Practically all of us, who are reading this article have grown up learning that Indian society discriminated based on caste and that caste system was a cultural stigma typical to India that led to oppression of lower castes. We were taught this, but no one seemed to tell us of rishis like Ved Vyasa, Valmiki, Jabali, Aitreya, or Vishvamitra who accomplished feats unimaginable in modern times. For had we learnt about them in our formational years, we could question our teachers –
How come these people became rishis? Ved Vyas was born of a fisherwoman, Valmiki was a Dalit in today’s parlance, Jabali’s mother was a prostitute, Aitreya was born of a Shudra mother, Vishvamitra was a Kshatriya…
Reminds me of Macaulay’s Minute of 1935 – to create an education system that would break the backbone of our country. He succeeded.
Caste System, or to term it right, organisation of society into the four varnas (Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra), was a constantly changing and evolving system of social interaction and division of labour. It was with colonisation that it became fixed in hierarchy.
Before British invasion of India, ‘kings were not inferior to Brahmins’ and ‘under colonialism, caste was thus made out to be far more – far more pervasive, far more totalising, and far more uniform – than it had ever been before’, notes Nicholas B. Dirks, Chancellor of University of California, in his book, ‘Castes of the Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India (2001)’.
M N Srinivas records in Castes of Modern India, ‘It is well known that occasionally a Shudra caste has, after acquisition of economic and political power, sanskritised its customs and ways and has succeeded in laying claim to be Kshatriyas.’ ‘..it (the term Kshatriya) refers to the position attained by a local group whose traditions and luck enabled it to seize politico-economic power.’ For example, the Raj Gond tribes claimed to be Kshatiryas having gained rule of tract in Central India. Shivaji Bhonsle, considered Shudra in the then Maratha society, was declared Kshatriya by Bishweshwar Bhatt of Kashi, who had immense knowledge of Vedas and so Shivaji was crowned an emperor. Cholas, Hoysalas, Chalukyas and Rayas of Vijaynagar are all examples of dynasties that emerged from other castes.
S.S. Ghurye of Bombay University in his book, Caste, Class and Occupation – 1961, reveals how British impregnated Indian society with the caste virus by the simple task of conducting a census. Several caste advocacy groups were formed which wrote petitions to British requesting higher rank in hierarchy to be sketched out by census authorities. ‘For 1911 census, Herbert Risley, the commissioner went a step further and said the census had also to identify social precedence as recognised by native public opinion….It was a divisive game played by the western rulers to divide and rule and reduce Hindu society into many fractions,’ observes Professor Rajni Kant Lahiri of University of Kanpur in European Conspiracy Against Vedic Culture.
This re-modelling of India’s social DNA was welcomed by the British. Administrator and Diplomat, Lepel Griffin believed caste was useful in preventing rebellion, while James Kerr, the principal of Calcutta’s Hindu College wrote in 1865: ‘It may be doubted if the existence of caste is on the whole unfavourable to the permanence of our rule. It may even be considered favourable to it, provided we act with prudence and forbearance. Its spirit is opposed to national union.’
Ancient Indian society accorded great respect to the working class in contrast to most other civilisations which treated labourers and agriculturists as property. In Athens, only 10% of the population had the right to vote; the majority were slaves. Slavery was an integral part of life of Judea, Galilee and in rest of the Roman Empire in Biblical times.
‘Homage to you carpenters and to you chariot makers, homage. Homage to you potters and to you blacksmiths, homage. Homage to you boatmen and to you Punjishthas, homage. Homage to you dog-leaders and to you hunters, homage.’ (Shukla YV, 16.27)
‘O Lord! Please fill the Brahmanas with light, the Kshatriyas with light, the Vaishyas with light and the Shudras with light; and in me fill the same light.’ (Shukla YV, 18.48)