Towards Understanding Caste – A Systems Approach

TOWARDS UNDERSTANDING CASTE – A SYSTEMS APPROACH-
PART I – (A NOTE ON HINDU SOCIOLOGY)
  • K. SATYA DEVA PRASAD

A caution: This paper is submitted to the Hindu fraternity as a modest input towards opening up channels of dispassionate, informed discussion and the possible enrichment of our understanding of caste institution.  Our attempt is to avoid emotional outbursts which characterize most discussions on caste.  This paper is not, I repeat not meant either to support or oppose caste institution.  It is only an attempt to supply some hitherto missing perspective on caste which may encourage further study and discussion on this crucial but mishandled topic.Caste system Pulitzer prize winning author Jared Diamond has words of praise for the `caste system` for its efficient bottom up management of economic and natural resources:Each of these cases of bottom up management that I have just mentioned involves a small society holding exclusive rights to all economic activities on its lands.  Interesting or more complex cases exist (or traditionally existed) on the Indian subcontinent, where the caste system instead operates to permit dozens of economically specialized sub.societies to share the same geographic area by carrying out different economic activities castes trade extensively with each other and often live in the same village but are endogamous ie., people generally marry within caste.  Castes coexist by exploiting different environmental resources and life-styles, such as by fishing, farming, herding and hunting/gathering.  There is even finer specialization eg., with multiple caste of fishermen fishing by different methods in different types of waters.  As in the case of the Tikopians and of  the Tokugawa Japanese, members of the specialized Indian castes know that they can count on only a circumscribed resource base to maintain themselves, but they expect to pass those resources on to their children.  Those conditions have fostered the acceptance of very detailed societal norms which members of a given caste ensure that they are exploiting their resources sustainably.  ( p.307 of collapse: How societies choose to Fail or Succeed, NewYork, Viking (penguin), by Jared Diamond. 2005).

(For further information on various aspects of caste, see Cultural Heritage of India, The Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, Kolkata).

Caste is a fundamental feature of Hindu society.  It is the most maligned and least understood of all Hindu institutions. Notwithstanding our ignorance or meager understanding, we feel free to pronounce final judgement on this institution.  In spite of all our so called efforts to `reform` or `remove` or `annihilate` the `evil` of caste, it continues to exercise tremendous hold “ direct or indirect on every aspect of Hindu life.  Because of its hold on present day Hindu life, a discussion and understanding of caste institution is an unavoidable necessity.  We may avoid or neglect it only at our grave peril.  Our present knowledge of caste is mostly coloured by two hundred years of European-christian (mis) propaganda coupled with centuries of unsettling socio-political upheavals.  As a result of these we developed many knee-jerk reactions to caste rather than healthy, informed, realistic, confident responses. While presenting as Hindus either to ourselves or to outsiders we tend to become either apologetic or aggressive.  Both of these responses are the result of our inner conflict with regard to our caste identities. The data on which we formulate our responses is meager and defective in the extreme.  The aim of this paper is to try to remedy this situation to the extent possible by supplying some meaningful information on caste.  To understand caste better, it is necessary to understand its structural and functional  aspects from as many angles as possible.  One such attempt is to understand the caste institution from a systems point of view.  What is a system?A system is an assemblage of inter-dependent, interconnected elements forming a complex unity.  It is a whole composed of parts in an orderly arrangement according to some scheme or plan.All nature is a system. Life forms and aggregates of life forms are also systems.  The cosmos is a huge system, our environment is a system, our body is a system, our family, society, school, government, business- all these are systems.  Every system has within it a number of sub-systems.Characterstics of a system:

  1. A system is more than the sum of its parts or sub-systems.
  2. A system may be closed or open.

An open system exchanges information, energy and material with its environment as in the case of a biological or social system.  A closed system does not maintain exchanges with environment.  The closedness or openness of a system is only a matter of degree.  There are no absolutely closed systems in nature.  When a system falls sick or inactive or fatigued or undergoes forced or voluntary isolation, it shows symptoms of a closed system.

  1. Every system has some discernible boundaries or limits, which separate it from its environment.  Again, this separateness is not absolute or rigid.  The boundaries are flexible(supple), porous or fuzzy.  The purpose of boundary is to enable the system to function effectively with appropriate degree of autonomy or individuality. It is not meant to isolate the sub-system as such.  But under crisis situations, the boundaries may become rigid and non-porous in order to protect the system from total collapse.  Under such conditions, the system is not expected to discharge all those functions or display all those features which it possessed while it was healthy and normal.  Depending on the nature and expected life-span of the concerned system, episodes of health and crisis may last over varying periods.  An individual`s life span, say, of 70 years may contain episodes of sickness lasting for days or months, and rarely years.  In the case of human societies with very old cultures, like ours, episodes of sickness and fatigue may last for centuries. Societies with younger, immature, ephemeral collective experience may never understand the alternating phases of  health and sickness of older societies in the right perspective.  Even most members of the concerned old society itself may not have this perspicacity to grasp the subtle nuances of their own society.  This has been the bane of present day Hindus more than anything else.  Added to this is another problem.Our present knowledge of ourselves and our society is mostly gained  from people who understand us the least ie., westerners and their writings, interpretations, commentaries, analyses of Hinduism and Hindu society.  This is mostly true of  the English educated Hindus.  Therefore we have to first de-educate and then re-educate ourselves on proper lines.  There is nothing wrong in getting informed through western writings as such.  Only we have to do it on our own terms.  For that we have first to identify our terms of reference.  This paper is meant to help us formulate, identify and use our own terms of discourse to understand  not only our society and culture but also others.  In short it helps us to formulate a consistent effective world view.

