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How Varna of Vedic era has been corrupted into vote-bank and caste-wars in modern times. Evolution of ‘caste’ though ages

What ‘caste’ was in the Vedic era, how it interplays with birth and occupation, and how it has evolved through various stages of history. An excerpt from Rajiv Malhotra’s book “Varna, Jati, Caste: A Primer on Indian Social Structures”, co-authored with Vijaya Viswanathan.

(Editor’s Note: Caste played an important role in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections and upset some equations. It has become imperative that people understand the issue of caste and how it has evolved. As caste will most likely play an increasingly important role in Indian political discourse, following is an excerpt from Rajiv Malhotra’s book “Varna, Jati, Caste: A Primer on Indian Social Structures” co-authored with Vijaya Viswanathan, which is an important work towards understanding caste and issues around it. OpIndia will strive to cover more aspects and outlooks on this topic.)

During the early Rig Veda period we come across artisans, farmers, priests, and warriors. Society was basically egalitarian. We do not have evidence of a deep-seated, institutionalized, and hierarchical classification of people. Women and Shudras were also composing Vedic hymns and other seminal works. Even during the later Vedic and Itihasic period, the idea of varna was in its nascent form and not rigidly dependent on birth. Artisans such as metalworkers, chariot-makers and carpenters were not necessarily birth-based occupational jatis.

The Mahabharata states that one does not become a Brahmin by birth alone but also by conduct. It declares that a Brahmin could be born of a Kshatriya or a Vaishya mother. There was also some ambiguity regarding the relative position of the varnas and these were related to each other in a fluid way.

The Greek traveler, Megasthenes, who came to India during the time of Emperor Chandragupta Maurya (reign c. 321-297 bce), affirmed that slavery was unknown in India, that no Indian slave existed, and that all Indians were free. Greek writers refer to the Shudras as Sodrai and describe them as an important community of northwest India at the time of the Macedonian king, Alexander (326 bce). This is contrary to the view presented by modern scholars that Shudras and Dalits have been slaves since Vedic times.

Jati was largely ignored in ancient texts and appears to be a later phenomenon. Initially, jati generally meant a kinship group whose people followed the same occupation and a shared lifestyle. This jati structure within the varna system seems to have evolved a few centuries before the Common Era. Only later did these structures become more formalized.

The Manusmriti explains that jatis originated due to intermarriage between different varnas. This shows that different varnas did intermarry. Thus, sixty-one jatis are mentioned in the Manusmriti and more than one hundred are mentioned in the Brahmavaivarta Purana. S Kautilya, (more commonly known as the philosopher Chanakya) author of the celebrated Arthashastra, also refers to at least fifteen jatis which were the result of marriages between different varnas. During the post Maurya period (187 bce-320 ce) there were intermarriages between different varnas, and jatis were giving birth to newer jatis.

The origin of some jatis can also be due to the physical movement of communities. Such migrations allowed people to redefine themselves by combining their previous identity and their new profession. Their varna might change in this relocation. There are numerous examples of such migrant groups all over India. For instance, among the Brahmins such migrations led to numerous jatis like Vadamas, Andhra Dravidas, and Mulukanadu in the south. A group of Brahmins from Saurashtra in the west, became artisans in Madurai in the south and call themselves the ‘Saurashtra jati’, but this has not been accepted by Tamil Brahmins. The Kongu Gauda (Vellala) jati of Tamil Nadu are migrants from Bengal in the east.

The theory of apad-dharma (dharma in times of distress) in the Dharmashastras reveals a gap between theory and practice in the prescribed vocations of the varnas. One finds evidence that the textual prescriptions of different professions for the four varnas were often not followed in practice, Thus, the Manusmriti mentions that in times of distress, people switched from their traditional occupations to that of other varnas and jatis. It was documented that people changed their professions to suit their needs.

Buddhist texts also narrate that a jati was not rigidly tied to a particular profession. We find examples of a Kshatriya warrior working successively or concurrently as a potter, a basket-maker, a reed- worker, a garland-maker; and a Vaishya cook working as a tailor or potter, without any social pushback or loss of prestige. Jatis proliferated further in Gupta (fourth century ce-late sixth century ce) and post-Gupta times. It is also notable that Shudras had far more internal divisions among their jatis than did the other varnas.

Some medieval inscriptions indicate that very few donors that set up various endowments described themselves in terms of their varna or jati. Instead, the inscriptions provide only their names and those of their parents. This is because varna and jati were not the most important aspects of one’s identity in that period.

