Views of Ambedkar, Max Weber, Srinivas, Hutton, Basham and Thapar on Origin of Indian Castes
Indian Castes originated within last thousand years from tribes and guilds
Earlier it was customary among established authors to translate Sanskrit varna as ‘caste’ in English. This had resulted mainly because historians mistakenly tried to find out roots of modern caste system, which is a social and sociological entity, in the Hindu religious texts. Contrary to lay beliefs and general belief of historians, the caste and Hindu varna system have no relationship. This has been the considered view of many sociologists and anthropologists like Max Weber, Hutton, Srinivas etc. Dr B. R. Ambedkar too held that ancient Hindu society had open classes, which were not ‘caste’, which is a closed social entity. He expressed in 1916 (emphasis added): (1)
“…society is always composed of classes. It may be an exaggeration to assert the theory of class conflict, but existence of definite classes in a society is a fact. Their basis may differ. They may be economic or intellectual or social, but an individual in a society is always a member of a class. This is a universal fact and early Hindu society could not have been an exception to this rule, and, as a matter of fact, we know it was not. If we bear this generalization in mind, our study of the genesis of caste would be very much facilitated, for we have only to determine what was the class that first made itself into a caste… A Caste is an enclosed Class.” … …
“We shall be well advised to recall at the outset that the Hindu society, in common with other societies, was composed of classes and the earliest known are the (1) Brahmin or the priestly class; (2) the Kshatriya or the military class; (3) the Vaishya or the merchant class; (4) the Shudra or the artisan and the menial class. Particular attention has to be paid to the fact that this was essentially a class system, in which, individuals, when qualified, could change their class, and therefore the classes did change their personnel.”
Authors like Max Weber, A. L. Basham and M. N. Srinivas indicated that caste is something entirely unrelated with Vedic varna, and has nothing to do with varna. Later this view became more widely acceptable and later even Romila Thapar subscribed to this view (infra). Max Weber too had traced origin of castes from guilds and tribes, and not from varnas. We shall now see what these authorities had to say.
The following quotes are from Basham’s book The Wonder That Was India (emphasis added): (2)
“The term varna does not mean ‘caste’ and has never meant ‘caste’ by which term it is often loosely translated”. (p. 35).
“It was only in late medieval times that it was finally recognized that exogamy and sharing meals with members of other classes were quite impossible for respectable people. These customs and many others such as widow-remarriage, were classed as kalivarjya—customs once permissible, but to be avoided in this dark Kali age, when men are no longer naturally righteous.” (p. 148, top para, last lines).
“In the whole of this chapter we have hardly used the word which in most minds is most strongly connected with the Hindu social order…In attempting to account for the remarkable proliferation of castes in 18th– and 19th– century India, authorities credulously accepted the traditional view that by a process of inter marriage and subdivision the 3000 or more castes of modern India had evolved from the four primitive classes, and the term ‘caste’ was applied indiscriminately to both varna or class and jati or caste proper. This is a false terminology; castes rise and fall in social scale, and old castes die out and new ones are formed, but the four great classes are stable. They are never more or less than four, and for over 2,000 years their order of precedence as not altered. All ancient Indian sources make a sharp distinction between the two terms; varna is much referred to but jati very little, and when it does appear in the literature it does not always imply the comparatively rigid and exclusive social groups of later times. (3) If caste is defined as a system of groups within the class, which are normally endogamous, commensal and caste exclusive, we have no real evidence of its existence until comparatively late times.” (p. 148, para 2).
“…It is impossible to show its origin conclusively, and we can do little more than faintly trace its development, since early literature paid scanty attention to it; but it is practically certain that the caste did not originate from the four classes. Admittedly it developed later than they, but this proves nothing. There were subdivisions in the four classes at a very early date, but the Brahman gotras, which go back to Vedic times, are not castes, since the gotras are exogamous, and members of the same gotras are to be found in many castes.” (p. 148, last para).
“…Many trades were organized in guilds, in which some authorities have seen the origin of the trade castes; but these trade groups cannot be counted as fully developed castes. A 5th century inscription from Mandsore shows us a guild of silk-weavers emigrating in a body from Lata (the region of the lower Narmada) to Mandsor, and taking up many other crafts and professions, from soldiering to astrology, but still maintaining its guild consciousness. We have no evidence that this group was endogamous or commensal, and it was certainly not craft-exclusive, but its strong corporate sense is that of a caste in the making. Huen Tsang in the 7th century was well aware of the four classes, and also mentioned many mixed classes, no doubt accepting the orthodox view of the time that these sprang from intermarriage of the four, but he shows no clear knowledge of existence of caste in its modern form.” (p. 149, para 2)
“…Indian society developed a very complex social structure, arising partly from tribal affiliations and partly from professional associations, which was continuously being elaborated by the introduction of new racial groups into the community, and by the development of new crafts. In the Middle Ages the system became more or less rigid, and the social group was now a caste in the modern sense. Prof J.J. Hutton has interpreted the caste system as an adaptation of one of the most primitive of the social relationships, whereby a small clan, living in a comparatively isolated village, would hold itself aloof from its neighbors by a complex system of taboos, and he has found embryonic caste features in the social structure of some of the wild tribes of present-day India. The caste system may well be the natural response of the many small and primitive peoples who were forced to come to terms with a more complex economic and social system. It did not develop out of the four Aryan varnas, and the two systems have never been thoroughly harmonized” (p. 149-150).
