Summary of Caste Books (As Requested by Captain Mandrake)
I apologize for getting to this so late-- I had forgotten that Captain Mandrake had asked me to summarize some books on caste that I put on the forums. Indeed part of my delay was hesitation at how to organize this information briefly without losing the gist.

It is hard to be brief since there are a lot of books. The fact is, it seems to be easier to say what caste is not rather than what it is.

In her monograph in the New Cambridge History of India series, Susan Bayly has had this to say in her Introduction and first chapter:

Quote: This study will argue that caste has been for many centuries a real and active part of Indian life, and not just a self-serving orientalist fiction. Yet it will also seek to show that until well into the colonial period, much of the subcontinent was still populated by people for whom the formal distinctions of caste were of only limited importance as a source of corporate and individual lifestyles.

Quote: Caste is not and never has been a fixed fact of Indian life... Even in the distant past, distinct caste-like ideologies and practices were followed by some people in most or all of the subcontinent's regional cultures. Yet until relatively recent times, most Indians were still comparatively untouched by the norms of jati and varna as we now understand them.

I suppose we can start with what I'll call the "textbook model" of caste which we all know. This is that there are four castes-- Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Shudra which are ranked hierarchically in this order. The higher in the hierarchy one's caste is, the more privilege that one has. This system of caste is justified by karma-- the idea that one gets rewards or punishments in this life or the next based on one's actions. Within each of the four big castes-- "varnas--" are numerous subcastes called "jatis" which are linked to occupation.

What Are Varnas and The Dharmasastra is Normative

I should not have to explain anything here. It is well-known. What is , however, probably worth stressing is that the Dharmasastras which talk about caste are very much normative texts written by a subset of the Brahmin population. They cannot naively be taken to have described society. In fact, it was during the East India Company that the Dharmasastra actually became law for the first time in Indian history, empowering Brahmins to legislate using the Sastras. This was because the East India Company wanted to maintain stability and not change indigenous traditions-- ironically, by enforcing Dharmasastra, they did considerably. (See Brian Hatcher's article, What's Become of the Pandit , and the works of Patrick Olivelle). Dharmasastra was not necessarily well-known by most of the population, or even by most Brahmins.

Unraveling Karma's Role-- That Is, Not Much

The extent to which the idea of karma plays a role has been questioned. Richard King notes that the charge that karma is the edifice on which caste stands is a "Marxian-inspired claim."
Reviewing Dumont, anthropologist CJ fuller writes that "evidence that many Hindus, especially of low caste, are completely ignorant or sceptical of Vedic theory is plentiful. An interview of Pallars by Kathleen Gough is revealing. She asks them where one goes after death and is met with admissions of ignorance. Gogh then continues:

Quote: "... Brahmans say that if people do their duty well in this life, their souls will be born next time in a higher caste."

"Brahmans say!" scoffed another elder. "Brahmans say anything. There heads go round and round!

Unraveling Jati-- It Is NOT A Subset of Varna

This, I feel, is the most important part of what I got out of my reading.

We remember that "jati" in Indian languages simply means "group." Even today, you hear references to the "male jati " or the "Marathi jati " In my own personal experience, I have seen the word jati used to describe everything but caste-- when caste is meant to be indicated, the English word caste is itself used.

These "jatis" are also usually not subsets of different Varnas. Members of the same caste often classify themselves as different varnas depending on whom they're talking to. Varna itself doesn't really matter in South India. Kshatriyas and Vaishyas did not exist there, making Varna less important. Of course, through Sanskritization, many castes claim Kshatriya or Vaishya status.

The truth, however, is that what caste is-- when divorced from varna-- is really not understood even today. The reasons for this are given by Axel Michaels:

Quote: Lack of conceptual clarity favored extremes. What was not called caste? Nearly every social grouping in India had to suffer for it: classes, clans, sects, tribes, professional groups, and folk communities...

Indeed, my post [url =] here [/url] was inspired by my understanding of these difficulties.

Axel Michaels cautions.
Quote: There is one convincing reason not to use the word caste uncritically: It is not an Indian word! If you use it, you have to be able to say what you mean. Otherwise, you are seeking a phantom or constructing a society that does not exist. The fact that we have grown accustomed to the word does not justify its use.

Michaels, however, is not an abolitionist and thinks the term can be retained heuristically. Like the scholar Declan Quigley, however, he is against the linking of caste with Varna. He writes:

Quote: Yet it is wrong to refer the caste system back to the Varna scheme, because then, in fact, the religious notions of the Brahmans are overestimated... The tendency to want to explain the caste system from religious texts may be understandable from the early time, when one depended essentially on the legal texts and handbooks of the Dharmasastra.

