The Dalit-Bahujan Guide to Understanding Caste in Hindu Scripture
The Hindu American Foundation (HAF), the Uberoi Foundation (UF) and the Hindu Education Foundation (HEF) as a coalition are bringing right-wing Brahminism to the battle over representation of the religion and history of South Asia, in California History and Social Science textbooks. The edits they request are not novel. In the past few decades, we have witnessed textbook revisionism in Gujarat and Punjab among other states in India. In California too, edits requested represent that familiar ideological mix of hypernationalism, caste-denial and Islamophobia, culminating in devout fervor for the myth of the glorious “Ancient Hindu India”.
A part of this agenda is , what I like to call, the unicorning of caste — in the realm of which you will find things like the HAF caste primer and powerpoint on its website. These inform you that varnas were merely occupational guilds, that they forged a well-functioning society, how only jāti, as classes within the varna structure, were restricted by birth and so on.
These blurred understandings of caste, are undoubtedly, those of someone looking at a structure of social inequality from the top, down. Those with sovereignty in a system of oppression can think of that system as stabilizing, but those condemned to the slavery of the system — will view it for what it is — exploitative and destabilizing.
It is really time that people begin seeing that, deconstructing some of these ideas through the combined lens of Bahujan lived-experience and scholarship, is the most relevant way to understand the structure and history of social inequality in the subcontinent.
Language of the Anti-Caste Resistance
Because it is crucial that we refrain from using the oppressor’s language to articulate the social structures that violate our communities, I first identify two terms that may still be be new to a western or diasporic audience. For example, I believe the term Bahujan, simply meaning “the majority of the people” , brings to attention to the reality that caste is not a “Dalit problem”. While Dalit and Adivasis are some of the most vulnerable communities in a caste society, the majority of the people of the subcontinent are caste-bound and ruled by “upper”-caste minorities. The term Bahujan refers to present day Scheduled Castes (Dalits), Scheduled Tribes (Adivasis/indigenous) and Shudra (peasant) castes — cutting across religion, ethnicities and geographies. In addition, the use of words Brahminism/Brahminical in the place of “Hinduism/Hindu” is also intentional. These are the appropriate term for the religion of ancient (and modern) India — at the core of which is the morality of a Brahmin-conceived institution, the Varnashrama Dharma ( the system of 4 varnas and laws and practices related to it ). The term “Hinduism” is actually a contemporary political term constructed through the mass appropriation and erasure of several distinct indigenous tribes, outcastes, religions and microcultures throughout the subcontinent for the sake of usurpation of post British-colonial land and electoral power.
CASTE AS A BRAHMINICAL ORDER
At this point, let’s be clear. That the Brahminical scriptures parent, legitimize and perpetuate caste as we know it today, is not under reappraisal. It is widely accepted in both society and in peer-reviewed academia. The HAF insists that scriptures that mandate caste are not widely regarded. This stance does not even enjoy consensus in their own community. Their former board, their spiritual leaders, and even Rajiv Malhotra, all have vehemently disagreed and asserted that bodies like the HAF do not have the spiritual authority to deem certain Brahminical texts more valid than others.
Hindu Texts and Caste
Below is graphic of the classification of Brahminical texts. Unlike the Abrahamic traditions, there are several hundred books, each varying in levels of spiritual authority. To locate caste in scripture, I will focus on Vedas and the Smritis, which encompass some of the oldest, most well-known and influential works.
Caste in the Vedas
The Vedas are considered some of the oldest authorities on morality, religious praxis. They are the shrutis. Meaning they were not written by humans but revealed by the divine.
