Origin of Caste

Ambedkar and N K Bose on Caste

Abhijit Guha

['To conclude, while I am ambitious to advance a Theory of Caste, if it can be shown to be untenable I shall be equally willing to give it up'.
—B R Ambedkar (1917).

'Any consideration in the contemporary context, of the traditional Hindu method of tribal absorption is therefore, sheer madness to my mind. In the present context this is simply anachronistic'.—Niharranjan Ray (1972:23). Introductory address in Tribal Situation in India edited by K S Singh.]

Indian society had largely been viewed by the western sociologists and anthropologists as a society characterised by caste in which social hierarchy was translated in biological idioms, that of course was again cultural. Louis Dumont (1911-1998) for example, in his famous book Homo Hierachicus (1966) championed this cultural notion of hierarchy to analyse caste system in srtucturalist terms. The anti-Dumont interactionist scholars like Mckim Marriott on the other hand gave more emphasis on the local and regional ground level variation in caste ranking and M N Srinivas propounded a theory of social mobility occuring within the caste system through a process which he termed 'Sanskritization'. The Marxist scholars on the other hand, viewed caste system as a kind of class formation. But what was most interesting in these discourses is the absence of the contributions of one of the most original thinkers on caste system in India and he was none other than Dr B R Ambedkar (1891-1956) who was not only a scholar but was also one of the greatest law and policy makers of Independent India. Another irony is Ambedkar's views on caste were also neglected in the anthropology and sociology curricula in the Indian universities and colleges. Ambedkar is still a nobody in the syllabi of Anthropology in India. The students of Anthropology, Sociology, History and Political Science in the Indian universities have to know a lot about Louis Dumont, H H Risely, J H Hutton, LSS O'Malley, G S Ghurye, D D Kosambi, Nirmal Kumar Bose, Ramkrishna Mukherjee, M N Srinivas, Surajit Sinha, André Béteille, Rajni Kothari, Mckim Marriott, Ronald Inden, Bernard Cohn, Nicholas Dirks, and Romila Thapar but not about B R Ambedkar! Ambedkar was treated only as a leader of the Dalits and one of the Constitution makers but he was not given the status of a scholar in the elite discourses by the social scientists working on India. None of Indian or Western anthropologists or other social scientists gave academic importance to B R Ambedkar's views on caste. Ironically, Ambedkar remained an untouchable in the Brahaminical and European scholarly discourses on caste in India.

This article mainly deals with Ambedkar's views on the genesis of caste system in India while comparing them it with the views of an Indian anthropologist, Nirmal Kumar Bose who held many important positions of the Government of India in the post-colonial period and acted as the personal secretary of M K Gandhi for a brief period in the pre-Independence period.

As early as 1916 B R Ambedkar made a novel attempt to explain the caste system in India in a paper read before the Anthropology Seminar of Alexander Goldenweizer (1880-1940) at Columbia University. Ambedkar was then 25 years and a doctoral student in Anthropology. The full title of his paper was 'Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development'. It was an 18-page paper which contained a pure and detached academic exercise on the nature of the caste system in India and nowhere in the paper have readers found any comment or observation from the personal experiences of the author. It was full of critical scholarship on the then existing anthropological and sociological literature on caste in a lucid and argumentative fashion. In the first part of the paper Ambedkar dealt with the works of four famous scholars like Emile Senart (1847-1928), John Nesfield (1836-1919), S V Ketkar (1884-1937) and H H Risley (1851-1911) and without being biased towards these well-known authorities, he pointed out the shortcomings of all these scholars in understanding the essential feature of the caste system. But his method of criticism was quite interesting. While criticising the authorities Ambedkar did not fail to observe the positive aspects of their contributions. In his own words,
"To review these definitions is of great importance for our purpose. It will be noticed that taken individually the definitions of three of the writers include too much or too little: none is complete or correct by itself and all have missed the central point in the mechanism of the Caste system. Their mistake lies in trying to define caste as an isolated unit by itself, and not as a group within, and with definite relations to, the system of caste as a whole. Yet collectively all of them are complementary to one another, each one emphasising what has been obscured in the other". [Ambedkar (1917): 1979:7]