Thus, while Varna was a powerful ideology for much of Indian history, it doesn't seem to explain Indian society very well. Historical studies, moreover, seem to show that Indians in the past did not view the social groups we consider "castes" as coherently belonging to any category and that the "textbook model" is often not useful in considering the past.

In he reconstruction of 13th century Andhra society under the Kakatiya kings, Cynthia Talbot notes the lack of Varna or caste names in inscriptions. She also notes that Reddy-- a very common caste name in Andhra Pradesh-- is an uninherited title in Kakatiya Andhra. In her analysis, Talbot concludes that:

Quote: "That there was considerable social fluidity among roughly half of the titled male population, all nonbrahmans, raises further doubt about the validity of applying the standard hierarchical caste model to Kakatiya Andhra."

As far as the formation of a caste goes-- as Reddys formed-- Michael Katten gives a detailed analysis about the formation of the Velama caste using the Bobbili Katha in his book Colonial Lists and Indian Power.

How Did Things Change?

Nicholas Dirks was the first person to document how caste changed into what we see it to be today. His argument that caste ossified when the British, under Risley, took a colonial census and made caste paramount to identity took off well with Hindu apologists. Most scholars thought that Dirks had had a point, but that his argument was too simplified.

Michael Katten, as discussed above, argued that caste formation was something that Indians took on themselves.

Similarly, Susan Bayly's monograph details a list of changes that occurred in the precolonial era-- without British intervention-- that led to what we have today.


Caste has very little to do with varna or karma and has been a dynamic system-- there is no one universal system of caste that can describe India, and when you say "caste system," you must specify where and when you're talking about.
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A worthwhile addition to the reading list maybe The Origins of Political Order : From Prehuman Societies to the French Revolution by Francis Fukuyama. Chapters 10,11 and 12 are devoted to the evolution and historical consequences of the Varna-Jati organization.

Fukuyama's presentation is in the form of a China-India comparison (antiquity's counterpart to today's growth story comparisons and earlier 20th century comparisons of liberation by revolutionary war versus largely nonviolent struggle). A striking difference of the evolution of Chinese and Indian society in the Axial Age is the absence of a prolonged Warring States period in India. Part of the reason, Fukuyama notes, is that there were not as many 'states' to do the warring in India, as the varna-jati organization was largely incompatible with a nation-state mobilization. Some related observations of interest he makes in these chapters are:
(i) Writing was embraced sooner in China than in India where privileged access to oral traditions was central to Brahminism. A bureaucracy is hard to sustain without writing, and thanks to its early adoption, China had a headstart over India in entering the 'statehood' phase from the 'tribal' phase.
(ii) The chief functions of the priesthood in China were ceremonial and those who officiated in royal ceremonies were employed by and subservient to the rulers who claimed the 'Mandate of Heaven'. In India however, the functions of the priesthood were accorded more cosmic significance than the more temporal administrative functions of rulers. Fukuyama seems to interpret this as a more circumscribed monarchy that has no legislative powers (for the purveyors of the Dharma of the ruler are priestly Brahmins) but only executive function.

Other historians like Toynbee have also commented on this seemingly autocracy-limiting role of Brahminism, which also meant a militarism-limiting role, with its own variegated historical consequences. Whether the staying power of such an organization not centered on conquerors may have been due to a 'peace dividend' that it offered, is a speculation Fukuyama does not explicitly indulge in.

Fukuyama however cautions against excessive reliance on Marxist and Weberian frameworks which were originally developed during the analysis of societies where the role of ideas and the dominance of the idea-handling class so to speak, were not as pronounced as they are in India, where the fortunes of a class for much of its history had little to do with how much control they exercised over the factors of production.

Here are some notes on some of the takeaways from the books listed in the OP.
(10-Sep-2013, 02:36 AM)Sachin2 Wrote: The extent to which the idea of karma plays a role has been questioned. Richard King notes that the charge that karma is the edifice on which caste stands is a "Marxian-inspired claim."