2. Every system contains some sub-systems.  The sub-systems of a particular system have commonality which distinguishes them from the constituents of any other system.  The sub-systems of a system are in constant interaction with each other and with the system as a whole. Thus, each sub-system is double faced.  It interacts with other sub-system horizontally and with the system(in a subordinate status) vertically. Each sub-system has some amount of autonomy or self-government but is subject to the overall control of the system in the interest of the whole.  In other words, the interest and conduct of the system should always take precedence over that of any or all of the sub-systems.  When this principle is infringed chaos occurs in the system which may lead to its deterioration.  As applied to social systems, this principle is best expressed in the Mahabharata “  For the sake of  the family, sacrifice a (bad) individual; for the sake of the village, sacrifice a family; for the sake of the kingdom, sacrifice a village and so on¦.

  1. For a system to survive and function, it must achieve  a state in which it ingests enough inputs from its environment to offset its outputs plus the energy and the materials used in the maintenance to keep the system intact and going.  This state is called the steady state or homeostasis or dynamic equilibrium or optimal condition.
  2. To achieve a steady state, a system must have feedback or information input that tells whether the system is at least achieving a steady state to avoid the danger of disintegration.  In Hindu social system the information sources exist but information processing mechanism is impaired and communication channels are choked for centuries on  due to various historical, logistic, and  psychological factors.
  3. With the exception of the entire universe, all systems are sub-systems with different degrees of autonomy and self-determination.  Systems have sub-systems and are also a part of a (super) system.  Sub-systems tend to be hierarchical in higher systems.  Here hierarchy does not imply any high-low status in human terms.  Higher systems are more complex, mature, sophisticated, multifaceted and hence long lasting.  Hindu social system meets all the criteria of a higher system.  Its survival over millennia as a living and thriving system is proof of that claim.
  4. Open systems, social systems in particular, tend towards increasing elaboration and differentiation. Open systems as they grow, tend to become more specialized in their elements and  elaborate their structure enlarging their boundaries or creating new super system with wider boundaries.  In this sense Greater India ie., Indian cultural empire is an example.
  5. Open systems can achieve desired results (steady state) in various ways, whereas a system tends towards more closeness, its options get narrowed down and its elements react in a direct cause and effect way.  A comparison of  Hindu and Islamic societies bears out this statement. In a social system goals can be accomplished with varying inputs and with varying processes or methods. There is no single best way.  Thus Hindu society achieved steady state ie., stability with expansion through absorbing certain foreign tribes like Sakas and Huns in the past by accommodating some of their traditions and customs while rejecting much of their cultural baggage which was not in consonance with the Hindu genius and core values.  It has accommodated some races like the Parsees by retaining their cultural identity as they pose no threat to its systemic health and wellbeing.  But the situation is different with the two expansionist predatory groups namely Islam and Christianity. They neither integrate with Hindu system nor maintain a symbiotic relation like the Parsees. They pursue a course of confrontation with the sole intent of obliterating the Hindu system.  In fact not few of the problems faced by Hinduism are directly related to these two hostile, uncompromising systems.  A perusal of the `revelations` of these two religions, namely Bible and Koran will convince even a casual reader as to what makes them so aggressively exclusivist, expansionistic, predatory systems.

* Rationale of caste as a system: In the light of above discussion of systems theory, let us examine how the caste system fares.

Centralization and decentralization, freedom and control, autonomy and participation, growth and stability with security are equally desirable but opposing tendencies existing side by side in any complex system.  A vast, hoary social system with intractably complex record like Hindu society displays all these qualities in all their permutations and combinations.  The caste system is the result of such long complex social evolution.  In the caste system each caste is a sub-system.  Each caste has some autonomy in the form of its own variant of Hindu mores and manners, customs and rites, rules and relationships.  Each caste`s civil affairs are managed by its caste-elders or peer groups or caste associations.  Thus, while the bench marks overall lifestyle are laid down , and controlled by Hindu cultural principles, there are any number variations within that framework as displayed by different castes according to their inherent nature and needs.  These variations markout each caste (at least the  major ones) distinctly.  At the same time the underlying ˜Hinduness™ unites them as integral parts of  Hindu society.

This complementarity of opposing tendencies coupled with the complexities of human nature and the variations in human capabilities, tendencies, tastes, and aptitudes resulted in the evolution of hierarchical caste system.  There are many hierarchies in caste system- ritual, social, political, economic and knowledge hierarchies.  This hierarchical nature is neither peculiar to Hindu caste system nor contrived by man`s ingenuity.  It is an essential condition of human existence which finds expression in every society. Hierarchisation is a nature`s mechanism to manage complexity.  It stems from two fundamental, human tendencies- one, human beings differ in nature, ability and aptitude; two, human beings are social animals with the higher faculty of cerebration (Buddhi/Dhi).  The first tendency determines certain proto-types of personalities and the second tendency determines the need to bring together (grouping) those personality types in the best possible manner according to the collective experience of the human aggregate (here Hindu civilization) concerned.

Human societies all over the world since the dawn of civilization have been contending with these facts of nature as best as they can. Hence we find gradations or divisions in every civilized society. Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, Persians, Chinese, Romans- all have their social divisions.  Which of these is best?  Or superior?  Just or least unjust? Or egalitarian? There cannot be a single, simple answer to these questions.  The answer can be obtained only by examining the track record of different societies against their stated objectives (if any).  After all we apply this method in our day to day life too.  To assess the profitability of a particular investment or choosing a career or a life partner, or choosing a university to pursue studies, we try to gather information on the subject concerned as best and as much as we can, and then come to a conclusion based on our assessment of the data we have on hand. Similarly we can assess the track record of the different civilizations with particular reference to their social structure and by comparing them, we arrive at a reasonably accurate conclusion.  As already stated  nature`s hierarchy forming tendency manifests in social sphere in the form of social gradations and each society produces its version of gradation based on its racial experience, its stated aims of human existence, its conception of here and hereafter, and its desired view of individual and collective life.  Also external factors like natural resources, climate, geographical situation exercise decisive influence on a society and its gradations or divisions.

