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.

It can be safely said that while the branches were multiple, the roots (and even perhaps, the trunk) were one and the same. If the tree represented spirituality in general, the branches were the multiple sects and cults that emerged and flourished in different times and different regions. Only Islam and Christianity were different, and that was precisely because they were non-indigenous—products of a very different socio-religious milieu. Even in their cases, Christian spirituality corresponded with Indian developments in putting a premium on the idea of asceticism (at least for the clergy) and in its institution of priesthood. Indian spirituality also impacted Islam in its Sufi iteration, which was, and still remains, a strong current in the region.

In the orthodox Upanishadic tradition, with Shankara supposedly as its most authentic representative, ultimate reality was a supra-material but not exactly the God of popular belief. The Brahman was an impersonal, attributeless, absolute being that was too abstract and transcendental to be an object of worship. This absolute being was not to be worshipped or loved or obeyed, nor was it the source of succour in times of distress. Physical matter and human soul were, by extension, unreal and illusory—maya. In fact, the Brahman itself was mistaken for these non-realities due to ignorance, avidya. This reality was not just transcendental but supra-transcendental, something beyond the beyond, something above conception and comprehension. Now this was an excess that carried with it an opposite excess in which unity broke into multiplicity (of gods and goddesses); the impersonal gave way to the anthropomorphic, abstraction gave way to physiolatry. The absolute was indeed seen to be identical with nature, which became the latter’s manifestation or illusory unfoldment.

The Shramans, while recognising some amount of substantiality in matter, reduced the spiritual (Brahman and atman), both to have either only a momentary (kshanika) existence or a non-existence, a void, a zeroness (shunnyata). But this atheology did not stop them from believing in quite a few of the older gods. They even went so far as to add many of their own. Their pantheon was much more animistic, and crowded with “spirits,” than their Upanishadic predecessors.

There were thus excesses and deficiencies with no middle in sight. A similar act played out in the domain of knowledge, where rationality, which is supposed to define humanity, was overshot and a leap was taken into the realm of the supra-rational and the irrational. It is indeed strange that reason, as a source of knowledge, is nearly unrecognised in Indian philosophical discourse. Logic was present, but used mostly for the purposes of sectarian polemics. There is also the mind, the manas, which is considered to be a part of the body, and therefore unreal. The Brahman could not be realised through the senses or even the mind. “Realisation” came by way of “stabilising” the intellect: that is, by making all activities of intellect cease, so that no worldly thoughts or desires enter the mind to divert the yogin from the contemplation of the Brahman. This was the state of “stable intellect,’ or samadhi, as the Gita calls it—a kind of suprarational mystical experience (bordering, in some respects, on occult), that kept with it the deficiencies and irrationalities of superstitions, magic and miracle mongering. The presence of these crudities, in a climate suffused with mystical ideas and practices, had theoretical underpinnings in so far as the supra-rational wasn’t knowledge in the positive sense, and this deficit could only be compensated for, by a belief in the extra-natural and the supernatural.

Superstitiousness and belief in the supernatural had critical implications for life in society, the most important of which was the emergence of a radical division between the priestly class and the class of their lay followers. The gods were under the control of priests, at their beck and call by virtue of their ability to correctly recite the mantras at sacrificial ceremonies, and on occasions of birth, marriage, death and other important events in man’s life. Priests were of course “mediators,” who imposed their own will upon man, by calling it the will of gods. Through the power of mantras, they could bless or curse, build or ruin, the lives of men and women. They had the power of knowledge, which they used extensively and ruthlessly, to enslave, not only the masses, but also kings and their cohorts. They alone claimed the right to knowledge, denying it to the rest, prescribing extreme punishments for those who attempted to intrude in their exclusive territory. Knowledge was power, but, to clarify again, it wasn’t secular power, and was rather the power of the occult knowledge of mantras, acquired through the practices of austerity (tapas) and asceticism, that made them powerful enough to have a free run even in the secular realm. Despite their claim to unworldliness, priests lived in the world, visited kings in their courts and palaces, and had unrestricted access even to royal harems. Priests also fought wars for (sometimes also against) kings. As for the common people, the Visha, the Shudra, they were out of sight, their reality taken for granted as controlled and enslaved subjects. 