Things changed dramatically with the Muslim invasions. The Muslim period is characterized by the decline of towns, trade, and agriculture. The progress of the Indian masses was stifled, and they became helpless, immobile, and poor. This environment of despair was not conducive to either economic enterprise, trade, or industrial growth. At times, agriculture too could barely sustain itself. The best hope for many people was to just survive. The jatis were less enterprising and resorted to ossifying their hereditary occupations and to endogamy.

The Mughal rulers exploited the masses ruthlessly and this created economic inequalities. During Shah Jahan’s reign, from 1628-58, 37 percent of the entire assessed revenue collected was assigned to 68 princes and emirs, and a further 25 percent to the next 587 officers. This means as much as 62 percent of the total revenue of the empire was given to just 655 individuals The distribution of income became even more inequitable during Akbar’s reign (1556-1605), when the top twenty-five individuals took over thirty percent of the total revenue.

The ostentatious lifestyle and the monuments built during the Mughal period were based on aggression and pillage, not on new investment or education or infrastructure development. They had taken over one of the world’s wealthiest economies and lived the good life for a few centuries. Meanwhile, Europe had been in its ‘dark ages’ as a backward region of the world, but it suddenly accelerated ahead of everyone else.

The Mughals seized nearly all the surplus wealth by extortion, taxation, or direct confiscation. A stupendous amount of wealth was turned into unproductive luxuries for a few elites. This resulted in frequent and catastrophic famines. Such factors hampered economic dynamism. Artisans and traders lost mobility. Occupations became hereditary. The jati system became more rigid in matters of marriage and sharing food and disintegrated into opportunism and social stratification. There is considerable evidence that in the Muslim period, jati groups became defensive for survival and there was a collapse in social mobility.

By the time the Portuguese came to India in the sixteenth century, they found the society (both Hindu and Muslim) to be organized into various occupational jatis. They called them casta, meaning tribe, clan, or race. There is no precise equivalent for the word ‘caste’ in any Indian language. Gradually, the term ‘caste’ became accepted as equivalent to jatis. During British rule, jatis got re-characterized as the formal ‘caste system’.

Even during the colonial period, Indians had complex and multiple identities. Depending on the situation, one or another identity could take prominence. Therefore, hen colonial censuses attempted to ascertain caste affiliations, the responses ranged from names designating endogamous groups, to occupations, titles, and surnames. There was no single category that people universally claimed affiliation to, which corresponded to the Western framework of ‘caste’. British census officials have documented their frustration that many Indians did not seem to know their caste, and in many instances, had to be coached for the census forms.

The colonial classification system assumed that castes were well-defined standard entities whose members W could be enumerated, and characteristics clearly specified. Large volumes of data were accumulated through such censuses, and this needed to be put into meaningful templates. Colonial officers deliberated among themselves and considered different approaches to resolve this paradox. This system of tagging helped them ‘herd’ these groups to submission during their regime. They also deliberately tagged certain jatis “criminal” and enforced genocide against them.

All modern sociological studies on caste use these arbitrary colonial conceptualizations. After India’s Independence, the democratic system turned castes into vote banks which have been manipulated by politicians ever since to serve their vested interests.

In the present age of globalization, things are once again taking a different turn. Today, when food or any product gets delivered, nobody knows, or bothers to know, what the person’s caste or sexual orientation is. The free exchange of goods and services is driven by market competition and meritocracy, and nobody cares about the old social classifications. Regardless of one’s birth- based factors, one can work, get paid, advance in one’s career, and move socially with freedom. Efficiency and optimization are the key success factors overriding everything else.

Capitalism is making caste obsolete, but it does not free society from structural biases. The new dynamics brings challenges as well as opportunities. The only caste system left in the rapidly urbanizing India is the one enforced by the government’s formal caste identities given to people. This is India’s curse: the birth-defect enshrined in its Constitution. This is fodder for the toxic identity politics.

The chronological sequence of the evolution of Hindu social structure can be represented as follows: Varna -> Jati -> Caste -> Political Vote Bank -> Global Caste Wars.

(The article is an excerpt from the book titled “Varna, Jati, Caste: A Primer on Indian Social Structures” jointly authored by Rajiv Malhotra and Vijaya Viswanathan, and has been reproduced here with permission. The first edition of the book was published in March 2023 by Infinity Foundation. Interested readers can buy it from Amazon)

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Rajiv Malhotra
Rajiv Malhotra
Rajiv Malhotra is an internationally known researcher, writer, speaker and public intellectual on current affairs as they relate to civilizations, cross-cultural encounters, religion and science.

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