The Racist Caste System: Aryanism, Caste and Power Relations in India



Most people, in India and globally, are surprised today to hear of the presence of a racial problem in India. While most are aware of the caste discriminations so widely and shamelessly practiced in the country, it is seen as a problem completely independent of racial problems such as that in the United States between blacks and whites or those of the Apartheid. I hope to show that the caste system in India was transformed into a racist ideology with the arrival of British in the country, thus exacerbating the social inequalities caused by it, not only amongst Hindus, but also Muslims and Christians in the nation. I will focus primarily on the Aryan Invasion Theory, which effectively split Hindus into two factions, and left out the non-Hindus altogether. This theory has helped build a supremacist mentality, which exists to date. I will link this to the functioning of the Hindu caste system in ancient India, during the Mughal period, and in contemporary times.

Hindu caste system before the British invasion

Caste was very important for the Hindus before the arrival of the British and other Europeans into India. Four main castes are outlined in the Vedas, one of the main Hindu holy texts – the Brahmins (priests), Ksatriyas (warriors), Vasiyas (peasants), and Shudras (serfs). Each had a different role in society and had different jobs (which were seen in a hierarchical manner). In ancient India, “provisions of both civil and criminal law were made harsher for the lower castes” (Bose 1981: 5). “The rate of interest on a loan was 24% for a Brahmin, 36% for a Ksatriya, 48% for a Vaishya and 60% for a Sudra” (Bose 1981: 5); reminiscent of modern times where someone with a bad credit history has to pay higher interest rates. Capital punishment was never used on Brahmins either. During the Mughal period, Hindus were not treated the same as Muslims: “non-Muslim population suffered from numerous disadvantages… Muslims were the privileged order” (Bose 1981: 6). Nevertheless, “Hindus like Brahmins and the Ksatriyas could (still) rise to high positions in the court” (Kakar 2000: 884).

The Arrival of the British and the Aryan Invasion Theory

Once the British arrived, they stressed their own superiority. The British historian, Thomas Babington Macaulay stated that “a single shelf of good European library is worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia” (Bose 1981: 9). Indian culture was seen as inferior from the onset and the British “viewed the Indians with hatred, contempt, dislike and distrust” (Bose 1981: xv). Shortly after British colonization, the Aryan Invasion Theory gained its fair share of followers. Reginald Horsman highlights the theory: “philological studies had shown that the Caucasians had two separate origins… (one of them was) the “Indo-Germanic” or “Arian” race (that) had originated in the Hindu Kush of central Asia, had spread outward into India and Persia” (Horsman 1981: 295). Once in India, the Aryan race “had deteriorated… by mixing with dark skinned aborigines” (Horsman 1981: 37). The Aryan myth was imperative to build any sort of civilization. This is similar to the European disbelief over the Haitian revolution. The Haitian revolution disproved the European racist myth that only white men could make successful revolution. The Europeans were unprepared for the fact that the Haitian revolution also abolished slavery that was at the heart of capitalist modernity in the new international order. Armed with this theory, and the fervour of that time in Europe of making race a scientific fact, British historians and officials worked hard to categorize Indians racially: they “laboured to magnify the differences between some twenty-eight racial groups in India” (Bose 1981: xvii). The British had stereotyped Indians from various regions in the country: “the spirited Hindstani, the martial Sikh, the ambitious Marathi, the proud Rajput, the hardy Gurkha, the calculating Bengali, the busy Telugu, the active Tamil, the patient Pariah” (Bose 1981: xvii). These definitions were outlined by Monier Williams, a Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford in the late 1800’s. It was very difficult for the Victorians to “view the people of India as ‘an undifferentiated mass’” (Bose 1981: xvii). Indeed, some of the stereotypes outlined by Monier exist even today.

