Normative Assumptions, Discriminations, and Caste Discriminations

1. I was invited by some Sadhus from Swami Narayan Temple (BAPS) to visit the temple and have a discussion with them. Because they practice very strict Brahmacharya (eight types of avoiding women, each correlated to an organ: it is called Ashtanga Brahmacharya), the Sadhus said that women could not be present during our discussions, while they were welcome to visit the temple. As I remember the incident, my female students were a bit ‘upset’ (hurt, insulted, indignant, or whatever) that the Sadhus were not able to meet them and felt discriminated against by virtue of their sex. A few years later, one of my teachers from Belgium visited another wing of the Swami Narayan people and found that ‘women were discriminated against’ because they were allowed only to come some distance from the temple when the Sadhus were present. In both cases, I was puzzled by their reaction: I explained that the action of the Sadhus should not be seen as an act of discrimination against women but as an expression of the strict Brahmacharya that the Sadhus practiced. The question here is: why did these people (my students and my teacher) experience ‘discrimination’, where I saw none and also knew that none was intended?

2. I had an occasion to read some pages of a book together with a few people in India. The book is ‘The Language of the Gods in the World of Men’ by Sheldon Pollock: it is about ‘Medieval’ India, the role of Sanskrit and many other things about the Indian culture. He talks about the role of Sanskrit in Ancient India in these terms: because Sanskrit was used primarily in the context of rituals during its early days, says Pollock, its role was both limited and exclusive. It was limited in the sense that it was used primarily in ‘Vaidika’ practices and exclusive in the sense that only a few could speak Sanskrit, while the most were ‘forbidden’ from using it. Of course, there is no shred of evidence that ‘people’ were forbidden from using Sanskrit for other purposes or that other groups (than the four varnas) were ‘forbidden’ from learning Sanskrit, even though one can reasonably assume that most groups did not speak or understand Sanskrit. This ‘sacerdotal isolation’ (his words) of Sanskrit, says Pollock, indicated both its limited and exclusive nature. He believes that this expressed inequality and discrimination in Ancient India. There is a puzzle here. How does Pollock ‘know’ that there was discrimination, when there is absolutely no evidence for it? Consider the language I speak at home: Sankethi. Only those born into Sankethi community learn this language and one does not ‘teach’ this language to other people. Does it follow from this consideration that, therefore, there is discrimination against other peoples and groups in India? In fact, most people in India have not heard of Sankethi and see no reason to learn this language at all. So, if a particular group develops a language for some purpose or another and does not ‘teach’ it to all the people in the world, does it mean one discriminates? Why cannot one develop a language (like Sankethi was developed) only for use within a restricted number of people? What is discriminatory about it? The only possible way to speak of discrimination, in this case, is if one assumes that languages ‘ought’ to be universally accessible and that one ‘ought’ to teach everyone every possible language.

3. Common to both these examples is their ‘normative’ assumption. The first assumes that the Sadhus ought to be accessible to all people and that, if they are not that, they are discriminating. The temple ought not only be accessible to all (the Swami Narayan temple is accessible to all) but that it also ‘ought’ to be so at all times and in all circumstances. Any restriction is a case of discrimination. Equally, in the second example, every language ‘ought’ to be accessible to all people at all times and in all circumstances. (Think about this issue when children devise ‘codes’ and ‘secret languages’ to communicate only with close friends.) More generally put, everything ought to be accessible to all people at all times and in all circumstances. Such a normative assumption is ridiculous, of course: no one claims that my wife or my house should be accessible to all people in all circumstances and at all times. (In such cases, the scope gets restricted in an ad hoc fashion: every one ‘ought’ to be able to have a wife or have a house. What about homosexuals or those who prefer tents on a beach? Again, an ad hoc restriction comes into existence and the discussion shifts to other levels.) In other words, the notion of ‘discrimination’ is very plastic and it is used (as it suits the prejudices of individuals) as one likes it.

