Sunday, November 14, 2010

Liberation from caste identity - Part II

2. Alternative Worldviews:
In the alternate world of united India, would it be possible for the intellectual classes of underprivileged castes to liberate their fellow caste men? As we have already seen proselytizing religions might have attracted many a family from these castes. However, whether the castes as a whole might have converted is difficult to imagine. Some of the castes have created their own religious structure on account of certain strong religious figures, but, they too have adopted the Vedic scriptures. It's tough to determine whether they have overcome the caste identities. I'll take up a scenario where intellectual classes coming up with alternate worldviews. But is it possible?

An alternate worldview requires a reference ideals. These are not hard to find after the success of,
- human rights
- scientific methodology
- fiscal accountability (maybe)
in western European society. However, the problem is all of these are textbook ideals for the castes. These are neither part of traditions nor written in holy books. And thus, do not invoke respect or reverence.

Then what is the alternate worldview that these intellectual classes can propagate?

Few years back I read an article in a Kannada periodical belonging to a Malayali weavers' caste that somewhat looks in that direction. First let us check what the author had to say when this community faced its greatest crisis or moment of truth around 50 years ago. I have translated the article from Kannada.

When we rewind our memories to 50 years back, the visual that opens up and haunts our minds was that of perennial struggle with poverty, ignorance, illiteracy and inferiority complex. It was a time when our dependence on our caste occupation led us to pauperism. Majority were below poverty line. No education; No job; No roof on top; No clothes to wear; The caste occupation was our slow poison. When the question of life and death looming large, how many of us left our loved ones and migrated to unknown lands in search of jobs? How many of us ended up wearing masks to escape from inferiority complex, suspicion, disrespect, poverty and illiteracy? When the caste and the caste occupation couldn't lift us up form this predicament, how many of us became chameleons to assimilate into a new place, a new language, new people and a new environment?
Here we observe that except for poverty all other handicaps like inferiority complex, suspicion, disrespect and ignorance were legacy of the caste system. However, the author doesn't see those as the necessary requirements to escape from the caste identity. In fact, he calls upon younger generation, whom he views as successful on account of being educated and successful in their new fields, to take pride in their caste identity and continue the cultural traditions ( of course not the ones that required them behave like slaves in front of Brahmins) associated with the caste system or Hinduism.

This is a typical case of pooling individual successes of the present (despite the caste) to give respect to their past caste identity. It's again accepting a philosophy that during their moment of truth acted as a catalyst for their failures or legitimized their failures as an expression of the lower birth. More importantly, it is like accepting an ideology which transfers what should have been society's failure as whole to individual's failure thus further limiting generations of such individuals' families. This type of misguided pride in the caste identity and ideology can get perverted and can take as a vengeful caste pride in the case of castes with numbers in their side. Nevertheless, the author here is trying to give an identity to the younger generation who he believes, and probably correctly, as confused. So what is his worldview or ideals for the younger generation?

Nobody is superior and nobody is inferior in a society. As discerning critics and great souls have said, we are all essentially animals. Brahminhood is nothing but our intellectualism, discretion and good characters. We find barbarians who claim to be brahmins but behave even worse than petty animals amongst us or in our neighbourhood. Therefore, we should be brahmins by deeds. It is possible to achieve brahminhood whatever be the caste or whatever be the society around us.

The problem is that the salient features of brahminhood is an unqualified statement.

Let us forget all that self realization dumbness - even though that probably was one of his ideals- as it is fundamentally a flawed philosophy (misunderstanding of sexual I have argued in one of the posts before).

Let us overlook the castiest purity rules that were part of the good characters which required them piously discriminate other castes in the past.

Let us overlook patriarchal good characters which were completely misogynistic including that grotesque ideal of viewing females as gods. In fact, in many of these characters Malayali non-brahmin castes were very progressive with their serial monogamy for both males and females including widow re-marriage and divorce. Ironically, in present day middle class Kerala society it might be not very easy for Malayali widows to re-marry or divorcees to find men.

Let us overlook vegetarianism though many in the underprivileged castes think Brahmin success in education is because of their vegetarianism. For some strange reason the counter arguments considering the successful non-vegetarian Brahmin communities or non-vegetarian European society or argument that Brahmin communities had three to four generations of headstart in modern education along with their literate outlook do not help. I believe of all the things since it's the easier and cheaper one to follow that might have made the choice of vegetarianism attractive for many artisan and merchant castes.

I believe the author is hinting at simple life, integrity and discipline.

In my opinion, the first one is related to non-productive life that Brahmins lived. When the 'dharma' of a Brahmin was not material gain then simple life follows easily from that. However, it's completely irrelevant for productive people like weavers. In fact, majority of them lived simple life by default owing to their poverty in the past.
Integrity is indeed a noble ideal however if you consider non-materialist dharma of Brahmins it was in fact irrelevant in their case (make note integrity in other parts of life is obsolete as I have mentioned how Brahmin worldview might be considered very barbaric in those cases). It should be noted here that money making does not have noble obligations in the caste scriptures. In fact there was no dharma associated with money making thus there was no sin in wrongful money making. If anything was there it was for Brahmins and not for Vaisyas and Sudras. It's a fact of life in India that money making is considered legally corrupt and hence acceptable for everyone. The gods of India themselves require monetary inducements or monetary gratefulness. It may look contradictory to Brahmin ideals however considering the fact that only Agni is Brahmin among gods and the rest all part of either other Varnas or not part of the caste system, it makes sense. Thus integrity was not part of the gods too (as Agni isn't worshipped in India). If an Indian subscribes to the caste ideals and maintains his/her integrity then most likely it is out of indifference to life and not because it is the right thing for a human being.

Then there is discipline. Well, it was a must trait for any occupation. There is nothing Brahmin about it. But I'm not sure whether transferring the concept part of their occupation to education is intuitive for non-brahmins as it's for brahmins.

I think I can skip 'intellectualism' and 'discretion'.

So, what we understand here is, it would have been tough for intellectual class to come up with an alternative living in its Indian identity. It's a different matter if they are able to absorb the universal characters, that I have talked in the beginning and which became successful in Western Europe, as part of their communities' traditional culture and identify themselves with them.

How about the period when Islam didn't have much impact? The intellectual classes existed in pre-Islamic South India among these underprivileged castes. But they lost out mainly because they couldn't come up with alternate identities. Around 13-14th century when South India had stable kingdoms and trade flourished, such elite classes came into existence among many castes. Many artisans, fishermen, trader castes claimed Brahminhood or Kshatriyahood or Vaisyahood and wrote their own scriptures or came up with their own mythologies (notable thing is dominant agricultural castes though Sudras technically but never faced handicaps because of it didn't claim any higher Varna credentials).What we see in this seemingly stupid, hilarious or hypocritical act, in whatever the way one sees it, it shows no caste in its right mind accepted that it's low or some other caste is high. I have seen certain types of interpretations that the people accepted caste hierarchies without any kind of protests that we see in the class wars of Europe. In my belief it was the self-sustaining nature of the caste system that kept it for so long. There were rebellions in the past but they were put down by the castes just above them thus never really challenging the brahmin authority.

However, ironically, it was not the idea that there was nothing low or high by birth that remained in descendants of those communities today but their claimed higher castehood. It is very clear, that most of them became part of backward castes and needed to be helped by affirmative actions, that their forefathers idea of 'upgrading' didn't really work.

Unfortunately that intellectualism eludes a big chunk of them still today. And since 19th century literates among dominant castes see their second rank in the society unacceptable or Sudra title equally humiliating have come up with their higher Varna claims like 13-14th century artisans and merchants.

1. Homo Hierarchicus by Louis Dumont

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