Looking at caste as a system in which each jati is part of the whole was definitely a step forward in social and cultural anthropology as early as 1917 and Ambedkar was not ready to accept caste system as a system of 'division of labour' which minimised competition among occupational groups. For him caste system is a division among the labouring classes rather than division of labour. A closer reading of this article reveals that although in the milieu of Boasians at Columbia Ambedkar used the Morganian social evolutionary methodology to approach the basic principle behind the caste system. He observed that marriage outside one's own immediate kin-group represented through clan exogamy was the fundamental and universal feature of human society and in India the state of 'tribal exogamy' survived even in the stages of civilisation whereas in the modern world this is no more the rule. Let me quote from the original:
"With the growth of history, however, exogamy has lost its efficacy, and excepting the nearest blood-kins, there is usually no social bar restricting the field of marriage. But regarding the peoples of India the law of exogamy is a positive injunction even today. Indian society still savours of the clan system, even though there are no clans; and this can be easily seen from the law of matrimony which centres round the principle of exogamy, for it is not that Sapindas (blood-kins) cannot marry, but a marriage even between Sagotras (of the same class) is regarded as a sacrilege". [Ibid (1917): 1979:9]

This is the logical foundation based on which Ambedkar advanced his arguments to elucidate the caste system. Because he cogently argued that since in India exogamy was the stronger rule so endogamy must have been foreign to the country. But then how caste system, which had to survive on endogamy, could come into place in India? The way Ambedkar answered this anomaly is the most interesting part of this original paper. Before going into the details let me quote again,
"Nothing is therefore more important for you to remember than the fact that endogamy is foreign to the people of India. The various Gotras of India are and have been exogamous: so are the other groups with totemic organization. It is no exaggeration to say that with the people of India exogamy is a creed and none dare infringe it, so much so that, in spite of the endogamy of the Castes within them, exogamy is strictly observed and that there are more rigorous penalties for violating exogamy than there are for violating endogamy. …Consequently in the final analysis creation of Castes, so far as India is concerned, means the superposition of endogamy on exogamy". [Ibid (1917): 1979:9]

Next to this analysis Ambedkar went on to explain how some of the social groups in ancient India which were classes turned into enclosed endogamous groups probably to ensure the privileges which they accrued out of the ancient class system. According to Ambedkar, since the Brahmin and the Kshatriyas were the most privileged classes it was these classes who began to enclose themselves to secure their privileges by becoming endogamous. Later other groups also emulated the higher classes and the system spread over wider regions. So classes in India were forerunner to castes, and castes according to Ambedkar were enclosed classes characterised by endogamy.

"We shall be well advised to recall at the outset that the Hindu society, in common with other societies, was composed of classes and the earliest known are (1) the Brahmins or the priestly class; (2) the Kshatriya, or the military class; (3) the Vaishya, or the merchant class; and (4) the Shudra, or the artisan and menial class. Particular attention has to be paid to the fact that this was essentially a class system, in which individuals, when qualified, could change their class, and therefore classes did change their personnel. At some time in the history of the Hindus, the priestly class socially detached itself from the rest of the body of people and through a closed-door policy became a caste by itself . The other classes being subject to the law of social division of labour underwent differentiation, some into large, others into very minute, groups... The question we have to answer in this connection is: Why did these sub-divisions or classes, if you please, industrial, religious or otherwise, become self-enclosed or endogamous? My answer is because the Brahmins were so. Endogamy or the closed-door system, was a fashion in the Hindu society, and as it had originated from the Brahmin caste it was whole-heartedly imitated by all the non-Brahmin sub-divisions or classes, who, in their turn, became endogamous castes. It is "the infection of imitation" that caught all these sub-divisions on their onward march of differentiation and has turned them into castes". (Ibid: 17-18).

