AnanadK, As usual, excellent post.
Some more on the Post Gupta period and the influence of the changing landscape of the social-political context, the march of Islam and the codification by the British.
Apologies to all for the long post, there simply is not a single link to explain it all. Hope it is worth it.
It is worth noting that the classical four varna division of Hindu society (as described in the Manusmriti) does not appear to have had much practical significance if one were to go by the accounts of the Greek chronicler, Megasthenes. In his accounts of Mauryan India. Megasthenes appears to list a seven fold social order in which he differentiates between the priest and the philosopher (who he ranked much above the priest, and who could have been a Brahmin, Jain or Buddhist) and also gives special attention to court bureaucrats such as record keepers, tax collectors and judicial officials. He also ascribed to the peasantry a higher status than might be inferred from the Manusmriti and noted with amazement how the peasantry was left unharmed during battles.
According to Megasthenes, philosophers - whether Brahmins or Jain/Buddhist monks also had obligations in terms of offering advice to the ruler in matters of public policy, agriculture, health and culture. Repeated failure to provide sound counsel could lead to a loss of privileges - even exile or death. Thus, although many Brahmins may have held on to their privileges by being shameless sycophants - others made significant contributions in the realm of science, philosophy and culture. Social mobility was possible since learning was not an exclusive preserve of the Brahmins and both the Buddhist and Jain sanghas admitted people from different social backgrounds and also admitted women. (Jyotsna Kamat points to a Karnataka inscription from 1187 A.D. that suggests that Jain nuns enjoyed the same amount of freedom as their male counterparts.) The more advanced sanghas enforced a separate quorum for women to ensure that a largely male gathering may not take decisions that did not meet with the approval of the women members of the sangha.
Over time, it appears that the sanghas degenerated, losing their intellectual vitality and egalitarian spirit allowing the Brahmins to gradually consolidate their power and influence in the Gangetic plain. But even as late as the 6th-7th C, Gupta-period inscriptions describing land grants in Bengal appear to corroborate Megasthenes' view of how Indian society was structured. Social rank of senior court administrators (who may have risen from different caste backgrounds) invariably exceeded the rank of ordinary village priests.
Nevertheless, the seeds for a more privileged role for the Brahmins were also being sown through the process of land grants to Brahmins. In some instances, thousands of Brahmins were granted rights to hitherto uncultivated land. In other cases, Brahmins were appointed as the local representatives of the state authorities in what are described as agrahara villages where Brahmins presided over small peasants, who in Bihar were mostly landless sharecoppers or bonded labourers. These agrahara villages were typically small villages and sattelites of bigger villages that included members of several castes and bigger land-holders. In Bihar, such agrahara villages proliferated and it is quite likely that in such agraharas oppressive social relations and some of the most egregious patterns of caste-centred discrimination and exploitation may have developed.
(While early Gupta period records indicate the existence of rural consultative councils that mediated between the rulers and the artisans and peasants, it seems that such consultative councils became less important or were phased out with the growth of the agraharas. Thereafter, the Brahmins became the sole intermediaries between the village and the state, and over time, this may have enabled the Brahmins to exercise social and political hegemony over other inhabitants of the village. It also appears that the greatest incidence of the practice of untouchability occurs in conjunction with the growth in the power and authority of the Brahmins in such villages.)
But these developments took time to spread elsewhere in India, first spreading to Bengal and eastern UP, and very gradually elsewhere in India. However, this pattern was not necessarily replicated in identical form throughout India and some parts of India virtually escaped this trend. In agrahara villages in other parts of India, Brahmins did take on the role of local administrators and tax collectors, but the status of the small peasantry was not always as miserable as in Bihar. The degree of exploitation and oppression appears to be related to the extent of alienation from land-ownership.
For example, evidence for Brahmin domination in Kalikatti, Southern Karnataka emerges after the 13th C. when villagers were instructed to pay taxes to the Brahmin assignees, leading to constant tensions and disputes, but without dramatic changes in the overall status of the tax-paying villagers.
For instance, in Orissa, the ossification of the bureaucracy and its conversion into a group of privileged and exclusive castes appears to take place after the 14th-15th C. when we begin to see a general decline in its overseas trade due to the silting up of its rivers. At the same time, we see the growth of Brahminical hegemony in the realm of religion and military defeats at the hands of the Mughal armies led by Raja Man Singh of Jaipur. All these factors may have played a role in destroying the vibrancy of Oriya society and encouraging caste conservatism.
Although Brahminization was an important factor in leading to caste ossification, it was not necessarily the sole or even the most important factor in the mix. The impact of the Islamic invasions, colonization by the British and ecological changes played an equally crucial if not decisive role in many instances.
