge required for salvation i.e. freedom from the cycle of rebirth into the physical world. Only the Brahmans, Ksatriyas and Vaisyas are permitted to access the Vedas for this purpose – they represent the twice born castes, the suvarna. Those below the suvarna are deemed not to be fit for salvation as they have been born into their lower position as a result of actions in past lives. For the Shudras and a fifth category of Untouchables then, varna signals their lower karmic attainment (S. Bayly 1999, 146.)
This version of Indian social organisation in the holy texts of Manu captured the fascination of a long line of western academics. No equivalent could be found in the West – the uniqueness of the caste system made it a novelty worth studying. This was the exotic stuff of Orientalist orgies: Max Weber saw Indian society defined in terms of purity and pollution on a sliding scale from the Brahmans to the Untouchables.
Most articulate perhaps was Louis Dumont. His seminal work, Homo Hierarchicus, located hierarchy as the foundation of the caste system and the Brahmans at the apex of that hierarchy. Such western conceptions of the ‘mystique’ of caste omitted their own authorship. Warren Hasting, in his memoirs, surmised that Indian society had laws unchanged from antiquity (Gleig 1841).
The fiction of Indian tradition, centred on the village (Cohn 1987, 195-6) and its inflexible caste system, was imperialist production of knowledge at its best. The Brahman’s version of social organisation in India became the colonialist’s understanding of India. The first Governor General of India goes on to say that the Brahmans were ‘professors of law’ (Gleig 1841) i.e. learned Brahmans who helped the British codify ‘Indian’ traditions.
What, in the 18th century, had been an awareness of the Brahmanic formulation, by the early 19th century, transformed in to a rigid and widespread system of caste distinction: ‘the British speeded the rise of Brahmanism …and the principles of purity and pollution’ (C. Bayly 1988, 156-7). Enumerating and categorising castes in the 1901 census confirmed caste as the monolith of social classification and knowledge in India (Dirks 2001, 15).
The ‘Orientalist’ (Said 1978) version of India quickly became the Hindu revivalist’s very own: ‘caste is a natural order’ (S. Bayly 1999, 165). Varna thus became the emblem of some imagined inheritance of ancient Hinduism for Indians (S. Bayly 1999, 168). It was a one stop shop, of social explanation for the imperialist and of traditional value for the native. Thus emerged the somewhat ‘congealed identity’ (Anderson 1983) of an idealised and unified Brahman dominated caste hierarchy. The imperialist’s version of caste was so distinctly social that it equated to a colonial form of civil society such that the denial of political rights and political institutions was justified (Dirks 2001, 16).
Caste was consciously removed from the political: ‘the very differentiation of the caste system from the wider politico-economic system resulted from British rule’ (Fuller 1977, 111-3). Pre-colonial India had political state forms in which the king was not inferior to the Brahman: ‘political power is distributed along caste lines to a much greater extent that it was in the pre-British political hierarchy (Fuller 1977, 111-3). The simultaneity of the British construction of the ‘hollow crown’ (Dirks 1987) of indigenous polity and the pre-eminence of a Brahmanic formulation of spiritual hierarchy was no coincidence. It created the necessarily legitimate space for British rule (Dirks 2001).
Dumont’s magnum opus does not take account of this. Indeed, he never claimed Homo Hierarchicus to be a history of the caste system (Madan 1994, 61). Dumont situates the varna hierarchy of rural India as fundamentally unchanged since ancient times (Fuller, Introduction 1996, 4). The author himself confesses to this aspect of Homo Hierarchicus: ‘admitting continuity …between the present and the very ancient period and bringing a feature borrowed from the distant past into the present’ (Dumont 1980, xxvi). The Dumontian pre-occupation with continuity discounts the possibility of caste being shaped by colonial historiography.
By stepping into the colonial discipline, Dumont accepted the Orientalist version of caste as the ultimate Indian exoticism. His assumption of an idealised and uniform Brahman dominated hierarchy of caste removed from the political was historically misplaced. Dumont, as a scholar of the French sociological tradition, focuses on an ideology centred approach (Madan 1994, 59). He recognises that caste can be understood at two levels: ‘the words [system of caste] assume two different senses, an empirical sense and an ideological one’ (Dumont 1980, 35). Yet Dumont defers the empirical to the ideological: ‘our first task is to grasp this intellectual system, the ideology’ (Dumont 1980, 35).
The laws of Manu dictate that ritual purification by bathing for the Brahman is essential after acts of impurity such as touching a menstruating woman, a woman who has just given birth or an outcaste (Dumont 1980, 52). For Dumont then, ‘the single true principle [is] the opposition of the pure and the impure’ (Dumont 1980, 43) i.e. the pure Brahman versus the polluted Untouchable. However, this Brahmanic ideology underlying caste hierarchy is less credible today. A near four decade review (Mayer 1996, 32) of caste in the village of Ramkheri reveals that by 1992, notions of purity and pollution are surrendering to those of separation and difference.
