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Title: Castes In India
Author: Ambedkar, B. R. (Bhimrao Ramji)
Language: English
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Transcribed from The Indian Antiquary, Vol. 46, pp. 81–95.


                            INDIAN ANTIQUARY




                               EDITED BY


                  HON. FELLOW, TRIN. HALL, CAMBRIDGE,




                            VOL. XLVI.—1917.


  _Printed and Published at the BRITISH INDIA PRESS, Mazgaon, Bombay._


                          NEW BOND STREET, W.

                        [_All Rights Reserved_.]

[pg 81]

              *Their mechanism, genesis and development.*¹

                     BY BHIMRAO R. AMBEDKAR, M. A.

    ¹ A paper read before the Anthropology Seminar (9th May 1916) of Dr.
      A. A. Goldenweiser, Columbia University, New York.

Many of us, I dare say, have witnessed local, national, or international
expositions of material objects that make up the sum total of human
civilization.  But few can entertain the idea of there being such a
thing as an exposition of human institutions.  Exhibition of human
institutions is a strange idea; some might call it the wildest of ideas.
But as students of Ethnology I hope you will not be hard on this
innovation, for it is not so, and to you at least it should not be

You all have visited, I believe, some historic place like the ruins of
Pompeii, and listened with curiosity to the history of the remains as it
flowed from the glib tongue of the guide.  In my opinion a student of
Ethnology, in one sense at least, is much like the guide.  Like his
prototype, he holds up (perhaps with more seriousness and desire of self
instruction) the social institutions to view, with all the objectiveness
humanly possible, and inquires into their origin and function.

Most of our fellow students in this Seminar, which concerns itself with
Primitive _versus_ Modern Society, have ably acquitted themselves along
these lines by giving lucid expositions of the various institutions,
modern or primitive, in which they are interested.  It is my turn now,
this evening, to entertain you, as best I can, with a paper on “Castes
in India: their mechanism, genesis and development.”

I need hardly remind you of the complexity of the subject I intend to
handle.  Subtler minds and abler pens than mine have been brought to the
task of unravelling the mysteries of Caste; but unfortunately it still
remains in the domain of the “unexplained,” not to say of the
“un-understood.”  I am quite alive to the complex intricacies of a hoary
institution like Caste, but I am not so pessimistic as to relegate it to
the region of the unknowable, for I believe it can be known.  The caste
problem is a vast one, both theoretically and practically.  Practically,
it is an institution that portends tremendous consequences.  It is a
local problem, but one capable of much wider mischief, for “as long as
caste in India does exist, Hindus will hardly intermarry or have any
social intercourse with outsiders; and if Hindus migrate to other
regions on earth, Indian caste would become a world problem.”²
Theoretically, it has defied a great many scholars who have taken upon
themselves, as a labour of love, to dig into its origin.  Such being the
case, I cannot treat the problem in its entirety.  Time, space and
acumen, I am afraid, would all fail me, if I attempted to do otherwise
than limit myself to a phase of it, namely, the genesis, mechanism and
spread of the caste system.  I will strictly observe this rule, and will
dwell on extraneous matters only when it is necessary to clarify or
support a point in my thesis.

    ² Ketkar, _Caste_, p. 4.

To proceed with the subject.  According to well-known ethnologists, the
population of India is a mixture of Aryans, Dravidians, Mongolians and
Scythians.  All these stocks of people came into India from various
directions and with various cultures, centuries ago, when they were in a
tribal state.  They all in turn elbowed their entry into the country by
fighting with their predecessors, and after a stomachful of it settled
down as peaceful neighbours.  Through constant contact and mutual
intercourse they evolved a common [pg 82] culture that superseded their
distinctive cultures.  It may be granted that there has not been a
thorough amalgamation of the various stocks that make up the peoples of
India, and to a traveller from within the boundaries of India the East
presents a marked contrast in physique and even in colour to the West,
as does the South to the North.  But amalgamation can never be the sole
criterion of homogeneity as predicated of any people.  Ethnically all
peoples are heterogeneous.  It is the unity of culture that is the basis
of homogeneity.  Taking this for granted, I venture to say that there is
no country that can rival the Indian Peninsula with respect to the unity
of its culture.  It has not only a geographic unity, but it has over and
above all a deeper and a much more fundamental unity—the indubitable
cultural unity that covers the land from end to end.  But it is because
of this homogeneity that Caste becomes a problem so difficult to be
explained.  If the Hindu Society were a mere federation of mutually
exclusive units, the matter would be simple enough.  But Caste is a
parcelling of an already homogeneous unit, and the explanation of the
genesis of Caste is the explanation of this process of parcelling.

Before launching into our field of enquiry, it is better to advise
ourselves regarding the nature of a caste.  I will therefore draw upon a
few of the best students of caste for their definitions of it.

(1) M. Senart, a French authority, defines a caste as “a close
corporation, in theory at any rate rigorously hereditary: equipped with
a certain traditional and independent organisation, including a chief
and a council, meeting on occasion in assemblies of more or less plenary
authority and joining together at certain festivals: bound together by
common occupations, which relate more particularly to marriage and to
food and to questions of ceremonial pollution, and ruling its members by
the exercise of jurisdiction, the extent of which varies, but which
succeeds in making the authority of the community more felt by the
sanction of certain penalties and, above all, by final irrevocable
exclusion from the group.”

