The burning social issues eating up the vitals of the country today relate to caste, religion, and secularism. These are also punching bags for all critics in both India and abroad. The discourses seem to be strengthening each day as we hopelessly grapple for solutions. Reservations and other positive discriminatory measures have only increased the anger and divisions in society.
The only hope appears to come from the scholarly group of the philosopher-academic SN Balagangadhara, a retired Professor from the University of Ghent, Belgium. He was the director of India Platform and the Research Centre on Comparative Science of Cultures. The books and articles authored by him and his group hold the key to understanding India better, and perhaps even solve our problems related to distorted social discourses, especially caste and religion.
Everyone worries about the ‘caste-system’- apparently the cause of almost all our evils. The hierarchical social divisions created by the wily ‘Brahmins’ seems to forever hold the society to ransom. The narrative of an evil Brahmin has been consistent across centuries from the earliest descriptions of the missionaries and European travelers to India.
Every single social understanding has undergone radical alterations with new knowledge, but not the supposed core idea of ‘Brahminism’- an exploitative divinely sanctioned system, permanently etched into Indian society. Religion is always a tricky issue as now we have a new rise of what is deemed as a ‘Hindutva’ phenomenon and all kinds of criticisms evolving across the world revolving around it, the core idea being that there is ‘Hinduism good, Hindutva bad.’
Abrahamic religions have always had trouble understanding India, yet intellectuals, politicians, religious heads, and academia desperately try to seek solutions for that elusive harmony with them. Ironically, secularism as a model seems to be increasing in its fundamentalism.
At some fundamental level, there is a profound misunderstanding of the country on the part of all involved leading to these problems. A ray of hope comes from the Balagangadhara school and it would perhaps be in the country’s best interests to follow these rays to create more harmony and peace across different ‘castes’ and ‘religions.’
India holds the key to world peace and harmony also. The lived values of our tradition and civilization have the power to transform the world and dissolve the borders. Our pluralism and multiculturalism are a model which the world needs to replicate and learn many values from.
The most important point which SN Balagangadhara makes is that the East and the West are different without anyone being superior or inferior. India and the West should meet each other as equals and learn from each other.
There is no purpose of either hating the West or driving a guilt complex into the West, for all their past ‘sins’, for their colonial enterprises. Understanding history is important, but not to extract revenge.
The only lived reality of Indian social systems is the jatis. Thousands of these exist across the country based on occupation, language, ethnicity, customs, traditions, and even gender, with their own rules of marriage, food, clothing, belief in gods, and so on. Jatis have their own rules of endogamy (marriage), commensality (eating practices), and other practices.
They evolved over time either dissolving or going up and down on the social-political-economic scale. Ancient scriptures started with a description of a few of them, which across centuries have grown into many thousands. Sometimes, they have merged together into common a jati, and sometimes, a single jati has split into two or more jatis.
Today, the Reddys, Patels, and Kammas make for powerful jatis, for example. The individual customs have been wide-ranging, fluctuating, and flexible. One is born into a specific jati in most of the instances.
On the other hand, varnas are always four in number and they have remained constant across centuries. Varnas, consisting of Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, Vysyas, and Sudras are a normative ideal. Varna classification has been on ideas like guna (nature) and karma (quality of work). Grossly, each varna is a huge conglomeration of many practices and traditions.
There are Brahmins who never officiate as priests and even consume non-vegetarian food. There are sub-sects in the Brahmin groups who do not marry each other even though speaking the same language. There are many sudra and tribal communities who are temple priests and follow strict vegetarianism.
Varnas have been social categories broadly constituting any society, as per their social contribution; they acquired a hierarchical ordering with selective western readings of the Indian ancient texts.
One of the most complicated, dubious, and confusing discourse on social structuring in India has been to correlate the varnas and the jatis. There never has been a one-to-one correlation, neither with the individuals nor with the authorities trying to decide the varna of each jati.
The attempts have been failing consistently but we are still happily persisting with these efforts of inappropriately conflating jatis with varnas. There is a selective but constant quotation of the scriptures that has been touted since the colonials landed in India (the Manusmriti being the most popular), to create this hierarchy of the varnas.
A single verse in the Purusasukta wherein the statement that Brahmins emerge from the head of the God-figure and the Sudras from the feet becomes the greatest proof of this vertical top-down hierarchy.
There are other equally important and valid scriptures that note a reversal of hierarchy and equal authority for all varnas in gaining enlightenment, the ultimate ideal and goal of all Indian scriptures, religious or secular yet those are ignored.
