Caste System II

Two small points before I respond to your questions. One: all I have is a hypothesis that can guide research. In itself, it is not a theory and I cannot hope to convince anyone (at this stage) that this hypothesis is true. It requires years of research (of different kinds) before it can be made compelling. Therefore, please know that I understand your skepticism and find it only natural. Two: However, I will give you some indications about why I find the hypothesis interesting and worthy of further research. I will choose some examples at random to indicate the kind of problems that this hypothesis promises to solve.

1. Of course, you are right about the fact that many Brahmin groups either fight for superiority or merely believe in the superiority of their own ‘jati’s’. While there is nothing wrong about it, I do not consider either of them as an indication of hierarchy. For instance, the Smartha’s  the Saivas and the Vaisnavites also fight each other and proclaim their own superiority over the other groups. But that does not mean that we can organize them hierarchically. Nor can they do so themselves. The same applies, for instance, to the followers of Jnana, Karma, Bhakti and Yoga paths to enlightenment. While each fights the other and proclaims its own superiority, it is not possible to organize them hierarchically, even though there are some sporadic attempts by the followers of these traditions to do precisely that. In this sense, while the Havyaka’s might think they are the ‘superior’ Brahmins, there is no way to rank them vertically with respect to other Brahmin groups.

2. This stands in contrast to the hierarchy that seems to exist among the so-called lower castes. Here, there seems to a hierarchy in the pecking order: for instance, the fight between Madiga and Holeya groups in Karnataka does not resemble the fight between, say, Madhva and Smartha groups or between the ‘Babburkamme’ and ‘Havyaka’ jatis. In the former case, there are stricter ‘rules’ about inter-dining, marriage, entering the house and so on. I have this in mind when I speak about the hierarchical organization among the so-called Lower castes. Let me illustrate this by using the CSLC research. They tried to ascertain ‘social hierarchy’ that might or might not exist between different jati’s from the Brahmins at one end of the spectrum to, say, Kuruba’s at the other end. Here, they were unable to find any (or many) indications of a hierarchy. This research suggests that it might be foolish to look for a ‘caste hierarchy’ (that tracks the Varna system in some way or another) in the Indian society. Now comes the next stage of research, about which we need to think more carefully. Are there jati distinctions, say, within and among the Madiga’s in different parts of Karnataka? Do they have ‘rules’ about marriage, dining, entering houses, rituals and festivals and so on and so forth with respect to intra-Madiga intercourse? This internal differentiation is what I am talking about now. It is my hypothesis that, if and when fieldwork is conducted by using many dimensions (and assigning weights to them is some form or another), we will see a hierarchy emerging within the Madiga communities. The next step is to plot this hierarchy within the Madiga community against a similar investigation into the Holeya’s. At that stage, we will begin to see whether or not my hypothesis about a hierarchy among the so-called lower caste groups will require changes.

3. This hierarchy among the so-called lower caste groups DOES NOT constitute ‘the social structure’ of India or Karnataka. At best, the research into the structure of these so-called lower castes will tell uswhether their jati organization is hierarchical or not. What the Europeans did was to generalize the organizational structure of the different caste groups as though this constituted the social structure of the Indian society. Having thus (falsely) believed that, say, the structure of the Madiga’s and the nature of their interaction with the Hoelya’s constituted the social structure of the society, they looked for a ‘theoretical framework’ to accommodate this ‘fact’. And they found that in, say, the Purusha Sukta and Manu. Then they looked for ‘culprits’ who were responsible for thrusting such a social structure on the throats of all people. They found them in the ‘Brahmin Priests’. [Of course, the ‘Brahmins’ also told the British (and other Europeans) that they were ‘superior’ to all other groups in society as well. But that is not the focus of my story now.]

4. The social structure of India consists of those mechanisms that allow BOTH the hierarchical and heterarchical organizational structures to co-exist and interact with each other, and to reproduce themselves. These mechanisms themselves will be structured and these constitute ‘the social structure’ of India. Thus, unlike Europe, where primarily hierarchical organizations existed and reproduced themselves, in India, by contrast, a plurality of organizational structures flourished without problems. That is what I am talking about.

5. What can this hypothesis do? Some random facts. For instance, it explains why the followers of the Madhva tradition are so crazy about ‘madi’ or ‘purity’. They have a very strict sense of ‘hierarchy’ even though they are unable to identify the hierarchies among the Brahmin jati’s. This hypothesis suggests that one should seek an explanation for this in the fact that Madhva’s were recruited (initially) from the so-called lower castes. On other dimensions, the Lingayat’s exhibit similar problems about ‘Jati’s’ within them. Whenever one looks at a ‘Dalit’ rebel against the caste system, invariably, it transpires, that these Dalit heroes have been helped exclusively (and only) by Brahmins. Why? The hypothesis suggests that that is because the Brahmins are least ‘sensitive’ to hierarchies because they, as a social group, have the least experience of hierarchy. (This also explains why the most anti-caste initiators are from the so-called upper castes: they do not have much experience of the hierarchical structure. Not because they are at the ‘top’ of the hierarchy: a king or a prime minister is acutely aware of the hierarchy, not oblivious to it.) Even where they have hierarchies (at home, in society), there are multiple loci of authorities: for instance, if a ‘guru’ enjoins you to do something and your father enjoins you the opposite, who do you follow? Should you follow your grandfather or do what your father tells you to? Each such situation signals that the problem of power and authority is way too complicated to allow any hierarchical classification. Equally, consider the fact that the most well-known ‘rebels’ against ‘the caste system’ are also those who come from the so-called lower castes. There are many ways to explain this: they experienced oppression the most, they are against experienced injustice and so on. What does this mean except to say that they are obsessed by the caste system only because hierarchy was their daily experience? However, this daily experience was not with the Brahmin jati’s but with their own.

6. If this hypothesis can be supported through further research, its impact on colonial consciousness is gigantic: it will blow a big hole in it, while weakening its structural integrity. Our discourse about politics, state, reservation, voting patterns, etc will have to be entirely rethought. If the Dalit and secular intellectuals discover that ‘the caste system’ was merely a generalization of the internal hierarchy among the so-called lower castes, they need to look deeper into themselves and identify the problems anew. The extant descriptions about ‘social justice’, ‘affirmative action’ etc cannot be used any more. Our intellectuals will be forced to look at India afresh and rethink how they should describe India, her society and culture. All the books about ‘the caste system’ written by Europeans and regurgitated by the Indian intellectuals during the last 350 years will, all of a sudden, not be worth the paper they are printed on. The Constitution of India requires an overhaul the way descriptions of Hinduism and India will also be due for an overhaul.

7. In other words, the time is ripe to move the research one step forward. Until now, we have mainly argued that ‘the caste system’ does not exist in India. Now we have to take the next step: explain how and why (both through fieldwork and through theoretical research) people say what they have said and say. In this process, hopefully, we will being the process of also saying what there is.