Another important author was M. N. Srinivas. Following quotes from his book Caste in Modern India: (4) (all emphasis added):
“The varna-model has produced a wrong and distorted image of caste. It is necessary for the sociologist to free himself from the hold of the varna-model if he wishes to understand the caste system. It is hardly necessary to add that it is more difficult for Indian sociologist than it is for non-Indian.” (p. 66).
“The category of Shudra subsumes, in fact, the vast majority of non-Brahminical castes which have little in common. It may at one end include a rich, powerful and highly Sanskritized group while at the other end may be tribes whose assimilation to Hindu fold is only marginal. The Shudra-category spans such a wide structural and cultural gulf that its sociological utility is very limited.”
“It is well known that occasionally a Shudra caste has, after the acquisition of economic and political power, Sanskritized its customs and ways, and has succeeded in laying claim to be Kshatriyas. The classic example of the Raj Gonds, originally a tribe, but who successfully claimed to be kshatriyas after becoming rulers of a tract in Central India (now Madhya Pradesh), shows up the deficiency of the varna-classification. The term Kshatriya, for instance, does not refer to a closed ruling group which has always been there since the time of the Vedas. More often it refers to the position attained or claimed by a local group whose traditions and luck enabled it to seize politico-economic power.” (pp. 65-66).
“But in Southern India the Lingayats (5) claim equality with, if not superiority to the Brahmin, and orthodox Lingayats do not eat food cooked or handled by the Brahmin. The Lingayats have priests of their own caste who also minister to several other non-Brahmin castes. Such a challenge to the ritual superiority of the Brahmin is not unknown though not frequent. The claim of a particular caste to be Brahmin is, however, more often challenged. Food cooked or handled by Marka Brahmins of Mysore, for instance, is not eaten by most Hindus, not excluding Harijans.” (p. 66)
“It is necessary to stress here that innumerable small castes in a region do not occupy clear and permanent positions in the system. Nebulousness as to position is of the essence of the system in operation as distinct from the system in conception. The varna-model has been the cause of misinterpretation of the realities of the caste system. A point that has emerged from recent field-research is that the position of a caste in the hierarchy may vary from village to village. It is not only that the hierarchy is nebulous here and there, and the castes are mobile over a period of time, but the hierarchy is also to some extent local. The varna-scheme offers a perfect contrast to this picture.” (p. 67).
About mobility (movement) of a caste from one level of hierarchy to other, Srinivas writes,
“It is interesting to note that the mobility of a caste is frequently stated in verna terms rather than in terms of local caste situation. This is partly because each caste has a name and a body of customs and traditions which are peculiar to itself in any local area, and no other caste would be able to take up its name. A few individuals or families may claim to belong to a locally higher caste, but not a whole caste. Even the former event would be difficult as the connections of these individuals or families would be known to all in that area. On the other hand, a local caste would not find it difficult to call itself Brahmin, Kshatriya or Vaishya by suitable prefixes. Thus the Bedas of Mysore would find it difficult to call themselves Okkalingas (Peasants) or Kurubas (Shepherds), but would not have difficulty in calling themselves Valmiki Brahmins. The Smiths of South India long ago, in pre-British times, changed their names to Vishvakarma Brahmins. In British India this tendency received special encouragement during the periodical census enumerations when the low castes changed their names in order to move up in the hierarchy.” (p. 69).
When there were no castes in India, it was the individual which moved up or down in a varna scale. However, after establishment of castes in the last millennium, it was now castes which moved up or down in the varna scale. This was possible because of changeable nature of varna status of the Hindus. Hence, many castes which considered themselves shudra earlier, claimed later a brahmana or kshatriya status.(6) Census of India noted:
“In every single instance, the claim was that the caste deserved to be enumerated as a higher caste – Ahar as Yadava, as Yadava Kshatriya; Aheria as Hara Rajput; Ahir as Kshatiryas of varied superscripts; Banjaras as Chauhan and Rathor Rajput; Harhai as Dhiman Brahman, as Panchal Brahman, and Rathor Rajput; Barhai as Dhiman Brahman, as Panchal Brahman as Vishwakarma Brahman, Bawaria as Brahman; Bhotia as Rajput; Chamar as Jatav Rajput; Gadaria as Pali Rajput; Lodh as Lodhi Rajput; Taga as Tyagi Brahman … one after the other, sixty three castes, the list alone taking three full pages… The point here is that each of them was aspiring to be and demanding to be elevated to a higher place in the social hierarchy.” (7)
Thus varna and ‘caste’ are different by definition, character and origins. Srinivas, Basham, Thapar and other knowledgeable authors, and even the Supreme Court give the same definition of caste, which Kroeber gave in 1930 in the following words:
Caste is “an endogamous and hereditary subdivision of an ethnic unit occupying a position of superior or inferior rank or social esteem in comparison with other such subdivisions” (8)
Eighty years later, and with many times as much research literature available on India and on social stratification, this definition has not been significantly improved upon, although there has been greatly increased understanding both of the Indian caste system and of other systems of stratification.
