Sat, 23 Aug 2003

The denial of 'consecrated' caste

Deepak Lal, Professor of Economics, University of California Los Angeles, Project Syndicate

India's ancient and medieval history is notoriously malleable. The country's Hindu nationalists unleashed the latest furor over the nature of India's past. They reject the widely accepted view, based on early sacred texts, that ancient believers did not ban the slaughter of cattle, and that such a ban probably became part of the Hindu moral code only around the fifth and sixth centuries AD, when the later Puranas were written.

The trouble with reaching definitive conclusions about this or any other contested aspect of India's distant past is that, unlike in neighboring China, there is little in the way of an objective historical record to rely upon.

Some archaeological evidence exists. But the main sources for ancient India are orally transmitted literary accounts dating to the Rigveda (around 1500-1300 BC) and the subjective records of foreign travelers. The social history of ancient India, as one scholar admits, "appears to be a string of conjectures and speculations."

So it is hardly surprising that India's ancient past can be manipulated to fit alternative ideological preconceptions. Nowhere is this more evident than in discussions about the origins and nature of India's caste system.

In the early 1980's, the predominant view on the Left was that the ancient Hindu caste system was a variant of European feudalism. The late Ashok Rudra, himself a man of the Left but an empiricist, provided the most cogent critique of this view. He pointed out a crucial difference between the conceptions of mutual social ties in the Hindu and European systems.

Where individuals were the central actors in the characteristic rituals of dominance and homage in European feudalism, in Hindu society the relationships were always defined in terms of caste groups. Rudra assumed that caste existed in ancient India because, despite the unreliable historical record, the caste system is so manifest even today.

But recent historians on the Left in India now question this assumption. A school of revisionist historians and anthropologists argue that caste is an invention of the colonial British Raj. They claim that the early British scholars and administrators who documented Indian customs and translated the early sacred texts were bamboozled by the Brahmins -- the first Indians to learn English and thus the only available intermediaries -- into believing that the Hindu social order was caste-based.

This imagined order became reality when British census takers forced Indians to categorize themselves by caste. Before this, these historians argue, Hindus were allegedly no less individualistic than Europeans.

Even hitherto sensible anthropologists and social historians seem to have succumbed to this travesty of scholarship. Much of the supposed evidence that this "Subaltern" school of historians provides takes the form of contemporary anthropological studies of regions like southern India or parts of medieval central India.

But, as Susan Bayley, a "Subaltern" convert, puts it, "the initial premise is that even in parts of the Hindu heartland of Gangetic upper India, the institutions and beliefs often described as the elements of traditional caste were only taking shape as recently as the early 18th century."

Yet while visiting Kerala in the late 1960's, I -- a Hindu from the Gangetic heartland -- went to the Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple in Trivandrum, where the usual pandas accosted me. One asked where I came from and asked about my jati and gotra.

When I answered, he rattled off the names of at least six generations of my ancestors, while asking me to fill in the details about my cousins, the family into which I had married, and the names of our children. He was only interested in updating his records. Unless he had imagined my ancestors, he had just traced my caste-based past to well before the 17th century.

An economic rationale can also be provided for the origins of the Indian caste system as for European feudalism. The great Eurasian civilizations were all dependent on agriculture and needed to create institutional means of tying labor, which was then scarce, to the land, which was abundant. Serfdom, indenture, slavery, and the caste system all served this end.

How did ancient Indian princes tie labor to the land if neither feudalism nor caste existed? Even if we are forced to speculate about ancient Indian social life, we must remain true to the common facts of economic and military life among European and Asian civilizations, which imposed similar institutional responses.

These caveats, however, will no doubt leave the revisionists unmoved, for they are part of the "deconstructionist" movement that has deeply influenced the humanities in American and British universities. Deconstructionists do not believe that any settled "facts" exist.

If they are right, there is no difference between the intellectual discipline of history, founded by the Greeks 2,400 years ago to record the past truthfully, and the myths that every culture tells to affirm its self-worth. Without history, we will be exposed to the full force of the tales of our imagined pasts, which only mirror our current hates and loves.