India's internal divisions and conflicts make sense only if you know something of her caste system. A unique tour de force
with deep philosophical and spiritual underpinnings, it took its present form at about the beginning of the Christian era, even though the groundwork was established with the Aryan migrations into northern India around 1500 BC. On the physical side, the Aryans included a taller, larger-boned type distinguished by strong hair growth, especially beard, who settled mainly in the north, principally in the area that became known as Punjab. This type became the core of the military castes of the region, as also of the people who are the subject of this book.
"The coming of the Aryans," it has been said, "was a backward step, since the Harappan culture had been far more advanced than that of the Aryans who were as yet pre-urban." Robust and virile, with heroic appetites -- which included beef eating and great intakes of an amazingly potent liquor called Soma -- the light-skinned Aryans brought three distinct social groupings with them: Kshatriyas, the warrior rulers; Brahmins, the priestly class; and Vaishyas, who eventually evolved into traders and entrepreneurs.
After destroying the sophisticated urban North Indian civilization of the Dasyus, who peopled the Indus Valley where the Harappan culture flourished, the Aryans set about making India their home. And as with all those who have invaded India over the millennia, the Aryans too experienced a slow but steady assimilation with the existing beliefs and customs of India. Neither side, in fact, was left untouched by the assimilative experience, the attitudes and outlook of both being affected by the merging of distinctly different cultural streams. As the metamorphosis progressed over the centuries, the open society of the Aryans was gradually reshaped in the closed and distinctive mould of the subcontinent's rituals and beliefs. What emerged was unrecognizable from its Aryan origins.
From hard-drinking, beef-eating beginnings, the Aryans came to consider alcohol internally polluting and taboo, whilst the cow, seen as more sacred than all other animals, was to be venerated not eaten. Based on concepts of purity and pollution, an elaborate system was established in which forms of behaviour, rituals and much else were clearly set down. For instance, death was considered polluting, so the widow's remarriage was banned since she had dealt with death.
The most significant change for the assimilated Aryan social order had to do with institutionalizing a hierarchy of upper and lower classes in the almost inviolate system of social engineering known as "the caste system," which is still active today. The Brahmins emerged at the top of the caste hierarchy whilst the Kshatriyas -- who had led the Aryans into India -- found themselves in second place. The Vaishyas continued to occupy the third position, with a new category, the Shudras, added to bring the total to four. The Shudras, or cultivators and the like, were denied the initiation rite which gave the other three castes the privilege of being called the "twice-born." The Shudra also had to forego the opportunity of becoming rich, "for a Shudra who makes money is distressing to the Brahmins." Yet another classification, even lower than the Shudras, was also added: the Chandalas or untouchables. They were outside the caste system and considered the lowliest of the low, whose vocations had to do with "polluting elements," like cobblers, sweepers and cleaners, washermen, barbers, butchers and those who cremated dead bodies.
A hymn in the Rig Veda, the oldest of the Vedas, or Hindu scriptures laid down by the Brahmins, describes the origin of the four Varnas, or caste groups, through the symbolic sacrifice of Purusha, the Primeval Man, from whose head rose the Brahmins, from his arms the Kshatriyas, from his thighs the Vaishyas and from his feet the Shudras.
The operation of the caste system is an "ordering mechanism" which enables the exercise of power through social control and spiritual notions of the sacred and profane, as spelt out by an exclusive class of spiritual interpreters. These are the Brahmins, the great interpreters of tradition, who are to be found in all locations, literally every village, certainly at every point of dispensation of power and patronage. Hence their dominance over both the ruler (Kshatriya) and the merchant (Vaishya), and their "legitimate" control and exploitation of the Shudras (the toiling masses, the landless, the cultivators, bonded labour, women, the lot). Dominance is exercised through rules, rituals and rigmarole.
It is argued in favour of this system that despite the multiplicity of cultures and communities, and the many ideological challenges it has faced, India has "produced a high degree of ideological tolerance and flexibility." Not really. Because institutionally "Indian society has been traditionally very rigid, working out a precise and clearly identifiable hierarchy, formalized rules, and conventions, conformity with which was mandatory and defined by birth, and a system of substantive and symbolic distances which articulated the hierarchy in a definitive and predictable manner." In the end, India was landed with "a kind of tolerance" which is "only another name for intolerance, namely tolerance of injustice and disparities and of humiliation and deprivation by superior individuals and groups." This is what the caste system has been about over the centuries. Only in recent years -- with the upsurge of consciousness among the lower castes and the democratic political process -- has the slowly emerging challenge to the hegemony of the Brahmins and other "twice-born" upper castes led to some loosening of their total grip over society.