(2) Mr. Nesfield defines a caste as “a class of the community which
disowns any connection with any other class and can neither intermarry
nor eat nor drink with any but persons of their own community.”

(3) According to Sir H. Risley, “a caste may be defined as a collection
of families or groups of families bearing a common name which usually
denotes or is associated, with specific occupation, claiming common
descent from a mythical ancestor, human or divine, professing to follow
the same professional callings and are regarded by those who are
competent to give an opinion as forming a single homogeneous community.”

(4) Dr. Ketkar defines caste as “a social group having two
characteristics: (1) membership is confined to those who are born of
members and includes all persons so born; (2) the members are forbidden
by an inexorable social law to marry outside the group.”

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.  By way of criticism, therefore, I will take
only those points common to all Castes in each of the above definitions
which are regarded as peculiarities of Caste and evaluate them as such.

[pg 83] To start with M. Senart, He draws attention to the “idea of
pollution” as a characteristic of Caste.  With regard to this point it
may be safely said that it is by no means a peculiarity of Caste as
such.  It usually originates in priestly ceremonialism and is a
particular case of the general belief in purity.  Consequently its
necessary connection with Caste may be completely denied without
damaging the working of Caste.  The “idea of pollution” has been
attached to the institution of Caste, only because the Caste that enjoys
the highest rank is the priestly Caste: while we know that priest and
purity are old associates.  We may therefore conclude that the “idea of
pollution” is a characteristic of Caste only in so far as Caste has a
religious flavour.  Mr. Nesfield in his way dwells on the absence of
messing with those outside the Caste as one of its characteristics.  In
spite of the newness of the point we must say that Mr. Nesfield has
mistaken the effect for the cause.  Caste, being a self-enclosed unit,
naturally limits social intercourse, including messing etc., to members
within it.  Consequently this absence of messing with outsiders is not
due to positive prohibition, but is a natural result of Caste, _i.e._,
exclusiveness.  No doubt this absence of messing, originally due to
exclusiveness, acquired the prohibitory character of a religious
injunction, but it may be regarded as a later growth.  Sir H. Risley,
makes no new point deserving of special attention.

We now pass on to the definition of Dr. Ketkar, who has done much for
the elucidation of the subject.  Not only is he a native, but he has
also brought a critical acumen and an open mind to bear on his study of
Caste.  His definition merits consideration, for he has defined Caste in
its relation to a system of Castes, and has concentrated his attention
only on those characteristics which are absolutely necessary for the
existence of a Caste within a system, rightly excluding all others as
being secondary or derivative in character.  With respect to his
definition it must, however, be said that in it there is a slight
confusion of thought, lucid and clear as otherwise it is.  He speaks of
*Prohibition of Intermarriage* and *Membership by Autogeny* as the two
characteristics of Caste.  I submit that these are but two aspects of
one and the same thing, and not two different things as Dr. Ketkar
supposes them to be.  If you prohibit inter-marriage the result is that
you limit, membership to those born within the group. Thus the two are
the obverse and the reverse sides of the same medal.

This critical evaluation of the various characteristics of Caste leaves
no doubt that prohibition, or rather the absence of
intermarriage—endogamy, to be concise—is the only one that can be called
the essence of Caste when rightly understood.  But some may deny this on
abstract anthropological grounds, for there exist endogamous groups
without giving rise to the problem of Caste.  In a general way this may
be true, as endogamous societies, culturally different, making their
abode in localities more or less removed, and having little to do with
each other, are a physical reality.  The negroes and the whites and the
various tribal groups that go by the name of American Indians in the
United States may be cited as more or less appropriate illustrations in
support of this view.  But we must not confuse matters, for in India the
situation is different.  As pointed out before, the peoples of India
form a homogeneous whole. The various races of India occupying definite
territories have more or less fused into one another and do possess a
cultural unity, which is the only criterion of a homogeneous population.
Given this homogeneity as a basis, Caste becomes a problem altogether
new in character and wholly absent in the situation constituted by the
mere propinquity of endogamous social or tribal [pg 84] groups.  Caste
in India means an artificial chopping off of the population into fixed
and definite units, each one prevented from fusing into another through
the custom of endogamy.  Thus the conclusion is inevitable that
*endogamy is the only characteristic that is peculiar to Caste*, and if
we succeed in showing how endogamy is maintained, we shall practically
have proved the genesis and also the mechanism of Caste.

It may not be quite easy for you to anticipate why I regard endogamy as
a key to the mystery of the Caste system.  Not to strain your
imagination too much, I will proceed to give you my reasons for it.

It may not also be out of place to emphasize at this moment that no
civilized society of to-day presents more survivals of primitive times
than does the Indian society.  Its religion is essentially primitive and
its tribal code, in spite of the advance of time and civilization,
operates in all its pristine vigour even to-day.  One of these primitive
survivals, to which I wish particularly to draw your attention, is the
*custom of exogamy*.  The prevalence of exogamy in the primitive world
is a fact too well known to need any explanation. 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 to-day.  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.

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.  You will, therefore,
readily see that with exogamy as the rule there could be no Castes, for
exogamy means fusion.  But we _have_ Castes; consequently in the final
analysis creation of Castes, so far as India is concerned, means the
superposition of endogamy on exogamy.  However, in an originally
exogamous population an easy working out of endogamy (which is
equivalent to the creation of Caste) is a grave problem, and it is in
the consideration of the means utilized for the preservation of endogamy
against exogamy that we may hope to find the solution of our problem.