Source: The Manusmriti, with critical commentary by Dr. Surendra Kumar, Arsh Sahitya Prachar Trust, Delhi
It is clear from a variety of evidence that considerable mobility was prevalent in the caste system till the tenth century. Shishir Thadani points out that during the Pratihara period, caste categories were relatively flexible and popular temples were constructed by those considered low-caste. Temple construction was often a way of gaining social respect and upward mobility. But the caste system began to ossify in the 10th century which contributed to a general decline that was happening in Hindu Indian society.
Muslim writers, who frequented India within hundred years after the birth of Islam, give us a window into the Indian world in existence in the 8th century. Sindh fell to Muslim occupation in the year 712 C.E. to Muhammad bin Qasim, a cousin of Caliph of Baghdad. Chach-nama and writings of al-Biruni, though written in the 13th and 11th centuries, claim their sources from other contemporary writings. It appears as though the systematic classification was not rigid in the 8th century after all. Shudra as well as Brahmin kings were ruling and not all royalty belonged to the Kshatriya class.
The passivity and rigidity of the caste system became pronounced only after the Muslims made their appearance on the shores of India, when religious discrimination and oppressive taxation (Jizya â€“ a taxation on non-Muslims imposed by Muslim rulers), conspired to remove certain segments of the population from the political system and economic advancement. The Muslim rulers became quite adroit at exploiting it. Some Brahmins and Buddhist monks were exempt from the taxation. Caste system then became static, lost its influence in the process and came to be known as a distinguishing characteristic of orthodox Hinduism.
The Hindu religion itself became more orthodox as a direct result of the external threat of a foreign religion with little tolerance to the â€˜infidelsâ€™. Al-Biruni writes about a much admired Brahmin king of Sindh in the 8th century called Chach (hence the historical journal: Chach-nama), who ruled admirably but went â€˜straight to Hell, when he died, as he is an infidelâ€™. Much of the freedom enjoyed by the citizens had to be curtailed out of necessity and Islam had a profound negative effect on the progress of the more liberal Hinduism.
The caste system had been a fascination of the British since their arrival in India. Coming from a society that was divided by class, the British attempted to equate the caste system to the class system. As late as 1937 Professor T. C. Hodson stated that: "Class and caste stand to each other in the relation of family to species. The general classification is by classes, the detailed one by castes. The former represents the external, the latter the internal view of the social organization." The difficulty with definitions such as this is that class is based on political and economic factors, caste is not. In fairness to Professor Hodson, by the time of his writing, caste had taken on many of the characteristics that he ascribed to it and that his predecessors had ascribed to it but during the 19th century caste was not what the British believed it to be. It did not constitute a rigid description of the occupation and social level of a given group and it did not bear any real resemblance to the class system. However, this will be dealt with later in this essay. The British saw caste as a way to deal with a huge population by breaking it down into discrete chunks with specific characteristics. It appears that the caste system extant in the late 19th and early 20th century has been altered as a result of British actions so that it increasingly took on the characteristics that were ascribed to by the British.
The British belief that caste was the key to understanding the people of India. Caste was seen as the essence of Indian society, the system through which it was possible to classify all of the various groups of indigenous people according to their ability, as reflected by caste, to be of service to the British.
Caste was seen as an indicator of occupation, social standing, and intellectual ability. It was, therefore necessary to include it in the census if the census was to serve the purpose of giving the government the information it needed in order to make optimum use of the people under its administration. Moreover, it becomes obvious that British conceptions of racial purity were interwoven with these judgements of people based on caste when reactions to censuses are examined. Beverly concluded that a group of Muslims were in fact converted low caste Hindus. This raised howls of protest from representatives of the group as late as 1895 since it was felt that this was a slander and a lie.H. H. Risely, Commissioner of the 1901 census, also showed British beliefs in an 1886 publication which stated that race sentiment, far from being: a figment of the intolerant pride of the Brahman, rests upon a foundation of fact which scientific methods confirm, that it has shaped the intricate grouping of the caste system, and has preserved the Aryan type in comparative purity throughout Northern India.
The word caste is not a word that is indigenous to India. It originates in the Portuguese word casta which means race,breed, race or lineage. However, during the 19th century, the term caste increasingly took on the connotations of the word race. Thus, from the very beginning of western contact with the subcontinent European constructions have been imposed on Indian systems and institutions. To fully appreciate the caste system one must step away from the definitions imposed by Europeans and look at the system as a whole, including the religious beliefs that are an integral part of it. To the British, viewing the caste system from the outside and on a very superficial level, it appeared to be a static system of social ordering that allowed the ruling class or Brahmins, to maintain their power over the other classes. What the British failed to realize was that Hindus existed in a different cosmological frame than did the British.
