Advent and Evolution of the Caste System: A Close Reading of Ambedkar’s “Castes in India”

Hirannya Sen

Date of Publication: 28 June 2020

“Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development” was originally a paper presented by Dr. B.R Ambedkar at an Anthropological Seminar taught by Dr. A. A. Goldenweizer on 9 May 1916 in Columbia University. It was later published in Volume XLI of The Indian Antiquary in 1917 for the first time and was included in Volume I of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches put together by the Education Department, Government of Maharashtra in 1979. This was one of Ambedkar’s earliest works to be published and interestingly, in the Preface to the Third Edition of Annihilation of Caste, he mentions that he had intended to incorporate ‘Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development’ in the Third Edition. However, due to lack of time and urgency of demand, the Third Edition remained a mere reprint of the Second.

It is a rather short paper of only eighteen pages and does a brilliant job of introducing the problem of Caste in India, its origins, and the manner in which it has managed to sustain itself. Ambedkar begins by stating that while the Caste problem is in essence, a local problem limited to the Indian subcontinent, it is capable of becoming a worldwide epidemic. He justifies this stance by saying that since Caste at its core is built on the principles of isolation and exclusion, as long as it exists in India, Hindus would hardly ever engage with those outside their Castes and so, if Hindus were to migrate to other parts of the world, “Caste would become a world problem” (Ambedkar 06). This essentially means that no matter where Hindus go, they would bring the concept of Untouchability with them, and discriminate against lower Castes who might be present in the same country. “Castes in India” sees the germination of certain ideas and thoughts that Ambedkar would go on to nurture in his later works. This connection between his texts provides an insight into Ambedkar’s own academic journey with regards to Caste as a subject of study.

Ambedkar provides four definitions of Caste as put forward by four different scholars and his critique of the same. He criticises Senart’s definition on grounds of it being too one dimensional as it tries to look at Caste only on the basis of the pollution aspect of it. Ambedkar says that pollution is a characteristic of Caste for as long as we look at Caste as being solely religious. Later in the text, when talking about the theory of imitation and how we are most likely to imitate those who are superior to us he says, “…and if they are derived, there must have been prevalent one original Caste that was high enough to have served as a pattern for the rest. But in a theocratic society, who could be the pattern but the servant of God?” (Ambedkar 20) This proves that Ambedkar looks at Caste as maintained through two institutions – social and religious which are complementary to each other – both equally important and both constructed by the Brahmins.

(In pic: Dr Babashaeb Ambedkar in Columbia University. Photo taken some time between 1913 & 1916. Photographer: Unknown. Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons.)

While he is much kinder to Ketkar’s definition of Caste which is “a social group having two characteristics: (i) membership is confined to those who are born of members and includes all persons so born; (ii) the members are forbidden by an inexorable social law to marry outside the group.” Ambedkar points out that the first is not a characteristic but a derivative of the second. (Ambedkar 07) Ambedkar manages to reduce Caste into a single aspect out of which the rest of its aspects have been derived – Endogamy. According to him, the superimposition of Endogamy on a previously exogamous population can be regarded as the genesis of Caste and to understand how this endogamous tradition was further maintained and propagated is to understand the mechanism of Caste.

Having taken Endogamy as the basis on which the Caste machinery stands, Ambedkar explains that Endogamy itself is not unnatural and exists among many other races and communities. However, it is prevalent among communities which are significantly different from each other, unlike in India where he says that Endogamy and more importantly, Caste is an “artificial chopping off of the population” because according to him the various races in India have fused into each other (Ambedkar 09). This suggests that Caste is responsible for the unfair homogenization of the Indian population in terms of regional differences while creating arbitrary differences across Caste lines.

