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July 2019 Edition of Power Politics is updated.    Wishing You All a Happy New Year.       July 2019 Edition of Power Politics is updated.
Issue:June' 2019


Of caste & cultural imposition

Anuradha Dutt

I n a victory speech, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that henceforth there would be two jatis: the deprived and those in a position to ameliorate their lot. This obliterates India’s caste-ridden polity. And Bharatiya Janata Party’s 303 majority tally in Lok Sabha indicates that its support base transcends caste-based vote banks.
Colonial ethnography propounded that caste is fixed at birth, presupposing an inflexible system, hinging on four savarna tiers – Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaish, Shudra – , helmed by priests. In this ordering, detailed in Manusmriti, its composition spanning 2nd century AD-4th century AD, Antayaj or untouchables were at the end of the spectrum; and mlechh, aliens outside it. This text, considered the fulcrum of Hindu society by British administrators, was legitimised via reservations for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in government jobs and educational institutes, with ‘other backward classes’ added via implementation of the Mandal Commission report in August 1990. But Manusmriti’s varnas are based on Zoroastrian pistras of East Iran before the Islamic blitzkrieg flattened these.

Arya Samaj founder Swami Dayanand Saraswati’s repudiation of the savarna construct as non-Ved holds true as there is no real evidence to trace its genesis to Nigam shastras, Rig, Sama, Yajur and Atharva Ved; or to pre-Vedic Indus Valley Civilisation ethos. Preponderance of fertility and nature symbols, and Mother Goddess and Pashupatinath seals links the sites to Shaiv-Shakt metaphysics that encompasses Kundalini yog and Tantra, detailed in Agam shastras. These centre on mutual dynamics of male and female principles and their union into a composite whole sustaining creation. Patanjali yog is free of savarna cant. Jain and Buddhist quests are in conflict not with the Vedic way but savarna ideology.

Caste: post-Vedic

Savarna ideology’s emergence is implicit in Gautam Buddh and Mahavir, BC 5th century, opposing it. The Ved, spanning BC 1,500-BC 500, centre on immanence of divinity. So do their philosophical extensions, Upanishads.

Historian A.L. Basham noted the similarity between pistras and savarna tiers in The Wonder that was India, Part I, published in 1954. Denkard (Acts of Religion), Book 3, edited by Peshotun Dustoor Behramjee Sunjana, 1876; ‘Ancient Persian influence on Hinduism’ by Ruby Lilaowala; ‘Zoroastrianism – Zoroastrian Priests’ by Jayaram V, and other sources underline pistras-varnas affinity.

‘Purush Sukta’ in Rig Ved, X, which describes ‘Virat Purush’, cosmic man, is considered by caste proponents as the nucleus of hierarchy. However, this hymn is dated at least a thousand years after Rig Ved was composed, its Sanskrit being a later type. Influential scholars such as Max Mueller and Albrecht Weber considered it an interpolation. Henry Thomas Colebrook observed in Miscellaneous Essays, published in 1837 -

Spread of Budhism “That remarkable hymn is in language, metre and style, very different from the rest of the prayers with which it is associated. It has decidedly a more modern tone, and must have been composed after the Sanskrit language was refined”.
Sociologist Max Weber stated that it was “considered a very late passage” in the essay ‘India: The Brahman and the Castes’.
Rig Ved goes back to 1,500 BC or earlier. ‘Purush Sukta’ narrates that from the mouth of the cosmic being emerged the Brahmin; arms, Rajanya; thighs, Vaish; and feet, Shudra. Yet, the word ‘Shudra’ is not found in Rig Ved, barring this hymn, whose dating indicates a much later context for the term. The hymn also appears in Atharva Ved, last Ved, contemporaneous with emergence of social biases; and other texts.

Denkard (Acts of Religion), was a 9th century AD Persian compendium of ancient Avestan beliefs, customs and observations from lost texts, concerning Mazdayasni Zarathustris. Chapter 42, Book 3 similarly classified the world-body, indicating East Iranian legacy as source of ‘Purush Sukta’ and savarna tenets. Excerpt :

“The dignity of the head in the human body is [allotted] to the profession of Athornan [priests]; of the hand, to the profession Arthestar [rulers/warriors]; of the belly, to the profession Vastariush [cultivators/husbandsmen]; and of feet, to the profession of Hutoksh [artisans/menials]: thus, it is symbolically shown that, in rank and dignity, the profession of Athornan is as the head of the world; the profession of Arthestar is as the hands of the world; the profession of Vastariush is as the belly of the world; and the profession of Hutoksh is as the feet of the world”.

In ‘Puruish Sukta’, the word ‘thighs’ replaced Persian ‘belly’ while ‘Shudra’ is traced to Persian ‘Hutoksh’. The sukta’s appearance in Rig Ved is in sync with the timeline for escalating inroads by migrants from Persia, this Mediterranean region, Middle East, Asia Minor and Central Asia. Their assimilation spurred forming of hierarchy, catapulting the more adroit to the apex. It displaced avarna peoples, viewed as heretics; or if engaged in stigmatised work, as outcastes when priestcraft peaked after Muslim assaults.


The word ‘caste’ stems from Spanish/Portuguese ‘casta’, racial indice used by European colonisers of South America and India to classify people via colour, ethnicity, place of origin. Colonial ethnographers wrongly equated caste with Sanskrit ‘varna’, a fluid indice for assessment in terms of diet, disposition, action, work and conduct, subject to change.

