MAHATMA GANDHI AND THE ENIGMA OF CASTE

By Dr. Kumar Rajappan (California, USA)

Corona Curve / Dr.P.K.Sabu

About Dr. Kumar Rajappan (Vasanth)

Dr.P.K.Sabu / Narayana Gurukula

Dr. Kumar Rajappan (Vasanth) is a Biotechnology scientist in the US. He has earned his PhD in Drug Discovery from the University of Maryland near Washington DC. He is a lifelong associate of Narayana Gurukula, a Guru Disciple organisation founded by Nataraja Guru, the principal exponent of the Guru's wisdom. He had the fortune to sit at the feet of Guru Nitya Chaitanya Yati and Guru Muni Narayana Prasad, the current head of Narayana Gurukula.

Vasanth is a continuing student of the Guru Wisdom. He resides in San Diego, California with his wife and two children. Dr. Kumar Rajappan can be contacted through email-id: kumarwayanad@gmail.com

Sree Narayana Guru

FREEDOM GAINED. OPPORTUNITY MISSED.


It is about five years since Rohit Vemula, a University of Hyderabad PhD student committed suicide. He left behind a searing note talking about unfinished dreams and how he felt that "birth was my fatal accident." The one thing that was wrong with Rohit was the social stigma of born in a 'Dalit' family. A little while back on June 1, 2020 a high performing class X student in Kerala committed suicide because she did not have the means to attend online classes being conducted by the State Government. Her fault was her Dalit background and the economic disadvantage that she faced largely because of it. These and many similar incidents of unfortunate and avoidable suicides and homicides beg the question, 'where did we go wrong as a country?' Even when large-scale protests against racially motivated killing of African-Americans by white police officers are happening across America, we Indians turn a blind eye against the atrocities, injustice, rape, murder and the systematic and systemic discrimination committed against Dalits and others disadvantaged groups in India. We had a golden opportunity to wipe the slate clean and start afresh when India got independence from the British rule. The man who was largely responsible for that freedom, as well as for letting the slate be as it was, written with caste equations of all combinations and permutations with defined hierarchy and inequalities, was Mahatma Gandhi. He was a great soul indeed, but in that soul there remained a spec of inequity that was rooted in his incontrovertible belief in a caste system. As we continue to contemplate and analyze the life and teachings of this great man, Mahatma, of modern Indian history, we ought to re-evaluate our understanding and appreciation for him. Anyone who is observing the current world events, with a set of neutral and dispassionate eyes as it passes along in front of their eyes, can immediately see the rising tide of religious violence, racial bigotry, ethnic divisions, xenophobia, fascist tendencies, supremacist ideologies and a penchant for 'good old days,' when and where these evil tendencies reigned supreme. This is most obvious in the racial strife that is driving the current events in the United States. Here, what we are seeing is a white mindset that tells the Black Americans that 'your life is worth only the life of a slave and I can do whatever I want to do with that life, including terminating it with impunity.' In this context, it will be worthwhile to examine contemporary Indian realities and explore with the aid of the thesis presented in 'The Doctor and the Saint' by eminent writer Arundhati Roy, how Gandhian thoughts on caste, one of the most absurd and cruel forms of bigotry, have helped one way or the other in influencing social realities of the 21st century India. It is not fair to put blame on any particular Individual, let alone a great man like Gandhiji, for a systemic cancer like caste system, but the prominent people, the most respected among them being Gandhiji, strived to support it covertly while speaking against some aspects of it overtly. Arundhati Roy's penetrating analysis of Gandhiji's own speeches and writings on the caste conundrum, and her comparison of the approaches of both Gandhiji and Dr. Ambedkar on caste related issues gives us enough material to reassess our own views about Gandhiji vis-a-vis the caste system and its continuing necrotic effect on the Indian social body and spiritual soul. This essay is an attempt to bring out the contradiction in Gandhiji's thoughts on the caste system by highlighting his opinion on Narayana Guru who was the only saint in modern times successful in rooting out the caste consciousness from many a people's lives in Kerala by defining the 'Caste' in a new light and highlighting its attributes in scientific and logical sense. The Guru's approach was spiritual in content and social in action. He preached and practiced Vedanta. Unfortunately, Gandhiji failed to see and fully cease upon it, in spite of their meeting at the Guru's Ashram in Sivagiri, Kerala in 1925.