Three important colonial ideas played an important role in consolidating the narrative of a ‘caste-system’ in India: the Portuguese origin of the word ‘casta’; the Protestant criticism of Jewish and Catholic priesthood, the background of the colonial criticism of the Brahmanical priests; and the Aryan theory with its racial connotations. These laid the basis for the colonials to give a structure for their experience of the social systems of India.
The word caste, most surprisingly, does not have an equivalent in any of the Indian scriptures. It is a Portuguese import applicable to their world when they landed on the shores of Goa. In the Iberian Peninsula, with the domination of the Christian rulers, the existing Jews and Muslims either converted or emigrated.
The ‘casta’ based on the purity of blood ideas divided the population into the New Christians – the recent converts and the Old Christians – the older ones with pure blood.
Social hierarchies, marriages, legislation firmly followed and established this idea of discrimination by religious descent. A whole new word came into India to describe our social systems. Now, unfortunately, the ‘caste-system’ has become an internal story.
The British, like the current social sciences, did not make an empirical claim about the presence of jatis in India; they put across meta-theoretical claims of a coherent structure called the ‘caste system’.
The horror stories of ‘caste discrimination’; the social humiliation of groups; the phenomenon of ‘untouchability’; the presence of poverty, and such as became the routine evidence for this. This discrimination is neither unitary nor monolithic.
If its presence is evidence of the existence of ‘the caste system’, then the latter is present everywhere in the world. Discrimination, poverty, and social humiliation of groups are in slavery, in the feudal societies of Europe, in the capitalist societies of today, and so on.
These are compatible with multiple social structures. On their own, these phenomena are not evidence of one specific social structure, namely, ‘the caste system’.
Importantly, the data for caste atrocities simply does not exist. The definitions have been narrow; discriminations studied only in isolated groups; and the whole narrative of ‘caste discrimination’ finally is a case of data manipulation, statistical cherry-picking, and making macro claims based on micro evidence.
The same hard data from the National Crime Records Bureau which helps in giving us a terrible international reputation shows, for example, on an average, every percentage of the non-SC population faces roughly 1.19% of the incidences of crime, while every percentage of the SC population faces about 0.04% (30 times less) of the crime. The ambit of soft data remains wide with ad hoc explanations and even more manipulations.
Similarly, British archival records elegantly show the story of Brahmanical denial of education to the deprived groups as patently false; an abusive story which we sadly internalized. Of all the properties ascribed to the caste system, none are unique to it.
Hierarchy, purity-pollution, endogamy (marriage concerns), occupational communities, and any such properties have been and continue to be properties of several human social systems across the globe in multiple social settings.
The caste system is not a part of the Indian culture. There is no unity in the sets of phenomena, clubbed together and described as either component parts, causes, or effects of the Indian ‘caste system’.
The dominant western story about ‘the caste system’ is false if taken as an explanation of the Indian society. More starkly put, the caste system does not exist.
There is a profound misunderstanding of India across the centuries. India is a land of traditions and not religions. Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism are religions in its true definition.
Applying the same definitions in the Indian context (a book, a God, a doctrine, a Temple) leads to severe problems. In western religious cultures where the truth value of scriptures, doctrines, or beliefs plays a vital role, frictions arise frequently.
The concept of equality is difficult without either ‘secularization’ or atheism. Maximally, a religion can tolerate (rarely accept) a differing opinion or a different god. But there is always tension.
The learning configuration of religious culture is the ‘why’ question and hence the West is the fertile soil in which both rejections of religion and scientific enterprise flourished.
In contrast, India has a huge number of traditions (sampradayas) like the ancient pagan Roman and Greek traditions. The learning configuration of traditions is the ‘how’ question, and hence, rituals form its foundational basis. Rituals unite people and religions divide people.
In a traditional culture like India, multiplicity, and merging of ideas allow a rich diversity to evolve. The defining aspect of any traditional culture is indifference to differences going beyond the standard tolerances or acceptances.
One is indifferent even on the question of god. Many Indian darshanas have no role in god. The goal of all traditions, including Charvakism, is enlightenment. Truth and enlightenment form the final framework of the main purposes of human life in Indic traditions: dharma (right living), artha (material desires), kama (mental desires), and moksha (enlightenment).
In metaphysical and sociological terms, it is an impossibility that Indian culture knows of religions or its secularized version – a world view.
The ‘metaphysical’ position of religion first must make a claim about the origin and purpose of the world; and second, this message must be true having the same status as other ‘true’ knowledge claims such asthe Earth goes around the Sun and so on.