Mundaka Upanishad, III. ii. 9, states who really is a ‘Brahman/Brahmin’

‘He who knows the Supreme Brahman verily becomes Brahman'.

‘Brahmán’ in the Vedic ritual corpus signified chief priest while subsidiary priests were hotr, udgatr, adhvaryu, etc. As a class priests were called Vipra, and their services were requisitioned for a fee. By the time savarna distinctions crystallised, as in Manusmriti and allied dharma shastras of the Christian millennium, priests were law-makers.

Priestcraft is distinct from Dharma, universal and timeless moral code that transcends manmade systems and labels. ‘Hindu’ derived from Persian enunciation of ‘Sindhu’, Indus river in Sindh. Hindu Dharma comprises composite beliefs of the majority, centring on theism.

Hinduism assimilates outsiders, usually by giving them a gotra, caste and Sansritised name via diverse denominational routes. That is how prelates and gurus enlarge their flock so that the number of foreign adherents is swelling. ‘Gotra’ originally denoted a cow pen but was later linked with names of rishis such as Kashyap, Gautam, Vasishth, Shandilya, Bharadwaj, Vishwamitra, Atri and the like. Only Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaish - twice-born among savarnas as they are initiated into learning via bestowal of janeau or sacred thread and Gayatri mantra - have claim to a rishi gotra. The rishi represents the first progenitor.

Significantly, there are no allusions in the earliest religious corpus, Vedic or epics, termed itihas, to gotras or caste names of individuals though families and dynasties are cited, as well as descent from rulers, celestials, Nags (serpent humanoids) and other progenitors, and association with sages/gurus. Lord Ram was of Ikshvaku dynasty; Raghuveer, hero of King Raghu’s clan; Raghav, of King Raghu’s dynasty; Raghunath, lord of Raghu’s clan; and Dasharathnandan, son of Dasharath. Similarly, Lord Krishna was Yaduvanshi, of the dynasty of King Yadu; Vasudev Krishna, father’s name used as a prefix; Devakinandan, son of Devaki, biological mother; and Yashodanandan, son of Yashoda, foster mother. Bhishm was Gangaputra, son of river Ganga; and Karna was Suryaputra, son of the sun god. Among Sita’s numerous names were Janaki, King Janak’s daughter; and Maithili, princess of Mithila. And Draupadi, daughter of King Drupad, was also Panchali, Panchal princess, and Krishnaa, of dusky hue.

Gotras, castes and family names/suffixes as identity markers developed when missionary Hinduism gained momentum.

‘Kashyap’ is the universal gotra, possibly because, as in Srimad Bhagwat Puran saga of creation – dated to the latter half of the Christian millennium - , Maharishi Kashyap and his myriad wives generated the most varied and largest number of beings. Hence, mlechh, non-Hindus were commonly inducted into the savarna fold, as they still are, by being bestowed Kashyap gotra; or linked to the much coveted ‘Suryavanshi’ and ‘Chandravanshi’ dynasties of Ram and Krishna. Nagvanshi denotes descent from Nags. The Agnikul patrimony of some Rajput clans signifies Kshatriyas who emerged from a fire, conjured up by sage Vasishth on Mount Abu. Parashuram, Lord Vishnu’s sixth avatar, is credited with having created numerous categories of neo-Brahmins.

‘Kashyap’ gotra is also used for ritual performances for those who have no gotra or forgotten it. The conversion process, termed ‘shuddhikaran’ by egalitarian Arya Samaj and ‘ghar vapasi’ by Hindutva proponents, hinges usually on imbibing a bit of cow dung, urine and Ganga water; placing tulsi leaves on the tongue; uttering mantras; even ritual performance. Depending on the conversion facilitator, the neo-Hindu is given a caste, gotra, Sanskritised name and sacred thread. Arya Samaj rejects caste as non-Vedic, and accepts only the authority of the four Ved as sacrosanct. Hindu beliefs and identity can be adopted on one’s own.


Adi Shankaracharchya Adi Shankaracharchya and his ilk, termed shastradhari, scripture-bearers, in the 8th century AD countered the spread of heterodox traditions with the help of armed sadhu akhadas, called astradhari, weapons-bearers; and by bolstering the savarna edifice. Swami Vivekanand noted:
“Shankaracharya and others were the great caste-makers. I cannot tell you all the wonderful things they fabricated, and some of you may resent what I have to say. But in my travels and experiences I have traced them out, and have arrived at most w o n d e r f u l results. They would sometimes get hordes of Baluchis and at once make them Kshatriyas, also get hold of hordes of fishermen and make them B r a h m i n s forthwith”.
The process, termed Sansritisation, continues unabated as myriad aliens adopt Hindu beliefs and identities to become flag-bearers for missionary Hinduism. And since Hindus are naturally exogamous, with even Manusmriti permitting marriages between savarna tiers, and shuddhikaran facilitating induction of non-Hindu spouses and progeny into elite savarna tiers, numbers are growing.
By contrast, Zoroastrian numbers have shrunk to an estimated 200,000 worldwide, with about half living in India. Decline in population is blamed on endogamy, marriage within the community so as to preserve racial purity; and bar on conversion. Such inbreeding imperils a closed community’s very survival.