It should also be borne in mind that an entire caste could rise through the use of conquest or through service to rulers.Thus, it may be seen that within traditional Indian society the caste system was not static either within the material or metaphysical plane of existence. With the introduction of European and particulary British systems to India, the caste system began to modify. This was a natural reaction of Indians attempting to adjust to the new regime and to make the most of whatever opportunities may have been presented to them.
Unlike its predecessors in England, the census of India attempted not only to count, but to define and explain. As a result, the census became not simply an accounting of what existed but an active participant in the creation and modification of the society. As a result, Indians of many levels of society reacted to the census in attempts to gain or maintain status. In 1895, Fazl-i-Rabb wrote a book that attacked H. Beverly, Census Commissioner of Bengal for the 1871-72 census for stating that the Muslims of Bengal were converted low caste Hindus.
Rabb's demands reinforce this suspicion when he states that the British Government should: repair the wrongs done to us Musalman subjects through the public writings of Mr. Beverly and [we] solicit the question at issue; viz., that our origin and ancestry, be thoroughly enquired into with the help afforded by history and [that] the results of such investigation may be placed on record.
This is virtually a call for a public enquiry into what most westerners would consider a relatively minor matter of very limited concern.
The Mahtons claimed that they should be granted the status of Rajputs because of both history and the fact that they followed Rajput customs. Therefore, since they had not received this status in the 1901 census, they requested the change to be affected in the 1911 census. Their request was rejected, not on the basis of any existing impediment but on the basis of the 1881 census which stated that the Mahtons were an offshoot of the Mahtams who were hunter/scavengers. Thus, it appears that the census system had become self reinforcing. However, after further debate the Mahton were reclassified as Mahton Rajput on the basis that they had separated themselves from the Mahtams and now acted in the manner of Rajputs. Interestingly, it was at this point that the reasoning behind the claim became evident. Some of the Mahton wanted join an army regiment and this would only be possible if they had Rajput status. The Mahton, a rural agricultural group, were fully aware that the change of status would allow their members to obtain direct benefits. In and of itself, this definitely shows that the actions of the British in classifying and enumerating castes within the census had heightened indigenous awareness of the caste system and had added an economic aspect that the Indian people were willing and anxious to exploit.
Contrary to what the British appear to have believed, it seems doubtful that the Brahmans were dominant within the material world in pre colonial Indian society. A cursory examination of any of the ruling families quickly shows a dearth families of the Brahmin caste. Rather, one finds that the majority, though by no means all, of rulers were Kshytria and occasionally Vaishnava. This suggests that although the Brahmin caste had power in spiritual matters, their power and control within the material world was limited to the amount of influence that they could gain with individual rulers. No doubt there were instances when this was quite considerable but there is also little doubt that there were times when Brahman influence was very weak and insignificant. With this in mind, it is not difficult to imagine a situation where, Brahmans, seeing the ascendancy of British power, allied themselves to this perceived new ruling class and attempted to gain influence through it. By establishing themselves as authorities on the caste system they could then tell the British what they believed the British wanted to hear and also what would most enhance their own position. The British would then take this information, received through the filter of the Brahmans, and interpret it based on their own experience and their own cultural concepts. Thus, information was filtered at least twice before publication. Therefore, it seems certain that the information that was finally published was filled with conceptions that would seem to be downright deceitful to those about whom the information was written. The flood of petitions protesting caste rankings following the 1901 census would appear to bear witness to this.
Risely wrote that: "the caste system itself, with its singularly perfect communal organization, is a machinery admirably fitted for the diffusion of new ideas; that castes may in course of time group themselves into classes representing the different strata of society; and that India may thus attain, by the agency of these indigenous corporations, the results that have been arrived at elsewhere through the fusion of individual types." In making this statement Risley exposes the British agenda of creating a society that conformed to British ideals through the use of a British interpreted caste system. It is also interesting to note that Risley juxtaposes "individual types" with castes in such a way that it seems that he believed that there was a dearth of individuality within Indian society which could be compensated for through the substitution of caste structures. To Risley caste was not only the essence of Indian society, it was the essence of Indians. The entire meaning of the individual was embodied in caste. Risley's paternalistic disdain for the Indian people was further illustrated by his belief that: "the factors of nationality in India are two - the common usage of the English language for certain purposes and the common employment of Indians in English administration." India's salvation, its only hope of becoming a nation, was through the language and tutelage of the British, according to Risley's brand of liberal paternalism.
In examining the writings of Edward Dalton, Commissioner of Chutia Nagpur, the nomenclature alone is enough to indicate that the Indian people were regarded as less than human in at least some regard. People are referred to as "specimens" and the only fear expressed over the possibility of bringing various "specimen" together for a display was that: "... if specimens of the more independent tribes fell sick and died in Calcutta or on the journey, it might lead to inconvenient political complications." It is also in these writings that one sees the type of classification of ability that the British in India have become so notoriously famous for. In considering Rajputs Dalton states that:
. [they] are not the inert sensualists that wealthy Bengalis so often become; they are fully capable of enjoying field sports; they generally ride well, are good shots and keen sportsmen. They are sure to have a good battery of guns by the best English makers, good horses, dogs, elephants, and hawks, and even fishing tackle.