Coming to the issue of comparison, many of the ancient civilizations that took birth along with Hindu civilization have not the virility and stamina to survive into the present age.  The Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, Persians, Romans, have all been consigned to museums and monuments.  The Chinese ancient culture is nowhere appears in practice.  Only Hindu civilization and social structure survived though in a battered shape.  No doubt Hinduism has undergone innumerable transformations but nevertheless it retains its Vedic identity to a degree clearly recognizable and undeniable.  Therefore nothing is left in other ancient civilizations to compare our caste system with.  The only way left for us is to assess it on the basis of some realistically formulated criteria based on modern knowledge in the areas of science, history, sociology, ethics, economics etc.,

Now the question arises as to what is it in Hindusim that forms the basis of assessing caste system?  As stated above it is the stated aims of social and individual life namely the four purusharthas- Dharma, Artha, Kama, Moksha, and the meaning Hindus attach to or the way they conceive fundamental categories like God, Man, Society, Truth, Beauty, Knowledge, Wisdom, Happiness, Progress, Wealth, Peace, Fulfilment, evil, sorrow, poverty, ugliness, ignorance, etc., offers a firm basis to assess the caste system.  In doing so we also take into account the modern knowledge and ethos of justice, fairplay,  happiness, peace and progress as the world understands them today in general.

Systems Approach to Caste

Now let us apply the features of systems as explained above to the institution of caste and see how it fares scrutiny on the lines laid down above.

  1. Every caste down to the fifth caste whose members are now-a-days proudly appending caste tags to their names (viz., Krishna Maadiga, Rama Maala etc.,), unmistakably retain and maintain certain amount of autonomy and identity.  It proves that they have some kind of attachment to and stake in their caste identity and wish to profess it openly.  It is most natural human tendency to flaunt what is dear to you (for one reason or the other) and hide what you dislike.  Each caste has its own leaders or opinion makers.  It is they who represent the caste with the society at large.  For instance leaders of Hindu society cannot deal with individual member of every caste.  Some kind of representative mechanism is unavoidable, however defective it may be.  The role of leaders or representatives increases manifold in castes where literacy and capacity for vocal expression is low.
  2. Hindu society is not a mere aggregate of sub-system called castes.  It is a conglomerate of many hierarchies of semi-autonomous groups comprising of individuals who are more similar in their interests, life style, conditions of life, skill sets, aptitudes,  than members of any other group.  But even among themselves there are differences of ability and outlook.  In short Hindu castes display the features of sub-systems clearly.
  3. The sub-systems called castes are double faced.  They behave as semi-autonomous wholes while facing other subsystems viz., the separateness asserted by Madigas against Malas; and as parts while facing the whole ie., Hindu society. To appreciate this observation, note the demands made by `Dalits` against `the caste ridden Hindu society`.
  4. All advanced forms of social organization are hierarchical in nature.  The individual is part of the family system.  Family is a sub-system of caste.  Caste is sub-system of social system or society.
  5. In a system, each sub-system asserts its individuality.  Otherwise the system would lose its power of articulation and efficiency.  In order that every caste should contribute something useful to the society  to justify its existence, it needs to have some freedom and self-determination. This reflects as flexibility of the system.  Hindu caste system is known for its flexibility in the sense that its tolerance for internal dissent is very high .  This contributes to the efficiency of the Hindu social system.  The measure of efficiency of Hindu society is its longevity. Because no society can survive for long without the active consent and cooperation of most of its constituent groups. But at the same time there are definite limits to the autonomy, freedom and the resultant self determination and right to dissent.  Each caste sub-system must remain sub-ordinate to the demands of the whole.  These limits are ever changing and are determined by the internal, external forces acting on the system at any particular moment.
  6. For example each caste has its opinion makers or conscience keepers who articulate that caste`s problems, opinions, perceptions and so on.  In matters that involve more than one caste, it has to be tackled at the next higher level in the social hierarchy ie., inter-caste interaction and dialogue. We have lots of historical evidence to show that our society was (and is) functioning in this fashion since long time.
  7. Here the objective of the social system has been to provide a stable but permeable milieu to each caste which helps it to maintain its individuality and also interact and integrate with other castes at the same time.  Towards this end an unwritten but well recognized code of conduct is observed in each caste through common consent.  At times the finer points of the caste code of conduct are interpreted or clarified by the caste elders. Peer pressure within the caste acts as a powerful control over the behavior of caste members.
  8. An individual achieves growth, social mobility, progeny, relationships, earning capacity according to his own capabilities and opportunities within the caste and social environment.  These are encouraged, inhibited or modified by the caste, social environment.  Thus two complementary tendencies namely self-asserting and participatory are displayed at individual and sub-system levels.  These tendencies are derived from hierarchic nature of social life.  If man wants to live in a society, that too in a highly civilized and hence complex society, he has necessarily to live according to this natural law.  The only alternative to hierarchical social living is to exist in an isolated, atomized way ie., Robinson Crusoe style.  Even family life is not possible without some kind of hierarchy. And hierarchy results in social divisions.  The name of social divisions may change but their essential features persist since they are part and parcel of human nature and existence.
  9. Under normal conditions, various sub-systems of a society perform their semi-autonomous functions (as sub-wholes) honouring the regulative conventions of the sub-system as well as the system.  This pattern of healthy functioning does not come in the way of creative, growth oriented skills of the individual.
  10. Under conditions of systemic stress like external aggression or internal dissension, the sub-system that is called upon to cope with the disturbance may become over-excited or traumatized and gets out of control or display `abnormal` features.  Some kind of blockage occurs in the channels that connect part and whole.  Under such circumstances the self-assertive tendencies of the sub-system, isolated and released from the restraining influence of the whole, will express themselves in deleterious ways. In social terms these expressions may range from simple mis-understandings to major rivalries, hate-campaigns, secessionism, terrorism, oppression and so on.
  11. Individual represents the top level of the organismic hierarchy and at the same time the lowest unit of the social hierarchy.  It is on this boundary line between physiological and social organization that the two antagonistic tendencies, which are at work on every level, manifest themselves in the form of emotive behavior.  Under normal conditions the self-asserting tendencies of the individual are dynamically balanced by his dependence on and participation in life of the community to which he belongs.  Social controls get institutionalized in order to be effective in maintenance and application.  These controls restrain, stimulate or modify the autonomous patterns of activity of the social sub-systems on all levels down to the individual.  When tensions arise or control is slackened,  the `social organ` (sub-system) gets over-excited and goes out of control.  The individual for the same reason may give unrestrained expression to rage, panic, jealousy, and cease to obey the rules of the game laid down by the society (by common direct or tacit consent) of which he is a member.  Society lays down rules of the game only through the direct or tacit consent of all its members.  There is no way it can do it arbitrarily. Not in the long run  at any rate. There is one more possibility for prolonged sectional injustices to continue for longer than usual. That is when the society has lost its power of self-determination due to foreign domination, direct or indirect. This is the case with post-independence Indian society. First muslim and then christian domination prevent truly Hindu social ethos to take charge of social transformation. Yet the remnants of muslim and christian social devastation wrought on Hindu society are blamed on Hinduism. Contrary to popular belief, the so called ˜social reform movements™ of say, nineteenth century are not truly Hindu in character and inspiration in that they were undertaken at a time when our society was too weak to stand on its own, let alone be strong enough to take up reforms on the lines of its age old civilizational experience. Those nineteenth century ˜reforms™ were mostly undertaken by men and women who were predominantly alienated, and rootless. Moreover the ˜reforms™ were undertaken under the malafide ˜guidance and inspiration™ of the missionaries and imperialists. The acid test of any positive reform is that the society which undertakes it should find itself stronger and more unified after the reform. But the above said ˜reforms™ left the Hindu society too enervated  to resist division of Bengal(which was undone with great difficulty and cost), and finally the 1947 division of the country which stands to this day to the great humiliation, genocide and wealth-drain of Hindu society.

