Caste as India
When thinking of India it is hard not to think of caste. In comparative sociology and in common parlance alike, caste has become a central symbol for India, indexing it as fundamentally different from other places as well as expressing its essence. A long history of writing—from the grand treatise of the Abbé Dubois to the general anthropology of Louis Dumont; from the piles of statistical and descriptive volumes of British colonial censuses starting in 1872 to the eye-catching headlines of the New York Times—has identified caste as the basic form of Indian society. Caste has been seen as omnipresent in Indian history and as one of the major reasons why India has no history, or at least no sense of history. Caste defines the core of Indian tradition, and it is seen today as the major threat to Indian modernity. If we are to understand India properly, and by implication if we are to understand India’s other core symbol—Hinduism—we must understand caste, whether we admire it or revile it.
In The Discovery of India, Jawarharlal Nehru wrote that “Almost everyone who knows anything at all about India has heard of the caste system; almost every outsider and many people in India condemn or criticize it as a whole.” Nehru did not like the caste system any more than he admired the widely heralded “spiritual” foundations of Indian civilization, but even he felt ambivalence about it. Although he noted that caste has resisted “not only the powerful impact of Buddhism and many centuries of Afghan and Mughal rule and the spread of Islam,” as also “the strenuous efforts of innumerable Hindu reformers who raised their voices against it,” he felt that caste was finally beginning to come undone through the force of basic economic changes. And yet Nehru was not sure what all this change would unleash. “The conflict is between two approaches to the problem of social organisation, which are diametrically opposed to each other: the old Hindu conception of the group being the basic unit of organisation, and the excessive individualism of the west, emphasizing the individual above the group.” In making this observation, Nehru neatly captured the conceptual contours of most recent debates over caste: he evaluated it in relation to its place as fundamental to Hinduism, as well as in terms of a basic opposition between the individual and the community, an opposition that has provided the bounds of most modern social theory and political imagining. This opposition constitutes the basic limit to most understandings of caste, both in the West and within India itself.
Louis Dumont, the author of the most influential scholarly treatise on caste in the last half century, believed that the West’s excessive individualism was the single greatest impediment to the understanding of caste. Dumont began his book, Homo Hierarchicus, with a critique of individualism, claiming Marx and Durkheim as his sociological ancestors. For Dumont, “the true function of sociology is…to make good the lacuna introduced by the individualistic mentality when it confuses the ideal with the actual…. To the self-sufficient individual it [sociology] opposes man as a social being; it considers each man no longer as a particular incarnation of abstract humanity, but as a more or less autonomous point of emergence of a particular collective humanity, of a society.” Dumont based his suspicion of modern individualism on Toqueville’s analysis of American democracy, in which he noted that “individualism… disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellow-creatures; and to draw apart with his family and his friends; so that, after he has thus formed a little circle of his own, he willingly leaves society at large to itself… not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendents, and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back for ever upon himself alone, and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.” Dumont thus began his study of caste in India by placing it at the center of the sociological endeavor, and aligning himself with Toqueville’s critical lament about the rise of the “novel idea” of individualism.
For Dumont it is this same commitment to individualism, even within the sociological space of theorizing the social, that rejects the possibility that hierarchy, the core value behind the caste system, has not only been foundational for most societies but is naturally so. Dumont wrote that “To adopt a value is to introduce a hierarchy, and a certain consensus of values, a certain hierarchy of ideas, things and people, is indispensable to social life…. No doubt, in the majority of cases, hierarchy will be identified in some way with power, but there is no necessity for this, as the case of India will show…. In relation to these more or less necessary requirements of social life, the ideal of equality, even if it is thought superior, is artificial. Dumont made this point here in the service of a straightforward epistemological assertion, namely, that a Western audience (and as his prose makes clear, he could imagine no other) will misunderstand caste, and hierarchy, because of the modern denial of principles that seem opposed to individualism and equality. But his claims about the ideological foundations of hierarchical values in India— that India has always been mired in spiritual and otherworldly concerns— are not only deeply problematic, they are as old as Orientalism itself. For Dumont, caste is seen to express a commitment to social values that the modern world has lost, and it is hard not to read Dumont’s scholarship as a peculiar form of modern Western nostalgia, if with a long colonial pedigree. Dumont’s faith in a communitarian ideal may have little in common with Nehru’s anxiety about the demise of caste, but it asserts the view, largely shared in India as well as in the West, that caste is the sign of India’s fundamental religiosity, a marker of India’s essential difference from the West and from modernity at large.