While the British talked about freeing slaves, being liberal, and freedom, their “velvet cloak of liberalism fell off whenever they sensed a threat to their position of superiority and exclusive rights and privileges” (Bose 1981: 11). Out of this insecurity, they ensured the population remained divided. The people of India, by which I am only referring to the Hindus, based on the Aryan Invasion Theory, were divided “between the Brahmin and the ‘Untouchable’, between North and South” (Bose 1981: xvi). Boivin uses archaeological evidence to suggest that “caste is in fact a vestige of colonialism, and hence in anything like its present form, a recent creation” (Boivin 2005: 226). Sujata Paul argues that the West was determined to define the world in two opposing terms – themselves, and the “others”: “East against the West, the Orient vs. the Occident, the colonized against the imperialist, the traditional against the modern, the particular against the universal” (Paul 2006: 382). The British mixed linguistic classification with racial classification “to produce a theory of the Indian civilization formed by the invasion of fair-skinned, civilized, Sanskrit-speaking Aryans, who conquered and partially absorbed the dark-skinned savage aborigines” (Paul 2006: 383). This, according to Paul, was critical in producing the basic division of groups in India into Aryan and non-Aryan races, now termed ‘castes’ and ‘tribes’. While caste was referred to in a Hindu context, “‘tribes’ were defined in contrast to castes, who practised primitive technology, lived in interior jungles and were animistic in religious practices” (Paul 2006: 384).

The British even created some castes in India, and made people believe that it was part of their own religion: “Three units were created in India: villages, estates and properties with positions such as zamindars, patels, chaudhuris, talukdars, chiefs, rajas, nawabs and princes” (Paul 2006: 385). These are all land owners, prosperous and part of the higher strata of Indians. It was made to look that villages consisted of communities of castes that lived together in harmony: “once the British had defined to their own satisfaction what they constructed as Indian rules and customs, then the Indians had to conform to these constructions” (Paul 2006: 385). Brahmins, already at the top of the caste system pre-British invasion, were given an enhanced status, according to Paul; proclaimed as being the “‘indigenous intellectual’” (Paul 2006: 386). Similar to the process of whitening or blanqueamiento in Latin America, the whites were established by the British as the ones to look up to and to copy their every move to be successful. The communities the British preferred, the Brahmins, the nobles, the Parsis and so on were all well educated (in Western ways) and learned to speak English. Indeed, “as university structures were established… Indian students were introduced to the study of their own society as traditional… Courses argued that the traditional structures were embodied in the institutions of religion, caste, kinship and family and were changing as these encountered the processes of industrialization and urbanization” (Paul 2006: 388).

Crawfurd, a Scottish governor argued that the Aryan race was diverse: “Some are black… some brown… and some very fair… Some are of weakly frame, as the numerous people who speak the language of Bengal; while others are, in comparison, robust, like the people of Europe… Some… have advanced from the savage state to the highest civilization; whilst others, like all the Hindus… continue afterwards nearly stationary, making less advance in one thousand years time than the people of Europe in one hundred” (Crawfurd 1861: 270). He pronounces proudly that the British have conquered not only the Hindus, but also the descendents of those who had subdued them in the past. He argues that this was possible because their race was not pure and mixed. Finally, in contradiction to his previous statements, he reaches the conclusion that he does not believe in the Aryan Invasion Theory, not because it is highly flawed (as I will outline further on), but because he and his ego refused to compare “the people that produced Homer and Shakespeare… (to those) that have produced nothing better than the authors of the Mahabharata and Ramayana… (to those) who never made a foreign conquest of any kind” (Crawfurd 1861: 286). Like most of the British, as mentioned before, he saw no value to the texts produced by Indians over time, and saw them as a powerless state; superiority to him, was about oppression and dominance.