Rationale:

As already pointed out, differentiation of structure and integration of function are the two fundamental characteristics of all systems.  This is true from the constituents of an atom to the planets circling the Sun.  In Hindu tradition these pairs of opposite tendencies are called Dwandwas (Dyads or twosomes).  On every level of evolutionary hierarchy stability is maintained by the equilibrium of forces pulling in opposite directions.  In the syste ms the dyads (opposites) manifest as the tendency that asserts  the part`s independence / autonomy / individuality and the tendency that keeps the sub-system integrated to the whole.  The part behavior and whole behavior are opposite tendencies which have to be reconciled at every level of the hierarchy.

Thus partness and wholeness are pair of complementary concepts which are the result of ubiquitous hierarchical nature of aggregates or systems in nature-be it material systems or social systems.  These concepts enable us to understand the basic features of our society in clear terms.  As a matter of fact the more advanced and complex  the system becomes, the more it displays differentiated and specialized features which need more delicate, subtle ways to integrate them.

Increased complexity means increased risks of breakdowns which can only be set right through constant monitoring by way of (social) understanding through appropriate, mutually agreeable modes of interaction and communication among the sub-systems.

Then there is the problem of perpetuating the (social) system. This needs some criteria that forms basis for the designing of social system.  Caste by birth, caste by qualities and actions are the criteria evolved by Hindu society in course of time for the perpetuation of Hindu social system.  It is not correct to say that caste by birth prevents choice of profession.  Historical evidence does not support that opinion.  On the other hand there is evidence to the contrary “ that there is sufficient choice available to a person born in a caste to take up jobs, professions other than his caste profession.  For example a weaver could take up agriculture or animal husbandry if he chose.  All castes practiced agriculture and home-spinning which found new prestige during independence movement(charka).

We have to study caste institution in the light of changing socio-economic conditions in the country.  For instance multiplication of castes is inevitable with increase in population, increased human wants and expectations, increased exploitation of natural resources leading to new skill-sets, industries and professions along with trade activity.  This results in proliferation of professions and each new profession became a new caste.  It is the natural human tendency that a person belonging to a caste possessing a particular skill wanted to jealously guard his professional or trade secrets within his family or caste group.  This created strong caste consciousness which reflects at the social level as `hardening` of caste institution.  It is totally wrong to attribute motives and single out one caste or few castes for this unstoppable natural phenomenon.  This is a measure of the flexibility of caste system and its readiness to accommodate new developments in production system. It is a pity that modern sociologists dub this positive trait of caste system as its worst feature.

Further the real hardening of caste system was brought about by foreign attacks- political, religions, economic, social and cultural. What used to be a natural, healthy, inevitable social growth process turned under the foreign attacks and foreign rule into a stultified, defensive, seize-minded response of  the Hindu society.

