Caste is a pervasive phenomenon in South Asia. The roots of caste lie in the hierarchical structure imposed on Hindu society by Brahmin priests. They made it sacred and inviolable by including the observation of caste rules an essential part of their holy books and integral to their conception of ‘dharma’. Dharma is a word associated with many religions of South Asian origin. But it is defined in a different way by each one of them. Brahmin literature considered the mixing of castes an abomination. Hence, it was the duty of every Hindu king to make sure that the rules of the caste system were implemented with great rigour, and those who violated it were punished severely.

This effectively reduced Hindu ‘dharma’ to the observation of highly discriminatory caste-based, purity-pollution-centric practices. So higher caste parents preventing their offspring from marrying lower caste individuals were not seen as disrupting Hinduism but preserving its social order. The segregation of people from different castes has become a source of deep embarrassment to some Hindus. They usually try to defend it by blaming it on the British policy of divide-and-rule in South Asia. Or saying that the division of castes was based on skill rather than birth to begin with, a practice that was corrupted and forgotten over time, and degenerated into a highly fractious social order with thousands upon thousands of caste groups (‘jatis’ in Hindi and other Indian languages).

However, such fiction is difficult to maintain in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Hinduism is based on the principle of caste, first and foremost. The Indo-Aryans who arrived in India were divided into three groups (based on occupation) – the priests (who would evolve into the Brahmin caste), the warriors (who would become the Kshatriyas) and the commoners (mostly peasants, known as the Vish). Over time, with the inclusion of non-Aryan peoples (as artisans and menial labour) in Indo-Aryan polities, a fourth group arose, the Shudras. They were held in contempt, forced to perform labour and considered ritually impure. Buddhism acted as a countervailing force to the Brahmins, questioning their supremacy, and arguing that ‘dharma’ lay not so much in observing Brahmin-ordained caste rules and rituals, as it did in treating people with compassion, and avoiding excesses.

The literature of Buddhists, and many other non-Brahmin groups is full of references to caste and its restrictive nature. It appears even in the folktales of Adivasi (mostly non-Aryan tribes) and Dalit (also known as untouchables) communities, two groups who suffered the most. Much of it predates the arrival of the British (and even the Muslims, whom some upper caste Hindus blame for India’s degradation). So the excuse of casteism being a British creation is just that, an excuse. Given below is a cautionary tale from the book ‘Folklore of the Santal Parganas’. Authored by Cecil Henry Bompas, it brought together the ancient legends of the Santal (or Santhal) people of Eastern India (Odisha, Jharkhand, Bihar and Bengal), an Austro-Asiatic community related by speech to the Khmers of Cambodia and the Kinh of Vietnam. Published in 1909, it clearly lays out the birth-based nature of caste, pointing out that irrespective of his or her level of education or excellence in other matters, a Santal will always be held in contempt by upper caste communities (hence, the futility of trying to escape one’s identity).

A Story on Caste

There was once a village inhabited only by Musahars. Among them was one girl who was so beautiful that she seemed more than human. Her father and mother were so proud of her looks that they determined not to marry her to a man of their own caste. They were constantly discussing whom they should choose as a son-in-law; one day they began to consider who were the greatest persons in the world. The old woman was of opinion that there was no one greater than Chando, the Sun God, and suggested that they should marry the girl to him. Her husband agreed and off they set and presented themselves before Chando. Chando asked why they had come. “O Chando, we understand that you are the greatest being in the world and we have come to marry our daughter to you.”

Chando answered, “I fancy there is some one greater than I.” “Who is he?” asked the parents. “The cloud is greater than I, for it can hide my face and quench my rays.” At this the father and mother hurried off with their daughter in search of the cloud, and when they found him, told him that they had brought their daughter to give him to wife, as he was the greatest being in the world. “I may be great,” said the cloud, “but there is a greater than I, the wind. The wind rises and blows me away in a minute.” So they went in search of the wind and when they found him, explained to him why they had brought him their daughter.

The wind said, “I am strong but there are stronger than I. The mountains are stronger. I can blow things down or whirl them away, but I cannot move the mountains.” So on they went to the mountain and explained their errand. The mountain said, “I am great but there are more powerful than I. The ground-rat is more powerful, for however high I may be the ground-rats burrow holes in me and I cannot resist them.”

The poor parents by this time began to feel rather discouraged, but still they made up their minds to persevere and went on to look for the ground-rat. They found him and offered him their daughter in marriage, but the ground-rat denied that he was the most powerful being on earth. The Musahars were more powerful for they lived by digging out ground-rats and eating them. The hapless couple went home very dejectedly, reflecting that they had begun by despising their own caste and had gone in search of something greater and had ended where they began. So they arranged to marry their daughter to a man of their own caste after all.

Moral: You should not despise your own caste or race; you cannot help what caste you are born into. A Santal may learn to read and write and associate with men of good position and thereby his mind may be perverted. He may wish to change his caste and become a Sadhu, or a Kherwar, or a Boistab, or a Mussulman, or a Christian or anything else; but people will still know him for a beef-eating Santal. If he becomes a Christian, no one will think him the equal of a Saheb or a Brahman; no Saheb will marry his daughter or give him his daughter in marriage. Remember what happened to the Musahar, who despised his own caste. God caused you to be born in a certain caste. He and not we made the different castes, and He knows what is good and bad for us.

Note: The Musahars are a Dalit community who lie almost at the bottom of the pile in the Hindu caste hierarchy. They are to be found in Nepal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, in North India. The lowest of the low, they survived by trapping and eating rodents found in the fields of upper caste landlords, or performing menial labour. The community is still persecuted (being the victim of several massacres perpetrated by upper caste militias in the state of Bihar) and neglected, with horrifying levels of poverty and malnutrition. Their name means ‘rat-eaters’. The Santal live in some of the regions where the Musahars are to be found. Being an independent non-Aryan tribe with territory and landholdings of their own means that they are much better off, even if they have not completely escaped the prejudice of their upper caste neighbours.

Image Attribution: The image above is sourced from Wikimedia Commons and has been taken from a book, ‘The People of India’, an eight-volume series compiled by John Forbes Watson and John William Kaye between 1868 and 1875. This ethnographic study was conducted at the behest of the then Governor General of India, Lord Canning and is a treasure trove of information (especially the photographs of different communities across the length and breadth of the subcontinent).