Thus the *superposition of endogamy on exogamy means the creation of
Caste*.  But this is not an easy affair.  Let us take an imaginary group
that desires to make itself into a Caste and analyse what means it will
have to adopt to make itself endogamous.  If a group desires to make
itself endogamous a formal injunction against intermarriage with outside
groups will be of no avail, especially if prior to the introduction of
endogamy, exogamy had been the rule in all matrimonial relations.
Again, there is a tendency in all groups lying in close contact with one
another to assimilate and amalgamate, and thus consolidate into a
homogenous society.  If this tendency is to be strongly counteracted in
the interest of Caste formation, it is absolutely necessary to
circumscribe a circle outside which people should not contract

Nevertheless, this encircling to prevent marriages from without creates
problems from within which are not very easy of solution. Roughly
speaking, in a normal group the [pg 85] two sexes are more or less
evenly distributed, and generally speaking there is an equality between
those of the same age.  The equality is, however, never quite realized
in actual societies.  At the same time to the group that is desirous of
making itself into a caste the maintenance of equality between the sexes
becomes the ultimate goal, for without it endogamy can no longer
subsist.  In other words, if endogamy is to be preserved conjugal rights
from within have to be provided for, otherwise members of the group will
be driven out of the circle to take care of themselves in any way they
can.  But in order that the conjugal rights be provided for from within,
it is absolutely necessary to maintain a numerical equality between the
marriageable units of the two sexes within the group desirous of making
itself into a Caste.  It is only through the maintenance of such an
equality that the necessary endogamy of the group can be kept intact,
and a very large disparity is sure to break it.

*The problem of Caste, then, ultimately resolves itself into one of
repairing the disparity between the marriageable units of the two sexes
within it*.  Left to nature, the much needed parity between the units
can be realized only when a couple dies simultaneously.  But this is a
rare contingency.  The husband may die before the wife and create a
_surplus woman_, who must be disposed of, else through intermarriage she
will violate the endogamy of the group.  In like manner the husband may
survive his wife and be a _surplus man_, whom the group, while it may
sympathise with him for the sad bereavement, has to dispose of, else he
will marry outside the Caste and will break the endogamy.  Thus both the
_surplus man_ and the _surplus woman_ constitute a menace to the Caste
if not taken care of, for not finding suitable partners inside their
prescribed circle (and left to themselves they cannot find any, for if
the matter be not regulated there can only be just enough pairs to go
round) very likely they will transgress the boundary, marry outside and
import offspring that is foreign to the Caste.

Let us see what our imaginary group is likely to do with this _surplus
man_ and _surplus woman_.  We will first take up the case of the
_surplus woman_.  She can be disposed of in two different ways so as to
preserve the endogamy of the Caste.

First: burn her on the funeral pyre of her deceased husband and get rid
of her.  This, however, is rather an impracticable way of solving the
problem of sex disparity.  In some cases it may work, in others it may
not.  Consequently every _surplus woman_ cannot thus be disposed of,
because it is an easy solution but a hard realization.  And so the
_surplus woman_ (= widow), if not disposed of, remains in the group:
but in her very existence lies a double danger.  She may marry outside
the Caste and violate endogamy, or she may marry within the Caste and
through competition encroach upon the chances of marriage that must be
reserved for the potential brides in the Caste.  She is therefore a
menace in any case, and something must be done to her if she cannot be
burned along with her deceased husband.

The second remedy is to enforce widowhood on her for the rest of her
life.  So far as the objective results are concerned, burning is a
better solution than enforcing widowhood.  Burning the widow eliminates
all the three evils that a _surplus woman_ is fraught with. Being dead
and gone she creates no problem of remarriage either inside or outside
the Caste.  But compulsory widowhood is superior to burning because it
is more practicable.  Besides being comparatively humane it also guards
against the evils of remarriage as does burning: but it fails to guard
the morals of the group.  No doubt under compulsory widowhood the woman
remains, and just because she is deprived of her natural right of being
a legitimate wife in future, the incentive to immoral conduct is
increased.  But [pg 86] this is by no means an insuperable difficulty.
She can be degraded to a condition in which she is no longer a source of

The problem of _surplus man_ (= widower) is much more important and
much more difficult than that of the _surplus woman_ in a group that
desires to make itself into a Caste.  From time immemorial man as
compared with woman has had the upper hand.  He is a dominant figure in
every group and of the two sexes has greater prestige.  With this
traditional superiority of man over woman his wishes have always been
consulted.  Woman, on the other hand, has been an easy prey to all kinds
of iniquitous injunctions, religious, social or economic.  But man as a
maker of injunctions is most often above them all.  Such being the case,
you cannot accord the same kind of treatment to a _surplus man_ as you
can to a _surplus woman_ in a Caste.

The project of burning him with his deceased wife is hazardous in two
ways: first of all it cannot be done, simply because he is a man.
Secondly, if done, a sturdy soul is lost to the Caste.  There remain
then only two solutions which can conveniently dispose of him.  I say
conveniently, because he is an asset to the group.

Important as he is to the group, endogamy is still more important, and
the solution must assure both these ends.  Under these circumstances he
may be forced, or I should say induced, after the manner of the widow,
to remain a widower for the rest of his life.  This solution is not
altogether difficult, for without any compulsion some are so disposed as
to enjoy self-imposed celibacy, or even to take a further step of their
own accord and renounce the world and its joys.  But, given human nature
as it is, this solution can hardly be expected to be realized.  On the
other hand, as is very likely to be the case, if the _surplus man_
remains in the group as an active participator in group activities, he
is a danger to the morals of the group.  Looked at from a different
point of view celibacy, though easy in cases where it succeeds, is not
so advantageous even then to the material prospects of the Caste.  If he
observes genuine celibacy and renounces the world, he would not be a
menace to the preservation of Caste endogamy or Caste morals as he
undoubtedly would be if he remained a secular person.  But as an ascetic
celibate he is as good as burned, so far as the material well-being of
his Caste is concerned.  A Caste, in order that it may be large enough
to afford a vigorous communal life, must be maintained at a certain
numerical strength.  But to hope for this and to proclaim celibacy is
the same as trying to cure atrophy by bleeding.

Imposing celibacy on the _surplus man_ in the group, therefore, fails
both theoretically and practically.  It is in the interest of the Caste
to keep him as a _grahastha_ (one who raises a family), to use a
Sanskrit technical term.  But the problem is to provide him with a wife
from within the Caste.  At the outset this is not possible, for the
ruling ratio in a caste has to be one man to one woman and none can have
two chances of marriage, for in a Caste thoroughly self-enclosed there
are always just enough marriageable women to go round for the
marriageable men.  Under these circumstances the _surplus man_ can be
provided with a wife only by recruiting a bride from the ranks of those
not yet marriageable in order to tie him down to the group.  This is
certainly the best of the possible solutions in the case of the _surplus
man_.  By this, he is kept within the Caste. By this means numerical
depletion through constant outflow is guarded against, and by this
endogamy and morals are preserved.

It will now be seen that the four means by which numerical disparity
between the two sexes is conveniently maintained are: (1) Burning the
widow with her deceased [pg 87] husband; (2) Compulsory widowhood—a
milder form of burning; (3) Imposing celibacy on the widower; (4)
Wedding him to a girl not yet marriageable.  Though, as I said above,
burning the widow and imposing celibacy on the widower are of doubtful
service to the group in its endeavour to preserve its endogamy, all of
them operate as _means_.  But means, as forces, when liberated or set in
motion create an end.  What then is the end that these means create?
They create and perpetuate endogamy, while caste and endogamy, according
to our analysis of the various definitions of caste, are one and the
same thing.  Thus the existence of these means is identical with caste
and caste involves those means.

This, in my opinion, is the general mechanism of a caste in a system of
castes.  Let us now turn from these high generalities to the castes in
Hindu society and inquire into their mechanism. I need hardly promise
that there are a great many pitfalls in the path of those who try to
unfold the past, and caste in India to be sure is a very ancient
institution.  This is especially true where there exist no authentic or
written records, or where the people, like the Hindus, are so
constituted that to them writing history is a folly, for the world is an
illusion.  But institutions do live, though for a long time they may
remain unrecorded and as often as not customs and morals are like
fossils that tell their own history. If this is true, our task will be
amply rewarded if we scrutinize the solution the Hindus arrived at to
meet the problems of the _surplus man_ and _surplus woman_.

Complex though it be in its general working the Hindu Society, even to a
superficial observer, presents three singular uxorial customs, namely:—

      (i) _Sati_ or the burning of the widow on the funeral pyre of her
          deceased husband.
     (ii) Enforced widowhood by which a widow is not allowed to remarry.
    (iii) Girl marriage.

In addition, one also notes a great hankering after _sannyasa_
(renunciation) on the part of the widower, but this may in some cases be
due purely to psychic disposition.

So far as I know, no scientific explanation of the origin of these
customs is forthcoming even to-day.  We have plenty of philosophy to
tell us why these customs were honoured, but nothing to tell us the
causes of their origin and existence.  _Sati_ has been honoured (_Cf_.
A. K. Coomaraswamy, _Sati: a Defence of the Eastern Woman_ in the
_British Sociological Review_, Vol. VI. 1913) because it is a “proof of
the perfect unity of body and soul” between husband and wife and of
“devotion beyond the grave;” because it embodied the ideal of wifehood,
which is well expressed by Umâ when she said “Devotion to her Lord is
woman’s honour, it is her eternal heaven: and O Maheshvara,” she adds
with a most touching human cry, “I desire not paradise itself if thou
art not satisfied with me!”  Why compulsory widowhood is honoured I know
not, nor have I yet met with any one who sang in praise of it, though
there are a great many who adhere to it. The eulogy in honour of girl
marriage is reported by Dr. Ketkar to be as follows: “A really faithful
man or woman ought not to feel affection for a woman or a man other than
the one with whom he or she is united.  Such purity is compulsory not
only after marriage, but even before marriage, for that is the only
correct ideal of chastity. No maiden could be considered pure if she
feels love for a man other than the one to whom she might be married.
As she does not know to whom she is going to be married, she must not
feel affection for any man at all before marriage.  If she does so, it
is a sin.  So it is better for a girl to know whom she has to love,
before any sexual consciousness has been awakened in her.”³ Hence girl

    ³ _History of Caste in India_, 1909, pp. 32–33.

This high-flown and ingenious sophistry indicates why these institutions
were honoured, but does not tell us why they were practised.  My own
interpretation is that they were honoured because they were practised.
Any one slightly acquainted with rise of individualism in the 18th
century will appreciate my remark.  At all times, it is the movement
that is most important; and the philosophies grow around it long
afterwards to justify it and give it a moral support.  In like manner I
urge that the very fact that these customs were so highly eulogized
proves that they needed eulogy for their prevalence.  Regarding the
question as to why they arose, I submit that they were needed to create
the structure of caste and the philosophies in honour of them were
intended to popularize them, or to gild the pill, as we might say, for
they must have been so abominable and shocking to the moral sense of the
unsophisticated that they needed a great deal of sweetening.  These
customs are essentially of the nature of _means_, though they are
represented as ideals.  But this should not blind us from understanding
the _results_ that flow from them.  One might safely say that
idealization of means is necessary and in this particular case was
perhaps motivated to endow them with greater efficacy.  Calling a means
an end does no harm, except that it disguises its real character; but it
does not deprive it of its real nature, that of a means.  You may pass a
law that all cats are dogs, just as you can call a means an end.  But
you can no more change the nature of means thereby than you can turn
cats into dogs; consequently I am justified in holding that, whether
regarded as ends or as means, _Sati_, _enforced widowhood_ and _girl
marriage_ are customs that were primarily intended to solve the problem
of the _surplus man_ and _surplus woman_ in a caste and to maintain its
endogamy.  Strict endogamy could not be preserved without these customs,
while caste without endogamy is a fake.

Having explained the mechanism of the creation and preservation of Caste
in India, the further question as to its genesis naturally arises.  The
question of origin is always an annoying question and in the study of
Caste it is sadly neglected: some have connived at it, while others have
dodged it.  Some are puzzled as to whether there could be such a thing
as the origin of caste and suggest that “if we cannot control our
fondness for the word ‘origin’, we should better use the plural form,
_viz._, ‘origins of caste’.”  As for myself I do not feel puzzled by the
Origin of Caste in India, for, as I have established before, endogamy is
the only characteristic of Caste and when I say *origin of caste* I mean
*the origin of the mechanism for endogamy*.

The atomistic conception of individuals in a Society so greatly
popularised—I was about to say vulgarized—in political orations is the
greatest humbug.  To say that individuals make up society is trivial;
society is always composed of classes.  It may be an exaggeration to
assert the theory of class-conflict, but the existence of definite
classes in a society is a fact.  Their basis may differ.  They may be
economic or intellectual or social, but an individual in a society is
always a member of a class.  This is a universal fact and early Hindu
society could not have been an exception to this rule, and, as a matter
of fact, we know it was not.  If we bear this generalization in mind,
our study of the genesis of caste would be very much facilitated, for we
have only to determine what was the class that first made itself into a
caste, for class and caste, so to say, are next door neighbours, and it
is only a span that separates the two. *A caste is an enclosed class*.

The study of the origin of caste must furnish us with an answer to the
question—what is the class that raised this “enclosure” around itself?
The question [pg 89] may seem too inquisitorial, but it is pertinent,
and an answer to this will serve us to elucidate the mystery of the
growth and development of castes all over India.  Unfortunately a direct
answer to this question is not within my power.  I can answer it only
indirectly.  I said just above that the customs in question were current
in the Hindu society.  To be true to facts it is necessary to qualify
the statement, as it connotes universality of their prevalence.  These
customs in all their strictness are obtainable only in one caste, namely
the Brahmans, who occupy the highest place in the social hierarchy of
the Hindu society; and as their prevalence in Non-Brahman castes is
derivative their observance is neither strict nor complete.  This
important fact can serve as a basis of an important observation.  If the
prevalence of these customs in the non-Brahman Castes is derivative, as
can be shown very easily, then it needs no argument to prove what class
is the father of the institution of caste.  Why the Brahman class should
have enclosed itself into a caste is a different question, which may be
left as an employment for another occasion.  But the strict observance
of these customs and the social superiority arrogated by the priestly
class in all ancient civilizations are sufficient to prove that they
were the originators of this “unnatural institution” founded and
maintained through these unnatural means.

I now come to the third part of my paper regarding the question of the
growth and spread of the caste system all over India.  The question I
have to answer is: How did the institution of caste spread among the
rest of the non-Brahman population of the country?  The question of the
spread of the castes all over India has suffered a worse fate than the
question of genesis.  And the main cause, as it seems to me, is that the
two questions of spread and of origin are not separated. This is because
of the common belief among scholars that the caste system has either
been imposed upon the docile population of India by a law-giver as a
divine dispensation, or that it has grown according to some law of
social growth peculiar to the Indian people.

I first propose to handle the law-giver of India.  Every country has its
lawgiver, who arises as an incarnation (_avatar_) in times of emergency
to set right a sinning humanity and give it the laws of justice and
morality.  Manu, the law-giver of India, if he did exist, was certainly
an audacious person.  If the story that he gave the law of caste be
credited, then Manu must have been a dare-devil fellow and the humanity
that accepted his dispensation must be a humanity quite different from
the one we are acquainted with.  It is unimaginable that the law of
caste was _given_.  It is hardly an exaggeration to say that Manu could
not have outlived his law, for what is that class that can submit to be
degraded to the status of brutes by the pen of a man, and suffer him to
raise another class to the pinnacle?  Unless he was a tyrant who held
all the population in subjection it cannot be imagined that he could
have been allowed to dispense his patronage in this grossly unjust
manner, as may be easily seen by a mere glance at his “Institutes.”  I
may seem hard on Manu, but I am sure my force is not strong enough to
kill his ghost.  He lives, like a disembodied spirit and is appealed to,
and I am afraid will yet live long.  One thing I want to impress upon
you is that Manu did not _give_ the _law_ of Caste and that he could not
do so.  Caste existed long before Manu. He was an upholder of it and
therefore philosophised about it, but certainly he did not and could not
ordain the present order of Hindu Society.  His work ended with the
codification of existing caste rules and the preaching of Caste
_Dharma_.  The spread and growth of the Caste system is too [pg 90]
gigantic a task to be achieved by the power or cunning of an individual
or of a class.  Similar in argument is the theory that the Brahmans
created the caste.  After what I have said regarding Manu, I need hardly
say anything more, except to point out that it is incorrect in thought
and malicious in intent.  The Brahmans may have been guilty of many
things, and I dare say they are, but the imposing of the caste system on
the non-Brahman population was beyond their mettle.  They may have
helped the process by their glib philosophy, but they certainly could
not have pushed their scheme beyond their own confines.  To fashion
society after one’s own pattern!  How glorious!  How hard!  One can take
pleasure and eulogize its furtherance, but cannot further it very far.
The vehemence of my attack may seem to be unnecessary: but I can assure
you that it is not uncalled for.  There is a strong belief in the mind
of orthodox Hindus that the Hindu Society was somehow moulded into the
frame work of the Caste System, and that it is an organization
consciously created by the _Shâstras_.  Not only does this belief exist,
but it is being justified on the ground that it cannot but be good,
because it is ordained by the _Shâstras_ and the _Shâstras_ cannot be
wrong.  I have urged so much on the adverse side of this attitude, not
because the religious sanctity is grounded on scientific basis, nor to
help those reformers who are preaching against it.  Preaching did not
make the caste system, neither will it unmake it.  My aim is to show the
falsity of the attitude that has exalted religious sanction to the
position of a scientific explanation.

Thus the great man theory does not help us very far in solving the
spread of castes in India.  Western scholars, probably not much given to
hero-worship, have attempted other explanations.  The nuclei, round
which have “formed” the various castes in India, are, according to
them:—(1) occupation; (2) survivals of tribal organizations, etc.; (3)
the rise of new belief; (4) cross-breeding and (5) migration.

The question may be asked whether these nuclei do not exist in other
societies and whether they are peculiar to India.  If they are not
peculiar to India, but are common to the world, why is it that they did
not “form” caste on other parts of this planet?  Is it because those
parts are holier than the land of the Vedas, or that the professors are
mistaken?  I am afraid that the latter is the truth.

Inspite of the high theoretic value claimed by the several authors for
their respective theories, based on one or other of the above nuclei,
one regrets to say that on close examination they are nothing more than
filling illustrations—what Matthew Arnold means by “the grand name
without the grand thing in it.”  Such are the various theories of caste
advanced by Sir Denzil Ibbetson, Mr. Nesfield, M. Senart and Sir H.
Risley.  To criticise them in a lump would be to say that they are a
disguised form of the _Petitio Principii_ of formal logic.  To
illustrate: Mr. Nesfield says that “function and function only … was the
foundation upon which the whole system of castes in India was built up.”
But he may rightly be reminded that he does not very much advance our
thought by making the above statement, which practically amounts to
saying that castes in India are functional or occupational, which is a
very poor discovery!  We have yet to know from Mr. Nesfield why is it
that an occupational group turned into an occupational caste? I would
very cheerfully have undertaken the task of dwelling on the [pg 91]
theories of other ethnologists, had it not been for the fact that Mr.
Nesfield’s is a typical one.

Without stopping to criticize those theories that explain the caste
system as a natural phenomenon occurring in obedience to the law of
disintegration, as explained by Herbert Spencer in his formula of
evolution, or as natural as “the structural differentiation within an
organism”—to employ the phraseology of orthodox apologists—, or as an
early attempt to test the laws of eugenics—as all belonging to the same
class of fallacy which regards the caste system as inevitable, or as
being consciously imposed in anticipation of these laws on a helpless
and humble population, I will now lay before you my own view on the

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 the (1) Brahmans or the priestly class: (2) the Kshatriya, or
the military class: (3) the Vaiśya, or the merchant class: and (4) the
Sudra, 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 Vaiśya and Sudra classes were the original inchoate
plasm, which formed the sources of the numerous castes of to-day.  As
the military occupation does not very easily lend itself to very minute
sub-division, the Kshatriya class could have differentiated into
soldiers and administrators.

This sub-division of a society is quite natural.  But the unnatural
thing about these sub-divisions is that they have lost the open door
character of the class system and have become self-enclosed units called
castes.  The question is, were they compelled to close their doors and
become endogamous, or did they close them of their own accord?  I submit
that there is a double line of answer: *Some closed the door: others
found it closed against them*.  The one is a psychological
interpretation and the other is mechanistic, but they are complementary
and both are necessary to explain the phenomena of caste formation in
its entirety.

I will first take up the psychological interpretation.  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 Brahmans were so.
Endogamy, or the closed-door system, was a fashion in the Hindu Society,
and as it had originated from the Brahman caste it was whole-heartedly
imitated by all the non-Brahman 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.  The propensity to imitate is a
deep-seated one in the human mind and need not be deemed an inadequate
explanation for the formation of the various castes in India.  It is so
deep-seated that Walter Bagehot argues that “we must not think of …
imitation as voluntary, or even conscious.  On the contrary it has its
seat mainly in very obscure parts of the mind, whose notions, so far
from being consciously produced, are hardly felt to exist; so far from
being conceived beforehand, are not even felt at the time.  The main
seat of the imitative part of our nature is our belief, and the causes
predisposing us to believe this or disinclining us to believe that are
among the obscurest parts of our nature.  But as to the imitative nature
[pg 92] of credulity there can be no doubt.”⁴ This propensity to imitate
has been made the subject of a scientific study by Gabriel Tarde, who
lays down three laws of imitation.  One of his three laws is that
imitation flows from the higher to the lower or, to quote his own words,
“Given the opportunity, a nobility will always and everywhere imitate
its leaders, its kings or sovereigns, and the people likewise, given the
opportunity, its nobility.”⁵ Another of Tarde’s laws of imitation is:
that the extent or intensity of imitation varies inversely in proportion
to distance, or in his own words “the thing that is most imitated is the
most superior one of those that are nearest.  In fact, the influence of
the model’s example is efficacious inversely to its _distance_ as well
as directly to its superiority.  Distance is understood here in its
sociological meaning. However distant in space a stranger may be, he is
close by, from this point of view, if we have numerous and daily
relations with him and if we have every facility to satisfy our desire
to imitate him.  This law of the imitation of the nearest, of the least
distant, explains the gradual and consecutive character of the spread of
an example that has been set by the higher social ranks.”⁶

    ⁴ _Physics and Politics_ 1915, p. 60.

    ⁵ _Laws of Imitation_, Tr. by E. C. Parsons, 2nd ed. p. 217.

    ⁶ _Ibid_. p. 224.

In order to prove my thesis—which really needs no proof—that some castes
were formed by imitation, the best way, it seems to me, is to find out
whether or not the vital conditions for the formation of castes by
imitation exist in the Hindu Society.  The conditions for imitation,
according to this standard authority are: (1) That the source of
imitation must enjoy prestige in the group and (2) that there must be
“numerous and daily relations” among members of a group. That these
conditions were present in India there is little reason to doubt.  The
Brahman is a semi-god and very nearly a demi-god.  He sets up a mode and
moulds the rest.  His prestige is unquestionable and is the
fountain-head of bliss and good.  Can such a being, idolised by
Scriptures and venerated by the priest-ridden multitude, fail to project
his personality on the suppliant humanity?  Why, if the story be true,
he is believed to be the very end of creation.  Such a creature is
worthy of more than mere imitation, but at least of imitation; and if he
lives in an endogamous enclosure, should not the rest follow his
example?  Frail humanity!  Be it embodied in a grave philosopher or a
frivolous housemaid, it succumbs.  It cannot be otherwise. Imitation is
easy and invention is difficult.

Yet another way of demonstrating the play of imitation in the formation
of castes is to understand the attitude of non-Brahman classes towards
those customs which supported the structure of caste in its nascent days
until, in the course of history, it became embedded in the Hindu mind
and hangs there to this day without any support—for now it needs no prop
but belief—like a weed on the surface of a pond.  In a way, but only in
a way, the status of a caste in the Hindu Society varies directly with
the extent of the observance of the customs of _sati_, enforced
widowhood, and girl marriage.  But observance of these customs varies
directly with the _distance_ (I am using the word in the Tardian sense)
that separates the caste.  Those castes that are nearest to the Brahmans
have imitated all the three customs and insist on the strict observance
thereof.  Those that are less near have imitated enforced widowhood and
girl marriage; others, a little further off, have only girl marriage,
and those furthest off have imitated only the belief in the caste
principle.  This imperfect imitation, I dare say, is due partly to what
Tarde calls “distance” and partly to the barbarous character of these
customs.  This [pg 93] phenomenon is a complete illustration of Tarde’s
law and leaves no doubt that the whole process of caste-formation in
India is a process of imitation of the higher by the lower.  At this
juncture I will turn back to support a former conclusion of mine, which
might have appeared to you as too sudden or unsupported.  I said that
the Brahman class first raised the structure of caste by the help of
those three customs in question.  My reason for that conclusion was that
their existence in other classes was derivative.  After what I have said
regarding the rôle of imitation in the spread of these customs among the
non-Brahman castes, as means or as ideals, though the imitators have not
been aware of it, they exist among them as derivatives; 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?

This completes the story of those that were weak enough to close their
doors.  Let us now see how others were closed in as a result of being
closed out.  This I call the mechanistic process of the formation of
caste.  It is mechanistic because it is inevitable.  That this line of
approach, as well as the psychological one, to the explanation of the
subject has escaped my predecessors is entirely due to the fact that
they have conceived Caste as a unit by itself and not as one within a
System of Caste.  The result of this oversight or lack of sight has been
very detrimental to the proper understanding of the subject matter and
therefore its correct explanation.  I will proceed to offer my own
explanation by making one remark which I will urge you to bear
constantly in mind.  It is this: that *caste in the singular number is
an unreality*.  *Castes exist only in the plural number*.  There is no
such thing as _a_ caste: there are always castes.  To illustrate my
meaning: while making themselves into a caste, the Brahmans, by virtue
of this, created a non-Brahman caste; or, to express it in my own way,
while closing themselves in they closed others out.  I will clear my
point by taking another illustration.  Take India as a whole with its
various communities designated by the various creeds to which they owe
allegiance, to wit, the Hindus, Muhammadans, Jews, Christians and
Parsis.  Now, barring the Hindus, the rest within themselves are
non-caste communities.  But with respect to each other they are castes.
Again, if the first four enclose themselves, the Parsis are directly
closed out, but are indirectly closed in.  Symbolically, if group A.
wants to be endogamous, group B. has to be so by sheer force of

Now apply the same logic to the Hindu society and you have another
explanation of the “fissiparous” character of caste, as a consequence of
the virtue of self-duplication that is inherent in it.  Any innovation
that seriously antagonises the ethical, religious and social code of the
Caste is not likely to be tolerated by the Caste, and the recalcitrant
members of a Caste are in danger of being thrown out of the Caste, and
left to their own fate without having the alternative of being admitted
into or absorbed by other Castes.  Caste rules are inexorable and they
do not wait to make nice distinctions between kinds of offence.
Innovation may be of any kind, but all kinds will suffer the same
penalty.  A novel way of thinking will create a new Caste for the old
ones will not tolerate it.  The noxious thinker respectfully called Guru
(Prophet) suffers the same fate as the sinners in illegitimate love.
The former creates a caste of the nature of a religious sect and the
latter a type of mixed caste. Castes have no mercy for a sinner who has
the courage to violate the code.  The penalty is excommunication and the
result is a new caste. It is not peculiar Hindu psychology that induces
the excommunicated to form themselves into a caste: far from it.  On the
contrary, very often they have been quite [pg 94] willing to be humble
members of some caste (higher by preference) if they could be admitted
within its fold.  But castes are enclosed units and it is their
conspiracy with clear conscience that compels the excommunicated to make
themselves into a caste.  The logic of this obdurate circumstance is
merciless, and it is in obedience to its force that some unfortunate
groups find themselves enclosed, because others in enclosing, themselves
have closed them out, with the result that new groups (formed on any
basis obnoxious to the caste rules) by a mechanical law are constantly
being converted into castes to a bewildering multiplicity.  Thus is told
the second tale in the process of Caste formation in India.

Now to summarise the main points of my thesis.  In my opinion there have
been several mistakes committed by the students of Caste, which have
misled them in their investigations.  European students of Caste have
unduly emphasised the rôle of colour in the caste-system. Themselves
impregnated by colour prejudices, they very readily imagined it to be
the chief factor in the Caste problem.  But nothing can be farther from
the truth, and Dr. Ketkar is correct when he insists that “All the
princes whether they belonged to the so-called Aryan race, or the
so-called Dravidian race, were Aryas.  Whether a tribe or a family was
racially Aryan or Dravidian was a question which never troubled the
people of India, until foreign scholars came in and began to draw the
line.  The colour of the skin had long ceased to be a matter of
importance.”⁷ Again, they have mistaken mere descriptions for
explanation and fought over them as though they were theories of origin.
There are occupational, religious, etc. castes, it is true, but it is by
no means an explanation of the origin of Caste.  We have yet to find out
why occupational groups are castes; but this question has never even
been raised.  Lastly they have taken Caste very lightly as though a
breath had made it.  On the contrary, Caste, as I have explained it, is
almost impossible to be sustained: for the difficulties that it involves
are tremendous.  It is true that Caste rests on belief, but before
belief comes to be the foundation of an institution, the institution
itself needs to be perpetuated and fortified.  My study of the Caste
problem involves four main points: (1) That in spite of the composite
make-up of the Hindu population, there is a deep cultural unity. (2)
That Caste is a parcelling into bits of a larger cultural unit. (3) That
there was one Caste to start with. (4) That classes have become Castes
through imitation and excommunication.

    ⁷ _History of Caste_ p. 82.

Peculiar interest attaches to the problem of Caste in India to-day, as
persistent attempts are being made to do away with this unnatural
institution.  Such attempts at reform, however, have aroused a great
deal of controversy regarding its origin, as to whether it is due to the
conscious command of a Supreme Authority, or is an unconscious growth in
the life of a human society under peculiar circumstances. Those who hold
the latter view will, I hope, find some food for thought in the
standpoint adopted in this paper.  Apart from its practical importance
the subject of Caste is an all absorbing problem and the interest
aroused in me regarding its theoretic foundations has moved me to put
before you some of the conclusions, which seem to me well founded, and
the grounds upon which they may be supported.  I am not, however, so
presumptuous as to think them in any way final, or anything more than a
contribution to a discussion of the subject.  It seems to me that the
car has been shunted on wrong lines, and the primary object of the paper
is to indicate what I regard to be the right path of investigation, with
a view to arrive at a serviceable truth.  We must, however, guard
against approaching the subject with a bias.

[pg 95] Sentiment must be outlawed from the domain of science and things
should be judged from an objective standpoint.  For myself I shall find
as much pleasure in a positive destruction of my own ideology, as in a
rational disagreement on a topic, which, notwithstanding many learned
disquisitions is likely to remain controversial for ever.  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.

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