Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s paper “Castes in India, Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development” which he presented at Columbia University on 9th May 1916 has been regarded as one of the landmarks in the study of the caste system in India. Today when atrocities on Dalits are on the rise, women are being neglected in the society, the paper gives us an insight on how this trend can be attributed to the fact that caste system is still engraved into the core of Indian society.
How is Ambedkar’s analysis different from other anthropologists and sociologists?
Before Ambedkar, many social scientists have tried to explain the caste system in their own ways. But the most common mistake they did was to assume that castes are “a federation of mutually exclusive units” whereas Ambedkar argues that Indian caste system cannot be viewed as castes being aliens to each other or actions of one caste not influencing the other. Unlike America where Negros and Whites have clear differentiation on physical grounds, Indians are physically homogeneous in nature and Indian caste system has been created by chopping of the population into fixed units and preventing them from fusing into one another through endogamy. Therefore, he says that caste in India is maintained through superimposition of endogamy on exogamy. Indian caste system rests on endogamy and to maintain endogamy in the case of a women’s husband being dead, she was forced to maintain widowhood or jump into her husband’s funeral pyre, a popular practice in those days known as Sati Pratha. This was all done to strike a balance between the men and women inside the caste and thus prevent her from marrying outside the caste and hence maintain homogeneity.
Development of Caste System
Ambedkar said that caste without endogamy is fake. He said that the strictness of the caste system is well observed in Brahmins who occupy the highest position in the caste hierarchy and the other castes customs and derived from them. The customs tend to be followed strictly in Brahmins and get less binding as one gets lower in the caste hierarchy compared to Brahmins. Evils of this system originated when the social division of labour converted into social division of labourers which Ambedkar calls closed door policy where at a point of time in history the Brahmin class detached themselves from the other class and became a caste by themselves. Caste, Ambedkar said is a rigid entity and any innovation and antagonisms could lead to expatriation from a caste.
Case of Inter-Caste Marriage and Widowhood
The rigid customs with which we are bound and the non-willingness of the system to get out of it has created enmity between the castes. The hostility towards inter-caste marriage is a result of the rigid caste system that prevents mobility from one caste to another and thus could well be the initiator for the homogenous society free of caste. But this has often led to honour killings in many parts of India. As many as 251 cases of honour killings were reported last year. The practice of widowhood too can be attributed to the intolerance towards the rigid customs that are continuing since centuries. In fact, India has the largest recorded number of widows, i.e., 33 million (10 percent of the female population) among which 12 percent are in the age bracket of 35-39. Only 10 percent of the widows remarry. This trend of remarriage is higher in lower castes than upper castes. It has been 160 years since the Widow Remarriage Act of 1856 initiated by Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar under Lord Dalhousie was passed which has been one of the landmarks in the rights of widows that legalised remarriage of widows but we rarely see widows being remarried in the Indian society that clearly shows society’s conscience being overshadowed by religious beliefs and practices that are being followed since ages.
What is a Brahmanical Society?
What constitutes a Brahmanical society are the beliefs and customs of the upper classes that all are bound to follow. It is a religious obligation. It is called so because of the class that dominates the Indian society is the Brahmin class. The customs of the Brahmin class are considered to be the guiding principle for the functioning of the society. A Brahmanical society brings along with it the rigid customs and caste system and this will eventually lead to the oppression of Dalits and Backward classes who aim for an equal share of resources with the upper classes of the society. It also has made women suffer since the practice of widowhood, sati and endogamy which is an exclusive feature of the caste system is binding on the women.
Ambedkar being a social reformer had been keen on finding the reasons why Dalits who were in the lower strata of the society had to be at the receiving end. Not only had a logical but also a scientific understanding of the caste system by Ambedkar helped him debunk the myths revolving around the caste system and its origins.
The examples of Sati which is now rarely observed but still persists, Widowhood, Endogamy is enough for the experience we have been having when it comes to minute details of the prevalence of caste system which we either choose to neglect or have normalised these practices as natural. But what we often neglect is the fact that these practices are the result of the caste system that still persists in the society.
Ambedkar though went on to become one of the strongest critiques of the caste system and Hindu religion in general and published the book Annihilation of Caste in 1936, an undelivered speech which he had to deliver to the Jat-Pat Todak Mandal at Lahore and later on renounced Hinduism in 1956.
Author – Shivashish Shanker