Inter caste relations are not wanting even today.  There has been a kind of social-osmosis mechanism working all  the time within the caste system.  Group festivals, social functions, sports events, daily commuting in public transport, work places, recreation events like cinema, parks, religious discourses,  and so on.  Add to these the inter caste marriages.  These are all forms of inter-caste relations.  Each type of interaction carries some weightage.  Add up all such values, you will see that the amount or degree of inter caste relations is far more than the inter group relations in any other society anywhere in the world.  Yet our ˜reform™minded English educated people, especially those who have internalized the alien modes of thought and methodology of social studies, are blind to the responsiveness of Hindu society to changing conditions. It is one thing to feel dissatisfied with what one has achieved so far. It is a mark of healthy appetite for social transformation and upliftment. But our alienated ˜reformers™ display a morbid craving for social ˜change™ totally divorced from the stated civilizational goals of Hindu society, its proven racial experience and time horizon. There are some enemies of Hindu society whose only objective is the disintegration of this society and its culture. Such people are propagating a critique of caste system without undertaking any rational assessment.  Unjustified emotional grouses are raised against the system through exploiting human weaknesses. Most of the criticisms leveled against caste system do not hold on a rational, dispassionate scrutiny.

This is not to say that there are no serious problems faced by some sections of Hindus.  The point is that a disproportionately large blame is attributed to caste system for those problems while the real cause lies elsewhere.  That cause is precisely the enemies of Hindu society cited above.  It is they who have created problems in the past and are doing so even today and cleverly shifting the blame to Hinduism and its caste system, Karma Theory and what not. It is the urgent duty of every self-respecting, alert Hindu to properly see the enemies for what they are, identify their modus operandi, neutralize them. Without doing this, there is no future for Hinduism or Hindus.

One example will tell you how the enemies of Hindu society have been working to destroy it: Thomas Babington Macaulay, the chief architect of English Education system in our country revealed the true worth and strength of Hindu society and the need to destroy that strength in order that it can be looted at will.  Speaking to the British parliament on 2.2.1835, Macaulay said “  I have travelled across the length and breadth of India and I have not seen one person who is a beggar, who is thief.  Such wealth I have seen in this country, such high moral values, people of such caliber, that I do not think we would ever conquer this country, unless we break the very backbone of this nation, which is her spiritual and cultural heritage and therefore, I propose that we replace her old and ancient education system, her culture, for if the Indians think that all that is foreign and English is good and greater than their own, they will lose their self-esteem, their native culture and they will become what we want them, a truly dominated nation.

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TOWARDS UNDERSTANDING CASTE – SYSTEMS APPROACH-PART II (A NOTE ON HINDU SOCIOLOGY) –  K.Satya Deva Prasad

Having explained in brief the nature of human (societal) relationships in the form of system and sub-system arrangement, we now take up some specific areas of human activity and examine how Hindu society which is considered almost synonymous with caste system fared.  The following account of Hindu society through the ages in different fields not only shows that caste institution did not come in the way of all round development of society and individual, but positively contributed to it in a big way.

Caste and Economic Development: India is  known for its material wealth since time immemorial.  India™s vast base of production system and natural wealth produced   variety of goods and services which were very much sought after all over the world and  were exported to foreign countries that comprised the then civilized world. As a result  India earned the honorific titles ˜Azab Al-Hind™ from the muslim world and ˜Mirabilia Indae™ from the Latin (European) Christian countries.  This material wealth had been produced by Hindu peasants, and  artisans; distributed by the  Hindu merchants belonging to different castes. They were  carried over thousands of miles on land and  seas by ships constructed and operated by Hindu artisans. The underlying knowledge base for this huge production and distribution system was created by the pundits. India was the number one country in industries like cotton textiles, food-grains, sugar, steel, ship-building etc., till the end of 18th century as per the evidence produced by historians like Lala Lajpat Rai in his book England`s Debt to India (publications Division, Govt.of  India).  This goes to prove the artisanal and organizing capabilities of Hindu society comprising of different castes with different skill sets.  Every caste boasts of wealthy people among its ranks.  Each caste has its own sphere of influence in the larger Hindu society.  To cite an example, Alexander walker who came to India in A.D.1780 as Brigadier General and who also worked as political resident at Baroda observed that Sudras were the caste with power and money and were predominant section of Hindu society of his time ie., 18th century.

Development can be viewed from two angles.  One is economic stability and security to the individual and secondly growth of economy leading to prosperity at collective level.  If the positive results achieved by a society is any proof of the efficiency of its socio-economic-political system, then Hindu society can boast of high degree of economic development sustained by its social arrangement. The variety of goods produced by Hindu skilled artisans, the wealth earned by exporting those goods to practically all the civilized nations of the world over thousands of years is proof of India`s economic development.  This  huge production and distribution system was supported by trade and caste guilds.  Self-sufficiencey is another test of the success of any socio-economic system.  Our society not only achieved self-sufficiency, but exported many commodities.  Till 18th century our country had been the no.1 country in the world in industries life cotton textiles, shipbuilding, steel, sugar, etc., World Economist and Statistician Angus Madison in his The world Economy: A Millennial Perspective says India had the world`s largest economy in the 1st century with a 32.9% share of world GDP and 28.9% in 1000 C.E.  India continued as largest economy from 1st century C.E  till 18th C.E. in the world. In 1750, china was in the second position.  In 1850 China occupied first place, India in second place followed by England in third place! Till then America was nowhere in the reckoning. Then all of a sudden America came to occupy the first place, England second, followed by China, France, Germany, and India in that order. The same conclusion is expressed in his `The world Economy-Historical Statistics`, These two books are published  published by OECD (organization For Economic Cooperation  and Development, 2004) of  the UNO.