Based on such metaphysical conditions, Indian traditions are not possibly religions. The ‘origin’ question and the place of god are irrelevant. Vedas, Upanishads, Brahmanas, Puranas, Itihaasas have multiple stories of the creation and purposes of Cosmos.
The ideas in the multiple stories say just about everything and anything. Depending on the context, an individual in the multiple narratives may consider the question of the origin of the Cosmosillegitimate or pure speculation.
One may also say that all claims are true or even suggest that Cosmos has no origin and is always present. The Buddhists and the Jains have no conception of God in the first place. Strangely, a person can equally believe or reject all the stories.
There are certain sociological conditions absolutely required for the identity of religions and their spread across time, space, and generations: a widely known world-view codified in a textual source called a ‘holy-book’; a standard world-view present with clear boundaries which cannot undergo generational changes; an authority to settle disputes in transmission and interpretation of stories (thus having a hierarchy of texts); a source of ex-communication when two interpretations collide (say Shaivism, Vaishnavism, Buddhism); and an organization to transmit and propagate its world-views.
None of these conditions fulfilled in India with respect to Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, Buddhism, and so on. Hence, there is a ‘sociological impossibility’ of religion in India.
Europe understood religions in India in their own framework. Missionaries and intellectuals approached India with a poor stock of concepts including ‘heathen’, ‘pagan’, ‘idolaters’, ‘devil worshippers’, ‘zoolaters’. Hinduism was a ‘false religion’ a priori without any protests, for such concepts.
Missionary and travel reports formed the theoretical sophistication of the Enlightenment criticisms. The source of beliefs had to be textual and thus began a search for a single book.
Indian tradition confused the intellectuals with its many texts, sub-texts, stories, Puranas, mythologies. They finally zeroed on to the ‘Vedas’. Upanishads or Puranas became the other ’holy books’; anything explicitly not religious like ‘grammar’ became non-holy.
Despite this, frustratingly, most Indians had an indifference to the differences in the texts, and were oblivious of most of the doctrines. Hinduism was turned into something loose, non-canonical, vague, wavering, illusory, obscure, inconsistent by people like Hume and James Mill.
The Western world rooted in religion, always in a grip of historicity, tried hard for the historical truth of Indian scriptures. The truth or falsity of the books is irrelevant and hardly disturbing in the Indian intellectual tradition.
Ramayana and Mahabharata are true, but Rama or Krishna may or may not be true; a history-centric intellectual could never understand this attitude.
It never occurred to people then and nor does it now that the amorphous nature of Hinduism is simply because ‘Hinduism’ did not exist. It was an imaginary entity, conjured up in the minds of Europeans due to their absolute conviction that there had to be a religion in the natives.
Indian religions were formulated in the best minds of France, England, and Germany. The British founded the ‘Oriental Renaissance.’
The German Romantics distributed this package. This process resulted in a conception of culture in religious terms. The western lens of religion by nature generates the belief that religion is a cultural universal.
The standard understanding of religion has only given us wars, strifess, conversions, and Inquisitions. To understand ‘religio’ as a tradition, allowing varied practices with characteristic indifference to the differences, will build up far more harmony and understanding in the world still in the grip of religious frictions.
Tragically, the West is trying to make sense of the tree of Indian tradition took hold of the branches and made them into different religions. The individual branches fought or agreed with each other (Buddhism with Hinduism) depending on the levels of scholarship.
Sadly, the present-day Indian intellectuals have completely internalized all these divisive discourses in a case of classic colonial hangover. The biggest problem of the world (colonial, post-colonial, modern, post-modern, and so on), cutting across all ideologies, is the continuous understanding of traditions as religions.
The Problem of Secularism
Ironically, the mantra of secularism with an obscure meaning seems to be generating fundamentalism instead of being an antidote to it. Separating religion from politics for the smooth functioning of a nation-state worked well for the problems that arose in the European Christendom with multiple denominations. Everyone knew what was ‘religion’ there.
Huge problems arose when a solution for Western non-plural society at a specific time and place became a universal solution for all societies. Today, the influx of Islam into Europe and the problems in India when secularism tries to handle a pluralistic traditional country show severe stresses and loopholes in this model.
In Europe, the separation of politics from religion resulted from a specific understanding of confessional strife which divided Christendom into various factions, each claiming to be the true religion leading to conflicts and aggressions.
