Aspects of Psychology in Persistence of Castes in India

Dr. Anand Teltumbde

Published in Issue IV, October 2013

It has always been difficult for me to reconcile the fact that caste-like system of extreme exploitation and oppression can last for an unimaginably long period of two millennia. Unless its victims willingly consented for their own exploitation, this would not have been possible. The question arises, how could one willingly consent to one’s own exploitation? The stereotype answers to this question is provided in terms of vedic religious intrigue of Brahmans, which made the caste order as divinely ordained and prescribed that to perform one’s caste karma is one’s dharma. People just believed it and confirmed to the caste code. This indeed is too simplistic an answer to be palatable. The question remains, how could such a precept be accepted by people in the first place? India’s mythologized history does not throw much light on this phase beyond a point that there has been a philosophical stream at loggerhead with the ruling creed of Brahmanism which is credited with the construction and operation of the caste system. But we do not find much evidence of popular resentment or resistance to this system. Forget past, even today, there is hardly any resistance to castes as a system, despite the rise of a plethora of anti-caste movements during the last century. Everybody seems to love her caste; lower the one, more she does. Paradoxically, the erstwhile anti-caste movements have transformed themselves into pro-caste movements while traversing to the twenty-first century. The castes as a result are seen persisting in their increasingly pernicious form sapping the life energy of millions of Indians. These mounting paradoxes and basic unanswered questions lead us to peep into the realm of psychology, which is at the root of such a mass mind set. Surprisingly, there is hardly any attempt to deconstruct caste in the realm of psychology.


The Unique Structure

The source of the longevity of the caste system in India is in its unique structure. This structure within a four varna framework has yielded numerous castes, seemingly based on secular criteria of functional roles they performed in the society but hung in fluid hierarchy with others with quasi religious prescriptions. Obviously, the initial varna stratified structure of the society might have been innocuously utilitarian, as any organization wont to be. But as the Brahmans as a class of priests and almanac readers, who performed extremely important role in ancient agricultural society, used their position as the custodian of predictive knowledge and as the gate keeper to divine grace, in order to consolidate their superior position. However, it has not been without compromise. The weapon wielding class had to be allied with it to safeguard the structure of the society. They were assigned the role of rulers, who however would rule as per the dictums of the Brahmans. Once this coalition was consolidated, the balance class of producers could be relegated to inferior positions with the support of religious code backed by the weapon wielding Kshatriyas. India is not a unique society for such stratification with hierarchical notion to have come into being. This appears to be a common feature in most ancient societies. What became unique with India is its evolution into the caste system. This was basically enabled by the rich natural endowment of the subcontinent. When the tribal people began settling for agriculture, they did not have to undergo any structural change like elsewhere. India with its vast plain fertile land, water sources, plenty of sunshine, and congenial climate offered every family unit to subsist on a small piece of land along with the subsistence of subsidiary roles of artisans linked with agriculture. Elsewhere, for instance in Europe, because of a narrow window of sunshine, huge amount of labour was required to do the same job and hence economics of scale warranted large tracts of land and therefore a landlord, the produce from which then could be apportioned among various classes. In order to bring in certainty of availability of this labour, they had to devise a system of slavery. There was no need of such a system in India. The certainty aspects of the production sphere however necessitated hereditary castes, which were formed out of various tribes, rudimentarily skilled in performing certain functions in the tribal society.


The religious coding ensured the castes adhered to their own vocations as their dharma. This order lent security to all and was not dissented. In any case, within the initial caste formation would not have been oppressive to any caste because they only spelt their vocational association. The roles of the non-producers, viz., Kshatriya and Brahmans were considered important as their protectors and weather forecasters as well as propitiators of gods and spirits respectively, very important in agricultural societies. New castes were born with technological changes and with new people settling in. People leaving their locale also could claim different castes by emulating different calling. The same had happened to the outsiders who came and settled here. In order to safeguard the caste order, the relationship between castes was codified in terms of rights and obligations. The classes of producers (castes within shudra and vaisya bands) and non-producers were rigidly segregated by the code of conduct. The most intriguing part of the caste system was untouchability. There is no conclusive theory that explains the origination of the fifth varna, which was completely segregated sans rights and obligations. The plausible explanation can only be in broad terms, that for some reason these people came in antagonistic contradiction with the custodians of the caste system and therefore were relegated to the subhuman level. They were completely denuded and disarmed by their assigned status. Caste system reflected a continuum but with a definitive kink at this segregation between the touchables and untouchables.