Nevertheless, many British people (and Europeans and Indians for that matter) believed in the Aryan Invasion Theory. The identifying feature of the “Aryans” was the language Sanskrit. J.F. Staal argues that the process of “Sanskritization” by which “a lower caste attempts to raise its status and to rise to a higher position in the caste hierarchy” became popular amongst lower castes, in order to move up the social strata. Sanskritization, according to Staal, could take place through the adoption of vegetarianism, teetotalism, worship of “Sanskritic deities,” or by engaging the service of Brahmins for ritual purposes” (Staal 1963: 263). Once again, this is similar to Latin America, where whiteness was seen as the way to be more successful, so the only way to make progress and move forward would be to become whiter: “Blanqueamiento, the process of whitening… reinscribes and extends euro-mimesis (replication)… in novel form” (Goldberg 2009: 219). Staal also adds that the term Sanskritization could be called Brahminization, since “the idea seems to be that both have identical denotations: non-Brahminical castes adopt Brahminical institutions and values, e.g., ‘virginity in brides, chastity in wives, and continence in widows,’ as well as emphasis on the patrilineage and ancestor cult” (Staal 1963: 263). The synonyms for Sanskrit included “’non-Sanskritic,’ ‘non-Aryan,’ ‘Dravidian,’ or ‘regional’” (Staal 1963: 267). These were all derogatory.

Problems with the Aryan Invasion Theory

There are plenty of problems with the theory of Aryan Invasion. Firstly, darker skin was associated with lower-classes and vice versa. The climatic differences in the north and south, and the proximity of the equator to southern India seemed to be unimportant factors. It was also ignored that lowest classes tended to do more labour work outdoors, which in a hot country like India means getting tan and darker. Of course, there were also dark skinned Brahmins. These were all dismissed as being due to the miscegenation of the invading Aryans with the flat-nosed, dark Dravidians present in India. Heehs mentions that “the “Dravidian races,” inhabiting south and central India, were depicted as dark, flat nosed, etc., in contradistinction to the “Indo-Aryans” of the North, who were almost like Europeans. Linguistic data became the basis of an ethno-graphic split between two essential types, who were said to be at odds with each other” (Heehs 2003: 185). However, when Indian freedom fighter Sri Aurobindo arrived in South India from Bengal in 1910, he noticed that there was no radical physical difference between his them and the people in the North. In addition, when he began to study Tamil, the southern Indian language that was supposedly the furthest away from Sanskrit, he realized that “that the original connection between the Dravidian and Aryan tongues was far closer and more extensive than is usually supposed” (Heehs 2003: 186). He speculated that Sanskrit and Tamil (currently established as two of the oldest languages in the world) could have been two divergent families of languages derived from one lost primitive tongue. Indeed, Heehs rightly argues that the relation “between the different branches of the Indo-European family is linguistic; race does not enter into it” (Heehs 2003: 185).

Dr.B.R. Ambedkar, a freedom fighter born as an untouchable, denied the existence of race as a scientific fact. He rightly distinguished the fact that race has nothing to do with language. He also highlighted that there is no evidence of the Aryan: “The Aryan invasion of India is recorded in no written document, and it cannot be traced archeologically, but it is nevertheless firmly established as a historical fact on the basis of comparative philology” (Sharma 2005: 848). He also pointed out that the Rig Veda never mentions that the Shudras and the “Dasas” (who were believed to be the Dravidians) were one and the same people. He found the fact that the Aryan race theory was being believed absurd. Manian outlines some other major flaws of the Aryan Invasion theory. She notes that Max Müller and other propagandists of the Aryan Invasion theory based their views on “the interpretation of linguistic and literary evidence from the Vedas by Müller and others and not on archaeology” (Manian 1998: 23).