The Papal reform, followed by Protestant Reformation, followed by the Enlightenment, formed the continuum of theological and political principles to firmly establish the two kingdoms of the secular and the religious – the realm of the public and the private respectively. The opposition between the secular and the religious clearly made sense in Christendom.
The normative liberal secularism model for all civilized countries today with principles of neutrality, toleration, religious freedom, and religious-political separation is a secularized inheritance of previous theological models.
Secularism in the public sphere and liberalism in the individual sphere has a tremendous structural similarity to the European Christian model.
After ridding it of the theological features, the same conceptual framework shaped the colonial account of communalism in India. And the solution for these conflicts remains secularism as in the West.
The major problem in India when dealing with secularism is defining what constitutes the sphere of religion needing separation from public life. No state or court possesses an impartial uniformly applicable scientific criterion of identifying and delimiting religion.
India has had trouble with secularism since its independence. There are multiple interpretations of secularism which means differently to different groups of people.
In a Supreme Court judgment of 1994, each of the seven judges gave separate versions of secularism! The constituent assembly debates between 1946 to 1949 along with Dr. Ambedkar or Nehru’s ideas show how westward we were in trying to set the basis for the Indian secular state.
The first major blow, which remains unsolved till today, was the rejection of a Uniform Civil Code by Muslim representatives placing the Muslim Personal Law above the Constitution.
Both Ambedkar and Nehru followed European discourses in understanding India. Nehru clearly reasoned that there is either a progressive secular state or it becomes a backward religious one.
Ambedkar, repeating the European cliché of the Indian Hindu religion seeing everything from life to death as religious, is believed to have limited this definition to essentially religious beliefs, rituals, and ceremonials.
It was circular reasoning since Ambedkar’s definition of religion included the term needing a definition. The material prosperity of the west was proof positive that they had better solutions to our problems and this prevented most intellectuals from looking at alternative models.
The entire reasoning of thinkers remained that the absence of liberal secularism implies a negation of liberal secularism which leads up to religious politics, religious intolerance, and sacred hierarchy. There are absolutely no alternatives to this model of liberal secularism.
No one knows the doctrinal core of Hindus having multiple texts, multiple philosophies, and multiple teachers. So, how does one decide the scriptural purity or essence of religion? In this matter, our courts have taken the role of past Christian churches assessing pagan rituals.
A discourse of the truly religious, the secular, and the idolatry (or the false components of religions) of past colonials and missionaries slowly internalized into the Hindus themselves in post-colonial India.
The judges in post-colonial India now talk about the essential practices of the Hindu religion separating it from the non-essential superstitious accretions. These are inherently theological ideas which are now our standard thinking.
Historically, Indian and Greco-Roman societies were far more tolerant and liberal than any society thus far. They had a pluralistic culture and showed a tolerance (an indifference to the differences) in a way unimaginable even today.
Asian communities accommodated a variety of religious, ethnic, and cultural groups much greater than Europe at any point in history. For over a millennium, India had the presence of Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, and Sikh traditions living with Zoroastrian Parsis, Muslims, Jews, and Christians of various denominations mostly in peace.
Indian society never disintegrated despite the diversity; hence it must have known successful practices and mechanisms of coexistence. India, handling pluralism and multiculturalism far better than Europe over centuries, perhaps has better solutions for harmonious living, which needs further study.
The assumption that all conflicts are in support of ‘ultimate ideals’ and ‘truth value’ of individual groups is brilliantly wrong in the Hindu-Muslim conflicts in India.
Different from religious conflicts between Christian confessions or between Islam and Christianity in the West, these conflicts have been more socio-economic and political.
There are no attempts to study this. Religion needs to demarcate the community of believers by doctrines; traditions are plural and flexible involving the inherited practices of the community rather than doctrines.
For reasons we cannot grasp now, Christianity and Islam took the character of traditions like other traditions in India; they lost the fixation on distinguishing between the true and the false and the resulting proselytizing drive.
A syncretism with Hindu thought also grew in India with some fine examples all over the country. These aspects need deeper and urgent explorations to finally reject our previous inappropriately transferred concepts from the European context to deal with our problems.
Inappropriate secularism is converting traditions into religions. A flexible, absorbing mass of traditions slowly converts to religion in trying to define holy books, principles, and ideals.
Starting with the Arya Samaj and the Brahmo Samaj fighting the colonial-missionary onslaught on Hindu traditions, through Savarkar’s writings against the Congress appeasement policies, through the political movements post-independence, a rich mass of pluralistic traditions stringently defines itself, crystallizing into ‘Hindutva’, which the critics want to eagerly label as the almost oxymoronic ‘Hindu fundamentalism’ or even ‘fascism’. Secularism is flawed to the core and will continue to fail in the country.
