India’s cultural tradition and the early history of caste

22 February 2022

Navayana presents a revised edition of Jalalul Haq’s The Shudra: An extraction of the human, first published in 1997. The author, who taught Philosophy at Aligarh Muslim University, dissects ancient texts and mythology to trace the early history of caste. A note on the book, from Navayana’s website, sets out the various questions the book seeks to interrogate: “For a lot us interested in Indian history, the trajectory is laid out. First there were the Brahmins, who created caste and cannot live without it. Then came heterodoxies like Buddhism and Jainism that tried to counter Brahmanism. In the end Brahmanism won out, and here we are today. But Haq throws a spanner in the works. Is it really so simple? Are Brahmanism and Buddhism really so separate?”

The following is an excerpt from the book’s epilogue, in which the author argues that, despite certain perceived differences within Indian spiritual traditions, there is a visible continuity. He writes: “India’s cultural tradition, as essentialised in its spiritual centre, and having the ascetic-priests as its gate-keepers, has survived the vicissitudes of time without losing its identity and continuity. The Shudras in this conspiratorial saga were the resources, ‘the assets,’ to be used, abused, and then abandoned when they became of no use. They could even be eliminated if they turned “rogue”—for resisting and being rebellious.”

One of the indisputable things said about India’s cultural tradition is that, at its heart lies spirituality, which, though in itself is a pretty vague idea, has a more or less definitive meaning in the Indian context. It is a complex idea, multi-faceted and multi-dimensional, with ramifications in the fields of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, axiology and social and political economy. Despite this all-encompassing scope, it still has a certain unity, even simplicity, of meaning, that can be discussed in order to understand the essentials of the nation’s civilisational ecosystem.

The ritualistic spirituality of the Vedas may, at one level, appear to be radically different from the philosophical slant of the Upanishads, and the latter might be taken to represent a kind of orthodoxy, that is so stubbornly contested by the heterodox schools of Buddhism and Jainism (of the Shramanic tradition). Again, these two sets of ideas may look rather divergent when compared with the Bhakti sects of later centuries, which in turn took varied forms across various times and regions in their historical evolution. The Shaivites, the Shaktas and the Vaishnavites were rivals for a long time, until some kind of a reconciliation was reached relatively recently, thanks to the efforts of Bengal’s Ramakrishna and his illustrious disciple, Vivekananda.

Even as there was diversity in unity, there was unity in diversity and a continuity in change. The Upanishads were originally an inseparable part of Vedic literature, until, in modern times, they began to be published and studied separately. Similarly, while the Buddha and Mahavira espoused metaphysical doctrines in opposition to Upanishadic theories, and denounced the ritualism of the Vedas (which had an essential caste component), the overall approach of looking at life in the world remained the same, as was the eschatology of salvation and liberation, and the path of asceticism and mysticism, as a means of achieving the ideals. In these latter respects, even the Bhakti saints did not deviate much even though some of the earlier practices were abandoned in favour of new ones.

Jalalul Haq  taught philosophy at Aligarh Muslim University. His books include Nation and Nation-Worship in IndiaPower, Sexuality and the Gods and Postmodernity, Paganism and Islam and The Shudra: A Philosophical Narrative of Indian Superhumanism.