Caste politics derives sustenance from centuries of erroneous scholarship that began with the British colonial project in India. The theories so derived have since been challenged by many scholars but the associated myths persist as strongly as ever.
Sonalee Hardikar has a bachelor in chemistry and a masters in mass communication. She is an alumna of the National School of Drama and was the first recipient of the "Jim Henson" fellowship, during which she studied scenic design. She is also a theater practitioner, a documentary film-maker, a student of Shaiva/Buddhist/Tibetan philosophies, a self-taught photographer and a teacher of Indian art and aesthetics at leading National Theater and Filmmaking institutes in India.
Ashish Dhar is the co-founder of Pragyata and Upword Foundation and the Director of Operations at The Indic Collective Trust. He writes on History, Kashmir, Culture and Religion.
Scholarship, politics and media form a hierarchy of power, over the making of perceptions or public opinion. Scholarship occupies the highest position among the three as it largely sets the agenda of discourse in politics and society. The tentative skepticism of scholars may find no place in the promises of election manifestoes and the ‘opinions as facts’ of drawing room conversations but works of scholarship, by anchoring conversations to a given premise, determine the way society reflects on the issues confronting it.
Take the notorious example of the Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT) that made itself the central concern of post-independence Tamil Nadu politics. The early proponents of this theory claimed a ‘Dravidian’ purity and systematically set out to generate a corpus of scholarship and policies that would keep the divide between the Aryans and Dravidians alive. Manifestos generated by the narrative took precedence over poverty, education, housing and so much else of consequence. The fact that the AIT was built on a very shaky ground at best and at worst, was a colonial fraud played on Indians made no difference to the ideologues of the Dravidian movement. They trumpeted some vague notions of exploitation and oppression of so-called Dravidians by an imagined race called Aryans at a hazy point in the distant past.
It is a truism that exploitation cannot be completely eliminated from any society and therefore, to deny its existence in ancient Indian society would be a delusional claim. But when a certain form of oppression that we witness in contemporary society is believed to have continued for as long as our civilization has been around, then it raises serious questions about the moral foundations of the Indian / Hindu civilization and calls for a complete severance from its ethos. The history of the West is witness to various kinds of institutionalized exploitation like slavery, apartheid, misogyny, imperialism etc. but none of them is treated as the defining feature of either western cultures or western religions. For example, it is often stated that slavery, though it flourished in the medieval west, was also ended by the same society that first benefited materially from it because, in due course, it evoked strong moral reactions from its members, who finally asked for its abolition. Here, the end of slavery is seen as a case of moral victory of the western civilization and something to be celebrated. But when it comes to certain marginalized sections (Dalits) of contemporary Indian society, crimes against them are often attributed to the basic tenets of Hinduism. It is assumed that it is from these tenets that the first notions of caste are derived. The logical inference is that for millennia, Hindus have not been able to end this monstrosity called the caste system and therefore, the moral principles of Hinduism must be fundamentally flawed. Readings on caste inequalities became the fulcrum of Hindu studies in the colonial project and eventually, in the western academia and they fit effortlessly with later Marxist narratives of class struggle and liberation, with the result that an excessively large part of the Hindu worldview is squarely ignored.
In this series of essays, of which you’re reading the very first part, we will take a deep dive into the common understanding of various aspects of caste, as it is understood in the current times and try to decipher how it came to be crystallized into the institution that it is today. This exercise, we must remind the reader, is not a form of apologia and is rather aimed at freeing our understanding of caste from political, colonial and popular distortions that have got associated with it over the last few centuries. By carrying out this exercise, we hope that we will add to the objective understanding of anyone reading this and do our bit in improving the discourse on caste, which is the very first step in weeding out the exploitative structures that have grown around it. This is not to say anything about whether caste is necessary or wholly avoidable, on which the reader can take her own independent stance.
A brief history of caste studies
Accounts of caste in Indian society by travelers in the pre-British era are incidental and inconspicuous. There are casual references here and there to the social organization of Indian society into tribes or groups and there is little to suggest any uniform application of a religious principle across the length and breadth of the land. The first mention of the word casta was by the Portuguese as they tried to make sense of the social organization in India in a language they understood.  The first systematic attempts to create a proper theory of caste were made by Christian missionaries and then by lay ‘Orientalists’ employed by the British crown. These attempts started with translations of what they deemed to be important Hindu texts and this marked what later came to be known as the ‘textual’ approach to caste studies, wherein the Varna categories were used as important tools in the study of Indian history.  At this point, the general consensus about what constitutes a caste was clearly driven by the missionary evangelical zeal that demonized Brahmins as the source of all evil in Indian society, given that Brahmins were often the greatest hurdles in mass conversions that the missionaries wanted to carry out. This is now known as the classical conception of the caste system (CCC). By the time the British government prepared to carry out the first ever census in India in 1872, the colonial scholarship had taken an ‘empirical turn’ in the study of caste, whereby the scholars sought to understand Indian society by analyzing the field data collected by the administrative arm of the empire. This shift in approach brought into focus the dramatic discord between the theoretical textual approach and the observable, empirical data collected over the years.  Clearly, where the theoretical speculation of the missionary scholars should have helped explain and synthesize the data collected from the field, it failed to make any sense of it. This schism went on to become the defining feature of caste studies and exists even today.