Although sociologists and anthropologists, who can do better analysis of nature and character of a social group, made the difference between caste and varna quite early, yet historians (other than Basham) could not understand the nature of caste organization. Historians like Romila Thapar earlier subscribed to Risley and other authors’ racist theory of Indian castes, that the original Indians were subordinated by invading Aryans into lower castes and the Aryans placed themselves in the top castes. However, Thapar recently changed her mind and found that castes originated from guilds and tribes.
It may be understood that original Indian population must have consisted of innumerable tribes based on territoriality. Whether they spoke Austro-Asiatic or Indo-European or Dravidian or Sino-Tibetan, each smallest unit was a tribe. As civilization evolved, tribes were incorporated into larger regional civilizations (like Mehrgarh or Harappa). It was only after a level of civilization had been achieved, that people were considered as classes. Vedas mention these classes. The oldest verses of Rig-Veda mentions only two classes, Brahmana and Rajanya (or Kshatriya), and the other two (vaishya and shudra) appear only in the last protion, i.e. Mandala 10, indicating that these latter classes were products of increasing civilizational complexity in production, industry and trade.
However these classes in the Vedas were not castes, and each Vedic tribe (jana) usually had its members distributed in all the four classes, as we find today in forest (scheduled) tribes of India. Vedas gave emphasis on exogamy, i.e. marriage outside the group. Vedic jana-s were most likely gotra-exogamous, village-exogamous and clan exogamous. This basic Vedic dogma prevented emergence of endogenous castes, as long as Vedic philosophy guided Hindus until the end of the first millennium AD. This exogamy principle was unique to Hindus, as has been noted by Al-Biruni in about 1000 A.D. in the following words:
“According to their marriage law it is better to marry a stranger than a relative. The more distant the relationship of a woman with regard to her husband, the better.” (9)
Although varnas were only few, Vedas always mentioned a large number of Vedic tribes (called jana or jan) like Kuru, Puru, Bharata, Panchala etc. These tribes had local territories of origin. Each tribe later developed its brahmana, khshatriya and other classes depending on profession. It is to be noted that Panini mentioned Brahmana among the Nishadas (fishermen) as Nishadagotra Brahmana.(10) Vedic values laid stress on forgetting inter-tribal (or inter-jana) rivalry, and encouraged gotra-exogamy, pravara-exogamy and village exogamy. The tribal identity had regionalism, whereas varna or class identity was pan-national. Thus emphasis on varna at the cost of tribe prevented caste formation. The various exogamies prescribed by the Vedic culture too led to establishing inter-jana social relationships, and a stronger feeling of Indian identity, leading to weakening of jana or tribal identity.
But when Vedic institutions ended after ancient Indian civilizational institutions were terminated by Muslim invaders, regrouping of people occurred on ethnicity, tribe, clan, professional guild and religious sect lines, leading to formation of modern castes. These regroupings were often based on trade-guilds (gold-smith, black-smith, carpenter etc), or micro-geographical territorial origins (like Marwari, Ramgarhiya, Kanaujiya, Mathur etc) or religion (like Lingayat, Kabirpanthi, Satnami etc).
In spite of Prof. Basham’s clear discussion about the caste system, many historians continued to translate varna as ‘caste’. Romila Thapar throughout her career as a historian followed that line, although she always extensively referred to Basham’s book on other issues. Her line of thinking was naïve but simple: The Aryans came to India from outside and they defeated and enslaved the Dravids. Later the slaves became the shudras.
It is only as late as in year 2002 that Romila Thapar took a U-turn, and incorporated in her theory of caste what Basham had said long back. It is likely that she took a long time to understand it, and the earlier misinformation by her regarding the Indian caste system was possibly not deliberate.
The truth is that, as Srinivas, and Basham too, have pointed out, many of the Indians can actually never understand the difference between varna and caste. Prof Romila Thapar in her earlier book (1966) used caste to denote varna and sub-caste to denote jati. But in her latest book (2002) she uses the terms varna and jati in English also, and avoids the word caste at most of the places. Prof Basham also had strongly discouraged the use of word ‘caste’ to mean “varna” (vide supra). Prof. Thapar in year 2002 also explains as to how jati might have originated from clans or tribes.(11) This understanding was not there in her earlier writings.(12)
We will now see what Prof. Thapar has said over the matter in 2002 in her book Early India.(13) First she explains the reasons why it had been difficult for the historians to understand the caste system:
“In common with all branches of knowledge, the premium on specialization in the later twentieth century has made it impossible to hold a seriously considered view about a subject without a technical expertise in the discipline.” (p. xxv)
“One of the current debates relating to the beginning of Indian history involves both archeology and linguistics, and attempts to differentiate between indigenous and alien peoples. But history has shown that communities and their identities are neither permanent nor static…. To categorize some people as indigenous and others as alien, to argue about the first inhabitants of the subcontinent, and to try and sort out these categories for the remote past, is to attempt the impossible.