Caste is the most antiquated and outdated form of social engineering experiments that had gone terribly wrong centuries ago. Yet, it continues to possess the Indian subconscious like an evil spirit that refuses to be exorcised by any amount of scientific reasoning, philosophical arguments or socio-economic programs. One may justify its existence in terms of division of labor. But it has been primarily about division of labourers, as Dr. Ambedkar would put it. While one can find many texts and scriptures supporting it, none of the serious ones such as the Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads or Brahma Sutra, the canonical texts of Hinduism, on close reading and intelligent and rational interpretation, do not support neither the perverted interpretations that pits man against man and denigrate human dignity, nor the overt and criminal treatment of a large section of the society as a class of untouchables or Ati-sudras. Yet, the evil ramifications of this dastardly custom is all around us, as we have seen in some of the latest examples given in the beginning. Our so called intelligentsia, political leaders of all colors and persuasions, whether regional or national, and even the ones who espouse Dalit causes have completely ignored the denigrating effects caste discrimination continue to have on the Indian society. Even our business people, who one would expect to think that it is in their best interest to mobilize and elevate the people to a middle class population with increased purchasing power, and the so-called spiritual Gurus and Godmen are also reluctant to address this issue in an effective way. A simple analysis would show that while the economic burden this puts on a given individual or family is acute, its effect across the 1.3 billion population is huge. A population of 200-400 million people with purchasing power and therefore support the tax base, had to carry the economic burden of the rest of the population. In effect, India as a nation is far away from achieving social efficiency that John Dewey talked about more than a century ago. The importance of this social efficiency was aptly summed up by the great Malayalam poet Kumaran Asan, in his Duravastha, "Oh mother India, in thy womb lies many million stones, without seeing a file, that shines forth in brilliance and value, if rubbed and polished." Did we really bother to rub and polish the soiled hidden gems to achieve social efficiency? Is our development of enriching the rich and pauperizing the poor a sustainable model? It has been 72 years since independence from British rule. For millions of Indians, independence is a byword that reminds them of their plight. The man who made that independence possible, Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the nation, has become a polarizing figure for many of these people. Any reading of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar and an honest look into the 21st century Indian realities would amply prove this point.

Gandhiji was a man of ambiguity and contradiction in spite of his single-minded attention to win political freedom from the British rule. This ambiguity took its most recognizable and treacherous form when he interpreted and justified the caste system, albeit in terms of Chaturvarnya. The irony is that the caste system and its many practices are steeped in violence, yet the apostle of non-violence thought that it can be practiced without violence. For Gandhiji caste was an integral part of Hinduism and the social order it espoused. He was neither willing to disavow the ideological validity of it, nor willing to compromise on the practice of it. On the one hand he advocated for upholding the 'purity' principle of caste concept and on the other hand he denied the 'untouchability' aspect of it. On close scrutiny one can understand that these two are two sides of the same 'caste coin.' One of the bases for his arguments was that 'untouchables' eat meat and, hence, are polluted. By that argument Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Swami Vivekananda and any number of Bengali Brahmins should have been treated as 'untouchables.' But they were not. Gandhiji professed on many occasions that he wouldn't have any issues with inter-dining with Harijans (Gandhiji's word for Dalit people), but in practice he was very careful not to have polluted himself by taking food from them. In one instance when he was offered food by Harijans, during a visit to their colony, he accepted it and said he will have it later, once it is turned into goat's milk (Prashad Vijay, 2001, Untouchable Freedom: A Social History of a Dalit Community, p139, Oxford University Press, New Delhi). He advocated maintaining the purity of varnas (Varna and caste are interchangeable as caste identity is derived from Chaturvarna principle). The crux of any religious teachings is that we are all created by the same God and out of the same stuff, and therefore no difference and no discrimination between man/woman and man/woman is logically possible. Yet, as learned as he was, Gandhiji never got the spirit of it. Even if he understood it, oftentimes he had to bend this fundamental truth, this basic idea of equality for political expediency or for merely winning arguments.