She describes texts covering the Indus civilizations of Harappa and Mohenjodaro and points out that all of them claim that the civilization ended by 1500 BCE, which is the year the Aryans apparently entered India: “In the words of Reilly, the civilization was “burned, destroyed, and left in rubble by invading Aryan-speaking tribes from the North” (Manian 1998: 18). However, “current archaeological data do not support the existence of an Indo-Aryan or European invasion into South Asia at any time in the pre- or proto-historic period” (Manian 1998: 25). Indeed, “after examining the skeletons of the Harappans… (it is clear that there is a) biological continuum of many of their morphometric variables in the modern populations of Punjab and Sindh” (Manian 1998: 25). Since the Aryans were tall, blond and blue eyes, if there was an Aryan invasion, with the Aryans being so different from the original Dravidians of India, these results should have been significantly different. On the other hand, Sir Mortimer Wheeler, upon seeing skeletons carelessly buried in Mohenjodaro, concluded that Aryans were brutal and invaded the dark-skinned Dravidians, who were more civilized. However, he still said that the Aryans “brought fresh vigorous blood, energy, and ideas to the old, conservative, hidebound civilization that prevailed in India” (Manian 1998: 24). This shows that even though the theories may have been different, the underlying principle was the same. The British and Europeans were the strong, dominant ones that had conquered the Dravidians, time and again.

Indeed, the Vedas from which the Europeans apparently gleaned so much insight about the Aryan theories, make “no actual mention of any such invasion” (Heehs 2003: 184). Müller and company poured over the Vedas to find any shred of evidence about an Aryan invasion and only found three passages that could suggest so. Even those “hardly gave unambiguous support to the notion that the Vedic Aryans were conscious of a racial difference between themselves and their Dasyu and Dasa enemies” (Manian 1998: 26). Müller argued that because these enemies were called “anasa”, they were stub nosed, which was a false assumption. Indeed, even though the Dasas were said to have dark skin in the Vedas did not mean they were despised: “The most well-known and popular is Lord Krishna, the human incarnation of the Lord Vishnu’s… name means the dark skinned one” (Manian 1998: 26). Many Europeans read “varna”, which literally means color and corresponds to caste in the Vedas, to mean skin color. However, Manian outlines that “varna” does not refer to skin-color, but rather to “heraldic” (Manian 1998: 27) colors. The Brahmins were white because they were supposed to be devoted to spirituality, the Kshatriyas were supposed to be fiery, and hence they were associated with red. The Vaishyas were associated with yellow since their function in society was seen to be commerce (leading to gold). Finally, the Shudra were seen as being ignorant and having to do labour, and were thus associated with black.

The theory also has technical problems and seems highly questionable, if common sense is used. The Aryans were said to have come to India on chariots. However they were also supposed to be nomads and it would have been unlikely that they had chariots. In addition, they come from Persia, through the mountains of Afghanistan and even through the Himalayas; it is impossible they travelled on chariots through these treacherous regions. In looking at other times in history where a group of people was conquered by another, it has always the case that cultural exchange between the two is mutual. However, according to the Aryan Invasion Theory, the culture of the Aryans prevailed, even though they were clearly the less civilized people, compared to their “Dravidian” rivals in the Harappan civilization. In addition, the Aryan Invasion Theory states that the major advantage that the Aryans had against the Harappans was their iron weapons. However, some of the British believers of this theory and point also state that after their invasion, “only stone, bronze, and copper axes were available” (Manian 1998: 28). They also mention later than iron was introduced in about 800BCE. Contradictions like this show how little this theory is based on concrete empirical and scientific evidence and more so on the imagination and wishful thinking.

Moreover, historians Rajaram and Frawley believe that “the astronomical observations in the Vedas indicated that the “Vedas were composed before 3000 BCE. Acceptance of such an early date would mean giving up belief in an Aryan invasion of India in 1500 BCE” (Manian 1998: 28). Many European historians back in the day dismissed dates derived from the knowledge of astronomical observations since the dates were much more ancient than they were willing to accept. Through all this, it has become clear that the Vedas were not written by invaders, but rather by people who were resident in the country since ancient times. Manian rightly states that if people want to present the Invasion Theory, they should explain it, instead of merely stating it as fact. Indeed, believing in Max Müller’s theory is akin to believe in the racial categories proposed by the Nazi Party and used as the theory behind the Final Solution; indeed, Hitler was very influenced by the ‘Aryan’ idea by Müller.

