Caste Absolves Racism: The Old Libel Against Hindus In A New Book

by Aravindan Neelakandan - Aug 15, 2020 01:05 AM +05:30 IST
Caste Absolves Racism: The Old Libel Against Hindus In A New BookA Brahmin performing pooja (1851) (Flickr)
  • A new book in America tries to equate the caste system of India with the anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany and racism in the US.

    This review explains why this is a dangerous development and how it can be countered.

Caste: The Origins Of Our Discontent. Isabel Wilkerson. Random House. Pages 496. Rs 5,979.

The book, Caste: The Origins of our Discontents, by Isabel Wilkerson has opened a ferocious new front against Hindus through the old libel of caste. Media personality Oprah Winfrey has tweeted that the book should be made 'required reading for humanity'.

Just like by calling the hooked-cross 'Swastika', the Nazi regime could be made to look more pagan and more Hindu-influenced than Christian, in the same way this book blames Nazi anti-Semitism and US racism on caste.

The author also draws a strong parallel, if not a connection, between social movements in the Indian society with the racism phenomenon in the US.

The book will definitely put the diaspora Hindus in a spotlight of accusations and reinforce negative stereotypes - both in media and academia and ultimately in polity.

Isabel Wilkerson is more a dangerous game of labeling an ‘other’ than real diagnosis.
Isabel Wilkerson is more a dangerous game of labeling an ‘other’ than real diagnosis.

Hindus will have to engage with the book in a thorough manner, both critically and honestly.

At the outset, Wilkerson sets the tone in no uncertain terms. The book wades through three ‘caste’ systems:

The tragically accelerated, chilling, and officially vanquished caste system of Nazi Germany. The lingering, millennia-long caste system of India. And the shape-shifting, unspoken, race-based caste pyramid in the United States.

She is careful enough to avoid the two main clichés which usually get associated with such works on caste. She points out that the term caste comes from the Portuguese word 'casta':

It comes from the Portuguese word casta, a Renaissance-era word for “race” or “breed.” The Portuguese, who were among the earliest European traders in South Asia, applied the term to the people of India upon observing Hindu divisions. Thus, a word we now ascribe to India actually arose from Europeans’ interpretations of what they saw; it sprang from the Western culture that created America. ... The human impulse to create hierarchies runs across societies and cultures, predates the idea of race, and thus is farther reaching, deeper, and older than raw racism and the comparatively new division of humans by skin color.

The second thing is that she does not fall into the usual Aryan race theory to explain Hindu jati/varna.

The kernel of her thesis is that she sees caste as more fundamental, more primordial, diabolically more persuasive and more deeply permeating all layers of human universe, effecting discriminatory stratification. Racism and racial constructs are recent in human history but caste is ancient.

To her racism is the subset of casteism and is at the employ of casteism.

The problem here is that she conflates and confuses the colonial caste system as the same system that existed in India for thousands of years, supported by Hinduism. To substantiate this, she presses into service false propaganda and fashion statements, and not serious research.

She prides herself with finding out from the patronising behaviour of non-Dalits advocating Dalit causes that they originally belong to ‘upper castes’ (p.31). But our academic-social Sherlock gets bamboozled by V.T. Rajshekar of Dalit Voice, who presents himself as an authentic representative of Dalit problems and views.

V.T.Rajshekar, himself not a ‘Dalit’ , quoted as an authority by Wilkerson markets hate forgeries for his ‘Dalit’ cause.
V.T.Rajshekar, himself not a ‘Dalit’ , quoted as an authority by Wilkerson markets hate forgeries for his ‘Dalit’ cause.

V.T. Rajshekar is not only a non-Scheduled Community (SC) person but he has been using his pseudo-Dalit label to market in India the notorious anti-Semitic forgery, Protocols of the Elders of Zion – calling it Zionist Arthashastra.