  1. Castes and technology based production: Different castes specialized in different skills based on different branches of science.  They developed relevant technologies to help improve their production capabilities.  We find immense variety in production methods, tools and implements designed by different artisanal groups. For instance we find castes practicing ceramic techniques, metallurgy, smithy, surgery, medicine, animal husbandry, agriculture etc.,  The knowledge base of this vast productive system has been so extensive that the History of Indian Science and Technology extends over millennia.  And the vast pool of theoretical and practical knowledge underlying this production system has been transferred through caste, family channels.
  2. Caste and politics: Traditionally political power in India was vested in the Kshatriya caste.  But there has been sufficient flexibility and responsiveness in this arrangement to changing circumstances.  For instance when owing to repeated, large scale foreign invasions depleted the kshatriya ranks or reduced them to tribal status, other castes took over the political responsibilities including national defence.  All castes including Sudras taken to rulership.  During and after medieval period, we find a preponderance of sudra caste in politics.  At present sudra dominance in Indian politics is a demonstrable fact with SC s and ST s fast catching up.  Dr. Ambedkar criticized that because only kshatriyas defended the country and others did not join army in the past,  Hindus got vanquished.  This analysis is not borne out on a closer look at Indian history.  There is more harm in all castes joining the military service by leaving their socially important occupations.  Specialization through division of labour has its own benefits and also a price to pay.  We have to weigh the benefits and costs to pronounce a judgement or take a decision at any moment of time.  While we reaped the benefits of occupational caste divisions in the shape of increased skills and resultant technology and high productivity and commercial acumen, we had to contend with invaders who devoted all their energies to military activities alone.  Thus it is a matter of priorities that a society places before itself.  And the order of those priorities is dictated by the cultural values of the concerned society.  While Hindu society set before itself an all-round development of individual and the society as its priority, the people who invaded India set for themselves war, plunder and rape as their priorities.  It is for us to decide which set of values we wish to pursue in future.
  3. Caste and Education: The traditional Hindu education system till 18th century was open to all castes, though certain castes showed special inclination to certain skills and areas of knowledge. It is often alleged that the Brahmin caste monopolized learning. This charge is belied when we examine the evidence and ground realities.  To start with, the first three castes called Dwijas or twice borne are eligible for vedic learning per se.  Yet there is a widely prevalent impression that only Brahmins are entrusted with vedic learning ie., chanting and teaching of Vedas.  The other two castes, namely Kshatriyas and Vaishyas did not pursue vedic learning in course of time.  One has to seek reasons for the same in historic changes that influenced external and internal compulsions of those castes and also of the Hindu society at large.  Not only that, even among the Brahmin caste there has been a drastic fall in the number of people who took to vedic learning and also the quality of their learning.  The net effect of all this is a calamitous disappearance of many veda Sakhas (Branches of Veda) with their auxilary literature (pratisakhyas, Niruktas, Vendangas, etc).  Going by the present trend, one can clearly see that the prestige and subsistence potential in vedic learning has come to such low levels that not many Brahmins, leave alone other dwijas, take to vedic learning.  So those who feel that Brahmins monopolized vedic learning to garner the `privileges`(whatever that many mean) that accrue to them through such monopoly have to think over why this is happening? And Hindus may well remember that the basis and origin of their knowledge system which made India legendary economic and scientific power for such a long time is Veda and its ancillaries. To any careful student of history, it appears that the gradual weakening and decrease in Vedic studies coincides with the all round deterioration of Hindu society. By Vedic study not only the chanting of Veda is meant but also the study and practice of various subjects that are have their origin in the Vedas and form part of the Vedic knowledge system.

For Hindus other than Dwija castes, there is full scope and eligibility to pursue shastras as per their aptitude and taste.  To cite one source by way of evidence, one may consult Dharampal`s book `The Beautiful Tree` to get a fairly good idea of the educational opportunities available to Hindus of all castes including the untouchables.

If it is agreed that the aim of education is to make man culturally elevated, responsible and happy individual,  besides imparting productive skills, then we can say that education in India was far more widely available to all sections of Hindu society than anywhere else in the world.

For the transmission of cultural inputs to all sections of Hindus over millennia, a vast network for knowledge transfer had been painstakingly built up and was functioning since very long time.  A number of groups performing folk arts and crafts through various media disseminated cultural knowledge which contributed to character building, skill formation, and up-gradation, and also their own improvement and sustenance.  These folk media had for their subjects the topics and issues relevant to common man`s life based on vedas, shastras, puranas etc.,  Thus the higher knowledge contained in the Sanskrit literature was brought to the door steps of the illiterate (but not  ill cultured by any standard) Hindu populace over centuries.  As a result, the culture gap between the top and bottom strata of Hindu society has been much narrow than in any other comparable society in the world.  This is made possible through a consciously built, widespread, age-old system of knowledge transfer which has been functioning since vedic days.  From Vyasa, his disciples, and their disciples like Ugrasrava, son of Suta, the puranic bard par excellence to the recent local wandering story-teller, our knowledge transfer system has been unique, unparalleled and continuous.  It covered practically all castes and all areas of our land.  The proof of character as well as skills possessed by all sections of Hindu society can be seen in the material wealth created by Hindus over millennia and the fame they earned as the most cultured, healthy, wealthy and well-behaved people is borne out by travel accounts of foreign visitors, archaeological remains, written records of Hindus, records left in foreign lands about India etc., All this goes against the allegation that caste institution weakened Hindu society and contributed to its downfall. Available evidence shows that the opposite was true.

