The Caste System: the Hindu’s Imaginary Achilles’ Heel 

George Augustine

02 Sep 2012

The BBC commemorated the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible last year in a special edition of the TV programme “The Big Questions” debating just one topic: “Is the Bible Still Relevant?” The chief participants were, inter alia, the former Anglican bishop Michael James Nazir-Ali and biblical scholar Francesca Stavrakopoulos. The debate can be watched here.  Though the debate was about Christians and the bible, replying to an assertion by bishop Nazir-Ali that people would be savages without the ten commandments, Ms. Stavrakopoulus mentioned that people of other religions also live a moral life, and that they don’t need a book for that.

No sooner had she spoken these words did Nazir-Ali, a Christian fundamentalist from Karachi who had to run away to England to escape the wrath of fellow Islamic fundamentalists back home, retorted: “Are you talking about Hindus and the caste system? … Have you ever lived as an untouchable in a Hindu society”. It was enough to shut up Ms. Stavrakopoulus, and the bishop looked triumphant, as if scoring a point against the Hindu was enough to salvage the gobbledygook that has become of his faith!

The mention of ‘caste system’ is enough to shut up even the most eloquent advocate of Hinduism. In a way, this response is reminiscent of the German guilt that becomes active the moment somebody utters the word, “Jew”. I’ve never understood why present-day German humanists should feel guilty of a crime committed by their forefathers motivated by Christian prejudice, of which they have had no part. And it is a wonder why the word “gypsy” never causes such an uncomfortable German response, though the Gypsies too have had a thick slice of the holocaust share.

The ‘caste system’ in India at its worst was caused by a social prejudice rather than a religious prejudice and I’ve yet to hear of the Brahmans sending anybody to the gas chamber, or even imprisoning them in a concentration camp. Still, the Hindu hangs his head in shame if you mention the ‘caste system’.

The ‘caste system’ is a naturally evolved social system that existed and still exists in all parts of the world in one form or another, though it was and is most evident in the Indian subcontinent. Caste is defined as “any group of people that combine some or all elements of endogamy, hereditary transmission of occupation, and status in a hierarchy” [1]. According to social scientists, it develops “when the worth difference within a society sharpens to such a point that the social superior shuns fellowship and intermarriage with the inferior, thus creating a society made up of closed hereditary classes” [2].

When caste relations become extreme and infringe upon human dignity and the fundamental freedom of the individual, that is the point when the caste system becomes bad or termed evil, viewed through the lens of the modern moral sensibility. On the other hand, the social organisation based on occupation makes business sense even today, and more so in ancient times when the family craft was not imparted in a polytechnic but in the household, and the teachers were your own parents from whom you learnt your trade. Every member of the family, male or female, was a capital in the trade and it made sense to marry a trained member of a family engaged in the same trade. It is a natural phenomenon and occurs overarching religion and ethnicity.

Caste is no monopoly of the Hindus, but then why are they held hostage by this notion? The obvious reason is that it is generally believed, even by Hindus, that the “caste system” as defined above is mandated by their religion and was therefore institutionalised. Let us examine the verity of this belief.


The line chaturvarnyam maya srushtam guna karma vibhagasha / tasya kartaram api mam viddhy akartaram avyavam  is spoken by Krishna (Gita 4-13) and means “I created the four varnas according to quality, activities and aptitude; although the creator of this, know me as the non-doer being immutable” [3]. The four varnas or divisions of human order are brahmana, kshatriya, vaisya and shudra and are not at all the ‘caste’ spoken of earlier, though out of ignorance many people misunderstand them merely as occupational or trade classes ordained by birth.

According to an authentic source [4], the Mahabharata of which Bhagavad-Gita is a part, was written by Maharishi Vyasa for the benefit of certain sections of society at a time when their circumstances did not allow them to pursue the study of the Vedas. Vyasa’s effort was to make available the essence of the Vedas to the less privileged, which would enable them to follow the path of dharma.

In the Gita, for this very reason, Vyasa’s Krishna assumes superhuman dimensions that reflect the vision of the supreme reality of the Vedas. In Vedanta philosophy, this phenomenal vision of brahman is generally known as saguna brahman, the brahman endowed with qualities. In Advaita Vedanta Isvara, or the creator of universes, of the Upanishads is a reflection of (nirguna) brahman (supreme reality without quality) in maya or the phenomenal world. Therefore, the dissociation of Krishna from the act of creation of the four varnas is consistent with Vedanta.