Wilkerson quotes him as an expert on ‘Dalit’ issues not once but twice. This defines a real problem in the narrative that Wilkerson unfolds. Because racial hatred is not peripheral but central to V.T.Rajshekar’s ‘Dalit’ worldview.

This is from the editorial of Dalit Voice dated April 2007:

The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion (which we renamed as the Zionist Arthashastra), the top secret book of the world-wide Zionist conspiracy, has prescribed 24 guidelines to control and dominate the world by deceiving if not violently tackling the non-Zionist peoples of the world. For copies of the Zionist secret book write to Dalit Voice office (Rs. 50). What is going on today in the whole of West is fully in accordance with the prescriptions made in the Protocols. Every one of the 24 guidelines is being fully implemented.
Emphasis added

So, when she says that the ‘Dalits were forbidden from the waters of the Brahmins, and Jews from Aryan waters in the Third Reich’ (p.117), it sounds hollow and pretentious; not to mention complete ignorance of the entirely different social contexts.

Whatever restrictions Nazis laid on Jews for not using the so-called ‘Aryan waters’ have their roots in the anti-Semitic legacy of Christendom – which included the baseless libel against Jews that they poisoned the wells of Christians. In fact, the stereotype of the villainous, scheming Brahmin devising the caste system and perpetuating it to suppress the native population, has a strong parallel in the anti-Semitism of the West.

Not allowing Jews to water bodies in Hitler’s Regime has its roots in medieval anti-Semitic hate-myth of Jews poisoning the wells. 
Not allowing Jews to water bodies in Hitler’s Regime has its roots in medieval anti-Semitic hate-myth of Jews poisoning the wells. 

A striking parallel does exist in India too: Christian missionaries spread rumours that Hindus poison the wells of Christians in the state of Orissa ('India Today', 30-March-1998). So, the Nazi banning of Jews to water bodies stems from anti-Semitic racism that has theological roots.

The restrictions that the Scheduled Communities faced in India, indefensible and inhuman as they were, are entirely different in their context and development. An apt parallel to study would have been the people of defiled trades and dishonourable professions in Europe, including the untouchable communities like Cagots.

Historian Kathy Stuart points out that in pre-modern Europe, 'throughout the Holy Roman empire, dishonourable tradesmen suffered various forms of social, economic, legal, and political discrimination on a graduated scale of dishonour at the hands of ‘‘honorable’’ guild artisans and in ‘‘honorable’’ society at large' and then she points out that 'dishonor was transmitted through heredity, often over several generations. The polluting quality of dishonor is one of its defining characteristics.' (Defiled Trades and Social Outcasts, Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp.2-3). As late as 17th century, when a rich Cagot dared to ‘pollute’ an upper caste water font his hand was chopped off and pinned to the Church gate.

Hereditary castes of defiled trades to unreasonable birth based untouchabilty - they all existed in Europe even up to 17th century.  But they never essentialized European society with it.
Hereditary castes of defiled trades to unreasonable birth based untouchabilty - they all existed in Europe even up to 17th century.  But they never essentialized European society with it.

It would have provided a fascinating account to see how those caste systems became irrelevant because of the genocidal colonial exploitation of other societies. Perhaps studying possible discrimination even today against those with higher native-Briton genetic markers as against those with increased Anglo-Saxon ones may reveal equally amusing yet relevant results for the problem in hand.

The author could also have studied the castes in Jewish society: Kohenim or Cohanim, Lebiim and Israelites with Cohanim being the highest castes and Israelites just ordinary people.

Jewish society has ‘caste’ too with endogamy, hierarchy and notion of purity and pollution.
Jewish society has ‘caste’ too with endogamy, hierarchy and notion of purity and pollution.

Surnames like Cohen, Kagan, Kahn, Katz etc. are mostly Cohanim surnames and middle caste surnames are Levy, Levin. Landau, Horowqitz etc.

