Though there are many ill-effects of the jati system, it has at least two positives—resilience and social capital. It is one of the reasons that of all the civilizations that Islam encountered when they swept out of Arabia, the Hindu civilization is the only one they could not wipe out.
Some time ago I attempted to crowdsource ideas about Indian innovation, and posted a query on Twitter. I am grateful to those who suggested Indian products, but also processes. @chandrasuren mentioned the eri system of interconnected water bodies in Tamil Nadu; @kannan9900 suggested rainwater harvesting techniques; @india_jain talked of God as an anchor tenant for retail space, as a subset of the central role the Hindu temple played in traditional life: as mall, banker, relief centre; and @ShriRajKashyap about the role of self-organized guilds and networks.
All these, and many others, are intriguing ideas that I hope to expand upon eventually. It is clear that India evolved several self-regulatory and localized mechanisms for managing the affairs of citizens. Some are surprisingly forward-looking: we know the superlative organization and drainage systems of the Indus-Sarasvati civilization; but relatively few know about the democratic system of local self-governance as inscribed on the walls of a temple at Uthiramerur, Chingleput district, Tamil Nadu (@chandrasuren mentioned this too). I have not done a comparative analysis of the Magna Carta with Uthiramerur, but my impression is that, as usual, the western alternative gets all the good propaganda.
‘Caste’ Is Not The Same As Either Jati Or Varna
Speaking of propaganda, the jati system has been the recipient of continuous and destructive disinformation for several hundred years. Recently @surjitbhalla asked on Twitter whether there were, or ever had been, any benefits from the “caste system”.
Now Bhalla is a very smart person, but the tone of his query and subsequent tweets suggested that he was convinced there were none. To be honest, I am not even sure what the “caste system” is: “caste” is derived from a Spanish/Portuguese word, “casta”, an imperial construct from South America, where the European conquistadors imposed a hierarchical system on the mestizos, mixed-race people, with the degree of whiteness determining power, position and prestige.
Naturally, when white conquistadors showed up in India, they started using the same term, and casta became caste in English. I suggest that it was a square peg in a round hole: the jati system has nothing to do with the system of privileges that conquering whites imposed on native populations (and a similar system of minutely defining “black-ness” that existed in the American South, where a slave was a mulatto, a quadroon, an octoroon—half-white, quarter-white, one-eighth-white—and so on).
As usual, whites arbitrarily assumed that what existed in India was similar to something they already knew, although the two were like chalk and cheese. Similarly, they held that Hindus had a single Law Book (just as Christians had the Bible) and for no logical reason, anointed the Manu Smriti as that book. This of course ties back into the negative picture of jati and varna animosity that has caused the Manu Smriti to be condemned as a fount of intolerance; although in fact I do not know a single Hindu who has read it, and it has no relevance whatsoever in daily life. (Of course, all Communists read it and quote it frequently).
Be that as it may, I was first exposed to this question of the value of jati some 20 years ago when Hinduism Today asked my friend Bapa Rao and me to write a debate about it. Naturally, being filled with Kerala Communist propaganda and subaltern perspectives, I railed against it, and poor Bapa had the unenviable task of supporting “caste”. But that debate forced me to rethink “caste”, and to wonder if jati had actual value.
It must be self-evident that jati has some value, in a Darwinian sense. The very fact that it has persisted for millennia means that it must be useful, or else societies would have evolved it out. Today, jati survives conversion: although the Abrahamic religions profess egalitarianism, the travails of Christian Scheduled Caste converts show the continuation of jati. Yes, there are many inter-jati marriages, but even in “enlightened” Kerala, or especially in Kerala, everybody uses jati and religion as a bargaining chip.
Besides, there is no society on earth without some sort of stratification based on some characteristic, often money. The old-money types of the US Northeast are all proud that their ancestors came over on the Mayflower. I had good friends among a family of Winslows there, and it was clear they were an endogamous group—they all sent their children to the same private schools like Philips Andover Academy and then to the Ivy League, and they all ended up in lucrative jobs on Wall Street. If you are an outsider, you will find it difficult to break into this set, forget marriage!
I am sure there are similar equivalents of hierarchy in every society. In France, it is those who have gone to the top universities; in Japan, those who studied at Tokyo University. There is a natural human tendency to form cliques based on certain characteristics. There is a little flexibility: for instance, if you make money, you can join the blue-bloods of Boston (ironically called “Boston Brahmins”). Joseph Kennedy made a fortune from bootlegging alcohol during the US’ Prohibition, and lo, his offspring were “in”, though of wrong ethnicity (Irish) and faith (Catholic), both of which are anathema to the WASPs.