From Alexander's invasion of India in 326 BC till the closing years of the twentieth century, Brahmin influence has helped shape the destiny of courts, kingdoms, nations and religious movements in India's long history. Behind the rise and fall of many, if not most, was the hand of Brahmin courtiers, counsellors and priests. Their supremacy was as much due to scholarship, erudition and intellect as to their matchless skills in statecraft and intrigue.
When Alexander turned back from the banks of Punjab's River Beas to return to Macedonia, Vishnugupta Chanakya, or Kautiliya, the astute Brahmin, urged the commander-in-chief of the powerful Magadha Kingdom's army, Chandragupta Maurya, to organize a revolt against the Greek forces left behind. After defeating them, Chandragupta -- again on Kautiliya's advice -- headed back to Pataliputra (present-day Patna, capital of the state of Bihar) from where he had fled after a failed attempt to take over the Magadha Kingdom. More successful this time, Chandragupta slew the ruler and founded the Maurya Dynasty (322-185 BC). To Kautiliya is also attributed the astonishingly comprehensive Artha Sastra
or manual of politics.
The increasing inclination of Chandragupta's illustrious grandson Ashoka towards Buddhist teachings, philosophy and practices culminated in his eventual conversion, and led to the ascendance of Buddhism. Buddhism, a philosophical-cum-political movement founded by Gautama Buddha (563-483 BC), represented fundamental dissent against Brahminic political and priestly dominance and promoted alternative theologies, value systems and lifestyles, as did Jainism, founded by Vardhamana (599-527 BC). Ashoka's passionate commitment to Buddhism, and its expanding hold on the state, eventually precipitated a Brahmin revolt, spearheaded by the Shunga family working under the Buddhists. Pushyamitra Shunga, after assassinating the last Mauryan ruler, usurped his throne and founded the Shunga Dynasty (185-73 BC). He persecuted Buddhists and razed their monasteries. During the first millennium AD, however, Buddhism steadily re-established itself in India.
Both Buddhism and Jainism opposed the caste system. "Not by birth does one become an outcast," said Buddha, "not by birth does one become a Brahmin. By deeds one becomes an outcast, by deeds one becomes a Brahmin." Both movements, appealing to the socially downtrodden, in course of time made inroads on the Brahmins' power and privileges. Once more a Brahminical reaction built up, and in the ninth century a South Indian Brahmin religious leader, Aadi Shankara or Shankaracharya, decisively ejected Buddhism from India. He endorsed the law of Manu (framed between 200 BC and 200 AD): "According to Manu, the Brahmins are appointed by the Supreme Being and they should be venerated as god-like creatures. A ten-year-old Brahmin must be respected as if he were the father of a hundred-year-old Kshatriya . . . If a Brahmin finds buried treasure, it belongs to him; if the King finds such, he must share it with the Brahmins. By his deferential behaviour to a Brahmin, a man of a lower caste can attain rebirth in a higher." The Shankaracharya is reputed to have remarked: "whatever Manu says is medicine." The Shankaracharya and others directed their deep learning to conceiving a brilliant combination of ideas, ideology and state power with which to turn the tables on the Buddhist and Jain revolts.
Buddhism virtually vanished from the land of its birth, although it flourished in almost all other countries in South and East Asia. Jainism survived with a small following, a far cry from the days of its apogee.