It was not just the landscape that changed, but society also changed and often quite noticeably. But this was a proposition unacceptable to colonial perceptions that insisted on the unchanging character of Indian history and society.” (p. xxiv)
“That the study of institutions did not receive much emphasis was in part due to the belief that they did not undergo much change: an idea derived from the conviction that Indian culture had been static, largely owing to the gloomy, fatalistic attitude to life.” (p. xxv)
“But there are variations in terms of whether landowning groups or trading groups were dominant, a dominance that could vary regionally….This raises the question whether in some situations wealth, rather than caste ranking, was not the more effective gauge of patronage and power. The formation of caste is now being explored as a way of understanding how Indian society functioned. Various possibilities include the emergence of castes from clans of forest dwellers, professional groups or religious sects. Caste is therefore seen as a less rigid and frozen system than it was previously thought to be, but at the same time this raises a new set of interesting questions for social historians.” (p. xxvii)
“It is curious that there were only a few attempts to integrate the texts studied by Indologists with the data collected by the ethnographers. Both constituted substantial but diverse information on Indian society….Those who studied oral traditions were regarded as scholars but of another category. Such traditions were seen as limited to bards, to lower castes and the tribal and forest peoples, and as such not reliable when compare to the texts of the higher castes and the elite. Had the two been seen as aspects of the same society, the functioning of caste would have been viewed as rather different from the theories of the Dharma-shastras.” (p. 10).
“The evolution of this idea can be seen from the Vedic corpus, and since this constitutes the earliest literary source, it came to be seen as the origin of the caste society. This body of texts reflected the brahmanical view of caste, and maintained that the varnas were created on a particular occasion and have remained virtually unchanged….Varna is formulaic and orderly, dividing society in four groups arranged in hierarchy…” (p. 63)
Prof. Thapar’s view of the origin of caste, which are consistent with Prof. Basham’s views, are:
“However, there have been other ways of looking at the origins and functioning of caste society. A concept used equally frequently for caste is jati. It is derived from a root meaning ‘birth’, and the number of jatis are listed by name and are too numerous to be easily counted. The hierarchical ordering of jatis is neither consistent nor uniform, although hierarchy cannot be denied. The two concepts of jati and varna overlap in part but are also different. The question therefore is, how did caste society evolve and which one of the two preceded the other? According to some scholars, the earliest and basic division was varna and the jatis were subdivisions of the varna, since the earliest literary source, the Vedic corpus, mentions varnas. But it can also be argued that the two were distinct in origin and had different functions, and that the enveloping of jati by varna, as in the case of Hindu castes, was a historical process.
The origin of varna is reasonably clear from the references in the Vedic corpus…….The genesis of the jati may have been the clan, prior to its becoming a caste.” (p. 63).
“Interestingly, an account of Indian society written by the Greek, Megasthenes, in the fourth century BC, merely refers to seven broad divisions without any association of degrees of purity. He says that the philosophers are the most respected, but includes in this group the brahmanas as well as those members of heterodox sects– the shramanas—who did not regard the brahmanas as being of the highest status.” (p. 62)
“Jati comes from the root meaning ‘birth’, and is a status acquired through birth. Jati had a different origin and function from varna and was not just the subdivision of the latter.” (p. 123).
“The transition from jana to jati or from clan to caste, as this process has sometimes been termed, is evident from early times as a recognizable process in the creation of Indian society and culture.” (p. 422)
“There are close parallels between the clan as a form of social organization and the jati. Jati derives its meaning from ‘birth’ which determines membership of a group and the status within it; it also determines rules relating to the circles within which marriage could or could not take place and rules relating to inheritance of property. These would strengthen separate identities among jatis, a separation reinforced by variance in ritual and worship…therefore, these are entities which gradually evolved their own cultural identities, with differentiations of language, custom and religious practice. A significant difference between clans and jatis is that occupation becomes an indicator of status…” (p. 64)
“The conversion from tribe or clan to caste, or from jana to jati as it is sometimes called, was one of the basic mutations of Indian social history..” (p. 66)
“The conversion of clan to jati was not the only avenue to creating castes. Since caste identities were also determined by occupations, various professional associations, particularly urban artisans, gradually coalesced into jatis, beginning to observe jati rules by accepting a social hierarchy that defined marriage circles and inheritance laws, by adhering to common custom and by identifying with a common location. Yet another type of jati was the one that grew out of a religious sect that may have included various jatis to begin with, but started functioning so successfully as a unit that eventually it too became a caste. A striking example of this is the history of the Lingayat caste in the peninsula.” (p. 66)
“Intermediate castes have a varying hierarchy. Thus, in some historical periods the trading caste of khatris in the Punjab and the land owning velas in Tamil Nadu were dominant groups.” (p. 67)
Thus the conclusion of these three authors is that caste originated from guilds, tribes and religious sects, and not from varna.