More often than not, surnames can allow one to know the relations like a man with Cohanim surname cannot be related through paternal lines to a man born to the Leviim or Israelite castes. (Gary Mokotoff, 'Jewish American Research' in 'The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy' (Ed. Szucz& Luebking), Ancestry Publishing, 2006 p.766). Here is an example of a culture and a nation where orthodox ‘caste’ can coexist with the most progressive modernity.

The author describes in a detailed way the black couple-anthropologists, Allison Davis and Elizabeth, who studied in 1933 the lynching of a black man under the false accusation of raping a white woman.

The lynching had happened in the county next to Natchez. These two black anthropologists along with two whites, Mary Gardner and Burleigh, had produced what might be the most important study of biracial social relations then existing in 1930s Natchez.

They applied the caste concept to define racial relations in American south. Wilkerson writes:

Neither Davis nor Gardner made the claim that the Indian caste system and the American one were identical. Yet, criticism of the idea of caste in America followed a pattern in caste relations that the team documented in Mississippi.

And this got endorsed by none other than Swedish social economist Gunnar Myrdal. Wilkerson writes:

In this analysis of race, Myrdal described inter-group relations in the United States as a caste system, a term he returned to time and again.“The caste system,” Myrdal wrote, “is upheld by its own inertia and by the superior caste’s interest in upholding it.”

But there was another ‘caste‘ system related to Natchez and to the native American community which gave that name to the place.

This society also had a caste system which could assimilate both African and French fugitives.

By 1715, the Natchez had 4000 warriors. When the French wanted to take over one of their towns for expanding tobacco cultivation, the French attacked them, massacred them, and sold their women and children as slaves to planters in Guadalupe and Martinique.

Racial ‘caste’ system of Protestant culture at Natchez, Mississippi versus the more traditional ‘caste’ system of Natchez native Americans that could accommodate African fugitives of the time.   
Racial ‘caste’ system of Protestant culture at Natchez, Mississippi versus the more traditional ‘caste’ system of Natchez native Americans that could accommodate African fugitives of the time.   

It would have been quite interesting if one had studied how the traditional 'caste' system of the Native American nation could absorb different races into their 'caste' system as against the clearly hierarchical, injustice-laden Protestant caste system, which gets compared with the Hindu social system.

Had the author compared all these systems, their pros and cons, their evolution and devolution, along with the Hindu system, then she could have arrived at real diagnosis and real solutions.

Unfortunately, she even gets into the cheap thrill of misidentifying the hooked cross of the Nazis as ‘swastikas, a Sanskrit symbol linking them to their Aryan “roots," (pp. 82-3)

Wilkerson identifies eight pillars of the caste system: divine will and laws of nature; heritability; endogamy and control of marriage and mating; purity versus pollution; occupational hierarchy; dehumanization and stigma; terror as enforcement and cruelty as a means of control; inherent superiority versus inherent inferiority (pp.99-166).

While these pillars are quite true for the colonial system of social stratification found today in many societies around the world, in Hindu history, both varna and jati have more complex roots than such pillars.

In a way this is a good reference point for Hindus, particularly Sanghatanists, to see how much the social reality matches the pillar scheme and gauge from that how much the social system and values have been influenced by colonialism.

When it comes to Indian jati and varna, the author appears completely ill-informed – mostly because she sees only what she chooses to see and she chooses to see what she thinks shall fit her agenda.

It is quite hard to see which fallacy to highlight and which blunder to discuss. Consider the following allegation:

Unlike the United States, which primarily uses physical features to tell the castes apart, in India it is people’s surnames that may most readily convey their caste. Dalit names are generally “contemptible” in meaning, referring to the humble or dirty work they were relegated to, while the Brahmins carry the names of the gods.

In reality, this is more complicated. Let us consider Tamil Nadu. There are three SC communities: Paraiar, so-called Pallar and Arundathiyar.

