Cast in a different mould
by Shalini Rawat

Caste in Question: Identity or Hierarchy?
Ed: Dipankar Gupta. Sage Publications Pages 255. Rs 480.

"For O son of Pritha! Even those who are of sinful birth, women, Vaishyas and Sudras likewise, resorting to me, attain the supreme goal" (The Bhagvad Gita, Chapter IX)

"Whatever exists in the world is the property of the Brahmana, on account of the excellence of his origin" (Buhlerís translation of the Ordinances of Manu)

"Blowing away with supernatural might from earth and from heavens the swarthy skin which Indra detests " (The Rig Veda IX 73.5)

"Caste marks do not, in fact, exist. The caste system, of course, does. But the concept has been grossly degraded by the nineteenth century historians who saw only its surface rigidities and made sweeping generalisations, (condemnatory for the most part), based on too little knowledge and even less experience. It is however ironic that they never saw the parallels with the European system of guilds that divided artisans into separate social and economic entities on the basis of their specialisations and sub-specialisations." (Vikas Kamat in Caste System in India, an article on the Net)

Just as views on caste remain hotly contested, so does the origin of the word "caste", believed to be Portugese (from "casta" meaning breed or race) or from the English "chaste" highlighting the concept of "purity" so interminably appended to it.

However, this volume of Contributions to Indian Sociology is a big leap from the standard Dumontian hypothesis of the hierarchy of four castes in India, pleading the reader "not to concede conceptual territory by accepting either that caste is class or that caste is essentially about a single hierarchy such that those low in the order willingly acquiesce in their own degradation," in the foreword itself. Most importantly, it seeks to refine, augment and most certainly correct commonly held notions, beliefs and myths about the great caste divide through a number of field-based studies.

Gaurang Sahay busts the ultimate myth about Hinduism: that it comprises four castes (varnasóBrahmin, Kshtriya, Vaishya and Shudra) following a status hierarchy in matters religious or political etc by his studies in Bihar. Here a number of different castes, with little relation to the adherentís occupation, instead of "Sanskritising" (trying to move higher in the hierarchy) re-emphasise their discrete character by highlighting the superiority of their own customs, ideologies and way of life.

John E. Cort tries to unmask another belief that religions other than Hinduism are relatively free from such "racist" attitudes by problematising Gujaratís Jain merchantsí casteist moorings. Among Jains, a merchant caste that does not lend itself to neat theorising, ranking principles are wealth, means of livelihood and place of residence rather than purity or landed power. Operative factors for them are merchant values of independence, honour and credit-worthiness making them look-down-upon Brahmins as acceptors of food in temples who prefer a regular and assured salary to the hazards of commercial life.

Both these myths are again contested by Surinder S. Jodhka in a study of the Ad-dharmi communityís assertion of its place under the sun, by highlighting caste discrimination as practiced by the Sikhs and that too without any religious (read scriptural) sanction. In a recent interview, Christine Moliner, a French researcher studying the Sikh diaspora, confirmed that gurdwaras and the Sikh clergy have kept caste boundaries strictly defined abroad whether it is a place of worship or marriage in the community.

Neither are the lower castes an "exploited minority" as is evident from both their numbers and electoral representation in a study on the Yadavs of Mathura in UP, who claim descent from Lord Krishna and are not only politically active but aggressive as well.

Other studies also reaffirm the belief that caste has evolved much more and along very different lines than what Manu envisaged. The need of the hour is for books like these to take pride of place among the fiction/thriller/poetry shelves of avid readers.