In the four Vedas, there is no account of an almighty “God” who created the universe and everything in it. The narrative of Mahabharata being designed for those who were ignorant of the Vedas, Krishna (characterising saguna brahman) means by his aforementioned utterance merely that the four varna system is a natural phenomenon. This is easy to understand when one considers gunas as the scientific basis of the four varnas as described in the Vishnupurana. [5]

The physiological and psychological traits of people are ruled by gunas or qualities like satva, rajas and tamas. People are disposed to the various combinations of these gunas for various reasons including genetic inheritance, diet and discipline and it is the dominance of a certain guna or a combination of gunas that predisposes a person to certain qualities that are suitable or unsuitable for a certain activity or a job. Thus a brahmana is predominantly ruled by satva guna, whereas a kshatriya has predominantly rajas. The vaisya has both rajas and tamas and the shudra is dominated by tamas. It is actually the guna that makes them what they are and not vice versa.

The balance or imbalance of these gunas can be influenced by diet and discipline [6] and as such indicates a biological fact. Therefore the maintenance of the guna balance can also be cultivated through breeding, for example, by inter-marrying from the same group which follow the same diet and discipline. And the ensuing progeny will be predisposed to possess the dominant guna of the parents and the community. This process can also lead to the formation of a ‘caste’ as defined earlier.

Thus, we see that there are biological, social and economical factors involved in the formation of ‘castes’ and were not created by Krishna or his author Vyasa. The Gita is only stating a natural phenomenon and not ‘caste’, which is a social development arising from many different factors.

Purusha Suktam

Another text that is often cited to stick the ‘caste’ on the Hindu’s forehead is stanza 13 of Purusha Suktam, which says the purusha’s mouth became the brahmana, his arms the kshatriya, his thigh the vysya and his legs shudra. For the blame game, that is to beat the Hindu with the ‘caste’ stick, one needs to pre-assign lower points in the social scale for purusha’s lower limbs to make up an unequal hierarchy. For example, if purusha was considered a tree, its leg (roots) cannot be judged inferior in any way to the top, fruit-bearing branches.

Written by Rishi Narayana, Purusha Suktam [7] is a lovely hymn and a beautiful poem that describes organic evolution leading to human consciousness in the metaphor of a Vedic yajna. The main subject of this poem is purusha, which term is almost always mistranslated into English as ‘God’, but the purusha is beyond all definitions of ‘God’ in the dictionary and have no resemblance whatever to the hero of the Christian bible. In a dispassionate analysis of the hymn, however, purusha comes through as the unifying basis of organic life.

The first stanza describes an entity that has multiplied and spread beyond the earth. This entity is organic, because it has eyes, head and feet, indicating perception, intelligence and movement. The second stanza confirms it by stating that this entity sustains its perpetuity and grows enormously by consuming food. Later, the purusha takes on a variety of forms (virat purusha). The devas (natural elements) then perform the yajna (sacrifice) sprinkling celestial waters on purusha after laying him on the darbha grass.

At the end of the yajna, various things emerge, among them animals of all sorts including domestic animals like horses, cows, goats and sheep as well as the four Vedas. After this, in the aforementioned 13th stanza, is described the evolution of human society, whereby the purusha’s body becomes a metaphor for the organic body of society, and the various parts of his body become each of the four varnas.

The 14th stanza describes perception through the senses. In the 20th stanza the level of cognition has evolved to such an extent that the Self (I) is identified with the purusha. In the 22nd stanza, the light that shines in all including the devas alike is identified with brahman, the supreme reality. Is there anything false or socially evil in the depiction of this aspect of reality?

Cultural Changes

There are various factors responsible for the distortion of concepts and meanings in the Hindu texts, among which I would name the dominance of the Judeo-Christian thought and sensibility among Hindus as the foremost. It has become a fashion among Hindus today to portray themselves as more irrational than they really are by competing to be like Judeo-Christians in their worship, which really is a superstitious myth. In their ignorance, many still think that they have to go beyond common sense and intelligence in order to be considered religious or moral. Nothing can be further from the truth.

There is a new trend in the Hindu ‘caste’ criticism, especially by Christian missionaries worldwide, by naming it a ‘racial discrimination’. The accusation is that the Aryan invaders of yore, who are called Brahmins, consider themselves a superior race and the Hindu ‘caste’ has been created on the basis of racial categories. This myth can be exploded by just one instance. The Brahmin ‘castes’ in India as a rule did not intermarry with another Brahmin ‘caste’ in another language area, just like they didn’t with any other ‘caste’ in their own language area. This wouldn’t have been the case if the Aryan race was a fact or indeed the cause of the ‘caste’. The Aryan invasion theory has been dismantled since long, but the idea is still utilised by Christian missionaries in South India and by Tamil politicians to good effect.

