Given the availability of all the above information, it is natural to ask how the markedly different current perception of the Indian caste system, assumed to be based on solely religious laws, came about.
The primary reason the present-day version of Indian history exists is a lack of knowledge and an absence of the source materials presented here, in common domains. The current version of history was written by British colonial historians who were convinced of their own cultural and religious superiority and unversed in India’s diversity and secular traditions. All culture was tied to religions, some termed “Brahminical”, others “Aboriginal”, but all under the umbrella of Hinduism. It was spread among the educated in India during the colonial rule, while India’s own versions, which were assumed to be non-existent or faulty, were actively discouraged.
It is allowed on all hands that no historical composition existed in the literature of the Hindus; … Major Rennel says, that, founded on Hindu materials, there is no known history of Hindustan, nor any record of the historical events of that country prior to the Mahomedan conquests ; and since that period, it is not to Hindu, but Mahomedan pens that we are indebted for all our knowledge of the Mahomedan conquests, and of the events which preceded the passage to India by the Cape of Good Hope.— History of British India, James Mills, 1858
The colonial officials cast India to resemble medieval European societies where nobility and clergy combined to rule the lives of all commoners through religious laws. It enabled the British to justify their own colonization and show it in a positive light.
The power of legislation therefore exclusively belongs to the priesthood. The exclusive right also of interpreting the laws necessarily confers upon them in the same unlimited manner the judicial powers of government. The king, though ostensibly supreme judge, is commanded always to employ Brahmens as councillers and assistants in the administration of justice, and whatever construction they put upon the law, to that his sentence must conform. A decision of the king contrary to the opinion of the Brahmens would be absolutely void; the members of his own family would refuse it obedience. Whenever the king in person discharges not the office of judge, it is a Brahmen, if possible who must occupy his place; the king therefore is no far from possessing the judicative power, that he is rather the executive officer by whom the decisions of the Brahmens are carried into effect.— History of British India, James Mills, 1858
The society itself was portrayed to be stagnant and oppressive; European colonization and western influences were necessary to bring India out of its backwardness. Any protests against colonization, or views contrary to British’s, were portrayed as resistance to progress.
These small stereotype forms of social organism (the Indian villages) have been to the greater part dissolved, and are disappearing, not so much through the brutal interference of the British tax-gatherer and the British soldier, as to the working of English steam and English free trade. Those family-communities were based on domestic industry, in that peculiar combination of hand-weaving, hands-spinning and hand-tilling agriculture which gave them self-supporting power. English interference having placed the spinner in Lancashire and the weaver in Bengal, or sweeping away both Hindoo spinner and weaver, dissolved these small semi-barbarian, semi-civilized communities, by blowing up their economical basis, and thus produced the greatest, and to speak the truth, the only social revolution ever heard of in Asia.
Now, sickening as it must be to human feeling to witness those myriads of industrious patriarchal and inoffensive social organizations disorganized and dissolved into their units, thrown into a sea of woes, and their individual members losing at the same time their ancient form of civilization, and their hereditary means of subsistence, we must not forget that these idyllic village-communities, inoffensive though they may appear, had always been the solid foundation of Oriental despotism, that they restrained the human mind within the smallest possible compass, making it the unresisting tool of superstition, enslaving it beneath traditional rules, depriving it of all grandeur and historical energies. We must not forget the barbarian egotism which, concentrating on some miserable patch of land, had quietly witnessed the ruin of empires, the perpetration of unspeakable cruelties, the massacre of the population of large towns, with no other consideration bestowed upon them than on natural events, itself the helpless prey of any aggressor who deigned to notice it at all. We must not forget that this undignified, stagnatory, and vegetative life, that this passive sort of existence evoked on the other part, in contradistinction, wild, aimless, unbounded forces of destruction and rendered murder itself a religious rite in Hindostan. We must not forget that these little communities were contaminated by distinctions of caste and by slavery, that they subjugated man to external circumstances instead of elevating man the sovereign of circumstances, that they transformed a self-developing social state into never changing natural destiny, and thus brought about a brutalizing worship of nature, exhibiting its degradation in the fact that man, the sovereign of nature, fell down on his knees in adoration of Kanuman, the monkey, and Sabbala, the cow.
England, it is true, in causing a social revolution in Hindostan, was actuated only by the vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of enforcing them. But that is not the question. The question is, can mankind fulfil its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia? If not, whatever may have been the crimes of England she was the unconscious tool of history in bringing about that revolution.— Karl Marx, London, June 10, 1853
This history has been accepted by the Indian educated classes, and a modified version is currently part of the school curriculum. Today, one section of India believes that India can progress only by eradicating this structure. At the other end of the spectrum, another section believes that this structure and stratification were responsible for India’s development and needs to be preserved or just modified.