In the early Vedic period (1300 B.C.E-1000 B.C.E), neither varnas nor jātis existed extensively. Instead the varna structure was presented in the Vedas as an ideal for society to aspire to. However, the Vedas do present a model of creation within which you were not to be equal in the eyes of the very divine that created you, at the time that they created you. The Purusha Suktha, the 90th hymn in the 10th Book of the Rig Veda, presents a cosmogony that describes the creation of man. From the head of a primeval God, arose the Brahmans (priests, scholars), from the arms, Kshatriya (kings, warriors), the thighs, Vaishya (merchants, cultivators) and the feet, Shudra (servants, slaves). While this visioning for society was not yet caste, it does implicitly and divinely ordain genesis directly into a compartments of graded inequality. It is very important to note that there is no neutrality in such a design. In other places throughout the texts and even today in most of modern South Asia, the head has always been considered superior and the feet lowly, ritually unclean and polluting.
The HAF states that the Vedas were not focused on the oppression of caste and that social divisions only came later. While many verses can be cited to present a counter to this claim, I cite only a key Vedic text — the Chandogya Upanishad, which records deep contempt for Chandalas (outcastes/Dalits)
“Now, people of good conduct can expect to quickly attain a pleasant birth, like that of a Brahmin, the Kshatriya, or the Vaishya. But people of evil conduct can expect to enter a foul womb, like that of a dog, a pig, or a Chandala.”
Factor in the idea that the Vedas represent a supreme sanction of Brahminical dharma (law/praxis), and this lays ground for the materializing of more rigid, more complex and more oppressive varna-jāti religio-social orders.
Caste in the Smritis
The Smritis constitute sacred texts that are considered human recollections, like laws, histories and epics. The HAF has asserted in their caste report that the Smritis “by their very nature and intent, are recognized to change with space and time and do not necessarily teach Hinduism’s eternal spiritual truths.”
However this is not a uniform position in Brahminism. Aditi Banerjee, former board member has said “It is not a grant of license for political organizations like the HAF to cherry-pick among the texts to pick out verses that are their favorites and call them the real “Hinduism” and discard the others.”
We assert that both the Shrutis and the Smritis bear condemnable caste advocacy.
Why does the HAF attempt to diminish the role of the Smritis? A clue comes by the time of Manu (200 B.C.E — 200 C.E), the gruesome lawgiver and author of the Manusmriti at a time when Brahmins were issuing the last nail in the coffin of an equitable society. Through these Smritis, the varnas moved from being a divinely envisioned ideal to a hard everyday reality of both varnas and jātis. Manu and the authors of the Smritis effectively cemented the varna system. These texts are so inhumane that even the believers find them hard to swallow and would rather gloss over them.
A cursory reading of some of these rules in the various Smritis make it impossible to accept the HAF point of view of the varna system as an ideal system that people accepted without resistance. It is emphasized that the dharmic duty of Brahmans was to be scholars, Kshatriyas, warriors and Vaishyas to be farmers and merchants. In dealing with the Shudras, however, Manu and his colleagues are especially cruel.
“But a Shudra, whether bought or not bought (by the Brahmin) may be compelled to practice servitude, for that Shudra was created by the self-existent merely for the service of the Brahmin. Even if freed by his master, the Shudra is not released from servitude; for this (servitude) is innate in him; who then can take it from him.”
Education, reading, writing and academic pursuits were off-limits to Shudras and the slightest attempts at access to knowledge were severely punishable.
“Now if he (a Shudra) listens intentionally to (a recitation of) the Veda, his ears shall be filled with (molten) tin or lac. If he recites (Vedic texts), his tongue shall be cut out. If he remembers them, his body shall be split in twain”
It is crucial to note that, in a varna society, penalties for “criminal” activities are meted out not proportional to the offense committed but specific to your location in the varna order.
“A Brahmin may take possession of the goods of a Shudra with perfect peace of mind, for, since nothing at all belongs to this Shudra as his own, he is one whose property may be taken away by his master.”
“Indeed, an accumulation of wealth should not be made by a Shudra even if he is able to do so, for the sight of mere possession of wealth by a Shudra injures the Brahmin.”
It is also important to contextualize these writings. These grim dictates were being established at a time when Śramaṇa (ascetic) traditions like Buddhism were beginning to take root and flourish. It is not inconceivable that under the threat of religious competition in the subcontinent, attempts were being made by the Brahmins to cement the varna-jāti framework through severe legal intervention.