Max Weber (1921), an early sociologist of Germany also did not find any caste like social structure in the Vedas and opined that the Vedic classes were different from the modern Hindu castes. He found that modern Hindu castes are more like European guilds which existed before the modern age in that continent. At that time there were untouchable guilds like Pariah and ‘opprobrious’ trade guilds, and liturgical guilds too in Europe, which were strictly controlled by caste laws in Europe.
Max Weber wrote:
“Perhaps the most important gap in the ancient Veda is its lack of any reference to caste. The (Rig-) Veda refers to the four later caste names in only one place, which is considered a very late passage; nowhere does it refer to the substantive content of the caste order in the meaning which it later assumed and which is characteristic only of Hinduism.”(14)
Although Max Weber too translated varna as ‘caste’, as we can see in the above quote, yet being a thorough sociologist, he was able to discern that the vedic ‘caste’ (actually varna) and modern castes were entirely different things.
Like Basham, Max Weber too was able to find similarities between modern Hindu castes and pre-modern European guilds. He wrote: “In this case, castes are in the same position as merchant and craft guilds, sibs, and all sorts of associations.”
“’Guilds’ of merchants, and of traders figuring as merchants by selling
their own produce, as well as ‘craft-guilds,’ existed in India during the
period of the development of cities and especially during the period in
which the great salvation religions originated. As we shall see, the salvation religions and the guilds were related. The guilds usually emerged within the cities, but occasionally they emerged outside of the cities, survivals of these being still in existence. During the period of the flowering of the cities, the position of the guilds was quite comparable to the position guilds occupied in the cities of the medieval Occident. The guild association (the mahajan, literally, the same as popolo grasso)(Ref 15) faced on the one hand the prince, and on the other the economically dependent artisans. These relations were about the same as those faced by the great guilds of literati and of merchants with the lower craft-guilds (popolo minuto)(Ref. 16) of the Occident. In the same way, associations of lower craft guilds existed in India (the panch). Moreover, the liturgical guild of Egyptian and late Roman character was perhaps not entirely lacking in the emerging patrimonial states of India.
“The merchant and craft guilds of the Occident cultivated religious interests as did the castes. In connection with these interests, questions of social rank also played a considerable role among guilds. Which rank order the guilds should follow, for instance, during processions, was a question occasionally fought over more stubbornly than questions of economic interest. Furthermore, in a ‘closed’ guild, that is, one with a numerically fixed quota of income opportunities, the position of the master was hereditary. There were also quasi-guild associations and associations derived from guilds in which the right to membership was acquired in hereditary succession. In late Antiquity, membership in the liturgical guilds was even a compulsory and hereditary obligation in the way of a glebae adscriptio, which bound the peasant to the soil. Finally, there were also in the medieval Occident ‘opprobrious’ trades, which were religiously declasse; these correspond to the ‘unclean’ castes of India.”
“The merchant and craft guilds of the Middle Ages acknowledged no ritual barriers whatsoever between the individual guilds and artisans, apart from the aforementioned small stratum of people engaged in opprobrious trades. Pariah peoples and pariah workers (for example, the knacker and hangman), by virtue of their special positions, come sociologically close to the unclean castes of India.”
“Furthermore, caste is essentially hereditary. This hereditary character was not, and is not, merely the result of monopolizing and restricting the earning opportunities to a definite maximum quota, as was the case among the absolutely closed guilds of the Occident, which at no time were numerically predominant.”
“Let us now consider the Occident. In his letter to the Galatians (11:12, 13 ff.) Paul reproaches Peter for having eaten in Antioch with the Gentiles and for having wthdrawn and separated himself afterwards, under the influence of the Jerusalemites. ‘And the other Jews dissembled likewise with him.’ That the reproach of dissimulation made to this very apostle has not been effaced shows perhaps just as clearly as does the occurrence itself the tremendous importance this event had for the early Christians. Indeed, this shattering of the ritual barriers against commensalism meant a shattering of the voluntary Ghetto, which in its
effects is far more incisive than any compulsory Ghetto. It meant to shatter the situation of Jewry as a pariah people, a situation that was ritually imposed upon this people. For the Christians it meant the origin of Christian ‘freedom,’ which Paul again and again celebrated triumphantly; for this freedom meant the universalism of Paul’s mission, which cut across nations and status groups. The elimination of all ritual barriers of birth for the community of the eucharists, as realized in Antioch, was, in connection with the religious preconditions, the hour of conception for the Occidental ‘citizenry.’”
