Caste System

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A total rejection of the caste system is a typical feature of the Sikh tradition. Sikhism in fact originated as a voice of protest against the many prevalent ills of contemporary Indian society. The caste system was the most damaging and debilitating of them. It completely negated the humanitarian and egalitarian principles, fundamental to the Sikh creed. Guru Nanak, founder of Sikhism, and his nine spiritual successors strongly attacked the system. The advent of Sikhism in the midst of caste rigidities and superstitions was truly a radical beginning.

Caste, lexically defined as “a hereditary social group comprising persons of the same ethnic stock, social rank, occupation and more or less distinctive mores” is a characteristic common to all societies the world over, and hardly shows anything more than social differentiations that have developed in varying degrees of discrimination or exclusiveness. In the Punjab, for instance, caste (jat or zat) signifies only an ethnic group gotra (family, line, sept or class) just like the MacDonalds, Montagues, Montmorencies, etc, in England, It is only when it develops into a system with its rigid stratification and permanent division of social status based on birth alone, as it did in India, that caste becomes a curse.

A system is qualitatively different from a casual or unintentional assortment of factors or forces. It is what distinguishes philosophy, religion or science from an unintegrated mass of doctrines and tenets. It is what distinguishes an army from a rabble, as it involves organization, arrangement, method and considered principles of procedure. Above all, a system presumes a direction, a plan, a purpose, an objective towards the fulfilment of which the functioning of the different parts of the system is oriented, coordinated and harmonized. Moreover, a system has its own cumulative power, thrust, momentum not easy to stem, and grip, hold and shackle almost impossible to unfetter. The caste system that developed in India over the millennia possessed all these ingredients and characteristics. And more, it was given the garb of religion, the Varnasrma Dharma, signifying divine origin or sanction for it.

That social distinctions existed, as in other primitive societies, in pre-Aryan India is evidenced by the ruins of the Indus Valley civilization, but whether these were characterized by permanent divisions based on birth we do not know. The caste system in the Hindu society as generally understood definitely developed after the advent of the Aryans. Whether a four-fold division into occupational groups was historical necessity for the invaders is irrelevant here. The fact is that among the sacerdotal groups, the Brahmans, came to possess real power in matters social as well as religious and became, besides being the sole interpreters of religious texts, exclusive authors and arbiters of the social code. They divided society into castes and sub-castes meticulously arranged in a hierarchical social pyramid in which the social grade of each group and individual was fixed permanently by birth.

Each layer in the pyramid was superior in caste status (virtually in social status) to all the layers below it, and lower in caste status to all the others above it, irrespective of their political power and economic position. Even the Brahmans at the top of the pyramid and the untouchables at its bottom were graded among their own ranks. The privileges, disabilities, obligations, and duties, i.e. practically all aspects of social behaviour, of each sub-caste by fixed rules and codes were formulated by Brahmans particularly by Manu who claimed direct descent from Brahma, the creator of universe. These sub-castes were, by and large, endogamous groups, and they worked sedulously to isolate themselves from each other in other social matters too. Mutual exclusiveness was caused predominantly not by social, but by ritualistic factors. Such factors as personal endowments, wealth, political power, colour and racial prejudices, and even taboos, which determined the hierarchical set-ups in other societies, were not the final determinants in the Indian caste system, though these did contribute to its development. Although individuals, groups and sub-castes were in the grip of a continuously downward process, there was practically no upward social mobility.

Caste system of the Varnasrama had its own intricacies. Its constituents were interdependent and interlocked, both horizontally and vertically, in a self-perpetuating social fabric. Within the sub-caste, each constituent of the system (hereditary functionalism, social and ritualistic taboos, pollution, religion, etc.) tied its own caste-knot around the individual.

The fundamental assumption of the caste ideology is that men are not equal, but are forever unequal. Permanent human inequality is the officially declared Brahmanical ideology, and this forms the basis of the Hindu social order. God Himself is the author of this inequality. The Veda was declared by Manu to be the direct revelation of God, and it is a Rig Vedic hymn, Purusa Sukta, which forms the source for the caste ideology. It says that God created Brahmans from His head, Ksatriyas from His arms, Vaisyas from His legs and Sudras from His feet. Even the Dharma Sastra of Manu is said to be the inspired word of the Vedas, almost of equal authority with them. Manu did not rest content with establishing the divine authority of the Vedas. His object thereby was to sanctify the caste system and the position of the Brahmans. He declared that the teaching of a Brahman is authoritative for ‘man’ because the Veda is the foundation for that (Manu, XI. 85).

The process of the creation of a sovereign, autonomous society, the Sikh Panth, had started in the day of Guru Nanak himself. He had begun his career as a teacher of men with the significant utterance, “There is no Hindu, no Mussalman,” and took clear-cut practical steps towards moulding a society of Sikhs (literally disciples) on independent ideological lines. He specifically condemned caste and caste ideology as perverse, and rejected the authority of the Vedas and supremacy of the Brahmans. On caste, he said:

Meaningless is caste and meaningless (caste) names,

The same shadow protects all beings

SGGS page 83

What can caste do?