A teashop in the village run by Nais, considered second in the category of village caste ranking, served the Bhangis, considered at the bottom of the heap (Mayer 1996, 45). As the glasses in the teashop are washed out in the open, higher caste patrons could rest assured that the glasses were washed properly and the Bhangis did not need to use a special glass.
The Dumontian opposition of the pure and impure at the extremes of the hierarchy of caste is clearly extracted from the holy texts and not informed by actual social interaction. His construction of an ideal-type model of the caste system assumes clearly delineated groups. Dumont’s book view of the world prioritises uniformity over diversity. Thus he valorises the scripturally significant varna over the more commonly understood jati: ‘classical authors rarely speak of anything other than the varnas’ (Dumont 1980, 72).
Such a metaphorical framework of the pure and the impure can understate the spectrum of difference that exists. Varna tells us of the ritual difference between a Shudra and an Untouchable but jati extends the story to tell of the differences between Untouchables for instance the superiority of the Chamars to the Bhangis. The language of solid caste identity has given way to a vocabulary of cultural difference: caste endogamy is seen as necessary to preserve ‘different’ traditions. Festivals and funerals in Ramkheri have distinct ceremonial processes dependent upon caste – for example, different days of worship for the Nine Nights festivals (Mayer 1996, 60).
Caste System Cultural Factors
These distinctions go beyond a simple Brahman focused hierarchy of caste. The monocular vision of Dumontian uniformity is failing the litmus test of modern Indian social reality. When a Maravar boy and a Brahman girl in Pudukkottai announced their courtship, the real resistance came from the boy’s father who would not allow marriage outside the Thevar community, not even to a Brahman (Dirks 1996, 284-5).
The making of a ‘substance of difference’, not reliant on Brahmanic preeminence, is a crucial framework to understanding caste in contemporary India. This Brahmanical hierarchy theorised by Dumont is premised on a purely social sphere. There is a distinction between the Brahman priest and the Ksaytriya king: ‘the king has lost his religious prerogatives – he does not sacrifice, he has his sacrifices performed’ (Dumont 1980, 71).
The Ksatriya king’s material power is second to the Brahman priest’s spiritual status. Unless political power is presumed to be ineffective, the Dumontian Brahman dominated caste hierarchy is not possible. There is an absolute distinction of the temporal and the spiritual: ‘the obligation of the rich and powerful to give is prescribed in the texts … sovereigns have always supported the Brahmans’ (Dumont 1980, 72).
The emergence of Brahmannical superiority is the product of a Dumontian generalisation that Indian society derives its civilisational value from spiritual rather than temporal hierarchy. This apolitical native landscape is an illusion. The dominant caste is central to gift giving in a village. Gujjar landholders in Pahansu make dan to Brahmans and Sweepers alike in order to ensure their own well-being as the gift takes away inauspiciousness (Raheja 1988, 511). Status and power are thus ‘necessarily conjoined’ (Quigley 1993, 39) in practice. Historically, too, the king’s dharma of ensuring the welfare of his kingdom was achieved through similar gifts of ‘evil’, as sacrifices, to the Brahman priests (Shulman 1985, 87-8).
Such ‘poisonous’ gifts can hardly be explained by a Brahman dominated social hierarchy of caste. More applicable to comprehending present day India then is a centreperiphery model understandable in terms outside a strictly vertical hierarchy (Raheja 1988, 512). Power and shifting hierarchies are better absorbed into this structure: the traditionally superior Jat landowner has to beg favours from the Dalit civil servant in the same village where the Dalits bowed to Jat pressure to pay a collective penalty for use of the village commons (Chowdhury 2009, 471).
Dumont’s framework – ideological, uniform and purely social – can then hardly be the starting point for understanding how the caste system works in India. Rather Indian society is witnessing the crystallisation of the ‘substance of difference’ based on more than purity and pollution. The untouchable Pallars and the semi-touchable Valaiyars of Alangkulam are distinguished because of the former’s historic performance of slave work and lack of rights to land rather than on a ritual rationale (Deliege 1996, 77).
There is little evidence in Alangkulam of rules of separation on taking food together, using a common water pump and visiting each other’s houses. Rather the residents’ concern with ‘bread and butter matters’ and the Valaiyars’ focus on some of the better off Pallars reveals a more horizontal structure of individuals competing for jobs and social advantage (Deliege 1996, 79-81).
There is an emphasis on terms other than ritual purity. Matrimonial announcements in the urban Sunday papers suggest a plethora of identities – Bengali, Sunni, postgraduate, doctor – but there is a focus on the ‘cultured’ family (Beteille 1996, 165). This is hardly surprising in the status conscious world of modern urban India where distinctions are based on education, occupation and income. Census entries expose the ‘disparate assemblages of clans, sects, castes, tribes, religious communities and linguistic groups’ in the mind of the modern Indian (Beteille 1996, 170). The labels of ‘Brahmans, Baidyas, Sadgopes, Aghuris, Bagdis, Santals and Muslims’ fit only very awkwardly into the symmetrical mould of the varna (Beteille 1996, 171).