Even during Islamic rule, there was no serious threat to Brahminical privileges. From the time of Muhammad bin Qasim (711) till Feroz Shah Tuglak (1350), Brahmins, unlike other castes, did not pay taxes. Abbé J.A. Dubois, the French scholar who lived in India from 1792 to 1823, observed that "the rule of all the Hindu princes, and often that of the Muhammadans, was, properly speaking, Brahminical rule, since all posts of confidence were held by Brahmins." Even if this is a slight exaggeration, Brahmins certainly held powerful positions of patronage in the courts of successive rulers. "Large sections of the Mughal," according to one modern historian, "and even earlier Muslim, financial administrations south of the Narmada had been staffed by Brahmins . . . Kolhapur Brahmins formed the fiscal administration in the Carnatic, especially in the Bangalore area; Brahmins from Ahmednagar and northern Maharashtra were earlier recruited by the invading Mughals to administer areas further south." The Brahmin Rai Ranjan Patr Das was made governor of Gujarat under the great Mughal emperor Akbar in 1613-14. During Akbar's son Jahangir's rule, Keshav Dass Braj exercised great influence with the emperor, writing a collection of paens praising him. Another Brahmin, Chander Bhan, was Mir Munshi, or Chief Secretary, in Shah Jahan's court. Raja Daya Bahadur and Raja Chuhela Ram Nagar were both governors during the reign of the Mughal emperor Farrukh Siyar.
The Mughals were not unappreciative of Brahminical help in consolidating their rule. If the Rajputs -- the warlike clans who traced descent from the ancient Kshatriyas and settled the area known today as the state of Rajasthan -- were the bedrock of their empire until the end of the seventeenth century, and helped lead numerous Mughal campaigns, this was only possible with Brahminical approval of their alliance with the latter, including intermarriage.
Brahminical hold was consolidated still further in Mughal times through madad-i-mash,
tax-free grants and subsidies to Hindu temples. Mughal rulers gave grants to temples in Benares, Mathura and Vrindavan. In the South "even the famous math
of Sringeri and its venerated Jagadgurus were well protected and even patronised by Muslim rulers of the South . . . the Jagannath temple of Puri and the Sringeri math
are thus excellent examples to show to what extent Muslim rulers were willing to cooperate with Hindu institutions in order to rule the country." And since these institutions were controlled by the Brahmins, such help led to a proportionate increase in their power.
Not all grants to royal temples came from Muslim rulers. They received far more from regional Hindu kingdoms -- reflecting the ruler's piety and status -- and each new structure vied with the next in grandeur and scale. The diversion of state resources to these temples obviously meant more wealth and power for the Brahmins, their traditional keepers, and less for the common people: "The settlement of Brahmins and the establishment of royal temples served the purpose of creating a new network of ritual, political and economic relations." Such networking obviously helped to get the grants in the first place.
With land grants given personally to the Brahmins as well, they too emerged as a powerful landed gentry. In Eastern UP and Bihar, Mughals gave generous support to Brahmin landlords and Rajas and helped create princely kingdoms such as Benares and Mathura. The Brahmin hand in the creation of some of these, as in the case of Darbhanga, is interesting. After defeating the Rajput Rajas of Tirhut in Bihar, Akbar appointed Mahesh Thakur, a Maithili Brahmin, to collect land revenue since the emperor was impressed by "his great erudition." But he had more than that in mind: "By relying on and supporting Mahesh Thakur and his successors, Akbar and his descendants helped entrench the Maithili Brahmins as a local ruling élite, displacing the Rajput Rajas of Tirhut." Under Emperor Aurangzeb in the seventeenth century, Mahinath Thakur, of the same family, helped "the Mughal forces in the conquest of Palamau in South Bihar and in the suppression of the zamindars [big landowners] of Morang." As reward he was given what came to be known as the state of Darbhanga.
When the Marathas from the South took the field against the Muslims in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Shivaji, founder of the Maratha Empire and chief source of inspiration to his people, was a devoted follower of Swami Ram Das, a Brahmin, whom he held in great reverence. Ram Das's exhortation to Shivaji was: "Places of pilgrimage have been destroyed; homes of the Brahmins have been desecrated; the whole earth is agitated; Dharma
[the Brahmins' right to preside over the Hindu religious and moral order] is gone."
Brahminical control is best illustrated by the problems Shivaji faced in getting himself crowned. According to ancient Hindu scriptures (written by Brahmins) only the Kshatriyas were entitled to kingship, and thus to the homage of their Hindu subjects. So how could a Bhonsle, a clan to which Shivaji belonged, aspire, as a mere tiller of the soil, "to the rights and honours due to a Kshatriya"? Brahmins from all over India let it be known they would attend Shivaji's coronation only if he was declared a Kshatriya. An obliging Brahmin was found who agreed -- for a suitable fee -- to arrange for Shivaji's elevation to the Kshatriya caste. Shivaji had to bow before Brahminical power, despite his contribution to the consolidation of Maratha power. During Shivaji's reign prominent subcastes of the Deccan Brahmins occupied six of the eight positions in his council of ministers.