Truthfulness is the criterion
SGGS page 142

Discern the light; do not enquire (one’s) caste;

There is no caste in the hereafter

SGGS page 349

Do not enquire about (one’s) caste and birth

Preach the True Sastra
Caste and honour are determined by deeds

SGGS page 1330

About high and low caste, he declared:

There are lower castes among the low castes,

And some are absolutely low:
Nanak seeketh their company,
What hath he to do with the high ones?

SGGS page 15

Reading of Vedas he described as a mundane function which Brahmans perform (GG, 791). Elsewhere he says,

Vedas talk about virtue and sin

Or about heaven and hell, nothing else;
But the soul know that
As one soweth, so one reapeth

SGGS page 1243

And he castigated Brahmans as “immersed in doubt, they never find the goal, although they call themselves teachers, savants and priests” (GG, 905); and “The Pandit cannot reach (the goal) simply by studying; involved in the duel of sin and virtue he only quenches Death’s hunger,” (GG, 1012). Other Gurus who succeeded Guru Nanak also spoke and preached in the same vein.

By contradicting Hinduism, Sikhism also delinked itself from that aspect of Hindu dharma which was, in day-to-day action, the main vehicle for providing religious sanction to the varnasrama dharma. The Gurus issued their own new version of dharma, which was, at least as far as caste was concerned, completely at variance with the Hindu mores. They made the Dharma perfect and universal by blending the four castes into one. Underlying the taboos on food and drink and the ostracization of the Sudra castes was the notion of pollution which was supposed to be incurred not only by partaking of food or drinks under certain conditions, but by the mere bodily contact with persons of certain low castes whose traditional occupation, whether actually followed or not, rendered them untouchable. This hymn by Guru Nanak speaks clearly:

If idea of impurity be admitted, there is impurity in everything

There are worms in cow-dung and in wood;
There is no grain of corn without life,
In the first place, there is life in water
By which everything is made green.
How can impurity be avoided?
It enters our very kitchens.
Impurity is not washed away thus, O Nanak;
It is washed by divine knowledge. . .
All impurity supposedly contagious
Consists in superstition. . .
Those who have, through the Guru, understood
Suffer no contamination

SGGS page 472)

Besides denying the authority of the Vedas and Sastras, the Guru took some practical steps to impart an egalitarian thrust to the nascent Sikh community. The twin institutions of sangat (company of the holy) and pangat (commensality), where no discrimination on the basis of caste, birth or social status was observed, went a long way in inculcating in the Sikhs the spirit of equality, brotherhood and humanitarianism. The creation of the Khalsa by Guru Gobind Singh was the acme of the Sikh movement. The Khalsa made a clear break with the caste society. Of the five original initiates, the first batch of entrants to the Khalsa Brotherhood, there were three from the so-called Sudra castes, and one Jat, a caste then on the borderline of Vaisyas and Sudras. For initiation into the Khalsa ranks, ritual (amrit or khande di pahul) was made obligatory (Guru Gobind Singh himself had to undergo), and during the ceremony the neophytes had to take five vows, viz. dharm nash, i.e. to sever connection with one’s previous religious belief, karam nash, i.e. to free oneself from former rites, rituals, customs, etc.; kul nash, i.e. severance of all ties with lineage and birth, the fundamental basis of caste society; shram nash, i.e. obliteration of stigmas attached to trade or occupation, which gave the convert a sense of self-respect and dignity of labour; and bharm nash, i.e. discarding superstition, taboos and notion of pollution. The later Sikh literature of the 18th century (the Rahitnamas, specifically of varied authorship and composed at different times carrying the different emphases) is agreed on the point that the Khalsa broke away categorically from the caste ideology and caste society. Testimony from contemporary non-Sikh sources substantiates this fact and historical evidence supports it. Guru Gobind Singh assigned the overall military command to a former Bairagi assisted by a council of five, selected irrespective of their former castes. Later, of the five divisions of Sikh guerrillas, one was captained by a convert from the so-called untouchable scavenger caste while another was headed by a former Ksatriya. Still later, when with further expansion of the Sikh army, the Dal Khalsa, it was divided into eleven misls, one was commanded by a low-caste warrior. Likewise, the overall command vested with one not born to the caste.

Sikhism mounted a frontal attack on citadel of caste and the individual pillars on which it was based. It must, however, be admitted that caste could not be totally uprooted, so strongly was it entrenched in the Indian soil, although it must be emphasized at the same time that the Sikhs never accepted either the religious validity of the caste system or that of its constituent pillars, its authors, interpreters and upholders, the Brahmans. The Sikhs have never owed allegiance to any scripture but Guru Granth Sahib, and it completely and categorically repudiates caste distinctions, ritualism and the Brahmanical ideology of pollution. Nor, since the time of the creation of the Khalsa, Brahmans have ever become a point of reference in the Sikh society in regard to social status or hierarchy, or for that matter for any purpose whatsoever. There has been no sacerdotal class or caste among the Sikhs, and stress on work ethics has amalgamated the other three castes into a single working class.