”By its solidarity, the association of Indian guilds, the mahajan, was a force which the princes had to take very much into account. It was said: ‘The prince must recognize what the guilds do to the people, whether it is merciful or cruel.’ The guilds acquired privileges from the princes for loans of money, which are reminiscent of our medieval conditions. The shreshti (elders) of the guilds belonged to the mightiest notables and ranked equally with the warrior and the priest nobility of their time.”
Max Weber also noted remarkable similarity between ‘tribe’ and ‘caste’. Max Weber writes that when an Indian tribe loses its territorial significance it assumes the form of an Indian caste. In this way the tribe is a local group whereas caste is a social group.(17) In other words, as long as a single tribe lives in a locality, it is a tribe. But when several tribes try to enter the same locality, they occupy different occupational niche or specialization, and then the same tribe starts behaving like castes. And of course, they retain their tribe (or caste) endogamy rule.
After a lot of research in the subject, Bailey found that we should curb the tendency to view tribe and caste disjunctly and instead, they should be viewed in continuum.. All the Hindu castes were actually found to have a continuum with the forest tribes in many ways. Bailey (1961) sought to make distinction not in terms of totality of behaviour but in a more limited way, in relation to politico-economic system. While the castes are more integrated with the national political and economic systems, the tribes are less so. (18)
Andre Beteille (1974) also discussed the issue of defining tribe and caste in Indian context. He found many of the distinctions arbitrary. (19) Thus although some distinctions can be made out for practical purposes, the words tribe and caste mean the same thing sociologically.
Bailey found that the communities which had more land per capita for farming, tended to be towards the tribal pole with lesser specialization, while the people who had lesser land, had to evolve specialized professions, and were at the caste pole of society. In the latter case the movement is towards role specialization, social stratification and a complex social interaction involving diversification of network of relations.(20) Thus Bailey found that the tribes and castes differ only in respect of the political and the economic systems.
William Crooke quotes from Risley that Rajput’s development from original tribes can be with more or less confidence be assumed.(21) He notes that often Bhil or Gond tribal man becomes leader of his sept and claims to be a Rajput sept. He is not at once admitted into the matrimonial fold of the Rajputs, but if he is rich enough and persistent in his claim, this boon is granted sooner or later.(22) As a result of this constant conversion of tribes into Rajputs, Rajput became the single largest caste of India with widest territorial distribution.
William Crooke too noted this relationship between tribes and the Rajputs, which is an upper caste. “Dravidian Gonds were enrolled as Rajputs.” “Raja of Singrauli was a pure Kharwar, but became a banbansi Kshatriya during the life of the author.” “Col Sleeman gives the case of an Oudh Pasi who became a Rajput…”. “The names of many septs (of Rajputs), as Baghel, Ahban, Kalhans, and Nagbansi, suggest a totemistic origin, and Nagbansi suggests a totemistic origin which would bring them in line with the Chandrabanshi, who are promoted Dravidian Cheros and other similar septs of undoubtedly aboriginal race.”(23)
More such relations between tribes and Rajputs have been noted by Sadasivan from records of older authors, “Dr Francis Buchanan upon evidence states that the Pratihara Rajputs of Sahabad are descendants of tribe of Bhars. “Chandels” observes Vincent Smith “who appear to have their descent from the Gondsclosely connected with another tribe the Bhars, first carved out a petty principality near Chhatrapur. Sir Denzil Ibbetson is also almost certain that the so called Rajput families were aboriginal, and he instanced the Chandels. “Recent investigation has shown” writes H. A. Rose (A Glossory of Tribes and Castes of the Punjab and the North-West Province) that the “Pratihara” (Parihar) clan of the Rajputs was really a sections of the Gujars and other fireborn Rajput clans, Solanki (Chalukyas), Punwars (Paramaras), Chauhans (Chahumanas or Chahuvamsha) must be assigned similar origin”. …
“Clans and families” says Vincent Smith, “who succeeded in winning chieftainship were” made “kshatriyas and Rajputs, and there is no doubt the Parihars and many other Rajput clans of the north, were developed out of the barbarian hoardes …” besides “various other aboriginal tribes” “the Gonds, the Bhars and the Khanwars underwent the same process of social promotion to emerge as the Chandels, Rathods and the Gahadwars equipped with pedigree reaching back to the sun or moon.”(24) Sherring writes that Rajas of Singarauli and Jushpore, although claim to descendants of Rajput rajas, are descendants of Kharwar tribes.
Prof Vijay Nath noted that tribes often entered brahmana-hood too.(25) According to Skanda Purana, Parashurama conferred Brahmanahood to many Kaivartta (fisherman) families as well as several other people (Nath, p. 33). Prof. Nath notes that Malvika Brahmins originally belonged to the Malava tribe. Similarly, the Boya Brahmanas mentioned in the Koneki grant of Chalukyan king Vishnuvardhana II, actually belonged to the Boya tribe of Andhra. (Ibid., p. 33). The Padma Purana mentions Parvatiya Brahmanas who were of tribal origin. (Ibid. p. 33) “Large number of tribal and aboriginal priestly groups appeared to have gained entry into its fold as a low grade Brahmana.” (Ibid, p. 33).