After Shivaji's death in 1680, and with the investiture of his grandson Shahu in 1708, a far-sighted Brahmin, Balaji Visvanath, emerged as his principal adviser. Impressed by his qualities of statesmanship, Shahu conferred the title of Peshwa or Prime Minister on him. Balaji not only restored the rule of law which had been in disarray since Shivaji's death but succeeded in getting the Mughal ruler in Delhi to recognize his master as the independent ruler of his grandfather Shivaji's territories. Some regard Balaji as the second founder of the Maratha Empire.
After Balaji's death in 1720, a grateful Shahu -- despite the resentment of Maratha nobles against growing Brahmin ascendancy -- invested Balaji's son, Baji Rao, as the Peshwa. Even more ambitious and far-sighted than his father, Baji Rao decided to point the Marathas north, to the very seat of the Mughals. Their victories and territorial acquisitions shook the Mughal Empire to its foundations and when Baji Rao died in 1740, his son Balaji Baji Rao was also made Peshwa by Shahu. After Shahu's death nine years later, Balaji Baji Rao staged the ultimate coup d'état
by seizing all powers himself.
This was a departure from the Brahminical élite's preference for the number two position in the power hierarchy, not only because of the influence, status and wealth it brought, but, more importantly, because it enabled a versatile man, well-versed in statecraft, to exercise power without the danger or ridicule the top position attracts. Moreover, the top man is accountable for all his actions, which the man behind the throne is not. Interestingly, it was a Brahmin named Sissa who invented the game of chess (chatur-angam
as it was called then) in the fifth century, to convince his monarch that even though the king was the most important piece of all, he could neither attack nor defend himself without the alert and constant support of his subjects. Naturally, the second most important piece in Indian chess is mantri, or minister of state (most often a Brahmin), whilst in the West it is called the queen. Abbé Dubois, in his Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies,
rightly mocks the form chess took in the West: "What can be more ridiculous than the castles which move about from place to place, the queen who rushes about fighting with the king's people, or the bishops who occupy such an exalted position?" (In the Indian version of chess the castles are elephants and the bishops chariots.)
Astute and calculating, the British, with a keen sense for the wealth to be made out of India, had been quietly expanding their presence from the year 1585, when William Leeds, Ralph Fitch and John Newbury first arrived in India, sent by enterprising London merchants with instructions to find a sea route to India and bring back a first-hand account of the trading possibilities. Fitch's report on returning to England eight years later led to the founding of the East India Company on 24 September 1599. By the nineteenth century it ruled over large tracts of India, which were taken over by the Crown in 1858. It was not so much English courage and qualities of leadership as the chronic infighting and self-destructive urges of the Indian ruling classes that led to India's colonization. The eminent political thinker Rajni Kothari is of the view that one of the major weaknesses of the Brahmin and upper-caste-dominated social structure in India was the absence of a political state with a clear centre, supported by effective military technology. He makes the point that the British, who came as merchants, understood and exploited these weaknesses, which enabled them to establish their own political and military ruling apparatus.
The British made great use of the Brahmins' long experience in court intrigue and ability to enforce caste discipline. As British contacts with India in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries grew, so did the need to know more about its peoples' customs, languages, traditions, social structures, land systems, demographic distinctions and seemingly endless religious beliefs and practices. The erudite Brahmins were the obvious source of knowledge to which the British and other Western travellers turned.
The reports of Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, a Frenchman who visited India several times between 1631 and 1667, were largely based on conversations with Brahmins. In the same period, Abraham Roger, a chaplain at the Dutch factory near Madras, developed his understanding of Hinduism from a Dutch-speaking Brahmin, Padmanubha; Roger's treatise was published in 1670 with extensive quotes from Padmanubha. Alexander Dow, an army officer in the East India Company, who published The History of Hindustan
in 1768-71 (an English translation from the Persian), derived the basis for his introductory essays largely from Brahmins and their view of the sacredness and centrality of the Brahmin in Indian life.