… we had some sort of general picture about this past. This picture usually implied that our village folk and their ancestors had wallowed in misery for a thousand or more years; that they had been terribly oppressed and tyrannised by rulers as well as their social and religious customs since time immemorial; and that all this had mostly left them dumb, or misguided or victims of superstition and prejudice. From this we assumed that what we had to deal with was like a blank slate on which we, the architects of the new India, could write, or imprint, what we wished. We seldom thought that these people had any memories, thoughts, preferences, or priorities of their own; and even when we conceded that they might have had some of these, we dismissed these as irrelevant. And when we failed in writing on what we assumed to be a blank slate, or in giving such writing any permanence, we felt unhappy and more often angry with these countrymen of ours for whom we felt we had sacrificed not only our comforts, but our very lives. If I may say so, what I have stated here was, I think, in a large measure shared by most of our generation who were given to social or public work. …
I tried to share this information (existence of samudayam or community villages and 50% rate of taxation during colonial rule) with some of my knowledgeable and esteemed friends. These included political personalities, planners, former high officers of government, and many others who were intimately concerned with land and rural problems and cared as much about India’s continuing poverty as I did. But for a long time none of them could believe this data. One of them, who had been a district collector and later a minister as well as a planner, was categorical that this never could have happened; that it was impossible for any land to pay such an exorbitant government revenue. …
In the context of samudayam villages, a former chief of land reforms in the Indian Planning Commission was of the view that there could not have been any such samudayam villages in Thanjavur as this fact had not been mentioned by Beveridge—the celebrated late 19th century British authority on Indian land tenures.— Essays on Tradition, Recovery and Freedom, Dharampal (2000)
The educated, in their turn, have carried this view and relayed it to rest of the world. It is no surprise that today, laws are made on this idea of India.
The system which divides Hindus into rigid hierarchical groups based on their karma (work) and dharma (the Hindi word for religion, but here it means duty) is generally accepted to be more than 3,000 years old. …
Manusmriti, widely regarded to be the most important and authoritative book on Hindu law and dating back to at least 1,000 years before Christ was born, “acknowledges and justifies the caste system as the basis of order and regularity of society”.
The caste system divides Hindus into four main categories – Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and the Shudras. Many believe that the groups originated from Brahma, the Hindu God of creation.
At the top of the hierarchy were the Brahmins who were mainly teachers and intellectuals and are believed to have come from Brahma’s head. Then came the Kshatriyas, or the warriors and rulers, supposedly from his arms. The third slot went to the Vaishyas, or the traders, who were created from his thighs. At the bottom of the heap were the Shudras, who came from Brahma’s feet and did all the menial jobs. …
Outside of this Hindu caste system were the achhoots – the Dalits or the untouchables.
For centuries, caste has dictated almost every aspect of Hindu religious and social life, with each group occupying a specific place in this complex hierarchy.
Rural communities have long been arranged on the basis of castes – the upper and lower castes almost always lived in segregated colonies, the water wells were not shared, Brahmins would not accept food or drink from the Shudras, and one could marry only within one’s caste.
The system bestowed many privileges on the upper castes while sanctioning repression of the lower castes by privileged groups.Often criticised for being unjust and regressive, it remained virtually unchanged for centuries, trapping people into fixed social orders from which it was impossible to escape.— What is India’s Caste System, BBC, 19 June, 2019
The second group of people that promote the colonial version of history are those that profit by this version. This may have started benefiting a small group, but over time several sections of Indian population have been added to it. These groups, today called “lower” castes, get additional support through affirmative action programs and in some cases, access to resources. The programs are based on the assumption that historically these groups were oppressed and disfranchised by “upper” castes such as Brahmins and landowners. A version of history where they were empowered and endowed with resources, nullifies their case for such programs.
The affirmative action enshrined in India’s constitution, mostly written by a Dalit intellectual, B.R. Ambedkar, was a world first. The “reservation” policy is a prodigious quota system for public jobs, places in publicly funded colleges and many elected assemblies. The purpose is to give a leg-up to Dalits, who account for 232m of India’s 1.4bn population today, as well as to the 120m-odd adivasis, tribal groups who live mainly in remote parts of the country.
These are the “scheduled” castes and tribes. Affirmative action has since expanded. A commission of inquiry in the 1980s deemed 52% of Indians to be members of a new category, “other backward classes”, eligible for reserved places. The Supreme Court subsequently ruled that no more than 50% of public jobs in all could be reserved. But states often breach the limit. Other castes are lobbying to be classified as backward and so eligible for quotas. They include groups that sociologists describe as “dominant”, such as the landowning Patidars of Gujarat, the Jats of Haryana and the Marathas of Maharashtra. Some of their protests in recent years have been both huge and violent.— India’s caste system remains entrenched, 75 years after independence, The Economist, Sep 11, 2011
A third group of people that promote the colonial version of Indian society see a socially mobile or liberal traditional Indian version as a rival or threat to their ideologies. Under this umbrella are religious organizations and political ideologues. For instance, both Islamic and Christian traditions portray societies that haven’t accepted their faiths as unjust, backward or even illegal. They hope to usher in their own faiths and ideologies to replace Indian religions and social structures, which they view as incompatible with their faith. Many see the conversion of Indians to their doctrines as part of their duties. In this context, it is important to understand that traditional India provided a fundamentally different social model, one that was able to integrate economic, social and spiritual development. The Indian societies of pre-Buddhist and Buddhist eras also stressed on human rights, independence (pluralism) and dignity. Even later versions of Hinduism had strong humanitarian and pluralistic components that are often ignored. These were at odds with colonial ideologies that promoted slavery and religious superiority. Not many people are aware that European colonialism was initiated by the Church in cooperation with the nobility to enslave and dispossess non-Christian societies of their wealth and transfer it to the Church and royal classes. Many colonial policies in India and around the world had provisions to propagate religion in the colonized regions. Some of the mentioned entities are still vested in these colonial doctrines.
