Thursday, January 06, 2011

Liberation from caste identity - Part III

I had mentioned that some communities created their own religious culture owing to certain strong religious figures. These communities still followed the caste religious scriptures and retained the caste identity. It makes me wonder if other castes had joined them then whether the caste structure would have been demolished in those regions.

Before delving into 20th century religious cults, let me consider older examples. The Lingayat movement which started in 12th century in the present day region of Karnataka was probably the oldest experiment in this regard. At its inception it was anti-caste, Saiva monotheistic religion. The movement was headed by Basavanna, a Brahmin by birth. So, it was not exactly a caste specific movement but rather a prophet centric movement. The religious figures actively involved in proselytizing.  It had every characteristics of becoming a separate religion. However, later it turned into a mini-caste system. Its initial proselytism died out. As a religion it didn't show any radical alternative to the caste system. The untouchability concept was never discarded by the followers. In present times, there are voices that want this religion to be viewed differently from the caste system or Hinduism. However, the idea is not very strong considering lack of alienness between the Lingayats and the castes. Most likely, the separate religious status for the Lingayats only make them as another endogamous caste.

This is  in contrast to Sikhs. In many ways, they are similar to Lingayats. However, now they have created a separate identity from the castes. I believe the differences are:
- The name and the concept of god in Sikhism is different from the caste system whereas no such differences exist between Lingayatism and the caste system
- Sikhs have their own visible identity markers but Lingayats are indistinguishable from the castes
- Sikhs have 'holy book' identity but Lingayats haven't declared any such exclusive holy book even though it probably wasn't a big deal collecting the sayings of their Gurus
- Probably, the declaration of a holy book and the identification with it had made the caste scriptures alien to Sikhs. Or, since Sikhism was a non-Brahmin in nature, the caste scriptures and Sanskrit learning never really became part of their tradition. However, Lingayats even though initially against Sanskrit language and Vedic scriptures, later accommodated them. Since the founder himself was a Brahmin by birth they probably did have Brahmin influence among its members.
- Sikhs have made their personal names somewhat unique and uniform (though not radically different from the caste names but one can fairly identify the religion). However, Lingayat personal names are indistinguishable from those of caste personal names.

The above facts appear to infer that a unique religious identity based on alternate worldview is rather a function of unique conspicuous identity markers than the worldview itself. Thus a unique religious identity generally requires the following unique properties.
1. Unique god's name
2. Unique attire and/or unique physical marker
3. A holy book
4. A unique liturgy language
5. Unique personal names

How can we measure the success of these alternate worldviews in the societies where they are strong? In my opinion, it should be visible in the lower number of present day Dalits.

Anyway, these two Indian alternates for the caste system haven't done much to eliminate the worst of the caste system, untouchability. In fact, in Indian Punjab where Sikhs form the majority, nearly a third of the population still had Dalit identity(which I suppose indicates the continuation of caste specific marriages). Karnataka's Dalit population is comparable to other states' Dalit population.

Now let me move on to new religious movement which were also against the caste system. Most of these were caste specific. I'll consider the Advaita Saiva movement started by Narayana Guru in Kerala (I don't think they even have a unique identity for this movement). It's a caste specific movement of Ezhavas/Tiyyas. It didn't have a proselytizing outlook. But then there are many uncomfortable questions that come up.

- Whether Narayana Guru and his Ezhava followers would have been confident enough to take up their casteless ideology to other castes. Both Lingayatism and Sikhism had upper caste or fairly upper caste support but Ezhavas were part of the lower castes.

- Whether other castes would have been open to embrace 'Ezhava Shiva' centred religion, which opposed the caste system, renouncing their 'Brahmin Shiva' centred religion upholding the caste system. Even though, jealousy and the remnant caste feelings would have made this situation unlikely, things are not all that straightforward in India.

In India, we see godmen and godwomen from lower castes having a large number of followers cutting across the caste lines. Considering that this ignorance is so pervasive among a big chunk of brahmins too , we would never know the state of affairs if Ezhava movement had turned into a proselytizing religion giving an alternate to the caste system. However, Narayana Guru did not declare himself a godman and godmen/godwomen of India aren't bothered about creating the casteless society. But most likely,  since all these figures are theoretically celibate, one of the fundmentals of the caste system, the pollution of marriage between the castes, is  redundant in their world view. Apart from that, Ezhava religious movement doesn't have any of the five unique features -that I listed above- to become a unique religious identity.

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