Thapar rightly states that “the invention of an Aryan race… culminated in the ideology of Nazi Germany” (Thapar 1996: 3). In order to preserve the inferiority of the Indian people, even the “Aryan” ones, Müller stated that “the northern Aryans… (were) active and combative and they developed the idea of a nation, while the southern Aryans who migrated to Iran and to India were passive and meditative, concerned with religion and philosophy” (Thapar 1996: 4). Thapar is right to state that this description is still quoted for the inhabitants of India and has become the cliché globally about Indians. Along with being historically inaccurate and lacking common sense, Müller was also very unspecific in his writings. He interchangeably used words that had very different meanings, such as race, nation, people, and blood; or Hindu and Indian (keeping in mind this was after the fall of the Mughal Empire, which had established Islam in India). Müller actually ignored anything Islamic, and called the Islamic rule of India “tyranny”, without explaining the reasons for why he thought so. “In a lecture delivered later at Strassburg in 1872, Max Müller denied any link between language and race. In spite of this, he continued to confuse the two” (Thapar 1996: 6).

Reason for the implementation of the Aryan myth in India

The Aryan Invasion Theory was clearly a myth based on baseless “facts”. It was created strategically and maintained by the powerful in Indian society. The upper castes in India, according to Thapar, could use this theory to further emphasize their dominance upon the middle and lower castes, since “it was assumed that only the upper caste Hindu could claim Aryan ancestry… Aryanism therefore became an exclusive status” (Thapar 1996: 9). Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, prior to independence, suggested two reasons for why the Aryan myth was still widely believed in India at that time. One was that it was a way for Brahmins to continue their supremacy by claiming they were as superior to other castes as the whites were. It also showed that the Brahmins conquered the non-Brahmins, thus justifying their superiority. Dr. Ambedkar wanted the people of India to strive and “enable majorities and minorities to merge someday into one” (Sharma 2005: 865). He realized that the “liberation of Dalits no longer lay within Hinduism but rather from Hinduism” (Sharma 2005: 865). This is very similar to the Civil Rights Movement, when Malcolm X and later Martin Luther King suggested that the black man could no longer depend on the white man to give him his freedom; they had to “compel unwilling authorities to yield to the mandates of justice” (Bush 2009: 214).

The Aryan Invasion Theory justified the British conquest of India. They were, after all, just doing what their Aryan ancestors had done years and years ago. G.W.F. Hegel mentions in his philosophy of history, that Europe is at the pinnacle of its history (which, as defined by him is the quest for knowledge), where as countries like Asia in the East, are at the beginning. This highlights the level of bigotry present in thinkers such as Max Müller and other Aryan supremacy believers. Indeed, it is unfortunate that many Indians believe this invasion theory, without questioning it. The Indian tourist website also has the Aryan Invasion Theory under a “history of India” tab: “The coming of the Aryans around 1500 BC, gave the final blow to the collapsing Indus Valley civilisation. At the dawn of Vedic ages the Aryans came in from the North and spread through large parts of India bringing with them their culture and religious beliefs. The Four Vedas or the important books of Hinduism were compiled in this period” (Ministry of Tourism, Government of India 2004). Currently, the Hindu Nationalist Group R.S.S. (Rashtriya Svayamsevaka Sangha) uses the alternative theory of Aryans to instigate violence against Christians and Muslims in particular in contemporary India. They argue that Aryans originated in India, and they were Hindu. The foreigners were the Muslims, Christians and later Communists. This is a nonsensical idea since many Hindus had converted into Christianity and Islam; and believed in Communism. However, as with any extremist group, they need to lie their way through to achieve a certain goal. In this case, it is to stay in power by segregating certain groups in society. It is very reminiscent of the Nazi party’s propaganda about the Jews being foreigners who the pure Aryan Germans had to fight off.