4. Consider now one aspect of such caste discrimination: marriage among ‘savarnas’ or the issue of inter-caste marriage. If a Brahmin seeks a Brahmin spouse (and refuses to marry outside the ‘caste’), it is said to indicate ‘caste discrimination’. What is discriminatory about it? The only possible argument is that the ‘search space’ has been restricted. The normative claim is that one ‘ought’ to be ready to search everywhere and that if you search only in one ‘space’ then you are discriminating other ‘spaces’. This is silly: no one can search everywhere at the same time: one can only search in some specific space. Does it mean that because you search in one space you are discriminating against other places? (A problem in scientific research is well-structured if and only if it restricts the search space for the answer: the narrower the search space is, the better is the problem formulation.) So, what is discriminatory about this? Only a normative assumption can do this job: one ought to search everywhere and one ought to marry wherever one finds a possible spouse. (Surely, you cannot get more foolish than this.) What if I want to marry only a Brahmin? What if this is my preference? What is wrong with this? (This normative assumption leads to the denial of personal preferences in marriage and imposes an obligation – an ‘ought’ – to marry. But if you marry one, you cannot marry all other women. Surely, this is also discrimination?)

5. The point is this: if I want to marry within one community, it does not follow that, therefore, I am discriminating against other communities. If only some people speak some language or another, it does not follow, that, therefore, they are discriminating against all other people. If the Sadhus practice Brahmacharya, it does not follow, therefore, that they are discriminating against women. In each of these cases, one is choosing one option and choice of one option does not discriminate against other choices. Only a totally silly normative assumption can transform a necessary behavior (choosing a particular option) into a discriminatory act. Of course, those who see discrimination in this are also intelligent: they shift grounds to point out well-known (real or imagined) cases of violence: those who marry members from other ‘castes ‘ are killed or beaten up or whatever by ‘high caste’ families. Again, this does not do the job: the violence is heinous, but it is not the case of caste discrimination but one of not following the wishes of the family members. It further also assumes that one ‘ought’ to be free in the choice of a spouse and that any ‘interference’ in this (including ‘arranged marriages’) are a blemish on the Indian culture.

6. About hypothetical situations wherein a person is denied a medical treatment or a job opportunity on the ground of his caste.

6.1. In the first place, I have not heard of people being turned away from a doctor or a hospital in India on grounds of their ‘jati’. I have heard of any number of cases in the US (see Moore’s brilliant documentary ‘Sicko’ on the American Health Care System), where people are turned away from hospitals or denied medical treatments because they do not have the ‘right’ insurance policy. Many have died too because of that. Yet, we do not speak of ‘discrimination’ (of any kind) in these cases but only of the kind of health care system that the US has. However, we would not hesitate to convict either the Indian culture or ‘Hinduism’ of ‘caste discrimination’, if any such incident were to occur in India.

6.2. In the second place, even were we to assume that people are turned away from a hospital or denied medical treatment because of their ‘jati’, I am not so sure what makes it into a ‘caste discrimination’. If the hospital is established with the explicit goal of helping ‘everyone’ without any condition whatsoever and the doctor has sworn the Hippocratic oath of helping ‘everyone’ who asks for his help, then, in such cases, if they then turn away suffering human beings on grounds of their ‘jati’, yes, there is a violation. Even here, it is either the hospital or the doctor (or both) who are guilty. However, they are guilty of violating either the stated goal or the sworn oath. This is not so much an ‘instance’ of caste discrimination as it is of violating the explicit goals and oaths.

6.3. When a hospital (under some conditions) is meant to treat all the citizens of India and refuses to treat some of them because of other considerations that are non-technical in nature, such a hospital is violating the legal requirements. If these legal requirements are also moral in nature (this requires additional moral assumptions), then, and only then, could we speak of them as also being morally discriminatory.

6.4. The same consideration applies to job opportunities. If, and only if, a firm or an institution opens up an job with an explicit claim that no other conditions apply for success except, say, academic qualifications and, despite this, chooses less qualified people on grounds of their ‘jati’ then, yes, there is discrimination on the basis of ‘caste’. However, when being born in a jati is considered a sufficient qualification or a college run by, say, a religious institution chooses people on the basis of their religious leanings, what kind of discrimination is involved?

6.5. Just because someone is denied access to some service or another on the basis of ‘caste’ or ‘race’, that alone is not sufficient to transform such an act into a ‘discriminatory’ act. It becomes that only when the explicitly stated condition allows everyone who satisfies the said condition to have access to that service and, yet, denies someone from accessing that service (even though the condition is satisfied) on some other unstated ground (say, ‘race’ or ‘caste’).