Not only is a ‘substance of difference’ being articulated, the diverse index of its contents is far beyond the social sphere. The wider field of interaction possible provided opportunities for consolidation of old identities. In Haryana, Jat dominated village panchayats utilised the excuse of exogamous relationships to exert their superiority over Dalits in the village. It was always the same story – habitual humiliation, brutalisation and harassment of the Dalit family (Chowdhury 2009, 468). This was an expression of Jat resentment at the Dalits’ upward social mobility through reservation: 40,000 government scholarships for Dalits, 18% of civil service posts occupied by Dalits (Chowdhury 2009, 445).
The old identities were being reconfigured in new spaces. The threat of ‘rising Dalits’ has united an otherwise divided Jat community: open state government policy of restricting Dalit entry into the police force has been widely endorsed by the Jats – whether farmer or politician. The Dalit identity too was becoming recognised and rallied around. From the small – a Dalit mother’s refusal to accept leftovers, as is ritually customary (Valmiki 2003, 12) to the big – the formation of the Backward and Minority Communities Employees Federation in Uttar Pradesh in 1973 out of a nucleus of educated civil servants who were beneficiaries of reservation policy. The voices of the so long silenced were being heard (Valmiki 2003).
Sometimes the new identity was not a mere reproduction of the old: the dominantly Dalit Bahujan Samaj Party, received votes outside the Dalit core – between a fifth and a third of votes from Other Backward Castes in the 1996 state elections (Jaffrelot 2004, 158). The horizontal competition for economic and political power is unleashing new and shifting hierarchies of caste: the Bahujan Samaj Party gained more seats in the Lok Sabha elections in 2002 than its main ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party – a party with a high Hindu ideology.
It is equally important that the political should not be aggrandised because there are relative aspirations of being the ‘top dog’: while ‘kingship is indeed mimetic of itself’ (Quigley 1993, 168) there are different ‘kings’ in different spheres (Hocart 1950, 11).
Modern India Caste System Out of Sight
Modern India is beset by hierarchies of power, money and status among yet more i.e. there is a system but not one based just on the Brahman’s ritual superiority. This system is articulated through a language of difference still couched in terms of caste but without its upward looking Brahman focus. In the multi-caste panchayats in Haryana, the upper caste presence is to ensure that a small breach of the village exogamy norm does not turn into a larger infraction of the rule on caste endogamy (Chowdhury 2009, 469).
It is the internalisation of hierarchy that permits continuation as the ‘graded inequality’ (Jaffrelot 2004, 36-7) of caste assigns to all, but the lowest, the security of someone lower in status. It is not an opposition of the pure and impure that prevails but the antagonism of the dominant and the dominated. There is an obsession with ‘small differences’(Jaffrelot 2004, 37): Valaiyars’ traditional occupation is hunting small game but many members claim that most hunt rabbits and it is only the Putchi Katti Valaiyars that are inferior as they hunt turtles, snakes and insects (Deliege 1996, 72).
This is a form of sanscritisation i.e. adoption of suvarna practices to rise in the jati ranks be it by renunciation of the polluting practice of midwifery or by acceptance of vegetarianism. Violent riots erupted in February 2003 when the Jats targeted the Dalit celebration of the suvarna Ravidas Jayanti festival. The persistence of caste as a system can be understood, outside the Brahmanical ideology, as a system of incremental differentiation. Dr Ambedkar, the champion of the Untouchables captured it perfectly: ‘each class [except the lowest] being privileged, every class is interested in maintaining the system’ (Jaffrelot 2004, 37).
Yet the conflict of ideology and aspiration reigns supreme: ‘somewhere Dr Ambedkar’s marriage to Dr Savita, a Brahmin, keeps reverberating in the Dalit consciousness’ (Prasad 2007). Such a confrontational and horizontal interaction can help us to understand caste not only in and beyond the sphere of the sacred but in the complex and overlapping reality of modern India.
Caste System Crisis
To conclude then, caste cannot be understood simply in the Dumontian terms of a vertical hierarchy of caste with Brahmans at the top. An absolute and narrow Brahmanical supremacy is both historically and empirically misplaced. Rather, contemporary India is throwing up a whole host of parallel and overlapping universes in which caste status, old and new, can be contested. For instance, the Meo of Mewat identify themselves simultaneously as a Rajput caste and a Muslim community. The Meo have succumbed to the recent call of the Faith – the madrasa network has expanded in Mewat – and yet the Meo refuse to relinquish their Brahman genealogists in favour of Islamic shamans (Jamous 1996, 184).
There is growing conflict with the far right nationalist backed Baniyas, who are feeling the heat of commercial competition from the Meo in the towns. Equally, the Meo assert their traditional kinship ties with the Jats. Two shrines belonging to a saint, once celebrated by both religions together, is now the subject of deeply held and bipolar objections, dangerously pointing to another Ayodhya in the making. Politics, economics, religion and caste kinship in Mewat are shaping the new hierarchies that are emerging, none of which are uniform across the Meo’s social reality.
The language of difference operates on countless levels in India such that the opposition of purity and pollution is one of many. Caste hierarchy can be better understood in the accomodating framework of the opposition of the dominant and dominated being played out in horizontal interactions of shifting hierarchies.
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