Similarly, it appears that jatis, which began from a rather sensible division of labour in a relatively static society, were able to move up and down the hierarchy at one time. There was flexibility: as occupations fluctuated in importance, the associated jatis went up and down the prestige ladder. As usual, it was the British who messed up this system completely: their census fixed a jati somewhat arbitrarily in some varna. For instance, I believe kayasthas are Brahmin in some territories, and Shudra in others. At any rate, the census helped ossify the hitherto somewhat fluid jati system.
In sum, what we see today as “casteism”, the “caste system” etc, are to a significant extent imagined constructs. I do not deny that there have been instances of horrendous oppression: in my native Travancore, this resulted in massive conversions. Nevertheless, the uncompromising condemnation of jati that’s popular in certain circles is more an effort to attack Hinduism than anything else.
Resilience And Social Capital
Now let’s consider whether there are in fact any positives in the jati system. I can think of at least two. The first is resilience. The second is social capital.
To consider resilience, think of the fact that of all the civilizations that the Muslims encountered when they swept out of Arabia, the Hindu civilization is the only one that did not get wiped out. Great, established cultures such as Egypt and Persia, and all the Buddhist cultures of Central Asia were completely erased in a very short time.
The reason has to do with systems theory. Monolithic systems are known to be highly vulnerable to single-node failure. That is to say, if your system is set up so that all the other nodes depend on one very important central node (that would in effect be a star-network), it is a simple matter to sabotage that central node, and the system fails catastrophically. That was the model that Muslim invaders used: they knew that just as Mecca/ Medina are their central nodes, if other religions have their own, they would be able to destroy them with ease. In the case of the Buddhists, there was the simple matter of burning the viharas and slaying all the monks, and Buddhism was completely eradicated—as in the case of the sack of Nalanda.
But this didn’t work in the case of the Hindus because Hinduism turned out to be a distributed system, or a Complex Adaptive System. A distributed system has many nodes, none of which is essential to the survival of the overall system. If you destroy a number of nodes, the system will be damaged for sure, but it may well resile and survive. This is the rationale behind building mesh computer networks, where no one node is critical; if any node is down, there are alternate paths around that node.
In the case of Hinduism, the jati served as the node. If your allegiance was to a particular jati, in essence the destruction of other jatis had little effect on you. In one sense this is bad because of the lack of unity of purpose, but on the other hand, the system is resilient. I think this baffled Muslim invaders. Initially they thought the centre of Hinduism was Somnath, so they sacked it; and nothing happened. Then they thought the centre was Benares, and they sacked it; again Hinduism did not vanish.
Complex Adaptive Systems show not only resilience, but also emergent behaviour: the network itself gains “intelligence” and may produce self-sustaining behaviour; just as a hive of relatively simple individual bees can exhibit emergent intelligence of a surprisingly high level. The jatis thus formed an intelligent network that adapts to perturbations. Thus, in a time of socialism, with the pie not growing, it has become a collective bargaining tool.
The other aspect of jati in modern days goes back to the idea of social capital. It is an observed fact that some jatis have done better in the rough and tumble of modern India than others. It appears that those jatis that chose the path of economics have thrived, but those that chose the path of politics have suffered. An oft-cited example is of the Gounders of Tirupur, Tamil Nadu, who have built up a multi-billion-dollar textile empire based on self-help. Similarly, the Jains of Surat have overtaken the Hassidic Jews of Antwerp as the global arbiters of the diamond trade.
Kinship and trust are the bases of these jati-based networks. IIM Bangalore Finance Professor R. Vaidyanathan (India Uninc), renowned journalist S. Gurumurthy and Professor P. Kanagasabapathi (Indian Models of Economy, Business and Management), have all commented on the positive benefits of jati-based networks. People are much more liable to trust those whom they have kinship with, and willing to loan them small amounts of money. And that trust is almost never violated, because excommunication would be intolerable.
The value of kinship in a traditional society like India cannot be overemphasized. In Tribes, Joel Kotkin talks of how Gujarati diamond merchants will ship a million dollars worth of uncut diamonds through a courier with no contract, no more than a handshake; and the courier will always deliver.
Humans have an innate need to belong. Jati is an innovation that uses this drive for many positive (but alas, also negative) things. A flexible system of jatis where occupational value determines its market price was a good idea. An ossified system still seems to function pretty well, and I am not sure that jati will disappear with urbanization. Non-commensality in dining has, but other aspects remain. I am not sure simply ranting and raving about it is going to disrupt jati.
Rajeev Srinivasan has worked for innovative companies such as Bell Labs, Siemens and Sun Microsystems in strategy and product management. He has taught innovation at several IIMs, and is a member of the Think Tank working on India’s national IP policy. He has been a conservative columnist for almost 20 years, and has degrees from IIT Madras and Stanford Business School.