.. Surely a description of the finest of English country gentlemen. However, in describing the Kayasths who often worked as clerks for the British, Dalton states that:
From their appearance we might say that the first selection was made of people with weak bodies and strong intellect, of small courage, but great cunning, and that physical beauty was of less consequence than sharpness of wit.
Needless to say, this description is far from flattering. However, what is more important is the contention that one can determine the character of people based on their physical appearance. This extended, as well, to the type of work that individuals were seen as being fit for under British rule.
Thus Kayasths were seen as being natural clerks and scribes and Rajputs were natural for the military and as a local upper class. However, census data sometimes went beyond attributing occupational abilities to physical build and insisted on the maintenance of "traditional" occupations being listed with the caste groupings in the census.
Such was the case during the census of 1891. In an effort to arrange various castes in order of precedence: "... functional grouping is based less on the occupation that prevails in each case in the present day than on that which is traditional with it, or which gave rise to its differentiation from the rest of the community." This action virtually removed Indians from the progress of history and condemned them to an unchanging position and place in time. In one sense, it is rather ironic that the British, who continually accused the Indian people of having a static society, should then impose a construct that denied progress. In ways such as this, it is possible to see how the census began to increase the rigidity of the caste system, particulary when one considers the fact that one of the primary ways that a caste could traditionally raise its status was to change its occupation. Once again, the British appear to be creating the situation where their interpretation of Indian society is validated through their own actions. In a similar way, Beverley's analysis of the 1872 census sought to prove continuity with the past by attempting to identify purity and impurity of race in ways that would fit with British theories of Indian history and British notions of group abilities and temperaments.
The censuses forced the Indian social system into a written schematic in a way that had never been experienced in the past. While the Mughals had issued written decrees on the status of individual castes, there had never been a formal systematic attempt to organize and schedule all of the castes in an official document until the advent of the British censuses. The data was compiled on the basis of British understanding of India. This understanding was deeply affected by British concepts of their own past, and by British notions of race and the importance of race in relation to the human condition. Further, the intellectual framework, such as that provided by anthropology and phrenology, that was used to help create the ideas surrounding the concept of race, was foreign to the intellectual traditions of India. These concepts endured well into the 20th century and affected the analysis of the censuses throughout this period. Risley, for example, used anthropometric measurements, which were directly descended from anthropological and phrenological methodology, in his ordering of castes following the census of 1901. These same notions led to a classification of intelligence and abilities based on physical attributes, and this in turn led to employment opportunities being limited to certain caste groupings that displayed the appropriate attributes. Indians attempted to incorporate themselves into this evolving system by organizing caste sabhas with the purpose of attaining improved status within the system. This ran contrary to traditional views of the purpose of the caste system and imposed an economic basis. With this, the relevance and importance of the spiritual, non material rational for caste was degraded and caste took on a far more material meaning. In this way, caste began to intrude more pervasively into daily life and status became even more coveted and rigid. In a sense, caste became politicized as decisions regarding rank increasingly fell into the political rather than the spiritual sphere of influence. With this politicization, caste moved closer to class in connotation. The actions of the Indian people that contributed to this process were not so an much acquiescence to the British construction as they were pragmatic reactions to the necessities of material life. In expropriating the knowledge base of Indian society, the British had forced Indian society and the caste system to execute adjustments in order to prosper within the rubric of the British regime.
The British consistently promoted the myth that Hindus were governed by their codified versions of shastric injunctions. The modern educated elite in India, whose knowledge of India comes mainly from English language sources, were thenceforth systematically brainwashed into believing that the British were actually administering Hindu personal laws through the medium of the English courts. This was part of a larger myth-building exercise, whereby the people of the subcontinent were taught that theirs was a stagnant civilisation. The ignorant assumptions of our colonial rulers, that social stability in India was due to the supposed proclivity of its people to follow the same old traditions, customs and laws that had allegedly remained moribund for centuries, slowly came to acquire the force of self-evident truth over a period of time, both for those supporting as well as those opposing British rule.
The confusion is not theirs alone; these common misrepresentations are an unfortunate byproduct of our colonial education which we slavishly cling to, even though it is more than five decades since we declared our Independence. We keep defending or attacking the same hackneyed quotations from the shastras and the epics which, incidentally, colonisers used for the purpose of creating a new discourse about these writings. Their inaccurate and biased interpretations have continued to inspire major misreadings of our religious tenets