With this understanding of religious basis for caste, let’s address some final points.
The Caste Structure was/is not Fluid
The HAF makes some bold claims on mobility supposedly inherent within caste society- that mobility existed as the norm between varnas, that people could really choose which varna they had characters they were most suited to. There are several alarming questions that arise from this claim. Why anyone would believe, themselves and their loved ones, to be most suited to peasantry and slave labor? If everyone had the choice, wouldn’t they have all chosen the seemingly respectable livelihoods of Brahmins and “upper”- castes? It is neither fulfilling nor dignifying to be bonded to a landlord, to be a village servant, to be cleaning up shit or disposing of rotting animal carcasses.
If mobility between varnas was in fact the norm, one must wonder why so much painstaking effort has then been put in by the authors of several Brahminical scriptures to legislate permanent social inequality between varnas, to condemn punish inter-varna relationships and to bastardize and excommunicate the offspring from such unions.
“On having intercourse with Chandala women, on eating their food or receiving presents from them, a Brahmin unwittingly falls; but if he does so wittingly, he comes to an equality with them.”
Another idea that contradicts the claims of a fluid caste structure is the Brahmanical belief of karma that states that the actions of your past life result in your jāti and fate in the present one. This is also profoundly offensive to Bahujans. It criminalizes people victimized by varna, celebrates oppressor varnas and accrues further social capital for them while freeing them from accountability for their actions.
None of these concepts indicate mobility. They reflect what we see in everyday life. Caste is tenaciously locked down by social and religious dictates.
Caste and Untouchability are not Rooted in European Colonization
There exists copious evidence to refute the very lazy ( but very often used) argument that caste was a colonial invention. The existence of caste and untouchability, have throughout the ages been recorded by people who were traveling into the subcontinent and people who have been resisting the structure. Fa Xian, the Chinese monk, in 4th century C.E details the prevalence of caste and untouchability as a subcontinental reality. Al-Beruni, the middle eastern historian, in the 11th century C.E compiled comprehensive sociology, Tarikh-al-Hind, that includes extensive descriptions of varna-jāti systems. The Bhakthi saints of the 11th-15th centuries C.E; Sant Guru Ravidass, Kabir, Tukaram, Peero Premam, Chokamela, Soyrabai; were all Dalit-Bahujan anti-caste revolutionaries who wrote extensive literature of the existence of caste and how to fight it. A whole religion of Sikhism was even founded on Guru Nanak’s proclamation of revolution against caste and untouchability.
Yes, caste is a European word that was used to approximate what the European colonials observed on arrival. Its usage has been extended into modern day to describe the present manifestations of varna-jāti orders. However, caste is categorically a product of the Brahminical Varnashrama dharma. I would even argue that the Europeans, in their walking on eggshells around “native social orders”, and eagerness to relegate positions of power to “upper”- castes and Brahmins through the civil apparatus, have disproportionately uplifted a sect of ruling castes into contemporary state power — a problem that we are dealing with even now.
It is absolutely necessary to understand now that large populations of the subcontinent remain colonized by Brahminism. The white man has come and the white man has gone, but Bahujan society has not yet been released from the millenia-long hold of Brahmin colonialism .
Confronting the Truth is the First Step
In order to confront the dark realities of caste, we need to first accept its roots in the fundamentally anti-social nature of Brahminism. The casteist edits being requested and the indiscriminate sanitization of their religion — all point to what little progress “upper”-castes have made in actually understanding Bahujan history. They are a long way from annihilating caste from their minds.
Most of us would never think it acceptable for white people to sugar the history of slavery or for them to put out softened primers on slavery. Keep in mind HAF’s caste composition is almost uniformly “upper”-caste and represents the interests of those who have benefited for centuries from caste privilege. Why then is it acceptable for “upper”-caste organizations like the HAF to try to manipulate the tone and reality of the history of caste?
Every argument that HAF has made about cultural equity and competence to the California Board of Education, now applies to themselves in light of their efforts to obstruct the teaching the facts about caste. Do we then allow those groups to dictate Bahujan history?
We think not.