The Origins and Principles of CASTE

Caste is an institution peculiar to India. Racial, social and occupational divisions of classes exist elsewhere, but they differ fundamentally from the peculiar social structure of India. Caste is not merely a principle of social division, but a comprehensive system of life, dealing with food, marriage, education, association and worship.

It is a religion rather than a changing social order. Its non-observance is met with condign punishment and the rigidity with which its rules are enforced could put to shame even the Grand Inquisition.

The main facts with regard to the origin of caste on which there is general agreement are as follows; At a time known vaguely as the Vedic period, a fair-skinned people, who called themselves Aryans, entered India and settled down in the Punjab, they had no developed system of caste.

It is also commonly accepted that India at time was peopled by a race which was darker in colour. The country was sparsely populated and the pre-Aryan inhabitants of India, whether they lived in towns as the recent discoveries in Harappa and Mohenjo – daro prove, or in tribal organisations, lived far apart from each other without the cohesion and communal unity of the invading Aryans.

The contact between the two races resulted in the conquest of the Aborigines of North India by force of arms, and thus came into existence the primary difference of caste – the Varna Bheda or the difference in colour.

The vital line of differentiation in the caste system does not lie in the four varnas as is generally supposed, but in the division between the twice-born Aryans (dwijas) and the Sudras, who are born only once.

The second birth among the Aryans is without doubt a rite de passage  as explained by M.Van Gennep, the ritual initiation which alone would give a man his rights in society. The Sudras, or the conquered Dravidians, were kept out of rite as the Aborigines of Melanesia are even now kept out of the rites of the invading "Kava people"

Thus the division in the early days was based entirely on colour and ritual. But soon a tendency, which seems to be a characteristic of all primitive societies, began to assert itself. Sir James Frazer in his Golden Bough has shown conclusively that the evolution of the magicians as a class with supreme authority in matters of religion is an inevitable stage in early social evolution.

"The Aryan invasion of Southern India was not military: rather it was a peaceful penetration."

The tendency soon became evident in the Aryan community of Dwijas. A process of increasing differentiation began to manifest itself among the twice-born as a result of the development of a definitely magical cult from the inchoate mass of religious feeling which found expression in the Rig Veda.

The composition of the Yajur and Atharva Vedas shows a state of society in which complicated and elaborate sacrificial rites and ceremonies have already taken the place of the pure and undiluted animism of the early Aryans. By a pretended mastery of these sacrificial and magical powers, the Brahmins soon became a powerful and sacerdotal hierarchy.

When once the Brahmins were differentiated as a class, they soon came to develp a group consciousness which operated against the other Dwija castes no less than against the Sudras.

The perpetuation of class predominance became the Brahmins' main concern. The rule of caste, which gave the Brahmins unquestioned social supremacy, were consciously evolved and worked out and their enforcement was given a religious sanction.

The origin of caste in Southern India is naturally different. Before the Aryans ventured south of the Vindhyas, the caste system had taken its final shape. The Aryan invasion of Southern India was not military: rather it was a peaceful penetration. As the Dravidian communities of Southern India were gradually subjected to the onslaught of a different cultural type, a slow transformation took place in their composition.

All the evidence we have of the pre-Aryan society of South India goes against the hypothesis that the Dravidian communities were united in any form of a single or powerful political state. They seem to have lived in groups, some of which like the Reddis, Vellalas and Nayars had attained considerable tribal military power.

The slow imposition of Hindu culture on them took many centuries and in the case of some of them, it has never been effectual or complete. The tribes were left much as they were, but as the caste system had already come to be considered as a universal system, these tribes had to be declared Sudras, though in fact they maintained a very high social position and admitted only reluctantly the superiority of the Brahmins.

Such in bare outline seems to be the origin of caste in its wider significance. An illustrious French writer, Mons. Senart  has tried to prove that the system of caste is the Aryan solution of the problem of racial contact, and that the institution was developed in the attempt of the invading races to adapt themselves to their surroundings in India.

By a comparative study of the Aryan institutions in Greece and Rome M. Senart has established the fact that the elements of caste were developed even in those communities. The pride of blood, the distinction between the conqueror and the conquered, the formation of different groups owing to geographical conditions, these are the complex factors by which M. Senart has tried to explain the origin of caste.

But this does not explain the two cardinal points in the caste system, namely, the ascendancy of the Brahmins over the other Aryan classes, and, secondly, the importance of the so-called Sudras in Southern India. Racial antagonism alone would not explain the caste system. It originated undoubtedly in the difference in race, but its later development was due to the group consciousness of the Brahmins.