Caste and social freedom: It is another area where the enemies of Hindu society tried their best to create dissensions among Hindus. For example note the observation of Thomas Babington Macaulay, the father of English education in India quoted above.  In an address to the British parliament on 2.2.1835, he said—  I have travelled across the length and breadth of India and I have not seen one person who is a begger, who is a thief.  Such wealth I have seen in this country, such high moral values, people of such caliber, that I do not think we would ever conquer this country, unless we break the very back bone of this nation, which is her spiritual and cultural heritage, and therefore, I propose that we replace her old and ancient education system, here culture, for if the Indians think that all that is foreign and English and greater than their own, they will lose their self-esteem, their native culture and they will become what we want them, a truly dominated nation.

With this sole objective of destroying the Hindu spiritual, cultural heritage and with it the social, material heritage that is a product of that heritage, Macaulay designed the English education in India.  Unfortunately, he and his ilk achieved fair measure of, if not total success as is evident from the underdeveloped status of India for the past two centuries and the inter-caste rivalries and accusations that erupt from time to time.  To begin with, it must be remembered that wealth, power, privilege relationships while our society was run on Hindu principles were totally different when the society was run under non-Hindu dispensation and inspiration.  The Hindu sociological practice separated political power from social power and money power.  These sources of power are vested in three different castes namely Kshatriya, Vaishya and Sudra.  The Brahmin`s power or influence depended not on political, money or social power severally but on all these together.  His position was something like the power of Zero or infinity in maths.  He imparts power to others through his association with that particular centre of power and in turn derives power from that centre.  But in himself he has only abstract knowledge which is not a direct source of power.  This, in short is the Brahmin`s position in Hindu society.  No doubt, on many occasions Brahmin also acted as a direct centre of power- as a ruler, artisan or even as a service provider.  In such cases, be is to be classed among the concerned centre of power- Kshatriya, Vaishya or Sudra according to the role he played.  A Brahmin as Brahmin has no access to political, economic, or social power.  His knowledge could earn him enough to satisfy his material needs.  This is the traditional Hindu sociological scheme.  To the extent this scheme is disturbed, no one need question the Brahmin only.  Every other caste has deviated from the norm.  Inter-caste equations hold good only till every caste observes the caste scheme at least in its essential aspects.  Once the equation is disturbed willfully or by the hand of history, it is incorrect to hold the Brahmin or any single caste responsible for the problems of the society.  Yes some caste or castes might have created more problems than others.  But that can only be decided by taking stock of the situation in a methodical way by taking consideration all relevant factors rather than resorting to the blame game or smear campaign.  The smear campaign may benefit the smearer in short-run (even that is doubtful, though), but it will certainly do incalculable harm to the society as a whole and its survival prospects.  And we are facing a problem of survival at present ie., survival as Hindus.

The Hindu enemies unleashed unheard of propaganda against the `caste inequities` in our society holding one caste now, another caste at other time responsible for the said inequities.  Here Dr. Ambedkar`s remarks in his book `Sudras, who were they` are pertinent. He remarked that no single caste in Hindu society is powerful enough to `create` the said caste inequities by itself.  Those inequities are the result of complex historic forces over a long period of time. We may not agree with Dr. Ambedkar `s every observation on caste system but it cannot be denied that some of his observations are astute indeed.

  1. Caste and society in general: In Hindu society the institution of caste has been the strongest bulwark against foreign aggression, proselytisation and disruption. It imparted socio-cultural and economic stability and security to its individual members and became a stable vehicle for the passing on the racial wisdom.  In these respects caste comes out in brightest colours.  Over centuries of chequered history of India, it stood as a rock around which Hindu society rallied and saved itself from total destruction.  For details one may refer to vol II of cultural Heritage of India, published by Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, Calcutta.
  2. Caste segregation “ its rationale:  As pointed above, differentiation is the natural and inevitable consequence of any complex system.  Caste, being a complex social system is no exception to this natural law.  We find different castes in a Hindu village or town segregated into distinct neighbourhoods or localities or streets.  Each caste lives in a street that goes by the name of that caste viz., the Brahmin street, the Kumhar (potter) street, the Goldsmith (kamsali) street etc., often, this kind of village layout comes under criticism by those who oppose caste system who consider such segregation as a mark of division of Hindu society on negative lines, as a mark of caste discrimination. They also point out that it is a kind of social discrimination practiced by the dominant castes, hence it is against the principles of equity and equality.  On careful observation, these charges prove to be baseless.  People of same caste living together is the most natural thing to do.  It is also logical.  For one thing it promotes the skills of that particular caste by providing professional ambience for the youngsters who are brought up in surroundings filled with the values, skills and nuances peculiar to that caste skill.  Secondly, each caste has its special requirements and it needs enough social space to fulfill those requirements.  Then only the special skills of that caste can blossom fully.  Thirdly, by living together ie., mixed dwellings of different castes create some inconveniences which can be avoided. For instance, metal smith makes a lot of noice in executing his profession.  This can be unbearable to a painter or a teacher who need calm surroundings.  Therefore it is desirable that all metal smiths live together.  Our village dwellings are laid out on these sound lines.  Chester Bernard`s `fixed milieu principle` is relevant here.
  3. Caste and external aggression: (see also point no. 6) It is demonstrated in our history time and again that caste system stood in the way of religious conversions and as a source of rehabilitation of victims of enemy attacks. Societies without caste system such as Buddhists suffered the most in this respect.  For example, Buddism was practically wiped out from India by Muslim invaders once they killed Buddhist monks in large numbers.  Because Buddhism had no social basis to survive. It is built on ascetism.  It is not so with Hinduism.  When Kshatriyas were killed in the battle, sudras and others substituted for Kshatriyas  and defended Hindu society.  Of course all castes participated in the defence of Hindu society in general.
  4. Caste and assimilation of foreign elements: Caste system not only provided social framework for all round development of individuals and institutions, but also served as assimilative force. Foreign races like Sakas, Huns wanted to adopt Hinduism, the Hindu social system was resilient enough to accommodate them within the Hindu fold.  It was made possible through the complex filtering, screening and absorbing powers inherent in caste system.  Although this kind of assimilation of foreign tribes was not without some unresolved, undigested cultural residues, on the whole it augured well for Hindu society.