Gandhiji was all for political freedom from the British. But he conveniently turned a blind eye to the social, cultural, economic, spiritual, and political freedom of the Ati-sudras. He was definitely not for expanding the freedom various castes enjoyed. He wanted to maintain the status quo where Brahmins ruled the spiritual and religious affairs, while baniyas (vaisya class) enjoyed economic freedom. Obviously, there was no mention of a Kshatriya caste as that would be against his non-violence principle. When Dr. Ambedkar demanded and won a separate electorate for 'untouchables' for twenty years whereby they can elect their own leaders from special constituencies as well as to cast their vote in general constituencies, Gandhiji opposed it and went into a 'fast-unto-death' campaign at Poona Jail. Ambedkar had to sign the Poona pact and relinquish the temporary political freedom that was given to the 'untouchables.' Thus the edge of the 'separate electorate' award was tactfully blunted by Gandhiji. When it came to social and spiritual freedom of the untouchables Gandhiji used similar tactics or resorted to spiritual rhetoric. For example, the rhetoric takes its most subhuman form in his essay "Ideal Bhangi," where he reserves the right for sanitizing the soul of Hindus to Brahmins, while it is Bhangi's (manual scavenger) duty to sanitize the body of the society by carrying human waste from the houses and streets of upper caste people. Of course, the Mahatma showers plenty of praise on the Bhangis. One would think that Gandhiji would want to see a Bhangi rising to the status of a Brahmin in this life. One would hope that at least Gandhiji would want to see the son or daughter of a Bhangi get educated and get out of the cycle of Bhangi begetting and raising another Bhangi. But alas! his vision of caste did not have any evolutionary notion associated with it. Rather it was static and was dictated by Karma of this life. For the unfortunate Bhangi, his Karma happened to be carrying human excrement that is not his/her own on his/her head. And he/she can hardly take any other viable route to escape from it, and he/she is condemned to beget another Bhangi. Thus, because of the recurring nature of such a life, in the next life also he/she is destined to be a Bhangi. Many of Gandhiji's ideas on caste system are rooted in the proscriptions in Manusmriti. One of the proscriptions forbid Sudra from amassing wealth, lest it annoys Brahmin. The Mahatma quite directly puts it thus, "Such an ideal Bhangi, while deriving his livelihood from his occupation, would approach it only as a sacred duty. In other words, he would not dream of amassing wealth out of it." Once a person or community is economically doomed, there is no question of them coming up in education or in any other social measures. This type of static notion of caste is what Gandhiji subscribed to, actively promoted, and campaigned for. Unfortunately, there are many manual scavengers in 21st century India.

One would wonder what could have been India's status, socially, educationally, culturally and economically, if Gandhiji met Dr. Ambedkar halfway on the caste conundrum. A rejection of caste ideology and all the divisions associated with it by Gandhiji could have worked wonders for Hinduism and India, simply because the man was so influential like the patriarch of a big household. One would argue that Gandhiji was against caste divisions and only stood for chaturvarna. When chaturvarnya is the that keeps on birthing castes and the myriad shades of it, then one would wonder is there any point in subscribing to such a system anymore. Any amount of reason and logic would not and could not have changed his mind on the chaturvarna system and therefore the caste system. It is worth noting that Gandhiji even tried to support his ideas on caste based on principles of biology and heredity, even though biology was rather primitive in the early half of 20th century. Now, in the new century of biology, all the studies point to the unity of mankind, and any overt differences in qualities, characters and characteristics are attributed to incidental changes in few genes. Yet, caste hegemony is such that certain castes try to maintain it by whatever means.

Mahatma Gandhi's belief and faith in the validity and incontrovertibility of caste system was so strong that when he met Narayana Guru at Sivagiri Ashram in Kerala, in 1925, he tried to convince the Guru that the difference in people is the basis for caste system. The Guru had already written two important works on caste called 'A Critique of Caste' (Jati Nirnayam) and 'Caste Defined' (Jati Lakshanam). It is in the 'Critique of Caste' the famous slogan, "Of one kind, one faith, one God is man: Of one womb, of one form, Difference herein none" that initiated and catalyzed the social reformation and spiritual renaissance in Kerala, appears. The Guru defines caste as a species that would be able to mate and reproduce its own kind in the second work. If Kerala enjoys an elevated position in the world communities in terms of education and social standards, it is because of the pro-active and productive intervention of a spiritual luminary like the Guru. So, when Gandhiji pointed to the mango tree in the courtyard and quipped about the differences in its leaves, the Guru replied that the juice of each leaf tastes the same, meaning the essence of humanity is the same. It appears that the Mahatma was not convinced, even though he was respectful of the Guru. In this regard, the following question and reply might help us sum up how much Gandhiji held on to the rigid caste (varnasrama) notion that served no one any good, not even a Brahmin, as the caste-based reservation policies later showed.