The real victims of modern ‘caste’ discrimination are termed “untouchables”. Most of these people were originally outside the ‘caste’ society because from time immemorial they inhabited remote geographical zones (such as forests), where they had complete autonomy over their land, culture and society. Though interactions between the different groups were minimal, they were regular and recognised and accepted by Hindu kings and all caste groups. However, the old system and traditions broke down after the establishment of colonial laws.

The numerous traditional festivals [8], which have almost become extinct today, involving these groups indicate points of interaction between these societies on equal terms. Most of the “untouchable” groups enjoyed their own geographical space, occupation, customs and rituals, which were not violated under all circumstances by tradition and were accepted by all communities and the local Raja.

The violation began when European colonialists started clearing forests and encroached upon the geographical areas of the so-called ‘untouchables’ to preach Christianity to the forest dwellers. The rabid increase in the Indian population in the last 50 years combined with the import of European morality also compelled these vulnerable groups to also lose their dignity, forcing them to forsake their own land and traditions and learn the new language and culture of the Europeanised plains to become a servile class.

The significant number of dignified personalities (Vyasa, Visvamitra, Parasurama, Dronacharya, etc.) in ancient Hindu history who changed their ‘caste’ occupation indicates that the alleged features of the modern-day Hindu ‘caste system’ marked by extreme rigidity and inequality evolved later on in history. Foreign invasion was a major factor that rigidified social strata. A new study [9] shows a direct link between colonial practices and policies to the development of social inequalities in India. No doubt lots remains to be done not only in India but all parts of the world to get rid of social discrimination based on ethnicity, occupation and religion. This discrimination is not a monopoly of the religious group known as Hindus.


[1] See

[2] See


[4] Srimad Bhagavatam, Canto I, chapter 4, verse 25. See

[5] See Pandharinath H. Prabhu, Hindu Social Organisation, A Study of the Socio-Psychological and Ideological Foundations, in the chapter “Four Varnas” (Mumbai: Popular Prakashan, 2010) pp. 319-320. See in Google Books.

[6] For more details, consult a learned ayurvedic physician or Hindu acharya.

[7] See the ‘Simple English’ translation by Sri Kotikanyadanam Sreekrishna Tatachar:

[8] The Mannarkadu Pooram in Palakad District, Kerala, which took place for the last time in 1972, was the last of such festivals to have disappeared in India. It was a joint festival of the Attapady tribes and the people of the plains, which was a traditional venue for goods and cultural exchange.

[9] See Arvind Kumar, How British socialism created poverty and caste inequality:

 The author is a professional translator

Also read

1. Reviving caste-ism, dividing Hindus

2. How and why British created the modern Indian caste system


Caste based Census—A Conspiracy to destroy Hindu Society


Sadhu Prof. V. Rangarajan

About six crore of devotees from more than 140 countries speaking 56 languages visited Haridwar and took a dip in the holy Ganga during the period of the Kumbha Mela which concluded recently. They have all one and only identity—they are Hindus—children of Mother Bharat and those who adore this Holy Land as the land of their forefathers, the land of their hoary spiritual culture and heritage, the land of their salvation. When this ocean of humanity immersed itself into the surging waves of River Ganga, rubbing shoulders to each other, none of them did ask the question what was the caste of the one standing next to him or her in the cool waters of Mother Ganga, the Ganga maiya for all of them. When millions congregated in the dining halls spread out on the river bank by hundreds of religious and spiritual organizations to provide food for the pilgrims from far and wide, none in the gathering asked the question who was sitting next to him and partaking the food so lovingly served by their own Hindu brethren.

A few months earlier, there was a congregation of three million mothers lighting ovens in front of the Attukal Bhagavati temple near Tiruvanandapuram, to offer ‘Pongala’—sweet rice pudding prepared with milk and jaggery—to the Divine Mother. All the roads surrounding the temple town were blocked to enable the mothers to set up their ovens to prepare the Prasad for the Mother of all. The Guinness Book of Records called it the greatest congregation of women in the world. The mothers who stood in line to prepare the food for the Mother did not care to know to which caste the women standing next to them belonged. For all of them, She was the Only Mother and all were Her children.

Millions throng from all parts of the country and abroad to the renowned temples in India, whether Rameshwaram, Tirupati, or Kollur in the South or Kashi, Kedarnath, Badrinath or Vaishnodevi in the North. In last March, about 1 lakh devotees had Darshan of Tirupati Balaji on a single day. The pilgrims stand in long cues for hours together to have Darshan of their beloved Deity or to share the Prasad in the temple dining halls. None bothers about the caste of others standing or sitting by their side. In the schools, colleges, universities, market places, theatres and cinema halls, in the hotels and restaurants, in trains and buses, millions of people sit side by side, but no one has ever asked the caste of another sitting by his side. In crowded cities and towns, in flats and residential colonies, people of all castes and creeds live together.

