It is the fervent desire of everyone to see the smiling faces of his loved ones around him as he gets up in the morning after a good night’s sleep. After all, he has worked hard to get to where he is now i.e. his own personal world full of love.
Then after the morning ablutions are over as he gets ready to go to work, the breakfast is served to him and he scans the newspaper, mostly due to a long standing habit, the feeling of “God’s in his heaven and all’s well with this world” begins to seep out him. As he turns over the pages, this feeling is replaced by a sense of déjà vu and as anger begins to build in him, he is equally repulsed and horrified by the morbid headlines screaming in his face.
The newspaper, as usual, is full of inanities about opposition opposing the government just for the sake of opposition; reports of murders, dacoities, sexual assaults, acid attacks, Blue Whale deaths, honour killings and so on, endlessly.
Though living in the present times has compelled me to develop a thick hide, some part of humanity is still alive in me and I am filled with revulsion at reading about another honour killing. This phenomenon is not restricted to any one region, caste, religion or strata of society but is all encompassing. It makes me wonder as to what is honourable in killing a fellow human being? How can one claim to have restored the name or honour of the family by killing someone in cold blood? Though one may never fully understand the answer to this, however simple or diabolical it may well be, one can always try to make an effort. Hence, let us now travel to our shared past and understand how casteism, this bane of Indian society, came to be about and morphed into the menace that it is of the present times.
When the fair skinned Aryans arrived in India from south Europe and north Asia around 1500 BC, they encountered the local dark skinned Dravidians (Dasa). They conquered and took control of north India and in the process, pushed the local people southwards or towards the jungles and mountains in north India. Next, in order to secure their status, the Aryans developed the system of “Varnashrama”. The meaning of the word “Varna” in Sanskrit is not class or status but the complexion or the colour of the skin.
According to Purush Sukta in the Rig Veda, the first book of the ancient Indians, the primal man or the Purusha destroyed himself so as to create a just human society. The different varnas came from different parts of his body, the Brahmins from his head; the Kshatriyas from his hands; the Vaishyas from his thighs and the Shudras from his feet. The mouth signifies the use for preaching, learning etc.; the arms for protection; the thighs for cultivation or business while the feet helps the whole body, so the duty of the Shudras was to serve all the others.
The Brahmin represented the poet-priest, the Kshatriya represented the warrior-chief and the Vaishya comprised of all the common people. The Shudra, whose name appears only once in the Rig Veda, represented the domestic servants.
Thus, as is evident, the Varnashrama was mainly based on division of labour and occupation. This system was not rigid and mobility from one ashrama to another was possible. Intermarriages among these four varnas were also practised though not so frequently and this resulted in the emergence of the sub castes later.
Later, as Janas grew into Janapadas and further into Mahajanapadas, the Varnashrama carried on unchanged in these times. It was a time of rapid change in the lives of people. Some kings in the Mahajanapadas were growing more powerful, new cities were developing, and life was changing in the villages as well. Many thinkers were trying to understand these changes in society. They also wanted to try and find out the true meaning of life.
As Jainism and Buddhism grew, they struck at the roots of the Brahmin hegemony of the society. Vardhman Mahavira and Buddha preached in the language of the masses and attracted a large number of converts. Brahmins grew alarmed and began to think of ways of co-opting Buddhism and Jainism into their scheme of things.
Despite all this, the Varnashrama carried on the same, with some minor changes, in the times of the Mauryas as well. But, in the post Mauryan period, as the Veda-studying Brahmins began to struggle with the Kshatriyas for the top status in the social hierarchy, the Varnashrama developed on rigid lines and degenerated into the caste system, based on one’s birth , especially after the establishment of Sunga dynasty in 184 BC as this dynasty was an ardent patron of Brahminism.
The educated Brahmins, through the clever and self-serving interpretation of Manusmriti, once again asserted their supremacy and imposed severe restrictions on other caste groups, especially the Shudras. Then as the Gupta dynasty came to the fore, the caste system acquired a steel and concrete structure from which there was no escape. The society was now divided into various small social groups called castes where each of these castes was a well-developed social group, whose membership was determined by the consideration of birth. Now, no one could move from one caste to another and endogamy, where the members of a caste or sub-caste had to marry within their own caste or sub-caste, became the chief characteristic of caste. The violation of the rule of endogamy meant ostracism and loss of caste.
Women, who were earlier allowed to attend the sabhas and the samitis and had even composed many of the verses given in the Vedas, were excluded from all these and restricted to the four walls of their homes.
Social evils such as child-marriage, polygamy, prohibition of widow-remarriage, seclusion of women etc. had also crept in. Now the stratification of the Indian society on rigid lines was complete and though the Kshatriya was still the nominal head as the rajan, the real power lay with the Brahmin, on the back of his knowledge of the Vedas.
Chinese scholar Hieun Tsang, who visited India in 630 AD, wrote that, “Brahminism dominated the country, caste ruled the social structure and the persons following unclean occupations like butchers, scavengers had to live outside the city”.
The situation continued to worsen as Brahmins continued to invent newer dogmas and rituals, Hinduism, as the Vedic religion came to be known by now, became more and more inward looking and the Brahminical domination of the social life of India was finally achieved . Buddhism survived as a rump of its original self outside India and Jainism became a mere caste of the Hindus.