Ancient Indian political economy was centred around the Brahman priests rather than the Kshatriya kings, the latter playing mainly the role of co-opted associates, only occasionally rebelling against them. The fear of the gods was pervasive, and so also the fear of priests. The masses, as instruments of service, lived as they were supposed and asked to live, as a people of service. The limitations of the age did not allow them to even think or talk about the ideas of equality, liberty and justice. Inequality was ingrained as the natural result of the circumstances of one’s birth; liberty, a privilege of the elite; and justice was simply another name for deep injustice, and the denial of equality and liberty. Varna, or the contingency of one’s birth, was the dominant and all-encompassing idea, and any conceivable disturbance (in the forms of intermixing of castes) in this system (varna-sankara) was a personal tragedy and a collective disaster. 

There is no such thing as “spiritual equality” and varna is never determined by one’s occupation, as some modern apologists claim. Spiritual equality comes when the same kind of soul is seen to be present in all humans, but here, the individual souls were non-existent in themselves, being only the false shadows of a non-substantial Brahman, or a fleeting, unthinkable, untalkable non-reality (Buddhism). Pagan mystical philosophy does not admit to a flat view of the universe. Instead, it has a theory of ordered cosmology in which beings constitute a hierarchy from the lowest to highest forms. It is an ascending order, where the lowest has the least and the highest has the greatest quantity and quality of soul. From physical-material to plant to animal, and then, to human life, and within the human, from Shudra to Vaishya to Kshatriya to Brahman, the spirit becomes more and more refined.

The idea of the Brahman as atman, while being so unitary and simple, was at the same time also complex (once again one excess leading to another). The theory here precludes the possibility of spiritual equality, and in fact, is the main reason behind the idea of varna. Varna was based on occupation, but one’s occupation was determined by birth. Varna itself was determined by the karma performed according to swa-dharma in previous births. In fact, within the Brahmans, as also within all castes, there is the distinction of high and low, based presumably on the same principle of spiritual inequality. The non-Brahmans, however, could, notionally and potentially, attain equality but that would take ages. Any lapse may result in a fall down the ladder and the process of climbing starts all over again. In effect, both spiritual and social inequality will persist, since the scaffold of hierarchy remains in place.

Varna was also not a product of the accidents of history—something that happened “later,” as the apologists would like us to believe. It was there right at the beginning of history, in fact, from the time of the creation of the world as espoused in the “Purusha Sukta” of the Rig Veda. It was a part and parcel of the pagan-mystical worldview that prevailed in ancient and post-ancient India. There are, however, two mitigating factors that need recognition. Firstly, the distinction of high and low, of contemplative elites and servile masses (with the warrior class in between), has been a feature of the pagan thought-system in every culture. Plato adhered to it, as did the Zoroastrians of Iran, and so many others. Secondly, some kind of hierarchy is inevitable in any civilised society, whether based on birth, profession, or an individual’s own proclivities. What however made the Indian system particularly oppressive and long-lasting was its iron-cast rigidity, its hereditary character and its philosophical validation and religious justification. Further, a priesthood founded on a principle of knowledge/power requires a class of dispossessed and disempowered masses to coexist with it. The idea of a privileged few intrinsically entails the counter-idea of the unprivileged, the under-privileged, the deprived and ignorant majority. Added to all this was a chandala mindset, a will to be subjugated and enslaved, a morbid urge to be in the service of the powerful. The priest’s will to power always accompanied the will to pity, and self-pity.