Romila Thapar too mentions how a section of Boya tribe of Andhra Pradesh got converted into Boya Hindu caste after getting job of temple servants, and with time were able to rise in the hierarchy in the temple establishment, reaching highest positions. (26) Some Boyas eventually entered Brahmana Caste is documented by other authors (supra). Romila Thapar also notes that forest tribals have entered into Kshatriya and Rajput forld quite late. (27)
Even until the nineteenth century, caste was quite fluid, and not as closed as European or Persian classes. The British officers recorded lower or menial origins of many of the Brahmanas. Ojha Brahman is a successor of Dravidian Baiga.(28) Trigunait Brahmana, Pathak (Amtara), Pande Parwars (Hardoi) and Sawalakhiya Brahmana (Gorakhpur and Basti), Mahabrahmana, Barua, Joshi and Dakaut had originated from lower castes. The Mishra Brahmanas of Arjhi were descendants of a Lunia who was conferred Brahmanhood by a Raja in the eighteenth century.(29) Ahir, Kurmi and Bhat were once converted into Brahmanas on record.(30) Often rich persons aspiring to become higher caste paid fees to some Brahmana, and got their lineage constructed descending from some ancient hero.(31) Srinivas refers to similar instances from United Provinces.(32)
Thus we can say that the modern Indian castes have evolved from tribes and guilds, and sometimes from religious sects, relatively lately after Muslim advent in India. Caste has no relationship with varna, and it has not evolved from varma. Most probably, it was the vanishing of varna from Indian space after the Muslim conquest, that led to conversion of guilds and tribes into caste. However confusion has been created over the last couple of hundred years when many of the castes assumed the suffixes of Brahmana and Vaishya on the basis of caste’s occupation at that particular point of time, and still later most of the remaining castes assumed the suffix Kshatriya, (33) thus giving an impression that the ancient system of Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra system has survived till date in form of the current castes.
DNA studies too largely supported that the all the Indian castes share same DNAs and their DNAs vary more because of geographical distance rather than because of caste levels. This implies a relatively late origin of caste.
This unjustifiable treatment to bully Hinduism was criticized a hundred years back by famous sociologist John Campbell Oman who wrote,
“No little amused wonder and supercilious criticism on the part of Europeans has been aroused by the caste system of India, which has generally been regarded as an absurd, unhealthy, social phenomenon, without parallel elsewhere… but caste prejudices, and institutions based on such prejudices, are not wholly absent from social life outside India, even in the highly civilized states of the western World. And a little consideration of such indications of caste feelings will help us account in some measure for the more salient characteristics of the Indian system, or at any rate serve to clear our minds of certain unfounded prejudices and offensive cant…but it is nevertheless undeniable that, even in Europe, certain genuine hereditary caste distinctions have at various times been maintained by law, and are to be found there at the present day.
“One much derided peculiarity of the Hindu caste system is the hereditary character of trade and occupations, and in this connection it is interesting to recall to mind that at certain epochs the law in Europe has compelled men to keep, generation after generation, to the calling of their fathers without the option of change.” (Oman, J. C., pp. 63-64).
Hutton was one of the first sociologists to point out that caste system did not originate from the varna system. In his book he explains that the classical explanations for the caste system are not true and any attempt to associate caste with varna is a total non-sense. He also refuted the theories based on racial differences or those based on imagined conquest by Aryans.(34)
Caste system flourished in Europe till late. Oman writes, “..in England an ancient enactment required all men who at any time took up the calling of coal-mining or drysalting, to keep to those occupations for life, and enjoined that their children should also follow the same employment. This law was only repealed by statutes passed in the 15th and 39th years of the reign of GeorgeIII; that is in the lifetime of the fathers of many men who are with us today. A more striking European example of a compulsory hereditary calling, common enough in the Middle Ages and down to the last century in Russia, is that of the serfs bound to the soil from generation to generation. Then again there existed through long periods of European history, the institution of hereditary slavery, with all its abominations.” (Oman, p. 65) A further study of European social history will reveal more of details how an extremely tyrannical and rigid caste system was operative in Europe with legal sanction, which of course functioned under the theocratic rule of Church.
- 1. Quoted in AIR, 1993 SC p. 549-550, para 76 of Indira Shawney Case Majority Judgment; It is from a paper read by Dr Ambedkar May 9, 1916 at the Columbia University of New York, U.S.A. on the subject “Castes in India; Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development”. The paper was subsequently published in Indian Antiquary, May 1917—Vol. XLI.
- 2. Basham, A. L., The Wonder That Was India, Part I, (a survey of history and culture of Indian subcontinent before coming of the Muslims); Third Revised Edition, 1967, Thirty Fifth Impression, 1999, Bombay.