7. You find something objectionable to excluding people on grounds of their birth. I would like to suggest that such an exclusion becomes a case of ‘discrimination’ if, and only if, an additional normative assumption is present.

Consider the presence of all kinds of youth hostels in India that cater only to students from specific jati’s: Kuruba hostel, gowda hostel, lingayat hostels, and such like. Is this exclusion also a case of discrimination? If these are legitimate, then excluding on the basis of birth alone is not enough to speak of discrimination. You speak of dining practices in some temples and suggest that exclusion on the basis of money and power are less heinous than exclusion on the basis of birth. If we look at it empirically, you will find that it is far more difficult to become rich or powerful (if you born poor or powerless) than it is to gain entry into these dining halls at temples. All one has to do is to wear the ‘sacred thread’, claim to be a second generation immigrant from Rajasthan or Bihar or some far-off place and mention some fictitious ‘sub-jati’ as a brhaminical jati. In other words, all one has to do is wear the thread and tell a lie. Which is easier? Tell a lie or cough up 10,000 Rs, when you are poor? Nothing is easier in India today than change jati’s, even at an official level: consider how many people do not obtain false jati-certificates by paying a bribe to concerned officials!

8. Before we start speaking about caste ‘discrimination’, it would be wise if we reflect on which normative assumptions are involved in such judgment and whether they are reasonable and defensible. Not every alleged case of ‘caste discrimination’ is also a case of caste discrimination. Simply reproducing the common sense criticisms of the Indian ‘caste system’ will not do. Thus, there is much that requires doing before one can come up with a message that political parties can transmit.

9. A comment: In particular, the sadhus’ vows embody a particular attitude towards women, that even seeing them upsets some spiritual balance, which is IMO, rubbish… Then you go on to draw a parallel between such an attitude and those prevalent in Islamic societies.

9.1. There are two different issues here. Let us, for a moment, assume that the Brahmacharya of the Sadhus at the Swami Narayan Temple is indeed ‘rubbish’. Now, of course, that they have wrong beliefs about women (and Brahmacharya) may be a reason to rubbish their beliefs but not to deny them the freedom to believe in that ‘rubbish’ and practice it for themselves. There is nothing morally wrong in having wrong or false beliefs. Atheists, for instance, genuinely believe that religion is very dangerous for human beings but that does not mean, therefore, that people should be forbidden from being believers. Those men and women (yes, women too) who are followers of Swami Narayan share the belief of the Sadhus: the women do not protest that they are not allowed to enter the temples when the Sadhus are present. In fact, if they go to the temple when the Sadhus are also at the temple, they wait at some distance; they enter the temple at certain hours of the day when the Sadhus are not ‘allowed’ to enter the temple. In other words, they do not feel discriminated against.

The reason why you and my Belgian students feel discriminated against lies elsewhere, namely, in the normative assumptions they make and not in the beliefs and practices of the Sadhus. This statement becomes obvious when you realize that the men and women who follow this tradition also share beliefs and practices in common and do not protest against discrimination. I have known some wonderful men, who practiced very strict brahmacharya because they were the bhaktas of Anjaneya (or Hanumantha): as you know, Anajaneya is a very great bhkata of Rama and a very strict Brahmachari. Surely, you do not want to say that Anjaneya was an Islamic mullah avant la lettre?

I remember that Anjaneya had some kind of problem in communicating to (or seeing) Sita because of his practice of Brahmacharya and that some discussion (or consideration) convinced him to be a messenger of Rama. If I am wrong about this, then I am willing to withdraw my point I made using this analogy.

9.2. Another coment: you want to question the assumptions that the Sadhus make about sexuality and you find them disturbing. I would go easy on using terms like ‘sexuality’ here because it is being used without much reflection. Consider now the fact that these Sadhus, in contradistinction to the Advaiti Sanyasis, do not ever see their mothers after their initiation. (The advaiti sanyasis, for instance, have no problems in seeing women or prostrating to their mothers from their ‘purvashrams’.) Are you willing to suggest that their unwillingness (or inability) to see even their own mothers as an expression of their fear (or distaste or repulsion) of (female) sexuality? Unless you buy into the idea that women always symbolize sexuality to men, I do not see how you can be disturbed. Is one to assume that mothers, sisters, aunts, nieces, daughters and so on (all women, in short) are all and only disguised sexual symbols to Indian men (or men in general)?

