New perspectives on caste

Print edition : September 26, 1998

Caste: Origin, Functions and Dimensions of Change by Suvira Jaiswal; Manohar, 1998; pages xii + 278, Rs.500.

AT present India is witnessing massive social engineering. A case is being made out for caste-based enumeration in the first Census of the 21st century, and the question of gender-based reservation in the political apparatus has generated caste-based passions. In times such as these, the publication of Professor Suvira Jaiswal's anthology is timely.

Suvira Jaiswal belongs to that rare breed of historians who have contributed to our understanding of the dialectics of change in Indian society through millenniums. For the last quarter of a century she has pursued her enquiries into the origin, functions and vicissitudes of caste, through a multi-pronged analysis.

Four chapters (2-5) of the book deal with the following topics: Historiographic landmarks; paradigms of the stratification in Rg Vedic society (c. 1500 - c. 1000 B.C.); social stratification in early Buddhism and the changing concept of gahapati (c. 600 B.C. - c. A.D. 200); and caste and Hinduism: the changing paradigms of brahmanical integration (c. A.D. 500 onwards). The texts of all these chapters are available in print, in one form or another. However, these have been updated for this volume.

Discussing the society delineated in the Rg Veda, Prof. Jaiswal characterises it as a "simple", as opposed to a "complex", hierarchically stratified one. She also underlines the transitional character of Rg Vedic society and the changing pattern of the family therein. Such a reconstruction is particularly noticeable for its critical analysis of the "avant-garde concepts" of "lineage society" and "lineage mode of production". Contesting the validity of this model, Jaiswal argues that it blurs the "qualitative distinction between exploitation of biologically determined age and sex groups by the elders of the same lineage and the exploitation of junior lineages based on fictive or real genealogical connections by senior lineages of a stratified society where kinship is little more than a metaphor for class" (page 191). We are, however, not sure if caste too was a metaphor for class in the ancient and early medieval periods (pp. 200-01, n. 16).

The chapter also discusses the question of ethnicity of the Aryans. The suggestion that the use of the term "Aarya" to denote a branch of the Indo-Europeans in the ethnic sense required a more extensive discussion than what one reads in the present volume. It would be relevant to recall in this contest Enric Aguilar I Matas' study Rigvedic Society (E.J. Brill, Leiden, 1991), which seems to have escaped the notice of Jaiswal. It questions many stereotypes prevailing in the analyses of the Rg Vedic tradition and rejects "ethnic denominative Aarya".

Following the lead given by the renowned historian D.D. Kosambi more than four decades ago, some important studies have been made on the social changes reflected in the early Buddhist texts in Pali. One important aspect that affected social stratification in the half millennium that preceded the advent of the Christian era was focussed on the changing role of grihapati (in Sanskrit sources)/gahapati (in Pali works). Jaiswal shows (in Chapter IV) that the early Vedic grihapati was not an ordinary householder but a "leader of the extended kin-group which constituted a unit of production as well as consumption." In addition, it is stressed that the shift from nomadic pastoralism to sedentary agriculture led to the grihapati's transformation as the head of a complex household structured on patriarchal principles.

The nuance implied in the conjuncture/disjuncture in grihapati / gahapati does not comprise a mere shift in the meaning from "denoting a householder to denoting an agriculturist" as Kosambi suggested long ago. Instead, grihapati-gahapati signified heads of production units albeit of different types. Jaiswal rightly feels the necessity to distinguish "household system" from "household economy".

The last chapter, focussing on the changing paradigms of brahmanical integration, covers a much wider chronological phase (nearly 1,500 years starting in c. A.D. 500) and comes down to the present-day vocation of 'Rama-Bhakti' by the votaries of Hindutva. Jaiswal's hypothesis tends to highlight the brahmanical paradigm of social integration where "caste continues to be its constitutive element and its identification mark" (page xi). Attempts to homogenise the social reality of multiple-fragmented identities in the garb of religious-cultural symbols failed miserably as, for instance, in the case of the Arya Samaj.

With such a historical insight, Jaiswal is able to remind us that the symbol chosen by the champions of Hindutva for social integration, namely, Rama, was an upholder of the patriarchal norms and the varna system and had no qualms in ordering the beheading of a shudra (Shambook) for practising austerities which led to the premature death of a Brahmin's son.

Suvira Jaiswal rightly rejects "legitimising reference to the authority of the Veda" in defining the parameters of Hinduism (page 227). She is also justified in asserting that the "confrontation with Islam ... introduced a cultural and religious dimension into the term Hindu, which originally had a geographic connotation" (page 229). We can also go along with her in seeing the role of the ruling authority in protecting the varna system (going back to the early medieval period) becoming extremely conventional and stereotyped (page 230). However, there is oversimplification in Jaiswal's formulation that "religious pluralism evinced by Hinduism is a consequence of the brahmanical integrative process" (page 228). It is too cryptic and needs considerable amplification - more so because both the component and the content of the term 'brahmanical' are questionable. These probably need to be explicated in time and space, for Jaiswal is not unaware of the "divergent structural categories of caste" (page 17).

The introduction (pp. 1-31) seeks to provide the connecting link for all these contributions. Jaiswal not only reiterates her critique of Dumont's "brahmanical view of caste" delineated in his Homo Hierarchicus but also ventures to offer a strong rebuttal of Marxist historians on caste. She takes them to task for ignoring the "role of patriarchy and subjugation of women in its ideology and rules of endogamy." Referring specifically to Kosambi, she goes to the extent of saying that some of his assumptions smack of the "racial explanation" given by the colonialist Herbert Risley (page 3).

There are two other important thrusts emerging out of this study: the potentialities of the regional specificities of caste; and the crucial role played by the suppression of women as a class, apart from the factors of endogamy, occupational specialisation and hierarchical gradation, in the formation of caste society (emphasis added). In underlining both thrusts, Jaiswal clearly stands out as a Marxist historian who is not prepared to be herded.

This study is also notable for the absence of two points. First, the five hundred years from c. 200 B.C. to c. A.D. 300 constitute a landmark in the evolution of the Indian social organism. Second, another half a millennium of early medieval India (c. A.D. 500-1000) also witnessed the proliferation of castes. Jaiswal ought to have found separate space for these rather than subsume them under the paradigms of "early Buddhism" and "brahmanical integration" respectively. For instance, how far can the emergence of segmented identities by the early centuries of the Christian era (page xi) be related to what some historians have called the "Vaishya mode of production"? Also missing is a similar thrust vis-a-vis the proliferation of castes in early medieval India. This would have put a question mark on the overarching, socially integrative role ascribed to brahmanical initiative. It would have also buttressed Jaiswal's critique of Dumont's "brahmanical view of caste".

Some prophets of doom, especially of the unprofessional Right, proclaim the impending "funeral" of Marxist writings on Indian history. Others sitting or writing in cozy locales of Paris and Heidelberg tend to take on the 'Left establishment'. Both converge on the point of treating neo-colonialist writings with kid gloves. At a time when it is fashionable to criticise Marxist writings in the manner of a passerby enjoying giving a brutal blow to an unknown fallen "criminal" on the road, it is quite courageous of Jaiswal to have come out with this anthology. It is a forceful reiteration of her well-known Marxist position. Insofar as she has also stressed the indispensability of focussing on women as a class, she has not only provided a fresh gendered perspective of caste, but also a refined Marxian disposition towards this well-entrenched phenomenon of Indian society.

K.M. Shrimali is Professor of History, University of Delhi.

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