With regard to Endogamy and how it sustains the Caste system itself, Ambedkar says that for a group that wishes to turn itself into a Caste – maintenance of equality between the two sexes, or the marriageable units of the group is of uttermost importance because otherwise, members of the group would be forced to look for a spouse from outside the group. To quote, “The problem of Caste then, ultimately resolves itself into one of repairing the disparity between the marriageable units of the two sexes within it” (Ambedkar 10). However, the disparity of the units cannot be resolved since it is most likely, that if left to nature, a couple would die separately thus creating a surplus man or a woman who endangers the Endogamy of the Caste. Ambedkar investigates how a group that wishes to be a Caste would deal with this problem and realizes that the problem of the surplus woman is more easily solved than that of the surplus man. The surplus woman may be gotten rid of in one of the following two ways – one, by burning her on the funeral pyre of her husband, making her a Sati; or by enforcing widowhood on her for the rest of her life. While Sati eliminates all the problems a surplus woman poses to the maintenance of Caste, it is not the most practical solution and nor is it humane and while enforced widowhood cancels out the possibility of remarriage, it also gives her more incentive to be immoral by taking away her right to be a wife in the future. None of these problems are, however, insurmountable since it is fairly easy to degrade a widow and force her to abide by conditions that take away her appeal.

The problem of the surplus man is harder to resolve and also more important since historically, men have been considered more valuable a part of society than women. Ambedkar suggests that the reason why the group cannot treat the problem of the surplus man in the same way that it treats the problem of the surplus woman is because men, being the creator of these rules, are often above them. Thus, there is no question of burning the widower on the funeral pyre of his wife. Imposing celibacy is also not a viable option since as long as he actively participates in group activities, he may be a danger to the morals of the group. Faced with such a conundrum, it is in the best interests of the Caste to keep him as the head of the family or the Grahastha and provide a wife for him from the ranks of those who are not yet of marriageable age. Thus, the problem of the surplus man and woman can be solved in two complementary ways: marrying off the surplus man to a child bride and when he dies, enforcing widowhood on the surplus woman. Ambedkar lists the various justifications for Sati, enforced widowhood, and child marriage as provided by those Hindus who wanted to honour these traditions. For example, Dr. Ketkar reports the eulogy for child marriage derives from the notion that since no woman can be considered pure if she develops feeling for any man other than who she is to marry, she must be married off at a young age before she reaches puberty or sexual consciousness. These practices were crucial in the creation and preservation of the Caste structure and were honoured in such ways to popularize them and make their morally duplicitous nature more palatable.

Ambedkar moves on to the second segment of his paper by putting forward his theory of the origin of Caste, or the origin of the mechanism of Endogamy. In doing so, Ambedkar closely examines the relationship between class and Caste. Every individual in every society, he says, is a part of a class whether it is economic, intellectual or social and to trace the origin of Caste we must only find out which was the first class that became a Caste because “A Caste is an Enclosed Class” (Ambedkar 15). The question we must ask, therefore, is which Caste was the first to isolate itself since the answer to this would be instrumental in finding answers to the question posed in the third segment of Ambedkar’s paper. It is very evident that the customs which serve as the backbone of the Caste system are obtainable and most strictly adhered to in one Caste only – the Brahmins, who occupy the highest position in the social hierarchy of the Hindus. So, if it can be proved that the existence of these customs in non-Brahmin Castes was derivative – as Ambedkar does go on to do in the later segment – it makes complete sense to assume that it was, in fact, derived from the Brahmins. Therefore, it was in all probability, the Brahmins who were the first class to enclose itself into a Caste.