- 3. jati usually means ‘nation’ in Bangla, Asamese, and many modern Indian language. In other contexts it means a more universal group like ‘manava jati’ etc.—author.
- 4. Srinivas, M. N., Caste in Modern India, Media Promoters and Publishers PVT. LTD., Bombay. 1989, (first published 1962)
- 5. Lingayata was a religion started by Basava in the South India during Medieval Period. Soon it took shape of a caste. Basham wrote about this phenomenon in the following words: “Equalitarian religious reformers of the middle ages such as Basava, Ramanand, and Kabir tried to abolish caste among their followers; but their sects soon took characteristics of new castes.” P. 151, second para, 8th line onwards. These religions were heterodox, i.e. they did not subscribe to the authorities of Vedas, nor did they accept Brahmanical way of life.
- 6. Srinivas, M. N., “Some Expressions of Caste Mobility”, in Social Change in Modern India, Orient Longmans, 1972 (Indian Ed.), p.103. First Published University of California Press, 1966. Also see Shourie, Arun, Falling Over Backwards, ASA Publications, Delhi, 2006, p. 40.
- 7. Census of India 1931, pp. 528-32.
- 8. Kroeber, L., “Caste”, in Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences, ed.-in-chief, Edwin R. A. Seligman, Macmillan, New York, 1930, III, 254-57; p. 254.
- 9. Sachau, Edward (translator and editor from original Kitab-ul Hind), Alberuni’s India, Indialog Publications, Pvt., Ltd; New Delhi, 2003, p. 444).
- 10. Nath, Vijay, “From Brahmanism to Hinduism: Negotiating the Myth of the Great Tradition”, Sectional President’s address, Section I, Ancient India, Indian History Congress Proceedings, 61st (Millennium) Session 2001, p. 32.
- 11. see p. 422, Thapar 2003.
- 12. see Thapar, Romila; A History of India, Volume 1, Penguin Books, London, 1990, p. 39. First published 1966.
- 13. Thapar, Romila; The Penguin History of Early India from the Origins to AD 1300, Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2003, First Published 2002.
- 14. Weber, Max, Gerth, H. H. and Turner, B. S., “India: The Brahman and the castes”, in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, Routledge, 1991, p. 396, opening paragraph. First published in 1921 in German as Part 3, Chapter 4 of Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft. English translation by Girth, H. H. and Mills, C. W., as “Class, Status, Party. Pages 180–195 in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, Oxford Univ. Press, New York, 1941, 1958.→
- 15. Means ‘big people’.
- 16. Means ‘small people’.
- 17. Weber, Max et al, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, Routledge, 1991, p. 398-9.
- 18. Bailey, F. G., “Tribe” and “Caste” in India, Contributions to Indian Sociology, Vol. 5, 1961.
- 19. Beteille, Andre; Six Essays in Comparative Sociology, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1974.
- 20. Bailey’s theory discussed by von Furer-Haimendorf, Christoph, Tribes of India: The Struggle of Survival, University of California Press, 1982, p. 214.
- 21. Crooke, W., Natives of Northern India, republished 1996 by Asian Educational Service, p. 88. (First Published 1907).
- 22. Ibid., p. 76.
- 23. Crooke, William, The Tribes and Castes of North-Western Provinces and Oudh, Volume 1, Asian Educational Service, New Delhi, 1999, p. xxii (First published, Calcutta, 1896).
- 24. Sadasivan, S. N., A Social History of India, APH Publishing, 2000. p. 241.
- 25. Vijay Nath, “From Brahmanism to Hinduism: Negotiating the Myth of the Great Tradition”, Sectional President’s address, Section I, Ancient India, Indian History Congress Proceedings, 61st (Millennium) Session 2001.
- 26. Thapar, Romila; The Penguin History of Early India from the Origins to AD 1300, Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2003, p. 390.
- 27. Thapar, ibid, p. 422-423.
- 28. Crooke, W., “Origin of Caste”, in Kannupillai, (Ed.), p.202. (An extract from The Tribes and Castes of Northwestern India, vol. I, 1896, pp.XV-XXVI).
- 29. Ibid.
- 30. Nesfield, John C., “Cultural Evolution of Indian society—Function as Foundation of Caste”, in Kannupillai, V. (Ed.), op. cit., p. 139.
- 31. Stuart, H. A., “Caste and Dravidians”, in Kannupillai, V. (Ed.), op. cit., pp. 183-4.
- 32. Srinivas, M. N., “Some Expressions of Caste Mobility”, op. cit., pp. 101-2.
- 33. Srinivas, M.N., “Some Expressions of Caste Mobility”, in Social Change in Modern India, Orient Longmans, 1972 (Indian Ed.), First Published University of California Press, 1966.
- 34. Hutton, J. H., Caste in India: : Its nature function and origins, Oxford University Press, UK, 1969, pp. 66-67. Also see: Zinkin, Maurice; Book Review of Caste in India by Hutton, J. H.; Race and Class, Vol. 3, No. 2, 1961, Institute of Race Relations. p. 88