Then where is caste?

Caste has never existed in the remote past nor does it exist today. The Vedas nowhere speak about caste system. Manu emphatically declares, “Janmanaa jaayate shoodrah, samskaarena dwijah”—all men are born as Shudras—unrefined—and by samskaara—refinement, one becomes a dwijah­—twice born, i.e., one among the Brahmanas, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas.

The classification of the four Varnas is not based on birth. Krishna says very clearly in the Srimad Bhagavad Gita—“Chaaturvarnyam mayaa srishtham, guna karma vibhaagashah”—”I have created the four Varnas on the basis of quality and temperament”.

Veda Vyasa was the son of Sage Parasara and born in the womb of a fisherwoman, but he became the Guru of all Gurus and compiler of the Vedas by virtue of his inclination and actions.

Satyakama Jabali was son of a woman who was serving many masters and therefore he could not know who his father was. His guru Haridrumata Gautama accepted him as a Brahmana because he spoke truth, and speaking truth was the noblest quality of Brahmana, and he became a great Upanishadic seer.

Narada was the son of a servant maid.

Ravana, though born as the son of a Brahmana, descended to the level of Rakshasa whereas his brother Vibhishana rose to become adored as an Alwar saint—a saint of the Vaishnava order.

There were anuloma and pratiloma marriages among the Hindus, one of the higher Varna marrying a girl from the lower Varna and vice versa, respectively.
The classification of the four Varnas mentioned in the Purusha Sookta, as rightly pointed out by Sri Guruji Golwalkar in the “Bunch of Thoughts”, speaks about the Raashthra Purusha.

The men in whom wisdom is predominant and who are inclined to spiritual life are the spokespersons of the Jnaanabhoomi, Karmabhoomi, Mokshabhoomi Bharat. Vasishtha, Viswamitra, Gautama and other rishis of highest enlightenment guided kings and emperors like Dasaratha and Janaka.

Men in whom the emotion, prowess—strength of the shoulder–, patriotism and the qualities of a warrior are predominant, become the protectors of the nation and society.

Men in whom entrepreneurial skill is predominant become Vaishyas or traders.

The common run, whose interest and inclination are to do casual work and eke out a living are Shudras.

All the four Varnas are various limbs of the Rashtra Purusha.  Nowhere it is said that one cannot move from one Varna to another.

Karna, who was considered as a charioteer’s son and was not accepted as Kshatriya, was appointed as King of Angadesha and elevated to the position of Kshatriya by Duryodhana.

Vishwamitra, who was a Rajarishi, was elevated to the position of Brahma Rishi and was accepted by Vasishtha.

Veetahavya, who was also a Kshatriya, became a Brahmana.

Valmiki, a hunter and dacoit by profession turned into the highest Brahmana of the land who gave us the Ramayana.

Parasurama and Dronacharya, though Brahmanas by birth, wielded weapons and chose to serve as Kshatriyas.

This classification on the basis of Varna gave strength to the Hindu society in most ancient times. When many civilizations and societies all over the world which arose in the later days crumbled because of their conflict with outside forces, Bharat withstood the invasions by Shakas, Hunas and Greeks and even absorbed many of them into the mainstream of Hindu race.

However, the rigidity of the Varna distinctions which later came to be called as casteism arose when society advanced with many professional groups coming into existence and intermarriages created many new castes and sub-castes.

In the historical period, reform movements like Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism cleansed the Hindu society of the disintegrating caste system and movements like those of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the Maharashtriyan saints like Ramdas, Tukaram and Eknath, the saints of South India like the Alwars and Nayanmars, Sri Ramanuja, Saint Ramalinga and Sree Narayana Guru fought against the distinction between castes as higher and lower.

 Swami Vivekananda, the greatest reformer and patriot monk of modern India, points out: “We believe in Indian caste as one of the greatest social institutions that the Lord gave to man. We also believe that though the unavoidable defects, foreign persecutions, and above all, the monumental ignorance and pride of many brahmanas who do not deserve the name, have thwarted in many ways, the legitimate fructification of the most glorious Indian institution, it has already worked wonders for the land of Bharat and is destined to lead Indian humanity to its goal.”

During India’s freedom struggle, many great Indian leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Lokamanya Tilak and Veer Savarkar strove to break the barriers between different castes and integrate the entire Hindu society. Mahakavi Bharati, the poet-patriot of the South sang: “Jaatikal etume illayadi paappaa, kulat taazchi uyarchi sollal paapam”—“There are no castes, it is sin to speak of higher and lower births.”
Swami Harshananda rightly points out: “There is no gainsaying the fact that during the last 150 years, there has been a true decline of the true spirit behind the caste system. It has been much more pronounced during the 50 years after our political independence.”The British colonialists made the best use of the caste distinctions among the Hindus to divide and disintegrate the nation to keep the country as a part of their empire and the Christian evangelists converted the poor and downtrodden Hindus into their religion to perpetuate the white man’s rule over this nation.


