Published in First City, June 2011


There is a general discomfort in academia today when they study religion. To appear appreciating the religion is frowned upon: it indicates bias. So, the counter is rather popular amongst researchers, harsh criticism, to earn their academic stripes. This is easy when there is a categorical divide between the method of research and the object of research. The method of research is grounded and logical and is called ‘social science’. The object is based on beliefs, which are inherently irrational and subjective. How does one use logic to understand that which is not logical? The approach itself creates a power equation with the scientist placing himself on a dominant position and the object becoming defensive. Not surprisingly, followers of the faith reject academic writings on religions. And they end up being branded as fundamentalists by the still dominant scientist.

When studying India, in general, and Hinduism, in particular, there is no escaping a study of caste. Unfortunately, the moment the word caste is used, its politics surfaces with such lethal force, that all discussion on this topic becomes tempered with so much political correctness, that it ends up being everything but scientific. It is the easiest way to make Hindus defensive about their religion. It is like equating Islam only with jihad, and the Catholic faith only with pedophile priests, Europe only with Imperialism and America only with materialism.

To understand the caste system, one must begin with the human desire to dominate. In nature, animals create pecking orders so that the dominant animal gets more access to food and exclusive access to mates. This is nature’s way of ensuring the survival of the best of genes. Genetically speaking, humans are 96-99% animals and so this desire to dominate, and be territorial, has not gone away. It is still there. If anything, it has amplified, because of imagination.

Culture was created to break free from the law of the jungle. Animals have to search for food and shun predators every minute of their lives. Humans created society so that with enough food and adequate protection, humans can pursue activities that validate their humanity. Unfortunately, culture ended up creating structures that ended up celebrating the animal desire to dominate and be territorial, within us. That is why, in every society, we still have hierarchies, based on various parameters, even though human imagination allows us to create a world without pecking orders.

Every animal is different. This difference grants it a place in the food chain. Thus the capabilities and capacities of an animal cannot be separated from its place in the hierarchy. The strong animal, willy-nilly, will dominate. Amongst humans, the strong can celebrate his strength by choosing not to dominate. This idea is expressed in the idea of Hanuman, the Hindu monkey-god, who is animal and exceptionally strong, but functions with such humility and gentleness that it makes him worthy of veneration.

Every human being can be distinguished on various basis. Natural criteria like height, weight, color, race, ethnicity, looks, lineage, intelligence, skills and social criteria like politics, economics, geography, history. Any one of these can be used to dominate, or not dominate other human beings. Each one of these has been used to dominate, and not dominate. There is not a single society where hierarchy and domination do not exist. Everybody imagines a world without it, aspires for it, but ends up creating it.

The American Declaration of Independence speaks of equality. The men who wrote it were white, patriarchal, Protestant, owned slaves, owned land obtained by wiping out Native Americans. After two centuries,America remains a hierarchical society, hierarchy being determined by wealth, technology and glamor. Every nation state signed the Declaration of Human Rights nearly half a century ago. But even today 80% of the world’s resources is enjoyed by 20% of the world’s population, and ironically people belonging to the 20% point fingers at those in the 80% for human rights abuses!

The caste system took hierarchy and inequality to unbelievable heights. People have tried to explain this caste-based hierarchy on the basis of race, ethnicity, color, race, economics and politics and have failed. The Vedic hymns acknowledge the existence of varnas, divisions of human society based on certain criteria. References to rights and responsibilities of each varna is found in almost every Hindu scripture. On religious ground, Brahmins dominated society. On political ground, Kshatriyas dominated society. On economic ground, Vaishyas dominated society. The rest served these three groups. The idea seems to have been to create a society based on division of capabilities where there were no single criteria of domination.

However, what we call caste system today is based not on varna, but on jati, professions. Scholars are divided if varna thoughts inspired the jati system. One will never know for sure, but the idea of human diversity and hierarchy is rooted in hymns that speak of varna. The method by which the jati system was adopted was deceptively simple: no sharing of women and food with members of other castes.

British interpreters of the caste system, made it sound rather rigid, more for administrative convenience, than to reflect reality, while Indian academicians have noted the fluid nature of jati. A term called ‘sanskritization’ came into being to show how castes moved up the social ladder as they acquired economic and political clout.

More than the unequal division of resources that this system perpetrated, it is the impact it had on human dignity that was worse. For the system, dehumanized a vast section of people called variously in various periods of Indian history as Shudras, Chandalas, Harijans and Dalits. They were denied water. They were not touched. Their shadows and footprints were avoided. They were regarded as impure. By contrast, members of the Brahmin jatis, were revered as deities. Somewhere along the line, Hinduism celebrated the Vedic notion of hierarchy indicated by  and forgot the Vedic notion of equality indicated by the atma or soul concept, or the impact of karma if humans were treated so inhumanely!

One hoped that democracy would slowly wipe out the caste system that plague not just Hindus but also Muslims and Christians. But it has not. Vote-bank politics has reinforced it. Positive discrimination has led to social divides. In academic circles, in India and abroad, one hears of language conferences where Brahmins are not invited, as neo-jati systems are on the rise, purportedly to overturn centuries of injustice. Newspaper reports still speak of how Dalits remain marginalized, raped, denied resources and repeatedly stripped of dignity.

The error that is made by modern political systems is the assumption that laws can change humanity. Laws can domesticate humans, force humans to tolerate other humans, but do not change humanity. If anything, they breed resentment, and increasingly innovative means of perpetrating hierarchies.

The caste system of India is like the passport system of the world. Passports give us two things: an identity and access to certain rights and resources. Everyone knows the power an American passport yields. Everyone knows how difficult it is for a person with an Israeli passport to travel to certain parts of the world. In airports, different people with different passports are treated differently: some are allowed to roam freely, others are strip-searched. Passports determine what education we have access to, where we can work, where we can earn, where we can stay and where we can buy property. Changing passports is not easy. It is a complex process and one can spend a lifetime waiting for it. We all want to create a perfect world where everyone is treated with equal dignity, but no one is willing to burn their passports. So it is with the caste system. No one likes its dark side, its denial of dignity and resources. And yet, as a source of identity, it plays an important functional role in society. So caste still thrives in India but now everyone uses the globally permitted and politically correct term: community!