5. Caste and Individual Initiative: Caste is a social super market to meet the individual`s needs.  Right from birth till death, the individual depends on his fellow caste members.  Besides, his skills are honed within caste guilds and each caste imparts its own mix of socio-cultural traits to its members.  This contributes to the fulfillment of immensely diverse needs of the society besides meeting the physico-emotional needs of individuals.  Thus caste system provides the widest possible scope for individual initiative and collective development.  At the same time caste provides for Dynamic States of Equilibria (General Systems Theory by von Bertalanffy) to suit countless types of social situations that crop up in the long life of Hindu society.  It is pointed out above that under caste system, a Hindu has economic, social, political space to exercise his choice and unfold himself.  That being the case, there is no place for the charge of inherent monopoly, exploitation etc., This is not to say that Hindu society has no problems or shortcomings or defects. But they are not intentionally created ones.  To say that caste system has defects is like complaining that man is disease prone. And the more serious defects we see in Hindu society today are the direct outcome  of prolonged foreign  rule, be it Islamic or Christian.

6. Is caste system defect free?:  The aim of man in life is not to purposely commit mistakes or crimes against others.  Most of the people aim to live their lives.  During the course of that natural process of living man tends to make mistakes of omission or commission.  So is the case with institutions created by man viz., caste system.  Its stated aim is not to exploit the so called  lower castes as alleged blindly by some enemies of Hindu society.  Caste system came into existence in response to a natural human urge to organize into a well-knit society on the basis of a set of values and outlook to life.  This system, as already pointed out, has generated certain shortcomings in course of its long existence in the  natural course and   many more defects were introduced by extraneous forces. In assessing the historical record of caste system, many defects are assumed to be endemic to the system.  It is not so.

7. Caste rigidities and degradation of some castes: Muslim invasions starting with Mohd.Bin Kasim on Sind in 8th century A.D. followed by Ghazni invasions in 11th century and Ghurid invasion of 13th century down to Ahmad Shah Abdali in 18th century, introduced many rigidities into the Hindu social structure and functioning. These invasions destroyed the resilience and self-correcting and self-renewing mechanisms for which Hindu society is well known. These invasions also destroyed the extensive, variegated and flouring productive systems consisting of agriculture, animal husbandry, textiles, spices, animal products, dairying, metal-working, ship-building and many others.  The invasions eliminated   Hindu socio-cultural, political, military, managerial, scientific, artisanal, artistic manpower in very large numbers through repeated massacres, enslavements and deportation to distant slave markets.

Those who survived the Islamic onslaught were pauperized, brutalized and degraded socially, economically, and of course politically.  Many Rajput ruling classes were driven to jungles where they became Banjaras(Vanacharas)and  spent their lives as tribals and vagabonds.  In some cases, groups practicing higher professions like medicine, surgery were reduced to the state of barbers.  In this manner many caste groups found themselves degraded to socio-economic backwardness due to muslim invasions and planned mis-rule.

As a self-defence reaction some Hindu groups adopted purdah custom and child-marriage to ward off Muslim menace to their women folk. This is how many rigidities and backward customs have forcibly intruded into Hindu social fabric which was hitherto flexible, healthy and  responsive.  Ranks of  SC, ST, OBC populations swelled tremendously during Muslim invasions through loss of socio-economic status.  This painful process is well documented by writers. For example K.S. Lall in his books `Growth of ST,OBC during Muslim Rule`; `Indian Muslims, Who are they` provides lots of authentic information on this topic.

The British rule that followed mughal rule, further worsened the situation.  British rule not only destroyed our society and resources, but also introduced and perpetuated such institutions which destroyed the capacity to recover and rejuvenate our civilizational energies and repair the damage.  Thus they largely contributed to our ignorance and poverty.  Foremost among the evil institutions setup by the British is the Macaulayist educational system (not English Education as such) which continues to this day. As a result today many namesake Hindus are working overtime to rationalize, popularize and perpetuate practices, ideas and institutions that erode our cultural values and ultimately spell doom all in the name of modernism and progress.  On top of it, some of our `progressive`, `secular` Hindus are bent on pampering and supporting all kinds of Hindu enemies like predatory religions, MNCs, hostile western media and what not.  At the bottom of this colossal cultural alienation and suicidal behavior lies a lack of correct understanding of institutions like caste system and rootedness in our own civilizational moorings.  Hence a thorough discussion and fresh assessment of caste and other related issues are vital in rediscovering and rejuvenating Hinduism and Hindu society.

Conclusion:   A reopening of discussion of caste-system is to expose the planned vilification of the system undertaken by our enemies as well as our own misguided brethren and to prepare ground for proper understanding of our society and its workings.  This is vital for our survival and future development.  This write up is not meant to support caste system or to oppose it.  The aim is to encourage informed discussion and draw conclusions on the basis of our upgraded knowledge of our institutions which is hitherto lacking.

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2 thoughts on “Towards Understanding Caste – A Systems Approach

    1. prasad

      Noted your response. I saw your blog and also posted my detailed comments on one of your posts ‘what we lost by destroying jati’. prasad

      Reply

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