The social structure of caste has not been the spontaneous outcome of a historical evolution, the adaptation of a society to its surroundings. On the other hand, all through its history the conscious purpose of a group at work can be observed, and in its late developments there is no doubt that the caste system has been the attempted solution of fundamental social problems by an oligarchy of priests intent first on preserving its own power, and secondly, in keeping down for ever the Sudra and aboriginal castes over whom their sway had extended.

To this solution, a religious as well as legislative sanction was given and, entrenched behind the irresistible power of spiritual authority, the caste system gradually embraced the whole outlook and narrowed the activity of the Hindu society. The final establishment of caste as the universal and accepted principle of social organisation in the entire society was a revolution of the first magnitude.

"The Sudras were denied  the right of education and even of liberal occupations: while the untouchables, who were outside the pale of caste, were treated as a conquered slave community without even ordinary human rights."

Whatever the origin of caste, the main principles that underlie it are clear and definite. The theorists of social life in ancient India have left no room for doubt as to the meaning of the principles of which the caste system is the visible expression.

In examining these, we shall have to consider caste not only as it is described by Manu and other ancient writers, but as it is understood and practised at the present time. That is, we shall have to examine the caste system both in its static and dynamic aspects.

The first and basic principle of caste is the inequality of mankind based on birth. The Brahmins by their birth are superior to the rest, and the superiority and inferiority of man depend upon the caste in which he is born.

Indeed, the idea of irremovable inequality based on birth is so organically connected with caste that it may well be described as the main characteristic, which differentiates it from class organisations in other countries. Everywhere else a man may rise from the class in which he is born, may even rise to the very top of the social order under favourable conditions. In India, the stigma of a man's caste sticks to him forever.

The effect of this principle in establishing social classes on a different footing from castes is a problem which cannot be discussed here. But even where men of comparatively low caste attain social position, as in the case of Sudra Ruling Princes and landholders, the inferiority of caste is a factor of which they are reminded at all ceremonial and religious functions, the case of the Maharajas of Travancore who perform the peculiar but significant ceremony of being re-born through a golden cow (which is then given away to the Brahmins) in order to attain the rank of a twice-born, may be cited to prove this fact.

This principle of social inequality operated against the vast majority of the population: for it should never be forgotten that the higher castes form only a small minority of India's population. The Sudras were denied  the right of education and even of liberal occupations: while the untouchables, who were outside the pale of caste, were treated as a conquered slave community without even ordinary human rights.

The Brahmins sociologists and philosophers responsible for this social structure were fully aware of the dangers, which may result from so flagrant a denial of rights to the great majority. This condemnation to eternal servitude had to be justified, and some plausible explanation had to be given to the victims. That was easy enough as the Brahmins, with great insight, kept the Sudras in ignorance and superstition.

The policy, which the Brahmins followed in this connection, is analysed in some detail in a later section. They also realised that unless the masses could by some method, be made to believe in the justice of the caste system, their own domination would be continually menaced and gradually undermined. Here also the subtle mind of the Brahmin found a solution in the fatalistic philosophy embodied in the theory of Karma and its fantastic corollary of the transmigration of souls.

The Brahmin explained that birth on which the inequality of castes is based is not an accident of which we need complaint, as being something beyond our power to mend or for which we are not responsible.

The present life of ours is the outcome of the actions of our past lives and for it, therefore, we are ourselves responsible. Besides, it lies within our power to be the architects of our future lives by accepting the limitations which birth and, therefore, caste has set over us. This theory was an appeal to justice. It placed the responsibility of the social and political disabilities of the lower castes on their own past lives. It invested the superiority enjoyed by the Brahmins with the appearance of just reward for their former good lives.

This explanation also gave a hope – chimerical no doubt, but psychologically of the highest value – that in the course of many successive lives the lowest caste man can, if he but accept the superiority of the Brahmins now and here and recognise them as the sole repositories of human wisdom entitled to worship and obedience, attain Brahminhood himself.

Thus the exclusion of castes does not operate behind the curtain where the principle of transmigration is settled. In that world the castes mingle, and the unseen god of the Brahmins allots after death, the punishments and rewards by degradation and promotions within the caste system. Thus according to the theory of transmigration which is the philosophic justification of caste, it is only in the world of the dead that a man may rise in the hierarchy of caste and attain ultimate equality with the highest in a future life.