Starting from a fundamental anthropological finding of tribal clan exogamy Ambedkar had been able to show how caste endogamy was superimposed on the former. Secondly, his exposition of caste as an extreme form of class system as early as 1917 was also exemplary and this work of Ambedkar was never mentioned or referred by the world renowned scholars on caste in India. Take for example, G S Ghurye. In his famous book Caste and Class in India (1957) Ghurye mentioned the name of Ambedkar only once in page 226 and that too as 'the leader of the Scheduled Caste' although Ghurye discussed at length the importance of endogamy in characterising the caste society in India. The same kind of omission of the anthropological contributions of B R Ambedkar could also be observed in the writings of Nirmal Kumar Bose.

The Anthropology of caste by N K Bose
At the outset, let me mention that I will be using two articles of N K Bose to discuss about his ideas on caste system. These are his articles on 'Hindu method of Tribal absorption' and 'Class and Caste'. First I will take up his Economic Weekly article 'Class and Caste' published in 1965 (Vol. 17, Issue 35). In this article Nirmal Kumar Bose admitted that caste can be regarded as a form of class in which the Brahminical classes tried to reserve their privileges in society. Bose, did not mention that Ambedkar in his seminal paper in the Anthropology seminar had already observed this fact nearly 50 years ago. Bose also missed the point that the reservation of privileges was ensured through endogamy, a fact observed perceptively by Ambedkar. Bose in fact was highly biased towards the hegemony of the caste system which he tried to profess through his articles on 'Hindu Method of tribal absorption' (1941) and 'Caste in India' (1951). Bose's idea was first proposed in a paper in the Indian Science Congress in 1941. His theory was based on his short field trips among the Juang tribal community of the Pal Lahara region of Orissa.

The essence of the theory was the tribals who had come into contact with their powerful caste Hindu neighbours gradually lost their own tribal identity and were given a low caste status within the Hindu fold. This idea became very popular and acceptable among the mainstream Indian anthropologists and Bose's paper turned into a compulsory text in the curriculum of Indian Anthropology. There was hardly any question or restudy in the Juang area to recheck Bose's proposition and the idea took deep roots in the minds of Indian anthropologists for generations. The university and college students of India who studied Anthropology were taught the theory of 'Hindu Method of Tribal Absorption' as an established sociological fact.

N K Bose published three consecutive papers in 1928, 1929 and 1930 on Juangs in Man in India which were later reprinted in his book Cultural Anthropology and other essays based on his short fieldwork done in Orissa. Unlike the 1941 paper, all these three articles contained some hard ethnographic data and no theoretical formulation was attempted by Bose.. After twelve years, Bose brought back his Juang field data in the famous paper on Hindu method of tribal absorption with a fresh vigour but his exposition in the 1941 paper seemed to lack logical consistency. I will first quote from Bose's own account and then point out the inconsistencies.
"The significant fact is this, that the Juangs had started worshipping a Hindu goddess, although it was done in their own way. The bath in the morning, the offerings of sun-dried rice, the terms satya, devata, dharma, all prove how strongly Juang religious ceremonies have been influenced by those of the neighbouring Brahaminical people. In nearly all respects, the Juangs are a tribe living outside the pale of Hinduism. They have their own language, which belongs to the Mundari group. No Brahamin or Vaishnava priest serves them; and they perform their marriage and funeral customs all by themselves. They eat beef and carrion, and are not considered by the Hindus to be one of the Hindu castes. Yet there is clear indication that Hindu religious ideas have penetrated into their culture. The Juangs seem to be losing pride in their own culture and are adopting Hindu culture with a certain amount of avidity". (Bose 1953:157)

Firstly, the above account of Bose was highly selective because he excluded from his own data depicted in the 1930 paper about all the non-Hindu customs, viz. eating of the rice balls by the two black cocks and their subsequent sacrifice and prayers made by the Juangs to their supreme indigenous gods in the 1953 paper.