Dr. Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, who founded of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in 1925, had a deep foresight and he realized that unless and until the entire Hindu society from Kashmir to Kanyakumari stood as one man, wiping out all distinctions based on caste, colour and language, Bharatavarsha could not rise up once again as Hindu Nation and he launched the movement to integrate the entire Hindu society under one banner and with a fiery ideal of adoration of Motherland and elevating Mother Bharat once again as the Loka Guru.

In 1934, a winter camp of the Sangh took place in Sevagram at Wardha. One thousand five hundred Swayamsevaks participated in the camp which took place in an open ground near the Ashram where Gandhiji was staying. Seeing the disciplined manner in which the programme of activities of the Sangh were conducted, Gandhiji expressed his desire to visit the camp. As soon as the information reached the Sanghchalak, Sri Appaji Joshi, through Mahadeva Desai, Gandhiji was invited to the camp. On 25th December 1934, in the early morning, Gandhiji visited the camp and spent one and half hours with the Swayamsevaks. He was deeply impressed by their character, discipline and above all the unity which crossed all the barriers of caste and creed. He visited the camp hospital and the dining hall and when he found that the Swayamsevaks did not even care to know each other’s caste and lived like members of one family, he expressed his desire to meet the person who had built up this organization. Next morning, when Dr. Hedgewar visited the camp to participate in the concluding function of the camp, the information was conveyed to him and he accordingly called on Gandhiji in the night. Gandhiji spent an hour with Dr. Hedgewar discussing about the Sangh work. Gandhiji was amazed to find that what he was striving to do though his incessant propaganda, i.e., removing the blot of untouchability, was already achieved by Dr. Hedgewar through his Sangh Shakas.

After the attainment of Independence, it was expected that the distinctions in the name of caste will be totally wiped out, but the Europeanized politicians who came to power after the British left the shores of this land found a duck that lays the golden eggs in the caste system and realized that as long as they perpetuate the caste distinctions among the Hindus, it will be easy to create vote banks which will help them keep themselves in power perpetually. Therefore they have divided the parliamentary and assembly constituencies in such a way that one or the other caste is predominant there and by appeasing the caste leaders, they could create vote banks. Reservations in jobs, admission to educational institutions and even electing the peoples’ representatives on the basis of caste were found to be easy means to catch votes to remain in power. Today, even those who got converted to Christianity and Islam from Hinduism, apparently protesting against casteism in Hindu society, want to claim the rights given to Scheduled Castes and Tribes among the Hindus. It is those who want to deliberately keep the Hindu society divided for their nefarious political purposes that go on raising the charge that casteism is part of Hinduism.

The cunning politician today wants to perpetuate the disintegration and disunity among the Hindus by promoting census on the basis of castes. The foreign Christian missionary and evangelical organizations, who have a hold on the Government of India through a Christian leader of foreign origin controlling the ruling party, find an opportunity to fix their targets for large scale conversion through the caste based census which will disintegrate the Hindus.

The so called secular politicians of the country who have betrayed the Hindu society for the sake of power and have always been anti-Hindu, find this caste-based census as an opportunity to keep the Hindus ever divided so that no Hindu nationalist party would ever come to power. “The counting of castes in the ongoing census will weaken the efforts of social harmony and Rashtriya Ekatmata (national integration) being pushed by various organizations and people in the country. It will also ruin the dream of creating a casteless society as was emancipated by many great personalities like Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar and others.

The RSS has been working since beginning for the unity of the whole Hindu society irrespective of castes,” said RSS Sarkaryavah Shri Bhaiyaji Joshi, while talking to the media persons at the RSS headquarters in Nagpur, recently. Why is this caste-based census directed against the Hindus only? Among the Christians, there are so many castes like Catholics, Protestants, Lutherans and Syrians. Among the Muslims, there are Pathans, Labbais, Shias, Sunnis and Ahamadiyas. Will the caste-based senses take the head-count of all these groups? Caste-based census is a conspiracy of anti-Hindu politicians, Christian evangelists and Muslim fundamentalists to destroy Hinduism.

Patriotic Indian citizens, irrespective of caste, creed or linguistic differences, should oppose this caste-based census tooth and nail. In countries where Hindus are settled in large numbers, the caste distinctions are almost non-existent. Even in India, only in some remote village areas, these distinctions are prevalent, that too because of ignorance and because of the patronage of politicians who want to create vote banks in the name of caste.