Now arrived the first great dysfunction of the caste system. Islamic invaders from Arabia and west Asia, having heard of the fabulous wealth of Indian society and its temples, began entering the country and there was no resistance to them worth the name. As some historians are fond of calling them, these were savages at a very low level of civilisation and no culture worth the name and they were by no means the greatest warriors the world had ever seen, yet they succeeded in looting India again and again till they succeeded in establishing an Islamic Sultanate at Delhi.
What was the reason for the Islamist’s success? The answer is Casteism. As only the Kshatriyas were allowed to wield arms, they were the ones fighting the invaders and once the last of them were killed; there was no stopping the marauders from loot and rapine. The situation was further exacerbated by the fact lower castes had been so repressed by the warriors and the priests that they were pretty happy to see the last of them and welcomed the invader.
Now cut to the modern age or the world’s most transformative period of the past three centuries when the western nations were reaping the fruits of the Industrial Revolution, Indians were wallowing in the mire of their own making. By now, they had been colonized by the British and their society was under the spell of the worst social evils which were perpetrated on exactly the half of their population – their women. It is a well-documented and universal fact that if a society treats its women worse than animals, it is doomed to stare hell in the face and that is what the Indians did.
I, for one, fail to understand that how and why we Indians, children of the those ancient sages who gave to the world the Vedas, the fountainhead of eternal wisdom, who equated their mothers to the almighty himself and considered their land of their birth to be their mother, failed to prevent her disrobing and save her honour? We, who have countless number of goddesses and revere them and keep fasts to appease them, the prime example being the Navratras, how can we torture our family members of the same gender within the confines of the four walls of our homes, all in the name of honour?
The answer lies in caste system. Though the members of the Indian Renaissance spent their lives in awakening the consciousness of their fellow Indians to the evils of casteism and succeeded in petitioning the British to make a few cosmetic changes, it became one of the main reasons for the First War of Independence in 1857 and put paid to any such further reforms. Thus, India lost a large amount of time in changing.
When India became a republic in 1950, the successive governments tried to usher in some changes through legislations. Untouchability was made a punishable offence, child marriage and sati custom were banned, widow marriage was legalized, giving and taking dowry was made an offence, these practices still continue unabated.
Though caste system continued the traditional social organization of India and accommodated multiple communities by ensuring each of them a monopoly of a specific means of livelihood, its pros were easily outweighed by its cons. It provided social security and social recognition to individuals and handed over the knowledge and skills of the hereditary occupation of a caste from one generation to another, helping preserving its culture and ensuring productivity.
The caste played a crucial role in socialization by teaching individuals the culture and traditions, values and norms of their society which led to quality production of goods and thus promoted economic development, besides leading to interdependent interaction between different castes. It also promoted political stability by providing protection from political competition, conflict and violence to the Kshatriyas.
On the other hand, the caste system acted as a check on economic and intellectual advancement and a stumbling block in the way of social reforms, as it keepconfined economic and intellectual opportunities to a certain section of the population only. It also undermined the efficiency of labour and prevented mobility of labour, capital and productive effort. And finally, it perpetuated the exploitation of the economically weaker and socially inferior castes, especially the untouchables and inflicted untold hardships on women.
The caste system opposes change by compelling an individual to act strictly in accordance with caste norms and thus, stands in the way of modernization. It has proved to be a disintegrating rather than an integrating factor as it has stood in the way of national and collective consciousness and unity. Even in the present times, caste conflicts are widely prevalent in politics, inter-caste marriages, reservation in jobs and education, etc.
During my stay in Dubai where people of more than 183 nationalities were residing, I came to realise that we Indians, besides being uncouth, are certainly not good looking people. As I came back to India and drowned in an ocean of fellow Indians, this theory of mine was further strengthened. As I sat thinking about this sorry state of affairs and who might the culprit be, the old nemesis which goes by the name of casteism floated into the range of my vision. How true!!!
Today, except for a very less number, most of the marriages are still arranged. Even if the girl or the boy to be married are really good looking, she or he would be made to marry an average looking person if he/she passes the crucial test of caste and suits the parents’ ego. Here, the education, job and other such considerations are inconsequential. Even the so-called educated people are not free of this malady, so deeply ingrained is the caste into modern Hinduism, making it all the harder to remove.This pathological insistence of marrying within one’s own caste may fly in the face of the Natural Selection Theory of Darwin but so be it.
So how to reduce the impact and influence of casteism and ultimately destroy it?
The first and foremost way is to bring up children to treat everyone equally and to respect women so that they grow up feeling a part of an egalitarian society. One must make efforts to spread literacy and bring education within the reach of the masses, especially the womenfolk. Preach and promote equality among people in a society and any irrational practice should be shunned once the people are made aware of the exploitation it perpetuates. The people must support government initiatives to modernize the society wholeheartedly as modernization by itself defies ancient rules and regulations. Inter-caste marriage should be promoted which will surely lead to the crumbling down of the walls of the caste system walls will automatically be brought down.
Finally introducing urbanization in villages will influence the minds of simple villagers and help them to break away from the dark evils of caste system. This would also help them to experience the sense of freedom which urbanization brings with itself.It is important to increase the employment rate to demolish the caste system and for this, the industrialization of rural areas is of utmost importance as it will increase job opportunities and will modernize the society with a cosmopolitan population and subsequent outlook.
Presently, the picture is not as dismal as fifty years earlier as casteism in India is undergoing changes because of changes in general social outlook and progress in education, technology and modernization. Despite a general improvement in the conditions of the lower castes, we still have a long way to go to break the shackles of the caste system from the society.
Disclaimer: The information, ideas or opinions appearing in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of N4M Media.