We need to look within ourselves to seek better models which we always had. The answer might be in traditionalizing religions rather than religionizing traditions. There are other mechanisms than secularism for peace and harmony; there is no better place than India to discover them.
Indian culture and traditions are an unbroken continuity for thousands of years, a melting pot of all three purported human groupings (Caucasoid, Mongoloid, and Negroid) and six language families (Indo-European, Dravidian, Austric, Sino-Tibetan, Burushaski, and Andamanese).
We are one people and one land; the core defining point of both is a different dealing of pluralism and multiculturalism – an indifference to differences. It is dangerous and divisive to try and weed out the individual components.
Every one of this land is a part and inheritor of this great culture irrespective of what faith they may be following, what jati they may belong to, and what language they are speaking.
Colonial education gave a scientific status to the colonizer’s account of the culture and society of the colonized. The all-pervasive Hindu religion, evil Brahmins, the tyranny of caste, and secularism as the only solution, became true descriptions of our world.
Educated Indians and our social sciences adopted theories and ideas of Western cultural experiences to describe themselves as deficient variants of the West. They could not develop alternatives to the Western frameworks.
Amazingly, by constant decrees, legislation, and politics, a diverse population, numbering 64.5 million at the last census, born into one thousand two hundred communities, each with its own identity has become a single category of ‘scheduled castes’.
The single criteria for this grouping, a political and legal creation rather than a social reality, is ‘untouchability’- an extremely tenuous idea.
Between the 17th and the 21st centuries, many explanations and ideas in social sciences have undergone a sea-change, but the hard-core assumptions of a ‘Hindu’ religion with an evil Brahmanical priest creating the caste system remained unchanged.
Successive governments, by creating categories like forwarding caste, Backward caste (with further sub-categories like A, B, C, D), and Scheduled castes, have happily promoted the racial categories we detest so much.
They are instilling false notions of superiority, inferiority, guilt, anger, and shame in various proportions in society while paradoxically wanting to create an equal society.
The fault lines in the country run deep because of these divisions created by the politicians and encouraged by academics with more interest in ideology rather than the country.
The colonials had a purpose to break our society, but why did our own humanities or political and social sciences fail us after independence? Our natural sciences declare boldly that all humans share 99.99% of genes; any slightest notion of race or inherent superiority or inferiority of a group of people is wrong.
We should develop new theories of the phenomena of varna and jati based on ideas like guna (mode of nature), adhikara (eligibility or qualification), and svabhava (natural inclination).
We need new theories to understand Hindu traditions and alternatives to secularism to bring peace and harmony across the country.
We may have the solutions to world peace too, but only if we make a diligent search filled with humility and respect for our traditional past. Liberalism meant abusing the majorities and secularism meant creating and appeasing minorities.
We absorbed and assimilated every culture from across the world for thousands of years, and yet we are in the dock for the ‘ugly caste- system’ and ‘Hindu fundamentalism’. We need a great revival and great unity. It is time for us to dissipate the anger and start fresher narratives.
References and Further Readings
- Western Foundations of the Caste System- Edited by Martin Fárek, Dunkin Jalki, Sufiya Pathan, Prakash Shah
- “Heathen in His Blindness”: Asia, the West, and the Dynamic of Religion by SN Balagangadhara
- Do All Roads Lead to Jerusalem? The Making of Indian Religions by S.N. Balagangadhara and Divya Jhingran. (This is a simplified version of the above book)
- Reconceptualizing India Studies by SN Balagangadhara
- Europe, India, and the Limits of Secularism (Religion and Democracy) by Jakob De Roover
- The Ruler’s Gaze: A Study of British Rule over India from a Saidian Perspective by Arvind Sharma
- Idolatry and the Colonial Idea of India: Visions of Horror, Allegories of Enlightenment by Swagato Ganguly
- https://www.academia.edu/38294198/Violence_Against_SCs_How_Absence_of_Reliable_Data_Leads_to_Disaster by Sufiya Pathan
- https://www.academia.edu/42795501/The_Brahmin_the_Aryan_and_the_Powers_of_the_Priestly_Class_Puzzles_in_the_Study_of_Indian_Religion by Jakob de Roover
- https://www.academia.edu/36806822/Scheduled_Castes_vs_Caste_Hindus_About_a_Colonial_Distinction_and_Its_Legal_Impact by Jakob de Roover
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