A correspondent writes to Mahatma Gandhi:

"In your recent Madras speech, you have re-stated your faith in the four varnas. But should the varnas be strictly hereditary? Some people think that you favor rigid adherence to the hereditary principle; others that you do not. From a perusal of your writings I am inclined to agree with the former. For instance, what else does your dictum, that the 'untouchables should be classed with Shudras' and that they should enjoy all the rights of non-Brahmins, indicate? Why this constant reiteration of the old arbitrary distinction between Brahmin and nonBrahmin as if the two belonged to biologically different species? If an untouchable can become a non-Brahmin, can he not also become a Brahmin in this very life? Again, if it is possible for an untouchable to become a Shudra, how is it impossible for a Shudra to become a Vaisya, for a Vaisya to become a Kshatriya or for a Kshatriya to become a Brahmin in this very life? Why do you hurl the Law of Karma in the face of those who believe it to be possible? Is there a better Brahmin than Sree Narayana Guru Swami, the Ezhava? I know no better Brahmin than Gandhiji, the Bania. I also know of hundreds of other 'non-Brahmins' who are better Brahmins (in the best sense of that term) than most birth-Brahmins. If you did not favour strict application of the principle of heredity, you would not seek to prohibit intermarriages between people of the same race professing the same religion and following the same customs as are several members of the three Dwija castes. Nor would you so strenuously oppose inter-dining between, say, vegetarian Brahmins and vegetarian non-Brahmins. Of course, heredity is a great law of life, but there are even greater laws controlling its mysterious processes. One of them is the law of variation in the phraseology of Evolutionary Biology. Heredity is the static and variation is the dynamic principle of the universe. The latter is the key to what we call 'Progress' for want of a better name. No social system can ignore the law of heredity with impunity; neither can a social system ignore the law of variation except at its peril. The history of the caste system in India affords enough proof of this. It proves above all that the worst form in which the law of heredity can be applied in any social organization is to create a hereditary clergy to be the sole custodians of its intellectual and spiritual affairs and trustees in perpetuity of its religion.......... It would be, indeed, strange if you of all men championed rigid adherence to it. As a great many people do not know what exactly you think of it all, I hope it will be possible for you to publish this letter with your reply in your esteemed journal (CWMG, Vol 26, pages 539-540)

Gandhiji replies:

"......... I have indeed stated that varna is based on birth. But I have also said that it is possible for a Shudra, for instance, to become a Vaisya. But in order to perform the duty of a Vaisya he does not need the label of a Vaisya. Swami Narayana Guru does not need to be called a Brahmin in order to enable him to be, what he is reported to be, a Sanskrit scholar. He who performs the duty of a Brahmin will easily become one in the next incarnation. But a translation from one varna to another in the present incarnation must result in a great deal of fraud. The natural consequence must be the obliteration [of] varna. I have seen no reason to justify its destruction........."

Here Gandhiji conveniently forgets about the fraud that the very Brahmins have done for centuries to retain their position in the caste hierarchy. In the name of a fraudulent system people have been kept out of knowledge, education, freedom of movement, progressively higher standards of living, and even livelihood; people have been taxed disproportionately, they have been punished brutally, even for minor transgressions such as wearing a decent piece of clothing or for serving ghee in a wedding (this happened to untouchables in a village in Rajasthan while Gandhiji was alive) and text books have been interpreted to suit upper caste interests. Without elaborating much, one can clearly see the duplicity in Gandhiji's arguments. At least a close reading of verse 13, Chapter 4 of Bhagavad Gita would have been sufficient to convince anyone that varna is not a static concept, rather it is a dynamic 'state of the mind' that has a bearing on the psychophysical system of man. One can see a Brahmin begging in the streets of Varanasi, scheming on the funeral Ghats on Ganges, and running fish and meat markets in various towns and cities across India. Similarly, one can see many Dalits rising to the challenges of any vocation. There is more than enough living proof that man's worth is not defined by his birth, but by his action and how he conducts himself in the society. Fortunately, many in modern India have shown that chaturvarnya or the caste hierarchy that came out of it do not have any bearing on them or their world view. But those are still few. Even one homicide, rape, or assault in the name of caste is too many and a serious blot on Sanatana Dharma. While giving all due respect to the Mahatma, it is time to unsubscribe his ideas on varna and caste and create a new and modern Hindu and India.

Author's Note: This essay is prompted by the reading of Ms. Arundhati Roy's 'The Doctor and the Saint' and from observations of current events in India and the movements like 'Black Lives Matter' in the US.

Sree Narayana Guru



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Sree Narayana Guru