Contemporary problems with as a result of the Aryan myth

Scheduled Castes

The British colonization and popularity of this Aryan Invasion myth (which led to the strengthening of the inequalities introduced by way of the caste system) have caused a lot of problems for lower-castes in India; problems that persist till today. The untouchable class, called the Dalits, were created by the British: “It is well known that the (category) of ‘untouchable’… were created by the British” (Harrison 2005: 61). They were said to be outside Hindus outside the caste system, and the invention of such a term and such degradation was conveniently blamed on the Hindus. Today, however, the Dalits have become “large enough to act as a pressure group in democracy” (Harrison 2005: 61). The 2001 World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) held in Durban, South Africa, was not seen by India as one of “much value to any except the descendants of… African Americans, and therefore basically an issue for African and the United States” (Harrison 2005: 37). However, the Dalits (the untouchables of society that did all the ‘unclean’ work such as cleaning streets, sewages, latrines, removing trash, animal carcasses, waste and so on) saw the conference “as an opportunity to internationalize their historical experience of discrimination” (Harrison 2005: 37). They came in groups that transcended the divides of region and language and attempted to get caste recognized as a race so that “the mandates coming out of the conference could also apply to them, who had been discriminated because of birth marks, namely caste, an inherited marker” (Harrison 2005: 37). While this was not successful, this action nevertheless shocked and put pressure on the Indian government to take the Dalits seriously.

The Indian constitution, which came into effect on 26 January 1950, banned untouchability and “made its practice a cognizable offense” (Harrison 2005: 51). Since then, the untouchables “may have gained economically, but the social stigma as well as the ‘psychocultural assaults’ remains” (Harrison 2005: 51). The Indian government made many positive provisions for the lower-castes in higher-level education institutes and government jobs. The low-castes, along with people who are Buddhist, Christian, Sikh, Zoroastrian, Jain and Muslim are called “scheduled castes and scheduled tribes” and “Other Backward Class” officially, and the government has strict quotas implemented in universities and government jobs. This is similar to the affirmative action in the United States, but seems to be more serious since it has actual quotas. However, that is not the say that it has been a phenomenal success. There have been no changes in the formative periods such as good educational inputs at the primary level, which means that it is very unlikely that an impoverished Dalit would even get to the university level. This form of affirmative action for the discriminated has led to another form of discrimination: the “stigma of ‘scheduled caste’…  (carried a) connotation of disgust and contempt” (Harrison 2005: 58).

Many higher-caste individuals see this affirmative action by the government as an unfair practice, and a form of reverse discrimination. When Dalits prove themselves and attain a prestigious position such as that of a doctor, they are called “quota doctors” (Harrison 2005: 59). People who are employed by the municipality in Mumbai and sweep streets and clean trash earn Rs. 20,000 per month, a decent income to maintain a middle-class lifestyle. Yet, they are discriminated and stigmatized for the job that they do. Indeed, “scheduled class” is seen in a disparaging manner by higher-castes. Harrison notes that some of the children she interviewed who were children of dhobis (a caste that specializes in washing clothes and almost always have scheduled caste status in all states), have complained that the children in their class do not treat them like equals and are called scheduled caste and avoided (Harrison 2005: 50). No matter what they are called, the lower-castes will always be seen derogatively. Even the term “Harijan”, literally meaning children of god, used by Gandhi, was associated automatically with being unclean and untouchable. The manner in which privileges are granted to the untouchables is also seen by higher castes as “daan”, or charity. The schemes by the government to the lower-castes are seen as daan and many untouchables are made to “feel like beggars” (Harrison 2005: 59); always at the mercy of the higher-castes, always oppressed, always stigmatized, and impure.