Pariar also have the name Sambavar or Siva Sambavar and they relate themselves to Shiva. In fact, the Sri Lalita Sahasranama has the name Sambhavi and traditional commentary explains that as the mother of Sambavas.

The so-called Pallar name became dominant and fixed mostly during the colonial times. Their own traditional name is Devendrar.

Today, they have started demanding, based on pre-colonial historical documents, that they be taken out of the SC list. They have first rights in ceremonies of some of the major Hindu temples in Tamil Nadu. That such a people were made SC because of colonial interventions, shows the complexities involved here.

Chakliyar is a derogatory name but their traditional name is Arundathiyar- a name associated with one of the most venerated women in the Hindu tradition.

Isabel Wilkerson has no interest in such complexities. In fact, Hindu society and its history, with all its downfalls and problems, can yet provide a black activist of the United States means and methods to fight discrimination through Vedantic humanism which has consistently triumphed over social stagnation and exclusion. Unfortunately with blinkers of ideologically vested interests and market triumph, she marches on.

The so-called upper caste Hindus who figure in her narrative conveniently speak of their aversion for a religion 'that justified social hierarchy as the act of God'. They denounce Hinduism. A person who identifies himself as having been born in a Kshatriya caste has this to say to her:

’It’s an issue not well understood. I was raised with social privilege. You are told you are second upper caste, the ruling caste, and that you are to be happy that there are many below you.’

When she asks him to write down his caste, ‘he wrote the words Khatriya and then Kayastras in my notepad ... as if to disregard its significance by misremembering how to spell or pronounce it.’ Then she continues:

... It was hard to enjoy one’s privilege when so few people had it. When he was eleven or twelve, he began asking why his family had so much and others so little. “Don’t discuss about these things,” the elders told him. “Do your studies. Caste is created by God.”

This is weird and artificially constructed to say the least. Soon, it will be hundred years since Dr. Ambedkar wrote famously to Mahatma Gandhi that varna and caste are different. Dr. Ambedkar wrote:

Varna and Caste are two very different concepts. Varna is based on the principle of each according to his worth, while Caste is based on the principle of each according to his birth. The two are as distinct as chalk is from cheese. In fact, there is an antithesis between the two.

If anything, the religious texts of India which have been popular among Hindus, unlike the Smritis which mostly belonged to the legal scholars and were not religious texts as such, repeatedly insisted that social stratification should be given up.

The Mahabharata repeatedly speaks of Brahmin nature as arising not from birth but from one’s conduct and character. The Bhagavad Gita yet again reinforces the same. In the case of the so-called divine sanction, for every Smriti statement allowing birth-based division, there are literally thousand other references which reject such divisions and insist on inherent oneness of humanity and all existence.

In the case of heritability, we have entire communities moving out of one occupation to become another.

For example, Shudras have become Kshatriyas; similarly, Brahmin communities had become Scheduled Communities. So here is actually a paradoxical twist: In the West, the parallel caste structure estate was more secularly rooted than the Hindu jati-varna system. But historically, this provided an advantage to Hindu jatis in social mobility – particularly during the pre-colonial period.

Jamaican poet and social anthropologist Michael Garfield Smith (1921-1993) had pointed out this aspect of Hindu jati and it needs to be quoted at some length:

The feudal organization of medieval Europe and Japan also rested on fairly general consensus and habituation. ... None the less, these estate systems differ sharply from caste. Ritual heredity differentiates castes but in estate systems, hereditary differences are secular in base and referents. While caste can accommodate secular ranking as a secondary local stratification, in medieval Europe, ritual stratification was itself indirectly dependent on birth differences of a secular nature. Under caste, secular relations among ranked castes are rather variable; and instances of Sudras acquiring Kshatriya status by virtue of their territorial and military dominance are well known. In the secular estate system, the political bases are correlates of stratification are fixed and clear. Members of superior strata exercise jurisdiction over members of inferior ones, individually and collectively. ... In Europe, besides strata differentiated by birth and political status, the nobility was also divided between church and state. In the secular sphere, nobles competed for titles, land and power against rivals also qualified for this competition by birth; in the ritual sphere, birth status was qualified by secondary emphasis on learned clerical skills.
Corporations and Society: Social Anthropology of Collective Action‘, Transaction Publishers, 2017, 1974:2009, p.156)