The Sindhis, who are the descendants of the Vedic Rishis who built up the Hindu civilization on the banks of River Sindh, do not have any caste distinctions among them. The day casteism will be totally wiped out of India is not far. Why harp upon it again and again? Let us make positive efforts to remove the blot of Casteism that has crept into Hindu society as a virus infecting the whole body.

The Rishis addressed the whole of humanity as “Amritasya putraah”—Children of Immortality and called the whole world as one family, “Vasudaiva kutumbhakam”. They proclaimed a ‘Maanava Dharma’—Religion of Man— that is ‘Vishwa Dharma’—Religion of the World—which is the ‘Sanaatan Dharma’—the Eternal Religion.

They have entrusted to the children of Mother Bharat and their descendants the task of spreading in the entire world man-making and universal values of life. Let us fulfil the hopes and aspirations of our forefathers. We could achieve this mission only when we do away with all distinctions in the name of caste.

Let us declare ourselves as Hindus first and Hindus last and refuse to identify ourselves with any caste when the officials come to take the census.

Let us boldly declare that we have no castes and WE ARE HINDUS, WE ARE BHARATIYAS.

Vishwa Dharma ki Jai! Bharatamata ki Jai! Vande Mataram! 

Does Europe have a Civilising mission in India?


16 June 2008 – Issue : 786

Jakob De Roover is a Postdoctoral Fellow of the Research Foundation (FWO) at the Research Centre Vergelijkende Cultuurwetenschap, Ghent University, Belgium


Recently, the European Parliament hosted a meeting on “caste discrimination in South Asia”. At the meeting, participants stated that “India is being ruled by castes not by laws” and that they demanded justice, because there “is one incredible India and one untouchable India.” The EU was urged to come out with a policy statement on the subject. One MEP, referring to the caste system, said that “this barbarism has to end.” This is not the first time. However, before the EU decides to publish policy statements on caste discrimination in India, we would do well to reflect on some simple facts.

First, the dominant conception of the caste system has emerged from the accounts by Christian missionaries, travelers and colonial administrators. Rather than being neutral, these accounts were shaped by a Christian framework. That is, the religion of European visitors to India had informed them beforehand that they would find false religion and devil worship there, and that false religion always manifested itself in social evils. Especially the Protestants rebuked the “evil priests” of Hinduism for imposing the laws of caste in the name of religion. They told the Indians that conversion to Protestantism was a conversion to equality. Thus, Indian souls were to be saved from damnation and caste discrimination.

Second, this Christian account of “the Hindu religion” and its “caste system” informed colonial policies in British India. Building on the theological framework, scholars now wrote “scientific” treatises on Hindu superstition and caste discrimination.

The Christian mission found its secular counterpart in the idea of the civilising mission, which told the West that it had to rescue the natives from the clutches of superstition and caste. One no longer promoted religious conversion, but the colonial educational system harped on “the horrors of Hindu society.”

Third, the colonial educational project had a deep impact on the Indian intelligentsia. Hindu reform and anti-caste movements came into being, which reproduced the Protestant accounts of Hinduism and caste as true descriptions of India.

Their advocates did not adopt these descriptions as passive recipients, but actively deployed them to pursue socioeconomic and political interests. Political parties and caste associations were created to safeguard the interests of the “lower castes.” The elites of these groups united in associations and received financial and moral support from the missionaries and other progressive colonials.

Fourth, the “Dalit” movement of today is the product of these colonial movements. The notion of “Dalits” makes sense only within the colonial account of India, which had postulated the existence of one single group of “outcastes” or “untouchables” that was supposedly exploited by the upper castes. In reality, it concerns a variety of caste groups, with no criteria to unite them besides the claim that they are all “downtrodden.” Indeed, many of these groups are poor and discriminated against by other caste groups. However, their socio-economic interests have been hijacked by some of their western-educated elite members. In the name of the downtrodden, these elites establish NGOs and then travel from conference to conference and country to country in order to reveal the plight of the “Dalits” to eager western audiences and secure funding from donor agencies.

Fifth, when present-day Europeans rebuke Indian society for the “barbarism” of caste discrimination, they are reproducing the old stanzas of the civilising mission. Such a stance of superiority perhaps worked in the context of colonialism. But today, at a time when Indians buy some of the European industrial giants and Europe is in need of more collaboration with India, it is ill-advised to continue this type of civilisational propaganda.

In fact, such propaganda derives its plausibility from a series of assumptions that no one would be willing to defend explicitly. It attributes all socioeconomic wrongs of the Indian society to its structure and civilisation. The implication is that there is only one way to get rid of socio-economic wrongs here: one has to eradicate both the social structure and the Hindu civilisation. It is as though one would blame the racism, bingedrinking, pedophilia, poverty, homelessness and domestic violence in the contemporary West on its age-old civilisation.