The characteristic of the structure is that each caste was comforted by the notion that some other was lower than it. It was always engaged in maintaining its own superiority vis-à-vis the one it perceived inferior, leaving the entire macro structure unchallenged. Castes within a varna band were a loose hierarchy, each caste claiming higher status than other. This was the only way it could provide itself psychological solace because it could not claim the trans-varna superiority in normal terms. There are stray examples of certain castes having managed to transcend their varna status but such cases were far and between. A caste moved out of its locale could take up a vocation that is associated with superior varna or a vocation which is new vocation important enough to bring higher status to the caste adopting it. But generally it remained an exception. Within the varna band however the castes were constantly engaged in contention for superiority with castes in their proximity. Obsessed with the hierarchical superiority, castes in course imbibed the psychological trait of hierarchy seeking. It made castes antithetical to the notion of equality and fraternity. The same caste split into subcastes would have contention among its own subcastes. Being part of the caste system, the outcastes also developed castes within them in emulation with the caste society. All these castes could logically make a common cause and rise against others who were their oppressors but instead, they would contend with each other to claim superiority leaving the system of their oppression unscathed.


There were two psychological processes at work in sustaining the caste system. The first is the religious doctrine of karma and dharma, which impelled people to adhere to their assigned caste and earn merit points to get better rebirth. They were scared to break the code lest they should incur divine wrath.  This acted as primary fortification for the caste system. But the better fortification it had was in structural terms, which provided enough flexibility and still maintained its integrity. It was the self-organizing and self-regulating characteristic of this structure that sustained it through many political upheavals and onslaughts of alien cultures. The tribal ethos sought identities which were imbued with hierarchical notion within the rigid varna hierarchy.  The numerousness of castes made this hierarchy amorphous and fluid, leaving scope for any caste to claim superior status. This structural feature kept every caste dissipating its energy in contention for superiority sparing its real oppressors to carry on with its business unhindered. This feature prevented the victims of castes from coming together and provided best fortification for the caste system. The structure induced myopia still serves the best insurance against any possible threat to the caste system. As we can see, even after the non-brahman and anti-caste struggles during the last century under the stalwarts like Jotiba Phule and Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, the Dalit castes also could not overcome this myopia. Paradoxically the caste identity that enslaved Dalits so long is being flaunted by them as the markers of their movement. The sub-caste identities have resurged in recent years provides starker testimony.


Phase of Caste Struggle

It is said that Brahmanism, the source ideology of castes faced persistent resistance from shramans, the wandering monks of ascetic traditions from the middle of the 1st millennium BCE. They were individual, experiential and free-form traditions, independent of society and were opposed to vedic Brahamans who stressed mastery of texts and performing rituals. The shramans were however not unified in their ideologies, which ranged from metaphysical to materialist. The shramana tradition gave rise to Jainism and Buddhism, the two ideological streams that received support from the rulers and lasted in their institutionalized forms as religions for well over a millennium. Beside them, several śhramaa movements are known to have existed in India, even before the 6th century BCE, influencing both the astika (theist) and the aastika (atheist) traditions of Indian philosophy. Much of these traditions were absorbed in the Upanishads, the heterogenous nature of which shows infusions of both social and philosophical elements, pointing to evolution of new doctrines from non-brahmanical sources, and some nāstika schools of Hinduism such as Cārvāka and Ājīvikas. The period of origin of castes and the institutionalization of Buddhsim and Jainism approximately coincides and so does the period of their rise. Castes appear to have grown when Buddhism also had its sway over most of the subcontinent.


While it is true that the shraman ideologies in general and Buddhism in particular were against caste system, they did not necessarily oppose this social evil. Buddhism’s social vision was through individual enlightenment. The sangha was the only society, dealt with in Buddhism. But sangha was not the society of ordinary lay persons. Even Buddhism differentiated the lay upasaka and Buddha Bhikshu. As Buddha explicitly said that as all rivers meeting into ocean lose their identities, the people coming from all caste, creeds or social backgrounds would lose their identities and become just a bhikku, a member of the Buddhist sangha. The broad historical picture is a testimony to the fact that the rise and growth of the caste system has been parallel with the rise and growth of Buddhism. It shows that Buddhism had very little influence on the social structure and processes. The castes originated as a social organization necessitated by the stable agrarian economy within the framework of the varna system, with active mediation of Brahmans and stabilized as the life-world of people. This life world was barely disturbed by Buddhism. While people individually adored and observed Buddhism, they socially lived in this life world, may be with much less manifest discriminatory content.


The mistake one commits is to equate summation of individuals to their collective called social. People could be individually very pious but the society they constitute could be equally unjust and brute. The individual psychology and social psychology are two different things. Individual typically suffers from insecurity and seeks shelter of society which does not suffer vulnerabilities of its constituents and hence develops entirely different world view and psychology. The individuals are subject to its norms even if they cross their own. I have seen in my own childhood, the caste Hindus having very friendly relationship with Dalit families as though they were blood relatives. But when a caste clash took place between Dalits and caste Hindus on account of drawing water from latter’s well, they became a part of the caste Hindus. The Hindus who unleash indescribable atrocities on Dalits and Muslims are not necessarily bad human beings individually but they turn beastly as part of the collective. Buddhism dealt with individual and foresaw their summation would work for “bahujan hitay, bahujan sukhay”. History as well as science tells us that it does not happen that way. Reverse may rather be more true. An individual is shaped up by her circumstances largely constituted by the social. If the latter is corrected in terms of its structure, processes and values, the individual will be automatically shaped, excepting for minor deviations attributable to the factors of his self, i.e., her genetic build up.


Caste struggles therefore did not happen through most of history because the social circumstances remained largely undisturbed. The first disturbance it faced was with the advent of Islamic civilization (not religion) that entered the subcontinent along with Muslim rule. The advanced feudalism of central Asia gave fillip to artisans for building activity, urban formations and opened up opportunities for the lower castes to escape their caste cages. There was an exodus of people to Islam, as Vivekanand observed. But even the Muslim rulers did not disturb the social fabric of the Hindu society beyond what was necessary for them. As such, the caste ideology continued to have its hegemonic sway over the society including the new born Islamic society in India. In medieval times the relgio-socio-political turmoil gave rise to movements like Bhakti movement, anchored by Bhaktas all over the country, many coming from the lower castes, who preached variously but with a unique thrust on divine equality and devotion to one god. They were ideologically oriented to oppose castes but their main thrust being on attaining divine bliss, the life-world of castes remained unshaken even by them. A significant product of the Bhakti movement with distinct influence of Islam was a young religion called Sikhism, professing anti-caste doctrine but only in the realm of ideology. Many lower caste people were attracted to it and became Sikhs. But again the life-world of people bypassed it and rather rendered it indistinguishable from the caste ridden Hindu society.


With the advent of British colonial regime, this life world of people was jolted for the first time, not because of any ideological dose but the changes wrought in the material conditions in myriad ways. It opened up many new avenues for the lower castes for their economic betterment and also the doors of education. It also brought in institutions-based western model of governance and justice delivery system assuring people of the equality before law. While on the one hand the colonial rule entailed these positive developments, on the other it had rigidified castes and promoted caste identities through introduction of caste census and pushing castes into administration. What was the innocuous life-world of people suddenly looked like a multiply fractured civilization with numerous castes and communities. The castes existed in this life-world but without precise boundaries and specific hierarchical positions. Castes were till then a localized matter, but the administrative action of the colonial state made them pan Indian phenomenon and induced pan Indian caste consciousness in people. It brought the lower castes realization of the wrong that they suffered, gave them a sense of strength and psychological boost to fight for its eradication. The people who came to the urban setting to avail of the opportunities the colonial regime brought them became conscious of the barriers caste system put in their progress. They thus articulated their struggle against the upper castes to remove these barriers making strategic use of the colonial power. By pitching their claims for political share in the communal rift of Muslims and Hindus, they won constitutional space for themselves making special provisions for their protection and for reservations in politics, educational institutions and the public sector jobs.


Contemporary Castes

The caste system as depicted above represented two distinct segments of a continuum, viz., the touchable and the untouchable. The former comprised the non-producing castes as well as producing castes, the transactions between them differentially ordained by their assigned position in the continuum. The latter were stigmatized as untouchables, unapproachable and unseeables. While at the time of their origination these fourfold segmentation of society served the purpose of social organization, through history many of the castes and even their entire segments collapsed so much so that this structure appeared as mere theoretical as scarcely one found it existing in its classical form anywhere. Castes within this segment maintained their identity by observing endogamy and preserving their respective cultural mores. The other meant to provide menial services to this segment was held intact. With the advent of capitalism during colonial times the upper dwija castes, who adopted capitalism initially using their social capital based on caste ties were slowly impelled to build relationship across castes transcending caste barriers as warranted by their supply chain. It appears that the ritual aspects of castes between them have largely vanished; any surviving differentiation could be taken as cultural inertia. After the transfer of power in 1947 to the Congress, which mostly represented the interests of the incipient bourgeois class, systematically transformed the hitherto untouched rural economy by implementing calibrated land reforms and introducing Green Revolution, in the garb of a solution to the problem of India’s hunger. These processes, carried out in variance over the country, pushed the upper caste landlords out of villages, created a class of rich farmers out of the farming shudra castes to take their place, handed down the baton of Brahmanism to them and made the Dalits rural proletariat utterly relying on the new breed of rich farmers. As per the design, the rich farmers in turn constituted important node in the political network of the major political parties, developed capitalist interests by investing surplus from agriculture into small and medium industries /businesses in neighouring towns, slowly developed their independent political constituency using the caste ties leading to the rise of regional parties and thereby creating a new paradigm of coalition politics. The huge economic and political power amassed by these castes tied them to the dwija caste band, collapsing ritual differentiation between them. What remained of the caste system is the primordial segmentation of castes and non-castes or Dalits and non-Dalits.


The onslaught of capitalist development accelerated in post-1947 period would have weakened castes as evidenced by its processes during its inception phase.  But the ruling classes would not let go off their golden goose easily. The Constitution while outlawing untouchability however did not outlaw castes, which was its source. The ex-Untouchables, collected in a separate schedule in 1936 in the wake of 1937-elections were to be given special constitutional support. It was just the extension of the prevailing policy in favour of them as an exceptional social group but the constitutional phrase used for its justification (educational and social backwardness) did away with this exceptional nature and made it open-ended providing for the future manipulation of caste dynamics. The tactical and pragmatic device of constitutional reservations overwhelmed the strategic and radical objective of annihilation of castes. Reservations were moreover being the most relevant for the incipient middle class of Dalits, who as opinion leaders as well as political leaders of Dalits, diverted the entire Dalit movement to revolve around reservations. Being largely a class of illiterate poor, reservations could benefit only a small fraction of urban Dalit. However, it totally undermined the issues of majority Dalits, such as land redistribution, employment, health and caste atrocities. Aspirationally, the majority of Dalits also valued reservations, with a hope that they would benefit their sons and daughters in attaining better status in urban setting than rotting in caste-ridden villages. The role model of Ambedkar, who with higher education reached position of power, inspired them to make their sons and daughters ‘Ambedkar’. But it did not mean that the other issues had disappeared.


While the support base of castes in religion had waned, the castes received new lease of life through modern institutions of governance. Castes being now the constitutional category became part of the entire governance superstructure. The elections, the basic institution actualizing representative governance made thorough use of caste. By now it is established that all parties have used castes to select constituencies, candidates, mode of canvassing and poling agents. The manipulation of castes has been the proven method for all parties to build their constituencies and reservations have proved a potent tool for the task. Using the constitutional direction that the state shall endeavour for the advancement of ‘classes’ who were ‘educationally and socially’ backward as an alibi, reservations were extended to the other backward castes. It opened up the caste cauldron: any caste could claim to be so backward and demand reservations. All political parties thereafter used it to the hilt by engineering such demands for wooing caste groups towards them. There is no caste today which is not demanding such reservation. What is interesting is that when the space for public sector employment has been eroding fast on account of neo-liberal policies of the government since 1990s (from 1997 the total number of jobs in public sphere have been consistently declining), the reservation demands are reaching their crescendo. Another interesting fact is that hardly any of these castes demands to be included in the scheduled castes, which are stigmatized as the ex-untouchables; either they want them to be the scheduled tribes or the backward caste. While the reservations have proliferated to much larger population, the stigma has stayed only with the scheduled castes.


It is pity that Dalits have taken for granted that reservations have just been their benefit without any cost. Other costs apart, there has been a huge psychological costs that they pay for reservation. If one believes in intrinsic equality of human beings, every child born should be reckoned with equal capacity barring variants due to its genetic making. But a Dalit child gets stigmatized right in the tender age when it enters school as belonging to the scheduled caste. The stigmatizing looks and voices around it  tells it that it is of inferior stock. Overtly a Dalit child may not look affected but the injury gets deep drawn in its tender psyche. A Dalit child may still shine but it carries the stigma in its subconscious self. Later, as the child grows up, it shows up in her performance. Her socialization provides her with justification that reservation is her constitutional right because her people were left backward by the caste society and she gets increasingly alienated from the larger society and seeks shelter in her caste cocoon. All her justifications induce in her persecution complex, which as a self-fulfilling prophesy keeps manifesting in her degrading performance. A vicious cycle sets in eroding her self confidence. Why should only a handful of Dalit students qualify in general merit list even after five decades of reservations and despite being second or third generation Dalits? The students in question mostly do not lack in any physical amenities to compete with others but only few compete. Reservations have pushed Dalits in numbers to all kinds of positions and to all kinds of places. But it is a quantitative accomplishment; there is scanty evidence that it has produced high caliber Dalit who conducts herself confidently. Only the latter could stand her stead and not do the bidding to the powers that be in process brokering away the interests of Dalit masses. The numbers that reservations produced have been either socially inert or actively doing bidding to the ruling classes for their petty gains. This phenomenon cannot be dissociated from reservations. It indeed represents a cost Dalits paid and are still paying. Their political emasculation by reservation was sensed by none other than Babasaheb Ambedkar during his own life time.


It may be interesting to see in this context what happened to the people who were in similar position as Dalits but who escaped being included in the schedule in 1936. While preparing the schedule, the colonial surveyors are said to have faced a serious problem with their criterion in the South and the East. Whereas the sole criterion of untouchability which well served the purpose of identification of people into the schedule in the rest of the country, it failed in these two regions.  With it, more than 70% southerners came into the schedule and none did from the East. In order to resolve this dilemma and to normalize the schedule percentage to 16-17, they applied additional criteria to exclude and include people in the South and East respectively. In this process some castes like Gounders, Nadars, Ezhavas, Thevars in down South got excluded from the schedule. Without bothering for intricate causal analysis, one can broadly note that the progress the scheduled castes have achieved over the last 60 years with the help of a plethora of constitutional provisions is not even equal to a fraction of the progress each of these excluded castes achieved. This explanation for this weird fact can only be given in terms of psychological damage the scheduled castes suffer because of the persistent stigma reinforced by their constitutional status with an alibi to benefit them. This benefit may have reached a small number but its cost is being paid by all Dalits in terms of their stigmatized self. To others in a comparable economic situation, they appear being undeservedly favoured by the constitution. They therefore develop hatred and grudge against them which with a small spark of provocation flares up into a ghastly atrocity. The increasing numbers of caste atrocities during the years of globalization which has unleashed multidimensional crisis on poor, stands testimony to this fact.


It is time Dalits had introspected the psychic costs of persisting castes in exchange of giving up the agenda of annihilation of castes and rethought the intriguing policy gamut around them that has been primarily serving the purpose of the ruling classes.


Dr. Anand Teltumbde is a writer, political analyst and civil rights activist with CPDR, Mumbai. E-mail:

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