Secondly, again in the 1953 paper he reported that the Juangs were not considered by the Hindus to be 'one of the Hindu castes'. How then the Juangs were absorbed by the Hindus?

Thirdly, Bose himself admitted that the Juangs maintained their own ethnic identity but he at the same time stated that 'the Juangs seem to be losing pride in their own culture and are adopting Hindu culture with a certain amount of avidity' which appeared to be contradictory. If the Juangs were worshipping the Hindu goddess 'in their own way' and retained their own customs and were not accepted by the caste Hindus to be one of the Hindu castes, then how the Juangs were being absorbed in the Hindu order?

Fourthly, Bose used his 1928 field data lock-stock-and-barrel after 12 years in his 1941 Science Congress lecture without any rechecking and/or cross-verification. He also did not make any update on it when the same paper was reprinted after another 12 years in his Cultural Anthropology and other essays book published in 1953.Bose did not care to look into the long article written by none other than Verrier Elwin in 1948. (Elwin 1948:1-146).Elwin's painstaking ethnography in Keonjhar and Pal Lahara did not reveal any picture of Hindu method of tribal absorption. On the contrary the ethnography revealed in detail the full-fledged custom of beef-eating and all kinds of non-Hindu culinary practices among the Juangs (Ibid:46-49). It is also interesting to note that the ethnographic discourse generated by the brilliant Indian anthropologist T C Das recorded the counter processes of de-Hinduai-sation and maintenance of ethnic identity by the economically and socially subjugated and marginalised tribals. (Guha, 2016). It is really a surprising fact in the history of Indian Anthropology that sociological interpretation of a 24-year old insufficient field data got recognition and acceptance in Indian Anthropology and Sociology as an established theory.

Interestingly, both Bose and Ambedkar had their own ideas about the origin of caste which were little influenced by western anthropologists and sociologists. While Ambedkar emphasised more on the endogamy of caste superimposed on tribal exogamy, Bose attempted to view caste as a superior socioeconomic system, which could absorb the less powerful tribal society. Ambedkar's method seemed to be better-knit theoretically than Bose and the former maintained a kind of academic detachment from his painful personal experiences while presenting the seminar paper on caste at Columbia University. Bose on the other hand seemed to be less consistent methodologically and had fallen prey to some simplistic biases which ultimately led him to ignore his own empirical findings.

References :
Ambedkar, B R., 1916. Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development. Paper presented at an Anthropology Seminar taught by Dr. A. A. Goldenweizer at Columbia University 9th May 1916. Text first printed in: Indian Antiquary Vol. XLI (May 1917). Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches. (1979). Vol I. Edited by Vasant Moon, Education Department, Government of Maharastra, Mumbai.
Bose, N K., 1953. 'The Hindu Method of Tribal Absorption'. In Cultural Anthropology and other essays by N K Bose. Calcutta: Indian Associated Publishing Company Ltd.
Bose, N K., 1965. 'Class and Caste'. Economic Weekly. Vol. 17, Issue No. 35, 28th August 1965.
Elwin, V., 1948. Notes on the Juang. Man in India. 28: 1-146.
Guha, A., 2016. Tarak Chandra Das: An Unsung Hero of Indian Anthropology. Delhi: Studera Press.
Ray, N.,1972. 'Introductory Address' .PP.3-33. The Tribal Situation in India. Edited by K S Singh.1972. Shimla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study.

[Acknowledgements: I express my sincerest thanks to Dr Harashawaradhana, Conference Coordinator & Head of Office Anthropological Survey of India, North West Regional Centre, Dehradun for inviting me to present the paper in the National Conference On "Caste, Culture, Power: Indian Society" held during 14th to 16th December 2016 on the occasion of the 125th Birth Anniversary of Dr B R Ambedkar .I owe my special debts to Santanu Mitra for inspiring me to write the paper.]

Autumn Number 2018
Vol. 51, No.14 - 17, Oct 7 - Nov 3, 2018