The times have changed. As Europeans, we need to reflect on our deep-rooted sense of superiority and how this informs our moralising discourse on human rights in other parts of the world. To appreciate the impression we give to Indians with our statements on caste discrimination, just imagine a possible world in which the Indian government regularly castigates the US for its racism against African-Americans and the disproportionate death penalties, and the EU for the treatment of South Asians in England, Turks in Germany, women in Romania, the Basque movement in Spain, gypsies in Italy … just imagine Indian members of parliament consistently blaming the very structure of western societies as the cause of all these wrongs. Europe needs to wake up fast. The time of colonialism is over. If we do not change our attitudes, the irritation towards the EU will grow in countries like India and China. So will the unwillingness to collaborate. In the fast-changing world of the early 21st Century, Europe cannot afford this. 

Also read:

 How and why British created the modern Indian caste system

The following are excerpts from an essay that tries to explain how and why the British created the modern Indian caste system. It is a shame that current political and media forces, that run India, continue to do the same.

Ethnographic Mapping and the Construction of the British Census in India

 by Kevin Hobson



…. The caste system had been a fascination of the British since their arrival in India. Coming from a society that was divided by class, the British attempted to equate the caste system to the class system.

…. class is based on political and economic factors, caste is not.

…. the British saw caste as a way to deal with a huge population by breaking it down into discrete chunks with specific characteristics. …. it appears that the caste system extant in the late 19th and early 20th century has been altered as a result of British actions so that it increasingly took on the characteristics that were ascribed to by the British.

One of the main tools used in the British attempt to understand the Indian population was the census. … Among the many questions were enquiries regarding nationality, race, tribe, religion and caste.

 …. That reason was, quite simply, the British belief that caste was the key to understanding the people of India. Caste was seen as the essence of Indian society, the system through which it was possible to classify all of the various groups of indigenous people according to their ability, as reflected by caste, to be of service to the British.

Caste was seen as an indicator of occupation, social standing, and intellectual ability. It was, therefore necessary to include it in the census if the census was to serve the purpose of giving the government the information it needed in order to make optimum use of the people under its administration. Moreover, it becomes obvious that British conceptions of racial purity were interwoven with these judgements of people based on caste

 …. The word caste is not a word that is indigenous to India. It originates in the Portuguese word casta which means race, breed, race or lineage. However, during the 19th century, the term caste increasingly took on the connotations of the word race. Thus, from the very beginning of western contact with the subcontinent European constructions have been imposed on Indian systems and institutions.

 …. To the British, viewing the caste system from the outside and on a very superficial level, it appeared to be a static system of social ordering that allowed the ruling class or Brahmins, to maintain their power over the other classes. What the British failed to realize was that Hindus existed in a different cosmological frame than did the British. The concern of the true Hindu was not his ranking economically within society but rather his ability to regenerate on a higher plane of existence during each successive life. Perhaps the plainest verbalization of this attitude was stated by a 20th century Hindu of one of the lower castes who stated: “Everything lies in the hands of God. We hope to go to the top, but our Karma (Action) binds us to this level.” If not for the concept of reincarnation, this would be a totally fatalistic attitude but if one takes into account the notion that one’s present life is simply one of many, then this fatalistic component is limited if not eliminated….. The aim of the poor in the west is to improve their lot in the space of a single life time. The aim of the lower castes in India is to improve their position over the space of many lifetimes. It should also be borne in mind that an entire caste could rise through the use of conquest or through service to rulers. Thus, it may be seen that within traditional Indian society the caste system was not static either within the material or metaphysical plane of existence.

 With the introduction of European and particulary British systems to India, the caste system began to modify. This was a natural reaction of Indians attempting to adjust to the new regime and to make the most of whatever opportunities may have been presented to them. …. Men such as Ram Mohan Roy, Swami Dayananda, and Ramkrishna started movements that, to one degree or another, attempted to explore new paths that would allow them and their people to live more equitably within British India. Roy in particular sits this description with his notion that the recognition of human rights was consistent with Hindu thought and the Hinduism could welcome external influences so long as they were not contrary to reason.

 ….Unlike its predecessors in England, the census of India attempted not only to count, but to define and explain. As a result, the census became not simply an accounting of what existed but an active participant in the creation and modification of the society. As a result, Indians of many levels of society reacted to the census in attempts to gain or maintain status.

 …. this definitely shows that the actions of the British in classifying and enumerating castes within the census had heightened indigenous awareness of the caste system and had added an economic aspect that the Indian people were willing and anxious to exploit.