… through the Apostolic authority by this edict, to invade, conquer, fight, subjugate the Saracens and pagans, and other infidels and other enemies of Christ, and wherever established their Kingdoms, Duchies, Royal Palaces, Principalities and other dominions, lands, places, estates, camps and any other possessions, mobile and immobile goods found in all these places and held in whatever name, and held and possessed by the same Saracens, Pagans, infidels, and the enemies of Christ, also realms, duchies, royal palaces, principalities and other dominions, lands, places, estates, camps, possessions of the king or prince or of the kings or princes, and to lead their persons in perpetual servitude, and to apply and appropriate realms, duchies, royal palaces, principalities and other dominions, possessions and goods of this kind to you and your use and your successors the Kings of Portugal.— Papal Bull Dum Diversas Issued by Pope Nicholas V, 18 June, 1452
… to find, discover and investigate whatsoever islands, countries, regions or provinces of heathens and infidels, in whatsoever part of the world placed, which before this time were unknown to all Christians. … may conquer, occupy and possess whatsoever such towns, castles, cities and islands by them thus discovered that they may be able to conquer, occupy and possess, as our vassals and governors lieutenants and deputies therein, acquiring for us the dominion, title and jurisdiction of the same towns, castles, cities, islands and mainlands so discovered; in such a way nevertheless that of all the fruits, profits, emoluments, commodities, gains and revenues accruing from this voyage, the said John and sons and their heirs and deputies shall be bound and under obligation for their every voyage, as often as they shall arrive at our port of Bristol, at which they are bound and holden only to arrive, all necessary charges and expenses incurred by them having been deducted, to pay to us, either in goods or money, the fifth part of the whole capital gained, we giving and granting to them and to their heirs and deputies, that they shall be free and exempt from all payment of customs on all and singular the goods and merchandise that they may bring back with them from those places thus newly discovered.— Patent Granted by King Henry VII to John Cabot and his Sons, March 1496
We can ignore the last group and focus on how to respond to the challenges posed by the first two groups. The way to address ignorance is, of course, through education and dissemination of knowledge, some of which has been presented here. This needs to be undertaken at a larger scale by a group of scholars who have the necessary knowledge, competence and objectivity to research and process the information available in different sources such as literature, architecture, folklore and others. It should include people from all sections and backgrounds – all regions, religions and social sections should have a say. Opening the knowledge and the methodology to the public for scrutiny and addressing all reasonable queries will go a long way in resolve India’s confusion about its history.
Next, the fundamental reason for the current perception of history should be addressed. It is given life by existing social issues in India, which have been projected to its past. While the projections may not be necessarily true, the issues, often tied to regions, jatis and birth status, are genuine and need to be addressed somehow. A significant part of this is the social divide among Indians. Some of them are of recent origins brought about by colonial perception of what was acceptable and non-acceptable, but a large part of it is based on a rigid, and often incorrect, interpretation of religion. Addressing these issues within the framework of traditional Indian culture would go a long way in convincing people of its more amicable history.
India was strong and prosperous when it was liberal, citizens were judged by their professional competency, and religious influences were minimal within mainstream society. India became progressively weaker and divided when religious elements crept in, especially among people that were not educated of its nuances, and were used to judge and segregate the population. Coupled with the influence of religion, or probably under it, the Indians also became arrogant, close-minded and uninterested in cultures outside their own, even developments in their immediate vicinity. As we now know, this arrogance and ignorance proved to be India’s undoing, allowing outsiders to easily conquer it.
… the Hindus believe that there is no country but theirs, no nation like theirs, no kings like theirs, no religion like theirs, no science like theirs. They are haughty, foolishly vain, self-conceited, and stolid. … According to their belief, there is no other country on earth but theirs, no other race of man but theirs, and no created beings besides them have any knowledge or science whatsoever. Their haughtiness is such that, if you tell them of any science or scholar in Khurasan and Persis, they will think you to be both an ignoramus and a liar. If they travelled and mixed with other nations, they would soon change their mind, for their ancestors were not as narrow-minded as the present generation is.— Tariq-al-Hind, Al-Beruni
A return to the more liberal phase, where professional skills are encouraged and opportunities presented to all, is necessary to address social divide. A rethink of religion, which currently occupies a large part of Indian culture, its role and goals, are also necessary. Alongside, citizens must be taught objectivity and logic – of which India has a rich tradition – required for proper decision-making and recording events, and which can prevent a relapse into past issues.
Finally, reviving local democratic structures will empower people at the lowest levels and provide an effective way for them to address issues at a local level. This should also be viewed as a step towards undoing the damage brought about by colonialism.