As Britain's grip on India tightened towards the end of the eighteenth century and orientalists and administrators alike made concerted efforts to learn Sanskrit and other languages of India, Brahmin scholarship again proved useful -- this time to the Brahmins directly. The Indian Public Service Commission reported in 1887 that of 1,866 Hindu members of the judicial and executive services, nearly half were Brahmins, the figure for Madras being 202 of a total of 297, and in Bombay 211 out of 328. Of sixteen successful Indian candidates for the Indian Civil Service in Madras between 1892 and 1904, fifteen were Brahmins. Even though Brahmins -- like others -- were at the receiving end of colour discrimination and such, the coarse racial prejudices of the British gradually gave way to more pragmatic views of India's human talents. From the nineteenth century onwards, institutions for Western education were established in India, and then Indians -- especially Brahmins -- entered schools and universities in Britain and ultimately the top grade of the Indian Civil Service. At the time of India's Independence in 1947, Brahmins constituted 226 out of 349 Indian ICS officers, or roughly 65 per cent.
The quality of Brahmin intellect and learning is not in doubt. What is open to question is the manner in which powerful Brahminical cliques perpetuated their hold and in the process excluded non-Brahmins from the real centres of power. Thirty-five years after Independence: "In the senior echelons of the civil service from the rank of deputy secretaries upwards, out of 500 there are 310 Brahmins; of the 26 state chief secretaries, 19 are Brahmins; . . . of the 16 Supreme Court judges, 9 are Brahmins; of the 330 judges of the High Courts, 166 are Brahmins; . . . of 438 district magistrates, 250 are Brahmins; of the total of 3,300 IAS [Indian Administrative Service - the equivalent of the ICS after Independence] officers, 2,376 are Brahmins." A caste which accounted for 3 per cent of the population controlled from 50 to 70 per cent of the country's key positions. In the half-century since Independence, Brahmins have fielded five out of eleven Indian presidents, six out of ten vice-presidents, and six out of twelve prime ministers.
After 2,000 years of ceaseless turbulence, wars, conquests, defeats, bloodshed, destruction and conversions during which great civilizations, religions, languages and customs have flourished and vanished, the Brahminical order has not only survived but spread with unerring purpose. Although there have been setbacks -- for example, the anti-Brahmin agitation in South India in the early twentieth century -- they have been overcome.
In time, to be a Brahmin meant you belonged to an exclusive club, and not just in jobs or positions of privilege. Exclusivity became an end in itself and was taken to extremes even in the twentieth century. For instance, the low-born had to keep their specified distance from the high-born: from a few paces to 50 or 96 paces or more depending on how low the low-born was, the idea being to prevent the lowly from accidentally touching their betters and polluting them or their immediate environment. The Purada-Vannan, a low-caste category in South India, were not even allowed outside their homes during the day: they were considered unfit to be seen by the upper castes and the high-born would not risk the shadow of the lowly-born falling on them, so that the members of this caste had to live nocturnal lives. In the southern state of Travancore lower-caste women were forbidden to cover their breasts in the presence of the higher castes. "In the elaborate hierarchy of caste ranking, the Nairs, for example, bared their breasts before the Nambudiri Brahmins, and the Brahmins did so only before the deity. The Nadars, like all of the lower castes, were categorically forbidden to cover their breasts at any time." This practice was finally given up after a prolonged struggle, largely owing to the efforts of Christian missionaries.
Despite the political pressure from contemporary Dalits (the former low castes), the abolition of untouchability on 29 April 1947, and many other social reforms, attitudes and customs of two millennia have not changed much. A caste system which has withstood the challenge of Buddhism and the onslaughts and fervour of Islamic and Christian rulers and reformers does not easily disintegrate.
As an exquisite piece of social engineering, the caste structure has no parallel. Monopoly of privileged status and sharp social divisions are of course seen in other societies. But "the real triumph of the caste system," as an Indian government report has pointed out, "lies not in upholding the supremacy of the Brahmin, but in conditioning the consciousness of the lower castes into accepting their inferior status in the ritual hierarchy as a part of the natural order of things."
