by Sergio Targa
First published on the Parittran blog, January 31, 2011
Historically caste as we know it today developed from the beginning of the Christian era. It received a major thrust from the Gupta period and got established by the 13th century. Far from being a religious sort of structure, caste was a political one: it was the way a kingdom was built and functioned. The caste system was basically the power structure of the early medieval Indian state. The following discussion will hopefully bear out this point.
Gopal paid his debt to his forefathers in heaven by begetting the illustrious Dharmapala, who, conversant with the precepts of the sastras, by restraining those who swerved from the right course, made the castes conform to their proper tenets.
These verses (slokas) are found in a Sanskrit copper plate (tamroshason) of Debpal, the third king of the famous Bengal Dynasty, reigning approximately between 810 and 849 AD. The name of the plate is The Mungir Copper Plate of Devapala. The verses are extremely important for our discourse. The kings of the Pal dynasty were fervent Buddhist; Debpal was certainly so. Thus how is it possible that a Buddhist king was praised for having enforced the discipline and the regulations of the caste system? If the caste system is a Hindu invention and institution how and why is it found as a major achievement among the deeds of a Buddhist king? My understanding is that caste was not a religious tenet but a political one. Debpal being a king used the caste system as a political device, no matter his personal religious affiliation. My idea is that the caste system was the framework and structure of the early medieval north eastern Indian state. That is, caste was the way the medieval state organised and structured itself.
How was it possible?
From the Monushonghita we come to know that:
“The king has been created (to be) the protector of the castes (varna) and orders, who, all according to their rank, discharge their several duties.”
(George Bühler, translator. (Sacred Books of the East, Volume 25), Chapter 7,35).
From this expression we understand that the main purpose of a king is that of enforcing the caste system. He has been created to that scope and purpose.
“Through fear of him all created beings, both the immovable and the movable, allow themselves to be enjoyed and swerve not from their duties.” (Chapter 7,15).
A king defends and enforces the caste system because of the exclusive use he has of military strength. It is because of danda (i.e. rod of punishment) that no one is allowed to swerve from his/her caste.
“If the king did not, without tiring, inflict punishment on those worthy to be punished, the stronger would roast the weaker, like fish on a spit; The crow would eat the sacrificial cake and the dog would lick the sacrificial viands, and ownership would not remain with any one, the lower ones would (usurp the place of) the higher ones.” (Chapter 7,20-21).
The previous idea finds his better explanation in these two verses: if the king doesn’t use force, then the stronger will get over the weaker. So far nothing remarkable, but the following verse shows what the previous one meant: stronger means lower caste and weaker means higher caste. Without force (i.e. danda) the system will collapse. Specifically, the collapse of the system is remarkable in that right, power and ownership become impossible. In other words, the state as such becomes impossible. This situation is called in Sanskrit either arajokota or matsianiaia. We’ll see these expressions later.
I would like now to draw the reader’s attention to one particular and all important point: ownership and right. Why is it that without castes or with the tumbling of castes ownership and right is not possible? The fact is that castes define and predetermine a very fixed hierarchical series of adhikaras. Let’s see them:
a) Sudra: the servants. According to dharmasastras, had the least entitlement as far as adhikaras were concerned. They had mastery over their body, in the best of cases. Service to the three higher castes was their true and only right. A sudra could not be the master or owner of anything: whatever he has belonged to the higher caste he served. He was completely excluded from the knowledge of the Vedas.
b) Vaisya: the commoners, the ordinary people. They had right over their own household and on movable wealth in general. Agriculture, animal husbandry and commerce were their rights. They had a certain access to the Vedas.
c) Ksatriya: the warriors and rulers. They were lords of the people and of the land. They were proficient in the use of weapons. Their mastery was exercised on land of which they could be real owners.
d) Brahmana: the religious specialists. Being the knower of the Vedas they were entitled to the whole cosmos. In particular they were the masters of sacrifices, the actions which indeed sustained the whole universe.
To be kept in mind is that a higher caste included in its adhikaras (i.e. rights) the adhikaras of all the caste beneath his, so that a Vaisya had among its adhikaras the adhikaras of a Sudra as well; a Ksatriya had those of a Vaisya and a Sudra and so on. The caste system in practice preordained who could do what. And if we think about it, we’ll see that a state is exactly a system were a power order is enforced and respected. Particularly, a state is a power structure by means of which personal rights of property are enforced and protected.
But if we said that the king through the use of danda maintains the order of society, why is there the need of a caste system? We certainly remember that state power relies on two basic components: coercion and consensus. The stronger the consensus the lesser the use of coercion to maintain the status quo. Now, if we think that the Pal dynasty ruled in Bengal and Bihar for more than 400 years it is virtually impossible even to think that such a long rule was established on the continued use of force. The caste system which came to assume strong religious connotations worked exactly and was necessary exactly to create that consensus we were talking about above. People, generally speaking were they themselves convinced of caste belonging (through religious sanction) and thus less inclined to rebel. In case of rebellion the king could use violence to put things right. It must be borne in mind, however, that when in dharmasastras or other texts right and wrong are discussed about, they actually mean dharmic and odharmic, that is, according or disaccording to varnasramadharma (i.e. the law of caste and stages of life).
To further stress the point being made here, let us now see what arajakota and matsianiaia mean. In the Ramacarita of Sandiakaranandi (The Ramacarita was written during the reign of king Madanapala, 1144-1162. It deals with a rebellion at the time of king Mohipal II. Mohipal II ruled likely for a few years from 1068 AD. It was during his reign that the Kaivartas headed by Bhima rebelled and killing Mohipal II established their own kingdom in Varendra) it is said that:
“Varendri stood miserable because the visayas (i.e. districts) and villages fell in confusion regarding their ownership” (Ramacarita 1,48B).