9.3. This problem arises from the idea that ‘brahmacharya’ is a result of some kind of sexual anxiety and even a fear of adult sexuality. I believe that the Indian traditions form an alternative to Freudian (or neo-Freudian) understanding of human psyche. Of course, you can either poke fun or be critical of, say, Galilean Physics from the perspective of Aristotelian physics or of Darwinian biology from the perspective of Creationism, but that would not do, would it? Of course, I have no idea how to understand Brahmacharya as yet, but I have learnt enough not to use Freud to understand the Indian traditions. In any case, I am not sympathetic to looking at Brahmacharya as some kind of deviation, whether moral or sexual. I consider it a legitimate way of ‘being’, one that is every bit as legitimate as any other mode of being-in-the-world (anubhava). I am not a brahmachari, but I do not, because of that, consider those who are that either misguided or as perverts.

9.4. Let us, for the sake of argument and in a very crude form, assume that Brahmacharya is an expression of a fear of either female sexuality or an anxiety about adult sexuality. However, because such people are present in all cultures and at all times, we have to assume that it is a variety in human evolution. That is to say, we have three kinds of people: heterosexuals, homosexuals and lesbians, and people with anxieties about adult sexuality. The presence of these three groups, in whatever numbers, cuts across cultures and epochs and thus is a ‘quirk’ of biological evolution. I do not want to take up the issue of their ‘survival value’ to the population. Instead, let us look at how Indian culture deals with those ‘afflicted’ with such sexual anxieties.

9.5. Instead of transforming such people into neurotics in need of medication and psychiatric help, the Indian culture gives them a respected place in society by according a special status to ‘life-long brahmacharis’. It recognizes this ‘affliction’ as something ‘normal’ (and not label it ‘neurotic’) by suggesting that every young male figure (before marriage) is a ‘brahmachari’ and ties special privileges and status to this phase of human existence. Even if the brahamacharis are ‘handicapped’ by the fear of adult sexuality, our culture allows them to lead an otherwise ‘normal’ life and acknowledges their contribution to society. It creates special ‘devas’ who are brahmacharis, creates institutional practices to accord them a special place and does not discriminate against them because of their ‘sexual anxiety’. Contrast this with the attitude prevalent in the western culture, where marriage to someone from the opposite sex is “God’s commandment to men and women”. Even the celibacy of the Catholic Priesthood was a late invention and Protestants found such a vow contrary to God’s commandments.

Which of the two should we prefer, if, indeed, people with sexual anxieties are a result of human biological evolution?

10. Even if these Sadhus are wrong about their ideas and practices, one cannot say, therefore, they are morally wrong.

10.1. Much the same way the women do not come into the temple when the Sadhus are present, the Sadhus are not allowed to come into the temple during certain hours of the day. In this sense, the restrictions boil down to this: women do not enter the temple during certain hours and the Sadhus do not, during certain other hours. Even if the temple is a public space, whatever the word ‘public’ might mean in this context, I do not see what makes this restriction immoral.

10.2. About the analogy between women defending burqa and the women in this tradition. My point is that neither those who follow Swami Narayan nor those outside their fold (both men and women) experience the Brahmacharya of these Sadhus as discriminatory. Some, at the most, might criticize the Sadhus for being misogynists (the point you seem to make) but misogyny is a prejudice at best. It becomes ‘immoral’ only if you add the moral assumption that one ‘ought’ not to be a misogynist. (However, I do not even subscribe to describing these Sadhus as misogynists but that is irrelevant for the moment.)

11.  Another comment: If Atman is reality and the physical body is incidental, then it should not matter whether it is a man or a woman in front of you. Whatever normative assumptions that these three Belgians held, your assumption about the nature of ‘Atman’ is not normative. At best, assuming that the stories which the Swami Narayan people hold to is the same as what you believed to be the case, you can say that the Sadhus are wrong either with respect to the conclusion they drew (thus, suggest that the Sadhus are logically inconsistent) or with respect to the facts of the matter (about the relation between ‘Atman’ and ‘the body’). Thus, you cannot make the normative criticism that these three Belgians made.