Even today, in many villages in India, the living conditions for Dalits are miserable and humiliating. Across India, as Harrison rightly points out, the low castes are easy to identify. They have poor living conditions; live on land that is infertile and far away from sources of water; and have a shabby appearance. Even when the state redistributes land, the “untouchables almost always get the land that no one else wants” (Harrison 2005: 51). When the Dalits go to fetch water from miles away, they are not allowed to touch the sources of water directly – they have to wait by the wells or streams until a high-caste woman fills their empty vessels. Once again, they are always at the mercy of the higher-castes. This is also linked to the “daan” concept mentioned previously. The government built taps specifically for Dalits in the 1990’s and the Dalit women still did not have the courage to touch the taps. This idea of the purity of the higher classes and the impurity of the lower classes has stuck. Mixed-caste children (especially those with a woman of a high-caste and a man of a low-caste) are treated as outcasts, like animals that are mix of species and cannot find a mate or group. The union of the man and woman is seen as “tainted… polluted… (and) offensive” (Harrison 2005: 54). This is similar to the examples of miscegenation between blacks and whites in South Africa or the US. The more the mixing between the castes, the more the downward mobility the family experiences. Indeed, with the caste system, there is no room for real, substantial upward mobility. This is the perfect way to keep a majority of the population impoverished and isolated from economic benefits, while gaining cheap labour: “the normative order always works in ways to ensure that the top layer is small in number and powerful” (Harrison 2005: 56).

The Indian government refuses to admit that the Dalits and other low castes are still being discriminated against. They claim that everyone has equal rights. This is very similar to the mere eradication of only racialism and not racism after the Civil Rights Movement: there was an “emerging emphasis on rendering any reference to race illegitimate, irrespective of the… motivation or implication” (Goldberg 2009: 21). Indeed, “casteism in its present form may be viewed as being an aftermath of the constitutional abolition of the caste system and the introduction of a secular democratic form of governance” (Harrison 2005: 52). Harrison argues that “it is not the state but civil society that perpetuates the atrocities and the state maintains its approval of such by its silence… lack of real commitment to the cause of the Dalits” (Harrison 2005: 62). Unfortunately, the upper-castes realize that giving the Dalits their rights will dilute their own power and status, while empowering the unclean people. According the Ramaiah, most of the people controlling bureaucracy and political power belong to higher-castes. “This number has to be reversed at least for some decades if at all we want a balanced power positions between the oppressing and oppressed caste groups”(Ramaiah 2004: 12). At this time, it is clear that people of high castes keep the degradation alive by continuing the to protect the mythical idea of purity and impurity through their practices and using derogatory terms for Dalits and other scheduled classes while amongst themselves.

Triple minorities

Low-caste women are cursed with being women in Indian society, low-caste and being women in low-caste communities. By the latter, I am referring to the fact that significant numbers of lower caste men pimp off their women as a way of income, and several lower-caste widows are sold off by their own men. Caste and race in India are both patriarchal and “directly related to dominance” (Harrison 2005: 54). One of the Hindu sacred texts, The Laws of Manu, one of the most sexist books Hinduism has, “gives the men of the highest status the widest range of access to women… the Brahmin (man) can access all women” (Harrison 2005: 54). Hinduism traditionally permits polygamy, and many Brahmin men had concubines and secondary wives of lower classes. As the married Brahmin character in the poignant movie “Water” by Deepa Mehta, set in the years shortly before Indian independence says, “”Brahmins can take any woman they want, and such women are blessed”. Here we can see that the caste system was linked to the oppression of women too. While Brahmins, the top of the hierarchy of Varnas, are the priests and knowledge bearers, it is only the Brahmin men who were educated well and made to perform religious rituals and so on: “While a woman of lower caste could have sexual or conjugal relations with men of caste higher than her own, the opposite was socially and morally abhorrent” (Harrison 2005: 54). Indeed, “the progeny of a Brahmin woman and a Shudra man was the lowest of all mortals, the chandala, condemned to live off carrion and perform the duties of burning dead bodies” (Harrison 2005: 55).