The caste system in its dynamic aspects always had a professional background, and hence the idea of the inequality of professions which constitutes its second basic principles.

The ideal of liberal professions has existed everywhere, but so thorough and systematic arrangement of professions in a descending scale is a unique characteristic of the social system of India.

It requires no argument to prove that it is a false basis on which to build a social system to grade professions in an order of merit and to deprive all except the priest and the warrior of social and political influence. while social opinion considered all professions except those of the Brahmins and the Kshatriyas as unworthy, it offered no chance for any one born in one profession to take up another.

The professions being strictly exclusive of one another, the caste organisations insisted on the children of a cobbler, for instance, following the profession of their father.

A washer man, even if he desired, could not train his son to be a blacksmith, and this custom, while it might have resulted in the attainment of high degree of professional efficiency among the craftsmen, tended without doubt, to create a complete immobility in the ranks of the working classes.

The absence of any element of choice in regard to one's occupation in life and the arbitrary distinction about the dignity of various professions and the consequent social inequality, are essential characteristics of the economic aspects of caste system.

Hence, the argument which the apologists of the system of inequality often put forward that the relative position of men in caste – society is regulated not by birth, but merely refuted by the fact that the choice of the profession itself is regulated by birth.

A third and equally important principle on which caste is based, and without which caste as an institution could not have lasted long, is the absolute and rigid social exclusion between the four main castes and the equally rigid, if not so absolute and exclusion of their many subdivisions between themselves.

The prohibition of marriage except in one's own caste, and the extreme rigorousness of the punishment meted out to all marriages outside caste are of the essence of the system. The critics who say that this regulation with regard to marriage only emphasizes the primary characteristic of caste as resulting from the co-existence of two races, one of which claimed superiority over the other, are only partially right.

The question of caste in the beginning may have been a question of race, but as we have said before, it soon became a question of the social supremacy of a class. The prohibition that Aryan women should not be married to Sudra men may be merely the legal sanction given to the feeling of extreme hostility which exists in all European countries to the marriage of European women to coloured men, and to the practical prohibition of such unions enforced in United States and South Africa where the races exist side by side.

But if it is merely a question of race, what then is the reason for prohibiting marriages even between Kshatriya men and Brahmin women? The reasons are more fundamental and complicated, and it is obvious that the elaborate provisions with regard to exogamy and endogamy cannot be explained by any one formula.

The idea of superiority and inferiority of races certainly existed; but some survivals of tribal exogamy and endogamy belonging to the conquered inhabitants must also have been borrowed.

The question of the origins of these prohibitions does not, however, enter into our problem. That they constitute and essential feature of the Hindu system of society will be admitted on all counts.

What has been the result of the operation of the principle underlying these prohibitions? It has broken up the Hindu community not only into four main castes, but into innumerable minor groups, each marrying only within its circle, dining only with its caste-men and claiming superiority over all others.

Within the Hindu society, therefore, this system of marriage has introduced a basis of innumerable cross divisions. We might explain this by saying that the horizontal divisions of the Hindus into four Varnas, each of them again divided vertically into innumerable sections, as a result of which the Hindu has become an abstraction, a sociological fiction.

The passage from the barbarous to the civilized state of existence has been marked everywhere by an extension of the circle of social activity, or, in the words of Mons. Durkheim, by the widening of the symbiotic circle. In primitive societies, the individual stands related either to the family, or to the tribe which is only family on a totemic basis. The progress of human civilisation is based on the extension of the circle of thought and activity.

"the subtle mind of the Brahmin found a solution in the fatalistic philosophy embodied in the theory of Karma and its fantastic corollary of the transmigration of souls."

Though this indubitably is the universal rule in India, after the Hindu society passed through its early stages of civilisation the process was soon reversed. The symbiotic circle, instead of being widened, was continuously narrowed by a system of marriage regulations. The wider social activity of individual found no scope.

The collective consciousness of social life, which is the creative force of civilising activity and is, therefore, responsible for the highest forms of human endeavour, tended to varnish as the marriage restrictions developed more and more.

These three conceptions – inequality based on birth, gradation of professions and their inequality, and the restrictions on marriage outside one's own sub-group – are the bases and constitute the differentiating characteristics of caste.

All the ramification of these three ideas. They have one thing in common between them, and that is the principle of inequality. Throughout the whole system permeates the dogma of Brahminic superiority. This is the foundation on which the whole edifice is erected.

to be continued….

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