It is here that one realizes the stark difference in requirements of investigative rigor between hard sciences and social studies. A field such as Physics is ruthlessly unforgiving when it comes to hypotheses on the nature of physical reality. If a particular theory, howsoever elegant, is unable to explain even a single instance of aberration, it is duly amended or immediately discarded, no questions asked. Unfortunately, the same is not true on the humanities side of the academia and the reasons for the same may be valid in their own right; but it does lead to much political and rhetorical abuse. Coming back to the history of caste studies, there were two broad consequences of this schism between theory and data. One was driven by the deep human urge to explain things. In the event that there is no coherent explanation available for an observable phenomenon, people tend to go with the second best available explanation even if it is wrong, which in this case was the CCC. The other consequence of the schism was the way in which Indologists themselves handled the dissonance. Instead of admitting to failure in formulating a robust theory of caste, probably because it would throw them out of business, the scholars declared the gap between theory and data was a unique feature of the caste system.
Following are some of the areas in which the CCC has completely failed to offer any genuine insights into how Hindu society is organized and in the subsequent essays in the series, we will take up these themes individually and offer deeper analyses of each of them. We will also offer a Hindu view of these items so as to clear the air regarding how the native perspectives have evolved. We do not aim to make any contribution to the colonial project of caste studies but hope that we can at least call out the many bluffs that have resulted in much violence, bloodshed and injustice in this country, if not by fanning political conflict directly, at least by fortifying the previously existing prejudices with their erroneous scholarship.
A few months ago, when the JNU controversy was making waves in the media, a video by Professor Nivedita Menon was doing the rounds, in which she claimed,
“Hindu society must be one of the most violent, to the roots violent society in the world. Surely, nothing in the world can compare to the deep-rooted violence and intransigence of the caste system. That is something we can proudly claim India has contributed to world culture.”
Most caste activists have heard of the hymn of Rigveda called Purusha Sukta and they have been taught that a particular verse in it is the fountainhead of all caste-based oppression in Hindu society. However, it can be confidently deduced that very few of them, if any, have actually read it or even read about it outside of a political context. A common translation of the verse is:
“The Brahman was his mouth, of both his arms was the Rājanya made. His thighs became the Vaiśya, from his feet the Śūdra was produced.”
In our analysis of the Purusha Sukta, we will explain what it really talks about and how the particular verse of this hymn makes a radically different statement than the claims made by western interpretations.
All major darsanas of Indic knowledge borrow heavily from each other and are not contained in watertight compartments, as a result of which, there is a remarkable consistency in the salient elements of the Indic worldview. It is generally observed that most universal phenomena described in the Hindu worldview are cyclical as opposed to linear, time being the most oft-quoted example. We will examine the available evidence to the best of our ability and show how the social order of Hindu society was not, at least in principle, a top-to-bottom hierarchy in terms of the flow of power.
Caste and Race
One of the most common mistakes that western Indologists and an increasing number of colonized Indians commit is to understand caste within the frameworks of race and racism.  This particular error makes a caricature of the real dynamics of Indian society and the repercussions of the same are very serious for our understanding of India’s history and politics.
Traditionally, endogamy or marriage within the community is considered to be a definitive feature of the caste system. World renowned scholars, from the previous centuries to now, have unambiguously spoken in favour of this view. Alas, there is much evidence to contest this and indeed many scholars have done so. In this series, we will try to shed some light in simple de-jargonized English on this anomaly and will show how endogamy is not a defining feature of jatis or varnas. We will try to establish that where endogamy was practiced, the reasons were pragmatic and socio-economic as opposed to religious.
In addressing the above-mentioned points, we will also pay special attention to the original meanings of the Sanskrit words as derived from their primal sounds. This is especially important in the context of Sanskrit. As Rajiv Malhotra has previously highlighted, there is a sacred dimension to the language that must not be ignored, if one is to get a genuine ‘emic’ perspective of the social institutions derived from it.
To understand contemporary caste politics, it is imperative to first gain some knowledge of the history of caste-based violence and the various social reforms that have taken place at innumerable points in India’s history, spread throughout its geography. There have been many who have taken up the cause of the exploited and their contributions to this struggle must be acknowledged so that lack of information does not become the cause of a new cycle of violence, which has sadly happened multiple times in the past.
With each of the above analyses, we will try to equip anyone who has a genuine desire to understand the context and intricacies of the myriad problems confronted by dalits in modern day India. In no way are we interested in downplaying the many instances of violence against the marginalized people or negating the long history of their struggle. By highlighting the lacunae in sociological studies, we hope to empower with the right information anyone who wants to contribute in their own way, big or small, to the betterment of Indian society and ending the insane politics around the real problems of the victims.
Banner: Tantric folio: Vishnupada. Rajasthan, probably Mewar, circa 1820-40.
 Dunkin Jalki and Sufiya Pathan: On the Difficulty of Refuting or Confirming the Arguments about the Caste System
  Nicholas Dirks: Castes of Mind
 Oliver C. Cox: Race and Caste: A distinction
This is part 1 of the series. The other parts can be accessed by following the links below: