The rigid segregation practised between castes was probably inspired by Persian and Semitic ritual customs.
The ethnic components of the Indian population offer a seemingly boundless area of study for scientists and scholars of history, whereas the concept of caste continues to intrigue, fascinate and feed a lively debate, both within the nation and in the world at large.
There are heavy political implications behind the various contending theories that attempt to map the genetic chart of Indians and account for the origin and evolution of varna and jati, first interpreted as castes, or in other words, endogamous communities by the Portuguese. British legislators catalogued and ranked them for the benefit of their colonial administration, broadly on the model developed by Imperial Spain to control its native subjects in the Americas.
Independent India has in fact broadly retained the structures left by the Raj and its post-colonial rulers have since used them to win and keep power by dispensing quotas and reservations to control vote banks.
Anuradha Dutt explores this great historic-geographic puzzle in her book Redemption, which reads like a novel and yet is mainly a reflection on the intricate multihued tapestry woven by the civilisation of the subcontinent during many thousands of years. The structure she has given to her story, replete with information and quotations from myriad sources, reminds the reader of other sociological semi-fictional works that portray a country and a culture through and around the lives of a few individuals, in the fashion of Balzac and Tolstoy. In India, Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh and in another register William Dalrymple have used a similar formula for some of their novels.
In Dutt’s book, there is a periodic contrast between the constrained and often sombre lives of rapidly etched, random individual characters from the last 200 years and the sumptuous background of ancient history, legend and mythology from which they draw their identities and sustenance. Traditional cultures teach human beings to claim divine ancestry and a metaphysical role, no matter how mediocre their earthly status and occupation, and our modern civilisation is perhaps the first one to have, under the guidance of science, reduced homo sapiens to the lowest common denominator as a mutated ape, who began by foraging in the wild. More poetic, religious gnosis teaches men that they are descended from gods, kings and supernatural beings or entities and naturally, even backward and oppressed communities in India invoke illustrious forebears in spite of their humble circumstances.
More convincingly than many social historians, Anuradha Dutt shows how India along the centuries absorbed many visitors and intruders not by forsaking its traditional hierarchy but rather by opening it up to take in newcomers, contrary to the popular concept of a rigid and closed society impermeable to foreign ingredients. She gives many instances not only of new jatis being created by and for settlers and invaders, but also of outsiders being assimilated as members of the higher varnas, with apparently little difficulty. Foreign “fair skinned, blue eyed” seafarers, landing on the west coast of the country over a thousand years ago, became Chitpavan Brahmins, and Central Asian warrior clans were dubbed Rajputs (Kshatriyas) by a priesthood eager to win their protection and largess in exchange for recognition as legitimate vedic rajanyas (royal scions), successors of long-forgotten feudal lineages with which Brahmins had a history of both symbiosis and conflict. Likewise, Jats, Yadavs, Gurjars, Ahirs, Ahoms, Pathans, Gurkhas and countless others were inserted into the Indian mosaic.
Genetic studies show that many Brahmins are from the same stock as certain tribal and “Scheduled Caste” or Dalit communities. Various Indian communities—Brahmins, warriors, traders, craftsmen, fishermen—moved abroad since very ancient times, eastward (up to Indonesia) and westward (all the way to Iraq, Arabia, and eventually Europe), keeping many of their original features. Gypsies and Romas are best known amongst those expatriate Indic communities.
Lowborn individuals of diverse origins sometimes rose to royal rank and were duly ennobled by being granted illustrious forbears, while people of upper caste were often compelled to take up demeaning occupations which did not however always make them lose their original rank. Innumerable Hindu texts all the way back to the Upanishads state that spirituality, knowledge and good conduct make one a Brahmin and not birth.
Paradoxically, the “caste” distinction, which evolved organically out of the older tribal divisions, provided a method for integration of disparate elements around the central Sanskritic culture, without making them lose their specific identities.
The lasting debate about whether India was a nation before the imposition of British rule is shown to be futile in the light of this realisation. Unlike many other countries in Asia and Europe that were mainly forged by warring leaders and by royal dynasties out of various tribal groups (France by the Merovingian Franks, Germany by the Carolingians, Russia by the Ruriks and the Romanovs, Britain by the Saxons and Normans and so on) India found her geographic and cultural identity back in Vedic times within the natural borders given by the seas and the Himalayas. The first dynasties which brought most of the land under one rule, beginning perhaps with the Mauryas, only had to hark back to the common heritage of sruti, smrti and epics perpetuated by innumerable popular sages and bards, while invoking the heroic archetype of the chakravartin.
The book vividly illustrates the role played by the many avarna (caste-free) spiritual traditions and cults, such as the Buddhist, Tantric, Nathpanthi and Bhakti lores which have long proclaimed and celebrated human equality and unity, offering their followers relative freedom from social determinism, economic status, sectarian denomination and hereditary ranking sanctified by the priesthood.
The author might be accused of having penned a book in order to make a case and reach a predetermined conclusion, which is no sin for a writer, but the wealth of information and observation compels one to largely accept her overall thesis.
The more one discovers the real features of Indian ancient society the more one finds parallels with other civilisations, over and above the superficial differences sought by the devotees of exoticism. It is not only other “Indo-European” systems which display great similarities with the (Savarna) varnashrama dharma once we go far enough into the past of Greece, Italy, Iran, Slavic, Germanic or Celtic lands. There are similar class distinctions in African, Pre-Columbian American and Far Eastern social systems.
Indeed, the universality of many Indian social concepts rooted in the concerns for ritual purity, endogamy and preservation of inherited property shows that such characteristic are probably inherent to human nature. Dutt suggests that the rigid apartheid-like segregation practised between castes was probably inspired by Persian and Semitic ritual customs over the course of time, as the earlier Vedic society was far more egalitarian and fluid.
One striking conclusion that emerges from this book is that, of all the peoples which moved into India from the North over land or from the West by sea, the only ones whose separate and peregrine identity is hypothetical are the mythical Aryas, so beloved of 19th century racial theoricists who used them, by attributing them out-of-India origins, to justify European superiority and prior claims to rule the subcontinent.
The word Arya is only used as a socio-cultural qualifier, similar to Aristos in Greek and never refers to an invader in Indian literature. The logical inference is that there was no Aryan people ethnically distinct from the indigenous populations of South Asia in all their ethnic diversity. Later conquerors or immigrants such as the Greeks, Jews, Scythians, Kushans, Huns, Arabs, Africans, Turks, Iranians and Mongols left their marks and retained their original identities, although they adopted many pan-Indian features and shared their own cultural traits with the locals, but a pervasive common Indic ingredient remained the Sanskrit-Prakrit culture, even in the later Persianised age, which almost outlasted British colonial rule to end only with Independence and partition.
Anuradha Dutt has painted a fresco of India as lush and throbbing with life as a tropical forest, in which the ideals of divine unity and human equality were never inaccessible in an apparently highly stratified and complex social ecosystem. Varnas and jatis in India continue to evolve, merge and multiply under the influence of religion, politics and the economy, but without ever quite disappearing as they have now become, oddly enough, an integral factor of parliamentary democracy.