In other countries a worker or the offspring of a worker can cross class boundaries through education, industry and financial success, but lower-caste Indians cannot cross the line that divides them from others at birth. Even after acquiring wealth and high positions they cannot cut through the encrusted privileges of upper-caste Brahmins. As the thinker Swami Vivekanand has noted: "In modern India one born of Shudra parents, be he a millionaire or a great pundit, has [n]ever the right to leave his own society, with the result that the power of his wealth, intellect or wisdom, remains confined within his own caste limits . . ." And the Brahminical doctrine, impregnable to all challenges to its authority, makes a virtue of the "condescending benevolence of the upper castes and grovelling submission of the lower castes and gives them religious sanctity."
But the Hindu social order rests on other institutions as well which have ensured its continuity over time. As Nirad Chaudhuri suggests in his Autobiography of an Unknown Indian:
"Hinduism has an uncanny sense of what threatens it. No plausible assurances, no euphemism, no disguise can put its ever-alert instinct of self-preservation off its guard." So, aside from the vertical structure provided by varna
(caste), there is the horizontal structure of jati
: "While varna
has all the appearance of a neat and logical structure, jati
on the other hand is characteristically ambiguous. It has several meanings, refers to varna
at one level and to other meanings of segmentation at other levels." Through this kind of horizontal movement and ambiguity, jati
can cover doctrinal, economic, political, occupational and ritual territories, providing an "all-India frame into which myriad jatis
in any single linguistic area can be fitted." Into the jati
structure is provided room -- through marriages and other associations -- for other communities and groups, which not only gives them confidence, contentment and status, but also creates space for the newly emerging merchant-industrial class -- all this tending to support and strengthen the vertical caste structure, varna
Any faith that believes in equality among human beings, and sees God in each of them, is an intrusion -- an assault -- on those who constitute the caste hierarchy. Such intruders have to be removed, as was Buddhism. The Sikhs and their beliefs, which threatened Brahmin supremacy by rejecting the idea of caste, also fell into this category, and resentments against them began with Nanak's enunciation of his principles of equality. When on 30 March 1699 the tenth Guru, Gobind Singh, baptized five Sikhs from different social backgrounds to form the brotherhood of the Khalsa, the "pure ones," the first five of the Sikh Faith -- and in turn asked them to baptize him -- he reiterated the same principle. And one far removed from "a way of thought that survived seventeen conquests and two millennia . . ."
This difference in their approach to life and religious obligations accounts for the uneasy relationship between the Sikhs and India's caste élite. Their differences have led to frequent clashes. And no matter what attempt is made to explain these away, the root cause of the unsettled relationship belongs to the continuum of history; a tangled web of religion and caste. The Sikhs and their evolution cannot be understood unless the manner in which power is wielded in India's social fabric is also understood.
In his Antimemoirs,
André Malraux quotes Jawaharlal Nehru as saying: "André Malraux asked me a strange question: what was it that enabled Hinduism to expel a well-organized Buddhism from India without any serious conflict, more than a thousand years ago? How had Hinduism managed, so to speak, to absorb a great and widespread popular religion without the usual wars of religion? . . . But I could not give a satisfactory answer either to him or to myself. For there are many answers and explanations, but they never seem to get to the heart of the problem."
This is a disingenuous anecdote because Malraux could not have been unaware that far from being expelled from India "without any serious conflict," Buddhism was cast out after its followers were put to the sword and their monasteries destroyed. Nehru was too knowledgeable to have been ignorant either of where the "heart of the problem" lay.
The "problem" lay, and still lies, with the dominant caste's proven ability to overthrow other faiths with or without the usual wars of religion, depending on what appears appropriate. Today, in step with the changing times, the Brahmins have penetrated the rural areas through new alignments with the landed gentry belonging to the intermediate castes, or the "dominant castes" as they have recently been called. This further consolidates their hold even in the present democratic age -- in a way because of it, since numbers are manipulated in elections to benefit politicians and political parties, and eventually the Brahmins.
The Sikhs have no illusions about this whole edifice of domination, and the despotic hold of the upper castes. But having opposed repression, and the tyranny of caste, a number of times in their history, they know how to stand their ground. And that is what this book is about.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Sikhs by Patwant Singh. Copyright © 1999 by Patwant Singh. Excerpted by permission of Image, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.