 …. Contrary to what the British appear to have believed, it seems doubtful that the Brahmans were dominant within the material world in pre colonial Indian society. A cursory examination of any of the ruling families quickly shows a dearth of families of the Brahmin caste. Rather, one finds that the majority, though by no means all, of rulers were Kshytria and occasionally Vashnia. This suggests that although the Brahmin caste had power in spiritual matters, their power and control within the material world was limited to the amount of influence that they could gain with individual rulers. No doubt there were instances when this was quite considerable but there is also little doubt that there were times when Brahman influence was very weak and insignificant.

 …. there was a belief in not only the superiority of the white races but that the inferiority of other races was believed to be caused by innate physiological attributes that could be observed and quantified. Belief in the innate inferiority of others and in the notion that this inferiority had physical, measurable manifestations was an old European tradition

 It therefore becomes plain that the British …. saw caste as being motivated by the principle of race purity. From this point it is a very short intellectual leap for the British to equate cast and race. That is, caste as a system created a system that preserved race purity and therefore castes represent that preserved purity.

 …. What seems, however, to have confused the British, was the fact that when they asked Indians to identify the caste, tribe or race for census purposes, they received a bewildering variety of responses. Often the respondent gave the name of a religious sect, a sub-caste, an exogamous sect or section a hypergamous group, titular designation, occupation or the name of the region he came from. Obviously Indian self identifying concepts were quite different from those concepts that the British expected.

 …. It is interesting to note that when modern sociologists posed the same type of question to Indians in the 1960s, they too received a wide variety of responses. The simplest explanation for this is that on a day to day basis caste may not be the most important factor in the life of a Hindu. While it is granted that extremely low groups such as the untouchables who suffer under a constant burden of being ritually polluting were very conscious of their caste and that Brahmins were also very caste conscious, it is questionable whether the majority of the Indian people actually concerned themselves with caste on a daily basis.

 This notion is given support by a handbill that was distributed by Arya Samaj in Lahore just prior to the 1931 census:

Remember! Operations Have Begun

Question        You Should Answer 

Religion           Vedi Dharm

Sect                 Arya Samajist

Caste              Nil

Race               Aryan

Language        Arya Bhasha

 …. consideration of answering “Nil” to caste must not have been beyond the realm of possibility for a large number of people. This would tend to indicate that attachment to and self identification by caste was not crucial to the self concept of at least a portion of the population. Moreover, it clearly indicates that this group has identified caste as a means of British control over the Indian people. …. Thus, the very institution of caste was now being seen as a tool of British rule rather than as an indigenous system of social organization.

 …. Indeed, there is ample evidence to show that the British viewed themselves as the source of knowledge for the Indian people and regarded the Indians in the same way as a scientist regards the subjects he studies.

 …. In examining the writings of Edward Dalton, Commissioner of Chutia Nagpur, the nomenclature alone is enough to indicate that the Indian people were regarded as less than human in at least some regard. People are referred to as “specimens” …..

 …. The conceptual framework within which Indian society was being understood was becoming British rather than Indian. This allowed the British to expropriate the basic concepts of Indian society and Anglicize it in such a way that only they would have the ability to interpret it within the new construct. A major factor in allowing this expropriation was the census system.

The censuses forced the Indian social system into a written schematic in a way that had never been experienced in the past. ….The data was compiled on the basis of British understanding of India. This understanding was deeply affected by British concepts of their own past, and by British notions of race and the importance of race in relation to the human condition. Further, the intellectual framework, such as that provided by anthropology and phrenology, that was used to help create the ideas surrounding the concept of race, was foreign to the intellectual traditions of India. These concepts endured well into the 20th century and affected the analysis of the censuses throughout this period.

 …. Indians attempted to incorporate themselves into this evolving system by organizing caste sabhas with the purpose of attaining improved status within the system. This ran contrary to traditional views of the purpose of the caste system and imposed an economic basis. With this, the relevance and importance of the spiritual, non material rational for caste was degraded and caste took on a far more material meaning. In this way, caste began to intrude more pervasively into daily life and status became even more coveted and rigid. In a sense, caste became politicized as decisions regarding rank increasingly fell into the political rather than the spiritual sphere of influence. With this politicization, caste moved closer to class in connotation.

 …. For the Indian people, the censuses acted as a catalyst for an increased consciousness of caste as caste status became an increasingly significant factor in attaining material status. While the original intent may have been to gather data to assist governments in dealing with natural disaster and famine relief, the effect of the analysis of that data went far beyond these goals. Ultimately, the census provided data that allowed the British to have a much deeper effect on Indian society than might otherwise have been possible.