This is what arajakata means: either a situation of kinglessness or a situation where an unlawful king reigns. In both situations there is confusion about the laws of property, because protection and enforcement of dharma (i.e. varnasramadharma) fails. In the same Ramacarita it is said that:
“Ramapala, never feeling too exultant and offering adequate protection, repelled the revolution against dharma, and holding up the rod of punishment he went round the earth and put the world on the path trodden by the righteous” (Ramacarita 1.24B).
The Kaivarta’s rebellion is here interpreted as a revolution against dharma. Why? Because the Kaivarta, a sudra caste, killed the lawful king Mohipal II. And this was certainly against dharma. When Rampal recovers Varendra this means that he recovers dharma. It is than with the rod of punishment (i.e. dondo) that he put things right (i.e. according to dharma).
In the Khalimpur Copperplate of Dharmapala (802 AD circa) it is said that
“The glorious Gopal was made to take the hands of Fortune by the people to put an end to the practice of fishes” (Indian Epigraphy IV, p. 251, verse 4).
We must remember that Sasanka died in circa 620 AD and Harsha Vardhana in circa 647 AD. After these two kings, particularly the latter, the situation in Bengal remained fluid without any king strong enough to unify and pacify it. This situation continued until circa 750 AD when Gopal the first king of the Pal dynasty was ‘elected’ king. Here it is interesting to notice that matsianiaia is a situation in which a big fish eats a small one. The event recorded in the copperplate far from revealing a sort of democratic practice, simply refers to Gopal as the king who enforced varnasramadharma. To prove this interpretation we could see Kamadakiya’s Nitisara, a manual of politics not early than the 8th century AD. In section II verse 40, it is said that matsianiaia is the breakdown of varnasramadharma.
To sum up our discussion we may quote another passage from puranic literature. The following is taken from the Brihaddharma Purana, a work from Bengal variously dated to the 10th century or later:
“In the absence of danda, men would turn haughty and kill animals, men and sacrificial preys; the crows would eat puradasa and the dogs the objects of sacrifice. No ownership of anything would be possible, nor would be there any gradation of high and low. The four varnas would totter before the oppression of the haughty. It is by danda, as such, that all are sustained and those who are pursuing dharma are protected. For fear of danda again, men become law-abiding and desist from evil deeds”.
Absence of danda either means the absence of a king or the presence of an unworthy one. Then it is stated that without a king not only there is a sort of collapse in the law and order situation, but a collapse in the cosmos as well. To be noticed is that the impossibility of ownership is mentioned right besides the confusion between high and low and the tottering of the four varnas. In fact the destruction of the laws of property is the destruction of the four varnas. This is again orajokotha and matsianiaia.
To conclude: in early medieval north eastern India, the caste system articulated the then state, in as much as it articulated the laws of property. The king was absolutely necessary for the system to work, being himself entitled to use dondo and thus enforce caste configuration. Without king there could not possibly be castes. In other words we may say that caste was born to be functional to the distribution and exercise of power.
Now we have no longer a king but we do have power. Is it possible to think that even today caste and what has remained of it remains functional to the distribution and exercise of power? I personally believe that even in modern Bangladesh caste and casteism are the foundation of the distribution and exercise of power both at the micro and macro levels. Today we may give caste the name of patronage: another name for the feudal structure the caste system was born to sustain and foster. Even in today’s Bangladesh’s society hierarchy and patronage are the real axis of the power structure. Privileges are apportioned according to social status creating linkages of personal loyalties between individuals and communities alike. The resilience of the system has created that strange and hybrid political configuration, which is in-between the modern nation state which Bangladesh wishes to be and the feudal social system casteism continually recreates. In the end, Bangladesh might once again be defined as a congery of warring principalities where this time the rulers are not the kings or ksatriyas of old but the new captains of the people this time blessed by formal electoral processes. We might not be longer able to identify in today’s society the four castes of dharmasastric memory, but I wonder whether in Indian history we have ever been able to do so.
But caste has now a stronger cultural connotation as well. Caste and the hierarchical principle it embodies are part and parcel of Bangladeshi culture and custom. The social discrimination we see at work between poor and rich, women and men, low ranking people and high ranking ones is the same we see at work in the private and familial spheres of life. Bangladeshi culture is imbued with hierarchy no matter how highly we speak of democracy and equality. The latter values are pretty much foreigner to this land and antithetic to hierarchy, the super value of the Indian sub-continent’s cultural milieu. What to do then? Things being so, a political transformation is, though desirable, not enough to ensure a definite departure of caste and casteism. What is really necessary is a cultural revolution. In as long as the hegemonic culture is one of patronage and hierarchy, there is no real possibility of change. In this context, whatever political revolution or transformation would merely reproduce the ancient regime. It is only when a new culture will gain a space in Bangladeshi society that a political transformation for the good will come about. Cultural transformations require long spans of time but can be planned and implemented. A counter culture, the like of which Gramsci speaks about in his Prison’s Notebooks, must start at grass roots level through programmes of formal and informal education. People must be made aware of their own dignity and power. They must be alerted to the fact that their consent is important and should not be given to anybody without thinking and understanding. People should be taught that socio-economic and political structures are man made and as such can be changed etc. But what is more people should learn to resist the arrogance of local influential men, the ksatriyas of today, who for personal interest and social prestige do not hesitate to maintain the poor poor, the weak weak, the oppressed oppressed, the untouchables utouchables.
Read the full article here. The author is a Xaverian missionary. Parittran, the organisation on whose website this article was published, was created among the Dalits of Bangladesh with support from these missionaries. The Xaverians are recognized for taking up the cause of the Rishi, a Dalit caste. Read another of Sergio Targa’s articles on the changes among the Rishi here.