Guru Nanak says, “Do not ever bow at the feet of those who claim to be gurus and spiritual guides but go begging at others’ doors for subsistence. He has recognized the (true) path, O Nanak! Who earns his living through hard labour and gives something to help others” (GG, 1245). Whatever traces of caste are still discernible among the Sikhs constitute a lingering and fast-dying aberration and not the rule. It must be borne in mind that there is vital distinction between caste and caste system—caste in the ordinary lexical sense and the term caste in the Brahmanical sense. Jatts and Khatris among the Sikhs are in reality occupational classes and not castes as under the Varnasrama Dharma. They do not constitute an hierarchy, because hierarchy presupposes demarcation of higher and lower grades, which are absent from the Sikh society. Distinctions wherever noticed are not ethnic but economic. Jatt Sikhs traditionally forming the peasantry, by and large, continue to stick to land and constitute bulk of the rural segment of population, while Khatri and Arora Sikhs being traditionally engaged in trade and commerce are largely located in urban areas. There is however no bar to occupational mobility.

The only case where some vestiges of the caste system still remain is that of social discrimination against Mazhabi Sikhs (converts from scavenging caste) and Ramdasia Sikhs (formerly weavers). They too have never been treated as untouchable and there has been no commensal or social discrimination against those among them who have taken the pahul (the rites) of the Khalsa. Also, there has been no discrimination against anyone while attending religious gatherings or dining in Guru ka Langar, i.e. community kitchen. The existence of remaining prejudices may be explained by several factors. First, it is a part of the dynamics of ideological mass upsurges that their initial momentum has always tended to taper off as time goes by. After reaching ideological peaks, they have invariably reached a plateau and then slided somewhat back towards the levels they started from. It is due to the limitation of human nature and environmental hurdles that the transformation of human society in terms of its idealistic goals has been extremely slow, despite all religious and other progressive movements that have taken place. Revolutionary movements do leave behind more or less degrees of progress, but the critics usually tend to compare them with absolute standard instead of measuring the achievements in relative terms. It is always easier to point out shortcomings than to appreciate gains. The initial success of the revolutionary Sikh movement, it must be appreciated, attracted to its fold a large number of converts, mostly from the Hindu caste society.

During the tribulations and turmoils of the eighteenth century, the core elements of the Khalsa were deeply involved in a life-and death struggle against the tyranny of the oppressive Indian State and depredations of rapacious invaders, leaving the religious leadership in the hands of Udasis and Nirmala priestly classes whose religious and educational background was more akin to traditional Brahmanism than to orthodox Sikhism. The influence of these classes resulted in diluting the essentially anti-caste teaching of Sikh Gurus so much so that the nineteenth-century Nirankari and Namdhari movements professing to re-establish the purity of Sikh mores ended in gurudom and sectarian exclusiveness.

Intra-caste endogamy is practised only by some Khatri and Arora caste groups. In most cases, and invariably in the case of Jatt Sikhs, marriage is exogamous in relation to sub-caste, though endogamous in relation to class. In India, marriages are not based on pre-marital love, as in the West, and divorce is most difficult to obtain, if not practically impossible, because it carries with it social stigma. Joint family system has been and is still, commonly, the universal mode of life. A girl after marriage has to undergo a tremendous change in family relationships as well as in social environment, and has to make far reaching adjustments in her own behaviour and way of life. Such adjustments become easy if the change from parental home to the in-laws’ is minimal, that is if the life-style of the two families is identical or similar. This is easily achieved if the marriage is arranged within the same occupational class which is what caste means among the Sikhs. An alternative custom of marrying within the family, introduced in India by the Semitic tradition, has not been acceptable to Indian culture, which considers marriage between cousins as incestuous. Hence the vogue of treating marriage within zat (caste or class) as endogamous, but in relation to gotra (sub-caste, sept or clan) as exogamous.

See also


1. Banerjee, A. C., Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh. Patiala, 1978
2. Barth, A., Religions of India. Delhi, 1963
3. Blunt, E. H. H., The Caste Systems of Northern India
4. Crooke, W., The North-Western Provinces of India: Their History, Ethnology and Administration, 1994
5. Daljeet Singh, Sikhism. Chandigarh, 1979
6. Ghurye, G .S., Caste and Race in India. 1986
7. Hutton, J. H., Caste in India. 1980
8. Ibbetson, Sir Denzil, Punjab Castes. Patiala, 1970
9. Ketkar, S. V., History of Caste System in India. 1979
10. Marenco, E. K., The Transformation of Sikh Society. Portland, Oregon, 1974
11. Weber, Max, The Religions of India, 1960
12. Narang, G. C., Transformation of Sikhism. Delhi, 1956
13. Prinsep, H. T., Origin of the Sikh Power in the Punjab and Political Life of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Calcutta, 1834
14. Jagjit Singh, The Sikh Revolution. Delhi, 1981
15. ____., Sikh Dharam ate Jat Pat
16. Major Gurmukh Singh, “Professor McLeod on Sikh and Sikhism” in Dharam Singh (ed.) Sikhism and Socialism. Delhi, 1994

Above adapted from article By Jagjit Singh Chandigarh of Global Sikh Studies