12. The same argument holds with respect to the police. All I want to suggest is that we can view some act as morally discriminatory if, and only if, some or another moral assumption is made in the course of our arguments. Similarly, we need to add moral assumptions whenever we speak of caste discrimination.

13. About the state, state action and the issue of public interest. There are multiple problems here, which I am only slowly beginning to recognize. I will share two such problems with you without, however, being able to concretely spell out the alternatives.

13.1. (a) Consider the belief that the state ‘ought’ to act in the public interest. This belief makes sense if we assume that it is possible to speak in terms of ‘public interest’ in some non-trivial fashion. Both Kenneth Arrow and Amrtya Sen have proved theorems that show that any such use incoherent: Arrow argued that we cannot speak of ‘public will’ in any coherent way; Sen argued that we cannot aggregate private preferences into a consistent and coherent set of ‘public preferences’. Our notion of ‘public interest’ includes these two notions and, as a consequence, does not allow of a coherent conceptualization. Even banning smoking in public places (whatever the notion of a ‘public space’ be) is not very coherent, if argued in terms of ‘public interest’. In this sense, justifying complex actions, which carry unintended consequences, in the name of public interest is not an interesting exercise. (b) Despite this, the idea of the state and its relation to public interest preoccupies people because of something else: that is the belief that every institution in society has an ‘interest’ and the state has a ‘public interest’. That is, there is an underlying assumption of ‘intelligibility’ to claims about ‘institutional interests’: each institution has an interest the way each individual has either a ‘desire’ or ‘interest’. The more I read history, the less intelligible it has become to me. I believe that this claim is a ‘secular translation’ of the idea that the Christian Church has some set of interests and political thinking, since the Middle Ages in Europe, has so constantly hammered on this theme that it has become a trivial fact that we take for granted. It is totally unclear to me how we identify the ‘interests’ of a social institution, the State included, and how we find out whether we are wrong or right in attributing such an ‘interest’ to a social institution. In other words, we have no clue how we solve our disagreement in this area of legal and political philosophy: the more radical the disagreement, the less clear how we should solve the issue: suppose I deny that the State has any set of interests that it can call its own, how do we solve this disagreement? On the basis of some or another definition about what ‘interest’ is or what ‘State’ is?

13.2. The normativity involved in seeing the State as an entity that ‘ought’ to act in the public interest, thus, is double; there is the prima facie normativity of the ‘ought’; then there is a cloudy area where we do not even know what other assumptions about the state and public interest we entertain when we make claims about institutional interests.

14. Yet another comment: In another incident, Rajesh and Pinky committed suicide. They were in love, but Rajesh was dalit, Pinky was savarna, and her parents would not consent to a marriage. They died near the railway tracks, having consumed poison. I will repeat my question: forget for the time being “religious” versus “secular”. What is it that legitimizes state intervention in something?

Some responses are in order, if at least to bring out a tacit assumption in these sentences. We all know the story of Romeo and Juliet both of whom died because the feuding families did not consent to their marriage. Should the state intervene between all feuding families because in some cases it leads to tragedies like that of Romeo and Juliet? What, I would like to ask, is the difference between this case and that of Rajesh and Pinky? You might want to say that feud between families is a ‘personal’ or ‘familial’ issue, whereas the caste discrimination is a social one. But this is merely an assumption, which has taken the status of a fact to us. Why cannot one see it as an ‘personal’ or ‘familial’ issue as well, i.e. as an issue that involves the notions of Rajesh’s and Pinky’s parents? Consider the following personal story. My maternal uncle was one of the most rigid and orthodox brahmins I have ever known in my life. His own daughter, my niece, is married to a ‘harijan’ with the blessings of her father; I am married to a Belgian woman (who eats both beef and meat) with no problems raised on my side of the family. What does this anecdote indicate? How ‘tolerant’ my family is? Why can it not illustrate the fact that there are no social rules that all brahmins have to (leave alone Indians) follow? In other words, the tragic story of Pinky and Rajesh is an instance of social injustice, if and only if, one assumes that it is social injustice. Such a reasoning is a fallacy called petitio principii, i.e., assuming as true what one should prove to be true. That the ‘caste system’ in india is causally responsible for the ills in india requires showing, not assuming. Nehruvian socialism assumes this missionary hallucination as a truth about the Indian society.