Caste system I

1. Let me reconsider the hypothesis I propose: what we call ‘the caste system’ in India today is a hybrid beast. It is not a social structure but a linguistic entity (i.e., a set of sentences) which is an incoherent admixture to two unconnected descriptions (of the world): a generalization of the description of a structured set of interactions (let us leave aside the question of what kind of mathematical properties that this ‘structured set’ has: how it is ordered, whether the ordering is strong or weak and so on) among the so-called ‘lower castes’, while fitting this description within the framework of the varna system, which, I say, is a description of social stratification at a very high level of abstraction or generality. It is incoherent by virtue of its claim to being a ‘unified’ (and unifying) description of the social structure of Indian society: it collapses descriptions of different things at different levels (of descriptions) into a single alleged description of social reality. That is why these ‘theories’ of caste are either incoherent, nonsensical or, where neither, false.

2. A collection of individuals become a group when their interactions become structured. Such structured interactions give rise to organizations and institutions, which, in their turn, further structure individual interactions. We know of two basic types of organizations: hierarchical organizations and heterarchical organizations. These are descriptions of two ends of a spectrum: in the world, we come across organizations which are mixtures of both. In its simplest form, we can understand them through a spatial metaphor: vertical forms of interactions are hierarchical, whereas horizontal forms are heterarchical. An army with a central command-and-control centre is an example par excellence of a hierarchical organization; a human brain, according to most who work on this, is an example of a heterarchical organizations with multiple modules. Of course, in these examples, the emphasis lies on performing specialized functions: the infantry cannot do what commando units do; multiple areas in the brain can take over and perform ‘specialized’ functions. Keep this as a rough analogy to understand what I want to say.

3. We can map hierarchy into multiple axes: power, authority, specializations. And so on. In the hypothesis I am proposing, I am simply mapping them to ‘madi’ (in Kannada, which roughly translates as ‘purity’). This word includes many things in its scope: commensality, marriage, entry into the house, bathing. and so on. ‘Madi’ would represent the result of such a multi-dimensional graph, where each of these elements themselves represent the many different axes. What my hypothesis suggests is this: if we map the so-called lower castes along the axis of ‘Madi'(which, as I say, is multi-dimensional), then we will get a vertical line of these Jati’s. This is all I mean, for the time being, when I speak of ‘hierarchy’: these jati’s can be vertically ordered in a graph. As against this, if we map, say the Brahmins along the same axes, then we get a more or less horizontal graph. If we map these two groups on the same graph, the so-called ‘higher castes’ will be spread over the horizontal axis, whereas the so-called ‘lower castes’ will be spread along the vertical axis. Showing this to be the case in India will require years of field work in multiple parts of India.

4.  Assuming, hypothetically, this to be the case, how do we understand this phenomenon? At the moment, I see this as the difference between Jati’s and Sampradaayas: the former names a hierarchical organization whereas the latter names a heterarchical organization. In India, both forms of interactions emerged and spread the way the institutions spread: through discovery, imitation and so on. The Indian society, as a whole, evolved mechanisms that could sustain and reproduce both Jati’s and Sampradaayas. Through mutual interaction between these two groups, there were borrowing of terminologies across them, imitation of group formation and the emergence of ‘ethnic’ groups in the Indian society. Understanding the Indian social structure requires an insight into this complex process. (This requires serious historical and theoretical study over a number of years.)

5. In other words, I am assuming that when people develop structured sets of interactions, the resulting organization is either hierarchical or heterarchical in some respect or another. Though the ‘why’ is a very important question, I do not answer it: I just presuppose the answer as true. Consequently, that such structures develop among human groups (even when they are isolated from each other) is not an issue I am concerned with. However, with respect to India, the following will be predictable: when ‘madi’ itself gets split into multiple dimensions and mapped to jati’s (and to Sampradaayas), there will be observable variations with respect to the ‘weights’ given to these different dimensions. But, that is not a problem, but the result of the absence of a centralized organization in India.

6. Now, to your other concerns. You are talking about the role of the Varna system in the Indian culture. Whatever might or might not have been the case, the point is how it has been transmitted to us. We now need to add a new twist to the story about the colonial consciousness: while, in one sense, this notion suggests that the transmission of our tradition has been arrested and damaged it also suggests that some aspects of these traditions have been transmitted to us, but by the Europeans. That is to say, our understanding of the European understanding of India ‘defines’ us non-trivially as well. It is true, I think, that Varna ‘system’ was a set of action-heuristics in India of yesteryears, but it is not (primarily) that to us anymore. Some of us sense this difference, thanks to the fact that our traditions are still transmitted to us. But, today, Varna plays the primary role of a very abstract description of social stratification (this is how we understand the British transmission of the Indian traditions to us).

7. To understand better what I mean by the last sentence, consider this: the only way you or I can formulate ‘varna’ as a set of heuristics is to formulate the question in terms of: what does it mean to be, say, a Brahmin today? Notice the perfect analogy between this question and ‘what does it mean to be a Christian?’ (Quid sit Christianum esse?) Until we have developed a very rich theory, we cannot even formulate the notion of Varna as a set of action heuristics. At best, it becomes a question about the Christian; at worst, it is a straightforward moral code.

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  1. Pingback: Caste System II | All Roads Lead to Jerusalem!

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