The author of the book's ill-informed, vitriolic criticism of Indian jati system reaches a crescendo when she narrates an incident of how a Brahmin finds in the sacred thread a symbol of his own superiority and hatred for others. She describes:

The Brahmin came to know and to admire the few Dalits who crossed his path in his work, who had pushed through the walls of caste to become educated, professional. ... These were the people whose very sight and touch was said to be polluting, and yet here he was sitting across from them, sharing and learning from them. ... He shared this realization with a Dalit he had come to know and told him of a decision he had made. “I have ripped off my sacred thread,” he told the Dalit, a professional man. “It was a poisonous snake around my neck, and its toxic venom was getting inside of me.” ... And so he had discovered. “There was a stench coming from my body,” he said. “I have located the corpse inside my mind. I have given it a decent burial. And now my journey can begin.”

It is quite amusing that all her informants are like this – not just totally ignorant of their own tradition but more importantly they caricature their own tradition in the way their haters do:

The sacred thread is neither a privilege nor does it belong to Brahmins alone.

Many communities wear it. Some of them are potters, some of them merchants, some carpenters, some weavers, some warriors, some Valluvars – the priestly class of astronomers from the Pariah community and also the Brahmin jatis.

It is a colonial myth and today it is perpetuated by the academia, media and a strong section of the polity, that the sacred thread is a symbol of Brahmins and so-called Brahminism.

Then there are persistent Hindu traditions of Brahmins derived from the fishing community – sometimes presented with a poetic flourish that the sacred thread for the Brahmins were derived from their fishing nets.

Again, one of the most sacred and most popular of the Hindu texts, the Srimad Bhagavatam, clearly states that it is when the society is depraved that a person gets identified as a Brahmin because of his thread (and not his character).

While many non-Brahmin communities wear the sacred thread, colonial essentializing of sacred thread as Brahminical symbol has resulted in hate imagery - likening Brahmins to pigs and schemers.
While many non-Brahmin communities wear the sacred thread, colonial essentializing of sacred thread as Brahminical symbol has resulted in hate imagery - likening Brahmins to pigs and schemers.

From the Puranic Parasurama to Sri Ramanuja Acharya to Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati, the sacred thread has been given to any communities desiring to become Brahmins and any individual desiring the sacred thread.

It takes enormous amount of ignorance and cultural illiteracy to claim superiority based on the wearing of sacred thread. But such narratives make good marketing.

The book also plays a more worrying role. It blames every injustice of discrimination—from verbal abuse to racism to Holocaust—on caste. Then it ties caste to Hindu tradition—the last standing, non-monopolistic, pluralistic, non-authoritarian religion and culture.

Just as how the very presence of Jews created a theological problem for the monopolist expansionism fueling anti-Semitism, similarly the survival of Hindus as a people creates a problem for monopolist cultures.

Just as Jews are blamed for every problem by characterising them as greedy scheming people, Hindus are now similarly shown as the mother of all evils through their jati system and as victims of their own scheming Brahmins.

This book is just another Gospel of hatred and propaganda masquerading as the Gospel of liberation.

In this connection, one needs to point out that the antidote for this book has already been there now for three years in the academia. The book Western Foundations of the Caste System (Martin Fárek et al, Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) argues exhaustively that ‘the dominant descriptions we have today are results of originally Christian themes and questions; they reflect European historical experiences and European thinking about society much more than the real state of society and its domestic understanding in India.' (pp.28-9)

It is time Hindus use such academic arsenal in media domain to combat hatred and falsehood by the likes of Isabel Wilkerson.

Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.

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