Of Caste and Outcaste – Attempt to diagnose the roots of oppression

I am thankful to Rohini Bakshi didi for encouraging me to express my thoughts on caste boldly. This was published on her Learn Sanskrit blog. Rohini Bakshi (@RohiniBakshi on twitter)  is a Sanskrit teacher based in London and the founder of #SanskritAppreciationHour, a regular twitter chat led by her and other Sanskrit scholars that explores grammatical aspects of Sanskrit literature and delightful stories.

“We got rid of the caste system, but not caste-ism.” This was an anguished admission of a dear friend of mine whose views generally clash with mine. Yes, in today’s world of hurried and forced labels, one can call him a ‘liberal’ and me, a ‘conservative’. The context of the conversation was based on the electoral dynamics where certain castes end up being the vote banks. I often wondered if I was among the finite minority that cringed every time electoral results are analyzed on TV screens with caste dynamics over riding the real issues. (May be, one could get philosophical and argue about what is real and what is not!)

My liberal friend and I share a view in common, that we would like to see these lines of caste disappear in our respective ideal worlds. Yes, discrimination is a disease, a disease which requires the medicine of social reformation.  But here I come to the point where I would differ from my friends on the other side of the imaginary line of liberalism. The point is about the diagnosis of the disease. Much of the literature on the social dynamics lays blame on the Hindu fourfold Varna system.  I find the famous line of purusha sukta being quoted with a lot of zeal to prove that discrimination existed right in Vedic texts.

The ones that lay the blame do conveniently forget the openness of the interpretation that the Vedic texts have. My spiritual guru, Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba had advocated many times that service to the lowest strata of the society is the real ‘pada puja’ made to the universal Lord.

Interpretations and politics apart, I think that the much blamed chaturvarna system died a long while ago. I call it a dead system as the social dynamics of the Varna system had long turned porous and post the dark ages and before the invasions from the middle east, we do have many instances of new dynasties being founded independent of the ‘four-fold’ sanction. The Mauryas, the Guptas, the Shatavahanas, the Kakatiyas and many such empires made a mark in the history defying the much blamed sanction. May be there was no strict sanction and power dynamics redefined the sanction? I would leave it to the historians and period scholars to determine it. The founding of a new empire was often based on pulling down another empire where mostly the King had turned oppressive and unpopular. Empires used to reach the peaks of glory when they balanced the expansion of land with administrative reforms that left the citizens happy. They often reached their peril due to oppressive rule that galvanized a revolution or due to strategic mistakes which gave their rivals an upper hand.

Oppression in such cases in my opinion shifted to power dynamics. Those who wielded power (excluding the heroic kings and reformers who we all remember with reverence) oppressed those who were ideologically opposed to them or presented a threat. That is the reason why I feel blaming the purusha sukta for oppression serves no real purpose and is rather a lazy diagnosis of a serious social problem. The ones doing so probably are not accountable to give a solution so can command the luxury of such lazy diagnosis. But it is important for the ones looking for real solutions to get to the real roots of the problem. When I hear of inhuman practices that prevail among India’s lesser accessible areas, my belief is further strengthened. Though not proud of my knowledge of scriptures, I am yet to come across any such inhuman doctrines which forbid the ‘lower’ class from using the common wells in the village and advocate violent things.

Oppression is always the language of power maniacs and not of the system writers. As repetitive as I might sound with this sentence, I would want the readers to realize this and more. If one throws the blame of oppression on Hinduism, one has to realize that the defying discrimination also belongs to Hinduism more than the imported idealist theories. I refer to the Bhakti movement and the scores of reforms that were achieved by the likes of Mahatma Basaveshwar, Madhvacharya, the Nayanmars of Tamilnadu and the scores of composers who have denounced all forms of birth based discrimination. My personal favourite is the one in Telugu, “Brahmamokkate” by Sri Tallapaka Annamacharya. Those interested can find the complete lyric and meaning here (http://www.karnatik.com/c1107.shtml). There are more compositions of his decrying discrimination and oppression.

One needs to observe that Bhakti movement scored above the recent movements against caste in one thing – restoring the dignity and in preaching universalism that brought the people of various strata together. Sadly the modern movements though rooted in progressive ideals have done little more than casting the oppressed classes into political toys through reverse discrimination. This is the reason why we see clans and communities aspiring for ‘backward’ tag for reservations and other short term benefits. Sadly, this is the greatest harm that the social engineers of the last century have done to our system. I can only hope that the next wave of reformers would take inspiration from those movements which have advocated the oneness and inherent human merit across the divisions rather than those which have capitalized on mutual hatred and reverse oppression.


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