Hiding the truth about caste
How Sangh Parivar ideologues distort the history of untouchability in India
Caste hierarchy is a major obstacle to social justice. Adding to the plethora of theories regarding its origin, the RSS has recently brought out three books — Hindu Charmakar Jati, Hindu Khatik Jati and Hindu Valmiki Jati — where it is argued that atrocities by Islamic rulers in medieval times led to the emergence of untouchability and the lower castes.
Sangh leaders claim that these castes did not exist prior to the “foreign invasion”. According to Bhaiyyaji Joshi, No. 2 in the RSS hierarchy, Hindu scriptures never referred to the Shudras as untouchables. “To violate the Hindu swabhiman (dignity) of the Chanwarvanshiya Kshatriyas, the foreign, Arab, Muslim invaders, the beef-eaters, forced them to do abominable work such as killing cows, skinning them and throwing their carcasses in deserted places. The foreign invaders thus created a caste of charma-karma (dealing with skin) by giving such work as punishment to proud Hindu prisoners,” writes Joshi.
On the contrary, the origin of the caste system predates the “Muslim invasion” by many centuries. The Aryans considered themselves superior and called the non-Aryans krshna varnya (dark skinned) and anasa (those with no nose). Since the non-Aryans worshipped the phallus, they were considered non-human or amanushya.
Both the Rig Veda and Manusmriti prohibited the lower castes from coming close to the upper castes. They had to live outside the village. Society was divided into four varnas during the Rig Vedic times and this developed into a rigid caste system by the time of Manusmriti.
Untouchability had been introduced by the 1st century AD and Manusmriti, written a century or two later, codified the social practices of the time. The text clearly reveals the despicable practices that the upper castes had imposed upon the lower castes. The advent of Muslim invaders happened much later — around 11th century AD.
Over time, the caste system became hereditary and determined the rules for social intercourse and marital relations. The Shudras were excluded from caste society, and the upper castes were barred from dining or marrying with them. Notions of ‘purity’ and ‘pollution’ were enforced strictly to maintain caste boundaries. The Shudras became untouchables. It is this rigid social division that Manu’s Manav Dharmashastra (Human Law Code) codified.
MS Golwalkar, a pioneering ideologue of the RSS, defended the caste system in a different way. “If a developed society realises that the existing differences are due to the scientific social structure and that they indicate the different limbs of the social body, the diversity would not be construed as a blemish,” he wrote in an article for the Organiser in 1952.
Deen Dayal Upadhyay, another major Sangh Parivar ideologue, wrote in his 1965 book Integral Humanism: “In our concept of four castes (varnas), they are thought of as different limbs of virat purush (the primeval man)… These limbs are not only complementary to one another, but even further, there is individuality, unity. There is a complete identity of interests, identity, belonging… If this idea is not kept alive, the castes, instead of being complementary, can produce conflict. But then, that is a distortion.”
BR Ambedkar saw the struggles against the caste system as a ‘revolution’ and the reinforcement of the system as a ‘counter-revolution’. He divided the ‘pre-Muslim’ period into three stages: Brahminism (the Vedic period); Buddhism, connected with the rise of the first Magadh-Maurya State and representing the revolutionary denial of caste inequalities; and ‘Hinduism’, or the counter-revolution that consolidated Brahminical dominance and the caste hierarchy.
Shudras were treated as untouchables much before the invasion of Muslim kings. The rigidity and cruelty of the caste system and untouchability intensified during the post-Vedic and Gupta period. Later, new social movements such as Bhakti partly reduced the intensity of caste oppression and untouchability. The doctoring of this history by the Sangh ideologues is motivated by their political agenda and tries to hide the truth.
(The views expressed are the author’s own)
(Published in Tehelka Magazine, Volume 11 Issue 45, Dated 8 November 2014)