The effectiveness of interview-based studies that are presented as grounds for such a dismissal of the role of karma as ideological backing for caste, maybe limited by the keywords that they employ. It is common knowledge that in most Indian languages and across caste barriers, a word like karma features less frequently in conversation than the more familiar pApa and puNya, which are Sanskrit-derived but appropriated by most vernaculars. Now a word like pApa is clearly associated with shirking of svadharma (traditionally interpreted as inherited ancestral duty) in scriptural references (eg. Bhagavad Gita 2:33 ) which place these terms in a karmic framework. While the karmic framework may not be as explicitly acknowledged when terms like pApa and puNya trickle down to plebeian parlance, even those innocent of the scriptural references would have treat puNya as synonymous with sat-karma (good karma) and pApa with dushkarma (bad karma). Certain activities, mandated to some castes though they maybe, are viewed as inherently producing pApa. There is therefore, a pApa-puNya framework, which often semantically and operationally overlaps with the more theoretical karma framework, that is layered upon caste even by those who do not use the terminology of karma. None of this is of course means that the extant caste hierarchies were established on this basis, but it will be premature to dismiss the influence all the way to the present-day of karma-derived concepts used in the interpretation and justification of the caste system by participants in it. Notwithstanding non-standard transliteration, the occurrence of terms like pApa and puNya (through which a framework like karma is implicitly acknowledged even in latter-day experiences of caste) is conspicuously non-existent in published work in English as this N-gram illustrates.(excluded the 'papa' spelling as we cannot disambiguate it from 'daddy')

(10-Sep-2013, 02:36 AM)Sachin2 Wrote: ...the Dharmasastras which talk about caste are very much normative texts written by a subset of the Brahmin population.

While they may have been normative at the time of their compilation, there are some historical instances of how they were nevertheless consequential even before the codification of 'Hindu Law' under British patronage.
(i) In Dr. Ambedkar's writings, the late 17th and 18th century rule of the Peshwas, who claimed Brahmin ancestry unlike the members of Shivaji's Bhonsale clan they superseded, was characterized by an enforcement of sorts of the Manu Smriti unprecedented in the medieval era.
(ii) The monarchies of Travancore and Calicut enforced injunctions resembling those prescribed in the Manu Smriti on interactions between the ruling Nairs and the then untouchable castes, leading Vivekanand in his writings to confer on Kerala the dubious distinction of being the 'madhouse of castes'.
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Quote: While they may have been normative at the time of their compilation, there are some historical instances of how they were nevertheless consequential even before the codification of 'Hindu Law' under British patronage.

Given that the Peshwas were themselves Brahmins, who wanted to be seen as Brahmins, it should not come as a surprise that many aspects of Manu were incorporated into law by them.

The fact is, a simple account of "when" caste ideals took hold of India is impossible, because for much of Indian history, kings in particular regions used caste while others didn't. Technology and Europeans helped homogenize and spread caste norms for sure, but.

Why did kings adopt caste norms? Because by the end of the Vedic period, there was no such thing as Kshatriyas anymore. They were no longer a distinct group. The only varna group that actually existed was the Brahmins. So all kings, in Brahminical views, were Shudras. Sanskritic symbols were prestigious, so some kings saw it fit to get Brahmins to construct genealogies for them and become honorary Kshatriyas, like Shivaji did. But the kings had to play politics. For example, when Shivaji got Brahmins from North India to make him a Kshatriya, the local Brahmins did not accept the status.

But other kingdoms did well without caste. The Kakatiyas in Andhra proudly call themselves Shudras in inscriptions. And based on inscriptions, caste doesn't seem to have been important in that region.

By the way, B.R. Ambedkar was incredibly ahead of his time when he developed the concept of Sanskritization before M.N. Srinivas. He was right about how caste norms spread except for one thing-- the origin of the lower castes and Untouchables.

We now know that most of the untouchables come from forest dwellers and martial cultures who were suppressed by Europeans for obvious reasons. Much forest land was cut down, "peasantizing" the dwellers.

Indeed, British rule was a double-edged sword for Untouchables. While they introduced reservations and also opened schooling, they also marked specific Dalit and backward castes as "Criminal Castes." British policy was discriminatory towards Chamars, whom administrators often unrightfully blamed for cattle poisoning. Finally, the British introduced the myth of caste occupation. Chamars are today known
as cattle-skinners, but most of them in the past were agricultural labors, some owning land themselves. The Bhangis, who similarly were laborers, were pigeon-holed as sweepers by the British. So, when they came to the cities to find wealth, many Bhangis found an occupation the British had reserved just for them-- sweeping.

My final point is that it should not be taken for granted that Dalits in the past believed in karma and accepted their lot. It's a patronizing view. Certainly, bhakti verse like that of Karma Mela shows that they did not like their condition. In fact, Dalits were not considered Hindu at all until upper castes needed a population to swell Hindu numbers against Muslims. Why would Dalits believe in upper caste myth?

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