The third segment of the paper raises a question which is not completely detached from the question of its origin – how did the Caste machinery spread among the non-Brahmin population of the Hindu society. There are two theories, put forward by most scholars with regard to this question: one is that the Caste system was forcefully imposed upon the population by a lawgiver, mostly taken to be Manu and second, that it has grown due to some social law of growth unique to India. Ambedkar very firmly refuses to believe the first theory citing the reason that it would be obnoxious to assume that Manu single-handedly could have been responsible for the conception of such a poisonous system. There is no doubt about the fact that he philosophized and glorified it and was actively responsible for its perpetration but it is also evident that Caste existed before Manu. Many western scholars, not wanting to subscribe to the lawgiver theory, developed a sort of nuclei theory in relation to Caste. Among them, Ambedkar mentions and heavily criticises John Nesfield’s theory which proposed that Caste is based on a purely functional aspect. This is extremely problematic because it not only suggests that a system that has, for centuries, oppressed a section of society can be, in any way, productive but also insinuates that Caste is an inevitable phenomenon. If it were really and only based on function or occupation, it would not have felt the need to isolate itself and create a system of hierarchy that is based on Endogamy and heredity.

Ambedkar goes on to say that while there was mobility among the four classes at one point, the Brahmins detaching themselves and beginning the practice of Endogamy managed to become the first Caste through a closed-door policy. So, when talking about the non-Brahmin population and how they came to be a part of the Caste system and its customs, Ambedkar says “Some closed the door: Others found it closed against them.” (Ambedkar 18) One of them is a psychological interpretation, while the other is mechanistic and they are both crucial and complementary ideas.

The psychological explanation states that the non-Brahmin classes enclosed themselves because the Brahmins did so. Consciously or as is more likely, unconsciously they imitated the practices of the Brahmins till they resembled the structure of the Brahmin Caste. To further prove his theory, he attempts to relate the dynamics between the different Castes with the theory of imitation as provided by Gabriel Tarde. The conditions for imitation according to Tarde are that the source of the imitation must be superior to those who are to imitate and that there must be sufficient contact between them. These conditions have been very well fulfilled in the sense, that it is obvious that in a theocratic society, the Brahmin, or the priests on whom the Caste system is modeled is the most superior of them all. Ambedkar says that since in a way, the status of a Caste depends directly on the extent to which it manages to maintain the customs of Sati, enforced widowhood and child marriage, the second condition of imitation regarding distance is also met as, the Castes closest to the Brahmins imitate all three of these customs, while those further away do not.

The mechanistic explanation is slightly more complicated. The foundation of its argument lies in the assumption that Castes exist only in the plural. The Brahmins, not only created their own Caste when they decided to close themselves off and practice Endogamy but in doing so, also created the non-Brahmin population. To put it simply, by closing in on themselves, the Brahmins closed out the rest of the population. The existence of one Caste, therefore, validates the existence of other Castes- whether it is through imitation or helplessness. While some of the non-Brahmin Castes voluntarily (or unconsciously, as a result of imitation) closed themselves off, the rest were forced to do so out of fear of alienation and helplessness. He also says that since the accepted punishment for sinners who violate the code of a Caste is excommunication, the group of people who are thus excommunicated are again, forced to transform themselves into a Caste. Caste is, therefore, a vicious cycle of excommunication and enclosure with no discernable end in the foreseeable future.

Ambedkar ends his paper with a summary of its contents and challenges the Western idea of Caste being somehow related to colour. He mentions that the question of why it was that occupational groups were transformed into Caste has remained, for the most part, unasked and unanswered. He also acknowledges the importance of faith and belief in the maintenance and perpetration of Caste but reiterates the importance of the institution of Caste over them.

“Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development,” one of Ambedkar’s earliest works, serves as the basis for a lot of his future arguments and does a brilliant job of summing up the problem of Caste, its origin, and sustenance in India. It was also highly instrumental in opening up the conversation surrounding Caste and the systematic discrimination that it has continued to advocate, and can be read as a fairly comprehensive text that acts as an entry point into the wide body of works on Indian Caste and Caste machinery.

Works Cited

Ambedkar, Bhimrao Ramji. “Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development.” Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, vol.1, edited by Vasant Moon, Dr. Ambedkar Foundation, 2014, pp. 3-22.

Author Information

Hirannya Sen studies English literature at Presidency University, Kolkata. Her research interests, at the moment, include Intersectional Feminism and Dalit Studies.

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