Isabel Wilkerson’s book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents has generated unprecedented worldwide interest in ‘caste,’ ‘caste system,’ and ‘caste atrocities.’ It has also encouraged the claim – backed mainly by left-wing activists, academicians, and Christian evangelists – that caste discrimination is now a global phenomenon.
The reason for such a claim is that large concentrations of the Indian diaspora exist across the globe. This claim has become the basis for the demands of legislative and judicial interventions in the US to counter “caste oppression.” The proposed anti-caste discrimination ordinance vote in the City of Seattle, WA, must be seen against this backdrop. Kshama Sawant, a controversial leftwing politician of Indian origin, is at the center of this ordinance.
Several exploitative and discriminatory systems exist worldwide, such as class, feudalism, communism, racism, slavery, Nazism, fascism, Girmitiya (indentured) labor system, etc. No one blames their atrocities on any ethnic, religious, or racial group, in particular. However, the “caste system” narrative squarely puts Hindus and Hinduism at fault for all injustices, even though the construct is the sociological feature of the Indian subcontinent. It transcends every religion of the region, native or non-native. Such a narrative also ignores the fact that the Hindu society, throughout history, has consistently worked on social justice to overcome discrimination and inequality from within its indigenous system of social reforms.
“caste” is an import in India that has no antecedents in Indian culture, or, linguistically, no cognates in Indian languages. Much of our contemporary understanding of the term according to Ramesh Rao (Jāti/Kula/Caste and their Impact on Communication in Communicating Across Boundaries), is derived from “the colonial understanding and categorization of India’s people according to the surveys constructed by [Herbert Hope] Risley.” Risely’s survey was later published as The People of India (1908).
The native Hindu word for ‘caste proper’ is jāti, which Arvind Sharma (The Rulers Gaze: A Study of British Rule Over India from a Saidian Perspective) points out “denotes the social unit one is born in.” There is, however, a disconnect between jāti as perceived within the native insider tradition and the way the West conflates the “caste system.”
Both “caste” and jāti are two independent constructs. They have distinct historical, social, and cultural contexts. Yet, the erroneous Western understanding of the Indian jāti system holds sway in academia, media, and its overall interpretation as the “caste system.”
As the Europeans – Britain, France, and Portugal – colonized India, they created an Orientalist discourse about India. Creating this discourse was based on othering Indians. It provided the basis for political power, domination, racism, and widespread colonization.
The other aspect of the colonization process was primitivizing of Hindus by the British in their discourse. As the colonizers violently pillaged their expanding frontier, they made conscious efforts to present themselves as civilized and virtuous. The British colonizer’s need to portray Hindus as primitive, savage, uncivilized, or vicious rose from their urgency to present themselves as “enlightened.” The British, in their writing, portrayed Hindu society as being riddled with malaise. They also claimed erroneously that the so-called “social evils” such as “Sati” and the “Brahmanical” always have been part of Hindu society and Hinduism.
As the British imperialists consolidated their power over India, their disinformation and contempt towards Hindus gained a foothold in scholarly circles and popular imagination. James Mill’s The History of British India (1817), described as “a philippic against Hinduism,” rose to the level of a prerequisite textbook for the British administrators about to set sails to India. Mill’s The History was instrumental in “linking Hinduism with backwardness and even primitiveness.”
What scholars think
According to Arvind Sharma, there are over nine thousand books alone on this subject. However, academicians have no consensus about “how the caste system came into being and what sustains it” (Martin Farek et al. Western Foundations of the Caste System). The “caste” scholars have developed no framework and parameters to study caste and caste oppression. After all the studies, writes Prakash Shah (Caste studies today: Imaginary victims and perpetrators; Oñati Socio-Legal Series 2023), “it is not at all clear what phenomena caste and caste discrimination are, or what caste violence or atrocities are.”
Shah claims that most academic literature on the subject has created a set of “imagined victims and perpetrators of caste oppression,” which suffers from several fallacies. One such fallacy, the fallacy of presumption, assumes that “the mere co-presence of Dalits and Brahmins [or so-called “upper castes”] involves discrimination or oppression because of the latter’s perception.” Data do not back up this presumption.
Jāti/kula sustained Indian society for centuries
Another fallacy is that if “caste” exists, it only has an oppressive feature. It ignores that the jāti/kula social groupings have existed for thousands of years and sustained Indian society. After all, Indian civilization is the only surviving native civilization. Significantly enough, however, there has been no attempt in history to overthrow this “oppressive” system.
Like most Indologist narratives about India, the narrative that Hindus are religiously obliged to observe “caste” is a trope derived from Protestant theology, their debates over scriptures, and anti-cleric prejudices. These prejudices, over time but consciously, were applied, according to Indologist and philosopher Vishwa Adluri, to Indian texts where one can easily trace the antecedents of anti-Brahmanism. However, the conclusion drawn in S.N. Balagangadhara’s research program on the Comparative Science of Cultures (or “the Ghent School”) is that the caste system does not (cannot) exist outside the experience of Western culture.
The current efforts by activists and scholars to legislate and legalize the non-existent “caste oppression” is to weaponize the discourse against one of the tiniest religious minorities in the United States of America.
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