This book will ask why it is that caste has become for so many the core symbol of community in India, whereas for others, even in serious critique, caste is still the defining feature of Indian social organization. As we shall see, views of caste differ markedly: from those who see it as a religious system to those who view it as merely social or economic; from those who admire the spiritual foundations of a sacerdotal hierarchy to those who look from below and see the tyranny of Brahmans (all the more insidious because of the ritual mystifications that attend domination; from those who see it as the Indian equivalent of community to those who see it as the primary impediment to community. But an extraordinary range of commentators, from James Mill to Hebert Risley, from Hegel to Weber, from G.S. Ghurye to M.N. Srinivas, from Louis Dumont to McKim Marriot, from E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker to B.R. Ambedkar, from Gandhi to Nehru, among many others who will populate the text that follows, accept that caste— and specifically caste forms of hierarchy, whether valorized or despised— is somehow fundamental to Indian civilization, Indian culture, and Indian tradition.
This book will address this question by suggesting that caste, as we know it today, is not in fact some unchanged survival of ancient India, not some single system that reflects a core civilizational value, not a basic expression of Indian tradition. Rather, I will argue that caste (again, as we know it today) is a modern phenomenon, that is, specifically, the product of an historical encounter between India and Western colonial rule. By this I do not mean to imply that it was simply invented by the too clever British, now credited with so many imperial patents that what began as colonial critique has turned into another form of imperial adulation. But I am suggesting that it was under the British that “caste” became a single term capable of expressing, organizing, and above all “systematizing” India’s diverse forms of social identity, community, and organization. This was achieved through an identifiable (if contested) ideological canon as the result of a concrete encounter with colonial modernity during two hundred years of British domination. In short, colonialism made caste what it is today. It produced the conditions that made possible the opening lines of this book, by making caste the central symbol of Indian society. And it did its work well; as Nehru was powerfully aware, there is now no simple way of wishing it away, no easy way to imagine social forms that would transcend the languages of caste that have become so inscribed in ritual, familial, communal, socioeconomic, political, and public theaters of quotidian life.
In the pages that follow I will trace the career of caste from the medieval kingdoms of southern India to the textual traces of early colonial archives; from the ethnographic writings of colonial administrators and missionaries to those of twentieth-century Indian scholars. I will focus on early colonial efforts to know India well enough to rule it and profit by it, as they brought together the many strands of scientific curiosity, missionary frustration, Orientalist fascination, and administrative concerns with property and taxation in the service of, among other things, colonial governmentality. I will follow these conjunctural imperatives as they increasingly substituted statistical and ethnographical techniques for historical and textual knowledge, as they drew from an ample inheritance of Orientalist generalization to articulate the justifications for permanent colonial rule, and as they took on the racialized languages and conceits of late nineteenth-century world systems. And I will illustrate some of the ways in which this history provided the frame for an alternative history of social reform and nationalist resistance which worked to throw out colonialism while absorbing from colonial encounters many of the terms and arguments of self-determination and self-government. I will also survey the rise of caste politics in the twentieth century, focusing in particular on the emergence of movements that threatened to fracture nationalist consensus even as they revealed the problematic charters, and entailments, of anticolonial nationalism. For the purposes of this book, this history will attain its apotheosis in the debates over the use of caste for social welfare in the postindependence contexts of “reservations,” quotas and affirmative action.