The ascetic-priest, while being an epitome of the power principle, often presented himself as a man with the affectations of pity. (The idea of “love” was not a part of the ethical or axiological vocabulary until much later, when the Bhakti saints began to use it probably under the influence of Muslim Sufis. But in their case, too, it was more a situation of love for God than love for man.) In the priestly Brahman retelling, Vishnu appeared in the guise of the Buddha, the embodiment of pity (again, not love). The purpose again was to disempower the Kshatriyas and, by extension, the rest of the populace. In the case of Buddhism, too, “pity” (karuna) appears more as a metaphysical than ethical principle. Buddha was conceived in the Mahayana tradition not as a man of pity but himself a “great pity” (mahakaruna), who, in the company of prajna (the void of consciousness), was the cause of the emergence of an everchanging, untethered world.

Even when the pity principle was practised as a moral precept, it took such extreme forms that it became distorted and deficient, to the extent that the whole effect was neutralised. For one thing, the will to pity was directed more towards animals than humans, as the reading of Jataka stories show. In the case of Jainism, pity exclusively meant being non-violent towards animals. In fact, the lower the form of animals, the higher the level of pity. (Even in the present day, the Jaina saints, while being extremely pitiful towards ants and insects, are in the forefront of giving moral, strategic and financial support to the forces of aggression and violence in the national polity).

Furthermore, the monk-priests also often made the strange claim that, while they had to strictly follow the principle of non-injury, being bound by their ascetic oath, the lay followers could injure and kill in the name of sectarian and “national” interests. In taking this position, the adage “guilt by association” does not come to their minds, nor does it appear to them that it completely reverses their position of absolute non-injury, with which they often distinguish themselves from the “semitic” religions. Besides, this view borders on proclaiming a double-morality—one set of rules for the monks and another set for the laity. The people could still be violent even if such conduct incurs consequences. 

The Shraman ethic, while emphasising non-aggression and non-violence, was also the ethics of non-resistance and surrender to the forces of oppression. The ascetic-priest preferred a conformity to the ideal of amoralism than moralism. This was because, while, to be rational and moral was to be human, the suprahuman idea required one to transcend morality itself. Prescriptive ethics, centred around the notion of dharma, was sought to be supplanted by the ideas of swa-dharma and swa-bhava, which in the present context meant caste-duty and the caste-nature of man. When there was a conflict between dharma and swa-dharma, it was the latter that was to be acted upon, as Krishna so emphatically and clearly counsels Arjuna in the Gita. The paradise, and the realisation of the Brahman, is attained not so much by practicing dharma but by observing the dictates of one’s swa-dharma or varna-dharma. Thus, the Pandavas who occasionally lapsed in thinking and talking in terms of dharma, had to go through the purgatory of hell, while Duryodhana went straight to heaven for observing his Kshatriya duty of fighting and dying in the battlefield.

The saint as being suprahuman was also supra-moral, i.e., beyond good and evil. For, once he had reached the stage of sthit-prajna, he was not the master of his own actions. Agency then belonged either to the Brahman or to his own self/caste-nature. As suprahuman, he was beyond the restrictions of ordinary moral rules required for ordered living in society. He was neither good (as an ethical category) nor evil, and his actions were not his own. The transcendence, the supra-transcendence, implicated within itself the principle of transgression.

In sum, 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. The old gods faded but never disappeared, and the new gods that came on the scene were not totally new, and were just iterations of the old ones who stayed in the dark. In the present, a new supreme god has been invented/discovered which is not exactly native but an import from West. It has its rituals, its shrines and its priests, and it asks its believers to live and die for it. India has moved from the religion of nature worship to nation-worship and, as if not to admit a complete rupture, the latter is identified with the worship of mother goddesses like Durga and Kali. Both nature and nation are physical constructs, contingent realities, hypostatised in the minds of believers, but which a humanist will think of as in the service of man rather than the other way around.

India’s story, even when not written out as a grand narrative, is still at a stage where the gods and goddesses, the saints and the priests, and kings and queens, play-act their respective roles and are themselves the spectators and cheering audiences. The Shudras, the ati-Shudras and neo-Shudras, as undeserving subhumans, are kept out, away from their sights. The cup of sacred wine in the yajna is to be rightfully offered only to the people of “class,” even as the masses, the Shudras, are supposed to be, deservedly, denied it.

This excerpt has been published with permission from Navayana.

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.