After the death of her husband, according to the Laws of Manu, the new widow has three options: marry her husband’s younger brother, become a sati (jump in the funeral pyre and burn to death), or live as a widow for the rest of her life. Widows, according to Hindu customs, were supposed to be completely de-sexualized. They were supposed to shave their heads, wear no jewellery, makeup or bright clothes, go on routine fasts and abstain from certain foods that were thought to be aphrodisiacs or raise sexual energy (tubers, especially garlic and onions): “The body of a woman was the exclusive property of her husband, and after his death she lost all rights to adorn it or even to keep it with care” (Harrison 2005: 56). Sati was a brutal form of suicide committed by women after the death of their husbands. It was outlawed in India since 1829, but was glorified by people. Women (of the higher-castes), especially in northern India, where the practice was most prevalent; were called “goddesses” (Harrison 2005: 57) and worshipped after they killed themselves. If a low-caste woman was to do this, they would be ridiculed, not revered: “the model of a low-caste woman led to creation of a sexual object of forbidden desire” (Harrison 2005: 57).


Unlike Christianity, “Hindu society… worships its women, but only as chaste, nonsexual beings… Indian men find it difficult to adjust the image of a sexually active woman with one whom they can respect” (Harrison 2005: 56). Indeed, high-caste women were expected from society to be sexually passive, while high-caste men were (only) supposed to show sexual restraint at all times. If a high-caste man wanted to satisfy his sexual energy, he was “expected to look toward the low-caste women and not to their own wives” (Harrison 2005: 57). Most Indian men maintain “ double standards by which they look for sexual titillation outside of marriage and quite often secretively, for excessive sexuality is seen as being a base quality befitting men only of the low strata” (Harrison 2005: 57). Sexuality was seen as morally wrong and taboo; this view was introduced by the Mughals and strengthened significantly under British rule.

The sexual metaphors of “lewdness and hypersexuality, as applied to persons of low caste, are no different from those applied to persons of the dark races… blackness becomes a metaphor for inner darkness or moral degradation” (Harrison 2005: 57). The stereotype of a low caste man is that he is always dark and ugly looking, whereas a low-caste woman is dark-skinned, but “well endowed physically and usually sexually attractive” (Harrison 2005: 57). The bodies of low-caste women were seen as common property. Harrison interviewed a low-caste middle aged woman, who said that “the high-caste [men] will protect their own women… (but) will exploit (our daughters) at the first opportunity” (Harrison 2005: 55). Even today, the attitudes of high-caste men towards low-caste women are “modeled on certain stereotypes reminiscent of the racial metaphors of black women” (Harrison 2005: 55).Sexual harassment of maids and so on are common. Men and women in India today casually compare uncouth and non-normative behaviour to low castes: “a woman dressed in nonacceptable aesthetic standards may be referred to as being dressed like a bhangan (sweepress), and a dark and ugly woman is often described as being a churhi (very low caste)” (Harrison 2005: 57).


Harrison ends on a positive note.  She notes that Dalit women have more equality than women in the higher castes. Dalit work in collaboration with men, and a “relationship between husband and wife… was far more symmetrical… I have never come across any man from the low castes who believed that his woman was morally degraded or sexually unrestrained” (Harrison 2005: 60). She also mentions that Dalit men are more likely to help their wives with housework. The number of Dalit women in the WACR conference in Durban was large and they were not just on the sidelines, but prominent and in leadership roles. Harrison argues that “the space granted to Dalit women in their own community far exceeds that occupied by women of higher castes” (Harrison 2005: 62). The growth of Dalits voicing out and gaining power is a positive sign for equality and true participative democracy, not the passive one that the Indian government prefers.


Racism, under the façade of caste is still commonly accepted in India. While the country refers to itself as secular, it is not referring to politics being entirely different from religion. Casteism and religion are, in fact, at the heart of local and regional politics in India even today. It is obvious through the works of all these authors that Aryan supremacy theories, as well as female degradation, have the purpose of keeping large numbers of people under the majority who indefinitely prosper economically and socially. It the case of India, where it is everyone is of the same race, it is crystal clear that differences follow inequalities and not the other way around.



2 responses »

  1. Pingback: Book Review: The God of Small Things (excerpt included) « criticalperspective

  2. Too long. I couldn’t keep up and gave up reading it halfway through. A word of advice: if you want to make an impression on a reader start by making clear cut statements and put in your opinion. Your sources are very limited.

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