Revolts against caste

April 18 2008

The impact of Religiosity upon Caste in India has begotten the unparalleled social abuse of “Untouchability”; and since there has never been any effective move to abolish or even mitigate “Untouchability” on the part of the Brahmans – the hieratic caste which has become master of the ceremonies of the whole caste-system and has assigned to itself the highest place in it – the enormity survives, except in so far as it has been assailed by revolution.

The euphemism “Scheduled Castes” came from the Government of India Act 1935.

The earliest known revolts against Caste are those of Mahavira, the founder of Jainism (occubuit prae 500 B.C.) and Siddhārtha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism (vivebat circa 567-487 B.C.): two creative personalities who were non-Brahmans themselves and who ignored the established barriers of Caste in recruiting the bands of disciples whom they gathered round them to wrestle with the moral problems of the Indic “Time of Troubles”. If either Buddhism or Jainism had succeeded in captivating the Indic World, then conceivably the institution of Caste might have been sloughed off with the rest of the social debris of a disintegrating Indic Society, and an affiliated Hindu Civilization might have started life free from this incubus. As it turned out, however, the role of universal church in the last chapter of the Indic decline and fall was played not by Buddhism but by Hinduism – a parvenu archaistic syncretism of things new and old; and one of the old things which Hinduism resuscitated was Caste. Not content with resuscitating this old abuse, it embroidered upon it. The Hindu Civilization has been handicapped from the outset by a considerably heavier burden of Caste (a veritable load of karma) than the burden that once weighed upon its predecessor; and accordingly the series of revolts against Caste has run over from Indic into Hindu history.

In the Hindu Age these revolts have no longer taken the form of creative philosophical movements of indigenous origin like Buddhism or Jainism, but have expressed themselves in definite secessions from Hinduism under the attraction of some alien religious system. Some of these secessions have been led by Hindu reformers who have founded new churches in order to combine an expurgated version of Hinduism with certain elements borrowed from alien sources. Thus, for example, Kabīr (vivebat saeculo quinto decimo aevi Christiani) and the founder of Sikhism, Nanak (vivebat A.D. 1469-1538), created their syncretisms out of a combination between Hinduism and Islam, while Ram Mohan Roy (vivebat A.D. 1772-1833) created the Brahmō Samāj out of a combination between Hinduism and Christianity. It is noteworthy that, in all these three syncretisms alike, the institution of Caste is one of the features of Hinduism that have been rejected. In other cases the secessionists have not stopped at any half-way house but have shaken the dust of Hinduism off their feet altogether and have entered outright into the Islamic or the Christian fold; and such conversions have taken place on the largest scale in districts in which there had previously been a high proportion of members of low castes or depressed classes in the local Hindu population. The classic instance is the latter-day religious history of Eastern Bengal, where the descendants of former barbarians who had been admitted just within the pale of Hinduism on sufferance, with an extremely low status, have become converts to Islam en masse.

This is the revolutionary retort to the enormity of “Untouchability” which has been evoked by the impact of Religiosity upon Caste; and, as the masses of the population of India are progressively stirred by the economic and intellectual and moral ferment of Westernization, the trickle of conversions among the outcasts seems likely to swell into a flood, unless the abolition of the stigma of “Untouchability” is achieved at the eleventh hour by the non-Brahman majority of the Caste-Hindus themselves, in the teeth of Brahman opposition, under the leadership of the Banya Mahatma Gandhi.

Gandhi belonged to the Banya or Bania or Vanika caste of traders or merchants.

The idea of using Latin phrases to introduce dates came to Toynbee from a memory of a puppet show in Osaka in November 1929.

A Study of History, Vol IV, OUP, 1939

2 Responses to “Revolts against caste”

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